On spiritual experiences

I came across this very interesting perspective on “spiritual experiences” while reading Christopher Isherwood’s book called, “Ramakrishna and his Disciples.” I have often wondered what makes an experience ‘spiritual.’ What is that special quality that can suddenly change even an ordinary experience into something deep and meaningful? Whether we are all capable of experiencing something more True and Real than our everyday existence? Isherwood in a very succinct manner talks about the nature of spiritual experiences. He says,
“These two factors – the personal nature of experience and its measurement by intensity – are most significant when we come to consider the kind of experience called spiritual.
If someone tells me about an experience he has had in the world of ordinary sense-perception, I shall usually be able to decide whether he is speaking the truth or lying. I can do this because I can almost always relate the experience he describes to similar experiences of my own. And so his experience is of value to me. But if someone tells me about an experience in the spiritual world I shall probably be in doubt, because I have no similar experiences to which I can relate his. Unless, for other reasons, I have become convinced that this person will never lie to me, his experience will therefore be of no value to me. […]
So – a little spiritual experience of your own is of more value to you than all the recorded experiences of the greatest saints. And, indeed, without that minimum of personal experience, you cannot possibly begin to guess at the magnitude of theirs.
A spiritual experience can only be judged by its intensity; the intensity, that is, of its after-effect on the experiencer. It is no use trying to decide whether or not a certain experience was spiritual by analysing its circumstances; these may have been produced by some quite external cause, such as sickness or the use of certain drugs. One should not ask oneself ‘was my experience an hallucination or not?’ but rather ‘what has my experience left with me, now that it is over?’ A true spiritual experience, even one of lesser intensity, must at least slightly affect the experiencer for the rest of his life.” (pp. 13-14)

2 thoughts on “On spiritual experiences

  1. Nice post. Interesting comments on “spiritual.’ You may know that Sri Aurobindo has a wonderful passage on what it means to have a “spiritual” experience (sorry, dont remember the source at the moment).

    Basically, people use “spiritual” to refer to all kinds of emotional and mental experiences, intense or not, but the essence of it is a profound change of consciousness oriented toward discovery of the True Self, the Divine. Any “experience” of the “Spirit”, in other words.

    Though of course, if one has no sense of what the “Spirit” means, then it may not be helpful. I often find Mother and Sri Aurobindo’s comments about “psychic influence” very helpful for us ordinary folks. In that sense, being deeply touched by the perception of beauty, nobility, kindness, are all influences from the psychic being, though one’s consciousness may be mostly on the surface.

    Jan (my wife) and I use this on our site, http://www.remember-to-breathe.org, when we talk about the “core” experience – the sense of being “centered” in the very core of one’s awareness, with inner (mental, emotional) and outer (sense objects) phenomena on the edge or “rim” of one’s awareness. This can happen in almost any setting, and it’s usually accompanied by a sense of peace, inner quiet and gentle, serene joy. Most people, when you ask them about this kind of thing, can think of times – with a dear friend, walking up a mountain, sitting by a lake or just watching a kitten play – when their mind chatter settles down and a sense of something “deeper”, more profound emerges. This seems to be legitimate to refer to as a “soul” experience – not a direct contact, necessarily, but a touch, an influence.

    • Thank you Sir!
      The “core” experiences as you call them… are indeed gifts of Life. I think, Sri Aurobindo talks quite extensively about spiritual experiences in Letters on Yoga.
      I liked the simplicity with which Isherwood wrote this!

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