21 Examples of Spiritual Experiences
At Uplift, we integrate the best of ancient wisdom and modern science as part of our approach to spirituality. This page contains examples of spiritual experiences collected by a range of individuals and researchers.
The word spirituality is impossible to define precisely, since it points to moments that can’t fully be captured in words. Some people have said these moments are like an “oceanic feeling” because the experience feels as big as an ocean. Others call it a “peak experience” or a “religious experience.”
Regardless of what a person calls it, it’s clear that people around the world have these experiences.
Here are a few definitions worth considering.
Brené Brown, author of Daring Greatly
“Spirituality is recognizing and celebrating that we are all inextricably connected to each other by a power greater than all of us, and that our connection to that power and to one another is grounded in love and compassion. Practicing spirituality brings a sense of perspective, meaning, and purpose to our lives.”
Stephen Covey, author of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People
“Spiritual intelligence represents our drive for meaning and connection with the infinite. Spiritual intelligence also helps us discern true principles that are part of our conscience, and are symbolized by the compass. The compass is an excellent physical metaphor for principles, because it always points north.”
Lisa Miller, author of The Spiritual Child
“Spirituality is an inner sense of relationship to a higher power that is loving and guiding. The word we give to this higher power might be God, nature, spirit, the universe, the creator, or other words that represent a divine presence. But the important point is that spirituality encompasses our relationship and dialogue with this higher presence.”
Above all, spirituality points to connection, awe, purpose, and meaning.
Here’s a partial list of the experiences we’ve gathered. Read more in The Varieties of Religious Experience by William James or via The Institute for Mystical Experience Research and Education.
Spiritual Experiences During Childhood
These experiences come from grown ups reflecting on experiences they had in childhood.
Stefan, a neuroscientist in his 40s
“While sitting on that rock, I watched the pretty trees surrounding me. After a few minutes, I started feeling connected to the rock and the trees. It then appeared to me that the rock, the trees, and myself were part of a whole much greater than “Little Stefan.” Following this experience, my purpose in life became clear: I would later become a scientist to demonstrate that the essence of human beings cannot be found in the brain.”
— Quoted in The Spiritual Child
Mary Austin, author, 1937
“I must have been between 7 and 8, when this experience happened to me. It was a summer morning, and the child I was had walked down through the orchard alone and come out on the brow of a sloping hill where there was grass and the wind blowing and one tall tree reaching into the infinite immensities of blueness. Quite suddenly, after a moment of quietness there, earth and sky and tree and windblown grass and the child in the midst of them came alive together with a pulsing light of consciousness. There was a wild foxglove at the child’s feet and a bee dozing about. And to this day, I recall the swift inclusive awareness of each for the whole — I in them, and they in me, and all of us enclosed in a warm, lucent bubble of livingness.”
— Quoted in The Golden Thread
Anonymous female, from the Religious Experience Research Center archive
“My father used to take all the family for a walk on Sunday evenings. On one such walk, we wandered across a narrow path through a field of high, ripe corn. I lagged behind, and found myself alone. Suddenly, heaven blazed upon me. I was enveloped in golden light, I was conscious of a presence, so kind, so loving, so bright, so consoling, so commanding, existing apart from me but so close. I heard no sound. But words fell into my mind quite clearly — ‘Everything is all right. Everybody will be all right.’”
— Quoted in The Middle Way to God
Anonymous male, from “An Introduction to Religious Experience”
“It was a hot summer Sunday afternoon, and I was lying on my back in a [small group of trees] lost in reverie. I was not really thinking of anything, and then my mind went blank — suddenly I found myself surrounded, embraced, by a white light, which seemed to both come from within me and from without, a very bright light but quite unlike any ordinary physical light. I was filled by an overwhelming sense of Love, of warmth, peace and joy — a Love far, far greater than any human love could be — utterly accepting, giving, compassionate total Love.”
Kaitlin, from The Spiritual Child:
Kaitlin developed major depressive disorder (MDD) after descending into philosophical nihilism in college. Then: “I was walking along the ocean, headed out along the dock, and saw the light sparkling on the water. … Suddenly it all became clear to me. … The world is bright and full of love—there is spirituality in everything!”
— Quoted in The Spiritual Child
Spiritual Experiences During Adulthood
John Trevor, writer
Trevor was away from his wife and sons for a time and started to feel depressed. Then he went on a walk in the hills with his dog. He writes, “In the loveliness of the morning, and the beauty of the hills and valleys, I soon lost my sense of sadness and regret.” Then John Trevor experienced something profound. He says, “On the way back, suddenly, without warning, I felt that I was in Heaven—an inward state of peace and joy and assurance indescribably intense, accompanied with a sense of being bathed in a warm glow of light, as though the external condition had brought about the internal effect—a feeling of having passed beyond the body, though the scene around me stood out more clearly and as if nearer to me than before.”
