Spiritual and religious experiences can vary, as William James described more than a century ago. He described how different types of people get spiritual nourishment from different styles of religious practice, and in the process probably contributed to an increase in tolerance of religious diversity.
When examining our own spiritual experiences, or seeking out spiritual experiences, I find it helpful to identify experiences that are nourishing in the long-term, rather than just providing a temporary high.
I liken it to the difference between regular nourishing food that keeps you on an even steady energy level (low glycaemic index) and the sort of food that gives you a sugar rush or energy spike (high glycaemic index) which then results in an energy trough the next day.
Spiritual experiences are similar. They can be like a huge sugar rush, or they can be more nourishing over a longer term. Porridge is better than high-sugar breakfast cereal.
I’m not advising you to avoid intense experiences, but I would advise you not to actively seek them out. Let them happen when they happen, and always remember to ground yourself after ritual. In my experience, it is best to create a safe space where you can have these experiences and be looked after. For example, in a properly-run sweat lodge, the person who is leading the ceremony maintains an awareness of the state of mind of all the participants, and if there is anyone who shows signs of distress, it is the leader’s job to assist them, usually by suggesting that they take a break outside. In Wicca, it is the job of the coven leaders to make sure that everyone in the circle feels safe and protected. That’s why we cast circles and call quarters. We sometimes do have intense spiritual experiences in a Wiccan circle, but they happen in a safe space created by the circle, the quarters, and being with people you trust (that’s the ideal, anyway). These types of experiences are part of an ongoing sense of connection with the divine, the universe, and Nature, rather than isolated outliers.
The thing about seeking out high-intensity spiritual experiences (rather than being open to grace or serendipity) is that they become addictive, and people often look for ever more intense highs. That’s not balanced or sustainable. High-intensity spiritual experiences become a kind of drug.
Some spiritual experiences provide a temporary high, followed by a feeling of burn-out or lowness the next day, as ordinary reality comes crashing back in. These experiences are not helpful, in my opinion.
Many people have experienced a sudden moment of connection to all that is, which often involves a sense that everything is illuminated from within. There’s an excellent description of one of these moments in Oliver Postgate‘s autobiography, Seeing Things. I have had this experience myself, whilst walking on the Pennine Way in 2007. The thing is that while these moments are beautiful and illuminating and full of grace, they are not an everyday state of consciousness, and one might have difficulty functioning normally if one was in such an illuminated state all the time. I once forgot to ground myself after a ritual, and parked my car in a stupid place, where it got broken into; it is difficult to live on these rarefied heights all the time.
That is why religion provides a context, a sense of belonging, and a set of routine spiritual practices, to provide adherents with regular nourishment, rather than intense “sugar rush” experiences. The word religion is derived from Latin religio, meaning ‘to reconnect’, which implies to me a regular and nourishing practice of re-connecting with Nature, the community, the Divine.
Thanks to Bob for telling me about how sweat-lodges work.
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