* This text is adapted from the “Cultural competency guidelines for professionals working with clients who report issues related to their Spiritually Transformative Experiences”, a document developed by the American Center for the Integration of Spiritually Transformative Experiences. The guidelines are intended as an introductory or summary aid to helping mental health or spiritual guidance professionals work more effectively with clients who report issues related to their spiritually transformative experiences. The guidelines were created, edited and reviewed by a team of experiencers, spiritual guidance counselors and mental health professionals. Please visit www.aciste.org for the latest versions.
ACISTE (American Center for the Integration of Spiritually Transformative Experiences) was established in 2009 to support people who have spiritually transformative experiences (STEs). We welcome experiencers of diverse backgrounds and beliefs and address a wide variety of STEs. ACISTE is both a community of experiencers and a non-profit corporation.
What is a spiritually transformative experience?
An experience is spiritually transformative when it causes people to perceive themselves and the world profoundly differently: by expanding the individual’s identity, augmenting their sensitivities, and thereby altering their values, priorities and appreciation of the purpose of life.
There are many types and many names for experiences that can share common features and be catalysts for spiritual transformation: near-death experiences, near-death-like experiences, out-of-body experiences, visions, spiritual awakenings, spiritual emergencies, kundalini awakenings, spiritual enlightenment, exceptional human experiences, pre-birth memories, past-life experiences, nearing death awareness, after-death communications, empathic or shared near-death experiences, peak experiences, conversion experiences, etc.
These experiences include or may be called altered states, numinous, noetic, transcendent, transpersonal, mystical, anomalous, religious, paranormal, parapsychological, or ecstatic experiences.
Not all spiritual experiences are “transformative.” Whether or not an experience is transformative depends on the nature of the experience, one’s age at the time of the experience, on the experiencer’s culture and personal spiritual beliefs, and on whether the experience(s) have been integrated into one’s personality and everyday life.
Not all paranormal, psychic, out-of-body, alien or other “otherworldly” experiences are spiritually transformative.
These experiences can happen to anyone, at any time, spontaneously or through intention, for any length of time and under any circumstance – including during clinical death as with near-death experiences. Induced spiritual experiences can happen through meditation, breathwork, drug intake, sensory deprivation, prayer, ceremonial or religious rituals, shamanic drumming, ritual dancing, in sweat lodges, in natural settings, during sex or sleep, or after extended periods of physical exertion, fasting, pain or silence, etc.
They can also occur while conducting ordinary activity such as while conversing or driving a car. A person who has had – or is having – a spiritually transformative or emergent experience – with its subsequent changes or differences in values, beliefs and identity can become part of a larger shared culture or part of distinctive individual culture(s)
Transformation following a spiritual experience can involve positive, negative, or mixed effects on feelings and/or functioning. The effects or challenges can be temporary or enduring.
What follows is a summary of a variety of challenges as described by the American Center for the Integration of Spiritually Transformative Experiences:
A. Processing a Radical Shift One’s Reality
Experiencing life as an illusion or a dream.
Confusion. What just happened to me? What now?
Questioning one’s mental health. Am I really going crazy? Am I the only person who had this experience?
Dealing with a variety of emotions – including anger and depression – over being “sent back.” (often after a near-death or similar experience)
Having a sense of no longer belonging in the world.
Mourning over the loss of one’s life or identity prior to the experiences, in particular after a near-death or similar experience in young adulthood or adulthood.
Identity crisis, questioning or finding one’s identity.
Being preoccupied with the spirit world to the detriment of one’s family, job, and friends.
Depressed or suicidal – wanting desperately to return – “homesick.” Wanting to leave one’s body (die) to return “home” again.
Anxiety over death and the afterlife (often after a frightening experience) or that one is being punished in this reality (life as hell).
A sense of unworthiness for having such an awesome experience.
Fear and confusion around unresolved shadow or psycho/emotional issues that may now spontaneously emerge.
