Creating Intentional Spiritual Experiences:
The Towards Wholeness Approach
By Anna Gatmon, Ph.D.
We are all familiar with the power of scent to transport us when we walk through an herb garden and smell different plants. I invite you to experiment and pick two or three fresh herbs such as parsley, mint, thyme, or lemon verbena and, one by one, crush the leaves between your fingers and take in the scent with your eyes closed. Take deep breaths and inhale the fragrance, letting their molecules infuse your being. Note any shifts in your body, any feeling or thought that arises. Focus on the shift in the quality of your sensations, feelings, and thoughts.
You may want to note what came up with each herb and you may even become aware of some insight regarding a current life situation. Whether you feel a sense of grounding, excitement, sheer happiness, or even some sadness, this simple act of taking in the scent of herbs allows your consciousness to expand and connect you to the Divine within and around you. It provides a gateway to the spiritual realm and is, therefore, a practical and easily accessible tool for creating the conditions for a spiritual experience.
From my perspective, the reason that Nature is such a powerful gateway to the spiritual realm is because the plant kingdom is alligned with the spiritual realm. While Nature is alive and has its own consciousness, it does not have free will or the human reflective mind, both of which can create the experience of separateness from our own divinity and connection to Spirit. That is why when we do something as simple as smelling a leaf from a freshly picked herb, we, too, connect to Spirit, as, literally, the molecules of the herb touch us and transform our state of mind and being with the spiritual qualities of the herb. Therefore, the more we spend time in Nature, the more we become aware of Nature’s connection to the Sacred, to wholeness. As a consequence, we begin to experience similar qualities that can deepen and enrich our experience of daily life. This is why Nature is a powerful gateway to the spiritual realm and our divinity within.
The Spiritual Realm and Our Divinity
There is a force in the universe, a hidden intelligence of endless potential and creativity from which everything originates. It is an unfathomable force, which, nevertheless, we humans experience as the Sacred and the Divine within ourselves and everything around us, be it Nature, people, events, or our creations and deeds.
This sacredness is revealed to us in our daily lives: when we experience a sense of peace and wholeness triggered by a walk in nature, the scent of fresh herbs or the earth after the rain; being washed with love and warmth from the look or touch of a child, or being nurtured by someone; a feeling of gratitude while cooking a wholesome meal for ourselves or others; a sense of truth and clarity when we feel we are in the right place at the right time, doing the right thing; experiencing elation during creative expression; or a sense of inner joy and contentment when our life is filled with purpose that serves a higher good. During these moments we enter the holy realm of the Divine, of Spirit.
This sacredness has been given different names, such as God, Goddess, Yehovah, Allah, Spirit, Great Spirit, Cosmic Love, Higher Power, Cosmic Energy, the Source, the Light, Brahman, and the Eternal, to name only a few. Some of these terms refer to an entity or a being, while others refer to a realm or field of consciousness. Different names may fit different contexts as well as offer different aspects of the essence and nature of this unfathomable force. I like to use different terms in order to evoke different qualities of this field of consciousness, as well as to avoid limiting the expression of this force to any particular cultural or religious association. Regardless of the term used, I believe there is a general understanding of what is implied.
There is an inherent difficulty in describing transcendent spiritual experiences, as they often go beyond thought and language, in addition to frequently being private, intimate moments. I believe, though, that the time in human evolution has come for spiritual experiences to be claimed as every person’s birthright, which is why it is important to study them in order to gain a better understanding of the nature and workings of such experiences. This is a delicate task: analyzing the parts of experiences that are wholistic in nature, while keeping in mind the higher purpose of developing a language and tools that can serve to enhance our spiritual life and imbue our world with qualities of Spirit.
Some people may argue that spiritual experiences should remain forever mysterious, intangible, with an element of surprise. I believe they always are; however, the surprise does not lie in having a spiritual experience, but rather in what Spirit, or the hidden intelligence of the universe, offers us in the course of a spiritual experience. This remains the eternal mystery. While there is no ultimate guarantee of an intentional spiritual experience, based on my experience and my doctoral research (Gatmon, 2012), I contend that it is possible to create favorable conditions for spiritual experiences, using our bodies, minds, and souls as guides.
Spiritual Experiences – An Expansion of Consciousness
Consciousness, according to Michael Newman (2010), is basic to our lives. “[It is] the experience of existence. We develop our consciousness in the continual encounter between our self and the social and material world . . . consciousness is all encompassing, infinite. It is literally all we have, and without it neither the self nor the world exists. [Expanded consciousness describes] a heightened form of consciousness in which we feel and we think and we do with clarity and intensity” (pp. 42-43).
