Unit IX.  Illumination


1.  Stages of mystical development
2.  Illumination

Materials needed: Journal

Books needed:

* Windows to the soul or
* Emergence of the divine child

Exercises and practices:

White Light and transformation
Meeting the Beloved within

* You may already have this book.  Emergence of the divine child has recently been republished under the name of Windows to the soul but it is the same book.

Our longing is passionate and endless because the divine calls us home to presence.
-- John O'Donohue

For a long time, I thought "illumination" meant that I would have an experience of white light or a vision of the light that was God.  Or that it meant the same thing as enlightenment.  Illumination is the stage of spiritual development that follows purification according to Evelyn Underhill (1961) in her famous book on mysticism.  It is the characteristic mystical consciousness.  But what is that?

Essentially it means we can now comprehend another level of reality.  ". . the self emerges from long and varied acts of purification to find that it is able to apprehend another order of reality.  It has achieved consciousness of a world that was always there, and wherein its substantial being - that Ground which is of God [cf also Washburn,  ] - has always stood" (p. 233).  Underhill calls this "'Transcendental Feeling' in excelsis: a deep, intuitional knowledge of the 'secret plan'" (p. 233).  It is not yet union with the Absolute, nor a spiritual marriage.  The "I" remains separate but in joyful relationship with the Divine One.  Note that this occurs before the Dark Night of the Soul during which this relationship seems to become lost.  Underhill calls it a "radiant consciousness of the 'otherness' of natural things" (p. 234).

Three types of experience appear with regularity in this stage of development.  The first is a joyful apprehension of the Absolute or the awareness of the presence of God.  Second, physical perceptions of the world are enhanced.  This is what Buddhists would call direct perception which has an unusual clarity and luminosity.  Third, energy of the intuitional self is enormously increased and there may be visions or dialogues with a divine presence.  Here we have a new level of relationship with the Beloved.

Exercise: Illumination

Read chapter 11 in Like a thousand suns.  What does Ramakrishna mean by "You I see only with my physical eyes, but God I see with every cell of my being"?  Jesus said, If thine eye be single, thy whole body shall be full of light."  What does this mean?  Is he talking about illumination?  What and how does the universe tell us about God?  Who is God?  What is the central truth of existence?  Why does Ramakrishna see life as a hospital?  What is the illness and what is the cure?  Notice that Easwaran compares this to Buddhism's Four Noble Truths.  What are they?  Copy verse 32 and post it on your refrigerator door for a time to remind you to reflect on it.  Who do the warriors represent and why does Krishna say they are already dead?  What is satyagraha?  How has it impacted life in this country?  How does Easwaran suggest we deal with resentments?  What are the three questions the gatekeeper of the tongue should ask before allowing you to speak?  What is the cosmic vision in real life?  How would it manifest in your life?  What is the next step after the attainment of Self-realization?


The development of a mystic follows the same kind of pattern as regular development.  You may remember that we swing back and forth between equilibrium and disequilibrium as we grow up.  And each time a cycle is completed, another stage is achieved.  Furthermore, each stage incorporates and integrates all aspects of the previous stages, so development is cumulative.  During the stage of disequilibrium, new stimulation causes radical change which is often painful or unpleasant.  Then, in the equilibrium stage, the new changes are assimilated and integrated.  This is usually a happy, pleasant stage.  Obviously, it is all more complicated than this, but you get the general idea.  Ken Wilber (1981, 1982, 1999, 2000) has done exhaustive work defining these stages if you want more information.

Mystical development follows this same pattern.  It begins withawakeningor, as Campbell says, the call.  This is followed by purgationor purification.  Then comes illumination followed bydark nights of the sense and soul.  Finally we arrive at a state ofunionor unity consciousness.  Underhill (1961) has done the most thorough job of describing these stages, so I will take excerpts from her book, Mysticism.  She says the mystic moves through a ". . series of strongly marked oscillations between 'states of pleasure' and 'states of pain" (p. 168).  Of these, Purification and the Dark Night are the ones that are painful.  The other three are joyful and full of light.


