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Experience – III: Some conundrums

“At one extreme experience (present) is offered as the necessary (immediate and authentic) ground for all (subsequent) reasoning and analysis. At the other extreme, experience . . . is seen as the product of social conditions or of systems of belief or of fundamental systems of perception, and thus not as material for truths but as evidence of conditions of systems which by definition it cannot itself explain.” Raymond Williams, Keywords

What is “Experience”?
“Experience” generally signifies a particularly rock-like certainty – contrasted with the airy ephemerality of “theory” or “book-learning.” It often is deployed to confer a quality of “authority” – “I have lived this” as opposed to “I’ve read a book about this”. It is a guarantor of “truth” — “I was there, I know what happened. You don’t; so pay attention to me!” Statements of Experience are privileged over perspectives that are held to be non-experiental. “Experience” can be read as a marker of authenticity; a core value of personal and moral worth.

There are different shades to experience. For example, were I to ask, “have you had experience of eating foreign food?” then this usually does not imply anything more than “Have you ever eaten foreign food?” In this sense, “having experience of” is nothing more than an idiom for describing what one has done, or undergone. However, when we enter the realm of the esoteric, experience refers to something qualitatively distinct. There are two further ‘categories’ of experience which are often conflated. There is experience in the sense of having learned or come to know something firsthand – i.e. not relying on someone else’s account. Then there is the notion of what might – for the purpose of discussion – be termed “Pure Experience”. Pure Experience involves an epistemological assertion about the nature of experience – that it is a direct, unmediated apprehension of the real which is ‘beyond’ intellectual process or conceptualizing. The adjective “experiential” tends to imply that it is non-rational, intuitive, and non-conceptual (in the cognitive sense), devoid of intellectual activity. Pure experiences are often framed in these terms and it is to these experiences that I want to reflect on, in order to highlight the ways in which this notion of the pure, unmediated experience is both pervasive and problematic.

The ‘problem’ of Pure experience is that it is often asserted that it cannot be put into words – it is held to ‘beyond’ language, and therefore any attempts to interrogate that experience via discursive language is doomed to failure from the start.

Magical experiences are often framed within a discourse of ‘Pure Experience’ with the consequence that they are taken as direct apprehensions of the ‘real’ – I’m thinking here of “inner” encounters with deities, inner guides, and revelations in particular.

Experience — or rather, speaking authoratively from experience can quickly become tyrannical. As soon as I say “THIS is my experience – this isn’t just a theory from a book (“shudder”) or a vague (“sniff”) idea – I’VE LIVED THIS!!!” It becomes difficult, if not impossible for other people in the conversation to argue the position I’m taking up. It’s not unusual on occult message boards to see this frequent invocation of the authority of experience in order to shut down a conversation.

The ‘problem’ of the occult ‘Truth’ game becomes readily apparent – when one asserts experience/authority related to a degree of ‘initiation’; a contact with an ‘inner-planes adept’ (or one’s Holy Guardian Angel); or a ‘tradition’ – these appeals to authority are only valid if the other ‘players’ in the game acknowledge them as such. If for example, I say that ‘x’ is true because I’ve experienced it this way and that the master Koot Whoomi confirmed this to be the case, it would only have any force if those I am making this assertion to believed in the master Koot Whoomi – or indeed, in the very existence of independent astral beings in the first place. There is always the possibility that someone might happen by and say, “Well Koot Whoomi spoke to me too and confirmed what you said” but there is also the possibility that some naughty person might say, “Well I met Koot Whoomi in a vision last night and he told me that you’re an idiot and I should ignore you.” Every appeal to sameness contains the possibility of difference.

Why is it so difficult to argue against ‘personal experience’? One factor is the prominence, in contemporary Western thought, of cultural relativism – which is often interpreted as the denial that any one group’s belief systems, practices or cultural productions are inherently superior to those of any other group – what Charles Taylor calls the “liberalism of neutrality.” In occult conversations, this often translates as a stated willingness to see all ‘spiritual paths’ as equally valid – or, perhaps for some chaos magicians, equally arbitary.

Another factor – which pertains particularly to occult experiences, is that such experiences are understood to belong to an ‘inner reality’ – which is “beyond” culture and history, ‘pure’ and at the same time, authoritative. This inner reality is posited as the source of the phenomenal world, yet at the same time, ‘spiritual’ explanations of worldly events are privileged over non-spiritual explanations.

