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Exceptional Human Experience and the More We Are
Exceptional Human Experience and Identity
Rhea A. White 1994.
This paper was given at the 1994 conference of the Academy of Religion and Psychical Research, which was on the theme of "Exceptional Human Experience: the Call to an Expanded Consciousness." It was published in the Academy's Proceedings for that year. The text is unchanged. This version, however, is the original one and includes two more pages than the Proceedings volume did because of lack of space.
This article is identical to the version published in Background Papers I, a special issue of Exceptional Human Experience, Vol. 15, No. 1, 1994. It is the fullest statement I have made to date about self, society, and EHEs. The central theme is that every human has a purpose to become connected to the More within and beyond us. The process of doing so involves the creation of a new identity, a lifetime process that is guided at key moments by exceptional human experience.
The "More We Are" of my title comes from a passage in William James's Varieties of Religious Experience that for me has been seminal. Today I present the context in which he used it because it leads directly into the theme of this paper. In the passage I will quote, James (1902) describes the essence of religious experience without resorting to the imagery of any specific religion. One could say his is a secular definition of the religious impulse, but one that nonetheless captures the core of the experience of the sacred. James proposes that the mystical impulse at the base of all religious teachings has two aspects. The first he calls an "uneasiness" about our lives, a sense that as we naturally stand "there is something wrong about us" (p. 498). The second part is the solution to this problem, which is to be saved from our unease, or in some cases--disease, by connecting with our higher self. My interpretation of this first aspect of the mystical process would be that at base it is a feeling of incompleteness--a sense that we are missing something in our lives--that by rights they should be fuller, richer, more exciting, more meaningful, more connected.
James theorizes that what happens in the second or salvation/solution stage is the person contacts a higher part of him - or herself and identifies with it. This happens when the person "becomes conscious that this higher part is conterminous and continuous with a MORE of the same quality, which is operative in the universe outside" (James, 1902, 499). Moreover, the person discovers that he or she can keep in touch with and enter into a relationship with this other, greater self, which is both inside and outside. For me, these lines sum up the promise of exceptional human experiences and their relevance to the problems of the world today, almost all of which have been created by our species. I think James points to a way out of the mess we have made of the earth and ourselves, and this paper is devoted to unpacking his message in terms of exceptional human experience.
Nearly 100 years on, I believe James's words can be further secularized, and I think this is necessary, for people today must be shown how they can contact the sacred right where they are, in their daily lives, without resorting to any particular religious imagery. Instead of referring to a "higher part," which implies judgment, I would like to use the phrase "more connected part." When we are in James's first stage of the mystical life, we feel incomplete because we feel unconnected to the depths and heights of ourselves, others, other forms of life, the universe at large, and both informing and beyond all that is created, the sacred. From my study of exceptional human experiences I would say that in such moments, in one way or another, we experience a sense of connection that is accompanied by awe, wonder, surprise, and delight. This is what makes such experiences "exceptional." Perhaps the biggest surprise of all is that there is a quality about these moments with which we cannot help but identify. It is as if a self we experienced as disconnected, small, and unimportant looked in the mirror and saw a radiant being looking back--one who is spontaneously connected to everyone and everything else, which means that automatically the bonds of selfishness, fear, anxiety, greed, envy, and a host of other negative emotions effortlessly fall away. Perhaps most surprising is that, as James points out, with this new self one can identify with what formerly was perceived as being outside. The sense of self is no longer centered on the "me" and is perceived more as a process than as a separate entity. One becomes centered in an interchange between inner and outer that involves one's fullest self and yet seems to be composed of everyone and everything else.
In this paper I would like to put the matter of human identity, and especially, James's second stage of identity, in a broader context. Identity is who we tell ourselves (and sometimes others) we really are. In my view, identity has two aspects: the general and the particular. The general aspect is our story or understanding of the nature of generic human being, or at least of human being in general in one's> own particular culture. The specific aspect is our story or understanding of who we are as an individual human being. I think a major problem with Western civilization in the last half of the 20th century is that we have an impoverished view of human being in general, which in turn diminishes our sense of the worth of individuals, including ourselves. This problem may well grow worse. I heard on a recent radio broadcast that significantly more minors are committing violent crimes in New York City than ever before and that these young people have no conception of the value of, or reverence for, human life--not even their own.
