Spontaneous Spiritual Experiences by Steve Taylor
Temporary spiritual experiences are very common, but only very few people go on to a permanent and stable state of awakening.
In this excerpt from his new book Waking From Sleep, Steve Taylor examines and explains the temporary spiritual experiences (or awakening experiences, as he calls them) —which give us a glimpse of a permanently awakened state.
Steve focuses on what he calls ‘spontaneous spiritual experiences’ which occur in nature, while playing sports, dancing or listening to music, on the point of waking up in the morning, or during sex. Hopefully through understanding awakening experiences, a permanently awakened state will become more accessible. Enjoy the article! – M.King
In 1961 the English author Marghanita Laski made a survey of the ‘triggers’ of spiritual experiences for the book Ecstasy and found that nature was the most common one. Over 20% of the spiritual experiences she examined were in some way related to natural surroundings.
For me personally, nature has always had a powerful awakening effect. If I go walking in the countryside on my own (it doesn’t happen so often with other people) there usually comes a point when a feeling of well-being begins to well up inside me, and when the trees and the fields and the sky around me seem to be more alive and beautiful, and to be shining with a new radiance. The clouds above me seem to be moving with a dramatic beauty and a strange sentience, and the spaces of sky seem to be tinged with the presence of spirit-force. (In fact, I’ve had a series of these experiences shortly before writing this, while on holiday in Anglesey, Wales.)
It doesn’t have to be the countryside though. I have spent most of my life in cities, and had most of my spiritual experiences there. They usually occur if there’s a small space of nature – such as a field surrounded by trees or a park – where there is a large expanse of sky. When I walk through the field I usually find myself staring at the sky, captivated by the beauty of the clouds and/or the sunlight, and quickly begin to have ‘spiritual’ feelings and perceptions. Here, for example, is an experience I had 12 years ago, which I described in my ‘spiritual experience journal.’
For some reason I felt a bit exhilarated and decided to go for a walk around the big field behind the sports center. It was a beautiful evening – clear blue sky beginning to get dark, orange where the sun was going down, a few stars beginning to shine through. I walked around the field several times, looking at the sky, amazed at how beautiful it was. I wasn’t thinking – my mind was quiet and I felt full of vitality…I felt as though I was being engulfed in the sky, and my normal sense of space was changing. The sky didn’t seem ‘up there’, it seem to be around me, a part of me…
I felt that the universe was alive – that the blue-black space around me was alive. It almost seemed to have a personality. The whole universe was living and breathing. Every time I stared at it and kept my mind quiet the feeling grew stronger. It only stopped when my mind started thinking again.
Of course, countless poets have written of the states of awe and ecstasy they’ve experienced whilst alone with nature too. This is what Wordsworth‘s poetry is most famous for – his sense that nature is pervaded with a benign unifying presence and the joy and serenity he describes while contemplating it.
His near contemporary Percy Bysche Shelley was also a ‘nature mystic’ who saw a ‘Spirit of Beauty’ pervading the whole of nature, and an ‘awful shadow of some unseen power/[which] Floats though unseen among us.’ (3) Similarly, the 19th century English poet and priest Gerald Manley Hopkins described how ‘the whole world is charged with the grandeur of God…like shining from shook foil.’ (4) Other poets like Walt Whitman, D.H. Lawrence, Emerson, William Blake and W.B. Yeats have also left us many descriptions of the sense of meaning and harmony and inner joy they experienced while contemplating natural scenes.
It’s perhaps tempting to believe that these experiences are directly caused by nature, as if it has some special spiritual power which man-made environments don’t have. This is what some Romantic poets believed. Shelley, for example, saw the ‘unseen power’ he perceived as a kind of spirit which came and went of its own volition. This may be true to a degree. Brahman (or Spirit-force) does seem to be easier to perceive in nature, perhaps because it manifests itself more purely there. Of course, the whole world is pervaded with spirit-force; even a city street in which there’s nothing except concrete, metal, glass and plastic is full of Brahman. But it’s possible that when natural forms like stone and sand are manipulated by human beings and turned into buildings – or when we create synthetic materials like plastic – spirit-force may somehow get diluted, and become less apparent. As Eckhart Tolle puts it, in contrast to man made objects, natural forms like stones and crystals have an ‘ethereal nature’ which means that their ‘form obscures the indwelling spirit to a lesser degree.’ (5)
But the main root of all the above experiences is, I believe, that contemplating nature can intensify, still and purify our life-energy (at the same as emptying our being). The natural world has powerful qualities – stillness, open space, beauty and majesty – which can readily induce a spontaneous meditative state, and a spiritual experience.
