How many people are chasing after spiritual experiences? How many meditators are sitting hour after hour hoping to have their minds' blown? How many people go to see gurus and teachers in the hopes of getting struck by a bolt of illumination that will knock them into a gloriously awakened state?
I bet there are lots of them. I was definitely one for many years. I was a hard working seeker too. I spent tens of thousands of hours on my meditation cushion. I sat so still through extremes of pain that tears ran down my cheeks. I stayed up all night doing physical practices that wrecked my knees and shoulders, I repeated mantras in my head over and over again until I couldn’t think of anything else.
And yes, I had spiritual experiences – lots of them. I’ve experienced white hot light rushing up from the base of my spine straight through the top of my head. I’ve been knocked into an awareness that was so wide awake that I forgot how to lose consciousness even while my body slept through the night. And I’ve experienced myself so expanded that I could see the stars and galaxies of the universe running through my body.
I’ve had countless experiences and each one eventually faded. It became a memory of a past event. It didn’t stick like I thought it would. And each time, I got over my disappointment, shook off the loss, and got right back at it. Flying off to the next retreat ready to give even more of my energy to the quest.
In the end, after decades of seeking, I realized that I was putting too much emphasis on these experiences when the real prize had already been won. Sure, experiences help by expanding our awareness and transporting us to miraculous places. They inspire us and fuel our spiritual passion. Each experience we have leaves us more convinced and committed to awakening.
But these miraculous moments mislead us if we become convinced that we need them to awaken. Spiritual awakening is not an experience. It is not an energetic blast, or an expansion of consciousness. It is not anything that is not already ours. Spiritual awakening is a simple, often quiet, recognition of our own inherent freedom and expansive nature.
What we recognize in moments of true spiritual awakening is that we are already free. That means we are OK no matter what experience we happen to be having.
The reason spiritual experiences can mislead us is because they often convince us that we need to be having that kind of experience in order to be free.
When I teach meditation I’m really teaching spiritual freedom. I am not teaching a technique. There is no visualization to focus on, no mantra to recite, no breath to follow, nothing. All I ask is that you sit and be OK with whatever experience you happen to have no matter what it is.
We’ve been trained to assume that our state of being is determined by the quality of our mind. If we are having an experience of happiness then we are happy. If we are having an experience of frustration then we are frustrated. And when we are having an experience of anxiety, we are anxious. We assume that the quality of our experience tells us who we are.
So our state of being is all over the map, happy this moment, sad the next, on top of the world today, down in the dumps tomorrow. Naturally when we start our spiritual search part of what we are seeking for is some relief from all this inner bouncing around.
What we are searching for is some inner peace and tranquility and sometimes a dramatic spiritual experience can stop our mind and leave us feeling amazing for a few minutes, hours, days or weeks. The down side is that too often we conclude that we need an experience like that and we develop a spiritual addiction to them.
Many of us, myself included, spent years doing ever more extreme forms of spiritual practice in order to trigger more and more experiences, without realizing we didn’t need them. Sure, they propelled us into a vast expanse of inner space, but it was the expanse that mattered not the experience that got us there.
The inner peace that we find in the wake of dramatic spiritual openings was already there. That deep and abiding space of clarity and wonder is what it feels like to be alive before we become convinced that life is defined by the transitory experiences of our minds.
Dramatic spiritual experiences can dislodge our attention from its compulsive fixation on the content of our minds. We have been trained to have our awareness constantly glued to our habitual experience of mind. A never ending parade of thoughts, feelings, sensations, emotions, images, fantasies, fears, worries and concerns consume almost all of our attention each and every day.
Dramatic spiritual experiences allow our attention to drift beyond the limits of mind into the ocean of consciousness that was always surrounding us. Once we become aware of that ocean some contraction deep inside our being releases and we begin to expand outward in every direction.
But, and here is the whole point, you don't need a dramatic experience to become aware of the ocean of consciousness that is all around you. All you need to do is release your attention from the confines of mind. Expanding into the great mystery beyond the known happens naturally. It doesn’t take any effort.
What takes effort is holding your attention on something as small and limited as a human mind when your awareness naturally wants to spread out infinitely. We don’t have any idea how much effort we’re making to limit ourselves until we release. Suddenly we see how hard we’ve been working to keep your attention focused in such a narrow way.
So when I teach meditation I don’t teach any particular technique – no visualization to pay attention to, no mantra to repeat, no breath to follow. Instead I encourage people to just let go. Stop trying to do anything, including trying to meditate. If Enlightenment is truly our natural state then it's already here and there couldn’t be anything we need to do to get there – even have a dramatic spiritual experience.
If you’re someone who's done a lot of practice and had lots of experience already that’s wonderful. If you’re just getting started or haven’t had any big experiences yet, it really doesn’t matter. What’s yours is yours already anyway. That deep and abiding space of clarity and wonder does not belong to anyone, it is the ocean we are all floating in. Don’t worry it's waiting for you already.
Appreciate this, Jeff. Very understandable. Even after years on the path, I notice that different words, presumably about the same thing, evoke different things. For instance, “enlightenment” gives me a sense of a blissful state experience that is rather beyond or immune to worldly affairs. Whereas the word “conscious” gives me a sense of being present, yet in a way that may endure pain and difficulty, and without necessarily much peace in it. I am guessing that if I become more conscious or enlightened I may feel more peace and also be more aware, but when I consider my experience… Read more »