Archive for the 'experience' Category

Whose version?

May 25, 2014

This is not about different ways of translating the same idea, which I just mentioned in a reply comment, but about different versions of what happened in a situation or encounter, it’s about different factual accounts.

I went to a doctor for one of those annual “preventive care” rituals.  It did not go well.  I finally insisted on something that I had suggested before we got started — that I place my feet in a somewhat unorthodox position.   For one thing, I had a doctor decades ago who taught me to do that, for another thing, I am somewhat short (this doctor’s office says I’m not even 5 feet tall, which I had thought I was), including in the legs, so equipment may not be scaled for me.

Afterwards, the doctor wanted to engage in some “Do you have any questions?” discussion.  I didn’t have any questions, but I did say I had some concerns about what had happened, that it wasn’t okay with me that she had taken the point of view that I was “doing something

” when it really was a muscle issue dictated by the position of my feet.  She countered with a claim that she had actually prevailed before I switched foot positions, I pointed out it hadn’t gone well enough for her to do what she needed to do until I had switched foot positions.

My insistence on my version I couched in terms of what I had experienced.  But beneath the surface of our accounts was the issue of who bore responsibility for what — what’s my stuff, what’s someone else’s.   I often have trouble seeing where that boundary is.  So while I was not a happy camper about what had happened or about our exchange about it afterwards, what happened and the discussion afterwards were actually therapeutic and helpful to me because they were unclouded by other issues;  I could more clearly see someone trying to shift facts in a way that would make their stuff mine.  In other situations, I don’t see things so clearly, but I am pretty sure I encounter the same technique nonetheless.

So this time around I was able to assert myself and say in essence, “No, that’s not what happened.”

As I walked home I began the process of letting it go and forgiving.

She is young, not only younger than I am chronologically, but also in some other way.  I suspect that that latter characteristic is overrepresented among doctors — fix-it people whose expertise can be seen by them as elevating them above their patients in other ways, and whose perspective on these things may offer them some self-protection and shield them from some of the hazards of their work.

Of course, as she expressed, she doesn’t want to think of herself as hurting her patients.

So she is doing the best she can in her circumstances and with the equipment she has.

But that doesn’t mean I can’t present and insist on the reality of my experience.

But I also thank her for the opportunity to see more clearly than usual what happens to me if someone tries to deny the reality of what I experience — that it has the effect of diminishing me in some way, that it makes me feel smaller.  I wonder if that’s part of why people engage in the technique, to make other people feel small.

Ferris wheel

July 21, 2013

I was on a ferris wheel many years ago with my mother.  It was a small ferris wheel and had very sturdy seats, in cars in which occupants sat across from each other. (I suspect you could get two people on per seat, for a total of four people per car.)

I remember saying to her as were about halfway up circle of the ride, “Isn’t this fun?!”

I hadn’t been looking at her as I spoke, I think I was looking down at the people below.  When I didn’t hear much in the way of a response, I turned to look, and there she was, eyes scrunched close and looking pretty tense.

So, no, my mother didn’t find it fun to ride on the ferris wheel, although she went along with it.

I could tell she didn’t enjoy it, but no, I can’t say I empathized with her — I did not feel her feeling.  I felt bad about her obvious discomfort with the ride, too.  But none of my response could I call empathy.

Empathy is when I feel as if I actually feel what the other person is feeling, as if I’m an actor inhabiting a role, or inhabiting the other person.  I would say it goes beyond imagination, beyond my imagining what they may be feeling — it feels to me as if I really am feeling what they are feeling.  And I do have that experience from time to time.

I mention this because I get tired of the use of the term empathize to refer to processes which do not, in my opinion,  involve empathizing — the term has become, in my opinion, somewhat meaningless through its use to cover all sorts of mental processes and situations.  I sometimes think this happens especially when the person using the term has never actually really experienced the phenomenon of empathizing — analogous to a person using the word orgasm to refer to something else because they’ve never actually experienced one.  Two of life’s great mysteries, empathy and orgasms.


June 12, 2013

I don’t see how people who don’t see ourselves as reincarnated beings deal with the fact that some of us appear to “get” spiritual teachings in a fundamental way, and shift their consciousness as a result, while others merely process the information through their intellects and superficial behaviors.  For me the explanation is that some of us have already been through other stages in previous lives and that these stages have made us ready for a next step.

Which brings me to a further point:  some teachings produce damaging results in people who have not yet gone through some of the previous stages.

I don’t think compassion is awakened through learning at the feet of a teacher.  If the teacher’s compassion seemed to be awakened through such an experience, or if the teacher’s compassion seemed to be awakened through the practice of techniques, such as prayer and contemplation, then I suspect the teacher already had had their heart broken open (through difficult experiences?) in a previous lifetime.

I know that what I “know” I myself didn’t learn all during this lifetime.  I am quite sure it is the same for others, whether or not they recognize it.  We create all kinds of unfortunate spiritual knots in people, and in the world, when we encourage them to take steps that are not the next ones for them.  And in doing this, we are also enabling, if not encouraging, people to avoid some of the more difficult stages of spiritual development, I think.  You gotta break a few eggs to make that omelette at some stage of the process.  Nobody can experience that brokenness for us, and if we do try to experience it vicariously, we will not undergo the changes necessary in ourselves for subsequent steps.

