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"When people attend to their mind with more care and more interest in the supernatural, the partial perceptions and fleeting thoughts, the often unnoticed shifts in awareness that get ignored in most daily life, are allowed to flower into meaning," the researchers write. (Credit: Eric/Flickr)

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Culture shapes how it feels to be spiritual

Culture has an impact on how people experience spirituality, say researchers who interviewed evangelical Christians and Thai Buddhists.

Christians might “kindle” or generate different kinds of spiritual experiences than Buddhists because their cultural understandings of these mental or bodily sensations are different, says Tanya Luhrmann, an anthropology professor at Stanford University and a coauthor of a new article in Current Anthropology.


Bodily or mental sensations have different meanings in different spiritual traditions, Luhrmann says. One person may feel a damp coldness and believe that a demon is present. Another person may shake uncontrollably and attribute this to the Holy Spirit. A third feels a light, floating sensation—this is what happens for them during meditation.

Luhrmann’s research examines how the presence of a specific cultural name for a mental or bodily sensation may affect that sensation within a specific cultural and social setting. Her coauthor is Julia Cassaniti, an assistant professor of anthropology at the University of Chicago.

“We call this the ‘cultural kindling’ of the spiritual experience,” says Luhrmann.

Luhrmann explains cultural kindling as the way people “think about thinking and sleeping and other everyday experiences, along with the way people think about God, which will affect the kind of startling, spontaneous experiences they identify as spiritual experiences.”

Spirituality in mind and body

Luhrmann and Cassaniti conducted open-ended interviews with 33 American members of evangelical churches in Northern California and 20 members of a Thai Buddhist community in northern Thailand. In hour-long formats, the subjects were asked questions like, “What has been your most memorable spiritual experience?” and “Would you say that you hear from God?”

They were also queried on whether they experienced sleep paralysis, overwhelming emotions—such as moments of joy—adrenaline rushes, uncontrollable shaking, and demonic presences, and how they understood these sensations through their own spiritual perceptions.

The research findings reveal the importance of local culture on spiritual perceptions.

“The Americans were more likely than the Thai to report cataplexy (loss of muscular function), adrenaline rushes, and overwhelming emotion as spiritual experiences, and they were more likely to report everyday encounters with demons,” Luhrmann says.

Luhrmann says that if a spiritual experience has a specific name in the local religion, then the physiological sensation that is understood to be the sign of that experience is more likely to be reported to the researchers.

For example, she says, the “Holy Spirit” experience—or adrenalin rush—is inherent to the evangelical Christian belief system. For a Buddhist, such a sensation is understood to be contrary to spiritual goals.

Sleep paralysis

Bodily sensations like sleep paralysis have been sometimes associated with the spiritual world in folklore, says Luhrmann. Thais have a specific name for sleep paralysis—they were much more aware of it than Americans. As a result, they reported it in the research more often.

“When sleep paralysis takes place, one feels one is awake but cannot move. Often the person with sleep paralysis experiences a heavy weight on the chest and perceives another, often menacing, figure in the room,” she says.

Luhrmann was particularly surprised by the differences in how people in two different cultures described sleep paralysis.

“You’d think it would occur more or less in similar ways around the world, because the event seems to be caused in part by a disruption of the REM cycle. But in fact, the Thai were much more attentive to it and reported it more commonly and with more elaboration than the Americans,” she says.

In fact, Luhrmann adds, significant cultural variations in the experience of sleep paralysis likely exist around the world.

Weight or presence?

Different religions value different kinds of experiences, the research showed.

“Buddhism has no divinity, no omniscient presence. The goal for a Thai Buddhist is to detach and feel untethered from the cycle of suffering,” Luhrmann writes.

Thai subjects were more likely to use an idiom of “weight” to describe their feelings of lightness and calm, which is often connected with meditation.

“A mind that is concentrated (as it should be in meditation) is a mind and body that is light,” says Luhrmann.

In contrast, evangelical spirituality in the United States is focused on encountering a specific being who touches followers through “presence.”

Luhrmann writes, “Overwhelming emotions that feel uncontrolled become signs of that divine being because the controlling agency is attributed to God.”

Paying attention to the mind

People lower the threshold for future spiritual experiences if they’ve already had powerful ones as defined by their culture, Luhrmann says.

“When people attend to their mind with more care and more interest in the supernatural, the partial perceptions and fleeting thoughts, the often unnoticed shifts in awareness that get ignored in most daily life, are allowed to flower into meaning,” the researchers write.

As a result, Christianity might kindle different kinds of spiritual experiences than Buddhism, Luhrmann says.

Luhrmann says that the way people think about spiritual experiences will shape the spiritual experiences they remember and report.

“Yet some bodies, either because of trauma or genetic inheritance, may be more likely to experience certain striking anomalous events often thought to be spiritual, like out-of-body experiences, or sleep paralysis, than others,” she says.

Source: Stanford University

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