Saturday, March 15, 2014

Journal of a Soul 47

The Validity of Experience 2

1. Psychology and Psychotherapy

Self recently in Santry Wood
If modernity (or post-modernity even)  means anything, then the quest for personal identity is at its heart.  One could argue that this quest lies at the very core of Western philosophy, and indeed Western religions.  In that modern search for self, psychology and psychotherapy are foundational.  I discussed psychotherapy in the immediately preceding post to this one. Psychology, which chronologically preceded psychotherapy, is commonly defined as the science of behaviour and the mental processes which instigate that behaviour.  The year 1879 is commonly seen as the start of psychology as an independent field of study, because in that year German scientist Wilhelm Wundt founded the first laboratory dedicated exclusively to psychological research in Leipzig, Germany.

Wundt combined philosophical introspection with techniques and laboratory apparatuses brought over from his earlier physiological studies as well as many of his own design. This experimental introspection was in contrast to what had been called psychology until then, a branch of philosophy where people introspected themselves.  In other words, Wundt was taking human experience seriously, or using empirical data, and was, then and only then, reflecting upon those experiences through introspection.  Before this psychology was a a mere branch of philosophy where people examined their minds through introspection, or through looking within.  This process, while legitimate, was merely speculative and not based on concrete empirical or experiential data.
2. Religion and Theology
The problem with reason or rationality is that it is just that, the working out in a methodical or logically rigorous way our thoughts on X, Y or Z subject, oftentimes with little reference to the whole gamut of human experience in its broadest sense.  We are not merely rational beings - we are human beings with all that incorporates: social, ethical, moral, religious/spiritual, musical and artistic dimensions and so on.  Here, one could say, that we are talking about human beings as essentially cultural beings.  I quite like the WIKI definition of culture, which is worth reproducing in its entirety here:
In the 20th century, "culture" emerged as a central concept in anthropology, encompassing the range of human phenomena that cannot be directly attributed to genetic inheritance. Specifically, the term "culture" in American anthropology had two meanings:
  1. the evolved human capacity to classify and represent experiences with symbols, and to act imaginatively and creatively; and
  2. the distinct ways that people, who live differently, classified and represented their experiences, and acted creatively. (See HERE)

Within that broader cultural context outlined above lies everything that marks out human beings as different from their animal brothers and sisters (to use terminology much loved by St Francis). Here I wish particularly to talk about the human experience of the numinous or the divine or the spiritual in the lives of human beings.  It is simply incontrovertible that human beings have religious experiences.  One would want to be living in a cocoon not to be aware of that.  What is this phenomenon anyway? What are religious experiences? Here, one can study the anthropology of religion, the sociology of religion, comparative religions, philosophy of religion and indeed theology itself to explore what this may be.

In the above paragraph, I referred to what is termed the numinous. Quite simply this impressive word is an English adjective, taken from the Latin word "numen", and is used by some to describe the power or presence of a divinity or a God or a Spirit or a Power that is both beyond and within us, a reality that sustains us and everything in the universe.  The Latin word "numen" means a "divine presence."

The word was popularised in the early twentieth century by the German theologian Rudolf Otto in his influential book Das Heilige (1917; translated into English as The Idea of the Holy, 1923).  The phrase from this book which this writer remembers from his theological studies in the late 1970s are the Latin words: "Mysterium tremendum et fascinans" that translates as "terrifying and fascinating Mystery."  In other words, that is a mystery before which we both tremble and are fascinated; before which we are both repelled and attracted. Thus, God can appear both as wrathful or awe inspiring.

Interestingly, and quite appropriately for my purposes in this post, the numinous experience as described by Rudolf Otto also has a personal quality, insofar as the person experiences a closeness to, or a communion with the wholly other. That people constantly report that they have personal experiences of such closeness to the divine is also a given in most if not all cultures.  As a phenomenon, religious experiences simply cannot be written off as delusions, though there are many who would do so from a narrow rationalist viewpoint.  However, it is the adjective "narrow" that I underscore here.  Our rationality is merely a small, albeit significant, part of our wider experiences as human beings.

3. Discovering Shared Reality as a Ground for Religious Experience

In this section, here, dear readers, I am going to use some of my teaching experiences with adolescent boys with Asperger's Syndrome. These boys lie on what is termed the ASD spectrum where ASD stands for Autistic Syndrome Disorder.  Put in its simplest terms (at the risk of oversimplifying things, admittedly) let's say that these boys live to varying degrees in their own world.  The more autistic of them are, shall we say, more lost in their own worlds than the less autistic.  When I am teaching them (always in small groups of about 4 to 6 students) social education and communication skills I draw a simple diagram on the board of a series of little circles around a round table (my table in my classroom is actually circular) where each circle with the individual pupil's initials represents the individuals in the room.  I include my own initials in one of the circles and also that of the Special Needs Assistant in another.  The middle circle or table I tell them is common shared reality. Reality, I tell them is the commonly shared experiences of all of the individuals present.  All the while, when the students are sharing their experiences on whatever topic we are discussing, I as teacher or facilitator constantly challenge them to stay in "the world of shared reality" and attempt in as far as possible to prevent them from escaping into the more surreal landscape of their own isolated minds.  I have several students who, no matter what we are discussing, will reduce any and every conversation to their own narrow interests.  In other words, in common parlance, the teacher's task is actually to "keep it real!"

