TOTAL EXPERIENCE explores designing for experience: its theory, its practice, and how designing for experiences affects us socially and in our personal lives.


  • Bob Jacobson
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  • BOB JACOBSON is fascinated by the experience of experience. A planner and technologist, Bob has a Ph.D. in Urban Planning & Design from UCLA. He's been a policy researcher, technology CEO, science writer, and consultant. As a Fulbright Scholar, he studied cellular telephony's impacts on transborder communities in the Nordic Arctic Circle. Bob edited Information Design (MIT Press 2000) and is now writing a book on the theory and practice of creating edifying, transformative experiences.
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    CORANTE PAULA THORNTON says, "Understanding human behavior (economics), optimizing interactions (design) and facilitating conversations (markets), are the means to achieve strategic differentiation. This is the focus of our discipline. It is not a 'nice to have'‚ and is not, like documentation once was, an afterthought. It is the means by which to start a strategic discussion and the means by which to drive a tactical initiative. All design should be evidence-based."
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    « Toward the Total Experience | Main | Spirituality an Design, Part 2: Tune in tomorrow, please »

    July 17, 2007

    Varieties of Spiritual Experience, 1

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    Posted by Bob Jacobson

    Spirituality SunsetAfter two long weeks of relocating, I'm back to my opus: to describe those categories of experience -- spiritual, philosophical, scientific, and design -- that bear on the practice of systemically designing for experience. My first topic is spiritual experiences, experiences derived from the phenomenon of human existence we call spirituality. What follows are basically notes preludes to a more thorough discussion; neither complete nor conclusive, but suggestive of the broad array of experiences that derive from our spiritual natures.

    The literature regarding spirituality and spiritual experiences -- possibly one and the same thing -- is immense, predating the Common Era (CE, also known as “A.D.”). In fact, it probably begins with the Neanderthal species, elements of whose traditions no doubt were assimilated by Homo sapiens when they appeared on the scene. Neanderthals, we know from their burial site remains, were intensely spiritual beings. But even to begin more recently with the Cave of Lascaux, where modern human beings 30,000 years ago painted zoological murals to ensure a successful hunt, creates too vast a corpus to explore. So I began my researches reading papers and articles examining “modern” spirituality as practiced in ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia, Europe, the Americas, and Asia. It felt esoteric. Not a whole lot of this early experience has found its way unaltered into our own time: the notion of good and evil in eternal conflict is one that has.

    I used a controversial source to inaugurate my deeper explorations, Gore Vidal's controversial novel (which Vidal novel isn't?), CREATION, published in 1981. In it, he travels with a sojourner who meets in the same short period of time, Zoroaster, Socrates, the Buddha, and Confucius. In real life, these figures were almost contemporaneous, as were various Native American codifiers of Indian religions; Lao-Tzu, father of Taoism; and Judaism was reasserting itself in its homeland after the Babylonian Exile. For some reason, around the Fifth Century BCE (Before the Common Era, also known as “B.C.”), people's experience of themselves and their relation to the infinite underwent a massive change, globally.

    I then began reading (and still am) about the evolution of spirituality and religion (two parallel, sometimes complementary, sometimes competing social phenomena) as they have evolved to our modern time. To do a thorough job would take more than a lifetime, so my own quick study won't earn me a divinity degree. But it may prove useful in identifying themes, events, and experiences common across sectarian boundaries and even among individuals.

    There are four types of relevant spiritual experience -- according to me, not necessarily the authorities -- each with its own defining characteristics. For convenience, I've referred here to Wikipedia entries that do a good job of summarizing accumulated knowledge and also presenting links to specific resources for deeper reading:

    • Ecstatic experiences -- Personal epiphanies and “callings”
    • Ritualistic experiences -- Tribal and cult experiences often derived from oral tradition
    • Formalized experiences -- Highly structured experiences often adhering to a doctrine
    • Spiritual living -- Spirituality as a constant, day to day experience

    Ecstatic experience. Before it became the name for a puny drug, ecstasy was more commonly known as a state of enlightenment and bliss associated with extreme physical deprivation (wandering in the desert would do it), the ingestion of psychotropics, frenetic physical activity, or simply encountering some “perfect” visual, aural, or haptic sensation. Another, quieter type of ecstasy is the “calling,” a direct communication with a perceived “higher” entity. Callings often result in dedication of a portion or all of one's life to service in the higher entity's behalf. Prayer for some can be an ecstatic experience, until it becomes formalized.

    Ritualistic experience. When shamans and priests invoke specific modes of belief and behavior, the outcome is a ritual often intended to promote a shared experience -- and beliefs -- among more than one individual at a time -- a group of devotees, a tribe, or a cult (a group of devotees within a tribe). (Individuals can practice rituals, too, but these are usually prescribed by a shaman or priest and then adapted to personal expression, like a Buddhist shrine ceremony.) Rituals, also known as rites, employ standard methods for invoking altered states, some of which may be ecstatic but all of which are intended to produce a sense of spiritual unity with a greater whole.