Another criticism of the Western cultural story is that it does not honor exceptional human experiences. There are many books today on how to develop one's personality and even write an autobiography, but few of them include instructions on how to incorporate one's EHEs into one's self-concept and integrate it with one's life story. I propose that EHEs are the most important ingredient of our life stories and that what Western culture's story of identity requires is due attention to such experiences. I hope to describe the role of EHEs can play in the formation of identity.
In this country, at least, there is a growing recognition of the importance of story or narrative in creating identity, and much is made of the value of recognizing archetypal and mythological aspects of our lives in order to increase personal meaning. But no significant mention is made of the role of EHEs, although occasionally they are touched upon. Keen and Valley-Fox (1989) have a chapter in which they ask people to record their EHEs (but they call them "weird experiences," which is what I call "negative story line"), and they do not take the further step of showing people how to weave such experiences into their lives. Feinstein and Krippner (1988) move a step closer. Their subtitle reveals their aim, which is to use "ritual, dreams, and imagination to discover your inner story." None of their chapters is specifically concerned with any type of EHE other than dreams, but the index cites two pages on "mystical experiences, " which the text refers to as "transcendent experiences," which promises a positive story line for EHEs. They briefly point to the transformative potential of such experiences, and they urge readers to incorporate them into their personal myth, or what I refer to as one's story.1
I have not had time to read Deena Metzger's (1992) book, Writing for Your Life, but in looking through it, she, like Feinstein and Krippner, emphasizes developing the inner life, in her case, by journal writing, although she fully recognizes that a time must come when one must "jump, not onto the page but into our own lives" (p. 247). We must live what is in us and share it with others, which was the subject of my paper to this group last year (White, 1993). The influence of one of my favorite scholars, anthropologist Barbara Myerhoff, who was Metzger's closest friend, is evident. This is the part of the book that most strongly emphasizes the need to weave our own identities. Metzger quotes Myerhoff as follows: "A self is made, not given. It is a creative and active process [italics added] of attending a life that must be heard, shaped, seen, said aloud into the world, finally enacted and woven into the lives of others" (p. 247). Myerhoff points out that what we must do is search through the "treasures and debris of ordinary existence for the clear points of intensity that do not erode, do not separate us, that are most intensely our own, yet other people's too" (quoted in Metzger, p. 247). I think that is the best definition of the nature and value of exceptional human experience I have yet come across: "clear points of intensity" in the midst of our otherwise unexceptional lives that connect us not only to our own depths but to that of others.
The interest in what are called narrative and interpretive approaches is also burgeoning at the scholarly level, in psychotherapy (Frank & Frank, 1991; Spence, 1982), psychology (Freeman, 1993; Linde, 1993; McAdams, 1985; Rosewald & Ochberg, 1992), humanistic psychology (Polkinghorne, 1988), anthropology (Myerhoff, 1992), literature (DeConcini, 1990), religion (Baird, 1992), and sociology (Krieger, 1991), but I have heard persons in the so-called hard sciences speak of "the story" of the atom or a star or a gene. I dare say there is a story involving an EHE behind most scientific findings in every hard science, but rarely are they reported. When they are, as in the case of Poincare's discovery of the fuscian functions or Kekule's dream of the benzene rings, they are repeated in many contexts, over many generations, suggesting that at some level we recognize the importance of these experiences, but I think this also minimizes them by giving the impression that they are rarities. If we would pay attention to the presence of EHEs, especially in the significant moments of our lives, we would recognize both their importance and their commonness. But our culture actively minimizes their role by providing mainly negative story lines about them. Some of these negative stories are that they are indications that the experiencer is weird, abnormal, mentally ill, the victim of a delusion, possessed by the devil, or making it all up. I would like to counter these negative characterizations of EHEs by presenting positive story lines.