Perennialism v. Constructivism
A central theme in modern occultism is the notion of an essential commonality between philosophical, religious and esoteric traditions from disparate cultures, a commonality often centered in “mystical experience”:

“…the metaphysic that recognizes a divine Reality substantial to the world of things and lives and minds; the psychology that finds in the soul something similar to, or even identical with, divine Reality; the ethic that places man’s final end in the knowledge of the immanent and transcendent Ground of all being – the thing is immemorial and universal. Rudiments of the Perennial Philosophy may be found among the traditionary lore of primitive peoples in every region of the world, and in its fully developed forms it has a place in every one of the higher religions.” Aldous Huxley, The Perennial Tradition, 1944

A similar vein runs through the work of HP Blavatsky. For example, in Isis Unveiled she asserts:

“What we desire to prove is, that underlying every popular religion was the same ancient wisdom-doctrine, one professed and practiced by the initiates of every country, who alone were aware of its existence and importance.”

For Perennialists, spiritual experience is a cross-cultural constant – that it is a fundamental unity given different modes of expression Differences arise from interpretation, not essence.

The Perennial Tradition acts as a kind of “master narrative” for some occult discourses – I’ll come back to this point in more depth another time.

In the 1970’s the Perennial philosophy came under severe attack from Constructivists notably Stephen Katz’s book Mysticism and Philosophical Analysis.

The Constructivist position is that there are no unmediated or ‘pure’ experiences – in the sense of being free from interpretation. Regarding the mystical experience, Katz writes:

“The experience itself as well as the form in which it is reported is shaped by concepts which the mystic brings to, and which shape, his experience … The forms of consciousness which the mystic brings to experience set structured and limiting parameters on what the experience will be … This process of differentiation of mystical experiences into the patterns and symbols of established religious communities is experiential and does not take place in the post-experiential process of reporting and interpreting the experience itself: it is at work before, during, and after the experience.”

Katz’s position is basically that there is no such thing as an unmediated experience; that the very nature of the experience is socially constructed according to the culture, beliefs and expectations of the individuals having the experience. In this view, mystical experiences are radically contextual and the pluralistic account offered by Katz invites us to respect the richness of the experiential and conceptual data whilst avoiding reductionism. In opposition to the Perennial philosophy – which finds an essential similarity between different religious traditions – constructivist accounts emphasize difference.

Robert Sharf: the dilemma of experience
Robert Sharf’s argument is that if a religious (or mystical, etc.) experience conveys any meaning – that meaning derives from shared public discourse, and not from the experience itself as such. Sharf presents his argument in two key papers – Experience in Mark Taylor (ed.) Critical Terms for Religious Studies (Princeton, 1998, pp.94-116) and the earlier Buddhist Modernism and the Rhetoric of Meditative Experience (Numen, V.42 N.3, 1995, pp228-283). Although his argument is directed at scholars of religion and Buddhist studies, I’m going to look at it in some depth, as I would contend that Sharf’s work highlights some key issues for occult practitioners.

Sharf opens with the observation of the commonly-held belief that religious – and particularly “mystical” teachings are grounded in distinct, primary experiences:

“…experience as a concept has come to play a pivotal role in the study of religion. The meaning of many religious symbols, scriptures, practices and institutions is believed to reside in the experiences they elicit in the minds of practitioners. Moreover, a particular mode (or modes) of experience, characterised as “religious,” “spiritual,” “visionary,” or “mystical,” is thought to consitute the very essence of religion, such that the origin of a given tradition is often traced to the founder’s initial transcendental encounter, moment of revelation, salvation or enlightenment. This approach to religious phenomena is not confined to academic discourse alone; many lay adherents feel that the only authentic form of worship or scriptural study is one that leads to a personal experience of its “inner truth.” Consequently, scholarship that does not attend to the experiential dimension of religious practice is dismissed by many as reductionist.