    Formalized experience.
    Over time, especially as the numbers of adherents to a particular suite of rituals and belief grows, doctrines and canons evolve into religions, structures that approve some methods for attaining spiritual awareness and exclude others. In effect, experiences themselves become subject to religious provisions. For example, most Christian sects advocate prayer and formalized rituals -- events that largely take place within the confines of a cathedral, chapel, or church -- but discourage reliance on drugs, alcohol, or sexual activity as the path to enlightenment. The exceptions are notable. Other religious doctrines, however, incorporate practices forbidden by the Christian sects. The Native American Church's use of peyote as a path to enlightenment -- a natural drug claimed to be endowed with its own spiritual identity and powers -- is a well-known case, upheld as a legal practice by the US Supreme Court. The current contention between Western religions and Islam has as much to do with regional politics as spirituality, but the methods by which their respective adherents express their spirituality is also a source of conflict that in the past has resulted in no less than religious wars. Even the use of music to celebrate spirituality, or the roles of the genders, can lead to serious theological disputes.

    Spiritual living. The last of the categories of spiritual experience with relevance to the designing of experiences I call “spiritual living,” an attitude and approach to day to day existence that emphasizes spirituality as the key to living “the good life.” In my own Taoist practice, spiritual living means living with an awareness of the greater whole, The Tao or Way, that governs how things work but that itself has no personality or interventionist intent. In its purest form, Taoism requires simply acknowledging and respecting the spiritual commonality of all things. There are also ritualistic versions of Taoism that invoke ecstatic experience in order to attain immortality, but these experiences I would classify as ritualized or even formalized, since the methods of doing so are rigorously prescribed. Other self-defined spiritual traditions have their own spiritual-living variations, but the large numbers of individuals (for example, on online dating sites) who proclaim to be “spiritual but not religious” is testimony that everyone from hard-core religionists to atheists, even people who convention deems mentally unbalanced, can live a spiritual life. In fact, the odd exception is the individual who claims not to have any spiritual experience. Nevertheless, in our time and culture, spirituality of this type is often subordinated to material -- i.e., matter-based -- experiences. A great deal of influence to engender experiences is lost in this process.

    In Part 2 of this discourse, I describe how spiritual experiences of various types interact with “designed” experiences; and how designers can (positively) exploit spiritual experiences and what they must look out for when invoking (or ignoring) them.

    (Image: Sisters of St. Joseph of Toronto)

    Comments (4) + TrackBacks (0) | Category:


    1. david lee king on July 17, 2007 5:27 PM writes...

    Fine start. it seems to me that you are focusing on the more spiritualist, new agey types of spirituality - and missing some experience categories in the process.

    Just from my own spiritual experience, I think you're missing at least two:

    conversation experience (poorly worded) - prayer is a good example. To the believer, it's not just one person mouthing ritualistic words... it's a two-way conversation that doesn't seem to fit your 4 categories.

    conversion experience - possibly just varieties of christianity. When people "discover" the concept of grace and forgiveness, they have an experience... it might fit in under your Ecstatic experience (but not how it's currently worded).

    Just some thoughts...

    Permalink to Comment

    2. c garant on July 19, 2007 12:43 PM writes...

    Mr. Jacobson:

    I find your investigations into "spirituality" intriguing, especially when placed into the context of design. One reason the relationship hasn't been thoroughly investigated is due the fact that spirituality, by its very nature, does not lend itself to be systematically designed. I know you don't want to hear that, but if you researched more notable authors who have delved into the realm of the spirit, e.g. Helena Blavatsky, Manly P. Hall, Alice Bailey, you would quickly revoke Mr. Vidal's novel as just that, a story.

    On another note I admire your quest, for I too have been challenged to discover just what design is about. Unfortunately, design still remains to be the elephant in the room that no one wants to admit is there. Well, from what I've discovered it does exist and goes much deeper than a cry for innovation and the "bottom line". I hope we both discover more as we follow our path.

    Permalink to Comment

    3. marie geissler on July 22, 2007 8:29 PM writes...


    I was interested in your article on Varieties of Spiritual Experience and impressed and interested in the quote "In my own Taoist practice, spiritual living means living with an awareness of the greater whole, The Tao or Way, that governs how things work but that itself has no personality or interventionist intent. In its purest form, Taoism requires simply acknowledging and respecting the spiritual commonality of all things."

    In my experience however, I have a sense that after the event ( that is after all the drama is over and you reflect on the amazing gains of the experience I refer to deepening of ones love and awe for oneself and the direction that one's life seems to flow from that point on), one is left in a state of enormous gratitude ...its as if there was a very incredible personal intervention occurring....I would appreciate your thoughts...Marie

    Permalink to Comment

    4. S.S.YOGI on October 11, 2008 10:22 AM writes...

    Please see my website which is my real Spiritual experience. I am an illumined Rajayogi with Enlightenment . If you are interested in the study of my experience, please contact m whn I shall write to you further in the matter. Thanks. S.S.YOGI

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