The Value of Experience.
“Experience is the teacher of all things.” ~ Julius Caesar
“Nothing ever becomes real till it is experienced.” ~ John Keats
Most of us have asked the “big” questions. “Why are we here?” “Why was the universe created?” “How was the universe created?” “Is there a God?” “What is the meaning of life?”
The greatest minds throughout time have always contemplated these questions and for most of us, they have never provided a satisfactory answer. Usually we call the answers “evasive” or “vague” – we feel there is something missing; like children, we sometimes want to know now without having to exert any great measure of effort in order to find out the answers ourselves.
The Greek philosopher, Socrates, is perhaps most famous for saying, “I am the wisest man alive, for I know one thing and that is that I know nothing.”
It is said that Socrates would discuss and debate with all kinds of people and as well as disproving a number of views and beliefs held by individuals, it is also said that he recognized that these individuals also knew of things he himself did not. However, Socrates concluded that he was indeed the wisest man alive when he realized that although these great minds knew a lot, they did not know everything, yet they often spoke at lengths on subjects of which they couldn’t possibly be fully aware.
Socrates knew that anything outside one’s own experience could not be fully understood. Philosophers and scholars may have provided verbose explanations on the origins of creation, but Socrates saw that there was no way that any man could describe the origins of creation simply because these philosophers and scholars had no experience of it.
In concluding that he knew nothing, Socrates gives us a wonderful insight: we might think that we know the answers to the big questions, but our explanations are derived solely from our individual perceptions. This is why, when we ask “What is the meaning of life?” we can receive many different answers – people answer only from their own viewpoints and beliefs…they can have no absolute knowledge on a subject and yet, they will try to impress upon others that their knowledge is absolute.
When we think sincerely about what we really know, what we fully understand, we arrive at the same conclusion as Socrates did: we really don’t know anything at all. Sure, we can provide eloquent explanations and cleverly battle our way through debate, but most of us really have no clue as to how the universe was created, if there is indeed a God, or why we are here.
If we can spend less time asking these questions and more time investigating them for ourselves, we are much more likely to steer ourselves towards the truth, than if we simply lazily ask a guru or a teacher or a scientist for the answers.
Even if someone could tell us why we are here and for what purpose we were created (if in fact we were created), they’d merely be telling us their story. Whether what they tell us is true or otherwise, it makes no difference – unless we work to experience for ourselves certain realizations and understandings, any explanation we are given to any grand question we ask will never be enough: we will remain unsatisfied.
For example, let us imagine that we wish to know what a trip to Paris is like. We could find ourselves in a coffee shop, telling our friends of our desire to know the delights of the city. A stranger may overhear us and proceed to offer us an account of their own trips to Paris and we might, for a time, be captivated by the stories and the imagery conjured in our minds.
After a time, however, we will see our desire has returned. We will realize that, actually, we don’t even know if the stranger’s stories were true and even if they are, we have yet to experience for ourselves a journey to Paris. Our knowledge remains non-existent. We might even relay the stories we have heard, but still, we have no idea if the tales are true.
In spirituality and even in our everyday living, we can never really know anything for sure until we experience the results of a practice or study or activity. When we allow ourselves to become lazy and sloppy, we can be guilty of relying too much on the accounts of others. Of course, there are aspects of life where we must rely on assumption – we would never get anything done if we spent time our checking out, for example, a doctor’s history before allowing him or her to treat us.
However, when we wish to understand things for ourselves, experience is paramount. If we wish to know God, we have to find a way to know how to experience God. There is simply no value in someone giving us a “yes” or “no” or convincing us with some captivating speech designed to convince us either way.
The trouble most of us share is that we think we know many things of which, in reality, we have little or no knowledge. This kind of delusion is what robs us of our ability to understand: we become cemented in what we think we know, leading us to closing our minds to the actual reality of what is.
Of course, this is not a fault of which we are entirely to blame. Since birth, our minds have been soaked with innumerable influences and information and we have been conditioned to view assumption as a necessary part of life, which is definitely is however, the key is knowing when best to accept assumption and when best to discard assumption and investigate for ourselves.
It is only through our investigation and experience of life that we can truly “know”. Otherwise, we simply rely upon and believe whatever we are told without question, all the while not really knowing for sure what is certain and what is inaccurate.
In our search for inner-wisdom, contentment and peace – or the answers to the whole universe – we must work to understand things for ourselves; only our experiences can tell us what is and what is not. Certainly, we may look towards a guru or teacher or respected figure in order for them to guide and assist us along the way in our search for whatever it is we are looking for, but it is solely down to us to understand the reality of what is. Anything else is simply a second-hand understanding of the view of others from their own experiences. We always owe it to ourselves to reach whatever realization we yearn for and – particularly as spiritual practitioners – we must endeavor to know this for ourselves, otherwise we are in danger of completely missing the point of the meaning of life…
Sandy Clarke is a 27-year old journalist and writer from Scotland, UK. Having worked for the Scottish Parliament and various newspaper titles, Clarke has a keen interest in current affairs and global politics and as a practicing Buddhist, he also devotes a lot of time to spirituality.