EXPLORING AWAKENING EXPERIENCES: A STUDY OF
AWAKENING EXPERIENCES IN TERMS OF THEIR
TRIGGERS, CHARACTERISTICS, DURATION AND AFTER-
Steve Taylor, Ph.D.
Leeds, United Kingdom
Cardiff, Wales, United Kingdom
ABSTRACT: Awakening experiences are temporary experiences of an intensification and
expansion of awareness, with characteristics such as intensified perception, a sense of connection
and well-being. Ninety awakening experiences were collected and thematically analysed to
identify their triggers and characteristics, and also their duration and after-effects. Four main
triggers of awakening experiences were found: psychological turmoil, contact with nature,
spiritual practice and engagement with spiritual literature (or audio or video materials).
Characteristics were found to be positive affective states, intensified perception, love and
compassion, a transcendence of separateness, a sense of revelation and inner quietness. The
duration of the majority of experiences was from a few minutes to a few hours. The most prevalent
after-effects were a desire to recapture the experience and a shift in perspectives and values. The
study confirms the importance of psychological turmoil in generating awakening experiences, and
that most awakening experiences occur spontaneously, outside the context of spiritual practices
The term awakening experience refers to a temporary expansion and intensiﬁcation
of awareness, in which our state of being, our vision of the world and our
relationship to it are transformed, bringing a sense of clarity, revelation and well-
being. We perceive a sense of harmony and meaning, and transcend our normal
sense of separateness from the world, experiencing a sense of connection and even
unity (Taylor, 2010, 2012b). The term awakening experience is preferred to the
similar term spiritual experience partly because it emphasises research ﬁndings that
such experiences most frequently occur outside the context of spiritual traditions,
and without being induced by spiritual practices such as meditation or prayer
(Taylor 2012b). In addition, the term awakening experience depicts the expansive
nature of these experiences, the sense that one is transcending the limitations of our
normal state and gaining a more intense awareness (i.e., an awakening). Another
reason why the term is preferred over spiritual experience is the wide range of
interpretations of the term ‘‘spiritual.’’ As reported in Taylor (2012b), the original
study initially requested reports of spiritual experiences, but some individuals
offered reports of psychic experiences (for example, visions of recently deceased
relatives) or experiences of an overtly religious nature (for example, a vision of
The Journal of Transpersonal Psychology, 2017, Vol. 49, No. 1
Copyright Ó2017 Transpersonal Institute
Jesus). These are signiﬁcant experiences, but not the type the original study
intended to investigate. The term awakening experience has a more speciﬁc
meaning. (See Taylor [2012b] for a fuller discussion of why the term awakening
experience is preferred to other terms such as mystical experience and peak
This article is partly intended as a follow-up to a previous study (Taylor, 2012b) in
which 161 awakening experiences were analysed. This previous study was
primarily focused on the triggers of awakening experiences. Findings indicated that
the most signiﬁcant triggers were psychological turmoil (23.6%), nature (18%),
meditation (13%) and watching or listening to an arts performance (13%) (Taylor,
2012b). Less signiﬁcant triggers were found to be homeostasis disruption (i.e.
physiological changes due to ingesting psychoactive substances, sleep deprivation
or fasting), participating in a creative performance and athletic activity. Around 7%
of the experiences had no discernible trigger. In this way, the research found that
most awakening experiences were accidental or spontaneous, rather than
consciously induced by spiritual practice. In fact, the study found that almost
78% of the awakening experiences occurred outside the context of spiritual
practices, in a spontaneous fashion (Taylor, 2012b).
Previous studies have shown a similar association between such experiences and a
variety of secular triggers or contexts such as sport and exercise (e.g., Murphy &
White, 1995; Parry, Nesti, Robinson, & Watson, 2007), sex (e.g., Wade, 2000,
2004), music (Boyce-Tillman, 2006; Sinnamon, Moran, & O’Connell, 2012),
contact with nature (Sharpley & Jepson, 2011; Terhaar, 2009) and wild animals
(DeMares & Krycka, 1998). Collections of experiences by Hardy (1979), Laski
(1961), Johnson (1960) and Hoffman (1992) provide many examples of awakening
experiences induced or triggered by natural surroundings, art, music and general
relaxation. Maslow (1970) suggested that peak experiences are most often
associated and achieved through sex, music, and nature.
Part of the purpose of the presently reported study was to conduct an analysis of a
further sample of awakening experiences, to see if the ﬁndings of the original study
were reliable. A further purpose was to analyse the experiences in a more
systematic and detailed way, from a range of perspectives not covered by the
original study. These included the characteristics of the experiences, their duration
The Characteristics of Awakening Experiences
In the study of mystical/spiritual experiences, there is agreement amongst scholars
on many of their primary characteristics. James (1902/1985) suggested four main
characteristics: ineffability, a noetic quality (that is, revelation or illumination),
transiency, and passivity (that is, although they may be facilitated by certain
practices or activities, there is a sense in which they are involuntary and cannot be
controlled). Stace (1960) added ﬁve other characteristics to these: unity,
transcendence of time, deeply felt positive mood, sense of sacredness,
paradoxicality, and persisting positive changes (that is, although they are transient,
46 The Journal of Transpersonal Psychology, 2017, Vol. 49, No. 1
the experiences generate long lasting effects in attitude and behaviour). Hood’s
mysticism scale identiﬁes similar characteristics in more detail, including
absorption ‘‘in something greater than myself,’’ a feeling ‘‘as if all things were
alive,’’ a revelation of ultimate reality, and an experience in which ‘‘time, place, and
distance were meaningless’’ (Hood, 1975, pp. 31-32). Stringer and McAvoy (1992)
point out that spiritual experiences include both cognitive and affective aspects.
The cognitive aspects include ‘‘active contemplation,’’ while the affective include
tranquillity, joy, love, hope, awe, reverence and inspiration. Previous research has
also suggested that such experiences are usually of short duration, typically lasting
from a few moments to a few hours, although traces may remain for a longer period
(Marshall, 2005). In Greeley’s (1974) research, only 21% of mystical experiences
were reported to last for more than a day, while 37% lasted a few minutes or less,
and 19% lasted between ten minutes to half an hour.
