Words, reality, and fish

One year when I was in high school we had a new teacher in our biology class. He was a very sweet man, and a wise one, but he had just changed careers and didn’t know much biology. Because of his lack of knowledge he had trouble managing the students. I regret to say I was the worst smart aleck in the class, and I probably caused him more grief than everybody else put together. But he hit on a clever idea. He started assigning topics to us, and we each had to teach our topic. Since I was his biggest headache, he made me the teacher for the longest time. For several weeks I taught the whole unit on botany. He was a very clever man.

I’m tempted to write his name here to honor him but he might still be alive so I won’t. If he’s still alive he’s very old. I’ll just thank him for what he taught me. It was more valuable than biology.

One day a certain girl took her turn as the teacher. Her topic was the tissues of fish. She described bone and cartilage, ectoderm and endoderm, muscle and fat. She was smart and explained things well. She talked for a long time. When she finished, another student raised a hand and asked, “Which tissue is the meat of a fish, the part we mostly eat?”

The girl didn’t know, and she was embarrassed.

You see, despite her intelligence, her lecture had been just words to her. While she was preparing her talk and making her notes, never once had she tried to connect the words to her own experience.

Her reality, the fish on her dinner plate, the thing she stuck a fork in — never once had she tried to match it up with the words she was reading in her biology textbook.

Her intelligence was useless because she kept it separate from her experience. That kind of separation works only with mathematics.

People are often like this when they read spiritual literature.

When we read spiritual literature, or any literature, we take in words and ideas. We should use the words and ideas as tools to grasp reality.

This is what spiritual teachers mean when they say, “My words are only a finger pointing at the moon.” The finger is spiritual teaching and the moon is reality. In the same way, the word muscle in the girl’s textbook was a finger pointing to the parts of the fish that she ate — but she never looked to see where the finger was pointing.

This saying about the finger and moon is true but I don’t like it because the image of the full moon floating in the night sky evokes magic and mystery, and people assume the saying is mystical and magical and that it applies only to profound spiritual matters.

Actually, this saying applies to all words and ideas, even the most ordinary ones. It’s just a plain fact that words and ideas refer to something. They have referents. They point to something. Usually it’s the something that we really care about, not the words. (The something isn’t always a thing, and that’s another problem, but let’s save that one for another day.)

For example, ‘car’. When I say, “My car is parked on 31st Street,” the word ‘car’ is a noise that travels through the air; the idea ‘car’ is a network of images and memories and associations in our heads; and the rusting lump of metal parked outside on the street is something else entirely. The word and idea are pointers to the lump of metal parked outside on the street.

The actual car, the thing parked out on the street, is the referent of the word and idea. It’s the moon.

I can climb in the lump of metal and drive to Nova Scotia, but neither the word nor idea can carry anyone a fraction of an inch.

When we read and think and try to understand, we should look past the words and ideas and try to grasp their referents.

But people, including extremely intelligent people, often fail to do that. Like the girl in my biology class, they tend to think by manipulating ideas without looking past the ideas to their referents. This often causes them to reach absurd or meaningless conclusions. It’s like racing a car engine while the transmission is in neutral. To work properly, the force generated by the engine needs to push against the road. In the same way, the ideas generated by the mind need to remain in contact with reality.

Words, ideas, and the reality they describe: It sounds simple, but people often get the three things mixed up.

When we read spiritual literature, the referents are in our own consciousness. My car is on the street, fish are in oceans and on dinner plates, but pramada and dhyana and the ‘aware state’ and samskaras and the ‘I-thought’ and nonduality are in consciousness. When we read those terms, and others like them, we need to find their referents in our own consciousness.

There are endless conversations on the Internet where people argue about whether this or that is truly nondual, or whether samskaras and vasanas are the same thing, or what is the difference between awareness and consciousness. These discussions are usually about words and ideas. For the most part, discussions like this won’t do much to help anybody get enlightened.

These ideas are useful only for helping you notice aspects of your experience. You can’t derive any truth by manipulating them with your mind. Find the referents in your actual experience. Find the moon.