He relates the “allure of the rhetoric of experience” in terms of responses to a host of challenges made to Western theologians and secular scholars – which he groups under two headings – “empiricism” and “cultural pluralism”. Firstly, making “religious” experience a particular and special category of event effectively protected it from the scrutiny of scientific analysis and skeptical dismissal. Secondly, the notion of a commonality of religious experience allowed liberal western theologians to acknowledge the value (if not the truth) of non-Christian religion and helped the formation of Comparative Religious studies. The rhetoric of “religious experience” – making a core distinction between a common “inner” experience and its diverse, culturally-bound manifestations, recapitulates (as Sharf points out in his 1995 paper) the Cartesian mind-matter divide.

Drawing on the work of Wayne Proudfoot, Sharf asserts that the very concept of “religious experience” is a distinctively Western construct – and a relatively late one at that, a key moment in the genealogy of modern usage of the term “experience” is Schleiermacher’s appeal to personal experience as a defence of religion against the fierce secular and scientific critiques of the nineteenth century and onwards.

“the notion that Asian religions are more experientally rooted than their Western counterparts is one of those truisms so widely and unquestioningly held that corroboration of any kind is deemed superflous.”

Sharf is equally critical of the widely-held belief that Asian religious teachings are rooted in experiences (as opposed to texts, doctrines or authorities) – with the implication that these truths can be verified through personal experience. He observes that whilst key Buddhist exegetical works are often presumed to be descriptive accounts based on the personal experiences of adepts – however, the authority of exegetes rests not in their access to exalted states but in their mastery and adherence to sacred scripture. Also that although contemporary accounts of (Asian) meditation presume that they are oriented towards meditation experience – meditation did not occupy the dominant role in monastic and ascetic life that is so often supposed. Meditation was not, he says, oriented towards the attainment of exalted states of consciousness, but a means of eliminating, defilements, accumulating merit, invoking deities.

Furthermore, Sharf traces the valorisation of experience in Asian thought to “a handful” of twentieth-century Asian religious leaders and apologists engaged in intercultural dialogue with their western counterparts and influenced by Western religious and philosophical traditions. Sharf outlines the role played by Radhakrishnan (1888-1975) and D.T. Suzuki (1870-1966), both of whom emphasised “personal experience” and helped disseminate the idea the Asian religions, in contrast to the West, prioritised direct spiritual experience. Sharf highlights that not only did Asian intellectuals have to contend with empiricist and pluralist critiques to their religious heritage, but also Western cultural imperialism – particularly the “contempt” with which occidentals viewed the religious culture of Asia – as primitive, idolatrous, and backwards. The rhetoric or experience allowed Radhakrishnan, Suzuki and their fellows to present their traditions more mystical, intuitive or experiental – excelling spiritually in contrast to Western industrial (and imperialist) modernity. The very notion that experience could serve as univeral common ground in the study of religions emerged out of this cross-cultural encounter and rapidly became an “academic industry”. “The confluence of interests prevented those on both sides from noticing the tenuous ground on which the exchange had been built.”

Sharf then turns to examine the “dilemma” of experience. The problem, as he states it, is that whilst experience is represented as immediate and unmediated (and tends to be located in the Cartesian “immaterial”) – as soon as one attaches any content to it – it becomes part of public discourse:

“if talk of shamanic experience, mystical experience, enlightenment experience … is to have any sort of determinate meaning, we must construe the term “experience” in referential or ostensive terms. But to do so is to objectify it, which would seem to undermine its most salient characteristic, namely, its immediacy. So we are posed with a dilemma: experience cannot be determinate without being rendered a “thing”: if it is a thing it cannot be indubitable; but if it is not a thing, then it cannot perform the hermeneutic task that religious scholars require of it – that of determining meaning.”

This recalls Joan Scott’s post-structuralist view of experience:

“Experience is at once always already an interpretation and something that needs to be interpreted. What counts as experience is neither self-evident nor straightforward; it is always contested, and always therefore political. The study of experience, therefore, must call into question its originary status in historical explanation….Experience is, in this approach, not the origin of our explanation, but that which we want to explain.”