In the original study (Taylor, 2012b) it was suggested that it is possible to think in
terms of different intensities of awakening experiences, with different character-
istics that emerge at different intensities. A low intensity awakening experience
may feature a sense of heightened awareness, that one’s surroundings have become
more real, with qualities of ‘‘is-ness’’ and ‘‘alive-ness.’’ Underhill refers to this as ‘‘a
clarity of vision, a heightening of physical perception’’ (in Deikman, 1980, p. 249).
While James (1902/1985) describes how, in mystical experiences, ‘‘An appearance
of newness beautiﬁes every object’’ (p. 248). James (1902/1985) illustrates this with
a report from an evangelist named Billy Bray, describing his conversion
experience: ‘‘Everything looked new to me, the people, the ﬁelds, the cattle, the
trees. I was like a new man in a new world’’ (p. 249).
A medium intensity awakening experience may include a powerful sense that all
things are pervaded with – or manifestations of – a benevolent and radiant ‘spirit-
force,’ so that they are all essentially one. The individual may feel part of this
oneness, realizing that he or she is not a separate and isolated ego. He or she may
feel a strong sense of compassion and love for others, recognising that other
individuals are part of the same spiritual ground as them (Hardy, 1979; James,
1902/1985/, 2010; Underhill, 1911/1960). Deikman (2000) found that this profound
sense of spiritual connection is often experienced by individuals who provide care
and service for others, such as voluntary workers, community or charity workers,
counsellors or teachers. As one counsellor described his experience of working
with a particular client:
There was a blending of souls. It was a like a third dimension of communication,
on a different plane altogether. We didn’t need to speak to each other because
we knew what each other was thinking. There was an intense vibrancy. It was
electrifying. (Deikman, 2000, p. 88)
In a high intensity awakening experience, the whole material world may dissolve
away into an ocean of blissful radiant spirit-force, which the individual feels is the
essence of both the universe and their own being; he or she may feel that they are
the universe (James, 1902/ 1985; Hardy, 1979; Taylor, 2010). This may be seen as
similar to the state of nirvikalpa samadhi, which Yoga philosophy suggests is the
highest possible form of consciousness. Here consciousness expands beyond the
47Exploring Awakening Experiences
boundaries of the normal self and the awareness of being an ‘I’ completely falls
away. The individual does not merely become one with the absolute reality, but
actually becomes it (Feuerstein, 1990). In the Neo-Platonic tradition, the concept of
henosis has a similar meaning. In the Christian tradition, Meister Eckhart (1996)
spoke of union with what he referred to as ‘the Godhead,’ the unconditioned source
from which the whole world – including God himself – ﬂows out. Similarly, other
Christian mystics refer to the process of deiﬁcation or theosis, whereby the
individual becomes ‘deiﬁed’ and attains a state of oneness with God (Underhill,
Previous research has suggested a negative correlation between the intensity and
the frequency of such experiences. In other words, while low intensity awakening
experiences appear to be fairly common, high intensity experiences occur
infrequently (Taylor, 2010, 2012). A survey of mystical experiences by Hay &
Heald (1987) found a similar pattern, with 21% of respondents reporting an
experience of ‘‘a sacred presence in nature’’ and only 5% reporting an awareness
that ‘‘all things are one’’ (p.22).
Part of the purpose of the presently reported study was to systematically analyse the
characteristics of the 90 experiences, to see if they correspond to the above
The After-Effects of Awakening Experiences (The Secondary Shift)
As Stace (1960) noted in relation to mystical experiences, although they are
temporary, awakening experiences often have signiﬁcant after-effects. These can be
described in terms of a secondary shift (Taylor, 2013a). According to this
terminology, a primary shift is a fully-ﬂedged spiritual or personal transformation,
similar to the ‘‘awakening’’,‘‘liberation’’ or ‘‘enlightenment’’ described by various
spiritual traditions. At the same time, this shift often happens outside the context of
spiritual traditions, most frequently to individuals who are in the midst of intense
psychological turmoil (Miller & C’de Baca, 2001; Taylor, 2011, 2012a, 2013b). In
this shift, the individual feels as if she gains a new sense of identity, as if she is re-
born, even to the extent that the only real connection with her previous identity is
that she is associated with the same body and name (Miller & C’de Baca, 2001;
Taylor, 2011, 2012a, 2013b, 2017). This shift is therefore deep-rooted and
fundamental. The secondary shift is less deep-rooted and fundamental – not a fully-
ﬂedged transformation of identity, but a shift in perspective and values. The
transformation may lead to signiﬁcant cognitive and affective changes, with
different values (e.g., less materialistic, more altruistic), different beliefs (e.g.,
belief in life after death) and a different attitude (e.g., more optimistic, more
trusting). Maslow (1994) highlighted such after-effects in relation to peak
experiences, writing that, ‘‘My feeling is that if it [the peak experience] were
never to happen again, the power of the experience would permanently affect the
attitude toward life. A single glimpse of heaven is enough to conﬁrm its existence’’
(p.75). In turn, such changes in attitude may lead to signiﬁcant lifestyle changes,
such as new interests, new relationships and a new career. However, the shift is still
secondary in the sense that the individual feels that his previous self-system and
48 The Journal of Transpersonal Psychology, 2017, Vol. 49, No. 1
previous sense of identity remain intact. Since the individual’s ego-boundaries
remain essentially intact, he does not experience the intense connection or oneness
or the intensiﬁed perception of the phenomenal world that awakening experiences
frequently feature (Taylor, 2005; 2009; 2010; 2012b). These individuals experience
themselves as the same continuous ego-self as before, although they may possess a
different cognitive map of reality.
