Image: The Jimi Hendrix Experience

An essay on academic exploration of contemplative states

Are You Experienced? How Can I Tell?

By Daniel Simpson

Like many in the past half-century in the West, I first encountered meditation in a book. Its title seemed to sum up the process: Experience Beyond Thinking.1 As such, it said more about modern preoccupations. So intense is the yearning for "Headspace" that a self-help app of that name has more than a million stressed subscribers.2 Contemporary interest in altering consciousness has its pitfalls, potentially skewing our views of texts, as well as the contexts they arise in. Practitioners and scholars can see the world through different lenses, which are challenging to reconcile.

Experience can sometimes be verified, for example when it relates to occupation. If someone claims to have taught at SOAS, we can check.3 But the meanings concerning us here pertain to private inner states. We cannot observe what another perceives, just what they say about it, or the neural activity it entails. This is complicated further by the kinds of experience under the spotlight, which access insight by transcending cogitation. They amount to: "I do not think, therefore it is." And yet precisely what it is, we cannot say.

Nonetheless, many people have tried, undeterred by what Robert Sharf calls the "logical impossibility" of a first-person account of deep absorption, in which mental processes seem to shut down.4 Discussing this sort of transcendence makes it end. Hence someone reporting a mystical incident speaks from memory, one step removed from a non-dual state that defies definition, because of its non-conceptual nature.5 This yields reflections like Aldous Huxley's on taking mescaline, which reduced him to "being my Not-Self in the Not-Self which was the chair."6

To Huxley and fellow Perennial philosophers, such forms of immersion are encounters with divinity, and thus the core of all religion: awakening to the bliss of pure awareness. However, as Sharf and others argue, scholars "do not have access to mystical experiences per se, but only to texts that purport to describe them, and the perennialists systematically misconstrue these texts" to fit their universalised assumptions.7 Stripped of context, they might sound alike, but Sharf finds "little internal evidence to indicate that these very disparate accounts are actually referring to one and the same experience."8

For over a century, blurring boundaries has been popular. Richard King sees this as part of "the modern privatization of religion", an experiential defence against secular refutation.9 A lifetime before Jimi Hendrix asked: "Are You Experienced?" William James framed "true religion" in similar terms, which have "almost become received wisdom", as King identifies: "the private, religious and mystical experiences of individuals."10 James had allies in Asian contemporaries, from Hindus such as Vivekananda and Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan to the Japanese Buddhist D.T. Suzuki, who all posited forms of experience accessible to anyone regardless of creed.11

Their syncretic approach foreshadowed photo quotes on Facebook, decontextualising insights from the scriptures that interpret them. In Vivekananda's view, studying texts was merely "intellectual opium-eating", notes Anantanand Rambachan.12 Their contents were "useful only to the extent that they confirm what one has known directly." At best, they might function as maps, which "can create only curiosity for first-hand knowledge of the place and can communicate only a vague conception of its reality."13 They "become meaningful only when one has lifted oneself to the same heights of perception."

Vivekananda's remix of Vedanta was couched in Western-friendly terms.14 But he channelled the Upanishadic notion that the ultimate reality cannot be conceptually defined: words can only say what it is not. Therefore analysis of ancient texts might seem superfluous. Sharf begs to differ. "While meditation may have been esteemed in theory, it did not occupy the dominant role in monastic and ascetic life that is sometimes supposed," he concludes from a survey of Buddhist treatises, whose authors were at pains to avoid giving personal testimony.15 Though the texts speak of meditative states, important terms remain unclear. Some are even contradictory, which suggests they were scholastic attempts to align early teachings with subsequent commentary.16 The writers may have tried to induce what they thought the Buddha had experienced, as opposed to explaining how they copied him.

"This is not to deny that veteran Buddhist meditators have 'experiences'," Sharf concedes, "just that the relationship between what they 'experience' and what they say about it is far more tenuous than is sometimes believed."17 Sharf's bugbear is the "unremitting indeterminacy" of "experience", which acts as a placeholder word "for the endless deferral of meaning."18 On one hand, what people read can shape what happens to them, while on the other, their own perception seems invalid unless it conforms to expectations. And since no one defines what means what, and no one can, "Buddhist meditation might best be seen as the ritualization of experience," with spiritual accomplishments subject to external validation, according to someone else's arbitrary criteria.19

Related problems apply to adherents of all traditions. Significance is socially constructed in multiple ways, not least in language in our heads. With an echo of Immanuel Kant, Richard Cohen contends we can only perceive phenomena, whereas the "noumena" of things "as they are", untouched by thought, remain elusive.20 "Sense experience never operates in an unmediated fashion," Cohen says.21 "What seems to be direct perception of worldly objects is, in fact, always already an amalgam of sense impressions and intellection."


