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Varieties of Mystical Experiences

Introduction

Types of Mystical Experiences
Zen Buddhist Practices
Chanting Aum
Kensho and Kundalini
Experiencing Universal Love
Oneness Through Love
All the Knowledge in the Universe
From My Blog
Joy During Meditation: "I have wonderful experiences out walking feeling love for and connectedness to the birds and trees and people and other living things and all things."
Consciousness Beyond the Hypnogogic State

Communicating with Other Entities
Spirit Contact During Meditation
Communicating with Spirit Guides
Alien Healers

Learning Mystical Traditions
Seeking Out Mystical Experiences
Understanding Ancient Traditions
Western Versions of Traditional Practices
Learning from Books or Teachers
Belief vs. Direct Experience

Introduction

There are a number of difficulties for Westerners who want to learn about mystical traditions that originated in the ancient past or that come from other parts of the world. Many of the mystical traditions can be difficult to understand because what we know about them may be translated from a different time, language, and culture. There also may be idiosyncrasies if a body of knowledge comes from an oral tradition that makes it different from what you might expect from a modern self-help guide. Sometimes there are aspects to these traditions that we just don't understand. In some cases, a practitioner's world view can influence how he understands a phenomena. However, often certain aspects of these traditions can be understood in modern terms, especially if there is a practical side with exercises and practices that are used for specific purposes.

If you want to understand these mystical traditions, in some cases theoretical knowledge will help, but in many cases you have to do the practices and experience them for yourself. When these ancient traditions are taught in the West, sometimes the finer points are lost, therefore, if you want to learn about mystical traditions, you should chose teachers or books by authors who are qualified to teach them. Certain traditions are more amenable to book learning than others, so learning from books can work in some cases, but sometimes a good teacher will be much better than a book.

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Types of Mystical Experiences

Zen Buddhist Practices

Certain aspects of mystical traditions can make sense in modern terms, especially if there is a practical side with exercises and practices that are used for specific purposes. This is true for the meditation practices of Zen Buddhism. Different forms of meditation are useful for different purposes. When the mind is more turbulent, it is easier to meditate using a technique that is more active. Chanting is a more active form of meditation than just sitting and observing the breath. This is why, in many Western Zen centers, they follow the traditional practice of chanting at the beginning of the nightly meditation practice. After a day's activities, the mind is turbulent so they start with chanting and after the mind has had a chance to calm down, they then go on to sitting meditation which is a more passive form of meditation and is more suitable for a calmer state of mind.

In the Zen tradition, it is customary to do bowing practice before chanting first thing in the morning. Bowing practice is a bit like the exercise Westerners call a squat thrust. You go from standing to lying face down on the ground and back up over and over. At first glance this appears to be merely a type of religious tradition but when you consider the effects of exercise on stress it makes a lot of sense. Stress hormone levels are highest in the morning. This is because of reduced caloric intake during sleep. Stress hormones are involved in increasing blood sugar levels. When the brain needs more energy upon waking up after a night of fasting, stress hormone levels rise so the brain can get the energy it needs.

Exercise can also raise blood sugar levels reducing the need for elevated stress hormone levels. Exercising first thing in the morning is very effective way to reduce the level of stress one experiences in one's life. If you are pursuing peace of mind through Zen practice, the tradition of bowing first thing in the morning is as good a form of exercise as any Western exercise like the squat thrust.

This shows that while some traditional practices may seem like arbitrary traditions, they may really exist for practical reasons that are correct. If you ask the Zen master why they do bowing practice he will say it is to develop humility. This makes sense if you consider the fact that the fight or flight reaction involving stress hormones is more conducive to a selfish behavior (self preservation) than the calm relaxed state you feel after the exercise.

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Chanting Aum

In my experience, chanting aum as a form of meditation has effects that differ from other forms of meditation. One evening I went to my local Zen center and we did that type of chanting meditation for about 20 minutes. We were instructed to chant loudly and pay attention to the vibrations of the sound wherever we felt them in our body. For example, there are air spaces in the chest and sinuses that can act as resonating chambers. You have to try it and experience it to understand what this is all about.

