Experiential Spirituality: A User’s Guide
An Approach To "The Big Questions" Of Life Through Direct Experience
“Don’t listen to what they say. Go see.”
- Chinese Proverb
Sometimes, you experience a powerful moment of clarity.
An answer just suddenly appears.
Doubt, fear, and confusion fall away, like taking off a dirty pair of glasses, and you just “get it.”
Things just become clear. Lucid. Vivid, even.
When this happens, a solution – sometimes to problems you didn’t even realize you had – becomes obvious. Sometimes it all becomes so obvious, the problem just evaporates. The problem itself, sometimes, turns out to be non-existent, or completely imaginary. It can be like suddenly waking up out of a sleepy trance.
These experiences can happen with any sort of problem life throws at us.
Sometimes they’re small. (“Can I eat that last cookie without anybody knowing it was me?”)
Other times they’re (you guessed it) big. (“Is there meaning in life that makes all the pain and struggle worthwhile?”)
When we’re trying to solve these problems, sometimes we can approach them using the wrong tools.
Trying to hammer with a toothbrush, for example. Or brushing your teeth with a hammer. Trying to win a gunfight with a spoon (or, for that matter, eat Jell-O with a gun). We could keep going here, but basically, using the wrong tool for the job can make hard problems even harder.
Especially when we’re trying to tackle the Big Questions of life. (Such as happiness, for example, or why we’re here, why we suffer, figuring out who we are, etc.) With this kinds of things – the important stuff – we definitely want to use the right tool for the job.
(Our own intellect, for example, is one of these “tools.” And it’s a great tool, so long as it’s used to do the job it was built for.)
But let’s circle back to looking at those wonder-filled moments, small and large, when we experience real answers.
There are stronger and weaker versions of these moments.
These often go by different names.
When they’re fairly small, they’re simply called “insights” or “aha experiences.”
More powerful versions might go by words like “peak experiences,” “realizations,” “awakening” experiences, even “spiritual” experiences. And so on.
We’ve all experienced at least small versions of them. Maybe it was over a math problem, or a challenge at work, or a relationship struggle.
At some point when wrestling with a problem, everything clicks. Suddenly, seemingly out of nowhere, it all just makes sense. It often feels pretty darn good, ranging from a mild sense of relief to deep, long- lasting ecstasy.
They’re also usually accompanied by a refreshing burst of clarity. You often just know what to do, spontaneously, effortlessly, from that point forward. Suddenly, the path is utterly clear in a way it wasn’t before. Things are lucid. Like a line from the movie Thelma and Louise: “I’ve never been this awake.”
Archimedes supposedly had a moment like this that made him so euphoric, he jumped out of the bathtub and ran down the street, buck-naked.
(Allegedly. That’s the story, anyway.)
So, an experience that has you running down the street, buck-naked, out of sheer, uninhibited, exuberant joy?
Well, the naked part is optional, but some parts of this are roughly in the ballpark of what we’re aiming for here.
These experiences are direct.
You experience for yourself.
Which is to say, they aren’t secondhand knowledge. (Eg, “My cousin Jimmy said Fuzzlebumps smell like chocolate” would count as “secondhand.”)
An experience like this also isn’t theoretical, abstract, or merely intellectual. Theory – or the intellectual aftermath of these experiences – is secondary. That usually comes after, as the intellectual mental mop-up of what just happened.
It’s immediate, self-evident, and first-hand. When it happens, you know it.
And you experience it. And only you, alone.
In the same way that nobody can eat, breathe or sleep for you, nobody can ever have an “aha experience” for you. You can pay somebody to do your math homework for you. But you could have all the wealth in the world, and you’d never be able to pay anyone to understand math for you.
That’s the kind of thing we’re getting at here.
Except that instead of figuring out math, we’re working on figuring out life.
When it comes to this stuff, we often start focusing immediately on the problems themselves.
But what if there was an approach to The Big Questions of life that emphasized these kinds of experiences?
That might be interesting.
Let’s call it “experiential spirituality.”
This approach would be oriented toward deliberately seeking these kinds of experiences out.
And working to harness them, for the good of humanity, and puppies, and chocolate, and everything right and just in this world.
After all, these experiences, when they happen, have proven to help folks find clarity, inner strength, a revitalized sense of purpose and meaning, psychological health, and so on (which might just be a few side-benefits these experiences seem to provide.)
