Monday, September 03, 2007

Effing the Ineffable

Many people believe that mystical experience--the wordless experience of "Ultimate Reality"--cannot be translated into words. That is, it is "ineffable." But Ken Wilber disagrees. Actually, he doesn't disagree completely. All experiences are ineffable. We can't perfectly describe our common experience of a sunset or an orgasm any more than we can describe mystical experience. But we CAN use words--i.e, "signifiers"--to represent sunsets and orgasms pretty well if we really try, and so we can also use them to represent mystical experience. Zen masters, says Wilber, talk about satori all the time among themselves, and they understand quite well what they're talking about. For instance, they know what the word Mu signifies from firsthand experience.

But so many people interested in religion and spirituality have bought the old bromide that mystical experience is ineffable that not enough effort has been made to translate this experience into clear and compelling language, and calling mystical experience ineffable has led many scientists, philosophers, and others to reject it as meaningless on the grounds that if you can't describe or explain it, it doesn't exist or mean anything significant.

Wilber proceeds to argue that signifiers don't mean a whole helluva lot to those who don't have the "altitude"--level of cognitive, spiritual, or other kind of development--to know firsthand what they mean. He says that it can be terribly frustrating to describe--use signifiers for--mystical experience or other spiritual realities to people who haven't developed enough spiritually to be intimately familiar with them, and it's even more frustrating to try to persuade someone to accept an opinion grounded on intimate knowledge of these realities. With those people, one may have to settle for nonverbal "transmissions" of these insights. But those who have the developmental altitude can work harder to create a rich language capable of signifying these spiritual realities as well as possible--just as mathematicians, physicists, and philosophers have created their own specialized languages--so that they can communicate more effectively with each other.

And I wonder if it might be possible to develop this spiritual language so well that it can help lift those of lower developmental altitudes to higher ones. For just as it might be possible to so vividly describe the ocean to someone who has never experienced it that she gains some inkling of what it's like, it seems to me that it might also be possible to describe mystical experience in ways that give those who have never experienced it some understanding of what IT'S like. And this, in turn, might help them develop to where they understand the experience better and better until, perhaps, they someday understand it vividly through direct experience. That is, instead of only being able to read about it and imagine it on the basis of what they've read, they finally make it to the ocean and see and hear the crashing waves with their own eyes and ears and feel their misty emanations on their own skin.

Wilber says that poets such as Rumi do this pretty well. But is it also possible to do it better and better with prose? Perhaps it has already been done better than most people realize. For instance, here is an excerpt from Alan Watts' masterfully evocative rendering of an LSD-induced mystical experience as reported in his wonderful book The Joyous Cosmology:

T0 BEGIN WITH, this world has a different kind of time. It is the time of biological rhythm, not of the clock and all that goes with the clock. There is no hurry. Our sense of time is notoriously subjective and thus dependent upon the quality of our attention, whether of interest or boredom, and upon the alignment of our behavior in terms of routines, goals, and deadlines. Here the present is self-sufficient, but it is not a static present. It is a dancing present—the unfolding of a pattern which has no specific destination in the future but is simply its own point. It leaves and arrives simultaneously, and the seed is as much the goal as the flower. There is therefore time to perceive every detail of the movement with infinitely greater richness of articulation. Normally we do not so much look at things as overlook them. The eye sees types and classes—flower, leaf, rock, bird, fire—mental pictures of things rather than things, rough outlines filled with flat color, always a little dusty and dim.

But here the depth of light and structure in a bursting bud go on forever. There is time to see them, time for the whole intricacy of veins and capillaries to develop in consciousness, time to see down and down into the shape of greenness, which is not green at all, but a whole spectrum generalizing itself as green—purple, gold, the sunlit turquoise of the ocean, the intense luminescence of the emerald. I cannot decide where shape ends and color begins. The bud has opened and the fresh leaves fan out and curve back with a gesture which is unmistakably communicative but does not say anything except, "Thus!" And somehow that is quite satisfactory, even startlingly clear. The meaning is transparent in the same way that the color and the texture are transparent, with light which does not seem to fall upon surfaces from above but to be right inside the structure and color. Which is of course where it is, for light is an inseparable trinity of sun, object, and eye, and the chemistry of the leaf is its color, its light.

But at the same time color and light are the gift of the eye to the leaf and the sun. Transparency is the property of the eyeball, projected outward as luminous space, interpreting quanta of energy in terms of the gelatinous fibers in the head. I begin to feel that the world is at once inside my head and outside it, and the two, inside and outside, begin to include or "cap" one another like an infinite series of concentric spheres. I am unusually aware that everything I am sensing is also my body—that light, color, shape, sound, and texture are terms and properties of the brain conferred upon the outside world. I am not looking at the world, not confronting it; I am knowing it by a continuous process of transforming it into myself, so that everything around me, the whole globe of space, no longer feels away from me but in the middle...

1 comment:

Tom said...

Some things/experiences are more representable than other things OR have similarities to other things/experiences that can cause others to better get the gist of something they have not seen/experienced when it is shown/explained to them.

How can you possibly explain 'green' to someone born blind?

You can explain vision as a sense that has a far, linear reach and that reads certain attributes and has such-and-such limitations. But how can you describe a color to someone wholly unfamiliar with color?

You can conger up a sense of wonder to try to describe a sunset or orgasm or mystical experience, but that -- by itself -- is a mere shadow of what you might be trying to get at.

I think I am correct in saying that a sociopath cannot know what love is -- but they think they do. They see the behaviours of people in love and can ape those behaviours.

We who know what love is may find a description of 'love' -- in poetry or prose -- to be apt or magnificent, but we judge its aptness by comparing our knowledge of the experience with the words, not from feeling it as a lesson.

I don't know about all this, except to say that mystical experience is remote and requires experiencing.

Even those who have had mystical experiences forget its flavor; they just retain a respect of it and hunger for it. It is the nature of mystical experience: It is a NOW thing that leaves a residue.

As you write, Zen Masters talk about Mu from firsthand experience. It is the residue, or from the residue, though, really, that they are talking about.

I wonder how this relates to wine-tasting experts? They have created their own jargon to catagorize flavors, yet still it is within the experience of tasting the wine that IS THE THING. Their jargon and discussions are relational and have meaning. Still, THE THING'S THE THING.