Wednesday, August 28, 2013


Deep experience is not that different, I think, from Maslow’s “peak experience,” which seems to be back in public consciousness again.  The effervescence (explosion is too big a word) of the newer neurosciences -- not just the technological perception of molecular nerve function but also the patterns discovered by computer analysis of mega-statistical accumulations such as internet behavior records -- reminds me very much of the blossoming psych theories of the Seventies when I was just staggering out of a very intense relationship.  

For me, taking the Maslowian approach of looking for what makes people happy and healthy (which, after all, was only pushing forward the Menninger pattern, though the latter was concentrating on “maturity” instead of fulfillment) gave me a place to start.  Erikson’s evolution of the individual from birth to death was helpful, Perl’s counterphobic confrontations, Rogers’ value of empathy as the basis of relationship, Winnicott’s formation of self in relation to others -- all these were miles and miles beyond my undergrad psych classes, which were merciless examinations of rats in glass boxes.  Deep experience is a confirmed, valuable, manageable phenomenon, perhaps the most purely human capacity there is -- so far.

How do institutions capture deep experience?  Call it faith or call it patriotism or even call it falling in love -- all three become captured in religions, nations and marriage. These common social structures (usually built on an economic foundation) use deep experience to capture people.  Institutions are ways of capturing “territory” (actual or virtual or a combination of both) in structured, stabilized systems for the sake of safety, predictability, and therefore profit.  If deep experience dissipates, then usually habit or peer pressure or self-interest will take over, but sometimes it seems necessary to use force and punishment. 

In American society today we are kept in our places by barrages of advertising that model how we should be, what rewards and punishments will ensue, and various stories illustrating those.  Underneath this “mainstream” is always an undercurrent of counter-culture, parasitical culture, experimental individuals and small specialized groups.  These alternative “ways” are closely related to the ecology and to economic niches created by the larger stream.

To make a quick list, religions and nations (and marriage which is a merging of both to keep households orderly, solvent and contributing) use the following means of creating allegiance:

aesthetics:  is it beautiful
brain function: you can’t do what you can’t think
affiliation: with whom do you belong
individual psych patterns: what has life taught you so far
community: where is everyone going
protection: help me out here
stories:  and then what might happen
writing:  recording rules, decisions, bookkeeping

All of these means use content drawn from the ecology and the ways people relate to it.  Thus, the surface of the planet is covered by a mosaic of various human arrangements.  A religion or government developed to fit one place will not necessarily work in another -- in fact, probably not.  But the constant is the human part: if it is true of most or all humans, it will work.  Often these are family patterns, or child-raising practices.

Governing institutions merge with religion to exclude some people, punish others, control behavior with laws and criminalization, and set norms of behavior.  For a nation to function, it must submerge religious dissension, often by ruling it irrelevant.

At the root of both is basic turf protection, the impulse of all living beings to survive by protecting their environment and claiming whatever they need.  Not every living being is driven to expand, to claim more land, more followers, more profit, more domination, but many are.  When it comes to institutions, the drive to dominate seems far more powerful than the drive to submit, though they always go together.  A general cannot dominate the battle without the voluntary obedience and submission of his subordinates.  Though there is a sense in which governing institutions (nations, cities, the securities exchange, the United Nations) have a virtual element (waving flags, brass bands, statues of idealized personification, images of heaven and hell) they tend to be pretty much earthly.

Religion can trump anything of this real world by claiming an imaginary virtual world that seems so powerful as to cause a change of heart: the promise of a better place or the threat of everlasting punishment.  If a religion can use the eight elements listed above to make this happen, it can overpower governments.  The trouble is that then there is chaos, unless the church has an infrastructure capable of taking on the functions of a nation.  Most of them are not able to deal with matters outside their own turf, and their method of keeping order inside the nation might be simply elimination of all competition and difference.  

This, of course, causes something they cannot see because of the smallness of their vision. It makes them vulnerable to the capacity of every other nation to generate prosperity by providing options and a rich inspirational life.  Violence, fear, and threats -- all demand huge economic resources while diminishing the impulse to experiment, reach out and grow.  All force-based nations must fail, particularly if they are rooted in punishment-based religions.

I come from a mildly progressive background that believed in cooperatives, pluralism, and democracy -- not just in the sense of being guided by majority vote but also in the sense of protecting dissent as a valuable growing edge.  To an authoritarian government this “reads” as weakness and confusion.  Indian reservations are a good example of a population where three-handed institutional power (tribe, BIA, state) and multiple styles and goals full of exploitable gradients have been both the strength (because no one can grab the snake by the throat -- there are too many of them) and the weakness (they go off in every unpredictable direction).  This is not necessarily negative.

Deep experience, when described as Native American spirituality, is ascribed to reservation lands and religious practices.  People come hoping to find a guide to achieving something life-changing, but it is a circle.  Deep experience is not in a place or a protocol: it is in the perceiving human.  If those people would simply change their own lives -- perhaps using the Ericson steps, the Perls confrontation, the Winnicott tenderness, the Rogers empathy, and so on -- then deep experience would come to them.  As AA recommends, the first step is surrender of the craving for power.

What may trump all our games of “Let’s You and Him Fight,” (Eric Byrne’s “Games People Play” from that same favorite era) is the great glory of the cosmos and the devastating endangerment of this little planet.  These are pushing the realignment of both government and religion, human by human.

If one’s culture is based on guarding resources, claiming turf, excluding intruders, then it becomes important to preserve one’s literal life along with everything else.  Then immortality is just another form of hoarding, wanting to have bigger, higher, more, even after death and to be deserving of it.

If one’s culture is based on relationship with everything else -- other people, other creatures, other lands to the extent that you can know them -- then the feeling that everything is going on, an enduring process that includes your influence on them, your attachment to them, then a view of death that is a dispersal through the cosmos, dissolving into it, a generosity, is satisfying.  


Anonymous said...

Interesting video relating to an institution on the Blackfeet Reservation:

Mary Strachan Scriver said...

Eeksokapi! I'll expand this video into a whole post, but in case something interferes before I can do that, it's good to have the link.

Prairie Mary