The Distance Between Spiritual Experience and Interpretation
Posted on Feb 3rd, 2008 by Julian
This is a favorite subject of mine - the distance between experience and interpretation. It is undeniable that human beings in all times and cultures have been hardwired for spiritual experiences – some of course more than others. But is this proof of any of the multiple metaphysical belief systems that we tend, I would suggest, to superimpose onto the experience?
The central difficulty here is that the altered state of a spiritual experience is so convincing (and so important, beautiful and meaningful in its own right) and we are so suggestible during and afterward, that it is almost ubiquitous to be convinced that the experience is undeniable (or at the very least strong) proof of whatever belief system the ensuing interpretation is coming from - when actually the two may be barely related!
Humans love to go into altered states. There is not a culture in the history of the planet that has not come up with some way of fermenting, drinking, eating, fasting, dancing, sweating, drumming, smoking, snorting, chanting, breathing, meditating, stretching, sensory depriving or sensory overloading its way into altered states of consciousness.
In addition some people have more labile neurophysiology than others – be they epileptic, hypo-glycemic, bipolar, schizophrenic or merely garden-variety creative, empathic types with thin ego-boundaries.
Thankfully we have developed an ever-deepening understanding of some of the more extreme dysfunctions of the brain and have ways of diagnosing and treating these problems that are more effective than ever before. One cannot help but be curious about the similarities between say religious and schizophrenic statements about reality and wonder how much of the difference is one of degree, and to what extent the vocabulary of experience being used is coming from the same part of the brain.
How do we make sense of the fact that for both a) the person in thegrips of an ardent religious conversion as well as b) someone experiencing clinical insanity, the novel and metaphysical revelations being described are not only convincing but are held as extremely important, often not only for the individual in the grip of the experience, but for all of humanity?
I want to suggest that this is an extreme form of an activity of our physiology and its related interior - the psyche, that at its best can be positively transformational, healing and creative and at its worse can be fundamentalist, violent and crazy.
Three Layers of Spiritual Experience
I think it’s interesting to think about this phenomenon in terms of three layers:
1) The universal (with varying degrees of intensity) human proclivity toward not only experiencing altered states but also towards finding those altered states to some extent meaningful and significant.
2) The personal stage of development from which one
a) Interacts with or “co-creates “ the experience and
b) Interprets the experience – both based on one’s psychological profile.
3) The socio-cultural context within which the experience both
a) Occurs in the first place and
b) Is then interpreted
I think too that there is a powerful relationship between this proclivity toward altered states and the dream-like imaginative activity of creating mythology. The language of myth is one of metaphor and symbol - I think of it as a cultural dream. Myth is no less significant, numinous and meaningful than a potent personal dream or powerfully transporting piece of art.
Dream, art and myth all come form the same place; the deep unconscious psyche, and it is in altered states of consciousness that the pathway is opened between the conscious mind, with its steward the ego and the unconscious mind with, at its center, what Jung thought of as "the Self." I also like the word "soul" in this place.
So we find ourselves in a complex matrix of meanings, conditioning, emotional associations, instincts, primal forces and numinous energies whenever we deeply interact with dreams, high art, mythology and the altered states that give us access to the same layers of human consciousness.
Myths have always been a way to explain what we do not understand, a way to try and answer the unanswerable big questions about how the world began, what happens after we die, why things happen the way they do, what the purpose of existence is, where evil comes from etc..
This does not mean that cultures that dream up myths necessarily think of them metaphorically! The story-telling is taken as literally true when it is created, and most often what we see is that the myth is believed to have been "revealed" to the shaman or the holy man, or the wise elder or told to them by an animal, a spirit, an angel, god himself. But the point is - in a manner of speaking, the collective psyche dreams up the story. It comes from the deep unconscious and as such, just as with personal dreams, it speaks the language of symbol, metaphor, and archetype. I think of this as being the "soul language."