On the Point of Waking Up
In his autobiography In My Own Way the author and spiritual teacher Alan Watts described how he always experienced an awakened state at the moment of – appropriately enough – waking up in the morning. As he wrote:
Every morning, when I first awaken, I have a feeling of total clarity as to the sense of life, a feeling of myself and the universe as a matter of the utmost simplicity. ‘I’ and ‘That which is’ are the same. Always have been and always will be. (6)
Another famous spiritual teacher, Jiddu Krishnamurti, described a similar experience. As a young man in India, he woke up in the middle of the night and felt that he was one with a source of pure energy. As he described it in one of his dialogues with the physicist David Bohm:
I hesitate to say this because it sounds extravagant [but] the source of all energy had been reached. And that had an extraordinary effect on [my] brain. And also physically. I’m sorry to talk about myself but, you understand, literally, there was no division at all; no sense of the world, of `me’. You follow? Only this sense of a tremendous source of energy. (7)
My wife sometimes has a similar (though perhaps not as intense) experience. Occasionally she wakes up in the morning with a feeling of what she describes as ‘pure happiness’ inside her, a sense of harmony and peace, a feeling that ‘everything is well’ and that there are no problems. The feeling usually only lasts for a second or two, until – in her words – ‘I remember the day ahead of me and the day before, and memories and thoughts start running through my mind.’ In other words, the feeling lasts until her ego starts chattering away. It’s as if for a moment her ego is caught off guard, is a little slow off the mark and doesn’t wake up with the rest of her mind, so that she has a brief taste of pure egoless consciousness.
You may remember that the second experience I described in the introduction – the most powerful spiritual experience I’ve ever had – happened when I woke up in the middle of the night. In some respects, this experience was similar to Krishnamurti’s: I also felt as if I had become part of a tremendously powerful energy source, one which was the essential reality of the universe. And in fact I often experience a kind of heightened awareness when I wake up in the middle of the night (for me this never happens in the morning after a whole night’s sleep for some reason). The experience is almost always the same: I’m lying in bed, or sitting on the toilet – my weak bladder is usually the reason I wake up – and I have a strong sense of a power or presence that seems to fill the sky, although I don’t have to be looking at it. It seems to somehow press down from the sky, and I can sense that it’s limitless. I sense that what we think of as ‘the sky’ doesn’t really exist, since there’s only space that fills the earth’s atmosphere and stretches through the solar system and onwards towards infinity. And the whole of this space is full of this powerful force.
Sleep is a state of withdrawal from the world. We’re inactive, our minds are largely empty, processing very little information, and our life-energy is regenerating itself. Our minds are active when we dream, of course, but it’s likely that these experiences occur during deep sleep, when we don’t dream and the mind is empty. As a result, there is a state of energy concentration and stillness which is equivalent to a state of spiritual. It’s significant that one of the beliefs of Indian philosophy – as the great mystic Ramana Maharashi often remarked, for instance – is that we’re always in a state of samadhi during deep sleep, only we aren’t aware of it because we’re unconscious. But sometimes, it seems, when we wake up samadhi can linger for a short while.
Quietness and Stillness
This can also sometimes occur just when we’re relaxing and resting in quiet and still surroundings. When we rest we purposely reduce the normal ‘outflow’ of our life-energy – we stop being active, remove ourselves from external stimuli and allow our chattering minds to slow down. This is what resting is: closing down the channels through which our energy leaks away so that we can ‘recharge our batteries.’ Our life-energy regenerates, becomes more concentrated again, and as a result – at the same time as feeling healthy and energetic again – we might experience an awakened state.
