COMMON CHALLENGES FOLLOWING A SPIRITUALLY TRANSFORMATIVE EXPERIENCE
American Center for the Integration of Spiritually Transformative Experiences (ACISTE)
March 4, 2010
Note: There is very little research that addresses common needs and challenges following a spiritually transformative experience. To our knowledge, no formal research based determination of need in this important area has ever been conducted. As ACISTE gathers more research data, this site will be revised and updated. The following represents a summary of what is known to date. It relies heavily on smaller studies of one category of spiritually transformative experiences — the near-death experience.
As part of the integration process that leads to positive changes and transformations following a spiritually transformative experience, an experiencer may also have to deal with one or more challenges. Not every person who has had a spiritually transformative experience deals with difficult challenges, nor to the same degree.The intensity, scope, or absence of the challenges depend on many factors, including the age or health of the experiencer, their cultural background beliefs and attitudes prior to the experience, the content of the experience and/or how the experience was accepted by one’s significant relationships,including spouses, parents, friends, colleagues, doctors, clergy, therapists, etc.
The following is a list and description of possible challenges faced by people who have had one or more spiritually transformative experiences. The challenges may overlap and they may not occur in the sequence provided.
Common challenges include:
• Processing a radical shift in reality
• Accepting the return and “homesickness”
• Issues related to sharing the experience
• Integrating new spiritual values with earthly expectations
• Problems dealing with psychic abilities
• Increased sensitivity to electricity, chemicals, smells, sounds, etc.
• A yearning to find and live one’s purpose
Depending on the severity of these challenges and other life factors, an experiencer may have difficulty with isolation, depression, anxiety, divorce, substance abuse or financial distress.
Processing a radical shift in reality
A spiritually transformative experience can be a dramatic and complete immersion into a reality unlike anything experienced in one’s life previously. As a result of this experience, experiencers may undergo a permanent and complete paradigm shift in their views of their roles in life, reality and what happens when they die. It can be a sudden diversion from one’s accustomed perspective on life and catalyst for profound change. Childhood experiencers may not describe or remember their lives prior to their experiences, but are impacted by feeling different from children who have not had these experiences.
Unlike dreams or hallucinations, STErs often describe their experiences as either equally real or more real than reality itself. To re-enter one’s body or reality after this experience, with a new view of self and life’s purpose, much time is needed to process the experience and all of its implications. The adjustment or integration period can continue for years or for the rest of one’s life. Henceforth, experiencers may struggle to integrate or bring into balance the two differing subjective experiences of reality — a physical and a non-physical realm, this life and an afterlife, an earthly reality and a spiritual reality.
Accepting the return and “homesickness”
How easily an experiencer accepts being returned to his or her life depends on many of the above-mentioned factors. While many experiencers may refer to the reality of their experiences as “home,” not all experiences are filled with love and light. Some may be extremely frightening.
In the case of uplifting experiences, many can develop a yearning to return or become “homesick” which can be an ongoing challenge or one that is intermittent. The yearning for “home” can be so strong that some may become depressed or even consider suicide. They may not carry out their suicides, for fear or guilt, or religious concerns. Others may feel ungrounded for some time, or devote themselves to spiritual or meditative practices in the attempt to recapture the love and peace felt in their experience.
In the case of near-death experiencers, a good percentage choose to return to their bodies, for the sake of loved ones or other reasons, however many more are not given a choice to return at all. Emotions regarding the return can range from anger to giddiness at the thought of being able to serve others. Other emotions are fear, disappointment, bitterness, unhappiness, acceptance, rejection, gratitude, confusion, relief and humility.
Near-death experiencers, in particular, may still be dealing with the physical pain, illness and/or emotional traumas that led up to the experience in the first place, which can acerbate any feelings of homesickness, sadness or anger over being sent back.
Issues related to sharing the experience
One of the most common challenges experiencers face are those related to labeling, describing and sharing their experiences. At the same time, research has indicated that in order to successfully integrate the meaning and impact of these experiences, experiencers need to be able to share them and discuss their meanings and consequences in supportive contexts. Yet, most experiencers deal invalidating, uninformed, or otherwise harm-producing responses or do not share them at all, for fear of invalidation. The need to disclose or share the experience, especially immediately afterwards, may be intense, especially with one’s loved ones. Their response can greatly influence whether or when the experiencer chooses to share his or her experience again. Perhaps the least shared experiences are those which may invoke ridicule or judgment, including those who had suicidal near-death experiences, ones associated with substance abuse or for those who had terrifying or distressing experiences.
