Knowledge Belief and Experience

How do we know what we know?

Photo by 🇸🇮 Janko Ferlič on Unsplash

When my younger son was about nine or ten yrs. old, we went away to Gibraltar together for a long weekend dolphin watching. It was a birthday treat for us both. When we were out one evening having dinner together in a restaurant, he asked me a question which I have been toying with ever since. He is now forty. He asked what the difference was between a superstition and a (religious) belief. There ensued an interesting discussion about this matter between us for the rest of the evening. How do we know what we believe and what is real? Is real the same for all and is there a real world or is it all made up of stories? I think I understand that question more as each year goes by. But who knows?

Epistemology is the branch of philosophy which exclusively explores the theory of knowledge, especially with regard to its methods, validity, and scope, and the distinction between justified belief and opinion.

I don’t want to get too deeply into the philosophical arguments here because I want to explore it more from a mindfulness perspective, and I want to make the ideas accessible to all.

I follow the teachings of Thich Nhat Hanh (Thay) most of the time because I find his interpretations of the original Buddhist documents make practical sense in modern times. I also trust his deep insight and zen mastery of such teachings. In addition, true to the advice of the Buddha, how I read his writing also confirms my own experiences in my own practice of mindfulness. I work with what works for me and slowly that changes as it is assimilated into my life.

I also nudge over the philosophical edge into Solipsism, which is the school of philosophy that argues all knowledge is based on personal insight and experience, the view or theory that the self is all that can be known to exist. How can we know beyond ourselves since all knowledge is processed by our own minds, and it is clear that each individual mind is very different from each other mind selves. SO we can only know. But scientific approach, the modern favoured method of enquiry, only wants information based on outcomes that are replicable. And we cannot replicate the content of our own experience particularly well.

I’m not a Buddhist scholar or academic, unlike Thay. My brain doesn’t work like that. I am a Neurodivergent who challenges everything she is told to believe however, much to the annoyance of both parents and teachers when a child. Thus I can learn from books and teachers but not until I can place that into context in my own experience can I make use of that information or consolidate it. My brain does not absorb information in a sterile context, it must be meaningful to me. I know that this is true of most people, though not all. Some people can mentally work far more in the abstract and for those the academic is possible.

This brings me to the more abstract aspects of the Buddha’s teachings of impermanence, non-being or nonself, and nirvana. These are often called the three Dharma seals, the centre of all the teaching, and for me they are. But they only make sense because through my practice of mindfulness I have experienced them all.

If I boil it down to my own experiences, for me it works like this:

I have read the Buddhas teachings extensively. I can understand the logic completely of all that he taught. It makes sense. But can I experience it? Could I understand those experiences without the reading and understanding to back it up? Generally we need a framework or paradigm upon which to hang and make sense of new pieces of experience. Otherwise it wanders around in random pieces of insight waiting for the right fit for itself. Very much how a child learns in stages to make sense of animals on four legs and then the differences between cat and dog etc.

My experience when I read the Dharma was that it made immediate sense to me. It did not wander around in the wilderness at all. What happened was a complete AHA moment, that suddenly reframed everything I had been taught up to that point in a way that made far more sense and was deeply healing. So knowledge matched experience and became my lived reality. This then is my belief, based on experience though.

When I read a bit more deeply, and went through a few more transformations which were totally experiential, I began to more fully comprehend the real purpose of practice, what mindfulness actually was, and what impermanence, nonself and nirvana meant too. The study hadn’t done much for me really, other than to give me some further ideas, but these were more or less meaningless, or acted as goals — which are usually counter productive since mindfulness is about letting go of all goals.

But without the understanding I had from the reading, would I have had more confusion in those experiences? Many breakthrough moments in meditation can also be labelled dissociative moments in psychiatry and are considered symptomatic of mental illness, to be medicated away. Very few mental health practitioners are cognisant with such states in spiritual parlance. Mostly their understanding of mindfulness is perfunctory to say the least, and misguided more often than not. They do not have decades of experience behind them, and may have only approached mindfulness for professional reasons, not from a deep spiritual calling.

I am not denigrating those who do take it more deeply into their own lives, but I know of many mental health workers, on all levels, who pay lip service to it therapeutically and do not practice at all for themselves, so how can they know? They think they know but they have no deep experiential knowing to back it up.

And this is where solipsism comes in once more. As a research method it has been refuted and ignored by science for many hundreds of years now. The thinking is that personal experience is unreliable and cannot be replicated. Yes I agree. But when I relate my personal experience to that written about going back over thousands of years of Buddhist scripture, I start to see that my personal experiences may not be replicable for me but they are real and occur for many others in similar ways. Enough for that to be validating to their reality. It is not replicable, i.e. cannot be reproduced or re-created to occur at will, but they are commonly accounted for experientially. Words are inadequate more often than not. I have tried to write about my experiences in my memoirs.

Similarly the scientists who apply scientific method to mindfulness and meditation, measuring the changes that occur over time in the brains of matched meditators and non-meditators. These are observable using modern scanning equipment, but they only show evidence of meditative behaviour in common with others, not what these alterations actually mean. It is scientific but also relies on personal account for interpretation.

I have been asked to have my brain scanned on the basis of my account of spiritual insights, and it would have happened had we not had a pandemic. I was curious to see how it had altered my brain, but I already have an unusual brain due to Neurodiversity, so it might be rather inconclusive. One day perhaps!

So getting back to the epistemology, how do I know what I believe? I can only believe what I can relate to experientially. It doesn’t matter how much I read about scholarly experiences of mindfulness, or the deepest interpretations of the teaching on the more mystical aspects of what the Buddha taught, such as non-self and nirvana — I can only believe from a place of experience, or lived reality, I cannot believe on the basis of trust of other people’s words. That is why Buddhism works so well for me. This is what the Buddha taught us to do, or advised us to do.

So how do you know what you know? Yes read and study widely, but put personal experience into practice too, trust your intuitions ( yes I wrote that book too), recognise and be open to all the moments of your life and see where they lead you. Then back it up with learning and extensive research and reading of those older accounts. No one can take away from you what you know deeply within yourself, and no one should try, though they may attempt to. That happened to me so many times, but because of the depth of my own mystical experiences, it could not come close.

I hope this has helped a little bit in unpicking this difficult debate. I do fear far too many researchers end up in the story of the scientists as depicted in Gulliver’s Travels, in lofty places endlessly debating tiny points, and never experiencing life itself. Some of those I had the honour to meet do have their own deep practice, but some do not, and their effort may be pointless for their own benefit. That is a tragedy