This subject could easily be written about for many pages, but I’ll just provide a few quick thoughts here.
I recently completed a 10-day Vipassana meditation course, which I will provide more detail on in another post. Part of the course is a nightly video discourse by the instructor, S. N. Goenka. The discourses are a real treat each night, and I was continually impressed by how simply and articulately Goenka articulated many of the basic human truths that I have been grasping at for the last several years.
Meditation had long frustrated me. I’d accepted that it was something a lot of people did and seemed to benefit from, but I didn’t personally “get it.” I thought it was a New Age practice that I had no interest in undertaking seriously.
What I especially liked about Goenka and Vipassana was his emphasis on the practical benefits of that meditation technique. Little to nothing was done merely for the sake of ritual; everything had a practical purpose.
Moreover, Goenka repeatedly talked about learning things at the experiential, rather than the intellectual, level. The idea was hardly a new one for me, and I believe it to be one of those “basic human truths” that I’ve recognized across religions and philosophies hailing from widely varied times and places in human history.
Goenka, though, illustrated the point particularly well. One effective metaphor that he used was that of visiting a restaurant. You arrive and are seated, and the waiter brings you a menu. You read the descriptions of all the wonderful food, and your hunger increases, and you imagine what it would be like to taste the food. Next you look around, and you see the meals that you’ve read on the menu, being enjoyed by people at the surrounding tables. You can see the food and how good it looks, and you can see the other people heartily enjoying it. The third level is where you actually receive and taste the food for yourself.
I have always loved reading and intellectual pursuits, and have spent a good portion of my life up to this point consuming a diverse array of knowledge from a variety of media. However, reading is the easy part. It’s the doing that’s tough.
The truth is out there. The secrets to success and happiness have been long known, and have been written and re-written about countless times, in countless forms. These secrets can be purchased for $19.99 at the bookstore and put into your brain over a few hours time. The problem is that the vast majority of people read what they should do, agree with it, but don’t take action to actually implement it in their lives. Some people don’t even get through the book. (Anyone else have a half-finished copy of a book titled something like How to Stop Procrastinating lying around somewhere?)
I’ve spent much of my life reading material and absorbing it, thinking about it, debating it at an intellectual level. But very little of that has filtered down to the experiential level, which is really the only level that matters. It’s been said before, but keeping things at the intellectual level is nothing more than mental masturbation.
One of my favorite metaphors is about skiing. You could read a hundred books about skiing, learning what you should do in every possible situation you might encounter on the slopes. However, even with that encyclopedic knowledge of the sport, the first time that you actually strap on a pair of skis and try to go down a hill, you’re going to fall on your ass. All but guaranteed.
My mission going forward, intensively for at least the next couple years and to some degree for the rest of my life, is to truly experience life. Moving away from reading about life and watching life unfold, instead constantly pushing myself to really experience the art of living for myself.
The intellectual level occupies a very important place in our existence. But it is at the experiential level that life truly happens.
For related reading, I recommend The Flinch, by Julien Smith (Free!)
(His blog is also spectacular: http://inoveryourhead.net/)