Spiritual Experiences: Understanding Their Subjective Nature in Peak Performance

Authors: Lynda Flower

Corresponding Author:
Lynda Flower, MA
The University of Queensland
Brisbane, Australia
lynda.flower1@uqconnect.edu.au
+ 61 481 735 994

Lynda Flower is an Honorary Research Fellow (Studies in Religion), Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences, at the University of Queensland in Brisbane, Australia.

ABSTRACT
Over the past thirty years, sport and spirituality has grown into a major international research discipline. Of particular interest has been the reported spiritual experiences of athletes during peak performance. With many athletes interpreting peak episodes such as the ‘runners high’ as having not only physiological but also spiritual aspects it is becoming increasingly important that these altered states of consciousness are clearly understood.

While current best practice peak performance coaching acknowledges the importance of physical and mental enhancements such as injury prevention, nutrition, communication, goal setting, and athlete development the spiritual component is often overlooked. In order to provide greater understanding and a context for coaching, this paper will review the origins and historical development of spiritual transcendent states in the West from medieval times, the early 1900s, the postmodern and New Age era, and present day occurrences in sport.

Keywords: peak performance, spiritual experiences, sport and spirituality

INTRODUCTION
Spiritual experiences have been subjected to a considerable amount of academic research across the centuries. States of consciousness which transcend the ordinary and every day have been studied from a multitude of perspectives. Music, art, literature, nature, religious worship, prayer and meditation, psychosis, sex, stress, alcohol, and drugs have all been shown to trigger transcendent spiritual episodes (27). Over the past three decades, the most prolific research has taken place in the discipline of sport and spirituality. These investigations have predominantly focused on the reported spiritual experiences of athletes during peak performance (1, 6, 8, 18, 19, 22, 24, 27). With a current global focus on achievement and success, not only in sport, but also in many other professional arenas. Peak performance is attracting significant attention. Through the high quality research generated in sport, it is common practice to apply peak performance knowledge to other high pressure areas. For example, the military and medical and legal professions (17).

However, current peak performance training techniques tend to focus predominantly on physical and mental enhancement (11) and the spiritual component is often overlooked. In order to provide greater understanding and a coaching context, this review will examine the origins and major historical milestones of spiritual experiences in the West from ancient times (13, 16, 26) to the present day. The terms commonly used across the decades to describe these transcendent states, such as, mystical experiences, peak experiences, optimal experiences, states of ‘flow’ and being ‘in the zone’ (1, 10, 14, 18), will also be examined.

SPIRITUAL EXPERIENCES: REVIEW OF MAJOR HISTORICAL MILESTONES
Ancient origins and medieval traditional religious mystical experiences
Many scholars argue that today’s spiritual experiences in sport have their origins in ancient mysticism (10, 15, 18). Mystical episodes traditionally related to religious belief and as well as a transcendent component usually involved a ‘divine’ encounter with God (26). Instances of religious mystical experiences have been well-documented across the ages. These range from early biblical accounts where God appeared to Adam and Eve to more recent times when Pope Benedict was inspired by God during a “mystical episode” the “absolute desire” to retire (12).

More detailed narratives about the subjective nature of mystical experiences appear in European medieval literature (1080-1550). Mystical episodes were viewed in medieval times as proof of God’s existence and reinforced religious aims to not only understand God but also to ‘experience’ him (26). Monks and hermits deliberately induced mystical states through religious contemplation, praying, singing Psalms, and reading the Gospels (16). These transcendent states predominantly involved an “individual felt experience” which was frequently “visionary and powerful” (26). A mystical episode experienced by the hermit Wulfric of Haselbury was described as follows:

  • When Wulfric was praying suddenly there stood before him an angel. Snatching, as it seemed to Wulfric, his spirit from his body, he whisked him aloft to the heavens and showed him God’s glory and all that was the hope of the saints … and ever after he guarded the memory of those blissful moments (13:57).

