Intentional Transformative Experiences: Theorizing Self-Cultivation in Religion and Philosophy

University of Bern, Switzerland | 28/08/21 - 30/08/21 (Note: this is the new date)

The project members of the Experiments with Experience project will organize a conference on a closely related subject: intentional transformative experiences, or, self-cultivation. While the original project focusses specifically on Asia and the West in modernity, the conference will cast a wider net and take on the ambitious task of theorizing on the concepts present in the title.

Confirmed speakers are:

  • Wouter Hanegraaff, Amsterdam
  • Jeffrey Kripal, Houston
  • Laurie Paul, New Haven
  • Kevin Schilbrack, Boone
  • Marcus Schmücker, Wien
  • Steven Sutcliffe, Edinburgh

Call for Papers:
According to a long-standing belief, exceptional life-changing experiences (such as near-death experiences, or revelations) are ultimately beyond the individual’s control—they simply “happen.” Such transformative experiences—addressed as awakening, enlightenment, encounter with the real, or conversion—possess the quality to transform the individual completely. However, it is a well-attested fact that individuals actively search for transformative experiences, and intentionally induce alterations of their consciousness through specific practices; by way of exposing themselves to conducive environments, and the like. Often, experiences like this are part of a long process of purposeful and positive self-transformation. Significantly, such practices are often highly self-reflective—that is, they are reviewed and theorized by the practitioners and “experientialist” philosophers themselves. Despite of (a) classical approaches which describe the variety of “mystical experiences,” (b) theories informed by psychology (cognitive, transpersonal, or parapsychology), and (c) historical reconstructions of various ascetic “technologies of the self” (Foucault), such as Asian traditions of self-cultivation, there are still many open questions. How to describe and theorize these intentional practices that result in actively induced experiential states? How to define processes of “transformation,” “cultivation,” or “alteration,” and how to analyze the assumed substrata of these processes, be it the “self,” the “Self,” “consciousness,” or “awareness”? How to explore their goals? How to compare autobiographical narratives of self-cultivation, and how to analyze reports and the philosopher-practitioners’ attempts to systematize intentional transformative experiences?

The conference will devote itself primarily to these theoretical questions. Participants are especially encouraged to engage with theoretical perspectives on intentional transformative experiences. While we do not expect participants to engage with or limit themselves to the following perspectives, we think that three recent paradigms are helpful for advancing fresh insights on transformative experiences: cognitive metaphor theory, narratology, and science studies. Metaphor theory appears very powerful because in the abstract and invisible realm of individual consciousness, “inner” experiences, and transformative processes, metaphors are indispensable for conveying descriptions. An age-old metaphor for human self-transformation, for example, is the caterpillar to butterfly metamorphosis; others are expanding consciousness, or broadening the Self, or to refine, sensitize, purify, slow-down, or accelerate experiences, etc. Paradigms of narratology are promising because they help us to reconstruct autobiographical frames of reported experiences, as well as analyzing the narratives which individuals offer as validating transformative experiences—that is, narratives that convey the life-changing dimension of such experiences. Science studies, finally, hold a great potential on the ground that historians of experimental science can provide us with helpful tools to understand how intentionally designed settings of “experiments with experiences” can be analyzed. What is the “epistemic object” (Rheinberger) at the core of transformative experiences and practices of cultivation? How do practitioners deal with disappointment? How do they intentionally change the experiential settings? As such, the conference’s explicit focus on both spiritual/religious and philosophical protagonists, will add to our understanding of intentional transformative experiences.