Such a secondary shift has been frequently reported following psychedelic
experiences. It has been well attested that psychedelic experiences can cause a
long-lasting shift in perspective, creating new concepts of reality and an openness
to anomalous or spiritual concepts (Conway, 1989; Grifﬁths, Richards, McCann, &
Jesse, 2006; McKenna, 2004; Strassman, 2001). As Huxley (1954/1971) famously
wrote of psychedelic awakening experiences in The Doors of Perception,‘‘The man
who comes back through the Door in the Wall will never be quite the same as the
man who went out’’ (p. 24). (In Taylor [2013a] it is suggested that this is the main
beneﬁt of psychedelics: although they cannot generate a primary shift – since they
simply involve a dissolution of the normal self-system without the emergence of a
new self-system to replace it – they can facilitate a secondary shift.)
Temporary awakening experiences can also be viewed from this perspective, as a
temporary dissolution of our normal self-system, and the temporary ‘installation’ of
a different, higher-functioning self-system, which does not become established.
Although temporarily disabled, it is as if the individual’s normal self-system is still
intact as a structure, and so re-establishes itself. It is tempting to describe the
normal self-system as a kind of psychic ‘mould’ that exists as a potential even when
the system itself temporarily dissolves, so that it is able to re-form. In temporary
awakening experiences, the structure is only in abeyance, with the mould still
intact. But when permanent transformation occurs – in the form of a primary shift –
not only the structure, but the psychic mold itself dissolves away. It is replaced by a
new psychological structure, or self-system, so that the individual does experience
a new sense of identity.
However, awakening experiences in general – not just psychedelic awakening
experiences – have been found to frequently cause a secondary shift. Although these
were not systematically studied in previous research on awakening experiences
(Taylor, 2010, 2011, 2012a, 2012b, 2013b), such a shift in values and perspectives
was evident from some of the reports. Some participants reported that their
experiences had brought a new sense of optimism, trust, comfort or conﬁdence
(Taylor, 2012b). In a study of transformational experiences brought on by intense
psychological turmoil, one participant described an awakening experience during
which she ‘‘felt the most intense love and peace and knew that all was well’’ (Taylor,
2011, p. 4). The experience reportedly only lasted for a few minutes, but in its
aftermath the person found that the feeling of dread had disappeared from her
stomach, and felt able to cope again: ‘‘I looked around and thought about all the good
things in my life and the future. I felt more positive and resilient’’ (p. 4).
For some, the memory of the awakening experience – and the knowledge that this
dimension of meaning and harmony existed – had a comforting and reassuring
effect. One person reported that her awakening experience, ‘‘only lasted a few
49Exploring Awakening Experiences
minutes but I remember a sense of calmness and stillness and it soothes me now’’
(Taylor, 2010, p. 10). Others reported a desire to recapture the experience, and
developed an interest in spiritual traditions and practices in an attempt to do this.
One woman described how ‘‘I have spent the last 25 years since exploring what it
meant and how I could perhaps go back there’’ (Taylor, 2011, p. 8). Another person
reported how she had ‘‘spent my life searching for the feeling again because I know
it’s there’’ (Taylor, 2011, p. 7).
The presently reported study aimed to investigate such after-effects more
Ninety reports of awakening experiences were collected. Most of these were sent to
the primary author in response to a note on his website, which read:
Have you ever had an awakening experience - that is, a temporary expansion and
intensiﬁcation of awareness? This could be an experience in which your
surroundings have become brighter and more real, when you’ve felt a sense of
connection to them and a deep sense of well-being inside. Or perhaps you have
felt a sense of harmony and meaning pervade the world, even a kind of ‘spirit-
force’ pervading all things, and a sense that all things are one, and you are part
of this one-ness.
The same question was used as a way of attracting participants through social
media (Facebook and Twitter). Others reports were sent spontaneously to the
author from readers of his previous writings on awakening experiences. In most
cases, one report was provided per individual. However, 13 participants provided
more than one report. In total, 68 participants contributed reports.
Reports varied in length between several sentences and several pages. In a small
number of cases, where the reports were deemed to provide insufﬁcient detail,
participants were asked to provide further information, for example, ‘‘Could you
tell us more about the circumstances in which your experience occurred?’’ or
‘‘Could you tell us more about how the experience affected you, e.g., how it
changed your perception of things, or altered your sense of reality?’’
The 90 experiences were then analysed, initially to identify their triggers, or the
context in which they occurred. This was undertaken by two individuals
independently – the co-authors of this study – to provide greater validation. (Prior
to this, one of the researchers, Krisztina Egeto-Szabo, had very little familiarity
with the ﬁeld of transpersonal psychology or with the main author’s previous work.
This was seen as a way of reducing possible bias.) Identiﬁcation of the triggers was
only deemed valid if both individuals agreed. In the great majority of cases, triggers
were easy to identify, and agreement was easily reached. However, in some cases,
further discussion and clariﬁcation was required. In 24 cases, it was agreed that the
experiences had two triggers operating simultaneously. In six cases, no agreement
was reached – in which case the experiences were deemed to have ‘‘no discernible
50 The Journal of Transpersonal Psychology, 2017, Vol. 49, No. 1
trigger.’’ Following are three excerpts from the reports, which illustrate how – in
most cases –triggers were clearly evident (‘‘P’’ refers to participant number):
P 3: Many years ago, my daughter was in the process of committing slow suicide
with drugs and alcohol. I had tried everything I knew how to do to change her
behavior. I really felt it was within my power to save her, but I could never ﬁnd
the right words or actions to be of the slightest effect.
One day I took a walk alone in a wooded area. I was crying and in such despair
walking along a small path. Then, suddenly, I felt a weight lift up from my
shoulders. I felt so light and at peace. The feeling was accompanied with a new
thought. The thought was this: you cannot live someone else’s life for them.
They have to live it themselves, and there is nothing you can do, so let them go.
From then on, I have been so much happier, knowing that I didn’t have to take
on the world’s burden on my own shoulders. Now I just help if I can, but leave
others to live their own lives. I can still picture myself on that quiet path among
the redwoods and the lifting of the heavy weight from my shoulders. I guess you
could call it grace. (Trigger: Psychological turmoil)
P 18: I guess my ﬁrst and most clearly recalled ’extraordinary consciousness’
experience was around the age of ten. . .I was in the habit of going to some local
woodland and there conceal myself by laying down amongst the thick ferns.