Separation of mystical experiences from religion
The next major milestone in the history of spiritual experiences took place in the early 1900s when the traditional understanding of mystical episodes broadened to include non-religious experiences. This change was pioneered by the work of American psychologist William James (1842 – 1910) in the new scholarly area of spirituality studies. This discipline was developed by intellectuals in Britain, Germany, and the United States with a variety of philosophical and religious backgrounds (26).

James made the discovery while studying the lives of prominent successful people, such as, Martin Luther, John Bunyan, Alfred Lord Tennyson, Leo Tolstoy, and others who were leaders in their respective fields. He found they all had one surprising trait in common – the occurrence of frequent ‘mystical moments’ (4). James examined more than two hundred first-hand personal testimonies and discovered these mystical episodes usually took place at times of intense concentration and involved positive transcendent states outside of ordinary consciousness (10).

James also found these extraordinary experiences occurred not only through religious practices but also through non-religious activities such as deep concentration while walking in nature. He equated religious mystical moments with the experiences of Saint Teresa: “the soul is fully awake as regards God, but wholly asleep as regards things of this world and in respect of the self” (10:408). James used the notion of ‘cosmic consciousness’ to describe secular mystical moments, where an intense conscious union with the universe was experienced rather than a ‘divine’ encounter with an ‘other’.

Postmodern era: peak and optimal experiences
The notion of mystical experiences having both religious and secular aspects gained momentum with the advent of the postmodern era and the New Age movement (21). A particular focus during this period was the meaning of life and the subjective nature of spiritual ‘lived experiences’. These were viewed from two broad perspectives: doctrinal and existential. Religious doctrines formed the basis of belief about the world and how to relate to life, while the existential point of view included a holistic or ‘whole person’ awareness (22). But despite the differing religious and secular triggers, doctrinal and existential spiritual lived experiences both involved transcending self-awareness beyond the limits of normal day-to-day consciousness (23). Two prominent researchers in the postmodern era who provided the next major milestone in the understanding of spiritual experiences were humanistic psychologists Abraham Maslow (1908-1970) and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (1935-1999).

Maslow’s investigations confirmed James’ research into mystical experiences. Maslow similarly studied the qualities of great leaders such as Albert Schweitzer, Abraham Lincoln, Albert Einstein, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Thomas Jefferson to develop his theory of ‘self-actualisation’. Once basic needs were met – physiological (food, water and sleep); safety (protection, security, order); belonging (home, family, friends); and esteem (achievement, recognition, respect) – Maslow theorized people reached a state of ‘self-actualisation’ where the fullest levels of personal growth and attainment could be achieved (14).

Like James, Maslow discovered a distinguishing characteristic common to ‘self-actualisers’ was frequent spiritual experiences. Maslow (14) called these episodes ‘peak experiences’ because he found they occurred when people reached high levels of perfection while engaged in a specific activity. Peak experiences typically involved heightened positive emotions and transcendent states of consciousness; were identified as religious or secular in nature; and occurred across a wide range of occupations, such as, politics, science, sport, dance, and the arts.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi was a Professor and Chairman of the Department of Psychology at the University of Chicago. Building on the work of Abraham Maslow, his research focused on intrinsic motivation and the lived experiences of people while undertaking tasks they found deeply enjoyable. He studied a wide range of occupations such as artists, athletes, dancers, rock climbers, surgeons, and found they all experienced transcendent episodes during times of intense concentration. Despite the diverse range of professions, the participants all described their lived experiences in similar terms. The reported episodes involved transcendent states which went beyond “the realm of human experience” to a “higher state than normal everyday life” (1:33-34). Cskiszentmihalyi called these episodes ‘optimal experiences’ and used the metaphor ‘flow’ to describe them. Below is an example of a state of ‘flow’ experienced by a figure skater:

  • Everything else goes away. It almost happens in slow motion, even though you’re doing things at the correct time with the music and everything. Nothing else matters; it is just such an eerie, eerie feeling. The audience fades away, except for a brief moment when they were clapping so loudly – actually that was just part of us. It was all part of our experience; it never took us out of our focus. (9:73).