Dealing with invalidation
Another issue related to sharing the experience is coping with traumatic and isolating effects of having shared this very intimate and personal experience with doctors, family members or trusted friends who were dismissive, misunderstanding, or otherwise negative. There is a valid concern that one could be pathologized or diagnosed with a mental illness by uninformed professional healthcare providers. Experiencers have reported divorce, ex-communication from churches and being fired from jobs for issues related to sharing the experience. As long as people commonly dismiss these experiences as “dreams,” “tricks played by Satan” or hallucinations, experiencers’ fears are well justified — hence the importance of confidentiality within ACISTE.
There several kinds of invalidating responses, even from well-intentioned persons. While a near-death experiencer may be seeking validation and understanding, listeners may be more interested in the details surrounding the manner of death. Others may be curious about the experience, but are seeking confirmation in that experience for their own religious or spiritual beliefs. Others may not believe in a person’s near-death experience because the experiencer was not clinically dead or did not see a tunnel or other expected feature. Others may expect an experiencer to behave more positively or have certain attitudes or beliefs because of their experience. If their expectations are not met, they may dismiss the experience or reject the experiencer.
Even in a supportive context, experiencers struggle to express what happened to them because there is no earthly comparison or existing vocabulary for much of the content of the experience. Those can include new and palpable feelings of love, peace, unity, timelessness or all-knowing. There may be perceptions, colors and sounds never felt, seen or heard before. The inability to convey the totality of the experience leaves many feeling that other people can never truly share, comprehend or believe them.
As a result of the difficulties related to sharing many have kept their experiences to themselves for decades, often with stressful consequences. Some have never shared their experiences even with family members. Experiencers often report feelings of alienation, isolation or depression.
Integrating new spiritual values with earthly expectations
The values, message and meaning of the experience are often completely inconsistent with one’s life prior to the experience, but the experiencer is compelled to align that inconsistent life with his or her new paradigm. Perhaps the most common message in these experiences is the importance of unconditional love and how we treat each other on earth. Experiencers are frequently given implicit instructions, guidance warnings, lessons, prophecies, knowledge or messages. They report feeling challenged, urged or compelled to live up to these upon their return becoming more compassionate, forgiving tolerant loving or empathetic.
These new outlooks, directions and changes can bring friction in almost all important areas of an experiencer’s life. The experience affects relationships with others, careers, money, religion, spirituality, etc. Divorce and career changes bring on stressful emotional and financial upheaval, in addition to the other challenges an experiencer faces. In studies of near-death experiencers, the divorce rate among adult experiencers is higher than that of non-experiencers.
Changes in attitudes towards careers and money
Experiencers frequently report career changes due at least in part to their experiences. Conflicting values and attitudes may be: “A position of power no longer meant anything to me.” “I saw how my job was irrelevant.” “I couldn’t handle how they treated people.” “They took earthbound things too seriously.” “They saw me as weak.” “I could no longer tolerate the avarice and greed.” “I had a heightened intuition about what was happening and didn’t dare speak the truth.” “It wasn’t acceptable to talk about my experience at work.” Experiencers may have difficulty in choosing new careers or directions that are more closely aligned with his or her spiritual values. To meet this challenge, experiencers often turn to careers or volunteer work with charitable organizations or service-oriented businesses.
Changes in religious views
Experiencers may no longer hold conventional views of “heaven,” “hell,” “God,” “evil,” or “sin.” In one study, 78% of near-death experiencers said their attitudes about their religious upbringing changed following their NDEs. An experiencer’s new and often passionate views of spirituality and/or religion, can evoke tension and even hostility among family members and religious followers. A radical change in spiritual, religious views may alienate the experiencer from previous relationships with family, friends and one’s traditional religious community. Some may strengthen their previously held religious views and become more involved with their religious communities.
Changes in societal, political views
Views towards social issues of violence, prejudice, disease, poverty, or justice often become very pronounced. An experiencer may become an activist or intensely devoted to a cause that previously held little or no interest to him or her. Changes in political or social views can bring additional tensions to spouses, family members and friends who once shared similar views.
