Essay
Culture
9 min read

The secret world of spiritual experiences

Amid prevailing cultural suspicions towards religion, exploring spiritual experiences reveals their profound significance to individuals and civilizations. Dan Kim calls for an open-minded investigation into the nature of reality.

Daniel is an advertising strategist turned vicar-in-training.

Spiritual Experiences in London
Image generated by Dan Kim using Midjourney

In the spring of 1945, Psychologist Genevieve Foster, a chartered member of the New York Analytical Psychology Club, awoke from a nap and experienced a visionary experience where she saw a luminous figure of a human. This shining person flooded the entire room with dazzling light. There were no words or names between Foster and this figure except the experience of “an interchange, a flood, flowing both ways, of love”.  

She had no idea what was happening to her.  

She was a psychologist, and fully committed to the scientific method. Religious experiences were easily explained away as hallucinations or weird brain hiccups. But she couldn’t shake the feeling that this was real! This vision lasted for five days. Five days. Afterwards, she tried to talk to her husband and one colleague about the experience. Both became very alarmed and dissuaded her from talking about it any further or even entertaining the possibility that this experience could have been real.  

It was only in 1985 that she began to speak publicly about it. She had kept what she describes as, “the most important thing that has ever happened to me”, a shameful secret for 40 years.  

These experiences are often the most important moments of a person’s life and can even form the foundations of entire cultures and civilisations. 

When it comes to unexplainable spiritual experiences, we are advised by sensible Western society to sweep them under the rug immediately and never talk about them. Except maybe at the pub after a pint or ten. The modern world has been taking part in the most elaborate mass self-censorship campaign to date.  

In the 1990s, a Swedish study interviewed 50 people who had lost spouses in the previous year. They were asked whether they had experienced any form of contact with their dead partner. Only one person, a spiritualist, enthusiastically admitted she had. However, when the interviewer informed them that this experience was a common part of the grieving process, that one became 25. That’s an astronomical leap from two per cent to 50 per cent of respondents as soon as they were given permission to speak out. Clearly, they were so fearful of being thrown into the loony bin. Dale Allison points out this widespread self-censorship in his 2022 book Encountering Mystery: Religious Experiences in a Secular Age where he notes that this phenomenon means that these experiences go under-reported, under-researched, and under-understood by most people in the West today.  

Spiritual experiences are a universal part of human life, taking various forms such as ecstatic bliss, out-of-body visions, awe-inspiring mystical unity, death-bed visions, near-death experiences, intense feelings of love, and encounters with sublime beauty. Indeed, they are often described as religious experiences. These encounters are often pivotal moments in a person's life, sometimes laying the foundation for entire cultures and civilizations. Historical accounts, including Moses’ encounter with the Burning Bush, Siddhartha Gautama's transcendent enlightenment, and Paul's Damascus Road vision, testify to the profound significance of these experiences as sources of spiritual knowledge and meaning. This is just as true today. I’m reminded of the famous atheist A.J. Ayer who “saw a divine being” during a near-death experience after which he said:  

“I am afraid I’m going to have to revise all my various books and opinions”.  

I certainly don’t think Ayer was the gullible type. 

You’d be better off being a conspiracy theorist than a sincere modern mystic. 

Yet, despite their profound importance, there has been a concerted cultural campaign to stigmatise, dismiss and reduce these experiences to purely internal, psychological events. Any claim that these experiences might, in any way, be real has been ridiculed and consigned to Glastonbury-like New Age festivals and niche subcultures that use words like ‘astral projection’. You’d be better off being a conspiracy theorist than a sincere modern mystic.  

We’ve created the societal conditions where the most important events of people’s lives are hidden like dirty little secrets by insisting on a tame, clinically sanitised, spiritually inert universe.  

However, it seems as though in the 21st Century, the tide is turning. Allison notes a remarkable statistic from Pew Research America. In 1962, only 22 per cent of pollsters said that they had had what they would describe as a religious experience. In 2009, that number was up to 49 per cent. Now, I really don’t think this is because there’s been an increase in divine intervention. That would be weird! Instead, the statistic is cultural evidence that shows that the zeitgeist is changing and is denting the widespread self-censorship. 

