Every piece of information we receive through our senses is subject to our biases, experiences, and willingness to be attentive – in other words, it’s frequently flawed. Think how many times in life you thought something was most certainly A when over time you realized it was actually B.
How can we know something to be true or not with flawed ways of accumulating information? Beyond our responsibility to care for our senses and cleanse them through ritual self-care, we can use our sensory perception and mental faculties to know something through three ways…
1. Observation – Ah! Fire!
On a camping trip, you are preparing your dinner at the picnic table when you realize that the fire you started an hour ago has spread outside the confines of the firepit and is speeding up the dry twigs toward your tent.
Since you started the fire, you obviously know what fire is and that it’s nature is to spread, and so you’re aware that you have to act quickly to contain it. A bucket of water and a bag of sand later, your fire is out – dinner will be delayed, but everyone is safe. You now know that your preparation for the fire was insufficient, so shore up the fire pit and take note to do things more safely in the future.
Knowing through observation grows easier the more experience we have. If you know a lot about making fires, you may not have made this mistake.
If you don’t know a lot about fires, you can observe the qualities of the fire – it’s hot, burning, spreading and has the ability to transform other things into more edible food or complete ash. With experience and attentiveness, your ability to respond calmly and correctly to your observations heightens.
There are many situations in life that we give an “AH! FIRE!” reaction to that possess no threatening qualities. With calm observation, we can save our energy and react less, but respond more rightly when we observe the moment more accurately.
2. Inference and Comparison - Where There's Smoke, There's Maybe Fire
You are sitting on a mountain, and looking across the valley where you see smoke rising from the forest between the neighbouring mountains. It looks just like the smoke that rises off the fire you make to keep yourself warm and fed, but in that instance, you also have a bucket of water and a sandpit to contain the spreading nature of fire. You decide not to head over that mountain and change direction in your travels, because you know fire can be dangerous (you learned that on your recent camping trip). Through observation - the consideration of what information is available to you, compared to your previous experiences and knowledge - you deduce the course of action best for you.
Seems simple enough, but there are challenges to our observational abilities, which we hone with time, opportunity, and reflection. What are the pre-requisites to knowing the best course of action?
You need to know how to interpret the signs. If you have never had the experience of fire, or have never been encouraged or provided with the means of changing your course of direction, you may continue to march right into it. Fire may be all you know, and it’s often less scary to stay with familiar pain than unfamiliar discomfort.
Your interpretation needs to be correct. Yoga explores the faultiness of perception, and Ayurveda provides the path to maintaining sensory perception, clarity of thinking, and ease of vehicle (body) for our spirit, but we are often still wrong. Preferences, limited experience, lack of opportunity, systemic bias – all of these coalesce to cloud our vision.
The smoke over those mountains may not be fire smoke at all – it may be mist rising off the mountains. If you grew up in the desert and had never seen that kind of evaporation before, you would assume there’s fire where there isn’t. Only some smoke indicates fire!
So again, we compare the qualities and characteristics to what we know, and it’s usually time that bears out whether the assessment was accurate or not.
3. A Trusted Teacher – “Is This Fire? Can I Use the Fire This Way? What Happens if I Want to Share the Fire?” Well, It Depends…
Despite our best efforts of observation and inference, even after we’ve meditated on the fire, felt we’ve looked at it from different angles, assessed the qualities, and turned to texts that specifically address fire, we sometimes do not know what something is or how to use it.
In these instances, it’s time to turn to a trusted advisor or teacher.
Many people inhabit these roles in our lives – parents, therapists, teachers of yoga and other wisdom, legal professionals, community leaders and advocates, people of different experience and thus different knowledge – they all serve to help us to perceive what our limited senses and mind cannot.
This is not a bad thing, it is not a commentary on your/mine ineptitude – it is a wonderful aspect of the path that more of us ought to lean into: an interconnectedness of wisdom in which we can own our expertise and allow others to own theirs. While yoga philosophy certainly supports the resolution of your karma through solitary meditation for the rest of your days, most of us choose to live in community and should draw on the knowledge available.
There are also things we cannot know because they are not of our experience, but they will be of someone else’s, and we should listen to those voices.
There are things we can learn with time, but they are harmful to us when misapplied and thus we need the guidance of a teacher. Sometimes teachers share what they have and in that time of your life, that is all they have. If you find yourself disappointed in them, determine if it is them (and move on to someone of deeper experience and wisdom) or if you placed unreasonable expectations on them.
Teachers are human and thus flawed, but the good ones who deserve your trust and attention will demonstrate their commitment to their own studentship and honesty over time. Since we cannot nor will ever find a suprahuman model who will never fail in their knowledge, we can have compassion for their limitations and allow that to inspire in us compassion for our own.
An excellent teacher is one who has accepted and is honest about their limitations, and uses the tools of the practice to continue inquiry regardless and encourages you to do the same. An excellent teacher cultivates curiousity, not blind following.
When you ask them about the fire, they’ll share what they know about it, how they came to know it, what signs would indicate readiness to work with this particular kind of fire, and what to do next so as to use the transformative power of it without burning yourself down. They should teach you how to care for your senses and mind so that you can safely test the knowledge yourself.