First, in the new view that is emerging in the human and social sciences, "reality" is not seen as something outside us that we have to use our senses and rational faculties to recognize and interact with. One of the best popular presentations of this new viewpoint is Walter Truett Anderson's (1990) Reality Isn't What It Used to Be. Instead, reality, including our own identity, is seen as largely constructed by ourselves and others against the backdrop of our particular circumstances, significant others, and our culture. Additionally, the reality we construct, that is, the story we tell, affects the persons we come in contact with, and to some extent, our culture at large. Moreover, we keep reweaving our own stories throughout our lives. And we don't simply add new elements as they occur over the years. New experiences can lead us to view past experience in new ways and thus to alter the story of our own identity and of what it means to be human. Bertram J. Cohler (1994), in a review of Storied Lives: The Cultural Politics of Self-Understanding (Rosenwald & Ochberg, 1992, 137), notes that longitudinal studies indicate that people continue to revise their life stories across their entire course and that the past is significant primarily only in regard to how it contributes to their current "experience of personal integrity."> I (White, 1992) have attempted to show how this works in an essay review of a book by Barbara DeConcini entitled Narrative Remembering. DeConcini touches on what may be a paranormal element involved in retelling and renewing our stories, which is that it may be possible not only to recast the past but to actually alter it, which bears on the mystery of redemption, and which can only be engineered, as far as I can see, within the context of an exceptional human experience of the psychic type.
Second, my studies of exceptional human experience reveal that many, if not all EHEs, are transitional experiences. They serve as a bridge between an old identity and a potentially new one, or in James's view, between Stage 1 and Stage 2. They also serve as a bridge between an isolated sense of identity and a new story in which, as priest/environmentalist Tom Berry (1988/1990) puts it, we actually experience what it means to be not simply an individual on the surface of this earth and in this universe but as an aspect of the earth and the universe, a unique aspect that has never been before and never will be again, for no other being could possibly have the same genetic composition and be placed in exactly the same social and cultural context with the same family members, friends, peers, and associates. Each one of us is the universe living the experiment of life, doing their best with whatever comes from within and without, that is, with one's unique genetic make-up and life circumstances. Just as the sperm seeks the egg, so each human seeks personal knowledge of his or her unity with all things, and once that unity is glimpsed, all of life is made new. That is the source of the reverence for all life, human and nonhuman, animate and inanimate: the undeniable sense of connection to the More that an EHE provides.
Hoffman (1992, 53) writes of a man who as a child experienced an "aura of aliveness" radiating from animals and plants that gave him the feeling of being "part of a great Whole." These EHEs taught him "that each of us has a silent voice that speaks with God," but, he adds, we must not cut ourselves off from it but let it happen. Hoffman also includes an account of a 47-year-old woman who, while observing ants when she was a child, suddenly lost all sense of her ordinary self and became "fully merged with the ants' aliveness and purpose" (p. 55). She adds that that experience formed the bases for her conception of God and it led her to her primary interests, painting landscapes, and reading and writing poetry.
So it is very important to tell our stories fully, leaving nothing out, especially our EHEs, for they serve as the portals to this more connected worldview, which is not so much a concept or idea as it is a noetic experience, an experience of knowing, and even beyond that, of being.
Third, how do we weave our EHEs into the story of our lives? First, we must educate ourselves as to the full range of EHEs. From their writings in the Academy's publications, it appears that some people think I intend exceptional human experience to be a synonym for psychic experiences. This is emphatically not so. An EHE could be one of over 80 types of experience, including the full range of psychic experiences but many are at the upper end of what we think of as "normal" experience, such as creativity, empathy, dreaming, and being " in the zone" while engaging in sports. Second, we must remember what EHEs we have had, and this may take a period of time to recall. We must work with them by becoming aware of the ways in which they have influenced our lives, or could have, if we had allowed them to. Because of the negative story lines our culture emphasizes, they may have influenced us negatively so that we may have feared incorporating them at all, or we may even have suppressed or repressed them--kept them secret not only from others but from ourselves. Some EHEs are socially acceptable and as such are much less threatening than others. We should start small, with those experiences we feel safe in incorporating, such as moments of creative insight, feelings of nostalgia, memorable dreams, the wonder of certain synchronistic experiences that hint of a larger meaning and provide a glimpse of a greater connectedness than our everyday self is usually aware of, moments of déjà vu that somehow lift us out of our ordinary sense of time and connect the past, present, and future.
