Friday, August 24, 2007

Understanding Spiritual Experiences

Over on Marta's blog about her years with Gurumayi (current guru of the late Swami Muktananda's SYDA org), there's some discussion of big special spiritual experiences. Lots of people were intrigued with Muktananda because of stories of people having trippy mind experiences around him. (I myself was influenced to follow Mukt in the late 70s by reading about a special experience that Ram Dass had when he met him.)

FWIW, here's what I just contributed to that blog discussion:

anony wrote:
I have met people who saw some gurus in their dreams when they (the people) were children, and people who heard the word "Muktananda" over the phone and got a blast of Shaktipat.

It's useful to remember that millions or tens of millions of Americans report having a huge spiritual experience at least once in their lives. It's just part of life, of being human. Sometimes it happens that people have amazing big non-ordinary experiences, psychotic breaks, spiritual epiphanies, etc.

There are millions of diverse situations when such things occur, and yeah, among those millions are a few who had them after having a dream or reading a book or hearing a funny-sounding Indian name over the phone.

After such an experience, there's a huge amount of interpretation that goes on. If you meet someone through SYDA, and they had some big experience earlier in their lives, chances are when they came to the ashram, they got lots of subtle and explicit peer pressure to interpret or re-interpret their memory of that experience according to "shaktipat" theology.

Maybe someone had a big experience when they were talking about Muktananda and eating yogurt. It's a matter of interpretation, of embracing a belief-system, that they end up thinking that they got the experience from Muktananda, rather than from yogurt.

It's useful to be literate about statistics. Someone says that 30% of all people arrested for reckless driving have marijuana in their system. That means precisely nothing; maybe 40% of all good drivers have pot in their system! So the fact that a few hundred people got an experience looking at Muktananda's photo means nothing unless you take it in the context of the millions of people who had some crazy experience thinking about Jesus, or seeing a flower, or looking at a child, or eating oatmeal.

It would be interesting to understand such phenomena.

Considering that our situation as human beings is that we get born into this world not knowing where we come from, where we're going, why we're here, or who we are... I wouldn't get too optimistic about understanding things.

Also, what's the need for understanding? The only point to understanding these special experiences would be to use that understanding to get more of those experiences. But why consider those big wow experiences so important?

OK, I like having them on rare occasions, but it's not like they're the purpose of life. I got a big experience from doing formal sitting meditation and self-inquiry for 3 or 4 days. It was cool, but took lots of effort. Also there are drugs that will give such experiences quite reliably. Some of these drugs are even legal, and compared to getting involved with SYDA, they're far far less expensive, dangerous, or addictive.


gniz said...

All I can say is, I pretty much agree with your thinking 100%.

Doesnt mean either of us are right, but still, its nice to agree.

Also, i just realized that not only am i interested in your practice as it is now, but even moreso, what was it like "transitioning" to Zen from such a different kind of practice like what you did at SYDA?

Was it strange or uncomfortable, did you doubt your new path, etc?

Anyway, just curious. Looking forward to more posts.


Anonymous said...

Here's a wee thought experiment.

Lets pretend that there are people who have the ability to visit other people's dreams while asleep.

I am not interested in whether anyone actually has the ability to do this. I am much more interested in people's attitudes when they say they have learned that someone exercised the power to visit them in thier dreams.

Why is it that folks reporting these experiences are impressed when they discover this was done to them? Impressed and not scared shitless or creeped out?

I'd consider such a thing a creepy-ass violation of my privacy.

IF someone busts into our houses without permission, they're considered trespassers.

But someone who reportedly exercises the capacity to trespass into folks' mind states while they are asleep and without asking their prior permission gets treated as a special, wonderful person with miraculous powers, someone to submit to.

Not a trespasser who deserves a scolding/buttwhupping.

gniz said...


Great point. I'd submit some possible reasons for why people who receive "dream visits" from a guru arent upset/angry/scared.

1. Because deep down they know it is a figment of their imagination and so it poses no real threat
2. because the experience is so overwhelmingly positive and comforting that they have nothing to feel upset about
3. Not understanding the ramifications of such an event


Anonymous said...

Dear Gniz/Aaron,

Theres a remarkable book by Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson,entitled My Father's Guru.