But what would that approach actually look like?
Well, there are a few core components to all this.
To name just two: there’s actually having an experience like this. Then, there’s interpreting, digesting, understanding, and integrating the results of that experience properly.
The basic goal of this approach would not only be to have them, but to maximize the illuminating, positive, life-enhancing results of them, and to dodge any toxic effects they may have.
So this seems like something worth digging into, right?
Great. (We’ll assume you just said “yeah” there.)
Let’s keep digging. Now that we have a rough sketch of where we’re heading, let’s back up start from the very beginning, so we can make sure we’re extremely clear on what we’re talking about here.
Sometimes, we find ourselves asking The Big Questions of life.
(“The Big Questions”: What’s it all about? Why are we here? What’s the point? Who am I? Where did I come from? Where am I going? How should I live? What the heck is going on? Etc.)
When we ask questions like these, we often tend to put a lot of emphasis on what we – or other folks – believe.
But that approach can have problems. When we start trying to figure out the difference between legitimate, no-nonsense spirituality and the kind that’s full of nonsense, we realize a few things pretty quickly.
For example: beliefs can be faked.
Meaning, it’s easy for someone to say “I believe in X!” when they actually don’t. It’s easy for someone to pretend to believe in something they actually don’t. Someone can even try to believe in something they really don’t. And of course, it’s possible to “believe” certain things, but then act in ways that contradict it. (“I love people. I just don’t love being around them.”)
In some ways, what people say they believe can be a poor indicator of what’s actually going on with them.
“I’m gonna die!
Jesus! Allah! Buddha!
I love you all!”
- Homer Simpson
All to say: when it comes to The Big Stuff of life, mere “belief” can seem like a shaky foundation.
But let’s back up even further.
Let’s look at the issue of whether believing itself is even the right tool for the job.
We often speak about “believing” as if that’s the best we can hope for.
Or even a goal in and of itself. (“I believe X! Where do I sign? OK, I’m done! Time to Netflix!”)
“I’m fully prepared to believe
in whatever I must
so that I may be welcomed into that place
where all the goody-goodies get to go. Savvy?”
- Captain Jack Sparrow, Pirates of the Caribbean
(written by Ted Eliot and Terry Rossio)
All this can even morph into a strange practice of trying to believe, reminding ourselves and each other what we’re trying to believe, and trying to get ourselves to believe harder.
But doesn’t something seem a little…off with this?
Is there a chance that all this emphasis on mere “belief” might be – at least a little – overblown?
“For when philosophy is severed from its roots in experience,
whence it first sprouted and grew,
it becomes a dead thing.”
- Francis Bacon
It seems like the juicy stuff must lie somewhere else.
Is there a step we’ve missed along the way? A point where we veered off into a direction and wandered off course? And if so, most importantly, is there a corrective, some kind of remedy or antidote that can fix the situation?
Maybe at this point we should run a little experiment.
Let’s say there’s a small, furry creature named a “Fuzzlebump.”
Some folks say Fuzzlebumps are cute, friendly, and adorable.
Others, however, strongly disagree. Fuzzlebumps,they insist, are actually really mean, they have sharp teeth, and they bite your ankles every chance they get.
Folks on both sides of the issue get into tremendously heated arguments over this, and spend a lot of time either outraging those on the other side or being outraged by them.
So, now for the key question: what do you "believe"?
What do you believe about Fuzzlebumps?
Let’s raise the stakes a little.
Let’s imagine you’re being asked that question in court. You’re sitting on the witness stand in a packed courtroom. The Grand Inquisitor has just put that question to you. The entire courtroom – the entire world, actually – is watching, on the edge of their seats.
“Do you believe Fuzzlebumps are 1) cute and friendly or 2) mean and destructive? You must answer now! What do you believe?”
And since we’re being silly here, let’s raise the stakes even more, and imagine that based on your answer, you and everyone you know will either 1) become instant billionaire movie stars, or 2) go to prison and eat nothing but cockroaches from now on.
So, what’s your answer?
What do you believe?
Of course, there’s only one really honest answer here.
You could say you believe either option.
But as far as truth goes, it doesn’t really matter what you say you “believe.”
You’re basically just guessing.
