Development of experience

The ‘in depth' dimension involves the modes of experience[4].

 

The physical mode is a result of the interaction between the body and the physical environment. In other words, it is bound to the physical-ness of human existence. This mode starts possibly even in the pre-natal period and dominates early life. It can be associated with the range of physiological sensations, such as physical pain, hunger, thirst, sexual arousal, and those related to physical activity (vigour, tiredness etc.). The feeling of physical security (or its lack) can be included in this mode too.

 

The conventional mode derives mainly from a sense of belonging, being a part of a group or culture, and goes beyond physical experiences. It is especially prominent in ritualised situations such as religious ceremonies, weddings, or even sport events. However, this mode can also involve less situation-specific feelings, for instance fear and hatred (of those who are perceived to be different) or, on the other side of the spectrum, empathy, sympathy or care, especially for the members of one's group (e.g. one's family, culture, nationality or religion). Shame is also in this category - unlike guilt, shame is learned, socially induced.

 

The personal mode can be associated with personal depth (that may be triggered by external stimuli such as a book or music). It is possible to claim that every experience is personal. However, the distinctive characteristic of this mode is the element of absorption. For example, one may be in a crowd at a concert, and yet sink inside oneself - relating to the music, but excluding the crowd. Another example is a meaningful sexual experience. It involves a personal, unique relationship with the other, but it also excludes (at least momentarily) the rest of the world. ‘Flow' (absorption in a usually solitary activity) can also be representative of such an experience. On the other side, so-called ‘existential anxiety' (the consequence of recognising uncertainty as a life condition) is another typical feeling of this mode.

 

The transcendent mode transcends not only the physical boundaries but also the socially induced and ego boundaries, which is why an element of infinity may be present. One clarification is needed though. The transcendent mode is different from transpersonal experiences that can happen at any stage and are usually interpreted within the framework of that stage (e.g. the experience of a unity with the nature[5]). Such experiences can be induced, for example, by psychotropic drugs, while the transcendent mode cannot. They happen sporadically, often accidentally, are short lived, and ‘cannot be counted as a part of the modal repertoire' (Donaldson, 1992 p.235). The transcendent mode is more stable, and transpersonal experiences in this mode merge with other ones. To use Maslow's terminology, it is closer to a ‘plateau experience' than ‘peak experiences'. It may involve, for instance, transcending petty concerns, non-attachment, the sense of a larger perspective, and also the sense of connectedness, non-possessive love, or recognising beauty beyond personal inclinations, and it does not necessarily need to have a spiritual source[6]. So-called ‘existential joy' that transcends existential anxiety (a characteristic of the previous mode) also belongs to this category (see Popovic, 2003). Its most important quality though, is starting to experience reality in terms of processes rather than discrete objects. Reality is perceived in a less segmented way: ‘Spatial boundaries no longer appear stable but open and plastic, suggesting the permeability of permanent objects' (Wade, 1996, p.181). It is only natural that such a mode of experiencing leads to greater fluidity, decreased attachment to objects and, at the same time, the perception of an interrelatedness between them.

 

It should be emphasised that the above categories refer to the different modes of experiencing rather than the specific types of experience. The further modes are, in fact, inclusive in terms of the sources (or types) of experience. In other words, any event that can be experienced in early modes can also be experienced (albeit differently) in further ones, but certain experiences may be exclusive only to further modes. Eating may be an example. Food consumption can be a purely physical experience, when the focus is on the nutritional value, satisfying the need to eat; for the second mode a cultural embodiment is also important (e.g. a particular setting or type of food, the use of a knife and fork or chopsticks); the third would emphasise personal taste, and the fourth can perhaps best be described as mindful eating (after a form of meditation known in the West as ‘mindfulness'). On the other hand, it is hard, for example, to derive any meaningful experience from reading Joyce's ‘Ulysses' if in the first or second mode.

  • [4]. This dimension has been largely neglected in psychology possibly because it is more fuzzy than the other ones. The closest parallel to its four modes are Maslow's motivational levels: physiological needs and safety (1); belongingness and love (2); esteem (the transition between 2 and 3); self-actualisation (3); and transcendence (only included in his model later) (4).
  • [5]. Such a perceived unity is likely to be the result of a temporary expansion beyond the rings.
  • [6]. Peak experiences too do not need to be linked to the spiritual. ‘Transcendent ecstasy' can be triggered, for example, by intellectual activity, such as solving a mathematical problem (see Donaldson, 1992, p.305).