Tuesday, 17 May 2016


In the absence of any reason for disbelieving, we should believe that the experiencer is telling the truth.”   -  Philosopher Charles Swinburne

This was the topic of the Philosophers’ CafĂ© in May.  I began the meeting by asking, “How many of you have had what you consider to be a spiritual experience?”  At least two thirds of the group, including myself, answered in the affirmative.  I was not surprised.  Spiritual experiences (SEs) are quite common, and there is a huge literature of stories about them dating back thousands of years.  I cited just one example - the famous account by Richard M. Bucke of his experience of “Cosmic Consciousness” in his book of the same title.  (http://sacred-texts.com/eso/cc/cc05.htm, pp. 9-11The story is too long to reproduce here, but if you take the time to read it, you will find that Bucke’s description of his extraordinary experience and his subsequent interpretation of it contain nearly all of the features common to SEs discussed in the literature and in this essay. 
Stories of SEs have been part of human experience since the earliest days of homo sapiens.  We have numerous records of shamanic spirit possessions, sacred visions and voices, ecstasies, mystical experiences, trances, psychic phenomena, altered states induced by drugs, music, poetry, and art - all have been thought of as spiritual by one person or another.  But what does that mean?  Obviously, these are not all the same. Are they all spiritual?  If so, what makes them spiritual?  This is one of the first questions we must ask in seeking a philosophical understanding of these extraordinary phenomena.

Our topic is:  Are spiritual experiences real or illusory?  Clearly we need some degree of agreement on what a spiritual experience is.  To arrive at that was my aim in the first hour of the meeting.  Then in the second hour we tackled the question of whether or not SEs are real.

What is a spiritual experience?
Rather than lead off with a formal talk, I asked the assembled philosophers to share with us their ideas about what a spiritual experience is.  What ensued was one of the best PC discussions in recent memory.  Several people shared their own SEs with the group.  The quality of the answers suggests that many people take spiritual experience seriously and know a lot about it.  Answers to the question included the following:

Spiritual experiences are:
· Universal:  all human experiences are spiritual; we are spiritual beings.
   · Extraordinary:  different from ordinary religious experiences - prayer, ritual participation, etc.
   · Transformative:  SEs often cause a radical change in a person’s life.
   · Physical:  SEs are just an unusual type of brain activity.
   · Profound:  they often reveal deeper connections between self and world.      
   · Culturally interpreted, usually in a religious, but sometimes secular, framework.

Except for the claim that SEs are nothing but brain events, all the ideas listed above seem right to me.  To that list I would add a few additional characteristics that would probably elicit general agreement:
Spiritual experiences are:
   · direct experiences, not the result of reasoning; hence non-rational;
   · brief in duration;
   · ineffable to some degree;
   · ecstatic:  SEs often induce states of extreme joyousness or bliss;
   · noetic:  the individual believes they have learned something significant about reality and self.

Specialists in the study of spirituality or mysticism find it useful to classify the different types of spiritual experience and to rank them according to some criterion.  For our purposes, it may be enough to distinguish two broad categories: dualistic and non-dualistic.  In the dualistic type, the individual has an extraordinary experience of being directly in contact with a divine being or a transcendent reality which is felt to be separate or distinct from oneself.  Supernatural visions of Jesus or Krishna or other holy person would be of this type.  Such experiences are emotionally powerful and even physically shocking, as in the case of St. Paul who, we are told, fell from his horse upon hearing the  voice of Jesus from the heavens.  A striking contemporary account was posted by ‘Steve’ on a spiritual website: 

I had an intense vision of a shining cross that felt almost physical..a feeling as if I had been struck.  l had been reading a book on Billy Graham as I was searching for a belief system at the time.this was 40 years ago, yet I am still searching. I have no doubt that God is everywhere,but I feel that I received a message...yet failed to respond..as I don't know why it happened.”
Nature mysticism might also fall into this category.  In an ecstatic experience while walking in a forest, for example, a person may experience herself as a small part of the vast Web of Life but intimately connected with all other natural beings.

Non-dual mysticism is an experience, spontaneous or induced, of the dissolution or transcendence of ego, in which the individual intuits himself as identical with the Ground of Being or the Supreme Identity.  Hindu ‘moksha’ and Zen ‘satori’ are enlightenment experiences of this type.

It is to these two broad types of SE that I will direct the question “Are spiritual experiences real or illusory?” in what follows.
Are spiritual experiences real?

Is any experience real?  This may seem a startling question, but serious doubts about this come from two quarters.  The first is from the wisdom traditions themselves which claim that our ordinary experience is unreal or illusory in the sense that it hides the Truth about our real nature from us.  The second is from the materialist camp of academic philosophers and scientists.  Enamored of high-tech neuroscience, they assert that conscious experience is not what most people think it is.  Consciousness, they argue, is nothing but the buzzing of brain waves in response to external stimuli.  Subjective experience, therefore, is an illusion that neuroscience will one day dispel completely.

Standing aloof from this controversy for the moment, I want to distinguish two meanings of the word ‘real.’  When we ask if a spiritual experience is real, we can mean “Did it actually occur?”  To doubt this is to believe the experiencer may be lying.  Assuming we are not in the grip of an extreme cynicism, we can take Swinburne’s maxim as a reliable guide in most situations, especially when so many people claim to have had similar spiritual experiences.