Changes in attitudes toward death
As the vast majority of near-death experiencers lose their fear toward death, they may express a joy or assurance in the afterlife for the dying or the grieving. These helpful emotions can be difficult to suppress as they see their loved ones suffer, in their view, perhaps needlessly. These views can put them at odds with family members who may misinterpret an experiencer’s confidence in the afterlife. Many experiencers become hospice workers or spiritual counselors for the dying and the bereaved.
Changes in attitudes toward healing
While little research has been done in this area, it can be surmised from changes in careers that experiencers change their attitudes in what causes or heals disease. Many experiencers become healers using energy, visualization, intuitive or other alternative approaches to standard medical treatments. They themselves may be reluctant to seek out medical attention for a number of reasons, including a lack of confidence in medical procedures, heightened sensitivities to chemicals, an aversion to the system itself, a belief in the power to heal themselves, or by alternative methods, a belief that the health problem is the result of fate, punishment or spiritual lesson, or they may have a yearning to return “home.” These beliefs may frustrate family members or friends of the experiencer who rely on standard medical procedures as their chief source of healing.
Problems dealing with psychic abilities
Of all spiritually transformative experiences, near-death events have been the most studied, especially as it relates to aftereffects. Initial survey results by ACISTE indicate that these same aftereffects apply, whether or not an experiencer was close to death. As part of the change experiencers undergo, they describe the challenge of adjusting to heightened sensitivities and or psychic gifts, not all of which were welcomed. In one study, 78% of near-death experiencers said that these heightened sensitivities or gifts caused them problems.
In this same study, 100% of the respondents reported a heightened awareness and sensitivity to strong emotions and negative behaviors. Typical comments were: “I had to be alone with my senses a lot. This caused a problem with my relationships.” “It’s hard for other people to understand why I am so sensitive.” “Lying behavior is most troublesome.” “I feel other people’s pain.” “I would pick up on people’s anxiety and get stomach problems.” “I walk out of places that feel evil.”
83% reported being more acutely sensitive or aware of smells, visions, tastes, sounds and/or touch. The majority reported a heightened awareness or sensitivity to electricity, energetic fields, chi and/or auras.
In addition to these aftereffects, they may report one or more psychic abilities. The abilities may include:
• intuitive, auditory or visual knowledge of what is or what is to come
• seeing auras
• ability to communicate with animals
• automatic writing
While many people may embrace or seek these abilities, that is not necessarily the case with some experiencers. These abilities can surprise and disrupt one’s customary thought processes and actions. Some may adjust them into their lives or turn them into careers, accepting them as gifts, while others described how they prayed to be “left alone.”
Increased sensitivity to electricity, chemicals, smells, sounds, etc.
Many experiencers report a heightened sensitivity to electricity, chemicals, smells, loud noises, etc. They frequently describe difficulties readjusting into previously “normal” environments, job settings, situations and events. The sensitivity towards electricity or energetic fields can be so intense that experiencers may feel they cannot work with computers, wear watches or be around electrical devices. They may believe devices not only malfunction in their presence, but feel uncomfortable around any event, device or person who generates “negative energy.”
Some report new allergies or sensitivities to chemicals or smells. Many to turn to organic foods, avoid perfume or scented or chemically treated products.
A yearning to find and live one’s purpose
Experiencers may struggle not just with the fact that they were sent back, but also with the reason for it. Some are told they have a purpose, but they may not be told what it is. Many rely on some form of guidance or intuition to make their decisions, but others struggle with finding a specific purpose. Experiencers may agree that, in general, we are here to serve and show unconditional love, but that may be a tall order – short on specifics and difficult to apply.
Many believe that everything happens for a reason, although they may not know what those reasons are. Some believe that we chose our lessons. Comments may include: “It’s all homework.” “It’s not the experience, but how we respond to it.” “We manifest our own disasters.” “To keep us on the path.” “In order to appreciate life more, we must experience loss.” These are beliefs that often run counter to traditional religious views.
Experiencers may have a very urgent need to live according to the message or values learned in the experience. Some may fear returning without having fulfilled their mission.
ACISTE urges more research in this area. Please support our efforts by donating or let us know of research being conducted to understand and meet the needs of people who have had these experiences.