The Cult of Experience — Is It Dangerous?

I’m teaching a course right now for Mangalam Research Center on the Rhetoric of Experience and its relation to the practice of meditation. This has me thinking a lot about experience.

There is something like a “cult of experience” in our culture. In large measure it traces to the Romantic movement, but one finds it in pragmatism also; it seems the term “cult of experience” was coined by the literary critic Philip Rahv. Martin Jay’s book, Songs of Experience, is the indispensable resource.

But we don’t need to rely on intellectual history or the analysis of literature to get a sense of this; we see it all around us all the time. We have learned to crave a certain intensity or newness of experience (consider scary movies, or the kinds of stories people tell about their travels.) There is a sense that our lives have become routine, shaped by habit and a culture that moves inexorably toward sameness, and we need to escape. In Rome, the word ‘vacation’ referred to the empty days, the days when nothing of interest was going on (no religious festivals, mostly, I have read). Now, of course, the reverse is true.

This same impulse helps shape our meditation. We meditate in order to get in touch with our immediate experience, not distorted or dulled by the labels and identities we assign. Experience is our gateway to the true, the real, and the authentic.

All this surely has value, but I can’t help wondering if something is missing. Experiences are experiences for a self, and if the self is the one who gets to enjoy them and suck the juice out of them, what does that mean for the broader aim—shared in all meditative and spiritual traditions—to challenge the always-vacationing self and its demands?

When we make special experiences our goal, we don’t need to ask difficult questions about what is real and ultimately meaningful. If I have a powerful religious experience, for instance, the experience provides its own justification. Questions about the relation between my experience and the deepest truths of my own nature need never arise.

This is not the place to explore in depth, but I wonder: if we privilege our experiences just because of the ‘special’ way they feel, are we reinforcing the claims of the self who has those experiences? Are we cutting short an inquiry into the nature of what is most real and most meaningful?

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