'The ability to read another person's mind is a popular favorite in Hinduism' Masson wrote. (And, so apparently is visiting someone in their dreams)

'Whenever I meet a "spiritiual" person, the first story I was likely to hear was how that person's guru would read thoughts. Ram Dass, in his book The Only Dance There Is, tells of meeting his guru, Neem Karoli Baba, in 1967, and immediately being told what his thoughts were from the night before."

Then Masson ponders what gniz rightly termed the ramifications, supposing this were all true:

'The guru has a powerful means of control over his disciples' thinking if the disciple believes the guru can know what it is he is thinking. Would one ever dare think a heretical thought?

Then Masson says something that to me, clinches the matter, regardless of whether it is even possible to read other people's thoughts or trespass into their dreams. Masson looks at the ethical/boundary implications.

"Even if it were true, it woudl be an extraordinary invasion of a person's privacy.'

(Masson, My Father's Guru, page 20)


Masson's parents were into Theosophy and were disciples of a guru named Paul Brunton. PB lived with them for long periods and young Jeffrey was taught from childhood to venerate this man.

But Jeff had his doubts and eventually learned that PB was not who he said he was.

In the late 1950s, young Jeffrey was taken to India by his father and they went guru visiting. Looking back on it all, Masson
mentioned that many gurus reputedly could read people's minds.

Masson's comment was, even if they were capable of doing this, he himself would consider it a serious violation of privacy.

It may be yes, that deep down this is happening within a person's imagination, hence they are not scared. may be that people who are trespessed on in this manner and see it as a boundary violation would run the other way,not stay and become a disciple.

And anyone who had that kind of respect for thier own privacy would probably be less at risk of becoming a member of an abusive community than someone readily enthralled by having their minds read or dreams visited, and, as you noted, not understand the ramifications of such an event.

Stuart said...

I'd consider such a thing a creepy-ass violation of my privacy.

Makes me remember a time I was at the Philadelphia Siddha Yoga center, and some Unitarians came to visit. One of them asked the head swami, "Can you read my mind?" and he said, "It's bad enough that I read my own mind!"

yomamma said...

i knew a guy who worked for Neem Karoli Baba, apparently Neem had him spy on people so he(Neem) could astound them with what they had done the day before. There are many such stories that have a more plausible explanations, but people don't want that , they want to be blown away. At the same time i know many womderful people who claim him as their guru, even though they know consciously that he was kind of a wag. It is considered in some quarters ok to tresspass if your intention is to help the student. even physical abuse. I guess energy like this could invade the dream world. I don't know because I'm not the type who naturally trusts authority figures, though i consider myself to be a spiritual seeker.
I don't think you could sue someone for being in your dreams, on some level you are probably open to it , just as you might be in your waking life. Some may interpret this as some kind of karmic direction to take .talk about buying into a heavy narrative.
I personally have used my "spiritual experiences" as an opportunity to gain insight into myself, and find they in themselves may not be the end all and be all, but when seen as part of your life , your evolution, your psyche revealing itself in a larger context they rock!!

Anonymous said...

Regarding Neem Karoli Baba:

There's a famous story about him, supposedly originating with Ram Dass. Supposedly, RD gave Neem a hit of acid, and was enthralled when the guru showed no sign of being affected by the drug.

It looked as though Neem had such mightly yogic attainment that he was unaffected by the drug.

Later, I heard the suggestion that Neem Karoli could just as well have palmed the acid off to the side, pretending that he had taken in, when he had not.

Theres a story that impresses me more,told about Kobun Chino, a Zen teacher. Kobun was an innocent, rather trusting man. He was handed a sugar cube and told, 'Hey eat this, it will make you feel good.' So, Kobun ate the cube--which was laced with LSD.

After tripping on it, Kobun's assessment was, 'That was stupid.'

Most of us, had we been doped with LSD and not told about it, would panic.

Here was a man who had so much experience watching the fluctuations of his own mind and emotions during zazen, that even chemical induced psychosis was just something to observe, just another movie that unfolds between the ears.

Observe it, be interested, but not become attached.

That's more impressive than wild tales of yogic super people--fantasies like that are what folks get attachd to--and they can become instruments of power bondage if we dont see them for what they are.

