- Clear or deep perception of a situation
- A feeling of understanding
- The clear (and often sudden) understanding of a complex situation
- Grasping the inner nature of things intuitively
Insight is often talked about as being a sixth sense that some people possess, and it is true that most people do not possess much insight into their everyday lives, let alone the “inner nature of things.”
Until recently, I would have said that I possessed between zero, and half a percent insight.
I carried on my daily struggle in life, never paying my bills on time, drinking too much, getting involved in unhealthy relationships, borrowing money left, right, and centre, and generally making a nuisance of myself to my parents, who thought I had definitely lost the plot! I was a walking disaster, although I had a nice personality, and could make people laugh.
I couldn’t see anything wrong with my life. I was intelligent, had the ability to get good jobs (although usually ended up being fired for quarrelling with the bosses), and always had attractive girlfriends. My life rolled along fairly hectically, but I liked the “buzz” I got from constantly changing situations and moving house and job. Insight was not a word I knew. I couldn’t see what was going to happen in the next 24 hours, let alone understanding what life was about.
It all changed when I upped and left my highly paid contracting job in information technology, to go and travel in australia – although several years passed before I got my first insight. It was not a religious experience; simply that my australian girlfriend told me that flicking your cigarette butts on the street, “not only caused litter, but was harmful to the environment, as they took so long to break down.” I remember the moment so clearly.
I was standing at a crossroads in sydney. Suddenly I got a flash of insight; the first ever!
“Yes,” I thought, “it does cause litter, and someone has to pick it up. That’s not good. I don’t want to do something that harms the environment, after all, my girlfriend seems pretty smart, and she wouldn’t tell me to stop doing something if it wasn’t important.” So
I never flicked my cigarette butts on the floor again (not that it stopped me smoking you understand), and I was quick to point out the same thing to anyone else I saw doing it!
So what was different here? Maybe I was just repeating what I had heard, and wanted to impress my girlfriend, but insight is not like that. Many people who have experienced it will tell you the same – it comes to you in a flash, and stays with you always.
As I stood on the pavement, it was as if my mind had been asleep for a long time, and suddenly starting working again of its own accord. It felt like the wheels had started moving, and now there was no turning back.
My girlfriend had been a vegetarian for ten years when I met her, and I was a confirmed meat eater. I didn’t know any different, and I kept eating meat for nearly a year after I met her. She never tried to convert me; and in fact, when I told her about stopping eating meat, she said “Oh no, you’re not becoming a vegetarian are you?”
I remember the day I decided to stop. It was whilst we were working in a little pub in the english countryside, busy preparing the roasts for the sunday lunch. As I was cutting through the beef, the blood was pouring out all over the work surface, and suddenly I couldn’t help thinking “This used to be an animal, this lump of flesh. An animal who walked the earth just as I do now;” and here was I cutting up the remains of its body, with my hands soaked in its blood. I couldn’t believe I was standing there with a knife in my hand sprinkling herbs onto its remains!
In that instant, I decided to stop eating meat.
I have never touched it since, and it amazes me to still see people eating it greedily at the table, tearing it apart and dipping it in a nice sauce. That is the power of insight.
I then tried to convince people it was wrong – that Man shouldn’t eat meat, and I got angry about the whole thing every time friends who weren’t vegetarian came round.
After a while, I think they stopped looking forward to coming round for dinner! The more I looked around me, the more insight I got into the nature of the world, and how they were connected. Always in a flash. Never thought about, mulled over, or explained.
But soon, I realised something important. Here was I, someone who had gained some insight into the world as it is, trying to convince people of things about which they had no insight into. To them, I just seemed like a bit of a nut; an extremist, or just an annoyance. Why couldn’t I just get on with life instead of trying to convince them of things?
And then I saw it. These people were me, several years ago. If someone had tried to tell me that eating meat was not compassionate and loving, I would have laughed, or said something like, “piss off and leave me alone,” thinking “What a nut!”
Do you understand? Insight cannot be taught or passed on. It only exists in the person who has it. To everyone who is asleep, it just seems like crazy talk. It has taken me until right now to realise this; now I can understand why everyone thought I was annoying, or mad, or maybe both.
We humans do not like to be told what to do, or why things are right or wrong, we want to make our own minds up about things.
Unfortunately, without real insight, all our opinions are just based on our conditioning, and our learning – what our parents, our tradition, our religious leaders have told us. We don’t want to hear about people who have “found another way,” or even “found god,” if we don’t believe in it ourselves or haven’t experienced it.
A religious experience?
