What are the facts of our spirituality? How do we get really practical with our spirituality? Obviously, we have to focus on ourselves. Spirituality is really about our relationship with everything else. It is about who we are, and what we are, and what that means. So, what are we? Who are we? This is where we start; we start looking at the facts, really taking things down to the simplest level. But somehow, the simple things are very profound.
We have a lot of beliefs about ourselves, thoughts about ourselves, and abstract concepts about ourselves, but we do not really know a lot of facts. I do not mean facts like “I was born in such and such a year and my name is this and that,” and “I am from this country and that place and I have these types of experiences.” Those are not facts. Those are memories. Memories are subjective; they are not real. By facts I mean: what is happening right now, what can you perceive and confirm is true?
Now this becomes a profound question. The first thing it requires factually is: who is looking? Who is perceiving? Is it the body? Is it the eyes? Is it the ears? Is it the skin? Who is this? That is a very profound question, and really it should be the origin of our religious pursuit, of our spiritual interest, because that question points exactly where our suffering or happiness springs, where our problems or solutions originate.
The fact is, we cannot answer the question with facts, because we have not confirmed the facts through our own experience. We have beliefs about who we are, about how we perceive. We believe we have a soul and that soul is our true identity, yet that is not a fact; the soul is a real thing that can be experienced, but it is not experienced through thoughts or belief. Many believe they are angels on earth, or chosen people, blessed by God for some great purpose — there is an infinitude of beliefs about the “self” and what in us perceives — but all the spiritual and religious beliefs and theories contradict each other, which tells us immediately that they are all illusions. Facts can be confirmed and proven.
So, we have abstract ideas about ourselves, we have theoretical knowledge, we have a lot of things that we have been told. But, truly we have very few facts about ourselves. This is what we need to change. What are the facts of our perceptions? What can we perceive and confirm? This approach originates a different way of approaching religion.
To describe religious pursuits, some traditions use the phrase “self-realization.” But that English phrase is not accurate. It comes from Sanskrit, and the Sanskrit words are atma-jnana. Atma means self, while yana means knowledge, with the same meaning as gnosis: it is knowledge acquired through experience. So atma-jnana actually means self-knowledge. How did people change it to self-realization, and how did that phrase lose all real meaning? People now think “self-realization” is something easy, like getting on a plane and flying high in the sky. They really believe that reading our full and complete development is something easy that happens by itself, without any effort or struggle, or —more importantly — any need to change themselves. How wrong they are!
What is knowledge of self (atma jnana)? Let us begin here and now, and ask ourselves: who is this self? Who am I? Who is this this here?
If we are willing to be superficial and say, “Well my name is this and that and I have this skin color and I am from this place,” that all is very superficial, and it does not lead to any understanding. That is not real knowledge. That is just appearances. We need to go deeper, and perceive the answer in facts. We need to look into ourselves and question ourselves: what is past the mask I wear? What is deeper than my superficial appearance? Where does the question itself originate?
So, right at the start, we are doing a kind of introspection. Instead of looking outside and trying to ask, “What is God? What is Buddha? What is dharma?” We are looking inside, “What am I? What is this perception? Why does it change? What is mind? What is emotion?”
These questions, when asked and watched and perceived, lead to real knowledge, real understanding. Yet, those questions, and the answers, are not resolvable through the intellect, through thoughts, or through beliefs. They can only be answered through perception, thus they must also be asked that way. So: instead of thinking about this, begin to look at it. Look at yourself, and everything you perceive, with this questioning perception. When you arrive to a new place, a new situation, you have a questioning perception, an “open mind,” some might say, but we are not talking about mind really, we are talking about how one sees. Thus we need to continually use a questioning perception, a way of seeing that is always looking at things as though they are totally new.