What Is a Spiritual Experience?

Spirit is defined as a supernatural, immaterial being or essence. In the roots of Christianity and some Eastern religions, it is also seen as divine substance, divine mind, or a personable God. And from a cosmic perspective, spiritual reality is an alternate dimension—a unique phase of universe reality.

While our conceptions and beliefs about spirit may vary, it’s what we believe that determines the nature and depth of our spiritual experiences (see What You Believe Is What You See). To clarify some differences in our beliefs, it helps to look at two grand divisions in the ways we think about spirituality—the nonpersonal and the personal. The former is premised on a personal interaction with a nonpersonal but supernatural essence, while the latter assumes a personal relationship with a spirit personality.

Nonpersonal Spirituality

A belief in nonpersonal spirits or forces is a belief in the existence of spiritual things, forces, or events, but not necessarily spirit beings or persons. And generally, it assumes we can personally interact with these things and forces to some degree.

Beliefs about a nonpersonal essence, a spiritual state of mind, or a supernatural force, are prevalent in most religions and many philosophies. Even people who claim to be non-religious or non-spiritual, often entertain supernatural notions. Any belief in fate or luck, or any superstition such as knocking on wood, or avoiding black cats would fit this category, as would all attempts to predict the future by means of astrology or Tarot cards.

A belief in luck suggests that an individual believes she is favored in life circumstances by unknown and unseen forces, which implies that all outcomes are the result of supernatural favoritism rather than random chance or wisdom. And “bad luck” implies the opposite.

A belief in any form of magic, sorcery, or witchcraft is a belief in the existence of secret forces of nature or powers that reside in nature. And these supernatural powers or energies are believed to influence the course of life events. It also presumes that select individuals can control this power as well as subsequent events by using esoteric words, secret rituals, or magic formulas.

A belief in the supernatural power of charms, amulets, talismans, incantations, or rituals is similar in nature, as is any belief in the power of religious relics, artifacts, or symbols. Inherent in all these animistic beliefs is a conviction that some supernatural force or nonpersonal, spirit-like entity can, in some way, be compelled to act or intervene in our favor.

Such supernatural forces are often poorly defined in terms of their nature or attributes, but in nearly all cases they are believed to act, or take effect, only after performing a prescribed ritual. For instance, a baseball player who touches the brim of his cap for luck, a stock trader who feels the need to recite some motivating mantra before the trading day begins, or a religious devotee who hopes to attract spiritual forces by reciting specific incantations in a specified order. For all such enthusiasts, their actions make appeal to certain unseen forces which, they believe, will respond positively, but only if they perform the rituals the correct way.

Many nonpersonal religious ideas infiltrate the arts and sciences. Science fiction and fantasy writers like to create supernatural powers that parallel real-life beliefs. One example is Jediism, an actual belief system derived from the Star Wars series of movies. It entertains supernatural notions about a power called “The Force,” which is perceived as an advantageous essence, an unseen power for good. And becoming a Jedi Knight is a spiritual or enhancing experience in which one makes beneficial physical and mental contact.

Other religions have no supernatural element, but instead reflect materialist ideologies founded on extreme rationalism. As one example, transhumanism is a belief that the ultimate progress of humanity will depend on applied reason and advancing technologies, even the integration of man and machine. Some adherents prophesize that the final salvation of humanity rests with artificial intelligence, another nonpersonal reality.

Any attempt to invoke nonpersonal supernatural powers, no matter how selfish, materialistic, or rudimentary the motivation may be, constitutes an expression of spirituality on some level of experience. All these beliefs, whether they entertain magic, myth, or superstition, assume the existence of super-material values or supernatural powers and, therefore, they pave the way for more progressive concepts about the nature of the spiritual universe.

Way Beyond Magic

Some nonpersonal religious beliefs are quite advanced, reaching far beyond superstition and magic. Most of these take a more subjective approach by looking for something existing within oneself instead of looking for supernatural forces existing entirely outside oneself. This is the main thrust of Indian philosophies and Buddhist beliefs.

