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Experience: All There Is
We often hear that experience is the best teacher, or even the only teacher. Increasingly we are told that there is nothing but experience. Of course, we use the word experience both to refer to what has happened to one, “knowledge or practical wisdom gained from what one has observed, encountered, or undergone,” and to current “observing, encountering, or undergoing of things generally as they occur in the course of time.”
New Thoughters are used to hearing that there is nothing but mind or spirit. Strange as it may seem at first, “all is experience” is equivalent to “all is mind or spirit.” Everything that we reasonably could mean by mind is covered by experience. It is any sort of psychic happening, however simple or complex. It includes feeling, thinking, perceiving, desiring, willing, hoping, fearing, and remembering.
For the past century, physicists have known that there is no substance in a “thingy” sense in the physical world. The world is a dazzling dance of momentarily existing bursts of energy, without any basic solidity. In other words, it is process, rather than substance.
But could minds, and especially the chief mind, God, be an exception to the process-rather-than-substance rule? Not if we want to avoid an incoherent dualistic bifurcation of reality.
To say that all is process, as physics assures us, is not necessarily to say that all is experience. Physics is happy with an essentially lifeless universe, in which life is an oddity that occasionally, accidentally, arises but is not an essential ingredient of reality. In the first third of this century, Alfred North Whitehead worked out a comprehensive system of thought based on the insight that “nature lifeless” gives no basic answers, whereas “nature alive” (the titles of two lectures in his 1938 book, Modes of Thought) does. This is not to say that all collections of living units are, as aggregates, living; doornails are indeed dead, although all their components are living.
Whitehead interpreted the quanta of energy discovered by physics as the experiences needed for a coherent philosophy. Although Whitehead did not go so far as to proclaim himself a metaphysical idealist, some others have interpreted him as one, specifically an idealist of the panpsychic variety. That is, experience (mind) comes in a great many units. There is nothing of the idea that “God is all,” that “there is nothing but God” in panpsychism. To say that all is mind is not necessarily to say that there is only one mind. To understand that mind is experience is to realize that there is no way that God could be all. All experiences are unique, and there is no way that God could be all. All experiences are unique, and there is no way that any experiences—even the succession of experiences called God—could be any other experiences. Any claim to the contrary would have to be based on an antiquated assumption that there is substance apart from experience. The impossibility of pantheism (God is all) and the necessity of panentheism (all is in God) are obvious in a thoroughgoing panexperientialism (all is experience). However, the psychological experience of oneness with God—especially if interpreted as unity of purpose—remains a powerful reality.
What does an experience do? Each experience feels (prehends, in Whiteheadian terminaology) the feelings of all experiences that came into existence before the experience in question did. This is a great blow at the corrosive modern assumption that only sensory experience gives knowledge (thereby removing the realm of values and religious experience from the field of knowledge). Another way of putting this is to say that extrasensory perception, in the broadest sense of the term, is the basic form of awareness, while our five universally accepted senses are derived from that basic sort of awareness. To be sure, most of us do not practice extrasensory awareness with the skill of a gifted psychic, but we have the potential to do so.
But that’s only the beginning of the career of an experience. In addition to prehending all earlier experiences (most of them so faintly as to relegate them to irrelevance), each experience chooses between, and thereby blends the influence of the past and the perfect possibilities for fullest living offered to it by God. The presence of God in each experience (which means that God is everywhere, since there is no place apart from experience) is essential in order to make it possible for any experience to depart in any degree from the pattern of the past. The degree of freedom to choose is slight in most subhuman experiences, but no experience is entirely without freedom. This co-creative (in collaboration with both past experiences and with God) process is summarized in the following formula from the book that Deb Whitehouse and I have written, New Thought: A Practical American Spirituality: Past + Divine Offer + Choice = Co-Creation. To choose is to co-create. While an experience is co-creating itself, it is a self-aware subject; forever after that, it is an unaware object for the awareness of later experiences; this is called “objective immortality.” In this capacity, each experience is a permanent influence. No effort is ever lost.
Inclusion of one experience in another is to be understood in terms of feeling, not in any material box-within-a-box sort of arrangement. Since all experiences feel (include) all earlier experiences, why emphasize panentheism? It is because only God feels all earlier experiences with as much clarity as possible and preserves them in their freshness forever, whereas we aren’t very good at it. What did you do on your second birthday, or on February 8, 1990, to pick a date at random?
The great faith of New Thought is that by consciously controlling our experiences called thoughts, which in turn can control our experiences called attitudes and emotions, we can promote the positive character of all our upcoming experiences. Life is a great experience, or, better, a great, endless succession of experiences.