It is only relatively recently that we’ve started to catalogue and analyse religious experiences from around the world. The most extensive archive, The Alister Hardy Religious Experience Research Centre, was only founded in 1969 and has, to date, collected 6,000 first-hand spiritual experiences which is ever-increasing. We’ve only just begun to tap into this rich data let alone archive even a fraction of these experiences.  

How reliable are these first-hand accounts, you might ask? Couldn’t you take each individual case and find materialist explanations for every one of them? Perhaps, but as William James wrote over 100 years ago, “Weak sticks make strong bundles”. It appears people of all ages, cultures, and creeds experience an ‘unseen realm’ and sincerely believe them to be genuine and true. These experiences have a material impact on their lives and even on whole civilisations. So, we should at the very least be careful in suggesting that humans have been experiencing mass corporate delusions from the dawn of time itself. In fact, that would be a pretty bleak conclusion with even bleaker implications. As Allison puts it, if all spiritual experiences turn out to be purely psychological illusions:  

“We would be forced to conclude that a widespread, cross-cultural human experience, one that commonly moves people to use the word ‘God’ and regularly prods them to become more loving and less selfish, an experience that far more often than not feels wholly real and indeed self-authenticating, and experience than even children of two or three years old have reported is, at bottom, illusory.” 

This wouldn’t just affect how we view spiritual experiences but every experience that we have. If our experience of the world is so unreliable, then how are we to trust even our rational minds and the conclusions we come to? How can we trust our vision and our sense of touch? So, the stakes are pretty high about what we make of all this.  

Behind the question of spiritual experiences is the more profound question about the nature of reality itself. Is there a spiritual realm? Do we have souls? Can there be a God or gods? These questions are so critically important that we shouldn’t just take on cultural assumptions wholesale.  

It is only in the last 30 years that we’ve discovered that 95% of our universe is made up of dark matter and dark energy, which are just sci-fi-sounding names given to the totally invisible, unmeasurable, unobservable ‘stuff’ that govern the structure of the universe. If we were to somehow map the entire universe with the most advanced technologies from the smallest atom to the largest galactic superstructures, we would still only have access to 5% of the universe. That’s staggering! Spiritual experiences and dark matter have that in common. While we can’t see dark matter with any of our scientific instruments, we can see their effects on the visible universe like their gravitational impact on the universe, and the expansion of the universe. That’s how we can speculate about its existence.  

In a similar way, spiritual experiences compose a significant chunk of the mystery that is the human experience, and we can see their effects on people and on human cultures. And the crucial question becomes, what causes them? Is it a pure psychological illusion, or is there something real but unobservable causing them? Materialism has never been ‘proved’ but it has been culturally assumed, and in fairness, not without some good reason. Scientific instruments and discoveries have shown that many things that were once considered supernatural or spiritual are in fact explainable by totally natural causes. A healthy scepticism is always welcome, but somewhere along the line, a huge leap was made that said:  

‘Because we can attribute some spiritual events to natural causes, we can assume that all of reality consists of natural causes only’.  

That’s a dogmatic statement, not an evidential one. That’s a bit like insisting that only 5% of the universe really exists because it’s the only 5% we can accurately measure. You might still not be convinced, but my call is simply for open-mindedness. Whether or not there is a spiritual dimension to reality is by no means a closed case. It begs continual investigation and genuine wrestling.  

I could hear the waves of the sea, but it was as if I was one with it; the stars above me seemed to shine with a supernatural brightness. 

When I was 15 years old, I had my first spiritual experience. I was sitting on a beach, late one night, with three friends talking about life, faith, and meaning. (Yes, 15-year-old boys do have moments of sincerity…) At some point, one of them suggested that we try praying to God and see what happens. We were all vaguely Christians. We said some faltering teenage prayers asking God to turn up. At In that moment, I felt an awesome, physical weight on my shoulders. It wasn’t painful or scary, but it was overwhelming. There was a tender warmth and a sense of presence; an infinite love that accompanied the weight. I could hear the waves of the sea, but it was as if I was one with it; the stars above me seemed to shine with a supernatural brightness. Words can’t describe the experience except for “I met God”. What was striking was that we all had this similar experience together.  

That experience lasted maybe two minutes, but those two minutes shifted the trajectory of my life. I am now a Christian with all the bells and whistles like miracles, resurrection, afterlife... And look, I’m not gullible. Maybe I was primed, perhaps it was placebo wish-fulfilment, maybe it was something in the water or just a run-of-the-mill hallucination. Despite this, I am fully and rationally convinced that my experience was real; not just in a subjective in-my-head reality, but a genuine something-outside-the-material-realm-met-me kind of reality. So obviously, this is also a very personal question. The stakes are high. But it’s not just for me but for many, if not most, people in our lives.  

