Article: A Phenomenological Study of Post-Modern Transpersonal and Spiritual Experiences with Quantitative Survey and Case Study Interviews – Janet Cunningham (Is.15)

Janet Cunningham, Ph.D. Walden University, 1997

The phrase “transpersonal and spiritual experiences” refers to the sense of identity of the self extending beyond the personal to encompass wider aspects of humankind, life, psyche, or cosmos. Western scientific exploration of such experiences has been nearly nonexistent, due primarily to the currently accepted scientific paradigm. But a study of the psyche that fails to deal with the transpersonal and spiritual realms is, by definition, unscientific in that it fails to take into account, or even to report, a large body of phenomena.

All participants in this study were healthy, well-functioning adults. The study had two foci: first, to discover if people who claim to have had spontaneous transpersonal and/or spiritual experiences could be identified and validated by an instrument developed to empirically measure perceived mystical experience (Hood Mysticism Scale). The question was: Is there is a significant difference between them (Group C) and people who have an interest in the subject but no personal experiences (Group B) and those who have no such interest (Group A)?

Second, the subjective experience of having such experiences was explored by means of interviews with 20 adults (13 women, 7 men) who had experienced spontaneous transpersonal and/or spiritual experiences. All had, in fact, experienced more than one such experience, although some related only one for this study. Of special interest in the interviews were what long-term effects the experience might have had on the participants’ lives in general, their careers, and their philosophies of life. The following open-ended questions were asked of each interview participant:

1) Have you ever had a transpersonal experience? If so, please share it.

2) Did this experience affect your life in any way?

3) Is your current career direction directly affected by this experience?

4) Do you have any particular philosophy about life as a result of this experience?

In this phenomenological approach, the researcher used Rogerian interview methods of unconditional positive regard; she also allowed herself to enter a light altered state of consciousness in order to “be with” the participants in the interview and to encourage them to expand on these questions as they wished and to speak naturally and informally.

For Question One, the results suggest that this question can be measured empirically; there is a significant and possibly predictable difference among these groups. Overall, p = <.0001 for these differences. Group C, those who claimed to have had spontaneous transpersonal and/or spiritual experiences, scored higher than the other groups on the Hood Mysticism Scale. Group B, who had an interest in the topic but no actual experiences, scored lower than Group C but higher than Group A, who had no interest. Group B’s scores indicated a propensity to have such experiences although they had not had them at the time of the study; Group A’s scores fell below the probability of having such an experience. These findings suggest that the capacity or propensity to have transpersonal or spiritual experience can be predicted by means of the Hood Mysticism Scale.

For Question Two, the interviews indicated that the transpersonal and spiritual experiences of the twenty adults interviewed have had a strong, lasting effect upon the people’s lives, and have often had a direct influence upon their careers and philosophies of life.

The types of spontaneous transpersonal and spiritual experiences reported and the numbers of people who reported them were:

Precognitive dreams                                                                        2

Sensing the presence of a deceased relative or spirit        6

Inner voice, precognitive, and psychic experiences           6

Spiritual healing                                                                                 2

Out-of-body experiences                                                                5

Near-death experiences                                                                  2

Spontaneous past-life recall                                                         3

Spiritual experiences                                                                       2

Subtle body energies                                                                       3

(These numbers add to more than 20 because some people reported more than one such experience).

Some typical experiences that people reported are:

1) Precognitive dreams: A. dreamed that an unknown man came up to her and said “I’m waiting for you; I’m going to help you.” This man later turned out to be a Jungian analyst who did indeed help her.

2) Sensing the presence of a deceased relative or spirit: B.’s husband died very suddenly, as he had always wanted to do, having a horror of dying in a hospital “with tubes and machines.” About to call her family to tell them, B. felt the room fill with intense energy and light. She felt her husband’s presence very strongly and “heard” him say “Honey, I did it; I did it just the way I wanted to.” B. said “It was such a beautiful experience…and I was so happy for him that I couldn’t grieve.”

3) Inner voice, precognitive, and psychic experiences: C. said, “I’ve had transpersonal experiences all my life. When I was about 5 years old a group of Masters would come into my bedroom and teach me to play a game on the ceiling; they would turn the whole ceiling into a 1996 computer board with wiring and lights and screen in the center. Of course in those days (1928-29) we didn’t even have lights in the bedrooms, let alone computers. If I did the right combinations, I could make people appear on the screen and I knew what they were thinking about. I have since realized that they were teaching me how to use thought and control.”

4) Spiritual healing: D. had used a spiritual healer to help her improve her myopia; she went from 24/25 vision to 21/25 after a year’s work. D. later tried again when she had cataracts and the healer had no effect whatsoever; D. finally had them corrected quickly and easily by laser surgery. D. said, “I think there are many times to use Western medicine, especially in emergencies. So one has to depend, not on one kind of medicine or another, but generally speaking, we can stay well by imaging and looking at anything that might be interfering with the health of our bodies.”

5) Out-of-body experiences: E. had two spontaneous out-of-body experiences, both connected with her father. In the first, several years ago, her father was seriously ill in a hospital thousands of miles away; E. found herself at his bedside, urging him to live. After he recovered, he told her he had sensed her presence there. Her second experience happened two years ago. E. was very ill and feverish and left her body, where she talked with her father (by then deceased), who told her she should go back to raise her children. Since then E. has studied OBEs and has gained some facility in leaving her body intentionally.

