Overcoming Doubt Through Direct Experience

This edited Dhamma talk by Shaila Catherine was given in 2014.

Do you ever find yourself denying — or perhaps just doubting — the reality of experiences you have not yourself had?

In the Middle Length Discourses, there is a parable of a person born blind who could not see dark or light forms, colored forms, or the stars, sun, or moon, and so he says: “I do not know these. I do not see these. Therefore, these do not exist.”

This blind person denies what is outside his particular experience. This tendency — to doubt what has not yet been experienced — is relatively common in the Western Dhamma scene. For instance, I have heard people discount the potential for the stability of jhāna — maintaining that it is impossible to master such stable states of concentration in today’s world. I have also heard people express doubt in the possibility of liberation from greed, hatred, and ignorance.

Some people, though interested in the Dhamma, have come to think full awakening itself is nearly impossible in today’s world.

But just because we have reviewed our circle of friends and found it devoid of enlightened beings doesn’t mean we should give up hope that awakening can happen to people like us.

To help remind us of our potential to be liberated, it can be empowering to meet people in the world who are further along the path than we are. Such teachers and advanced practitioners can remind us of the growth, insight, and transformation made possible by meditation. They can inspire us by urging us to reach new heights in meditation and have mind-opening experiences that shake our limited assumptions about reality. As my first teacher Poonjaji said: “Have the experience, then you will understand.”

When speaking with the authority of direct experience, these people can make even the highest goals seem available. After all, if they can do it, why can’t we?

Discovering for Ourselves

The Buddha frequently emphasized the importance of direct knowledge. For instance, he observed that when the seven factors of enlightenment have been “developed and cultivated, they lead to direct knowledge, to enlightenment, to Nibbāna.” Elsewhere, he said that “

[t]he Noble Eightfold Path is to be developed for direct knowledge of these three stains [of lust, hatred, and delusion], for the full understanding of them, for their utter destruction, for their abandoning.

The Buddha also criticized members of other sects for holding views based merely on logic, oral tradition, faith in the teacher or tradition, or reflective acceptance of a view. For example, he said: “As to those recluses and Brahmins who hold such a doctrine view . . . that they will have any pure and clear personal knowledge of this — that is impossible . . . they have no pure and clear personal knowledge.”

But how should we relate to the idea of direct, personal knowledge if we are at a stage on our path where we don’t possess that knowledge and haven’t had the experience? We might not know for certain what the Buddhist path is pointing to. We might not have a clue about awakening, or nibbāna. And even if we have had great spiritual experiences we might find it challenging to live our daily lives from that perspective. How can we remain open to the highest possibility of awakening, while maintaining a balanced, critical, and intelligent perspective about the goals that we seek, and the timeline we set for accomplishments?

Infinite Possibilities

We will likely agree that there must be spiritual experiences that are greater than what we have each personally known. If we couldn’t imagine something greater than our current perceptions, we wouldn’t be open to learning and growing.

Consider how, in the past several decades, so many breakthroughs have been made possible by optimistic innovators who have questioned the status quo and come up with seemingly crazy ideas for new innovations that ended up becoming reality. It has become a cliché that the technology found in science fiction is showing up in our everyday lives.

It can be fun to watch old Star Trek episodes and observe how many gadgets were first conceived as fictional props, and then someone figured out how to design one that actually worked. The examples are numerous: Today’s iPad looks an awful lot like the personal access display devices shown in Star Trek: The Next Generation. The flip phone was directly inspired by the handheld communicators in the original Star Trek. And the 3-D printers that are all the rage today seem a lot like the replicators from Star Trek. This is the thrill of inventors: They imagine how cool it would be to have something that did blank, and then figure out how to make it do that.

Despite the amazing developments in fields like medicine and engineering, there are other areas in which human abilities seem to have diminished. In ancient India at the time of the Buddha, people did not write down sacred texts. While there was a written script that was used for business and legal edicts, it was not customary to write sacred teachings. Sacred teachings were to be learned by heart. They were passed orally person to person; heart to heart; mind to mind.

Early Buddhists listened carefully to the teachings, memorized them, recited them individually and in groups, and contemplated them. The group recitations served as a natural corrective mechanism because a whole group would be unlikely to make the same idiosyncratic mistake.

The Buddha taught for 45 years, so preserving the teachings through oral recitation was not a trivial matter. What the early reciters of the Pāli Canon memorized occupied thousands of pages when it was finally written down, centuries after the Buddha’s death.

Yet by today’s standards, most people would think it to be nearly impossible for humans to memorize thousands of pages of text.

Our concepts of what is possible or impossible are less accurate than we think. Anytime the thought “that is impossible” arises, we might examine it and consider setting it aside. It might be setting up an unnecessary restriction that could be an obstacle for our own development.

