In January, I shared with you my personal story of a mystical experience that blew open my cognitive mind and left me reeling. It is the 6 month anniversary of what happened on January 6, so I’ve had more time to integrate the experience. After revealing what I did on Facebook and on my blog, I’ve been fielding a lot of questions from readers who have had similar spiritual experiences, so I decided to honor this anniversary date with some spiritual Q&A based on some of the questions that have come in via email and Facebook.
Let me start with a disclaimer. I certainly don’t consider myself any sort of expert in spiritual awakening, and I don’t identify myself as a spiritual teacher. This experience has left me with more questions than answers, and I’ve depended heavily on my own spiritual advisors, most notably Rachel Naomi Remen, Tosha Silver, Martha Beck, Sera Beak, Christine Hassler, Sarah Drew, Elisabeth Manning, and Adyashanti. I’ve been very blessed to have the most amazing support and direct guidance. Because more and more people are going through these kinds of spontaneous spiritual experiences, let me do my best to share my answers to these questions from readers, with the caveat that I’m still learning. Many of you know more about these issues than me, so I invite you to inform us all in the comments.
Q&A About Spiritual Awakening
Q: In the wake of your experience, does anything feel different?
A: Yes. Something feels vastly different, and it’s hard to explain. Adyashanti writes, “Most of what we are told about awakening sounds like a sales pitch for enlightenment. In the sales pitch, we are told only the positive aspects; we may even be told things that are not actually true. In the sales pitch for awakening, we are told that enlightenment is all about love and ecstasy, compassion and union, and a host of other positive experiences. It is often shrouded in fantastic stories, so we come to believe that awakening has to do with miracles and mystical powers. One of the most common sales pitches includes describing enlightenment as an experience of bliss. As a result, people think, ‘When I spiritually awaken, when I have union with God, I will enter into a state of constant ecstasy.’ This is, of course, a deep misunderstanding of what awakening is. There may be bliss with awakening, because it is actually a by-product of awakening, but it is not awakening itself.”
That said, there’s a quietness to it all. I find it harder to get ruffled. When things aren’t going my way, it feels purposeful, even if it’s not what I desire. It’s somehow easier to surrender, and in the surrender, this is a relief and release, like I’ve been able to quit efforting so much, and yet things are happening without the efforting. There’s also a tremendous feeling of love for everyone. I find myself feeling incredibly sensitive to tender moments. I cry more, but in a good way. I feel less alone. I’m not nearly as afraid. My mind is quieter.
But it’s not all roses and violets. I’m also being asked to practice radical truth-telling. My tolerance for what is out of alignment with my soul is nearly gone. I’ve had to learn to say a lot of no, and I’m pissing people off right and left. Adyashanti says, “Make no mistake about it- enlightenment is a destructive process…Enlightenment is the crumbling away of untruth. It’s seeing through the facade of pretense. It’s the complete eradication of everything we imagined to be true.”
It hasn’t been easy, but I wouldn’t trade it for anything…
Q: What do you do differently now than before your experience?
A: There’s a Zen saying, “Before enlightenment, chop wood, carry water. After enlightenment, chop wood, carry water.” I’m not suggesting I’m in any way enlightened, but that is the challenge. How does this affect everyday life? Jack Kornfield says, “After the ecstasy, the laundry.” I think it’s easy to get distracted by the desire to recreate the extraordinary experiences, but the real awakening lies in shifting your perception such that the ordinary world becomes extraordinary. The one thing that has changed the most is that it’s as if whatever cosmic forces guide my life will no longer allow me to betray my own truth. It’s like I got a grace period before all this happened, when I knew the truth but I didn’t have to abide by it. Now I get cosmically smacked if I stray out of alignment too far and let my ego run the show. I also require a lot of silence. I was introverted before all of this happened, but now I need even more time in silence and in nature.
Q: What helps you sustain and integrate the shifts within you on a day-to-day basis?
A: In the beginning, I spent all day every day for two months with Rachel Naomi Remen, who guided me through this journey. I was blessed to have an elder tribeswoman initiate me. I don’t know what I would have done without her. Now, I call upon Dennis and April, my spiritual accountability partners, who went through this experience in January with me. The three of us are committed to keeping each other in alignment. We try to abide by the terms of the kind of “evolutionary relationship” that is described here. It’s a vulnerable time after something like this happens. Finding the right support people to guide you is essential.
Q: What supported you in trusting your inner knowing?
A: It’s so hard for me to articulate the answer to that question. All I can say is that there is this thing I trust- this nameless thing you might call God. I trust it to take control of my life more than I trust myself. I trust myself a lot, but I trust this other thing more. I trust it so much that I believe it can even take over other people in order to bring It’s Will into being, so I don’t have to try to control my life or other people or micromanage outcomes. As long as my intentions are pure and I don’t resist the guidance, whatever is aligned will come into being.
