Spiritual Experiences

Ossorio: Okay, let's see if some of these are even answerable. [laughter] Here is another interesting one. Is there a way to conceptualize spiritual experiences in a way that does not diminish their super-cultural experience? Could we get a little elaboration on that?

Member of Audience: That's mine. Any time you talk about something that is beyond culture, you have to talk about it through the confines of your culture. Is there any way around that?

Ossorio: Okay, any time you talk about something beyond your culture you have to do so within the confines of your culture, and is there any way around that? I am not sure that there's anything to get around there. Think of culture not as confining you but as providing you opportunities. One of the opportunities it provides you is to talk about things that are not part of your culture. Again, remember every culture has the notion of the stranger, the foreigner, the world beyond. So part of culture is that there is something beyond our culture. Even though it is part of our culture, it is also beyond and that is how come you are able to get beyond your culture in that sense.

Member of Audience: I am thinking of people who go outside Christianity or Judaism. Now that's becoming enculturated as sort of an identifiably American "New Age" thing. So that's within the culture again. It's not the universal thing that I think it's set out to be.

Ossorio: Okay, people have gone out beyond a culture and picked up other sorts of religions and because they have, now these have become part of our culture. And in becoming that, they are no longer what they were before we touched them. Right?

Member of Audience: We have sort of Americanized it; we have made it into our culture.

Ossorio: Right, and there's a problem with that?

Member of Audience: We have limited our ability to describe what really is beyond our culture again.

Ossorio: Not to describe it but to participate in it. We can't be Arabians because we are Americans. But we are not missing anything.

Member of Audience: Well, maybe.

Ossorio: No. In the sense that you can only be what you are and not something else. In fact, one of earliest aphorisms in Descriptive is "Things are what they are and not something else instead." That was part of the spirit out of which Descriptive Psychology grew. And that was in the face of theories that always told you that things are really something else that you can't see and that what you do see isn't the real thing. The same way with your person, your culture, etc. You are that; you have that; that is you. And you are not missing something by not being somebody else. You can lament it [laughter] and we often do. Shakespeare had a line: "admiring this man's art and that man's scope". We often do wish that we didn't have the limitations that we do. But it's not as though things could be otherwise because no matter how we are, we have limitations. So there is no getting around the fact that we have limitations. I wouldn't overestimate the degree to which we have violated those religions. You said they are not the same. Maybe they are not, but does the difference make a difference?

Member of Audience: If the locution can't be heard, is it still verbal behavior?

Ossorio: Yes. In a way what you have raised is the old problem of skepticism. I can talk learnedly about all kinds of things spiritual or otherwise and in the end say "But, of course, that's only my poor views of things". Why? Because I have no way of getting beyond myself to establish the real truth other than my views. That's a peculiar sort of lament. What are we missing if we can't get beyond ourselves? Who's to say that there is any true view that we are missing because we can't get beyond ourselves?

Member of Audience: Well, I think some of us feel that we've been there, but to try to describe it limits us.

Ossorio: There are lots of things that you don't and can't describe, including how an orange tastes. You can't describe how an orange tastes. You can talk about the taste of an orange and it will communicate to, guess who? somebody who has tasted an orange. It will communicate something else to somebody who hasn't tasted an orange, because saying "the taste of an orange" locates that in the scheme of things. So even somebody who hasn't tasted an orange will know what you are talking about. But only somebody who has tasted it, will understand what you mean.

Member of Audience: The word is not the thing.

Ossorio: Yeah. And so whether it's the taste of an orange or a spiritual experience, it's the same problem. And it would be unreasonable to expect that the word would be the same thing as the actual taste. So you don't want to count on describing it. You work with it in other ways. You try to get people to have experiences. You locate it for them in the scheme of things. You do other things but you don't try to describe it.

Member of Audience: I'm going to ask a question, but I'll probably regret it.

Ossorio: I'll see to it. [laughter]

Member of Audience: We say we can't describe the taste of an orange, but then we talk about locating things in the scheme of things. Do you want to elaborate on that just a little bit - locating things in the scheme of things?

Ossorio: Everything has a place in the scheme of things. Oranges have a place. This orange has a place. Because the orange has a place, the color of the orange has a place, and the color of this orange has another place. The taste of the orange is like the color of the orange. Its place in the scheme of things is tied to the place of the orange, and the relation of the orange to somebody who can taste it. That's what I mean by locating something in the scheme of things. Locating something in the scheme of things basically is equivalent to or enables you to pinpoint that thing as against anything else, because only one thing has that place in the scheme of things.