There are many schools of Buddhist thought and a wide variety of practices but, in general, Buddhists seek an improved or altered state of mind or consciousness, and it is believed this state can be achieved by accepting certain truths (as defined by Buddha) and by following certain practices.

Perhaps the best-known example is the concept of nirvana, which is said to be a transcendent mental state of enlightenment or emancipation. Some Buddhists see nirvana as the act of “blowing out” the fires of base emotions such as greed, lust, hatred, anger, and worldly desires.

Ways to achieve nirvana differ but in the original tradition it is reached by accepting the Four Noble Truths and by following the practices listed in the Noble Eightfold Path, such as right speech and right action. Other paths have become popular as well, and perhaps one of the best known in Western Buddhism is called the “Three Doors of Liberation,” especially as taught by Thich Nhat Hanh, a Buddhist monk and teacher. These “doors” are also considered to be truths. 

There is much about these truths to explore but, in a nutshell, the Four Noble Truths are: 1. All life is suffering, 2. All suffering is due to desire, 3. The cure is letting go of desire and, 4. To let go, we must walk the Eightfold Path.

And the truths of the Three Doors are: 1. Everything is connected so there is no individual self, 2. Forms may change but nothing is ever lost, 3. There is no goal in life because you already have it all.

Similar in principle to nirvana but much older in origin, is the Hindu notion of moksha, which also refers to a state of enlightenment or liberation considered to be the ultimate goal of life. But rather than having to accept certain truths as in Buddhism, its followers believe that moksha can be achieved through an increasing knowledge of Atman, the Supreme Soul that gives birth to the true self.

Both nirvana and moksha are similar, deriving their root meanings and principles from Brahmanism. There are many interpretations of both, with much depending on the school of thought but, generally, they are an attempt to reach peace of mind through self-knowledge and through the realization, or understanding, of certain cosmological concepts. And for both, the intention is to liberate oneself from a cycle of misery, suffering, ignorance, and fear.

One significant difference in Hinduism is the idea that moksha is the realization, or perhaps mental feat, of attaining union of self (or soul) with the ultimate reality known as Brahman—the source of all reality. As stated in another post, achieving unity with the cosmos is a central mission of Brahmanism.

The concept of cosmic unity is also shared in Zen Buddhism, a discipline that gives particular emphasis to meditative states of mind said to bring us into mental contact with a nonpersonal, infinite intelligence or a higher state of consciousness.

Zen Buddhism was greatly influenced by the religious philosophy of Taoism (or Daoism), a school of thought attributed to the Chinese philosopher, Lao Tzu (or Laozi). One premise of this belief system is the existence of Tao—a term loosely translated as The Way or The Road.

But Tao is more than a road; it is also envisioned as a primal, eternal, and vital Source that can guide human action, similar in concept to the dharma of Hinduism or the will of God in Christianity.

As in many Eastern religions, the Supreme God or Tao is portrayed as a pantheistic God (see Pantheism Revival). This is the notion that God is equivalent to the forces of the universe, if not the physical universe itself. Despite this rather materialist or animistic view, the advanced concept of Tao as depicted by Lao Tzu is a profound insight about the nature of God. He describes Tao as existing “before Heaven and Earth,” and as the “Mother of all things” — “the mysterious Quality” that is the source, pattern, and substance of the entire universe.

The Tao produced One. One produced Two. Two produced Three. Three produced all things.

– Lao Tzu

When we strip away the cultural differences in ancient Chinese idioms as well as the forms of presentation as found in the Tao Te Ching, we discover that the concepts of Tao are remarkably similar to many Western ideas of God, even of the Trinity.

One objective of Zen Buddhism is to recognize that we are one with Tao. In this way, we put our minds into a state of intuitive contact with the essence of Tao, thereby achieving wisdom and enlightenment. These objectives are similar to those of Christian mystics, which is to become one with God or, as the American theologian, Bernard McGinn, suggests, “to attain a consciousness of being in the transformative presence of God.”