(Brad Warner told the story of Kobun in his book, Hardcore Zen)

Anonymous said...

One thing Westerners don't take into account is how little privacy there is in India, and how easy it would be for a guru to arrange for you to be spied on, whether you are at the ashram or in a nearby guesthouse.

From the accounts I have read, privacy is almost non existent. And Indians have had plenty of experience with Westerners--they were ruled by the Brits for 300 years, and there were French and Portuguese colonies in India, as well.

Indians would have had ample opportunities to work in Western households as servants and would have been able to observe their rulers' quirks, their neuroses--and would have had ample opportunity to observe our rather insensitive and abandoning method of rearing and educating young children, for the Brits especially were in the habit of consigning young children to the care of nannies, and often shipped thier youngsters off to Britain to attend boarding schools--a pattern of education that Indians would have considered barbaric abandonment.

So Indians know that underneath our sophistication, many Westerners are still wounded little children--and that many of us, without knowing it, come to India seeking magic, wish fullfillment, and seek Magic Parents--namely gurus.

This is a powerful fantasy most of us dont even know we have--a kind of pre-formatting of our inner psychological landscape.

India's charlatan gurus know us better than we know ourselves, just be understanding these projected fantasies, plus the nations experience of having been ruled by Westerners and working in thier ruler's households.

And, yes we can be easily spied on, in hotels and ashrams and on trains or busses. Many visitors arrive in India jet lagged, disoriented, and the culture shock can linger for weeks and months, making us more vulnerable than we realize.

Anonymous said...

In writing the above, this is actually not a disparagement of India.

India has had the brutal experience of, for thousands of years, being intermittantly taken over by outsiders who then governed with varying degrees of ruthlessness.

To survive one had to figure out whatever hopes, fears and hang ups one's jailors had, and then charm the jailers into some degree of benevolence--or at least, benign neglect.

Those who have grown up in nations with centuries old traditions of rule of law, cannot imagine the trauma left by centuries of despotic rule by those whose whims had to be catered to and whose fantasies had be soothed and massaged.

You learn to think fast on your feet, to say what you suspect people want to hear, and to intuit what their fantasies are, so you can then exploit those fantasies and get some room for survival.

The only way one could get some space for spiritual practice was to leave society altogether and find a remote cave or jungle. If you lived in society, in a conquered land, ruled by despots, your life was not your own.

One doesnt recover from such a legacy overnight, even if democracy has been created.

India's spiritual traditions, her seekers, her visitors, and gurus cannot be separated from this tangle of trauma.

yomamma said...

if you can just get blasted by grace all the time maybe you don't need to deal with anymore sticky wickets ever again or all this distasteful human stuff. spending all your time asking guru for stuff or what the hell you're supposed to do. I find that spiritual curiousity and experience just heightens the need to get sorted out, shines a light on the issues. no escape.

Stuart said...

Yomamma wrote:
no escape

A Hare Krishna once explained his beliefs to me. He said that God is like a big judge who rewards or punishes you for your actions. But if you're a Hare Krishna, it's like you're God's son. When you go before the judge, it's good to be his son, because that'll make God treat you better. Or something like that.

And of course superficially, we can see the appeal of getting special treatment from the big judge. But when I consider the matter more carefully... what a sad and tragic world view. Would I really want to belief that the Great Creator and Master of the Universe acts like an unfair, crooked judge?

No escape. Maybe it was Suzuki Roshi who said that Zen meant no shortcuts, no discounts. Trying to get special treatment from God, expecting to get more out of life than you put into it, wanting the universe to treat you better than you treat the universe... all that leads to suffering.

When I give up wanting shortcuts or discounts, then I can 100% try my best in this moment, not relying on anything but natural cause and effect. Big effort, big attainment; small effort, small attainment; no effort, no attainment.

yomamma said...

yes your foot just is where it is on your path, your stuff is your stuff. It's funny , some of the Hare Krishna opinion I've noticed is that they seem to look down on Christian thought and belief and yet they share so many of its most negative aspects, things like damnation, sin, ridgid codes of conduct. big brother is watcing, infantilizing. I'm not saying all Christians or Krishnas are like this, but I've noticed a similar streak in both. I'm not really ready to go hardcore either way, large amounts of effort with a supcion of grace here and there, plus chanting is a practice that requires effort and dedication, though people don't want to admit that, everything is supposed to be effortless and bliss making.
Regarding India, don't forget they had their own iron- clad caste system in place to begin with ,( but i guess you could say that was those invading Aryans) anyway when was it ever different? The golden eras are always mythical and mystical. How far back would you have to go to find no occupiers no oppressors? The founding myths of India are largely martial in flavor. I don't think any culture hasn't had that in its history, but yes i agree, word gets around.

