“Awakening Experiences” are normal and natural. One evening last summer, when I was on holiday with my family in Wales, I decided to explore the farmland around our rented bungalow. I climbed over a gate I hadn’t noticed before because it was hidden by long grass, and found myself looking down at a valley, with farmers’fields sloping as far as I could see and hundreds of sheep dotted the hills.
After I’d been walking for a few minutes, looking at the fields and the sky, there was a shift in my vision, as if someone had pressed a switch. Everything around me became intensely real. The fields and the bushes and trees and the clouds seemed to be powerfully there, even to have their own kind of identity, as if they were more than just inanimate objects. I also felt somehow connected with my surroundings. As I looked up at the sky, I could sense that somehow the space that fills it was the same “space” filling my own being. What was inside me, as my own consciousness, was also “out there.”
This is an example of what I call an “awakening experience.” In awakening experiences, the world becomes more real and beautiful, and an atmosphere of harmony seems to fill our surroundings. We feel serene and whole inside, and our normal problems and worries seem to fade into insignificance. The world seems like a benevolent and meaningful place, and we feel part of everything around us, with an intense empathic connection with other people.
Photo of Anglesey, Wales, where my awakening experience took place
Awakening experiences seem to happen when the “filters” which limit our normal awareness of the world fade away. We “wake up” to a wider and fuller reality, and in comparison our normal vision seems incomplete and even unreal. We feel that now we’re seeing the world as it really is, as if we’re seeing it in three dimensions rather than two, or in colour rather than in black and white.
The Triggers of Awakening Experiences
Awakening experiences can sometimes occur for no apparent reason, but mostly they are generated by certain activities or situations. As a part of the research for my book Waking From Sleep*, I collected over 161 examples of awakening experiences from friends, students and strangers. I found that two of the most common triggers of them were nature and meditation. Many people I spoke to had awakening experiences while they were walking in the countryside, swimming in lakes, or gazing at beautiful flowers or sunsets. Other people had them while they were meditating, reaching a state of pure consciousness, outside of time and space. Others had awakening experiences after meditating, when the perceptions were sharper and richer and they felt a sense of connection to their surroundings.
The theatre fell silent, no babies crying, no movement or sounds from the audience, only the gentle swishing sounds of white skirts twirling and the soft sounds of felt gliding on the stage. There was a feeling of intense peace, happiness and tranquillity. Nothing else mattered in the world and outside the theatre. We all felt as one – it was a mesmerising experience and unforgettable.
Another person described an experience he had while listening to a concert performance of Brahms’ 4th symphony:
Some of you have probably experienced something like this during or after sex too: a feeling of well-being which goes beyond sensual pleasure, and is caused by a change of consciousness. Perhaps earlier you felt stressed and worried, as if your life was full of problems – but often after sex everything seems miraculously different. Your problems seem to have disappeared (proving that to a large extent we create our own problems by worrying), and you seem to be glowing inwardly, as if a kind of dynamo has been switched on inside you, filling you with a feeling of completeness and serenity. Here, for example, one person described how she feels after she has orgasms:
I feel as if I haven’t got any weight. There’s a warm feeling running all through my body…Nothing else seems to matter, problems cease to exist, as if the feeling takes you over so much that there’s no room for anything else. I feel capable of doing anything…I also look at things more clearly, look beyond what I usually look at. The colours seem more distinct; if you look at, say, a tree, you see it for what it really is, not just as a tree. You see it as nature, not just as an object.
The Meaning of Awakening Experiences
Many other everyday situations cause these experiences: sports like running and swimming, creative activities (e.g. playing music or dancing) or reading poetry. The experiences are sometimes associated with religion, or called ‘spiritual experiences,’ but I believe this is misleading. There’s nothing religious or even ‘spiritual’ about them (although if you are religious, you might interpret them in religious terms and believe that you ‘seen’ or communicated with God in some way.) I prefer to see them in secular terms, as a completely normal and natural psychological phenomenon. My research also suggests that the experiences are much more common is generally believed. Most of us have had them, but very few of us talk about them, perhaps because we’re afraid of seeming ‘weird.’
Steve Taylor, Ph.D. is a senior lecturer in psychology at Leeds Beckett University, UK. He is the author of Back to Sanity: Healing the Madness of our Minds. Learn more at www.stevenmtaylor.com.