“Of course it is happening inside your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?” ― Albus Dumbledore, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows
Since this post is entirely about spiritual experiences, and examining them critically, I’d like to start with a brief disclaimer.
Mental illness can manifest as spiritual experiences, and to someone just experiencing this for the first time, it can be easy to confuse the two. Visions, voices, and other perceptions from the otherworld can be confusing and alarming as often as they can be warm and welcome, so don’t be concerned if you don’t always get the warm fuzzies from your first encounters with a spirit.
If spiritual experiences start interfering with your life in a negative way, it may be time to seek the help of a therapist or psychiatrist to determine if there is a bigger pattern or problem. Current diagnosis guidelines in the United States under the DSM-V are fairly clear that intervention hinges on whether the experiences “significantly hinder a person’s ability to function” not on the nature of the visions or experiences themselves.
Function is the key word in this disclaimer – if you’re functioning well, and your experiences aren’t hindering your ability to be a “functional human” (however you think that should look for you), then keep this disclaimer in the back of your mind, but don’t worry too much about it. However, if you are consumed by visions in such a way that you can’t work, or participate in a family or community, it’s time to consider if there’s a bigger problem that that might be explained by biochemistry instead of spirituality.
WHAT IS DISCERNMENT?
• keenness of insight and judgment
• the quality of being able to grasp and comprehend what is obscure
• (in religious contexts) perception in the absence of judgment with a view to obtaining spiritual direction and understanding
In short, discernment is the process of evaluating things for spiritual direction and understanding and of being willing to look critically at the experiences you have.
Spiritual discernment is basic to having wisdom. In the sphere of judgement, discernment involves going past the mere perception of something and making nuanced judgments about its properties or qualities. It’s not just “what is this” but “what does it mean (to me)”.
Considered as a virtue, a discerning individual is considered to possess wisdom, and be of good judgement; especially so with regard to subject matter often overlooked by others.
TYPES OF SPIRITUAL EXPERIENCES
• Visions – seeing things (often out of the corner of your eye)
• Voices and other auditory experiences
• Feeling presences – that feeling when you know someone is behind you, for example
• Physical signs/omens – clouds, animals, songs repeating on Pandora/Spotify
• Coincidence and Synchronicity – things that just seem too unlikely to have happened together all at once
I can’t find the source on this now, but I’ve read that approximately one in three people will have some sort of “supernatural” experience in their lifetime, which makes this sort of thing quite mundane and common, for all that it often freaks us out when it happens to us. These experiences can be quite diverse, but they are well recorded throughout history – look at the lives of the saints, for example, in either the Christian or the Buddhist tradition.
So what should you do if you think you’ve had a spiritual experience?
Write It Down!
Remember your W’s from writing reports in grade school:
Keeping a journal is a vital part of many spiritual traditions for good reason. Your memory just isn’t that good, and the longer you let something go without writing it down, the more likely you are to forget details or to invent things that seem like they could have happened but weren’t part of the actual experience. Even if you have to send yourself an audio message on your phone while you’re driving (pull off the road to do this, please!), get it recorded in as much detail as you can, as soon as you possibly can.
Trust me, you’ll appreciate it when something similar happens in two years, and you have a journal entry to look back on to compare the two events.
HEALTHY SKEPTICISM, HEALTHY ACCEPTANCE
It’s perfectly healthy and rational to look at your experiences with a skeptical eye.
It’s also perfectly healthy and rational to know that there are things we have trouble explaining, and that accepting and understanding our experiences is part of working with spirits and deities.
Some stuff just doesn’t make sense. Keep a balance of acceptance and skepticism, and it’ll be harder for charlatans (who do exist) and your subconscious to take advantage of you. But don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater either – you don’t have to deny all forms of religious experience just to say that maybe the one crazy dream you had was because you ate old Chinese food leftovers right before bed.
In that vein, here are some things you can check your experiences against to see if they line up with things you should be skeptical of automatically. These are simply some questions you might ask yourself about an experience or vision that can help you clarify whether it is an outside spirit (and one that you want to be talking to) or just the idle workings of your brain. None of these are, of course, foolproof or cast in stone – but taken together, they can help suss out the reality of an experience.
Keep in mind that all of these questions require being brutally honest with yourself, a task which can be hard even for experienced pagans. Take a little time after the experience to regroup (you did write it down, right?) and then start asking yourself these questions:
Does this vision tell me something I already know? Does this vision only ever agree with me? If the spiritual world is just a mirror of your inner beliefs, you’re probably dealing with your subconscious and not a spirit.
Does this vision tell me something I desperately want to hear or to be true? Does this vision tell me something I dread to hear, or play upon my wildest fears? While spirits can definitely be the bearers of good and bad news, if it’s only ever ecstatic or utterly devastating news, that’s a sign to be skeptical.
Does the voice sound like my inner monologue? My inner monologue is critical, academic, and emotionally distant. If I start hearing a warm, fatherly voice, I am usually pretty sure that’s not my brain that’s producing that.
Was it a visual or auditory experience that is out of the ordinary for my usual daydreams? If you usually see pretty pictures in your mind, seeing more pretty pictures in your mind isn’t particularly noteworthy. However, I almost never see pretty pictures in my mind, so if I get a strong mental picture and cue for something, that’s a sign to take it seriously.
Does it tell me one of the following things that are very rarely/almost never true?
• You are the savior/the chosen one/the most important person in the world
• You are vile and horrible and not worth living
• Everyone is out to get you
• You’re not really a human being
Does it say anything inconsistent with its symbolic nature? For example – if you have a war deity gushing about you romantically in a really lovey-dovey sort of way, you should perhaps be skeptical. While not out of the question, it should make you think extra hard about what you experienced and what actions you should take.