6) Near-death experiences: On a golf course, F. had an allergic reaction to a bee-sting and immediately went into shock. Luckily, an allergist was also playing golf that day and he was able to save her with an injection (is this bit of “luck” an example of a synchronous event? But perhaps random allergists can be found on the golf course every day). While F. was unconscious she left her body and went into a bright light, where she “saw” her deceased mother. Her mother “told” her “No, not yet,” and F. felt saddened that she could not stay in this beautiful and peaceful place, so filled with love. F. looked down and saw her body sprawled across a golf cart; she giggled and thought “That’s not very attractive,” because her “rear end was sticking up.” Then the doctor gave her an injection and she was immediately back in her body, feeling nauseous.

7) Spontaneous past-life recall: G. had a life-long chronic problem with her liver. Her frequent attacks left her exhausted and drained. One day she asked God to show her the real reasons for this, and immediately saw in her mind a Crusader lying on a battlefield with crushed legs and a spear through his liver. Probing, she discovered that the Crusader (herself) had become enraged with the killing and cruelty around him, and this rage had become associated with the fatal wound to his liver. For G., this flashback explained not only her liver problem but also her propensity to violent rage at injustice and cruelty. Since this experience, G. has not felt the rage (although she still hates injustice and cruelty), and the problem with her liver has disappeared.

8) Spiritual experiences: H., an engineer, had walled himself off from other people early in life. In kindergarten, responding to bullying older children, he decided “I’ll just go inside myself, I’ll be self-sufficient and I just won’t deal with them.” He had maintained this aloofness toward others all his life. H. abruptly became aware of the distance he kept toward others when a colleague’s wife was in a serious car accident and he blurted out his first thought, asking about the state of the car, not his colleague’s wife. This automatic reaction shocked H. and he began a search for the parts of himself that he had cut off. After much reading, especially of Richard Bach’s books, he one day had a “vision” while driving his car. He “saw” an almond-shaped object that began to split and peel open, onion-skin style, and inside was a brilliant white light with a golden halo around it. H. felt electrified with energy and feelings of huge, overpowering love, and he realized that he was seeing himself, his own immortal self, his spiritual self that he had walled away from awareness so long ago. This was an important breakthrough experience for H.

9) Subtle body energies: J. senses the energies of others she is talking to, and often knows things that have happened or will happen to them. She said “…feeling people’s energy is very natural to me because when I am talking to people, it’s more natural to me to spend my energy assessing what energy they are generating more than what they are saying…sometimes it’s almost funny to me. I’ll ask ‘How are you?’ and they’ll say ‘Oh, I’m just fine, things are really good,’ and I’ll know that isn’t really true because their energy says just the opposite. And in some cases I’ll pursue it and I’ll push until they tell me the truth. Other times a person might get defiant and I’ve tried to develop enough sensitivity to say to myself, ‘If they don’t want to go there, don’t push it.’”

Overall Findings from the Interviews:

1) Transpersonal experiences often have a powerful impact on a person’s life, career, and philosophy of life. For example: P.’s precognitive dream and sensing her deceased mother’s spirit, both occurring in P.’s 20s, have influenced her life path in a “search for reality;” R.’s spiritual vision in his 20s in India influenced his eventual private practice in psychology and led to his becoming a leader in the transpersonal movement; S.’s “knowing” at age 15 prompted her study of mythology, the great religions, and reincarnation; T.’s near-death experience led her into a study of parapsychology and a career writing and speaking about exceptional human experiences. All 20 participants (100%) reported that their lives were profoundly changed as a result of their transpersonal experiences.

2) For most, their transpersonal experiences were perceived positively at the time they occurred. There were 3 experiences that had initially been considered negative, but they eventually became viewed as valuable events that brought a sense of greater knowledge and wisdom.

3) Nineteen of the 20 interview participants have found that the effects of transpersonal experiences are long-term, and in some cases, the effects have lasted several decades. The twentieth participant could not be evaluated for this element as the transpersonal experience had occurred too recently before the study.

4) Sixteen of the 20 said that their career direction is directly related to their transpersonal and spiritual experiences. Of the other four, two indicated a desire to eventually move into a career with a more spiritual base.

5) Seventeen indicated no current connection with formal religious institutions. But they also report an expanded belief in a God-Force or energy that exists through all form and matter.

6) Twelve reported experiences of synchronicity surrounding their transpersonal experiences.

7) Ten used the language of metaphor in discussing transpersonal and spiritual experiences.

All interview participants expressed definite long-term, lasting, and positive effects on their lives. This can be seen through the career directions, spiritual beliefs, and philosophies expressed in the interviews. Although a transpersonal or spiritual experience is not an indication of a more enlightened person, this study suggests that such experiences do have the power to move one to a higher order of consciousness. Theoretical findings from this study suggest that transpersonal and spiritual experiences may reflect a gradual movement that can be recognized in developmental stages. The potential growth indicated in developmental stages of consciousness is a strong indicator of positive evolutionary and social change for individuals and for humanity as a whole.


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