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The spiritual experiences survey

One evening in the winter of 1969, the author Philip Pullman had a transcendent experience on the Charing Cross Road. He tells me:

Somewhere in the Middle East, some Palestinian activists had hijacked a plane and it was sitting on a runway surrounded by police, soldiers, fire engines, and so forth. I saw a photo of it on the front page of the Evening Standard, and then I walked past a busker who was surrounded by a circle of listeners, and I saw a sort of parallel. From then on for the rest of the journey [from Charing Cross to Barnes] I kept seeing things doubled: a thing and then another thing that was very like it. I was in a state of intense intellectual excitement throughout the whole journey. I thought it was a true picture of what the universe was like: a place not of isolated units of indifference, empty of meaning, but a place where everything was connected by similarities and correspondences and echoes. I was very interested at the time in such things as Frances Yates’s books about Hermeticism and Giordano Bruno. I think I was living in an imaginative world of Renaissance magic. In a way, what happened was not surprising, exactly: more the sort of thing that was only to be expected. What I think now is that my consciousness was temporarily altered (certainly not by drugs, but maybe by poetry) so that I was able to see things that are normally beyond the range of visible light, or routine everyday perception.

A scene from The Golden Compass, based on Pullman’s book

Pullman has rarely discussed the experience, although it left him with a conviction that the universe is ‘alive, conscious and full of purpose’. He tells me: ‘Everything I’ve written, even the lightest and simplest things, has been an attempt to bear witness to the truth of that statement.’

You could describe that moment as an ecstatic experience – Pullman felt suddenly shifted beyond his ordinary sense of self and reality, and connected to a cosmos alive with meaning and purpose. In his case, it was a spontaneous and unexpected experience, although he was evidently somewhat primed for it by his reading of Renaissance magic. I’m fascinated by such ecstatic experiences. How common are they in modern western culture? Have they become less common as our culture has become less religious and more rationalist? What triggers such experiences today? And how do we make sense of them, if not in a traditional Christian framework?

Spiritual experiences are becoming more common in UK and US, apparently

Research suggests such experiences are, surprisingly, becoming more common in western societies. The Religious Experience Research Centre set up in 1969 by Sir Alister Hardy asked British people: ‘Have you ever experienced a presence or power, whether you call it God or not, which is different from your everyday self?’. In 1978, 36% said yes, in 1987, that had risen to 48%. In 2000, over 75% of respondents to a UK survey conducted by David Hay said they were ‘aware of a spiritual dimension to their experience’. In the US, spiritual experiences are also apparently becoming more frequent – in 1962, when Gallup asked Americans if they’d ‘ever had a religious or mystical experience’, 22% said yes. That figure had risen to 33% by 1994, and 49% in 2009. The Pew Research Centre found last month that a ‘growing share of Americans regularly feel a deep sense of spiritual peace and a sense of wonder’, despite – or perhaps because of – the decline of religious affiliation in the US.

What’s going on? Several possible things. Hay suggested that a ‘deep cultural taboo’ existed against talking about spiritual experiences, because of the negative view of them held by mainstream psychology and psychiatry until recently. That taboo has lessened since the 1960s – psychiatry and psychology are becoming more open to ‘anomalous experience’ and aware they’re not usually pathological (quite the contrary). Culturally, we are becoming more OK about talking about them – one colleague dubs this ‘the Oprah effect’.  Both Christianity and spirituality have, since the 1960s, become much more experiential (see the work of Linda Woodhead on spirituality and Tanya Luhrmann on experiential Christianity). We are increasingly suspicious of external authorities – the church, the Bible – and more interested in our own spiritual experiences.

That goes for atheists too. While old-school atheists like Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett or Carl Sagan tended to be suspicious of spiritual experiences and to dismiss them as chemical side-effects, tricks or delusions of the brain, a growing number of atheists and humanists like Sam Harris, Barbara Ehrenreich or Philip Pullman are happy to talk about such experiences and insist on their importance for human flourishing. Indeed, Sanderson Jones, head of the Sunday Assembly (a network of humanist churches), describes his life-philosophy as ‘mystic humanism’.

