Spiritual Experiences: Discipline and Quiet

On page 286 of Circle of Life: Traditional Teachings of Native American Elders, James David Audlin talks about attitudes to avoid when one wants to receive a vision:

“If we decide in our own minds, ‘I am never going to have a vision,’ or ‘I insist on having a vision,’ we make it harder to have the vision that the Grandmothers and Grandfathers may want to bring to us.  It’s like telling yourself, ‘I could never learn to play the piano’ or ‘I insist on learning to play the piano.’  If you tell yourself either, it becomes much more difficult to learn to play the piano.  Rather, chant[e] ishta, seeing with the heart, is learning to be quiet within and not make presumptions, so the vision, if there is to be one, may come to us.  Gautama Buddha taught well that desire (including anti-desire, or fear) blocks us from progress.  Zen Buddhism in particular teaches us how to be quiet within so the delicate wakan presence of a vision, like the sighting of a rare bird or of an albino deer, such as I once saw in Vermont, is not chased off by our loud desires or fears.”

What I get out of the above passage is that sometimes we need to get out of our own way in order to have a spiritual experience.  Does this accord with what I have seen, read, or heard?  I’d say that many have told me that I need to work hard in order to have a spiritual experience.  “Keep seeking the baptism of the Holy Spirit”, a Pentecostal once told me.  “You have to do the first eight steps of the twelve step program, then you will have the spiritual experience that Step Nine talks about”, people in twelve-step recovery groups are told.  The first century Jewish philosopher Philo of Alexandria believed that, in many cases, an ecstatic spiritual experience came after rigorous asceticism and contemplation.  And James David Audlin himself, on pages 273-277, quotes a story about someone who fasted from the comforts of modern life (i.e., hamburgers, television, etc.) and repeatedly cried out to the Great Mystery, but he eventually felt great peace when he accepted the wilderness around him and, in turn, felt accepted by it.

I think that having a spiritual experience does require work, discipline, and preparation.  Even James David Audlin says in the passage that I quoted at the beginning of this post that Zen Buddhism has a technique that helps practitioners to become quiet within.  I’m sure that takes discipline!  But it seems to be the case that the spiritual experience comes when we are at a state of quiet and peace, when we’re just open—-when we’re not despairing that we will never have a spiritual experience, on the one hand, and we’re not obsessed over having one, on the other hand.  Sometimes, the spiritual experience may come when we’re not expecting it.  An old man once told me a story about how he was praying on his tractor and, out of the blue, just started speaking in tongues!  C.S. Lewis at the end of Mere Christianity says that we will find Christ when we look to Him and not to ourselves.

We can take steps to make ourselves receptive, but when, how, and if we have a spiritual experience is the prerogative of God, as the spirit blows wherever it wishes.  But, at the same time, I believe that God loves us, even if we don’t have a spiritual experience.  That realization can take off of me the pressure to have one, or the despair at not having one, and perhaps it can put me in the position of enjoying God for God’s company and being open, whatever happens.

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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