Many spiritual teachings ask the followers to develop detachment towards worldly objects and events. Certain meditation techniques ask the followers to be a mere spectator to one's thoughts and get emotionally detached. Few spiritual people report having spiritual experiences like out-of-body or having seen a deity in their dreams or in daylight.

There has been a case where a devote person in my neighborhood started seeing god everywhere and lost his sense of surroundings, and was ultimately subjected to electric shock treatment by his relatives.

My question is, how do a follower of spiritual practice differentiate between a spiritual experience and a mental or neurotic disorder like 'dissociative disorder'?

  • If these experiences are not a result of regular practice and the guidance of a guru, it is likely that they are, in the best case, a single +ve result of practices done in previous lives and in the worst case, mental aberrations. All thought, memory, feeling etc. are quantum (physics) phenomena and spiritual experiences are but one end of the spectrum and delusions the other. According to my elders, a few ways to distinguish our experiences are the following:- 1/3 – user1195 Nov 30 '15 at 11:02
  • i. Write down your experiences in a note book. After more months/a couple of years of practice, review your experiences. Your own spiritual advancement will tell you whether the previous experiences were indeed spiritual progress or mere tricks our mind is playing on us. ii. Compare said experiences with those of advanced masters in your spiritual line. If they are somewhat similar or at least along similar strata, then believe them as +ve. All this is assuming that the person is a practitioner and has elders to guide them. 2/3 – user1195 Nov 30 '15 at 11:05
  • Also remember that such loss of ego and sudden loss of a sense of surroundings, sense of spiritual upliftment etc. are experienced by people who do acid etc. and are temporary and destructive in the long run. Incorrect practices can also lead to mental disorders. Did this neighbor of yours get tested for brain disorders (physiological and not merely psychological) and for drug abuse? – user1195 Nov 30 '15 at 11:08
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    Indeed this is a good question. There is no real way to differentiate. From the outside they may both be appear to be same. I have heard the story of several saints, who, when they were attaining God Consciousness, behaved in ways that in today's world could well be thought of as mental conditions, and were even treated as so. However in case of saints, they have a MISSION and so no matter what the others try the Experience will PERSIST and will LEAD to their realization of the TRANSCENDENTAL SELF. All the best. – Sai Nov 30 '15 at 15:17
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    @Sai By the way, I highly recommend reading Scott Alexander's blog. He makes really insightful posts on a variety of subjects, e.g. slatestarcodex.com/2014/09/30/… – Keshav Srinivasan Dec 1 '15 at 16:31

Modern Scientific studies of the Human Brain and Nervous System ,cybernetics,show that it is not possible to distinguish between these three states of consciousness -i.e. Spiritual Experience ,Insanity and Day Dreaming of a drunkard.
Consider a situation ,where Doctors administer Chloroform to a patient , before surgery . This makes the patient Unconscious. The Doctors perform the surgery , the patient does not react . But after sometime the patient regains consciousness and might experience some pain ,associated with surgery.
Sometimes, the human brain generates its own chloroform .This makes the individual unconscious to his surroundings . This happens during deep sleep or coma.
When less powerful chemicals of his type are produced in the brain ,the individual is asleep ,but continues to live in a dream world.When still less poweful chemicals of this type are produced, the individual is in a semi-sleep state , but is living in a dream world. This is what happens , when one is in a movie theater and watching some interesting movie.
A drunkard , moving aimlessly unconscious of the surrounding and living in a dream world of his own making,is in a similar situation.Alcohol serves as a substitute of diluted chloroform.
If the human brain generates, internally, these type of chemicals,the individual may behave like a drunkard...If he is too spiritual he might see Gods and Goddesses and might be interacting with them...A Scientist or a Mathematician ,might be seeing strange equations,graphs and shapes.
If these visions , have a bearing on reality ,then we call these people as leaders in their fields of specialization...Otherwise, they are called insane.
Ramakrishna, was considered a mad Brahmin, during his life time.But Narendra Nath , later Swami Vivekananda,realised him to be a Prophet and preached his ideas to the World and established the Ramakrishna Mission , to translate the preachings of Ramakrishna ,to action.
Mathematician Prof.Cantor, was called insane during his life time and died in a mental asylum ...His works ,however,were recognised many years after his death.
Modern art, seems to me , the works of mentally deranged people...But to some other artists, they might be great creative works

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    It would be great if you could cite few references – gaj Dec 3 '15 at 8:45
  • Karl Jung , the Psychiatrist , has made a study of these problems.Some other references , I will give you later. If I can find these in the internet ,I will give you the links. – b.sahu Dec 5 '15 at 18:44
  • I agree with most of your answer except for the last part regarding the modern art. I think it has more to do with brain's natural tendency to find meaning in meaningless. – gaj Dec 6 '15 at 5:18
  • Story of Hanuman possessing Superhuman powers ,is Absurd, but is accepted...Death is a reality , but we tend to ignore it Our struggles for survival ends in failure (Death) . So failures are integral facts of life .We do not accept this and blame others for our failures. – b.sahu Dec 7 '15 at 15:29

It may or not have been a neurotic disorder or an actual spiritual experience. Unfortunately, a spiritual experience that is not based on spiritual disciplines can sometimes leave the person literally mad.