Results of the survey

I thought it would be fun to do a little amateur survey of my own, using SurveyMonkey. As with my dream survey, there was a great response, with 309 people filling in my questionnaire. As with the dream survey, this is obviously a rather selective sample, i.e those who either read my blog, are connected to me on Twitter and Facebook, or are members of London Philosophy Club. Mainly British middle class people, in other words. But the survey attracted a good cross-section in terms of philosophical and religious view points – 25% Christian, 14% agnostic, 24% atheist / humanist, 30% spiritual but not religious. So what did the survey reveal? You can dig into the results for yourself here, but here’s a summary.

Firstly, I asked if people had ‘ever had an experience where you went beyond your ordinary sense of self and felt connected to something bigger than you’. 84% of you had, with 46% of you having such experiences less than 10 times, and a lucky 37% having them quite often. Only 16% said they’d never had such experiences – that rose to 22% for agnostics, 31% for humanists, and 43% for atheists. Those calling themselves ‘spiritual but not religious’ were the most likely to report such experiences, closely followed by Christians. So spiritual experiences seem very common – although there is obviously a self-selecting bias here, as those who aren’t interested in such experiences are less likely to bother with the survey.

I then asked if such experiences happened to you alone or with others, or both. William James and other researchers of ecstasy have thought such experiences usually or always happen to us alone. That’s not the case – only 37% of you say you’ve only had such an experience alone, with 63% saying they’ve had them with others. Ecstatic experiences are often collective.

Burning Man
A love-connection at Burning Man

What are such experiences like? People described all kinds of experiences, but the most common word they used was ‘connection’ and similar words like ‘unity’, ‘at one’, ‘merging’, ‘dissolving’- such words appeared in 37% of people’s descriptions. This tallies with what Dr Cheryl Hunt, editor of the Journal for the Study of Spirituality, told me yesterday at a conference: ‘Connection is the word people use most often to describe such experiences’.

Connection to what? Lots of things. People reported feeling connected to God, to Jesus, the Holy Spirit, angels, to the spirit of deceased loved ones, to the cosmos, to the energy of all things, to nature, to all beings, to humanity, to a loved one, to a group of people, to an animal…or to all of these things. Some examples:

Feeling this deep connection to the earth and to life and to God

feeling of warmth and connectedness with the earth and with other people

I’d taken acid in my 20s. I felt connected to the universe, as though I could understand all of the atoms in the far stretches of the galaxy

Feeling of being surrounded by joyful singing Angels

an overwhelming sense of ‘oneness’

I was in Bangkok surrounded by strange sounds and smells. Bells were ringing. It was quite hot, I was in a rickshaw. Momentarily I felt as though my own spirit had left my body and I became part of everything.

i was on the sofa [on ketamine] with a cat on my lap and stroked him endlessly until we became part of the same then both bodies seemed to rush in a tunnel of lights until we were in an open white space where we were suspended and part of everything.

a euphoric sense of loving everyone around me

Feeling at one with the universe, blissful

Standing on the tip of a mountain, watching the snow fall and suddenly feeling a strange sense of expansion and contraction where I became aware of an underlying ‘sameness’ between me, the snow and the mountain

on public transport, surrounded by people I have no connection with, I suddenly get an overwhelming feeling of love for them all

an immense empathy for anyone I met (including animals)

Watching the starry sky, and totally relaxing and feeling this amazingly huge universe is actually home…

When I spend time in deep conversation with one of my children it feels like we move to a higher level of consciousness. Often we will lose track of time and I feel connected to an unknown greater power.

Being very impressed by the sheer fucking scale of the universe and how I was super connected to all of it while at a jazz gig when I was 18 stoned and excited to popping point by the music

Being with a group where people take turns to speak and share authentically and are listened and responded to from the heart….there’s a feeling of surrender to the group

It was in a park. A windy day, and I cut through these magical woods on route and passed a natural pond which was absolutely alive. The wind was in such a direction that it was inspiring all kinds of amazing patterns in the pond. I was mesmerized looking at this and felt in a trance. I felt part of the pond, the wind, the patterns, my thoughts and feelings, the trees, wildlife, and was laughing out in joy.