If we have had had no dramatic EHEs, then we must start with these small ones. If we can't even recall small ones, we must start with hints and guesses, which often can be found in poetry and other forms of literature, and in drama, art, and music. If we feel hints and guesses are too far removed from reality to be relied upon, then we must study and empathize with the exceptional experiences of others. There are many recent collections available, such as the compilations of Cohen and Phipps (1979/1992), Hardy (1979), Hoffman (1992), Inglis (1989), and Laski (1961/1989). We need to dwell on these experiences and how they speak to our current lives. We should play with each one, telling ourselves: "If such and such is true, then....," and we must let our imaginations play with that "then," for it will lead us to a new story of human nature and thus, of our own selves. Ideally, it will also lead us to develop new positive story lines for our lives and our EHEs, which in turn should influence people close to us and even our culture, at first locally, and then in increasingly wider circles, replacing the old negative stereotypes that are stultifying the spiritual growth of our species. We must replace every single negative story line with a positive one. In fact, this is what the Franks (Frank & Frank, 1991) says is involved in successful psychotherapy: the therapist helps the client to reweave past negative experiences into a constructive view of themselves and their lives.
Although I am suggesting that these story lines are vehicles for incorporating EHEs into our life story and into our story of what human being at large is, I want to emphasize the central importance of the EHEs themselves. In a sense, each one comes with its own potential story line that is uniquely fitted to ourselves and our circumstances. It may help to try on some of the positive story lines others have developed, but it is better to become aware of one's own story as it unfolds and have the courage to live from it. And courage will be required, what Tillich (1952) called "the courage to be," because when we have an EHE we are on the growing edge of ourselves, teetering between the old and the new. EHEs initiate a process in which we have to let go of the old and set foot on new ground, take up the new identity and walk. But whatever that new ground may be, and it probably differs for every person, it is the ground of ourselves. We need not fear it, even if it wounds us. The ultimate message seems to be, as my own most important EHE taught, "the everlasting arms are always there." We can afford to fall, because we will be caught. We can even afford to die, for, as my NDE also taught, "nothing that has ever lived can possibly die."
I met a woman recently who was in an abusive marriage from which she felt she could not extricate herself because her husband was a violent man who threatened to kill her if she left. She did not doubt that he would. Then she was involved in an automobile accident in which she had an NDE, which left her with the certain knowledge that death is an impossibility. She immediately incorporated this into the story of her life and of human nature. The first thing she did when she returned home was tell her husband she was leaving. She was even able to laugh at his threats, because of her experience of the ultimate nonreality of death. Now you can certainly interpret this story in different ways, several being what I have called negative story lines. You could say the teaching of her NDE was a delusion engineered by various physiological secretions that occur in a life-threatening situation. I say it doesn't matter what engineered the experience. It is the knowledge she gained that counts. You could say the basis of that knowledge was illusory, yet because she was able to believe it, it altered her attitude, and her new attitude of fearlessness was sensed by her husband, whose violence was depotentiated by it. I say it doesn't matter how you rationally try to explain it. Here we have an actual life situation. The reality is that the NDE enabled this woman to change her story, and when she did, she was able to change her life.
When an EHE occurs, we have a strong impulse to explain it away--to expose it as unreal. But the emperor has no clothes! You are confronted by the reality of a changed life, regardless of the origin of the EHE. It doesn't matter! Trying to track it down is a major means of evading the meaning of an EHE. It doesn't matter where it came from--what counts is what it can lead to if one honors it. Nor does the story stop with the experience. In this woman's case, as a result of her near-death experience, she developed an inner sense of guidance, which she has since followed. She is now pioneering a technique for helping others to revise their identities and live more fully from the "More" in themselves and in the universe by a method given her by her "guides." In this way she, in turn, has become a guide for others.
Whether or not these experiences are ontologically real does not matter. What matters is that they change lives; they move lives in the direction of the More. I submit that there is nothing that we, as we near the 21st century, need more than this: that we come to see ourselves and our human beinghood as ultimately united with that which surpasses human understanding. But although at this stage it may be beyond the grasp of our rational faculties, it is not beyond the human heart. The knowledge of EHEs is not the rational knowledge our society privileges. It is a secret knowledge of the feelings, which it is important to share. In order to bring out the More in others, in order to increase our own awareness of the More in ourselves, we need to develop our awareness of the More, guided by our EHEs, and we need to share every insight that we gain. So only can we hope to reach that point where the More is simply that which is, interconnecting everything, both without and within.
