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Spiritual Experiences: Eight Major Types

Spiritual experiences reported by over three-quarters of a large British sample.

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Oxford zoologist, Alister Hardy, set up the Religious Experience Research Centre in 1969. Advertisements in the media resulted in thousands of replies to the question, “Have you ever been aware of or influenced by a presence or a power, whether you call it God or not, that is different from your everyday self?”

In 1987, researchers David Hay and Gordon Heald looked at the Hardy archive and selected the most common experiences. They sub-divided these into eight major categories for use in subsequent research. Questions about six of these were included in the BBC’s year 2000 ‘Soul of Britain’ review of the spiritual state of the nation. This was the largest ever survey of the personal beliefs and attitudes of the people of Britain. As Hay reports in his book, ‘Something There’, religious or spiritual experiences were reported by 76 percent of the sample.

The eight types of experience include:

1. ‘Awareness of a patterning of events/synchronicity’: Over half (55 percent) of respondents said they were aware of a patterning of events in their lives that convinced them they were meant to happen.

To give a personal example, a friend once gave me the name of his friend who lived in Melbourne, Australia. Soon afterwards, I went to Sydney where I lived for almost a year. During that time I met a woman. We became close, and only after she had been my girlfriend for some months did she mention her brother who lived in Melbourne over 500 miles away. This was the friend of my friend. It was one of several such synchronicities or ‘meaningful coincidences’ that happened to me at the time, confirming that my life was on track, convincing me that I was exactly where I was meant to be.

Sydney 1978 - across the inner harbour

2 & 3. ‘Awareness of the Presence of God’ and ‘Awareness of a Presence Not Named’: These two are broadly similar, and only the first was used in the BBC survey where it was the second most frequent type of experience among respondents (38 percent).

I stayed in Australia for almost six years. When I decided to return to Britain, soon before departure, I woke very early one morning and went walking outside. The hillside garden commanded wonderful views towards the ocean. Sitting on the grass by the pool, alert to the warmth of the sun, the mottled colours of the eucalyptus trees and the lyrical sound of birdsong, I felt somehow safe, protected, in the presence of a Divine Being, as if being lovingly cradled by angels. I had been apprehensive at returning to my home country with no real plan, but in that moment felt entirely assured that, when I got there, everything would be made clear and would work out fine… And so it did!

4. ‘Awareness of Prayer being Answered’: 37 percent of respondents reported this. One of David Hay’s examples appeals to me particularly, as a psychiatrist who strongly supports the idea that the spiritual dimension of patients’ lives should always be assessed. This aspect should be valued, rather than belittled as irrelevant or, worse, dismissed as just another symptom of mental illness.

A man treated for three years for a serious and debilitating form of psychosis reported that, when he had reached utter despair, he prayed to God for mercy. That cold, starry night, standing in the grounds of the psychiatric hospital, waiting with other patients to be let in, he experienced someone standing beside him and a voice saying, “Mad or sane, you are one of my sheep”. It gave him strength and courage. When, twenty years later, he spoke of it for the first time, he said the experience was entirely positive, calling it, “The pivot of my life”.

5 & 6. ‘Awareness of a Sacred Presence in Nature’ and ‘Awareness that All Things Are One’: These two also seem to go together, and again (mainly for reasons of cost) the second was omitted from the 2000 survey. Almost 30 percent of people reported having the first.

In his book ‘Out of the Darkness’, Steve Taylor reports 20-year-old ‘Emma’ who described to him how, during a lengthy episode of depression, when she picked up a marble and started playing with it, the familiar world began melting away, a vision of beauty and perfection suddenly in its place. “I saw reality as simply this perfect one-ness… Everything felt just right. The marble seemed a reflection of the universe. All my ‘problems’ and suffering seemed meaningless, ridiculous… There was a feeling of acceptance and oneness. It was a moment of enlightenment.”

Australian Gum Trees in the morning sun

7 & 8. The final two types of spiritual experience were, ‘Awareness of the Presence of the Dead’ and ‘Awareness of an Evil Presence’. About a quarter of the survey population reported each of these. The former were often reported during the immediate period of grief after a loved-one had died, and were frequently comforting. The latter were often disturbing, accompanied by feelings of misery or dread, but not always. A woman told David Hay that, when 13, after seeing photographs of the emaciated corpses of concentration camp victims piled high for burial, some dark insistence took her over for hours, as if pummelling her brain. As the experience dissipated, she was left with the idea that she should set out to become a doctor, which she did.

People do not always admit to having spiritual experiences like these. The 2000 survey picked up more people (76 percent) than did a similar poll in 1987 (48 perent). David Hay suggests the explanation that it was culturally more acceptable by the millennium to acknowledge the spiritual dimension. Perhaps, then, the true percentage is even higher.

David Hay and Kate Hunt once interviewed about thirty people chosen deliberately because they were not religious and 'never went to church’. According to Hay, all responded fully, and all could definitely identify spiritual aspects to their lives. Initially they were afraid of two things: being ridiculed and laughed at, and being proselytized or preached at. When they were sure that neither was happening, they opened up and spoke freely. Following the interviews, none had any regrets, and most felt they had profited.

Perhaps these descriptions will help and encourage readers to reflect on their own spiritual experiences. The next step, even better, would be to discuss them with someone else that you trust.

Copyright Larry Culliford

Larry’s books include ‘The Psychology of Spirituality, ‘Love, Healing & Happiness’ and (as Patrick Whiteside) ‘The Little Book of Happiness’ and ‘Happiness: The 30 Day Guide’ (personally endorsed by HH The Dalai Lama).

 See Larry interview J C Mac about 'spiritual emergence' on You Tube (5 min).

Listen to Larry's Keynote Address to the British Psychological Society's 'Transpersonal Section' (1 hr 12 min).