It’s my personal belief, no offense intended, that some spiritual and religious teachers and leaders throughout history have been impatient with this aspect of spiritual development and the limits of teaching.  And I think some of this group ended up overwhelmed themselves by their frustration.  We can only do so much.  It’s a group project — a BIG group project — over time and across geography.  We do our piece and then we cede the stage.  The concept of reincarnation I find helpful for understanding and accepting this.  If there are other ways to do this, great, but I am concerned with worldviews that facilitate a sense that it can all be done here and now, through one person, through a set of teachings.

The dangers of teaching

April 14, 2013

I come from a family in which most people taught, either throughout their lives or for a time, myself included.  My maternal grandmother would interrupt my grandfather leading the family seder at Passover, to explain, in English, to my sister and me, what it was all about.  I enjoyed it.  I loved listening to her explanations — and to her stories, to her explanations of all the things, including from their travels, in their apartment in Brooklyn.  (If you seemed to really like something, it went home with you, unless it was already connected to someone else, like the “goody-goody gumdrop” candy dish, which, I think, was somehow connected to my uncle.)  I loved her pot roast, too.

So I feel as if I grew up in an environment in which teaching was a positive experience.  It was for me in school, too.

But in regard to some kinds of subject matter, I think there are dangers.  With regard to some kinds of knowledge, a little of it can be a dangerous thing.  The biggest danger, I believe, lies in explaining something that has to be experienced first or otherwise the experience will be influenced and distorted by the explanation, or in allowing students to substitute intellectual understanding of the concept for experience of the thing explained, and, as a further consequence of this, to make the direct experience more difficult to have.  Sometimes I think teachers can only really preach safely to the choir.

The choir may well need the teaching once it has experienced what it has experienced.  But I sometimes think that rather than have been surprised, or dismayed, by how his book Life of the Beloved found its audience with those already with faith, Henri Nouwen could have seen it as confirmation of a principle of the universe.

Do some people have faith experiences as the result of reading books or listening to lectures?  I don’t know.  I think the spark could be transmitted through such media to an already receptive student.  But I would guess it would be something attached to the teaching that would be the source of ignition — some passion born of the teacher’s own faith — not the intellectual content.

But maybe I’m just generalizing from my own spot in the universe.  What I do know, is that just as advising others on their romances is a dangerous business, so, too, is teaching spirituality.  It’s not that the teachings are wrong, though sometimes they are or are slightly off, it’s more about how they will be understood or used by the audience — that, too, has to be taken into account.  To my mind, the name of the game is to get everybody to participate, to see for themselves, not to get everybody to see our own souvenirs from our experience and be able to describe them back.

How do I think we get others to participate?  “Attraction rather than promotion.”  (I’m quoting from Al-Anon’s 11th Tradition.)  And then, I think, we share as equals, regardless of how many merit badges we may have.  That’s the humility that keeps us open and receptive to hearing clearly, I think.

I get a lot out of hearing what spiritual teachers teach.  But it is confirmation and/or clarification of what I already know through some other means.  How I came to know was by following the bread crumbs in my life.


March 25, 2012

I was talking to someone last night, and he told me that I sounded like a writer and he suggested that I write up the stories of my life.

I had to admit to doing some writing, but I don’t think of myself as a writer.  The conversation did, though, lead me to revisit my issues about my relationship to writing and collaboration, and to revisit the more abstract issue of the relationship of experience to writing.

I like to collaborate.  I have enjoyed working with other people in situations in which I have contributed something and the other person or people have contributed something.  One of my favorites is when I get to do what I consider the fun stuff, whether that’s research or creative problem solving, or responding to another point of view.  I don’t enjoy the writing-up part of the project.  To me, it’s like computer programmers getting frustrated by the need to de-bug a program — once I’ve done the fun part, I want to move on.  Translating the ideas into user-friendly prose tests my patience and my trust that the investment will bear fruit.

But having been counseled to write it up myself, to move on from a collaborative posture, I’ve been trying to do that.  It clearly has its advantages, to write my ideas and experience or research up myself.  Being taken advantage of isn’t so much of an issue, for example, having more control over presentation and content is another.

But it also leaves me more questioning about the limitations when other people write from someone else’s experiences or research.  Maybe they should be having their own experiences, maybe they should have a participant’s understanding of what they’re writing about.  That seems to me the flip side of what I have been told — “Write it up yourself.”  Maybe “experience it yourself” is the counterpart.  I don’t see it as a moral question, although I am not beyond showing my petty annoyance about it, but as a matter of inherent limitations: if you’ve never tasted an orange, it’s kind of hard to write convincingly about what it’s like to eat one, and your account may not have as much usefulness or accuracy.

Of course, having the experience, writing it up, and also doing the hard work of building a career through which to have a chance to get heard is not easy.  I think some people do the whole package and others rely on, maybe, other ways to get their word out or on other ways to gain the fruits of experience without having them.  I can’t say I know how things are “supposed” to be, and I am trying to leave space, by trying not to judge, to get some better sense of how things might work.