Sometimes, we get a sense of a cosmic pattern through some strange coincidence, as when Volkonsky finds himself next to his nemesis Kuragin on a field-hospital bed in War and Peace, and ‘ecstatic pity and love for that man overflowed his happy heart’.

Bolkonsly and Kuragin in the BBC's adaptation of War and Peace - a moment of 'ecstatic pity'
Bolkonsly and Kuragin in the BBC’s adaptation of War and Peace

Check out this amazing story from the survey:

A month ago in a market in Myanmar I spotted across the vegetable sellers someone who I had tried to avoid meeting in London a city we both live in. This ex girlfriend who had been my ‘best friend’ since childhood betrayed our friendship by having an affair with my husband. She broke up my family and her own and although my husband was also culpable, the misery and guilt killed him prematurely, he had a massive heart attack and died at 55. So I have hated her, and forgiveness was not possible. I spotted her crouching to take a photograph and hid myself, whilst I looked at her. When I went back to my hotel that evening after having a wonderful evening watching the sun setting over the stupas, she was in the foyer with two friends I totally panicked and hid myself again. I watched them take her luggage to a room four doors down from mine. This event shook me coming as it did after a trip across se Asia where I had spent much time contemplating Buddhist teachings and in discussion with monks had thought about forgiveness and anger and attachment. I think this episode was in some way part of a transformative process forcing me to face my demons and let go of my hatred. The next day at breakfast I went down fully prepared to meet her and felt no fear or need to express anything, I felt nothing. She wasn’t there and I didn’t see her again.

You could call these experiences moments of love-connection. People feel expanded beyond their individual ego, ecstatically connected to someone, something, all things, in a way that is joyful, blissful, and loving. Ecstasy seems closely connected to empathy – both are a movement beyond the ego, a love-connection.

I asked what triggered such experiences. The most common triggers were nature, the arts (particularly doing or participating in creative practices), and contemplation / meditation. Drugs, romantic love / sex, and proximity to death (yours or someone else’s) were also common triggers. People also gave a lot of their own personal triggers, from cocoa ceremonies to dreams to conversations to dancing the tango.

It’s effing hard to talk about the ineffable

Connecting to God / Cosmos / energy / Logos / higher consciousness...er....what was the question again? Did I already say that? Hello? Echo!
What’s the question again?

How do people make sense of such experiences? It’s complicated! Only two thirds of you answered this question (it required people to think and write rather than just tick a box) and as a rough categorisation, 24% thought it was God or the Logos (though I didn’t ask what exactly people meant by God), 15% thought it was higher consciousness, 11% thought it was a mystery, 10% thought it was the energy of all things, 9% thought it was neural chemistry, and 3% thought all of the above. But these are very rough categorisations – quite often, people used multiple explanations – God, the energy of all things, nature, all life. People who defined themselves as atheists would still speak of ‘a raised state of consciousness…also perhaps some kind of brief connection to nature / logos’, or ‘a complete ecstatic feeling of oneness with the universe and that everything and I were interconnected’ or ‘a very real connection with the Cosmos’ or ‘Logos / chemical reaction’ or ‘all my atoms responding and resonating with a natural frequency’.

How we interpret such experiences may define whether we call ourselves a humanist, or a Christian, or pantheist, or materialist, and so on. But it is quite a fuzzy area – hard to know, hard to conceptualize, hard to explain. Sometimes people’s interpretations have changed over time. If they are ‘peak experiences’, we meet on the peak, but then streams run down and become separate rivers, valleys, landscapes. But up on the peak, the experiences are often quite similar. And it’s apparent, from the survey, that you don’t like labels, you don’t like being boxed into categories like ‘Christian’ or ‘atheist’. Over a quarter of you refused all such labels, including ‘spiritual but not religious’, and wrote your own ‘other’ down, including: Pyrrhonic sceptic, ‘bit of everything with strong Buddhist and shamanic strains’, ‘bit of Buddhist and Christian but not’, Stoic with Christian roots’, ‘pagan atheist’, ‘goddess feminist’, and my favourite: ‘Christian-Buddhist, Neo-Platonic, Universal agnostic even though I’m a traditional Anglo-Catholic Priest’. Surveys are useful but blunt, their categories don’t always capture the fluxiness of spiritual moments and the cultural identities we incorporate them into.

