About Knowing and Insight

by David McKay edited by O Society August 11, 2019

Q: A friend says she believes meditation is a form of escape. Therefore, my question to you is: How do we know if we are transcending/ going beyond the egoic state OR if instead we are simply escaping from it? What does transcendence look and feel like to you, so I might know the difference?

A: Before we can directly answer a question like this, we need to look into this thing we call “knowing.” The sort of “knowing” most people refer to when they use this word does not apply to the place I call “transcendent.”

For example, I often am asked how one can know they are at Center. The answer is, you can’t. The reason is “knowing” in the sense of understanding something conceptually requires a subject and an object, while at Center there is no subject and object: there is just being in awareness. In other words, “knowing” requires a someone to know, and there is nobody there –no separate somebody anyway– at Center.


The other difficulty is the division is artificial. In order to look into the nature of things, we need to divide them up, but our divisions are always arbitrary and do not result in real separate entities. When I make the distinction between purely human experience and transcendent experience, I do this in order to look into the nature of experience, but the experience I made into two is not really two–it’s still one.

The purely human experience lives within and is not separate from the transcendent experience–these are facets of the same thing. As the old Buddhist saying goes, “Samsara and Nirvana are the same” (Samsara is the conditioned state; Nirvana is the awakened state). In order to “know,” we need separate categories to compare and contrast, but Life as it is cannot truly be divided in this way. And so, there’s no way to truly “know” anything about it.


Luckily, it isn’t necessary to “know” anything in order to experience life beyond the limitations of ego. Our capacity for subjective insight serves us perfectly well instead. Insight is completely different from “knowing.”

“Knowing” is constructed out of concepts and employs language. Insight is without definition and appears instantaneously, without logical progression. Here is a different way of understanding, where we can “see” what is so, without comparison, contrast, or description. Insight just drops into the mind out of the blue, and for a moment we understand–we see, but we do not “know.”


And so (to finally get around to your question), what do I/we experience in and out of center? What do we see from a place of insight?

When I am out of Center I feel cramped, confused, resistant, weak, and unhappy in a hundred different ways. I will also tend to act selfishly, to complain, to play the victim, to lash out, and other harmful things.

When I am at Center I feel relaxed, expansive, accepting, loving, generous, and kind. At Center I tend to act magnanimously, to be unattached to outcomes, and to laugh.

Pretty simple in some ways, and not difficult to see if one is looking. The complexity comes from the fact we can be at Center while experiencing conditioned mind. I can be present with conditioned mind as it arises, and holding conditioned mind in awareness and a state of peace.

Here is where the two become one: at the same time I might be experiencing loneliness, disappointment, frustration, or any other conditioned thing, as well as clarity and compassion in relationship to this state. Amazing such a thing is possible, don’t you think?

As your question implies, there is no escape from the egoistic state other than through being and awareness. People often will hide from ego in another part of ego –this is immensely popular, as when someone binge watches TV in order to escape from disappointment– but this is not a true escape. It can be tricky to tell the difference, however, because things get subtle when it’s all internal.

The best way to see the difference is to pay attention over time. If what you’re doing is avoiding, it may feel good in the short-term but will inevitably end in a train-wreck of some sort. If you’re moving to Center, it may feel uncomfortable in the short term as you let go of whatever ego latched on to, but the long-term feeling will be joy and relief.


Meditation could be used to escape and to avoid dealing with other things –as everything else can– but this takes more skill than most people have. You have to have a strong focus and a developed ability to choose where to put your attention in order to use meditation to avoid things, and these are difficult things to acquire. As a matter of fact, I think it would be a great exercise for a person to see if they can get to a point where they can use meditation in this way.

In general, meditation promotes the opposite of avoidance and escape because it forces us to sit still and be with what’s here, rather than running away from it. It’s difficult to escape from things that need to be attended to when you’re just sitting there, breathing in and breathing out, without distraction.

I hope this is helpful. Let me know if I’ve missed the mark in any way.

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