Step by Step Towards Wisdom
The Ground of All Knowing
by Swami Atmarupananda
An infant opens its eyes and ears to the world, and perceives an ocean of sensation. Gradually it learns to distinguish patterns – mother, father, its own hands, its feet. The ocean of sensation begins to make sense as patterns emerge. An ocean of indeterminate sensation gives way to understanding: the beginnings of knowledge.
A young adult wants to learn cooking, so he goes to the grocery, and follows his list: information. He returns home and searches a lasagna recipe: more information. After layering the dry ingredients he pours a liquid mixture into the casserole as instructed. Now the preparation looks too liquid to his inexperienced eye; but later when he pulls it from the oven, the lasagna has “set.” He learns, “Oh, this is what the eggs do!” And that is understanding.
Information can be stored in books, in databases, in the cloud: that is, outside of consciousness. Understanding, on the other hand, is always internal, experienced within one’s own consciousness. “Ah, now I get it!” “So that’s what it does!” “Aha!” Understanding is the experience of meaning. It may largely be conveyed as information – that is, it can largely be converted into objective, recordable information, as with the knowledge of what eggs do in cooking – but it becomes understanding only when it is grasped in consciousness as meaning.
A certain young student hates history: to him it’s just a bunch of boring facts about old stuff. That is, it is just information which he has no use for. In time he goes to college, where a history professor explains that we are all products of the past. Without knowing where we have come from, the professor explains, we can’t know who we are or what the world is. History thus teaches us how we have become what we are. Suddenly history makes sense, and the student falls in love with its study, because information has been converted into understanding.
In studying mathematics a young woman begins to learn set theory: the set of integers, the set of even numbers, the set of prime numbers … At first it is information – just facts that she tries to learn. But as she begins to grasp it – to see it – it becomes understanding. Then one day she suddenly sees that all knowledge is based on classification into sets – not just the set of numbers, but the set of men, of women, of human beings, of animals, of ferns, of plants, of rocks and languages and verbs and nouns and on to infinity: knowledge is classification, that is, making sets. She has gained understanding.
Illumining a Wider Context
This is another aspect of understanding: we grasp a principle, however simple, and then we see how it illumines a wider context. Understanding always illumines more than the immediate information presented. Our cook learns about cooking with eggs, not just lasagna; our history student learns about time and who we are; the mathematics student learns about knowledge itself. Understanding by its nature illumines new, unexpected fields of experience. It is internal, the direct experience of meaning, and by nature expansive: it illumines more than the single datum which awakens it.
Our mathematician goes home, reads a bit to relax, and then thinks, “It’s time to meditate. But it feels so good to sit here, maybe I’ll skip meditation today and just go on reading.” She realizes that the mind is up to its old tricks. “No, I’ll never solve the problem of life until I learn to deal with my own mind, so I will sit.” That is wisdom.
Wisdom is higher knowledge, integrated into one’s being, oriented toward a universal purpose, expressive of a deep goodness and kindness.
Our aspiring cook is driving down the street, and ahead on the sidewalk he spots a homeless man who has accidentally overturned his shopping cart. “No need to get involved” flashes through his mind. But he doesn’t feel comfortable with his own reaction. So he pulls over, gets out, helps right the cart, and picks up the spilled contents. He says a good word to the man, who is too distracted by mental illness to even say a word of thanks. The absence of thanks hardly registers on the cook’s mind – he has trained himself to do good without extending the tentacle of ego, of selfishness. Happy with the improved situation of the homeless man, he goes his way. He doesn’t think, “Damn, I’m good! Did anyone see me, I hope?” He’s simply happy at the happiness of another. That is wisdom, knowing based on goodness, knowing oriented to a higher purpose, which means seeing one’s actions and experiences in a universal context of meaning.
Information is objectifiable, recordable data, independent of consciousness.
Understanding is internal, the experience of meaning, which illuminates experience.
Wisdom is a higher knowing, connected to universal values and expressing a deep, internalized goodness.
But there is something still higher, recognized in all spiritual traditions, both theistic and non-theistic. A knowing, a gnosis, prajna or jnana, which is the foundation of knowing itself. I’ll explain it as it is understood in the Hindu tradition.
Every act of knowing, every conscious moment is grounded in a universal knowing. This is true even in sleep, even in so-called unconsciousness (where we are conscious of no thing, conscious of darkness, of absence). It is the ground of our very being, and it is what we know before we know anything else. But somehow we ignore it in our impulsion to know things, particulars. It is like wearing glasses: after a while, I forget I’m wearing them, though I see them first, and through them I see all else. We’ve all seen people looking for their glasses, when they were wearing them all the time. So is it with us.
All the particulars that we know, all our experiences, are like small vibrations, waves in that ocean which is the ground of being itself. All knowing is nondual: we know when the distinction between the knower, what is known, and the knowing process collapses; and yet we don’t see it. That is ignorance.
The highest knowing – gnosis or prajna or jnana – is when we know through nondual identity that ground of all knowing. That is universal, being itself, knowing itself, bliss itself. It is completion, both wholeness and holiness. And out of that comes all, within that is all – beyond time, beyond space, without limitation. And I am that, you are that. There we find unity. There we awaken. There we find a rest where we sleep no more. That is our refuge, that is who we are.
Through understanding we rise above information; through wisdom we rise above understanding; and in gnosis, we rise above all by becoming the ground of all.