Knee of Listening (1971) – Chapter 3 – Hearing

Chapter 3: Hearing

There is no such thing as anyone’s “autobiography”. The events of experience do not, when recollected, synthesize themselves into an exact history, or even an exact person. Ordinary experience does not, over time, become a “something”. It is only an irregular series of concerns for life and death. If I were to write about a few such moments of ordinary experience, I could “create” an image. This, in fact, is what everyone does with memory. One highlights and defines a few (originally, shapeless, or indefinable) events, identifies each of them with a particular defining emotion, and (thus, by a kind of “artistic” effort) makes a narrative, and even invents a particular and separate “self”. Thus, one conceives of oneself as a “someone” by means of the device of partial contemplation. But if one could include it all (utterly and entirely), and consciously (and utterly) perceive the Real nature of experience at any moment, there would be no particular and separate person in the mind. There is no emphasis, and no design, in the whole. No particular and separate thing stands out at the point of Totality. Therefore, the more deeply and completely one experiences the recollection of one’s ordinary life, the more arbitrary every mark becomes.

Nevertheless, there are a few unique Events in what, as a concession to the conventions of ordinary communication, I refer to as “my own life” that stand whole by themselves. They neither signify nor justify an inherently (or otherwise, and utterly) separate life, nor do they define or describe an artificial, synthetic, or merely presumed “person”. Rather, they are Events that Communicate (or cease to hide) Reality. And these Events are the genuine subject of my “autobiography”. They are the Events in my early life that uniquely and fully demonstrate what I refer to as “True Humor”. And they do not speak of my human instance alone, but they are moments in the universally Communicated and universally Knowable life of Reality Itself. Therefore, those Events reveal the Truth of Who I am–Which, ultimately, is the Truth and Identity of every one and all.

When I was a little boy, the “Bright” was my constant Knowledge of Reality. But the more tentative I became about Reality, the more I felt myself to be separate from Reality, and (therefore) one who “listens” to Reality, and even one who seeks Reality. And the more I became a “listener”, and then a seeker, the more the Knowledge of Reality became an Occasion, an overwhelming Event, an Enlightenment. The subject of this chapter is the first and primary Event of Conscious Reality in my life after the “Bright” had disappeared into my childhood and I had become not only a “listener” but an urgent seeker relative to my own Truth.

When I entered Columbia College in September 1957, I was possessed with a single, motivating interest. I wanted to understand what living beings are. What is Consciousness? Whatever academic studies were required of me, I was always at work on this one question, and I was forever researching some kind of primary thesis out of great need.

The experience of study at Columbia was completely devastating. I had never in my life encountered any kind of sophisticated thought. But now I suddenly became aware of the literature of the world. The mood at Columbia in those years was profoundly solemn and critical. The attitude and the dilemma that I encountered when I gave my little speech on prejudice were here extended as the consciousness of the human race.
Grayson Kirk, who was then president of the University, introduced us to college life with a serious speech about the rising problems of humanity. He promised that Columbia would not teach us the answers, but we would perhaps learn the questions. Altogether, he indicated that Columbia would not make us Happy, but he promised that we would learn how to think.

I was deeply impressed by his attitude, and that of the entire formidable crowd of lecturing “thinkers”, talking (and otherwise in attendance) there. Immediately, Columbia seemed like an eminently appropriate, and even ideal, place in which to expand my doubts–but I was puzzled that one of the highest institutions of learning could represent itself as anything but the bearer of Truth. I soon learned that the Truth was always in research in such places. They are not institutions of Truth. They are marketplaces of doubt.

I began to read the deposits of Western culture. And all my idols lost their Power. To begin with, I learned that the “Holy Christian Truth” was anything but the real substance of Western civilization. There is a thesis emphasized in all the little bits of thought generated in a university education. In that thesis, the human being is described as necessarily mortal, functionally conditioned, and (at best) “creative” as a social animal. Also, the universe is described as materially prior to conscious life, and it is chronically understood without recourse to religious or Spiritual propositions.
Every book I read and every course I took emphasized this thesis in some unique fashion. This experience very quickly destroyed even the latent image of Jesus that I had stored up in childhood. A book that deeply affected me in the midst of my freshman year was The Lost Years of Jesus Revealed, by Charles Francis Potter. Even the church seemed to proclaim the absence of its own Truth. In his book, based on his interpretation of the Essene tradition revealed in the “Dead Sea Scrolls”, Dr. Potter wrote about the process whereby the traditional Christian descriptions of Jesus of Nazareth came to be proposed:

A “scheme of salvation” emerged, transforming the man Jesus into the mystical Christ, the Son of God. . . .

