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Here's what happens when you have a spontaneous spiritual awakening, according to research.

By Mark Travers, Ph.D. | January 31, 2023

A new study published in Frontiers in Psychology explores the ambiguous phenomenon of spontaneous spiritual awakenings.

"Spontaneous spiritual awakenings are subjective experiences characterized by a sudden sense of direct contact, union, or complete non-dual merging (experience of oneness) with a perceived ultimate reality, the universe, cosmic consciousness, or the divine," explains Jessica Corneille, a psychologist at the University of Greenwich in the United Kingdom and lead author of the new paper.

According to Corneille, despite vast amounts of anecdotal evidence across cultures, mainstream psychology currently knows very little about spontaneous spiritual awakenings.

In fact, they are usually pathologized by default by the medical community, due to their overlaps with certain symptoms found in mental disorders like bipolar disorder and schizophrenia.

Corneille argues that while too little is known about the ways spontaneous spiritual awakenings interact and interlink with mental disorders, they can occur as standalone experiences, without the presence of a diagnosable disorder.

Furthermore, large-scale anecdotal evidence suggests that spontaneous spiritual awakenings can result in a number of positive long-term outcomes, including:

  1. Significant improvements in mental and physical well-being
  2. Enhanced pro-social and pro-environmental behaviors
  3. Decreased risks of developing psychopathological tendencies

"My primary inspiration and motivation is to help destigmatize, depathologize, and raise awareness around spontaneous spiritual awakenings by engaging in rigorous scientific research," says Corneille.

In her paper, Corneille talks through some of the more profound psychological and spiritual changes people report after experiencing a spontaneous spiritual awakening, such as:

  1. Experiencing a deep sense of 'inner knowing' or 'understanding' of what is perceived as the objective, unfiltered nature of reality, where consciousness is primary or fundamental. This is typically accompanied by a deep sense of interconnection with everyone and everything in the universe and often leads to profound feelings of gratitude, ecstasy, bliss, and awe.
  2. Decreased anxiety and/or fear, especially the fear of death.
  3. Enhanced extra-sensory perception, e.g., increased coincidences or synchronicities, and an evolved ability to attract what one wants into their life.
  4. Increased mental and physical well-being (with occasional reports of loss of chronic pain), increased prosociality, a heightened sense of 'mission' or a desire to be of selfless service, and pro-environmental behaviors including the desire to spend more time in nature.
  5. Less interest in materialism, leading to tangible transformations like changes in relationships and career paths.

In Corneille's research, the personality trait of absorption (i.e., the depth of one's focus and attention on mental imagery and fantasy) was found to predict spontaneous spiritual awakenings, implying that higher levels of absorption might result in stronger spontaneous spiritual awakenings.

The trait of absorption is also associated with:

  1. Higher levels of emotional sensitivity, openness, creativity, empathy, and curiosity.
  2. The tendency for internal and external material to cross the threshold of consciousness. This is known as 'transliminality.'
  3. Hypnotizability and and fantasy proneness.

Corneille mentions that this trait can be increased in a person through "communal repetitive activities such as chanting, prayer, and hypnotic drumming, or through the disruption of homeostatic balance (e.g., through the ingestion of psychotropic substances)."

Additionally, temporal lobe lability, referring to the partial seizure-like symptoms characteristic of temporal lobe epilepsy, was found to predict spontaneous spiritual awakenings.

Temporal lobe epilepsy is already associated with spiritual experiences, sharing certain features with spontaneous spiritual awakenings such as a strong sense of a cosmic, divine, or God-like presence or energy and a deep sense of connection with the infinite.

When comparing spontaneous spiritual awakenings with drug-induced altered states (e.g., DMT, psilocybin, LSD, MDMA, cannabis, etc.) and non-drug induced altered states (floatation tank, anechoic darkroom chamber, holotropic breathwork, ganzfeld environment), all altered states of consciousness were found to share a similar set of feelings, yet spontaneous spiritual awakenings were found to be more profound than most of the others.

Furthermore, spontaneous spiritual awakenings were most similar to the altered states produced by psilocybin and DMT, powerful psychedelics capable of triggering mystical experiences.

Corneille hopes that future research continues to explore these important topics.

"All in all, these experiences often show us an alternative way of existing, one that is typically filled with a sense of reverence and devotion towards life and a deep desire to cultivate love," she concludes.

A full interview with psychologist Jessica Corneille discussing her research can be found here: What happens when you have a spontaneous spiritual awakening?