It’s important to remember that sometimes visions do tell us something we dread to hear, sometimes a spirit will confirm something we already suspect, sometimes particular spirits prefer to communicate in words rather than images, or vice versa, and sometimes visions do offer us good news. None of these questions, on their own, will give you the answer – but they can point you in the right direction as you start to examine your experiences.
While there are some ways to “analyze” an experience while you’re having it, that’s a fast way to kill the experience. It can be easier simply to confront a vision with the symbol of the vision you were trying to evoke.
For example, if I’m calling the deity Brigid, and I’m not sure I’m really hearing Brigid, I just imagine her symbol (a Brigid’s cross, for example) and “throw” it toward her. If she fades away, flickers, sounds different, and so on, she’s clearly not Brigid. She might be self-deception, or a deceptive spirit, but she’s not Brigid.
If the experience is already in the past, here are some other clues for figuring out what they mean, and if you should pay attention:
Persistence – This thing isn’t easily dismissed or eliminated. I saw something out of the corner of my eye, and a few minutes later, it was still there.
Repetition – This thing happens over and over again. Having a dream once might not mean anything, but the same dream every week for six months is probably significant. Seeing one red-tailed hawk is nothing special, but seeing sixteen in a three hour car ride might be something to pay attention to.
As well, pay attention to seemingly disconnected signs that might have a common source – sometimes when a spirit is trying to get our attention, they will use lots of different signs that, individually, don’t mean much, but when added together, paint a clear picture of a repeated attempt at communication.
Research (exterior confirmation) – Other people have experienced this thing. The internet is an amazing place full of other pagans and spiritual people. Ask around, and see if other people can confirm similar experiences. It’s remarkable how reassuring this can be.
Divination – Seeking answers tells me more about the thing. Whatever divination method you choose, picking something that uses symbols rather than yes-no answers will likely give you more information. And you’d be surprised just how much information you can get from divination.
While we’re on the subject, a note on divination. Divination (in these circumstances) is best done by:
• Someone other than yourself
• Who knows only enough about the situation to do a reading
• Who is not invested in the outcome of the reading
• Whom you can trust to tell you the truth
The goal here is to get a really objective reading, or as objective a reading as possible. If you have to do the divination yourself, do the reading, write it down (or take a picture) and then come back to it after some time has passed, to help you be more objective.
There are lots of places online where you can get readings from others, either for free or for a small fee. If you don’t know any diviners or seers, a really profound spiritual experience – one that stands up to all of the other tests and questions – is absolutely worth paying for a spiritual specialist to give you some outside information. Do some research to make sure the person does the kinds of readings you’re looking for, and if you have a spiritual community, don’t be afraid to ask around to see if someone will help out.
You’ve determined that your experience holds up to some amount of scrutiny, and you want to dig deeper into its meaning. What you do next tends to depend on the experience you have, and how you want to go about approaching it. You can . . . .
Make offerings to the spirit that contacted you. As an ADF Druid, I am always concerned with hospitality – the relationship of guest and host. If I want to build a relationship with a new spirit, offerings is always where I start.
Talk to the spirit directly, especially if you are unclear on what it is or what it wants. Sometimes simply making an offering and asking “Who are you?” will be enough to get you the information you need to proceed further.
Do research to learn as much as you can about the spirit, deity, or type of being that you think you’re dealing with. Lore is a fantastic resource. Read and learn as much as you can, and talk to other pagans about what they know. Sometimes, especially as a beginner, you won’t have all the knowledge you need to put things together, but google and other pagans can definitely help.
Seek out others who have more experience (but don’t be afraid to do your own thing too!). While the lore is often very illuminating, it can often also be pretty limited, and the experiences of others (often called UPG – Unverified Personal Gnosis) can be really useful as well. But remember that you were the one with the original experience, so don’t throw your own understanding under the bus.
Work on developing your discernment muscles with exercises to build intuition and insight. The better you are at figuring these things out, the easier it will be in the future to determine what’s an important spiritual experience, and what’s just mental chatter. An exercise you can try, as you begin to build up your discernment muscles:
Each time you see, hear, smell, feel something that you think might be related to a spiritual experience, perform a specific action (kissing the back of your fist, repeating a short prayer, etc.). At first, you’ll be inundated with “spiritual experiences”, but after a while, you’ll begin to have better intuition for what is significant versus not.
With time and practice, you’ll begin to have a good intuitive sense of the things you should pay attention to, and the things which are just “noise” in the background of life. As with any discipline, the more you practice, the better you’ll get at knowing which step is the right one to take as you evaluate your experiences and begin to sort out what (if anything) you should do about them. The more you learn and interact with others, the easier this process becomes.
This is not easy stuff. This is mental and emotional heavy lifting, and you should not feel the slightest bit bad if you need help from friends or other mentors as you begin the discernment process about your spiritual experiences.
Whether they be deities or ancestors, nature spirits or animal guides, the “otherworldly” things that often get our attention can be confusing and difficult to square with. But we’re not floundering in the dark – the elders and teachers in our traditions have years of experience (and other traditions may have millennia of experience) at figuring out what these things mean.
In the end, though, the most important question is what these experiences mean to you. If you’re willing to examine things critically, and your experiences hold up to that criticism, then walk your path proudly. You’re the one who has to live it, and whether you come to the conclusion that you’re experiencing the spirit of an ancestor or the deep inner workings of your own mind, only you can derive meaning from your own experiences.
About the Author: Lauren Neuman joined ADF in 2012, after a rather eclectic, ten-year romp through the ranks of modern paganism. She is currently the Grove Organizer of Nine Waves Protogrove, ADF and is working her way through the Preliminary courses of ADF’s Clergy Training Program. She resides in the southeast of Houston, Texas, where she enjoys gardening, reading, writing, and being the Druid in the Swamp.
All photos by the author.