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When people describe spiritual experiences, they seem to be totally life-changing—but how do you know when an experience is spiritual?
In researching modern spiritual experiences, host Curtis Childs has come across five basic categories: hypnagogic, lucid dreaming, meditative, out-of-body experience, and simultaneous. Guest co-host Jonathan Rose points out that Swedenborg describes having these same five categories of experience, although in slightly different terms.
In this episode, Curtis and Jonathan explore Swedenborg’s documented experiences to understand what they are, what they mean—and how to recognize them when they happen.
The first type of experience is hypnogogic, which are those had while transitioning to or from sleep.
But there is also another kind between the time of sleeping and the time of awakening, when we are in the process of waking up, and have not yet shaken the sleep from our eyes. This is the sweetest kind, for then heaven is working into our rational mind with the utmost calm, but imparting understanding. (Spiritual Experiences/Word Explained §365)
Latin expert Chara Daum joins to explain what Swedenborg means by “rational mind.” These types of experiences can be as strange as dreams, but can be studied logically.
Curtis takes up the challenge with a bit of weirdness: a spiritual experience from Swedenborg in which, it turns out, a tooth is not a tooth. It turned out that the strange imagery revealed a spiritual truth that heaven was trying to teach him. Swedenborg describes how in a state of sleep, our minds can be elevated so that they’re closer to heaven, allowing that understanding to flow into our thoughts and dreams.
Lucid dreaming is also a sleep-related experience. It refers to a state in which the person is dreaming but realizes that he or she is dreaming, and is able to remember the experience later on. Swedenborg described this as “inward wakefulness.”
In my sleep at night, when it was completely night and nothing was visible, then I was conducted into a state of inward wakefulness, which was such that I knew absolutely nothing else but that I was awake. I thought as if awake, I saw as if awake, I was convinced that I was, so that I believed I was entirely awake. But it was an inward wakefulness, one of the spirit in me, not of the body, as I then enjoyed the full use of all the senses, with the same acumen and perspicuity. . . . [I]t seemed to me that there was someone sitting near me who appeared just like a person on earth, so dressed, having a human face and similar speech. He told me his name, but I was prompted to tell him that even though he so appears, yet he is a spirit. This it was granted to me to show him, for when he touched me with his hand and arm, they went right through mine, but afterwards it also happened differently and they did not pass through mine, and my sense of touch was entirely as when I am awake. . . . Finally I came out of this wakeful state of the spirit into one of bodily wakefulness, and I was surprised to find it was a dark night, and I spoke with those I had been with in that state of inward wakefulness . . . (Spiritual Experiences §4250)
Here, Swedenborg describes seeing someone in a dream and knowing that he was actually a spirit. But how to you draw the line between a normal dream and a spiritual experience? Jonathan kindly puts Curtis to sleep so that they can explore what happens in a dream state.
But not all spiritual experiences are sleep-related, as we shall see in the next section.
Body or No Body
We can also have spiritual experiences while awake, such as those that come through meditation.
On one occasion when I was meditating on the Lord’s Second Coming, an intensely bright light suddenly appeared and shone right in my eyes. I looked up and was amazed to see that the whole heaven above me was full of light. I heard praises upon praises in a long chain from the east to the west. (True Christianity §625)
Not only did Swedenborg have spiritual experiences when meditating on specific topics, but he reported that he could choose to put his spirit in either the spiritual world or the physical world at will, and when he moved back to his physical body, in the spiritual world he disappeared from sight.
Another well-known experience is the out-of-body experience, or OBE. This happens while you’re awake, but you’ve left your body behind and are moving around separately from it. We think of this as a modern experience, but something similar is described in 2 Corinthians 12:2—it’s been around for a long time. Swedenborg says that some of the visions described by the Old Testament prophets were also a type of out-of-body experience, where they had left their physical senses behind and all of their sensory input was coming from spiritual sources.
Since our spirit means our mind, therefore “being in the spirit,” as the Word sometimes says, refers to the state of our mind when it is separated from our body. In this state the prophets saw the sort of things that exist in the spiritual world; therefore this state is called “a vision of God.” At those times, the prophets’ state was like the state of spirits and angels in the spiritual world. In this state our spirit can move from place to place while our body stays where it is (as is also true of our mind’s eye). This is the state I myself have been in now for twenty-six years, with the difference that I am in my spirit and my body at the same time, and only sometimes out of my body. (True Christianity §157)
The fifth and final type of experience is “simultaneous,” where we have spiritual and physical experiences at the same time—sort of like a digital overlay on a video recording.
How does that play out in spiritual terms? Glad you asked.
Talk to the Hammer
Simultaneous experiences include ideas like auras, which can be visible on top of or alongside physical experiences. However, while Swedenborg does write about auras, a simultaneous experience can happen any time the physical world and the spiritual world interact. For example, there’s an encounter Swedenborg had with some spirits who really didn’t like butter.
Not weird enough? How about a talking hammer?
Those were the five core experiences mentioned at the start of the show, but Curtis also delves into some bonus experiences found in Swedenborg’s writings. These are other experiences that don’t fit any of those buckets, like a walking meditation that Swedenborg had as he walked through the city. In some cases, the experience didn’t involve any of the physical senses, but were feelings or impressions.
There are, in fact, many other kinds of vision, which cannot possibly be described. (Spiritual Experiences/Word Explained §365)
In the wrap-up, Curtis and Jonathan review some of the ways in which Swedenborg received spiritual teachings, whether asleep or awake. He even got to a point where he could experience physical and spiritual sensations simultaneously. Of course, all of this only touches on the many ways that one could potentially interact with the spiritual world.
Ultimately, no matter how strange the experience, there’s always an important lesson behind it. And if a person never has spiritual experiences at all, that doesn’t mean there’s something wrong with them. We all have these senses, and we’re getting messages all the time—we just need to learn to be open to them.
- When people die and cross over, most of them say that they see black before seeing the white light. What does the black symbolize?
- Do you think our spiritual mind in dreams tries to speak to our earthly mind to make us understand in two prospective ways?
- Why are there so many near-death experiences that have a bad place of fire and demonic torment? Could Swedenborg explain these differences with his theology?
- When I dream, sometimes there are a lot of people around in my dreams that I do not know. Are these my community spirits and my guiding angels?
- Can we gain and develop the skills to do what Swedenborg did?
“10 Early Signs of a Spiritual Awakening”
“Modern Spiritual Experiences”
“Where Dreams Come From” (or, for a quick overview, see our Swedenborg Minute on the same topic)
“Who was Swedenborg? What should I read?”
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About Swedenborg and Life
In a lighthearted and interactive live webcast format, host Curtis Childs from the Swedenborg Foundation and featured guests explore topics from Swedenborg’s eighteenth-century writings about his spiritual experiences and afterlife explorations and discuss how they relate to modern-day life and death.
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When we wake up in heaven, Swedenborg tells us, angels roll a covering from off of our left eye so that we can see everything in a spiritual light. The offTheLeftEye YouTube channel uses an array of educational and entertaining video formats to look at life and death through an uplifting spiritual lens.
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