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Recognizing the Dual Logic of Experience

For most people, experience is understood as something that "happens to them," not something they create for themselves. But experience is something over which we can all, in principle, exercise significant control. Consider the nature of experience. Experience is a reciprocal relationship between two factors: an objective factor and a subjective one.

The objective dimension of experience is that part of it that we did not generate. It consists in what happens outside our skin, so to speak, in the world about us. Many things happen in the physical and social world over which we have no control. Some we "experience." We have no direct control over what others think, feel, and do. We cannot enter into the minds of people and change them directly. We cannot directly modify the physical or social environment in which we live and act. There are many factors that limit our choices.

But all of the objective factors in our experience must nevertheless be given a meaning, an interpretation. They must become part of our inner life. It is only through this act on our part that a happening or event becomes an "experience." For example, there is much that happens around us that we do not notice and, hence, never becomes part of our experience. Our mind acts as a screen that records and gives a meaning to only a part of what happens around us. The mind ignores the rest. Furthermore, part of the meaning we give an experience is determined by what we decide is important and what is not important. These are crucial decisions of the mind. They exercise immense influence upon our well being. For example, it is our minds that decide what is in our interest or against it, what we should rejoice in and what we should fear, what will help and what hurt us. Unfortunately, our minds often fail us in these matters.

Self-Deception, Insight, and Analyzed Experiences

The human mind, whatever its conscious good will, is subject to powerful, self-deceptive, unconscious egocentricity of mind. A major obstacle to developing intellectual virtues is the presence in the human egocentric mind of what Freud has called "defense mechanisms." Each represents a way to falsify, distort, misconceive, twist, or deny reality. In the distinction between a critically analyzed experience and an unanalyzed one, we can see the opposition between insight and self-deception.

As suggested above, we rarely subject our experience to critical analysis. We seldom take our experiences apart to judge their truth value. We rarely sort the "lived" integrated experience into its component parts, raw data versus our inner processing of the data, or ask ourselves how the interests, goals, and desires we brought to those data shaped and structured that interpretation. Similarly, we rarely consider the possibility that our interpretation (and, hence, our experience) might be selective, biased, or misleading.

This is not to say that our unanalyzed experiences lack meaning or significance. Quite the contrary, in some sense we assess all that we experience. We routinely catalogue experiences in accord with our egocentric fears, desires, prejudices, stereotypes, caricatures, hopes, dreams, and assorted irrational drives. We shouldn't assume a priori that our rational side controls the shaping of our experience. Our unanalyzed experiences are some combination of rational and irrational thoughts and actions. Only through critical analysis can we hope to isolate and reduce the irrational dimensions of our experience. The ability to do so grows as we analyze more and more of our experience.

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