Sport and spiritual experiences
Sport is now the most popular pastime in Western culture, surpassing previously dominant areas such as music and art (20). This rise in popularity over the past thirty years has seen a corresponding growth in international sport research from perspectives such as sport psychology, philosophy, ethics, theology, and religious studies (20). A major area of research is sport and spirituality and it is not uncommon for researchers to compare sport to religion. As Hutch (6) notes, the two share many experiential similarities. Fans supporting their team show devotion similar to devotees practicing a religious faith and on an individual level, success and failure can act as tests of faith for athletes (7).

The extensive scholarly literature about sport and spirituality relates primarily to lived experiences during peak performance. These experiences have been reported by many thousands of athletes, with and without religious affiliations, and are frequently described as spiritual. In their landmark study, Murphy and White (18) examined more than 6,000 testimonies of peak performance transcendent states. They identified over twenty different types of experience, which they collectively called being ‘in the zone’. Murphy and White found a “dramatic and compelling” resemblance between the reports of athletes and those of mystics in Christian, Jewish, Taoist, Hindu, Buddhist, Greek, and Muslim religious writings. Echoing ancient times, secular and religious athletes alike described their peak performance experiences as “moments of illumination; out-of-body experiences; altered perceptions of time and space; exceptional feats of strength and endurance; and states of ecstasy” (18:3). The experience below was reported by a mountain climber during a near fall:

  • I really cannot explain or describe properly the strange person I found inhabiting my body that afternoon. It was just too different from my everyday self. The person I became … was the best possible version of myself, the person I should have been throughout my life. No regrets, no hesitation; there were no false moves left in me … I could not fall … Joy filled me, from the soles of my feet to the tips of the hairs on my head. (18:123)

Although reports of secular and religious spiritual experiences in sport are remarkably similar, athletes with religious affiliations frequently interpret them from a purely religious perspective. US runner Saint Sing (24) equates the ‘runners high’ with a traditional mystical experience where her body, mind, and spirit work together in an altered state of awareness. A devout Christian, Saint Sing says during peak performance her “body’s temple” seems to run “on the fumes of the soul alone” and deep spirituality emerges from the sacredness within (24:4). She compares this to the Greek concept of arête – a state of both grace and excellence:

  • There is a moment of grace, of knowing, with the recognition of the fruit of faith, that something greater does exist, and for a moment you were part of it – and its memory holds you in wonder and worship, and you never forget (24:34).

A comprehensive review of ‘performing in sport with spirit’ by Nesti (19) identified a number of common components in peak performance spiritual experiences. Nesti (19) found many of these, such as being totally immersed in the task, time and space distortions, and an holistic world view, were closely connected to religious and secular spiritual practices such as contemplation and meditation. He also found that spiritual experiences in sport have much in common with feelings of intense love. For religious athletes this often equated to a love of God, while for secular athletes a love of life. Athletes also showed signs of having what could be described as “a passionate love affair” with their sport and frequently spoke about it using “language of love” expressions (19:131).

Recent qualitative research by Flower (3) into the peak performance experiences of seven former professional ballet dancers (who with their strict training regimes are regarded as elite athletes) confirmed previous sport and spirituality research. The findings indicated that peak performance transcendent states were interpreted as: ‘extraordinary’ and different from day-to-day; identified as spiritual (religious and secular); and generated heightened positive emotions, a loss of self-awareness, and an overall expression of love (3).