If it turns out that only a fraction of spiritual experiences are real... the universe becomes wilder and infinitely more exciting and untamed than the 20th Century would have us believe 

I can tell you now that I can probably explain away most of the stories I have heard from friends and strangers about spiritual experiences to coincidence, enthusiasm, lack of sleep, and mushrooms.

But not all… and that’s crucial.

Even if 99 per cent of them are total illusions, that one per cent has the potential to change everything. If it turns out that only a fraction of spiritual experiences are real, that they are actually moments when a human being encounters something beyond the material world, everything changes. The universe becomes wilder and infinitely more exciting and untamed than the 20th Century would have us believe. No longer an inert mass of stardust, our world becomes ablaze with spiritual fire. Things that we find most valuable in human existence then start to have the potential to be real. Actually real. Love can be real. Beauty can be real. Our sense of self-worth and infinite dignity can be real. God can also be real which raises complicated emotions.  

Your spiritual experiences don’t make you crazy. They make you human. The question is, what are you going to do about it? You could ignore them and explain them away, continuing with the materialist dogma of today. That’s safe, but you could also risk missing out on the most important experiences and insights of your entire life. I often wonder how different Genevieve Foster’s life may have been had she been able to openly talk about and explore the implications of her experience. Or, you could pay attention to them and see where they lead. They don’t come often, and they don’t last very long but when they come, they are like unexpected gifts that have the potential to change your life forever. 

 

Article
Art
Culture
1 min read

St Kilda: sketching sanctuary and struggle

A remote Scottish island’s many meanings catch an artist’s eye.

Alastair Gordon is co-founder of Morphē Arts, a painter and art tutor at Leith School of Art. He works from his studio in London and exhibits across the UK, Europe and the US. 

An artist holds a sketchbook while standing overlooking a deserted village by a bay, sided by jagged cliffs.
Sketching on St Kilda.

Nestled amidst the tempestuous waters of the North Atlantic Ocean, the islands of St Kilda stand as a testament to isolation unparalleled in the British Isles. Located miles out from the Scottish mainland, the islands form an archipelago that rises defiantly, resembling a fortress of solitude amidst the tumultuous waves. 

In 1930, the islanders made a heartfelt plea to be evacuated from their beloved home, as the challenges of survival had become insurmountable. This marked the poignant conclusion of a remarkable two thousand years of human existence on the islands and no permanent community has been established since. Presently, St Kilda stands as a wild and desolate terrain, teeming with a diverse array of wildlife. Amongst the rugged slopes, one can witness the unexpected presence of wild sheep, descendants of the original livestock once cared for by the community. Following the evacuation, the sheep were left to roam freely, adapting to their newfound freedom. Isolated from the outside world for countless centuries, the islands have even given rise to their own unique subspecies of mouse and wren, a testament to the extraordinary resilience of life in this remote haven. 

It took me three arduous attempts, spread across consecutive years, to finally set foot on the elusive Hirta, the main island in a cluster of islets and sea stacks known collectively as St Kilda. Access to this remote wilderness is only granted during the warmer months, and my previous endeavours had been thwarted by relentless bouts of stormy weather. However, these failed attempts only served to intensify my determination, turning the eventual arrival into a pilgrimage of sorts, where the sweet taste of success was amplified by the challenges overcome. 

Standing at the water's edge, I found myself contemplating the concept of an island as a unique form of solitude, a refuge or retreat, perhaps even a hermitage or prison. 

As St Kilda emerged on the horizon, it appeared like a jagged tooth or a mystical axis mundi, a place where the earthly and spiritual realms intersect. Despite its wild and untamed nature, the island is paradoxically dominated by the imposing presence of the Ministry of Defence. Strange listening devices and radars loom over the cliff tops, as if engaged in a silent conversation with the world beyond. Stories of St Kilda often carry an air of romanticism, but the reality of island life was harsh and unforgiving. 