Swami Vivekananda says (Complete Works, V2, p 390, available here under the heading Practical Vedanta and Other Lectures, sub-heading The Ideal of a Universal Religion (http://cwsv.belurmath.org/volume_2/vol_2_frame.htm) -

Therefore, there must be some other instrument to take us beyond, and that instrument is called inspiration. So instinct, reason, and inspiration are the three instruments of knowledge. Instinct belongs to animals, reason to man, and inspiration to God-men. But in all human beings are to be found, in a more or less developed condition, the germs of all these three instruments of knowledge. To have these mental instruments evolved, the germs must be there. And this must also be remembered that one instrument is a development of the other, and therefore does not contradict it. It is reason that develops into inspiration, and therefore inspiration does not contradict reason, but fulfils it. Things which reason cannot get at are brought to light by inspiration; and they do not contradict reason. The old man does not contradict the child, but fulfils the child. Therefore you must always bear in mind that the great danger lies in mistaking the lower form of instrument to be the higher. Many times instinct is presented before the world as inspiration, and then come all the spurious claims for the gift of prophecy. A fool or a semi-lunatic thinks that the confusion going on in his brain is inspiration, and he wants men to follow him. The most contradictory irrational nonsense that has been preached in the world is simply the instinctive jargon of confused lunatic brains trying to pass for the language of inspiration.

The first test of true teaching must be, that the teaching should not contradict reason. And you may see that such is the basis of all these Yogas.

And in V4 (http://cwsv.belurmath.org/volume_4/vol_4_frame.htm), heading Lectures and Discourses, sub-heading Concentration, he says:

Universal methods have been organised according to different philosophers. Some say the state we want to attain is superconsciousness of the mind — going beyond the limitations the body has made for us. The value of ethics to the Yogi lies in that it makes the mind pure. The purer the mind, the easier it is to control it. The mind takes every thought that rises and works it out. The grosser the mind, the more difficult [it is] to control [it]. The immoral man will never be able to concentrate his mind to study psychology. He may get a little control as he begins, get a little power of hearing. ... and even those powers will go from him. The difficulty is that if you study closely, you see how [the] extraordinary power arrived at was not attained by regular scientific training. The men who, by the power of magic, control serpents will be killed by serpents. ... The man who attains any extraordinary powers will in the long run succumb to those powers. There are millions [who] receive power through all sorts of ways in India. The vast majority of them die raving lunatics. Quite a number commit suicide, the mind [being] unbalanced.

The study must be put on the safe side: scientific, slow, peaceful. The first requisite is to be moral. Such a man wants the gods to come down, and they will come down and manifest themselves to him. That is our psychology and philosophy in essence, [to be] perfectly moral. Just think what that means! No injury, perfect purity, perfect austerity! These are absolutely necessary. Just think, if a man can attain all these in perfection! What more do you want? If he is free from all enmity towards any being, ... all animals will give up their enmity [in his presence]. The Yogis lay down very strict laws... so that one cannot pass off for a charitable man without; being charitable. ...

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  • Honestly speaking, this didn't make any sense to me. – gaj Dec 1 '15 at 11:26
  • @gaj, as I read it in the first part of the above answer, The first test of true teaching must be, that the teaching should not contradict reason. – sv. Dec 2 '15 at 0:11
  • How does this answer my question? – gaj Dec 3 '15 at 6:42
  • @gaj Is the man moral, does he have a pure mind? Does he do spiritual practices regularly on a daily basis? Do his visions conform to reason? – Swami Vishwananda Dec 3 '15 at 11:06
  • After getting spiritual experience he will get to a state where no longer he belongs to the body and vise versa. And they can give the same kind of experience to others who has strict religious habits. And if you listen to their speeches they are full of knowledge not even a learned man can express ideas like that but they do accept. Even greatest miseries cannot disturb them like cancers to Ramakrishna Paramahamsa and Ramana Maharshi. I think you can compare this with people with hallucinations. – SrikanthMyakam Dec 21 '15 at 7:11

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