There’s an old joke about a Taoist who, when ordering food at a hot dog stand, asks the vendor to make him one with everything. Even as we laugh at this play on words, we know exactly what is being implied in the punch line: reunion with the All-That-Is — God, Goddess, Buddha nature, Universe, Divine, whatever you may call it. Such mystical experience is at the heart of many spiritual traditions. It seems that every religion has its share of mystics, all of whom seek that seemingly elusive experience of spiritual ecstasy which is found in Divine union.
But is it really that rare? In my own personal spiritual history, the so-called “religious experience” has been uncommon, but not unknown. For me, these were without exception defining moments, almost all turning points in my spiritual direction, epiphanies on the journey of discovery in what it is to live a mindful and meaningful life. Yet my work with others in the many spiritual traditions around me made me wonder if others would share my conclusions about these moments; thus I asked friends, colleagues and contacts — Witches, Christians, Sufis, Quakers, Buddhists, Sikhs, a few eclectic folk with no name for their faiths, and a practitioner of Regla de Ocha, perhaps better known as Lucumi — a few questions about their experiences with spiritual ecstasy, and what role that played in their religious practice or spiritual awakenings. Through their responses, I came to a better understanding of how various seekers define such amorphous terms as “ecstatic spiritual experience” or “spiritual awakening,” as well as how — or whether — they occur in these traditions. The questions, as well as some of the responses, are below.
Does your belief system encourage an ongoing, personal, direct relationship with the Divine?
Only three of my respondents said “no” to this question: Larry, a retired engineer who considers himself a seeker; David, an attorney who is also a seeker with no established name or practice for his spirituality; and Susan, a writer who follows a Nichiren Buddhist philosophy. Susan went on to say that having a relationship with someone outside oneself “would be like expecting to get rich by counting our neighbor’s money. Our relationship is with the law of cause and effect and the reality of our lives.” Ironically, Larry (who is also a Nichiren Buddhist) answered “yes” to this question, explaining that his practice is about revealing one’s enlightened Buddha nature. This was not the only time that followers of the same traditions had differing responses; Jagdish, a Sikh, believes that her faith does encourage such a relationship, although she does not actually try to communicate with God, who she believes to be her Creator; on the other hand, Ek Ong Kaar Kaur Khalsa, who also practices Sikh Dharma, believes the human experiences is “a manifestation of the Divine Light. To know oneself is to know the Divine.”
Annie, a musician who does not follow an established religion, agrees that we are all part of the Divine. Both she and Elanor, a retired college professor and practicing Green Witch, feel greater intimacy with the Divine when working with plants and animals.
Presbyterian minister Fred referred to the writings of the apostle Paul, which he interprets to mean that he should focus on God in everything, rather than the more natural self-focus to which we are generally accustomed.
Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee, a sheikh in the (non-Islamic) Naqshbandi Sufi order, believes that this intimate relationship is experienced as lover and Beloved.
Interestingly, Paula (a Quaker), Cairril (a solitary Witch) and Omi Lana Omo Yemoya (a Lucumi priestess) all feel that direct relationship with the Divine can be experiential in that the Divine moves us or speaks through us in messages or revelations, though perhaps in differing ways.
How does one pursue and maintain such a relationship?
Many of the participants included prayer, chanting and meditation in their responses to this question. Both Buddhists, Susan and Larry, were specific in mentioning their chanting of the Lotus Sutra and the universal law of Nam-Myoho-Renge-Kyo. Ek Ong Kaur explained her Sikh practice this way: in the two and a half hours before sunrise (called the Amrit Veyla), “the soul can penetrate through the layers of the subconscious and make itself visible to the conscious mind.” Sikhs rise at this time, take a cold shower, and meditate, chanting and singing sacred songs in order to find the Divine Self. Cairril performs formal meditations and trance work on specific journeys seeking guidance for a particular purpose. Elanor also works with meditation and visualization for guidance. She, Annie and Cairril all seek the outdoors as a foundation for strengthening their bonds with the Divine, though Cairril also uses ritual for this purpose. Larry’s and Omi Lana’s religions, too, use ritual and ceremony to maintain this connection, though theirs also have a strong community element. Whit, who defines his spiritual path as “Quaker/Christian/Open/Love everybody,” seeks relationship with God by “waking up every day, breathing, building and maintaining friendships in this world, but not always of or about this world.” Annie stresses that honesty at all times, in all things, is a good place to start.