— Quoted in My Quest for God(Trevor’s 1897 autobiography)
Anonymous British woman
“In 1956 at the age of 23 my husband and I were walking the cliff path from St Ives in Cornwall to Zennot. It was a bright sunny day in September, bright but not a garish mid-summer sun. My husband was walking his usual forty yards ahead and disappeared over the prow of an incline, so to all intents and purposes I was entirely alone. Although there was no mist, the light seemed suddenly white and diffused and I experienced the most incredible sense of oneness … The experience was unbelievably beautiful.”
— Quoted in the Alister Hardy Trust archive
Anonymous British woman
“On this occasion I found instead that I was overtaken by an intense feeling of affection for and unity with everyone around as they ran to catch buses, took children shopping, or joyfully met their friends. The feeling was so strong that I wanted to leave my silent vigil and join them in their urgent living. This sense of ‘Oneness’ is basic to what I understand of religion. Hitherto I think I had only experienced it so irresistibly towards a few individuals — sometimes toward my children or when in love. The effect of the experience has been, I think, a permanent increase in my awareness that we are ‘members one of another,’ a consequent greater openness toward all and a widening of my concern for others.”
— Quoted in the Alister Hardy Trust archive
Andre Comte-Sponville, philosopher
“The first time it happened, I was in a forest in the north of France. I must have been twenty-five or twenty-six. … That particular evening, some friends and I had gone out for a walk in the forest we liked so much. Night had fallen. We were walking. Gradually our laughter faded, and the conversation died down. Nothing remained but our friendship, our mutual trust and shared presence. … I was simply registering the world around me — the darkness of the underbrush, the incredible luminosity of the sky, the faint sounds of the forest (branches snapping, an occasional animal call, our own muffled steps) only making the silence more palpable. And then, all of a sudden. . . . What? Nothing: everything! No words, no meanings, no questions, only—a surprise. Only—this. A seemingly infinite happiness. A seemingly eternal sense of peace. Above me, the starry sky was immense, luminous and unfathomable, and within me there was nothing but the sky, of which I was a part, and the silence, and the light, like a warm hum, and a sense of joy … Yes, in the darkness of that night, I contained only the dazzling presence of the All. Peace. Infinite peace! Simplicity, serenity, delight.”
— Quoted in The Little Book of Atheist Spirituality
“Had I been absorbed by the universe, or had the universe penetrated me? These expressions had become virtually meaningless, since the border between my body and the world had vanished — or rather, seemed to have been neither more nor less than a hallucination of my reason, now melting in the flame of truth. … Everything was there, more present than ever before.”
— Quoted in The Little Book of Atheist Spirituality
Richard Jeffries, British nature writer
“It is eternity now. I am in the midst of it. It is about me in the sunshine; I am in it, as the butterfly floats in the light-laden air. Nothing has to come; it is now. Now is eternity; now is the immortal life. Here this moment, by this tumulus, on earth, now; I exist in it. The years, the centuries, the cycles are absolutely nothing; it is only a moment since this tumulus was raised; in a thousand years it will still be only a moment. To the soul there is no past and no future; all is and will be ever, in now. For artificial purposes time is mutually agreed on, but is really no such thing. The shadow goes on upon the dial, the index moves round upon the clock, and what is the difference? None whatever. If the clock had never been set going, what would have been the difference? There may be time for the clock, the clock may make time for itself; there is none for me.
I dip my hand in the brook and feel the stream; in an instant the particles of water which first touched me have floated yards down the current, my hand remains there. I take my hand away, and the flow—the time—of the brook does not exist to me. The great clock of the firmament, the sun and the stars, the crescent moon, the earth circling two thousand times, is no more to me than the flow of the brook when my hand is withdrawn.”
— Quoted in The Story of My Heart, published in 1883
Margaret Montague, author
“It happened to me about two years ago, on the day when my bed was first pushed out of doors to the open gallery of the hospital. I was recovering from a surgical operation. … For the first time in all my life I caught a glimpse of the ecstatic beauty of reality.
I cannot now recall whether the revelation came suddenly or gradually; I only remember finding myself in the very midst of those wonderful moments, beholding life for the first time in all its young intoxication of loveliness, in its unspeakable joy, beauty, and importance. I cannot say exactly what the mysterious change was. I saw no new thing, but I saw all the usual things in a miraculous new light — in what I believe is their true light. I saw for the first time how wildly beautiful and joyous, beyond any words of mine to describe, is the whole of life. Every human being moving across that porch, every sparrow that flew, every branch tossing in the wind, was caught in and was a part of the whole mad ecstasy of loveliness, of joy, of importance, of intoxication of life.