But even as Lao Tzu portrays Tao as the ultimate Source of all reality and all creation, he still views this God as a nonpersonal entity. Tao is conceived as an impersonal, yet potent, universal Source with which we can interact (or merge) for the purpose of achieving wisdom and freedom from suffering. It’s seen as an unintentional but beneficial Force of the universe rather than a purposeful Personality that can make decisions and have a plan.

This brings up the question: Can we attribute consciousness, volition, or wisdom to an inanimate object? If so, it implies that planets, suns, or cosmic rays can be conscious, make decisions, and be wise.

Even if the universe as a whole is viewed as a greater form of life, it would have to be an intelligent form of life that is conscious and wise; an entity that is able to make a decision to share its wisdom with others.

Wisdom is defined as a personal ability to use knowledge and experience to make good decisions and judgments, and the only way Tao could impart wisdom to another personality is through shared consciousness. Therefore, the ability to give spiritual advice (wisdom) implies that Tao itself has personality and purpose.

The God Experience

Zen Buddhism touches on the God experience because the wisdom of God lives and acts within all of us, and we contact this inner Spirit (Tao) through our superconscious mental channels. There is also good reason to believe that the transcendent mental states of nirvana and moksha are analogous to this superconscious mode of spirit contact. Therefore, both pursuits prove to be effective approaches to the God experience, but more so in practice than in philosophy.

Indeed, the divine spark within every one of us is a powerful force and a dependable guide to virtue and wisdom, as Zen Buddhism implies. It is a spirit with a direct connection to the Source of all Reality, Cosmic Mind, and the God of all Creation. But if it really does guide human action, as Lao Tzu insists, it cannot be devoid of purpose or design. And if we allow for the volitional nature of Tao, then Tao represents a personal God in every way, whether as Infinite Mind, the Mother of the Universe, or the Creative Principle.

Personal Spirituality

A belief in personal spirits implies a belief in intelligent spiritual beings or spirit entities who are truly alive, can make decisions, and are aware of our life situations. It’s a belief in supernatural beings with whom we can have a personal relationship.

Whenever we attempt to communicate with spirit beings or forces, we make the implicit assumption they are personal. We talk to them because we believe they understand our problems, desires, and anxieties as well as our challenges in life. And we believe we will receive personal benefits through such contact, whether through divine providence or some contribution to our strength, courage, or faith.

Spirit is the fundamental reality of the personality experience of all creatures because God is spirit. 12:8.14

– The Urantia Book

Any meaningful human contact is personal. The very act of prayer (a spiritual petition) indicates a recognition of superhuman agencies that exist apart from the self-conscious individual. We appeal to these spirits because we believe they can, and will, assist the individual as well as society at large.

The many gods of ancient Mesopotamia, particularly those of the Sumerian culture (circa 3000 BC), are the oldest recorded instances of a belief in individual spirit beings, although archaeological evidence suggests these ideas extend much further back in time.

Every civilization and empire on earth entertained polytheistic beliefs at one time or another. The many gods of Egypt, China, Rome, Greece, and India were all seen as personal gods to whom devotees could make appeal—to beg or barter for prosperity, children, a good harvest, or victory over their enemies. And if the gods did not meet their demands, they would curse them for failing their expectations, as some still do today.

Even in traditional Eastern Buddhism, there are many divine beings, most of them adaptations of Hindu deities. These include gods of healing, protection, and truth, among others, all of which are anthropomorphic gods with human temperaments.

In almost every ancient society, gods were given human qualities. The authoritarian God depicted in the Old Testament was prone to wrath, jealousy, and revenge. People saw God in an entirely different way three thousand years ago, and it was difficult for the average person of that time, and perhaps for some at this time, to conceive of an all-perfect, all-loving, all-merciful, and non-human Creator God.