In order to illustrate this point, Sharf turns to the example of Vipassana – a Buddhist form of meditation that is popular amongst both western and Southeast Asian Buddhists. Sharf notes at the outset that the contemporary emphases on meditative states in relation to Vipassana cannot be traced back prior to the late 19th century. He then details how contemporary practitioners attempt to relate their meditative experiences with the “descriptions” of soteriological stages found in Buddhist scriptures – and so treat scholastic terms pertaining to stages of Buddhist practice as though they are “descriptions” of experiences accesible via practice. This, he says, has led to the advancement of the view that Theravada meditation theory is a sort of “empirical phenomenology” of altered states “which can be applied to non-Buddhist as well as Buddhist phenomena.” Sharf points out that the scriptural sources for the current enthusiasm for Vipassana are often ambigious and inconsistent, and there is little agreement between contemporary Vipassana teachers over the interpretation of terms – and much contraversy ensues. There is a similar situation, he says, with regard to contemporary Zen practice. Within contemporary Buddhist and Zen communities – meditative states or liberatory experiences are judged not on the basis of privileged personal access, but in terms of a meditator’s lineage, the specific ritual practice that engendered the experience, the behaviour that ensued, etc.Such judgements are predicated upon a person’s prior ideological commitments shaped by their vocation, socioeconomic background, political agenda, sectarian affiliation, education, etc – all features of public discourse.

Sharf then presents a “test case” with which to further interrogate contemporary presentations of the authority of experience – the phemonena of alien abductees. Sharf notes that abductee narratives may differ in the details, but there is a general consistency of themes present – as there often is with mystical or religious experiences. The details of abductees’ experiences are often recovered by specialists (such as therapists) who treat traumatised individuals and act in a similar manner to religious priests or spiritual preceptors. The psychological traumas suffered by abductees – and their personal stories – is, says Sharf, the closest thing we have to “empirical” evidence. Many of the key elements in abduction narratives have been traced to popular science fiction stories, comics, films etc. The common scholarly consensus, says Sharf, is that abductees’ stories do not originate with actual abduction by aliens – (as an originary event) but with other processes – such as childhood trauma, for instance.

His question here, is can we (ie. scholars) assume that the reports of experiences given by religious adepts – mystics, shamans, etc., are any more “credible” as “phenomenological descriptions” than those of abductees? Religious teachings, supported by institutions and authorities constitute the publically shared content of the “truths” perceived in religious experiences – in the same way that science fiction discourse (including abductee narratives) provides the content for the experience of having been abducted by aliens.

Sharf concludes with an examination of just why the inviability of personal spiritual experience is so important today – particularly in relation to modern notions of selfhood, private interiority and self-determination.

The more immediate concern for scholars, Sharf says, is the question of how to understand peoples who are different from us without erasing the differences. This relates to the acute awareness of the problems inherent in imposing conceptual categories and theories in comprehending the worlds of other peoples – referencing the debate, impelled by feminist and postcolonial scholarship around the asymmetrical between theorist/investigator and subjects. The main defence against silencing and domesticating the subject has been to respect “diverse” worldviews: We want to valorise the self-representations of others, yet we balk when “respect for others” places undue demands on our own credibility.

He is also critical of the Constructivist position as outlined by Katz and others, noting that they assume that the various processes (historical, linguistic etc.) which give rise to narrative representations are identical with those which give rise to the experience – and that the former – which can be subjected to scholarly analysis, “provide a transparent window” to the latter.

Sharf concludes with:

“The word ‘experience’, insofar as it refers to that which is given to us in the immediacy of perception, signifies that which by definition is nonobjective, that which resists all signification. In other words, the term experience cannot make ostensible a something that exists in the world. The salient characteristic of private experience that distinguishes it from ‘objective reality’ is thus its unremitting indeterminacy. At the same time, the rhetoric of experience tacitly posits a place where signification comes to an end, variously styled ‘mind’, ‘consciousness’ the ‘mirror of nature’ or what have you. The category experience is, in essence, a mere placeholder that entails a substantive if indeterminate terminus for the relentless deferral of meaning. And this is precisely what makes the term experience so amenable to ideological appropriation.”

Some thoughts
Whilst Sharf’s analysis has its critics, I think he’s making some useful points here. He’s not denying that people can have instense, inwardly-directed experiences, or that these experiences are not important, but that the focus on them as the centre of religious & mystical traditions (and I’d extend this into magical & esoteric traditions) is both recent and originates in western culture – rather than an eternal and universalised concern. His historicising account could possibly act as a corrective when we interpret historical texts, practices etc. – that we shouldn’t automatically assume that our contemporary concerns and goals in terms of spiritual practice were shared by our historical forebears, as it were.

