The Varieties of Mystical Experience

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Nataraja, the Dancing Shiva, at CERN’s Large Hadron Collider, Switzerland

Varieties of Mystical Experience

Dear reader, have you ever had an extraordinary and unexpected experience of mystical or Divine nature? Perhaps one of sudden emerging into the direct experience of a reality beyond the ordinary? Or one that came as the touch of loving Grace, arriving when most needed, to utterly displace and release a state of suffering or peril?

It is the character of such spontaneous mystical experiences that they change our viewpoint on life forever. Once seen, they can never be unseen. They are never forgotten and continue to tug on our heart. Life pivots on such experiences. And we deeply desire to return there, to visit that realm again, or long to live permanently from that perspective. We turn towards something higher. A spiritual “seeker” (or finder) is born.

Such profound and spontaneous mystical experience may be accompanied by startling revelations: “This is what I truly AM!” They may be shot-through with the most complete knowledge of the unity within all life and all beings. They are replete with wisdom, love and freedom, the very “flavor”(rasa) of the Divine.

William James, the “father of American psychology”, gave a series of ten lectures at Harvard that were transcribed into his 1915 book: “The Varieties of Religious Experience.” But it is not at all about conventional religious experience. Rather, it is an analysis of many case reports of individuals who have had mystical or transcendent experience. These experiences may last for minutes or hours or a few days. They arrive seemingly out-of-the-blue. Most individuals are not able to re-access or repeat them. And they are uniformly haunted by the exquisite memory. They long to return to that state ever after. It is interesting that William James reported he personally never had such an experience himself, despite his deep fascination with them.

The lack of access to these very dimensions of transformative and transcendent experience is exactly what is addressed by the regular practice of deep tantric meditation. By means of Neelakantha meditation, practitioners come to have regular access in the meditative states called samadhi. This is not something that takes many years to develop. It starts to happen right away. Immersion into levels of samadhi often starts right from the very first meditations after properly learning the practice. This is ever amazing and can be heart-smashingly beautiful. Such “access” becomes increasingly available and increasingly conscious over time.

However, the purpose and the “work” of a regular meditation practice is not to “collect” transcendent experiences. Experiences do come and are treasured, but they are brief. What is more important is how the practice transforms the life of the individual. How is one changed, uplifted and liberated from limited expressions of thought, feeling and action? How is life changed permanently for the better? How do we move towards and into our own enlightenment? This is the “work” of daily meditation over time. And it happens automatically, intelligently and very efficiently by the very simple and easy means of committed daily practice.

Within just a few months after beginning Neelakantha meditation practice I experienced some very surprising changes in how I was moving through life. This was especially noticeable in my relations to other people. It was very surprising and curious. Like most all of us, I have had my own reactive patterns: “hot-buttons” and triggers that would set off some reaction automatically in my mind and body. Somethings would make me erupt with feelings of anger, for example. Certain situations would trigger strong negative judgments or opinions. Something else might make me fume. These were various reactive thought-patterns that I had thought were just part of my character. And they were largely unconscious until they erupted into action.

What happened after some few months of meditation is they started to dissolve. And this was without any specific intention or effort on my part. It just happened. A circumstance would arise that used to trigger a reaction, and what happened was: nothing! It was as though all of the “levers” or buttons that used to be pulled or pushed by triggering circumstances no longer had any effect: They were taken “off-line” or disconnected. This was wonderful and felt very freeing. I became a much nicer, happier and more peaceful person. (My wife noticed and liked these changes in me very much!)

Of course this is not the end of the journey of refinement. It is just the beginning. There are many layers to our contracted patterns that are deeply rooted in past experiences. They are mostly hidden from our direct conscious access. These are the residues or traces from past experiences that contain some buried suffering. It is these that our meditation practice releases. The suffering contained within them is released during meditation and just goes up in smoke. The suffering is gone, and only the wisdom contained in our past experiences remains.

The tantric teaching (as in yoga philosophy) is that all of our past experiences leave “traces” called samskaras, embedded at the deepest level of the mind, like memory traces inscribed at the subtlest level of the body-mind. These act as “seeds” that can “sprout” when they are triggered by particular circumstances. Thus activated, they replay the contracted habitual patterns of thought, judgments, emotions and actions, a reenactment of that suffering. Meditation is said to “burn the seeds” of those impressions. And thus the “burnt-seed” is one that can never again “sprout”. Their suffering is released. The negative pattern, at that level, will not arise or be activated again. This is called the “burnt-seed” metaphor or nyaya.

There are also very startling adjustments that arise as we move though these processes of transformative change. There are very definite “awkward stages”. After my reactivity-disconnect (described above) was well underway I became what I call “socially incompetent” for a time. I was never very adept in large group social situations anyway. But now it was much worse! Rather than being triggered by other people, I now saw other people’s dramas or self-stories as not making any sense to me. Even with close friends, I would often say the wrong thing and get myself into trouble. So I just became very quiet and tried to stay carefully neutral in any social situation. I felt very awkward and out of place within my own social world.

After some time had passed, more compassion and joy with being around other people flowed in, and seemed to fill the space in me that had been left vacant. I see now that my relationships are definitely richer, more authentic and satisfying.

It is a very interesting process with many surprising stages. As the Shiva Sutras says: “Vismayo yoga-bhumikaḥ”, “The stages and phases of yoga are marked by surprise, wonder and blissful astonishment.” (Sutra I .12) It is a journey that continues.

In coming posts I would like to discuss my understanding of the foundations of our limiting self-identities and thought-constructs. What exactly is it that needs to be released as we move towards greater freedom and fulfillment? How does all of that actually work?

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