I enjoyed this meditation so much that as I was driving home, I continued to do it in my car. When I got home and went to bed, I shut my eyes but it seemed like I had forgotten to turn off the light. I opened my eyes, but the room was dark. I closed my eyes again and I noticed I saw a white light in the upper middle of my visual field where the third eye is supposed to be.

I point this out as an example demonstrating that we don't really understand what the effects of different types of spiritual practices are or how they act. I don't know if chanting aum is a superior form of meditation for psychic development or if there are other special consequences of chanting aum in particular. But, my experience shows there are aspects to such spiritual practices that are not understood.

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Kensho and Kundalini

A person's world view may influence how they interpret mystical experiences. If you don't have any concrete framework with which to understand something unexplainable, you have to hypothesize something abstract. Even if the hypothesis is initially not mystical, if the hypothesis survives over time it may take on mystical characteristics. I think this is why so much of the ancient knowledge seems mystical to us. The ancients didn't have our modern scientific framework to hypothesize explanations with, so they had to invent something, often metaphorical, to describe what they experienced. I can think of two examples of mystical experiences I've had of that I interpreted using a modern framework which, with my modern world view, seemed unusual but not mystical. One is kensho, the other is kundalini energy.

Kensho: Seeing the oneness of all things.

Kensho is defined as:

http://www.reference.com/search?q=Kensho

Kensho (C. Wu) is a Japanese term for enlightenment experiences—most commonly used within the confines of Zen Buddhism.

Most commonly used within the confines of Zen Buddhism—literally meaning "seeing one's nature" or "true self." It generally "refers to the realization of nonduality of subject and object." Frequently used in juxtaposition with satori (or, "catching on"), there is sometimes a distinction made between the two in that some consider satori to be qualitatively deeper. Kensho itself has been said to be "...a blissful realization where a person's inner nature, the originally pure mind, is directly known as an illuminating emptiness, a thusness which is dynamic and immanent in the world." Kensho experiences are tiered, in that they escalate from initial glimpses into the nature of mind, on to an experience of emptiness, and then perhaps on to Buddhahood.

In the Zen center I went to, students were taught that long practice in meditation can lead to a direct experience of the oneness of all things and that experience will prove the philosophy of oneness is true. The knowledge of this truth of oneness is supposed to eliminate selfishness and have transforming consequences for the experiencer.

I used to go to the Zen center two or three days a week. I would go right after work and I would start meditating a few hours before the evening practice session and then stay for the evening session. On one day of the week there was an extra long evening session so the total time I would spend in meditation that day added up to a good number of hours. One time, near the end of that long evening session, I was meditating, gazing at the wooden floor, (in Zen it is customary to meditate with the eyes open) and I felt myself being pulled forward out of my body for a few seconds. A minute later it happened again for a longer time. During this time I had no sensation of my body at all, the only thing I was aware of was the perception of the floor in my visual field. Because it was the only thing I was aware of, it seemed to me that I associated my self with that thing. I knew I existed but I didn't know where. I knew this image of the floor existed. It seemed natural to associate this image with my self. It seemed like I was this image of the floor.

I knew that this experience must be kensho. It was is without a doubt the "non duality of subject and object" mentioned in the definition of kensho above. It proved to me that the sense of self is subjective. At the time I was a materialist and I interpreted the experience differently from the traditional explanation. To me it seemed that because I was so deeply relaxed, most of my brain was asleep except for a bit of consciousness and a bit of visual processing. To me it was an illusion due to an unusual combination of brain centers being deeply relaxed or "asleep". Several years after I had this experience I read about scientific research that that suggested my interpretation is at least partly right.

Also, if a sensation is constant, the brain tends to tune it out. If there is a constant type of sound, you may stop noticing it after a time. If you stare at one spot without moving your eyes, your visual field will start to become gray. This phenomenon is part of why one may lose all sensation of their body. If you sit completely still, the sensation of the body is unchanging and the brain will tend to tune it out.

However this neurological interpretation of kensho is also consistent with the filter model of consciousness which says that the brain does not produce consciousness but filters it. When the brain is quiescent from meditation it may filter consciousness less and one may have expanded consciousness such as this awareness of the oneness of subject and object. The filter model of consciousness is explained in the chapter on Skeptical Fallacies in the section on the fallacy Consciousness is Produced by the Brain.