The fruit

OK, so we’re having more and more groovy spiritual experiences, and we’re not entirely sure what they mean. So what? What are the fruits? I asked how these experiences changed you. Of those who responded (226 of you) the most common way it changed you was to make you feel more connected, to feel ‘the world is my home’, ‘I am a grain of sand in the desert’; to feel more connection and empathy to other beings, a greater sense of compassion and love for them, and also to feel more loved yourself. The second most common way it changed you was to make you more open to a ‘wider sense of life’, it ‘made me open to other ways of looking at things’, it ‘opened the door to wider meanings’, it ‘made me less skeptical, less quick to judge, more compassionate’. It made some of you sense that we are not ‘just’ our brains, bodies or egos. Several of you reported feeling calmer, more ‘centred’, more ‘true to myself’, ‘more me’. It made some of you ‘seek more’, deepen your search, and in some cases led to major behaviour change (‘it pushes me to be a better person…to stay away from alcohol, womanizing and lying’) and major emotional change (‘they allow me to relinquish my desperate control over my negative feelings, either physical pain or mental depression or spiritual guilt. It’s like my well has run dry, but the very last bit of digging uncovered the spring that fills and refills the well of my soul.’) For several of you, such experiences strengthened your commitment to a particular practice – going to church, meditating, praying or, in one case, starting your own spiritual movement (the Sunday Assembly).

For me, the survey gives a fascinating snapshot of a culture that may be abandoning traditional religious affiliation but is still deeply interested in spiritual experiences and religious practices. Although 72% of you agree that ‘there is a taboo against talking about such experiences in western culture’, 80% say they’re happy to talk about them to friends and family, and only 2% say they’d be worried people might think they were crazy – the stigma attached to such experiences is much less than it was 50 years ago.

There is a risk, of course, of spirituality and Christianity becoming too obsessed with experiences – we can fetishize them, become thrill seekers, even addicted to them. Philip Pullman says: ‘Seeking this sort of thing doesn’t work. Seeking it is far too self-centred. It’s like ‘the pursuit of happiness’, which I’ve always thought an absolutely fatuous idea. Things like my experience (and other similar ones) are by-products, not goals. To make them the aim of your life is an act of monumental and self-deceiving egotism. YOU ARE NOT THAT IMPORTANT, but your work might be.’

Alas, most of us haven’t written His Dark Materials. And surely it’s not all about what we produce, is it? I think these moments of deep connection do something important for us and to us. They point beyond the isolated ego, make us feel ‘at home in the world’, and connect us in empathy and love to other beings – so they’re not just good for us, but also for others. And they are not an alternative to commitment, community and practice – they grow out of commitment, community and practice.

But are they just a feeling, or do such experiences give us insights into an actual physical connection between our minds / souls, other beings and the cosmos? Philip Pullman certainly thinks so – he’s one of a growing number of advocates for ‘pan-psychism’, which is the theory that consciousness is a fundamental feature of matter. At the least, we can say that, given how little we understand the nature of consciousness and matter, it’s possible such moments point to something real about the extended mind and its connection to others and to the cosmos. Meanwhile, the real challenge is to take such unusual experiences, and integrate them into ordinary life. To make the extraordinary ordinary and the ordinary extraordinary. In the words of Jack Kornfield, ‘after the ecstasy, the laundry’.

Literature and mental health

Jonathan Bate and Paula Byrne
Jonathan Bate and Paula Byrne

On Monday, a new free online course is starting, exploring the mental health benefits of literature (you can sign up here). It’s made by the author Paula Byrne and her husband, literary academic Jonathan Bate, and features interviews with Ian McKellen, Stephen Fry, Melveyn Bragg and others, about how poetry has helped them through difficult times. Paula and Jonathan have also launched a new book, Stressed, Unstressed: Classic Poems To Ease the Mind, and a bibliotherapy charity, Re:Lit. I headed to my alma mater, Worcester College at Oxford, where Jonathan is provost, to ask Paula about the project.

JE: What inspired you to do this?