Lying hidden and silent I would listen to the woodland, to the soft rustle of the
grass, and the creaking of trees in wind as the forest sang its strange song. The
most amazing part of the experience was just simply lying cocooned in all this
wonder and being completely at peace with my surroundings. (Trigger: Contact
P 61: I had begun meditating at home. Just for the fun of it, I’d been practising
maintaining my concentration, all day and even when I was falling asleep – every
waking moment – a very contracted narrow focus for several days. Then one
night, just as I was about to get into bed, I thought, ‘‘Oh I’ll just let go of this and
go straight to sleep.’’ When I awoke the next morning I found my mind was
almost completely silent. I got up and thought well this won’t last, but it stayed
and I sat to meditate. My head totally clear and I was so awake. I thought, ’’I’m
really going to meditate today.’’ After about twenty minutes, I found myself
returning my focus to my body more and more powerfully. I drifted off, as you do
in meditation, when [I] awoke to my drifting I came back with such force that
there was a kind of ’ﬂip’ and I found myself in total silence again, a stillness. The
furniture in the room, the walls, carpet, skirting board all seemed to be vibrating
with life. They seemed to share the same quality. Thoughts came occasionally and
just drifted over like clouds. I could look at them and see their quality. I remember
an angry thought appeared and I found it quite humorous. My body was breathing
all of its own, I was completely detached and yet at the same time intimate with
everything that arose. I also felt serene and a feeling of being at home. I could see
clearly that my normal awake state is in actual fact asleep! The difference between
normal consciousness and this clear way of being is that marked. Its exactly like
that. After a few hours the clear awake quality became covered and I longed for it
to ’return.’ (Trigger: Spiritual practice)
51Exploring Awakening Experiences
In addition to the cases where more than one trigger was identiﬁed, there were
several cases where a ‘‘predisposing factor’’ was identiﬁed, in addition to the overt
trigger(s). In most cases, this was a period of psychological turmoil, which acted as
a predisposing factor to an awakening experience triggered by spiritual practice,
spiritual literature or contact with nature. Here is an example of such an experience
(psychological turmoil as a predisposing factor, with contact with nature as an overt
P 20: I was buried under too many of life’s demands and if you asked me how I
was, I might have said, ‘‘I feel like I am treading water, to keep my head above
it!’’ I did actually know I had so much to be grateful for, but I couldn’t break the
hypnotism/cloud of my stressful life story and enjoy the good. . .I walked down
to the beach planning to enjoy the sun and the sea. When I arrived, there was no
one else around, just rocks and white sand. And this amazing, clear, turquoise
water was rolling over black rocks and white sand in beautiful, continuous
waves, back and forth, back and forth. The only sound was the waves. I had
planned to lie down and relax in the sun, but I was awestruck. I couldn’t take my
eyes off of the water. I had never seen anything like this! I just kept saying, ‘‘Oh,
my God! Oh, my God! Oh, my God!’’ I think I was there in this state for at least
an hour. I was ﬁlled with joy, then moved to tears, then back to joy... At one
point I was aware of a small shift inside of me, an awareness that I had found
something good and that there could be other experiences in life that could be
like this. I knew that a door had been opened, just a little and that now I could
have more of this in my life.
In three cases, reading spiritual literature was identiﬁed as a predisposing factor –
that is, an awakening experience occurred during a period when participants were
reading a good deal of spiritual literature, which appears to create an environment
conducive to an awakening experience.
Table 1 shows the identiﬁed triggers of an awakening experience. In cases where it
was decided that there was more than one trigger of an experience, the triggers
were counted twice, so that the total number of occurrences is greater than the total
number of participants.
Triggers of Awakening Experiences
Psychological turmoil (e.g., stress, depression, loss, bereavement, combat) 37
Spiritual practice (e.g., meditation, prayer, yoga) 21
Spiritual literature 15
Watching or listening to arts performance 3
Other (e.g., sex, athletic activity, homeostasis disruption, singing in choir, witnessing
No discernable trigger 7
52 The Journal of Transpersonal Psychology, 2017, Vol. 49, No. 1
Table 2 classiﬁes the experiences according to whether they occurred in a spiritual
or non-spiritual context – that is, whether they were triggered by spiritual practices
(such as meditation, yoga, prayer or reading spiritual literature) or accidentally by
ordinary activities in the midst of everyday life.
Table 3 shows the characteristics of the awakening experiences identiﬁed by
thematic analysis. In almost all cases, participants reported more than one
characteristic, so that – as with Table 1 – the number of reported instances of each
of the characteristics is greater than the total of participants.
Table 4 shows the duration of the experiences. Only 51 of the 90 participants
commented on this aspect of their experience.
Awakening Experiences Happening in a Spiritual Versus Non-Spiritual Context
Number of individuals
reporting (n ¼90)
Spiritual context (e.g., meditation, yoga, prayer, spiritual literature) 29 (32%)
Non-spiritual context (e.g., psychological turmoil, nature, relaxation, love) 58 (65%)
Unclear 3 (3%)
Characteristics of Awakening Experiences
Positive affective states (e.g., peace, joy, sense of harmony, lack of fear, appreciation) 41
Intensified perception (e.g., aliveness, brightness, energy, light) 37
Different time perception / being in the present 21
Deeper general ‘knowing’ / awareness 18
Lack of mental thought chatter / commentary 12
Unusual and unexplained bodily sensations 6
Duration of the Experiences
Duration Number of individuals reporting (N ¼51)
Minutes (from a few minutes to an hour) 16
Hours (from more than an hour to a day) 12
Days (from more than a day to a week) 8
Weeks (from more than a week to a month) 6
Months (from more than a week to a year) 7
Years (more than a year) 2
53Exploring Awakening Experiences
Intensity of the Experiences
Based on the description of the characteristics of different intensities of awakening
experiences given in the introductory discussion above, the majority of the
experiences could be roughly classiﬁed as low or medium intensity (or low to
medium) experiences. However, 11 experiences appeared to be high intensity
awakening experiences, similar to the states of absolute union described by spiritual
traditions (for example, nirvikalpa samadhi, henosis or theosis). These were
experiences in which time and space dissolved away, and participants described
losing their normal sense of identity and merging or becoming one with the
universe. Here are quotes from these participants illustrating the experience (‘‘P’’
refers to participant):
P 36: I was vast and merged with the universe. No longer could I perceive
myself as separate, I was in and of the universe, with time and space altered. I
knew I could be everywhere all at once. There was no concept of distance or past
and present. . . The sense of peace, blissful and oneness is hard to put into words.