Maybe the Zen master would say I didn't have enough experience of it to make a good interpretation. Maybe turning off parts of the brain does not reduce consciousness but allows fuller awareness through our nonphysical spirit. Maybe if I was sitting on a mountain top under a blue sky looking down into a green valley illuminated by golden sunshine, it would strike me as being more mystical than it did sitting on a mat and staring at the floor. While it demonstrated to me that the idea of self is subjective, I did not experience any transformational consequences nor did it help me internalize the truth of the oneness of all things.

Does this prove the ancient teachings are wrong? I don't think so. I don't think my interpretation is any more certain than the metaphysical one. Maybe I really did perceive the true oneness of all things, but my Western world view prevented me from appreciating it. Maybe some clever philosopher could show how my interpretation is really the same as the traditional explanation. The point is that the way I interpret the experience is determined by my own world view. The ancients didn't have a lot of ideas about how the brain worked so they couldn't have thought up my interpretation even if they had been inclined to be materialistic. Similarly, it may be that our difficulty in understanding the Eastern mystic beliefs is that we have too many scientific ideas that we can't let go of in order to understand the mystical explanations. Maybe if we could really understand them we would agree that they are correct. But what is also important to understand is that this experience of Kensho, which might be hard to believe if you only read about it, is a real phenomena and can be experienced if you make the effort. In this sense, the ancient teachings are 100% accurate.

Kundalini

Another mystical experience I've had is kundalini energy. Kundalini energy is also something that one experiences as a result of meditation. The modern-classic book that describes this is "Living with Kundalini" by Gopi Krishna. The initial release of this energy is often likened to a geyser exploding from the base of the spine, rushing up the spine, and then blowing out the top of the head. Subsequent experiences may vary. Gopi Krishna had a very bad kundalini reaction as a result of his meditation practice and was practically an invalid as a result.

I had read a little about kundalini when I started experiencing it. Fortunately I was not as severely affected as Gopi Krishna, but based on what I had read and later when I read Gopi Krishna's book, I had to conclude that what I experienced was what is called kundalini energy. However I didn't interpret it as anything mystical. It seemed to me that because of meditation the mind became calm and the body relaxed and the physical effects of all sorts of suppressed emotions were coming up from the unconscious because there was nothing to distract me from my own thoughts. Muscle tension is a sign of repressed thoughts - couldn't relaxation release repression?

To me kundalini is a psycho-neurological-physiological event, not a mystical event. I find support for this theory in Gopi Krishna's book where he describes his diet. I think he was suffering from malnutrition and that caused an emotional imbalance and that was made worse because meditation lowers the psychological defense mechanisms that we use to shield ourselves from our own negative emotions. In this case I do think the mystical explanation is wrong. Maybe a clever philosopher can show how my explanation is the same as the mystical one, but I think there is a problem with the mystical explanation: it doesn't lead to a way to solve the difficulties caused by a bad kundalini experience. My interpretation does: eat a diet including minerals, vitamins, and other nutrients needed for healthy brain function. For a period of time I found that I couldn't meditate because when I tried, the kundalini energy would be too disruptive. I found that improving my diet caused the kundalini energy to diminish dramatically and no longer prevented me from meditating.

When you look at a mystical tradition you have to separate the practical side from the philosophical side. The philosophical side may be wrong, or impossible for a Westerner to understand, or a symbolic or other metaphor that needs to be unwound by a clever philosopher. However, on the practical side one should be very, very careful before rejecting claims about what certain practices may result in. Kundalini is triggered by meditation, and kensho can be induced by meditation. What do they really mean? The phenomena are real, the interpretation is difficult to understand.

If you went out into the wilderness, the jungle, or the desert, and met primitive aborigine, you might think he was extremely ignorant and foolish because of his ideas about nature spirits causing rain, flood, drought, and evil spirits causing illness. However, there is something that you should take very seriously about his beliefs: his knowledge about how to survive in his environment. If you dropped a Westerner alone into the jungle or desert he might be able to give a very scientific explanation of why he was dying a few days later but die he most certainly would. Similarly, with mystical traditions, there is very good reason to take philosophy with a grain of salt but to give practical matters very serious consideration. If someone from an aboriginal culture today can have this disparity between philosophical and practical knowledge, then the people living 2000 or 3000 years ago could exhibit the same contradictions. If someone spends hours a day meditating with a certain technique or doing yoga or acupuncture or qi-gong and they make certain claims about the consequences of those practices, it is reasonable to take them seriously even if their explanations don't make sense.