In the body of doctrine as it grew, influenced by current ideas about what a god-man should be and do, Jesus must perforce have come from heaven to be born of a virgin, must perform many miracles, make mystic utterances, raise the dead occasionally, and then himself die, rise again from the dead, and be assumpted back to heaven, thus proving his deity from advent to ascension. These were the standard “signs” by which a new god could be recognized, and these myths were gradually attached to the person of Jesus the son of Miryam (Mary) as his deification proceeded. . . .

The first-century followers of Jesus and the theologians and their successors can be excused to some extent for failing to perceive that he was no god come down from heaven, but rather a very great human being, ahead of his time in his intuitive understanding of his fellows and in his apparently instinctive knowledge of the technique of what we now call psychotherapy. . . .

But we already have enough data to show that the Scrolls are really “God’s Gift to the Humanists,” for every unrolling reveals further indications that Jesus was, as he said, “The Son of Man,” rather than the deity “Son of God” his followers later claimed.*

After about six months of “education” I went to my old pastor with my doubts. I wanted to know if the resurrection and ascension of Jesus, his miracles and Power, and all of the doctrine of “God” had any support in evidence. He was unable to offer me a single means of faith. Instead, he tried to make a mockery of educators and psychologists. He railed about John Dewey and progressive education. And he let me go home with a prayer to God for our salvation.

From that time, I was passed into the terror of my doubts. I cannot possibly overemphasize the effect of those doubts. I was finally and terribly lifted out of the ease of my childhood. My mind sank into despair and actual terror. I had fixed my Freedom and Joy into the image of Jesus, and I had long ago given over the support of my Happiness to the church. Now that institutionalized symbol, “Jesus of Nazareth”, was wrecked by the same ones who had carried it through time.

Then all was, it seemed, finally lost–for Jesus of Nazareth had even become, for me (in the trouble of my adolescence), the symbol for the lost (or, certainly, receding and fading) “Bright” of my childhood. Indeed, in that trouble, he, being but a symbol in my own mind, was a fundamental means whereby the “Bright” was concealed and withheld from me. When the “Bright” deeply receded in me, It only left tracks in the mind, and “Jesus of Nazareth” epitomized them all. Therefore, when “Jesus of Nazareth” fell to my doubts, it was the “Bright” Itself that I felt fall forever away from me. And that fall broke my heart. It drove me into my own vast empty wilderness.
My doubt grew overnight into awesome fear. I felt as if I were living under the threat of death. Life, it seemed to me, was only dying and afraid. I had not a single reason for Joy. I found no faith, no inexplicable grace. I saw only the constant drove of merely “civilized” humanity, a long history of illusions sewn up in the single foundation of a muscular mortality. There was only death, a constant ending, a rising fear, a motivated forgetfulness and escape.

I became profoundly aware of conflict and suffering everywhere. There was only struggle and disease, fear and longing, self-exploitation and emptiness, questions without answers. In every man and woman, I recognized the complex of doubt. Then I understood the root of conflict in my parents and the necessity for illusions, for exotic pleasures, for relief and distraction. I knew there was not a single man or woman who had overcome the mystery of this death. I knew this education would only be a long description of fundamental suffering, since all were convinced of the “Truth” of mortality.
From then, my schooling ceased to be a serious study. I knew that, from beginning to end, it had only one object to proclaim–and I had learned it already. From its effects in me and in all mankind, I knew this model of learning was not sufficient. I had not a single reason for Joy, except that there was a kind of tacitly motivating memory of the “Bright”.

As a boy, I had never been a conscious Christian until I was perhaps five or six years old. But, previous to that age, I had already been a Conscious Form of Light that Knew no-dilemma and no-death. Now, in my early adult life, the “Bright” had seemed to disappear in the human darkness, and I had no means to Enjoy It. But I could not assert the mortal philosophy of Western Man, even if I could not counter it.

Therefore, I dedicated myself to another awesome experiment. I decided that I would begin an experimental life along the same lines which controlled the mood of Western civilization. I decided that I would unreservedly exploit every possibility for experience. I would avail myself of every possible human experience, so that nothing possible to mankind, high or low, would be unknown to me.

This decision became very clear to me one night at a party. I knew that no other possibility was open to me but that of exhaustive experience. There appeared to be no single experience or authority that was simply True. And I thought, “If God exists, God will not cease to exist by any action of my own–but, if I devote myself to all possible experience, God will (necessarily) find some way (in some particular experience or some complex of experiences, or by virtue of my openness itself) to be revealed to me.” Thereafter, I devoted myself utterly and solely to every possible kind of exploit.
No experience posed a barrier to me. There were no taboos, no extremes to be prevented. There was no depth of madness and no limit of suffering that my philosophy could prevent–for, if it did, I would be liable to miss the Lesson of Reality. Thus, I extended myself even beyond my own fear. And my pleasures also became extreme, such that there was a constant machine of ecstasy. I could tolerate no mediocrity, no medium experience. I was satisfied neither with atheism nor with belief. Both seemed to me mere ideas, possible reactions to a more fundamental (if unconscious) fact. I sought Reality, to be Reality–What is, not what is asserted in the face of What is.