As our boat ventured into the circular embrace of St Kilda, a sudden stillness descended upon the waters, transforming the surroundings into an idyllic oasis of tranquillity. The island, formed from the remnants of a volcanic eruption, boasts a natural harbour in the shape of a perfect circle, its walls rising like a majestic amphitheatre to a towering height of 426 metres, equivalent to the Empire State Building, before plunging abruptly into a sheer drop.  

The village, consisting of a single street lined with stone cottages known as Black Houses, was the epicentre of island life. Daily existence revolved around the rhythms of fishing, agriculture, and church. Each morning, the island parliament convened to allocate the day's tasks, which often involved harvesting birds, tending to livestock, and repairing nets. Every year, the men of the island would scale the treacherous cliffs with nothing more than homemade ropes to gather the young birds from their precarious nests, while their protective parents swooped and dived in an attempt to thwart such pillaging. Winters were harsh, and the traditions of the church were strict. Missionaries were sent to the island to minister to the faithful, imposing a rigid routine of spiritual disciplines that seemed to serve as both law and religion.  

Upon reaching the shore, we were greeted by the island steward, one of only two current inhabitants of the island and resident only in the warmer months. Unless, of course, one counts the Ministry of Defence, whose enigmatic presence permeates every corner of the island. Their satellite dishes and listening posts loom ominously, as if engaged in some clandestine communication with an unseen realm, shattering the illusion of complete wilderness.  

Standing at the water's edge, I found myself contemplating the concept of an island as a unique form of solitude, a refuge or retreat, perhaps even a hermitage or prison. It brought to mind the image of Superman in his fortress of solitude or Edmond Dantès, a victim of misfortune, imprisoned and abandoned until the idea of the Count allowed for a rebirth. 

But deep down, I knew that this fantasy was far from the brutal reality faced by those who eked out a living on the edge of the world 

As a child, I often sought solace on islands during family holidays. There was something about the encircling presence of land surrounded by water that evoked a sense of tranquillity, a sanctuary away from the worries of the world. A sacred space where a weary soul could commune with the divine.  

As I ascended the steep walls of Hirta, my camera in hand and sketchbook tucked under my arm, I couldn't help but feel a sense of purpose. I felt like one of those Romantic painters of the previous century who attempted to bring a taste of the natural sublime to the city dwellers, trapped in their concrete jungles and smog-filled air. In that moment, I released mine is not the task of modern-day Romantic painter, venturing into the wilderness to capture moments of awe-inspiring beauty but to chronicle the mundane moments of domestic sublime as witnessed by this landscape through centuries of human inhabitation. The images I captured and the sketches I made now form the basis of new paintings to feature in an upcoming exhibition at An Lanntair gallery in Stornoway.  

But as I continued my climb, I couldn't help but question the romantic notions that had fuelled my journey. The landscape itself remained indifferent to my perception of it. It cared not for the grand narratives I projected onto its rugged terrain. It simply existed, unyielding and unapologetic. 

And what of St Kilda? Was it truly an idyllic haven, shielded from the political and ecological pollutants of the outside world? Or was it a fortress of solitude, where harsh regimes and a cruel climate ruled? Perhaps it was an oxymoron, embodying both extremes simultaneously. 

As our boat sailed away from the island, I found myself pondering the reality of life on St Kilda. What was it truly like to inhabit such a remote place? At times, I allowed my imagination to wander, envisioning a utopia where crime was unheard of, where the absence of policing was a testament to the inherent goodness of humanity. But deep down, I knew that this fantasy was far from the brutal reality faced by those who eked out a living on the edge of the world. Life on St Kilda must have been a constant struggle, a battle against the elements, made bearable only by the flickering hope of a better future. 

As I packed away my camera and sketchbook, I couldn't help but feel a sense of gratitude for the opportunity to glimpse into the past, to touch the remnants of a forgotten world. The exhibition I will present in Stornoway will be more than just a collection of art; it will be a tribute to the resilience of the islanders, not just in St Kilda but across the Outer Hebrides in times of hardship, to their ability to find beauty and hope in the harshest of circumstances. And as I prepare to share their story again through painting, I hope that it will serve as a reminder of the fragility and strength of the human spirit, even in the face of isolation and adversity. 

 

Alastair Gordon is an artist based in Edinburgh and London. His new exhibition of paintings opens at An Lanntair in Stornoway, Isle of Harris 31 May 2024. The exhibition coincides with a parallel two-person exhibition with Elaine Woo MacGregor opening the same night at Cynthia Corbett Gallery, London.