This might happen just when you’re sitting in darkness in your room or going for a walk at night in quiet and empty streets. Here, for example, a friend of mine describes how he sometimes used to experience a low intensity spiritual experience when he stayed up late at night on his own:
I used to love staying up until two or three o’clock in the morning because everything was so peaceful. I used to love sitting by my window and looking out on to the streets. The trees seemed alive. I could sense a kind of atmosphere in the air, like a vibration, a kind of peacefulness. Not something that was just the absence of noise though – a kind of peaceful force. It’s always there, I think, but we’re usually too busy to pay attention to it.
It’s significant that Richard M. Bucke says that his experience of ‘cosmic consciousness’ – happened when he was in a deeply relaxed state. He writes that his mind was ‘calm and peaceful’ and that he was in a state of ‘quiet, almost passive enjoyment, not actually thinking, but letting ideas, images, and emotions flow of themselves, as it were, through my mind.’ (8)
However, it’s quite rare for relaxation to be the sole cause of spiritual experiences; usually it’s a powerful contributory factor. Our minds may quieten down and empty to a degree when we relax, but for them to quieten down enough for spiritual to take place, there also has to be an activity or object which focuses the attention. Often relaxation works together with these focusing ‘objects’, like nature or music. For example, in her book, The Experience of No-Self, the modern mystic Bernadette Roberts describes an experience of oneness which was probably the combined effect of nature and relaxation. During a retreat at a monk’s hermitage in Big Sur, California, she went for a walk along a hill overlooking the ocean:
A seagull came into view, gliding. Dipping, playing with the wind. I watched it as I’d never watched anything before in my life. I almost seemed mesmerized; it was as if I was watching myself flying, for there was no the usual division between us. Yet, something more was there than just a lack of separateness, ‘something’ truly beautiful and unknowable. Finally I turned my eyes to the pine-covered hills behind the monastery and still, there was no division, only something there that was flowing through very vista and particular object of vision. To see the Oneness of everything is like having special 3-D glasses put before your eyes…(9)
This is the whole purpose of retreats, of course – to go into a quiet, stress-free environment in which we can rest and recharge our life-energy, away from the barrage of information and the endless busy-ness which normally fill our lives and drain our energy away. Most spiritual retreats involve practicing some form of mind-quietening techniques as well, usually meditation. It’s possible that on a retreat a kind of spiritual ‘atmosphere’ will build up too, emanating from the group as a whole, which will also affect us. The end effect will – hopefully – be an intensification and stilling of our life-energy which brings a heightened awareness of our surroundings and/or an inner feeling of well-being, love or joy. Here, for example, the author Elizabeth Debold describes a high level spiritual experience she had at the end of a week long silent retreat with the American spiritual teacher Andrew Cohen:
My perception is heightened – colors vibrate, the rushing river voices a soundless roar, and this extraordinary light suffuses everything. It’s alive, I realize: the light is alive. Everything around me, the entire world, is transparent, lit from within. I have the sense that I could simply reach out and tear the surface of reality to reveal this underlying blaze. But the ordinary sense of I-am-here-and-the-world-is-out-there is gone. All of the space between is filled – it’s all One – and I am not separate from that, I am completely empty and this fullness is everywhere. (10)
This is part of the purpose of the monastic way of life too. Monks live in a quiet and still environment, have designated periods of silence and solitude, as well as periods of prayer and meditation. In 2005, the BBC broadcast a TV series called The Monastery, which documented the experiences of a group of five men who lived as Benedictine monks for several weeks. Most of the men were powerfully affected by the silence, stillness, prayer and meditation, and experienced strong ‘spiritual’ feelings. In other words, the monastic life had the effect of intensifying and stilling their life-energy. As one of them, Tony, described it, ‘I was put in touch with a spirituality deep inside me which has given me the energy and inclination to strive for so much more in my life and appreciate what’s important and be a better person and lead a better life.’ (11)
In a similar way and around the same time, the German filmmaker Philip Groening spent six months living in a Carthusian monastery in the French Alps, spending most of his days in silence and solitude like the monks. After a few weeks he realized that he was changing inside, and starting to see his surroundings differently. He began to feel an altered sense of time, a sense of presentness and alertness, and seemingly mundane objects became intensely real and beautiful to him. ‘There was a change as my perception of the present moment helped me to see more,’ he says. ‘My level of awareness became different.’ (12) As a result, his film of the time he spent in the monastery, Into Great Silence, is full of strikingly beautiful images. Again, the quietness and inactivity of the monastic way of life had a spiritual effect on him.
