Monday, April 16, 2012

Does Our Intellect Detract From Spiritual Ecstasy?

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….

The Intellect

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.


  1. I seem to switch, in that liminal state, from rational thinking, to feeling and perception. There is no definite line, though, between these two modes, the line is rather fuzzy.
    I kind of see it like waves. If that makes any sense. <3

    1. What I'm trying to grasp is what activity or non-activity helps us pass to that state? Is it in staring at an open flame, dancing, writing or letting go and spacing off.

      I'm interested in what allows us to traverse easier from one state to another.

  2. I would say, for me, it's all about being able to draw upon reserves of passionate extremes that I can hyper-focus on to the point of obsession. Most of the time, in order to function normally in society, I have to maintain calm and emotional regulation through meditation, re-adjusting my hyper-focusing the opposite spectrum. I never have to turn off my thoughts, but for me it's my sensitivity that overwhelms me. I'm too aware of what is all around me, so it's like the opposite of what you describe, I think (?), I get lost in all the feelings, spirits, energies, people, animals, smells, vibrations, sounds, colors, etc., I end up walking around like a ditz. Most people think I am deliberately not listening to them! Very embarrassing. So I'm most in my element when it comes to focusing on letting loose and getting my ecstatic worship on, write some poetry, talk in metaphor, hug trees, talk with my cat, whatever silly thing that brings me joy that other people find crazy. Anyhoo...

    I think it's a matter of the control one has over the emotional, vulnerable side of ourselves. The average western "white" (not picking on race here, just pointing out people who are not pick-skinned but brought up without exposure to any other cultures so they're "blank") person is conditioned to act what is deemed normal in society, and this society teaches us all to "not sound, act, or talk crazy" in other words: be logical or people will be uncomfortable around you and discredit you.

    This pressure, this self-consciousness makes us over-think about what we are doing and how we are acting. We police our speech and edit what we write and give excuses and explanations to remain accepted by people. I think if we can get to the point where we just care less about what other will think, and what will the repercussions will be if we make a fool out of ourselves, the more license we will give ourselves to break free from the inhibitions that keep us from communing one-to-one with the Gods and spirits.

    In my experience, at least, this is what I've discovered, and this is how I explain it to people who wonder why is it I can honestly say I talk and "live" with the Gods everyday.

    1. Valentina, I don't seem to be that way, but I also know you're not alone. I know others that struggle to stay present in this world, trying to limit their connections from elsewhere.

      I also will refine the white to American white culture, since I know people of fairer skin to be not that way and acknowledge there are other American cultures. I believe the dominate culture of this land certainly leads to stifling our expression of spirituality. Luckily, there are enough other groups present who don't share the problem: people of all faiths and some non-faiths.

      I've seen your work, I can believe what you're saying. For myself, I sometimes have to struggle to let myself go away from this world to experience more of what is around me. What I'm trying to understand what tools people use to achieve this goal.

    2. Thank you for pointing that out. You explained as fairly as I would, too. (I hate using the word "white" to explain that kind of cultural view)

      That gets me thinking about the suggestions I've given other people to help them with better "other" awareness. Sometimes I had to assist them by taking them outside of the city and into places that are more physically conductive for such experiences, eventually ween people back to "reality" by transferring their experiences there into forming visions to refer back to in order to induce another state of consciousness. If we could not go somewhere else, creating atmosphere at home seemed to help, but with practice and time I've seen people learn to eventually not be so dependent upon physical tools.

      I find that, even in my youth, I had to have help. Even I had to learn to let go. And sometimes I interrupt myself in order to make other people more comfortable.

      The main tool I use now is my drawing skills. Like you said, you've seen my work. It took me a long while to let this happen because I wasn't always so confident with my skills. This was just a self-conscious, emotional block I had to get over. In my early 20s I was frustrated because I could not seem to capture what I envisioned as realistically on paper. I had to "grow up" and grow into confidence. I had the ability to transfer what I see into what I draw all the time, I just didn't think I could.

      Plus finding the acceptance of people of a like mind helped a lot, too.

  3. My faith is wrapped in ritualized self-admonitions and stoic recantations. Because it's a faith community I chose and wasn't forced to belong to, I find it doesn't squelch my compassionate reflections. The church as an institution does that! It's MY CHURCH that I attend, that's filled with smiling, bleeding-heart liberals that uplifts and inspires our fam.

    I've returned to my RC upbringing for it's familiarity. It's solemnity and it's potent 'shielding' from that which could maybe potentially harm me. It's my go-to, just-in-case place for mojo.

    My faith is mine alone. And with my go-to mojo tucked into my purse (both literally and mentally) I feel capable to utilize many forms of meditation. And I believe that it strengthens my love for all. My religious affiliation is NOT threatened in any way b/c of this.

    1. I meant to add: That my brain gets in the way of a lot that hope to do. Sometimes, I over think and believe that I'm missing out on the doing. Even though I may be stuck in this observance profile, I'm betting that it's where I need to be! And I'll let 'it' flow over me like a river. And just, be!

    2. c-RAH,

      I believe one powerful path is a community of people all sharing the same experience. It is stronger of they are intentionally attempting to spiritually connect with the divine. Whether that's RC, Vodou, or some other for of worship, I think it's very powerful.

      I also understand for the less religiously inclined, music and concerts can have that same communion with one other, all focused.

      I'm happy you have found a new community after it seemed to be imploding. I think questioning and rediscovering the truths you were brought up with can be very powerful, because that's where I think your faith solidifies into something more, something beautiful.

  4. the mind is just a tool that needs to be controlled ... otherwise it's rambling nonsensical thoughts get in the way and land us in situations or behavioural patters that are not usually in our best interest. most people seem to let their minds control them myself at times included

    1. Antony, I would tend to agree. We seem to have many tools at our disposal to that end. Meditation, art, music, dance, nature -- there seem to be many tools at our disposal.

      I've even heard from a friend with ADHD/ADD that medications can help quite the mind making meditation deeper and more fulfilling.

      No matter what tool we use,there is likely something out there for all of us.

  5. Urban, thanks so much for sharing this! I love your writing! I've nominated you for a Liebster Blog Award, please check it out.

  6. Kani,

    Thanks for your support. I've been reading your poetry and have enjoyed it.