I intuitively feel that these experiences, mystical but also sensual and embodied, are the core of spirituality and the foundation that religions build their vast tottering edifices upon: these experiences that work for us, that we then work hard to name and explicate in full logical or fantastically elaborated detail. Naming is not only important but unavoidable … but once the naming develops into major exclusionary truth claims, … and once these get identified with the worldly power involved in religious organization then all the power of the experience gets harnessed to the groupthink and the powerplays (exclusions, repressions and crusades) and we have the worst of religion.
Dave Belden in response to How I Became a Pagan
Reading Dave’s comment, I was reminded of Deepak Chopra’s saying “God gave humans the truth, and the devil came and he said, ‘Let’s give it a name and call it religion.’” There is an inescapable tension between experience and the words we use to describe that experience, which cannot help but remove us from the experience itself. Ted Hughes warns us eloquently: “In a way, words are continually trying to displace our experience. And insofar as they are stronger than the raw life of our experience, and full of themselves and all the dictionaries they have digested, they do displace it.” Yet Hughes as a poet chose to use words to create extraordinary experiences for his readers. How do you communicate without words? How do you guide people on a spiritual path without names for the landmarks they are passing?
On the vision quest I wrote about, Oriah was certainly conscious of that tension. When we came back from the vision quest, we were not allowed to talk to anyone about our experience, because once we did it would become a story, and we would remember the story and how we had told it rather than the experience. After a day, we met as a group and shared the experience of our vision quest with one another, in mime. No words allowed. This was (radical understatement) a challenge, but it forced us to focus on the physical, emotional, and spiritual experience rather than moving into the intellectual world, which I at least certainly do all too easily. I remember one woman, who simply sat in the centre of our circle, and peeled an onion, layer after layer, as tears rolled down her face. When I go to sweat lodges in my tradition, we are always encouraged not to speak to any one for seven days about our experience in the lodge, so that we have time to process the experience before it becomes a story.