When asking whether SEs are real, philosophers usually have the second meaning of ’real’ in mind, namely interpretive validity.  For humans, interpreting our experiences is unavoidable.  We cannot help but try to give some cognitive meaning to them, especially extraordinary ones of the kind we are discussing.  For example, philosophers are right to be skeptical of what we might call deity mysticism: claims made by people about their visions, voices, and other alleged supernatural phenomena.  Someone may interpret a vision of a being of awesome power and radiant light as an encounter with Jesus Christ - not just an imaginary Jesus, but the real Jesus appearing in the person’s visual field like any other person.  The usual objective validity tests are appropriate here:  Did anyone else witness the event?  Can the experience be replicated?  Could it be accounted for by some unusual conditions in the environment or some abnormal physical state of the experiencer?  Cultural relativity is another problem.  How is it that Christians in western countries always see Jesus or the angel Gabriel or some Christian saint but never the Hindu god Krishna or the fearsome Kali with her garland of skulls and skirt of severed arms?

Supernatural interpretations of dualistic mysticism, whether Christian or Hindu or other, come from the individual’s religious culture, usually a mythic frame of reference.  As such they are non-rational and therefore provide no evidence for rational assent.  Pre-rational’ is a better characterization for reasons which we will see in a moment.

In a different category are the non-dual types of profound insight experience usually called ‘mystical.’  Mystics of this type do not describe their experiences in terms of visions, voices, or revelations from beyond.  They do not attribute their occurrence to any external source.  Many of them do not describe their experiences at all, reflecting the verse of the Tao Te Ching which cautions:  “Those who know do not speak.”  Deep mystical insight is a matter of absolute subjectivity, and those who do decide to describe their mystical experiences for teaching purposes always insist that their explanations are inadequate and paradoxical, beyond the reach of language and of reason itself.  They are properly termed trans-rational.  Study of texts and philosophy are useless.  Students are told that they must experience spiritual awakening directly for themselves by means of a deep interior investigation of their own minds.  Although enlightenment experiences can happen spontaneously, people usually need guidance by a master who will instruct them in specific spiritual practices and validate their experiences when they occur.

So what has philosophy to say about mystical experience?  Not much, because those who “know” are quite happy to admit that their interpretations are non-rational and therefore beyond the grasp of rational philosophies.  Buddhist masters, for example, willingly embrace the prevailing scientific theories about the cosmos, life, and the evolution of humans.  They are unfazed by the charge that their “philosophies” are replete with irresolvable paradoxes.  Zen masters challenge their students with ‘koans,’ paradoxical stories or sayings intended to defeat the rational mind.  Adepts and masters of all the traditions draw attention to the limitations of reason, its relativity and incompleteness, and its total inability to grasp the nature of Ultimate Reality.

As trans-rational direct apprehension of Original Mind, mystical insight transcends the domain of reason which is limited to the relatively superficial features of the sensory world and of rational thought.  Suddenly it’s not so clear who is the victim of illusion.

Direct experience is not accessible to the eye of reason.  The rational point of view is objective, the investigation of phenomena from the outside; whereas the vantage point of mystical insight is radical subjectivity, the view from within.  Meister Eckhart wrote, “The eye with which I see God is the same eye with which He sees me.”  There is no scientific procedure that will yield that kind of result.

When asked why anyone should believe such claims, the mystics say, “Do not believe them!  See for yourself.  Try these practices.  In time, with dedication and patience, you will realize Enlightenment.  You will see eye to eye with the Buddha, who is none other than your True Self.”

For the skeptic to set intellectual argument aside and actually walk the walk of spiritual practice herself is to practice what Ken Wilber calls ‘good science,’ in this case good spiritual science.  The approach, he says, is exactly analogous to the standard experimental method of physics, chemistry and the rest.  The seeker is offered a hypothesis:  If you want a glimpse of Ultimate Reality, you must take up this meditation practice.  Check it out for yourself; perform the experiment.  Then seek out confirmation of your experience with one or more members of the community of enlightened beings.

So, are spiritual experiences real or illusory?  As we have seen, countless people have told their stories of extraordinary experiences, and, for the most part, we have no reason to think they are lying.  Many of those accounts fail the validity tests available to science and philosophy and are therefore justly called illusions.  Others, however, those I have called mystical are beyond the reach of objective truth-tests.  To validate them requires direct experience of Ultimate Reality which, we are told, is available to anyone who has the courage and the dedication to undertake the recommended practices.  When confronted by such claims, mere philosophy must honestly admit, “I don’t get it.”
 * * * *

I concluded the meeting with the following remarks:
It is difficult to imagine the evolutionary history of human culture without spiritual experiences.  The founders of the great religious traditions were all inspired by profound experiences of the Sacred.  However, until recently such experiences were thought to be available only to special persons:  medicine men, saints, and mystic sages.  Everyone else was expected to be only religious, not spiritual.

Nowadays the situation is vastly different.  Because we have access to all the world’s spiritual traditions as well as the great contributions of western psychology and philosophy, we know that SEs are part of the birthright of all human beings.  We also know that while a spiritual experience is only a brief opening to Spirit, techniques such as meditation and yoga, are widely available to help us transform our entire lives in the direction of ever-increasing truth, freedom, beauty, and goodness.

Mystical experiences in particular and the spiritual philosophies that flow from them reveal the higher potentials of human existence.  At the very highest level, mystical experiences awaken us to the constricting smallness of our ordinary selves with their egocentric desires and habits.  They point us toward what the sages have always told us is what we really desire - union with the Infinite.

This ennobling yet mysterious ideal is captured nicely in a poem by the 20th century Tibetan lama and Buddhist master, Kalu Rinpoche:

You live in illusions
                     and the appearance of things.
                    There is a Reality;
                    you are that Reality.
                    When you recognize this,
                    you will realize that you are no thing
                    and being no thing, you are Everything.