Thursday 28 November 2019

What kind of 'spiritual experience' should we be aiming for? More on 'direct knowing'

While there are people who continue to have 'traditional' forms of sensory spiritual experience - seeing visions, hearing voices, experiencing answered prayers and personal miracles, synchronicities and pre-cognition (information about the future), or phenomena like channelling or conversing-with spiritual entities - I would regard these as being impossible for many/ most people nowadays (except, perhaps, in conditions of intoxication or mental illness -which cast the validity of experience into doubt)  and as being preliminary and early aspects of a 'modern-era' spiritual life.

The main value of such experiences, I think, is to convince some people of the reality of a spiritual dimension to life. This was, indeed, the case for me - with a few instances of rapid/ miraculous answering of prayers, that were very important at the very beginning of my Christian life. The experiences were a confirmation of the reality of God.

But all of these are sensory-mediated, hence indirect, means of communication between God and Men. We see something, hear a voice saying words... and then comes an evaluation of the experience... Do we remember properly, accurately; was it an hallucination, or a coincidence?

And if we decide it was real and have an accurate record of the experience - then what does it mean for us? What was God trying to communicate, and what - exactly - did he want us to do about it?

So; once we are convinced of the reality of God - what then? After we know that God is real; that is the true beginning of spiritual life. Should we then expect or want the traditional kind of spiritual experiences to continue; are they, indeed, the best way that we can communicate with God?

This is when I return to the matter of what can be called the intuition of the real self or direct knowing. Direct knowing is - I believe - the form of spiritual experience that is available to many/ most people in the modern era. And furthermore it is, in principle, superior to the traditional forms - because it requires no extra layers of understanding and translation.

Perhaps if I draw a contrast, this will be clearer. Suppose someone has the experience of hearing God's voice, speaking words aloud in the mind. He needs to hear and understand the words, he needs to remember them (perhaps by writing them); and then he needs to ponder their meaning and implications.

But if that person was to receive knowledge directly into his understanding; he will already know what that knowledge means for him, and what he should do about it - because it all comes as a package: one moment not-there, the next moment it is there.

And direct knowledge is intended for direct action - it is typically bimodal, yes-no, two-track: either we stay with what we are doing, or else we set off onto a different path which is being given.

Now, there may be problems about remembering the experience, and so forth - but if we have acted-upon direct knowing, then that doesn't matter. And there is a much bigger problem about telling other people what has happened: that requires capturing the experience in language, tailoring it for the intended audience, and that audience will then need to receive, understand and interpret that information. The situation is the same as for traditional spiritual experience.

But direct knowing is the form of spiritual experience that goes with Romantic Christianity; and the essence of Romantic Christianity is that it is based upon direct and personal experience. Since direct experience is foundational, it means that it is indispensable. So that fact that direct knowledge cannot reliably and validly be transmitted in-directly is not surprising! It is why we need (and must have) direct experience in the first place. 

Another aspect is that direct knowing is - as a generalisation, in this mortal life - simple.

And in turn this means that we can receive direct knowledge only when we have formed our question exactly and with the proper motivation; when our mind it receptive to that form of knowledge. there are an endless ('infinite') number of false questions and wrong motivations for knowledge - and only the right questions and the right motivations will lead to direct knowing.

But once the right question and attitude are 'in place' - then direct knowing arises immediately and without any effort.

However, the knowing does not force itself upon us, overwhelm us, or compel us to do something. It is knowledge of what is right and there is a further decision about whether to embrace or reject what is right; or to argue that it is Not right. This is agency, this is free will - and is a separate 'process' from that of direct knowing. 

Agency comes in in this bimodal fashion: direct knowing tells us what is true and right; agency is concerned with whether we accept or reject this knowledge. it is not a choice between alternatives; it is a choice of 'destiny', or not-destiny.

So, direct knowing itself entails no effort, no struggle; but putting oneself into the necessary 'frame of mind' to receive it is a wholly voluntary and conscious process. Indeed, direct knowing - and to know that this is direct knowing - is possible only to those with agency, with free will.

Direct knowing doesn't 'just happen' to an unconscious person, who is thinking about other things (distracted); it doesn't happen to someone whose fundamental beliefs exclude the possibility of direct knowing... e.g. they don't believe in God, or their idea of deity is impersonal - or they don't believe that knowledge can be directly known. In such situations, there will be no direct knowing - that person is self-excluded.

To put matters the other way about - direct knowledge follows naturally upon the knowledge and love of God and the desire to follow Jesus through death to resurrected Life Eternal in Heaven. And then direct knowledge will provide the specific guidance we need in life.



