Wednesday, October 01, 2014

Reflections on 'Experience'

[The following article was written for a journal which shall remain nameless. I withdrew it over issues of control— the editor had introduced grammatical errors, changed not only the style but also the entire meaning of the article by alterations, but also control over the creative process. With the previous editor none of this would have happened. What has editing come to these days? I don't know, but I don't like it. Anyway, the upside is that here is the article, a year before it would have otherwise appeared!]

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We had the experience but missed the meaning
                                          T.S.Eliot "Dry Salvages"

One of the saddest statements I ever heard was spoken by a young person who said, "I wish I could upload all my experiences onto my hard disc."
"O no," I thought, "O no you do not wish this."
More recently someone wrote in a national newspaper that he was so eager for all that "spirituality" has to offer that he couldn't wait to experience the dark night of the soul.
"O yes you can wait," was my immediate reaction, "yes, yes, you can wait. Be very careful what you wish for."
This word "experience" which we cast about so glibly these days is very dangerous and misleading, as dangerous and misleading as experience itself can be. The word didn't come into the English language until late in the 14th century, and even then it was regarded with suspicion: the author of The Cloud of Unknowing used the word "prove" instead—pace James Walsh, who inserted the word "experience" 108 times in the Classics of Western Spirituality edition where it doesn't exist in the original Middle English, thereby forcing the text say the opposite to what in fact it does say. For it is essential to what the Cloud-author calls "the werk" to relinquish all claims to experience.
And this brings us to the heart of the problem, for the word "experience" as we use it today is solipsistic, a reflexive function of self-consciousness, rather than an interpretation that is put to the test, which was the original meaning of the word 'experience'. We have come to enshrine what we think of as experience as if it were reality, which it is not; it is a construct and interpretation by our imagination. We say, "That's my experience" as if immediate experience bestowed some sort of self-authenticating authority. Experience is far from reality: it is always, always interpretation: even to acknowledge that something has happened to us is already interpretation. By the time we find words for what happened, or write it down, we are already interpreting at the third or fourth remove.
In French, the word expérience means "experiment." And in fact this is what the ancient, patristic and medieval worlds meant by the notion: your interpretation of what happened to you had to be tested: tested against scripture and tradition; tested against time and the wisdom of the elders; above all, tested in the crucible of that part of the mind—the greater, more potent, and creative part—to which we have only indirect access by means of intention, and over which we have no control at all. For in this deeper part of the mind, our perceptions are transfigured, and we may end up finding that our interpretation at one point in time is seen in a very different light at a later date. It is in this deep mind that healing takes place, from which insight arises, and from which maturity emerges. The prerequisite is that first, we have to allow it the freedom to do its work; and, second, we have to open ourselves to listen to the new interpretations that it brings to light by setting aside our preconceptions.
     We can't hear what deep mind is saying if, for example, we are continually rehearsing the same injury, real or imagined; a wound can't heal if the scab is constantly poked and picked. This is one meaning of the biblical injunction "do not judge," for  if we slam the door of judgement on our selves or others we can never receive an accurate understanding of, or enter a direct engagement with what we have judged. This is not to say that we must give up our critical faculty; quite the reverse: we learn to discern from the perspective of the wellspring of wisdom that arises and pours forth from the heart of deep mind.

[To be continued]


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hello, Fr Scott in Alaska recommended your blog to me. I can see why! You make a point I probably knew but didn't appreciate. I tend to put extremely strong interpretations on my experiences, and I only move forward when those interpretations change.

4:30 pm, October 01, 2014  

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