Thursday, August 29, 2013
Satsang: The Power of Spiritual Presence and Good Company
Enlightened people are like spiritual dynamos: they have a very strong presence which touches the people they come into contact with, transmitting something of their enlightenment to them. Even people who aren’t at all “spiritual” usually feel a sense of well-being in their presence, and so feel attracted to them without knowing why. And for people who have made some spiritual progress already, the effect can be extremely powerful.
Contact with an enlightened person may enable them to make the final “jump” to permanent enlightenment themselves. This is one of the reasons why many spiritual traditions place so much emphasis on the role of a guru. The guru is so important not just because of the advice and guidance he can give you, but because he can transmit his spiritual power to you, giving you a taste of enlightenment and speeding up your spiritual development. (In Sanskrit, this is called satsang, literally “good company.”)
The early 20th century author and spiritual teacher Paul Brunton became aware of this when he visited the ashram of the great sage Ramana Maharishi, while travelling around India in search of spiritual wisdom (as described in his book A Search in Secret India). Brunton knew that Ramana was a truly enlightened man the first time he met him, someone who had completely transcended his ego and become one with ultimate reality. He felt the spiritual effect of his satsang straight away. He sensed that “a steady river of quietness seems to be flowing near me, that a great peace is penetrating the inner reaches of my being.” While sitting near him, he realised that his mind was becoming more still, and suddenly all of the intellectual questions he’d had about spiritual matters no longer seemed important. The only question in his head now was, “Does this man, the Maharishee, emanate the perfume of spiritual peace as the flower emanates fragrance from its petals?”1
At the end of his first visit to the Ashram, Brunton was sitting quietly while the sage was meditating. He felt a sense of awe building up inside him, as a powerful force started to fill the room, emanating from Ramana. Ramana opened his eyes and gazed at him and he felt that he was aware of his every thought and feeling. He felt that a telepathic current was passing between them, that Ramana was transmitting his deep serenity to him, and began to feel a sense of euphoria and lightness. He felt that his own being became one with Ramana’s, and that he had transcended all problems and all desires.
After this, Brunton resumed his travels around India, meeting magicians and miracle workers and self-proclaimed gurus who are less enlightened than they claimed to be, and eventually returned to the Maharashi’s ashram. Again he experienced an “ineffable tranquillity” when sitting close to him, and again he experienced revelations which he was sure were “nothing else than a spreading ripple of telepathic radiation from this mysterious and imperturbable man.”2 And finally, after a period of wrestling with his own thoughts and his intellect, he had an experience of genuine enlightenment which changed him forever:
I find myself outside the rim of world consciousness. The planet which has so far harboured me disappears. I am in the midst of an ocean of blazing light. The latter, I feel rather than think, is the primeval stuff out of which worlds are created, the first state of matter. It stretches away into untellable infinite space, incredibly alive.3
The American spiritual teacher Andrew Cohen had a similar experience when he first met the Indian teacher who became his guru, H.W.L. Poonja – who was, coincidentally (or perhaps not!), a direct disciple of Ramana. Cohen had had profound spiritual experiences before, but had spent many years feeling frustrated and disillusioned, yearning for spiritual liberation but being disappointed by a series of other teachers. Cohen asked Poonja whether it was important to make an effort in spiritual practice, and he replied, “You don’t have to make any effort to be free.” And at that moment Cohen experienced enlightenment:
His words penetrated very deeply, I turned and looked out into the courtyard outside his room and inside myself all I saw was a river – in that instant I realised that I had always been Free. I saw clearly that I never could have been other than Free and that any idea or concept of bondage had always been and could only ever be completely illusory.4
After this, Cohen spent three weeks with Poonja and found the liberation he’d been yearning for. After a week or so, he “surrendered” to his guru, let go of his own identity and everything which made up his life. He felt himself become one with Poonja, and began to experience “waves of bliss and love that at times were so strong that I felt my body wouldn’t be able to contain it.” And from that point on, although his initial euphoria faded a little, he had a constant sense of “being always in the present with much contentment and calm. I feel no desire for other than what IS.”5
And now that he had attained moksha (freedom) himself, Cohen realised that other people were affected by his presence in the same way that he had been by Poonja’s. Friends who spent time with him found that they experienced a powerful sense of bliss and freedom too. He became a spiritual teacher, giving talks and holding retreats, and found that people were naturally drawn to him, and that around him they would “easily and often instantly… have profound realisations, insights into their true nature and powerful feelings of love, joy and bliss.”6
My wife and I went to one of Andrew’s talks several years ago in Manchester, England, and for days afterwards Pam – my wife – felt like a different person. There was a feeling of freedom inside her, a sense that – in her words – “nothing mattered, that I didn’t have any problems. I didn’t want anything because I was happy as I was. My life was quite stressful at that point but suddenly none of the stress could affect me.” And she’s sure that this wasn’t so much because of what Andrew actually said but the effect of simply being there, in his presence.
