The awakening of the Mind, which means to really free our mind of its forced slavery to our senses and its years of mental conditioning, is the central task of all of mankind. It is not “spiritual” if, by that word, you mean something special, elite, supernatural, etc. The mind is common to all of us. Its problems are all of our problems, and the inner strife of one mind reflects the collective strife of all minds against eachother, this, of course, being the cause of all wars, conflicts, and other issues surrounding us on all sides at all times. This awakening is only spiritual if we consider that humans are essentially spiritual or incorporeal beings and if by training and refining the mind we can actually come to know ourselves as such beings.
To approach this subject matter, we must tread on sacred land, the land of the philosophers and mystics who came before us, and the way in which we tread on this land is different than the way you are used to walking. So often in life, we simply walk how we are told to walk, go where we are told to go, and follow blindly whatever map may be given us to follow. We walk through life with our eyes cast down, staring at our feet, unworried about where we are going, simply following the movements and sound of the feet around us. As a child we still had some of that innate freedom that is inherent to the pure mind, convinced that the only way to learn is to experience directly, no matter who says what, and with no fear, at that! What courage a young mind has! All such aspiring philosophers should look to children for guidance on this important matter, at least at first. Watch how they always ask “why?,” and how most adults cannot satisfactorily answer even two or three “why?”s in a row! Watch how they always try to learn by direct experience, by direct understanding, instead of simply by memorization and conformity. This kind of fearless direct inquiry is the very beating heart of philosophy! This is the way we must walk on such sacred land as we now approach. We must walk like a child: fearless and full of wonder, our only desire being to learn, to know, by direct experience. By returning to this childlike state, we can begin to mature fully again into an authentic person: a free person whose mind has been refined and empowered by learning how to think, and not what to think.
You will also have to learn to listen and read differently, as well. Years of public education have convinced you that the only purpose of reading is to remember facts about what you read. This is the utter antithesis of philosophy and actual free-thinking. This manner of reading is excellent if you only want to know what is in someone else’s mind, but it will never lead you to the nature of your own mind. When studying philosophy, whether by listening or reading, you must learn how to follow along with what is being said with yourself — to actually try to see for yourself what is being pointed to. Studying philosophy is not a mere act of scholarly memorization. It is an active pursuit of wisdom, a constant contemplative act to try to see and directly witness for yourself the truth of reality. That we should call the approach to truth by the name “philosophy,” and the actually free-thinker a philosopher, should be no wonder to you if we consider that only such a mind is fit to receive that special kind of knowledge called Wisdom, and that the sheer effort it takes to free the mind of its slavery to the world could only be accomplished by one who has truly fallen in love with Truth and wants it at all costs. Such a person is a lover of wisdom — a philosopher — and the science which frees the mind of its bonds and grants to it the original freedom and insight it was destined for is nothing other than the science of philosophy.
Socrates has declared that the unexamined life is not worth living, and with this statement has shown us where to begin with our inquiry into our own nature. By turning our attention to our life and really, truly examining it, we can begin to learn something about that which is living our life. Many people will go throughout life without ever truly examining why they do what they do, why they have the beliefs that they have, or why they have really made the decisions in life that they have made. As such, this kind of unexamined life is almost a subconscious life, as opposed to an aware and vivid life. The moment we begin to ask ourselves “why?,” the entire edifice of our beliefs and opinions begin to fall apart and gradually give rise to truth. Opinions, beliefs, doctrines, dogmas: all such things are only necessary for those who lack the ability to really examine life for themselves.
The first task of the philosopher is to turn the mind towards these opinions and beliefs and begin dismantling them. This process is begun rather simply; we need only ask each opinion and belief where it came from and why we adopted it. If we can thoroughly accomplish this intense examination of our own thoughts and values, then we will immediately begin to learn something rather frightening: that we have hardly had an original thought our entire life. Every time we take a hold of one of these beliefs or opinions and look it straight in the face to ask it where it came from, it will almost always reply that it came from someone other than yourself. Perhaps it came from your parents, childhood friend, schoolteachers, role-models, siblings, television, a book – from so many places – but never from your own intellect. Such ideas, which you were conditioned to accept throughout your life, and are nothing other than your own mental conditioning, obstruct the very pursuit of authentic knowledge in the path of philosophy. Before you can learn to truly witness and know for yourself the truth of life, of death, of who you are, you must first purify your mind of all of the answers to these problems which others have told you, which you have been conditioned to believe. This is the real purification of the mysteries. This is the actual preparation of the candidate for initiation into the divine. We must approach the truth with a pure and unconditioned intellect. It is you yourself who must witness the divine reality. No one else can do it for you. You alone must live your life; you alone must suffer the trials of death; and you alone are the only one capable of giving yourself knowledge of the eternal. Therefore, your first task is to shake off from your mind all the outside influences and voices telling you how to live, why to live, what your purpose is, who you are, and what is true. Even the words of the present writer should only be accepted if they stimulate and lead the mind towards contemplation of the truth, instead of accepting them out of mere familiarity or fondness for the writer.