In other words, rest, relaxation, stillness and quietness make spiritual experiences much more likely to occur. They stop us using up our life-energy in activity and perceiving and processing information, and lead to a quietening of our minds. Philip Groening started to see his surroundings in a different way because the higher level of life-energy – generated by the silence and stillness of the monastery – meant that his ‘de-sensitizing mechanism’ no longer needed to function, and no longer edited out the is-ness of reality.
This is probably why some of my own most powerful spiritual experiences have happened on holiday, at times when I was very relaxed and rested.
Music and Other Art Forms
A friend of mine had a powerful spiritual experience while listening to a concert performance of Brahms’ 4th symphony:
The first movement just seemed to warm me up in some way. I was listening more keenly, going with the flow of the music. I seemed to be able to shut out any distracting thoughts. The slow movement began and I recognized it as a particularly beautiful one. The magical moment came and suddenly it was like glittering petals of sounds exploded. It was as though the orchestra, the composer, and my spirit, our spirit – the audience’s – were just opening there and then. We were just opening to generous sunshine. It felt as though some flower inside me had been tight shut, was suddenly just able to open wide.
I could immediately feel the stream of life flowing around me. It was a movement of feeling as though I was experiencing heaven on earth. I felt as though I was a reed in a stream, bending to the rhythm of a stream…[I felt] a huge sense of euphoria, an intense sense of well-being. Life became idyllic, and it carried on for days. For five days I felt completely energized.
Music is a powerful trigger of spiritual experiences partly because it puts us into a relaxed state, so that our life-energy recharges and becomes more concentrated. Perhaps more significantly though, music can be a powerful focus for our attention. Some pieces of music – depending on our personal preference – are so powerful and beautiful that we become completely immersed in them. All our normal thought-chatter fades away, as our minds become quiet and still. My friend, for example, wrote that he ‘seemed to be able to shut out any distracting thoughts.’
But in addition to the relaxing and mind-quietening effect of music, it’s also important that pieces of music are often inspired by – and created in – higher states of consciousness. The composer (or songwriter) may feel a sense of exaltation or a vision of beauty and isness which he tries to express through his music, and which comes through to the listener (as long as he or she is in a receptive state). Music can be a transmitter of spiritual feelings. This is certainly true of composers like Mahler and Beethoven, and of more modern composers like Henryk Gorecki (my own personal favorite) and John Tavener. It’s certainly true of Indian music too, which has a very close relationship to spirituality. With its repetitious, circular, modal nature, it seems almost designed to induce a state of intense absorption in the listener (and in the musicians).
A few years ago I went to a performance of Mahler’s 8th symphony, the so-called Symphony of a Thousand. In the last movement, Mahler sets the closing scene of Goethe’s play Faust to music. The closing lines – describing how Faust’s soul ascends to the highest spheres of heaven – seem to describe a mystical state of being in which ‘The unattainable is here attained/ The indescribable is here accomplished.’ I was reading these lines from the programme as the choir was singing them, listening to Mahler’s hauntingly ethereal and otherworldly music. I felt that the music was a perfect expression of the serenity and exaltation of mystical experiences, and a rush of euphoria built up inside me. My inner being seemed to be glowing and pulsating, as if a higher state of consciousness was being transmitted to me through the music.
Higher states of consciousness induced by music are always in going. They usually occur when the listener’s eyes are closed, when she has withdrawn from external stimuli (apart from the music itself) and her attention is resting within her own being. And although the music experiences we’ve looked at are lower intensity ones, occasionally music can induce in going experiences of the highest intensity too, when we become one with the formless ‘ground’ of all reality.