What role does ecstatic spiritual experience play in your faith or practice? In what ways might this type of experience be sought or induced within the parameters of your faith?
Don, a former police detective, current consultant on ritual crime, and practicing Methodist, said “We refer to that as the Holy Ghost, or Holy Spirit.” He went on to say his religion teaches that opening one’s heart to Jesus and allowing Him to be part of one’s life can lead to an ecstatic experience. Fred expressed the belief that while ecstasy is certainly part of the Christian pilgrimage, it doesn’t play a major role for most practitioners, and that it can be unsettling and perhaps even frightening. He wondered if seeking such a moment might not be more self-gratification than intimacy with God. “It is mostly a gift of God that comes in God’s time, so seeking it may result in frustration.”
Llewellyn agreed. “The Naqshbandi Sufi order is a path of sobriety rather than ecstasy. It does not encourage ecstatic spiritual experience, but rather the ability to return from states of meditation to a balanced grounded life of service.” Others, too, spoke of integrating everyday life into their belief system as part of the whole. Ek Ong Kaur explained that the Sikh’s sadhana, or daily spiritual practice, brings one to a gradual awareness of Divine Light inside all things, which creates a consciousness of service. “Selfless service is a very important aspect of the Sikh tradition,” she said. Jagdish’s Sikh practice also includes selfless service; she and her family have recently returned from India, where they just completed a project to bring clean drinking water to a village for the first time ever, and this is not the first such project for them. Instead, it is an ongoing family tradition.
Other respondents are active seekers of spiritual ecstasy. Both Annie and Larry find such moments in music — Larry through listening, Annie through playing her guitar. Larry specified that it is “music that is minor-chord heavy, with a beat that literally resonates my body” that he is most drawn to. He wondered if such music actually creates chemical changes in his body on a level of which he was unaware which caused such a reaction.
Cairril utilizes self-hypnosis and private ritual, as well as dance, to both induce and direct such experiences. Both she and Elanor feel that ecstatic experience is a normal part of their spirituality, and that many things can bring it on.
Omi Lana, as part of a religion where spiritual ecstasy often means being possessed by an Orisha, said, “Logic cannot explain this direct interaction with the Orisha; only the experience can provide understanding.” According to Omi Lana, these Divine Beings take control of the priest’s or priestess’s body in order to convey messages, or to offer blessings and love to those present.
Paula’s Quaker faith was actually named for their tendencies toward ecstasy — “quaking” or trembling under the throes of spiritual communion. At the time, she said, “it was meant as a pejorative term.” Today, she continued, quaking isn’t as common in Meetings, but it does exist. “Quakers are ‘moved to speak’ to a gathered congregation at times during worship. This is called the vocal ministry — members report trembling, increased heart-pounding, and a sense of physical urgency to rise and speak.”
Whit, who is a huge Grateful Dead fan, thought the pursuit of ecstatic experience might be an individual thing, “like fruit ripening on the tree in the sun, rain and wind.”
Several folks reported not really having a personal experience with spiritual ecstasy. Susan flatly said “I don’t know what this is. Being a calm, level-headed person who tries to stay in reality, having an ecstatic spiritual experience seems unlikely.” Instead, she seeks enlightenment through working consistently toward improving her relationships, society, peace and love. While Susan had never heard of such experiences among believers she knew, Larry thought it might be so frequent as to be taken for granted. He reported that his practice can bring feelings of great joy and lasting happiness.
David made the distinction between an ecstatic practice and feelings of wonder and mystery, “for example when I gaze up at the nighttime sky, read about scientific discoveries, and see newborn infants.” While he admitted that some readers may not see this as rising to the level of ecstatic experience, he countered that “reasonable people could debate whether just waking up might be the basis for an ecstatic spiritual experience.”
Have you personally experienced spiritual ecstasy? If so, did you actively seek it or did it happen spontaneously?
Only two of my respondents had never had an ecstatic spiritual experience. One of those, Ek Ong Kaur, said that while she has never had a peak experience such as this, she has experienced her own humanity, and her own identity, which, according to Sikh Dharma, is the most beautiful spiritual experience of all. “To know yourself, to be able to deliver your identity in the face of any challenge or threat, that is a living ecstasy. The sweetness of being myself is something that I experience every day. I know who I am. And I know why I am here. This knowing has given me tremendous peace.”