Spiritual experiences evoke a sense of the expansion that Newman describes, that is, the experience of bringing into consciousness larger pieces of the whole, of oneself, and of the surrounding world. This applies to any given situation, whether we are taking in different underlying layers of a situation and expanding our perspective on it, or whether we are experiencing a moment of transcendence in nature in which we are able to experience, for example, our eternal connection with all things. In both situations, we expand to become aware of the many dimensions of any given moment or situation. Once we go beyond our habitual awareness and consider additional dimensions of any given moment or situation, we are, by definition, expanding our consciousness.
In the process of expanding our awareness, “the refinement of the senses increases our ability to experience the complexities and subtleties of our situation within our environment and to make conscious our feelings–which provides the opportunity for revised meaning-making” (Hoggan, Simpson, & Stuckey, 2009, p. 24). One such meaning-making may be a sense of knowing that we are in an expanded state of awareness or consciousness.
John Heron (2006) suggests that “spiritual inquiry presupposes a divine reality which is greater than . . . and which is the totality of what there is in every respect, including divine becoming” (pp. 57–58); he speaks of “how to participate in wider reaches of reality in the subtle worlds” (p. 3). This implies a state of being whereby one has an inner knowing that there is a whole and that there are hidden threads that connect the different parts, even if we cannot know them all, which suggests a state of expanded awareness. Zohar and Marshall (2000) refer to “a specifically human longing . . . for something that takes us beyond ourselves” (p. 4), which entails expanding our consciousness, and Elizabeth Tisdell (2003) suggests that “spiritual development constitutes moving toward greater authenticity” (p. 29), which suggests connecting and reclaiming greater aspects of oneself, and expanding one’s consciousness by expanding as a human being.
Expanding consciousness is not only a logical result of taking in larger pieces of the puzzle; it is also a lived experience, whereby we feel part of something larger, or are able to sense the wholeness of a given situation. It is as if the actual energetic frequency in our being is altered, thus provoking an expanded level of awareness. Such experiences involve sensations, feelings, thoughts, images, sounds, and smells, providing an embodied wholistic experience of expansion beyond our usual boundaries. The value in studying our own spiritual experiences is that it benefits “those who are aware of their own state of consciousness and who are alert to thoughts, images, metaphors, analogies, physical sensations, and other experiences associated with altered states of consciousness” (MacKeracher, 2004, p. 178).
Making Spiritual Experiences More Tangible
In order to facilitate participation in the process of having a spiritual experience and allowing more conscious involvement in the course of such occurrences, I have identified four ways of knowing that are of a spiritual nature, a spiritual epistemology, if you will, describing how we know and what we know to be of a spiritual nature. These are four distinct types of experience, each with its unique qualities and felt sense: knowing spirit, identifying a spiritual state, receiving guidance, and acting imbued with spirit. They are each a way of embodied spiritual knowing as they engage us as a whole being, including our senses, intuition, thoughts, feelings, and soul. These are moments when we feel centered and when we feel that our body, mind, and soul are one. We can sense them in our body, be aware of them through our feelings, and reflect upon them with our mind. They are also interrelated, building on and informing each other, providing a tangible and replicable process with which to create spiritual experiences and develop inner spiritual knowing.
Knowing Spirit – This knowing is defined as the understanding that Spirit, or some force greater than us, exists and forms the universe, while informing and communicating with Nature and us. Different events and experiences in our life reinforce our belief that indeed there is a hidden intelligence that underlies all of existence, and we can sense it, experience its qualities, and be affected by its presence. It is up to each one of us to recognize how we know that such a force exists and that we can have a direct, unmediated relationship with this underlying field of existence. The function of this type of spiritual knowing is to provide a platform for actively and consciously seeking to connect and communicate with this force we call God or Spirit.
Carl Jung was asked in an interview for the BBC in 1959 whether he believed in God when he was a child, to which he responded, “Oh, yes!” He was then asked whether he believed in God now that he was eighty-four years old. After some thought Jung answered: “Now? (pause) Difficult to answer. I know. I needn’t, I don’t need to believe. I know.” It is this kind of knowing that comes from experience and from having developed faith and personal evidence that what we may call Spirit does exists in some form and is in relationship with us and the world around us.