Such assertions were debated intensely in the 1980s.22 Most scholars agreed that a "context-free" experience was unfeasible, although some critics of constructivist theory saw a flaw. "If one's experiences are socially constructed," King observes, "how can one ever come up with anything new?"23 Even so, a consensus emerged around the tenets of constructivism, deeming "views from nowhere" as unrealistic as "views from everywhere": cultural conditioning was bound to determine how we interpreted experience, and no experience was fully detached from interpretative processes.24

Robert Forman led the voices of dissent, advancing a compromise he alludes to in his memoir.25 "Some experiences I shape a lot, some less, and a few are genuinely unexpected," Forman writes. "When we encounter something off our chart, our prior expectations just can't be creating it. We cannot cook up what we cannot imagine." In other words, sensory space is preserved for the "pure consciousness events" he experienced as a meditator.26 "In these brief moments, one is aware of no particular content for awareness, yet still remains awake," he reports. "We might describe the 'structure' of experience at those moments as consciousness having no relationship between itself and its objects."

Post-structuralists would find this absurd, because of our consciousness of language, which entraps us in our minds.27 Without objects against which to define its sense of self, how could a subject still exist? According to Forman, by being enlightened. "One now knows oneself to be spacious, bottomless, open and empty," he explains.28 "And this new vastness is sensed as separate from everything one sees or thinks." Perceiving itself as the witness of all experience, consciousness shifts. And yet while Forman repeatedly calls this a "permanent" shift, he only accepted it 20 years after it occurred.29

Everything changed in a conversation with Ram Dass, the American author of Be Here Now, and in the Sixties a Harvard-based evangelist for psychedelic drugs.30 "I narrated the expansion of silence," Forman recalls. "He understood." Then, "looking deep into my eyes with his bottomless gaze and a kindly smile of recognition, he said simply, 'yeah, this is that'." Whereupon Forman felt confirmed in his enlightenment. "All my wonderings and confusions and disillusionments simply vanished," he reflects, before recounting how he bawled his eyes out in a toilet. "Finally I could be sure I wasn't making all this up."

The irony in this admission goes unmentioned. Instead, he explores his reasons for self-doubt. He was expecting more powerful change from "cosmic consciousness", as his guru Maharishi Mahesh Yogi called the objective. Straightforward silence seemed too simple by comparison. It offered no "cure for heartaches", or the panic attacks that had plagued him since his youth. "Because it wasn't what I had hoped for," Forman muses, "I missed what it was."31

Although Ram Dass's comment ("this is that") recalled the Upanishadic mantra tat tvam asi ("you are that", or every thing is everything), consulting texts for reassurance proved no help. Forman lists mystics from many traditions with whom he compared himself.32 He wound up perplexed by terminology. Was he full like a Hindu whose vision expanded to take in the universe, or as empty as Buddhists? In the end, he concluded they all meant something similar. "Buddhist texts like the Diamond Sutra are awfully grand," he objects. "Can we have been overblowing enlightenment to this extent? Can it be that a modest yet permanent shift in the structure of consciousness is pretty much what those wizened old sages were after?"

As tempting as it may be to deduce this, proof eludes us. Sharf cites historical evidence that Buddhist monks have more often chanted meditational scriptures in search of merit than attempted to embody them.33 Besides, we rarely know who compiled a given text, or what they left out from whatever was circulating orally. This makes it hard to be clear who did what, never mind why they did it. In the case of the Rig Veda, the oldest surviving Hindu hymns, depictions of ritual in archaic Sanskrit pose a challenge for translators.

Uncertainty leaves a vacuum for conjecture. Vedic references to Soma are widely assumed to mean a drug, though no one knows what form this took, or if ancient seers were really high. David Frawley attributes their ecstasy to "the bliss of pure perception," not an external psychotropic.34 "Drinking the Soma is a state of consciousness," he claims. "We imbibe the essence of what is, we absorb the being of what we see and enter into the universal life." This formulation sounds Upanishadic, as if deciphering the distant past with more recent knowledge. Either way, it seems hard to disprove; what was experienced in bygone millennia is no less mysterious than people's inner worlds today.

