If we take up any form of higher Yoga practice, pranayama, mantra or meditation, we are likely to have various experiences, some of which may be quite dramatic. These experiences may be spiritual, psychological or even physical in nature or some combination thereof. Most of these experiences are likely to be exhilarating and elevating, but some may prove disturbing or agitating. Sometimes an exhilarating experience may turn disturbing for us, or what began as a disturbing experience may end up providing us wisdom or peace.
Some of these experiences may change our lives forever. Others may fade away after a short period of time and leave no trace. Generally our first spiritual experiences, like our first romances, may be exaggerated. Later on as we have more spiritual experiences, we will tend to take them more as a natural part of our lives.
The range of potential yogic experiences is vast and many sided. It is important to have a sense of what this is, so that we learn how to handle our experiences properly. In addition, it is not enough to seek experiences. We must prepare ourselves to have them, so that when they do arise, we are reader to hold their energy. Developing a higher consciousness is not a mere casual matter, hobby or another outer pursuit. It requires discipline, dedication and an inner orientation of the life. In the following article, we will examine the nature of spiritual experiences and examine how we can best relate with them.
The Beauty of Spiritual Experiences
Spiritual experiences can deepen and enrich our lives in many ways. They are largely to be welcomed as part of the beauty and abundance of the spiritual life. Just as the cultivation of an artistic lifestyle will naturally result in the development of artistic skills and perceptions, unfolding the vast realm of art appreciation, so too, the cultivation of the spiritual life still will unfold the vast realm of cosmic consciousness and an appreciation of the bliss that pervades all things in the universe. To develop a life enhanced by ongoing spiritual experiences, with an ability to relate to the universe as a whole at the level of the heart, is one of the main reasons that we take to such practices in the first place.
If we persist in our yogic practices, over time our inner flow of spiritual experiences will become more vivid and important than our outer sensory and worldly experiences. We will develop our own vast inner life and inner world beyond the stress and sorrow, the ups and downs of our outer existence. We will gain a capacity to directly experience reality, the universe and the depths of consciousness spontaneously and immediately at every moment, without having to rely on any external equipment or outer mediators. We will no longer need any external forms of entertainment or stimulation to distract us. Even when there may be nothing happening around us, we will experience a fullness and a depth that will create contentment and peace within.
The Yoga Shakti and the Energy of Experience
Spiritual experiences are not isolated events but the result of an inner energy. The energy that sets the stream of inner experience in motion and sustains it is the Yoga Shakti or ‘power of Yoga’. Once that inner electricity is turned on, we will be able to access higher forms of perception, stronger forms of prana, deep feeling and direct knowing that are otherwise hard to reach for the ordinary human mind.
In the long run, holding to a continuous flow of experience will become more important than the details of any single experience. We may eventually merge into that flow of the Yoga Shakti and let go of all experiences, like a flowing river that reaches the sea and no longer has any banks to recognize. Gaining the power of direct experience is real goal of all the experiences that may happen to us. Such a capacity for direct experience is more than any particular experience and how it affects us.
Yoga in the higher sense is the development of Samadhi or the ‘absorbed state of mind’, in which the mind becomes one with its object of attention. If we practice yogic meditation, we will naturally develop some states of Samadhi. Most of what are called spiritual experiences are Samadhi experiences, though not all are the result of a conscious practice or preparation.
Yet there are many types of Samadhi. Samadhi is a function of the mind on all levels. We are all seeking some Samadhi or peak experience of the mind, heart and senses. In this regard, there are both yogic and non-yogic samadhis. Even sleep or drug induced trances are lower or non-yogic Samadhis. Mixed Samadhis are common among yoga aspirants, in which some inner vision gets mixed with the conditioning of the mind. Without the proper training, such Samadhi experiences, even when genuine, can disturb people or inflate the ego.
Traditional Yoga classifies different types of Samadhis, some of which it regards as illusory, misleading or dangerous. It particularly warns us to avoid using any siddhis or powers that arise from Samadhi for our own personal ends, especially those that involve harming others. It asks us to pursue the Samadhis that involve control of the mind and the understanding of our deeper Self.