You could declare emphatically that Fuzzlebumps are gentle, generous creatures that are being misunderstood and mistreated. Or the opposite.
As far as the truth goes, it really doesn’t matter. You’re just declaring stuff.
Your answer is entirely strategic – oriented towards achieving some result. You’re just saying whatever you need to say to avoid the Cockroach Diet Plan.
Given that Fuzzlebumps don’t actually exist, that they’re entirely imaginary critters that were just made up a few minutes ago for the purposes of this article, the only honest answer is this:
“I don’t know.”
Anything different that than, in this instance, would be mere opinion. Even if you earnestly want to answer as truthfully as possible, it’s still arbitrary empty talk, based on nothing. Because you don’t actually know anything about Fuzzlebumps. Nobody does. (Because we just made them up.)
“Why, sometimes I’ve believed
as many as six impossible things
- Lewis Carroll
But what if, one day, you actually met a Fuzzlebump?
And let’s say you think it looks really cute.
And then it bites your ankles.
Well, now the game has changed completely.
Now you have something real to say. Now, what you say is no longer mere opinion, arbitrary empty talk, etc. At this point, you’re speaking from your own direct experience. (Or, more precisely: your interpretation of your direct experience.)
This silly little example can have huge implications for our approach to matters of religion and spirituality.
“The word ‘belief’ is a difficult thing for me.
I don’t believe.
I must have a reason for a certain hypothesis.
Either I know a thing, and then I know it
- I don’t need to believe it.”
- Carl Jung
Beliefs come in the aftermath of experience.
Beliefs follow experiences.
Genuine beliefs (not mere opinions, empty talk, or just “declaring stuff”) are typically the effects of prior causes. And often, those “prior causes” are experiences.
Trying to “believe” before you’ve had an experience can be like trying to laugh at a joke before you’ve heard the punch line. It just doesn’t work that way.
It doesn’t matter how hard you sincerely want to laugh. If you haven’t heard the punch line, the laughter is forced, fake, unnatural.
But of course, once you’ve heard the joke, of course, laughing comes naturally and spontaneously.
Or this could apply to ourselves: I could write poems, sing songs, preach sermons about how much I love Disneyland. But unless I’ve actually been to Disneyland, I’m just declaring stuff, like my empty Fuzzlebump talk.
What we call “beliefs” are sometimes interchangeable with mere speculation, theory, opinion, or “stuff we just declare,” or things we want to be true.
But when those beliefs are truly legitimate, it’s usually the case that a prior experience is the source of the theory.
All this points to how an overemphasis on mere belief puts the cart before the horse. (And, in a way, is the wrong tool for the job.)
Let’s imagine that one person really wants to make another person laugh.
He or she could preach, or threaten, or bribe, or tell vivid stories explaining all kinds of consequences, good and bad, to try to get that laugh out.
But maybe there’s a better method.
Just tell a good joke.
That creates an experience.
Then laughing comes naturally.
"We do not need theories
so much as the experience
that is the source of the theory."
- R. D. Laing
We often focus on theories, ideas, beliefs, etc, and ignore the experiences that originated them.
For example: we’re often told that we should be kind, be happy, have faith, etc.
But there’s usually not much said beyond that in regards to the “how” part.
This sometimes results in folks trying to force themselves to “be kind to others” without having much experience of love, or they try to force themselves to “be happy” without having tasted much actual joy, or they try to force themselves to have faith without having actually experienced much of anything sacred.
This can result in a kind of forced love/joy/faith/etc that’s the result of willpower.
But willpower can be the wrong tool for this kind of job.
And to push further: this forcing itself – even with the best of intentions – is often rooted in an intellectual idea of the way folks want things to be (instead of the way they actually are.)
And that – an intellectual idea of the way things should be – might also be the wrong tool for the job. Intellectual ideas themselves are fine, of course. But using them to arm-twist reality to fit into those ideas, Procrustes-like, can warp and distort things beyond what they should be.
But instead, let’s try reversing that:
If folks have an actual, direct experience of love, or joy, or something sacred, then the rest very well might follow very easily. The way a laugh naturally follows a good joke, or a sneeze naturally follows the experience of getting a snout full of pepper.
Sometimes in these realms, there seems to be a lot of fake laughing and sneezing.