PB: Our daughter sadly and unexpectedly lost her kidneys when she was five. She was rushed to hospital, and we had this awful conversation – ‘your daughter’s probably not going to survive the night’. What do you read when your world is completely and unexpectedly tilted. I was conscious that there was nothing to read when you’re on your own in such a terrible night. In fact, I had a poem in my bag, coincidentally. I read it and felt it very much got me and her through the night. I’d been fermenting the idea of what one reads in hospitals – having spent a lot of time in them, I don’t want to read Hello magazine, particularly not a back-dated one from two years ago. What is there to read when you’re worried, anxious, waiting for an operation, and feeling the dearth of nutritious literature.

What was the poem?

It was actually a prayer by Julian of Norwich – ‘all shall be well and all shall be well and all manner of things shall be well’. I just kept saying it as a sort of mantra. I felt there was something very important about holding on to words when there are no words, and someone else gives you the words you can’t find.

Is your daughter OK now?

Yes she pulled through, bless her. She then went on to have a transplant and she’s six foot now. Touch wood she’s doing very well. But we’ve obviously spent a lot of time in waiting rooms where there hasn’t been any literature, and it’s just been frazzled parents and frazzled children. Your stress levels go through the roof. The other thing that made me think of this project was that I had very bad stress, because of my daughter’s illness but also overwork, and it manifested itself as pain in my hands. Having ignored it for so long, I finally went along to my GP and said I have this terrible pain in my hands, I think it’s something horrible. He just said, it’s stress. I said, but it hurts. He said yeah, stress really can hurt. I said, so what do I do? He said, I’m going to give you a prescription. I’m going to prescribe you a book. And he prescribed me some haikus. The pain completely went away. And I thought, there’s something in this, and if more GPs and medical professionals had a creative approach to stress, maybe poetry could be something in the tool-kit that helps some people. I did research into bibliotherapy, and realized poetry has been used in eastern and western cultures for thousands of years – Aeschylus said ‘words are the physicians of a mind diseased’. So I decided to start a bibliotherapy charity.

How is poetry therapeutic?

How it works for me is a form of curious alchemy. I think it’s repetition, it’s very soothing, there’s something reassuring about repetition and rhyme. Coleridge said poetry is the best spoken words in the best order. Sometimes when you feel stressed you can’t find the words yourself, and you feel very alone. In all the research I’ve been doing for this online course, the refrain over and over again is ‘I thought it was just me, and then I read this poem, and felt oh, that’s exactly it’.’

Let me give you a specific example. As you know, we’re launching a poetry and mental health course on February 1st, we have 11,000 people signed up already. And each week we’re taking a different theme – heartbreak, trauma, and so on. I wanted to move trauma away from military-related PTSD, and include things like female trauma from miscarriages. I had a miscarriage with my first baby, and the only thing that made me feel better was a poem by Katherine Philips from the 1500s. This was a woman who lost 14 children, as you did in Tudor times. She finally gave birth to a beautiful boy, who died after two weeks. And she wrote a beautiful poem to her son Hector. And it’s so modern, resonant and contemporary, you feel she could have written in yesterday.

Twice forty months in wedlock I did stay,
Then had my vows crowned with a lovely boy.
And yet in forty days he dropped away;
O swift vicissitude of human joy!

I did but see him, and he disappeared,
I did but touch the rosebud, and it fell;
A sorrow unforeseen and scarcely feared,
So ill can mortals their afflictions spell.

And now (sweet babe) what can my trembling heart
Suggest to right my doleful fate or thee?
Tears are my muse, and sorrow all my art,
So piercing groans must be thy elegy.

Thus whilst no eye is witness of my moan,
I grieve thy loss (ah, boy too dear to live!)
And let the unconcerned world alone,
Who neither will, nor can refreshment give.

An offering too for thy sad tomb I have,
Too just a tribute to thy early hearse;
Receive these gasping numbers to thy grave,
The last of thy unhappy mother’s verse.

I really like that. Woman to woman it spoke to me about what it feels like to lose a baby. And the power of words, the catharsis, making sense of it. It also shows there’s nothing really new under the sun. With all the advance of medicine, I still know how she feels. It’s not just me, but I couldn’t say it that well.