Learning to trust my inner knowing has been a gradual process over a period of eight years. I’ve collected years of evidence that this thing that guides me can be trusted. Then I read Elizabeth Lloyd Mayer’s Extraordinary Knowing, and any lingering doubts I might have had that this inner knowing can be trusted disappeared. Some might call it intuition, but I think it’s really our direct bridge between the human world and the spirit realm. Once you trust that you’re always being guided from some higher dimension, you realize you really have nothing to fear. It’s all about surrender.
Q: How did you cope with the gradual dissipation of the feeling of Oneness or bliss (if at all)?
A: That ecstatic feeling comes and goes. I woke up with it this morning. It comes along with a physical sensation, like a gently, lovely feeling of warm honey that courses through my body and is accompanied by a sort of ecstatic state of Oneness, in which there is a dissolving of the separate sense of self. Often I feel it now, but sometimes the switch flips off. I love Adyashanti’s book The End of Your World: Uncensored Straight Talk On The Nature of Enlightenment. He talks about the difference between an abiding and non-abiding awakening. If I had any sort of awakening, mine was definitely non-abiding. I can slip in and out of it, but the choices I make affect which state of consciousness I’m in. Because of this vulnerability to slipping out of this heightened state, I’m very mindful of what raises my vibration and what lowers it.
Q: What kinds of things raise your vibration?
A: What raises one’s vibration is very personal, but here are some tips that work for me:
Being around high vibration people and limiting my exposure to others
High vibration music (I LOVE Snatam Kaur, Rafael Bejarano, and Deva Premal, and I’ve made a whole playlist of what I call my “Soul Playlist,” music that lights up something within me and alters my state of consciousness)
Being in nature
Reading the work of people like Rumi, Adyashanti, Eckhart Tolle, Tosha Silver, Pema Chodron, and Sera Beak
Q: What resources helped your mind understand what was happening? And how did you know you weren’t going crazy?
A: I was blessed to have access to some of the most experienced spiritual teachers. Every time my cognitive mind got blasted, one of them would say something like “Go calm your cognitive mind by looking up ‘siddhis’ and ‘kundalini awakening’ on Wikipedia.” It kept my cognitive mind busy and settled it down a bit. It also gave me evidence that what I was experiencing wasn’t anomalous. Many other sane people have had similar experiences.
Most people going through a spontaneous experience like this don’t have access to this kind of one-on-one guidance, which is why I’m trying to uncover resources to help others who are going through such experiences. With the shift in consciousness that is happening on our planet, such experiences are becoming increasingly common, so they’re not just happening in ashrams or at spiritual retreats under the counsel of wise, experienced spiritual teachers. They’re happening to housewives and construction workers who aren’t even seeking such experiences. We need to be aware that such experiences exist so we can help support those going through such experiences. Otherwise, they might get mistakenly labeled with a mental illness diagnosis.
It’s a fine line between schizophrenia and spiritual awakening for many people. Michael Murphy, founder of Esalen, recently gave a lecture to a group of mystics, and he said, “The only difference between the people in this room and schizophrenics is that we can control the switch that flips the mystical experiences on and off. The schizophrenics can’t.” Especially among health care providers, it’s important to recognize that such awakenings are not psychotic breaks, because spiritual openings can look very much like manic episodes or psychotic episodes. We need to know how to support those who are experiencing such phenomena without drugging them or putting them in mental hospitals. I’m still exploring what resources are available, and I’ll do what I can do to share them when I can.
Q: Is there any particular community with which you began to resonate with after the awakening and why?
A: Sweat Your Prayers in Sausalito. It’s a dance church community based on Gabrielle Roth’s 5 Rhythms. They are SO my people. They were my people before this happened, and they’re still my people.
Q: Knowing what you know now, what would have been helpful to you back when the experience was fresher?
A: When this first happened, Rachel Naomi Remen told me to repeat the mantra “Be curious.” It settled my cognitive mind. Giving myself permission to not understand calmed me. Curiosity opened me. And when you’re open, potential is unleashed.
More Questions Than Answers
In the wake of all this, my world view and my identity have been so shattered that I find myself feeling a bit disoriented sometimes. It’s humbling, going through something like this. I realize that many things I thought were certain just pose more question marks. You start to wonder if there’s anything certain you get to keep. But the flip side of the fear of uncertainty is the excitement of possibility. It opens you up to wonder, awe, and mystery, and in that state, anything could happen.
Lissa Rankin, MD is a mind-body medicine physician, founder of the Whole Health Medicine Institute training program for physicians and other health care providers, and the New York Times bestselling author of Mind Over Medicine: Scientific Proof That You Can Heal Yourself. She is on a grassroots mission to heal health care, while empowering you to heal yourself. Lissa blogs at LissaRankin.com and also created two online communities—HealHealthCareNow.com and OwningPink.com. She is also the author of two other books, a professional artist, an amateur ski bum, and an avid hiker. Lissa lives in the San Francisco Bay area with her husband and daughter.