Also, by highlighting the importance of public discourse in producing meaning, Sharf’s analysis could be of use in examining how magical experiences are made meaningful through discursive & narrative practices – and I’ll be taking a look at this in a future post – examining how the rhetoric of experience is used in occult texts.

But there’s a wider issue at stake here too – the tension between individual and community. In prioritising “personal experience”(being mindful that in my enthusiastic writing on Chaos Magic I continually banged on the drum that “personal experience” is paramount – which it is, but then this is true for any kind of engaged activity.) as the sole source of authority – with the attendant suspicion of institutions, texts, traditions or teachers) there can be a tendency to ignore the importance of community; of spiritual engagement or self-change arising out of exchanges with others. Indeed, it’s easy to come away from some kinds of occult texts with the idea that other people don’t matter at all. I’ve seen books that reccomend meditating on being part of a community, or of compassion for others, but that’s as far as it goes. Often, it seems to me, there isn’t much sense of actually having to reach out to other people, with the attendant risks and challenges of that move.

I’ll be returning to some of these themes in due course.

Robert Sharf’s essays Experience and Buddhist Modernism and the Rhetoric of Meditative Experience are available as pdf downloads from his website


  1. Christina
    Posted August 2nd 2010 at 12:12 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for this. This article should be required reading for anyone attempting a) cross-cultural magical work or analysis b) anyone who’s had a mystical or magical experience who wants to enter into ANY discussion with another person. At all.

    I can’t comment in more detail at the moment, but it is touching to see traces of our discussions over coffee in this piece.

  2. Gyrus
    Posted August 2nd 2010 at 2:28 pm | Permalink

    Many thoughts…

    On how “mediated” an experience is, for my tastes the Constructivist position usually seems to fall too far into the trap of just reacting in a polarized way to what it’s attacking. If “personal experience” or “religious experience” is held up as “unmediated”, to demonstrate that it is in fact mediated misses the crucial question of exactly how much it’s mediated. Where does it fall on a spectrum? Hakim Bey hit a nail on the head in ‘Immediatism‘, in an art context:

    All experience is mediated — by the mechanisms of sense perception, mentation, language, etc. — & certainly all art consists of some further mediation of experience. However, mediation takes place by degrees. […] We wish to take the motives & discoveries of these earlier movements [mail art, zines, etc.] to their logical conclusion in an art which banishes all mediation & alienation, at least to the extent that the human condition allows.

    There’s an important argument about the relative mediation of a peak experience, some kind of “satori” moment, and the process of watching a film or talking in the pub. Not that it’s a clear-cut argument, but it seems to get lost in showing that even satori is mediated.

    Sharf’s terminology is slipping through my fingers too easily for me to grasp whether he’s in line with this critique…

    Anyway, on the social aspect of religious / magical experience, let me big up a book that I’m halfway through: Supernatural Selection: How Religion Evolved by Matt Rossano. “Relationality” is his watchword for defining religion, and he basically sees its origins as adaptive in the sense that the communal bonds fostered by shamanism, animism & ancestor worship helped humans get through a severe population bottleneck during ecological crisis around 70,000 years ago. We emerged from this with religion firing on all cylinders, and conquered the world… Of course, “communal bonds” here includes those between the living and the dead, and between humans and nature. It does seem reasonable to suppose that religion and magic originally evolved as social phenomena. (It’s another argument as to whether they always need to be social, but obviously origins have some bearing on function.)

    And another thing! As for the idea that intense, inward “religious experiences” as the centre of traditions is a recent Western thing, this makes sense. Seems to be a symptom of losing touch with this kind of experience on a general social level. Not that everyone pre-monotheism was having their mind blown all the time by peak experiences, but it’s probably safe to say that such things were more common currency, more democratically distributed let’s say. This would have a huge impact on shared vocabularies for socializing such experiences—not to mention how language and expression would cleave closer to the body and personal presence before the invention of writing…

  3. wupidoo
    Posted August 4th 2010 at 12:02 pm | Permalink

    Aye, the word of God becomes profane as soon as it enters the mouths of man.

    I think it is perhaps relevant here to draw a distinction between prereflective engagement and reflection upon the experience of engagement in whatever. Preflective engagement is basically invisible. If we consider ‘thought’ as essentially subvocalisation, and therefore an aspect of relationality, we can then recognise it as the engine of social narrative.

    Just a thought!