I was asked the other day what a spiritual experience was. For someone who has spent a fair amount of time in silent retreat and logs in hours a week on the mediation cushion, this should have been a straightforward question. I stuttered and stumbled trying to find a decent answer. Cliché as it is, describing a spiritual experience is akin to explaining color to someone who has never seen. To further complicate matters, many confuse religion, spirituality and morality. This is like convincing someone who sees in black and white that their vision is sorely lacking.
An Empiricist Walks into a Church
The fact that disparate cultures have produced incredibly similar psychological experiences suggests that there’s a universal substrate making this possible: a functioning human brain and a trigger. I don’t see a better way to explain the similarities in subject experience among a Christian mystic, Sufi, raver on LSD, an athlete doing an extreme sport, ‘new atheist’ on a meditation retreat, an Andean Shaman and Tibetan lama. It wasn’t really until William James that this approach became accepted in the West. Even now, it’d be somewhere between controversial and blasphemous to many outside of academia to separate a direct spiritual experience from the interpretation thereof and to go a step further and discard that interpretation as mostly meaningless.
Whether it be complex geometric patterns, a vision of Christ or a feeling of universal, looking past the content of subjective experience is the only way to define what that experience is. Some commonalities:
- Concentration. The experience becomes all consuming. This doesn’t have to be the static concentration of a long meditation session, it can be the dynamic flow of nailing a perfect ski run or the trance of a musician.
- The feeling of self begins to disappear. As concentration deepens, the very understanding of being a separate entity erodes, there’s just the activity and that’s all. This can range from getting lost in a song to complete ego death.
- Altered states of consciousness are common. This ranges from substantial changes to perception to everything being subtly colored by an overriding joy.
That’s it. No heavenly lights or magic. The sheer banality of it is almost depressing. Most humans seek out these experiences in some form or another—drugs, alcohol, video games, sex are all daily experience that can push one into this state. What’s disappointing is that many of these can be dead-ends at best or outright destructive.
I’d wager most people go through life haphazardly hitting these lower forms of flow for relaxation but never diving deeper. The cheap high of lower flow is alluring, fleeting and keeps one from using these spiritual experiences in a transformative way.
Crossing the A&P
There’s a strain of Buddhism that excels at applying something like scientific rigor to mapping first-person spiritual experience, and there’s no better cartographer in the classical tradition than the Venerable Mahasi Sayadaw. In this system there’s an even called the Knowledge of Arising and Passing Away, which is the first spiritual breakthrough in the conventional understanding of spiritual life. Once a person hits the A&P, they have some intuitive feeling that there’s more to the world than meets the eye. This still can be fairly mundane: an acid trip, intense religious feeling during mass, a deep meditation experience or intense concentration can all trigger the A&P.
Once you’ve hit the A&P, there’s no going back; you’re stuck hacking away at spiritual practices until you make some sort of breakthrough. This is the real tragedy of our culture, we don’t generally provide much in the way of help for people caught here. So people cross the A&P during a yoga class, because of an acid trip or while in some deep flow state and they’re left without any support network.
Historically, religion has been the gatekeeper of spiritual experiences. This isn’t an entirely bad thing or some evil conspiracy to hide ‘the truth’ from the masses. Crossing the A&P can by a messy affair followed by the dark night and depression. The traditional initiation practices prepared initiates for the experiences that come with intense spiritual experiences. Visions of hell, terror and ego death? The priest, shaman or lama had you ready for that and provided a way to integrate that experience into your regular life.
This system has all but disintegrated in the West. Going to a church and expecting to find a spiritual framework is naīve. Granted, the tension between the conservative elements of religion and the mystics is nothing new. Nonetheless, Christianity is little more than a cultural relic and a political institution. Hence Westerners are looking elsewhere but mostly coming up short, going in circles and leaving the whole thing burnt out.
Spiritual Practice without a Framework
While religion and spiritual frameworks overlap, they’re far from the same thing. A framework gives you the tools, practices and ability to induce spiritual experiences at will, the discipline to manage them and ultimately guides you towards an end goal. The divinity of Jesus is rather irrelevant when it comes to spiritual practice, but the Rule of St. Benedict or the Sayings of the Desert Fathers are pure gold. Sam Harris beats around this (not burning) bush in his guide to waking up.
Without a framework, you’re likely to keep hitting spiritual experiences without really going anywhere. In the end it just becomes entertainment, spiritual tourism. A little yoga here, some LSD there, meditation when you’re in the mood. You’re still stuck with the exact same sense of self as when you started and probably just acted like a giant douche the whole time.
There are plenty of frameworks out there: Theravada Buddhism, Zen, Advaita Vedanta, Christian mysticism or Stoicism to name a few. Each one has its selling points, but I’d pick one and go for it. In my case, it’s Theravada Buddhism, but I’m definitely not a sectarian.
The Goal of Cognitive Shift
With any luck, years of hard work and no small amount of rough patches, the framework will create a cognitive shift. When this happens, the damage is done. Your conventional understanding of the illusion of the self is gone, your attention has shifted, you’re a different person. There’s no easy way back. In Buddhism, this is stream entry, the first of four major cognitive shifts.
In each system, the point of the framework is to guide your practice, ensure that the insights gained from spiritual experiences are being used for good and to then integrate these insights into a normal, functional life. The Zen Ten Bull pictures are a perfect illustration of this.
What the Goal is Not
I can’t stress enough that there’s no magic here, no supernatural power involved. People quietly undergo this cognitive shift all the time and they hardly get noticed. A few extraordinary practitioners go on to teach. Plenty seem to get pulled off the path.
After all of this, your shit is still going to stink, but you’ll somehow have made your peace with that. You’re not going to automatically become a saint, but your increased powers of mindfulness do make it easier to avoid unskillful activity.
That’s a long way from accidentally hitting flow and trances as a teenager to cognitive shift. The success rate isn’t particularly high, either.
So it goes.