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I have been following a spiritual path for several years and am now having more and more experiences like "messages, " visions, and feelings of fathomless peace and joy. You'd think I would have no question, but I can't help wondering: How can I be sure that this is all real and not simply my brain playing tricks on me after all that spiritual practice over the years? My teacher says it's all real, of course, but his perspective could be biased - after all, this is his path. Is there a way I can tell objectively?
Congratulations on achieving such an enjoyable state! By all means do enjoy it! Such experiences as a result of spiritual practice can indeed be genuine manifestations of Spirit. And your doubt - your question itself - proves that your practice hasn't quelled the questing of your curious rational mind, and this is a healthy sign which is itself evidence of an authentic spiritual state. If that is true in your case then your condition is truly wonderful. May it be so!
The Dynamics of Illusion
Still, your question is very perceptive. Most people would accept such experiences without question, but in fact the possibility of error does exist. And you are right about your teacher: he might be speaking from true knowledge, but if his path did generate hallucinations then he could have been fooled by them in his own experience and be passing the mistake on to you. Furthermore, he has a vested interest in validating his system by validating the experiences it has given you. If he is a true Master then these factors should not influence him. Otherwise they might.
In answering your question, we must first clarify our terms. Your experiences are real. In other words, assuming you are speaking honestly, you have indeed experienced the things that you report. So the question is not the reality of your experiences, but rather their nature and meaning.
It can be very difficult to determine the nature and meaning of inner experiences. Gopi Krishna experienced incredible transformations of his inner world for 12 years before obtaining objective proof that he was undergoing a genuine mystical unfolding rather than an offbeat form of insanity.1
The transcendental nature of Gopi Krishna's experiences was finally validated, but it is not always so. Conway and Siegelman, for example, report experiences similar to yours (in description, at least) that turned out to be pathological responses of the mind to the sustained stress of certain spiritual practices.2
Therefore, your brain could be playing tricks on you as a result of spiritual practice. To really understand what this means, though, we have to understand just what the brain does . . . or is supposed to do. This may seem like a dry detour away from spiritual experience, but it is the shortest route to an objective validation (or invalidation) of experiences like yours.
The brain is an instrument of cognition, a tool for knowing. To know is to grasp the truth about something. Now the truth about a certain thing might be complex and changing, but in its totality it is this or it is that-it is one way or the other and does not contradict itself.3 Thus, if the brain is working properly as an instrument of cognition, it will reach and hold opinions about reality that are not contradicted by any aspect of reality.
However, the brain has a second function that derives from the first: to protect us ftom experiencing strongly unpleasant contradictions. As an instrument of cognition, dedicated to determining truth, the brain finds contradictions unpleasant. If the unpleasantness is only mild as when you discover that your checkbook doesn't balance - your first response is to fix the contradiction by finding and correcting the error. But if the unpleasantness is extreme - as when you discover that a trusted loved one has betrayed you-the brain may respond by hiding one half of the contradiction or the other in order to protect you from the pain.
Notice that these two functions of the brain -- determining truth and hiding contradiction conflict with each other. Therefore, when one part of the brain hides a contradiction, another part knows this and continually tries to bring it to the surface. The protective (or defensive) part of the brain must work very hard to keep the denied truth hidden, and the entire system is under continual stress as a result.
When the brain "plays tricks" (hallucinates) as a result of spiritual practice, it is usually from one or both of two causes: pressure on the cognitive mechanism itself - as from prolonged monotony or fatigue -- or the sustained presentation of an intolerable contradiction with reality, such as an indoctrinated dogma or belief that is observably false.
What do we really mean when we speak of the brain "playing tricks"? We mean that it makes false statements to us, it tells us things that are not so. In other words, he experiences you report are all statements about reality, and these statements can be either true or false. But if they are false then the truth lies hidden somewhere, and some part of your brain knows this the truth is hidden within yourself. On the other hand, if your experiences are true statements then this truth is ultimately capable of being demonstrated in observable ways.