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Experiencing Universal Love

God is love.

People who experience being in the presence of God during near death experiences describe having an overwhelming feeling of being loved.

God is omnipresent.

You can tap into this source of universal love without having a near death experience. I explain how to do this in the chapter on Meditation in the section on Tapping into Universal Love

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Oneness Through Love

One day I was doing my daily absent healing meditation and, as sometimes occurs, I sensed the presence of a spirit during the meditation. I asked the spirit who they were and what they were doing? I felt the presence of my grandmother and I also felt that she loved me. I felt loved. This type of spirit communication is telepathic, the medium senses what is in the mind of the spirit. I felt loved by sensing her feeling of love for me. So I felt loved by feeling love. And now since I was feeling love it was easy to send love back to her, I loved her because she loved me. Her love had a way of banishing the loneliness that is inherent in our mortal condition, and I liked that and loved her for doing that. However, this initial perception of love was like a seed crystal around which love from within myself could crystallize. My own awareness of even more love within myself meant I could send more back to her. There is no such thing as "conservation of love" like the physical law of conservation of energy. Love tends to increase when it is transfered, not remain constant.

I believe the source of all love is is God. It comes from God but flows from within us. Maybe it comes through that part of us that is created in God's image or that part of God that is in all of us that is the essence of what we were created from.

I have to admit I am somewhat inhibited so it was a little uncomfortable for me to allow this love to flow from me, but it felt like it was the right thing to do. This love felt like it was coming out from my heart chakra and I have been told by different mediums that it would be important for me to open my heart chakra and now it seemed to be happening.

The next day, when I sat down to meditate, I remembered this experience and love began to flow again. I let it become the focus of my meditation. I felt love for God, my family, my neighbors, all people, all living creatures, all life on earth, all life in the universe, the whole universe. This is a way of experiencing oneness in the same way that kensho is, but instead of taking the path of stillness you engage the universe directly.

Love is like the healing force. In spiritual healing the healing force comes from a higher source and flows into us. However, love comes from within and flows outward. Love has healing qualities. When you let it flow it heals from within. So letting love flow out from you is complimentary to spiritual healing. In the simplest sense, love erases anger, hate, envy, jealousy and other negative emotions. All these emotions cause stress. Stress is known to adversely effect health. Removing these sources of stress allows the body to heal those adverse effects on health.

As I write this, I just noticed an interesting synchronicity. My computer is somewhat old. The paint on the keys is wearing off and it is completely gone from one key. A few days ago I cut a piece of paper in the shape of the letter small enough to fit on the key. I put a square piece of clear tape the size of the key over the paper letter and stuck it to the key. All of the other keys have their letter painted delicately in the upper left corner of the key. That one key on my computer now has a large bold paper letter taking up most of the key. As I type this description of my experiences of love, I can't help but notice that key, the "L" key and that big bold L which reminds me of the word Love.

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All the Knowledge in the Universe

One time I was doing stretching exercises to relax after work. While I was doing the hatha yoga asana the plow, sitting on the floor with my legs outstretched and reaching my hands towards my toes, I had an unusual feeling that I had access to all the knowledge in the universe. This is similar to a phenomenon reported by people who have had near-death experiences, and to experiences in Himalayan yoga of merging with the Absolute. People might not understand what it means to merge with the Absolute. It might sound frightening, like dying. But it does not mean losing consciousness. It means expanded consciousness. It is more like remembering than forgetting.

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From My Blog
Joy During Meditation
Consciousness Beyond the Hypnogogic State

Communicating with Other Entities

Spirit Contact During Meditation

Tingling or numbness when you focus your attention on a part of the body is very common and occurs in a relaxation technique called progressive relaxation often used in hypnosis and self-hypnosis. You focus your attention on each part of the body and think "my foot is relaxed and heavy, my leg is relaxed and heavy", etc. etc. until you feel very relaxed over your whole body.

