Knowledge and Experience


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We often hear, especially from elderly people, that there is no substitute for experience. Knowledge by itself is not very useful if it is not supplemented by experience. In real life this is seen all the time. When students complete their academic pursuits and obtain their degrees, they are often confronted with this situation. They have to apply the knowledge in the real world to get anywhere. Sometimes it may become the proverbial egg and chicken problem. One needs experience to get a job but experience is not possible without a prior job.

But there is another aspect of the difference between knowledge and experience - the difference between reality and the knowledge of reality. You can read all about a place, see all the photographs, and collect all the information, but that is not the same thing as actually being there. There are things in nature that you cannot truly appreciate their beauty unless you actually observe them. One example is the auroral display that is normally visible only at high latitudes. You may know all about how those displays occur, how many types of auroras are there, how gorgeous the dancing lights are, and even see photographs or movies. But the thrill that you get in real-time watching of the phenomenon can never come from the accumulated knowledge about it.

On a more abstract plane knowledge may even be an impediment to experiencing. Here we are talking of experience in the sense of realization. This is the case in meditation. The prerequisite for meditation is to have the mind empty, totally devoid of thought. Knowledge is stored in the mind and to make it empty one has to clear that accumulation for the time being.

This leads us to the difference between experiencing and experience. Experience is always in the past, while experiencing is in the present. In true experiencing there is no separate existence of experiencer and experience. In the case of ordinary experience the mind is functioning at its lowest level, which is the normal waking state. In experiencing it is functioning at the highest level.

Such situations occur in real life when, for example, one is viewing a gorgeous sunrise or sunset especially in a lonely setting where there is no distraction. The scene itself is so mesmerizing that the person becomes one with nature and for that instant the seer and the scene merge. There is absolutely no thought in the mind and no awareness of time. For that duration there is only present, no past and no future. For that brief spell one goes into a state reminiscent of deep meditation. A similar situation can occur in listening to enchanting music. People usually refer to this condition as ‘lost in music’. It can happen with any sense of perception.

In all perceptions there is usually the subject-object duality. In the state of true experiencing this duality vanishes as the subject and object become one. This is the state that is the yogi attains in deep meditation transcending space and time. The difference is that the yogi can go into that state at will without any outside help, whereas one without yogic perfection needs proper input through a sense perception and the ‘trance’ is short-lived. However, these occasions provide opportunities for living in the present moment by moment and lead to a better understanding of life in relation to the external world.

Dharmbir Rai Sharma is a retired professor with electrical engineering and physics background. He obtained his M. in physics in India and Ph. electrical engineering at Cornell University. He has taught in universities here and also in Brazil, where he spent sometime. He maintains a website devoted mainly to philosophy, science, and self-development. He also has a blog site where short articles on related topics appear more frequently.


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