In 1990s mainland China, I was a secondary school student, just turned 13, on a family vacation with my parents. The notion that the world is made of matter, and that consciousness is only a by-product was the most common belief when I was growing up. However, we visited a Buddhist temple which was deemed too famous to miss in the city we were visiting. I was mesmerised by a large statue of the Buddha. Then, at that very moment, the world, including me, ‘melted’ into a sea of radiating sparks of light. I seemed to have become infinite, filled with ecstasy and an inner knowing that everything was well. For a period after this experience, the objects in my surroundings looked incredibly vivid, fresh, and even strange – like I had never seen them before. Experiences like this happened a few times more as I grew older, but it wasn’t until I came across a book named The Leap – the Psychology of Spiritual Awakening, authored by Steve Taylor) that I began to understand what had happened to me.
In psychological research, ‘spiritual (and secular) awakening’ or ‘awakening experience’ (AE) refers to a state of being with the characteristics of expanded and intensified perception, accompanied with a sense of meaning and well-being1. It could be as intense as the above account, or just a clarity of vision and a sense of aliveness when you are in nature. It draws its lineage from the studies of mystical experience and peak experience, but has a smaller focus than the wide-ranged peak experience – by excluding those situation-related peaks (e.g., falling in love or winning a competition and feeling euphoric) – and it has less emphasis on the ‘mystical’ aspect of the experience. So while you may not feel particularly mystical when you see your surroundings as more real and beautiful and experience a sense of wellbeing, in Taylor’s terms, you may have just had a ‘low intensity’ AE. In the medium range AE, however, you would feel a strong sense of connectedness with the world, and in the higher range AEs the experiencer feels being a part of an inseparable oneness and also is that oneness. A state of joy and wellbeing often feature across these states. The experiences are usually temporary, but in some cases experiencers transition to a more permanent state of peace and contentment which may be an equivalent to the popular notion of ‘enlightenment’2.
The research on AE is mainly conducted in the West. As a Chinese person, I was curious if it would be the same in China, so I conducted qualitative research in Chinese adults. Given the translation of AE or spiritual awakening doesn’t exist in Chinese vocabulary, I used the phenomena featured in Taylor’s three intensities of AE as my participant-recruitment criteria3 – at least one of them needed to be met – in a poster I put up on a Chinese social media platform. Seven participants (including an acquaintance) responded, and I conducted semi-structured interviews with them.
Through multiple rounds of immersing myself in the interview transcripts, coding them, and grouping the codes, the overarching themes across the interviews emerged. Most of them strikingly resonate with previous studies1,4. This includes emotional challenge or turmoil as a common trigger for AE; the common characteristics of AE such as a sense of inner stillness, altered perception of time, and positive affective (feeling) states; and the common after-effects such as increased sense of meaning, clarity, authenticity, compassion, altruism, and decreased materialistic desires. Below are quotes from the participants, offering a snapshot of their AE characteristics.
It was a very quiet environment with few people. My mind was very relaxed… I was immersed in this feeling – kind of like ‘flow’… We were sitting there quietly… Then my mind stopped, there wasn’t any thought. I and my surroundings became very clear, I felt blending with the environment, and we became one. Time had stopped. I couldn’t feel the passing of time.
All my senses were opened, and I could almost simultaneously receive the images seen by my eyes, the clear sounds heard by my ears, the fragrance of flowers and grass smelled by my nose, the sense of contact between my feet and the ground. Everything was incredibly real and beautiful.
We did not speak… but I seemed to feel that we were in tune at the mental level as if there was no boundary… not only at the mental level, but also at the feeling level… It was as if we were in a field wherein he had understood everything before I even uttered a word. (the AE happened when this participant was working with a psychotherapy client)
“I feel the world is full of colours and many interconnected things”
Below is a chart illustrating the occurrence of different characteristics of the participants’ AEs.
Most participants (except one who had practiced meditation for two years, mainly for stress reduction, and another one who was interested in extra-terrestrials) reported having no interest in spirituality before their AEs (or first AEs, for people who reported more than one). Given such circumstances, the striking similarity of the characteristics, triggers, and after-effects reported by the Chinese participants in this study and their Western counterparts in previous studies, support previous findings that AE happens to people regardless of their cultural or spiritual background.
Previous findings suggested that prior knowledge of spirituality might facilitate AE integration, however, this study has shown the complications of it.
Some participants who had prior knowledge in spirituality (one of them was interested in meditation and yoga, another two had brief knowledge of transpersonal psychology in a counselling course), reported having positive shifts after their AEs. As a result of a combination of yoga, meditation, and AE, one participant felt more sensitive to energy, such as being able to communicate with trees and feeling their energy and support. Consequently, she gained an increased sense of surrender – “I feel that everything in the world can be a part of me. I don’t need to hold on to anything tightly”. Also, she feels she has touched upon a truer Self that is undefinable and has a lot of potential, and this new sense of Self is anchored in her heart. Her focus has shifted from outward pursuits such as success and status to heart-centred aspirations – “(I want) to experience life and to explore my inner world. I look for what I can do and how far I can grow”. She feels a strong sense of compassion for herself, and this compassion also expands to others – “I would like everyone to live a life towards fulfilling their potential… I hope to bring a lot of happiness to others”.
Although, one participant who had multiple spiritual frameworks (she had no interest in spirituality before her first AE but subsequently studied different spiritual modalities), said that the conflicts among such frameworks caused confusion. This participant found the two modalities that she resonated with did not seem to match, and she felt a sense of fragmentation, as she described: “All my old systems of belief are broken… (but) my new system has not yet been established”. Having recently experienced losing her job and the end of a long-term relationship, she felt that her ongoing awakening process was like walking in a dark tunnel that was filled with painful experiences. She called it the “dark night of the soul”.
Another participant who, before her AE, had a spiritual framework wherein the Earth was an undesirable place for eternal souls, felt her mundane life appeared to be meaningless compared to the transcendent state of her AE, which she thought may be a glimpse of a higher dimension. This participant reported having had mental health challenges in the two years since her AE happened.
Below is a chart illustrating the occurrence of the different after-effects of the participants’ AEs.
Overall, most participants expressed having benefitted from their AEs, but some also reported having temporary or long-lasting challenges (see below chart of the overall after-effects -positive & prosocial vs negative). These findings resonate with others in that it shows how and why it is equally important to recognise the psychological and prosocial benefits of AE and its problematic consequences. As spiritual awakening is becoming popular as a ‘technique’ with its promised benefits, such as happiness and overall wellbeing, in books, programmes, and even electronic devices, AE is said to have the potential to become the next ‘craze’, similar to that of mindfulness5. More research is needed to understand the aftermath of the phenomenon and its relationship to other forms of transpersonal experiences, and to mental health conditions.
Notes and references:
- Taylor, S., & Egeto-Szabo, K. (2017). Exploring Awakening Experiences: A study of awakening experiences in terms of their triggers, characteristics, duration and after-effects. The Journal of Transpersonal Psychology, 49(1), 45–65.
- For Example, in Eckhart Tolle’s book the Power of Now.
- Taylor’s model has an inclination to study only nontheistic AE (excluding the experience of becoming one with a deity), whereas there are other studies including theistic AE (e.g., see below study in Note 4). Although adopting Taylor’s model of studying nontheistic AE, I don’t identify it as the only form of AE.
- Newberg, A. B., & Waldman, M. R. (2019). A neurotheological approach to spiritual awakening. International Journal of Transpersonal Studies, 37(2), 119–130.
- Wade, J. (2019). After awakening, the laundry: Is nonduality a spiritual experience? International Journal of Transpersonal Studies, 37(2), 88–115.