Modern Accounts of Sudden, Unexpected Spiritual Experiences

Posted by Lydia

This was originally a comment on this post about sudden spiritual awakening.

Someone privately messaged me with the question “How many other modern accounts are there of mfers get shaktipat’d?” I’ll list a few links and resources I consider relevant.

Firstly, it’s worth noting that it’s hard to do a systematic survey of this. I am not sure how many written accounts exist, from any historical period, of experiences like the one I described. I’ve heard a number of personal accounts and rumors from the last few years, but most people I hear them from have little desire to be public about their experience.

I’m personally very interested in a related question: What percentage of the people who have an experience corresponding to descriptions of the Arising and the Passing Away show up there suddenly without any conscious intention (as I did)? I’d love a ballpark estimate on this, and I’d also be interested in pattern-matching among individuals to whom it seems to happen without any conscious intent on their part. I have a suspicion, for example, that people who have doubled down on intense sexual experience in some manner (as I did, with many years of deep BDSM practice) are more likely to have this happen unexpectedly than most; and I’d guess that people who have had run-ins with the Western mental health system (as I did, in my teenage years) are too. But I don’t know.

There are also questions about what fits under the definition of “shaktipat,” which, I must confess, is a word from a tradition I don’t have a good understanding of. As a result, I generally use “A&P Event” over “shaktipat,” as I feel more sure that my experience fits that phrase. I’ve also heard the phrases “kundalini awakening” and “direct experience of the nondual” used to describe some phenomena that might be similar. But sometimes when I dig into descriptions of those phrases, they seem like they have key differences; for instance, kundalini awakenings seem to frequently involve spinal sensations that I didn’t experience in 2016.


The extremely famous BDSM author/ teacher Janet Hardy documented what happened to her when she began to study tantra in this 2013 article for Salon. This article made an impression on me in 2016. I had already been able to feel (as I document in my piece) a risk of potentially dangerous energy overload when I had my experience, and Janet’s report seemed like a good and sobering example of what is possible. A piece of advice I got at the time was that a person who takes spiritual and energetic phenomena seriously, on something like their own terms (as opposed to treating them skeptically or with contempt), while experimenting with those phenomena, might be safer than Janet was.

As a result of my instinct that going slower would be safer and also as a result of stories like Janet’s, I tried to go as slowly as I could stand — especially with practices that seemed obviously powerful and dangerous (e.g. energy work, “magic,” and so on) — while first building a strong baseline of maintenance and safety practices (e.g. for those of you taking notes: Taking Refuge, Dedicating the Merit, basic meditation and prayer practice, not to mention an emphasis on health stuff like physical fitness and nutrition, getting sleep cycles in order, circumstantial support like having a plan for financial health, and being sparing with mind-altering chemicals). This was a good call on my part, and yet, in retrospect, I wish I’d gone even slower on all levels than I did. I intend to publish more safety thinking in the future. But in the meantime, and this is important to emphasize, none of this stuff is exactly “safe” even for people who approach it with extreme slowness — and especially for those who find themselves suddenly at the A&P Event like I did, please, for everyone’s sake go as slow and steady in your escalation and practice as you can stand.

Another pattern I’ve seen is that lack of sleep seems connected to a large number of extreme outcomes, particularly psychotic breaks. Here’s an interview I did in 2017 with Ryan Jay Beauregard, one of the founders of the Zendo Project, an organization that counsels people experiencing psychedelic overwhelm. He had a psychotic break a while ago while taking ayahuasca, which inspired his work at Zendo, and he told me the story in the interview. Plus, in the intro to that interview I give some references for different mental health frameworks (bonus: if that’s a topic you find interesting then you might be excited about a publication I found recently, Mad In America).


I mention this in the post, but it’s worth mentioning again: Larry Brilliant has a memoir called Sometimes Brilliant: The Impossible Adventure of a Spiritual Seeker and Visionary Physician Who Helped Conquer the Worst Disease in History, which chronicles both his spiritual journey and his work helping to eradicate smallpox. Brilliant had a similar initial experience to mine; his was touched off by a guru named Neem Karoli Baba (a.k.a. Maharaji). Brilliant then experienced loss of faith decades later. He is still alive and around today, and the reason I read his memoir is that I met him at a conference and he generously gave me a copy in 2016.

There’s a video project called 10,000 Awakenings that I’ve heard about but haven’t watched. I don’t know anything about it.

In the wake of my own experience in 2016, I conducted a number of interviews with people who had powerful spiritual experiences. One of these is clearly another example of the A&P Event, although in his case he was actively looking for it: Robert and the Technology of Enlightenment.

There is one example of someone I interviewed who described her own experience as “shaktipat.” However, it’s worth noting that she had this experience at a school and with a teacher now widely regarded as extremely abusive. I almost hesitate to mention her, because I don’t want to encourage anyone to follow this school; for this same reason, my interview with her has languished in a hard-to-find digital format for years while I kept other work up-to-date. Nevertheless, in the interests of shared knowledge, you can find my interview with Ananya the tantrika by scrolling down this page and clicking the headline “EDITED: Agama Yoga Is Probably An Abusive Cult.” (I can’t link directly to the page with Ananya’s interview because in the intervening years Medium made some changes to the domain service toolkit I was using when I posted it, so the direct link is broken.)

I also really like the interview I did with artist and architect Abraham Burickson, but he doesn’t report a sudden awakening in quite the same way. There’s one particular quotation from his interview that still comes to mind for me on a regular basis:

In a way, religion is the materialization of a metaphysical situation. Like, it’s not just a funky game that you have to go to Mecca [as part of the hajj, the journey that religious Muslims make]. There’s something very powerful about having to enact in a physical way what happens on the spiritual plane.

This is why I became an architect: Because I went into these buildings, these mosques. And something happened that was indescribable.

As I studied, I started to see. A mosque is oriented towards spiritual geography of the earth. And you know it points towards Mecca. What is Mecca? Like the umbilical cord between the Earth and the heavens. It is where God enters.

Religious architecture encodes a worldview. You have these four sides to a mosque, pointing in the four cardinal directions. And then the dome with the Oneness, the point at the center, the unseeable thing. The way you are underneath that dome is in relationship to something higher, above.

You ask: How do I embody that in my life? How can I be related to something of another level?

In that conceptual structure, God’s not here, and then God comes, and there’s one spot where it happens. It sounds like a game — but if you materialize that game, you materialize that search, it’s more than just symbolic, it’s an embodied symbolism.

May the benefit of these acts and all acts go to all beings everywhere. May the frightened cease to be afraid and those bound be freed. May the powerless find power and all beings seek to benefit each other. Peace.

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