P 4: Everything just melted. I looked at the tarry telegraph pole outside of my
friend’s house four doors up. It was just pulsating with life and energy; the road
surface was the same. I looked to myself, I was made up of the same pulsating
energy. Time just melted as well.
P 24: With casualties mounting, I was in a state of high anxiety and I ﬁgured that
there was no way I would live through this seemingly endless battle. At one
point after carrying yet another severely wounded Marine to a waiting chopper
something happened to me. It is actually indescribable but I will make a feeble
attempt to do so. I opened up, literally, from my perspective. I came out of
myself. I expanded inﬁnitely. I disappeared. It didn’t last long but it was the
most powerful experience I’ve ever had.
P 40: The feeling extended to inanimate objects; the path, lampposts, buildings,
cars, sounds of music; everything was made of the same stuff and the only word
I could ﬁnd to describe it was love. Everything was made of love. I felt
immersed in a sea of love where everyone and everything were made of this
same ’energy’; I was no longer a separate ’ego’ but was consumed by this
energy of love. Everything became One and I was outside of time.
A thematic analysis was also undertaken to examine the after-effects of the
experiences. The results were too varied to present in the form of tables. Instead we
will present these results in qualitative form.
In total, 51 participants (not the same 51 who described the duration of their
experiences) described the after-effects of their awakening experiences. Thirty-one
participants expressed a desire to recover their experience after it faded, although
none were able to do so. However, many participants experienced positive effects
54 The Journal of Transpersonal Psychology, 2017, Vol. 49, No. 1
of the awakening experience years, or even decades, later. Eleven participants
reported some negative effects as well as positive ones.
Here the main themes of our analysis of the reported after-effects of the experiences
(including aspects of the secondary shift) will be highlighted, with examples:
Fading of the Experience and Desire to Recapture It.
P 9: I remember standing there for about ﬁve minutes afterwards thinking about
how I could get back, or what to do the next time it happens. I never got back
and haven’t since had such a high intensity experience.
P 10: Gradually, my thoughts and my normal state of consciousness returned.
All in all the experience lasted for about an hour, but rather than feeling
saddened by its departure, I was eternally grateful for the experience. I had had
my ﬁrst taste of Heaven, and I was desperate to ﬁnd my way back there.
P 29: Unfortunately, it didn’t stick or have a long term transformational power.
. . . This state of being stayed for a little more than six weeks, then all of a
sudden, like it came it went again. For the next days it went back and forth but
eventually the old psychological structures came back.
P 34: This lasted for about a month and then slowly it all disappeared and I
become sad and perplexed. It never occurred again at that intensity. I am now 69
years old and have been following a spiritual discipline for many years. . . . I
continue with my studies and it has been 40 years since that time.
P 42: One day I could actually feel it slipping away (almost like a dental
anaesthetic wearing off!) but couldn’t hold on to it. I noticed the petty thoughts
which were part of life before, gradually creeping back and life on this ’higher
plane’ disappeared. I read and watch videos daily in the hope I can somehow
ﬁnd a return to this state.
P 59: It was a ﬂeeting experience which I tried to recapture but the memory at
least stayed with me. Since then I have had other occasional glimpses and
periods of stillness and peace but none stand out as much as these early
P 61: After a few hours, the clear awake quality became covered and I longed for
it to return.
A Long-Lasting Change of Perspective and Values.
P 9: To know that it’s there (or here, I should say) is a great liberation.
P 20: I knew that a door had been opened, just a little and that now I could have
more of this in my life.
P 28: I slowly returned to a less awakened state despite great efforts of reading
and meditating, it has however changed my life and opened my eyes to many
55Exploring Awakening Experiences
P 44: However, when I started to think about what was happening, the bubble
burst, so to speak, and everything was back to normal. In all about 50-plus years
of playing, I’ve only had this experience twice, but one was stronger. So, as a
result, this changed my perspective on life in that I now believe in a higher
power and spirituality.
P 47: The blissful feeling has faded away again and comes back from time to
time, but somehow it was a leap for my future/ongoing spiritual journey.
P 52: Then, my dear companion, Fear, came back into the room, worried about
how long this amazing clarity and openness would last, instantly creating a gap
for thoughts to slowly come creeping back into the old me. . . . Even though that
whole experience was brief, it left a little piece of knowing and hope. While I
still was and am on a journey of self-reﬂection, it left me knowing that your
inner Truth is always there for you.
P 55: That moment allowed me a glance into the other side and opened me to the
knowing that I am never separate, alone, nor unheld. That was my ﬁrst
P 60: I wish I could say it lasted but it did not. Once I got to my departure gate
for the boarding before the ﬂight, it had begun to ‘‘wear off.’’ But I haven’t
forgotten it and I never will.
P 23: I am now back to my daily routine and the thoughts seem to be magniﬁed.
I am constantly thinking and worrying and wonder why this now seems to be so.
P 26: The feeling of frustration was overwhelming.
P 29: Unfortunately, it didn’t stick or have a long term transformational power.
. . . This state of being stayed for a little more than six weeks, then all of a
sudden, like it came it went again. For the next days it went back and forth but
eventually the old psychological structures came back. . . . My current situation
(13 years later) is that I feel completely depressed, dead and absent.
P 45: My ego has seemed to come back and I feel myself being buckled down by
the hustle and bustle of everyday life. I am still at peace, but I feel I am not at
that same level of Nirvana as I was in my ﬁrst meditation sittings.