Of those who’ve had them, about half said they actively desired the experience; Annie even said she seeks it each time she picks up her guitar. Most who have had multiple ecstatic moments said they came most often when they least expected it, sometimes during extreme duress.
Can you try to put into words what happened and how you felt at the time? What revelations occurred to you at the time, or perhaps later, as a result of this experience?
These were the most interesting of all the responses. Though there was a wide variety of experiences, there were some commonalities.
Larry’s was maybe the most traumatic, coming about as it did during a near-death experience. At age 18, he happened to accidentally grab two live wires in an amateur radio station behind his home, and was jolted by 1,000 volts at over half an amp. He was slammed into the wall, paralyzed by the force of electricity surging through his body. “Time froze,” he said simply. “My experiences were indescribably vivid during that six minutes, and were far too powerful for simple explanation. The imagery, sounds, objects and overall experience have never been surpassed since, nor have they been forgotten.” His most impactive realization was one not common to most teenagers: that of his own mortality. He described the event as one of “bone-chilling intensity,” and was left without any fear of death.
Don, too, found his moment of ecstasy during crisis. “I was praying for protection,” he said, “and fell into a trance.” During his experience, he was “told” that he would be victorious, and that he did not need to fear anything, ever.
Some participants found ecstasy in moments of intense meditation. Llewellyn has felt divine love blossoming within his heart, becoming stronger until it overwhelmed his entire body with bliss. “It was like sexual ecstasy except that it was on a higher level, experienced within the heart rather than the sexual organs.” At times, it would last so long that he was exhausted from the experience, which came “in waves, sometimes exploding within the heart.” Other times it was gentler, “like a lover’s touch, but from inside the heart.” He went on to say, “It is the most intimate and yet impersonal love that one can imagine.” Llewellyn believes that these moments draw one into deeper and deeper rapport with God, which eventually leads to union with the Divine. “It leads to a knowing that every cell of creation is full of love, alive with love, and that there is this primal bond of love between the Creator and His creation, which at its core is oneness.”
Others who found ecstasy with meditation also had other provocative incidents which brought about their experience. Larry was encouraging someone when an incredible rush of compassion suddenly flowed through him. He felt unbelievably happy and as one with the universal life. “It was like a passage from the Lotus Sutra, ‘They have received the supreme jewel without seeking it in earnest.’” He also realized at that moment that he needed to change in order for this to happen again. “Thus the work and struggle began” for Larry.
Jagdish’s first ecstatic experience came as a complete surprise to her and everyone around her. She had taken her children to the circus. “All of a sudden,” she said, “I passed out. For a split second, I saw a bright light and I heard a clear sound, somebody telling me, ‘I love you, because you love my people.’” She described the feeling as “so beautiful and peaceful I didn’t want to come back.” It was her second experience that came about during meditation; it, too, was so blissful that she didn’t want it to end. She remained in that state for a long time, but finally came back in order to continue the work she’d begun with her family. Since that time, she does not seek deep meditation for fear she will not be able to pull herself away from it a third time.
Paula was in Meeting when it happened for her. She, too, was under a great deal of stress and, just prior to her experience, felt a sense of surrender. “It felt like a mini-near-death … I felt like I ‘went’ to another dimension, encountered a loving Being who communicated three messages to me.” First, she thought “Oh, this is what death is like — I had forgotten.” She described it as a relief, both physically and mentally, “like sinking into a hot bath.” Next, she got the message “Don’t confuse your life with what you are,” which she interpreted to mean your life is something you are doing, like taking a class. You are actually a great and wonderful spiritual being vast beyond this limited experience. The third message was that all evil in life comes from fear. She has been learning this at deeper levels, and attempting to live out those messages ever since.
