In my early twenties I gave up a career in publishing and novel writing, which had brought me material rewards and a good press but no satisfaction.
I then took a two-year spiritual retreat living amongst the Saharan Berbers in the High Atlas Mountains, started a daily meditation practice, sometimes of five hours a day, and began teaching energy medicine back in Britain. When I decided that I also needed mainstream education I became a mature student, did two undergraduate degrees and a doctorate, and began to teach at the London School of Economics, later leaving to work with special needs students in an inner city college. Throughout this time I was still teaching meditation and energy work, and I was also initiating and working with various holistic projects. Do you catch a pattern in me here? I was Earnest Ernie, the workaholic meditator!
My bubble of earnestness, however, was finally popped by listening to students in my Open Mystery School, a project that I started in the early 1990s specifically to investigate new ways of teaching and practising meditation and energy medicine. One day, working with a very experienced group, I used a classic meditation to take them into an atmosphere of calm, bliss and a sense of unity with all life. I had done this exercise many times before, but I had an intuition about what might be interesting and instructive. Keeping the group in the calm atmosphere, I put a question to them.
‘In your normal daily life,’ I asked, ‘what circumstances take you most easily into this same atmosphere, into this sense of connection? In response to this question see what thoughts and ideas surface in your mind.’
A while later I took the group out of the silence and then went round the circle listening to people share their thoughts. I was in for a shock that changed my whole style of teaching and my personal practice. There was a woman in the group who simply stated:
‘Sitting at home, stroking my cat on my lap.’
Several other people in the circle nodded appreciatively, but I tensed up. A cat on the lap was no way to enter into the experience of deep cosmic connection! I kept my facial expression friendly and attentive, but inside I had gone into judgemental hyperdrive.
I repeated the same exercise with other groups. Over and over again, I found myself listening to answers that had nothing at all to do with meditation or any other classical spiritual practice. It was not just cats on laps. People mentioned walking, sports, eating, cycling, making love, gardening, reading, painting, managing, singing, succeeding, hobbies, eating chocolates…
This was all a spectacular revelation for me. All the structures and disciplines of the classical spiritual practices, which I knew so well, fell away. The puritan in me died a shocked death. The whole spiritual culture of the last two millennia is constructed on the idea that connecting with the benevolent wave-fields – with ‘God’ or ‘Cosmic Consciousness’ or the ‘Universal Mystery’ – is very difficult. Only saints, the enlightened or the ‘chosen’ can achieve it. But here I could see that people were frequently making their own connection, in their own private way – though it was not being recognized or valued.
What I eventually learned is that the fundamental religious experience – that sensation of pleasure and connection with the grandeur and wonder of life – is biologically experienced through the effect of endorphins. This is why, as my students taught me, there are so many different gateways to that experience. Any experience of pleasure can produce endorphins. And any one of them, in the right circumstances or with the right guidance, can create a cascade of endorphins.
Exercising your spiritual muscles
Different people have different moments when they are moved by the beauty and excitement of life. For some people it may be the sunrise. For others a sunset. The mountains. The ocean. A good book. A sudden understanding. Music. Food. Sport. Children. Art. Suddenly an emotion and a feeling that life is perfect or wonderful can overwhelm you. There is a deep satisfaction, a sense of belonging, of being in flow. Your heart may open. A strange inspiration can touch you.
To have this moving experience requires no work or preparation – it is a natural part of being human. You only need to be alive and awake. But these events do not last long. Most people notice the sunset and the euphoria, perhaps pause for a few seconds, and then turn their attention elsewhere.
Imagine, though, what would happen if, when the beauty of an event temporarily moved you, you paused for a little longer. Imagine that you allowed yourself to stay in the experience, to feel and absorb it fully. (Perhaps you already do this.) Suddenly, questions that might previously have seemed naive take on real meaning.
Do you sense the creative power of nature and the universe? Do you have a sense of peace, of deep contentment and of knowing that you are one with life? Can you sense an inner strength and a calm certainty that your life has meaning?
In normal daily life, you might not be able to answer ‘Yes’ to any of these questions. In fact, the questions might even seem embarrassing. But caught in the power of a euphoric moment they can feel very different and it becomes possible to respond with a clear, authentic ‘Yes.’
At moments of powerful beauty, emotions can penetrate even the thickest and most cynical of skins. Endorphins flow. There is a release of tension. Energies, internal and external, flow and connect. The experience is not only soft and calm, but also contains the power and creativity of nature and the universe.
To create and work consciously with these moments of connection is to exercise what we might call our spiritual muscles and our spiritual intelligence. What do I mean here by ‘spiritual’? I simply mean that the whole reality and dimension which is bigger, more creative, more loving, more powerful, more visionary, more wise, more mysterious than materialistic daily human existence. There is no theology or belief system that relates to this meaning of spiritual. Exercising your spiritual muscles is to connect regularly with the powerful beauty of life and to allow it to enter you as an endorphin-filled full-body sensation.
When the endorphin effect is flowing with full power, it creates an emotion of bliss with its sense of the beauty and unity of all life. This is the classic mystical and religious experience. For a student of religion, this is revolutionary information, because it empirically demonstrates that the religious experience – euphoria, joy, bliss, connection – is not restricted to particular faiths or particular types of people. It is an integral part of the human condition, of being a healthy and harmonious human being.
From The Endorphin Effect, Copyright 2001 by William Bloom, published in the UK by Judy Piatkus (Publishers) Ltd.