There is a tendency for those who first come into a Samadhi state to think that they have gained the highest state. We must remember that there are many levels of consciousness between the ordinary human state of physical and ego based reality to the highest level of Self-realization. Not every altered state of consciousness is a better state, nor is every higher state than the ordinary human state a condition of full light or complete understanding. The realm of spiritual experience contains a great range of illusions or fantasies that we can fall into, particularly if we are unaware of such possibilities.
There are many inner realms of experience, levels of the astral plane or higher formless realms, each with its own type of world, creature and perception that can be very different. One can move beyond our personal and social conditioned consciousness to the greater consciousness in nature, our broader earth environment, the atmosphere and into the cosmic realms. This is a great adventure but can have its pitfalls or detours as well, just as seeking to climb a high mountain or explore a deep cave has its challenges!
Not all of our imagined spiritual experiences may be truly spiritual. Some may be mixed up with mental, emotional or even physical urges, changes or imbalances. Some may be misleading or simply self-projected. All of us are likely to have such questionable experiences, just as we are likely to have those that are genuine, particularly in this age of media hype that predisposes us to fantasy.
Different Types of Experiences
It is important to note the different types of experiences that we may have and how they affect us, starting at a physical level. We may experience different sensations or currents within the body itself. Spontaneous movements or yoga kriyas may arise that may cause us to perform a certain yoga posture or breathe in a certain manner. The body may feel light, clear or even filled with light or space. Sometimes we may experience tremors, feelings of ungroundedness, or loss of physical coordination for a time. Such physical experiences need to be gauged relative to the condition of our body and nervous system overall.
We may experience changes in our sensory functions. Our seeing or hearing, for example, may become more acute or our sense of touch may become particularly sensitive. Other times our senses may fade and our attention may draw us to supersensory experiences. Or we may relate to our senses differently, seeing forms or the space between objects that we did not notice before. We may become entranced with certain forms, colors, textures, leaves or flowers that others might not notice at all.
We may experience unusual or radical changes in our emotional nature. A wave of bliss may descend upon us making us feel ecstatic for no apparent outer reason. We may feel great compassion for the sufferings of other creatures. Powerful devotion to the deity or guru may arise. Yet less wholesome emotions can also occur. We may feel afraid of losing ourselves or our identity. A fear of death may arise as we contemplate eternity. Sometimes ordinary emotions like anger or desire may get heightened or we may uncharacteristically become impatient or intolerant .
The mind may have new and different experiences and perceptions. We may feel our minds expanding or ascending. Light or sound vibrations may come into the mind. New insights may arise or a new creativity may dawn. There may be hints of extrasensory perception or telepathy, or a sense of what will happen to us or to the world tomorrow.
We may experience changes in our sense of self. We may feel connections with past lives, that we were a great yogi or that we are a great teacher with an important mission in life. Our self-identity may change and we may want to look or dress differently than before. We may be able to let go of our past and gain a new sense of who we are. We may move beyond the human ego to the sense of the cosmic Self.
We may gain an inner experience of the various chakras or centers of yogic energy, particularly the third eye, the heart or the crown chakra. We may be able to feel the energy moving in the spine or up and down it, along with various lights and sounds, colors or energy patterns. These are usually part of a broader range of what are called ‘Kundalini experiences’ that many people have, though one should note that what is popularly called a Kundalini experience may not always be so!
Experiences of the Astral Plane
Our subtle or astral body may become activated. We may be able to travel with it to other beings, or travel to other realms of consciousness or higher worlds. We may astrally ability to visit with teachers or deities may appear to our inner eye. We may be able to talk to God or to the Divine Mother. New teachings or inspired revelations may come to us.
Many spiritual experiences occur in dreams or in dream like states of consciousness. Besides our ordinary dreams based upon memory and sensory experiences, there is a higher form of dreams that reflect a deeper vision and experience beyond the physical realm. We may be having such deeper visionary dreams but not remember them well. There are other dreams which are astral experiences, which can be either enlightening or confusing for us, depending upon their nature.