Personal gods were assigned to almost anything—crops, trees, weather, luck, love, and fertility. Even today, some of us are still inclined to animate material things, such as ships, cars, machinery, or weather, often endowing them with human traits such as love, anger, or happiness. We see this whenever people get frustrated with things or machines that do not “cooperate,” as if they had a mind of their own.

Any belief in spirits of the dead also fits under the umbrella of personal spirituality. In these belief systems, those who have died are thought to remain on earth within a spiritual dimension. Such notions can be traced back to early forms of ancestor worship or the veneration of the dead, both of which were popular practices in ancient Egypt and Rome and are still common in many parts of Asia.

In the West, similar beliefs and practices gained popularity in the late 19th century under the unfortunate rubric of spiritualism, a supernatural belief that remains popular in the 21st century. Like ancestor worship, spiritualists believe in the existence of spirits of the dead who can communicate with the living, thereby providing a source of esoteric knowledge and spiritual guidance.

In contrast to a belief in unseen spirit beings, others believe in the spiritual power of beings they can see, such as male or female priests, saints, preachers, prophets, gurus, and shamans who are thought to have the power to intervene on their behalf by contacting gods or metaphysical forces in the spiritual domains.

Until recent times, kings and queens were believed to be either divine beings or descended from divine beings—or at least divinely ordained. This collective belief in the power of ordained religious and administrative authority is a universal concept found in almost every religion around the world from the times of ancient Sumer right up to the modern era. While such notions are not so prevalent today, vestiges still exist, such as the Pope of Christianity, the Dalai Lama of Buddhism, the Aga Khan of Shia Islam, or the Gurus of Hinduism.

In most societies, dominant religious personalities were believed to be the ultimate authorities for religious teachings, having special knowledge, esoteric wisdom, spiritual connections, or divine privileges in relation to a higher spiritual power and, therefore, could make decrees or obtain certain favors and absolutions for those who asked.

A New Revelation

Only in relatively recent times, beginning with the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth, did people become aware that religion could be a personal spiritual experience rather than mere obedience to doctrine and ritual.

Jesus proclaimed a religion free of sacred relics, holy rituals, dead ancestors, and religious authorities. It was a simple, yet compelling, belief in an unobstructed, direct, and personal experience with the personable God of all creation. Indeed, he taught that the only requirement for a truly spiritual life was sincere faith in the goodness, wisdom, and fellowship of God; a belief so elementary and yet so forceful and dynamic that many followers in his day, and even today, could not grasp it.

Jesus taught that faith, simple childlike belief, is the key to the door of the kingdom. 170:3.2

– The Urantia Book

Regrettably, the freedom, simplicity, and spontaneity of spiritual expression that Jesus so ardently proclaimed was soon stifled under the rigid dogma and elaborate hierarchy of Christian religion.

The original teachings of Siddhartha also embraced notions of spiritual freedom, although different in concept from those of Jesus. But here too, his followers submerged and formalized his ideas of spiritual liberty by creating a Buddhist priesthood and hierarchy. Only recently, with much credit to the present Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso, do we see a return to the original freedom of spiritual expression that Siddhartha so strongly espoused.

The significant difference between Siddhartha’s ideas, which had more to do with freedom from suffering by attaining a state of selflessness, and those of Jesus, was that the God-led man of Nazareth taught that true spiritual liberty is achieved through our individual loyalty, or dedication, to a personal, omnipotent God—one he portrayed as a wise, just, and loving Father of all creation.

When Jesus talked about “the living God,” he referred to a personal Deity—the Father in heaven. 1:7.1

– The Urantia Book

After the fall of Rome, in the dark ages of Christianity, it seemed as though Jesus’ ideas about spiritual liberty were forgotten. But his revolutionary ideas about the loving nature of a personal, friendly God could not be suppressed for long. And we see these ideas re-emerge with force in the Christianity of 14th century Europe.

This trend came to a head in the 16th century with the teachings of Martin Luther, a German priest and an avid writer who, through the power of the printing press, led an intellectual rebellion against church corruption, hierarchy, and authority. His controversial theological views gave rise to the religious movement known as the Protestant Reformation.

