Sunday, February 20, 2011

Religious Experience, Meaning and the (Lack of the) Substance of Faith

Disney - Sleeping Beauty Castle SquirrelImage by Express Monorail via Flickr
The phenomena that have been corralled into the category of religious experience include many of those which would be referred to as mystical experiences. Religious experience can be thought of as the cornerstone of true spirituality and genuine religious practice. Ralph Hood, a researcher who has studied such phenomena, devised what is known as the M-scale as a way to survey the degree to which people have encountered such phenomena. If we go with the premise that religious experience is an essential part of spiritual growth, then failing to have or to recognize such experiences would be a major roadblock to those seeking the depth of being, that is, the depth of their own existence as part of the overall depth of existence itself, which many cultures have labeled the Divine or God. We might expect that those who score "low" on measures such as the M-scale also have trouble personally experiencing the core insights of religions or sensing any benefit from spiritual practices. I am not familiar with such literature and if such correlations have been found, but I know two things: firstly, I score very low such measures; secondly, I have trouble personally experiencing the core insights of religions or sensing any benefit from spiritual practices.

On an intellectual level I can "get" the major insights of religion, such as are outlined by a statement from the Snowmass Conference (click and scroll down). I find that these ideas, expressed through the lenses of different faith traditions, are deeply appealing. But like most of my knowledge about such large and complex topics, it is mostly second hand. That is to say, I haven't measured every fossil or living species, but I can see patterns in the data produced by hundreds of academics who have studied millions of specimens collectively. In the same way, if I take the collective experiences of those who have written about their own religious experiences and those of others, I can similarly see intriguing patterns. I also find that many of the moral insights that those of a more "mystic" orientation have affirmed are compatible with my own sensibilities. The same can be said of the humbling and empowering and motivating revelations they convey. So, you know, I like this stuff. I am even slightly moved emotionally on occasion by some if it (though rarely). But it is, as the common vernacular would have it, all in my head. To be clear, this means it is at a fairly superficial level of reflection and integration.  It's like the difference between learning about something in a textbook and going into the lab, or even better, into the field, and getting personal, direct experience with the subject matter. The real thing is always more expansive, complex and exciting than the best generalized models and standard definitions.

There are some common suggestions among the religions about getting such experience. One that overlaps the most frequently is seeking stillness, often through silent meditation or contemplation. A close runner-up is learning to care for and serve others, especially those most in need. These can be enhanced or facilitated by other practices such as verbalization (recitation, chanting, singing), visualization (focusing on an image in the mind or on an object in front of you), moving (yoga, tai chi, walking meditation), etc. Often these activities are done in groups, with the energy and intention of fellow practitioners sustaining focus and motivation. Perhaps you have also heard people talk about how transformative such practices can be; in some cases they apparently are essential to a higher level of functioning. I can remotely appreciate this kind of thing by analogy, but not by experience. I have heard some people speak of things like spiritual blindness, but I have a better simile: it is like not being able to smell or taste your food. Tasting is nearly as common seeing as a metaphor connecting practice to insight. A couple of years ago for my birthday I was taken out for a treat, a desert I used to enjoy as a child that just happened to be available where I live now. But on the way to the restaurant my nasal passages became blocked. The desert looked just like I remember it. It looked amazing. But because most of what we think of as taste is actually smell, I couldn't taste the desert. While it looked great, as far as the taste went I could have been eating cardboard. It isn't that there was anything wrong with the desert. It was me.

I've read Buddhists recounting their initiation ceremonies, and Christians about their Baptism. I recall a description of someone receiving Sannyasa while being bathed in one of the sacred rivers of India. Their accounts are amazingly powerful. Other rituals have similar impact. Fr. Thomas Keating has described receiving the Eucharist: he says "it is as if the Holy Spirit placed a great big kiss in the center of our being." This sounds amazing. I have no good reason to doubt their sincerity; what they describe goes beyond self-delusion from wishful thinking. I can't prove exactly what it is they are experiencing, but it isn't fake. Yet my own practice has never yielded such results. It sounds delicious, but when I try it myself I don't taste anything. I suppose one Buddhist response could involve karmic affinity and the chance to sow the seeds for a future awakening. One Christian response is that it might be a "dark night of the soul" a la St. John of the Cross (although it is my understanding that this is preceded by periods of consolation, particularly after Baptism). Both religions and others could also suggest there is too much thinking and effort and not enough patience, quiet and trust. Another interfaith response (going again to Keating for the phrasing on this) is that our self-designed and self-powered salvation project -- to meet some deep craving or need through some form of acquisition or accomplishment -- needs to utterly fail. We must abandon our faith in the lesser ego, the false self (which is represented in the early Christian community by referring to "the flesh"), before we can have faith in our true self. Before we can really seek God.

Still, once again, knowing in a general intellectual way isn't the same as realization, let alone actualization. After hearing about studies trying to quantify religious experience, I found a quiz used to score people on the their mystical sensitivity. It has questions like "I have had an experience which was both timeless and spaceless." The range for the results goes from 32 to 160. There is a 128 point range, so 96 points would be the median. If we wanted to give some basic ranged 32-64 would be the bottom quarter, or what I would call very non-mystical; 65-96 is what I would call somewhat non-mystical; 97-128 would be somewhat mystical; and 129-160 would be highly mystical. My own score was a 76, which is in the lower half, close to the bottom quarter. This doesn't prove anything, but in my case at least it is consistent. I have been puzzling over what that might mean. Especially in light of studies such as those of Andrew Newberg that show activity in particular parts of the brain during prayer and meditation from long-term practitioners as well studies by others which indicate the brain's remarkable potential for plasticity; that is, the capacity to rewire itself based on our thoughts and experiences. Are some people born with a brain that is more receptive to the spiritual? Can practice, and especially faith, help to enhance this capacity? Are certain religious formulations and practices "better" for some neural dispositions than others, and if so, how would one know? Does this perhaps account for some similarities arising within and between different religions (i.e. devotion-centered, contemplation-centered, study-centered, etc)? And what does that mean for someone such as myself? 

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1 comment:

  1. There are infinite ways to experience god. It seems you believe that some chart made up by some guy and agreed on by couple other guys will be the correct measurement of some sort of faith, closeness to god, what is it measuring? I dont know. This is you right now experiencing god. If you want a flashing Jesus in your dreams, you gotta really want and you will get it. But I can tell you definately do not want that. I think you would prefer to write a blog and deeply anlalyze everything about god :)


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