This first stage is the opening awareness of the Self to consciousness of Divine Reality.  It is usually abrupt and marked by feelings of joy.  My awakening came as I read Bucke's (1901) book, Cosmic Consciousness.  I was on sabbatical in Switzerland living high in the Alps.  I remember thinking, "I can do this!"  But I was afraid to go further as I was living alone in a strange country and was afraid I would flip out and have no one to take care of me.  Soon after, I was driving over one of the Swiss high passes and became terrified that I would drive over the edge.  If you have done your homework in symbolism, you will recognize this as fear of the spiritual journey since mountains are symbols for that journey.  It was also an intimation of my own ego's helplessness in the face of divine providence and prophetic of the necessity of surrender of control.


The Self, now aware of the discrepancy between its own shadows and imperfections begins to seek help in its journey into Light.  This is the point at which we often begin to seek a teacher and/or monastic community.   Often we are led to do this even before we recognize the need for cleansing.  The Beloved begins to draw us to Itself gradually and almost imperceptibly.  It was at this point that I found the ashram brochure on my desk.

This stage is exceedingly painful, and many who begin it refuse to continue.  It is necessary to examine every aspect of our lives and make decisions about what we want to keep and what is to be discarded.  The ego is inexorably divested of its defenses, subterfuges, games, manipulations and controls.  Attachments to objects of the senses must be cut off, and all worldly dependencies severed.  Because there is so much suffering involved in this paring away, the support of a group of likeminded aspirants is a great help.  The work of the first three chakras is largely purification, at least in the Kundalini Yoga system with which I am familiar.

Some of the outcomes of this stage are reduced emotional turmoil, loss of need for approval from others, a sense of centeredness and groundedness.  In fact, life may be on such an even keel that the person wonders if everything is all right.  This is because all the things that fueled neurotic excitement have lost their charm.  You could almost equate this with a deadness to advertising and consumerism.  It is as if you have become immune to desire.  Old friends may slip away if they no longer have anything in common with you.  Other new ones will appear, usually those who are also on a spiritual path.  This stage may segue imperceptibly into the next one of illumination.  All the work on oneself is not done, but it is possible to become renewed in one's efforts.


[Note: This section is the longest because it is the stage associated with the heart chakra.]

At this point, we have an apprehension of the Divine Presence which may manifest in a variety of ways depending upon the temperament of the individual.  The state coincides with contemplation and is enhanced by meditation and other practices that focus attention on the Beloved.  The Presence Itself can manifest via any of the senses which is why we attempted earlier to refine our sense perceptions.  There is a loving and joyous relationship with the Divine One or Spirit.  However, this is not yet union, and the sense of I-amness is maintained by the individual.  So here we have a relationship with God.

Intuition enjoys a growth spurt at this point, and we become aware of the presence of Infinite Life in all things of the earth.  Perceptions and consciousness are enhanced well  beyond the norm and there is an increase in vitality.  This is what we can expect to happen when the work of the first three chakras is done and we enter the holy of holies in the heart center.  We love and are loved by the One.  The grail cup of ecstasy may be offered,  and we may become god-intoxicated.  Consequently, we become eager to do Its work in the world.  However, there is also a temptation to bask in the joy of illumination and not to continue on the path which is why teachers caution against too much attention being given to some of the manifestions or siddhis that may be forthcoming.  Three examples of these types of mystic experiences follow.

Joyous Apprehension of the Absolute

This is the sense of the presence of God.  Underhill says it is the most dependable characteristic of Illumination.  This is a ". . .deep certitude of the Personal Life omnipresent in the universe. ."  (p. 242).  This is not a metaphor but a genuine perception of consciousness.  This sense of Presence can co-exist with normal daily life as was exemplified by Brother Lawrence (Chadwick, 1999) who was a mystic and a cook in a monastery kitchen.  However, the perception of the Beloved now takes center stage and is the focus of all that one does.  Some individuals go into raptures periodically or experience episodes of maithuna.  This stage is a foretaste of the unitive state and encourages the soul in its journey.  However, the individuality remains separate and intact.  Yet, daily tasks are enhanced and performed more efficiently because they are in the service of the Beloved.

