Spiritual experience vs spiritual awakening: What’s the difference?

We’re all looking for answers in life.

Spiritual awakening dangles the carrot in front of us, promising to deliver those answers we yearn for.

A greater understanding of the very nature of existence and our place in it all. That’s the ultimate goal.

But for most of us, reaching that point is far from easy.

When you’re on a spiritual path, you may feel like you get glimpses of truth.

At times it can even feel firmly within your grasp before it unceremoniously slips through your fingers again.

And at it’s heart, this is the difference between a spiritual experience and full spiritual awakening.

In a nutshell: Spiritual experience vs spiritual awakening

To put it simply:

One lasts, and the other doesn’t.

During a spiritual experience you get glimpses into truth.

You might:

  • Feel the ‘oneness’ of all life
  • Feel like you experience something outside of yourself
  • Feel an internal shift
  • Can observe yourself at a distant and gain different perspectives
  • Feel a deep sense of peace, understanding or truth

For some, visiting this place feels almost euphoric. It’s a relief from the burden of “self”.

But it doesn’t last.

Unlike a spiritual awakening, this state does not stay with you.

It could have occured for minutes, hours, days, or maybe even months. It might be a one off, or it might come and go.

It will almost certainly have changed you in some way. A way that there is no going back from.

But ultimately, it isn’t here to stay yet.

Spiritual experiences are a bit like the “warmer, colder” game

Bear with me for this analogy…

But I have often felt like spiritual experiences are a bit like that childhood game “warmer, colder”.

It’s the one where you are blindfolded and stumbling all over the place as you try to find an object that has been hidden from you.

Your only guide is a voice calling out to you in the darkness, letting you know whether you are getting warmer or colder.

This continues until finally the voice in the darkness declares “very hot, very hot” as we get within touching distance of it.

If the hidden object is awakening, then the stumbling around — sometimes getting warmer, sometimes getting colder—are the spiritual experiences we have along the way.

They are the all important clues and insights we gain that help us find our way toward a more lasting spiritual awakening.

This is something that spiritual teacher Adyashanti also refers to as an “abiding awakening” as opposed to “non-abiding awakenings”.

Abiding and non-abiding awakenings

In his book, The End of Your World: Uncensored Straight Talk on the Nature of Enlightenment, Adyashanti refers to the difference between a spiritual experience and a spiritual awakening as whether it is abiding or not.

He argues that a spiritual experience is still a type of awakening, just not one that lasts:

“This experience of awakening can be just a glimpse, or it can be sustained over time. Now, some would say that if an awakening is momentary, it is not a real awakening. There are those who believe that, with authentic awakening, your perception opens up to the true nature of things and never closes back down again…

“What I’ve seen as a teacher is that the person who has a momentary glimpse beyond the veil of duality and the person who has a permanent, “abiding” realization are seeing and experiencing the same thing. One person experiences it momentarily; another experiences it continually. But what is experienced, if it is true awakening, is the same: all is one; we are not a particular thing or a particular someone that can be located in a particular space; what we are is both nothing and every- thing, simultaneously.”

Essentially, the source of both a spiritual experience and a spiritual awakening are the same.

They are caused by the same “Consciousness”, “Spirit” or “God” (depending on which language most resonates most for you).

And they create a similar effect and experience.

So the defining difference is simply that one is sustained when the other is not.

What does a spiritual experience look like?

spiritual enlightenment Spiritual experience vs spiritual awakening: What's the difference?

But how do we even know if we’ve had a spiritual experience? Especially if that awakening doesn’t stay with us.

What are the hallmarks of a spiritual experience or beginning of an awakening?

The truth is, just like the whole spiritual process, it’s different for everyone.

Some spiritual experiences may come about from traumatic events such as near-death experiences.

People who have touched death and come back from the brink describe to researchers a “glorious afterlife filled with great peace, balance, harmony, and magnificent love vastly unlike our often stressful earthly lives.”

Struggle and difficulty in life certainly act as a catalyst for many.

As inconvenient and unpleasant as it is, there’s no doubt that pain can be a pathway to deeper spiritual understanding.

That’s why spiritual experiences may come after certain losses in your life such as losing a job, a partner or something else that felt important to you.

But we also find these experiences happen to us in far calmer circumstances too. They can be triggered from the seemingly mundane. 

Perhaps when we are immersed in nature, reading spiritual books or texts, meditating, praying, or listening to music.

