As a Panentheist- someone who believes the Divine infuses all things, and all things are part of the Divine- I find that question somewhat illustrative of how my spiritual path differs from that of many people who approach Spirit from a more Judeo-Christian perspective. For me, the Divine is all around us all the time. As we start looking and listening to the part of ourselves that's in tune with it, synchronicities start appearing, like snowflakes, and then they begin to pile up into a blizzard. Just as a snowstorm changes the landscape, a spiritual perspective gives the world the appearance of an alternative reality.
There’s an old story about a young Buddhist monk who seeks out a great master teacher, and the teacher accepts him as a student and then assigns him to chopping wood and carrying water. The eager student does his jobs faithfully for months, and suddenly in the midst of schlepping his buckets back from the stream, he attains enlightenment. He runs back to the teacher very excited: “Master, Master! I’ve attained enlightenment!” The teacher looks at him calmly and says, “That’s great. Now go chop the wood.” And the student says, “But I’m ENLIGHTENED now!” To which the Master responds: “Before Enlightenment, Chopping wood and carrying water. After Enlightenment? Chopping wood and carrying water.”
Our spiritual life is not “instead of” our regular life, and our regular life is not “instead of” our spiritual life. Both are aspects of our life, period. What’s been called “supernatural” isn’t “instead of” this reality, it’s part of it- Nature Plus, if you will.
Spiritual experiences are a matter of perspective more than content. I’ve had many wild and mind-altering experiences of “phenomena” since I started walking my path almost 30 years ago. I don’t consider them to be my “spiritual experiences” per se, although they were amazing and unbelievable and the memories of them still give me shivers. While exciting confirmations that I’m on the right track, they’re not the thing itself, they’re side effects. They are improbable and beautiful confirmations that I don’t walk through this world alone, and that I am part of Eternity, as are we all. But they happened because I was walking my path, not the other way around.
Spiritual experiences come when we feel our “at-one –ness”, when all levels of consciousness are walking in tandem and we’re in balance and feeling our connection to the All-That-Is. When a basketball player or a jazz musician is “in the zone”, when two human beings feel a heartfelt love, when after grinding at a problem for a long time the solution suddenly presents itself, that feeling of connection to our higher self, and from there to the Divine, is evident. That’s right, I said it, great basketball comes from G-d.
There are many ways to go about reaching those moments. I for one discourage people from mind-altering substances. While they can be useful as tools under the direction of a Shaman during a sacred ritual- usually for purposes of breaking out of mental boxes- in our thrill-seeking, movie-fantasy Western society they are too frequently abused. Moments of transcendence, illumination, and connection can just as easily be reached chopping wood and carrying water. Or listening to music. Or running. Or dancing.
Ancient Celtic shamanism discusses the spiritual path as “walking with one foot in the water and one foot on the land”- in other words, as existing between two worlds. If you were only on the dry land, you weren’t really in touch with that other world, but then again, too far out to sea and you were simply mad, and of no help to anybody including yourself. A spiritual seeker requires balance. That balance is the primary reason I don’t advocate the use of substances in attempting to attain to spiritual understanding.
There are several little things you can do to begin to shift your perception from “worldly” to “spiritual”. The first two lessons I always give to my students are relatively fun and easy.
Lesson One: Spend at least five minutes, a few times a day, enjoying yourself. Once you’re really having a good time, feel grateful for it. Work hard to really FEEL that feeling of thankfulness- be thankful for the food you’re eating, the new shoes on your feet, the view, the beautiful color of the sky, the smell of your lover’s hair, the new tires on your car- whatever is giving you joy. Focus on it and really feel it, and then say thank you- whisper it if you’re embarrassed to be heard by people around you, but do really say it- expressing gratitude to the Divine [insert your version of the Divine here]. After you’ve gotten into the habit of feeling your thanks a few times a day [give it about two weeks to make it a habit], move on to lesson two.
Lesson Two: Give praise to the Divine [again, whomever [s]he is for you] for this amazing Universe. If you can’t think of anything to specifically to give praise for, start with oxygen and the fact that you breathe it in, fuel your body, and breathe it out again to make noise, and go from there. Usually if you look around you for more than a minute you’ll find plenty to be amazed and inspired by- for which you can happily say “way to go, God/dess!” Giving praise is a way of “feeding” the Divine in your life. Cheering for God, as it were. After you’ve added this to your list of new habits, you can go on to lesson three.
Lesson three is a bit more involved. Create a mindset where you dedicate an everyday action towards your spiritual understanding of yourself and your fellows in the “dry land” world.
For instance, next time you’re sitting fuming in traffic, dedicate yourself to witnessing the negativity [compassionately, please] and then sending out positive energy by being an uber-courteous driver. Let the other guy merge in front of you, use your turn signals, and try not to cut anybody off. Make the conscious decision that since you’re going to be late anyway, you’re going to use this time to relax and calm yourself and go with the flow- and make it a better day for yourself [and hopefully your fellow drivers] in the end. If you get to the point where you’re feeling the zen of traffic, go one step further, and thank the Divine for that moment. If you don’t get to that point, don’t fret- I totally understand!
Or you can try having a conversation with somebody who’s having a hard time, really hearing what they’re saying to you without judging them. Walk a mile in their moccasins, as it were, use active listening techniques, and let them know you hear them, whether or not you agree with them on everything that they say. Don’t try to solve their problems or make them see your opinion, just listen. When they finish speaking, thank them for talking to you and helping you to understand their side of things. Don’t offer any advice, just let them know you heard them. Then after you’re by yourself, take a few minutes to figure out what you agree/disagree with them about, and what your opinions say about you. See where it takes you, you’ll be surprised.
But above all, with lesson three, remember that keeping your balance is the name of the game. You can’t fake your zen traffic jam, nor can you give undivided attention to an agony aunt every time they want a piece of you and expect to acquire a new nugget of self-awareness every time. That isn’t the way to be in balance and in tune, that’s just self-abuse.
I hope that the above is of help to people, and that by writing this I’m adding to the conversation started by Ben Dench in his excellent originating article.