Clarity of vision

Clarity of vision with regard to the phenomenal world may also occur.  You may have had a brief experience of this if you did the exercise of meditation followed by sitting outside.  The maitri rooms at The Naropa Institute produce these kinds of perceptions when they are used regularly.  In this,  perception is expanded rather than concentrated and is a natural outcome of the type of meditation that opens us out in a state of receptivity.  This clarity is often described as a revelation of the Divine One self-revealed in the many. It feels like a sharpening of the senses and an increase in mental lucidity.  There is a radiance and beauty in reality that was never before suspected.  Jacob Boehm and William Blake were two mystics who enjoyed this kind of perception.  Underhill (1961) described it thusly:

 "To know the hidden unity in the Eternal Being". . . -- the sense of unity in
separateness, a mighty and actual Life beyond that which eye can see, a glorious
reality shining through the phenomenal veil -- frequent in those temperaments
which are at one with life.  The self then becomes conscious of the living reality
of that World of Becoming, the vast arena of the Divine creativity, in which the
little life is immersed. (p. 258)
This is basically a well-grounded, accurate perception of the unity of all reality.  Everything is flooded with light and one's reaction is one of delight and compassion for all living things.  St. Francis is well-known for his connections to all of nature and his communion with animals and plants.

Energies of intuitional/transcendental self increased

Now all the elements that tended to check or forbid intuition have been removed, and it is able to use ordinary channels of expression to emerge and show itself.  This can take the form of 1) auditions, 2) dialogues between individual consciousness and another intelligence that is divine, 3) visions, and 4) automatic writings.  Some or all of these may be present but usually one is dominant.

It should be obvious that a careful discrimination must be made between legitimate intuitional expressions and other forms of psychological aberrance that may be abnormal.  We are not used to giving credence to psychic occurrences in our culture, but that does not mean that they are not perfectly normal at an advanced stage of spiritual development.  It just means that the critics have not been willing to undergo the practices that would have made it possible for them to experience them.  Underhill (1961) suggests a test to assist the discrimination: that is that the experience has a life-enhancing quality.

The perceptions are ". . sources of helpful energy, charity, and courage.  They
infuse someting new in the way of strength, knowledge, direction; and leave
it -- physically, mentally, or spiritually -- better than they found it.  Those which
do not owe their inception to the contact of the soul with external reality - in
theological language, do not 'come from God' -- do not have this effect. (p. 270)
These experiences are numinous and not easily translated into descriptive terminology, so the surface mind constructs a picture from the raw materials at its disposal.  Interestingly, the form it takes may not be the preferred modality of the person, but rather a complementary one.  Jung said that the inner modality of experience more often than not was complementary to the external preferred mode.  As you may be aware, we have at least three and perhaps more sensory modes through which we can experience reality and express ourselves.  There is an auditory channel, a visual channel, a kinesthetic channel and perhaps many others depending upon the individual's preferred sense with which to process stimulation and then to express him-/ herself.  I am strongly visual in my external mode, but my intuitions of Spirit come in a simultaneous, almost kinesthetic form.  I feel It.

Audition.  In the case of the hearing channel, the individual may become aware of Something that speaks either clearly or implicitly delivering some kind of message.  The "voice" can have a number of different characteristics: 1) inarticulate or ineffable voice that cannot be defined, 2) distinct and articulate but speaking only within the mind, and 3) hallucination which is a voice that seems to be heard by the exterior ear.

       Imperative intuition.  The first kind of audition is a sort of imperative intuition that comes, not as speech, but as pure meaning.  It obviously comes from direct action of the Divine and brings new knowledge or truths that the person knows was not something previously known to him/her.

For example, when I am in touch with Spirit, the meaning comes into my mind and I have to find words to express it.  Sometimes the words come directly, and, when they do, they are simple, concise and dynamic - obviously not my own thought.  It is interesting, is it not, that meaning can be conveyed without a sensory connection?  It is also faster than the speed of light, but that is another story.