I read and studied every kind of literature. It would be impossible for me to count the thousands of books and influences I embraced in my years of experimenting. I began to write my reflections. My lecture notes in college were filled with long passages of my own, where I would write whatever conclusions or impulses rose in me at the time. A continuous argument of internal contemplation began to move in me, such that I was always intensely pursuing an internal logic, distracted or enlarged at times by some idea or experience in my education.

My lecture notebooks and my separate journals began to become long volumes of my own thinking. At first, they were mainly philosophical notes that developed from a kind of desperate and childish complaint into a more and more precise instrument of thought and feeling. Then I began to write poetry also, and to conceive of works of fiction that would express this dilemma and lead to some kind of solution, some opening, some kind of primary Joy.

I became a kind of mad and exaggerated young man, whose impulses were not allowable in this medium culture. My impulses were exploitable only in secret extensions of my own humanly-born conscious awareness, or in the company of whores, libertines, and misfits.

My father’s younger brother, Richard, asked me what I wanted to do with my life. He could see that I lived only

abandoned to adventure, and there was no apparent purpose in me. I told him that I wanted to save the world. And I was absolutely serious. That remark totally expressed all of my reasons. Some incredible Knowledge was the goal of my seeking and not any experience I could ever possess.

I went on in this fashion for more than two years, until all the violence of my seeking precipitated an experience late one night in the middle of my junior year. I had rented a small room from an old woman named Mrs. Renard. It was several blocks away from the college campus. When I was not in class, I spent most of my time in that room reading, thinking, and writing.

On this extraordinary night, I sat at my desk late into the night. I had exhausted my seeking, such that I felt there were no more books to read, no possible kinds of ordinary experience that could exceed what I had already embraced. There seemed no outstanding sources for any new excursion, no remaining and conclusive possibilities. I was drawn into the interior tension of my mind that held all of that seeking–every impulse and alternative, every motive in the form of my desiring. I contemplated it as a whole, a dramatic singleness, and it moved me into a profound shape of life-feeling, such that all the vital centers in my body and mind appeared like a long funnel of contracted planes that led on to an infinitely regressed and invisible image. I observed this deep sensation of conflict and endlessly multiplied contradictions, such that I was surrendered to its very shape, as if to experience it perfectly and to be it.

Then, quite suddenly, in a moment, I experienced a total revolution in my body-mind, and (altogether) in my humanly-born conscious awareness. An absolute sense of understanding opened and arose at the extreme end of all this sudden contemplation. And all of the motions of me that moved down into that depth appeared to reverse their direction at some unfathomable point. The rising impulse caused me to stand, and I felt a surge of Force draw up out of my depths and expand, Filling my entire body and every level of my humanly-born conscious awareness with wave on wave of the most Beautiful and Joyous Energy.

I felt absolutely mad, but the madness was not of a desperate kind. There was no seeking and no dilemma within it, no question–no unfulfilled motive, not a single object or presence outside myself.

I could not contain the Energy in my small room. I ran out of the building and through the streets. I thought, if I could only find someone to talk to, to communicate to about this “Thing”. The Energy in my body was overwhelming, and there was an ecstasy in every cell that was almost intolerable in its Pressure, Light, and Force. But it was the middle of the night. There were no lights coming from the rooms. I could think of no one to awaken who would understand my experience. I felt that, even if I were to meet a friend, I would be unable to express myself, but my words would only be a kind of uncontrolled poetry of babbling.

My head began to ache with the intense Energy that saturated my brain. I thought, if I could only find someone with some aspirin or something to tranquilize me. But there was no one. And, at last, I wore myself out wandering in the streets, so that I returned to my room.

I sat down at my desk and wrote my mind in a long, ecstatic essay. I tried to summarize all the significance of this revolution that had occurred in my living being. Until, finally, I became exhausted in all the violence of my Joy, and I passed to sleep.
In the days that followed, I described this Event to a few friends, but no one grasped Its importance. Indeed, no one presumed It to be more than some kind of crazy excitement. I even read aloud to one friend the things I had written, but it became clear as I went on that it was only a collection of images. He only laughed at my excitement, and I thought it would be impossible for another to appreciate the magnitude of that great experience of mine.

As it happened, it took me many years to understand that revolution in my living being. As you will see, it marked the rising in me of fundamental and unqualified Life, and it, in its moment, removed every shadow of dilemma and ignorance from the mind, on every level, and all its effects in the body. But I would have to pass through many years of trial before my understanding of that Event became thoroughly established as the constant and truly effective premise of my living being (and, at last, the most perfect revelation of my Very Nature, my Ultimate Condition, and my “Bright” Purpose in the world).