One of Luther’s most shocking claims was that believers did not need priests or clergy to reach God, an idea that bypassed the authority and control of the church. Another was that salvation comes by faith alone rather than acting out ostensible good deeds, as the church upheld. Predictably, the Pope of Rome and others saw Luther as a threat to their vested interests and had him excommunicated, even though many of his ideas fully agreed with Jesus’ teachings.

If we do not love God and his word, what difference does it make if we love anything at all?

– Martin Luther

No doubt, Luther had his faults. But his rejection of the intractable dogma and elaborate ritual of the church also agreed with Jesus’ teachings. Luther’s emancipating philosophy further evolved in Europe during the Age of Enlightenment despite the ongoing rebellion against church authority. And such liberating and powerful ideas about having an intimate and personal relationship with a loving Creator continue to evolve today regardless of any appearances to the contrary.

The culmination of Jesus’ ongoing revelation about personal religious experience was that making an intimate connection with a higher power is simply the act of sharing one’s inner life—all that we think, feel, and do—with the Divine Presence—the Spirit of God within us. In his approach, contact (communion) with God is a powerful, direct, spiritual, and personal relationship, one in which no lucky charms, doctrines, rituals, formal prayers, or priests are needed.

Man does not have to go farther than his own inner experience of the soul’s contemplation of this spiritual-reality presence to find God and attempt communion with him. 5:0.1

– The Urantia Book

Divine Spirituality

Spirituality is often associated with a broad range of relics, practices, and beliefs. But from this wide array of religious doctrine, I would like to distinguish divine spirituality.

Divine spirituality can be defined as a personal spiritual experience, or consciousness, of divinity—where divinity is defined as the quality or state of being divine—and all things divine are either directly related to God or proceed from God.

Achieving a consciousness of divinity is a process of becoming—it’s an ongoing evolutionary process of positive and progressive growth. And much of this growth depends on your capacity and willingness to receive spiritual guidance, adopt spiritual values, and live the spirit way.

God, by any name or conception, is the Primal Source of all divinity, and we can begin to understand the nature and characteristics of this source by recognizing the qualities of divinity, such as love, truth, goodness, wisdom, and compassion. Furthermore, we can personally convey these divine qualities to others through loving kindness, good deeds, and social service. To become divine is to become increasingly Godlike.

Regardless of the name applied to this ideal of spirit reality, it is God. 160:5.4

– The Urantia Book

Divine spirituality means recognizing the qualities and values of divinity as well as the divine nature of the grand universe. In Eastern religions, there is a shared belief in the unity of the cosmos, and because of the oneness of all things, it is surmised there can be no such thing as an individual self. But from another perspective, even though we cannot deny the cosmos is a functioning whole, we also recognize the existence of individual parts within the whole. The universe is one functional system, nonetheless, it has individual planets, suns, and galaxies, as well as individual personalities—selves.

A divine experience is a matter of achieving spiritual union with God through communion—personal interaction—not by merging or dissolving your unique self in an infinite ocean of impersonal existence. You achieve unity with divinity by your freewill choice to live a spiritual life, to follow the lead of your inner Spirit as God wants you to. It’s a unity of purpose. See also Ego, Self, Spirit, and You.

In this purposeful unity of self and spirit, we realize that spirituality is not a thing we exclusively possess. Instead, it’s a dynamic experience in which we are a living conduit for spiritual energy, love, and wisdom. We participate in a spiritual life by being both a receiver and a transmitter of spiritual qualities and forces. 

Thus, to complete the God experience, we are willing to live a life in the spirit. Until we can reach a point in our lives where we can love others freely and with sincere affection, we will find ourselves confined to a religion of the mind rather than being liberated in a religion of the spirit.

Freely you have received, freely give.

– Jesus of Nazareth

A divine spiritual experience is a fully conscious, happy, sane, and sober experience. It’s a balanced approach to your ongoing and devoted practice of living in the presence of God and actively engaging in a spiritual life, an experience you can easily cultivate and express as you go about your daily routine. It’s alive and spontaneous—an authentic experience.