       Distinct interior words.   These lack the simultaneity of intuitional meaning and often are  genuine communications of new material from mystic intuition.  However, discernment is necessary here because of the lack of direct contact with the presence of God.  Most mystics advise critical examination of such messages before acceptance.  If they are genuine, they will bring a sense of certitude, peace and interior joy.  They will also bring new information that was not previously in the field of consciousness.  I find that recording such messages and putting them aside for a few days helps when I am in doubt.  Upon returning to them, it is usually quite clear what is real and what is junk from the egomind.  It is important to be aware that the mind can always intrude with its own agendas if you are not careful.  This form is sometimes called "successive words."

       Hallucinations.  These are generally considered to be abnormal and due to psychological imbalances.  In fact, hallucinations are one of the diagnostic symptoms in some forms of mental illness.  The genuine inner voice is not heard through the exterior ears.  I think it is fair to say that destructive, harmful messages or those that incite to violence or suicide are pathological.

      Dialogues.  These are intimate conversations between the Divine One and the soul that are translated into words on their way through the individual's consciousness.  There is a feeling of oneness with the Beloved, but one's own identity is preserved throughout.  This enables the person to ask questions and receive answers.  Underhill (1961) says,

The self, wholly absorbed by the intimate sense of divine companionship,
receives its messages in the form of "distinct interior words"; as of an alien
voice, speaking within the mind with such an accent of validity and sponta-
neity as to leave no room for doubt as to its character. . . in this case one of
the speakers is become the instrument of a power other than itself, and com-
municates to the mind new wisdom and new life. (p. 278)
       Summary of audition.  These forms of communication from the Divine One are systematic and progressive, governed by an interior intention, and indicate the presence of a Being who is wiser and more powerful than the receiver.  More often than not, the messages involve information that is, or was, not available to the recipient's own mind.  Usually they are forthcoming when the individual is absorbed in contemplation, but they can also take the form of a sudden uprush from the deeps in the midst of everyday activity.  I, personally, believe that the character of the communication depends upon the entity from which it emanates.  Spirit, for instance, never communicates with me except after deep meditation or when I am deeply moved by compassion, beauty or music.  Michael, on the other hand, is always available to me when I need him, and I can carry on dialogues with him at any time.  Historical revelations that took the form of dialogues are well documented.  Underhill describes them as ". . veritable outpourings of the Divine Mind, crystallized into verbal form on their way through the human consciousness" (1961, p. 277).

Visions.  Visions can take two forms: the mystic and the prophetic.  Mystic images tend to be forms of the Beloved or of Light that have particular meaning for the one experiencing them.   Prophetic visions are like those described in the Bible where God or angels appear to someone and deliver a message which is to be shared with the populace.  As with audition, there is a variation in authenticity that manifests as gradations of ineffability.  The more difficult it is to describe to others, the more likely the experience is to be genuine.

       Intellectual visions are not actually seen with the eyes but are rather like projections put before the mind or apprehended by the whole self by means of a sense which is neither sight nor feeling but which has characteristics of both.  Nothing is seen either by the eyes or the mind.  It is sometimes called a formless vision.  It is at once intimate, definite and indescribable.  It cannot be touched nor imagined because it is ineffable, perceived by the soul rather than the senses.  It may manifest as a sense of presence that can often be located in space as in an angel standing by one's side.  These visions can last for days and bring a knowledge and love of God as well as a sense of His company.  ". . the Lord makes the soul conscious that He is close at hand" (Underhill, 1961, p. 283).

       Imaginary visions are seen with the inner eye in the same manner as any other visualization including those of artists who can see the picture in their minds before it is painted.  The difference is in the awareness that the source is not in the mind of the beholder but comes from some subliminal region.  It may contain elements of love, belief and direct intuition of truth.  These are types of passive imaginary vision at which the self looks but in the action of which it does not participate.  There is no deception.  The self is aware that it is being shown truth through a symbolic image.  This is a symbolic reconstruction of a divine reality that is made accessible to the senses through imagery.  A dramatic example of imaginary visions is the white light experience in which the Divine seizes the imagination in order to present Itself to the soul directly.  This differs from the intellectual vision in that the beholder is aware that the imagery is his/her own while, at the same time, recognizing the power that is coming through as not his/her own.

      Active imaginary visions. Finally,active imaginary visions are those in which the self takes an active role.  These are rather like dreams or fantasies but, because they often accompany a psychological crisis, they are dynamic and dramatic.  They are spontaneous, automatic expressions of intense subliminal activity and always have internal results in terms of change and movement towards new levels of consciousness. In this, they differ from the usual forms of daydreaming.

       Automatic writing is a form of involuntary expression that is much more questionable in that one must be discerning in order to be sure about the source of the information.  Many writers, under the influence of their muses, write this way.  And the material may or may not be mystical.   Probably the best way to judge a writing's authenticity is through its content.  If it is legitimate, the light, truth and love of the Divine One should be immediately obvious.  On the other hand, if the material is dark, threatening or uninspiring, it is more likely to have emerged from the personal unconscious.

Other aspects of illumination.  Illumination is associated with a kind of introspection or introversion in that attention is turned inward to the Absolute Source.  It comes out of and reflects the silence of contemplation and depends upon it for its stability.  Regular meditation is necessary for its support and to open the psyche to the Beloved.  Ecstasies and raptures are not uncommon in personalities that are suited to them.

It is pretty clear that communication with a higher power is fraught with danger of invasion from ego and mental agendas.  It seems advisable, therefore,  to meditate for a long enough period of time to quiet these parts of ourselves before trusting any information that may come forth spontaneously.

Exercise: White Light and Transformation

In either Windows of the soul or Emergence of the divine child(the earlier edition), do the White Light Exercise on pages 161-163.  When you have become familiar with this exercise, you may want to continue with The Transformation Session on pages 165-169.  If you do this latter, you may want to experiment to see whether Phillips' White Light Exercise or the Divine Light Invocation from Unit. 8 is better preparation.

The Dark Night of the Soul

In this stage of the mystical journey, the Beloved absents Itself completely from the seeker, and, after having enjoyed the presence of the One, this absence is deeply painful.  Furthermore, the dark night may continue for years until all things that contribute to the separation from the Beloved have been eradicated.  The end of the dark night rests upon and depends upon a complete and irreversible and total surrender of the soul to Divine Will.  Jesus' torment in the Garden of Gesthemene is a prototype of the dark night, and his surrender of self-will to God shows us the way out - crucifixion of the egomind.

More details of this stage will follow in the next guidebook.


This stage of development represents the consummation of the soul's love for God and God's love for the soul.  It carries with it sublime light, incredible vitality, purification of all aspects of the soul by fire and a calling to return to the world to do God's work.  It can take one of two forms: either deification, the utter transmutation of the self in God, or the spiritual marriage of the soul with God.  Which form a person experiences depends upon which type of mystic s/he has become (see Underhill, 1961 for more details).

Individual selfhood disappears and is replaced by the substitution of a Divine Self that is totally inspired by the Divine One and active in its service.  Here we find the peace that passeth understanding and the outflowing of light from within that is so attractive to disciples.  The person is suffused with Divine Love and speaks the Truth.  S/he is fully aware that it is Divine will that is operating through him/her and s/he manifests true humility.  Another aspect of the unified life is joy and happiness.  Such people are invaribly cheerful even in the face of incredible difficulties because they are completely confident that the Divine One is in charge of the results.


This presentation of the stages of mystical development are offered to give a context for understanding  how the spiritual journey may change at this fourth chakra level.  Prior to this, there has been continuous change in growth and spiritual progress much of it painful and discouraging.  At this point, however, the divine light of the Beloved makes its appearance and, at least for a while, support and encouragement can be enjoyed.

Illumination seems to fit with all that is going on at the fourth chakra level.  Since we may expect to make our initial contact with Spirit in the heart center, we might also anticipate that meeting to be crowned with glorious light, warmth and love.  All of the wondrous changes that are emerging at this stage of mystical growth can be expected to manifest themselves.  We are shown God's Love and can bask in the sunshine of Its favor for a time before resuming the climb to the heights.

This is a period of assimilation, a time to take in and savor the new knowledge of who we are and where we are headed.  There is time to make all the new learning our own and to find ways of expressing it in the world.  It is also time to be kind to oneself.  Remember that maitri means loving kindness.

Practice: Meeting The Beloved Within

Sit for meditation for an hour or until your mind stops its chatter.  Then quietly move into prayer asking the Beloved to be present to you.  You may want to try the following directions to assist you.


In your mind's eye, find the  temple in your heart center.  First see what the setting is.  Is it a garden. . . a desert. . . a meadow. . . a forest. . . a mountain?. . .   Is there water nearby?. . . If so, in what form is the water?. . . Then, what does the temple look like?. . .  What color is it and what materials is it made of? . . . Is it open to the outside or is it closed in? . . . How big is it? . . . Walk around it. . . what does the back look like?. . . Now slowly and reverently begin to enter the temple. . . Stop on the threshold and look inside. . . what is in the interior?. . . see each separate thing and notice its color, form and size. . . What kind of light is in there?. . . what color is it?. . . Is there an altar?. . .  what does it look like?. . . what, if anything, is on it?

. . .  Bow deeply as a sign of respect and release of ego. . . Then find a place to sit down and prepare to meditate.  Make yourself comfortable and close your eyes. . . Wait patiently for the Beloved to reveal Itself. . . Allow your soul to call out for the Beloved. . . beg It to come to you. . . When you feel a sense of presence, greet the Beloved and express your gratitude for the blessings of your life. . . then ask It what it has for you. . . [If you wish you may open your eyes at this point and write down the conversation that ensues.  If you do not want to do it now, when the session is over write down what you can remember before doing or saying anything else.]

When the dialogue and any other action that wants to take place is completed, thank the Beloved for coming to you, wait until It leaves, bow again to the altar or center of the temple. . . Then quietly leave the inner temple knowing that you can always return to it and to Spirit.

It is as if they have chosen to enter into a secret belonging carried within the
soul; they rest in that inner temple impervious to outer control or claiming. . . (p. 184)
In every breath and in every moment of your life, the Divine is in conversation
with itself. . .  (p. 194)

You pray in the Holy Spirit. . . Your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit and the
deepest level in you is spirit. . . Prayer is the art of presence. (p. 194)
--John O'Donohue

So. . . the love affair begins.  From this time forth, there can be no other competing loves.  Ruysbroeck (quoted in Underhill, p. 265) says "Here there begins an eternal hunger, which shall never more be satisfied.  It is the inward craving and hankering of the affective power and created spirit after an Uncreated Good. . . If God gave. . all the gifts which all the saints possess, and all that He is able to give, but without giving Himself, the craving desire of the spirit would remain hungry and unsatisfied."  So look out.  If you continue, there may be no turning back from this point onward.  Notice, if you will, that this stage is called illumination.  We are lit up by the love of God.


Buche, R.  (1901).  Cosmic consciousness.  New York: E. P. Dutton.

Chadwick, H. J. (revision) (1999).  The practice of the presence of God: Brother Lawrence.
 (revision).  New Brunswick, NJ: Bridge-Logos Publishers.

La Chapelle, D.  (2001).  Trusting the web of life. IONS Noetic Sciences Review, 56, 17-20.

Phillips, R. (1997).  Windows to the soul: Healing the emotional body.  New Glorieta, New Mexico: Deva Publishing.

Underhill, E. (1961).  Mysticism: A study in the nature and development of man's spiritual consciousness.  New York: E. P. Dutton. [Quotations used by permission of Dutton, a division of Penguin Putnam Inc.]

Wilber, K. (1981).  Ontogenetic development: Two fundamental patterns.The Journal of Transpersonal Psychology, 13(1), 33-58.

Wilber, K. (1982).  The spectrum of consciousness.  Wheaton, Ill: The Theosophical Publishing House.

Wilber, K. (1999).  Spirituality and developmental lines: Are there stages?  The Journal of Transpersonal Psychology, 31(1), 1-10.

Wilber, K. (2000).  A brief history of everything: The collected works of Ken Wilber, Vol. 7.  Boston: Shambhala.

In this Unit IX, we have looked briefly at the stages of the mystic journey and particularly at the state of illumination.  In the finalUnit X. Healing, we will find some healing principles and attitudes along with some therapy for brokenheartedness.

Logo   Return to Home Page