What is spiritual experience like for you?

Thing on Thursday #6

This week we come to the spiritual experience itself.

“Spiritual” may not even be the best word for it necessarily, but it is that unique experience or range of experiences encountered in moments of transcendence or depth.  For some, it might be encountered in religious ritual, for others in camping overnight in the wilderness, contemplating the infinity of space, or exploring the dream world.

Attempts to describe the feeling of spiritual experience have been made by Schleiermacher and Otto, among others.  But truth be told, it is a subjective and misty topic.  It can be different for different people, and different for the same person at different times.  Yet how we choose to describe it can say a lot about our values.

This week’s question, then, is: What feelings do you associate with “spiritual” experience?

Please choose your top three.

Please share your thoughts in the comments below!

About Thing on Thursday

Althing in Session, by W.G. CollingwoodThis post is part of a series of councils on matters vital to the future.  The name represents both the generic term for, you know, a thingie, as well as the Old Norse term for a council of elders: a Thing.

Each week until the Winter Solstice, Thing on Thursday will explore a new controversy.  Participation is open to all – the more minds that come together, the better.  Those who have been vocal in the comments are as welcome as those quiet-but-devoted readers who have yet to venture a word.  We value all constructive opinions.

There are only a few rules:

  • be constructive – this is a council, so treat it as such
  • be respectful – no rants or flames

Comments will be taken into consideration as we determine the new direction of Humanistic Paganism.  This will also greatly shape the vision that unfolds in our upcoming ebook Our Ancient Future: Visions of Humanistic Paganism.

So please make your voice heard in the comments!

16 Comments on “What is spiritual experience like for you?

  1. I personally don’t think there is really such a thing as ‘spiritual’ experiences. Just experiences that bring up emotions that you value. Most of these good feelings and experiences can be attributed biological chemicals, primarily Oxytocin. To call it spiritual appears to be a way of expressing the value of those experiences and feelings, but has nothing to do with the ‘spirit’.

    • I suspect a significant number of naturalistic folks might balk at the term “spirituality” because of these connotations. My only problem with terms like “valued emotional experiences” would be the sheer clunkiness. The word “spiritual” describes a set of these experiences and becomes a convenient shorthand. Furthermore, I don’t have any problem talking about the “spirit” of a holiday or a song. I’ve even been known to describe certain singers as “soulful.” One needn’t subscribe to naturalistic theories of the soul to be able to use these terms meaningfully.

      • “One needn’t subscribe to naturalistic theories of the soul to be able to use these terms meaningfully.”

        That I wonder about. How the word Spirit or Soul is used could have different meanings but its core meaning still remains as something separate from the physical. *shrugs* I am trying to see for myself if I can go about not using that description to convey what I mean.

  2. I added “joy” under the “other” category in the poll. One of the most profound experiences I’ve had involved a sort of ecstasy which I believe has been noted by many. Words fail to describe extreme experiences, of course — I might also have added “horror.”

    • Yes! I can’t believe I didn’t put joy in the list.

      And horror too, even with the two together. I remember once at the end of three-week Buddhist meditation retreat bowing during a chant, and I felt something inside me crack open. When I went outside, everything appeared unimaginably vivid and meaningless at the same time. It was both horrible and wonderful at once. Later, when I described the experience to a meditation instructor, he called it a sense of “spiritual desolation.”

  3. Rua and Editor B both raise the very good point of what do we even mean, exactly, when we say “spiritual experience”? “Spiritual” is a word that most folks probably associate inextricably with a deistic/supernaturalistic worldview, but I use it to mean profound awareness of the world beyond oneself (though, for me, including myself). So a moment of deep connection with my wife is every bit as spiritual as a big, splashy ritual, because both bring me into awareness of All that Is.

    • I like your description of your meaning of spiritual being “awareness of all that is.” I must say that I feel similar when having those kind of experiences.

