This isn’t a plea for ignorance. No definitive conclusions have come to me. What I’m hoping for is open dialogue.
I have heard people say their heads get in the way of themselves. This leads me to wonder if we intellectualize ourselves out of the moment; the moment of being in the present and experiencing spiritual ecstasy, a mystical experience that requires a detachment of the intellectual self to be fully realized.
People have all kinds of spiritual experiences. Some may be sitting in meditation, experiencing nature, really good sex, playing music, making art, listening to music, appreciating art, swimming, flying, reading, writing, in a temple, riding a horse. Many experiences can be deemed as causing some transcendence to a much deeper meaning that comes with or without revelation – but you succinctly understand you were moved. You may not be able to explain how or the way you were moved – unless you’re explaining it to someone that has been there.
When these bouts of spiritual ecstasy come upon us, is it a removal of our intellect, our thinking that allows it to flow more freely? Do we need to detach our minds to open doorways to let that which is more than ourselves enter into us and course through us?
At times I feel I over intellectualize situations I am in. My mind tries to grasp the event. My thoughts try to define the sensations I am having. I root myself in the intellect and in observation. I feel this attention to detail robs me from immersing myself more completely – I miss sensations while minding my observations.
The Tools of Detachment
Many religious or spiritual traditions have tools: methods to overcome this attachment to one’s intellect. Practicing meditation, whether mantra based or an empting of thought has this purpose: to free the intellect from the background noise of one’s own thoughts and let the universal waves come through us: energy, power, Soma – whatever you call the effect of the quieting of the self.
In Vodou, we dance, we sing. We get caught up in the rhythms and flow of everything around us, emanating from both the visible and invisible world. We surrender to it to the point where it carries us off into another time and place.
About a decade ago, I participated in a silence retreat. By removing my voice and conversations with others, whether small talk or deep, we were left with only our internal voice and ourselves to contend with. Eventually even that quiets and we see things differently, hear things unimagined. We sense the magic around us that seems to fade into the background of everyday life.
One doesn’t need meditation, song and dance or silence to experience this. Camping in the mountains past old forgotten logging roads, we reach this state. It creeps up until the world seems to inhabit no one but us. We don’t notice it happening; it all seems so – natural. Then we return to society by entering a gas station or grocery store and suddenly the world we normally inhabit comes crashing down around us, surrounding and inundating us, dragging us back through its emersion to those former selves we were before our exit.
I have seen some musicians play guitar, piano or another instrument like nothing else in the world exists. They seem to hear this music, whether it’s coming from themselves or some rhythm and melody from beyond and they’ve somehow tapped into it. I’ve seen others caught up in their art: drawing, sculpting, creating. You might spy their tongue poking out the corner of their mouth, completely unaware of the outside world around them and beyond caring about anything but that creative force they’re riding.
I have felt an unparalleled union when I reach beyond myself and delve into my horse. I can feel her not beneath me, but a part of me. We reach into each other; we occupy the same space; it’s larger than either of us. There are more powerful unparalleled unions….
In all the ways I describe this transcendence the mind is freed, left to relax like a body in meditation when the mystical forces engulf our perception and leave our thoughts behind. But does this need to happen? Do our thoughts really get in the way?
My wife Saum says she can experience that same ecstasy in academic research. Does the mind focused with singular purpose reach the same state? Is the removal of distraction all that’s important? Perhaps that’s all the previous examples are: a singular attention on a specific task – a free verse mantra recitation as a singular dedication of will through all-encompassing action.
Maybe the intellect isn’t the enemy to spiritual experience. Instead, the noise of our thoughts – left to drift, flit and veer off in short attention span twisting and turning until we’re left wondering what it was that got us to the thought we now perceive to be on, ignoring all the thought clutter that occurred along the way.
These activities: meditation, immersion, focus, unfocus all shoot us in a singular direction, an uncluttered thought pattern, a shared or personal experience that concludes in one place. Maybe that is why concerts are so powerful – we are all sharing the freedom from worry, stress and noisy thoughts and are combined into one aural collective in a flood of communal spiritual experience.
Craving Freedom from Thought
I believe this can become a craving: freedom from our thoughts and an immersion into the spiritual world around us. Like any unfulfilled craving, ignoring it can cause it to be fulfilled in unhealthy ways. We may find substitutes – other forms of distraction to keep our minds from having to think. We may turn to cups, smoke or an endless stream of electrons coming through a screen. Who am I to judge, maybe that is a spiritual experience?
While I’ve been pondering all of this, my mind wanders down familiar paths. I’ve been turning this idea over and over, marinating it, letting it simmer. I have no clear answers yet. While I can see how this makes sense in one way, I can see how it emanates in other contradictory ways. I guess what’s important is to find what works for you and run with it, as long as it’s healthy.
I’m not anti-thinking. I enjoy writing, debating ideas about life and spiritual experiences that I couldn’t do without thinking about them. I’m think thinking is great surrounding the moment of experience: great for intention, great to describe what you believe, what you plan to do, what you did, but not so great immersing oneself to deepen spiritual experience. I could be wrong.
As I have no clear concise conclusion, I’m asking you to hit the comment button below and share your thoughts on the matter. What have you found as a vehicle for a mystical experience of spiritual ecstasy? Not necessarily the experience itself, but the activity, non-activity, tools and methods you used to get there. Do you think your thoughts diminish the experience by thinking more than doing? There are no wrong answers.