Which is to say, imitation love, joy, faith, etc, that’s coerced, or the result of willpower.
It can happen with the best of intentions, of course. But still: using willpower to try to force ourselves into our intellectual ideas of how we think things should be can wind up in a cramped, uncomfortable and exhausting state of affairs.
All of these seem to have things out of order. They’re using good tools in a wrong way.
To be fair: it’s sometimes possible to go too far in the other direction, too.
For example: nudging yourself to act nice when you’re actually feeling crabby can sometimes result in everyone (including yourself) genuinely feeling better all around.
And to go even further, this cause-effect chain can sometimes work in the opposite direction. Meaning, sometimes certain beliefs can make certain experiences more likely. And then genuine (not strategic) beliefs can follow in the aftermath of those experiences. And so on.
All to say, with all the feedback loops and self-fulfilling prophecies and placebo effects and so on, sorting out clean causes and effects can sometimes be tricky.
But untangling all that might be unnecessary in the end, because the key idea holds throughout: staying close to “the real thing.”
“The meaning of life can be revealed
but never explained.”
- Kenneth Rexroth
There’s “the real thing,” and levels of separation from the real thing.
Let’s compare it to playing football.
Let’s imagine that you’re playing a game of football. You’re on the field, sweaty, covered in dirt.
We can call that “direct experience.” It’s Level 1.
Now, let’s change it up a bit. Let’s imagine you’re watching someone else play football on television, while you’re sitting on your couch. We can describe this new situation as “one level removed” from direct experience. We can call this “vicarious” experience.
Let’s keep going.
Now let’s imagine we’re watching someone else talk about (or comment on, or argue about) a game of football on television. We’re now “two levels removed” from direct experience, or “doubly vicarious.”
Then there’s going on YouTube and watching someone else watch someone else talk about a game of football. “Three levels removed” from direct experience. (And you guessed it: “triply vicarious.”)
We could keep going here (watching someone who is watching someone who is watching someone who is actually playing) until we all become pale and shadowy ghosts. (Fight Club: “Everything is a copy, of a copy, of a copy…”)
What we’re getting at here is a spectrum of measurement: levels of separation from the real thing, the original, the source.
Now let’s apply this to a new situation: to falling in love.
Someone could say “I believe in love.”
He or she could sing songs about love, write poems about it, make movies about it, talk to friends about it, come up with psychological theories about it, and so on. All of which is at least one level removed from the real thing.
But then there’s something entirely different: actually falling in love. Experiencing it, directly, first-hand.
Totally different ball game.
So: all of this is pointing us toward the experience of the real thing.
And the two directions we can move in – either closer to or further from that real thing.
So, how does all this apply to modern spirituality and the core issues of life?
It points to something crucial that doesn’t often get much attention these days.
“When you travel to the Celestial City,
carry no letter of introduction.
When you knock, ask to see God,
- none of the servants.”
- Henry David Thoreau
It’s like the Zen story of the old guy pointing his finger up at the moon.
He’s pointing at the moon. He’s trying to say, “Hey, look! The moon!”
The important thing is not to confuse the finger with the moon.
Apparently, we humans tend to confuse the finger with the moon. Pretty often. Certain folks even spend years studying old-man-fingers, write books about them, teach classes on them, and so on.
But meanwhile, the old codger is standing there, saying, “Hey! Forget my finger! Look at what I’m pointing at! That’s the important part! That’s the whole point!”
“Don’t listen to what they say.
- Chinese Proverb
The “moon” in the scenario is what all the fuss is really about.
Call it “God” (or the Absolute, Tao, Brahman, Godhead, the Divine, etc. At risk of associating ourselves that don’t exactly pride themselves on no-nonsense approaches to all this, we’ll just use the word “God.”)
The “finger” in this scenario is all the various theologies, philosophies, self-help books, talk shows, arguments, and yes, beliefs that inevitably surround those experiences like kids swarming around an ice cream truck.
Of course, there’s a place for all of that. We sometimes need philosophies, theologies, books, arguments, beliefs, fingers, and ice cream trucks.
But too often, the situation eventually looks like a Bugs Bunny cartoon. Bugs invariably gets in a fistfight-brawl with a gang of bad guys. The brawl starts. There’s a frenzy cloud of activity. And after a few seconds, Bugs sneaks away from the frenzy, stands up, and watches from a distance with some bemusement while the rest of them continue to go at it.