One evening the author Warner Allen was listening to a performance of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony and became enraptured by the music. He closed his eyes and had an intense experience of ‘illumination’:
A silver glow …shaped itself into a circle with a central focus brighter than the rest. The circle became a tunnel of light proceeding from some distant sun in the heart of the Self. Swiftly and smoothly I was born through the tunnel and as I went the light turned from silver to gold, There was an impression of drawing strength from a limitless sea of power and a sense of deepened peace…
I am absorbed in the Light of the Universe, in Reality glowing like fire with the knowledge of itself, without ceasing to be one and myself, merged like a drop of quicksilver in the Whole…(13)
Other art forms can trigger spiritual experiences too. Although music is an especially powerful trigger because of the ‘transmitting’ effect I’ve mentioned, in theory any kind of performance which intensely focuses the attention for a long period can induce spiritual experiences. For example, here are two examples of spiritual experiences from my students, which occurred during dance performances:
- 20 years ago at the Alhambra Theatre in Bradford, the first time the Alvin Ailey dance group had ever visited the UK. They danced a piece called Revelations – based on gospel stories, using gospel music. I became totally immersed in the performance. I felt in awe of these beautiful bodies – moving in such expressively beautiful ways. I almost felt I was up there with them. I was on a real ‘high’ – and remember a feeling of such happiness, serenity and an appreciation of the human body and the wonderful way it can move.
- Attending the swirling Turkish Dervishes performance at the Royal Northern College of Music. It was a very spiritual experience. Room fell silent, no babies crying, no movement sounds from the audience, only the gentle swishing sounds of white skirts twirling and the soft sounds of felt gliding on the stage. A feeling of intense peace and calm, happiness and tranquility. Nothing else mattered in the world and outside the room. We all felt as one – it was a mesmerizing experience and unforgettable.
This is true of literature and art too. Reading poetry – and in some cases even novels too – and contemplating paintings can also sometimes have a spiritual effect, when we’re so struck by their beauty that our minds become quiet and still. In their case, the ‘transmission’ effect is very important. Poets like Wordsworth and D.H. Lawrence (who wrote over 1000 poems as well as his famous novels) transmit their spiritual vision to us through their poetry. And the same is true of artists like Turner, Monet or van Gogh. We only need to look at their paintings to recognize that they were intensely ‘awake’ to the is-ness of their surroundings and had a sense of the underlying radiance and harmony of the world. And when we look at their paintings, something of their fresh and intense vision is transmitted to us.
And of course, we shouldn’t forget that performers and artists – especially of music and dance – can have powerful spiritual experiences too: in Chapter 1, we looked at the experiences of a Morris Dancer and a folk musician.
Sports can give rise to spiritual experiences too, especially solitary sports which involve long periods of monotonous rhythmic activity, such as long distance running or swimming.
When the psychiatrist Thaddeus Kostrulaba took up jogging he was surprised by how energetic and cheerful he felt after every run. He wrote that he felt ‘an odd shift in feeling…a sense of well-being, a sense of energy.’ (15) He realized that the jogging was functioning as a kind of meditation, and that the repetitive rhythm of running was serving the same function as a mantra, quietening his mind. As he wrote, ‘Eventually, at somewhere between 30 and 40 minutes, the conscious mind gets exhausted and other areas of consciousness are activated.’ (14).
This is an example of the paradox we looked at in the last chapter: that you can feel more alive and energetic after expending a lot of muscular energy. You can conserve and regenerate life energy at the same time as expending muscular energy – particularly when your mind becomes focused and your normal thought-chatter fades away. This was probably the main source of the well-being which Kostrulaba felt inside him: a higher concentration (and a greater stillness) of his life-energy.
And this is probably a major reason why running and jogging – and perhaps swimming too – are such popular sports. As well as keeping us fit physically, they give us a sense of mental aliveness and well-being. One acquaintance told me that he loves running because ‘it’s the only situation in my life where my mind quietens down, when I’m free of worries and thoughts buzzing round in my head. At the end of a run I feel refreshed, all clean and alert inside.’ Similarly, the American marathon runner Kathy Switzer, described how she became much more ‘awake’ when she’s in training: ‘I’m more physically sensitive to food, to weather, to touch…I also become more mentally sensitive to social problems, the ills of the world and so on…Everything I see and feel is more extreme.’ (15) This is what inevitably happens when the ego-mind quietens down and fades away. The psychic energy which is usually monopolized by the ego is ‘freed up’ and is transferred to perception, so that we become more alert and awake to our surroundings and experience.
