We need a new word, a word for that indescribable awareness within—that dawning realization that did not come second hand from another, or from a book, or at the end of a long line of reasoning. It simply arrived—a lucidity, a clarity, a simple wordless opening through which to see the world. “Understanding” doesn’t quite describe it, because understanding is conceptual knowledge—the grasping of ideas. This kind of knowing isn’t conceptual. It’s not made of ideas. It could never be described, written down, or spoken. But there it is, as bright as the morning star, re-ordering everything you know, think, feel, and are.
We were talking about this the other day in my Asian philosophy class at Southwestern College. It’s bread-and-butter epistemological stuff: discussions on the nature of knowledge. What is it? How do we get it? How is knowledge different from opinion? What role does language, conceptual thought, and empirical evidence play in its transmission, acquisition, and verification?
We’d begun the semester with a lively discussion of this question: What is the difference between knowledge and wisdom? That took nearly a whole session. Then we dove into a study of Hinduism, Vedanta philosophy in particular, capping it off with a three-and-half-week student-led seminar on the Bhagavad Gita, India’s most beloved wisdom text. Throughout this process we had to learn how to live every day with the fact that here, as in every other wisdom tradition, ultimate reality remains ineffable, that is, beyond words and concepts. And yet, as the Islamic prophet Muhammad said, it is nearer than the jugular vein.
Then came Buddhism: the Four Noble Truths, the Noble Eightfold Path, the Three Marks of Existence, Nirvana, Shunyata, Interdependent Origination, and all the rest, again having to confront and somehow make peace with the fact that Nirvana or enlightenment is a state of consciousness beyond conceptual grasping. In enlightenment one does not awaken into more accurate or more sophisticated concepts—awakening takes us instead to a field of awareness beyond concepts. Wisdom isn’t something you know, it’s something you are.
The famous Zen story of the Flower Sermon sums it up best. One day the Buddha gathered his company together to give a dharma talk, as he often did. But on this day he simply held up a flower and didn’t say a word. Only one man, Kasyapa, indicated with his eyes that he understood what was being said. For Zen Buddhists, this is their origin story, the beginning of the wordless transmission outside the teachings and scriptures. What Buddha conveyed that day was far too vast for concepts and language.
This is why in Hinduism and Buddhism the teacher-student relationship is so important. The teacher does not and, in fact, cannot bestow wisdom onto the student because wisdom is not something anyone owns. It is not a thing, it is an event. The best teachers don’t teach, they co-create the conditions in which students can move more intimately into their own authentic nature. Wisdom arises in the spacious flow outside of thoughts and concepts, including the concept of the separate ego-self. The ego knows nothing of wisdom—it happens beyond the boundaries of that limited, albeit useful construct. Therefore wisdom is not something you possess, just as you cannot possess the sunrise or music or love. In the depths of wisdom the separate self dissolves, or is transcended. As contemporary teacher Adyashanti puts it, “There are no enlightened persons. When enlightenment happens there is no one there to claim it.”
In the Katha Upanishad this wisdom-transmission process is metaphorically called “spiritual osmosis.” In cellular biology, osmosis describes the transmission of the liquid substance within one cell through its semi-permeable membrane and through the semi-permeable membrane of another cell. This is how the substance of one cell literally becomes the substance of another cell. So, too, when we spend time in the presence of powerful others, something of their wordless essence gets into us and changes us. We become ever so slightly more like them, and they like us.
Maya Angelou sums it up beautifully, and let this be a message for every teacher agonizing over the latest fads in pedagogy. Maybe none of that matters. Maybe your students are simply waiting for you, the real you—the vulnerable, courageous, and loving you—to finally show up. To paraphrase Angelou: “People won’t remember what you said. They won’t remember what you did. But they will never forget the way you made them feel.”
The other day in my Asian philosophy class, in the last two weeks of the semester, we were studying Daoism, the Chinese wisdom tradition that first found expression in Laozi’s immortal classic, the Dao De Jing. No other tradition places ineffability so front and center. The Dao De Jing begins with this line: “The Dao that can be told is not the eternal Dao.” Dao, the Ground of Being, is beyond all words and concepts. The concept of Dao taking shape in your mind is not the real Dao. That partial concept bears as much relationship to the real Dao as a map to a place, or a menu to food.
But that does not mean that we can never experience it. In fact, we are it. And so is everything else. Our experience of Dao or Brahman or God is not achieved with cleverness or calculation. It is simply allowed.
And this is when Julian Rios raised his hand. I could tell by the light in his eyes that he was getting this, all of this.
“My friends and I were talking about this the other day,” he said. “We call it innerstanding.
“Innerstanding?” I said.
Julian grinned. The room shifted.
“That is the greatest thing I have ever heard in my life,” I said. “I am so stealing that.”
And we went on to have the most wonderful discussion about this mysterious mode of knowing that defies definition or categorization.
The great Daoist philosopher Zhuangzi put it this way: “A fish trap is for catching fish. When the fish is caught, the trap is forgotten. A rabbit snare is for catching rabbits. When the rabbit is caught, the snare is forgotten. Words are for capturing ideas. When the idea is caught, the words are forgotten. Where can I find someone who teaches without words? That’s who I want to study with.”
Language and conceptual thought are the rafts that carry us across the river from the shore of ignorance to the shore of wisdom. But they are merely vehicles, and can never contain wisdom themselves.
To understand something is to stand outside of it and see it clearly. To innerstand is to embody a wordless knowing that defies description, a knowing that transforms us body, mind, and soul. Understanding changes your mind. Innerstanding changes everything.
Peter Bolland is a teacher, writer, speaker, singer-songwriter, and philosophy professor. Meditate with him on the Insight Timer app and learn more at www.peterbolland.com