The idea that spiritual and mystical experiences occur (or are more apt to occur) in conditions of psychological distress and crisis has a long history (see Sacco, 2013, for a review).
Research has found stressful life contexts to be a common antecedent of spiritual transformations.
Many psychologists have written on this connection. Some have concluded there may be a “need” to have a spiritual transformation to overcome the depression and that a spiritual transformation “results” (Spilka, Brown, & Cassidy, 1992).
Noting that distressing psychological circumstances often precede spiritual transformations, Spilka et al. (1992) have viewed spiritual transformations as attributions.
Attribution theory looks at the way people attribute causes to things they observe. Attributions are motivated by three fundamental aims:
Applying these ideas to spiritual transformation, you might think a person’s life before spiritual transformation should evidence signs of:
You might then think that spiritual transformations are one way to counteract feeling miserable by offering new meaning, a greater sense of control, and a sense of self-esteem.
You might want to think twice about believing in an attributional account of spiritual transformation for one crucial reason: Spiritual experience associated with crisis can be predicted.
More recently, researchers have found that spiritual transformation is not such a simple process. While spiritual transformation does seem to take place during a period of crisis in the life of the individual, these changes may be related to the effects of dynamical instability.
For example, spiritual experience associated with crisis at age 18 can be predicted by mathematical modelling. In this case, newer theories and models are needed to better account for unusual experiences and phenomena during periods of stress.
Therefore, contrary to an attributional account spiritual transformation during crisis may have a dynamical explanation.
Just because we don’t fully understand mystical experience doesn’t mean they are all in our heads, by any means.
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