Apparently, through all the thinking and arguing and hymn-singing and reading and so on, we can easily fail to notice that Bugs Bunny – the point of it all – has exited the situation – and did it quite a while ago. And what’s left are just a bunch of old-man-finger-experts fighting with each other. (And often while ignoring a Celestial “What’s up, Doc?”)
We’re talking about missing the whole point.
When there’s no point, or central reason for it all, things might continue out of habit or tradition or sheer momentum. But eventually, it stalls out, and becomes little more than a dry, empty, lifeless exercise. There’s going through the motions, out of tradition and habit, but meanwhile, the reason behind it all has been completely forgotten.
And that – the “reason behind it all” – is the juicy stuff.
Which brings us to the reality of “spiritual experiences.”
What would happen if we’d try to reverse as many “levels of separation” as possible?
What would it look like to or penetrate to the “First-Level” of the issue – in the areas of religion and spirituality, where we’d stand on the football field of the soul?
Consider this statement:
“I have had a profound religious experience or awakening that changed the direction of my life.”
Roughly 41% of Americans said that this statement completely applies to them, according to Gallop. (Source: https://news.gallup.com/poll/7582/religious-awakenings-bolster-americans-faith.aspx)
These are profound experiences that might be described as “a period or moment of deep religious insight or awakening in one’s life.”
“There is a difference between one and another hour of life,
in their authority and subsequent effect.
There is a depth in those brief moments
which constrains us to ascribe more reality to them
than to all other experiences.”
- Ralph Waldo Emerson
There’s a wide range of flora and fauna of these experiences, with a taxonomy that’s barely been mapped.
So, a few examples might help here.
A few well-known stories could help illustrate what we’re getting at here.
Whatever Plato was talking about when he wrote this:
"...this much at any rate I can affirm about any present or future writers who pretend to knowledge of the matters with which I concern myself; in my judgement it is impossible that they should have any understanding of the subject. It is not something that can be put into words like other branches of learning; only after a long partnership in a common life devoted to this very thing does truth flash upon the soul, like a flame kindled by a leaping spark. No treatise by me concerning it exists or ever will exist."
- Seventh Epistle
Whatever happened to Buddha under the Bodhi Tree. (That was a big one.)
Whatever it was that happened to Saul on the road to Damascus, for example. He had some kind of experience that – to put it mildly – turned his life completely upside-down.
Whatever Blaise Pascal experienced on November 23, 1654, "from about half-past ten in the evening until about half-past twelve, midnight" (as partially referenced here.)
Whatever Bertrand Russell experienced that made him describe this:
“Suddenly the ground seemed to give way beneath me, and I found myself in quite another region. Within five minutes I went through some such reflections as the following: the loneliness of the human soul is unendurable; nothing can penetrate it except the highest intensity of the sort of love that religious teachers have preached; whatever does not spring from this motive is harmful, or at best useless; it follows that war is wrong, that a public school education is abominable, that the use of force is to be deprecated, and that in human relations one should penetrate to the core of loneliness in each person and speak to that … At the end of those five minutes I had become a completely different person….”
The Autobiography of Bertrand Russell, vol. 2: 1914-1944, London, George Allen & Unwin, 1968, 38.
Whatever happened to Wittgenstein that inspired him to write an entire book – the only one he would ever publish in his lifetime – and then, at the very end of that book, write this:
“My propositions are elucidatory in this way: he who understands me finally recognizes them as senseless, when he has climbed out through them, on them, over them. (He must so to speak throw away the ladder, after he has climbed up on it.) He must surmount these propositions; then he sees the world rightly. Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must remain silent.”
- referenced by John Horgan here
Whatever happened to Job (yes, Old Testament Job) that made him finally understand why we suffer.
What Einstein was trying to get at when he said this (emphasis ours):
“The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and science. He to whom the emotion is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder and stand wrapped in awe, is as good as dead; his eyes are closed. The insight into the mystery of life, coupled though it be with fear, has also given rise to religion. To know what is impenetrable to us really exists, manifesting itself as the highest wisdom and the most radiant beauty, which our dull faculties can comprehend only in their most primitive forms – this knowledge, this feeling is at the center of true religiousness.”
