Spiritual experiences happen. According to a survey by the Pew Research Center on Religion and Spirituality, 49% of Americans say they’ve had one. While many cultures consider these experiences valid and valuable, ours does not. If we describe them to our physicians, we are likely to be met with a blank looks, if not questions probing for psychiatric disorder.
Many people are thus left on their own, unable to get the most out of spiritual experiences. After a series of profound visions in 2000, I found myself in exactly that position. I had no capacity to process what happened in a healthful fashion. My first response was grandiose: I believed myself specially chosen to deliver a vital message to humankind. Soon after, I plummeted to the opposite pole and felt shattered and unworthy. Both extremes taught me something important, but the process could have been more efficient.
Nowadays, I understand how to work with spiritual experiences. I know that when they happen, it helps to imagine the most mature response, then do my best to embody it. I picture myself as a stable, wise, and humble person with the good fortune to see life from a clearer, more holistic perspective. I imagine the behavior of this better version of myself, then try to emulate it. If maturity seems beyond reach, I seek the clarity and strength to move in its direction. Sometimes I consult meditation teachers, spiritual advisors, or open-minded therapists. Sometimes I read, and occasionally I pray.
But as I’ve gained skill at this, it’s become increasingly likely that I’ll find what I need by spending time in silence. I might sit in a quiet room or walk in nature, but I do my best to foster inner quietude. Eventually, without much thought or mental effort, the way forward becomes clear. It’s as if something inside me already knows what’s needed, and I simply let it tell me.
Regardless of the exact approach, by meeting the experience with a humble and teachable heart, I mature. All it takes is faith that I can evolve into my better self. The process can more difficult and protracted than I’m making it sound, but in my experience, it works. The point is, I take an active role. The spiritual experience is not just something that happens and passively changes me; it is a teacher that helps me further my own growth.
The interesting fact is this: what works for obviously ‘spiritual’ experiences works for everything else. I picture a mature response, then do my best to pull it off. By this approach, I spend less time judging my circumstances as ‘good’ or ‘bad’. Instead, I focus on my responses, being honest about their level of maturity.
I propose that all of our experiences are ‘spiritual’ in this sense. By doing our best to respond maturely, we can use them as guides to less craving, less fear, and more unconditional love. Paradoxically, it is sometimes the most painful (seemingly evil and anti-spiritual) experience that has the most potential to help us grow. And when we understand that absolutely everything that happens can help us deepen our wisdom and compassion, we feel the startling joy of freedom. No longer obsessed with whether our circumstances satisfy our desires, we begin to see all events as opportunities, as lessons that lead us toward emotional, psychological, and spiritual growth.
The blatantly mystical experience remains useful. It helps us pierce clouds of strife and misery to see the inherent unity, beauty, and love they obscure. In effect, it is a moment of improved perception. This culture teaches us to see the world as a battleground, a place of division, ugliness, and hate. But with at least as much justification—and a lot more contentment—we can view our surroundings as unitive, beautiful, and loving. It is healthful to build up one’s capacity to see the world in this way, and mystical experiences help us do so.
Yet it’s important to understand that this ‘spiritual view’ can be adopted without any experience of altered consciousness. I know many people who don’t experience mystical openings, but who nonetheless embody clarity, compassion, and stability. With their minds, bodies, and hearts, they know there’s an ocean of support beneath humanity’s flotsam of strife. Their experiences in life have brought them to a place of profound maturity. They don’t see any of them as ‘mystical’ but since the cumulative effect has led to rich growth, I can’t see how that makes any difference.
Life teaches lessons to those with willingness to learn them. Some experiences stand out in high relief as being ‘spiritual’, but any experience can serve the same function. We need only respond to our circumstances with the intention to grow more stable, wise, and loving.
Where does that intention come from? Something inside nudges us toward the mature viewpoint. Personally, I call that ‘something’ Inner Life Support, but it goes by many other names. The name we give it seems unimportant, but recognizing an innate drive to wholeness seems vital. If we have faith in our capacity to grow, and do our best to strengthen it, we find freedom. We get to the point where all of life is a guide to maturity, so every experience seems sacred.
Perhaps, in some future study, 100% of people surveyed will say they’ve had spiritual experiences. In other words, it will be widely understood that life is a ceaseless flow of important teachings. As was probably true in some distant prehistoric time, humanity will once again understand the sacredness of everyday life.