17 thoughts to “Words, reality, and fish”

  1. What a striking lesson!
    I’ve read the “finger pointing at the moon” saying many times, yet I’m noticing that it’s almost inevitable to fall for this trap when reading about spiritual matters.
    Your deceptively simple example makes it most clear.
    Thank you!

  2. This post was eye opening.

    The problem here is that “awareness/consciousness” not only are not “concrete objects” like a car, but I think they are neither “objects” at all. E.g., can they exist in a subject-object relationship to us (subjects) like a thought, a thing, or an emotion can?
    That is, even if I try and look beyond the “concept” to “awareness”, how can I “find” it?



    1. I agree with you that we can’t know awareness the same way we know objects, and therefore the question “How can I find awareness ?” is extremely important. In fact it’s much more important than anything in this article. I’ll return to this question in a minute.

      But first let me say that I think the article applies to awareness as well as objects. Basically the article says that people confuse thoughts with reality, and that instead of doing this, they should use thoughts as tools to help grasp reality. Those two points are as true of awareness as they are of objects. In case that’s not evident, briefly, point 1 is the same as the Advaitin idea of avidya, of the ego superimposed on Brahman, and point 2 is what you and I are doing now with these comments.

      Back to your question, “How do I find awareness?”

      If you mean, how can I notice it for the first time, the best answer I know is to make the discovery that nearly all the time, in a certain sense, we are unconscious. We only make that amazing discovery by contrast, when we notice a heightened state of awareness that we can compare to our ordinary state, so the discovery that we are normally unconscious is simultaneously the recognition of awareness in a purer form.

      This site contains at least two articles with techniques for making that discovery (the names of the articles are misleading):

      How to Stop Thoughts

      How to Stay Conscious 2

      If you mean, how can I have an experience of awareness in its pure form, without objects, I’ll refer you to Annamalai Swami’s remark: “When the rejection of mental activities becomes continuous and automatic, you will begin to have the experience of the Self” which is quoted somewhere on this site.

      The rejection of mental activities can’t become continuous and automatic until “bad” vasanas, the ones that pull us into the lost-in-thought state, are destroyed. In my experience, the destruction of vasanas involves deep emotions, deep personal issues like the ones that people deal with in psychotherapy, and it’s nothing at all like we read about in the dry emotionless pages of traditional teachings. I don’t know of any writings I can refer you to for information about this. I might write an article about it in the next few days.

      You might want to look at Franklin Merrell-Wolff’s description of how he focused on what he called the “Atman moment” or “subjective moment.” He described it many times including in his book “Philosophy of Consciousness Without an Object.” He used his attention in a very specific way, which he tries to describe, and immediately got an intense direct experience of the Self. That section of his book is reprinted here on realization.org.

      1. Hello Freddie, this is Riccardo – the “anonymous” from above. I forgot to put my name in.

        I did re-read Frankin Merrell-Wolff’s description plus I reread your previous articles.
        I think that for me, the first step would be to become aware of “awareness/consciousness”. Staying conscious, I guess, comes after, does it?
        I have tried many times the followings two methods:
        1)let go of every object in perception (both internal and external ones): that is, I try to stop the subject-object relationship, or in other words, I try to stop getting involved with thoughts.
        2)I try to actively become aware of a subtle object which I think to be my awareness.
        Method “one” doesn’t work because it’s an eternal regression, it’s like there always is some other object I need to let go of. I feel that since there is no “home” I don’t really have “anywhere” to go back to as I let go of objects, so I am in a constant loop of letting go of objects over and over, and over.
        Method “two” obviously doesn’t help as, as Franklin Merrel-Wolff noted, any subtle object still is an object.
        I also tried to notice my “heightened awareness” as you suggest, but when I notice it, I make it an object, so I go back to “method 2”.

        My doubt is that to really make it with method 1 I would need to already be aware of awareness to be able to retreat to it as I let go of objects. That is, I am not fully sure if “awareness” is simply “buried” below thoughts. To make it with method 2, I’d need to not really care for any object at all, so where to move my attention?

        It’s like in your post, when you said (in my words) “how can one neither move towards, nor away from thoughts? The answer is to rest AS yourself”. How can I come back TO myself, if this MYSELF is nowhere to be found?

