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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 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’.

Can governments cultivate love in their citizens?

Should liberal governments try to cultivate certain emotional states in their citizens? In Political Emotions: Why Love Matters for Justice, University of Chicago philosopher Martha C. Nussbaum argues that liberal political philosophers, from John Locke to John Rawls, have dangerously ignored ‘the political cultivation of emotion’, failing to explore how governments can encourage pro-social emotions like love, patriotism and tolerance, while curbing anti-social emotions like envy, shame and excessive fear.

There have been exceptions to this emotional illiteracy in liberal philosophers, says Nussbaum. Rousseau imagined a ‘civil religion’, which would fuse the people together in ecstatic worship of the state (his ideas bore fruit during the French Revolution in the bizarre Cult of Reason.) The social scientist Auguste Comte also developed his own eccentric ‘Positivist religion’ which he planned to impose on the citizenry in his ideal state.

But Nussbaum finds these solutions unsatisfactory. Any sort of imposed religion – theistic, civil or positivistic – is illiberal and probably doomed to failure. Following Rawls, Nussbaum believes the state should not impose any ‘comprehensive theory of the good’ onto its populace. Nonetheless, she thinks it proper for a liberal state to encourage certain pro-social emotions as a psychological foundation for political stability. Rational utilitarianism isn’t enough – we need a more full-blooded ‘enthusiastic liberalism’.

Nussbaum is not alone in this desire for a more emotional politics. There has been a revival in the last two decades of Aristotle’s contention that it is the proper role of the state to encourage eudaimonia, or flourishing, in the citizenry. One finds this idea in a spate of books and articles on the politics of happiness, well-being and virtue over the last 20 years, by the likes of Richard Layard, Geoff Mulgan, Jeffrey Sachs, Derek Bok, Robert and Ed Skidelsky and others.

The Cult of Reason during the French Revolution

There has also been a growing interest in ‘political theology’, or the role of religion (whether theist or atheist) as an important cultivator of political emotions, in thinkers as diverse as Ronald Dworkin, Roberto Unger, Alasdair MacIntyre, Maurice Glasman, Jonathan Haidt, John Gray and Simon Critchley. The philosopher Alain de Botton has even started his own ‘religion for atheists’, while Lord Layard has launched a grassroots movement called Action for Happiness. There is a growing sense that liberal societies need more than rational skepticism, that we either need to return to religion (see the current popularity of the Pope and Archbishop Welby among political reformers) or to find some secular alternative.

Let’s say we accept the proposition that liberal societies are failing to promote the proper emotions, and this is threatening their long-term survival (this is a big claim, and Nussbaum does not do enough to back it up). Let’s say we accept her list of ‘good’ emotions and ‘bad emotions’ (are shame and envy necessarily bad for the polis? Protagoras and Adam Smith might disagree). The question remains: how can governments promote emotions in their citizens, without becoming cultish and totalitarian? What policy levers are available to the budding political psychologist, keen to promote certain emotional states in the citizenry?

Nussbaum rightly recognizes that if politicians really want to reach into the souls of their citizens and stir their emotions, they need the arts and humanities: symbols, metaphor, gesture, rhetoric, poetry, music, dance, monuments, architecture, festivals, pageantry, all the cultural apparatus that the Church wielded so expertly before the Reformation and Enlightenment tore it down as so much superfluous bunting.

With her usual critical acuity, she provides close readings of various works of art – the patriotic poetry of Whitman, the songs and dances of Rabindranath Tagore, Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro – to show how deftly they cultivate pro-social emotions in the audience while never becoming fanatical. However, none of these works of art were ‘ordered’ by politicians. They arose spontaneously from the genius of their authors. Artistic genius is unpredictable, the muses tend to resist clumsy advances by politicians. So how can policy-makers directly work with the arts to try and cultivate political emotions? Don’t they have to leave artists alone to experiment?

Politicians can at least recognise that the arts play an important role – not just in earning money for the ‘creative economy’, but more profoundly in making us who we are, in shaping our emotions and national identity. Politicians can create conditions in which artistic talent is more likely to arise, and help to educate a populace to a level where it’s capable of responding to great art.

They can do this by encouraging the teaching of arts and humanities in schools and adult education, and by supporting artistic institutions and allowing them to take risks. Nussbaum looks to John Stuart Mill’s inaugural address to the University of St Andrews, in 1867, in which Mill highlights the importance of ‘aesthetic education’ in schools and universities as the foundation for a sympathetic, liberal ‘religion of humanity’. Nussbaum would also include dance classes in her ideal education, as they were in the Tagore school where her friend Amartya Sen grew up. I completely agree – Plato argued that dance has a central role in our emotional education, and it’s sad that schools give so little space to dance (or indeed, to sport).