However, tingling or sensations of numbness at the brow chakra, the crown chakra or other areas of the head, if they occur spontaneously without focusing attention on that area of the body, are commonly believed to be an indication of psychic development. Among Spiritualists who sit in development circles for mediumship, those sensations are very common and are attributed to the action of spirits communicating and spirit guides helping them to develop mediumship. My experiences are consistent with these beliefs.

I have done a lot of meditation through out my life and I didn't notice anything like these sensations until I started doing spiritual healing in a Spiritualist church. At first it felt like a spirit was putting their hands on my forehead, giving me healing energy to pass to the person I was healing. A few months later it started happening when I was at home and doing absent healing (sending healing to people who are not present in the same location). A few months after that, it started happening when I would meditate and try to communicate with spirits. Then it started happening when I was doing any type of meditation. Then it started happening even when I wasn't even meditating.

Even though I had done a lot of meditation previously, it didn't start happening until I got involved working with spirits, so it seems to me that these sensations are associated with psychic development and interactions with spirits are involved.

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Communicating with Spirit Guides

When I receive a communication from my spirit guides using the natural method for communicating with spirits described in this book, I sometimes feel like I'm in another dimension independent of time and space and having a kind of vision that is similar to descriptions I've read of NDEs. Then I find myself back to normal reality with the memory of that vision. It seems very NDE like to me, and different from what I experienced in traditional mediumship classes. When I developed that technique, my intention was to follow the advice of certain spirits who were guiding a medium I read about. Those spirits said that they can be of more help to a person who meets them half way. I think this is what is happening. In this technique for mediumship the mind moves towards the spirit world. There are a lot of advantages to it, it's safer and it's easier for them to communicate in their native environment.

One difficulty is that advanced guides don't think in human language. The communications are highly symbolic even when I hear words. For example, a few days before I wrote this article, I was meditating and I asked my guides if or when my psychic abilities would develop to the point where I would feel comfortable giving psychic readings for other people. The next thing I knew, I was in that place independent of time and space. I saw a flame burning on an oil lamp. I heard a voice ask, "Do you want the fire?" Then I heard myself saying, "No." Next I heard the same voice ask me, "Do you want the fuel?". Again I heard myself saying, "No." then I was back to reality. I understood the flame to represent the Buddhist concept of life which is used in the explanation of reincarnation: that a new life is like lighting a candle from another flame, it comes from the same flame but is a new one. So the fire represents a new life as a psychic who can give readings. The fuel I understood to represent something like the energy used in spiritual healing, a kind of life force or fuel that gives life. A gradual absorption of this energy is supposed to have transformational qualities in addition to healing qualities. A sudden strong dose of it can make someone suddenly psychic but can damage the physical body. So the answer to my question was that at some level I'm not ready yet for that type of life even if I might like to have greater abilities, and that its better to develop gradually than risk getting burned from too great an inflow of energy, too rapid progress, and too sudden transformation.

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Alien Healers

The subject of alien intelligences comes up occasionally in the context of mediumship and spiritual healing. One of the members of my development circle worked in a health profession and he would sneak in spiritual healing while he had his hands on the patients doing conventional treatments. His healing guides were aliens, they would come through during mediumship class occasionally.

We are not the only group that has had this type of contact. Alien contact is something that comes up for mediums whether they are spiritualist or not. It isn't talked about too much because mediums have a credibility problem among some people to begin with. The UFO pseudo-skeptics are just as malicious as the psi pseudo-skeptics. Mediums don't really need the additional personal attacks they would attract if they were more forthcoming about it.

"The Reconnection" by Dr. Eric Pearl is a book about the author's experiences as a chiropractor who became an energy healer. He had a type of mystical realignment done by an unusual mystical practitioner. Afterwards, his chiropractic patients started getting healing for conditions unrelated their chiropractic treatments. Some patients started channeling aliens during treatment.

I think these aliens do this work because they are compassionate and want to help other beings who are suffering. If you knew someone was suffering and you could help them with a thought, would you do it? Since psi seems not to be limited by distance or time, if some aliens have surplus healing capacity there is no reason they could not apply it wherever it is needed in the universe.

