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The Problem of Spiritual Experience

I was at a Seder a few years ago, and told my host I’d just been on a six-week silent meditation retreat. Before I could finish my sentence, he announced, “You’re deluding yourself.”

A bit quick to judge, perhaps, but if you ask most skeptics, I think they’d say the same thing about spiritual experiences. The waving of hands, the chanting — it’s all well and good, but it’s a delusion, right? Wannabe mystics can say they’re encountering “God,” but that’s just how they label some subjective experience. And most people think mystics are nuts.

Piercing the Veil: Can visionary insights be trusted? Traveller? By Anastasiya Markovich. Painting In Oil On Wood, 2006.

The problem is not new. Saadia Gaon, the great medieval Jewish thinker, once argued for the supremacy of Judaism over Islam because Islam depended on the experiences of one man, whereas the Jewish revelation was witnessed by 600,000. Saadia’s point was that one person’s testimony is not trustworthy enough.

Even if we believe the facts of the testimony, though, spiritual experiences remain highly amenable to interpretation. Two people can have the same experience, yet an atheist will interpret it according to her frame of reference and a believer according to hers, and there is no real way to decide between them.

And then there’s the pragmatic problem. Throughout history, religious zealots, motivated by their religious experience, have murdered thousands. Even if mysticism feels good and delivers results, it may still be dangerous, if only in principle. Do the costs outweigh the benefits?

I’ve been thinking about these questions for quite a while. In college and grad school, I read hundreds of testimonies, tracts and accounts of mystic quests; accounts of visionary ascents, ecstatic unions and divine theophanies. Eventually, I moved beyond theory to try contemplative practice for myself.

What can I report? I can say, in my own limited experience, that if you do what some mystics and contemplatives say, you can experience the results they promise: dissolving of the sense of self; rapture in concentrated joy; feelings of immense bliss; and, for religious souls, a certainty that one is held and loved and engulfed by the Divine. And I think it is worth the effort.

Moreover, there is a sense of “presence” in these experiences that is more than a sensation of having one’s mind altered. Particularly in meditation, the mind feels perfectly clear, not swooning or drunken or seen through a soft cinematic lens. Yet with that clarity, a great love arises without any prodding or effort, and there is often an obvious certainty that the love is not just a personal wiggling of neurons but some openness to how things actually are. That’s the feeling, anyway.

For many contemporary mystics and “spiritual people,” this is enough. Indeed, one well-known New York mystical rabbi was shocked when I told him that I continue to doubt my own peak experiences. The experience fits all the criteria, it leads to expressions of love; what more could one possibly want?

Well, I was trained to be a skeptic. The process of education is fundamentally about acquiring the cognitive skills of doubt, especially in volatile contexts such as religion, and learning to take apart assumptions more critically and carefully. So I think it’s important, and possible, to be analytically rigorous about spiritual experience. Here are some ways to do it.

First, it is helpful to distinguish what we know from what we don’t. At the very least, since I have experienced what mystics have described, by following their recommendations, that means that if I’m deluded, generations of mystics are as well. It’s not just me, and it’s not new; it’s ancient, widespread and revered. Moreover, the mystics’ testimony is “expert” testimony. Contemplatives are precisely the people who have devoted the most attention to the mind and the spirit. I wonder what my Seder interlocutor, a dentist for 30 years, would’ve said if I had doubted the foundations of modern dentistry. Who are you inclined to believe more — the doubter who has never explored these pathways or millions of experts who spent their lives doing so?

Philosopher Ken Wilber has suggested that mysticism actually is verifiable — so long as you follow the right procedures. Just as Galileo’s interlocutors had to look through the telescope to evaluate his claims, and just as a logician must adhere to certain rules in order to evaluate a proof, so too must a critic of mystical experience look through “the eye of spirit.” Repeat the procedure as described and see what happens.

