We Had the Experience But Missed the Meaning III
This simple (but not easy) reorientation goes against what most celebrity gurus are saying. Such people are masters and mistresses of staging artificial environments where people can have "experiences," for which these gurus charge an impressive amount of money. And when their customers come down off the high engendered by such events, they feel more hollow and depressed than they did before. So of course they immediately seek another expensive artificial event that will give them yet another "experience." This so-called spirituality is just another form of addictive consumerism.
Such consumerism is often based on a mis-use of the word "contemplative." The phrase "contemplative experience" is nonsensical, for contemplation properly speaking is about relinquishing all claims to experience, that is, all preconceptions. It's not anti-intellectual; it's rather letting go when self-conscious intellectual resources have reached their limit. It's only by relinquishing what we think of as our experiences that the deep mind can get a word in edgewise, much less open us to insight or a change in perspective. In fact, in this process we aren't eliminating our experiences but rather submitting them to a deeper wisdom for discernment and refinement.
Some might object that authors such as Richard of St. Victor write about six ways of contemplation. This phrase would be better put as "six ways to contemplation," for the whole text leads up to a chapter on the complete loss of self-consciousness—excessus mentis—which the Classics of Western Spirituality translator, Grover Zinn, has unfortunately rendered as "experience of excessus mentis." The word "experience" (experientia) does not occur in the Latin original in the passages on excessus mentis; how could it? Excessus mentis means going completely beyond self-conscious thinking. If there is no self-consciousness at work, there can be no experience, no interpretation.
If, by contrast, we try to write our experiences in stone (or upload them onto a CD), there is no exit, no possible way that the shocking newness of each moment can weave grace into our lives. Rather, we will be locked in the prison of our own self-consciousness.
Getting stuck in our self-consciousness and insisting that it is the only way of knowing can be disastrous. This is the process that has cut us off from nature and despoiled nature, diminishing our humanity. It is the process that has destroyed our ability to engage with other people. It is the process that has caused catastrophic mistakes in science—in everything from pharmacology to hydrology. It has caused us to misinterpret the texts we deem most important and to bypass the ones we regard as suspect because we have mistaken method—descriptions of the shift in attention described above, often cast in highly metaphorical or mythical language—for philosophy.