And here is an example of the spiritual effect of running from one of the most famous runners of all the time, Roger Bannister – the first person ever to run a four-minute mile. Here he describes an ecstatic experience which made him first aware of the joy of running. As a child, he was running along a beach and stopped for a moment, gazing at the sea:
The air had a special quality to it, as if it had a life of its own…I looked down at the regular ripples on the sand, and could not absorb so much beauty. I was taken back – each of the myriad particles of sand was perfect in its way…
In this supreme moment I leapt in sheer joy. I was startled, and frightened by the joy that so few steps could create…I was running now, and a fresh rhythm entered my body. No longer conscious of my movement I discovered a new unity with nature. I had found a new source of power and beauty, a source I never dreamt existed. (16)
I’ve recently taken up running myself, and had similar experiences. I usually run for 20-25 minutes, around the fields close to my home. I’m not particularly fit or athletic (at least not at the moment) so I find it a little awkward to begin with, and feel that I’m not going to be able to run for very long. But after a few minutes I fall into a rhythm. The running becomes more effortless and my state of mind begins to change. If mind is busy with chattering thoughts, I begin to ‘dis-identify’ with them, to detach myself from them and allow them to fade away. After 15 minutes or so I stop – partly for a short rest but mainly so that I can look at my surroundings. Everything around me looks more beautiful and striking – the trees seem more real and distinct, and the dark of the sky seems rich and powerful. When I look at the sky I sometimes have a sense that I’m really here, on the surface of this planet, with the universe stretching everywhere around me. It feels amazing to be alive in the midst of it all, and sometimes my individuality seems to fade away and I become aware of myself as a part of the whole universe. The whole universe is alive and that alive-ness flows through me and is a part of me.
“Running has become a form of spiritual practice for me.” – Steve Taylor
I run for another 5 or 10 minutes after my break, and by the time I get home I’m filled with a glow of well-being which lasts for the rest of the evening. I feel content and complete, and my mind seems impervious to worries, resentments or aversions. As a result, running has become a form of spiritual practice for me.
Admittedly, it’s difficult to separate the meditative effect of running from other factors. For me personally, I’m sure that the contact with nature I have when I run contributes to spiritual. It’s also likely that part of the spiritual effect of any physical exercise comes from disrupting homeostasis. After all, strenuous exercise certainly produces major physiological changes, such as increased oxygen intake, increased heart rate and a higher body temperature. Another possibility is that the feeling of well-being is partly caused by the endorphins which our bodies produce when we exercise. But in my view the meditative effect is probably most important, since the type of spiritual I have after running is more similar to an ‘ISLE’ than a HD state. It’s a calm and serene state which lasts for a few hours, similar to a meditation experience, rather than the wild, ecstatic and unstable (and unusually quite temporary) states induced by sleep deprivation, fasting or drugs.
Other, more sedate sports can give rise to spiritual experiences too. The English poet Ted Hughes often experienced a meditative state while fishing. In an essay on writing poetry, Hughes notes that in order to write poetry you have to have the ability to intensely focus your mind, and believes that he acquired this ability through fishing. He describes the effect of staring at a float for long periods: ‘All the nagging impulses that are normally distracting your mind dissolve…once they have dissolved, you enter one of the orders of bliss. Your whole being rests lightly on your float, but not drowsily, very alert.’ (17) This could easily be a description of a meditation experience – and in fact, it is a meditation experience in all but name, with the float serving as an object of concentration.
There are other aspects of sports – besides this the rhythmic or mantra-like effect – which can help give rise to spiritual experiences. In some sports, such as fell-running or climbing, solitude and nature may act as triggers too. Here, for example, the climber Richard Byrd describes a mystical experience he had while exploring the Arctic Circle:
The day was dying, the night being born – but with great peace. Here were the imponderable processes and forces of the cosmos, harmonious and soundless. Harmony, that was it! That was what came out of the silence; the strain of a perfect chord, the music of the spheres, perhaps. It was enough to catch that rhythm, momentarily be a part of it.
