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Defining the Indefinable

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“Spiritual” starts to lose its meaning when you turn on the TV and hear a middle-aged guy in a car commercial use the “S” word to describe the feeling he gets when he climbs behind the wheel of his new $60,000 ride.

So perhaps we should define our terms. What are people talking about when they say they’ve had “a spiritual experience?” And how many of us are actually having them? According to a 2009 Pew survey, two out of three Americans expressed belief in or reported having experience with at least one of the following spiritual concepts or phenomena: Reincarnation, astrology, "spiritual energy," yoga as a spiritual practice, the "evil eye," making contact with the dead, and consultation with a psychic.

That’s interesting, but many of us are talking about subtler, albeit powerful, states when we describe a feeling as “spiritual” or “mystical.” Defining the indefinable isn’t easy, but one of the best efforts I’ve seen comes in the form of the Pahnke-Richards Mystical Experience Questionnaire.

It’s named after the late Walter Pahnke, a physician and minister who led a Harvard University research project back in the early 1960s to try to see if seminary students who took psychedelic drugs were having “authentic religious experiences.” The test was further developed by psychologist William A. Richards, who does consciousness research at Johns Hopkins University.

Their questionnaire lays out eight experiential categories to determine whether a research subject is having a mystical experience. They are:

  1. Sense of unity
  2. Transcendence of space and time
  3. Sense of sacredness
  4. Sense of objective reality
  5. Deeply felt positive mood
  6. Ineffability
  7. Paradoxicality
  8. Transiency

There are innumerable ways we can cultivate this sense of awe and wonder, this feeling of peace and interconnectedness. We can pray, meditate, or practice various forms of yoga; we can take a long walk in the woods or sit alongside a babbling brook; we can even get there with sex, drugs, and (via ecstatic dance) rock ‘n’ roll.

We should also remember that negative events and emotions—such as the loss of a job or a loved one, or overcoming addiction—can also open us up spiritually. We can “get spiritual” by getting out of our own way, by taming the ego and being less self-centered.

Let’s hear from you. Please post a comment and start a conversation about a memorable experience you would call “spiritual.”

Don Lattin writes about some of his spiritual experiences in his latest book, Distilled Spirits: Getting High, then Sober, with a Famous Writer, a Forgotten Philosopher, and a Hopeless Drunk. Visit him at

Don Lattin

Don Lattin is a veteran journalist and the author of five books on religion and spirituality in America. His national bestseller, The Harvard Psychedelic Club: How Timothy Leary, Ram Dass, Huston Smith and Andrew Weil Killed the Fifties and Ushered in a New Age for America, won the 2010 California Book Award for nonfiction. His most recent work, Distilled Spirits: Getting High, Then Sober, With a Famous Writer, Forgotten Philosopher and a Hopeless Drunk, is a memoir and group biography of writer Aldous Huxley, philosopher Gerald Heard, and Bill Wilson, cofounder of Alcoholics Anonymous.  Lattin’s stories have appeared in The New York Times, the Washington Post, and the San Francisco Chronicle, where he covered the religion beat for two decades. He lives on an island in the San Francisco Bay with his wife, Laura, and his dog, Bella. Visit him at

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