Monday, May 20, 2013

Experience is Real

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.

At 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 animistic perspective.

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 fungi.

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 sharing.

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? 

Consider 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?"

That 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.

Now 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?

Let's say 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 funny.

Would you argue that this can not possibly be true or valid?

So... 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.

What 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.

The endless 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.

No 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 are real.

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.

After coming 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...

What 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?


Curt said...

I left your post with a question in mind: Is he speaking from the perspective of soul and being critical of spirit. I'm not expecting an answer, just being transparent.

I enjoyed the post. Good to see you posting again.


Filip T. said...

Good question, Curt. Thanks for the response. Actually, in this case the gentlemen left not room for either.

Normally, I don't engage in these kinds of conversations at all, but I felt that some balance was needed here. My problem with it was he was claiming he knew what was real and the only thing that could be true. In most cases, I would just walk away from such egotistical statements, but being trapped in a car for several hours with this guy precluded that. So, eventually I engaged in a manner I felt might help us out of the "your wrong, I am right and there is no other way" conversational trap.

Curt said...

I got it. Thank you for the response, Filip.