At base, we must transform our philosophy, ethics, economics, way of doing science, and our educational, religious, and social institutions so that they recognize that exceptional experience must come first. Most importantly, we must foster every EHE reported by children. Instead of waiting for them to grow up and have a mid-life crisis and rebirth, we should allow children to develop their EHEs as the spearhead of their lives, preferably under the guidance of authentic spiritual counselors who can provide positive story lines for such experiences. Children are naturally aware of the More in human experience. We should encourage them to build on it and continue to remain in touch with it throughout their lives--we must not let them forget from whence they came. A friend of a friend told her this story: When she had a new baby, her three-year old daughter begged to be left alone with the infant. The parents were hesitant to do so and asked her why, but she wouldn't give any reason. Nonetheless, she continued to plead. Finally they let her do it, but kept the baby monitor on. They heard her say to her baby sister: "Please, tell me about God. I'm beginning to forget." Instead of teaching children to forget, we must use every means at our disposal to enable them to remember.
I think as infants, if not as children, most humans are in touch with the divine. As the consensus world begins to close in on us and close us off, we begin to forget. We are even taught to forget. Edward Hoffman (1992) 2 has published recollections of adults concerning the exceptional experiences of their childhood. In many cases, parents, teachers, and friends denied the truth of those experiences in one way or another. For example, Hoffman (pp. 75-77) includes an account of a vivid NDE experienced by a 15-year-old girl when she was operated on for a ruptured appendix. She eagerly described her wondrous experience to her family and friends, but they all dismissed it as a dream induced by ether. She finally stopped telling people about it but remained convinced that it was not like any dream she had ever had and had actually been an encounter with death.
Hoffman also presents an account by an anthropologist who, at age four, stood on a beach and suddenly felt a door had opened and she "became the sun, the wind, and the sea. There was no 'I' any more" (p. 39). (Actually--there was an I, only it was not her ordinary I--it had become the More.) Her parents found her thus entranced and assumed she had had a heat stroke and put her to bed in a dark room for two days, which in fact did restore her ordinary sense of self. Nonetheless, she never forgot the experience even though as a child she did not know how to handle it nor could she speak of it, for fear that she would be thought crazy. She writes that 67 years later, what she experienced that day has "continued to carry me. It reminds me that I will always be in the middle of the stream as long as I keep the memory alive" (p. 39). This is the great clue--the necessity of keeping alive and nurturing the memories of our EHEs. Everything else can be relinquished, but if our lives are to have a sense of flow, of adaptability and growth, we have to remain in that current with which an EHE puts us in touch.
In this girl's case, the parents supplied the negative story line. As we become adults, we learn how to do it for ourselves! Cohen & Phipps (1979/1992, 3-4) cite a case in which a man was enraptured in St. Peter's Cathedral, but it had no effect upon his life even though he felt immortal, and had--as he puts it--an " orgasm of experience" (p. 4). But throughout he says his brain made cool observations as would a BBC commentator, dubbing the experience aesthetic, not religious, and as an illusion. Here we have the intrusion of negative story lines. When he reentered his body he says his brain took over, not without sympathy, as if he were a child who had lost his parents.
They cite another man who had a mystical experience in a church, his whole being radiated by ecstasy. This state lasted for several months, but ultimately, he did not change his life. He felt called, but he was conflicted. He felt that to follow the call he would have to give up his worldly ways. One could say he was so deeply embedded in Stage 1 identity that he was unable to go on to Stage 2.
But in other cases, children or young people are so profoundly affected by an experience that it serves as a touchstone for their entire lives. For example: When he was a 16-year-old South African schoolboy, Martin Israel listened to Weber's Oberon while in a depressed state. All of a sudden his perception altered. The room was irradiated by light and he felt he had entered eternity--that is, some space entirely outside of creation. Great spiritual insights came to him, as if an inner form of integral knowing had awakened. He writes (Cohen & Phipps, 1979/1992, 156) that his personality was altered--he no longer felt he was a separate self. Although he had lost his sense of individual identity, he said "for the first time in my life I had really experienced the identity of a whole person--I was in union with all creation and my identity had been added to it." His experience lasted three minutes, and influenced the course of his entire life. Because of his new sense of connected identity, he became an Anglican priest and a healer, bringing to others in time and space what he had known in eternity.