One of my motivations for writing Focused and Fearless was to try to show that jhāna was possible and accessible for lay people today. In particular, as a laywoman, it seemed especially important to share these teachings publicly, because spiritual maps are more often claimed and controlled by a patriarchal infrastructure.

Direct Experience and Buddhist Teachings

Over time, many of us will have profound personal transformations and deep insights through practice. Some of them may map neatly onto traditional descriptions that we read about in the suttas or hear in Dhamma talks. We might name them as insight knowledges, awakening experiences, or experiences of emptiness.

The maps we find in the suttas can help us determine if we are on course, checking that our experiences are serving our purpose. Some people fall in love with these maps, and that is understandable as maps in general can be rewarding to use—even entertaining. When you are driving a new route, do you ever feel the pleasure of finding where you are on the map?

If we become overly attached to maps, however, we limit our ability to connect with the tangible world around us. For example, I was chatting with a taxi driver in Boston who complained that his wife was so addicted to GPS, that she liked to hear it telling them where they are going, even when he knew the way, or it didn’t matter where they were. As Polish-American scholar Alfred Korzybski said: “The map is not the territory.”

If we are unwary, spiritual maps can have drawbacks and even feed the construction of self. We must be careful when we use maps like the four jhānas, the four stages of awakening, or the 16 insight knowledges.

The point of these teachings is to not to help the ego attain something. And at a certain point, it is necessary to stop evaluating where you are in the practice and free the mind from the duality of success and failure. Your self worth does not depend upon where you place yourself on an abstract spiritual map. In fact, anytime your self-worth is in question, watch out! Self-grasping is nearby.

We must work with conceit whether we succeed or fail at establishing concentration. We must unravel this tendency to be proud of our attainments or discouraged by our lack of them. Attachment to either accomplishment or disappointment will reinforce self constructs, and prevent release.

In a way we must not care where we are on the map while at the same time totally caring about where we are ultimately heading. We shouldn’t settle for anything less than full awakening. As the Buddha exhorts regarding any given level of our attainment: Do not stop short with that!

Direct Experience and the Path of Practice

While the direction from teachers and from spiritual maps can be helpful, we need the courage to walk the path for ourselves. We might make mistakes. We might struggle with difficult mental states. And we might misperceive or misinterpret our experience.

But we learn a lot by walking the path diligently and by letting go of our concepts of what we think is possible. We must be wise, and gradually develop our virtues, clarity, strength, wisdom, and equanimity. Full commitment does not require force or expectation.

Right effort means being as willing to back off as to dive in. I encourage students who are on the brink of radically new perspectives in their samādhi or insight to let it evolve slowly. For instance, I sometimes suggest that they enter into the unfamiliar depth of samādhi for just a brief moment, and then emerge to check out the quality of the mind. Investigate this unfamiliar state several times before letting the mind launch into jhanic absorption. When students take a little time to develop gradually and intelligently, they quickly confirm for themselves that the states of concentration and insight are wholesome.

Practicing wisely, we develop the skill to move the mind intentionally. We must have the skills to enter and exit any state or perception without fear of being consumed by it, sucked into the energy, or stuck there. Eventually we develop mastery of the mind in concentration, and liberating insight into the emptiness of all things.

When progress is won on the path, it can sometimes feed the ego. Overzealous arrogance or sheer impatience might cause some people to think that their level of skill is higher, and the nature of their experiences are more sublime, than in fact they are. It is not a big problem to think we have been enlightened many times before we actually have the first level of awakening, of stream-entry. A little enthusiasm isn’t a bad thing. But please don’t blog about your awakening experiences. You don’t want to be embarrassed down the road if it turns out you are less enlightened than you thought. In any event, the extreme happiness of some meditative states that occur long before awakening can warp our perspective for a while.

The Buddha strictly prohibited monastics from declaring their attainments. It was a serious offense that would end one’s monastic life. The Buddhist tradition teaches meditators to go through a process of reviewing the attainment, stabilizing the realization, learning to abide in voidness at will, and then continually reviewing the mind for defilements. You never know — 5 months later, 25 years later, or in moments of stress — defilements that you thought were absent might arise. Even though as lay people we are not bound to the same rules as monastics, I think caution is warranted about our declarations. It would be a shame to claim a traditional attainment, and then feel compelled to lower the bar to match our declarations.

While we should not brashly and prematurely declare our attainments, we should dream big about what is possible on the path. I am inspired by teachings where the Buddha encouraged his disciples to not stop short of the goal of full awakening. He urged his followers to abandon each successive attainment and surmount every wholesome state achieved. I take this call for diligent practice to heart.