Today I want to share with you a reflection on a meditation I did nearly a year ago. It was an imagined visit with a character who represents great wisdom to me. I had been practicing this meditation over the summer, and getting some useful insights along the way. But, as is often the case for me in this particular kind of inner work, one seemingly very simple thing turned out to be the most fruitful. Be advised, this reflection is still in the stream of consciousness form of my notes from the work.
In one of those meditations, the character said, “You will know when you know.” In the broadest sense, I took this as addressing questions of epistemology (What is knowing, and what can be known?). Among other things, it was a reminder to me that there is a kind of knowing that is experiential, and that when people speak of the inner mysteries they too often do so without their ideas being grounded in inner experience. Furthermore, if we are honest with ourselves, it is sometimes the case that we can only know the experience itself with certainty, while matters like causes, reasons, or meanings remain, to some extent, mysterious. Lots of phenomenology here.
One effect this reminder had upon me was facilitating a desire and intention to give more energy to a particular part of my work as a contemplative practitioner, consultant, and advocate. That part is being present to the mysteries of existence, the countless ways that mystery itself is intertwined with everything and thus complicates, if not confounds, many of the things we think we can know as well as our ideas about how we know them.
One way I am giving more attention to that part is by not putting quite as much emphasis on the message of practicing contemplative methods for the purpose of achieving certain developmental goals. In popular culture, and certainly in Masonry, it’s easy to let that message be the context in which all contemplative efforts are considered. To some extent that’s understandable, since that’s what most people are looking for. It can be like the proverbial carrot before the horse of one’s personal consciousness. However, because that context almost always has specific objectives and outcomes, it leaves very little room for mystery. For one thing, it tends to put all contemplative efforts into rigid artificial binaries of success versus failure.
One of the interesting things about contemplative practice is the power it has to repeatedly present us with an experiential knowing of mystery, in countless ways, great and small. In a world where we spend so much time trying to eliminate mystery, it’s easy to be in denial about the omnipresence of mystery, or convince ourselves that whatever mystery remains is inconsequential. In my own life and the lives of others, I have witnessed such illusions contributing to a lot of suffering, and my compassion for such suffering is one of my motivations for teaching and advocating contemplative practice.
Back to the experiential, there are things that can be talked about, even understood to some extent, but can never be known as fully as possible until they are experienced. I often refer to lucid dreaming as an example. Nobody ever knows as fully as possible what lucid dreaming is until they actually experience waking up to the fact that they are dreaming while they are still in the dream. That experience bestows a kind of knowing that needs no corroboration, like the knowing we each have that we are conscious. Mystics who have experienced union with/in/of what they call God, the One, the All, the Absolute, the Tao, or whatever, also claim that kind of knowing, yet I can affirm that this sort of knowing is even further removed than lucid dreaming from any other kind of experiential knowing.
I’ve turned to that matter because mystical knowing is one of those goals that drives many of us into contemplative practice. But one of the paradoxical things about such knowing is that it is at once possessed of the greatest certainty and the greatest mystery, hence the inability of knowing mystics to offer simple, logically sound descriptions of it that can’t be explained away by those who don’t actually have mystical knowing.
Connected with this paradox is the irony that seeking such experience can sometimes facilitate it and sometimes prevent it. I would even hazard to say an attitude of certainty that it can be attained actually gives rise to obstacles to an authentic experience of it, in part because such certainty often includes preconceptions about what the experience must be like, how it will happen, how it will be recognized, etc.
As a contemplative advocate and consultant, remembering all this is helpful to me because it encourages me to take more of the stance of that character of wisdom in my meditations. That position is to sit quietly, yet obviously, at the gate of mystery and illumination. Sitting like this means maintaining silence at times, but not always. When speaking from this position, one understands and acknowledges, at least internally, the seeming absurdity of the words we use to address things that go beyond words.
Connected with this, I have also been frequently reminded of the Buddha’s teaching to not believe anything said by another, including him. The fullest possible knowing requires us either to experiment and gain our own understanding and knowledge, or to have experiences fall upon us that bestow it. I would add that, with regard to the greatest mysteries , we shouldn’t even believe our own words! They aren’t the experience, they aren’t the knowing, but rather only fingers pointing at the knowing.
Finally, one role of the figure of wisdom in my meditation is to wait at the gate of the mysteries in order to test those who wish to pass. That’s a role we should all embrace for ourselves, whether or not we also ask others to do so for us. One way it is done is by challenging us to be entirely honest with ourselves about what we know, what we pretend to know, what we suppose we know, and what we willingly acknowledge as mysterious. It is the honesty itself that is the test.