In my life, I have tried all kinds of spiritual practices, including Native American sweat lodges, tribal dancing, Gestalt therapy, light-body work, visualizations, fasting, praying, and a variety of meditation techniques.
In this article, I will draw a comparison between several of those spiritual practices, most of which fall into one of three categories. My main focus will be on whether or not they help the practitioner achieve the transcendental state, beyond body and mind.
The Physical–Energetic–Emotional Category
First, let’s look at a group of spiritual practices that fall into what I call the physical–energetic–emotional category. These practices have several things in common. They typically create physically strenuous circumstances, heighten sensitivity, and have an emotionally cathartic component, which means that they release stored emotions.
I can give you two personal examples from this category, attending sweat lodges and engaging in tribal dancing (both based on shamanic traditions).
The sweat lodges I’ve attended have been performed in small, dark tents, which created strenuous circumstances. During the ceremonies, water was poured on hot stones, and participants sang, cried, and pushed their bodies to the limits, which added to the physical sensations and emotional release (common among these types of spiritual practices).
I emerged feeling radically different, my skin tingling from the heat, my eyes cried out—truly cathartic—and my body exhausted.
Likewise, the tribal dances I engaged in were performed with a steady, increasing drumbeat. We sang loudly and danced until we collapsed.
The theory behind these practices is that at the point of exhaustion, there is said to be a brief opening for transcendental spiritual experiences (marathon runners and hot yoga practitioners have also reported this kind of temporary spiritual high from physical exhaustion, some call it being in the zone).
Deliberately pushing oneself to exhaustion is said to produce (on occasion) a state of extreme clarity and peace, halting mental chatter and transcending bodily sensations. This, according to the originators, creates space for non-dual awareness.
Here is what I experienced.
The emotional release was certainly a positive feature of these practices. I got the most out of them when I was feeling lost, lonely, and vulnerable, but when I was feeling physically and emotionally well, the practices seemed to exaggerate those feelings of wellness.
That is one reason why the physical-energetic-emotional practices are so appealing because they do create a rush of endorphins and lead to an emotionally heightened state.
As such, I experienced both the exhaustive physical effects and the emotional highs, but I never experienced the moments of peace as promised.
That does not mean that these rather extreme practices never create a state beyond mind and body, but when they do, the peace comes at a price. Regular people cannot perform these practices on an everyday basis without it resulting in severe physical side effects.
My conclusion is that extreme physical–energetic–emotional practices can be done safely several times a year. However, they are not well suited for a regular spiritual practice as they don’t predictably provide an experience of the spiritual state beyond senses, emotions, and body, and the physical toll is too great to endure on a regular basis.
The Mental–Emotional Category
Next, let’s look at spiritual practices that fall into what I call the mental-emotional category. It includes practices such as visualizations (a.k.a. guided meditations), light-body work, emotional check-ins, forms of mindfulness, and other similar techniques.
All are mental exercises in which participants envision positive states of wellbeing. They are well suited for elevating emotional states, inducing relaxation, and generating physical healing effects. They also have an emotionally cathartic component, are non-exhaustive, and are pleasant to engage in.
However, because of their intrinsic nature, which is the production of images in the mind, these practices rarely bring about a state in which the mind becomes quiet. Their primary focus is to create and sustain positive thoughts in the mind.
The exception is when simple visualization techniques are used to quiet the mind, in which case the mental flow of images is presented in decreasing complexity that results in stillness (such as imagining a beam of light that becomes smaller and smaller until it is a mere point or imagining light that becomes all-consuming until there is nothing but light).
Most of the visualizations and guided meditations I participated in were feel-good mental-emotional adventures (making them slightly addictive, similar to the spiritual highs experienced during the shamanic practices), but none of them led to the subtler and much-deeper nondual spiritual states that I have experienced during meditation.
My conclusion, when it comes to complex visualizations, is that they certainly offer physical, mental, and emotional benefits, but the practices do not consistently help the practitioner transcend the body and mind.
The Transcendental Category
That brings us to meditation, which falls into what I call the transcendental category. There is a caveat because many of the above-mentioned mental-emotional practices are also called meditation, but, upon closer inspection, do not achieve the meditative state, and should therefore more accurately be called visualizations.
In comparison to the previous practices, meditation is both simple and non-exhaustive. The practice is to sit motionlessly, relax, and concentrate, to gently struggle with the mind until it becomes still. At the point when the mind becomes still, meditation stops being a practice and becomes a state that can be likened to deep, dreamless sleep while awake.
When understood and practiced correctly, meditation gives a direct experience of transcending the body and mind. It probably won’t happen every time you sit down—especially not to begin with—but with time, the state will be revealed often enough that the practitioner will begin to reconsider his or her perceptions about reality and the underlying truth.
Meditation is a repeatable practice with few, if any, negative side effects, but plenty of positive ones—from the reduction of tension and anxiety to increased focus and creativity—so there are several practical reasons to meditate.
The secret, which most of the institutions that need followers conveniently forget to unveil, is that we have all experienced the meditative state at one time or another.
We call those experiences moments of peace and overlook them as unimportant.
The meditative state is available to all of us at all times but we cannot experience it unless we slow down.
My conclusion is that meditation is the practice that most predictably leads to the transcendence of the body and mind with the fewest number of possible side effects.
Author & Interfaith Minister
This column was adapted from my book, Trans-Rational Spirituality.
Pictures: Pexels.com CC0 License