These experiences, of course, need not be confined to children and young people, but can occur at any stage of the life cycle. We are taught by parents and teachers, and as parents and teachers we ourselves teach, that they are abnormal, atypical, possibly even pathological, and at best, anomalous--the negative story lines again. But I think these experiences represent what should be the norm. We should be taught to encourage these experiences because EHEs make us aware of dimensions of reality that our world and our species literally cannot live without.2
If we were to put these experiences first in our lives, they would naturally guide us, although it is important to share experiences and to compare notes with others, and to read and study about similar experiences and become aware of as many cultural approaches to such experiences as possible. I think that through synchronicity and other EHEs, and by means of follow-up study, we would be further led to take up spiritual practices such as meditation, contemplation, yoga, prayer, biofeedback, dream interpretation, journal writing, study groups, writing one's EHE autobiography, and other ways of fostering EHEs and our perception and cognizance of them. By our sharing we would create a vast interconnected web in which each person helps those who are newer to the path than they are, and in turn, is aided by those who are more advanced. Nor is this chain purely human-- the web includes all life forms, most of whom provide the everlasting arms that sustain human life, and whose very beings> serve as metaphors of connection. The time has come for humans to give back to life, not simply to exploit its largess. We need to honor the life force in every living thing, for it is that same force that impels our own lives.
Out of such a web of interconnection we can form a new view of human nature, a new way of being in the world, and a whole new culture that has its basis in eternity, though its many forms have their locus in time and space. We need to know in our flesh and bones, in the beautiful lines of Gerald Heard (1940, 168), that "Eternity is not approaching us across the days and years. It is about us, within us, and is attained the moment we turn to it." EHEs provide us with a taste of Eternity. They are moments of grace. And a moment of grace is not a reward for what we already are but a hint, a promise, of what we may become by living henceforth from the vision revealed in that moment in such a way that we come to live from Eternity, from that connected self that is the More in human experience.
People who have mystical experiences report that they are aware not so much of bringing something new into being; rather, it is as if they finally recognized the fullness of what has been present right along. It is not so much that we make new connections rationally as it is a case of falling into them, effortlessly, as a hand slips into a well-fitting glove. A contemporary poet, Elizabeth Herron, writes that she had been in a depressed state, feeling that her world was drab and colorless. She felt she was "a tiny kernel inside my body, adrift amid necessities and obligations, oppressed by my separateness, cut off from the wellsprings of my soul" (quoted in Vaughan, 1979, 72). Then she took a walk to a pond, took off her clothes and jumped in. As she surfaced, A bird called from across a nearby meadow. Then, she writes: "Suddenly, I was at the stillpoint. The bird's call was my voice. We were separate and yet one. I was out there and in here. . . . The dimension of the infinite was everywhere." She had become "conterminous with the More." For her, writing poetry is her way of expressing and coming to terms with such experiences. So here, again, the individual recognizes that at the center of herself she meets the whole world.
Becoming aware of the full nature of who and what we are is not a matter of "dreaming dreams and seeing visions." It is the most practical work in which we can engage. For if we lived from the selves these accounts testify to, we would have changed our lives. In this country, at least, most of us tend to live our lives in a very rational, linear fashion. We are embued with the conviction that one can only move one step at a time, that causality does not happen at a distance, that the way to evaluate situations and make decisions is through rational inference and logic, and we tend to blot out the chaotic aspects of existence that would give the lie to this neat but highly encapsulated view. But if we studied, meditated on, discussed, and shared what our EHEs tell us about reality, and especially, about the nature of our selves, it would be very different.
If we knew we were not bound by time, space, personality, death, our culture, our species, or even our skin, we would live in a wholly different way, and in an entirely different world. Instead of planning our lives step by step, making sure we know the "right" people and make all the right contacts, we would go within to discern where we are in any given situation, that is, that Self that is the More. We would become conscious of the Self we all are and ask that Self for guidance, listen to its promptings concerning how we should live and what we should do, and remain constantly open to the new, the unexpected, and even the feared and the abhorred. If Western society as a whole extolled the unitive life before all else, the undreamed of could become a reality. It is no longer just our individual transcendent selves that hunger for it--the needs of our planet demand it.
When confronted with the fact that our very identities are involved with the stories we choose to tell about our exceptional experiences, I hope more people will see the great benefit--even in terms of sheer selfishness--of composing a positive story for a transcendental identity rather than a compressed, mean, limited, negative identity whose main motivation is to "get even with" or strike back at the world that gave it birth. May the day come when all humans are aware of the singing joy of knowing both that what they see without comes from within, and that within their very selves they harbor the immensities of the universe. Then inside and outside will be viewed as connected, or as James wrote, "conterminous," not separate as we have been taught.