I was a little jealous because I didn’t have any of those feelings – at that time I was taking a more intellectual approach to spiritual matters, and was so busy trying to understand what Andrew was saying conceptually that I must have been shut off from the feeling dimension.
A couple of years before then, I’d started to visit a spiritual teacher called Russell Williams, and also took a largely conceptual approach to his teachings. Russell – who I still go to see now – is 85 years old, and has been the president of the Manchester Buddhist Society for over 50 years, even though he’s not specifically a Buddhist. He doesn’t chant or meditate or read Buddhist scriptures, and doesn’t adhere to or promote any particular set of teachings. He’s a humble self-realised man, who talks about the most profound spiritual truths and the most intense spiritual states as if they’re the most simple and natural things.
In my first years of going along to Russell’s twice weekly meetings, I used to wonder why most people didn’t seem to be paying attention to him. He was saying some of the most profound things I’d ever heard and people didn’t seem to be listening – they were just staring into space, or sitting with their eyes closed. They rarely asked questions, seeming content to let Russell be silent, when as far as I was concerned he was full of wisdom which I wanted to absorb.
But about three years ago I began to realise why this was. Perhaps I’d changed, become less interested in the conceptual side of spirituality, or perhaps I’d finally completed a long process of getting attuned to the atmosphere at the meetings, but when I went there I started to experience very strange, pleasurable states of consciousness. Even when I’d been taking a conceptual approach, I’d often experienced feelings of peacefulness and well-being, which sometimes lasted for a couple of days afterwards. But this was something stronger.
The first time it happened, I was staring at Russell while he was speaking to me, and began to feel very relaxed and calm, as if the flow of my life-energies was becoming smoother and lighter. And then, all of a sudden, everything became unfamiliar – the light became brighter, the colours began to merge and the distinctions between people and objects began to fade away. My main feeling, however, was of a powerful sense of strangeness – the scene was completely alien, as if I was suddenly on a different planet. Even though it was accompanied with a sense of exhilaration, I was a little scared and pulled away from it.
Over the following months I had the same experience several times again, and I learned to relax and trust it. I let the sense of strangeness overcome me, as the light in the room became brighter and all objects began to shimmer and merge into one another. The light seemed to be flowing out and immersing everything in its brightness. The room was filled with this beautiful shimmering haze of golden light, and I was filled with a deep serenity, a glow of intense well-being filling my whole body. I could feel it flowing through my legs and my feet, as if I’d taken a sedative of some kind. And even when I didn’t have this particular experience at the meetings, I usually had a very powerful feeling of calmness and serenity inside. I was often aware that my breathing had slowed down dramatically, and when I left I found myself doing everything very slowly, with a natural mindfulness. My mind was still and quiet, and outside everything looked beautiful and alive.
After a few months I was talking to one of the members of the group, and said to him, “I’ve been having really very strange experiences here over the past few months.” I tried to describe them, and he laughed and said, “So now you know why we’ve all been coming here for so long! Now you’re really a member of the society.”
I still have these experiences now, and I’m certain that they’re the result of satsang, of being in the presence of an enlightened person. The experience of the scene becoming unfamiliar and the light becoming brighter usually only happens when Russell is talking directly to me. In these moments I can almost feel spiritual power radiating from him and flowing into me, feel my own life-energy being affected by his.
The big question is: why do enlightened people have this strange ability to generate spiritual experiences in others, this power to “transmit” their enlightenment to the people around them?
Spiritual experiences induced by satsang strongly suggest that the esoteric concept of an “aura” has a basis in fact. They suggest that our being or life-energy isn’t just confined to our own mind or body – it radiates out from us, creating an atmosphere (or aura) which can affect the people we come into contact with. The auras of most people don’t appear to be particularly strong, or at least don’t have particularly strong negative or positive qualities, so that we don’t usually feel anything palpable from them. But we’ve all met certain people who we instinctively recoil from. We might not even exchange any words with them but they still fill us with a sense of unease or even fear or dread. These are people who have a strong “bad aura” around them, perhaps because their life-energy is heavily poisoned with negative emotions and egotism. But with enlightened people, of course, the exact opposite happens. Their life-energy is so intensified and stilled, and has such powerful positive qualities, that they “transmit” waves of calm and bliss to everyone around them.