In that instant I could feel no doubt of man’s oneness with the universe.(19)
The physical movement of sport may be another factor too. As Kostrulaba found, physical exercise can affect the flow of energy in our bodies. Sometimes when we’ve been sitting down for too long, our energies feel stagnant, as if they aren’t flowing to all parts of the body. But when we exercise, blockages seem to be removed and the flow seems to intensify again, making us feel alive and energetic – and possibly contributing to a state of spiritual.
And this, of course, leads us on to Eastern forms of exercise such as Hatha Yoga, Chi Kung, T’ai Chi, Judo and Karate. These practices combine the usual breath-control and attention-focusing of meditation with physical exercises designed to generate or awaken new energy inside us (from the energy points – or chakras or meridians – inside us) and remove blockages which may be preventing energy flowing through to certain parts of our beings, and causing illness. And anyone who has seriously practiced any form of yoga or Chi Kong will certainly have noticed this vitalizing effect.
It’s always been accepted that these exercises have a spiritual dimension to them – and we should recognize that sports like swimming and running have this aspect too. We should really see them as western forms of yoga. One of the reasons why we play sports and do athletic activities is because of their spiritual effect. And as I mentioned at the beginning of Chapter 2, it’s significant that when sportspeople have these spiritual experiences, their performances improve: everything they do seems spontaneously perfect, and time seems to slow down.
Another physical activity which can give rise to higher states of consciousness – and for very similar reasons – is sex.
The liberating power of sex was one of the major themes of D.H. Lawrence’s novels, and the main reason his novels often fell foul of the censors. (His last novel, Lady Chatterley’s Lover, was not published until more than 30 years after his death.) For Lawrence, sex was a consciousness-changing practice, which has the power to free us from our usual sense of ego-isolation and put us in touch with what he called the ‘marvelous rich world of contact and sheer fluid beauty.’ (19) He talks of ‘the strange, soothing flood of peace, the sense that all is well, which goes with true sex.’ (20) And here he describes how Lady Chatterley‘s vision of the world is completely transformed when she’s walking home after making love to her gamekeeper:
The trees seemed to be bulging and surging, at anchor on a tide, and the heave of the slope of the park was alive…The universe ceased to be the vast clock-work of circling planets and pivotal suns which she had known. The stars opened like eyes, with a consciousness in them, and the sky was filled with a soft, yearning stress of consolation. It was not mere atmosphere. It had its own feeling, its own anima. Everything had its own anima. (21)
This is a beautiful description of a lower intensity spiritual experience, in which we become aware that the so-called ‘inanimate’ objects around us are alive and have their own inner being. There is also a hint of Spirit-force pervading the sky, creating that ‘soft, yearning stress of consolation.’ And probably most of you have experienced something like this during or after sex: a feeling of well-being which goes beyond sensual pleasure, and is caused by a change of consciousness. Perhaps earlier you felt stressed and worried, as if your life was full of problems – but often after sex everything seems miraculously different. Your problems seem to have disappeared (proving that to a large extent we create our own problems by worrying), and you seem to be glowing inwardly, as if a kind of dynamo has been switched on inside you, filling you with a feeling of completeness and serenity. As with long-distance running, you might feel tired physically, in terms of muscular energy, but in terms of life-energy you feel fantastically alive. And if you look outside you may sense the harmony and animacy which Lady Chatterley saw. Here, for example, an acquaintance of mine describes how she feels after she has orgasms:
I feel as if I haven’t got any weight. There’s a warm feeling running all through my body…Nothing else seems to matter, problems cease to exist, as if the feeling takes you over so much that there’s no room for anything else. I feel capable of doing anything…
I also look at things more clearly, look beyond what I usually look at. The colors seem more distinct; if you look at, say, a tree, you see it for what it really is, not just as a tree. You see it as nature, not just as an object.