As Alan Wallace laments, science has yet to make use of introspection.35 "Methods of investigating the mind are limited to the materialistic approaches of studying the brain and behaviour,"36 while "the scientific community has not yet agreed upon a definition of consciousness; has no objective, scientific means of measuring it; and does not know the necessary and sufficient causes for [its] generation."37 To do so requires different paradigms. Wallace argues that anyone can learn to still thoughts and mental images. But if "the only way experimenters can be certain that mental states exist is to experience them," what do their findings tell anyone else, apart from urging them to meditate?38

In the end, neither science nor texts can say much more than stand-up comics. Consider this satire by Bill Hicks,39 in which a newscaster talks about drugs the way people experience them:

Today a young man on acid realised that all matter is merely energy condensed to a slow vibration; that we are all one consciousness experiencing itself subjectively; there is no such thing as death, life is only a dream, and we're the imagination of ourselves. Here's Tom with the weather.

No words convey experience in its entirety. But academics still need to engage with first-hand evidence. Had the Buddha not spoken of his, I might never have bought a meditation book. In Wallace's opinion, contemplatives ought to join forces with philosophers and scientists, "to take the next step in our spiritual evolution."40 To pursue this, subjective research should be inter-subjective, acknowledging fluidity between observers and the observed, while collectively shaping less destructive lifestyles.

Further Reading

  1. Diana St Ruth, Experience Beyond Thinking: A Practical Guide to Buddhist Meditation (Totnes: Buddhist Publishing Group, 1993). ↩

  2. "Get Some Headspace," accessed 30 October 2014. ↩

  3. "Departments," SOAS, University of London, accessed 30 October 2014. ↩

  4. Robert Sharf, "Buddhist Modernism and the Rhetoric of Meditative Experience," Numen, 42, no. 3 (1995), p.237. ↩

  5. Robert Sharf, "The Rhetoric of Experience and the Study of Religion," Journal of Consciousness Studies, 7.11-12 (2000), p.277. ↩

  6. Aldous Huxley, The Doors of Perception (London: Chatto & Windus, 1954), p.8. ↩

  7. Sharf, "The Rhetoric of Experience," p.270. ↩

  8. Ibid. ↩

  9. Richard King, Orientalism and Religion: Postcolonial Theory, India and "The Mystic East" (London: Routledge, 1999), p.12. ↩

  10. Ibid., pp.21-2. ↩

  11. Ibid., pp.156-8. ↩

  12. Anantanand Rambachan, "The Nature and Authority of Scripture: Implications for Hindu-Christian Dialogue," Journal of Hindu-Christian Studies, Vol. 8, Art. 4 (1995), p.23. ↩

  13. Ibid. ↩

  14. King, Orientalism and Religion, p.156. ↩

  15. Sharf, "The Rhetoric of Experience," p.272. ↩

  16. Martin Stuart-Fox, "Jhana and Buddhist Scholasticism," The Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies, Vol. 12, No. 2 (1989), pp.79-110. ↩

  17. Sharf, "Buddhist Modernism," p.233. ↩

  18. Ibid., p.268. ↩

  19. Ibid., p.269. ↩

  20. Richard Cohen, Beyond Enlightenment: Buddhism, Religion, Modernity (London: Routledge, 2006). ↩

  21. Ibid., p.11. ↩

  22. King, Orientalism and Religion, p.167. ↩

  23. Ibid., p.169. ↩

  24. Ibid., p.171. ↩

  25. Robert Forman, Enlightenment Ain't What It's Cracked Up To Be: A Journey of Discovery, Snow and Jazz in the Soul (Winchester: O Books, 2011), p.84. ↩

  26. Ibid., p.70. ↩

  27. Harold Coward, "Derrida and Nagarjuna," in Harold Coward, Derrida and Indian Philosophy (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1990), p.138. ↩

  28. Forman, Enlightenment Ain't, p.70. ↩

  29. Ibid., p.72. ↩

  30. Ibid., pp.72-5. ↩

  31. Ibid. ↩

  32. Ibid., pp.56-68. ↩

  33. Sharf, "Buddhist Modernism," pp.240-6. ↩

  34. David Frawley, Wisdom of the Ancient Seers: Mantras of the Rig Veda (Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1992), pp.189-191. ↩

  35. Alan Wallace, Mind in the Balance: Meditation in Science, Buddhism and Christianity (New York: Columbia University Press, 2009). ↩

  36. Ibid., p.93. ↩

  37. Ibid., p.124. ↩

  38. Ibid., p.24. ↩

  39. Bill Hicks, "Revelations: Live at the Dominion Theatre, London," YouTube video (1993), accessed 31 October 2014. ↩

  40. Wallace, Mind in the Balance, pp.197-9. ↩