P 66: I said to myself, ‘‘I need to get back there! This is not the truth!’’ I saw the
truth for 5 days. . . Now it’s one month later and I’m still in my mind all the
time. . .The truth is that I’m kind of depressed cause I don’t know what to do.
These ﬁndings broadly conﬁrmed previous studies of awakening experiences or
spiritual/mystical experiences. In terms of the triggers of awakening experiences,
56 The Journal of Transpersonal Psychology, 2017, Vol. 49, No. 1
the results were similar to those of Taylor (2012b). They re-afﬁrmed the importance
of psychological turmoil (e.g., stress, depression, illness, bereavement) as a trigger
of awakening experiences. This was the most frequent trigger of the experiences,
followed by contact with nature and spiritual practice. These second and third most
frequent triggers were the same as those in Taylor (2012b). (A possible variation
here would be for reading spiritual literature to be included in the category of
spiritual practice, in which case the latter would be almost as signiﬁcant a trigger as
However, there was some slight variation in other triggers. In Taylor (2012b), the
trigger of witnessing a creative or arts performance was found to be signiﬁcant,
making up 13% of the total. In this study, this trigger was not signiﬁcant, with only
two occurrences. Another difference was the signiﬁcance of reading spiritual
literature in the present study, compared to Taylor (2012b). There were 16 cases of
this in the present study, compared to 4 in the previous one (Taylor, 2012b).
Another slight difference is that in Taylor (2012b), 10.6% of awakening
experiences were triggered by homeostasis-disruption or physiological changes
(e.g., psychoactive substances, sleep deprivation, fasting). However, in this study
only 2 experiences were related to homeostasis-disruption.
These differences can perhaps be explained in terms of the nature of the samples in
the two studies. In the original study, many participants were participants of
Positive Psychology courses - extra-mural adult students at public courses the
primary author taught at the University of Manchester. These participants were
highly socially active individuals, who regularly attended courses, workshops and
other events. As a result, they were perhaps more likely to attend creative arts
events, and so more likely to have awakening experiences in this context. At the
same time, most of these participants were unfamiliar with spiritual practices or
traditions, and therefore unlikely to have awakening experiences in response to
reading spiritual literature. In contrast, a proportion of the participants of the
present study were already familiar with spiritual practices and traditions, being
individuals who logged on to the primary author’s website, or who had read his
books. They were therefore likely to regularly read spiritual literature (or watch
videos or listen to audio recordings on spiritual themes) and so more likely to have
awakening experiences in this context. Perhaps this also explains why the
participants of this study were less likely to report homeostasis-disruption as a
trigger of awakening experiences. The primary source of homeostasis-disruption in
the previous study was ingesting psychoactive substances. It may be that since the
sample of the present study was generally more focused upon spiritual practices
and traditions, they were less likely to report awakening experiences induced by
psychedelics. At the same time, it is striking that both samples – despite their
different nature – featured the same three main triggers, with psychological turmoil
the most signiﬁcant one in both studies.
The present study conﬁrms the emphasis on non-spiritual contexts in the occurrence
of awakening experiences. In the original study, almost 78% of the experiences
occurred in a non-spiritual context; in this study, the ﬁgure was 65%. Again,
perhaps the smaller ﬁgure in the present study could be explained by the likelihood
that more participants in this sample had an ongoing engagement with spiritual
57Exploring Awakening Experiences
practices and paths, and so were more likely to report an awakening experience in
the context of spiritual practices. Nevertheless, this study conﬁrms the ﬁnding of
the original study (also indicated by the research of others, such as Hardy ,
Laski  and Maslow ) that awakening experiences (or spiritual or
religious experiences) often occur spontaneously and accidentally, in the midst of
everyday life. As the original study concluded, this lends support to the suggestion
that the term awakening experience is more appropriate than spiritual experience.
In fact, it is striking that, in a sample where a good number of participants had
familiarity with spiritual practices and traditions, a large proportion of awakening
experiences still occurred in a non-spiritual context.
In a more general sense, the study conﬁrms the remarkable power of states of
trauma and intense psychological turmoil to induce positive and transformational
states. There is a connection here with the concept of post-traumatic growth, which
has highlighted positive long-term effects of undergoing traumatic events such as
increased appreciation, deeper and more authentic relationships, a heightened sense
of meaning and a new awareness of spiritual and philosophical issues (e.g.,
Tedeschi & Calhoun, 2004). Other research has shown that intense psychological
turmoil can be the trigger of a permanent shift into ‘‘wakefulness’’ (Miller & C’de
Baca, 2001, Taylor, 2011, 2012a, 2017).
Characteristics of Awakening Experiences
The main characteristics of this sample of awakening experiences were found to be
(in order of frequency) positive affective states (e.g., peace, joy, appreciation),
intensiﬁed perception, love and compassion, a transcendence of separateness (or
sense of connection or unity), a sense of revelation (or ‘‘deeper knowing’’) and
inner quietness. This largely accords with previous research, including the
characteristics of spiritual or mystical experiences suggested by scholars such as
Stace (1960), Greeley (1974) and Hood (1975). The ﬁnding that high intensity
awakening experiences were less common also accords with previous research
(Taylor, 2010, 2012; Hay & Heald, 1987). The ﬁndings on duration also accord
with previous research, conﬁrming that the majority of such experiences tend to be
of a short duration (Greeley, 1974; Marshall, 2005).
It is striking that a number of the individuals who had high intensity awakening
experiences reported no familiarity with spiritual practices or traditions at the time
their experience occurred. For example, the high intensity awakening experience
described by P 4 (as reported in the results section) occurred when he was small
child (‘‘around four years old’’). The experience described by Participant 24 took
place when he was in his early twenties, as a soldier ﬁghting in Vietnam. He
described the circumstances in which it occurred:
On January 21st, 1968 my unit was sent to Khe Sanh, Vietnam, smack dab in the
middle of hell. On the day I arrived Khe Sanh Combat Base (KSCB) came under
a heavy mortar, artillery and rocket attack, which destroyed the main
ammunition dump. While that is taking place an NVA battalion attacked and
58 The Journal of Transpersonal Psychology, 2017, Vol. 49, No. 1
partially overran Khe Sanh Village, which was about a kilometer south of KSCB
and decimated the Marine Company that was holding the village.
