Spiritual Experience vs. Realization (or What’s The Point, Anyway?)
I have been musing lately about the relationship between spiritual experiences and spiritual realization. I said in a prior post on chakras that I don’t think dramatic spiritual experiences necessarily lead to personal insight or wisdom. I said this because I am a lover of meditation, but I know firsthand that you can have wonderful meditative experiences – moments of stillness, joy, love, or even dissolution – but not change much off your meditation cushion. I know it’s not spiritually PC to say so, but you can meditate and still be ignorant, arrogant, uptight, mean, or insecure.
In fact, attachment to meditative states can actually become a hindrance to spiritual growth – many Buddhist and yogic texts warn against becoming addicted to spiritual highs or blisses. This is especially true within the traditions that teach chakra and kundalini meditation, which is what I mostly practice and teach, because these high-energy techniques can result in dramatic shifts in awareness. And if you’re meditating just for those, you might as well be bungee-jumping. I mean, experience is fine, you could even make a case that diverse experience is what life is all about, but collecting experiences is not happiness, or peace, or enlightenment.
So what exactly is the point of meditation then? Or of spiritual practices and techniques at all? Or, for that matter, of this vast expanse of techniques and traditions (heavily marketed these days I might add) that we call ‘spirituality’?
Gangaji was asked this question once at an event I attended, and simply said, ‘to be kind.’ The Dalai Lama has said something similar. A classic Buddhist answer is simply ‘to be happy’. Some, such as Eckhart Tolle, might say that spiritual growth has become necessary for humanity to survive – that evolving beyond ego-based living has become an imperative. Another teacher I once had said spiritual seeking was just a personal preference or proclivity – much like Mozart’s pull to music or Shakespeare’s to words. Some of us are just drawn to the other side.
Others would argue that all of life is a spiritual journey, that everything we learn is part of the process, and that distinguishing something called ‘spirituality’ is pointless and divisive. In principle I agree with this, but it’s also true that spiritual paths – methods and advice for experiencing the mystic or divine aspects of ourselves and the world – have emerged within virtually every culture. So there is something different going on here – a desire to consciously seek light and direct knowledge emerges at some point for many humans.
Spiritual practices, and particularly meditation when it’s practiced in a spiritual context (which of course it isn’t always), are tools for opening the doorway to light and direct knowledge. And this direct knowledge, or direct experience, of spirit/awareness/presence/the other side/God/Goddess/divinity/the sacred dimensions – or whatever term you prefer – is the mark of a mystic in any tradition, as I see it. Of course meditation isn’t required for that – people often have spiritual experiences outside meditation. Anytime our usual perceptions or fixed identity drops away, and our awareness opens up or expands, we’ve touched this. And many different things can trigger such moments. Meditation is simply a structured way of opening up, of releasing, into this – rather than leaving it to chance, you could say.
But from what I’ve seen, on its own even the best meditation practice isn’t enough to change someone, to evolve them, to make them kinder or wiser. For that to happen, meditative experiences have to be processed, and they have to be integrated into a larger context of spiritual practice.
This makes sense if you think about it, because we have all sorts of experiences in life and don’t necessarily learn anything from them, unless we put some effort into processing them. For example, our psychological hang-ups might pull us back to the same types of dysfunctional relationships over and over, and it takes conscious work to break the cycle. Unraveling and releasing these kinds of patterns is a big part of what modern personal development, and ancient spiritual practice, is all about. Whether you call it karma or conditioning or the ego or just being stupid, by default we are driven by mostly unconscious mental and emotional patterns. We have to dredge that stuff up into the light of day to work through it and let it go.
Part of the reason I’ve always liked Buddhism is that it emphasizes a holistic spiritual path, it is really a way of life, and meditation is just one part of it. The Noble Eightfold Path, a foundation teaching that is accepted in some form by most branches of Buddhism, outlines eight aspects of practice, and meditation is one aspect (or maybe two, depending on how you interpret them.) I think the best teachers within any tradition emphasize this holism. I was amazed when I first read St. Theresa of Avila’s books (the queen of dramatic spiritual experiences), as she outlines a very similar integrated spiritual path. And it is found in the writings of mystics within every tradition, I think.
When this integration isn’t present, spiritual practice just breeds arrogance, or confusion. I’ve seen a lot of this in spiritual communities I’ve been a part of over the years, and I’ve suffered through phases of it myself. Although I may be inviting trouble by saying so, I think it’s a particular problem with born-again Christianity: There’s a sense that this one dramatic experience saves you, and changes you forever. There’s little support for the idea that you need to process this experience to understand what it represents, or that you need to work to stay true to it, and be on guard for your ego’s attempts at distortion.
So, that’s my take on meditation and spirituality, from 10,000 feet: Meditation in any form (and there are many types) helps open our perceptual boundaries, and awakens us to realms of awareness – and spirit – that are hard to find amidst the busyness of our daily lives and minds. And sometimes the resulting experiences are dramatic, sometimes they are more subtle. Either way, on their own these experiences mean little. It’s what we do with them that matters. What do they show us about ourselves, and who or what we thought we were? How do they shift our ideas about ourselves in relation to others and the world? What do they teach us about the nature of reality and our role in shaping it?
Just my two cents, what’s yours?
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