The Reality of Spirituality Personal / Spirituality

The town of Ubud in Bali, Indonesia is a hub for yogis, spiritual healers, health conscious individuals, and followers of New Age philosophies. Everywhere you look are ads for meditation courses, yoga classes, or detox retreats. Out of curiosity, and for the chance to get out on my own for a while, make some friends, and learn something new, I attended a 5-day Craniosacral workshop retreat. While there, I received a crash course in skeletal anatomy, met some beautiful people, and gained a whole lot more than I bargained for.

I grew up a very spiritual person within the context of Mormonism. I believed in God with all my heart, prayed diligently and regularly, and was able to recognize His influence on a daily basis. But as I left the LDS church, I became skeptical of anything that couldn’t be proven through the scientific method. I discovered that much of what I had believed growing up was a distortion of the truth, and I came to understand how easy it is to believe things that are not true, even in the face of strong opposing evidence. I still felt peaceful feelings after I left, but I no longer associated them with a male God in the sky or an invisible Holy Spirit. It seemed more likely to me that they were simply a combination of chemicals in the brain, as people in many faith traditions experience these same feelings but interpret them differently.

Villa Gaia Retreat Center, Ubud

This retreat, however, was a very unique experience for me. At first, I was really weirded out. We started off with a meditation, but it wasn’t simply quieting your thoughts or “observing the observer.” Instead, the instructor called upon the family of light, the fairies, the devas, the ascended masters, etc. and instructed us to harmonize our chakras with the crystal heart of gaia and the heart of the galactic mother. Woah! It was way “out there.” I didn’t quite know what to think and was wondering if maybe this wasn’t the right workshop for me. I was relieved when another class member spoke up immediately after the meditation expressing the exact same concerns. This gave the teacher a chance to explain more, and after some group discussion (and sharing where I was coming from), I understood that these phrases were simply symbols to help us connect more with our higher selves, and weren’t indicative of things like fairies existing in the material world. Whew!

The people there seemed cool and I had paid my money so I decided to roll with it and see what I could get out of the course. And outside of the meditations, it turned out that the rest of the workshop was much more down the earth (well, in some ways).

The instructor, Michael, is an osteopath and has been doing this type of work for over 15 years. We spent the first day learning about the history of osteopathy and craniosacral therapy, as well as some general anatomy, from the location of the sphenoid and hyoid bones to the purpose of fascia and cerebrospinal fluid. My head is still spinning with terms like exterior occipital protuberance and tantorium cerebelli.

The first few days of the retreat were nice and we did practice a little on each other. I was of course skeptical of everything that happened. I did feel deeply relaxed, extremely peaceful, tingles like lightning all throughout my body, and a few other sensations like my hands disappearing or criss crossing when they really weren’t and other experiences that are difficult to put into words. Still, I had no reason to believe these sensations were coming from anything other than my own brain. They were similar to the feelings I’d felt doing Tai Chi, praying as a youth, and the relaxed state I’m in right before I doze off to sleep.

On the fourth day, however, I had two unique experiences that have left me feeling like there may be more to all of this. First, the teacher did some work on me as part of a class demonstration. As he put his hands under my head and his thumbs on my TMJ, he sensed things moving to the left as if there were trauma there. I pointed out an accident I had as a child on left side that resulted in a dimple. He tuned into it and over the next 10-15 minutes I felt some very strange movements. I felt my jaw moving to the left, then settling a little. Then I felt the entire left side of my face being pulled to the left (like a foot or two away from my face), and the back of my head being pulled back and up with some gentle tension. It was not happening physically. Michael wasn’t moving his hands that I could tell, and I knew I was staying still. It was more of a spiritual movement, like in the old Scooby-do cartoons when they unmask the villain and his face stretches, but it was gentler than that and like the mask was inside and ghost-like. I’ve never felt anything like it. Michael described a few things he was feeling to the class as he worked on me (like where things were moving and when they released) and I was feeling those same things at the same time he described them. Most importantly, those pulling tensions slowly began to resolve until my jaw felt like it had been set back to its normal position like it was before the accident. It felt perfectly in place and symmetrical for the first time in decades. At that very moment when I felt it resolve, Michael said “ok” and moved on to finish the treatment because he also recognized that it had resolved. Very interesting.

