Spiritual experiences are overwhelmingly positive experiences. They are experiences of rapture, in which we perceive reality at a heightened intensity, feel a powerful sense of inner well-being, experience a sense of oneness with our surroundings and become aware of a force of benevolence and harmony which pervades the cosmos. When the experience is especially intense, the whole phenomenal world may dissolve into an ocean of blissful spiritual radiance, which we realise is the ground of all reality, the source from which the phenomenal world has arisen, and the real nature of our being.
It seems almost paradoxical, then, that these experiences are frequently induced by states of intense despair, depression, or mental turmoil. Many Network readers will be familiar with the work of Alister Hardy, who established the Religious Experience Research Unit at Oxford University in 1969 (it is now based at the University of Lampeter in Wales). When Hardy analysed the triggers of spiritual or religious experiences, he found that the most common trigger of them was ‘depression and despair.’ 18% of the experiences were apparently triggered by this, compared to 13% by prayer or meditation and 12% by natural beauty.  Over the last few years I have been collecting reports of spiritual experiences (or awakening experiences, as I prefer to call them), and have also found that many of them were triggered by trauma and turmoil.
For example, 25 years ago a woman named Emma was suffering from serious depression, which was partly the result of her upbringing by an emotionally abusive mother. She became so depressed that she felt suicidal and was hospitalised for several weeks. At one point in hospital, when she hadn’t spoken to anybody for four days, she picked up a marble that was lying on her bedside cabinet, and started playing with it her hands, watching it closely. All of a sudden, it was as if the familiar world melted away, replaced by a vision of beauty and perfection. As she describes it:
I saw reality as simply this perfect one-ness. I felt suddenly removed from everything that was personal. Everything seemed just right. The marble seemed a reflection of the universe. All my ‘problems’ and my suffering suddenly seemed meaningless, ridiculous, simply a misunderstanding of my true nature and everything around me. There was a feeling of acceptance and oneness. It was a moment of enlightenment.
A colleague of mine had a similar experience several years ago, after a long period of inner turmoil due to confusion about his sexuality, which led to the breakdown of his marriage:
It was our last family holiday before the break up. We were in Tunisia and went on an excursion down to the Sahara. We went on a camel ride across part of the desert and at the end of the day, I sat on the sand dune watching the sunset. There were quite a few people around but it was as if everyone else disappeared. Everything just ceased to be. I lost all sense of time. I lost myself. I had a feeling of being totally at one with nature, with a massive sense of peace. I was a part of the scene. There was no ‘me’ anymore. I was just sitting there watching the sun set over the desert, aware of the enormity of life, the power of nature, and I never wanted it to end.