There is one thing true of all drug and alcohol addicts, and that is, they like their “stuff.” They go out of their way to make sure they get a regular supply of it at all times, whatever the cost to their relationships and health. Some people carry on like this their whole lives, whereas some go into therapy, and detox and struggle to stay clean. But the people I want to discuss with you here are those who magically found god, and stopped taking drugs or drowning themselves in liquor every night. We have to go into this carefully together, so we will take our time.
In the stories that have been related to me, or from personal accounts, people either saw a beam of light, or a flash of light, which they immediately attribute to god; so why don’t we ask him about it, maybe he can help us solve it!
Me: Hi god. Sorry, I don’t know what else to call you. What’s with these religious experiences where people suddenly see the error of their ways. Have they found you?
God: Who am I?
Me: You are god, the all powerful, the creator of all things.
God: You say.
Me: Well… Anyway, are you the flash of light that people see when they get this insight into themselves?
God: Why do you think they see me?
Me: Because they say that they see you.
God: Who am I?
Me: Sorry, I don’t quite get it. You are you.
Me: But that doesn’t answer my question. I want to know if people are having a religious experience when they see the light.
God: They can call it whatever they want to.
Me: But is there a light?
God: I don’t know, I can’t see into their minds.
Me: But you are god.
God: So you keep saying.
Me: Ok, I give up. People say they have an experience, which they attribute to you, but you are saying that it has nothing to do with you. That it is in their mind.
God: I didn’t say that. What I said was, people will see whatever they want to see, and they may attribute it to god, but if that is what it takes for them to see the path, then so be it.
Me: So it is a religious experience?
God: Your words, not mine.
Me: Ok, so they get a flash of insight into themselves, they wake up and start to lead a good life, they cannot believe it came from themselves, so they attribute it to god, who after all cannot be questioned on this, because god is a supernatural being, or at the very least, invisible, and because it is attributed to god, no one questions it.
God: I couldn’t have put it better myself.
Me: So there is no such thing as a religious experience?
God: There is the experience, which may feel like something they have never felt before, and because they have no words to describe it, they call it god, but they could call it anything they like, and they will still have the experience.
Me: Ok. One more question. What is it that gives them the insight. Is it you, or is it themselves?
God: Who am I?
Me: Well you are the whole, the universe. I remember from the last chat we had. So although the universe had a hand in it, it was them who did it themselves, because they are part of the whole.
Me: Then what is left to say?
God: Be careful about saying the universe had a hand in it, because that implies some grand design, where there is nothing but the whole. People wake up because they wish to be woken. Their minds have now opened to the universe. They can see clearly.
Me: Yes, I have experienced that, but I wouldn’t have attributed it to you.
God: Why would you, I don’t exist.
Me: Don’t you? Then how am I talking to you?
Was god helpful? I’m not sure. Was I really talking to god, or was I answering the questions? All I know is that we must find the flash of light we call insight, and pin it down once and for all.
I think we can safely say that insight has nothing to do with thought as we know it. If it did, we would all be able to see clearly, and the world would be in harmony, which is clearly not the case!
Thought is the result of memory, but insight is something new, do you see? Insight is something that can’t be pinned down because it is not a process of the mind, but something else – not something religious; but if you want to call the whole, the everything, the universal, religious, then go ahead.
The experience that makes people change their lives, and embark on journeys that are so far removed from anything they have done before, requires so much energy to enable such a change in direction (that has nothing to do with thought), that maybe that burst of energy is the flash of light some people see.
Sometimes people change. They change towns, careers, and partners, but those are all in the realm of thought and memory, there is nothing new. So what makes a man want to give up the life he knows and dedicate it to explore the universe and himself to find out the nature of all things?
What made a selfish man, who spent his time wasting money and getting drunk, embark on a journey that has culminated in writing this book? A thought? A religious experience? Faith in god? I’ll tell you. A flash so bright it shook my very being: A flash that caused such disruption in my brain cells that they were physically altered for ever. Who did this? God (as god would say, if you want to attribute it to me, go ahead!), or was it me, or the universal consciousness, if there is such a thing; or was it the whole, the indivisible?
Unfortunately, for the first time since I started this book, I cannot answer my own question. I cannot find out what this flash is in this short discussion; so maybe insight is the eternal, maybe it is the one thing that cannot be described, which cannot be labelled. Maybe god is the label we give to insight. All I know is that insight is a wonderful gift, wherever it comes from. And it can be awoken in everyone.
By Alan Macmillan Orr
“The Natural Mind – Waking Up”