I felt dazed and relaxed after getting up, and was speaking slowly and calmly. I wasn’t sure exactly what this meant or what I had experienced. Looking in the mirror, I don’t notice any difference in my face. But for a good hour or two afterward, it felt different (and still does to a smaller degree) — like my face was normal again, but a bit numb like I had just undergone some kind of surgery. My smile felt bigger and more natural, too.

Then later in the afternoon, another student worked on me, and while she was doing so, I felt a hand gently pressing down on my stomach. Sometimes Michael touches a leg or back as we’re working so I thought it was him, but it was staying for several minutes, so I opened my eyes and saw no one there. But there was still a pressure on my stomach rolling along with each breath right above my belly button. Unlike earlier, this didn’t feel spiritual, but like an actual physical pressure. And it lasted for the rest of the session. I wondered if it might just be indigestion, but it felt different somehow and more constant. And again afterward I was in a very dazed state, so grateful and peaceful, I felt like I could cry, and actually did just a little. The space felt very holy.

So, what’s going on here? Is my mind just playing tricks on me? I can’t claim that any of this stuff is real on the physical level, and it certainly wouldn’t be detectable by any observer or machine, and appears to be a completely subjective experience. Still, it had an impact on me that was different and even more powerful than what I’ve experienced in my own meditations and practices, especially when considering the congruency between what Michael and I felt during the session. Perhaps it’s all just in the mind. But then again, perhaps our entire existence is happening in the mind. Quantum physics gets pretty spooky when you consider that electrons don’t have a state until they’re observed, that there is more empty space in matter than anything else, and when you note the studies that show (although to a very small degree) that the mind can influence random number generators and that the brain reacts to images before they’re seen by the eyes.*

As I tried to determine whether the experience was “real” or not, I remembered what Dumbledore told Harry Potter during his after death experience in the last book: “Of course it is happening inside your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean it is not real?”

One thing I found that helped me to experience these things more fully was to turn off my left-brain. At the teacher’s suggestion, and against my normal tendency, I decided to ignore the thoughts popping into my head questioning and analyzing everything. I stopped trying to figure out what was happening or if it was “real” and instead just focused on the sensations I was experiencing. Interestingly, over the course of the week, I found myself becoming more sensitive to these subtleties and better able to tap into them.

I’m actually finding myself in a very different state now from when the week began. It’s weird and wonderful. I feel more sensitive in every way. More aware of what’s going on around me. Better able to focus in on whatever I’m doing. Better able to connect with the people around me. Better able to sense the differences in their energies and moods. The people in the class were amazing. Some were so gentle and serene and calming. Others have a strong love, or are firmly grounded. All were full of love and acceptance. It’s interesting that I can be aware of these differences. I also feel more gentle. More peaceful. I seem to smile and laugh more easily, and I have more patience and acceptance. The world seems to move by more slowly. It feels really good and I hope it lasts!

Classmates at the cranio-sacral workshop

Maybe I’m just fooling myself and when all this stops and I’m back to feeling “normal” again in my reality, I’ll be able to see how silly it all sounds. Then again, the reality I’m in now feels more real and intense than ever before, and I don’t want it to stop. What is reality anyway, beyond our subjective perceptions?

So that’s my experience. What are your thoughts on spirituality? Do you believe there’s more going on than can be observed by the five senses and measured by machines? To what degree? Do you think there are spirit guides and auras and reincarnation, as some people claim to “know” or is all that just airy-fairy fluff? Or maybe you’re not really sure and you’re able to carry on in life without worrying about it too much.

Whatever your perspective, I’d love to hear your thoughts and experiences. Please share your comments below.

* For info on these and other studies, see the books Science and the Near Death Experience, Blink: The Power of Thinking Without ThinkingWar of the WorldviewsHow God Changes Your Brain.


Brandon is a location independent entrepreneur, musician, traveler, worldschooling father, and the principal author of this blog. He's all about reaching his potential and enjoying life to the fullest in every moment while inspiring others to do the same.


Comments

  1. I think anything that makes one more peaceful and more accepting is good. I think that anything that makes one more gentle and patient is good. That is all.