Whatever Teresa of Avila is trying to describe here:
“I used sometimes, as I have said, to experience in an elementary form, and very fleetingly, what I shall now describe…I used unexpectedly to experience a consciousness of the presence of God of such a kind that I could not possibly doubt that he was within me or that I was wholly engulfed in him. This was in no sense a vision: I believe that it is called mystical theology.”
Whatever happened to Eckhart Tolle at age 29 on the day he woke up in the early hours with a feeling of "with a feeling of absolute dread," and afterward, for the next five months, "lived in a state of uninterrupted deep peace and bliss."
Whatever happened to Thomas Aquinas, who wrote approximately a trillion words, more or less, on the nature of the universe and God and humanity and everything else, which became a foundational cornerstone of Christianity for centuries - and then had some kind of experience that led him to say this:
“Such secrets have been revealed to me that all I have written seems like straw.”
Of course, those are just a few examples - a grab-bag of a few of the more dramatic and well-known case studies. There are plenty of others, less dramatic and less well-known. Plenty of these have been fully documented, and with totally different slices of humanity – religious folks, atheist-agnostic types, scientists, philosophers, and etc – represented.
Many of us know folks who have a strong “faith” or “spiritual life” or whatever you’d like to call it. When you’re able to corner them, and ask them about the origins of it, in our experience, you often uncover a story of some form of experience. It’s often an experience that happened way back in earlier days. And it’s an experience that shaped the foundation for their later life.
God is not a hypothesis derived from logical assumptions,
but an immediate insight, self-evident as light.
He is not something to be sought in the darkness
with the light of reason.
He is the light."
- Abraham Joshua Heschel
So, what does all this mean to us, now?
So this is where we seem to have landed: at an appreciation for the role of direct experiences.
When they’re subtle, they’re basic “aha experiences” that every scientist, detective, counselor – heck, pretty much everyone has likely gotten a taste of them at some point. When they’re powerful and profound, we describe them as spiritual experiences.
These are first-person, direct, self-evident experiences that change people, reveal things to them, maybe rattle them, maybe transform them.
And maybe, like crazy old Archimedes, make them so blissful that they run down the street naked.
These seem to be the quiet, hidden, unappreciated workhorses that actually power many religious and spiritual lives and movements.
Tucked somewhere in the biographies of many religious and spiritual leaders – as well as folks you might see every day – you’ll usually find a description (or at least a hint) of an experience roughly like what we’ve hit on here.
But of course, all this stirs up a lot of questions.
Are these experiences really valid?
Why and how do these experiences happen?
Can spiritual experiences be engineered?
Is there a way to verify or validate these experiences?
Is there a way to sort legitimate experiences from phony ones?
Can some folks claim to have had a spiritual experience, but be lying about it, even to themselves?
If someone wants to have some sort of experience like this, what should they do?
These questions aren’t easy.
Which is to say, there’s plenty more to explore here.
There are answers, of course, to the above, that we could speculate on.
Are they valid? Yes. (You can dispute a person’s interpretation of an experience, but how would you deny anyone’s actual experience of anything?) Why and how do they happen? We’ll explore this below, but it seems to be at least part mystery and part science. Can they be engineered? Not “engineered,” exactly (not that we know of, anyway), but it seems like certain factors can increase the odds. Can they be verified or validated? Sometimes, especially by folks who know what they’re doing. Is there a way to sort legitimate experiences from phony ones? Yes, if someone knows what they’re doing. Can some folks lie about them, or fool themselves about them? Yes. How can someone have an experience? Well, that’s a big question. It might be like asking “How do I become a great artist, musician, athlete, parent?” Which is to say, it can be done, but it’s no small request.
These answers above – subjective, biased, and non-scientific as they are – are best described as starting points instead of ending points.
Which is to say, these realms are largely uncharted.
Not entirely, of course. Zen – and by that we mean legitimate Zen – makes this approach central. Even certain highly respected Christians like A. W. Tozer and Jonathan Edwards saw the need for spiritual experiences that were kept in check by doctrine. (Without experience, they saw the rest as a dead letter.) Buddhism seemed to started entirely as the result of a spiritual experience, and continued as a way for others to replicate that experience.
But all of this is far from what anyone could describe as an “exact science.”