Some experiences involve a heightened state of imagination or vision. We may see a deity, guru, angel or spirit with our inner eye. Yet knowing if these visions are genuine or self-induced is not always easy. Higher spiritual experiences usually involve some heightened perception and have a distinct clarity and calm about them. They are not always dramatic visions or visitations.
We must learn to differentiate between higher spiritual experiences and those of the spirit or astral world, though these can overlap to some degree. Drawing in departed spirits or ghosts, or bringing in animal spirits can have side effects. Studying the occult or subtle worlds can be different than yogic practices aimed at Self-realization. It is important to be able to distinguish between the two and not confuse them. Occult and astral experiences are not always higher yogic experiences and can confuse rather than enlighten us, if we are not careful.
Channeling also must be approached with caution. There are spirits that would like to enter into the human being, who may masquerade as higher beings to come into us. We should not offer our minds and hearts for other beings to dwell in, unless we are truly convinced of their spiritual nature. It is important that we do not give up our consciousness or witnessing capacity in the process of communicating with any spirit.
Preparing Ourselves for Experiences
We should prepare ourselves for spiritual experiences before seeking them. True spiritual experiences are a kind of nectar that is coming to us. It is important that we have the proper container to hold that nectar and that the vessel be clean, pure and not contaminated in any way. That vessel is our own body, prana and mind. It is not just enough to have an experience. We must learn to imbibe its essence, just as a bee gathers pollen from a flower.
We should cultivate sattvic life-style as the basis for our experiences. This means avoiding aggression and emotional agitation within us. A sattvic life style will help ground our experiences. A vegetarian diet is a good aid for a pure mind and clear experiences. Our experiences should center on offering our ego to the Divine presence within, not on glorifying ourselves or gaining power over others.
We should develop a sacred space both within us and in our own home environment in which our spiritual experiences, the events in our spiritual life, can be honored, nurtured and cherished. If we have a good vessel, the experiences will come and we will be able to move through them. If our vessel is contaminated or broken, even the best experiences will not be able to really enter into us. If our vessel is prepared, we may experience a deepening peace and bliss without needing more dramatic experiences to keep us on the path.
Keeping Track of Our Experiences
Probably the first thing to do is to take time to assimilate your experience. Let it settle in of its own accord. Keep it to yourself for a while, sharing it only with your guru or other practitioners. Give space for your experience to reveal what it is. Do not try to judge it or own it immediately.
We should cultivate a detached observation of our own experiences. In this regard, it is helpful to make a record of your experience in terms of time, place and details. Write it down. Try to note the factors which may induce or accompany your experience.
Note your physical and psychological condition at the time of your experience. Is your experience connected to fasting or low food intake, with lack of sleep or other abnormal physical patterns? Have you been taking any drugs, recreational or medical, that might be involved in the experience? What was your emotional state? Had you been experience any unusual stress or emotional disturbances that might color your experience?
Note that practices that may have helped set your experience in motion. Is your experience arising from pranayama, if so what type of pranayama and practiced for how long? Is it the result of repeating a mantra? If so, what type of mantra and to what deity or guru? Has it occurred as part of a meditation practice? Have you done any intense or new practice prior to the experience or is it the result of long term steady practices? Experiences from long term practices are likely to be more wholesome than those from short term but irregular intensive efforts.
Spiritual experiences are more likely to occur in the presence of a guru, but even here we must be cautious. The mass energy around a teacher may cause us to have an experience around them, even if they are not our true teacher. Holy sites, temples and powerful places in nature are also more likely to give us experiences. Pilgrimage is well known for giving experiences, particularly those like visiting Mt. Kailas in Tibet that require a good deal of exertion to get there. There are practices like vision quests, or seeking the darshan (vision) of the deity, that aim at producing experiences. These also have their place and require a certain dedication and sincerity to achieve.
A few other tips: Do not run after any experiences. The mind can induce whatever experience it likes. Let your experience arise out of the receptive and surrendered mind and heart. Do not try to repeat an experience; it only makes you live in the past. Once you have had a spiritual experience there is a temptation to try to repeat it. It is best to let it settle down. True spiritual experience is ever new.
