Originally published in Paradigm Shift.
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. But for people who have made some spiritual progress already, the effect can be extremely powerful. Contact with an enlightenment 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 realised 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?
At the end of his first visit to the Ashram, Brunton is in the hall with Ramana and some of his disciples, sitting quietly while the sage slips into a holy trance. He feels a sense of awe building up inside him, as a powerful force started to fill the room, emanating from Ramana. In his trance-like state, Ramana gazes at him, and Brunton feels that he’s looking deep into his being, and is aware of his every thought and feeling. He feels that a telepathic current is passing between them, that Ramana is transmitting his deep serenity to him, and begins to feel a sense of euphoria and lightness. He feels that his own being becomes one with Ramana’s, and that he has gone beyond all problems and all desires. The sage’s disciples leave the hall, leaving Brunton alone with him, and for a moment he feels that his body disappears and him and the sage are both out in space – but then he makes a fatal mistake. He hesitates, wondering whether he should go with the experience, and the spell is broken.
After this, Brunton resumes his travels around India, meeting magicians and miracle workers and self-proclaimed gurus who are less enlightened than they claim to be, and eventually returns to the Maharashi’s ashram. Again he experiences an ineffable tranquillity when sitting close to him, and again he experiences revelations which he is sure are nothing else than a spreading ripple of telepathic radiation from this mysterious and imperturbable man. And finally, after a period of wrestling with his own thoughts and his intellect, he has an experience of genuine enlightenment which changes 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.
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. But shortly after meeting Poonja, when the teacher told him, You don’t have to make any effort to be free , he 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 realized 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.
After this, Cohen spent three weeks with Poonja, and surrendered to his guru, let himself become one with him, giving up his own identity and everything which made up his life. He 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.
And now that he had attained moksha himself, Cohen gained the ability to affect other people in the same way that Poonja had affected him. 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 82 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 what he was actually saying. He was saying some of the most profound things I’d ever heard and people didn’t seem to be listening – they’d be 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 him to share.
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 to see Russell 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’d landed 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, and as the light in the room became brighter, 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 down in 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 me. 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 everybody 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, who we might not even exchange any words with but who 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.
And this, in turn, has an important bearing upon the concept of collective spiritual awakening. It’s now almost a clich 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. Many people find this idea far-fetched – 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. And 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 the our apparent individuality is an illusion, and that we are parts of an indivisible ocean of consciousness.