But spiritual experiences are more than just feelings – they are also experiences of vision, insight and revelation. And one of the most important aspects of satsang experiences, I believe, is that they show that spiritual illumination is also communicable. Feelings of bliss can certainly spread from person to person – and so can the vision of the oneness of the universe, the awareness that the essential reality of the universe is a limitless ocean of Spirit, and the experience of transcending the ego and being reborn as a deeper and higher Self. These experiences are completely transferable – under the right circumstances, they can be passed from an enlightened person to others without any loss of intensity.
There are two basic types of spiritual experiences (in the sense I’m using the term). The first are ecstatic experiences caused by a disruption of the homeostasis of the human organism. These can occur as a result of fasting, sleep deprivation, drugs, breathing exercises, pain, dancing, and so on. All of these activities can put us “out of homeostasis” – by changing our body temperature, blood pressure or metabolic rate, causing dehydration and exhaustion or chemical changes – and when this happens there’s a chance that we’ll experience a higher state of consciousness. (Although this certainly doesn’t always happen, of course. Most of the time the only effect that depriving yourself of sleep and food often has is to make you feel miserably tired and hungry.)
The second type of spiritual experiences are more serene and calm states which occur when there is an intensification and stillness of life-energy (or vitality) inside us. This can happen in any situation when we’re very relaxed, when there’s peacefulness around us, and when the mental chatter inside our heads fades away. In meditation, we make a conscious effort to intensify and still our life-energy by being inactive, by withdrawing our attention from the world around us, and by focusing on a mantra (or a candle flame or on our breathing or any other object) to slow down and quieten our mental chatter. As a result, meditation is probably the most effective way of generating spiritual experiences.
However, they can also happen more spontaneously – in natural surroundings, for example, when there’s peacefulness around you and the beauty of nature has a similar effect to a mantra in meditation, focusing your attention and quietening your mental chatter. They often occur when people are listening to music or contemplating works of art. Certain sports are also very conducive to spiritual experiences, such as long-distance running or swimming. This is also probably part of the reason why spiritual experiences can occur during or after sex. The sheer pleasure of sex can have the effect of shifting our attention away from our ego-minds, which may fall silent as a result.
Spiritual experiences caused by satsang clearly belong to this second type. Contact with an enlightened person has the effect of intensifying and stilling our life-energy. He or she gives us an extra input of energy – the “current” or “telepathic radiation” which Paul Brunton was aware of. At the same time, the sheer power of an enlightened person’s presence stuns the ego-mind into silence and brings our chattering thoughts to a halt. As a result, we attain the same state of inner stillness and intensified life-energy which we reach after periods of intense and very focused meditation.
However, satsang isn’t just a phenomenon which can affect us as individuals; it also has an important bearing upon the concept of collective spiritual awakening. It’s now almost a cliché to state the human race as a whole may be on the threshold of an evolutionary jump, a collective shift to a higher level of consciousness which will give rise to a new era of true spirituality and harmony. Some people find this idea far-fetched – perhaps understandably so when you look at the state of the world today – but satsang experiences show us a process by which this transformation could occur. They show us that enlightenment is highly contagious.
After all, it’s surely not just wholly enlightened individuals who affect the people around them. Anybody who has become spiritually developed to a degree will have some power to affect the people around them. And so it’s possible that a kind of positive cycle might take place – as more people become spiritually developed, they will “transmit” their insight and well-being to the people around them, who will in turn transmit their spirituality to the people around them, and so on. It may be that once a certain critical threshold has been reached – once a certain number of people have become enlightened, or once the collective spiritual power of the human race has built up to a certain degree – a great wave of spiritual illumination will spread through the world like a forest fire; a process of “spiritual transmission” building up power and intensity, and eventually leading to an Omega point of permanent change.
This may still sound like wishful thinking – but then again, the experience of satsang itself is miraculous, showing that our apparent individuality is an illusion, and that we are parts of an indivisible ocean of consciousness.
STEVE TAYLOR is an author and lecturer who lives in Manchester, England. He is the author of Making Time: Why Time Seems to Pass at Different Speeds and How to Control It, described by Dr. Stanley Krippner as “a major landmark in our understanding of how human beings experience time.” Steve is also the author of The Fall: The Evidence for a Golden Age and the Dawning of a New Era, described as “astonishing work” by Colin Wilson. Steve can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. His website is www.stevenmtaylor.com.
1. Paul Brunton, A Search in Secret India, London: Rider, 1934/1972, p. 141.
2. Ibid., p.280.
3. Ibid., p. 305.
4. Andrew Cohen, Autobiography of an Awakening, Corte Madera, CA: Moksha Press, p. 30.
5. Ibid., pp.34-5.
6. Ibid., p.35.
The above article appeared in New Dawn No. 101 (Mar-Apr 2007).
If you appreciated this article, please consider a digital subscription to New Dawn.