At base, EHEs are harbingers of conversion. They are moments of grace that life gives us gratuitously. But whether or not we change by moving in the direction they indicate is up to us. As always, the choice is ours. George Fisk (1993), in his commentary on the paper I gave last year (White, 1993), said that hard evidence is needed lest people follow EHEs into devilish pursuits as in possession, Satanism, cult behavior, and other ways in which humans can bring harm to other people, other life forms, and themselves. I could not disagree more, much as I honor and respect George. Four centuries of insistence on "hard" evidence is largely responsible for creating the rift between our sense of self and the rest of life, including other humans.
Nonetheless, George is correct that it is dangerous to follow up any whim and fancy just because it is emotionally compelling. But if we go back far enough in the Western tradition, the only rule we really need is still there, waiting for us to take it up and follow it. It is the golden rule: "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you." If one has visions and compulsions to kill, maim, exploit, abuse, or in any way harm another being, human or animal, then it is not an authentic experience.
The touchstone of the authenticity of an EHE is not that it can be underwritten by laboratory research but that when it is lived into its full life it will foster growth and connection between the experiencer and all those with whom he or she may come into contact. To be sure, experiencers may get negative reactions from others, depending on what stage they are at in their own spiritual growth. People who have not awakened to their own EHEs may laugh, deride, and weave all kinds of negative story lines to explain away others' experiences and even to put down the experiencers. But the experiencers themselves cannot help but feel compassion, tolerance, and good will toward such persons, because their experiences have made them aware of the basic oneness of everyone and everything. Thus, a negative spiral of retaliation will not develop. Moreover, experiencers will feel no need to insist that others adopt whatever approach is working for them: their passion is directed at praying that each person will awaken to their own authentic calling in response to their own moments of grace--their own exceptional human experiences. Each of us must follow our own unique EHEs to find and forge our own identities with the More--but I believe the More each one discovers in their own way, in essence will turn our to be the same as everyone else's.
1While on the subject of books about journal writing and writing one's autobiography, I would like to point out that several books, in addition to that by Feinstein and Krippner, are about using fairy tales and myths to develop one's personal myth. These are of value as far as they go, but I find them lacking in one very important--to me, the most important--respect: they do not deal openly with EHEs, although they may given them peripheral attention. One of the most important aspects of myths and fairy tales is "magic," " grace," "synchronicity"--that is, exceptional human experience. Although space does not permit developing this theme here, I do want to point out that the whole point of an exceptional experience, to my mind, is to give us a jump start on developing our personal myths and living our own fairy tales. I think everyone's life, no matter what their circumstances, can become a good fairy tale, if it incorporates the EHEs life gives us. No one is without grace. It is our EHEs that provide the authentic magic in our lives.
2 In looking for examples of EHEs and their story lines, I drew on two published collections of cases: Hoffman's (1992), and a book based on the collection of the Alister Hardy Research Centre by Cohen and Phipps (1979/1992). I want to emphasize the importance of collecting and studying as many of these experiences as possible, not simply to provide cases for researchers, writers, and TV and radio show producers, but for persons who counsel exceptional human experiencers and most of all, for the experiencers themselves. As some may know, I am trying to raise the funds to collect as many published and unpublished experiences as possible and to enter them in a computer database so that specific types and qualities of experience can be located quickly as needed. For example, when one has an OBE one may only be aware of negative story lines--or it is even conceivable that one doesn't even know of the existence of out-of-body experiences. This can lead, at one extreme, to an inflated view of one's self-importance and at the other, to the fear that one is going crazy. What a boon if such persons could contact a center where they could obtain copies of, say, 50 OBEs. Or take a person who experienced a ball of light, which somehow was related to one's dying grandfather (Hoffman, in fact, does report one such case). It would certainly be helpful to be able to pull up 25 or so other experiences in which balls of light associated with persons were featured. Most importantly, I feel that any account of an EHE can serve as a modern parable--a teaching story. We can receive guidance, strength, courage, and wisdom from the experiences of others, almost as much as if we had had them ourselves. I would appreciate it if readers would send in their experiences and/or copies of published cases. Unless specifically requested to identify the experiencer, all first-person accounts will be entered in the database anonymously.
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