by Andrew Holecek
Wutai Mountain, Shanxi Province,
1998 From the series The Chinese by Liu Zheng.
such as flashes of bliss or clarity,
can be helpful signs of progress
if you know how to handle them,
says Andrew Holecek.
But if you don't, beware,
they can be traps.
These experiences come in many forms, ranging from simple tranquility to radiant ecstasy. In their fullest expression, they are spiritual earthquakes that can transform your life.
The Tibetan sage Marpa shared one such experience:
At more modest levels, they can manifest as the total cessation of thought, an out-of-body experience, or sensations of bliss and clarity.
You might have an experience of profound meditation, or of union with the entire cosmos, and say to yourself,
Like the endorphins
released in a runner's high, these experiences are the meditator's
high. And they are addicting.
You're getting a glimpse into the nature of mind and reality; you're starting to see things the way they truly are. You're waking up. But such experiences are also cause for concern precisely because they feel so good.
Surprising as it may
sound, the spiritual path is not about making you feel good. It's
about making you feel real.
And anytime grasping is
involved, even if it's for a spiritual experience, you're back in
samsara, hooked into the conditioned world of endless
Traleg Rinpoche said,
Spiritual experiences are called nyam in Tibetan, which means "temporary experience," and every meditator needs to be aware of them. Nyam is set in contrast to tokpa, which means "realization."
A nyam always has a beginning and an end. One day you soar into the most heavenly meditation, but eventually you drop back to Earth.
There are no dropouts
with authentic realization.
We like the substance of
We start with understanding, which is traditionally referred to as a patch because eventually it falls off.
With study and practice, understanding develops into experience, which is like the weather - it always changes. With sustained practice, experience matures into realization, which like the sky never wavers.
This is the three-stage
process of full embodiment; it is how we ingest, digest, and
metabolize the dharma until it almost literally becomes us.
Tai Situ Rinpoche said that you can get stuck in a nyam for an entire lifetime. More commonly, people waste precious years thinking that because they had a spiritual experience they're enlightened, when in fact they're merely shackled to a nyam.
If you're attached to your grand experience and start to identify with it, you have simply replaced a chain made of lead with one made of gold.
Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche said:
Attachment to anything,
no matter how spectacular, is still attachment.
As my TM instructor
guided me into meditation, I slipped into profound meditative
absorption. For the first time in my life, I felt fully awake
without a single thought running through my mind. I had never
thought such a blissful state was even possible.
Because the contrast was
so dramatic, I thought I had attained some level of enlightenment.
It took me years to realize that this is a common experience and
that I was far from enlightened.
The experience inspired me to pursue meditation with gusto. I began a daily practice that hasn't waned in four decades. The bad news was that I tied myself in knots trying to reproduce that experience.
I had set a bar that was ridiculously high and caused me all sorts of unnecessary anguish when I couldn't measure up.
On one level, they're
just spiritual candy; having some of these sweets is okay now and
again, but feasting on them will make your meditation sick.
Reinstate the conditions that brought about the experience in the first place. In other words, most of these experiences arise when the mind is open, spacious, and relaxed.
William Blake, in Songs of Innocence and Experience, wrote:
If you grasp after the
event and try to repeat it, that contraction around the experience
ironically prevents it. In order to let realization come, we first
have to let experience go.
If so, let your actions speak louder than your words. Live your awakening. Don't voice it.
The nyam evolves into tokpa. If you talk about it, the experience trickles away.
The nyam degenerates into
a distant memory. Don't be a leaky container and dribble onto
others. Keep your experience hermetically sealed so it doesn't
The one person you should
talk to is your teacher or meditation instructor. An authentic
teacher will keep you on track by telling you the experience is
neither good nor bad, or by ignoring you, or encouraging you to let
As I shared my enlightenment experience, he yawned and looked out the window.
My so-called "awakening"
was putting him to sleep! When I was done, he spoke about a topic
that had nothing to do with my experience. I came in all puffed up
with my nyam and left punctured and deflated. It wasn't what I
wanted, but it was exactly what I needed.
Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche said that talking about spiritual experiences is like being in a dark cave with a candle and then giving your candle away - you're left in the dark.
This is one way to tell the difference between a truly realized master and one stuck in a nyam. True masters never talk about their realization; those infected with a nyam are happy to talk.
As Taoism puts it,
The essence of a proper relationship to spiritual experience is silence and release. Keep your mouth closed and your heart open.
Use the experience to
inspire you to keep going, but go forward without the nyam holding
you back. Relate to whatever arises - the good, the bad, and the
ugly - with equanimity. That's how experience matures into
Khenpo Rinpoche said that you nurture meditative experience by destroying it.
Patrul Rinpoche echoed this advice:
What's blasted is not the experience itself but our grasping onto it.
Tsoknyi Rinpoche also points out,
They can't get enough of
When nyams are solidified, they must be defeated.
Honest meditators invite that defeat; charlatans shun it.
When you talk about your spiritual experience, you reify it and begin to identify with it and believe it. The more you talk, the more you convince yourself that something special really did happen. Worse still, others might start to believe it and feed the reification.
Word of your awakening
can spread like a virus, and before you know it, everybody may
become infected with strains of your nyam.
They think they're
lifting each other up, but they're actually pulling each other down.
Everybody buys into the experience of the "master," and soon a cult
is born. A "guru" has been forcefully delivered into the world.
Guruism is based on the spiritual experience of the "master," and the cult is all about spreading that experience like a disease. Everybody catches the fever and wants to have the experience.
These "gurus," in an effort to protect the nyam and their exclusive role as its transmitter, often quarantine their disciples from outside influences.
They claim they're protecting their disciples, but in reality they're just defending their own egos and empire.
The Branch Davidians,
Jonestown, and countless other cults have followed this classic
formula. It's another expression of grasping after elite
experiences, a natural consequence of a nyam run wild.
The result is awakening.
If you ignorantly surrender to guruism, that tainted experience can
also penetrate your heart, and the result is often catastrophic.
These "masters" tend to
pop up in the West, where spirituality is ruled by convenience and
instant gratification, and where the need for disciplined practice
is too often supplanted by the desire for rapid results.
Teachers stuck in a nyam also sell, because they often exude an aura of the nyam itself. They usually extol the extraordinary and ecstatic aspects of meditation and easily snag others just as they've been snagged.
Their experiences sound so delectable, so "spiritual," that it's tempting to follow their bliss. I saw one such "master" who glided toward her throne, draped in white silk and surrounded by her flock of adoring students. She spoke in a seductive voice about the euphoric nature of her awakening.
To me, she was clearly
stuck in the nyam of bliss.
I know Western "masters" who rejected their own teachers because they didn't confirm their nyam or otherwise endorse their awakening.
The one person who could
have put them back on track by destroying their attachment to the
experience is dismissed as not understanding their experience.
The enabling is too deep and the success too addictive. It would take tremendous honesty and courage to turn to their adoring students and admit that they've all - teacher and students - been seduced into a nyam.
It's much easier to remain stuck in spiritual codependence.
This is when someone wakes up from a dream and discovers later that they were still asleep. In other words, they wake up from one level of dreaming into what they think is waking reality, only to then realize that what they've woken up to is yet another dream.
It's like in the movie
Inception, where there are dreams within dreams, deceptions within
It's equally jolting when
someone asleep in a nyam is finally roused from their false
awakening. Most prefer to sleep. False awakening is a term that
describes what happens when people mistake their nyam for genuine
If you get irritated,
defensive, or angry, you're probably infected with a nyam.
Sogyal Rinpoche says:
That's where you'll find
the signs of realization.
Left alone, spiritual
experiences are wonderful events. They can inspire you to practice
more and really lift you up. But if you don't relate to them
properly, they can drag you down.
From ego's perspective, enlightenment is a downer.
It will let you down - from the heights of inflated spiritual experience to the plateau of ordinary life, which is where true realization awaits.