6 types of spiritual experiences (part 1 of 2)

6 types of spiritual experiences

Note: Since I realized this post would be stupid long all as one, I'm splitting it up into 2 installments. Enjoy! 

In the past couple months, I’ve  moseyed my way through The Spirituality of Imperfection: Storytelling and the Search for Meaning as I’ve been simultaneously reading several other books, and, quite honestly, just not reading as much as I’d like. (I’ve been doing great with a lot of my other habits, so I’m trying to be forgiving and patient with myself with this one!) This book is a treasure because it is at once both simple and profound. It weaves together ancient and modern anecdotes across many religious traditions, and examines how Alcoholics Anonymous has one of the healthiest perspectives on spirituality of our time, which actually aligns with many ancient, wise visions of spirituality. 

I’m just finishing up the book now, and in flipping through all my dog-eared pages covered with underlines and stars (it’s the only way I can absorb nonfiction —no digital or audiobooks for me with this stuff!) to determine what to write about, I decided I wanted to share with you the main ideas from the final section of the book, “ Experiencing Spirituality.” In this part, authors Ernest Kurtz and Katherine Ketcham name six types of spiritual experiences: Release, Gratitude, Humility, Tolerance, Forgiveness, and Being-at-home. While I highly recommend reading the whole book, if you’re anything like me you have about 25 other books on your list already — you may not get to it very soon. So, my goal here is to describe bit about each of these six experiences and encourage you to explore how you are (or aren’t) opening up to these in your own life.

Introducing this section, Kurtz and Ketcham write,

“Spirituality involves not just talking about something, not just reading about or considering something, not even just doing something: it involves actually experiencing life in a new way. Spirituality makes possible—makes one capable  of—specific kinds of experience … these experiences cannot be commanded. We do not call them forth when we want them: they become available to us when we need them, if we are available to them. They happen and we experience them, if we are open to them, but we cannot control when or how they happen, nor can we control when or how we experience them. Once again, we find ourselves locked in a paradox: We cannot command precisely those realities that we most crave.” 


“The experience of Release has been described as ‘the chains falling away,’ ‘a light going on,’ ‘a weight lifted,’ ‘something giving way.’ The very language attests that the experience is not one of triumph (‘I did it!’) but one of awe and wonder (‘I somehow see what I never saw before!’).” 

“Release” has to do with the recognition that we can never be fully in control of our lives, and acceptance for the lack of certainty that this fact entails. In recovery, it’s called “surrender.” The book quotes spiritual director Richard Rohr, from an article he wrote on AA’s 3rd step in which he states that “spirituality involves the ‘letting go’ of three needs: the need to be in control, the need to be effective, and the need to be right.’” 

Read over that last sentence a few times and just let it sink in. When I did that, I was amazed at how much suffering could be alleviated if we only released our grip on the “need” for those three things. Even in my just my own life! The idea of release / surrender is incredibly freeing and powerful, and it aligns well with mindfulness and mindfulness-based therapies such as one of my favorite models, Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. ACT devotes significant effort to illustrating to us just how ineffective most of our attempts are to control or avoid internal experiences (thoughts or feelings) we’d rather not have. The behaviors we use to try to numb or suppress, or patterns of trying to “think our way out of” feeling a certain way, often are not only  ineffective, but also tend to create even more suffering than the initial pain/discomfort itself. The alternative, then, is to release the grip, to “drop the tug-of-war rope” with the mind and practice willingness (acceptance) to experience that which is beyond our control. As ACT says, we humans are pretty good at solving problems “outside the skin” and think we can apply this same logic to problems “inside the skin,” but the lived experience proves otherwise. 


“Gratitude can be best defined and understood as the only possible response to a gift, to something recognized as utterly, freely given … The experience of gratitude has been lost, too, because we tend to think of it primarily as some kind of feeling. Feelings are fine, but they are also transient and ephemeral; gratitude is not a feeling but an ongoing vision of thank-full-ness that recognizes the gifts constantly being received. A feeling is fleeing, an emotion for the moment; gratitude is a mindset, a way of seeing and thinking that is rooted in a remembrance — the remembrance of being without the gift.” 

I love this perspective on gratitude, because as I allude to in the previous section, we are not that good at “making ourselves” feel a certain way. So, if I don’t feel a surge of genuine, tearing-up-like-I’m-watching-Parenthood gratitude every time I think of my family, my job, the roof over my head — does that mean I’m cold and ungrateful? No! It just means my feelings are not a faucet that I can turn on and off at will. What’s much more meaningful and significant is the decision to remember why I am appreciative of these things; to consider what my life would be like without them and meditate, even for 30 seconds, on what they mean to me. 


“In an era that fawns on ‘the rich and famous’ and adopts as its rallying cry, ‘Me First,’ humility is a concept scorned, or worse, neglected. The ancient, favorable sense of the word — connoting mildness, patience of spirit, and the willingness to remove oneself from the center of the universe _ has been eroded in the modern era by unfavorable interpretations in which ‘lowly’ calls to mind servility and self-abasement, ‘meek’ is equated with cowardly submissiveness, and ‘mildness is interpreted as blandness — plain vanilla ice cream in a freezer crowded with Chocolate Raspberry Truffle and Swiss Almond Praline.” 

YES. From my work with the 12 steps, I knew humility was an important value, but this description helped so much to explain why our culture has such a negative connotation for the idea of “humility” or “being humble.” It does not mesh at all with our fantasies of power, control, wealth and fame. (Also, gotta appreciate the ice cream metaphor, amiright?)

Another statement I had to share from this section originally comes from Dag Hammarskjöld’s book, Markings: “Humility is just as much the opposite of self-abasement as it is of self-exultation. To be humble is not to make comparisons. Secure in its reality, the self is neither better nor worse, bigger nor smaller, than anything else in the universe. It is—is nothing, yet at the same time one with everything.” 

The importance of being “right-sized” should be required psychoeducation for every 4th grader. We spend so much of our lives either trying to puff ourselves up (often by putting others down, even in covert ways) or putting ourselves down. Life can start to feel like a constant competition, and if the ego is already so fragile that it cannot possibly withstand any perceived criticism, the spikes come out.

Outside of 12-step, the most I hear about humility is in a religious context — ideas that we must be humble before God, acknowledge how vastly inferior we are to Christ, or acknowledge our place as lowly humans in comparison to the divine. This type of humility may fit well for some, but it does not appeal to me, because on some level it feels fear-based and externally motivated. I would rather think that if there is a divine loving power, I am not bigger or smaller than it, but rather that I am a part of it, and it is a part of me. 

Tune back in to the blog soon for part 2 of this blog post, which will discuss Tolerance, Forgiveness, and Being-at-home. In the meantime, I’d love to hear what resonated most with you about this post, or how you are exploring these topics amidst your own spiritual journey.