The Nature and Forms of Spiritual Experience

How do we distinguish what is an actual spiritual experience? We have an inherent bias towards believing and accepting perceptions and reactions to outer stimuli, the objects of the senses, and the reactions that arise inwardly from those stimuli. When it comes to an inner feeling or experience, how can we know it is “real” and what it signifies? In some cases, inner feelings actually are validated through external factual circumstances or events, and then we can appreciate that there must have been something that we can objectively point to. We get a feeling that we are being watched, or someone is stalking us, or that we are in a place where something is about to happen, and we find that indeed, the feeling turns out to be a harbinger of a later real external event. Yet it is not possible to classify all spiritual or psychic experiences solely based on an immediate external feedback. In such cases, it is important to note that the physical world is not the ultimate arbiter of what is “real” in existence. We do not “see” electricity, but we know it is there based on the effect that it causes in its presence.

Considerable research has been done to try to validate a vast range of experiences or feelings that people report. Out of body experiences, where the individual can actually observe his body and surroundings from outside and see what is taking place, are one such area that have been reported time and again by many individuals. The collective weight of so many reports that share similar characteristics will tend to validate the inner experience with an external documentation. Near death experiences and information brought back through those experiences are another category that obtains substantial validation from the large number of individuals who report them.

There remain many experiences that are reported by individuals, but which are less known or less frequent, and thus cannot claim the validation of many independent reports. This does not make them any less real, but they are clearly subjective to the individual experiencing them. One validation would be whether the experience has the power to change anything in the way the person sees, thinks, understands, feels, responds or acts. Every force that is active in the world accomplishes some form of result. As we can only know electricity based on its result, so also, inner spiritual or psychic experience can also be known by its result. Saul on the road to Damascus had a vision and heard a command and it changed his life. We can accept the reality of that spiritual experience as it had obvious consequences for the life of the individual.

Sometimes something that cannot be explained by the normal operation of the senses takes place and one may suddenly feel some force or a sense of peace descend into the being, creating a palpable change in the awareness and the status of the consciousness. Some people have reported the experience of feeling a sharp pain, or a deep loss connected to a family member at a distance. This was later determined to be the time that person died or had a serious accident. Clearly some occult connection created the feeling in the observer. Some people experience a widening of the mind or the entire being, something like an experience of a surrounding energy, and in some cases, this extends far beyond the individual body and embraces the larger world around one. These experiences can be partially described (they remain difficult to transcribe and explain in language that is not suited to such subtle, inward experiences and their effects) but remain individual experiences. In many cases, if not most, such experiences bring about changes in the attitude towards life, the way one responds to circumstances, and even the instant reactions one has to life situations.

Sri Aurobindo observes: “There is no law that a feeling cannot be an experience; experiences are of all kinds and take all forms in the consciousness. When the consciousness undergoes, sees or feels anything spiritual or psychic or even occult, that is an experience — in the technical yogic sense, for there are of course all sorts of experiences that are not of that character. The feelings themselves are of many kinds. The word feeling is often used for an emotion, and there can be psychic or spiritual emotions which are numbered among yogic experiences, such as a wave of suddha bhakti or the rising of love towards the Divine. A feeling also means a perception of something felt — a perception in the vital or psychic or in the essential substance of the consciousness. I find even often a mental perception when it is very vivid described as a feeling. If you exclude all these feelings and kindred ones and say that they are feelings, not experiences, then there is very little room left for experiences at all. Feeling and vision are the main forms of spiritual experience. One sees and feels the Brahman everywhere; one feels a force enter or go out from one; one feels or sees the presence of the Divine within or around one; one feels or sees the descent of Light; one feels the descent of Peace or Ananda. Kick out all that on the ground that it is only a feeling and you make a clean sweep of most of the things that we call experience. Again, we feel a change in the substance of the consciousness or the state of consciousness. We feel ourselves spreading in wideness and the body as a small thing in the wideness (this can be seen also); we feel the heart-consciousness being wide instead of narrow, soft instead of hard, illumined instead of obscure, the head-consciousness also, the vital, even the physical; we feel thousands of things of all kinds and why are we not to call them experience? Of course it is an inner sight, an inner feeling, subtle feeling, not material, like the feeling of a cold wind or a stone or any other object, but as the inner consciousness deepens it is not less vivid or concrete, it is even more so.”

Sri Aurobindo, Integral Yoga: Sri Aurobindo’s Teaching and Method of Practice, Chapter 7, Experiences and Realisations, Spiritual Experience and Realisation, pp. 171-174


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