Identifying a Spiritual State – Recognizing that one is in a spiritual state is the ability to identify the conditions that evoke an expanded state of consciousness, and recognize the sensations, feelings, and thoughts that are associated with such an expanded state of being. If we pay attention to what we are sensing, feeling, and thinking during such moments, we will begin to notice a certain shift in our physical and emotional body, as well as in our mind. Each person may experience something different, and may also have different experiences at different times, yet I have come to identify a commonality to all these experiences, and that is a sense of internal expansion of our consciousness from where it was a moment before. It is an expansion of mind and being that we experience through our bodily sensations, feelings, and thoughts.
These may include a sense of elation or transcendence, a heightened experience of feelings such as joy, love, and wholeness, a profound sense of the sacredness of a particular situation, or a quiet, peaceful recognition of truth and clarity at a given moment. When we study our own spiritual experiences and become aware of the conditions, qualities, or activities that evoke this expanded state, we can recreate it by recreating the desired conditions, evoking the qualities we have identified, or repeating the evocative activity. The more we are able to identify an expanded state of consciousness and how it comes about, the easier it becomes to access and shift into it.
Receiving Guidance – This involves a sense of being guided, having an intuitive flash, or receiving a clear insight. Insight or guidance may appear seemingly out of nowhere, like a flash of lightning, or may emerge after having contemplated a specific issue for a while. It may be connected with a sensation and feeling of truth, purity, and wholeness, no matter where on the continuum of emotion the response is associated: whether with a sense of excitement, delight, and inspiration, or a sense of peace or even sadness. It is a moment when everything makes sense and falls into place. Examples of inner guidance may range from realizing the importance of slowing down the pace of life after a walk in Nature, to feeling a sense of awe at the sight of a rose and choosing to bring that sense of awe into the rest of the day, or finding a solution to a problem after having taken a break from work to listen to music. In all these examples, a state of expanded consciousness has brought about some insight or guidance.
Sometimes, after the expanded state of consciousness has shifted to a more logical, rational state, the guidance may seem odd and out of place and doubt may arise as to its truthfulness. In such a case, it may be necessary to recreate the expanded state of consciousness in order to reconnect with the wisdom of the guidance. The function of this type of spiritual experience is that it informs life choices and decisions and may lead to action. An increasing capacity for identifying inner guidance and distinguishing it from rational, logical thinking may help develop more informed spiritually guided action in the world.
Acting Imbued with Spirit – This fourth type of spiritual knowing is informed by inner guidance and involves taking action. This kind of action has a distinct felt experience that differs from action that is not driven by inner guidance. This type of spiritual knowing may result in changing one’s attitude towards a given situation, thus acting from a different emotional state and perspective. For example, if you change your perspective on a situation in your life from it being challenging to it being a gift and an opportunity, this will change the outcome of the situation, solely by virtue of having changed your attitude towards it.
Acting imbued with Spirit can also be experienced as either “flowing with the elements” and a sense of “everything is going my way” or, alternatively, a strong sense of inner conviction in spite of contrary, external, logical reasoning. These two examples illustrate both these types of actions imbued with Spirit.
A woman I interviewed for my doctoral study shared a story of appreciating a rainbow in the sky while driving her car, and having a sudden inner prompting to stop and fill up her car with gas at a station she never uses, only to find out that she was about to have a flat tire. Oddly enough, this specific gas station had a tire repair service, which allowed her to get her tire fixed within a very short time and to arrive on time for her interview with me, instead of finding herself with a flat tire along the road. Her perception of this experience was that everything was falling into place.
Another woman I interviewed related the story of a critical time in her life when she decided to move from one country to another with two small children some time after her spouse had passed away. Everyone around her felt it was a crazy move, as the country to which she was moving was at war, and she would have no extended family to support her. She experienced the type of spiritual action that has a felt sense of listening to an inner voice regardless of rational reasoning in the outside world. At that time, she was unable to explain why it was the right move for her; but she did have an inner knowing upon which she acted in spite of all logic. She has apparently never regretted this move.
These four ways of spiritual knowing are interrelated, as the diagram shows, and each way of knowing provides the ground for and informs the following way of knowing. In this way, entering an expanded state of consciousness allows for inner guidance to enter our awareness, which informs and enables our attitude, choices, and actions in the world; in return, our actions in the world reinforce our knowing that a spiritual dimension exists, which strengthens our desire to create additional spiritual experiences. This is a cyclical process that is experienced in a wholistic manner. It is useful to focus separately on each of these four types of knowing for the purpose of practice and the development of greater and subtler awareness. Different exercises, such as the one suggested of smelling herbs, can help develop each of these ways of spiritual knowing, and thus help develop the capacity for creating intentional spiritual experience.