The Test of Truth
Now we have the test we seek. In all your experiences, look for evidence of false statements:
These are some guidelines you can use to determine if your experiences are genuine manifestations of Spirit. You may not be able to apply all of them at this time, but eventually, as you continue your practice, the opportunity will come. It is worth waiting for. God loves intelligent skepticism, for it shows a dedication to truth . . . and truth is the essence of God.
- Your messages either tell you that something is so, or tell you to do something. If they tell you that something is so, this is a statement that in many cases can be put to the test in ordinary reality.
If your messages tell you to do something, this is an implied statement that doing it will bring better results than not doing it. That kind of statement is harder to test, because of our incredible ability to rationalize the outcomes of our actions, but in cases of real intuition the "miraculous" way things often come together when we follow it can be hard to mistake.
- Your visions are statements about this world, some other world/reality or your own internal reality -- or a mixture of these. For example, they could be representations of actual beings in some objectively existing world at another plane of consciousness, or of events that you experienced in a past incarnation,4
or of events that are taking place or will take place in this world.
Whatever they are representations of, the representations must be either true or false. If they are true, at some point you may encounter evidence through normal channels that confirms them. Likewise, if they are false you may someday encounter ordinary evidence that refutes them.
- Your feeling of fathomless peace is a statement that deep harmony exists within you, and between you and the universe or Spirit-a harmony so deep it resolves more superficial conflicts. And harmony means non-contradiction. If your brain is suppressing denied truths, and the peace does not wash away any need for continued denial, this is a contradiction that in time will surface and put the lie to your feeling of peace. A sign of that even now would be an uneasy feeling - perhaps way in the background - that you are really faking this, that you know it isn't true.
If such a feeling of uneasiness is totally lacking, your peace is probably genuine, a truthful statement - or your mind is totally split or "snapped" as described by Conway
and Siegelman. Time will tell. But if your relatives and others not on your path are comfortable with you and your peace, this is a good sign that your peace is true.
Your feeling of fathomless joy is a statement that everything is all right with you and in your world - if not on the surface, then on a level so deep that it heals the hurts of the surface. Being such a statement, joy should be spontaneous and without reservation. Do you have to tell yourself or remind yourself of something you believe in order to evoke this joy? That is a sign that it is synthetic.
Does your joy cause you to effortlessly want the best for everyone? And can you share it easily and intelligently so as to increase the joy of people not on your path without causing friction or resentment? These are signs that it is real, a true statement, for they indicate non-contradiction.
It is interesting - and encouraging - that you use the term, joy rather than the equally common term, bliss. Joy and bliss can refer to the same feeling, but bliss can also mean an anesthetic numbness to inner pain. This false bliss is a false statement, for it is a denial of existing pain, but it can seem true to one who has never experienced-or who has forgotten-the real thing.
False joy is different: the warmth, camaraderie and rosy glow evoked by alcohol, pep rallies (religious or other) and "psyching yourself up." It is a false statement because it contradicts your inner reality, and that is why it requires these efforts to evoke it . . . and why it can so easily and suddenly turn to violence or depression. True joy or bliss is an expression of inner knowing and pours forth of its own accord, a spontaneous inner celebration of your fulfillment in the fullness of Spirit.
Gopi Krishna, Living with Kundalini, Shambhala, 1993.
Flow Conway and Jim Siegelman, Snapping: America's Epidemic of Sudden Personality Change, Dell Publishing, 1978.
Let's say my house, which was white, is being painted green on the north and blue on the east. So what color is it? Any simple answer --- 'It's green" or "It's white" - is incomplete and therefore only partly true, and seems to be contradicted by other answers that are also partially true. But a complete statement - "Until Tuesday it was white, but now it's green on the north and both white and blue on the east" - cannot be contradicted by any true statement, because it encompasses the whole truth, and truth does not contradict itself.
4 This refers to reincarnation as the context for spiritual evolution. Is reincarnation real? So far the evidence indicates . . . probably. I takes no stand on this, but to avoid endless qualifying statements our articles and answers to questions often assume reincarnation.