Anyone reading this who wants to give healing in this way can do it too. The chapter on Spiritual Healing explains how to do spiritual healing. Exercise 3 in the chapter Natural Mediumship describes how to send healing energy to where it is needed for the highest good. Sending healing to where it is needed for the highest good is not a core principle of Spiritualism, but it is taught in many spiritualist healing circles. The links above describe one of the various methods by which it can be done.

Some channelers claim to be channeling aliens. You should be very skeptical about such claims. Unless the channeler is able to give some verifiable information you have no way to assess whether they are accurate or not.

The aliens that came through to our class were not alien spiritual masters, they didn't predict disasters or tell us how many children to have. They had specific information for the person they were guiding on the subject of being a healer. They would present themselves clairvoyantly to the students in my class who brought them through. They appeared short, with dark hair, light skin, and dark eyes but were not inhuman looking.

These aliens communicated via mental mediumship, sometimes through students who didn't know others had brought them through before. However, we didn't go to meet with them to confirm their identity. Usually, with mediumship, if we say, "Your grandmother liked to drive race cars" the sitter can confirm it. If we say "your healing guides like to raise tribbles" there is no way we can currently confirm it, except to the extent that if different students bring through the same message from the same entities it confirms what the guides are saying but doesn't prove what they are saying is true.

Remote viewers have also reported contact with aliens. Psychics, remote viewers and mediums, are all communicating with entities that appear to be aliens.

Some UFO reports turn out to military aircraft. But, just like with psi and afterlife phenomena, UFO skeptics have often not made the effort to read the literature and their explanations do not fit the facts. If you are interested a good starting point would be to read books by David Jacobs and John Mack who were both university professors who investigated the abduction phenomena and found there was something very real and very unusual going on.

The aliens may be keeping their presence low key to protect our world from becoming destabilized from contact with their more advanced civilization. Many primitive cultures on earth were destroyed when Europeans settled in their areas and something similar could happen if aliens had open contact with us.

The US government probably has a very complicated policy on disclosing what it knows about UFOs. On the one hand, UFOs are a good cover story for sightings of secret air-force projects. On the other hand, if someone sees a secret plane or rocket they are easily discredited through ridicule for believing in UFOs. If the capabilities of alien craft were known it would encourage weapons development in other countries (ie. a faster than light missile would be very destabilizing), if aliens are abducting citizens and the government can't do anything about it, they look impotent and people will get upset. If government officials have accepted technology transfer as compensation for abductions of citizens, there might be adverse consequences if it became public knowledge for those officials who permit it to continue.

Another possible reason the government keeps it secret is because the aliens don't use money. If it became public knowledge that an advanced civilization older and technologically superior to ours doesn't use money, it could destroy the current power structure in the world.

More on this subject can be found on my blog in the article: UFO Secrecy and Spirituality.

I actually got interested in spirituality after reading about UFOs. Back when I was a materialist, I picked up a book at the supermarket about UFOs because I thought it would be entertaining to read. It turned out to be interesting and credible so I started reading more books on the subject. Sprinkled throughout the UFO literature I found hints here and there of a project going on between the aliens and souls of the dead. Since I found many of the UFO stories credible I thought I better investigate the afterlife as well.

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Learning Mystical Traditions

Seeking Out Mystical Experiences

Not everyone who has mystical experiences seeks them out. I started meditating when I was very young. I had read that meditation is helpful in dealing with stress and I was having a stressful time so I tried it. I found it was helpful. Many years later I read a book on Zen Buddhism and I learned that people would go on retreats and meditate all day for months at a time. I wondered what that would be like so I tried to do what I could, and I started meditating for a few hours a day. I found that all that meditation made a big difference. My mind was much calmer. In hindsight it seemed like the ordinary mental state is a constant mental fugue - I had been living constantly thinking about the past and future always living in a kind of fantasy unrelated to my current situation. When I did a lot of meditation I was more connected to the reality of whatever situation I was in. I didn't want to go back to that seemingly insane delusional mental state so I kept up doing a lot of meditation. As a result of all that meditation, I had a few mystical experiences, kensho, kundalini, that weird light in my head that came from chanting aum, but I never sought them and I don't really attach much mystical significance to them.