Nevertheless, in the days and weeks that followed, I grasped certain basic concepts that arose in me at that time and which stood out in the mind undeniably, with a self-validating force. Two things in particular stood out as fundamentals.

I had spent years devoted to forceful seeking for some revolutionary truth, some image, object, reason, or idea, the effect of which would be absolutely liberating and salvatory. My seeking had been motivated by the loss of faith, the loss of the “Christ”-object and other such reasons for Joy. But, in that great moment of Awakening, I Knew the Truth was not a matter of seeking. There were no “reasons” for Joy and Freedom. It was not a matter of a truth, an object, a concept, a belief, a reason, a motivation, or any external fact. Indeed, it was clear that all such objects are grasped in a state that is already seeking and which has already lost the prior sense of absolutely unqualified Reality. Instead, I saw that the Truth or Reality (or Reality) was a matter of the absence of all contradictions, of every trace of conflict, opposition, division, or desperate motivation within. Where there is no seeking, no contradiction, there is only the unqualified Knowledge and Power that is Reality. This was the first aspect of that sudden Clarity.

In this State beyond all contradiction, I also saw that Freedom and Joy is not attained, that It is not dependent on any form, object, idea, progress, or experience. I saw that human beings (and, indeed, all beings) are, at any moment, always and already Free. I Knew that I was not lacking anything I needed yet to find, nor had I ever been without such a thing. The problem was the seeking itself, which “created” and enforced contradiction, conflict, and absence within. Then the understanding arose that I am always already Free. This was the second aspect of that fundamental Awareness.
That sudden understanding was the obviation of all striving, and this I Knew to be unqualified Truth. I had been striving for some objective “Truth”, in order to replace my loss with a thereby acquired “Freedom”, but this striving was itself the source of contradiction in me. Now I Knew there was no entity of Truth, and perfect Freedom was always already the case. Freedom exists as life–not when Freedom is “created” or sought, but where there is this fundamental understanding. In that moment of understanding, I had simply turned out of the context of my presumed dilemma. I was possessed of the mature cognition of the “Bright”.

In the years that followed, I would find many analogies for my experience in the Spiritual literature of the East and the West. I could call that revolution in myself “enlightenment”, “liberation”, “Realization of the Self”, or “union with God”. I would pursue the sciences of that Realization in religion and Yoga, in ancient scriptures and modern therapeutic techniques. But, as you will see, I always returned to the simplicity of that understanding, free of all concepts (which, although they seek to express it in a communicative symbol, in fact serve to limit the State Itself and re-“create” the milieu of seeking).

But I was not, at that time, living in a Spiritual community. And the mind of the university, bound as it was to the subtle doctrines that enforce dilemma, served only to counter my experience–just as, when a child, I could find no community of the “Bright”.

Because of the vulnerability that necessarily characterizes any kind of “Spiritual” consciousness in the traditionally non-Spiritual (or even bodily-based and worldly) culture of the West, I was unable at that time to thoroughly understand my own experience. I could not establish that Realization as the “creative” premise of my existence. I was simply not that strong. And the habits of mind and body that I had built by years of self-exploitation persisted as consoling means of pleasure, such that I remained rather sedentary and reflective. I did not overcome the gravity of mind that I had achieved as a result of my presumed dilemma and my manner of living. And I naturally adapted to a basic misinterpretation of my experience.

I retained something of the attitude of the seeker. Whereas previously I continually pursued some kind of “objective” Truth (whether internal or external), now I sought the removal of contradictions, of the parts of conflict, ignorance, or impurity, by various internal means.

I did not realize that this understanding, this Knowledge, is Itself the removal of contradictions and the instant, moment to moment purifier of the mind and life. I considered that the Truth was as I had Known It in that moment of Realization, but that I would have to find the means for working the revolutionary purification of my living being. I saw the State of Knowledge or understanding to be in some sense caused by the practical removal of the impurities or contradictions in the mind and life.

Thus, I began a new period of effort. Its goals were not desperate and un-Real, as before–but the simple assumption of the attitude of the seeker (and the consequent identification with the one who is not yet perfectly Free, not yet Real and True) made it impossible for me to continuously Enjoy the State of unqualified Being that had been accomplished in that moment of Realization.

The burden of these considerations made me feel that I had even lost the Truth that I had Realized. I began to pursue It again through endless writing and search. I remained addicted to my mediocre pleasures and sought through them the means of purification and release. I graduated from Columbia in the following year, in June 1961, in despair and confusion, without a clue as to where I should take myself. Reluctantly, I had become a seeker, even a very ordinary seeker, but I was not certain there were any means in all the world to restore myself to the “Bright”.