Let me give a standard dictionary definition of a word that I use often and consider indispensable, yet still find rather indefinite. The word is "experience" which the Merriam Webster on-line dictionary defines as "direct observation of or participation in events as a basis of knowledge". The same webpage gives another similar, but rather more colloquial definition: "the process of doing and seeing things and of having things happen to you." I would suggest another related definition which is "life in the activities and reflections of living". But I am only offering a different way of expressing the idea that experience is both a mode of action as well as a mode of reflection. There is also another, somewhat terser definition of experience which means "know-how" or, expressed more elegantly in French, "savoir faire." But all these are broad, versatile definitions and would seem to lack the specificity needed to be truly illuminating were it not for the implication that the term experience applies uniquely to each of us as individuals.
Indeed, what is intrinsic to the concept of experience is that it implies the existence of a self to whom experience occurs, even though experience sometimes occurs collectively. Moreover, experience applies to virtually every activity or state of consciousness. There are experiences related solely to the five senses of sight, hearing, touch, smell and taste as well as more mental, if not quite disembodied experiences such as counting numbers or drawing on memory in an act of recollection. Examples of other types of experience which are much more complex are those that are related to particular endeavours or domains of activity. Each type of experience will have a unique set of associations, which might involve a related set of skills, that only those who engage in them could ever possess. Sailors experience the sea and pilots experience the sky much more fully than the rest of us do, but neither experience the streets of London like a London taxi driver does. The logic behind these examples leads to an important and irreducible truth. No one can experience your life as you do.
This should not lead us to suppose that experience is entirely subjective or solipsistic. We create and share experiences with others, so much so that we can easily fall into the opposite error of supposing that the truth of our experience can be found only with others, or even worse, that such truth belongs to others alone. That someone else might have a better understanding of aspects of our experience than we have is often true. A dance master, for example, will readily discern the flaws in our clumsy footwork and a physician may be able to tell why we have a fever. Yet the experience of ourselves as individual subjects remains singular and can be known to others only by analogy or empathic attention and even then, only partially. For only we ourselves as individuals are in a position to know our self experience in depth and over an extended period of time. Thus, experience is the primary means of self revelation for each of us, not so much through the thoughts that we think or the views that we hold, but by the sense of self, the embodied sense of being "me" that seems to survive each transition of self understanding. Though the abstract truth of experience may be maddeningly elusive, the sense of experience is always present in conscious awareness and may feel inescapable.
Buddhist psychotherapy, even in proclaiming the doctrine of not-self, must deal with the exigencies of self experience just like any other form of psychotherapy must do. Although not-self is no get-out-of-jail-free card, it does offer a light for examining experience and making sense of it. Mostly, this has to do with making skilful use of impermanence as an ontological principle. But as I have argued before, therapy must work from the reality of self experience that the client presents before it has any hope of facilitating a deeper realisation of not-self. Getting to know the client in the consulting room offers the possibility of understanding the client as embodied subject--the self that the client experiences out in the world beyond the consulting room. Empathic attention is essential for doing this, but as David Black argues, so is sympathy--feeling with the client, particularly in his or her experience of psychological suffering. Important though analytical skills are, this intimate understanding of the client has less to do with "figuring him out" or subjecting her to exacting analytical scrutiny than it does with respecting the client's experience and working sensitively within it.
I began this post by reflecting on the imprecision of experience as a term. But that imprecision is no defect of the concept. For in its wide embrace, experience can be anything that can happen to us as persons.
11/17/2014 08:39:17 am
I have the good fortune to be an American friend of Bob Chisholm, the brilliant and humane author of these posts. His commentary on the term "experience" is suggestive. Building on what he writes: in German, as Farrell's "Dictionary of German Synonyms" notes, "Erfahrung" refers to "external happenings and to the wisdom, practical knowledge, general rules drawn from them." "Erlebnis" is "something that is lived inwardly and intensely. Its permanent effects, if any, are changes in the inner, emotional life. It can be used absolutely in the sense of an intense imaginative or spiritual experience. Thus used it is stronger than 'experience' which tends to be more external." (I've omitted the German sentences given as examples, and used American-style quotation marks--inverted commas [?].) Best to all!
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