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The meaningless search for meaning

22/08/2013

“The risk is that by forgetting we have no choice but to use metaphor, we confuse the metaphor, the representation, for the thing itself.” – from ‘Deceptive Cadences: A Hermeneutic Approach to the Problem of Meaning and the Psychedelic Experience’ by Andy Letcher.

“There’s a meaning there but the meaning there doesn’t really mean a thing” – from ‘The Real Thing‘ by Russell Morris.

I don’t really know if I have spiritual experiences in any objective sense. Maybe they’re just insane and delusional experiences that I’ve convinced myself signify more than mere neurochemical imbalances.

They seem profound and spiritual to me, but never having been a churchgoer I define ‘spiritual’ by what happens during those experiences. So my conviction may be no more than a circular definition.

Nonetheless, as far as I’m concerned they are the most important and meaningful things in my half century of recallable existence (sorry about that, friends and loved ones), so I guess they’ll have to do.

But if they mean so much, what is it they mean?

Ah, there’s the rub.

There’s several reasons my spiritual experiences remain beyond analysis.

Firstly they are so far outside my normal day-to-day existence I just don’t have any handles or reference points I could use to compare them with anything else.

Also they manifest as or within altered states of consciousness. When my mind returns to its ‘unaltered’ state my memories of them are prone to slipping away like dreams.

There’s also the problem of tokenising them for logical manipulation. No system of symbols I am familiar with can capture the salient features of a mystical experience. Not that of formal logic, not ideograms, not metaphor, certainly not words.

The main problem is that the experience is non-dualistic. I can’t even imagine how to analyse something unless I can step outside it, reduce it to an object. Try that with a mystical experience and you lose the gist of it immediately. Its fundamental essence simply drains away.

I’m not saying I retain nothing from entering mystical states. Often they offer insights into myself or my relationships that seem to be of enduring value. Finding a path to mystical bliss – be it via meditation, psychosis, psychedelics or fever – seems to make it easier to deliberately recreate the altered state later. And sometimes, very rarely for me, they bring about a major perceptual shift that forever changes the way I see everything. The trip that never comes down.

But none of that tells me what my spiritual experiences mean.

WTF was that? Why did it happen to me? Is God talking to me? Have I penetrated the veil and seen the true nature of reality? Do I have an important message to bring to mankind? Am I going nuts?

One thing my mysticism does not mean is that I am any wiser, better or more gifted than anyone else. If it has taught me anything it’s that I am pretty messed up and hopelessly entangled with my own ego.

Besides, a quick look at the internet reveals there are a heck of a lot of other people out there having similar experiences. Some call themselves mystics. Some artists or poets. Some consider themselves committed Christians or commitable lunatics. But unless I’m seriously misreading things many are having experiences very akin to my own. Then applying entirely different contexts to them and trying to talk about them from within those contexts. Few are trying to listen to the spiritual experiences of others unless they confirm the interpretations they’ve placed upon their own. It’s a Tower of Babel out there.

It can be incredibly difficult to simply take a spiritual experience for what it is rather than trying to fit it into an ideology or belief system. It’s hard to talk about it otherwise, and who wouldn’t want to communicate the most significant experience of their life?

Naturally a major industry has sprung up to help people who have had mystical experiences fit them into a broader framework and explain what they mean. That industry is called ‘religion’ and the meaning they offer is often that you should give them your money and do what they tell you.

In my own case I have spent decades studying Buddhism and Advaita Vedanta trying to find an explanation for my experiences and techniques for reproducing them. As a result I use vipassana-like meditation to induce mystical states (when they don’t come the easy way via manic psychosis or drugs) and reach for Hindu metaphors when trying to describe them – including to myself.

The problem with using metaphors to try to grasp direct experience is that unless you keep renewing the experience it becomes easy to lose sight of it and supplant it with the metaphors themselves. So you get some people saying they know Jesus is the Truth because they have personally experienced Him while others say its Allah, Brahman, the Tao or LSD. Sometimes people are so attached to their own metaphor they insist that those of others must be deluded or demonic. They can even come to blows over it, which is pretty funny to me as one of my preferred metaphors for trying to grasp spiritual experience is ‘Unity’ – and I’ll fight anyone who says it’s invalid.

I’m no different to anyone else. I’m still very attached to the notion that the wonderful gifts my mystical experiences have given me should be available to others and that I have some kind of mission to impart them upon those in need. That’s primarily what this post and indeed the entire blog is about. But that’s just my ego talking through a bunch of metaphors.

My spiritual experiences don’t really give me gifts, nor do they reveal gifts I already have.

They just are.

Or are they?

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From → mysticism, narcissism

10 Comments
  1. I’m wondering if there are very different kinds of mystical experiences, though with some common features, and that maybe be why people can differ so intensely about the specifics.

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    • That’s a tough one to answer meaningfully.

      My different mystical experiences have had different subsidiary qualities such as epiphany and theophany (and I sure wasn’t expecting that) but ‘at their core’ (*AARGH* WORDS!!) they are ‘unification’ with something without attribute, subject or object. Much of what I’ve read from others hints strongly at the same thing (to me at least).