We understand how to build bridges and cell phones fairly well. But we don’t seem to understand how to engineer legitimate spiritual experiences very well. Not yet.
It’s the existential equivalent of the Wild West.
There are largely unknown, lawless frontiers.
It’s possible in these areas to do a Full Magellan and sail off the edge of the map. (Or really, what you think is the edge of a map.) It’s not uncommon to hear what other folks have extracted from their experiences. But it’s much rarer for someone to work to have a direct experience for themselves.
Which is to say, if someone is interested in this kind of thing, it’s going to require some experimentation.
But that doesn’t mean they have to start from scratch and do everything themselves.
Once upon a time, lightening was seen as a mysterious, unpredictable, unknown force. It would strike at random and wreak utter havoc.
But eventually, we figured it out, and even harnessed it, and now we have electricity.
There’s a chance that we’re in the same position regarding spiritual experiences. Right now, we don’t seem to understand much about them. They often seem to strike at random when we don’t want them, or not at all when we do. And sometimes – when they’re genuine, at least – they wreak havoc. And start forest fires.
But maybe if we learn to understand them better, they won’t be quite so unpredictable, at least in some respects.
Maybe, we can even, to some degree, figure out a way to harness them, contain them, add buffers and resistors to them, and translate them over to our everyday lives in ways that convert anxiety into joy, depression into vigor, hatred into affection, friction into peace, and so on.
That said, let’s not get carried away just yet.
Which is to say, let’s stay grounded. (Literally.)
Ben Franklin was interested in electricity (or, what was soon to become known as electricity), and decided to look into the matter. So, as the story goes (allegedly), he tied a key to the end of a kite string, and flew it in a thunderstorm. He could have been electrocuted, but luckily, he wound up discovering some important stuff about electricity, and inventing the lightening rod, and figuring out some other good stuff instead.
If there’s something to all this, and we want to explore this stuff ourselves, we should follow old Ben’s lead and do some of our own experiments.
Is there a lightening rod of the soul?
But let’s avoid getting zapped.
Which is to say, there are hazards built in to these areas that we should all be wary of.
For example: folks might try to sell tickets to spiritual experiences, or promise that you’ll achieve them through a snazzy app, an exotic technique, a “breakthrough” piece of technology, a pill, etc.
Getting “zapped” might mean losing a few bucks, or wasting some time, or getting turned around, disoriented, or steered down some dead-end roads by some bad ideas. The wrong pill might burn some circuits, or the wrong kind of medicine (or the right medicine but in the wrong amount) can sometimes do more harm than good.
Basically, there are ways that – like everything – an experiential approach to spirituality can go off the rails. Everything – from water to rice to fire – can be destructive if misused.
Our two cents here, in brief, for what it’s worth: keep your eyes open, your nose clean, and your hand on your wallet. Distrust big promises, ignore hard sales pitches, avoid shortcuts that seem too easy, take big grains of salt all around, and buyer beware.
There’s plenty to explore here.
There seems to be treasure hidden in these hills.
Every real adventure has them, right?
So, where do we go from here?
Of course, we’ve barely touched the surface of all this. And we’re interested in touching way more than the surface.
Entire books could be written exploring all of these topics more deeply (and should be, and have been. We have our personal recommended list for members.) No shortage of techniques have been recommended, and practiced, over millennia.
But separating out the wheat from the chaff, the essential from the noise, is no small task. Distilling techniques and applications that actually work in even a halfway objective and partially scientific manner, with all non-essential aspects removed (eg unnecessary cultural trappings), is a daunting task still ahead of us.
But at least to us, well, it seems like a task worth taking on.
Here are a few basic, humble suggestions.
There are a few basic experiments you can run. We’ve gathered some here.
We’ve put together some basic “rules of the road” here. The idea here was to put up some very general guardrails, so we don’t veer off too much into absurdism, nihilism, anti-intellectualism or any other well-known sand traps, potholes and cliff.
“Good art” can sometimes be easily accessible routes to direct experience. Especially literature and poetry, and sometimes movies and music. If it’s approached as beyond mere entertainment, distraction, or a quick emotional fix, real art has been carefully and deliberately orchestrated to produce experiences and insights. The right books, poems, movies and so on can be the most useful transmission experiences available.