And I guess we’re a post-religious society, not everyone wants to turn to the Bible, but poems are sort of substitute for prayer-books, the Bible, rosaries etc?

I think that’s right. So often at funerals people recite poems. It seems there’s something about that art form.

Do you think poetry can do that more than prose?

I love prose too, but I do think there’s something about that particular art form, the concentrated language. It demands concentration in the way prose doesn’t always. You may not understand it, it doesn’t matter, you can just feel the rhythm and sense the symbols.

And it’s close to song, isn’t it, so it has an incantatory quality.

That’s right, and the rhythm can be like a heartbeat.

Do you usually read to yourself or out loud?

Usually to myself but I love hearing it being read out loud. We have Ian McKellen reading a Wordsworth sonnet in the course, and he has such a beautiful voice, hearing him read it took me to a completely different place, a different space.

Do you think academic literary studies tends to be a bit blind to the possible therapeutic benefits of literature?

I do. One journalist was quite critical of the project – he said poetry is high art, it’s not therapy. I thought, what a snobbish attitude. Bibliotherapy is a very ancient idea. In Chinese and Japanese culture, there was a tradition of getting away from the court, going to the country, and using poetry to get into a different headspace.

That’s interesting, the idea of poetry as an inner retreat – it can help one find a restorative depth, even in a hospital.

I really believe that. You could be in a high-rise flat, but feel like you’re in a garden, if you’re reading Wordsworth or Marvell. It enriches your inner life. Poems on the Underground was a really brilliant idea – on a busy tube, you read a poem and it transports you. You’re in a different space.

Harold Bloom talks about the importance of memorizing poetry, making it a part of your inner speech as it were.

Yes, my generation was taught to learn poems by heart. There’s all sorts of interesting studies, particularly with dementia, that people who learn poetry by rote can still remember them when they have dementia. I interviewed Melvyn Bragg for the course – his mother got dementia, and when nothing reached her, she’d still respond to Wordsworth’s Daffodils. One of the problems with dementia is that people are very frightened. Anything that stops people feeling so frightened is beneficial.I do. It’s an interesting expression – by heart. It goes in your heart. Then you can remember it in times when you don’t have a book to hand, and be comforted.

So you have launched a poetry for therapy book, a bibliotherapy charity, and this forthcoming FurtureLearn course on poetry and mental health. What is the long-term goal?

Definitely we want to raise awareness. We’re working with prisons and schools, using poetry for relaxation and well-being. My long-term plan is to get the anthology into hospitals and surgeries when they’re in stressful situations. It could be helpful for people to have access to nutritious literature. It’s food for the soul as opposed to fast food. Words have a particular power. They can give hope too.

I’m interested in the FutureLearn course and how one sets one up.

11,500 thousand have signed up for our course already. It’s the first time a mental health course has been launched, I think they’re quite staggered by the sign up rate. Around 2000 are already chatting to each other on the forum, sharing what poems they love. There’s some really interesting anecdotal evidence of people saying ‘this poem really helped’.

How is it structured?

It’s a six week course, with six themes and six videos. Most of the videos are 10 minutes long but some of them were so good – Stephen Fry was so good talking about Keats for an hour, we couldn’t cut it. We have a medical expert talking about each theme, like heartbreak, for example. We get the medical angle. And then we might look at Sense & Sensibility, and how the two sisters deal with heartbreak in different ways. Each week, we look at two or three ppems, and passages from novels. We also give lots of recommendations for extra reading. Then people can also discuss the poems or any other questions on the forum. Jonathan and I are giving feedback each week. We’re very much supporting the learners.

Is this the first online course you’ve done?

Jonathan has done a Shakespeare course which did very well, so he has thousands of MOOC [Massive Open Online Course] followers. It’s very global – people right across the world have done the course.

How easy is it to make a MOOC?

I’m a creative fellow at Warwick. They’re very forward thinking, they realize MOOCs are the way forward. The main platform is FutureLearn, which is part of the Open University. Each university signs up via the FutureLearn platform. Warwick is very professional, very good at filming and editing. I think they’re really at the forefront, and it’s very good for their impact and outreach.