Religious Experience

In “How to Make a Mandala”, Jožo and his friends are in a religious situation. The conversation revolves around spiritual interests. Why would someone stare motionlessly at a mandala for a long period of time? Is that not boring? What goes on in the head of a person meditating? Is it some kind of game? The main question the dialogue is centred on is: What leads a person to perform such activities? Or: What do people get out of such activities (prayer, meditation, attending religious services, etc.)?

  • What is…?

A mandala: A symmetrical circular image that develops from a centre point into a complex diagram. It is often a schematic depiction of the cosmos (the arrangement of cosmic forces) and at the same time of the human spiritual structure (the arrangement of spiritual forces). The universe and the human microcosm have a hierarchical arrangement in the mandala (representing realms above and below the world, or levels of consciousness, the unconscious, and the superconscious, in a hierarchical relationship). Deities and other beings that rule given dimensions also commonly appear in mandalas. Traditionally they are very colourful. They can be made out of sand, rice, flour, or other material. This type of mandala is destroyed after the necessary rituals have been carried out. For example, in Tibetan Buddhism, the material used is poured into water. The limited duration of a mandala’s existence reflects the transience of the phenomenal world (i.e. of everything that has a specific form, shape, and colour). However, there are more durable mandalas made of metal or stone (engraved, carved, drawn, etc.). Many Buddhist stupas and Hindu temples represent gigantic mandalas. Mandalas are used as aids in personal meditation and as part of group rituals. There are even numerous ritual observances that govern how one is made. Analytical psychology (the depth psychology of C. G. Jung and his followers) uses mandalas as a medium of self-discovery in psychotherapy.

Meditation: Meditation is a way of mentally working on oneself. It has short-term and long-term aims, and can thus serve as a method of regulating one’s spiritual and psycho-physiological state and as a means of self-training. A large proportion of meditation techniques produce an overall relaxation of the mind and can be used to train a person’s emotional self-control.
However, the main objectives of meditation are spiritual, e.g. gaining deeper insight into the transient nature of the entire phenomenal world (of events, things, people, and relationships). Usually in meditation, attention is focused on a single object to the exclusion of everything else. A well-known example is becoming mindful of one’s breathing without trying to change its pace. In other types of meditation attention is focused on an image that the person meditating forms in their mind, and sometimes on the basis of a physical model (a mandala, various diagrams, colourful circles, “kasinas” etc.). Elsewhere meditation involves reciting certain words or sentences (mantras), or counting using a set of Buddhist prayer beads called a “mala”. There is also meditation on one’s own mortality (in Buddhism “marana sati”; in Christianity “ars moriendi”), wherein the person mediating calls to mind the inevitability of their own death with the aid of simple sentences and visualisations.
Meditation is found in many religions throughout the world and takes hundreds of forms. It is therefore impossible to give an exhaustive and precise definition of it.

Religious parallels and religious variations: Although different religious systems vary in many regards, they also have certain parallels, the existence of which is one possible way of obtaining a better understanding of religious traditions which are alien to our own culture or which at first glance seem very exotic. For example, in the dialogue the mandala finds a certain analogy in the icons of eastern Christianity, which are also used as tools for concentration and as such – like the mandala – represent the gate to the spiritual world. Also, the rosary (a prayer tool resembling a necklace, a string with a series of beads on which individual prayers are recited), which we are familiar with from Catholic and Orthodox Christianity, also exists in Buddhism and Hinduism (there it is called a “mala”, it has 108 beads, and it is used in meditative recitation). In various religious systems, prayer, meditation, song, religious music, temples, priests or spiritual teachers, sacred texts and so on are found in one form or another.

  • Topic

An encounter with a foreign religious tradition can be the source of a number of difficulties, all of which have a common denominator: they are not easy to understand. Alongside Buddhism (which the mandala in the dialogue relates to), Islam, Hinduism, and, for example, lesser known Christian movements can also meet with a lack of understanding in Czech society. If elements of these traditions emerge in the school environment, they can become the object of wonder, ridicule, or even contempt. However, the reason is not their uselessness or assumed illogicality. In a foreign environment these elements exist outside their original context, where they are meaningful. Given the widespread tendency of many people to judge everything foreign in the terms of their own cultural environment, they then seem irrelevant, nonsensical, or dubious. One of the few ways of understanding them is to search for similarities with elements in one’s own culture (such as parallel cultural or religious activities).