    • Great sentiment, Vajra. And different things seem to do that for different people in different ways, don’t they? Although I think the trick is tuning in to what makes you feel that way. Some people might think they can only have peace if they hurt or kill someone else, although that’s certainly not being gentle, accepting, and patient. If only we could all be all of these things all the time. :)

  2. Jennifer Pearce Says: June 2, 2012 at 4:50 pm

    I really like the idea of taking more time to focus on sensory experiences. I think some people are just naturally more attuned to those things, but we can all become better at it with practice. I think it’s a great way to learn new things and can help aid in healing as well. I’m glad you are having such life-changing experiences and making these new discoveries!

    • Thanks Jen. Yes, it’s been interesting feeling more “tuned in” to everything around me. It makes me wonder how much more tuned other people might feel, perhaps just naturally. Thank you for being so supportive in every way.

  3. This is so interesting Brandon. I have two thoughts. I am reminded of the renowned neurologist Sam Harris, an atheist, who in his speeches urges his fellow “skeptics” to not be so skeptical that they brush off all sensory experiences. You can find some of his lectures on YouTube. He recognizes that meditation can open the door to experiences that cannot really be defined scientifically. The difficulty with these experiences, he explains, is that unlike scientific theories, you can’t rely on other people’s tools to observe them. You have to develop your own tools first, and that takes effort and, ironically, faith that there is some type of reward for those efforts. I think this is different than blindly believing in verifiable untruths.

    The second thought is, have you ever studied zen? I have just begun to look into it, and for me the most interesting concept so far is that the ego (i.e. the “rational mind”) is not necessarily our identity. It’s difficult to grasp, but one of the points of meditation is to move beyond the rational mind. I don’t think this means to abandon reason, but to recognize that there are certain paradoxes that can’t be resolved by the rational mind. Also the illusion of separation and the idea of letting go of control of the things that are simply beyond control. It’s a very different way of thinking for me but I am interested in what it has to offer. Yogic studies are very similar, they probably have the same origin in India.

    Anyway, I am very interested to see if you continue to integrate this into your life and to see what you discover.

    • Awesome thoughts, Daniel! Wow. I’ve enjoyed reading Sam Harris and it’s interesting to hear that he encourages openness about these types of experiences. I agree that it’s different than blindly believing in verifiable untruths.

      What you describe with zen and moving beyond the rational mind sounds very similar to what I experienced this week, and I’m eager to delve more deeply into these experiences and see what I can discover. I just hope I won’t turn into a fruitcake in the process. :) Schizophrenics see some pretty weird stuff that is very real to them.

  4. Interesting post Brandon,

    I’m definitely on the skeptical side.

    I’m a fairly physically active person and get great pleasure from exercise, stretching and yoga. I also see huge personal benefits in meditation and also the type of solitude I find on long runs or bikes. Basically, anything that makes your body and mind feel better afterward, is probably a good thing to continue doing.

    However, I also believe that it is easy to be directed or manipulated into believing things that aren’t really there. When we are really relaxed, like in meditation, we are even more suggestive. That is why hypnosis works for so many people.

    At the very least, there is a discernible placebo effect, so if you believe something is healing you, it definitely can. To me, that means that our bodies have incredible power to heal themselves, much more than science understands. That doesn’t mean that homeopathy or osteopathy should replace the latest scientific medical knowledge, but we are also finding that science isn’t always best either. The profit motive of medical and pharmaceutical companies can distort the research far too much.

    Basically, I still don’t know how I feel on this stuff.

    I do know that the western interpretations of zen, yoga and meditation are far too often ego centered. Yoga is a lifestyle. It is the daily rituals of always sitting on the floor, using squat toilets, eating simple foods etc. It is not putting a $300 Lulu Lemon yoga outfit and driving your SUV to a twice a week hot yoga class, because that is the latest trend. That is why so many western yoga teachers and students injure themselves. It is too much of a contest to see how far they can push themselves.

    I lived in Japan for 14 years and I have never once heard any Japanese person speak of ‘Zen.’ My belief is that it is not something you study, it is a way of life. Real Zen masters don’t have websites and hand out business cards at networking events. Only westerners do that. To me that is not very Zen-like.

    • Stretching and yoga have always felt really good for me too, and I think you’re right about there being a big difference between yoga for exercise and yoga for spirituality. I only have experience with the former.

      I’m fascinated by the placebo effect and the body’s ability to heal itself! We were told in class that the purpose of craniosacral therapy was not to heal the patient, but to open the way for the body to heal itself. I guess enhancing the placebo effect, more or less, although it wasn’t stated that way. I think you’re right that this ability may be much greater than we realize. It’s amazing what some people are able to recover from without conventional medicines. If only we could turn it into a science that everyone could apply, even on themselves. Thanks for your comment, John.