However, if you believe that those experiences have value, for example if someone thought experiencing kensho would help them understand and internalize the philosophy of oneness, I think that might be why they would seek it out. For example, with mediumship and healing, I did seek out those because they seemed to me to be practical skills that would have value in themselves. Having learned them, I use them every day.

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Understanding Ancient Traditions

Many of the mystical traditions can be difficult to understand because what we know about them may be translated from a different time, language, and culture. For example, Buddhist and other Eastern writings may seem strange to Western readers because they often involve numbers that seem to denote some kind of numerological significance. However, these integers are not numerology, they are memory aids. In those ancient times they didn't have easy access to books and everything had to be remembered. If it's called "the eight fold path", then you know there are eight things in the list when you are trying to remember them. There is also a lot of repetition for the same reason - it makes it easier to remember. Buddhism and other teachings that were passed down through an oral tradition may seem to be expressed in an idiosyncratic or clumsy manner, but it isn't fair to judge them against the ideal of a modern self-study guide. When it was originally set out, no one could access that information in any way whatsoever except through a trained teacher. It was never meant to stand by itself.

Sometimes there are two sides to these mystical traditions, the theoretical / philosophical side and the practical side of practices and exercises. The theoretical / philosophical side may make no sense to a modern reader but the exercises may be somewhat clearer. This is true of Buddhism and also, in my opinion, The Course In Miracles which is a Western development - so it is not entirely a flaw restricted to the ancient Eastern schools of mysticism. (If you are interested, the Buddhist sutras on practical exercises in meditation include: The Sutra in the full awareness of breathing : anapanasati sutta and The Sutra on the four establishments of mindfulness: satipatthana sutta)

Some of the criticisms of Eastern mystic philosophies, such as vagueness, are due to poor translations. The problem can also be that the translator doesn't understand, from their own experience, the mystical phenomena they are writing about. A meaningful modern translation of ancient metaphors is difficult enough but if the translator doesn't understand the spiritual experiences either, it is going to cause problems for students.

If you look at different translations of the "Tao Te Ching" you will see that various translations can be very different. There are links to many divergent translations at http://www.religiousworlds.com/taoism/ttc-list.html. Different translations of the bible are also highly divergent.

If the translator isn't trained as a scientist, his translation won't be meaningful to Westerners with a scientific inclination either. If someone who was trained as a scientists and linguist, and was also an advanced adept in the mystical tradition made a translation, it might be meaningful to scientifically inclined Westerners. I don't know if there has ever been any such person available to make this kind of translation for a mystical tradition.

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Western Versions of Traditional Practices

Part of the problem Westerners may have when studying Eastern mystical traditions is that when these practices and theories are adopted by Westerners, many of the finer points may be lost.

When I did aum chanting at the Zen center, the instructor, who learned from an Asian Zen master, told us exactly how to sit (your sitting posture effects the forces on you chest and abdominal muscles which effect how you breathe and how the chest will resonate), how to breathe, how to make the sound, what shape to form with our lips, how to change the shape of the lips as we made the sound, how to start the sound, how to end the sound etc etc.

When I did aum chanting a few years later in a class at a Spiritualist church, the instructor simply put on the new age music and said, "okay everybody chant aum". Calling this aum chanting is like calling rice crispies an example of traditional Asian cuisine.

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Learning from Books or Teachers

There is some controversy about whether mystical traditions should be learned only from other practitioners or if they can also be learned from books. It can be very hard for some people, when they read about a subject, to determine what is right and should be followed and what is incorrect and should be ignored. In my opinion the good teachers should write books or put instructions on the internet. The best thing is for every one to have a great teacher but that is not always possible and since there will always be bad information published, it is better to have the good information available too.

One difficulty in writing training materials is that teaching is somewhat like guiding a group of blindfolded people trying to ride bicycles along a straight path. Some riders will veer to the left and need to be guided to the right and others will veer to the right and need to be guided to the left. It's hard to give customized instruction through a fixed written piece.

However, I still think that mystical teachings should be published. My belief is that if everything was written out and explained clearly, the best texts would become recognized and more people could progress further than if the only source of learning were through working face to face with teachers.

