In Spirit: About the Spiritual Experience

Some contemporary scholars who work on the body and spirituality note that in the modern era, “spiritual experiences” carry social issues in which the individual negotiates their identity, belonging and agency. The body becomes the experiential place par excellence, the reconnection with one’s own freedom and ability to make choices. But sometimes, this total freedom leads to what a researcher calls “consumerist hedonism”:

“The same trend is observed when Danièle Hervieu-Léger mournes the propensity to consume more and more intense emotional experiences, which has the effect of dissolving the tradition and eroding its “chains of memory” (Hervieu- Léger 2000, Champion and Hervieu-Léger 1990).” (Gauthier et al 2011: 292).

An abundant experiential consumption becoming stronger and stronger marks the spiritual modes in which the individual is the actor. This is a characteristic that forms the majority of most of today’s spiritual practices (yoga, tantra or shamanism to name just a few). There is a break between traditional knowledge and the consumerist way of living spirituality in the contemporary world. The “chain of memory” of which Hervieu-Léger speaks raises the question to what extent the modern world has reinvented certain practices that claim to be old, which, when duly observed, may seem to break with the traditional basic principles.

Thus this month, we will dwell on this subject, and talk about the experience, or how to look at it, live it and integrate it into the daily spiritual landscape of our experience.

In the traditional orientation as found in the scriptures, the point of no return is not that of experience but rather that which lies between two experiences. In this interstice, without thought, without reference to “me-living-an-experience”, the practitioner accesses the space that the mystic seeks. Several stanzas of the Vijnana Bhairava Tantra tend towards this impersonal experience which appears in a non-dual mind and will be resorbed(?) in itself. The experience is, therefore, that of the non-experience; the subject is eliminated.

Sloka 46 | If we mention, for a moment, the absence of duality at any point of the body; here is the very voidness. Freed from all dualistic thinking, one will reach the non-dualistic essence.
Sloka 62 | May the spirit that has just left one thing be blocked and not move to another thing. Then, thanks to the thing that is between them, the realization blossoms in all its intensity.

What we call the “traditional” experience is, therefore, an impersonal experience. In other words, the experience is eminently important and central to the individual who is constructed and validated according to it. But for the mystic who seeks to reach the divine ocean, it is, on the contrary, a form of hindrance. In the pratyabhijna cosmogony, it is the ego, ahamkara, that makes the experience “personal”: “[its function] is to appropriate and personalize the experience – to perceive it as ‘being mine’. “(Dyczkowski, 1989: 133). This identification of the experience as being related to the person is perceived as a lure (a lack of perspective) and only the recognition of Reality (what things really are) can lift this veil caused by of ignorance ou or lack of discernment.

By ceasing to identify with the body and the mind, the ego becomes an empty form. Due to their orientation towards something non-objective and unknown, the affective, intellectual and spiritual energies are gathered and orchestrated. (Klein 1968: 65)

In this perspective, the experience is made to disappear. As the Vijnana Bhairava Tantra suggests, it must be resorbed. The object always becomes secondary compared to the principle of perception:

“To experience this emptiness, the yogi must penetrate into the initial moment of perception (prathamikalocana) when he directly perceives the object and no dichotomyzing thoughts have yet arisen in his mind” (Dyczkowski, 1989: 119).

The emphasis is not on the experience itself, but on the appearance, followed by the resorption of the state that presents and manifests itself in the perception. Expressed in another way, we can say that listening and seeing are more important than what is seen or listened to.

Accentuating the resorption more than on what is experienced is a rather singular approach in the current spiritual landscape where there is a tendency to emphasize what is lived. Joseph Alter notes that:

« the term ‘ecstasy’ conveys the nature of experience, [Mircéa] Eliade points out that samadhi is an ‘enstatic’ experience. The greek root focuses on an external experience, whereas the orientation of sanskrit term is internal, though by no means personal, egocentric, or individualized » (Alter, 2004; 247, n.3).

In the “ecstatic” experience, the individual is present and the experience becomes a means for him to be something: a guru, a realized person, a spiritual person, etc. The experience is thus a way to attribute oneself a form, it becomes an end in itself; there is the construction of an image of myself. In the case of the “enstatic” experience, as Eliade uses the term and Alter takes over, the individuality is on the contrary deconstructed. The definition of tradition (in the sense of perspective) does not rest on form (a yoga pose, a particular experience), but on the way of seeing, of apprehending the phenomenon. In this perspective the experience is incidental. It is the way of integrating it that will connect the practitioner or not to the tradition; this is called “orientation”.

Experience does not bring anything in itself. It’s the way to apprehend that makes a difference. The clearer and more integrated this orientation are, the more the experiences will be able to unfold and return to their essential state of resorption. They always remain secondary as long as they fit into the traditional context of the orientation which explains that the experiment brings nothing on the phenomenological level, but that unavoidably will disappear in the non-individual perception, non-identified, non-egoic.

Finally, there is no break, because the problem is not in the form. From time immemorial, the being seeks what is essential in him such an echo that attracts him. Sometimes you have to get lost to better find yourself. In this quest, he takes the reflection of the essential for the truth. Life is a path through “épuration”, it is by experiencing what I am not that I approach the essential principle. Being human, incarnated, this quest is intrinsic to my being and oscillations are not a mistake, only allowing me to better investigate life and approach the intensity it holds in the simplicity of every moment, where the no experience exists.

[This article is based on an excerpt from my master’s thesis. The latter has been largely revisited, rewritten and adapted to the present context, but especially many additions have been made, not present in the original version]

Mariette has a master degree in anthropology from the University of Montreal. She teaches a yoga that echoes the philosophy of non-dual tantric Shaivism from Kasmir. She is regularly travelling to India to follow up her research on esoteric traditions from the Tantras. Mariette is also a visual artist, using photography as field notes and cultural exploration
(photo: Ritam Barnerjee)

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