Member of Audience: This conversation makes me think about one of the things that I see as a, I am not sure of what the right word is, as a dynamic in the process of hearing people talk about spiritual experiences. People seem to have a concept of "this experience that is beyond explanation" and yet they spend a lot of time trying to explain it... It couldn't be that concept anymore if the concept... Does this make sense?

Ossorio: Yeah, but I don't like it. [laughter] For much the same reason I don't like the question about getting beyond yourself. If you describe something as beyond description, that's a perfectly good description. That locates it in the scheme of things. On the other hand, it's not a given that what strikes you right now as indescribable really is. So people often then try and sometimes they succeed to some extent. You just never know. And with that kind of thing usually any hint, any piece that you actually can describe will help. Just because it's on the whole indescribable. So people try.

Member of Audience: Assuming someone would want to describe it.

Ossorio: Yeah that's why somebody would try, because it would be nice if you could.

Member of Audience: I want to get back to the scheme of things.

Ossorio: A schemer.

Member of Audience: And I think this will help answer your questions. If you take it that people have their own worlds that they operate out of, then the fact that this person tasted the orange - that taste has a place in that person's scheme of things. So you have n people and each has a world and then you say taste has a place in what? Their scheme of things? Or each one's scheme of things?

Ossorio: Usually both. Your scheme of things is not just independent from everybody else's scheme of things. If it were, there would be no communication between us. There would be no possible understanding between us. Most of your world we share, particularly if you allow minor variations. That's why we all know what taste is. We all share that. There are other things that would be really peculiar to you, for example, one of these indescribable experiences. It might be that none of us has ever had that kind. But things like taste, etc., no. We do share that. And its place in your scheme is roughly the same as its place in our scheme.

Member of Audience: We go through a certain amount of trouble to talk about what we mean by taste and once we get that settled...

Ossorio: No, you never settle that. Remember definitions are not fundamental.

Member of Audience: Well, the taste of an orange, for example, we come to some kind of understanding. It won't be a definition for sure. Now her concepts could fall into that category too. It seems to me if enough people discuss...

Ossorio: Yeah, except that indescribable is much more open-ended than the taste of an orange. The taste of an orange has a fairly definite place in the scheme of things. The indescribable may be of various sorts. So there is no one place that the particular ones have. There is a general place for anything indescribable, but that doesn't do us much good. Because even with the indescribable, if you don't get down to which indescribable, what kind of indescribable, there is not much you can do with it.

Member of Audience: Do you have a three-minute lecture on totalities and boundary conditions that might shed some light here?

Member of Audience: Could you repeat that please.

Ossorio: He said "Do we have a three-minute lecture on totalities and boundary conditions that might throw light on this?" I can give you a three-minute lecture, but I am not sure how much light it would throw. One way of approaching the notion of spiritual is to define it in certain terms. And to the extent that I have worked with that issue, I have defined it in certain terms. And what I have said is that the spiritual domain is defined by three fundamental notions, namely: totality, ultimacy, and boundary condition. When you ask "What is it all for?", "What is it all about?", you are asking about totality. When you say "In the end what does life amount to?", you are talking about ultimates. When you say "There is no limit to human potential", you are talking about boundary conditions.

Now totality and ultimacy are fairly familiar and easy to understand. Boundary condition is less familiar and less easy both to understand and to say what it is. In fact, I have a running project to try to improve the statement of what it is. Now, the paradigm case for boundary conditions is the curvature of space. If you think of curved space, you have the phenomena that if you go off in this direction and you go far enough, you come back from the other direction. You also have the result that no matter where you start from, there is a distance such that you can't ever get further from your starting point than that distance.

Now what's characteristic of the boundary condition is that it is not located anywhere in the space. It's not about some part of it. It's not about some place in it. It's a statement about the whole thing that makes a difference in what happens within that space. That's a boundary condition. And that's why saying that human potential is unlimited is a boundary condition. It says that there's no limit to what can happen within that space. Now that one, by the way, I don't agree with. I don't believe that the human potential is unlimited. What I do think is that we don't have any way of setting limits. So that for many purposes you might as well say it is unlimited. But, in fact, we know it's limited. We just can't say what the limits are and partly because there's no reason why the limits have to stay the same from one time to another, from one person to another. So talking about the limits is going to lay the foundation for nonsense.

