Spiritual Awakenings: Scientists and Academics Describe Their Experiences, edited by Marjorie Woollacott and David Lorimer

Reviewed by James E. Kennedy

This anthology has autobiographical descriptions of the “spiritual awakening” experiences of 57 people with advanced degrees and academic backgrounds. The narratives describe a wide variety of experiences that influenced the people to a more spiritual worldview. The book makes a useful, but limited, contribution to the study of spiritual and paranormal experiences.

The contributors were apparently selected because they have certain views, and therefore cannot be considered a representative sample of scientists and academics. This book is the third in a series published by the Academy for the Advancement of Postmaterialist Sciences (AAPS). The mission of the AAPS is to promote the view that consciousness is more than a process emerging from materialistic neural processing in the brain. A common hypothesis or assumption in AAPS writings is that something like a transcendent realm of consciousness exists and manifests in mystical and paranormal experiences. The contributions to this book were by invitation and were apparently selected to support the mission of AAPS. The book cannot be generalized beyond the conclusion that some scientists and academics who have views consistent with the AAPS have reported spiritual awakening experiences. 

By my count, promoting more spiritual worldviews became the major professional activity for 70 percent (40/57) of the contributors. About 75 percent (43/57) of the contributors appeared to be scientists and the other 25 percent academic. About 40 percent (17/43) of the scientists were in psychology or psychiatry. Of the 14 academics, 5 were in religious studies and 4 were in philosophy. The cultural backgrounds for the contributors included the U.S., Europe, India, and China. The contributors included well known paranormal investigators and writers, such as Chris Roe, Etzel Cardeña, Edward F. Kelly, Brenda Dunne, Gary E. Schwartz, Stephan A. Schwartz, Kenneth Ring, Eben Alexander, and Michael Grosso.

Even though the contributors were selected for relatively homogeneous worldviews and education levels, the diversity of the experiences and diversity of the paths to their spiritual worldviews are striking. Some contributors reported classic mystical direct contact with a transcendent consciousness or divinity. Others reported various experiences of energy and light, miraculous healing, communication with discarnate entities, precognition, and telepathy. Several reported developing an interest in spirituality without a major life-changing experience. The conditions at the time of the experiences included during meditation practices, during and awakening from sleep, through psychedelics, near death, in nature, while reading, and other activities in a normal waking state. 

The experiences appear to have been adapted to different cultures, backgrounds, and personalities. For example, the anonymous contributor for Chapter Nine reported experiences of energy and light that were consistent with certain beliefs that were prevalent during his upbringing in China, but are not common in western cultures. The editors of the book commented in the Epilogue that the experiences:

… are as varied as the personalities and backgrounds of the authors who experienced them. Yet, despite their variability, each of these transformative experiences leads the individual inexorably toward the awareness of their own connection with a vaster consciousness (p. 243).

The adaptations in a particular situation may reflect what was needed to produce a spiritual influence for a particular person, with some persons needing a more dramatic influence than others. A variety of evidence suggests that paranormal phenomena tend to inspire an enhanced sense of connectedness, meaning in life, and spirituality, and these may be the primary purpose of the phenomena (Kennedy, 2004). 

On the other hand, these apparent individual adaptations could also be considered as evidence that the experiences were entirely self-generated imagination. That is particularly plausible for subjective mystical experiences. However, a common result of mystical experiences was well described in the narrative by physicist Federico Faggin:

This was direct knowing, stronger than the certainty that human logic provides—a knowing from the inside (gnosis) rather than from the outside. A knowing that involved for the first time the concurrrent resonance of all my conscious aspects: the physical, emotional, mental and spiritual (p. 80).

As noted by William James (1902, pp. 414-415) and others who have studied mystical experiences, it is a waste of time to try to convince people that the direct knowledge from their personal mystical experiences may not be valid. This appears to be true even with the highly educated contributors to this book. Reciprocally, it is also a waste of time to try to convince people with more materialistic dispositions and life experiences that the subjective mystical experiences of others provide valid knowledge (James, 1902, pp. 415-418; Kennedy, 2005).

One significant question is whether personal spiritual and related paranormal experiences should be publicly presented. This point was raised in the narratives by Etzel Cardeña, Bernard Carr, and particularly by Peter Reason. An alternative recommendation to “go and tell no one” may be optimal for personal spiritual development (Sinetar, 2000, p. 51) and may minimize the tendency for a spiritually retrograde attitude of superiority because one has had such experiences (Kennedy, 2005). With some reservations, Reason and Carr came to the conclusion that sharing their experiences may have value to others. Cardeña shared some of his experiences and kept others private.

The rationale for sharing the experiences is particularly strong for those pursuing scientific research on these topics. I had many paranormal experiences that appeared to guide my life, but I generally adhered to the principle of not talking about them. However, in 2000 I realized that I considered my experiences to provide more reliable insights about psi than did experimental research (because of the inconsistent experimental results, weak methodology, and high likelihood of experimenter effects). My working assumptions about psi were based primarily on my personal experiences. Keeping secret the key evidence that was motivating my research was not an acceptable scientific practice. After several years of being persistently encouraged by Rhea White, I finally published a paper about my experiences (Kennedy, 2000). That paper also has references to several other researchers whom White encouraged to publish descriptions of their personal experiences and the aftereffects. 

Those who are conducting scientific research motivated by personal paranormal and spiritual experiences should consider whether it is appropriate as a matter of transparent science to make their experiences and resulting worldviews known—as did the contributors to this book. In general, science would be more transparent if researchers openly described their worldviews and the experiences that influenced those worldviews. Among other benefits, the personal biases of the scientists would be more apparent. Ideally, scientists would conduct themselves with greater self-awareness of their biases and more respect for those with different dispositions and life experiences. Of course, caution may be warranted in the real world if such revelations could threaten a person’s position or funding. 

James, W. (1902). The varieties of religious experience. Random House. 
Kennedy, J.E. (2000). Do people guide psi or does psi guide people? Evidence and implications from life and lab.    Journal of the American Society for Psychical Research, 94, 130-150.
Kennedy, J.E. (2004). What is the purpose of psi? Journal of the American Society for Psychical Research, 98
Kennedy, J.E. (2005). Personality and motivations to believe, misbelieve, and disbelieve in paranormal 
   phenomena. Journal of Parapsychology, 69, 263-292. 
Sinetar, M. (2000). Sometimes enough is enough. HarperCollins.

This review first appeared in the Journal of the Society for Psychical Research, volume 86(4).