On the difficulty of discussing spiritual experiences

It’s notoriously difficult to make other people know what our spiritual experiences are like.

People often say this is due to the fact that spiritual experiences are beyond the mind and therefore are ineffable.

In my opinion, in most cases, this is not the real reason. The only experiences that are beyond the mind (unknown to the mind, not mediated by the mind) are direct experiences of Brahman. Yes, those experiences are hard to describe because the mind doesn’t know them.

But very few people have such experiences. All other spiritual experiences — the vast majority of the ones that people talk about — are mental activity. They are no more beyond the mind than our experiences of cold showers or episodes of embarrassment or coffee cups.

In my opinion, the real reason why it’s hard to describe spiritual experiences, in most cases, is that we can’t point to them. Pointing is the foundation of our system of defining words. For example, a child asks, “Mommy, what’s a lemon?” Mommy puts a lemon in the child’s hand. Now the child knows.

Try doing that with kundalini or mouna or the presence of God.

You may object that there are many words that describe things we can’t point to. For example, injustice, regret, loss.

But we do use pointing to define those words. We point to examples or situations. “Mommy, what’s injustice?” “Well, honey, remember when I accused you of lying about the cookies? And I was wrong, you didn’t eat them? That was injustice.”

Once we understand the problem, we’re in a better position to find a solution. Einstein famously defined time as “that which we measure with a clock.” The general formula is, “X is that which happens when we do Y.” I used this method to define “aware state” in the first article I published on this website.

People often try to solve this problem by giving lots of synonyms. For example, instead of simply saying “awareness of awareness”, a phrase that can be interpreted in many ways, they add consciousness of consciousness, knowing of knowing, knowledge of presence, attention to attention, on and on. I don’t think this method works very well. People who do this remind me of tourists who shout when they talk to people who don’t understand their language, as if one language turns into another when it gets loud enough.

It should also be noted that many experiences which are entirely in the mind are ineffable. For example, you and I have no way to know whether red looks the same to you as it does to me. The appearance of redness is entirely inside the mind — it’s a representation generated by the brain — but we have no way to describe it. I can say, “red is the color of that apple,” but that doesn’t tell you what red looks like to me.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *