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Thursday, 6 April 2017

Understanding experience beyond binary opposites

We all have various experiences in life. Love, hate, being pleased/displeased, being rewarded/punished, seeing a tiger, smelling the fragrance of a perfume, touching a table, happiness, sorrow, being afraid of, or threatened by somebody, reading, writing, being a child in school, being a father or mother, trying to understand a concept, theory or problem  and succeeding or  not succeeding in that attempt, being in the waking state, dreaming, half asleep, soundly asleep, in agony, anxious, comfortable or in difficulty, conducting/observing religious rituals, social customs, playing different games, and so on. Each of these may have different kinds of sub-categories of experience: for example, loving my parents is different from loving my friends, both are different from loving myself. Just as experiences are innumerable, understandings of experience can be innumerable as well. To complicate matters further, we are bombarded by claims of approaches to experience that are supposed to help us live our daily lives, from the marketing associated with various lifestyle and consumer choices (exercise, dietary protocols, “mindfulness”) to the poorly defined yet allegedly virtuous concepts of academic fashion (“embodied” being the current one!)

Initially, religions and philosophy sought to develop understanding of experience, later followed by the sciences. However, history has also shown that new understanding of human experience cannot have any impact unless our individual minds are radically affected to the point where habitual responses such as anger, greed, grasping and aversion are radically transformed. Understanding is one thing but we would need to feel so inspired by this new understanding that we are compelled to act on it. Only when this becomes internalised can people benefit. Gautama Buddha and Jesus of Nazereth both came up with radical new understandings of human experience and there are Buddhists and Christians who are of benefit to others through this and some who are not. This shows that understanding without wisdom is futile.

Experience is central to human existence in so far as we all engage with experience at every moment of our lives. Experience is related to and influenced, shaped and determined by a vast range of factors within and beyond our control. This considerable complexity of experience would suggest that every effort should be made by representatives of academic disciplines to work together so as to establish holistic approaches and yield holistic insights, rather than exclusively delving even deeper into the increasingly isolated areas of interest characteristic of those disciplines. Strategic efforts by some funding bodies have realised this need by actively supporting such collaboration.

I am grateful to Professor Les Lancaster and Dr Jessica Bockler for having discussed these issues with me and having contributed to a (sadly unsuccessful) funding bid in 2014. They now work through the Alef Trust which they founded in 2015. The text below in italics reflects their contribution.

Les Lancaster
Jessica Bockler

The quest to explore human experience lies at the core of all theatre, most other artistic endeavours, and all study of the mind. For most of the 20th century, conventional methods of enquiry across the natural and social sciences focused on the objective and uninvolved description, definition and prediction of the objects of their research. Quantitative methods were favoured over qualitative approaches which were “recommended only as interim strategies that might provide suggestions or hints for later quantitative and/or experimental determinations” (Braud and Anderson, 1998, 5). It was the general assumption that valid knowledge of the world could be obtained only through neutral observation of external phenomena. In this drive for objectivity humanity’s unique capacity for inner experience, for self-awareness, introspection and intuition was almost entirely ignored. The fundamental binary opposite between the outer objective and the inner subjective led to the assumption that the domains of objective science and of subjective arts and humanities are mutually exclusive.

There have been recent attempts to achieve multi-disciplinarity and integration of disciplines. Such attempts tend to emphasise process over state and performance over text, participation, interconnection, appreciation and transformation over detached description, prediction and control (Braud and Anderson, 1998). These recent attempts do not exist in isolation, nor are they new. In fact, the results of such attempts approach long-held ideals such as direct experience of Plato’s idea, and Schiller’s principle of universality (1789). Those ideals are eclectic, interweaving, interactive, transcultural, transpersonal, and holistic, and the approaches seek to be rigorous, as well as respectful, in a methodological sense. The changing view of experience opened up by these recent developments places emphasis on the subjective, first person dimension (Varela and Shear, 1999) in areas including the perception of time, the nature of emotions, embodied cognition, and access to tacit and intuitive means of gaining knowledge. These foci emerge as four distinct areas of experience (AoE) central to the project: time, emotions, embodied cognition, and intuition.

Over the past three decades, researchers in the human sciences have become increasingly aware of the limitations of so-called objective research practices and have begun to develop approaches which acknowledge subjective experience as a valid source of knowledge (Polkinghorne, 1983). Braud and Anderson assert that a complementary, transpersonal research paradigm has begun to emerge which “can more adequately apprehend the complexity, breadth, and depth of our world and of humanity” (1998, 6) by offering a less constrained, less fragmented and more meaningful picture of human nature and potential. The new paradigm repositions human experience, allowing for a multiplicity of voices and relating the individual to the larger whole within which all experience is co-created. It moves away from purely instrumental and utilitarian values that emphasise the need to manipulate and control, and it champions participation and appreciation, placing greater value on complexity, ambiguity and complementarity. The benefits that this new paradigm generates can affect all domains of human society, reshaping social, cultural and economic norms and perspectives. In the field of health, for example, we are witnessing the emergence of a new, participatory recovery model which expands medical treatment options by enhancing partnership work and self-directed care, leading to greater choice, control and empowerment for people experiencing illness (McNiff, 1998; Care Services Improvement Partnership, 2007; mental Health Foundation, 2014).

A number of new research methods have evolved which emphasise the value of alternative, participatory modes of knowing, e.g., Intuitive Inquiry (Anderson 1998), Organic Research (Clements, 2004) and Heuristic Inquiry (Moustakas 1990). Within these approaches “[R]eality is contacted through physical sense data, but also [...] through a deep intuitive inner knowing. Awareness includes (objective) sensation as well as (subjective) intuitive, aesthetic, spiritual, [and] noetic […] aspects. Understanding comes [...] from identifying with the observed, becoming one with it” and the “entire spectra of states of consciousness are of interest […]” (Moustakas, 1990, 10-11)—a notion echoed by Tart (1972)—who advocated the development of state-specific sciences, suggesting that non-ordinary states of consciousness are likely to yield new insights which are not accessible by conventional methods.

Alongside alternative modes of knowing these new research methods embrace an extended range of tools for data collection and analysis, allowing the researcher to engage with the topic in a holistic, deeply embodied and immersive way. The researcher’s immersion in the research topic may include active engagement with the practices of research participants (e.g., through workshops and seminars), contemplative and meditative practice, body work, dream analysis, and work with symbols and metaphors, highlighting the creative dimensions of the complementary research approaches.

The trend just discussed is growing, but as it grows it also meets with increased objection, which developed from ridicule of not taking the trend seriously to harsher criticism as it is being perceived as a threat to the status quo. It would be well worth exploring the extent to which the UK’s Research Excellence Framework is in fact a suitable tool for bricking in the status quo. Many disciplines still do not “talk to each other”, or at least not fully, openly, directly, intentionally, freely and effectively. The same applies to sub-areas within disciplines, old and new, because each area considers its position and other positions in the discipline as mutually exclusive rather than as positions that, while different, add to the overall understanding because they are approaching the same phenomenon from different angles.

Vilayanur Ramachandran

Despite these efforts, therefore, we are still stuck, to a large extent, with a world view that is based on binary opposites. There is, in particular, still the gap between the sciences and the humanities identified by C.P.Snow (1905-1980) in his Rede lecture of 1959. I met neuroscientist Vilayanur S. Ramachandran at the 2002 ‘Towards a Science of Consciousness’ conference in Tucson, Arizona, and I asked him ‘from your background, you were brought up in India, aren’t you aware that there is more to life than what science can deal with at the moment?’. He said ‘Yes of course I am’. He was very lively and passionate, as he always is, about that as well: ‘but I am scientist. As a scientist I can talk only in terms of what science can achieve at any point in time, but I am also trying to push the boundaries of science for science to be able to grasp a little bit more of what is still out there, and which I am aware of’.
Friedrich Schiller

What we need is, to invoke Schiller, “philosophical minds” to identify synergies and links between areas that may come across as not related, rather than sticking to the status quo of fragments that provide a safe haven to “bread scholars” (1789) who have learnt a whole lot about the fragments, but who see any development that might challenge their knowledge about fragments as a threat to their own very essence, and who will thus fight genuine progress with all possible means.

Anderson, R. (1998). Intuitive inquiry: A transpersonal approach. In W. Braud & R. Anderson, Transpersonal research methods for the social sciences: Honoring human experience (pp. 69 94). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

Braud, W. & Anderson, R. (1998). Transpersonal Research Methods for the Social Sciences. London: Sage, p. 5.

Care Services Improvement Partnership (CSIP), Royal College of Psychiatrists (RCPsych) and Social Care Institute for Excellence (SCIE), 2007. URL:, accessed on 13th September 2014. 2.)

Clements, J. (2004). Organic inquiry: toward research in partnership with spirit. Journal ofTranspersonal Psychology, 36 (1), pp. 26 49.

McNiff, S. (1998). Art-based Research. London & Philadelphia: Jessica Kingsley, pp. 15-18

Mental Health Foundation, 2014. URL:, accessed on 13th September 2014.

Moustakas, C. (1990). Heuristic Research: Design, Methodology and Applications. London: Sage.

Polkinghorne, D. (1983). Methodology for the human sciences: Systems of inquiry. Albany: SUNY Press; Tesch, R. (1990). Qualitative research: Analysis types and software tools. Bristol, PA: Falmer.

Schiller, F. 1789/1972. The Nature and Value of Universal History: An Inaugural Lecture. History and Theory 11 (3): 321-334.

Tart, Charles T. (1972). States of consciousness and statespecific sciences. Science, 176, pp. 1203 1210.

Varela, F. J., & Shear, J. (1999). First-person methodologies: What, why, how. Journal of Consciousness studies6(2-3), 1-14.

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