Elements of religiosity in the school environment
Like many other areas of life, the sphere of religion is also affected by the fact that no culture today can exist anymore in and of itself, isolated from other cultures. The education system is being required to face this fact all over Europe. The situation is complicated by insufficient experience and a lack of habits, behavioural patterns, and roles which would otherwise be derived from such experience. For many, a multicultural environment is something new, something that is not yet part of the social structures passed down over many generations. There is no example for parents and grandparents (in popular terms “the wisdom of our ancestors”) to draw on for living together with Muslims, Buddhists, and representatives of other cultural circles. Paradoxically, religious life traditionally tends to be determined by the values and customs that are passed on over generations. Different religious systems in which the preservation of traditions is important then find themselves in a new (and not always friendly) environment.
Under these circumstances, a sense of disorientation can lead a person to cling to everything old and familiar, both on the part of the religious minority and on the part of the majority society. From a psychological perspective this is a kind of attempt to re-establish the conditions in which we orient ourselves well and which give us a greater sense of security. Every unfamiliar situation to which a solution must yet be found is a serious source of stress. Yet, the more complicated the given situation is, the more radical the attempts to deny it will be. In a multicultural environment there exists the threat of escalating xenophobia and a revival of xenophobic prejudices.
Another attempt to overcome the loss of the certainties derived from living in a familiar, monocultural world view is the effort to establish neutral ground. A well-known example of this is the controversy over students or teachers being allowed to wear headscarves or crosses at French and German schools. However, absolute impartiality is impossible. Advocates of this usually exchange their own cultural patterns for neutral ground. The reason for this is the natural tendency to view everything familiar as normal, usual, and unobtrusive. However, one and the same element in the surrounding world (e.g. a piece of clothing) may be regarded as neutral and unobtrusive in one culture and at the same time arouse indignation or wonder in another culture. Just as the headscarves of Muslim women indicate they are followers of Islam, so too a seemingly neutral suit and tie identify a person with the Euro-American cultural environment. The choice of subjects at school also reflects a very specific way of thinking and seeing the world. Moreover, there exists no impartial authority which can pronounce on the merits of these differences from a culturally and ideologically neutral standpoint.
Members of religious minorities may view such attempts at “neutrality” as a demonstration of power on the part of the cultural majority, and that significantly encumbers mutual understanding. It is necessary to approach different conceptions of the integration of foreigners with a similar amount of caution. Any concept of integration not founded on a willingness to accommodate religious and cultural diversity will necessarily lead to merely the enforcement of a uniform lifestyle (to some kind of “Czechification”, or, in the case of our neighbours “Germanification” or “Polification”).
For these reasons it is necessary to carefully consider all the rules and prohibitions at school relating to religiously-motivated behaviour. Contentious regulations and penalties for failing to observe them can run up against resistance from parents in the case of pre-adolescents, and among students in puberty or adolescence may cause them to reject the teacher’s authority. A student who is subject to restrictions on expressing their religious convictions may experience the situation as a dual form of pressure: from their conscience or their religious authority on the one hand, and from the school on the other – while it is impossible to accommodate both. Moreover, their distinctiveness puts them at a greater risk of being bullied by their fellow students.

Religious experience
However, the most difficult task and at the same time the key to approaching a religious person is an understanding their world (thoughts, feelings, interests, motivations). Everything else derives from this understanding: communication with the person, solutions to possible conflicts, findings reasonable compromises, the ability to have an influence as a teacher or to provide an appropriate form of psychological support.

Spiritual experience
Man is a multidimensional creature with physical, intellectual and spiritual levels. On each of these levels (the dimensions of a person’s own existence) they can experience something. At the physical level a person experiences physical processes (pain, illness, movement, fatigue), and at the intellectual level there is what goes on in a person’s mind (emotions, thoughts, ideas, memories). At the spiritual level a person experiences something that goes beyond them and that changes their view of the world and of themselves. This may mean finding a deeper meaning to seemingly random events, discovering the meaning of some suffering experienced, and so on. Usually it is something to which the individual assigns exceptional significance, something that is very important to them personally. An example of this kind of spiritual experience is the moments when a religious person becomes aware of particular aspects of their faith in God. They experience joy or relief at the idea that they are important to God, that God is interested in them regardless of whether they are successful in life or not. Everyday worries can at that moment seem less of a burden or even trivial. Another example is the awareness that the material existence that a person has known thus far is not the only or the all important reality and that it is also possible to discover another, higher reality (particular values, ideals, the relationship to a higher being, hope of redemption) that adds new meaning to that existence.