My advice to someone who is looking for good written instruction, is to find books by a Westerner who has trained with a master from the traditional culture, or books by a master from the traditional culture who is fluent in English. Translations of the traditional writings are sometimes interesting from an intellectual point of view but as mentioned above there are practical problems learning from them. But, even if there are problems with the ancient writings, the philosophy may be still be useful and one should go to a modern teacher/writer if he wants to learn about it.

I had read a lot about Buddhism and Zen Buddhism before I ever went to the Zen center and found that having done that reading I didn't learn a lot of new things at the Zen center (except maybe how to chant aum. I also didn't study koans which is something you can't do that without a teacher.). However at the Zen center it was still helpful to meet with people who had a similar interest to keep me motivated to continue the practices. This is a very good reason to seek out a teacher and other students - being part of a community of like minded individuals can help you maintain your interest, effort and inspire you.

It was a little different when I started to get interested in Spiritualism. I read a lot and when I started going to spiritualist churches, I felt I knew more book learning than the ministers, teachers, healers, and mediums. However I don't think I could have learned energy healing and mediumship from any existing book. While I read about those things and believed other people could do them, I did not have high expectations that I could actually do those things myself. From going to church and taking classes I learned that most people can learn to do them. I took the classes without any particular expectation and I just did what the teacher said to do and it worked. So in some cases having a teacher may be necessary for the student to learn the technique.

This web site describes how to do spirit communication and spiritual healing without a teacher. But it's hard to tell if someone with an interest but preconceived ideas like I had would bother to try those techniques. Also, with mediumship, I think it is easier for the spirits to communicate when a group of people are together as they are in a class. Additionally, with mediumship you need to be very sensitive when working with people who are suffering from grief and so if you are going to do readings for other people you should probably take classes from a reputable medium.

Therefore, I think there should be books available on mystical subjects and I think it can be helpful to read them. However, it is also helpful to take classes to meet people with similar interests. There are probably aspects to the subjects that you will not learn unless you study in person with a teacher. Not only because personalized instruction cannot be given in a written book, but also because you might not try everything and experience it for yourself if you only read about it.

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Belief vs. Direct Experience

I should point out that Buddhism is a bit different from Spiritualism with respect to the centralness of experience.

With Spiritualism, if you believe in spirits and the afterlife you don't really need to experience anything else first hand for that to change your outlook on life, or on how to live life, or on what values are important etc. Belief that your actions in life will affect the conditions you experience in the afterlife, that there is no eternal damnation, that there is no vicarious atonement, that the spirit can develop and progress both during this life and in the afterlife, improving itself and the conditions it finds itself in, are important principles of Spiritualism. Many people can get that from reading books about philosophy or books about other people's experiences. Experiencing it first hand either by getting a reading from a good medium, receiving spiritual healing, or learning to do those things can make it real and some people do need to have such first hand experiences before they will believe, but it is the belief not the experience that is central to the point of the philosophy. Evidence for this can be seen from the observation that people who had NDEs are less likely to commit suicide. When investigators looked deeper into this phenomena they found that people who read about or heard about NDEs were also less likely to commit suicide. This shows that it is the belief that is important because you don't have to have an NDE to benefit from the knowledge of the afterlife.

(Belief is a central point of Spiritualism but in addition to the philosophy, there is also a practical side to it. Spiritual healing is something you have to experience to benefit from, and experiencing mediumship can also help people suffering from grief.)

However with Buddhism, book learning is completely useless, unless you apply it in meditation practice. The whole point of Buddhism is to change yourself through the practice of meditation. No intellectual understanding of philosophy or even scientific understanding of how meditation induces the relaxation response, or stories about what happened to other people will make you less selfish and more peaceful. You have to do the meditation yourself to get that.

For this reason, certain mystical systems might be better candidates for learning from books than others. A religion like Spiritualism where you can benefit from an intellectual understanding would be a good candidate for learning from books.

One of the obstacles for our Western scientific understanding of these practices, is that to understand them, it is not sufficient for the researchers to just read about them, it is not sufficient for researchers to just theorize about them, and it is not sufficient for researchers to just study people who do them. In order for the researchers to understand these phenomena, they must also master those practices themselves. I think this is true about studying the effects of meditation as well as studying mediumship.

One very good way for you to get more information on the effects of these practices might be for you to try it yourself.

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