About half an hour ago I was walking around a nearby lake with our two dogs. Then I was directly experiencing what it was like to be outdoors in late afternoon on a pleasingly sunny and warm Oregon day.
I can share a photo I took, but what you see isn't what I experienced. In fact, even if you had been standing right beside me when I got my iPhone out, how you looked upon the lake wouldn't have been the same as my experience of it.
That's the thing about experience: it's subjective, personal, ineffable, ever-changing, impossible to pin down.
We can try to describe our experiences, but when that description falls short of the vivid intensity of something we want to share with another person -- what it was like when my child was born! --- often we end up saying, "Well, you just had to have been there."
Except, as just noted, even if you had been there with me at the birth of my daughter, you would have had your own experience, not mine.
Notice the "what" in the italicized passage above. Psychiatrist/philosopher Iain McGilchrist says one of the differences between the left and right hemispheres of the human brain is this: the left loves "what" while the right loves "how."
What (there's that word again) I'm trying to get at when I talk with someone about my daughter's birth really is how that experience was for me. I use language with lots of what-descriptors, date, time, who was in the room, how the labor went, etc., because it is so difficult to get across how it was for me back in St. Vincent's Hospital in suburban Portland back on a wintry January day in 1972.
Poetry. Dance. Music. Facial expressions. Tone of voice.
These are right-brain ways of communicating "how" experiences much more directly than the left-brain language, concepts, and abstractions which re-present actually lived reality can do. McGilchrist talks about this in his fascinating book about the divided brain, which I've blogged about here and here.
Reading the book, I've been fascinated by how (aha!) I'm getting fresh insights into so many mystical and spiritual philosophies I've learned about over my lifetime.
Rumi, Ramana, Meister Eckhart, Plotinus, Zen, Taoism, Sant Mat, St. John of the Cross, Buddhism -- on almost every page McGilchrist writes something which reminds me of how some seeker of cosmic truth approached reality. Again, not what was found, but how it was sought and then described.
Fairly frequently McGilchrist uses some words which I"ve criticized in other contexts: "as it is."
What he's talking about is how the right hemisphere of the brain is focused on embodied experience of here and now. Sights, sounds, smells, tastes, touches, feelings, that overall sense of being which each of us enjoys each and every moment we're alive.
This isn't the same meaning some non-dual, Buddhist, Advaita, Vedanta, etc. adherents give to "as it is." They often use those words to denote some objective truth, objective reality, objective experiencing. That's left-brain stuff. At least, that's how I look upon their use of the term.
I like McGilchrist's "as it is," though, because he founds his meaning in solid neuroscience, philosophy, and, importantly, experience. We all know the difference between thinking about something and experiencing that something.
Concepts never fully (or even partially?) capture experience. Yet McGilchrist eloquently describes how the left hemisphere of the brain is focused on breaking the world into parts, assembling those parts into a model of how the world is, and then defending the truthfulness of that model.
How dare you!? Say that. Do that. Believe that.
Recently I've been getting quite a few How dare you!? comments from religiously-minded people offended by something or other. They have a model of the world, of reality, which they think is so correct, so true, nobody should be able to criticize it.
Yet they feel free to criticize other people's model of reality.
This is the left hemisphere of the brain talking. It takes a personal experience -- I feel God's love... I feel devoted to the guru... I feel how true my religion is -- and elevates that experience into an objective truth of the cosmos which everybody should accept.
Even if the experiences of those other people lead them in a different direction.
This sort of dogmatic attitude baffles me. Even when I was an avid believer in an Indian philosophical system called Sant Mat, I was tolerant of other people's beliefs. Heck, my first wife started off believing as I did (or at least acted like she did), and my second wife was skeptical of my spiritual beliefs from the start.
But I was married to my first wife for eighteen years, and I've been married to my second wife for twenty-two years. Love doesn't have much, if anything, to do with thinking. In both my marriages, it didn't really matter whether my wife and I had the same way of looking upon the world conceptually.
It's experience that draws people together. And also, at times, of driving them apart. In a relationship how two people experience the world is much more important than what they conceptualize as being true about reality.
(If you don't believe me, my response is Well, I guess you just had to have been there through my forty years of marriage.)
Anyway, what's my point in this blog post? I'm not really sure. And that, I guess, is my point.
It's OK not to be sure; to simply experience life without fitting reality into tidy conceptual building blocks; to embrace your own unsureness while accepting that other people feel really sure about their own way of looking at the world; to rest contentedly in experience "as it is," yet being thankful for our evolved left-brain ability to stand back from experience and organize it in useful ways.
(That's what science is all about.)