The transpersonal psychologist Jennifer Wade spent several years collecting examples of altered and higher states of consciousness occurring during sex. Wade found that many people talked about ‘seeing’ a blindingly brilliant light, having feelings of intense well-being and euphoria, of expanding and becoming one with the universe, or feeling the presence of the divine. One person told her that when she has sex with her lover she always feels ‘a sense of great peace…like it’s the Universe’s way of reassuring me that everything is right, as if I were a dog in front of a fireplace, and this giant, gentle hand is patting me, it just feels so good and comfortable.’ (22) While another person told her that: ‘It was more like we were just steeped in Divinity, and it was all One. And the feeling of love was just tremendous…just being imbued with something Other, something Divine.’ (23) And here Wade describes a high intensity spiritual experience that she personally had during sex, when she transcended the world of form and became one with the Ground of reality. This experience is very similar to the experience of Ramakrishna which I quoted in Chapter 1:
I had a [transcendent] episode that was too big to contain. The whole world disappeared in a wash of white light that became clear, and then nothingness, non-duality, the Void…When I came back to normal consciousness, I was awestruck, jubilant. Suddenly I got it – this is what the saints and sages were talking about, this is what is true. (24)
Perhaps disrupting homeostasis is a factor here, and there’s no doubt that the ecstatic feelings that sex can induce are partly connected to chemical changes, such as the release of endorphins. But I believe these spiritual effects are partly due to the fact that sex can intensify and still our life-energy, in a similar – but often stronger – way to contemplating nature or listening to music. The sheer pleasure of sex creates a state of intense absorption. Our attention is taken away from the chattering of our minds, which quickly begins to subside. This is why we may feel that we don’t have any problems – because the worrying thoughts which created the ‘problems’ are no longer there. When we have sex there’s usually silence, stillness and darkness around us as well, so that our energies are no longer leaking away through absorbing stimuli. And sex overwhelms us to such an extent that our attention is effectively closed to everything beyond the desire and pleasure we feel.
Like physical exercise and yoga – although again in a more powerful way – sex also appears to generate new energy inside our bodies, or at least of unblock and ease the flow of energy. People who have transcendent sexual experiences often report feeling that they have awakened new energies inside them. As Wade describes it, ‘Some people report strange energies coursing through the body. Sometimes it starts with a sense that the sexual charge normally rooted in the genitals is spreading throughout the entire body, lighting it up with crackling power and fireworks.’ (25) One person told her that ‘The movement of energy was very clear, spreading through the body, through the arms and legs, reaching the areas of the hand and mouth that were extremely charged.’ (26)
It’s because this release of new energy is often so strong during sex that – combining with the energy-conserving effect of focusing attention – that sexual spiritual experiences can be so powerful.
Religions tend to see sex as something to be slightly ashamed of, a ‘weakness of the flesh’, a part of the lower, instinctive being which we shouldn’t pay much attention to, or should even try to overcome. But perhaps not surprisingly, some esoteric religious groups had a more spiritual view of sex. The Tantric sects of Hinduism and Buddhism (which developed in India in the middle ages) see sex as a symbolic expression of the unity of the universe, and believe that sexual partners can directly experience the bliss which is the nature of the absolute reality of the universe. According to Tantra, the whole of the body is filled with divine energy which becomes aroused during sex, and which we can learn to control – and on the basis of the experiences we’ve looked at, this does seem to be the case. And even within Christianity, the heretical medieval sect, the Brethern of the Free Spirit, had a similar attitude: to them a controlled form of sex was as acceptable as a spiritual practice as prayer or meditation.
Steve Taylor is the author of Waking from Sleep: Why Awakening Experiences Occur and How to Make them Permanent (Hay House).
The book has been described as ‘One of the best books on spiritual awakening I have come across. An important contribution to the global shift in consciousness’ by Eckhart Tolle and ‘The most enlightening book about enlightenment I have ever read’ by Ervin Laszlo.
Steve is a lecturer in psychology at Leeds Metropolitan University and a researcher at Liverpool John Moores University. He has written articles for many magazines, newspapers and academic journals, including Psychologies, Kindred Spirit and The Journal of Transpersonal Psychology.
*Excerpt (from Chapter Six) reprinted in its entirety here by permission from the author.