Spiritual Experiences

In last week’s blog I quoted Alfred Lord Tennyson from his Memoirs.

“A kind of waking trance I have frequently had, quite up from my boyhood, when I have been all alone. This has generally come upon me through repeating my own name three or four times to myself silently, til all at once, as it were out of the intensity of the consciousness of individuality, the individuality itself seemed to dissolve and fade into boundless being; and this is not a confused state, but the clearest of the clearest, the surest of the surest, the weirdest of the weirdest, utterly beyond words, where death was almost laughable impossibility, the loss of personality (if so it were) seeming no extinction, but the only true life.”

It seems an extraordinary thing that a man might experience such a revelation. Let me share with you a little known poem, Vacillation, by William Butler Yeats, the Anglo-Irish poet and dramatist.


My fiftieth year had come and gone
I sat, a solitary man,
In a crowded London shop
An open book and empty cup
On the marble table-top.

While on the shop and street I gazed
My body of a sudden blazed;
And twenty minutes more or less
It seemed, so great my happiness,
That I was blessed and could bless.

W.B. Yeats

Experiences such as those shared by Tennyson and Yeats are not as unusual as one might think. The Oliver Hardy Research Centre in Oxford recorded hundreds of such accounts. In case you think that such experiences are confined to poets, here is another from an ordinary commuter, quoted by neuroscientist, Guy Claxton, from his book Voices from the Dark Room.

“Vauxhall station on a murky Saturday evening is not the setting one would choose for a revelation of God! The third class compartment was full. I cannot remember any particular thought processes which might have led up to the great moment. For a few seconds only (I suppose) the whole compartment was filled with light. I felt caught up in some tremendous being with a loving, triumphant and shining purpose. In a few moments the glory had departed – all but one curious lingering feeling. I loved everybody in that compartment. It sounds silly now, and indeed I blush to write it, but at that moment I think I would have died for any one of the people in that compartment. I seemed to sense the golden worth in them all.

Because of the ubiquitousness of such experience Cohen and Phipps in their book of the same name called the phenomenon, “The Common Experience”.

In his analysis Claxton defined four qualities of such experiences.
1. An Unusually Strong Sense of Aliveness
Such experiences are very frequently characterised by a heightened sense of energy and vitality. Though people often use metaphors of fire – such as Yeats’s ‘blaze’ or the Vauxhall ‘light’, to capture this intensity, it seems as if what they are trying to describe is simply an unusual clarity and sense of perception.

2. Belonging: A Sense of Being at Ease in the World
The places where such phenomenon occur, can be very ordinary, inauspicious places. Yet there seems to come a strong sense of being at one with the world, and the ordinary world seems to be a marvellous place. Compassion and love even, don’t have to be ‘worked on’ – they emerge as entirely natural corollaries of belonging.

3. An Affinity with Mystery
It involves a curious, almost paradoxical sense that all is well in the world, despite not knowing how things are going to turn out. Claxton asserts that the heightened sense of trust and spontaneity that comes with this state does not involve a complete abandonment of forethought. Rather, as the Sufi proverb has it, ‘you trust in God – but first tether your camel!’

4. An Enhanced Peace of Mind
It enables the one experiencing the phenomenon the ability to shed some of the mundane anxiety and confusion that Buddhists call dhukka ,and to find oneself more often in a state of inner harmony and clarity, and less often conflicted and self-conscious.

Arthur Schopenhauer, the great German philosopher maintained that, “Man is a metaphysical animal.” Our spirituality is what we experience metaphysically. Note that spirituality is not necessarily a religious outcome. Some of us are led to the experience of spirituality through conventional religious practices, many of us are not. It seems also that we can’t learn about spirituality directly. We can learn various techniques and processes that may help us to come to this experience – but in the end it seems it is a personal experience. It may even be the masters and sages who have come to this experience over the ages were not continuously in this exalted state. It might be they could access it easier than most of us. Of course when you hear the anecdotal evidence, anyone who has had this experience would seem to be permanently impacted by it even if it were a once-off occurrence.

This experience is known by different names in different traditions. In Hindu, this state of mind is called Brahman. This doctrine (similar to our previous discussion on Dualism) asserts that all possible things, events, thoughts and qualities are aspects of a single Reality. Access to this reality is called by other names in other traditions, Nirvana in Buddhism, Tao in Chinese and mystics the world over find similar meaning in the words “God”, “Allah”, “the Absolute” and so on.

In essence, this phenomenon –the Common Experience, so-called – occurs when the ego is dissolved. The French philosopher and atheist, Andre Comte-Sponville, calls this state the “oceanic feeling” He also maintains it is not necessary to have a belief in God to access it.

Albert Camus in his own rejection of Dualism, described the state as “a celebration of the wedding with the world”.

This is how he described this joyous state:

“I am fulfilled even before I can long for anything. Eternity is here and I was hoping for it. What I wish for now is no longer to be happy but only to be aware.”

But, despite the eloquent words of Camus, that which we desire most, this transcendent experience, can not properly be described in words but only experienced. (The Tao that can be described is not the eternal Tao.)

Those that have experienced it come from many nationalities, all the major religions and differing philosophies. Comte-Sponville writes, “It is neither a dogma nor an act of faith; it is an experience.”

So then, the Common Experience occurs when unbidden, unstrived for, the ego falls away to fuse back together the two aspects of the universe (subject-object, knower-known) that it had initially cleaved apart. So what can we do to facilitate our awakening to the non-dual state, unity consciousness? Well, we may take guidance from the mystics. (That is not to say that the realisation cannot come completely autonomously – as it did for many of those interviewed by the Oliver Hardy Research Centre.)

Ken Wilbur says,

“The mystics must be content with pointing and showing a Way whereby we may all experience unity consciousness for ourselves. In this sense the mystic path is a purely experimental one. The mystics ask you to believe absolutely nothing on blind faith; to accept no authority but that of your own understanding. They ask you only to try a few experiments in awareness, to look closely at your present state of existence, and to try to see yourself and your world as clearly as you possibly can! Don’t think, just look! As Wittgenstein exclaimed.”

Or again in the words of Guy Claxton,

“The idea that spiritual development involves cultivating a wider range of states of mind, or ‘attentional modes’ may strike some of you as unbearably mundane. But it is actually close to the heart of many in the spiritual traditions. If it is any comfort you might sympathise with the questioner in the Zen story of Master Ikkyu and a ‘man of the people’.

One day a man of the people said to Zen Master Ikkyu: ‘Master, will you please write for me some maxims of the highest wisdom?’

Ikkyu immediately took his brush and wrote the word ‘Attention’.

‘Is that all?’ asked the man. “Will you not add something more?’

Ikkyu then wrote twice running ‘Attention’ ‘Attention’.

‘Well then,’ the man remarked irritably, ‘I really don’t see much depth or subtlety in what you have written.’

Then Ikkyu wrote the same word three times running, ‘Attention’, ‘Attention’, ‘Attention’.

Half-angered, the man demanded, ‘What does the word ‘Attention’ mean anyway?’

And Ikkyu answered gently: ‘Attention means attention.’

Or finally we should heed the words of the Jesuit, Anthony De Mello:

“To watch everything inside you and outside, and when there is something happening to you, to see it as if it were happening to someone else, with no comment, no judgment, no attitude, no interference, no attempt to change, only to understand. As you do this you’ll begin to realise that increasingly you are disidentifying from ‘Me’.”