Thursday 3 January 2019

Spiritual experience versus spiritual wisdom

As a generalisation; I find it striking that those who plausibly claim to have exceptional spiritual experiences mostly lack exceptional spiritual wisdom.

Such people may display clairvoyant or precognitive gifts; may have remarkable mystical visions and epiphanies; may be able to contact and channel spiritual beings; may even begin to affect the world spiritually to make changes or healings... and yet be quite unremarkable (or sub-average) people in terms of their wisdom, holiness, profundity of insight.

The accounts given by spiritual and mystical people (descriptions, information, predictions etc) usually vary extremely widely - they can't all be right, but could all be wrong. The way they talk about their many and varied experiences tends - cumulatively - to be experienced as glib and trivial; either incoherent or over-systematic in a contrived and superficial way - in other words intuitively unconvincing. 

In other words, it is one thing to have remarkable spiritual experiences - and quite a different thing to learn-from these experiences; to be transformed (for the better) by such experiences. Some people seem utterly unaffected - their experiences comes and go like water off a duck's back. Others seem to be damaged by their experiences - made worse people.

One problem is that spiritual experiences are often most highly regarded either when experiences come-upon a person unsought and overwhelm that person - or else when they are the result of long training, initiation, and ritual practice.

The people who have spontaneous spiritual beliefs are just that kind of person - and it is a gift or curse of being that kind of person; but this is essentially a passive thing.

Spiritual experience is just something that happens-to such people; there is no engagement of the real self in the process (indeed, the real self may be deliberately set aside, as with channelling) - it is lower selves, personality selves, inculcated selves that are involved.

Since the spiritual experience is passive, does not involve the real self, and is (pretty much) uncontrolled - it is should not be surprising that such spiritual experience fails to make someone a better person.

As for those who seek a spiritual experiences as a result of training in meditation, regular practice, by formal rituals, by the use of consciousness-altering substances or rituals, and so forth.

This is a process of narrowing, or confining and entraining (hence lowering) the consciousness. It is a matter of making the spiritual experience into a habit - and a habit is a diminution of consciousness.

So the problem can be seen in exactly this reduction of spiritual experience into a thing narrowed, habitual, controlled. Eventually the adept will be able to induce-at-will and control the spiritual experience; but the self that experiences is a more superficial or lower self - not the real self.

I think the above descriptions explain why almost all the individuals who report special spiritual experiences are not special people. It seems clear that there is little correlation between impressiveness of spiritual experiences and the impressiveness of a person - in terms of his spiritual wisdom, depth of understanding.

A person may be a remarkable spiritual adept but such persons are usually unsuitable to be a guide, teacher, mentor. When both spiritual expertise and spiritual wisdom are found in the same person, this is (or has been up to now) actually very unusual.

Yet I would say that nearly-all of the wisest spiritual guides that I know of, have some some spiritual experience. But these experiences (at least those that get reported) are not especially remarkable; often quite ordinary and everyday.

On the other hand, when someone denies having had any spiritual experiences ever; when there are spirituality-blind, utterly insensitive to the immaterial - these are seldom or never wise or deep persons.

Indeed, it is likely that such people are either habitually suppressing the possibility of a spiritual experience, or else systematically denying (explaining-away) the validity and meaning of spiritual experiences when they do occur.

The non-spiritual situation is therefore probably due to a contrived, trained materialistic shallowness or to an habitual dishonesty - both of which negate the possibility of wisdom.   

What this tells me is that spiritual experiences are necessary to the awakening mind; but ought not to be the centre of personal life; and that the ways of amplifying and inducing spiritual experiences all have deleterious effects.

A spiritual experience is of significant value only when it is encountered fully by the real self, as a real and true experience; is learned-from, and has a transformative effect. Then it is an experience of decisive positive value. 


William Wildblood said...

It's a great fallacy to believe that spiritual experiences make you a spiritual person. I find that you might be given a spiritual experience to set you on your way but then the doors often shut and you have to make your way without the benefit of visions, experiences and the like. Spiritual experiences can even be a trap in that you can start to seek the experience rather than simply put yourself right with God. Wise teachers will tell their pupils to accept such things if they come but never seek them and, if they do come, be wary of them for they can lead you astray almost better than anything.

Desert Rat said...

People learn the lessons they are able to learn in the moment. Starting at 1 and aiming for 100 a man may receive inspiration with the potential of 20 but be only able to absorb it to the level of 5. The rest is lost in a fog of incomprehension. But if that man continues to strive he will receive further inspiration and he will retain from that level 20 input enough understanding to rise to 6, then 7 and then 8 and so on.

Not all saints are saintly. They retain their orneriness and biases and present as less than "holy". But the man you see may well be miles above what he once was and, if he persists, will arrive at his desired destination with the residue of the past washed away by Christ's grace.

ted said...

I do think we need to discern between spiritual experiences and spiritual realizations. A realization is just that: it is an epiphany or insight about the reality of existence. For example, during meditation a spiritual practitioner can begin to realize they are more than thoughts and feelings. This will give them some insight as to not be so reactive to emotional states or strong beliefs.

With that being said, there is something to be said about spiritual depth. I agree some experience or realization is needed, but it seems depth comes more from our relationship to who we are and what we know. You will find this is much less common than the those who have had their share of firework experiences.

William Wildblood said...

Sufism distinguishes between states and stations with the former being akin to experiences while the latter is an established point of spiritual understanding that reflects the innate quality of the person rather than being, like an experience, something to which one is largely passive.

Bruce Charlton said...

@ted - Something of that kind must be the case, in order to account for the diversity, mundanity and triviality of so many reported spiritual experiences; and something similar for the people who report them.

Either that or we would need to decide, as a prior assumption, that *all* such reports *must be* untrue - mistaken or fraudulent.

But that would mean ignoring credible eye witness acounts, that in other circumstances, would be regarded as sufficient to convict a murderer and execute him.

Nathaniel said...

Reading about Eastern Orthodox spiritual experience among the monastics - it seems they are very wary of being deceived (by self, by demons) and they don't really talk about it.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Nathaniel - I have quite a few books of Orthodox mysticism, especially Russian; so I think they do talk about it!

They certainly are cautious - my understanding is that they are trained-in and practice a 'technique' of meditation (the Hesychast tradition), including extreme ascetic practices such as fasing and vigils (staying awake for long periods, praying) that actively seek spiritual experiences - therefore they are especially prone to the down-side.

There are demonic attacks - temptations by visions etc.; but the worst problem is, apparently, self-deceiving spiritual pride ('Prelest' in Russian).

The main counter-measure is accepting guidance, supervision and training by an acknowledged Spiritual Father; usually within a monastery. Traditionally, monks had to prove themselves in this regime for more than a decade before being allowed to become a solitary hermit.

Wm Jas Tychonievich said...

I'm reminded of Paul's statement that "speaking in tongues" is of value only if there is *someone else* who can interpret what is said -- implying that those with an aptitude for spiritual experiences and those with the wisdom to really *understand* such things are largely disjoint sets.

Dexter said...

@Nathaniel, I know someone who, in a spiritual experience, was (in my view) deceived by a demon as well as her own pride and lust. I have not said this to her, because she would very likely reject it with extreme indignation. Sadly, I do not think she has the wisdom or humility needed to seek out proper guidance, supervision and training by an acknowledged Spiritual Father, and thus her spiritual journey is destined to go further and further astray.