By Brian Luke Seaward
Several years ago, Oprah Winfrey asked her studio audience, “Who has had a spiritual experience?”. Over 80 percent of those questioned raised their hands. Oprah smiled and then declared quite confidently, that the other 20 percent were lying. She was on to something. Spiritual wonders span the spectrum of human experience and can be found at the countless crossroads where humanity and divinity may meet. Oprah, through all of her interactions and conversations with luminaries and sages, isn’t the only one to come to this realization. It’s easy to overlook that life itself is a spiritual experience that includes the good, the bad, and the ugly.
The distance from where I live in Colorado to the heart of the Amazon is about 4,000 miles. Ayahuasca (eye-ah-WAH-ska) is a psychotropic drug that allows people to have the quintessential spiritual experience. Many people who don’t have the time or money to travel to the Amazon to experience the wonders of the ceremony (where you sip a special herbal concoction that awakens the DMT molecules in your brain) can now access it in any major city in the world. Not always, but in many cases the people who take part in this sacred ceremony claim to see, even touch, the face of God. Such is the allure of this experience that even though it often causes vomiting and discomfort, people say it is nothing less than miraculous.
The distance from your forehead to your heart is between 12 and 14 inches, a very short journey, yet an arduous one for most people. The ego, it turns out, is a formidable roadblock that keeps us from finding our way to the unconscious mind where the brain and the heart can connect. Mystics, including psychologist Carl Jung, remind us that with the unconscious we can meet the wisdom of the universe that some experience as seeing or touching the face of God. Because of the blocks, people feel they need special assistance to achieve a spiritual experience, such as participating in an Ayahuasca ceremony, or using magic mushrooms or peyote to gain the same effect. Yet, truth be told, there are countless ways in which to see or touch the face of God.
In his exploration of human consciousness, Jung was fascinated with thoughts, insights, and wisdom that reside below the level of conscious awareness and he was acutely aware of the dynamic relationship (and tension) between the ego and the soul. He declared that every crisis was a spiritual crisis. In one of his more popular quotes he said, “Spiritual crises require spiritual cures.” To have a spiritual experience, Jung was of the opinion that regular exploration of the unconscious was needed. But not always. Jung also explained that the cosmic curtain can be pulled back momentarily through a moment of synchronicity as well – this is a coincidence well beyond logic or rational explanation and unquestionably beyond ordinary meaning.
As it turns out, spiritual experiences are far more common than we might think. These cosmic twinklings include many kinds of holy moments, synchronicities, or divine inspirations. And, more often than not, they also include what might best be called ‘spiritual wake-up calls’ combined with teachable moments, ones that initially look like and feel like traumatic experiences that we hope will never be repeated. To quote spiritual teacher Amanda Lorence, “Sometimes it takes a traumatic experience to awaken the slumbering spirit.” When these occur, they will often feel initially like anything but a wonderful spiritual experience! Rather than kissing the face of God, they can feel like being given a swift slap, if not a hard kick in the butt.
In an ego-based world where celebrities are treated as royalty, practically everyone has a Youtube channel, and social media pages are inundated with selfies, people are starved for spiritual experiences. But not just any spiritual experience. They want the Disneyworld version – the “oh wow!” moment that pulls back the curtain to reveal a bigger, more magical reality. To be sure, in the minds of many, there is a misconception that spiritual experiences are wrapped up in rainbows and unicorns. Nothing could be further from the truth. Spiritual experiences are far more often subtle than dynamic, more often ordinary than extraordinary, more natural than supernatural. Moreover, while those rainbows and unicorn moments may top the wish list, spiritual experiences can also be found in our dark moments of pain and crisis.
Is trauma a “gateway drug” for spiritual enlightenment? Spiritual luminaries would say perhaps and, in many cases, definitely “yes!”. They would add, that if we can process the trauma from a spiritual perspective and learn from it, allowing ourselves to be changed, then it certainly can serve as a catalyst for spiritual growth. To arrive at spiritual realization, indeed, we must do a fair amount of inner work. Simply stated; we must raise our consciousness out of victimization and reclaim our personal power and the triumph of the human spirit.
Perhaps the most obvious spiritual experiences are ones where we feel an immediate oneness with the divine, whatever we perceive that to be. Today people wish for the blissful type of divine, mystical events, but they don’t happen on command. Nor do they occur with a special intention or even a secret desire. And while some mystical experiences seem to arrive out of the blue, spiritual luminaries teach that indeed, preparation, specifically via the open heart and open mind nurtured through meditation or prayer, is required to cultivate the process. Meditation helps in another way too, since authentic spiritual experience often includes the temporary dismantling of the wall of ego that meditative practices can produce. As a rule, the ego divides and separates while the spirit unites. Some people consider a spiritual experience a lucky break, but, “Luck,” it is said, “is when preparation meets opportunity.”
Like Oprah and countless others, I too have had my share of spiritual experiences. Many that took my breath away, some that made me scratch my head in disbelief and a few that simply made me smile. To have the cosmic curtain pulled back briefly so we can catch a glimpse of a bigger reality is euphoric, exhilarating, and even a bit addictive. I am also reminded of those people I have met who have shared with me that while going through some horrible stressful event that they felt was the worst thing that had ever happened to them, they realized in hindsight that it was the best thing that could have happened. Spiritual experiences my appear in many forms, not the least of which are ordinary moments filled with grace.
In some ways Ireland is about as far away from the Amazon as you can get, but spiritual experiences are far from uncommon on the Emerald Isle. And while solo spiritual experience is nice, a group experience can be even more reassuring, if not validating. Once, on a trip to the Dingle Peninsula with a tour group, we had that kind of moment. After a late dinner mixed with some traditional Irish music, we made a pilgrimage to a sacred site known as the Gallarus Oratory right before sunset on the longest day of the year. The entrance of the stone church faces west and is in direct alignment with the setting sun on the Summer Solstice. Our group gathered inside the structure to sing a few songs and meditate, honoring the symbol of light. There was absolutely no chance of seeing the sunset that evening as the clouds were thick, causing a sense of early dusk. In honor of the Solstice event, our group minstrel began to sing a perennial favorite, Here Comes the Sun. We all joined in with the chorus. As we did, the clouds parted, the last rays of the summer sun broke through the clouds and lit up the inside of the church as bright as day. Stoney, our tour guide touched my elbow and leaning in, whispered, “Something magical is afoot here.” I smiled from ear to ear.
Behold the spiritual experience indeed!
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Brian Luke Seaward, Ph.D., is the author of Stand Like Mountain, Flow Like Water. (He has written many other WINN posts that you can access by clicking on By Author at the top of the home page.) He is the executive director of the Paramount Wellness Institute in Boulder Colorado.
He can be reached at www.brianlukeseaward.net
The image that accompanies this post is one of Luke’s photographs of a sunset near the Dingle Peninsula.