It was not that for a few keyed-up moments I imagined all existence as beautiful, but that my inner vision was cleared to the truth so that I saw the actual loveliness which is always there, but which we so rarely perceive; and I knew that every man, woman, bird, and tree, every living thing before me, was extravagantly beautiful, and extravagantly important. And, as I beheld, my heart melted out of me in a rapture of love and delight.”
— Quoted in Twenty Minutes of Reality
Oprah Winfrey, TV host
“My friend Bob Greene and I were taking a hike. The sun had set, leaving wisps of lavender ribbons across the sky. Clouds moving down from the mountain spread out over the ocean, with only a small opening through which we could see the moon. …
As we continued our walk, Bob turned to me and said, “Stop a minute.”
“Can you hear that?” he whispered.
I could—and it took my breath away. “It” was the sound of silence. Utter and complete stillness. So still I could hear my own heart beating. I wanted to hold my breath, because even inhaling and exhaling was like a cacophony. There was absolutely no movement, no breeze, no recognition of air, even; it was the sound of nothing and everything. It felt like all life…and death…and beyond contained in one space, and I was not just standing in it, I was also a part of “it.” This was the most peaceful, coherent, knowledgeable moment I’ve ever witnessed.”
— Quoted on Oprah.com
J.C. Penney, business owner
Penney was hospitalized because of severe anxiety. One night he grew so sick that he wrote farewell letters to his wife and son because he was certain he was going to die.
However, he survived the night and woke the next morning to hear singing in the nearby hospital chapel. He walked in and listened. Then he said, “Suddenly something happened. I can’t explain it. I can only call it a miracle. I felt as if I had been instantly lifted out of the darkness of a dungeon into warm brilliant sunlight. I felt as if I had been transported from hell to paradise. … I realized then that I alone was responsible for all my troubles. … From that day to this, my life has been free from worry. I am 71 years old, and the most dramatic and glorious 20 minutes of my life were those I spent in that chapel that morning.”
Here’s another experience, this one of a man listening to music.
“I was sitting one evening, listening to a Brahms symphony,” he says. “My eyes were closed and I must have been completely relaxed for I became aware of a feeling of ‘expansion’, I seemed to be beyond the boundary of my physical self. Then an intense feeling of ‘light’ and ‘love’ uplifted and enfolded me. It was so wonderful and gave me such an emotional release that tears streamed down my cheeks. For several days I seemed to bathe in its glow and when it subsided I was free from my fears. … I can truly say that it changed my life and the subsequent years have brought no dimming of the experience.”
— Quoted in Introduction to Religious and Spiritual Experience
Tony Hsieh, CEO of the shoe company Zappos
Hsieh describes experiencing deep spiritual connection at a dance party in a warehouse the size of ten football fields. The place was packed with people dancing to electronic dance music as fog machines and green laser beams created a surreal atmosphere. He talked about feeling a strong sense of awe. He says, “I was surprised to feel myself swept with an overwhelming sense of spirituality — not in the religious sense, but a sense of deep connection with everyone who’s there as well as the rest of the universe.”
— Quoted in Delivering Happiness
Ken Vincent, Professor at University of Houston
“I was at a football game in the Astrodome, waiting in the concession line. All at once, I felt as if I were inside the minds of all the people around me and that I could feel what they were feeling. I could feel their happiness, their love for their friends and family, and their joy at being together. Though it only lasted for a few moments, it was like tapping into the Spirit of God.”
— Quoted in The Golden Thread
Jim Carrey, actor
“I wondered: ‘Who is it that is aware that I am thinking?’
“And suddenly I was thrown into this expansive, amazing feeling of freedom — from myself, from my problems. I saw that I was bigger than what I do; I was bigger than my body.”
— Quoted from a speech Carrey gave
Jill Bolte Taylor, neuroscientist
The neuroscientist Jill Bolte Taylor felt this unity to a profound degree one day when she woke up and experienced the symptoms of a stroke. Midway through the experience she felt something transcendent. She says, “I was immediately captivated by the magnificence of the energy around me. And because I could no longer identify the boundaries of my body, I felt enormous and expansive. I felt at one with all the energy that was, and it was beautiful there.”
— Quoted from her TED talk
Black Elk, American Indian Medicine Man
“I saw that the sacred hoop of my people was one of many hoops that made one circle, wide as daylight and as starlight, and in the center grew one mighty flowering tree to shelter all children of one mother and one father. And I saw that it was holy…but anywhere is the center of the world.”