Hanging around folks who really know this stuff is the ideal route, if you can find any who both know what they’re doing and are trustworthy. (Not an easy task.)
Good conversation with folks who are actually on roughly the same page about this stuff can be incredibly valuable. Especially that rare, precious, and (these days) endangered commodity, honest conversation.
“Morality” often gets a bad rap. (Again, we humans seem to have a tendency to take a good thing and screw it up.) When it’s seen as finger-wagging prudery that enjoys spoiling fun, moralhttps://www.livereal.com/psychology/what-is-moralityity earns the bad reputation it often has. But morality can also be viewed as simply intelligence. Meaning, living in a way that makes genuine and life-enhancing (can we say “real fun”?) experiences more likely, and degrading, debilitating, toxic experiences less likely. Done properly, it’s simply a way to bypass a lot of unnecessary and pointless suffering. And in regards to experiential spirituality, trying to start a fire with wet leaves - or with kegs of dynamite all around – leads to problems. But real morality – defined as simple intelligence about life and how to live – can create a strong foundation for the real fun stuff. Keeping your nose clean in some areas can pave the way for more fun in others. More on this here.
As mentioned earlier, there’s also something to be said for simply “getting your house in order.” Which is to say, someone making their everyday functional. While it might seem purely practical, sometimes efforts behind that alone can become an unexpected source of insight.
Some type of meditation, some say, is essential. Others disagree. But at the very least, taking a few minutes to unplug, sit quietly, and be still – even just taking brief periods to hear yourself think – really doesn’t seem like a terrible idea.
There are others.
We explore this in more depth in our Inner Work course – but for now, we’re just covering a few basics.
As you can tell, we don't push any magic bullets here.
Almost everyone interested in this stuff looks for shortcuts. And the basic idea of being efficient – and not wasting time or energy – just makes sense.
That said, as we all know, “shortcuts often turn into longcuts,” and quick-and-easy can sometimes turn out to be long-and-hard. There’s no shortage of folks wanting to sell you enlightenment-in-a-pill or in “Three Easy Steps!” But once the pill has been swallowed, those vague steps have been taken (or have they?), and the hangover has worn off, the final tally of what has been gained and lost, and whether it was worth it, often isn’t flattering for shortcuts.
All to say, the search for shortcuts can become a distraction and a way to avoid proven routes that produce genuine results.
Magic bullets aside, it’s worth saying:
There’s plenty of opportunity all around us already.
The trick often lies in spotting what’s already there, and getting ourselves ready for it when it comes.
And maybe keeping your pants on.
And then seizing it.
"The universe is full of magical things,
patiently waiting for our wits to grow sharper."
- Eden Phillpotts
So if all this sounds interesting…
Well, we think it’s pretty interesting too.
We like exploring this stuff.
Digging into this stuff usually leads us toward what we call “Inner Work.” It’s a big topic, but we’ve been working to gather some of the very basics into one place, here.
(And by the way, we aren’t claiming that any of this approach is unique, new or original to us. Lots of other folks have talked about all this stuff before. The way we see it, if there’s nothing new under the sun, all any of us can really do is try to say things a little differently. So if nothing else, we add a few dumb jokes (and silly critters like Fuzzlebumps) and try to make it into something that works on a cell phone.)
Anyway, many of the areas we’ve touched on here aren’t exactly on well-traveled roads.
Which is to say, a lot of the really interesting stuff (that we thing is interesting, anyway), seems to be away from many Paths Most Traveled.
Lots of brave and adventurous souls have explored these lands – often alone and at great expense. Yet many of the maps here are either inaccurate, or incomplete, or (on the other side of things) too intricate to digest.
Because there’s a lot to map here. Deep forests, and clouds of fog, and invisible quicksand, and steep mountains. There are monsters, allies, and priceless treasures. And frontiers in these realms are still being charted.
These frontiers are inside you. And me.
(And if that sounds too cheesy, just pretend we didn’t say it.)
Anyway, if you’re interested in this kind of thing, well, this website is a gathering spot where folks explore this kind of stuff. You can read more on it here.
In the meantime, we’ll keep working on it.
And, we’re guessing, you’ll keep working on your side, too.
Hope your experience is one for the record books.
Peace to the Wanderer.
All the best and warm regards,
The folks at LiveReal