Divine spirituality is an interactive and eager state of mind in which you are a happy, receptive, and willing participant who freely chooses, consciously and assertively, to embrace the spirit way. It’s the delightful result of your overwhelming desire to be pure of heart—sincere, loving, and faithful.

Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.

– Jesus of Nazareth

Balanced Spirituality

Get the most from your spiritual experiences by taking a balanced approach. The God experience doesn’t need to be overly emotional or exuberant, although it’s always good to be invigorated by the Spirit.

Strongly felt emotions, physical rites, or self-inflicted pain are not necessary conditions for a spiritual life. Nor should your honest and transformative experiences be confused with any kind of fanaticism, religious intolerance, or narcissistic tendency. A divine experience is a rational, level-headed, personal approach to God.

Take a balanced approach by making the necessary adjustments and improvements in body, mind, and soul. The aim is to stimulate the growth of all three but not to overemphasize either one. It entails the balanced, integrated, and harmonious development of all personality endowments.

The best and safest thing is to keep a balance in your life, acknowledge the great powers around us and in us. If you can do that, and live that way, you are really a wise man.

– Euripides

The body works best as a temple of God when all electrochemical functions are working normally. The mind works best when it is free of all vices, fears, and detrimental emotions. And the spirit thrives in an atmosphere of dedication, contemplation, and worship. For more on this topic, see Balance Your Self.

The Spirit Within

Spiritual maturity results from your individual efforts to better yourself. It demonstrates your intimate connection with a real, living, and active spirit entity, one that thrives within each of us. As you learn to cooperate with this divine Guide, you not only tap into its spiritual energy and wisdom, you also identify with its divine nature—you become that nature.

To find God, there is no need to travel to distant lands, exotic places, or sacred sites. God doesn’t live in Rome, Amritsar, or Mecca any more than anywhere else. The presence of God is all around you and a spark of this Creator Spirit lives within you. You carry this gift of God wherever you go.

For indeed, the kingdom of God is within you.

– Jesus of Nazareth

Your Spirit Guide is a powerful source and there are several ways to draw on its rejuvenating, spiritual energy. But more so, it’s a conscious living entity that always endeavors to convey to you divine values, ideals, and goals. It is literally the gentle whisper of God.

The Spirits within all of us are identical in nature; they are equal fragments of God. And yet they retain all elements of God, much as a drop of ocean water retains all elements of the ocean. This is not to say that God will eventually dissolve our identities in a great universe ocean. We will forever retain our unique identities because we also enjoy the divine gift of a unique personality endowed with the freewill power of moral choice (See You Are a Special Creature).

If you can bring yourself to wholeheartedly trust and accept the love and goodness of this divine Spirit, it will lead you through every difficulty and challenge in your life. It will not necessarily exempt you from all tragedies and tribulations, but it will help you to solve or rectify your difficult problems—to face your challenges with an indomitable spirit, one guided by love, tact, wisdom, and reason.

Without the Spirit of God, we can do nothing. We are as ships without wind.

 – Charles Spurgeon

Increasing contact with your inner Spirit brings you happiness, strength, courage, and peace but it will not endow you with a life of ease. Being spiritual does not entail living a passive life of indifference wherein you can forever avoid your duties, obligations, and responsibilities by hiding away from the world.

The Spirit is forever attempting to guide you through the maze of life’s problems by adjusting your thoughts in a way that enhances your spiritual perceptions and cosmic perspectives. In effect, it is transforming you into a new, spiritual creature. You can think of this spirit as a Much Higher Self while keeping in mind that you are not that Self as yet—it is a divine goal, a destiny to be attained.

True power is within, and it is available to you now.

– Eckhart Tolle

Your inner Spirit works day and night to reach you, and you can assist its efforts by learning to recognize spiritual realities, by accepting the truth of those realities, and by opening your heart to receive them.