Another characteristic of spiritual experiences identified by researchers (1, 8, 10, 15, 18, 19) is that they frequently bring a deeper holistic understanding about life in general. The experience below was reported by a US Olympic rifle team member:

  • As a competitive shooter, I have gained the insight to better correlate the concepts of mind, body and soul. Shooting, as are many elements in life, is 90 percent mental. It’s not the other competitors, nature’s elements, or the shooting environment that affects me. It’s not my reactions to those situations but rather the actions I take. No matter what the situation is, I must still take one shot at a time. Each one counts, time keeps ticking away, and I cannot go back.
    These situations have led me to view life in the same manner. Every moment moves on and every action counts, so every time I make a decision, it must be carefully articulated to ensure it is the best one I can make. These skills, essential in shooting, are equally significant in the everyday world. Concentration, relaxation and the ability to focus inwardly are all refined through the sport. Every time I step up to the firing line I am reminded of my driving quote: If it’s to be, it’s up to me. No one else can pull the trigger for me and there is no one else to blame for a less than desirable performance (24:96-97).

DISCUSSION AND CONCLUSIONS
With the growth of sport and spirituality into a major international research area over the past 30 years, significant interest has been generated in the reported spiritual experiences of athletes during peak performance. It is evident that an in-depth understanding of this phenomenon is becoming increasingly important to assist with athletic coaching and training enhancement.

The main aim of this paper was to provide a greater understanding of these transcendent states and a context for coaching. Major research milestones of spiritual lived experiences in the West and terms frequently used to describe them were reviewed from the medieval period (13, 16, 26), the early 1900s (10), the postmodern and New Age era (1, 9, 14, 15), and present day occurrences in sport (1, 6, 8, 18, 19, 22, 24, 27). The results of the review process suggested that the reported subjective nature of spiritual experiences across historical time frames was inherently the same; and although remarkably similar, an essential difference remains between religious and secular experiences.

Spiritual experiences across historical time frames are inherently the same
A review of the major historical research milestones of spiritual experiences in the West suggested that the reported subjective elements across the centuries were remarkably similar. The medieval mystical lived experiences of monks and hermits involved transcendent states of consciousness with an “individual felt experience” which was frequently “visionary” and “powerful” (26). Later work by James (10) in the early 1900s found “mystical moment” lived experiences involved similar positive transcendent states “outside of normal consciousness”. He also identified that these experiences occurred not only through religious practices but also in secular contexts (10). In the post-modern and New Age era, major studies by Maslow (14) into peak experiences and Csikszentmihalyi (1) into optimal experiences and states of ‘flow’ built on the foundational work of James (10). The major elements of these experiences reported across a wide range of professions (including sport) similarly involved heightened positive emotions and transcendent states of consciousness higher than normal every day awareness.

Studies by Murphy and White (18) into “in the zone” spiritual experiences in sport echoed previous historical research. Their findings indicated that the peak performance experiences reported by athletes involved “moments of illumination; out-of-body experiences; altered perceptions of time and space; exceptional feats of strength and endurance; and states of ecstasy” (18:3). A comprehensive review into ‘performing in sport with spirit’ by Nesti (19) also found the subjective nature of spiritual experiences reported by athletes involved transcendent states, time and space distortions and an holistic world view.

As can be seen from the above, the subjective nature of the transcendent states reported during mystical, peak, optimal and spiritual experiences, as well as states of ‘flow’ and being ‘in the zone’ are remarkably similar. These lived experiences all typically involve transcendent states beyond the limits of normal day-to-day consciousness, heightened positive emotions, and frequently elicit feelings of awe, wonder and amazement. Despite the different terms used across the decades, the accumulative historical research suggests the reported subjective nature of these experiences is inherently the same. The notion that spiritual experiences in sport today have their origins in ancient mysticism could also arguably be supported.

Difference between religious and secular experiences
Although the transcendent elements described above were consistently reported in both religious and secular experiences, one essential difference was apparent. As Judeo-Christian narratives and medieval literature demonstrate, the original mystical experiences were interpreted through religious knowledge and belief and traditionally involved a ‘divine’ encounter with God (26). Although mystical experiences were generally understood to be solely religious, later terms such as spiritual, peak and optimal experiences and being in ‘flow’ or ‘in the zone’ were interpreted from both religious and secular perspectives. Non-religious experiences typically involved a transcendent feeling of union with the universe (10, 15) rather than a divine encounter.