(As an aside I want to add that Joseph Campbell called myths "masks of god." He said that the high function of the "mask" was to help us see beyond it to what cannot ever be represented concretly.)
Three Functions of Myth
For the moment, let's say that there are three functions that myth serves:
1) Offering a poetic vocabulary with which to approach a state of awe, wonder and reverence for the world we live in, consciousness and life itself.
2) Reducing existential anxiety by explaining the unknowable and containing the fear of death.
3) Creating a shared psychic cosmology that is a container of belonging and belief for the culture.
These three functions are directly related to the above three layers, so let's put them together:
1) The universal tendency toward altered state/spiritual experiences needs a vocabulary with which to express and explore the largely non-verbal, non-rational states.
2) One of the ways we manage existential anxiety and psychological conflicts is often through spiritual or religious belief, petitioning, superstition, self-soothing etc.
3) The powerful sense of belonging, identity and taboo enacted by the socio-cultural context creates a convincing template within which the spiritual experience or altered state should be interpreted.
In other words there are reasons that Catholic nuns do not have visions of Avalokiteshvara on their deathbeds and that Tibetan monks don't have visions of the Blessed Virgin under similar circumstances. There are reasons there are "no atheists in foxholes," or that under conditions of extreme stress otherwise non-religious people may find themselves praying for a situation to turn out a certain way. There are reasons that the "soul language" that gets so sliced and diced into word-salad by schizophrenics tugs on our sleeves with its appearance of deep cryptic meaning. There are reasons that when people have powerful conversion experiences, open up emotionally, commune deeply with nature, take mind-bending drugs, experience intense trauma, or other altered state experiences they tend to come out the other side with a meaning that fits a fairly predictable socialized interpretation and that can often be seen as serving a particular personal psychological purpose - for better or worse.
(Of course this gets trickier in the multicultural/postmodern world in which (particularly in the West) there are now ever evolving sub-cultures that often draw threads of interpretation and belief from multiple sources - but though the collage may be more complex, the functions remain detectable and demonstrable. I must also add as an aside here that there is a level of radical spiritual experience in which one is actively going beyond acculturated metaphysical beliefs, experiencing revelations that subvert one's psychological defense structure and that make a strong enough impression on the right kind of psyche that the second two functions above are inactivated in the service of the first. This is most often the exception to the rule and for me marks the difference between transformational and translative spirituality...)
A 12-year-old boy in the Bible belt falls on the floor and begins speaking in tongues - he knows this is proof of the Holy Spirit and gives his life even more fully to Jesus. He vows to become a missionary in Africa.
An 18 year old girl on Ecstasy in London gazes in rapt absorption at the dance floor, her heart blowing open, mind stunned by the beauty of ordinary people and the power of music to unite people into a single moving organism of love and celebration, she is convinced that the Universe has led her precisely to this moment and that the Wicca initiation she received from her aunt the week before has connected her to her destiny.
The 22 year old couple hiking in the Santa Monica Mountains stand at the look-out point and breathe deeply as they do partner yoga stretches, the vast blue sky above them, the sun gleaming off the leaves of the trees and the warm rocks, they know without a shadow of a doubt that they are soul mates and the earth is a conscious being radiating love and wisdom at them.
The 29 year old woman goes to darshan with Amachi, the hugging saint. Her psychic reader has told her that she clearly has past-lives with the guru and that intersecting with her energetically in this life will help her to overcome the pain she feels at a failed relationship and recent abortion. In the arms of Amachi she feels accepted, filled with love, recharged energetically and blown away at the accuracy of the psychic's "information." What's more - gazing into the eyes of the guru she knew without a shadow of a doubt that God forgave her abortion, that it was the right thing to do and that she would have another chance to be a mother when the Universe was aligned.
The 35 year old Muslim man finally makes his pilgrimage to Mecca. A thousand men circle that most holy of stones - the Kaaba. This is the most important moment in his life and he is filled with awe, tears streaming down his face, he is caught up in the power of the presence of the prophet of the inevitability of his own destiny. He renews his commitment to bringing Islamic rule to the whole world for the glory of Allah and to donate as much of his income as he can to the cause of removing Israel from the face of the planet.