This suggests that experiences of union with all reality – described in traditions as
nirvikalpa samadhi, henosis, theosis or devekut (in the Kabbalah) – are not conﬁned
to spiritual or religious traditions and are a natural potential of a human experience.
In fact, this applies to awakening experiences in general. Although they may
sometimes be related to spiritual practices (such as meditation or prayer) or occur
within the context of spiritual traditions, they can (and most frequently do) occur in
other contexts. Maslow (1994) saw the peak experience as a psychological
phenomenon that could be interpreted in religious or spiritual terms, but need not
be. As he put it, peak experiences can be likened to ‘‘raw materials which can be
used for different styles of structures, as the same bricks and mortar and lumber
would be built into different kinds of houses by a Frenchman, a Japanese, or a
Tahitian’’ (Maslow, 1994, p. 73). The same is true of awakening experiences.
This has some bearing on the debate in religious studies between contextualism and
essentialism (or perennialism) - that is, whether spiritual or mystical experiences
share the same essential features across spiritual traditions (despite some
differences in interpretation), or whether they are intra-traditional experiences that
are generated by the concepts and practices of the traditions, and therefore
essentially independent. Transpersonal psychologists such as Hartelius and Ferrer
(2013) have argued against perennialism, with Ferrer (2002) suggesting that
spiritual traditions are not expressions of the same essential truths or realities, since
there are ‘‘a variety of metaphysical worlds – rather than one metaphysic and
different languages’’ (p. 34). However, the fact that experiences that include the
same essential features of spiritual experiences can take place outside spiritual
traditions, amongst people who have no familiarity with those traditions (or
spirituality in general), strongly suggests that there is some form of underlying
psychological or experiential landscape that precedes spiritual traditions and
informs them. It is important to make a distinction between mystical teachings and
mystical experiences. Whilst the teachings and conceptual frameworks of mystical
traditions may differ signiﬁcantly, the mystical experiences that are reported across
traditions - and most signiﬁcantly, outside them - do share essential features. In this
way, the ﬁndings of this study conﬁrm the results of various studies using Hood’s
M-Scale which have found common features of mystical experiences occurring
across and outside traditions (Hood, 2006). (See Taylor, 2016, for a fuller
discussion of these issues.)
The Psychological Conditions of Awakening Experiences
In Taylor (2012b), it was suggested that a large proportion of awakening
experiences are linked to an ‘‘intensiﬁcation and stilling of life-energy’’ (Taylor
2005, 2010, 2012b). In certain ‘‘meditative’’ situations and activities, our life-
energy becomes intensiﬁed and stilled, due to the fact that we expend less energy
than normal through concentration, perception and cognition. In particular, this
state occurs when the ego-mind becomes quiet, conserving the energy normally
consumed by thought-chatter. In a relaxed state of mind, in quiet surroundings and
59Exploring Awakening Experiences
in a relatively inactive mode, the normal ‘‘outﬂows’’ of energy may be reduced,
which leads to an inner intensiﬁcation of energy, and therefore to an awakening
experience (Taylor, 2005; 2010, 2012b). This is partly because the more intense
inner energy means that perception becomes - in Deikman’s (1963) phrase - ‘‘de-
automatized.’’ Since energy is no longer being consumed by the activity of the ego-
mind, there is ‘‘surplus energy’’ available, which is used in perception. Perceptions
therefore become enriched and intensiﬁed, and we become aware of aspects that
our normal automatic mode of perception does not reveal. And since our normal
ego-boundaries are largely created and maintained by thought-chatter, when the
mind becomes quiet, our sense of separateness begins to fade away, replaced by a
sense of connection or even unity. (For further details on how a state of intensiﬁed
and stilled life-energy – or an ISLE state – gives rise to the different characteristics
of awakening experiences, see Taylor ).
A good proportion of the awakening experiences in the present study could be
explained in these terms. Certainly, awakening experiences induced by meditation
and other spiritual practices can be explained in these terms, because of their mind-
quietening effect. (And of course, when we meditate or pray, we ensure that we
reduce our exposure to external stimuli and concentrative activity, also reducing
our expenditure of energy.) Reading spiritual literature undoubtedly has a similar
effect, with the added factor of the ‘‘transmitting’’ effect of spiritual power and
wisdom from the text itself. Awakening experiences induced by contact with nature
can also be explained in these terms. The beauty and power of nature has a
meditative effect, generating inner quietness. Nature also appears to have qualities
of purity and serenity that transmit to us and generate a peaceful state of being. And
although they did not ﬁgure as signiﬁcant triggers in this study, the association of
awakening experiences with arts performances, sport and sex can be also be
explained in similar terms (Taylor, 2010, 2012b).
But what about the most signiﬁcant trigger of awakening experiences in this study,
psychological turmoil? This can perhaps also be partly explained in terms of an
intensiﬁcation and stilling of life-energy. Often, in states of intense turmoil, a
person experiences a dissolution of psychological attachments such as hopes,
beliefs, ambitions, or attachment to possessions, status or achievements. This is
often the reason why a person is in a state of intense turmoil – that is, because these
attachments have been broken down. However, such psychological attachments
consume and expend a great deal of energy as psychological forms that are present
within the psyche. So when the attachments dissolve, there is a sudden release of a
large portion of life-energy. At the same time, with the attachments absent, there is
a new inner clarity and openness.
Another possible factor in awakening experiences triggered by psychological
turmoil is what might be termed ego-dissolution. Psychological attachments can be
seen as the ‘‘building blocks’’ of the ego. They create and maintain our sense of
identity. So when psychological attachments dissolve, the ego itself may dissolve
away, in the same way that a house collapses if enough bricks are taken away. As a
result, the boundaries of the ego disappear, enabling a sense of connection and
unity. There is a sense of connection to a deeper self, an essential being that seems
to underlie the ego. It is perhaps because of this combination of two factors – an
60 The Journal of Transpersonal Psychology, 2017, Vol. 49, No. 1
intensiﬁcation and stilling of life-energy together with ego-dissolution – that
psychological turmoil is such a powerful and frequent trigger of awakening
experiences. Below are some examples from this study:
P 23: After six months of suffering from the loss of my husband of 20 years and
the loss of my land and cottage in Northern Ontario as well as an illness that
came back, as I crawled into bed that evening I felt a ﬂutter in my heart and
awoke the next morning to the most profound sense of peace and oneness I had
ever experienced. It lasted about two days and still remains slightly in my heart.
