spiritual awakenings: scientists and academics describe their experiences

Review by Gunnel Minett

This book deals with phenomena which have been known throughout history but which until recently have been rejected by most non-religious people. In particular, for scientists and anyone interested in an academic career, the subject has been pretty much a taboo. This book deals with experiences which can only be described (including by those who have had the experiences) as extraordinary. They provide some sense of spiritual awakening. What they have in common is that they have the power to completely transform the life of the experiencer – so strong that they can’t be denied or explained away. Consequently they may ‘force’ the person to change their understanding of the world. One major reason why they have been rejected, outside the religious sphere (and in particular science), is that they are difficult, or impossible, to explain with conventional Newtonian science. 

This is probably why this book has been produced. It contains a number of accounts from people who have had what they describe as a ‘spiritual awakening’ in the form of one or several extraordinary, inexplicable and life-changing experiences. This is also why the book provides the full academic/scientific ‘credentials’ of the people having these experiences to show that they are not gullible people, ready to call the experiences inexplicable simply because they don’t know better. However, conventional science cannot as yet fully explain these experiences. and are therefore, by definition, not accepted by science. The remedy for this somewhat schizophrenic approach is to collect more evidence, to the point where such experiences can no longer be disputed.

A common theme in the book is that the potential experiencer approaches some form of mind-changing technique, such as; meditation, mantra repetition or similar, often with a certain level of suspicion (wearing their scientific hat). But, once they have had a spiritual awakening experience, it tends to ‘take over’ and have a mind-changing effect of some kind. Fortunately for us, these scientists are often able to handle and describe their experiences in accessible language, even for those who’ve never had such experiences.

The experiences are divided into seven groups depending on circumstances around what triggered them and how they developed. “For some individuals there were multiple subtle experiences, one cascading on top of another, and it was hard for them to distinguish the relative importance of each in the awakening process and the subsequent transformation of their world and their lives. The first may have been the experience of a paranormal event, such as a sense of the presence of a deceased friend, and this may have opened a door to their exploration of practices like meditation, which further shifted their world view and accelerated the ongoing transformation  in their life, For others, the awakening was like a volcano erupting, sometimes with murmurs or tremors in advance, but with the energetic fireworks that immediately transformed their worldview and their entire life course. “ (p243)

The ability to handle and share these kinds of intense experience is really valuable. For example, it can be a real dilemma to have such strong experiences without being able to understand or process what has happened: many of the accounts in the book describe some kind of life crisis, often prompting the experiencer to seek help from conventional institutions which do not recognise ‘Spiritual Transformatory Experiences’ (STE).

Breathwork is an area where people tend to open up on a level that may lead to spiritual awakening. In his book ‘Spiritual Emergency, When Personal Transformation Becomes a Crisis’ (1989) Stan Grof gives examples as to how potentially positive life-changing experiences can end up as tragedies in the absence of the right support. Without proper guidance, such strong mind-altering experiences may result in diagnosis of ‘psychosis’ in an A&E department, where the most likely remedy will be medication and/or a time in a psychiatric ward. 

This is why this book is important. By allowing people from ‘within’ science to describe such experiences – still regarded as ‘outside’ science – is a big step toward bridging this contradiction. Historically it may not have been as important for scientists to deal with these kind of experiences, because they were automatically referred to religion i.e. not relevant for science. For anyone willing to accept ‘interventions by God’, this may have offered sufficient explanation to enable the experiencer to integrate the experience into their lives. But for many in today’s world it may not be sufficient or satisfactory to hear their intense experiences being referred to as God’s work. We are used to more fact-based explanations and it is high time that spiritual awakening experiences were taken up by science and exposed to the same strict investigation as other scientific research. As the book clearly shows, these ‘inexplicable’ experiences should be seen as an invitation to explore the mind and psyche further rather than being rejected as non-scientific. 

Edited by Marjorie Woollacott, PhD and David Lorimer. Published by AAPS Press, 2022, 270PP, Paperback, ISBN 978-1735449142

First published https://breathwork-science.org/

Image credit: Getty Images: Pascal Deloche

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