Recently I received a note from a long-time reader of this blog who was questioning me on something I have previously written, basically this: Why Experience is Not the Foundation of (All) Spirituality. In several blog posts over the years, I have offered an admittedly contrarian view to the common idea that mysticism and spirituality are all about “experiencing God.” I question the notion that experience should be the most important (or only) criteria for spirituality. Indeed, in my book Unteachable Lessons I quote my friend and podcast co-host Kevin Johnson, who describes our tendency to over-emphasize experience in spirituality as “the Experience Trap.”
My reader thought I was saying that experience is bad — and not just spiritual experience, but any kind of human experience. Here’s what he had to day:
Dissing experience in spirituality (and again, not just supernatural experience), to me, disses human existence. I know you didn’t intend to make that connection, but honestly, that’s the connection I make from it. If at the end of one’s human journey, their soul is not formed (or reformed) by the sum total of everything that happened to them during that life (the sum total of their experiences), then what was the purpose of having lived?
Well, I think this reader misunderstood me, but that’s probably because I didn’t do a very good job at explaining myself. He and I went on to exchange several emails, which helped me to clarify (to myself, and hopefully also to him) that the problem is not in experience itself (to be human is be conscious and to live, i.e. to have experience), but rather in how we interpret our experiences, and especially in the ways that we get attached to them.
To shed some light on this, let’s turn to the Anglican solitary Maggie Ross (who is much more of a contrarian than I am!). In her book Silence: A User’s Guide Volume I, she makes this observation:
Ancient, patristic, and medieval writers were extremely wary of ‘experience’ in the modern sense, and of the virtual, skewed, illusory, repetitive, and encapsulating nature of the self-conscious mind, especially in matters of the spirit. They particularly understood that when self-consciousness is suspended there can be no experience. This is contrary to the modern sense of the word, which makes self-authenticating claims, e.g., ‘Of course it’s true that I was abducted by aliens: I experienced it.’
I’ve never had the experience of being abducted by aliens, but I know people who say they have — including a college professor. I often wonder why people who have such unusual experiences don’t allow for several possible explanations — maybe they were hallucinating, or maybe they fell asleep and had a vivid dream, or maybe they were abducted by the KGB. In other words, I don’t question their experience in itself, but I do think it’s reasonable to question how they interpret the experience. And the same holds true for spiritual or “mystical” experiences, experiences that can be as out-of-the-ordinary as an alien abduction.
Maggie Ross, following the mainstream of Christian mystical theology, points out that mystical union with God takes us beyond a place where we are even capable of self-conscious awareness — so when we talk about “having an experience of God” we are talking about being aware of something that is still centered on the ego, the “I,” rather than God. In the sentence I experience God the “I” takes precedence over “God.”
This is not to say that such experiences are “wrong” or “bad.” Indeed, we live in a culture that militates against healthy self-esteem in so many ways (and often the church is the culprit), that having an experience of feeling loved or united or special to God can be profoundly healing. But the problem comes when we interpret these joyful experiences as being something more than they are. Walking in the surf may be an experience of the ocean, but it’s not the same thing as deep sea diving.
This leads to another question — what is non-attachment, anyway, and what does it have to do with Christian spirituality?
Non-Attachment: A Christian Virtue?
“The character of emptiness, at least for a Christian contemplative, is pure love, pure freedom,” wrote Thomas Merton in his book Contemplative Prayer. “Love that is free of everything, not determined by any thing, or held down by any special relationship. It is love for love’s sake.”
And this isn’t just some modern idea. In his legendary 16th Sermon, the medieval mystic Meister Eckhart proclaimed, “our Lord says: ‘No one hears my word or my teaching unless they have first abandoned their self’ (Luke 14:26). For if we are to hear God’s word, we must be wholly detached. The hearer is the same as the heard in the eternal Word.”
St. Ignatius of Loyola, St. John of the Cross, The Cloud of Unknowing, and many other voices in the Christian mystical tradition echo these ideas: non-attachment is a key to spiritual maturity.
Eckhart points to the Gospel of Luke, and indeed, a spirit of non-attachment pervades the teachings of Jesus. To follow Jesus, we are told that we need to let go of our attachments to money, to security, to family, to status, and even to our very lives.
But does this suggest that Jesus thinks we should even be non-attached to our experiences?
Yes. In Luke 14:33, Jesus summarizes his teaching on non-attachment by saying “none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.” To truly unpack this, we need to go back to the original Greek word that gets translated as “possessions.”
We live in a materialistic society, and so the English word possessions naturally evokes for us a sense of physical goods — my house, my car, my books (!), those sort of things. And certainly Jesus suggests that if we value our material goods more than we value him, then those attachments will get in the way of being able to freely, truly follow him.
But the Greek word that gets translated as “possessions” carries a much richer meaning than just the stuff we happen to accumulate.
The word is ὑπάρχουσιν (hyparchousin) and it basically means “what is already under you” — which I believe refers to anything we possess, not only to material possessions but also immaterial possessions — like our beliefs, our cherished ideologies, perhaps even our memories, and yes, our experiences. With this in mind, Jesus is saying “Learn to be non-attached, to things and even to the thoughts in your mind, for that’s what will set you free to follow me.”
It’s important to see that non-attachment carries a sense of renunciation, but not of complete discarding. The point is not to throw everything away, but rather to ensure that nothing controls us. Even when Jesus made this radical statement of supreme material non-attachment, “sell what you own, and give the money to the poor” (Mark 10:21), he almost immediately mitigates it for the benefit of his disciples: “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.”
Jesus is demanding, but not unreasonable: he understands that most people are not going to be able to forswear a home or basic necessities in order to follow him. Which brings us back to Luke 14:33 and the demand to give up our hyparchousin — the possessions, material or spiritual, that we are attached to. It is not by lacking possessions, but by being non-attached to them, that will set us free (indeed, you can be very attached to things even if you do not own them — so just physically getting rid of something in itself does not guarantee your liberation). It is only in that radical inner freedom you can truly apply Jesus’s wisdom teachings to your life.
There is nothing wrong with all the rich experiences that a fully lived life has to offer — including spiritual experiences. Enjoy life, and cherish the blessings that come your way.
But don’t become enslaved by your possessions, whether physical or material. Don’t assume that just because you have a nifty experience of God that suddenly your experience trumps all the wisdom of all the great mystics and saints of the past.
Be open to a sense of mystery pervading your relationship with God.
Learn to be non-attached: to money, to possessions, even to experiences. Non-attached doesn’t mean you have to get rid of it all, it simply means not allowing anything to own you. “You will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” Such freedom, infused with the gracious humility of unknowing, allows the spiritual life to be an on-going, unfolding adventure.