How does it help to know that ‘knowing’
is our most basic possible existential state ?
We began with the assumption that knowing or apprehending is – in the abstract – our most basic possible existential state. We cannot exist without knowing or apprehending our existence. All well and good, assuming that we’ve got it right. But have we ? Yes, or no ? Are the descriptions that have been presented in these studies accurate ? Well, take a look and see for yourself.
But even if we have got it right, where exactly does this get us ? What on earth does it ‘help’ to know that ‘knowing’ is our most elemental capacity, our most elemental state of existence, and that this most elemental state of existence somehow also implies an even more elemental lucidity behind it ? How does it advance our spiritual quest ?
This is not a discursive or purely theoretical question, of the sort that empty-headed philosophers love to prattle on about in postgraduate seminars. This has crucial implications for more or less everything that follows. And to answer the question, we have to take a few steps back. What we are trying to do here is find some way to ground a spiritual quest on as firm a set of foundations as possible, given the intellectual resources at our disposal. Whether our resources are meagre or not is not the question; they are all we have. And this leaves us with only two main options: one, blind belief in a pre-existing religious doctrine, followed by whatever practice that doctrine entails; or two, using the ‘intellect’ – understood very loosely to including reasoning, sceptical observation, sceptical intuition and reflection – to try to identify, from first principles, as clearly as possible, exactly what we are up against, and how we might possibly find a way to move forward.
If we take the second option – that of using our intellectual capacities to reason and analyse our way forward – we may appear at first sight to run the risk of cutting ourselves off entirely from the world of religious feeling and emotion, and losing that deep inner sensitivity and connectivity to what we imagine is a benevolent force guiding us towards a greater good, in which we personally triumph over all difficulties. But this is to forget how we got here in the first place, because for the ‘intellectual’ quest to have any real meaning for us, we must already have discovered, through our own direct and bitter experience, how superficial and unreliable the realm of our intimate personal religious imagination is, and how regularly our innermost certainties and sensitivities desert us just when we think we need them the most. This is not about a weakness of will, or a lack of faith, it is about fluffy imaginings fleeing before hard realities. Our intimate and innermost religious feelings are a comfort zone of our own design, and a key part of any evolution towards spiritual maturity is the acceptance that these feelings have to be transcended and abandoned in the light of their essentially infantile nature. The reason why angels don’t come to rescue you is because your angels exist only in your imagination, and it is in your own best interest to abandon magical thinking and to take a more realistic approach to life.
Where next ? We have to abandon the life of the ‘heart’, and the life of the ‘soul’, and anything and everything to do with these sentimental capacities, because they lead only into the imagination, and the imagination itself is a dead end. Our imaginations cannot help us, even though we imagine they can. Our imaginations have a useful purpose in the functioning of everyday life, and are obviously of inestimable help in creativity, but they have limited value when it comes to metaphysical exploration, because they are unable to reach beyond themselves into realms which underpin our experiential matrix. If you try to imagine, for example, what ‘metaphysical enlightenment’ might entail, you will see that your imagination presents you with imagery of ‘omniscience’ and ‘psychic powers’ and ‘rapturous well-being’, which is almost pre-adolescent in its silliness. Your imagination is trying its best, but it has desperately transgressed its abilities.
So we have to turn to our thinking capacities: the intellect, in its widest sense, incorporating all our intellectual, thoughtful, contemplative and analytical faculties. We have to turn to our powers of impartial observation, sceptical reflection, and sceptical rationality, as the only resources at our disposal. We don’t thereby become unfeeling machines – we stay as we are – but we no longer cling desperately to the sentimental imaginings characteristic of childhood.
And if we turn to our intellectual, analytical and reflective capacities, we are soon likely to decide that it must be to our advantage to understand exactly how our experiential matrix informs us about what it informs us, and about what it fails to inform us, and everything in between. This is precisely what we are doing here, in exploring the elements of experiential existence, and trying to observe and understand them as accurately as possible. And the first step in that quest is to develop an appreciation of our most elemental capacity of all, namely our ability ‘to apprehend’, that is, to know, or to apperceive. That is, at the very least, a start.
But, getting right back to the question which provoked this study in the first place, how does it help us to know these things ? And does it advance our spiritual quest ? Well, even to be able to start to recognise and acknowledge that knowing/apprehending is the basis of all existence, at least points you in the right direction, and in a direction which indicates that spirituality is about the lucidity at the base of everything; and that spiritual fulfilment is about finding a way for the lucidity at the base of everything to, as it were, ‘awaken onto itself’. Spirituality is not about mysticism, religious sensitivity, holiness and sacred states of consciousness, it is about insight into the ‘knowing capacity’ which underlies all that we know and experience. Genuine spirituality, for reasons which we’re outlining here, transcends mysticism, religious sensitivity, holiness, sacred states of consciousness, as well as everything else, because it is directed towards the lucidity which is prior to any and all experiential possibilities, no matter how profound or exalted these experiential possibilities may appear to be.
And being pointed in the right direction has an immediate practical benefit, though one which may take some time to appreciate, and integrate into one’s life. When we accept that it is towards our capacity for knowing lucidity that we need to turn our attention – easier said than done – we can at least begin to free ourselves from the dreadful torment of having to rely on our innermost supposedly religious feelings, and moods, and sensitivities for spiritual guidance. For most people, these intimate feelings and moods and sensitivities – feelings of an innermost self-righteousness, and a reassuring sense of holiness – are all that spirituality really amounts to, and they guard and nurture them for dear life. And the immersive exploration of these supposedly spiritual feelings and moods and sensitivities, leading to altered states of consciousness is essentially what mysticism is all about, and New Age religion is entirely concerned with nurturing, encouraging and perpetuating a connectivity to this inner realm. But mystical testimony is, if you approach it objectively, as much an account of mental affliction and straightforward mental illness as it is with rapture and bliss, and only someone wilfully foolish would go down that path if offered the alternative.
So our spiritual quest is immeasurably advanced simply by realising that our lodestar is not well-being and happiness, but insight, and insightful knowledge into our metaphysical lucidity. Whatever it is which allows us to experience experience in the first instance, is itself not constrained by that experience which it presents for apprehending, so in itself it is neither positive, nor negative; neither happy, nor miserable. Appreciating this is one of the first steps towards spiritual enlightenment.
The point about spiritual metaphysics, wholly based in the pursuit of lucid insight and not in the nurturing of religious feelings, is that it frees you from the prison of feelings and moods, and offers you a means of engagement with the elemental capacities of your being without having to worry about ‘how you feel’ from moment to moment. Dread and anxiety and poisonous moods are always just around the corner, especially if you are of a sensitive disposition, always threatening to break your equilibrium and overturn your whole sense of self; and the appreciation of a quite different set of principles – those of insight – at least offer a door to another possibility. Of course this doesn’t instantly put paid to dread and anxiety and poisonous moods, but it does show you that there can be more to your being than simply struggling heroically for the feel-good factor.