One of the most challenging things about spirituality is that we are trying to use words to express something that is pretty indescribable.

How can we express an infinite and all-expansive “knowing” or “truth” using the finite tool of language?

We can’t really.

But we can share our experiences with one another so that we all feel slightly less lost by it all.

And the truth is that these spiritual experiences are not uncommon, not at all…

Spiritual experiences are more common than you might think

In fact, close to a third of Americans say they’ve had a “profound religious experience or awakening that changed the direction” of their life.

Researchers David B. Yaden and Andrew B Newberg wrote the book “The Varieties of Spiritual Experience.”

In it, they highlight that although spiritual experiences can take many different forms, over all, it can be described as:

“substantially altered states of consciousness involving a perception of, and connection to, an unseen order of some kind.”

As explained in the Washington Post, under that broader umbrella term, the authors also put forward 6 subcategories to further describe these experiences:

  • Numinous (communion with the divine)
  • Revelatory (visions or voices)
  • Synchronicity (events bearing hidden messages)
  • Unity (feeling one with all things)
  • Aesthetic awe or wonder (profound encounters with art or nature)
  • Paranormal (perceiving entities such as ghosts or angels)

The boundaries between these definitions can be blurry, say Yaden and Newberg. Whatsmore, a single experience can overlap multiple categories.

Rather than talking about what spiritual experiences look like then, perhaps we might be better off asking what they feel like.

It’s like love, you can’t describe it, you just feel it

Identifying these shapeshifting spiritual experiences may feel fuzzy.

I’ve likened these glimpses at awakening before to falling in love. We may not always be able to put love into words, but we just feel it.

We know when we’re in it, and we also know when we’ve fallen out of it.

It comes from an intuitive gut feeling. And as many lovers who’ve fallen hard for someone will tell you:

“When you know, you know!”

But have you ever fallen out of love and then questioned with hindsight how real your feelings really were?

Once the spell seems broken, you might wonder whether it was love after all or just a trick of your mind.

Sometimes, we can get a similar sensation after a spiritual experience too.

Afterward, when we’ve left that state, we may question what we thought we saw, what we felt, and what we knew at the time to be true.

As the memory fades of a spiritual experience, you may find yourself asking whether you really had a spiritual experience or not.

I think it’s understandable. As we dip in and out of spiritual experiences it can sometimes feel like a long time in between.

We might worry that we have regressed. We may fear we have lost sight of what had started to unravel.

But perhaps we should take some comfort from spiritual teachers who assure us:

Once the truth has been revealed, even just a little, it starts you on a path that you cannot turn back from.

The good news (and perhaps the bad news too) is that once it starts, you can’t stop it

Maybe you, like me, have had spiritual experiences and you’re wondering when the heck you’re going to finally reach ‘Nirvana’.

(As in, heaven as opposed to the 90’s American rock bank!)

I mean, hurry up enlightenment, I’m getting impatient.

After all, there are only so many sound bowl healing sessions a girl can sit through.

I joke, but only in an attempt to make light of the frustration that I think many of us can end up feeling at times on our spiritual journey.

The ego can quite easily turn spirituality into another prize to be won, or a skill to “conquer”.

Almost like the final level of a video game, we are striving to finish.

If you have ever wondered, when your spiritual experience will become (as Adyashanti calls it) more “abiding” then the good news is:

There isn’t a pre-prescribed timetable for the unfolding of awakening. But once it starts there is no going back.

Once you get those glimpses of truth the ball is already rolling and you cannot stop it.

You cannot unsee, unfeel, unknow that which you’ve already experienced.

So why do I say “the bad news too”?

Because the fairytale of spirituality sounds like it will bring peace.

We have this image of euphoria and wisdom that comes from it. When in reality it can be incredibly painful, messy, and sometimes, quite terrifying too.

Spiritual awakening can be painful as well as blissful. Perhaps that’s simply a reflection of the great duality of life.

But for good and for bad, we are on our way toward spiritual awakening.

Whilst for many of us this is via the spiritual experiences we accumulate along the way, for others it’s more instantaneous.

Instant spiritual awakenings

spiritual awakening vs experience 1 Spiritual experience vs spiritual awakening: What's the difference?

Not everyone takes the spiritual experiences route toward full awakening. Some get there in a flash.

But this apparently express route certainly does seems less common.

