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. 

the wisdom of imperfection + loving yourself when it's really hard {a personal story}

Last Sunday, I was given the opportunity to sing one of my favorite songs ever in my church (First Unitarian Universalist of Nashville), accompanied by our Minister of Music, Jason Shelton — also my choir director, and a ridiculously talented composer and musician — along with a few other experienced musicians. It was truly one of those situations where the Universe intervened, because I had been thinking for months of mentioning to Jason that if it ever worked out with a service topic to sing this particular song, That Wasn’t Me by Brandi Carlile  that I would love to do it. Then right after my wedding, he contacted me out of the blue asking if I’d be available that Sunday to sing that song. I was ecstatic but also a nervous wreck about it. I wanted to do mad JUSTICE to the song, and also I still have very limited exposure to solo performance in public.

So, I practiced singing it in my car all week (sometimes there are benefits of my hour-each-way commute) and making sure I knew where all the words went, and on the day of, thought, “meh, I could make a printout of the lyrics and that would be okay, but I’ve sung this song a million times and really should’t need it. If I change my mind I’m sure I can make a printout at the church.” Would I go back and change that decision if I could? Not totally sure, to be honest.

I got to church early that morning and we ran through the song twice before the first service, and when my time came about 2/3 through the service, I had already gone to the bathroom probably 3 times in the past hour because of how anxious I was. I got up there and sang it with heart. People loved it, and I felt great. Next, doing the sermon, was visiting speaker, Rabbi Rami Shapiro, also known as the Holy Rascal. Right after I sang, he said in Jason’s direction, “I didn’t know you got Taylor Swift.” The congregation laughed and objected, “No, she’s way better!” I was embarrassed about the attention, but it also felt nice.

We ran the song again once or twice before the second service, since a few other choir members came to help with backing vocals in that service. Again before and during that service, I wondered if people thought I had some kind of health issue with how much I was running to the bathroom. I got up there, sang it with heart again, and then when I got to the last verse, I skipped a stanza. I realized it but it was too late, and looked at Jason (next to me on piano) with a look of somewhat-disguised-panic, and knew I had to Just Keep Going. I sort of fixed it, the best way that I could, and ended the song awkwardly, looking at him and mouthing “DAMN!” before sitting back in the first pew.

My heart was racing wildly. I wanted nothing more than to run out of the church, or at the very least, to appear that I was calmly going to the bathroom again and then continuing outside to the parking lot to cry. I even had old thoughts of scratching myself and pulling out my hair, something I’ve only done once in a moment of panic since I was a teenager (back then it was more frequent.) My self-talk was pretty brutal, and I was so ashamed. I knew that the rest of the song had been good, and that I salvaged the last 30 seconds or so the best I could, but here I was singing one of my favorite songs that has the power to bring people to tears (“when it’s sung RIGHT!!!”), and I’m wanting to cry for a totally different reason.  Even writing about it now, I can feel my pulse starting to pick up again and my eyes welling up a little.

But of course, after I sang, the very next thing was the sermon. And guess what the topic was? The Wisdom of Imperfection. Of Freaking Course. I had really enjoyed it during the first service, and I knew the irony of me beating myself up or escaping during this particular sermon, but I wanted to run nonetheless. When Rabbi Rami got up to the podium after I sat, no Taylor Swift jokes, no anything. And of course I told myself, “He doesn’t want to draw any attention to you because you just screwed up.” The cool thing about Rabbi Rami is that he never does the same talk twice. He brought in all kinds of different anecdotes and jokes the second time around, so ultimately I was glad that I had stayed, but man-oh-man was it difficult.

I listened to him as he referred back to the reading he’d done earlier in the service — Shel Silverstein’s The Missing Piece, which he deemed “one of the great spiritual texts” (I agree with him). He talked about how we are often taught by religious institutions that on one side we have Life and Prosperity (and Heaven!), and on the other side, Adversity, Suffering, Sin, Death (and Eternal Damnation!). And of course, we want to pick the former — but he argued that it is not actually either-or at all, but And. If we spend our lives trying to “get rid of” our “sinfulness” or our dark sides or our imperfections, we are missing out on the truth of humanity and life. Since this is one of my core foundational philosophies as a therapist (it lines up perfectly with DBT’s Dialectical Thinking concept and also the “Acceptance” of Acceptance & Commitment Therapy), I needed no convincing of this from an intellectual standpoint. During the first service, I sat there with rapt attention, nodding vehemently and going “Amen!” in my head.

During the second service, however, at first I was doing the internal eye-roll, thinking, “sure, perfection isn’t realistic, but ROYALLY SCREWING UP IN FRONT OF HUNDREDS OF PEOPLE ISN’T OKAY!!” Still trying to convince myself to not get up and run.

This was one of those times that I was just as much in need of coping skills as any of my clients in residential treatment right now. So what did I do?

Well, after I was done cursing myself, I just did my best to accept what was happening with me.

I breathed.

I crossed my arms, grabbing my shoulder with my opposite hand, and I squeezed, literally holding myself.

I let my eyes well up.

I listened to Rabbi Rami.

I stared at the ground.

I just let it happen.

And at the end of the service, I did more or less run out to the parking lot, get in the car, and self-pity-cried for a minute. My husband comforted me the best he could, telling me I did amazing and that my flub was not that bad. At first I told him to just drive on to the grocery store, but he didn’t rush, and I pulled my head up a little and said, “maybe we should go back in for a minute.” I dragged myself out of the car and we went back into the social area of the church. Numerous people came up to compliment me, a couple saying “I know you thought you messed up, but it was great,” and one lady saying that plus “It was so powerful I was tearing up.”

I didn’t feel like I necessarily needed these accolades from a standpoint of external validation — it was more about that I was going to allow myself to receive them even though I wanted to run from it because I didn’t feel like I had deserved it at first. But I changed my mind. I deserved to hold my head up high and not run just because I was embarrassed about my mistake. I deserved to be gentle with myself because mistakes are inevitable, and because dammit, Shel Silverstein and Rabbi Rami are right. Perfection is not real. If I want the sweet, I have to also accept the sad, because in embracing both, I am human.

I am me, and I can be loving toward toward myself — flubs and all. And only when I do that can I truly love others and their mistakes, too.