David’s experience happened during a vision quest. He laughingly told me once that when he first heard about such things as vision quests, he thought, “Someone would have to be nuts to do that!” Less than a year later, he sat in a circle of prayer ties containing crushed, raw, dried tobacco, alone in the woods, fasting and praying for two days. How times change! He did not enter the experience seeking ecstasy; he sought only a vision. Afterward, he explained, the facilitating shaman said he seemed “clear.” Another who saw him returning through the woods on the morning of his quest’s conclusion said he appeared to be “floating.” He recalled wanting to share the experience with anyone and everyone, feeling a “child-like, not childish, joy.” But in answer to my question, he also quoted Lao Tzu: “The Tao described in words is not the real Tao; words cannot describe it; nameless, it is the source of creation; named, it is the mother of all things.”
Fred was touched by Spirit in seminary. “I was walking alone around a small lake near the campus when the words of a hymn from my childhood — ‘How Great Thou Art’ — came to mind. I had the powerful sense that (as the third verse seemed to be saying) Jesus had died for me, not only for me, but certainly for me.” Fred felt that this was a confirmation of his decision to enter the seminary and, after, the ministry.
Mac’s moment came through a breathing technique called rebirthing. After over an hour of this practice, “my body suddenly became filled with pranic energy flowing up my spine, warm and joyful, onto my head, and I had a vision of what looked like Jesus, who told me, when I asked him ‘What is the answer?’ that “LOVE is the answer.’”
Cairril, who experiences ecstasy often, said this state most often leaves her feeling full, whole, complete and at the same time empty and light (in a good way). “Sometimes, if a message I’m imparting is very difficult, I’m so overcome with sorrow and compassion that I can barely speak.” She has seen glimpses of the future at times, and known exactly what to do or say at a given moment. Other times, the message she is given makes no sense to her, but she knows it will unfold later. The messages are not “spoken” to her; “it’s more a sense of inner knowing,” she said.
Whit’s experiences have come in a variety of ways — “sometimes with a million people dancing in a crowd; sometimes with someone close; sometimes alone in the woods; sometimes in a dark night of the soul.” But he declined to try and describe the experiences.
Annie described it as sheer joy. “I try not to think,” she said, “I just let it be.” Her messages are, most often, that it is still possible, even in this scary world, to feel an intense happiness and connectedness to other people, to feel good and to help others to feel good.
Although all accounts were fascinating, it was perhaps Elanor’s description which intrigued me most.
After several trance-like moments early in her life (one as early as pre-teen years), Elanor was in Wales with her husband and children. They were hiking up to a waterfall together; however, Elanor’s more long-legged kin soon left her behind. As she walked, feeling rather sorry for herself in the process, she looked up and saw a Being there who was not human. He was just sitting there, watching her, and when he noticed that she could see him, he leapt over to her and began to “walk” with her (though Elanor described his movements as more of a frolicking and dancing than walking). He was exceedingly interested in her, amazed at her awareness of him, and together they made their way along the footpath. “We communicated in feelings, not words, to a very much greater sense than words could ever. We absolutely loved each other, but not in any worldly way. The element of sex was huge, but not remotely in any sort of fornicating/genitalia way. It’s just that how we (Being and I) related had the exquisite piquancy of sexuality/sensuality.” Elanor’s encounter continued all the way up the footpath, growing more intense as they went. Even though it was raining, her surreal bond with this Being grew and heightened, and the feelings of ecstasy were incredibly profound. By the time they reached the falls, “as beautiful a wild piece of Wales as I could have hoped for,” Elanor said, the falls themselves were anticlimactic, and the feelings of ecstasy were so intense that she could not speak to her family.
Through all of the descriptions, I could tell, I knew that these words fell flat when compared to the actual experiences themselves. Even though the participants tried valiantly to be vivid and succinct, there is no language to describe something so ineffable as spiritual (or any other kind of) ecstasy. Had I been asked to describe such a moment from my own experiences, I know I would not have fared any better.
Did the experience change you, your world view, or your actions and behavior in any significant way?
Not one person who had experienced spiritual ecstasy said “no” to this question; what’s more, no one felt that the changes that came about for them were negative. Annie felt that her experiences gave her reason to hope, and to get out of bed every morning. Whit said it made him a better man. Mac said he was more loving. Larry said his changes were incremental, happening slowly through struggle.
Larry’s effects were, in part, physical; after his near-electrocution, he was no longer able to mentally visualize anything, not even the simplest geometric shape. In addition, he became slightly synesthetic (“feeling” nuances of sound in a way that sometimes surpasses what he can hear). More spiritual results included the growing view of the world as temporary (although with purpose), not something to be taken too seriously.