The 42-year-old homeless woman is transfixed, staring into the window of the restaurant. The customers are uncomfortable with her intent gaze and do not realize that she is looking at her own reflection. They are even less aware that she is seeing the Virgin Mary reflected back at her. She offers her unconditional healing love to all the world and knows that she must come again each morning to this spot until the police come and tell her to move, at which point she becomes again the bitter, persecuted crazy lady screaming foul curse words at the cops.
The 55-year-old therapist's young son is killed in a car wreck. As he walks past the cafe where his son loved to hang out and sometimes played his music at the open mic night he hears Jeff Buckley's version of "Hallelujah" coming through the open door. He stops in his tracks and weeps. He weeps for all the things he never said and for all the things his son will never do, he asks forgiveness for he ways in which he knows he failed him. When the song reaches it climax he feels a soft breeze on his skin that covers him in gooseflesh and imagines his son's voice singing a low harmony on the chorus. He tells his wife and she is sure this was a communication from the spirit world, but he doesn't think it was anymore or less than a powerful moment of grief, gratitude, forgiveness and expansion.
I suggest that it isn't enough to merely affirm (though we should do this at the very least) these experiences in a non-ethnocentric way - I think that if we want to a) understand, facilitate, and integrate them better and b) keep creating more and more effective world-centric humanistic contexts within which to more adequately interpret the experiences, we need to tease apart the mystical, psychological and socio-cultural layers of the experience.
When we are able to do so, we can see ourselves more clearly, use the power of the experience more effectively and side step some of the classic traps that too often make spiritual experience the domain of superstition, fundamentalism, psychological denial and rationalization, cultish belief, ethnocentric nationalism and basic delusion about reality.
So far the laudable contemporary liberal desire to be affirming of all forms of spiritual experience does not do this teasing apart and so has a tendency to uncritically embrace the cultural baggage and defensive psychological distortions along with the universal sense of awe and deep opening.
Of course, on the other side, the laudable modern desire to be rational tends to throw out the baby of the potent and meaningful experience with the bathwater of the superstitious cultural baggage and the rather obvious defensive psychological distortions.
Both of these impulses are based in partial truths that end up missing the point. Finding out which part is true and which is mistaken is essential if the two are to be integrated.
The fact that all human beings are wired to some extent for experiences like these and that in certain cases such experiences can be positively transformational to our lives, in no way makes any of the culture bound and anxiety reducing interpretations any more true in the literal sense.
My sense of it is that we need to be able to differentiate a) what is truly universal in our physiology and it's experiential counterpart the deep psyche and even in the general archetypal form and themes that underlie the specific content of the mythic/metaphysical interpretation, from b) the interpretation itself.
Its a tricky task but one that is quite doable if we are rational and honest with ourselves.
Its about picking apart metaphor from reality, literal from figurative, defensive from expansive, conditioned from transcendent etc, in an attempt to understand both the meaningful trans-rational power of spiritual experiences and the ways in which their pre-rational interpretation can be deceptive.
To forego (or fudge) this task out of multi-cultural PC politeness, sentimental attachment to the supernatural, or soupy relativist confusion leaves us spiritually and intellectually impoverished and no closer to understanding this remarkable and central human concern.
it is possible to forge a 21st Century Spirituality that harnesses the exquisite transformational beauty and power of spiritual experiences without the non-essential cultural baggage, metaphysical belief and reality distorting interpretations.
a) Enact an inquiry-based practice that initiates us experientially into the universal physiological and psychological mind-body energetics, state shifts and stage-wise growth,
b) Maintain a space for shadow-work and other forms of psychological process/awareness and
c) Keep integrating and developing rational cognition and critical thinking,
we increase the possibilities of reaping the benefits of spiritual experience and side-stepping some of the long-standing drawbacks.