Member of Audience: I want to touch on that notion of the scheme of things, and if the formulation of the person concept is a map to the scheme of things.

Ossorio: Yes and no. In one sense it is because it encompasses everything. On the other hand, if you take the scheme of things to be like a description of things, then the answer is no. Instead, what the person concept does is to provide persons with the wherewithall to give their own description of what the scheme of things is. And what I was saying a while ago... (Change tape)

Member of Audience: If it's not possible to describe how an orange tastes, is it not true that it's not possible to describe any real experience?

Ossorio: Right. Yep. I got in trouble five years ago for saying exactly that. [laughter]

Member of Audience: Could you repeat it again?

Ossorio: Yeah. There is no way of describing any experience.

Member of Audience: Wait, you mean I'm not? We can describe it all again...

Ossorio: Things that you commonly take to be descriptions of an experience turn out always to be something else. The main thing they turn out to be is a description of what it was the experience of.

Member of Audience: Locating it in the scheme of things.

Ossorio: The second most common - that between the two take up at least 99% of the cases - is the effect that it had on you. It was a sudden experience; it was an inspiring experience.

Member of Audience: But isn't that the experience?

Ossorio: No, the experience is what inspired you. The inspiration is not the experience. That is simply the effect it had on you.

Member of Audience: Well where is the experience? Did it fall in the cracks between conscious of and conscious as...

Ossorio: There is no crack. That is one of the problems of consciousness.

Member of Audience: So the inspiration is then itself another experience?

Ossorio: You can experience the inspiration.

Member of Audience: Well, this takes me back to when you were talking about spirituality involving totality, ultimacy, and boundary condition. In the context of a person having a spiritual experience, that person is probably conscious of that?

Ossorio: Of what?

Member of Audience: Of totality, ultimacy, and boundary condition.

Ossorio: No. Probably not.

Member of Audience: Well...

Ossorio: When was the last time you were conscious of everything? When was the last time you experienced a whole world? When was the last time you even thought about it? We don't go around thinking of these things. On the contrary, what's on our mind most of the time is tables and chairs and cups of coffee and glasses of water and driving to work and those things you can see, hear, touch, and feel.

Member of Audience: That's very pedestrian. [laughter] I have loftier thoughts.

Ossorio: But that's what's on our mind most of the time. We don't spend our time thinking up here.

Member of Audience: But sometimes we do.

Ossorio: Sometimes we do.

Member of Audience: Sometimes it's like "Oh I see what it all means now. I couldn't possibly tell you, but I see what it all means."

Ossorio: Okay, now one reason why we get to spiritual things and why spiritual has to do with ultimacy, totality, etc... It reflects the fact that every culture we know has a religion of some sort. Many cultures have more than one religion. And my explanation for that is that you are driven to it starting from the world of tables and chairs. There are certain sorts of questions that are repetitive. One of them is "Why?" Another is "How do you know?" Another is "What's it for?" Another is "What good is it?" You can ask those of anything. "What good is this coffee cup?" I give you an answer. You say "Well what good is that?" I give you another answer. You say "Well, what good is that?" Eventually I run out of answers. And when I run out of answers, then I have to talk differently. Either I invent a transcendental thing, a super coffee cup or something, or I explicitly talk about boundary conditions and totality. But there you see we have reached the ultimate answer. If you say "What's it about?" or "What's it for?" or "What's it good for?", as you move through the successive answers, you do it by taking in greater and greater context. And when you reach the last answer you have taken into account the broadest possible context you could. So at the same time you reach ultimacy and you reach totality. And when you reach those limits you gotta do something different.

And that's why all spiritual talk sounds peculiar. It is because our standard is talking about tables and chairs. We are driven to these things because what could be more reasonable than to ask "What good is it?" Or "How do you know?" These ordinary sorts of questions. Obviously you have to ask them. And when we do, if we just stay with it, lo and behold, we are way out there on a limb and we have no answers. So we have to talk about things in a very different way. For example, if the question is "How do you know?" and you run out of answers, what do you say? Well one sort of answer is "I have faith." Now if you use the standard of tables and chairs on that, you say "Faith is sort of foolish. It's a claim to knowledge with no evidence, because you can't answer the question 'How do you know?'" Well, that's not what it is. See. It's not just another move. It's a way of rejecting the why question. It's a way of handling the fact that you have come to the end of the why questions. It could be paraphrased as "Here I stand. This is what I am going to act on. This is what is real for me." And that's not a matter of what I know.

