Research — 28 August 2015

Spiritual experiences are not often talked about in psychology. But two Massey University researchers are looking to change that.

Psychology lecturer and international near-death experience expert Dr Natasha Tassell-Matamua and Dr Karen Frewin, a registered psychologist and senior lecturer in counselling and guidance at Massey’s Institute of Education, have just launched a national study investigating spiritually-transformative experiences.

What is a spiritual experience?

Dr Tassell-Matamua defines such experiences as “any subjective psychological occurrence that provides the individual with the perception of transcendence” and that contradicts materialist models of reality.

Near-death experiences (NDEs), near-death-like experiences (NDLEs), out-of-body experiences (OBEs), meditation experiences, kundalini, and peak experiences, are just some phenomena that could be categorised as spiritually transformative. A near-death experience can encompass a subjective sense of leaving the body, travelling down a tunnel, meeting deceased others, being absorbed in a bright light or seeing life quickly pass before you.

Near death-like experiences involve the same phenomena but without the physiological danger of dying, while an out-of-body experience means the person feels their conscious being has separated from their body. Kundalini – achieved through yogic meditation – involves an intense sensation of energy moving up the spine and an accompanying feeling of awakening or enlightenment, and peak experience refers to a heightened feeling of one-ness, connection, timelessness or transcendence.

“What we do know is that often these experiences precipitate a variety of life changes and pervasive psychological shifts in those who have them,” says Dr Frewin. “Positive implications can include increased quality of life and perceived well-being. Often a greater sense of spirituality is also a consequence.”

Spiritual element in many people’s lives

Research suggests the majority of people, at least in Western cultures, place personal importance on spirituality, with many indicating they have had at least one ‘spiritual experience’ in their lifetime.

“One of the issues people often face is integrating the experience into their life”, says Dr Frewin. “Because of the unusual nature of spiritual experiences, some people may find them difficult to differentiate from some mental illnesses, which leaves them wondering whether they are ‘crazy’ after having such an unusual experience.”

Dr Frewin states despite the difficulty some people have with understanding the experience, the beneficial changes that can occur for many indicate they could serve a positive psychological function, and have implications for psychotherapy and understandings of anomalous phenomena.

“We are interested in finding out who has these experiences, how they are described, and the ways people who have them integrate them into their lives”, says Dr Tassell-Matamua.

“The positive and negative implications are of equal importance to us. We want to gain a snapshot of how ordinary New Zealanders view spiritual experiences and how they are transformed by them.”

Gap in psychologists’ understanding of spiritual experiences

Current research suggests many health practitioners, including psychologists, endorse the role of spirituality in mental health, but many lack the competence and training to respond to clients reporting concerns of a spiritual nature.

Dr Frewin believes the study will provide a foundation for addressing competency requirements of mental health practitioners in New Zealand, as they relate to spirituality in general, and spiritually transformative experiences in particular.

The researchers are currently recruiting New Zealanders aged 18 and over who think they may have had a spiritually transformative experience and want to participate in the research, through an online survey: Survey on Spiritually Transformative Experiences.

This article first appeared on ‘Massey University News’ on 28 August 2015.

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