  5. It is so interesting to see the path your life is taking and the varied experiences it is leading you to. I am a hopeful skeptic… skeptical of things without evidence, and yet hopeful of something bigger/deeper and more meaningful.

    I have had craniosacral treatments in the past and found them very beneficial for me as I was working through emotional issues with a counselor (he was trained both in craniosacral and counseling) and would perform craniosacral work as we talked. I was able to work through some difficult emotion much more quickly than with other counselors, who didn’t combine therapy with the body work. I had some interesting sensations that are hard to describe – felt them on 2 – 3 different occasions, and only during the treatment.

    What does it mean? I don’t know. But clearly it has helped you tap into something deeper and more meaningful in your life. And have met some wonderful people in the process. Your mom approves. :)

    • I’d love to hear more about the experiences you’ve had that are hard to describe — if it’s possible to describe them. It sounds like many people have had interesting experiences during craniosacral work. What’s surprised me about my experiences is that they weren’t just a cool or funky sensation but that they had a huge positive impact on how I felt and how I saw the world. I was not expecting that.

  6. Interesting.

    I’m all about new experiences and it looks like you’re having them in droves. I hope the skeptic within can be kept in his place. I appreciate the scientific method as well, but to say that it is the final arbitor of truth is to give it a place normally reserved for religious ideas and figures. There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in our philosophy.

    I came across a quote by Mohandas Ghandi the other day that encapsulates what I feel about all this. He said that his religion is his home. But he keeps the windows open. As for me, I know where my home is, and I love it there, but my windows are always open to ideas and experiences from the outside.

    By the way, Zen is much more popular in the US than in Japan. That’s simply because most Japanese have chosen a non-religious lifestyle and are not looking for a meditative religious life. The other Buddhist sects like Jodo or Nichiren seem to serve the needs of those who are religiously inclined. They are more traditionally “religious” than Zen, which is mostly about just sitting.

    Haapy adventures!

    • I totally agree about the scientific method. It’s great for getting a better understanding of what is most likely to be true, but also important to be aware of its limitations. I also like the idea of “keeping the windows open.” There is so much we don’t understand. Thanks for sharing your comments!

  7. Addendum

    I didn’t mean to seem dismissive about Zen. It is more than “just” sitting, even though that’s what a Zen master might say.

  8. I’ve never been able to experience anything like this, but I would love to! I love that you were able to attend that workshop. I am at a point where – all I know is that I know nothing at all for certain :) I think mom said it perfectly: a hopeful skeptic. I think yoga, meditation, hypnosis, etc. are extremely beneficial. Now, whether doing those things is helping you get in touch with your own mind where YOU are the one controlling all of the sensations in your body, or whether it helps you connect to a higher power/energy source, I’m not certain. Considering how powerful our dreams are, and how real they can be- and how magnificent our brains are, I would lean more to the idea that meditation/yoga/etc. helps us connect with our inner selves, rather than an outside source. But, like I said, I know nothing for certain. :) I’m just happy you can experience this and share it with us! I love reading about your journey.

    (I actually think something like this could really benefit Kennedy. She has so much anxiety. I would imagine that if she could learn to be more at peace with herself and with everything around her- to be less worried and concerned. Do you think there are any parent/family/child workshops like that in Salt Lake?)

    • Great thoughts. And as for it being in the head or coming from an outside source, I’ve heard some teachers say that it’s really the same thing, because we’re all connected and are simply manifestations of the same conscious “oneness.” So I think even spiritual gurus might agree with you that it’s all happening inside of you. And if you believe that God is in you, or that you are God, and all is one, then perhaps “you” is all there is. So of course it’s not happening outside of you. If you can make sense of that paradox. Deep stuff we’re getting into here…

      As for Kennedy, yes, learning to be more conscious of her thoughts and emotions, and to relax herself would probably help her anxiety. I just did a search for “meditation workshop Salt Lake” and came up with a few options. Here’s one at the City library: http://www.slcpl.lib.ut.us/events/view/1193/ Might be some good stuff here as well: http://www.alwaysmetta.org/Alwaysmetta.org_site/Welcome.html I’m sure there are others. Or maybe a craniosacral treatment would help her release some of the traumas underlying her anxiety? I hope you can find something to help.