On these occasions, awakenings seemingly hit like a tonne of bricks out of nowhere. And significantly, people stay this way rather than regressing back to their previous sense of self.

Sometimes this instant awakening follows a rock bottom moment.

This was the case for spiritual teacher Eckhart Tolle who suffered from severe depression before his awakening.

He speaks about an overnight inner transformation after feeling close to suicide one night shortly before his 29th birthday:

“I couldn’t live with myself any longer. And in this a question arose without an answer: who is the ‘I’ that cannot live with the self? What is the self? I felt drawn into a void! I didn’t know at the time that what really happened was the mind-made self, with its heaviness, its problems, that lives between the unsatisfying past and the fearful future, collapsed. It dissolved.”

“The next morning I woke up and everything was so peaceful. The peace was there because there was no self. Just a sense of presence or “beingness,” just observing and watching. I had no explanation for this.”

Spiritual awakening: A shift in consciousness

For the human experience on this earth, achieving a lasting spiritual awakening seems like the end of the line.

The final stage where all our experiences of spirituality are able to culminate and create something permanent.

Eckhart Tolle says: “When there is spiritual awakening, you awaken into the fullness, the aliveness, and also the sacredness of now. You were absent, asleep, and now you are present.

We no longer see ourselves as an “I”. Instead, we sense that we are the presence behind it.

“There is nothing more important to true growth than realizing that you are not the voice of the mind – you are the one who hears it.”

— Michael A. Singer

But a desperate desire to get to this point can also lead us astray.

It’s easy to mistake spiritual experiences for an awakening

When you have gone through a spiritual awakening, you no longer overly identify with “self”

Aka: the character in life that you’ve been building and playing for most of your life.

But you can have spiritual experiences and still return to identification with this “self”.

As Adyashanti puts it:

“Awareness opens up, the sense of the separate self falls away—and then, like the aperture on a camera lens, awareness closes back down. All of a sudden that person who had previously perceived true nonduality, true oneness, is quite surprisingly now perceiving back in the dualistic “dream state.”

And this can open us up to one of the pitfalls along a spiritual journey:

Overidentification with our “spiritual self”. 

Because simply pretending to yourself that you no longer identify with ‘self’ is obviously not the same.

And it’s so easy to accidentally end up swapping one personal identity for another. Swapping our old “unawakened” selves for our shiny new superior “awakened” selves.

Maybe this new self sounds very spiritual. They may have added words like ‘namaste’ to their vocabulary.

Perhaps this new self does more spiritual activities. They spend their time meditating and doing yoga like any good spiritual person should do.

This new spiritual self may hang around with other spiritual people. They too look and sound far more spiritual compared to regular “unconscious” people, so they must be better.

We feel confident and comforted in the knowledge we’ve made it. We’re enlightened…or at least very close to it.

But we’ve fallen into a trap.

We aren’t awake at all. We have just exchanged one false “self” for another.

Because what those who reach true spiritual awakening tell us is this:

There can be no such thing as an “awake person” because the very nature of awakening is to discover there is no separate person.

There is no self once you are spiritually awake. Spiritual awakening is oneness.

Below the personal self, the awakening shows you a deeper presence. And so the “self” that feels awakened must still be the ego.

Final thoughts: We’re all heading in the same direction, we just take different routes

Spirituality — our experiences along the way and the start of an awakening— can be an incredibly confusing time.

So it’s understandable that we’re all looking for a blueprint to follow.

It can feel ironic that the journey to oneness can feel so isolating or at times lonely.

We may wonder how we’re doing, or worry that we are taking missteps along the way.

But at the end of the day, no matter which different route we take, we are all ultimately heading the same place.

As Spiritual teacher Ram Dass puts it in ‘Journey of Awakening: A Meditator’s Guidebook’:

“The spiritual journey is individual, highly personal. It can’t be organized or regulated. It isn’t true that everybody should follow any one path. Listen to your own truth.”

Picture of Louise Jackson

Louise Jackson

My passion in life is communication in all its many forms. I enjoy nothing more than deep chats about life, love and the Universe. With a masters degree in Journalism, I’m a former BBC news reporter and newsreader. But around 8 years ago I swapped the studio for a life on the open road. Lisbon, Portugal is currently where I call home. My personal development articles have featured in Huffington Post, Elite Daily, Thought Catalog, Thrive Global and more.

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