      So in its most fundamental sense I think its oxymoronic to speak of ‘different kinds of mystical experience’.

      But they have also included experiences that definitely do have attributes.

      To retreat to Advaitist terminology, it is like you are simultaneously one with Brahman yet still experiencing maya – albeit from a very different perspective.

      I think the ‘maya’ side of the experience is specifically personal – in fact I suspect it is entirely conditioned by my own ego (or that which is not my own ego – which is the same thing but in a mirror).

      To the degree that my ego is made up of my belief system, that is reflected in the ‘attributed’ part of the experience. It seems to be the source of both epiphany and theophany – or the bits that can be retained at least. So its probably also the source of interpretation of the experience.

      Mostly it tells me what I actually believe but have been hiding from myself. If that’s never happened to you it might be hard to imagine how powerful it is. When I saw I’d been lying to myself about my entire morality it ripped my guts out.

      And while I don’t want to sound like I’m denigrating something that is truly wonderful, the attributed side of the experience seems an order of magnitude less ‘real’ than the unattributed side – while still being every bit as ‘real’ as I am. Maybe its a sort of side-effect of the temporary suspension of my ego – the thing that rushes in to fill the vacuum where ‘I’ was.

      God, look at my rambling.
      That tends to happen when I try to talk about this stuff.
      What’s worse is that I read back over it and think “what bullshit!”.
      The ‘guru lessons’ are partly confessional that way – plus my tendency to hide behind cynicism that you may have already noticed.

      Best I can do though.

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      • I still am not sure that all mystical sorts of experiences can fit under one umbrella. As you mentioned, they might take the guise of ones beliefs.

        Related to this, I was recently talking to a friend about “after death” experiences. The friend seemed to think they were all similar and revolved around warm feelings and white light. However, the Tibetan Book of the Dead offers a completely different picture, in which the culmination of the after death existence is so overwhelming that most would clamor back to the rack on any existence rather than remain suspended in the eternal void. So, there are very different convictions about these states.

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        • I can’t speak for near death or out of body experiences.

          I came close to drowning once and don’t remember anything between a few seconds after giving up holding my breath and waking up in hospital.

          But there is something uncanny in the similarity of the metaphors that people from so many religious traditions reach for in trying to describe elements of the experience. Then they try to explain it and start heading off in different directions.

          I can see how lots of salient aspects of my experiences are probably unique to me, but the non-dual thing at the core of it all … I just can’t imagine how it could be different. It has no attributes that could vary.

          Maybe the apparent similarities are nothing more than the inability of language to describe something completely subjective – regardless of what that subjective experience may be.

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  2. “WTF was that? Why did it happen to me? Is God talking to me? Have I penetrated the veil and seen the true nature of reality? Do I have an important message to bring to mankind? Am I going nuts?”

    Been there, understand that! I’ve been giving thought to posting some of my experiences but as of yet lack the courage. I also know how difficult it would be to relate it from within the reality of how I experienced it. But maybe I will, one day, go ahead and ‘throw a pearl to the swine.’
    I really enjoyed reading this post.

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    • The danger from my perspective is that in trying to find a way to communicate your experience you are actually deforming it in your own mind to make it fit the medium you are trying to use.

      When I try to write directly of my experiences, then read back over it, it ‘feels’ like the most ridiculous lies no matter how hard I’ve striven to be truthful. But if I think/speak/write about it in those terms often enough the words seem more ‘true’ but my ‘memory’ of the experience itself seems to have lost something vital.

      There’s still some experiences I just can’t attempt to speak directly of because they feel too precious to risk that way.

      My most recent (mid July) is a case in point.

      It gave me some insights that seemed urgent to communicate – mainly that I had been fooling myself as to how well I had learned to control my mental states – but much of it seems to be still ‘percolating through me’ and I don’t want to pin it to a metaphor and kill it.

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  3. For Fox Sake permalink

    I’m no different to anyone else. I’m still very attached to the notion that the wonderful gifts my mystical experiences have given me should be available to others and that I have some kind of mission to impart them upon those in need. That’s primarily what this post and indeed the entire blog is about. But that’s just my ego talking through a bunch of metaphors

    Do you ever wonder about the dawn chorus of birdsong? Do you wonder if
    each bird wakes up and thinks I won’t open my beak today. I won’t sing the
    dream I had. I am going to practice the metaphor cat’s got my tongue and get in touch with my inner homo sap

    I wonder which species is degraded the most when a human is referred to as being a birdbrain

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    • What the dawn chorus of birdsong makes me wonder is “Why the fuck am I awake?”.

      I’m aspie remember, not to mention subjectively focused to the point of solipsism. I don’t even anthropomorphise humans. I sure don’t imagine animals have an internal monologue or that I’d have a hope of modelling what goes on in their heads. It took me over twenty years to realise most of my fellow homo saps have a constant internal voice they think is their thoughts. I’ve even heard people argue it’s their consciousness for chrissake!

      Like

  4. For Fox Sake permalink

    I’m aspie remember,

    I don’t know what you mean by that.

    Like

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