Member of Audience: It more than a choice to treat the world that way though.

Ossorio: It's more than a casual choice. You see in a sense it's a choice, but it's the kind of choice that you, being you, can't help making the choice you make.

Member of Audience: If you're an existentialist, you have the right to say "I don't know" as your ultimate move. "I don't know that."

Ossorio: No. You wouldn't even if you were an existentialist. Because if you have really reached the end, there isn't something that you don't know. It's that there is no answer. So you are not lacking knowledge there. You really have reached the end of the line.

Member of Audience: It can't be known.

Ossorio: No, not that it can't be. It's that we have no way of recognizing a further answer even if there were one. In our personal development or in our social development, later on there may be an answer to that, and then we have one more answer to the "Why?" question before we reach the limit. But you know that we are going to reach the limit anyhow. So no matter how much we improve our ability to answer those kind of questions, we know we are going to reach that limit. Anytime we try, we will reach an actual limit and what do we do? Well, we switch. As I say, if it's a "Why?" question or a "How do you know?" question, it's faith. "Here I stand. Here is the way I am going to act. Here is what I am going to act on."

Member of Audience: So what does it say about people who say "I don't believe in God" and are not spiritual. They just have not pursued the questions far enough?

Ossorio: No, they misunderstand the point. They think it's a question. And it isn't. They are treating it like a question about tables and chairs. "Is there a thing there or isn't there?" They say "No, there isn't." It's not that kind of question. The question is "Where do you stand?" And their answer in effect tells you where they stand. So they have accomplished that anyhow.

Member of Audience: How so? Could you elaborate.

Ossorio: Well, because somebody who says "I believe there is no God" has taken a stand. It's not a matter of knowledge that he knows somehow. That's his faith. That's where he stands.

Member of Audience: Just as there are people who are more disposed to see color than others, or spatial relationships than others, I think that there are people who are oriented to have a relatedness to matters of ultimacy and totality.

Ossorio: Yeah, it would be surprising if that weren't so.

Member of Audience: And with it they may also experience awe.

Ossorio: Yeah, that's often reported.

Member of Audience: What?

Ossorio: Awe. A-W-E. Not A-W. [laughter] And not A-H.

Member of Audience: But that person isn't obviously going through any kind of process. They are just observing the world and they happen to observe it this way. Just like another person observes...

Ossorio: Yes. I didn't say you had to go through the process to reach there. I said you do go through the process if you pursue these ordinary questions, and that's why people do reach there. You don't have to reach there that way. Particularly if you have gone through the steps some number of times, you eventually just go directly there.

Member of Audience: But would that qualify then as conscious of totality, ultimacy? And is it not that they can be conscious of everything that is but of the matter of totality...

Ossorio: No.

Member of Audience: Conscious of themselves as...

Ossorio: It's more like having a theory and you see things in terms of the theory, but you are not conscious of the theory. And goodness knows we have plenty of theories about this domain.

Member of Audience: But it does seem like it's something that happens to you.

Ossorio: She says it seems like it's something that happens to you. Yeah, that's true, but again I wouldn't overdo that because there are lots of things that simply happen to you, like the taste of an orange. Or like feeling tired. There are lots of ordinary things that work exactly the same way. You don't choose them. You receive them.

Member of Audience: Is it just that you are reacting to something?

Ossorio: That's a constant temptation, that there is a thing that you are reacting to. The comment was that it sounds like there is something that you are reacting to when you are overcome with awe, etc. And what I am saying is, that may or may not be. It doesn't follow from the fact that you have the feeling of awe that there is something out there or somewhere that you are reacting to.

Member of Audience: How would an experience be described? What is it that I am doing when I taste the wine and say "It tastes very full, round in the mouth?"

Ossorio: You are placing it in the scheme of things. It's one of these rather than one of those. It's this kind of wine rather than another. It's the kind of wine that tastes this way, not the kind of wine that tastes that way. And that has implications for how you treat it.

Member of Audience: It sure looks like it describes.

Ossorio: And if I ask you "How can you tell?", you say "I can taste it." And you can. But at no point are you describing the experience.

Member of Audience: But you are describing the wine.