In a sporting context, the term spiritual experiences is also generally understood to include both religious and secular experiences. As Hutch notes (8), this acknowledges athletes with religious affiliations as well as those who may regard themselves as ‘spiritual but not religious’. Also of note is that while athletes with religious affiliations often interpret their peak performance spiritual experiences through religious knowledge and belief (8, 18, 19, 24) few, if any, additionally report a ‘divine’ encounter with God.

The increasing importance of an in-depth understanding of spiritual experiences in sport is supported by research in other related areas. Studies by Sports Chaplaincy UK (25) indicate that in order to cope with current high pressure sporting demands, faith had become a central aspect of the culture and lives of a growing number of international athletes. Another related study by Deneulin and Bano (2) found religious and spiritual beliefs often have a powerful and wide ranging influence. Religious beliefs in particular not only guide peoples’ private and public actions, but if a conflict arises between, for example, the demands of a religion and the demands of a job, the religious demands usually take precedence (2).

While athletes with religious affiliations have a context in which to interpret transcendent states, many secular athletes do not. Feedback received by Murphy and White (18) following publication of their ‘in the zone’ spiritual experiences research indicated many athletes found it had helped them to put their own peak performance transcendent episodes into perspective.

From a coaching context, although transcendent sensations such as the ‘runners high’ are frequently attributed to purely physiological aspects, the historical evidence presented above suggests otherwise. Accumulative research indicates that intrinsic motivation, where a task is undertaken for love rather than extrinsic rewards such as money, also plays a key role in peak performance (1, 15). Examples of intrinsic activity known to generate spiritual experiences range from deep religious medieval contemplation (26); secular contemplation while walking in nature (10); performing tasks to high levels of perfection (15); intense concentration on a specific activity (1); and total involvement in a sporting task (19). Also of note in this regard is the foundational work of James (10) and Maslow (15), who both found transcendent spiritual states were a common trait of people who were high achievers in their respective fields. Additionally, it could also be assumed that elite athletes would be well aware of the personal effects of their training regimes and could clearly differentiate between physiological and spiritual experiences. So called ‘doping’ in sport works only to suppress this important distinction.

Finally, although this review has highlighted that religious and secular spiritual experiences have inherent similarities as well as essential differences, the subjective reports demonstrate they remain highly individual in nature. Because spiritual experiences take place in personal, internal worlds and are interpreted through states of feeling rather than the intellect, they remain difficult to generalise (5). This echoes the observation made by James more than a century ago that spiritual lived experiences essentially reflect: “the feelings, acts and experiences of individual men in their solitude, so far as they apprehend themselves to stand in relation to whatever they may consider the divine” (James 1982). With this he set a definition of religion as a vital axis of a person’s life.

APPLICATIONS IN SPORT
With many athletes interpreting peak episodes such as the ‘runners high’ as having not only physiological, but also spiritual aspects, it is becoming increasingly important that these altered states of consciousness are clearly understood. It is hoped that the findings of this review will provide a greater understanding and a coaching context for peak performance spiritual experiences in sport today.

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS
Thanks to Associate Professor Richard Hutch, University of Queensland, for his valuable comments on the final draft.

REFERENCES
1. Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1988). Introduction. In M. Csikszentmihalyi & I. Csikszentmihalyi (Eds.), Optimal experience: psychological studies of flow in consciousness (pp. 13-24). Cambridge:Cambridge University Press.

2. Deneulin, S., & Bano, M. (2009). Religion in Development: rewriting the secular script. London: Zed Books.

3. Flower, L. (2016). “My day-to-day person wasn’t there; it was like another me”: A qualitative study of spiritual experiences during peak performance in ballet dance. Performance Enhancement & Health, 4, 67-75. doi: 10.1016/j.peh.2015.10.003.