We should look into our spiritual experiences for what they are teaching us. Inner experiences usually have a message behind them. They may be offering us a taste of what we can gain in fuller form if we persist in our practices. They may be asking us to make some change in our lives or our practice. We must learn to read their language and their symbolism, not simply regard the experience as an end in itself.
Emotional highs are usually accompanied with or followed by emotional lows. One must be careful with confusing emotional highs even colored by spiritual forms or images with spiritual experiences. Yet even with genuine spiritual experiences, there can be a down side. In mystical literature, there is a talk of the dark night of the soul and of dry periods in one’s practice. Don’t expect to always be in state of deeper experiences or emotional highs. Learn to preserve your inner contentment even when you are facing adversity.
The Role of the Guru and Deity in Experiences
If we have experiences, it is good to consult about them with a teacher or with friends and colleagues on the path. A true guru will help us understand our experiences. If the teacher is not physically accessible to us, we can call upon them inwardly to help deal with our experiences.
It helps on the yogic path to have an Ishta Devata or chosen form of the Divine to worship, usually some aspect of the Divine Father or Mother. We should seek to connect with them in our experiences. The path of Bhakti Yoga or devotion often revolves around spiritual experiences of the deity through mantra, chanting, pilgrimage and meditation.
It is helpful to have special protective mantras that we can use to help us through any difficult experiences that we may have. Mantras to the Ishta Devata or to the guru are very important.
Ayurveda and Vedic Astrology
If possible, consult a good Ayurvedic practitioner who is familiar with yogic experiences and can provide guidance if your experiences are troubling. Disturbances in the Doshas, particularly Vata or the air humor, can cause unusual experiences in the mind and nervous system that may be mistaken for spiritual experiences. These may involve nervousness, anxiety, insomnia, tremors or unusual pranic movements of an uncontrolled nature. An Ayurvedic practitioner can prescribe herbs, diet, massage and life-style changes that can help us ground our experiences better.
Vedic astrology can be very helpful in showing the nature of our experiences. There are certain planetary influences and planetary periods that can promote inner experiences. Influences involving Rahu, the north node of the Moon, for example, are more likely to be illusory. Those involving the lords of the fifth and ninth house, particularly when Jupiter, are likely to be more wholesome. There is an entire set of Vedic astrological rules that can be helpful in understanding our spiritual experiences and where these are likely to take us. Vedic astrology can also recommend mantras, gems and rituals that can help make our spiritual experiences more wholesome, or even give us spiritual experiences of an astrological nature. A good Vedic astrologer can help you with these.
Experiences are not the only measure or manifestation of the spiritual life. Experiences, particularly of a dramatic form, are not always necessary on the yogic path, particularly when Jnana Yoga or the Yoga of meditation is emphasized. The type of experiences one is likely to get are a deeper perception, more powerful intuition, a sense of the expansion of consciousness or a greater power of focus and concentration.
Perhaps the best sign of real progress along the yogic path is equanimity, peace of mind and steadiness of awareness. Consistency in practice even if we don’t have any experiences is important. If we give up our practices after an experience, often that experience will not bear fruit.
Experience and Detachment
It is hard to be detached from any powerful life experience, much less a spiritual experience. Spiritual experiences also leave their rasa or effect upon the mind which can be valuable to sustain. Still we should not cling to them. We should learn to view them like the vistas that unfold when we are climbing a beautiful mountain and continue on with our journey until we reach the summit. Never let the experience be more than one’s inner calm or peace.
If you are practicing yoga with a spiritual intent, experiences will occur as part of your daily life. Learn to embrace these as part of life like a beautiful sunset. Let these experiences be natural.
Actually our entire lives are a spiritual experience. Anything that we experience with grace, devotion or awareness is a spiritual experience, even our daily activities. We should make all our experiences into spiritual experiences by learning to see the Divine delight in the entire play of creation, honoring the Divine presence in our own hearts and in the hearts of all creatures.