Recently, while on a 3 day trip with some friends I got involved in an interesting and somewhat emotionally charged conversation. These 2 friends had been discussing the nature of reality, and what was true. One was making the argument that only that which is proven empirically, or at least described in Psychology can be true. The other rallied against that and shared that he felt there was aspects of reality that are hidden from such research that are just as valid and true.
first I chose to just listen, but then ended up engaging in it as
well. I did not want to prove a point, and so I think I stood on safer
ground conversationally. What came to me was something that I have
learned from studying about, as well as practicing a more shamanic and
I tried hard not to take sides
in the argument, as I knew that would only leave one side feeling sore
and undermined. But, what came to me was the idea of experience being
ones reality. In terms of the perspective of a pragmatic shaman, truth
is a relative thing. One of the major keys to being able to experience a
richer, more holistic relationship with the universe is to be open to
being wrong. Seemingly in contradiction, part of that is also to
understand that one's experience of life, and one's experience in life
is real. Whether that is while awake, asleep or having a mind altering
experience that involves meditation or some hallucinogenic plant or
The search for ultimate, universal truth is just
a dance that the rational mind does, like a dog chasing its own tail.
As far as a practicing shaman might be concerned, it is of limited
value. After all, shamanic practice is about being in relationship with
world or worlds, as it may be.
In the conversation I
mentioned that possible experience of someone having what in the
western, rational perspective we might call a "hallucination." This
simply means that at that time their experience of reality is different
from our own. Does that make it false, or unreal? This might seem to
be a stupidly obvious question. After all, that "crazy" man walking
down the street talking to himself is not having an experience you are
Sure, however, isn't reality an agreed upon
experience? Don't we use language and cultural framing to help us agree
upon what we think is significant enough to focus on?
for a moment the experience of 2 people of very different backgrounds
who are describing a common event. Let's say for a moment that a cup
falls off of a table and breaks on the floor. One person, an American
man, looks to the person nearest that cup and might think, "This person
broke the cup. Why would they do that?"
The other person, a woman from Spain, looks at that same event and thinks, "The cup broke. I wonder why it broke?"
simple difference is a matter of cultural and linguistic implication of
blame and responsibility, although it would of course involve the
shading of the individual and their personal past experiences. You
might say that this a subtle difference. After all, the languages and
cultures are relatively similar in many ways.
consider those 2 people to have vastly different language and cultural
backgrounds, such as a person raised speaking English in America, and a
person raised in a small village in central China speaking Mandarin.
You think there experience would be the same?
that a man from a tribe from a small island in the Southwest Pacific
describes the event as the cup leaping from the table at the approach of
one of the people. And he goes on to further describe how certain
spirit beings that were in the room at the time found this event very
Would you argue that this can not possibly be true or valid?
Let's come back to our man walking down the street talking to himself.
He may at that moment be engaging with a being that is invisible to
your senses. We can say from the western psychological perspective that
he has schizophrenia. In that moment, that man's experience is of that
event being reality. You can argue it is a false reality, a mental
fiction. Perhaps you could say that the being he is engaged with is a
mental projection of his own fears...
But, you can not deny that in his experience it is real.
To the individual, experience is reality.
use is it knowing that? After all, this man's experience may be so
different from other "normal" people around him that he is practically
incapable of functioning or interacting effectively with others.
Indeed, the experience he is having may even be negative, even
destructive and wildly unstable in nature. It may be one he desperately
wants to change or escape.
Well, it is useful to take
note because it can allow us to stop chasing the tail of "ultimate
reality" and "truth" in the world. Chasing the one right way for
everyone to see the world.
The problem, is that what he
is experiencing may be causing him great paranoia, loneliness and
disconnection. He may be incapable of changing his experience without
the support and compassion of others.
arguments waged over the superior reality of one religion over another,
one god over another, science versus spirituality are really potentially
just as destructive. The only difference is that millions of people
might agree on that experience and interpretation as the one truth.
When any perspective becomes dogmatic, it has lost track of this idea that experience is reality.
2 peoples experience is ever exactly the same. Does that mean that one
of them has had an experience that is true, and the other false?
Outside of proving the rightness of one perspective and the wrongness of
another, what value would that bear? How would pointing out the
rightness of one perspective improve the lives of both people?
I think the more important questions are:
- Does your experience bring you joy, fulfillment and connection with the world?
- Does it allow you to communicate things of value to others, and interact with them with compassion and consideration?
- Did the experience you just had support your sense of positive growth, and a richness of life?
What can you do to change your experience, if it is not supporting you
in growing and connecting to the world in the ways you really desire?
What stories are you simultaneously telling yourself and living? What
other people's stories do you tell yourself, and how do they affect you
and your experience of life?
If I tell you
now that sometimes animals look me in the eyes and speak to me, you
might think that is a fantasy or projection of sorts. You may even be
tempted to prove to me that such a thing is not possible, and that this
is a delusion. You can argue that they are incapable of such action,
and I am incapable of communication or receiving communication in such a
manner. You can lecture me on the scientifically solid theories of
modern psychology and neurology, and how they disprove that such things
Yet, I can still know that choosing to
support the perspective that this kind of experience is real allows me
to be in better relationship with the life around me. An that,
ultimately, is what matters most to me.
close and looking right into my eye, the fox below told me politely to
kindly leave the area around its den because me and my companions were
too close for its comfort. This appeared in my mind as a combination of
thought-feeling and imagery. This was supported shortly there after by
its physical behavior as it walked a few steps away, urinated and
looked back at me again expectantly.
And yes, I did heed the request... But this leads us to the final questions...
stories do you hold to be true, and how do they improve your life and
allow you to improve the lives of others? How is your experience of
life different from others? Is it useful and life-supporting? If not,
why are you still carrying it?