Many of us come to meditation practice because we’ve read or heard about extraordinary experiences of spiritual enlightenment that meditation can help bring about. Depending on our background, we may meditate with the expectation that it will release powerful experiences of spiritual energy, open us to overwhelming spiritual bliss and joy, or reveal an earth-shattering spiritual insight or satori. And, through our engagement with meditation and other spiritual practices, many of us have had these and other powerful experiences.
But whether we’ve only read about them in books or experienced them directly for ourselves, peak experiences can be a trap for any of us on the spiritual path–particularly if we mistake these experiences for the true goal of enlightenment.
When I speak about peak experiences, I want to acknowledge that there are hundreds – possibly thousands – of different types of spiritual experiences that meditation can bring about. We can have experiences of oneness, in which we feel like we have merged with everything in the universe and lose the ability to distinguish between our self and everything else. We can experience powerful spiritual feelings of bliss or ecstasy that overwhelms our system. We can have experiences where we feel and see the interconnectedness of everything–that everything touches and influences everything else and that nothing has an independent existence.
We can have spiritual experiences where we’re overcome with awe and reverence for the sacred. We can have spiritual experiences with another person – like the feeling of deep soul connection with another, where we feel our consciousness’ become one. We can have experiences of merging with the natural world – of union with nature. We can have experiences of divine love, in which we realize that we are loved or that our nature is love and that love is always here, ever present, always flowing.
We can have spiritual experiences of intense clarity in which everything becomes lucid and crystal and clear. We can have experiences of intense powerful energy. We can have spiritual experiences of a kind of expansiveness and openness – a boundlessness where all the boundaries dissolve and there’s just this kind of infinite space. And we can have hundreds, if not thousands, of other kinds of spiritual experiences as well.
These are all wonderful experiences to have. Peak experiences are often transformational because of what they reveal to us. They also often give us powerful motivation to pursue the spiritual path. When we have these experiences, we feel temporarily connected to a much greater reality and this can build our faith and compel us to be more wholehearted in our spiritual practice.
So, what could possibly be wrong with peak experiences? Nothing whatsoever. The problem only arises when we mistake these experiences with the goal of the spiritual path. (Which, by the way, almost everyone does). Because once we make this mistake, we can’t help but come to meditation seeking after a special experience.
When we think about the goal of the spiritual path, most of us imagine ourselves permanently elevated into some kind of higher state of consciousness. Whether it’s an ongoing experience of deep inner peace, expansive freedom, boundless inspiration or remarkable clarity of mind, most of us find it hard to conceive of spiritual awakening as anything other than a profound transformation of our consciousness.
As a result, most meditators are, consciously or unconsciously, seeking after a specific feeling state or experience that they assume is the goal of meditation. We may pursue this higher state of consciousness during the meditation, or as a result of the meditation–or both.
It’s perfectly natural to assume that reaching “the right state of consciousness” is the goal and the answer to an enlightened life. That’s because at first glance, we can see that when we’re experiencing these higher states, we tend to behave in more enlightened ways. When we feel good, we tend to have more perspective, be more caring, and navigate challenges more easily. Simply, we notice that when we feel good, it’s easier to show up as our highest self.
Observing this connection, we then assume that those feelings are the cause of our best behavior. We figure those feelings have to be in place first if we want to show up in an empowered, enlightened manner. And so most of our spiritual and personal growth effort is devoted to trying to reach — and then forever maintain — these “ideal” states.
The problem with seeking after peak experiences is that these powerful states inevitably come and go. Any emotional quality or higher state we can experience will always be fleeting. Meditative states, like any other state of consciousness, are inherently transitory, passing states. The nature of feelings is that they always change in response to what life brings our way.
Sometimes we experience anger because something frustrating or unjust happened in the world. Sometimes we experience joy because something wonderful happened. Sometimes we experience peace and contentment either because something good happened or maybe, for a brief period, nothing happened, and we were able to just relax. But all of these are just temporary, passing states of consciousness.
Experiences in meditation, no matter how profound they might seem, are fundamentally no different. Peak experiences don’t really have anything to do with the point of meditation or the point of spiritual awakening, even if they’re nice feelings and experiences to have.
Even if we go away to a retreat or workshop and experience the most exalted state we’ve ever known — and it seems like we’ll never touch down — when we get back into the complex realities of our daily life, our state of consciousness will inevitably change once again. That’s simply the nature of being human.
If you achieve a “desired” state briefly, you may be disappointed when it inevitably passes or “crashes.” Then you might conclude that the meditation didn’t work.
Even if we weren’t initially looking for a peak experience in our meditation, many people who do have a special experience during meditation get fixated on trying to recreate that experience–especially if the heightened state is particularly exciting. Inevitably, when we try to permanently “lock in” or reproduce our higher states, we’re disappointed. We may think we’ve “failed” in our aspirations to evolve. We wonder why we’re not “getting there.” It even begins to seem as if true enlightenment is a distant or perhaps impossible goal.
Achieving a higher state of consciousness is not the point of meditation, and it’s actually counterproductive to its real purpose. Trying to achieve a higher state permanently is doomed to fail–but more importantly, it isn’t even necessary or desirable.
Meditation is about the practice of liberation from all states–an equal relationship to everything that arises or ever could arise.
Rather than pursuing a special state of consciousness, when we meditate, we’re seeking to discover the enlightened, liberated consciousness that’s always already here no matter what experience we’re having.
We’re learning how to bring our attention and our presence to the extraordinary consciousness that is already here reading these words right now and looking out of your eyes right now. We’re endeavoring to discover that this sacred consciousness is always here right now in the midst of everything else that’s here right now. We’re not trying to get to a special place other than right here which we discover to our amazement is always an incredibly special place when we stop trying to get somewhere else.