Now, the sense of certainty that arises within mystical experience is not, itself, enough; as John Kerry fruitlessly pointed out to George W. Bush, you can be both certain and wrong. But this is not some intuitive gut sense of things. Nor is it some vague sense of the sublime or a beloved article of faith. Peak contemplative experience feels truer than anything I’ve ever felt; it is more certain than knowing my name. It feels like “Yes, this is it. This is what you have been looking for your whole life.” So that merits at least agnosticism in one’s subsequent reflection.

A second useful analytical tool is to tease apart experience from interpretation. “I felt a great love” could be interpreted as “I felt the love of Hashem” or “I felt the love of Christ” — or just “I felt a great love.” And that depends not on the phenomenology of the experience but the conceptual frame in which it is understood. So as soon as one moves from experience to concepts, one is no longer entitled to the certainty of one’s spiritual perception.

Of course, these questions are not unique to spirituality; they are Epistemology 101. How do you know you’re not in the Matrix right now, or a brain floating in a laboratory jar? You don’t. All you really can say, right now, is “I am having this experience” — not “it is an experience of X.” So if we’re going to be epistemologically skeptical, let’s be consistent about it and doubt every subjective experience, which is to say, every experience there is.

That being said, mystics should make friends with epistemological humility. The reification of subjective experience is precisely what leads to fundamentalism, error and the willingness to kill someone who has an alternative interpretation. Sure, most New Age spiritual people are gentle, and pluralistic to the point of relativism. But as soon as we assert that our subjective spiritual experience has any objective truth, we are on slippery slope to dogmatism.

Especially when the experience gets attached to the label “God.” Really, the word “God” is an experiential exclamation point: Instead of my having a powerful insight, God told me something! Instead of introspection, I’m asking God! This is an invitation to zealotry.

Declining the invitation to interpret experience is also, ultimately, more nourishing. The most wonderful, rapturous mystical state is just a mind-state. It passes. Letting the experience be — without labeling it as specifically religious or attempting to prove anything — allows an experience to be appreciated for what it is, rather than for what the ego may want it to be. You get less stuck.

And you value more. This mind-state (whether devekut, samadhi, unio mystica) isn’t significant because of a story about what it represents; it’s significant because it engenders more compassion and more wisdom. Conversely, a mind-state that may have felt very “mystical” but that brings about cruelty or unskillful behavior is easily judged by its fruits, rather than by the supposedly mystical feeling that accompanied it. One finds in almost every contemplative tradition, theistic and non-theistic, precisely this metric for evaluating truth. The interpretations cannot be verified, but the effects can.

Staying with the experience itself also lessens the risk of idolatry. Any concept we have of God, even an experiential one, is not God; it is a finite concept, tied to the finite mind, conceptualized in terms of other finite concepts. Thus any idea or concept imposed upon the ineffable mystical experience actually takes us further from the Divine. The less said, the better. Material proof has nothing to do with God. It only has to do with mistaken utterances about the world of appearance.

And, finally, valuing spiritual experience without determining a set interpretive frame diminishes the allure of particularism. If we suppose that spirituality can prove the mythic assertions of the Bible, we are mistaken. Indeed, the universality of mystical experience is why contemplatives tend more to be universalists than do non-contemplatives. Though there may be phenomenological differences in different spiritual experiences, mysticism makes plain that, if religion is like a finger pointing to the moon, you can see the moon with any number of pointers, even those a particular tradition or text wants to suppress.

A naive mystic prays in a synagogue, has a spiritual experience and then ascribes the experience to the particular prayers he uttered: these words, this tradition. He turns the tools of spiritual practice into magic tricks and buttresses for the ego. A sophisticated mystic enters and prays in the same synagogue and perhaps has the same experience. But she does not ascribe the sight of the moon to the use of a particular finger.

Mystical experience is as the mystics say. That much I can relate to you. And if we bring analytical rigor to spiritual experience, it becomes more generative, defensible, humble and universal. What really is the difference between “I feel love” and “I love you, God.” It seems to me that the more we can erode the difference between those statements, the closer we are to heaven.

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