What is experience? I

1.1. Let us begin with the word “Anubhava”, which we use to translate the English word “experience”. There are two sub-words here: Anu and Bhava. `Anu’ can be translated as `apt’, or `appropriate’, whereas `Bhava’ can be rendered as `existence’ or `being’. (The word also has an active dimension of `becoming’ as one of tis meanings.) So, `anubhava’ would mean having an appropriate existence or even an appropriate way of being-in-the-world. Appropriate to what though? Appropriate to the things, events, and the people one meets in the world. So, `experience’ means a way of being present in the world that is appropriate to whatever one encounters in the world. It is, if you like, `being-present-with’. This means that we need time: to discover ways that are appropriate to the different things we relate to in the world, we have to take our time to get to know them. That is to say, if one wants to experience the world, one has to take the time, have patience and be there. In short, `experience’ indicates a stance or an attitude we assume in the world with respect to whatever we encounter (think, taste, perceive, hear, feel, touch) in the world. Experience, thus, includes sensations, perceptions, feelings, thoughts etc but is not co-extensive with any of them.

1.2. This idea suggests further that we need to learn `how to experience’. You need to learn how to experience because this is not genetically programmed into us. It needs us to be receptive and open to the world and wait upon things and people. But neither this receptivity nor `waiting upon’ is passive in nature: we have to learn to be rightly receptive and appropriately wait upon people (`anu’). Thus, learning to be a human being is also to learn how to experience. In one sense, we can now appreciate the fact that all human beings (and other biologically highly evolved organisms) would all have `experience’ of the world. They have it in the sense that anyone who has feelings, sensations, etc would have also developed a stance or an attitude towards these and the world. In another sense, it also clarifies our sense that there are people who either have `little’ experience or do not learn anything from experience or that we even have to think about experience.

1.3. The last sense arises from the fact that the stance or attitude that one has evolved though one’s encounter with the world might not be the most appropriate or adequate way of dealing with what we encounter. A stance that you have learnt might help you get along with most things you routinely encounter in the world and, in this sense, might be adequate for you. You might even consider it `appropriate’. But the appropriateness depends not only on your ability to cope with things but also with the nature of things you encounter. That is to say, the `appropriateness’ that we talk about incorporates two dimensions: (a) the subjective dimension that refers to what you consider appropriate; (b) the objective dimension that picks out the fact that the world is also objective in nature: it is your world only because it is `the world’ as well.

1.4. That is the reason why you have to think about `experience’. You modify it, channelize it, give form to it and fine-tune it in such a way that you really have an appropriate way of being-in-the-world, appropriate both in the subjective and objective sense of `anu’. This is a learning process and you have to be taught this process. The more you reflect about your experience, the more you shape it by thinking both about your stance in the world and the raw material of that stance (thoughts, sensations, feelings, etc) the more you progress towards the next stage: experiencing “happiness”, which, in some Indian traditions, is the result of having “anu-bhaava”, where “bhaava” is something akin to “feeling” (the English word is too shallow in in its meaning to capture the notion of `bhaavana’). However, I will not go into this aspect in this post.

This way of talking about experience allows us to make sense of having `a rich experience’ and having a `complex experience’. It also suggests ways of `learning’ through experience and tells us how `experience’ teaches us things about the world and ourselves. There is no terminus to experience when it is seen as something that involves learning though the process of living-in-the-world.

2.1. Having an appropriate existence-in-the-world is a way of ‘being’ and not a question of performing an appropriate action. A ‘stance’ or an attitude is not a way of thinking about the world either. It is not like assuming a stance or an attitude about ‘abortion’ or ‘universal franchise’. Perhaps, my use of the word ‘attitude’ or ‘stance’ is the culprit here. I shall reformulate it soon.

2.2. Both ‘experience’ and ‘anubhava’ indicate that they comprise of thoughts, feelings, sensations and perceptions. That is why, in one sense of the word, even higher biological organisms (not just human beings) have experience. Consequently, one cannot decide or not decide to ‘have’ experience. (How can a human being ‘decide’ to have a thought or feel the heat of burning coal?)

2.3. Corresponding to this sense of the word, any creature that deals with sensation, perception, thought, feelings, etc has ‘an appropriate existence’ or experience. Here, ‘dealing with’ should not be taken as a deliberate action. When you feel sorrow, you cry and that is how you deal with sorrow; remove your hand hurriedly when it comes near burning coal and this is how you deal with its heat. You might say that ‘crying’ and ‘removing your hand’ are actions and you would be right. But you also deal with sensations, etc without performing any action: you may do nothing when you get angry or keep the sweets in your mouth longer to savor its taste or listen to music without doing anything. These too have to do with dealing with emotions, sensations, etc. In this sense, one does not have to ‘think about the world’ or ‘perform a conscious action’ to ‘have experience’.

2.4. In the same sense of the word, one cannot choose or not to choose to ‘have experience’. Of course, one can choose not to have a particular experience (of drinking whisky, of going to the US and such like) but this is not the same as having experience as such.