Black Elk added, “The first peace, which is the most important, is that which comes within the souls of people when they realize their relationship, their oneness, with the universe and all its powers, and when they realize that at the center of the universe dwells Wakan-Taka (the Great Spirit), and that this center is really everywhere, it is within each of us.”
— Quoted in Black Elk’s accounts of the seven rites
Edgar Mitchell, astronaut
Edgar Mitchell had a spiritual experience as he looked at Earth from space. He says, “What I experienced during that three-day trip home was nothing short of an overwhelming sense of universal connectedness. . . . I perceived the universe as in some way conscious.”
— Quoted in his obituary
Estlin Carpenter, educator and physiologist
“I went out one afternoon for a walk alone. I was in the empty unthinking state in which one saunters along country lanes, simply yielding oneself to the casual sights around, which give a town-bred lad with country yearning such intense delight. Suddenly I became conscious of the presence of someone else. I cannot describe it, but I felt that I had as direct perception of the being of God all round about me as I have of you when we are together. It was no longer a matter of inference, it was an immediate act of spiritual (or whatever adjective you like to employ) apprehension. It came unsought, absolutely unexpectedly. I remember the wonderful transfiguration of the far-off woods and hills as they seemed to blend in the infinite being with which I was thus brought into relation. This experience did not last long. But it sufficed to change all my feeling.
— Quoted in A Middle Way to God
Jane Goodall, researcher
“Lost in awe at the beauty around me, I must have slipped into a state of heightened awareness. It is hard – impossible really – to put into words the moment of truth that suddenly came upon me then. Even the mystics are unable to describe their brief flashes of spiritual ecstasy. It seemed to me, as I struggled afterward to recall the experience, the self was utterly absent: I and the chimpanzees, the earth and trees and air, seemed to merge, to become one with the spirit power of life itself. The air was filled with a feathered symphony, the evensong of birds. I heard new frequencies in their music and also in singing insects’ voices – notes so high and sweet I was amazed. Never had I been so intensely aware of the shape, the color of the individual leaves, the varied patterns of the veins that made each one unique. Scents were clear as well, easily identifiable: fermenting, overripe fruit; waterlogged earth; cold, wet bark; the damp odor of chimpanzee hair, and yes, my own too. And the aromatic scent of young, crushed leaves was almost overpowering….
That afternoon, it had been as though an unseen hand had drawn back a curtain and, for the briefest moment, I had seen through such a window. In a flash of “outsight” I had known timelessness and quiet ecstasy, sensed a truth of which mainstream science is merely a small fraction. And I knew that the revelation would be with me for the rest of my life, imperfectly remembered yet always within. A source of strength on which I could draw when life seemed harsh or cruel or desperate.”
— Quoted in Jane Goodall’s Reason for Hope: A Spiritual Journey
Paul Simon, Singer/Songwriter
In an interview with Charlie Rose, the songwriter Paul Simon talked about how he sometimes experiences profound beauty during the writing process. I love this interchange because it suggests that the experience is universal — available to the whole of humanity — if we seek for it.
Simon: “[The experience is] so pleasurable that it releases some kind of serotonin wash over your brain. You just want to do it again; you really want to do it again…”
Rose: “And when do you feel that?”
Simon: “Well, you never know when you’re going to feel it. In my experience it’s not a common occurrence, but there have been times when I’ve written a line that I had no idea I was about to write that just made me stop and lose my breath or cry. And I didn’t know why, and I don’t mean to say this as if I’m bragging about how good it was because most of the time I really thought, ‘how did that happen?’
The first time that I can remember it … was when I wrote Bridge Over Troubled Water — not the whole song, but just the melody line: ‘Like a bridge over troubled water I will lay me down.’ One second it didn’t exist. The next six seconds it was there. And I was just shocked. And I thought, ‘that’s so much better than I usually write. I wonder where that came from.’ Of course I was 27 or 28, so I hadn’t really thought about how sometimes you get plugged into a big, big force and you’re a conduit — that’s how it feels like. It’s nothing to brag about; it’s something to be grateful for.”
Rose: “You feel that? That there’s some bigger force and you take it when it comes and celebrate the fact that it gave you the power to do what you just did?”
Simon: “Yes, I do, but I don’t want to go into the next step and say that I think that bigger force is God. Nor do I want to say it’s not. But I do want to recognize that there are times when something comes to you and you don’t know why, and then there it is and you feel very satisfied. You get this feeling that’s very close to bliss.”