4. Fuller, A. (1994). Psychology and Religion: eight points of view. Lanham, Md: Littlefield Adams Publishers.

5. Happold, F.C. (1963). Mysticism: a study and an anthology. New York: Pelican Books.

6. Hutch, R. (2010). Sport as a Spiritual Practice: mastery, failure and transcendence in the life of athletes. New York: Edwin Mellen Press.

7. Hutch, R. (2012). Sport and Spirituality: Mastery and failure in sporting lives. Practical Theology, 5(2), 131-152.

8. Hutch, R. (2016, October 20). Why sport is a spiritual experience – and failure can help. The Conversation. Retrieved from: https://theconversation.com/why-sport-is-a-spiritual-experience-and-failure-can-help-65871

9. Jackson, S., & Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1999). Flow in Sports: keys to optimal experiences and performances. Champagne: Human Kinetics Publishers.

10. James, W. (1982). The Varieties of Religious Experience. New York: Penguin Books.

11. Johnson, S. R., Wojnar, P. J., Price, W. J., Foley, T. J., Moon, J. R., Esposito, E. N., & Cromartie, F. J. (2011). A coach’s responsibility: Learning how to prepare athletes for peak performance. The Sport Journal, 14(1), 1-3.

12. Kington, T. (2013, August 21). Ex-pope Benedict says God told him to resign during ‘mystical experience’. The Guardian. Retrieved from: http://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/aug/21/pope-benedict-god-resign-mystical-experience.

13. Leyser, H. (2011). Texts 1080-1215. In S. Fanous & V. Gillespie (Eds.), The Cambridge Companion to Medieval English Mysticism (pp.49-68). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

14. Maslow, A. (1962). Towards a psychology of being. Princeton NJ: Van Nostrand.

15. Maslow, A. (1964). Religions, Values and Peak-Experiences. Ohio: Ohio State University Press.

16. McGuire, B. (2011). Culture and history: 1080-1215. In S. Fanous & V. Gillespie (Eds.), The Cambridge Companion to Medieval English Mysticism (pp.29-48). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

17. Moyle, G. (2012). Performance in the spotlight: exploring psychology in the performing arts. InPsych, 34(6), 11-13.

18. Murphy, M., & White, R. (1995). In the Zone: transcendent experience in sports. London: Penguin Books.

19. Nesti, M. (2007). The spirit of sport: an existential psychology perspective. In J. Parry, S. Robinson, N. Watson, & M. Nesti (Eds.), Sport and Spirituality: an introduction (pp. 119-134). London: Routledge.

20. Parry, J., Robinson, S., Watson, N., & Nesti, M. (Eds.). (2007). Sport and Spirituality: an introduction. London: Routledge.

21. Robinson, S. (2007a). Spirituality: a story so far. In J. Parry, S. Robinson, N. Watson, & M. Nesti (Eds.), Sport and Spirituality: an introduction (pp. 7-21). London: Routledge.

22. Robinson, S. (2007b). Spirituality: a working definition. In J. Parry, S. Robinson, N. Watson, & M. Nesti (Eds.), Sport and Spirituality: an introduction (pp. 22-37). London: Routledge.

23. Robinson, S. (2007c). The spiritual journey. In J. Parry, S. Robinson, N. Watson, & M. Nesti (Eds.), Sport and Spirituality: an introduction (pp. 38-58). London: Routledge.

24. Saint-Sing, S. (2004). Spirituality of Sport: balancing body and soul. Cincinnati: St Anthony Messenger Press.

25. Sports Chaplaincy UK. (2017). Sports psychology, chaplaincy and faith: working together for well-being and performance. Retrieved from http://sportschaplaincy.org.uk/itinerary/sports-chaplaincy-uk-one-day/

26. Watson, N. (2011). Introduction. In S. Fanous, & V. Gillespie (Eds.), The Cambridge Companion to Medieval English Mysticism (pp.1-28). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Print Friendly