Listening, Learning and Experience – M.S.Srinivasan

True intelligence can discern the truth in whatever it hears and from whoever it may be.

– Thiruvalluvar

An ancient Tamil poet

What is the role of experience in listening and learning from others? Many people ask this question “Are you talking from your own experience?” and feel very smart about it! Undoubtedly, in the path of learning, experience is much more important than a concept. But when you are reading something or listening to someone what is important is to listen and learn. The main question you have to ask yourself is whether the author or speaker is having a positive impact on your mind or heart and not whether he has the experience or not. Is it useful or helps you to widen the horizons of your mind… by presenting a different perspective which you have not thought of… or is he giving you a new way of thinking or feeling, or even if it not new, is it evoking a deep or noble emotion in you? If the answer is yes what does it matter if he has no experience. If the answer is no what does it matter, if he has the experience.

But to read and listen truly, which leads to learning, we must free ourselves from all preconceptions about the author or speaker and should not listen to the superficial impressions and reactions of our ego in the surface mind. The Mother of Sri Aurobindo Ashram once said about Sri Aurobindo’s writings that its inner inspiration is spiritual but the outer expression is intellectual. But some of the early critics of Sri Aurobindo’s writings and poems, misled by the outer intellectual form, regarded him as just an intellectual with no spiritual experience. Sri Aurobindo himself mentions in one of his letters about a critic of his poems who said that Sri Aurobindo’s poems were just intellectual and there was nothing religious in it.

Sir John Woodroffe’s writing on Tantra is a pioneering and original work which brings out the true spirit of this highly misunderstood spiritual tradition of India. But Woodrofffe admits humbly and frankly he didn’t have any of the tantric experiences and his writings are based on what he read and listened from tantric yogis. If we are imprisoned within some narrow and traditional conceptions of spirituality,Woodroffe’s exposition of the Tantra can awaken our minds to a broader, bolder and a more integral vision of spirituality. So, what does it matter, whether he has the experience or not? Sri Aurobindo had the full and highest experience of both Vedantha and Tantra in a transcending synthesis. But he wrote very appreciatively on Woodroffe’s work on Tantra and never mentioned about his lack of experience.

The main problem with most of us is that we tend to get trapped within fixed grooves of thought, shaped by our education or our emotional and mental likes and dislikes. For example, someone who calls himself a “practical” man thinks within a groove of narrow practicality which can not see beyond its nose. He dislikes conceptual, visionary or mystical thinking, which he dismisses as “dreamy stuff” or “just theory”. He is not aware that this kind of thinking closes his mind to deep insight into truth, foresight into the future and to the invisible and spiritual dimensions of life. The theorists and the philosophers who live in their conceptual mind make the opposite mistake. Even someone like Einstein with a balanced mind, wrote in a letter to a friend that he disliked practical things like engineering. Some of the great minds of ancient Greece like Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Euclid looked down upon the practical man as a philistine or a barbarian. When someone asked Euclid what was the practical use of all his mathematics, the great mathematician turned to his slave and said contemptuously, “Here is a beggar who wants to profit from learning and knowledge; throw him a penny and send him out”. Though there is an element of truth and nobility in this attitude, it was still prejudiced thinking, shaped by temperamental bias.

Similarly, someone with experience, inner or outer, gets imprisoned within the boundaries of his own experience and can’t think beyond his experience. This is the reason why sometimes break through insights in a field comes from people who are outsiders, who don’t have any experience in the field. For example, the concept of appropriate technology is such an insight which made positive and practical contribution to the rural development movement. But the person who invented the concept, E.F. Schumacher, is neither a technocrat nor a field worker in rural development. He was an economist.

This can happen even in the field of spirituality. A seeker or a yogi may come into inner contact with a state of consciousness which gives him a great peace, illumination, freedom and a sense of finality or absoluteness and concludes it is the highest truth and nothing else. He looks down upon the experiences of other seekers, sages or saints with a very different but equally valid inner realization as an illusion, or inferior or secondary. It is more or less the same with other type of seekers like artists or scientist. Each one regards his own ideas, experiences or way of looking as the best and the highest.

If we want to progress constantly we must listen and learn from every one and everything, but we should not cling to any ideas, feelings or experiences, either of our own or that of others. We must learn to look at ideas, view-points and experiences which are different from that of our own as not something contradictory but as complementing, and try to arrive at a synthesis.

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