Stuart said...

Anony said...
I heard the suggestion that Neem Karoli could just as well have palmed the acid off to the side, pretending that he had taken in, when he had not.

It seems astounding that the fame and reverence of Neem Karoli could be partly based on cheap slight of hand tricks. But hey, look at Satya Sai Baba, who created a huge and powerful movement based largely on his mediocre skills at performing magic tricks. In the US, you have televangelists like Peter Popov, and New Age psychics like John Edwards; much of their stage show is based on evesdropping on people (or having them fill out forms) and then repeating the information back to them, pretending that they're getting magical insight from God.

The bottom line is: most people, when they really want to believe something, won't let facts get in the way. We've got this story about Neem Karoli Baba and the LSD. Thousands of people repeat that story as if it means something. People who weren't there when it happened, who read about it 2nd-hand, who are in no position to judge whether Neem Karoli even swallowed the blotter.

When someone uses "miracles" like this to support their beliefs, my suspicion is that they're starting out by believing what makes them feel good, and then they go searching for any story that justifies what they want to believe.

Well, I think maybe we all already understand that magic tricks and miracles aren't so important. A teacher who points us to our own pure and clear experience of just-now... that may be worth something!

Anonymous said...

Stuart wrote:

"But if you're a Hare Krishna, it's like you're God's son. When you go before the judge, it's good to be his son, because that'll make God treat you better. Or something like that."

That's an example of transferring Indian social experience onto the so called spiritual realm.

In India, and a lot of other places in the world, your best hope if you got in trouble, was to find someone in a position of power who would look kindly on you as a member of their clan and get you a reprieve.

So, becoming a Krishna monk so as to get God to see you as favored family member---that's the Indian clan/caste system projected onto the spiritual realm.

And its not much different from the blurry view some Americans have of Heaven being like a great shopping mall in the sky, with God as Santa Claus.

As they said yesterday at our Zen Center, no one can sit zazen for you. Only you can.

Must mention the Hare Krishnas had a booth at yesterday's 40th anniversary of the Summer of Love in Golden Gate park.

One of thier swamis was preaching total misinformation about Buddhadharma, saying Buddhists are into nirvana and that for us nirvana is nothingness.


I laughed and tried to tell some guy next to me that this was total distortion.

The guy, glared at me like I'd farted a stinker during High Mass.

He snarled, 'Please. I am trying to take it ALL in.'

I marched off, snickering. He wasnt trying to take it all in, even though he thought he was.

He wanted only to take in a subset of the scene, filtered through his preferences.

My clutzy attempt to state that codependent arising/lack of inherant separate existence being quite, quite different from nothingness/absence was just as much a part of the scene as the music, the vibes, the wandering folks grooving.

But, my twaddle didnt match up with the guy's preferences and he was pissed.

Must admit my vanity was goosed, so I had some fun with my reactive mind, too.

All in all, it was odd going to the event NOT having been old enough to have particpated in the scene 40 years ago. I wasnt burdened by the nostalgia factor.

(Sigh. The night Clinton was elected in 1992, that friends, was my equivalent of the Summer of Love. Lord, how we danced in the Castro that night. That's where my mind wants to cling.

We all got stuff where we want to get stay put. The fly paper is different for each of us.

yomamma said...

People are so obsessed with the summer of love and spirituality right now because they are so far from it!
i think this is a lonely time epitomized by Mr. Leave me alone with my spiritual comodified experience!! He don't care if it is B.S.

Stuart said...

yomamma said...
i think this is a lonely time

Whatever the times are like, whatever the place is like, whatever we imagine other people are like... the most important factor is how I'm keeping my own mind.

The direction in life that I choose to follow right now is the key factor of my experience. Much much moreso than anything going on externally.