A second policy tool available to the budding political psychologist is rhetoric. Nussbaum analyses the speeches of Martin Luther King, Churchill, Lincoln and Franklin D. Roosevelt to show how cleverly they cultivated the political emotions appropriate to the crises their countries faced. Today, by contrast, politicians speak in tweet-like soundbites. There’s a lot to be said for trying to raise the bar of political rhetoric in our time, although the presidency of Barack Obama show that rhetorical prowess is no guarantee of successful government.

A third policy lever available to the political psychologist is urban planning (as another new book, Happy City, explores). Nussbaum provides clever readings of emotionally literate public spaces, such as Chicago’s Millennium Park and the Lincoln Memorial. However, the rising cost of living space (in London, particularly) arguably has a much bigger impact on people’s well-being than any park or monument.

Despite these examples, my abiding impression of Nussbaum’s book is of the disconnect between academic philosophy and the emotional lives of ordinary people, even with an unusually ‘public’ philosopher like Nussbaum. Her close readings of the Marriage of Figaro or the tragedies of Sophocles are interesting, but alas our citizenry is not as culturally sophisticated as the citizenry of fifth century Athens (we don’t have the luxury of a large slave population to support our leisure), and while there is a mass audience for high culture, it is still a minority. Today, the main aesthetic cultivators of the public’s emotions are pop music, cinema and television. Yet these are strangely absent from Nussbaum’s cultural analysis (she doesn’t listen to pop and probably doesn’t watch television).

Robbie Williams performing at the Diamond Jubilee concert

Some philosophers have considered the cultural and emotional impact of pop culture – Roger Scruton in Modern Culture (2007), Carson Colloway in All Shook Up: Music, Passion and Politics (2001), Allan Bloom in his 1987 book, The Closing of the American Mind. But these philosophers cast the most cursory of glances at pop culture before dismissing it with a Platonic sneer as barbaric and infantile. This is a pity. The two most successful recent examples of art shaping our political emotions in this country were the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Concert in 2012 and the Olympic Opening Ceremony the same year. In both of them, pop music played a key role. For good or ill, TV has also profoundly shaped our national psyche, far more than any opera or monument.

Another strange absence from her book is any discussion of psychotherapy and psychiatry – two policy levers by which governments can influence their citizens’ emotions. Aldous Huxley imagined a state where the citizens were pacified through soma. Today, the NHS spends $2 billion annually on mood-altering chemicals, including 50 million prescriptions for anti-depressants. The government has also spent over half a billion pounds on talking therapy, particularly Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, to try and reduce levels of depression and anxiety disorders in the population. CBT, as I’ve explored, was directly inspired by the Hellenistic philosophies that Nussbaum has done so much to revive, and is a way for many ordinary people to discover ancient philosophy.

Oddly, Nussbaum has never discussed CBT in her books, and has been very dismissive of Positive Psychology. She has made valid criticisms of Positive Psychology – it’s overly fixated on optimism, and can be illiberal and dogmatic when politicians try to impose it on their citizens without their consent. And yet for all their flaws, CBT and Positive Psychology have brought the ideas of Socratic philosophy to millions of people, which is more than can be said for any academic philosopher.

Nussbaum neglects to consider at any length the importance of religions to political emotions (again, for good and ill). She is rightly wary of governments imposing any particular religion onto its citizenry. Yet policy makers can still try to work with faith groups, as say the anti-slavery campaign and the Jubilee debt campaign did so successfully. As Jonathan Haidt has explored, if you really want to generate ‘enthusiasm’ in the populace, you will probably need to tap into areas of the mind usually reached by religion. It’s notable how many of the figures she celebrates are, in one way or another, religious: Whitman, Tagore, Gandhi, Luther King. We are moved by the sacred, which is a tricky thing for a secular liberal philosopher like Nussbaum.

Political Emotions is an important contribution to an already impressive body of work. Nussbaum has transformed modern philosophy, helping to re-connect it to the emotions, to psychology, to the arts, and to public policy. She has been a defining influence in the rise of the Neo-Aristotelian idea that philosophy, including political philosophy, can and should transform our emotions.

And yet Political Emotions is curiously unemotional, dense, and unlikely to get the pulse racing. It opens the way for ‘further research’ (that phrase beloved of academics) and for no doubt interesting papers, seminars, conferences and books by other academics on the political emotions. But can philosophers not merely discuss the public emotions, but actually affect them? Maybe so – but to do so, they will need to venture further beyond the safety of the Ivory Tower and into politics and popular culture.