Link with Religious Experiences
The wonder of the simple Honey Bee!

It has long been my considered opinion that religions do tend to attract the "lunatic fringe." Now, I am casting no judgement here - this is a mere objective statement.  These people have one psychiatric or neurological complaint or another.  And the world (or church), in the words of St Augustine, must, at its best, be a hospital which offers healing to all.  Now, this is where we come to "shared reality."  When you or I have a "religious experience" we must check that experience against the shared reality of the believing community.  This has always been a sound theological principle, that is, that individuals must confirm their personal experiences with those of others, especially with those of others in their community. Otherwise, they run the risk of being looked on as belonging to the "lunatic fringe", or, at least, being somewhat deluded. (At its most extreme, unchecked and non-validated religious experiences end up being cult-like and a grave distortion of the truth.)

There is much that I want to write about religious experience in these posts, but because it is such an almost indescribable reality, I am singularly lost for words.  So, please excuse the lack of overall structure in what I am writing here.  I am, dear readers, struggling here to get across what I have experienced as "real," as "spiritual" or "religious," having checked them out through reading, research, and discussion with others.  The biggest thing I have learnt ever is not to rush to judgement, to take a Socratic approach of admitting one's ignorance before searching for the truth of the question in discussion.  In other words be open-minded and broaden the picture out.

Tentative Conclusion

As this post is about the validity of experience, let me finish with one or two of my own spiritual experiences. In the Easter period of 2002 I went to visit my cousin P. in Boston.  P. was always (and still is) one of my dearest friends.  He is now an addiction counsellor employed by the State and has a beautiful wife and a lovely little daughter.  He himself suffers from two addictions - gambling and alcoholism.  Obviously, he is more than coping with this double-addiction, allied to a third complaint of being Bipolar, as he is a very successful and much sought-after addiction counsellor.  P. is a living example of "the wounded healer" and is carrying three heavy crosses to use a religious metaphor. As a boy he was a wonderful young lad with a great sensitivity in his soul.  Anyway, P. invited me to an A.A. meeting, which he was chairing, as his guest.  That evening I was deeply moved.  I sat and listened to what could only be called the deep truths issuing forth from the souls of other human beings.  The A.A. is such a super organization, the first and foremost self-help group ever.  There were so many wounded souls there healing and supporting each other. The experience of that meeting was a deep and profoundly moving experience for me.  I can safely and most assuredly call it a spiritual experience.  Here we had individuals sharing a common spiritual reality.  All recovering alcoholics speak about having to admit that they are not in control of their lives and of having to hand over control to a greater and higher power who alone can lead them onward through their own personal wilderness.  I know, I went home a changed and more chastened man that evening. Now psychologists or social psychologists might describe this experience in different, more objective terms, but, but, but... and, dear readers, it is a big but and a long but... we always have to return to what the experience is for the individual.  Standing outside an experience and trying to objectify it may, in fact, be somewhat distorting of the truth of the experience.  Here, is perhaps, where the principles of phenomenology come in - I hope to discuss in more detail the phenomenological basis of religious experiences in upcoming posts if I can get my mind around this great and mysterious subject. 

To finish this post let me describe another spiritual experience I shared with my dear friend and cousin P.  One day he said to me: "Let's go down to New York and visit Ground Zero."  I deeply wished to go as I knew that we would be literally going on a pilgrimage.  As we travelled down in P's pick up truck we talked of old times growing up in the small town of Roscrea, Co.Tipperary, Ireland.  When we got to Ground Zero, we knew, as all knew, that we were standing on sacred ground where thousands of wonderful human beings had perished. We spent hours reading all the various posters and tributes to the dead and perusing with tearful eyes their pictures.  This experience still remains etched on my heart and soul.  I have to call this a religious or spiritual experience because, literally, it was so.  No amount of analysis can pin point the depths of that experience.

And so the turn to experience is very important indeed in all areas of human endeavour.  It is my hope that I will be able to trace its deep undercurrents in forthcoming posts.


  1. Elder's Meditation of the Day April 11

    "Spiritual matters are difficult to explain because you must live with them in order to fully understand them."
    --Thomas Yellowtail, CROW

    To know something we must become one with it. We cannot know what a flower smells like until we actually smell it. Close your eyes and experience the fragrance.
    The Elders say there are two worlds, the Seen World and the Unseen World. To experience the Seen World we need to physically pick the flower and smell it.
    To experience the Unseen World we need to know about principles, laws and values; and no matter what our mind or our physical senses tell us, we must decide and act on these principles. If someone does wrong to us, we must pray for that person or persons to have peace, happiness and joy in their life. We must not get even or retaliate in any way. Only by doing this can we understand spiritual matters.

    Great Spirit, give me your power whenever my weakness shows so I can live by spiritual decisions.

    Elder's Meditation of the Day February 1

    "You can't just sit down and talk about the truth. It doesn't work that way. You have to live it and be part of it and you might get to know it."
    --Rolling Thunder, CHEROKEE

    We all read books that have much information in them. Often we pick up on little sayings that we remember. Inside of us is the little owl, the owl of knowing. It talks to us - guiding us and nurturing us. Often when we get information, it's hard to live by, but it's easy to talk about. It's living the Red Road that counts - Walk the Talk. If we really want freedom in our lives, if we really want to be happy, if we really want to have peace of mind, it's the truth we must seek.

    My Creator, help me in my search for the truth today.