when do we "know"? how we go from learning to understanding

Updated: Apr 24, 2018

I had a realization that whenever we are expanding our awareness or are evolving, we first understand something intellectually before we understand it viscerally or from a place of “knowing”. Whether I was learning a new aerobics dance routine or I was “getting” vibration management in learning the Law of Attraction, the process was the same. There is almost a hyper-self-consciousness in the beginning as you are trying so hard to learn what you are being taught. Okay, cool, I got that. The head gets it; the body takes a little longer. It takes longer to get to that place of knowing without thinking.

I started to notice when I stopped thinking about something and it just became a part of me. It was second nature. I never knew there was an actual description of this integration process until I happened upon an issue of Yoga Journal where they explained this exact concept in Sanskrit terminology.

In the Yoga Sutra I.17 it states: “In order to reach a state of complete understanding, we must go through a process that progresses from a superficial understanding to increasingly greater refinement and subtlety of comprehension, until our understanding becomes fully integrated and total.”

This is exactly what I have noticed myself and is perfectly described; “increasingly greater refinement and subtly”. We have to go through certain stages of understanding, which is easy to grasp when applied to a practical skill such as learning to play an instrument or learning a dance routine. The very beginning level is called vitarka. You are very self-conscious and clumsy and make many mistakes. This is the level where many people just assume they can’t do it or are bad at something. If you do continue and practice, you progress to a refined level of understanding called vicara. Your playing becomes smoother; your dance steps flow more easily and may even get into a rhythm since you are becoming more and more comfortable. As you continue to practice you will come to a place where you are actually enjoying what you are doing. This is called ananda. You become so happy with the results of your efforts that all you want to do is do more and more of that thing. With continued effort and practice, over time the music playing or dance steps become so ingrained, which is called asmitarupa, that you are able to play complicated pieces of music or perform complicated dance routines by heart or even have a conversation at the same time while dancing or playing almost absent-mindedly. Eventually with enough dedication and continued practice you will progress to a level of understanding and knowledge so deeply engrained that it can almost feels like a part of you. This is called samprajnatah.

The important thing to remember about this is that it is not a direct, linear process where you progress from one stage to another. Sometimes it may seem like two steps forward and one step back. It can appear as a flash of clarity followed by a period of doubt. Then you can bounce back into clarity and feel as if you finally “got it”. The cycle can continue for quite some time as you progress from one stage to another. As you become more aware and become more conscious of your habits, you will start to notice how you are responding to different situations. In the past you may have reacted with stress by hearing some news where things turned out differently than expected and now you remain calm as you consider alternatives.

Or you are secretly celebrating how far you have come in your spiritual development only to find yourself cursing that it just doesn’t work for you when things are not happening fast enough. You may find old habits creeping back such as self-sabotaging behavior of blaming external circumstances.

The main teaching here is to be patient with yourself and the process. An important lesson in the Yoga Sutra 1.17 that can be applied to almost every area of one’s life is that mastery of anything does not come instantly. There are times when we can get caught up in the results and if we don’t master something immediately we feel we have failed as opposed to letting the process evolve at it’s natural course. A helpful thing to do at times like these is to remind yourself of other valuable skills you have and what success you are experiencing in your life.

While many of us can think of an example in our past of learning something new whether it be learning to play the piano, learning a new sport or memorizing a new dance routine, but how many of us are conscious of our spiritual knowing? When do we know when we really understand what we are being taught? The barometer does not exist as it does for finally getting the perfect tennis serve. In my personal experience the knowing is something that can be seen in the moment if we are truly present but most of the time happens at first in hindsight. We look back on how we handled a particular situation and realized we didn’t react the way we would have in the past. When we are truly present, we can feel that knowing because it has become who we are and is now second nature. We no longer need to be hyper-aware of where our thoughts are presently and if we need to reign them in and remind ourselves of where we want to be focusing. They go there on their own.

There are two situations in my own life that I have experienced this. The first was when I was first learning Astanga Yoga about 20 years ago. I was accustomed to working out regularly and fairly strenuously at the time so it was not so much the physical challenge of it but of observing what my body would and would not do at the different stages as well as my thoughts about it. In the beginning I remember being bored, frustrated and a bit scared as some of the asanas (poses) required balance and getting myself into some physically uncomfortable positions. I was determined. Each time it got easier and easier. A little tweak here and there by my highly skilled teachers and all of the sudden, I knew when I got it. I would come to practice and it would all fall into place without me even trying. Get centered, get quiet, start breathing and it all knew what came next. The amazing thing was that when I didn’t practice for a few years and then took a class, my body remembered exactly what the posture was supposed to feel like (even if I was too tight to fully get into the pose). That was a great feeling.

The most recent awareness of this process for me was in the subtle energy shifting in managing my vibration as I became more fluent in the Law of Attraction. I can remember first hearing about the concept in the movie The Secret which in turn created an almost insatiable desire to learn all I could about it. It seemed magical and who wouldn’t want to learn more about how we can deliberately create all we wanted in life? It was basically what I was searching for my entire life only I didn’t know that was what I was looking for.

I had always been interested in the mind/body connection and knew about placebos and the power of beliefs, but I had never really understood the concept that choosing what we focus on and what we think about actually creates not only what we want for the future but what we experience in each moment of life. In the early stages of my learning, I got it intellectually. There was nothing about it that I didn’t believe and it all made sense to me. What took a lot longer, about 2 years longer, was to get it viscerally. To see in that red-hot moment how I could manage my vibration depending on how I thought about what was happening or even better, how I could intend how I wanted an outcome to be. The shifts happened very subtly, as described in the yoga sutras. It started with being able to manage fear in the moment and progressed by passing through the steps I would take and can now shift my vibe in a matter of seconds. The astounding thing is that it now happens automatically and is not something I have to try to do or follow a particular sequence. A big part of this awareness is setting my intention at the beginning of each day of who I AM. Who I am choosing to be. I choose to be peaceful, I choose to be calm, I choose to be compassionate, etc. Then, without my even consciously doing so, I remember how I am feeling and the vibration I am sending out is the most important act of self love I can give myself. I know all this stuff, I’ve known it for years, but now this knowing has become who I am and it just keeps getting better.

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