Sean Fowler said...

This tied in nicely with you recent posts concerning meditation.For me personally its about making oneself receptive. Tuning in ones radio to that one exact place on the dial where the reception is perfect. Where communication of knowledge, understanding and words can be received without confusion or distraction.

Bruce Charlton said...

@SF - Good metaphor.

John Goes said...

The Orthodox tradition, as passed down and rediscovered by the saints throughout the centuries, has long held that the pursuit of sensory traditional experiences is potentially dangerous, or at the very least inferior, compared to pure creative prayer with God and direct revelation from the Holy Spirit.

How to tune oneself to the right frequency is they key question, to use Sean Fowler's metaphor. The basic Orthodox conception, as I understand from Maximos the Confessor and Elder (soon saint?) Aimilianos's commentary on his "Chapters on Love", is that pure, creative prayer, is the state we are created for, but that it requires unadulterated love of the divine, of God. And that in fact most (all?) of us have been, or are, "contaminated" with love of the material world, via the passions, which distracts us from being able to pray, and/or has warped our motives. Thus the saints tend to emphasize the act of getting on the same frequency in moral terms, which will require repentance, a moral cleansing of the soul.

However, love and prayer is primary, and seeking sensory experiences or even moral cleansing for themselves are missing the mark, though they can lead some people on the right path, as you mentioned. To quote The Way of the Pilgrim:

"Love and do whatever you wish, says St. Augustine, because he who truly loves will not wish to do anything which is displeasing to his beloved. And because prayer is act of outpouring love, this can be said of it also. Nothing is as necessary for salvation as regular prayer. Pray and do as you wish, and you will reach the perfection of prayer and holiness and transformation [...] Prayer will enlighten your mind [...] your actions will become devout and fruitful [...] Prayer will destroy [your] passions."

Wm Jas Tychonievich said...

I used to consider “direct knowledge” impossible, on the grounds that knowledge is warranted or justified belief, whereas something you “just know” cannot be justified. But of course that understanding is deficient, since nothing can be known indirectly unless something is known directly.

So now I acknowledge the possibility of direct knowledge, but so far I have never experienced it outside the spheres of mathematics and morality.

Faculty X said...

I think of the words 'direct knowing' as a kind of intuitive perception, not dependent on religious belief at all.

So by your definition you have to be a convert first to get direct knowing?

Yet you say you came to your beliefs through some unusual answers to your prayers.

What if one does not have unusually clear answers from prayer?

How do you make contact with such entities as God reliably if that has to be done first? Most people don't have noticeable results from prayer otherwise everyone would pray more.

If one gets to that form of direct knowing would you say direct knowing is infallible then, because it is from God, or is it hard to tell the difference from one's own intuition?

Bruce Charlton said...

@FX. The raw experience of direct knowing can be had by anyone, but unless you believe in a loving personal god, there is no reason to take that experience seriously. Therefore, the direct knowing of God needs to be the first step, as Arkle clearly saw.

Bruce Charlton said...

@JG - One problem with the Orthodox tradition is that it is rooted in the celibate ascetic life of the monk living in a monastery of (later in his development) the 'desert'. This is related to Orthodoxy being world-rejecting, and finding little or nothing of anything necessary in this mortal life.

John Goes said...

Hi Bruce, my lived experience is that married Orthodox are encouraged to pursue "pure" interior prayer. The Way of the Pilgrim, distilling the Philokalic teachings, emphasizes that this is available to everyone, married or not. That what you call "direct knowing" can be had by all is taught by many saints. As an aside, I have heard the opinion that the explosion in popularity of interior prayer which started in the second half of the 20th century (after the re-publication of the Greek Philokalia) is an indication perhaps that such prayer are particularly needed right now.

Am I understanding correctly that you view the Orthodox tradition of interior prayer, which is I think what you call "direct knowing", as a problem because it was passed down by celibate men who dedicated their lives to prayer and rejection of worldly distractions? The Orthodox view is that marriage is a holy and distinct path, but monastics are accorded a deference in spiritual matters, perhaps largely due to their ability to dedicate every waking moment to interior prayer. How is this a problem in the context of understanding the importance of what you call "direct knowing"?

Bruce Charlton said...

@JG - If Orthodoxy answers to your need, then stick with it. I have great empathy with the denomination and began to prepare for memebrship of the Russian Orthodox church some 8 years ago; but eventually concluded that Orthodoxy does not work in the West, nor for me. It needs a nation with an Orthodox monarch - and there are nowadays none of these. I could say more, but shall leave it at that.