        Sorry for the long answer, I know that I just need to keep trying and failing till I’ll see this through, but maybe you can spot some errors in my methods and reasoning.



        1. Hi Riccardo,

          I knew it was you because WordPress shows me people’s email addresses. 🙂

          You say the methods “didn’t work”. What is your idea of “working”? What are you expecting?

          Maybe the problem is that you are expecting something that doesn’t ever happen?

          I think maybe you’re expecting your mind to grasp awareness and when that doesn’t happen you say it doesn’t work.

          The mind can’t ever grasp awareness.

          I think that for me, the first step would be to become aware of “awareness/consciousness”

          You can’t become aware of it in the usual sense of “aware of”. That’s what people mean when they say you can’t grasp it as an object. All that can happen is that there can BE awareness. If you know it’s getting heightened, that’s as much as your mind can do with it, because it’s not the kind of thing your mind can manipulate. What can happen from here is that awareness gets more and more evident, and it can become your default state, the place you normally operate them. It can become habitual. At that point the process will be out of your hands.

          I’d like to point out that basically, all sadhanas can be divided into two categories.

          1. We can try to see something we haven’t seen yet, that somebody told us about.

          2. We can look at what we actually see.

          I think the second approach is much better. The first one forces us to use imagination, and then we’re off to the races on the mental pony, whether we intend it that way or not.

          I also tried to notice my “heightened awareness” as you suggest, but when I notice it, I make it an object, so I go back to “method 2”.

          If you are really entering a state of heightened awareness, as soon as you try to use the mind, the heightened awareness will disappear. Is that happening?

          I’ll assume it’s happening. If it’s happening, then you’ve really noticed heightened awareness. That’s awareness. You’ve noticed it. Awareness is what got heightened. The heightening was the “seeing” of it. It’s not an object. Right now it feels like a state. Do that as much as you can. Let it be as strong as possible. Get accustomed to it. Get acclimated to it. At this stage it feels like a state you put yourself into occasionally. Don’t worry whether it feels like “me”. Just be that way as much as you can.

          You say that when you “notice” it, it becomes an object. It can only become an object for the mind and the mind can’t ever grasp awareness. This tells me that your “noticing” is something you’re doing with your mind, and it tells me you’re trying to “see” awareness with the mind. This doesn’t work because it can’t ever work. The mind can’t “see” awareness. That project is impossible. It’s like attempting to photograph an odor with a lie detector.

          I feel that since there is no “home” I don’t really have “anywhere” to go back to as I let go of objects, so I am in a constant loop of letting go of objects over and over, and over.

          Everything in that sentence is mental activity. “I” is the mind, “anywhere” is the mind, “let go” is the mind, “objects” are the mind, “loop” is the mind. Awareness has nothing to do with mental activity. It’s a different kind of thing. It isn’t any deeper or more complicated or more advanced. It’s just different, it’s something else. If you noticed it getting heightened, it’s what got heightened. That’s it.

          That is, I am not fully sure if “awareness” is simply “buried” below thoughts.

          It’s not in any direction from thoughts. YOU CANNOT FIND AWARENESS IN RELATION TO THOUGHTS. Awareness is another kind of thing and you’re directly aware of it in a different way that has nothing to do with thoughts. If you noticed it getting heightened, then you noticed it. Your mind is dissatisfied with that way of noticing. Fuck your mind. Forget your mind. Don’t listen to anything it says. Just be aware.

          I’d need to not really care for any object at all, so where to move my attention?

          You attention is the mind. Stop using your mind. Use the other faculty that knows awareness is heightened.

          Your mind cannot know anything about awareness. If your mind tries to know about it, at this stage, you’ll probably loose the heightened awareness.

          How can I come back TO myself, if this MYSELF is nowhere to be found?

          The “myself” in that advice, when I wrote it, was the individual I, the feeling of “me.” It’s not the same thing as awareness. This is why Ramana says, “The Self is the place where there is not the slightest trace of I,” and why Buddha said there is no self.

          Staying conscious, I guess, comes after, does it?

          For most people, long after. Staying permanently conscious is Self-realization.

          1. Freddie,

            thanks for your quick and detailed reply.