It will help in this process of mental purification if we have some kind of test, some method, to investigate our own beliefs and ideas. For this, we can look to the ancient philosopher Plato, whose writings are excellent in teaching the mind how to think critically and reflect upon itself. He has pointed out in his dialogue “The Alcibiades” that we can really only be in one of three different situations as far as knowledge is concerned. Either we actually know something, or we don’t know something, or we don’t know that we don’t know something. The first of these is authentic knowledge. This means that we actually know what is true about something, as far as a human can know such a thing, which will mean that we actually learned that truth at some point. This is Plato’s main litmus test for authenticating knowledge; if we really know something, then it means we must have learned it, and if we learned it, then there must have been a time we didn’t know it (before we learned it), followed by a time we did know it (after we learned it). There are only two avenues by which such knowledge can come: either by learning from someone else who was knowledgeable, or by our own direct investigation. The subject matter of most sciences and worldly knowledge will be learned from someone who is knowledgeable in the science already, with such knowledge occasionally being added to by direct investigation. The subject matter of philosophy, being the study of truth and metaphysics, will mostly have to be learned the second way (via direct investigation), while occasionally receiving some guidance and pointing out from those who have experienced some of the philosophic truths themselves.
It follows from this that, if we think we know something, but we can’t figure out where we learned it or remember a time that we didn’t already have that belief, then we probably don’t know it. Likewise, even if we remember where we learned something, but the source of the knowledge was not a good source for that knowledge, and may not have known it itself, then, again, it follows that we probably don’t know what we think we know. This problem of “not knowing that we don’t know” is the cause of almost all of the world’s problems. To illustrate this, let us imagine that you have bought a horse. If you know how to take care of a horse, then your horse will do well and develop into a good horse. If you don’t know how to take care of a horse, then you will hire someone who does, and the horse will be well cared for and develop into a good horse. Now comes the chief problem: if you don’t know that you don’t know how to take care of a horse, meaning you think you do without having any good reason for thinking you do, then the horse will begin to suffer and develop into a bad horse. It is this last scenario that illustrates real ignorance. If you know that you know something, that is one kind of knowledge. If you know that you don’t know something, that again is a kind of knowledge. But when you are ignorant of even your own ignorance, this alone is real ignorance. When we act out of real ignorance towards something, we will naturally destroy that thing, whether we mean to or not, regardless of what our intentions were. When we know what something is, we likewise know what is good for it and bad for it. When we are truly ignorant of something, we are unable to determine the good and the bad for that thing.
Let us look to another example to further illustrate the point. There is an action called “eating,” and, like all actions, there will be a kind of knowledge or science that allows us to perform this action well. Now, in this example, we call this “science of eating” by the name of dietetics. Someone who actually knows what a good diet is for the body will likewise be able to eat well, the result being that the body will be in a state we call “healthy.” Someone who knows that they don’t know how to eat well will ideally find someone who does know how to eat well and learn from them. However, as the rampant diseases of the modern world show, many people are completely ignorant about how to eat, so they gradually destroy their body through a bad diet. With this and any number of other examples, it can be easily shown that knowledge alone allows us to act well, and that ignorant action will almost always result in the harm and destruction of what we acted upon.
This theory of knowledge and ignorance provides a good foundation for inquiry into our lives. As we examine ourselves, we will find hiding behind every corner of our mind a vast stockpile of double ignorance. We will find ourselves to be ignorant of some of the most important matters, while knowledgeable of some of the least important. We will find that while we are completely ignorant of what life is, we may be very knowledgeable in how to tie our shoes, wear a tie, drive a car, cook a hamburger, sell a house, and so on. The problem with this situation (which we all find ourselves in) is that none of the things we are actually knowledgeable in equip us to live a happy, peaceful, meaningful existence. This should be apparent to anyone. The rich have shown that no amount of success and money solves this problem of existence, and the poor have shown that no amount of poverty does so either. Furthermore, the educated have shown that no amount of scientific knowledge will help us with this problem, for, despite all the advancements of modern science, humanity is still suffering just as much as before, with just as many conflicts, wars, and diseases as have plagued us for all time. This is because, despite all of our knowledge, we are still fundamentally ignorant of who we are. We have learned a great deal about what we can do, but are still in the dark ages as far as self-knowledge is concerned.
It should be obvious by now, having read thus far, that if being ignorant of health produces bad health, being ignorant of music produces bad music, and so on, then being ignorant of what it is to live will produce a difficult life. Our main difficulty with learning what life is, and how to live well, is that we are ignorant of both the subject and the object. In other words, we are ignorant about what life really is and ignorant of who it is that is living. Then, we have to ask ourselves first, “Who is it that is living this thing called life?”. As an eyeball is what sees, and a good eyeball sees well, and as a body is that which moves, and a good body moves well, what, then, is it that lives, that, when it is good, lives well? It is not the job of the writer to provide you an answer to that question. If he were to do so, he would be teaching you what to think instead of how to think, thus contributing even further to ignorance and suffering. It is up to you to look this question (and other questions like it) directly in the face and boldly, courageously, investigate it. I say “courageously” because the path of self-knowledge is filled with fear. One of the reasons so many people have avoided these essential questions is because, deep down, they are afraid of what the answers might mean for them. In order to overcome this fear, we must purify our minds from ignorance, and move from there to that first kind of knowledge we mentioned earlier: to know that we don’t know. Right now, so many people feel safe by telling themselves that they know what life is and how to live it. Because of this ignorance, not only do they suffer, but they also make the people around them suffer, as well. The first great purification of the mind is to really, truly, authentically admit, “I don’t know.” This is the first great trial of the path of philosophy. Only when we have finally proven to ourselves that we are ignorant of our own nature, and therefore ignorant of what is good for us, can we then begin the path of self-knowledge. For this reason, Socrates famously said, “All I know is that I don’t know.” This is the state of the real philosopher in their solemn approach towards the truth.