Ossorio: Yeah. Remember I said the first thing to look for is that it is a description not of the experience, but what it was the experience of. There is a case in point.

Member of Audience: I wonder if we could also look at the institutional aspect of spirituality and religion, because it seems that in a religious context, quite often people feel that they can talk about their experiences because they share enough of the religious language in a way that is integrated and they know what they are talking about. But the problem seems to arise in the transitions between religious and spiritual paradigms in a way that is not so different from the problem of the transitions between scientific paradigms because the epistemological values seem to shift along with the theories. So, maybe the problem is the informality of the judgment required in transitions between both established views.

Ossorio: Well, it's true that you talk differently in different contexts. You talk differently in scientific or religious contents. But, it is not that you can talk about your experience in religious context and not in ordinary context. You can say something different about it, but you can talk about your experience in ordinary context. What you don't do is describe it. You don't do that in a religious context either.

Member of Audience: But the scientists can't describe the epistemological judgment when he judges that a new theory or radically new paradigm...

Ossorio: Judgment is different from experience. You can describe your judgment; you can't describe your experience.

Member of Audience: Ultimately it's the experience that the scientist calls upon when he makes that sort of judgment.

Ossorio: Maybe. And he could also be calling upon lots of knowledge. You don't know what goes into his judgment. He can tell you some of it sometimes, and you can guess sometimes, but you have no way of establishing firmly what he's using, and all of what he is using. There is simply no way. You wouldn't know it if you had it.

Member of Audience: But why is subtle epistemological judgment different in any way from subtle ethical judgment?

Ossorio: It's a different kind of judgment. Otherwise there is no difference. It's judgment. Yeah, it's judgment about different things. It takes a different background to do it well. It takes a different kind of learning, a different kind of sensitivity, etc. But it's all judgment.

Member of Audience: I just wonder because we imagine that there is progress in science, but it would be harder to show that there is progress in religion.

Ossorio: Do you think there is progress in science? If anything there is progress in technology, not science. And the only progress that I am sure of in science or philosophy is an increase in sophistication. We are not getting nearer to the truth. We are not doing better at the job of explaining things. We just get more sophisticated because we don't repeat the things we now know we did wrong before. We learn by our mistakes by not making those mistakes and by inventing new ways of doing it that don't involve those mistakes. And those are more sophisticated. They are not necessarily more correct. They don't necessarily represent an advance or anything else. Now that might strike you as pessimistic but ... what the hell. [laughter]

Member of Audience: Here I stand.

Member of Audience: There was something on a TV program the other night. An Indian chief was saying that even though technology brings us a lot of things, it limits us because in order to perceive technology you first have to destroy magic. So, I don't know how that ties in but it should be related to...

Ossorio: Without the science, technology is magic. If I walk over and push this thing and the light goes on, that's magic. Unless you happen to have the science behind it that says "No, this is how it happens." You can define magic in those terms. It's something that is causally efficacious, and you have no idea how it works.

Member of Audience: You could, but you don't have to.

Ossorio: Right.

Member of Audience: ...magic.

Ossorio: That's not what people usually mean when they say "You take the magic out." Sometimes what they mean is you have taken the mystery out, and I am in favor of that if you have done it legitimately. There are enough mysteries in the world to satisfy us. We don't have to invent them.

Member of Audience: The reason that poets and writers and songwriters use metaphors and similes is because you can't describe them.

Ossorio: That's one good reason.

Member of Audience: ...saying "My love flows like a river"...

Ossorio: Yeah. See, that is a way of letting you know what it is like. That's sure not a description. Or if it is, it is as you say a metaphorical description. But it does say something. It might even be for some purposes better than a description. It has a little bit of magic. [pause] To what extent did the three-minute lecture do anything?

Member of Audience: It took a lot more than three minutes.

Ossorio: It was all those damn questions that took so long. [laughter] Are we ready to move on to something else?

Member of Audience: Just one more thing. We can't redescribe our phenomenology, our experience... Does that also relate to a certain aloneness in terms of existence? We are alone with the experience?

Ossorio: I am not sure. We would be alone anyhow. Even if we could describe it. I am not sure if it adds to that. You might say at face value it does, but who knows how much.

Member of Audience: There is a lot of good poetry and literature that really does justice to shared experience. We aren't alone because lots of that stuff works. You know when I hear that "Love is like a river," I say "Yeah."

Ossorio: Okay. Let's see if we can come up with something else.

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