            I won’t add anything else, and will explore this, as you pointed it out.
            I think I have glimpsed at awareness already, but as you say, I discarded it as uninteresting.

            Will get back to you with more experience under my belt.

            Thanks again


          2. It’s completely uninteresting to the mind because it’s not an object. “Not an object” means “the mind can’t look at it.” The mind can only look at objects. For the mind, awareness is as interesting as static on the screen of a broken TV.

            1. now that you put it this way, I think I have already glimpsed at the aware state. It feels very normal.

              I try to keep it while, for instance, writing now, but it is quite hard to keep conscious while doing complex tasks. Do you just keep it and let the mind/body work on their own, or you split attention?



          3. Grats! Yes, it’s very normal. It’s a taste of the “natural state”, sahaja samadhi, and what could be more normal than the natural state? Yes it’s hard to hold onto it while you do certain things, and yes, it’s helpful to try to hold onto it as much as you can, while you do various things, because you want to become habituated to it, you want to make it your default state, you want to feel like “this is how I am normally, this is how I am willing to be all the time and how I choose to be all the time.” But the main path forward from here, assuming you want Self-realization, is to let go of “I”. That letting go involves two main factors, the feeling of “I” and consciousness. This is what Ramana means when he says keep the mind (the feeling of I) sunk in the heart (awareness). Thoughts and activities aren’t immediate factors in that process. But that path forward is a little complicated, because in order to get to the end of it, all the bad vasanas (the ones that drag you into the lost-in-thought state) have to be destroyed, and the mind plays a role in that destruction process. And along the way, the heart is also involved, love, God …. it’s a very rich and surprising process.

            1. Just, wow.
              I feel a bit overwhelmed to be honest.
              I have tried in the past to let go of “I” (that is, by “dropping it” or taking my attention away from it). Once, when I did, I felt a space that somehow was different from the glimpse of awareness that we are speaking of now: it was more like a background space which was not fully distinguishable from myself and which I realized to be there ALSO as thoughts came back, for a while.
              The “aware state” I am instead referencing to is more like the feeling of heightened attention that happens when one realizes that he was lost in thoughts (like you say in your main article).
              So, the two feel different. I thought that the two processes should bring about the same result, even if they feel different, do they? Or not?
              I also thought (again, need to practice further) that by making awareness permanent I would need not to let go of I, as it would happen by itself.

          4. There are many different states and experiences beyond the ordinary functioning of the mind.

            The quality of the “aware state” that I’m trying to point out is the fact that “I KNOW.” It’s that quality that matters, not the details of the state. The reason awareness is heightened — I’m on dangerous ground now, because it will sound like I’m asking you to analyze and I’m not — I’m only asking you to notice — notice that the reason you feel more aware is not because of attention. It’s because “I KNOW.” Actually it’s not really “I know”. It’s just “know.” “I” has nothing to do with it. There is knowledge. Period. You don’t know anything in particular, and there’s no particular knower … in fact you don’t know anything — there is simply knowledge in that state. That’s Consciousness.

            That Consciousness is a sort of solvent. It has the power to dissolve things including the ego. Including vasanas. Including everything.

            1. Ok thank you
              I will keep trying both things (at different times)

              A)noticing and keeping the aware state
              B)see if I can explore again the “background” space which I described

              What do you think?

          5. I think that’s a good idea. I did the same thing for a long time when I wasn’t sure which of two states I should pursue.

            I also suggest that from time to time, try to merge them or try to merge whatever they develop into.

            1. Ok thank you Freddie

              There are yet other “states/things” that I noticed in meditation, such as:
              a)the feeling of “me”
              b)some other kind of feeling of “something” who’s looking out of my eyes. In this last case, it was more like I felt that “I” was still the subject but in the reality the flow of perception was originating from something that in a way was “other than me” but still belonged to me, and I felt like “I” was in like standing in the flow of perception of this “thing”.

              Hope it all makes sense

              I will try to dedicate separate precise times to all of these and also one for “open enquiry” in what is at the moment in my consciousness, to avoid confusing them

          6. Yeah, it makes sense. There are many different subtle experiences or “things” in this realm. I think your plan sounds good. Please keep me posted. I’d like to hear how things go for you. You can always email me.

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