Paula’s feelings from the experience are still with her. For a while, she said, she had an enormous sense of well-being, and a knowing that she didn’t have to tackle her problems alone, that she would always have help. “That’s faded now,” she said, “and I have to intellectually remind myself. It’s a constant challenge.”
Jagdish reaffirmed her belief in loving people and trying to help everyone with more compassion. “All the people of the world became my family. Nobody was a stranger, everybody felt like my own.” Since that time, she and her husband have expanded their humanitarian aid projects globally.
Llewellyn feels that moments of spiritual awareness bring us to a deeper understanding of life, since they show us the deeper love that is at the core of creation. “You experience the link of love that binds together all of creation, and how the root of this connection is oneness.” In addition, he explained, it gives us a more dynamic and intimate relationship with God.
Elanor’s response to this question was simple. She felt that the experiences opened her to the real nature of ecstasy. “It’s always just there; it happens in every moment … whenever I don’t shut it out with mundane thinking.”
Did the experience change the state of your relationships with others?
Cairril’s experiences have opened her up to a broader view of the world. “They have reinforced my natural curiosity and made me open to the idea that there are many ways of being in the world.” It has, though, made her feel more cut off from the everyday world. “Our society has no appreciation for ecstatic experiences,” she said, admitting that it can make her feel awkward at times. Still, “all my spiritual experiences inform my relationships with others, whether it’s strengthening the bonds or knowing when to let them go.”
David — who had, prior to his vision quest, been an intensely private man little-known by those around him — felt that his experience provided an “opening” in his relationships with others. He referred to it as a spiritual renewal.
Don felt that his eyes were more opened to the love of others around him that he had previously missed or ignored.
Larry expressed a sense of withdrawal from those around him, as a general rule, and possibly less patience for “pedantic opinions, boring antics, and temporal pleasures.” He did say, however, that he actively seeks and thrives on thought-provoking examinations regarding the hard questions about what life might, or might not, be all about.
Would you call this type of experience a spiritual awakening?
About two-thirds of my respondents said yes, emphatically.
Annie said, “When I stopped fighting who I actually am, I realized I could accomplish a lot more.”
Larry’s awakening was to the realization that there once was, and would be again, a world without him in it. “As a result of coming to grips with the idea that I had a limited time to ride this train, I pay more attention to the scenery, as well as the passengers traveling with me.” It made him question everything he’d ever been taught, as well as the very idea of who and what he was, and seek the deeper realities that might have been hidden by prior teachings.
Larry’s feeling was yes. “Awakening is exactly what I’d call it.” He explained that the term “Buddha” means “awake,” and wondered if we truly value our precious journey through life as much as we should.
Mac believed it was indeed an awakening, because the Universe was flowing through him.
Don responded, “Without question!!! I felt as though I was reborn, spiritually and physically.”
David, too, answered on the side of awakening. He felt that the experience rouses and reactivates the seeker, making them more aware of their spiritual nature.
Whit also said yes, describing it as first “coming strange, like John the Baptist. A knowing I wanted to shout about. Then I hid it for a while.” Now Whit tries to integrate the lessons learned, using the awakening to help him collaborate with the people around him in order to make a better world every day. He was especially moved to work with young people in realizing their talents and dreams.
Paula was more cautious in her response. “It is an opportunity for such an awakening; it isn’t a fait accompli, but another reminder.” She stressed that you must discipline yourself and constantly apply the lessons to practical experience.
Fred said no, that his awakening had come earlier, and in a more practical way with the realization that what was missing in his life was a more active practice of his Christianity within the context of the church and the larger Christian community. “I did awaken, but it wasn’t the ecstatic experience that caused that. Perhaps the awakening led to that experience.”
Llewellyn also felt that spiritual ecstasy is not analogous to spiritual awakening, but that perhaps ecstatic moments can lead to such an awakening. He defined spiritual awakening as “a direct experience of one’s own divinity that does not pass away, is not a temporary experience, but a lasting state.”
Ek Ong Kaur, too, said no. “We don’t practice spirituality to awaken. We practice it to be human, to be kind, to be serviceful (sic) and graceful.” For her, spiritual awakening is the realization of one’s own reality as it is. “There is nothing but this moment, and sometimes it takes tremendous difficulty and challenge to finally relax into this moment, as it is.”