B. Sharing the Experience
Frustration over being unable to share the experience due to its ineffable, beyond-language quality.
Alienation, isolation, divorce, substance abuse, loneliness over being unable to share or discuss the gifts, wisdom, information or values with significant others.
Depression over having world solutions, all-knowledge, warnings or prophecies learned in the experience, but nobody seems to care or listen.
Depression over one’s inability to express exuberance or excitement about the experiences with others who may interpret the exuberance as grandiosity or feeling “chosen” or “special.”
Stress over needing to keep such a profound experience to one’s self or that one cannot be true when interacting with others.
A sense of being different from others (frequently true for childhood experiences).
Dealing with abuse, ridicule, judgment, abandonment, demonizing, or pathologizing by others.
In the case of a distressing experience, dealing with compounded alienation and stressors.
C. Integrating New Spiritual Values and Knowledge with Worldly Expectations
Broken or strained relationships with family, religious community, or friends due to changed values and previous worldviews, religious beliefs, attitudes or behavior.
Struggles with ego, ego loss, or self-importance.
Difficult decisions with careers, choice of jobs, money, etc. that may run counter to the lessons learned in the experience.
Difficulties with boundaries, competition, rules or limits.
Feelings of relative invulnerability.
A grandiose, messianic zeal, special favor or sense of destiny that can be taken to positive or negative extremes.
Approaching life less cautiously, taking more risks or less care with one’s physical health.
Depression over the inability to remember all of the knowledge that was gained in the experience.
D. Adjusting to Hypersensitivities and Psychic Aftereffects
Experiencing trauma-like aftereffects and flashbacks.
Developing hypersensitivities to energy, noise, emotions, chemicals, electro-magnetic fields, negativity, etc.
Concerns on how to protect oneself from negative energy or entities.
Experiencing psychic aftereffects – seeing auras, affecting electricity, feeling others’ emotions, sensing the future.
Feeling ungrounded, disconnected, off balance. Difficulties focusing or concentrating.
Anxiety over evil or dark energies.
Fear that one’s body has been taken over or will be taken over by another spirit.
E. Finding Purpose
Questioning what the experience means for one’s life and beyond.
Experiencing a sense of inadequacy, frustration or stress over finding and living one’s purpose. What is it? Can I ever measure up? Is God punishing me?
Having difficulty with new directions, decisions, and finding one’s desired place in the world.
Questioning life’s events and what they might mean in a spiritual context.
F. Challenges specific to Childhood Experiencers
Isolation: feeling different than other children, being teased, bullied or called out in front of other children over their experience(s).
Often gifted, very sensitive, introspective, preferring to spend time alone or around adults, not enjoying childhood, feeling older than their age.
May spend a lot of time expressing themselves in the arts.
Difficulty focusing on schoolwork (can be confused with ADD/ADHD).
Dealing with possible pathologization by parents or professionals.
Children with pre-birth memories of a soul or spirit family may have difficulty bonding with birth parents.
Acting out or becoming angry for no apparent reason.
Research demonstrates that the profound changes and aftereffects associated with spiritually transformative experiences may require an extended period of adjustment and/or psycho-spiritual exploration and development.
Integration of the spiritually transformative experiences
Integration is ideally achieved when the experience, its meaning and its aftereffects have been incorporated into one’s life to a degree that is assuring to the experiencer; and when accompanying challenges, stresses, and disruptions are reduced to an acceptable minimum. When integration is achieved, experiencers recognize that their experience is now an important part of their lives, congruent not only with their attitudes but also their actions.
A healthy balance between the spiritual and worldly self brings about wholeness. The individual now feels a sense of oneness and connection to other people, the world, and to a higher power. Splits and dualities dissolve; life and death are felt to be the natural cycle of life, life purpose is strong, compassion and forgiveness are felt for others, attachments to events, situations and material objects are greatly reduced; and life is lived more gently and with greater ease.