Friday 12 April 2013

The Meaning of Spiritual Experiences

Here is another extract from the book Meeting the Masters, which I include here as it follows on quite appropriately from the previous post.

'Not all my jottings down of the Masters’ words have dates to them. There are some isolated sentences that I extracted from talks for which I kept no fuller record. One such is the following statement given in response to a question about meditation. Do not seek to experience anything in meditation. That is not the true purpose of it. This is worth looking at in a little more detail.

When I first began to meditate, my aim was to experience for myself states I had read about in the writings of mystics throughout the ages, but which I also intuitively felt sure existed. In those early days this seemed to me to be what the spiritual life was all about, a progression to higher and higher states of consciousness, attainable merely by striving to attain them. Not long after I started meditation, I did indeed experience such states in which consciousness seemed to expand beyond the restricting confines of the mind and the ‘I’ dissolved (or appeared to dissolve) into a radiant sea of bliss. During those times I felt bathed in love and at one with the whole of life, potentially able to access the fount of all knowledge. Inevitably such experiences did not last long but I interpreted them as precursors of a more permanent condition that I hoped I would soon be able to access at will.

Just like me, those starting a spiritual practice frequently experience higher states of consciousness. They may assume they have entered samadhi or become one with God, or however else they may choose to express it, and that they are shortly destined to attain enlightenment. Some even set themselves up as teachers on the basis of this, thinking that one or two experiences of ego transcendence means they have transcended the ego altogether or will soon do so. The reality is more mundane. These experiences are usually more indicative of a soul beginning the path than one nearing its end.

The novice needs encouragement to begin his journey, some of which will necessarily be spent in the wilderness. He needs to find out for himself that there is a reality beyond his everyday consciousness, that what he has been told about really is true and not just the delusion of unbalanced minds so he is given these experiences by God, or by his teachers on the inner planes which amounts to the same thing. He has not earned them other than by opening himself up to the possibility of having them. So they do not reflect his attainment so much as his aspiration.

The key word here is experience. Any experience is outside oneself. Experience presupposes an experiencer and that is why I said that the ‘I’ appears to dissolve. In truth it does no such thing. Its borders may temporarily melt away but its core remains and, once the experience has passed, it can even be inflated if we react to the experience in the wrong way which, unfortunately, it is very easy to do, especially if we are unprepared and lack the guidance of a wise counsellor to keep us grounded. It is all too common for a seeker to regard as his personal possession a transpersonal state that he has experienced, and to think that because he has experienced it, he has become it, that he now, in fact, is it. To be sure, that is what he is in his essence but at this stage he has been granted but a taste and is still very much on the outside looking in. This is why it is said that the first lesson on the path is humility and the last lesson is humility too.

Many people have spiritual experiences of one sort or another. These may come through a spiritual practice or from contemplating the world of nature or at a time of crisis or just arise unbidden out of the blue. The problems start when we interpret them through the still unpurified mind/ego or when we think that such episodes mark us out as someone special.  We may jump to the conclusion that we know the truth when all we have done is seen the light shining through a door that has been left slightly ajar, a door that is still not properly open let alone one that we have passed through. Furthermore our ignorance of the hierarchical nature of spiritual states means we tend to regard anything beyond ordinary consciousness as cosmic consciousness.

What we experience in no way indicates what we are, what is known in the Sufi tradition as our spiritual station. What we are prepared to renounce, including outer happiness and inner joy, is a much better indication of our spiritual maturity. Consider this. If spiritual experiences were all that mattered there would be no need to be born into the material world but we come to Earth to learn the lessons of Earth and that we will have no incentive to do if we are bathed in bliss. It is said that it is only through separation that we eventually reach completion and it could equally well be said that only by being cut off from God can we ever truly come to know God in the fullest sense. We are like the prodigal son who had to leave home in order fully to appreciate it.

If you are serious about the spiritual path, do not seek spiritual experiences. If they come, welcome them. When they go, let them without trying to hold on to them. Do not regard them as saying anything about you personally and do not expect in this world to reach a permanent state of bliss. Sometimes it’s the least pleasant tasting medicine that does the most good, and often it is the greatest among us who experience the most inner suffering, not because there is any particular virtue in suffering per se but because the giving up of self is the hardest thing anyone can ever do and only the most dedicated are truly able to do it. Suffering is the solvent that dissolves the ego which is presumably what Jesus meant when he said that anyone who followed him would be required to take up the cross.

I am not implying that there is anything wrong with spiritual experiences or that they should be shunned or even regarded as other than wholly good if and when they come to us. They are genuine indications of our true nature and therefore should be welcomed joyfully. But they should not be sought. And if they do come it is important that we react to them correctly which is to say with reticence and humility. This, frankly, can be hard and it may be that sometimes they are sent to us precisely to provoke a certain reaction, to bring out whatever spiritual egotism may be lying dormant within us since only when something comes out into expression can it be properly eradicated.

There is nothing to be ashamed of if we do react to a spiritual experience with attachment or egotism. It would be better not to, of course, but this is probably the standard human reaction and we all react like standard (that’s to say, self-identified) humans until we learn not to. The greatest saints and sages have no doubt at one time made mistakes similar to the ones we make now. The only difference between us and them is they made their mistakes in the past whereas we are making ours currently. They overcame whatever it was in them that caused them to go astray and so will we once we learn to seek the good for the sake of the good and not for personal ends.

What then should our approach be to spiritual experiences? How should we best use them? What matters most with a spiritual experience is what you do with it and what you should do with it is seek to align yourself with the reality of which it is an expression. That means don’t seek to repeat it but seek to become like it. Look upon it as a message calling you home and so grasp the truth that it is first and foremost a summons to work. For the spiritual virtues do not come as a result of spiritual experiences. Rather that of which a spiritual experience is only a reflection will come when you have acquired the virtues.

And so, to return to the words at the beginning of this essay, what is the purpose of meditation if it is not to gain spiritual experience? It should now be clear that the primary purpose of meditation is to deepen our contact with the soul and allow its influence to soak into our mind so that gradually we may become it. However on this path motive is all and the reason we meditate matters as much as the fact that we do. By going into the silence we can uncover our true self but unless we do so with a pure heart we will just be constructing a metaphysical Tower of Babel and so will not succeed in this laudable aim no matter what we might experience.'


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Unknown said...

Finally have my brain in gear. Although there is the rare sailing off blissfully into an ocean of molten gold or similar I have never had a spiritual experience as such but slowly found increasingly that the feeling of complete calm and still experienced was available to me when not meditating and at times when I would previously have been disturbed,panicked or distraught. We are warned about the whizz bang stuff and I have found that those moments which represent spiritual experiences for me are unspectacular but totally irrefutable and don't need to be repeated in the same form. My first teacher would say , "there do you feel that? That's all there is.

William Wildblood said...

You've summed it up perfectly, Paul. Not spectacular but irrefutable and not needing repetition. I'm not sure that's all there is but it's all we need to give us the incentive for the journey. Too much and we will get stuck in one of the many detours and distractions of the spiritual path, and won't continue with the journey.