The idea of "right looking" may seem uncomfortable to many in our vaguely postmodern/subjective era. My students' first reaction where disagreements in perception arise is to diffuse the situation by retreating into their non-sequitur claim that "everyone is entitled to their opinion." Of course, I usually prod--but which opinion is right?
So as I was thinking about that yesterday, I remembered a time when I was about 13 and my grandma bought a framed print of an autostereogram and hung it on her wall. This is as good an example as any (click to enlarge):
I remember very distinctly the feeling of frustration that came over me at Christmas that year, as all of my extended family walked over to the print, stood for a minute, and then said, "Oh, I see it!" Frustration, because I stood for hours and couldn't see it. At first they teased me, then they finally lost interest in teasing me--and still I stood there, looking, looking. I finally must have given up temporarily, because I remember that I never did "see it" that Christmas. It wasn't until a few years later, at a friend's house, that I stared at another autostereogram and finally saw rightly.
People who have never been able to perceive 3D shapes hidden within an autostereogram find it hard to understand remarks such as, "the 3D image will just pop out of the background, after you stare at the picture long enough", or "the 3D objects will just emerge from the background".What a perfect analogy this is for me! I haven't stumbled upon such a perfect analogy for spirituality since my post on the "collapsing bridge of ontotheology." Here perception--experience--must precede understanding. So whereas I was the frustrated one, unable to see what others were seeing in front of Grandma's autostereogram, I have also been, by way of spiritual experience, the one trying to describe how a whole new way of seeing is revealed at the "end" of spiritual seeking--trying and failing, while my listeners "find it hard to understand such remarks."
And so it seems to me that it comes down to a matter of interpersonal trust: I trusted that my entire extended family wasn't playing a practical joke on me, and so I kept looking. To have turned around and said, "There is no such hidden image in this print" would have been incorrect. My trust in their testimony helped to keep me looking long enough to (eventually) see rightly.
In precisely the same way, I've pleaded with friends to keep seeking the spiritual experience, even as I understand that they cannot understand what it is I'm trying to describe until they experience it for themselves. In Varieties of Religious Experience, Will James summarizes a view that is found consistently in the mystical traditions all around the world: "This overcoming of all the usual barriers between the individual and the Absolute is the great mystic achievement. In mystic states we both become one with the Absolute and we become aware of our oneness." But no one--not even James--can understand this claim without undergoing it. And to undergo it seems to require trusting that such an experience is possible.
And so I keep standing there. Waiting for it to come into focus. Stand with me?