Let’s begin by breaking down an experience into its simplest parts. All events are not experiences. The difference between an event and an experience is that an event needs to be accompanied by at least a modicum of awareness for it to become an experience. Therefore:
Event + Awareness = Experience
There are many levels and means of being aware. As humans we are not only aware of our environment but also possess a self-awareness. While there is emerging data that supports the fact we are not the only sentient beings with a nascent sense of themselves, it is generally accepted that our level of self-awareness is unparalleled in the animal kingdom. Our complex and highly articulate use of language is the medium through which our heightened form of self-consciousness seems to most reside. Therefore, we could use this observation to modify our above formula of experience to:
Sensorial perception + Self-consciousness = Experience or
Sentience + Thought = Experience
Yet, even this expanded formula for experience leaves out an important element of human experience. While the definition of sentience involves both feeling and perceiving, the feeling aspect of sentience is usually more literal in that we sensorial feel things rather than emotionally feel things. Yet, for humans the emotional aspect of feeling is an important if not essential element of our experience. So, our expanded formula for human experience should be:
Sentience + Thought + Emotion/Feeling = Experience
You may wonder why I included feelings along with emotions, that is because I make a distinction between feelings and emotions. Feelings are often more a part of our sentient self falling below the level of awareness of the self-conscious ego. Feeling can be viewed as a general attitudinal background for our experiences. We may feel safe, calm, relaxed, agitated, irritated, or anxious without necessarily being consciously aware of this underlying state.
Emotions, on the other hand, are generally more conscious reactions to these underlying feelings or a reactive response to others or events in our environment. As an example someone who is feeling uncomfortable may be more susceptible to becoming angry or harsh with others. While feelings are what we viscerally feel, emotions are literally what we emote.
Each of the above elements of our experience equation provides some richness and fullness that the other lacks or cannot provide. A rich maximized experience would be more than a thought in our head, or an emotion of our heart but a total integration of body, heart and mind or as our equation states an integration of sentience (sensorial perception), thought and emotion.
Often when walk, drive a car or engage in any habitual activity we go on a form of auto-pilot in which we act and function without necessarily being self-consciously aware of what we are doing. We usually have enough awareness to not run into another car, or not fall or hurt ourselves as we make adjustments to minor changes in the terrain such as curbs, tree roots, parking meters as we mindlessly walk along a new or unfamiliar landscape.
Yet, functioning on remote control, while functional, is far from maximizing our experience. Likewise, if I’m absorbed in petty thoughts regarding a huge list of things I plan on doing in the future while at that moment being disconnected from the food I’m eating or the scenery I’m walking along, I am once again far from engaging in my experience in a rich and fulfilling manner. Even deep and challenging thoughts can be a little thin in the experience department if not accompanied by poignant feelings and sensorial context.
It would seem obvious that fulfilling experience is more likely when it integrates all elements of human experience, and does so with each element open full throttle. The old image of an engine maximizing its speed potential by using all of it cylinders seems apt. So does the image of filling the bathtub through fully opening up all three faucets of sentience, thought and emotion.
It is important to keep in mind that more isn’t alway better. While full use of one’s thoughts, senses and perception, and feelings and emotions increases our potential for personal fulfillment and rich experience, it does not necessarily maximize our experience or produce lasting joy. Such cellular joy comes when one acts in a life affirming manner and remains sensitive to one’s personal wants and needs.
Despite the apparent obviousness that an exhaustive use of our mind, heart and body is better able to produce rich and full experience, this expansive approach towards happiness and fulfillment runs counter to millennia of human experience. A great deal of human history focused on reduction rather than expansion and the vestiges of that tendency still dominate modern society and its methods to live a meaningful and happy life.
The expansionist and reductionist ways of dealing with human experience both seem to be present in the life of early man. Earliest records show that man often did not feel to be the author of his own thoughts and feelings. More often than not even the most basic thought and feeling was considered to be a gift or curse of the gods. Early man often desired to flee this fragile sense of self by partaking in ceremonies and rituals whose goal was to achieve ecstasy, which literally meant to get beyond oneself. Despite this goal the ceremonies themselves were often expansive and integrative. One reached the ecstatic state, through chanting, dance, and participating in or observing emotionally and meaning laden operatic parts. While the participants routinely testified to reaching a unified state beyond individuality, they did retain enough awareness to experience this supposed state of fusion.
Yet, the tendency towards reducing experience was also present in the desire to make a distinction between the sacred and the profane, or the exceptional and the mundane. According to this viewpoint life was inherently meaningless or even sinful, and one’s only hope of finding solace and significance was through making contact with the holy or the sacred.
This need to transcend suffering, uncover the great mysteries of life, and create order out of chaos became the central goal of the majority of cultures and societies. Through time it became increasingly necessary to divorce oneself from some aspects or elements of human experience in order to uncover eternal truths, avoid sin, or obtain salvation or eternal life.
Many of our disciplines became very disparaging and mistrustful of our body and its sensory perceptions and emotions. Plato viewed physical and perceptual life as a deceptive illusion feeling that truth and perfection were found instead in ideas, ideals and concepts. Science likewise felt subjectivity and naive perception were obstacles to the acquiring of the underlying mathematically perfect laws that house absolute Truth. Scientific objectivity was acquired by reducing, stripping away, and isolating variables. Religion, spiritualism and mysticism likewise rejected the tangible and the beauty of human experience replacing it with transcendence, essence, spirit and alternate realities. Even the classical arts sought to find the skeleton of truth by reducing our experience to the mathematics of pure form and attempting to find the true laws of idyllic beauty.
This is not to say that the above reductionist tendency was a complete mistake or itself an illusion. Yet, the negative attitude towards integrated human experience, was often unnecessary and has had many unfortunate consequences. The important fact that each time the scientific method found human perception to be illusionary or false, it was corrected by another human perception is often missed. What was gained by objectivity and reductionism was somewhat nullified by the danger of our disrespecting and vilifying our emotional and sensorial world. When spirit and mathematical Truth is all that matters than it become increasingly less important to not poison the air, water and land, or where war, torture, rape and the quality of life of each sentient being becomes inconsequential or the means by which the good defeats evil.
Knowledge, wisdom and intimacy all involve the ability to see and feel things from a multitude of perspectives. We learn much when we reduce and focus our vision when using a microscope and we also often benefit by expanding our vision telescopically to see the big picture. Yet, joy is an expansive experience, and maximizing one’s experience is best accomplished by savoring and integrating all the elements of human experience. The human body is no less a marvel than the mind, and feelings are the spice of life without which joy is impossible. The body feels pleasure, the heart feels joy and the mind feels wonder, such is the incredible beauty of being human and the expansive full range of human experience.