Distinguishing Spiritual Experiences and Realizations
by Traleg Kyabgon Rinpoche
There will be all sorts of experiences on the spiritual path. Positive periods of development – those that are reassuring and comforting – are an important part of the process. It is important to realize, however, that even positive experiences will fluctuate. We will rarely, if ever, perceive a steady development of them, precisely because experiences are fickle by nature. Enjoying a series of good experiences does not ensure that they will continue indefinitely; they may stop suddenly. Even so, they remain an important part of spiritual practice, not least because they help to maintain our motivation to continue practicing.
The way in which these positive experiences arise also varies enormously. You may have some amazingly moving experiences, something like a spiritual awakening that appears to arise out of the blue. In fact, such experiences do not really come from nowhere; psychic conditions will always precede them, although they appear to our conscious experience as independent. They can also vanish just as quickly as they appear. At other times, certain experiences will grow over a period of time, peak, and then gradually fade away again.
As spiritual practitioners, we are instructed not to attach too much significance to these experiences. The advice is to resist the temptation to become fixated on the experiences themselves. Experiences will come and go. Each experience has to be let go of, or the mind will simply close down in its fixation on that experience, leaving little or no room for new experiences to arise. This is because your fixation will encourage worries and doubts to arise in the mind and interfere with the development process. If there is no fixation involved in the process, positive spiritual experiences will start to lead you to spiritual realizations.
In Buddhism, we distinguish between spiritual experiences and spiritual realizations. Spiritual experiences are usually more vivid and intense than realizations because they are generally accompanied by physiological and psychological changes. Realizations, on the other hand, may be felt, but the experience is less pronounced. Realization is about acquiring insight. Therefore, while realizations arise out of our spiritual experiences, they are not identical to them. Spiritual realizations are considered vastly more important because they cannot fluctuate.
The distinction between spiritual experiences and realizations is continually emphasized in Buddhist thought. If we avoid excessively fixating on our experiences, we will be under less stress in our practice. Without that stress, we will be better able to cope with whatever arises, the possibility of suffering from psychic disturbances will be greatly reduced, and we will notice a significant shift in the fundamental texture of our experience.
There are many accounts in Tibetan Buddhist literature of how spiritual disturbances may arise, but all point to fixation on experiences as the cause. Fixation on our experiences is seen as another variation of fixation on the self. In the overall context of the spiritual journey, it is important to remember that self-transformation is a continuous process, not a onetime event. One cannot say, “I used to be a nonspiritual person, but now I have been transformed into a spiritual person. My old self is dead.” We are constantly being transformed when we travel on the path. While we may be the same individual on one level, on another level we are different. There is always continuity, and yet at each major turning point on the journey we have become transformed because certain habits have dropped away. The spiritual journey is dynamic and always tends forward because we are not fixating on things.
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