Why Is It So Hard to Repeat a Spiritual Experience?
by Michael Maciel
You know the feeling. You have this really great movement of spiritual energy, a profound insight into the nature of reality and your place in it. You feel good, but more than that, you feel right. Your heart is open, and your mind is clear. Or, maybe you see someone on the spiritual plane, someone who radiates love and peace, and your faith in the heaven world is restored once more. It sweeps over you, penetrating into your soul. The whole world looks different. People look different. You look in the mirror and it's a different person looking back at you, a more complete person. There's light shining from your eyes.
Or perhaps you've experienced a really good meditation, or a wonderful feeling of true spiritual oneness, an insight that makes you feel like everything really will be all right. It gives you confidence. It makes you feel like you're actually making progress on the spiritual path. When people ask you a spiritual question, the answer is obvious, and it comes through you effortlessly. You feel centered. The usual upsets of the day don't hit you as hard. You feel like you can weather anything, because deep in your soul you're at peace.
Then, it all simply fades away.
The experience, once present and vital, becomes a memory. It turns into one of those "once I saw...", or "I really know what you mean, because once I..." It becomes like a trophy on your mantle or a picture in your photo album. It becomes something you have, not something you are. It inspires you to have faith, because every spiritual experience, no matter how small or seemingly insignificant, etches itself on your soul. But the rush is no longer there. The experience no longer has the power it did when you first had it.
Well, there are reasons, and there are implications. The reasons are easy, and they're fairly obvious. The implications, on the other hand, are subtle, but they are of much greater importance to the health of your soul and your continued progress on the spiritual path.
First, the reasons. Every new experience we have blazes a trail in the brain, creating a new neural pathway. This new pathway usually consists of a connection between two previously unconnected, but related, threads. This is the familiar aha! And since the connections in the brain are not linear but global, which is to say that they form more of a net than a series of circuits, every new connection affects the whole brain and the way we perceive the world.
The reason that some connections are more powerful than others, producing major shifts in our awareness rather than merely a deeper understanding, is that the new connection involves more than two related threads. It's as though two entire departments suddenly come into communication with each other. Much larger areas of the brain are immediately altered by the exchange of vast amounts of information. And as that exchange takes place, both departments have to accommodate the new knowledge. This lights up the switchboards big time, changing forever the way both departments do business .
But, once the new pathway is established, it becomes yesterday's news. It no longer lights up an entire city block with its electrifying originality. The flash of lightning that occurred when the connection first happened has now become a steady flow of current -- powerful, but invisible.
This brings us to the implications.
Let's face it. If it ain't new, we ain't interested. The first rule in selling is "get their attention", and nothing gets our attention more than something new. We have to be wowed. The mundane, run-of-the-mill, usual suspects just aren't exciting enough to hold our interest. Profound truths tend to be profoundly simple, which is why they elude us, because we think we already know what they're going to tell us. When we think we already know something, we tend to skip over it; we ignore "old information". This is sad but true, because it says that we are basically lazy when it comes to tracking the truth.
The mind likes novelty, but it hates change. Little insights become big insights only if they reinforce opinions we already have. Introduce something different, an idea that requires major remodeling of our underlying assumptions, and we're likely to turn it into a concept and put it on a shelf. This does not speak well for us. It's like buying a new tool because it's the latest thing, or buying a book simply because we like the title. We're content with owning concepts, but we don't want to work too hard to experience what the concepts point to. The experiences that do hit us on the head are therefore likely to be the inevitable or accidental kind, the ones that come upon us by the sheer force of circumstance.
If we get in the habit of expecting our spiritual experiences to come in this way, we lose the innate understanding that spiritual experiences can be sought out, even induced. Not only do we not understand, we come to distrust any suggestion that this is even possible. Whereas life's trajectory will inevitably and accidentally cause major shifts in our inner awareness, it would be wise to remember that this is exactly what makes California's San Andreas fault so dangerous. If it gave way a little at a time, there would be no need to worry about the Big One. But when pressure builds up against immovable resistance, all hell is gonna break loose. Count on it.
Just imagine if we found a way to artificially cause major earthquake faults to let go gradually instead of catastrophically -- maybe some kind of tectonic WD-40 that we could squirt into the earth's crust from time to time. Wouldn't that be great! We might miss out on all that spectacular death and destruction, the stuff movies are made of, but life would actually be more enjoyable. Less stress, more peace. We wouldn't be subconsciously holding our breath waiting for the earth to fracture beneath our feet. We have to find the spiritual equivalent of WD-40 and squirt it into the foundations of our inner life.
It's important to write down our experiences as soon as we can, while they are still fresh in our memory. If we write them down, they become like sets of instructions that we can follow long after the experience fades. And this is what our big experiences are -- instructions. They're that brief flash of light that tells us where the path is. Like lightning on a stormy night, they give us that brief glimpse, and we have to remember what we saw. So write it down.
This is where the real work begins. And that's an ugly word. We hates it. Work never comes in a brilliant flash of light. It's never something new and exciting; it's always something old and familiar. Too familiar. It feels about as spiritual as doing pushups. But work is what advanced spirituality is all about. And it's the main reason why we are usually reluctant to engage in it. Popular spiritual literature doesn't stress the work part, because it's not popular. Ashrams and monasteries always put their novices to work doing the most tedious tasks, partly because someone has to do it and it might as well be the new guy, but mostly so that the teacher can see whether the new guy is willing to work, or if he's just looking for a place to hide out. Because, believe me, washing dishes and scrubbing toilets is a lot easier than meditation.
So, taking a spiritual experience and turning it into a set of instructions is the mature thing to do, because there are no immediately apparent rewards. Instant gratification is what a toddler looks for; it takes an adult to appreciate the value of effort over time. Only in the movies will you find a twenty-four year old brain surgeon who looks good in heels. The spiritual path, even when it produces spectacular inner results, has an outer glamour-factor of zero. If looking good or feeling good is your bottom line, the spiritual path is not for you. It's not about looking or feeling good. It's about being good, or as Huston Smith says, "It's not the altered states; it's the altered traits."
Take your spiritual experiences and turn them into sets of instructions, and then carry them out. If light comes spontaneously, there is nothing wrong with visualizing it the next time. If someone from on high speaks to you, maybe the thing now is to respond. Or perhaps listening in the silence is the thing to do. How long can you do that?
These things take effort, and it's the effort that produces results, especially when the effort is directed toward the completion of a bona fide spiritual experience. Don't fall into the trap of thinking that everything has to come spontaneously. It doesn't. Usually it takes work, and lots of it. Work is the expenditure of energy, and when all of your energy has been expended, truth comes in to fill the vacuum. Work is a way to empty yourself out, to become a void, a zero. Whether it's busting your brain or stretching your heart, the reward comes when you've given it all, and not a second before. It's when you finally realize that in your own efforts you have completely failed that fulfillment comes. In your utter failure lies your true salvation. Stretch yourself. Reach farther than you have ever reached before, and then reach some more. Reach until you feel like you're going to die, and then go ahead and die. When you wake up, you will have the thing you were reaching for. If you don't, it means you weren't completely dead yet, so go back and try some more. When you're totally empty, the experience you have been seeking will come.