What purpose or goal do you feel is fulfilled by a spiritual awakening?
Cairril responded (aptly, I might add) that “as long as you are seeking, you’ll continue to find more layers of the onion.” She feels sure that once touched by these experiences, you can never go back to the way you were before. She expressed her conviction that moments of ecstasy and awakening are indicators of “a lot more going on than my senses can grasp, and that no one has come up with an explanation for it.” She is content with the “firing of brain synapses” concept, knowing that this is also a limited view but having nothing more conclusive.
Llewellyn didn’t feel that there needs to be, or even is a goal, per se. “Real spiritual experiences just are,” he declared. “To try and place them within our limited human agenda is to limit them because they belong to our divine nature. They are given as a gift.” He went on to say, however, that they can lead to a full awakening of one’s divine nature, what is called “baqa” or “abiding in God” in Sufism. “This is a passing away of oneself, of the ego, and an abiding in God, an experience of ‘what you were before you were.’”
Ek Ong Kaur said “The mind can create so many experiences, but can it just be with what is without judgment, in a positive state of appreciation?” In her practice, an awakening is a realization of the reality of your Self. “When you know you, and you really know You, then even death doesn’t matter, it’s just part of the game.”
Others felt the experiences had a more specific purpose. Annie felt they provide us with a sense of peace, even if for a short time. David felt that they put us more in touch with our spiritual nature. Jagdish said they widen the scope of our human help. Mac believes they move us toward our Higher Selves and unity with all creation. Whit feels they are the realization of teachers coming to terms with why they are here. Fred mused that it is a recognition of the importance of the divine realm in a person’s life. Larry cautioned that such awakenings or moments of ecstasy are “signs on the road, not the actual destination.”
What advice or guidance would you offer to other spiritual travelers who seek such an awakening?
Paula said “Don’t ask for such experiences.” She counseled that they come at a high price, and generally only under duress or in times of pain and struggle. Instead, she suggested the use of everyday opportunities we are given to live out our purpose.
Many others had some common-sense advice:
- Don’t give up.
- Keep your mind, and your options, open.
- Be strong, and have courage. Don’t be afraid to be or look silly. Don’t be afraid of the unknown.
- Don’t be impatient. It will happen when the time is right.
- Be diligent.
- Don’t look so hard. It’s right in front of you.
- Expand your horizons. Step outside your familiar, comfortable box, and do things that scare you.
- Be positive.
- Read books, all kinds of books, and don’t rely solely on the teachings or philosophies of any one author or leader.
- Get out of your own way. Nothing will so constrict you as thinking too much.
- Be yourself.
- Listen carefully to messages you might receive, then act on them.
- Perhaps most important, have fewer expectations, and you will have fewer disappointments.
Is there anything else you’d like to add about spiritual awakenings that I have not already asked you?
Ek Ong Kaur had this to say: “The only God that you can experience is the God in your own heart. When you find your own heart, you will find all of God you need to know.”
Larry mused, “Consider that you might now, by merely being alive and sentient, be in the midst of the greatest spiritual awakening there is.”
Llewellyn added, “Spiritual awakening is given because the Beloved wills. In the West we tend to identify with our own effort and our own desire for spiritual experience. It is very difficult to realize that it is not about us, that within our human drama, a deeper drama is taking place as the divine finds ways to bring Itself into consciousness, to be born again.” But Llewellyn, like Paula, advises that there is a price for awakening and ecstasy; “divine love first destroys the ego before it reveals the secret of oneness.”
For me, personally, ecstatic spiritual experience has, each time, been an awakening to a greater understanding of who and what I am, and why I am here. I don’t expect revelations of such magnitude to be handed over easily, or without preparation, or even all at once. Cairril is right about this, though; once touched by such an experience of the divine, you are never the same. While they were fulfilling, they also left me hungry, wanting more. I suppose, if Llewellyn is right, that this is my Western conditioning, but whatever the reason, I welcome future “intrusions” of Spirit in my life.
There are many ways of traveling on this journey, and Spirit speaks to and through each of us in the way most appropriate to our circumstances and understanding, as well as using whatever language will most clearly communicate what we need to know. I trust this process completely, even when the language is alien to my own personal experience, as in the case of some of the experiences shared herein.