Higher consciousness objectively exists.
It is one of the primary experiences of living.
Roberto Assagioli, M.D.
Spirituality is a human trait with great health benefits. The goal of religious and spiritual practices is to awaken this trait in you.
The Experience Itself
When your spirituality wakes up, you have experiences of higher consciousness. “Higher” may not be the ideal word: “deeper,” “greater” or “expanded” consciousness could be other terms. Finding the best term is tricky because the experiences take you beyond your normal self and, at the same time, show you more of yourself.
Such experiences are spiritual because they connect you more fully to the non-visible, non-material spirit element of your nature and of all nature. If you want to use religious thinking, you can say that this spirit element is an aspect of God inside you. If you prefer non-religious language, you can say that spirit is the universal energy which ceaselessly animates all of life, including yourself.
Higher consciousness is therefore a moment when you become more fully aware of the spirit element of your nature. In such a moment, you cannot quite tell inside from outside: is the energy in you – or are you in it? The answer to this question is a matter of degrees. When the immersion into the energy is slight, you tend to feel that it’s in you: it’s your energy. When the immersion into the energy is fuller, you feel that you have entered into something beyond your mind, body and feelings.
The study of this vast force of healing has been explored by many people, and they have left us descriptions. The 13th Century Islamic Sufi poet Rumi put it this way:
As salt dissolves in the ocean,
I was swallowed in God’s sea,
Past faith, past unbelieving,
past doubt, past certainty.
The 14th Century Catholic mystical poet Dante put it this way:
Through the living light there poured a glow bright, so bright
that my poor eyes could not endure the sight.
My guide said to me: “That which overcomes you now
is strength against which nothing has defense.
Within it dwell the wisdom and the power
that opens the road between heaven and earth.”
My mind began to swell until it broke its bounds,
and what became of it,
it does not know.
This universal eternal energy reported by Rumi, Dante and other mystics is not a metaphor or a belief: it is a verifiable fact. This fact is of immense benefit. As you merge into the energy even a little, you feel released from your habitual sense of time, vigilance and separateness, and this release brings peace and bliss: “the peace that surpasses understanding,” as it is says in the Bible.
In those few seconds of higher consciousness, you have the immediate realization that you are participating in something which is far, far greater than yourself. There is a profound surprise, relief and freedom in this realization. You have been temporarily freed from the small, nervous self driven by self-preservation and social conditioning. Your entire perspective on reality is altered, and you feel a renewed sense of hope and purpose. Among many purposes, you now feel a desire to transmit your realization to others.
Communicating the Experience
The spiritual guide, Beatrice, talking to her student in Dante’s Divine Comedy:
“Note well my words – What I have said to you, you will repeat,
as you teach those who live that life which is merely a race to death.”
An experience marked by timelessness, peace, bliss and realization (referred to as satchitananda in the yogic tradition) is clearly difficult to communicate. Common, consensual terms do not exist for such experiences. Mystics and sages from every time and culture, such as Rumi and Dante, write extensively about such experiences, but their language may only make sense to you if you have had similar experiences. Communicating the experience is also difficult because higher consciousness took you beyond your thinking mind. That aspect of you – your thinking mind – which is usually providing an ongoing internal commentary on everything you’re experiencing, had also merged into the higher state.
In addition to not having common language nor having the thinking mind fully available, a third difficulty in communicating your experience to others is fear of social disapproval. What will someone think when you say that you now know deep in your bones that you are, and we all are, participating in a harmonious, eternal, interpenetrating, mysterious and non-visible reality? Have you gone crazy? Are you saying you encountered God? If not, then what are you talking about?
In a culture such as ours, with its divergent trends of increased dogmatism and increased secularism, direct experience is ignored or even treated as suspicious. Perhaps the only intelligent thing to communicate is any benefit you have received from your experience of higher consciousness. Others will decide for themselves if it motivates them to know more, or not.
It is one thing to write about higher consciousness. It is quite another to point you to methods you can use to experience higher consciousness for yourself.
How do we create the conditions for an illumination, a breakthrough, an opening into higher consciousness?
The first thing to understand is that it can occur spontaneously without any preparation. The writer, C.S. Lewis, wrote Surprised by Joy to describe just such a spontaneous experience. The very fact that people of all cultures in every period of history have had spontaneous experiences could be taken as proof, in itself, of their objective reality. Take a moment to think back over your own experiences—have you had such a moment of illumination, a transcendent feeling, a sense of deep soulful connection to the world?
At the same time, creating the conditions for higher consciousness is definitely worth your time and effort. Many people associate long period of meditating with the possibility of experiencing higher consciousness, but meditation is only one of many methods. My experience is that many people enter higher consciousness through art, particularly through music and/or architectural space.
Laurie, a student of mine, gave me these notes from her diary after experiencing just such an art-inspired illumination while traveling in Rome. Her experience was both spontaneous and deliberate: although the illumination itself happened spontaneously, she had deliberately traveled to a place filled with inspiration:
Entering St. Peter’s Cathedral. Experiencing its hugeness. Awesome. Is this structure designed to humble me? I experience myself resisting it. All vertical and overbearing. I feel like I’m in the land of giants. There is beauty present, but it feels remote and cold. Perhaps when it is filled with thousands of worshippers, it will warm up and soften.
I find myself drawn to the side chapel where Michelangelo’s Pieta is displayed. I can’t approach it—it is behind a glass wall, protected from any threat of attack. It draws my gaze despite the barrier, and I feel myself pulled towards it. I’m first drawn to the Virgin Mary’s face. It is the face of a young girl not older than adolescent. Soft, delicate, yet serenely sad, wise beyond her years, yet innocent and confused by the situation she is in.
My eyes survey the rest of the sculpture. The soft, translucent white of the marble, the folds of drapery and the large figure of the dead Christ draped across Mary’s lap. This lifeless body is much too large to be Mary’s child. I’ve seen many Pietas—paintings and sculptures—why are there tears in my eyes? I’m drawn back to Mary’s delicate face. I can’t turn away. Why is she so young and innocent? Certainly Michelangelo knew how to sculpt an older woman. No, there is a reason she appears like this. Suddenly I understand. This image is about a human experience. Mary is a mother whose child has been killed. Is a person ever old enough to not be completely vulnerable to this loss?
When I first became a mother, I remember being frightened by the intensity of my protective instincts and the degree to which thoughts of my son being harmed terrified me. I feel joined to Mary’s face. I can see myself and all mothers. My tears continue. The image expands to connecting with the universal fear of death and loss. Can my spirituality offer me solace in the face of this? Isn’t loss one of the primary facts that draws us to a spiritual path? I think about how angry I get when I hear pat answers to the question, “Why?” Don’t tell me about karma, or God’s Will, or that it’s part of a lesson. Those answers bypass the sorrow, my experience of grief. This sculpture before me honors this. Somehow that look of innocence is even more compelling than if Mary’s face had appeared ravaged and racked with sorrow. She needs compassion. She needs me to accompany her, be present with her. This allows me to gain strength from the shared human experience. I am not alone.
In this moment, I understand the power of the creative moment to transcend time and space—to draw me through the act of creation to a place of truth. Michelangelo was only twenty-five when he created this work. What did he know? I’ve lived twice as many years as he had—yet the place from which his genius and inspiration comes is timeless and universal. It emerges from the energetic ground of being and includes me in it.