The Spiritual Trip: Getting High or Getting Real?



I had three spiritual experiences during my childhood and adolescence – significant enough that I could remember each of themin full technicolour five and six decades later. But the one that changed my life was the fourth that happened at the end of my twenties. On a beach in California I experienced, for half a minute, the eternal present with all the veils between time and eternity removed. I wasn’t on drugs. I was two weeks into an encounter group programme that had ten days earlier so totally connected me with myself that I could only wonder where on earth I had been all my life. After what happened on that beach I never needed to believe in God. Experience makes belief redundant.

In the next two or three years I did have several profound pyschedelic experiences of life’s spiritual dimension. I knew now what was constantly and most of the time invisibly expressing its presence in here-now existence, and that was accessible if I could open what Aldous Huxley called “the doors of perception”. For me, LSD and psilocybin mushrooms became a way to open these mystic doors, as well as giving me all kinds of personal psychophysical adventures ranging from the ecstatic-erotic to the demonically scary. Then, in my early thirties, I found Osho (Bhagwan he was in those years). Or did he find me? When the disciple is ready, the Master appears – so the saying goes! In any case I went to India, morphed into Swami Anand Rajen for the next ten years, and lived the first three of them in my Master’s Poona ashram. Before long I found myself bouncing between self-doubt and cynicism as I listened in on sannyasins earnestly regaling each other with accounts of their latest spiritual experiences and using a smorgasbord of metaphysical terms that meant nothing to me. Was I more ignorant than I thought? I asked Osho and he answered my question in a morning discourse, telling me to take no notice of all this spiritual ego-tripping and simply to trust my own way. He was echoing what I felt in my soul and I happily lost interest in all the spiritual gossip. Some time later, in another discourse, he said something that has stayed with me ever since. In so many words he said, “As long as you remain busy with experiences, you are trapped. Even spiritual experiences are just beautiful golden cages. You have to go beyond all experiences.”

There are only two ways to go beyond all experiences. One is to die, the other is to awaken into the eternal present. If your awakening is as irreversible as death, it means you have become enlightened. It is of course the latter into which Osho, like all enlightened Masters, was inviting and harassing us, his disciples. So every day he sat with us, giving us his PRESENCE, not just as an example, but as that mysterious path that such beings can make of themselves for seekers. The path is the Master-disciple relationship itself. To do this paradoxical adventure justice is far beyond the scope of this little article. Suffice to say that it is a path strewn with as many pitfalls as any other spiritual path – and the greatest, the highest, the holiest pitfalls were for us too our spiritual experiences – no matter how much he was exhorting us to go beyond them. Those beautiful golden cages are every bit as addictive as sex and drug trips! And for several years, while he was still around to inspire us and pull the holy rug out from under us, sex and spiritual exploration were so interwoven that the sannyasin trip far surpassed anything drugs had to offer.

Being a spiritual junkie is at least a somewhat creative addiction, because every spiritual experience we ever have is inviting us to bring more soul-awareness into our daily life (I regard the soul as the personal bridge we each have between our mortal self and the eternal spirit). But the junkie aspect inclines us to ignore the invitation. We can get so hooked on the experience itself that we may not even recognise, let alone accept the invitation to BRIDGE our being with the eternal spirit. We may just become spiritual pleasure-trippers, living from one fabulous experience to the next and surviving the ordinary everyday life spaces in between as best we can. Or we may invest so much of our ego in being spiritual that we become convinced of our own illuminated state and fashion for ourselves an enlightened life-style, basking in the ultimate illusion – the dream of being awake!

Enlightened egos are easy to spot – they always need disciples to sit at their feet and massage their illusion by lapping up their words of wisdom. Alan Cohen once told me a hilarious story of a Fed-Ex driver who was tricked into bringing a package to a pretend-Hare Krishna temple where the devotees, when he rang the doorbell to deliver the package, fell at his feet and begged him to come in and speak to them. They lovingly smothered him with their adoring recognition that finally, The One for whom they had been waiting had arrived, and so sweetly persuasive were they that they managed to get him to come in and sit on the throne-like chair that they set up on a little dais for him and around which they sat, imploring him to please say something, anything, to guide them on their spiritual way. Perhaps because it seemed the easiest way out, he finally accepted their request and to his own amazement delivered an exquisite spiritual homily. It’s not so hard to be a guru! And this is the point. It is much more challenging to become a whole man or woman. Chasing enlightenment, which is just one of many ways to get hooked on spiritual experiences, is a convenient way to avoid the challenge! Some people do it for ego-gratification. Others – probably most – because becoming spiritual saves them from having to befriend what they fear to embrace in themselves.

What matters is the deeper truth hidden in this story. Enlightenment – the transcendent state of living fully awake in one’s whole being – requires no audience and has no interest in collecting adoring disciples. As in the much-loved Sufi story of Mojud, the Man with the Inexplicable Life, the spiritual journey is a personal odyssey that requires you to be deeply engaged in the life you are living and the ways that your life itself is speaking to your soul. Spiritual experiences may happen along the way, and surely they educate, heal and awaken you, but they are not what your life is about. If people come to learn from you it is not because you are advertising your enlightenment. A whisper goes out on the grapevine and jungle telegraph does the rest. So it was with Mojud, and so it began with Osho. Sadly, the Rajneesh community that snowballed around him did become in time a rather tasteless Osho-promoting machine, a fact that inevitably raises questions. All I can personally say to the controversy is that the Master I lived with in Poona in the 70’s I only ever experienced as a man of astonishing presence.

The writings of George Gurdjieff, wonderful Russian mystic of the early to mid 20th century, are mostly impossible to read. But he managed to encapsulate his entire enlightened message in a single book title: LIFE IS REAL ONLY THEN, WHEN I AM. He devoted his life to creating situations that might impel his disciples to get real! A few decades later, Osho did the same, but by now a new resource was available. The Human Potential Movement, pioneered by Abraham Maslow, Carl Rogers, Fritz Perls and a few others, was spawning all kinds of potent self-realisation courses and workshops that could within a few intensive days awaken people and transform their lives. Osho’s genius was to collect human potential group leaders and bring the full spectrum of personal growth and spiritual awakening workshops into the ashram. Through getting very real and open with themselves and each other, and at the same time sitting in meditation with him, his disciples could gradually establish the connection between being real and being spiritually aware. In a nutshell, when we open to our whole being, we find ourselves totally awaken in the here-and-now – the timeless present. Connected with ourselves, we experience the spiritual dimension: “One with all that I am, I am one with all that is.” What Gurdjieff pioneered, Osho was able to realise: a way to bring together the spiritual quest and our very personal human odyssey.

Today the Human Potential Movement is a global market-place offering a prolific and colourful array of awakening and transforming experiences. In such a vast and unsupervised market you can find everything from the sublime to the absurd, from the precious gem to the plastic imitation. The sheer abundance makes it easy to get lost in blind alleys that are themselves lost in the maze of spiritual experiences. Finding your way in and out of them is all part of the adventure of finding yourself, and within your being discovering the eternal spirit. When you really find your way, it dawns on you that your life is your spiritual path. If your spiritual path becomes your life, it is simply because you are awake enough to recognise that from the very beginning you, like everybody, have always been heading in this direction. YOU are a spiritual experience happening –  with no interest at all in broadcasting the fact).