    • Jennifer Pearce Says: June 6, 2012 at 4:41 pm

      Ashley, my step-mom is a child and family therapist also, and recently opened up her own practice. Her office is in Draper. If you are interested, let me know, and I will send you her email address. :)

      • Thanks to both of you. Yes, deep stuff for sure, Brandon :) It’s very interesting to think about.

        I may have to go check one or two of those places out- and see how they work for me, and then perhaps take Kennedy. She would do well with some meditation, I think.

        Jen- that is good to know! She actually is going to a counselor, right now, but if we don’t make much progress with her, I will get your step-mom’s information from you!

        Actually, I think what will REALLY help Kennedy is if we just moved to Bali with you guys so she could play with her cousins all day long ;)

  9. That’s really cool, Brandon. I’ve had experiences similar to yours both in my training and sometimes in the most random moments. I was pleased when your instructor told you that the symbology in the meditation was just that… not literal, merely a way for you to discover your higher self. My own Sifu taught that enlightenment was like being in a grocery store, and only looking at the food on the shelves, then looking up and realizing there was so much more. Namasté.

    • That’s cool you’ve had some similar experiences. I do wonder if there is a way to bring them about at will rather than having them be elusive or random moments. I’d like to retain the more “aware” state I felt I was in during the experiences. Meditation seems to help, but so far it doesn’t take me to the same degree all the time.

      It seems there is no end to what’s above the shelves of food at the grocery store of enlightenment. :) I feel like this week I was able to take a subtle and blurry glimpse outside of the matrix, and I wonder what more is there.

  10. Letting go of what we thought was reality has gotten us so far so quickly. Expectations had always put the breaks on anything the universe had in store for us. When I say universe I mean that power that nobody can identify. Could be outward or in. Doesn’t matter it’s powerful.

    • Beautifully said, Paul. I had no idea how much I would learn and grow from being willing to give up my concept of reality. And once I get comfortable in one reality, it’s time to shatter it again and be open to the new one that presents itself. It can be difficult, but so very rewarding! And I’m starting to see the value in giving up the need to try and identify the source of that power. Thanks for sharing.

  11. Great post and great discussion –

    Thanks for sharing!

    David

  12. ‘If we carefully consider the human soul in its nature, we see two different regions in it: the one belongs to the sensible order, the other to the suprasensible or intellectual order. The sensible part of the soul is that which is common to men and animals; it includes the external senses and the internal senses which comprise the imagination, the sensible memory, and the sensitive appetites, whence spring the various passions or emotions which we call sensible love and hatred, desire and aversion, sensible joy and sadness, hope and despair, audacity, fear, and anger. All this sensitive life exists in the animal whether its passions are mild…or whether they are strong … Above this sensitive part common to men and animals, our nature likewise possesses an intellectual part which is common to men and angels, although it is far more vigorous and beautiful in the angel. By this intellectual part our soul towers above the body, this is why we say the soul is spiritual. True intelligence which alone deserves the name of intellect unqualified, is a faculty which, if it not be hindered as a result of insubordination on the part of the lesser faculties, its appointed handmaids, will fly straight to the mark. It does not think; it sees. The catalyzing of this power to see, which everyone bears within himself, whether he be aware of it or not, is the aim of spiritual method, in every man.’
    Marco Pallis

  13. Brandon, I love how you open up so much in your posts and explore your honest experience. There is something at work that is much more profound than meets the eye. In creating space for it, removing outdated belief structures and recognizing that you don’t have all the answers, you open up to wisdom. Not from one source, but from all sources. Each moment becomes your teacher. Thank you for sharing your experience with honesty and vulnerability.

  14. I was raised with the teachings of the ascended masters (the ones that your guide referenced). I have completely distanced myself from it, yet I am extremely grateful for growing up in such an alternative way. The thing with spirituality is, while most of it is made-up, spiritual people are at a higher level of consciousness/awareness than most people/the masses. That has a huge amount of merit in itself. I think that spirituality, when it does not conform to an ideology, and with a basis in strong objective/critical thinking, can be an incredibly life-transforming journey. I consider myself very spiritual, as I am always seeking deeper truths, and forming my own beliefs about the nature of what is beyond our physical experience. What do you think?

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