However, the spiritual experience is not exclusive to Christian or theistic cultures. It is also found in Buddhism, Taoism, or even in philosophical atheism. There is also a spiritual character to the experience of a void in some types of Buddhist and Zen-Buddhist meditation. It is not belief in a particular dogma that is important, but rather the spiritual dimension of the given experience. That is reflected in the self-conception of the person who is having the experience and their relationship to the surrounding world.
The overall character of a spiritual experience is co-determined by surrounding factors (e.g. other adherents to the same religion) and personal experiences. At certain turning points (and also gradually over the course of a longer period of life) an individual accepts the faith that is shared by a larger number of people around them (family, friends, church) as their own. That faith is not just a conviction about the truthfulness of a particular claim. It also encompasses an overall outlook on one’s own life (a kind of lifelong process of tuning and directing their life) and a relationship to what or who represents the highest entity in the given vision of the world (God, Tao, truth). In theistic systems (Judaism, Christianity, Islam), this relationship somewhat resembles a relationship between two close people. In the Bible, for example, god is compared to a person’s parent, and is referred to the “heavenly Father”, “Father in heaven”, or “our Father” (compare also the name of the best-known Christian prayer). Along these lines the prayer can be regarded as a form of communication – the person in prayer has a relationship to God and has certain expectations from it (e.g. that God will listen), and feel a sense of trust in it, etc.
This relationship is also evident in a different form in religions that are not explicitly theistic. For example, it is possible to feel a sense of gratitude, admiration, and deep sympathy towards Buddha. However, it is not trust in the founder of Buddhism that is at the forefront of this relationship. That trust is a supportive pillar on the path of spiritual growth, which Buddhists must find by themselves. Traditional Buddhist texts encourage followers to verify all teachings through their own experience. Meditation assists in this. It is a medium for seeing (experiencing, verifying) that the world of phenomena is genuinely transient, that longing (for things, for success, for conditions guaranteeing happiness in life, for a long life) genuinely causes suffering, etc.
In theistic religions we also encounter activities that involve a person working on themselves spiritually: group recitations of professions of faith, chanting the psalms, regularly reading religious texts (the Torah, the Koran, the Bible), prayers, spiritual exercises (i.e. not unlike meditation in Buddhism). If these activities occur regularly, their effect also extends to including adding a rhythm to time. Followers then draw spiritual comfort and strength, for example, from prayer itself and at the same time perceive the course of the day as time structured according to regular prayer. The day thus acquires a special rhythm, and, in addition to the religious significance of this rhythm, a positive intellectual-hygienic effect also usually appears.
A special category of activities is participation in group ceremonies. Like individual religious tasks (spiritual exercises, prayer, meditation), this provides an opportunity for inner calm, an interruption of everyday activities, relief from profane worries, and concentrating on what is regarded as sacred within the given religion. This can also bring comfort and a certain kind of strength, which derives from the presence of others (the awareness that there are others here who share the same faith). Activities with a spiritual focus may be accompanied by a change in a person’s overall emotional mood, thoughts, imagination, and perception. The world and one’s own existence in it (one’s goals, desires, worries) may appear to be transformed. For example, some worries recede into the background – as though overshadowed by an incomparably higher reality.
This phenomenon is connected with a special feature of the spiritual interests of a person, which is very important from today’s perspective: in various cultures, spiritual matters are largely at odds with profane, everyday affairs. Time at church services or in meditation offers an entirely different atmosphere than, for instance, time spent shopping or in meetings at work. Regular participation in activities that have a spiritual character can provide a person with greater immunity to the pressures of a performance-driven and competitive society.
All inner experiences of this type are very difficult to capture in words. The more intense or significant they are, the more difficult it is to find the words with which to describe them. This problem was often encountered by mystics in various religious traditions. Language tends to shape and enrich experiences in the everyday world, so it lacks the appropriate expressions for capturing the particular nuances of religious experience.

  • Stories and examples

A year ago Martin discovered the world of Buddhism. He is thirteen years old and he meditates daily. He has gained a certain amount of experience at it. He has no trouble at school as a result of his spiritual interests. He is a vegetarian, but the school cafeteria always has something without meat on the menu. His fellow students do not know that he is a Buddhist. Nor do most of his teachers. Martin’s parents have shown little understanding for his world view. They regard his Buddhism as a pubescent whim and hope that “he soon gets over it”. Therefore, Martin is afraid of other negative reactions, and so he prefers not to talk to anyone about his beliefs.

  • Sources


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