The Value of a Spiritual Approach
We live in challenging times of financial and ecological crisis, of material overload and spiritual void, where our political structures are often stuck in the very paradigms that have created our current situation. In such times, a spiritually guided approach could open up new and creative solutions that would propel us towards more sustainable and wholistic ways of living together and in collaboration with Nature. In addition, connecting to the Divine within and living a spiritually guided life could bring renewed depth and meaning into our lives and communities.
Just as the physical world has laws within which we conduct our physical life, so the spiritual world is governed by its own set of rules and laws to which we gain access when we live a spiritually guided life. This requires learning to intentionally expand our consciousness, be receptive to spiritual inner guidance, and act upon these promptings. When we do expand our consciousness, we access a spiritual set of principles, laws, and possibilities that can only be claimed through direct experience, through which the innate intelligence of the universe offers us insight, intuition, and guidance. When we act upon these, spiritual principles can manifest through us.
For example, a spiritual, expanded state of consciousness often evokes one or more experiences of such qualities as compassion, love, joy, peace, grounding, beauty, creativity, and wholeness. When we approach life situations or face challenges from an expanded state of being where wholeness, compassion, peace, and creativity are available to us as resources, we open up to transformational thought, choice, and action.
In addition, when we expand our consciousness, we gain access to a larger context of the whole and of any given situation or event; hidden patterns reveal themselves to us; we become attuned to the meaning of synchronicities that appear in our lives, and gain deeper understanding of the order and purpose of events and people in our lives. Finally, we can live our lives more attuned to our calling in service of the world, fulfilling the life purpose we have each been given.
Ken Wilber (1996) argues that empirical-analytical inquiry “uses mental and rational reflection, but those operations are grounded in, and always subservient to, sensibilia” (p. 46). This differs from mental-phenomenological inquiry, where “the data itself is seen or experienced only with the eye of the mind” (p. 48). Transcendental inquiry, however, draws from a more expanded field or sense of perception. As Wilber explains: “[It] takes as its referent, not sensory objects out there and not mental subjects in here, but non-dual spirit as such, a direct apprehension of spirit, by spirit, as spirit, an apprehension that unites subject and object by disclosing that which is prior to both, and an apprehension that therefore is quite beyond the capacity of objective-empirical or subjective-phenomenal cognition” (pp. 60–61). In summary, “The knowledge of God is as public to the contemplative eye as is geometry to the mental eye and rainfall to the physical eye” (p. 35).
Building on Wilber’s perspective, as our subjective experience is the research instrument for spiritual inquiry, I invite you to explore your daily spiritual experiences, paying attention to how the Anna Gatmon approach renders these experiences more tangible, frequent, and powerful. Awareness is a tool and once we have a tool, we can use it to recreate the conditions for a desired experience. Nevertheless, in the case of spiritual experiences, we need to always remember that while we can create the conditions for more intentional spiritual encounters with the Divine, the nature and content of these encounters will always have an element of surprise. This is the intangible mystery of the Divine.
Gatmon, A. (2012). Education Anna Gatmon: Facilitating spiritual knowing in adult learners (Doctoral dissertation). September 27, 2012 http://gradworks.umi.com/3508072.pdf
Heron, J. (2006). Participatory spirituality: A farewell to authoritarian religion. Morrisville, NC: Lulu Press.
Hoggan. C., Simpson, S., & Stuckey, H. (2009). Transformative learning, multiple ways of knowing, and creativity theory in progress. In C. Hoggan, S. Simpson, and H. Stuckey (Eds.), Creative expression in transformative learning: Tools and techniques for educators of adults (pp. 7-28). Malabar, FL: Krieger.
Jung, C. (1959). “I know God exists.” Interview on BBC television. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WJ25Ai__FYU, accessed January 16, 2013.
MacKeracher, D. (2004). Making sense of adult learning (2nd ed.). Toronto, Canada: University of Toronto Press.
Newman. M., (2010). Calling transformative learning into question: Some mutinous thoughts. Adult Education Quarterly, 62(1), 36-55. doi:10.1177/0741713610392768
Tisdell, E. J. (2003). Exploring spirituality and culture in adult and high education. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
Wilber, K. (1996). Eye to eye: The quest for the new paradigm. Boston, MA: Shambhala.
Zohar, D., & Marshall, I. (2000). Spiritual intelligence: The ultimate intelligence. New York, NY: Bloomsbury.
 The material in this section is taken from a manuscript in progress in which I explore these ideas more deeply.