Sunday, July 19, 2015

Experience – Mystical Experience
In this article, “Experience”, by Robert H Sharf, the idea of experience as it relates to religious experience and mystical experience is discussed. The definition of the term experience is complex in general and even more complex for a term such as “mystical experience” that I would like to discuss in this brief essay as I focus on the idea of mystical experience. First I will give a brief overview of mystical experiences as described in this article. Then I will give my critical view as it relates to the argumentation that the author offers in the article, specifically I would argue the difficulty in describing or studying experiences that are not personal. As I reiterate the point that the author makes regarding the difficulty of relating experiences, I question the possibility of an outsider approach to the investigation of experiences, using the examples of Vipassana and Zen meditation that the author uses as an example of distinct practices.
A “mystical experience is generally construed as a direct encounter with the divine or the absolute” claims the author, “and, as such, the “raw experience” is not affected by linguistics, cultural or historical contingencies” (p 96) or at least so do both perennialists as well as their critics claim. For Sharf the debate that those scholars concerned with mysticism are having centers on the issue of whether the experience is colored by the background of the experiencer or whether it is the description of the experience is colored by the background of the experiencer, and as such in the author’s opinion the scholars of mysticism are missing the most important question of what in fact is the experience and whether the experience even can be accepted as such given the lack of scientific evidence and proof. “Scholars of mysticism are content to focus on the distinctive characteristics and the philosophical implications […] of religious or mystical experiences without pausing to consider what sort of thing experience may be in the first place.” (p 103)
The question of what experience is becomes central. As I read the opinion of Sharf regarding the nature of mystical experience, I can see how it becomes challenging to allow for accounts, no matter how similar, frequent, and common they may be, to be received by the critical mind and the necessity to question if they are valid and plausible. Sharf attempts to define the word experience as what is “simply given to us in the immediacy of each moment of perception” (p 104). I question though his attempt to limit experience to what it is that the scholars would like experience to serve when he attempts to define what is experience in ostensive terms. Why would experience have to serve a purpose, much more importantly the purpose of the scholar to define it as such? As Shaft suggests though, the academic “allure of the rhetoric of experience in the modern period [for] both Western theologians and secular scholars” is very real. His reasoning of is grouped into two categories: empiricism and cultural pluralism.” Empiricism centers on the idea that “all truth claims must be subject, in theory and not in fact, to empirical or scientific verification”. Cultural pluralism centers on the idea that “by claiming to make sense of the transcended then all religious traditions could lay some claim to the truth”. (p.95-96) The goal of the theologians and the secular scholars seems laudable and in fact remains a field of open investigation.
The author expresses that “indeed I sympathize with the difficulty that mystics have in expressing themselves, the problem of conceptualizing that which transcends all concepts”. It is in my opinion that by nature these experiences are inexpressible. There seems to be a parallel almost reality that sometimes mystics are allowed to experience and yet in that reality even if consciousness remains active, the mystic is no longer able to express the vastness of his or her experience. Indeed many mystics express that words are not enough, and often they choose to speak in metaphors, in parabolas, in poetic forms or a combination of the above (James). Experiences can even be shared and yet each person can only describe his or her perception of what has occurred, sometimes only sharing a general sense of characteristics in the experience. Mystical experiences are a window to some essential truth.
An insight to the polemic that Sharf describes in terms of defining the experience is that of talking about experiences that one has not yet or may never have. I found it interesting that since I have not had the experience of Theravada Vipassana or Zen meditation I would not for example be able to fully appreciate the dialectic used to describe the experiences. In fact I have read a paper relating Vipassana meditation to mystical experiences (Hubina). In Hubina’s paper I was able to follow the linguistic argumentation, I was able to successfully relate the readings to my experiences or to accounts of other’s experiences or to other reading. Yet I was not able to relate to the experiences described and thus if I now have to express an opinion on whether Vipassana mediation can lead to mystical experiences I find myself wondering what it is that would qualify me to offer such an opinion. For that I would have to rely on a third party account of what happens, in this case a scholar who himself relies on the accounts of others. This brings an important question to the argumentation of whether or not relating experiences of others can be done. This is typically the case that in experiences that require time, that can be sometimes measured in years, it may not be possible for the researcher to acquire deep personal experiences, if such deep and transcendental personal experiences can even be acquired. How do we reconcile then the world of academia and the world of spiritual practices? Can we find a common language and bridges of communication? This would be an important challenge to overcome for the academic investigation of mystical experiences.
Last, to the point that Sharf makes that there is no consensus either in the “designation of the particular states of consciousness [and also] in the psychotropic techniques used to produce them (samatha versus vipassana) [and that] belies the notion that the rhetoric of meditative experience functions ostensively.” (p 107) I would propose that that mystical experiences do follow a cookie cutter approach. These experiences represent partially a connection with something possible superhuman, that one can choose to call God.
In conclusion, it seems that philosophically as well as practically the word experience is charged with reasons to rationally contest such claims. The question of whether there is something additional to discuss remains open. Shaft proposes a view that it is because of the usefulness in academia that experiences are investigated. James and his followers propose that it is because these experiences point to some truth that this investigation is necessary. What I am finding is that any outside observer would have difficulty reporting regarding such experiences. It may be a possibility though that no matter how careful investigation is and how many attempts the researchers makes into defining and establishing a universal truth that precisely this universality as it relates to experience would keep eluding the researchers’ efforts because of the very nature of mystical experiences.  

James, William (1902) The Varieties of Religious Experiences: A Study in Human Nature, Being the Gifford Lectures on Natural Religion Delivered at Edinburgh in 1901–1902 Longmans Green Co.
Hubina, Milos “Mysticism and Theravada Meditation” working paper
Shaft, Ronald H “Experience” in Critical Terms for Religious Studies (1998) edited by Taylor, Mark C. The University of Chicago Press.

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