  4. While reading your post I was reminded of a wonderful quote by the Russian philosopher V. V. Rozanov: “All religions will pass, but this will remain: simply sitting in a chair and looking in the distance.” It’s clear (sadly in my view) that religion is still thriving, but I understand Rozanov this way: Even if theology, creeds, doctrines, etc., all go away, there will still be a delicious mystery at the heart of human experience that will be the cause for awe, hope and wonder.

  5. By way of answering the question, I offer my list of words which can express what we mean by “spiritual” but are more specific, more communicative, and carry less baggage: connected, transcendent, compassionate, inspired, elevated, timeless, edified, awed, wonderstruck, humbled, poetic, beautiful, wise, alien, pious, religious, whimsical, vivacious, empty, receptive, open, fearless, colorful, dreamlike, soft, equanimous, mellow, creative, vibrant, autonomous, self contained, confident, abundant, satisfied, accepting, passionate, awake, alive, free, empowered, reverent, authentic, aware, etc.

  6. So, when I first saw this survey and the options, I made some observations and predictions that I had meant to leave in the comments here, but just never got around to it.

    So here goes:

    1) Awe, mystery, wonder, and joy, and even hope to an extent, are all variations of the same basic, meaningful sensation described in the fourth principle of the Fourfold Path. You could also throw in “mirth,” “amazement,” and “the numinous” along with these other terms.

    My prediction was that these would be the highest voted individually, and that seems to be the case.


    2) The next highest votes went to a particular type of experience, described here as “serenity,” “emptiness/detachment,” and “oneness.” And these have gotten more votes than I expected.

    Where the first group describes a sensation that is almost an after-effect of an experience pursued for itself, this second group describes an actual experience. My thought here is that having these serene, detached, and singular experiences leads directly to a sense of awe and wonder. For those who voted for these, does that sound accurate?

    3) “Empowerment” also got more votes than I expected, but for those who voted for it, I have a question: do you get a sense of empowerment from accomplishing goals, from taking responsibility for your own actions, or from neither? If neither, how does spirituality make you feel empowered?

    That’s about all the thoughts and questions I have for now. Let me know what you think.

    • Luke, I’m not sure I see why the first group is “almost an after effect” while the second is “an actual experience.” Maybe you could explain further?

      • To be clear, I didn’t mean that the first group isn’t important.

        The best example from this site that I’ll keep going back to is Thomas’ account of bicycle meditation. The sense of wonder came about as a result of pursuing the cycling for the sake of cycling, and it’s only in this sense that it’s an after-effect.

        And I could be wrong, but it seems to me that the serenity, oneness, and emptiness lead to this same sense of awe or wonder. So the experience of oneness is pursued and explored for its own sake, and as a result it leads to the meaningful sense of wonder.

        Is that clearer? I’m still trying to process the second group a bit.

      • Actually, let me explain a tad bit more:

        In Zen, meditation is a practice specifically for experiencing detachment/serenity, with the ultimate form of serenity being called “satori” and being something of an ultimate goal for Zen practitioners. This type of meditation doesn’t need to be attached to a goal to provide serenity, though; it can simply be a practice of exploring the experience of detachment/oneness. And if this experience is pursued for its own sake, it will lead directly to a sense of amazement/wonder/awe.

        With wonder/awe/amazement, it’s never about having an experience of wonder, though. It’s about exploring other experiences, and the wonder comes about as a direct result of exploring them for their own sake.

        I hope that’s a bit clearer. Let me know if it isn’t.

        • Okay, that’s kinda what I thought you were saying.

          One thing to add on the second group is that in my experiences with Buddhism, even though the goal is ostensibly that detachment/serenity/nirvana experience, you can’t really try to produce it or it will just get further away from you. You have to do something else for its own sake, like meditation without any expectations in mind, and then it may co-arise with it. So in that sense, it seems more like the first group.

          Not saying that the things in the second group *can’t* come about intentionally, just that my experiences in Buddhism take a different tack on the matter.

        • Hmm… Yes, I had a hunch that that might be the case. I’ll have to think about that a bit more in order to respond coherently.

  7. Pingback: What transcends you? « Humanistic Paganism

%d bloggers like this: