Academic journal article Journal of Transpersonal Psychology

Spontaneous Awakening Experiences: Beyond Religion and Spiritual Practice

Academic journal article Journal of Transpersonal Psychology

Spontaneous Awakening Experiences: Beyond Religion and Spiritual Practice

Article excerpt

ABSTRACT: 'Awakening experiences' have been misunderstood to some degree by their long association with religious and spiritual traditions and practices. The research reported here - 161 reports of awakening experiences - suggests that most of them occurred outside the context of spiritual or religious traditions. Neither were they induced by spiritual practices such as meditation or prayer. Most occurred 'spontaneously.' As a result, they are termed here 'spontaneous awakening experiences.' Many activities and situations can be seen as having a certain degree of 'awakening potential,' capable of inducing - or at least being the context for - awakening experiences. Many are psychological in origin, although they may be interpreted in religious terms. Perhaps the term 'spiritual experience' should be applied only to awakening experiences related to - or triggered by - spiritual practices. I suggest a more neutral term ('awakening experiences') to describe them. A psychological/energetic view of awakening experiences is presented which provides a framework for understanding spontaneous awakening experiences.

The word 'spiritual' is difficult to use with any precision, because it has so many diverse meanings to different people. In everyday speech, when someone says 'She's such a spiritual person,' it could be interpreted in a variety of ways: that the person believes in ghosts and goes to séances; that she follows the teachings of a religion and goes to church or the mosque every week; that she has healing crystals in the bathroom, goes to see a Reiki healer and reads books about channelling and angels; or that she is calm and humble, generous and compassionate, rather than materialistic or status-seeking. Noting this plethora of meanings, Wilber has written, 'the real getting almost anyone to agree with what we call 'spiritual.' The term is virtually useless for any sort of coherent discussion'' (1997, p. 221).

The same applies to the term 'spiritual experience.' I have found that some people believe the term refers to a psychic or paranormal experience, while others use the term with a purely religious meaning (e.g., religious visions, 'hearing' the voice of God or Jesus).

The term 'mystical experience' is problematic too. The terms 'spiritual' and 'mystical' experience are sometimes used interchangeably (e.g. James, 1985; Hardy, 1979), or elsewhere 'mystical experiences' are seen as an especially intense form of spiritual experience (Underhill, 1960; Happold, 1986; Marshall, 2005). However, the terms 'mystical experience' and 'mystic' are most commonly used by religious scholars (particularly in the Christian tradition), referring to 'spiritual experiences' or to individuals who have reached a high level of 'spiritual development' in the context of religion (so that Happold [1986] and Underhill [1960], for example, refer to the 'Great mystics' such as St. John of the Cross and St. Theresa). It is more unusual for transpersonal or humanistic psychologists to use the term 'mystical' (an exception is Hood [1975], with his use of the term mysticism in his 'M-scale.').

A further issue with the term 'mystical' is its meaning in popular discourse. For Happold and Underhill, a 'mystic' is a person who has managed to expand and intensify his or her normal consciousness, and so has a more intense and truer vision of reality, and a new relationship to theworld - including an awareness and sense of connection to the divine. However, in popular discourse, the term 'mystical' is often used to refer to transgressing the boundaries of modern science or reason, as with phenomena such as alien abductions, astrology or crystal healing.

Maslow's term 'peak experience' is more satisfactory. Maslow also recognized that the experience was ''often stimulated by non-religious settings and activities'' so that ''the framework by which we interpret our experience must encompass everyday life - beyond the realm of 'religion''' (1970, p. …

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