P 29: At the time IT happened, I was in severe distress, my mind going crazy,
having suicidal thoughts all day long. . .I was completely hopeless as I lay on my
bed, when all of a sudden an energy shot up from belly into my head. . .With that
in one instance everything changed. All the depression anxiety and fears, all the
chatter and conﬂict in my mind, all the discomfort were gone and left me in a
state of profound peace, joy, love and a deep aliveness. It felt like being a small
innocent child again.
P 49: Some years ago I have experienced the most wonderful awakening state in
the context of a highly intense suffering. ..I was witnessing the inevitable end of
my 7-year relationship, with a devastating powerlessness. The end of that
profound connection that we’ve shared was something unimaginable for me, in
the sense that I couldn’t imagine my existence without him and literally I was
convinced that I wasn’t going to survive. When it all ended I was facing a
suffering that I didn’t imagine could possibly exist and there I was face to face
with this dark and frightening aloneness that was so scary, it felt unbearable. The
fear was so real and overwhelming that shook my core and everything I was so
deeply that I began to experience a clearness and connection with everything
that existed, with the whole Universe that felt beyond human. I was in a state of
such pure happiness and acceptance, that I was no longer afraid of anything, I
was trusting the Creation and that was enough. Out of that depth arose such a
compassion and connection to everything that surrounded me that I could feel
even the pain of the ﬂowers being picked. Also, a great intuition was born in me
that made me realize my vocation as well, that is becoming a psychotherapist.
P 59: In my 20’s, following the break-up of a relationship, my psychological
world fell apart and I fell into a deep depression. I was off work for some time
and spent a week or 2 with my sister. One day whilst travelling in the back of my
sister’s car with my, then young, niece and nephew and feeling particularly low,
I had a moment of complete clarity. Time seemed to stop and I looked around at
my niece and nephew and at the passing countryside and felt that all was well,
all was serene, nothing was wrong. It was a ﬂeeting experience that I tried to
recapture but the memory at least stayed with me.
The Therapeutic After-Effects of Awakening Experiences
In some cases, the ego can become permanently dissolved following an awakening
experience triggered by intense psychological turmoil. If this happens, a person
61Exploring Awakening Experiences
may experience an ongoing state of wakefulness. An awakening experience may
herald a permanent spiritual transformation, the establishment of a new identity to
replace the self that dissolved away. However, in temporary awakening
experiences, the normal ego-self re-establishes itself, even if the person now has
a new conceptual outlook and new values. In other words, the person may not
experience a primary shift but still experience transformational elements of a
This was perhaps one of the most signiﬁcant ﬁndings of this study: that, despite
their temporary nature, awakening experiences have powerful ongoing transfor-
mational effects. Fifty-one of the 68 participants reported these positive after-
effects (11 reporting some negative effects too). This suggests that awakening
experiences have a pronounced therapeutic effect, similar to the therapeutic effects
identiﬁed by some researchers in relation to psychoactive substances (Loizaga-
Velder & Verres, 2014; McKenna, 2004) and nature (Bragg & Atkins, 2016; Neill,
2003). This suggests that awakening experiences could, in theory, be consciously
cultivated for their therapeutic value, perhaps by attempting to induce an
‘‘intensiﬁcation and stilling of life energy,’’ as mentioned above. (Indeed, it is
surely the case that awakening experiences contribute to the therapeutic effects of
contact with nature and psychedelics, although this is a connection that could be
veriﬁed by more research.) However, it should be noted that, even though we can
create conditions that are conducive to awakening experiences, their appearance is
still unpredictable. This would obviously limit their efﬁcacy as a form of therapy.
This study conﬁrms the importance of psychological turmoil as a source of
awakening experiences. It also conﬁrms that awakening experiences occur most
frequently in non-spiritual contexts, as spontaneous events. In this sense, the term
awakening experience is more appropriate than spiritual experience. Awakening
experiences – and also an ongoing state of wakefulness – are natural psychological
states that are accessible from a wide range of activities, not just from those related
to spiritual traditions. This supports the idea (related to the concept of essentialism)
that awakening experiences are more fundamental than spiritual traditions, and
share common characteristics that are interpreted in different ways by different
traditions, rather than being intra-traditionally speciﬁc. At the same time, the
underlying psychological conditions that give rise to the experiences can be
identiﬁed, perhaps relating to an intensiﬁcation and stilling of life-energy, or ego-
dissolution. The powerful positive after-effects of awakening experiences suggest a
strong therapeutic element.
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Steve Taylor, PhD, is a senior lecturer in psychology at Leeds Beckett University,
UK. He also teaches on the MSc in Consciousness, Spirituality and Transpersonal
Psychology distance-learning course, through the University of Middlesex. His
previous papers have been published in the Journal of Humanistic Psychology, the
Journal of Consciousness Studies, the International Journal of Transpersonal
Studies, and the Transpersonal Psychology Review. He is author of 10 books,
including The Fall, Waking From Sleep, Out of the Darkness and his new book The
Leap: The Psychology of Spiritual Awakening (published as an Eckhart Tolle
64 The Journal of Transpersonal Psychology, 2017, Vol. 49, No. 1
Edition). He has written two books of poetic meditations, including The Calm
Center. Website: www.stevenmtaylor. com
Krisztina Egeto-Szabo is originally from Hungary, and held the post of research
assistant with Steve Taylor at Leeds Beckett University for the academic year 2016/
17, working closely with Steve in preparing this article. She is presently based at
the University of Cardiff, Wales. Her interests include social psychology, global
development and education.
65Exploring Awakening Experiences