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What Are Exceptional Human Experiences?

Rhea A. White
pub: EHE Network, Inc.
(3rd ed., 1999)
copyright©2001 EHE Network, Inc.


When the term exceptional human experience (EHE) was coined in 1990, it marked the beginning of an effort to discover what could be learned if all types of psychic, mystical, encounter, death-related, peak, and other anomalous experiences were viewed as members of a single class. Until then, the practice had been to view each one of these groups of experiences as separate (though sometimes related), and ufologists studied UFO encounters; students of religion studied mystical experiences; psychiatrists studied out-of-body experiences; near-death researchers investigated NDEs, parapsychologists studied experiences involving telepathy, clairvoyance, precognition, and PK; and psychical researchers looked into some death-related experiences indicative of survival of bodily death. Sometimes they were all grouped under the rubric of "superstition," or "anomalies," or "the paranormal," but not generally by researchers, who took each individual type of experience seriously.

I also decided, when I began to study this broad range of experiences, to concentrate not only on their anomalous features but to look as well at the triggers of the experiences, their qualities and concomitants (physiological, physical, psychological, and spiritual), and their aftereffects. In this regard, it appears that many types of exceptional experience are very similar even though their modus operandi may differ. The feature that was most common to all types was their transformative aspect; it became apparent that this was a characteristic that had to be included in any full definition of an EHE. It also became apparent, when taking into consideration the content and impact of these experiences, that they themselves were outlining a new conception of who we are and why we are here on the planet Earth in the late 20th century. This needs to be taken into account when defining "exceptional human experience."

EHEs serve as a means of moving the experiencer away from a more or less exclusive identification with a self bounded by the skin and thought of as separate from others and everything else (what Alan Watts called "the skin-encapsulated ego") to an awareness of a Self that is All Things, or what I call the All-Self. Exceptional human experiences indicate that there may be a continuum of consciousness between these two extremes of identity, and their import often is to move us toward firsthand experience of the All-Self. Both senses of self are needed, but exclusive identification with one or the other diminishes one's quality of life. Ideally, one should be aware of both and not exclusively identified with either. Perhaps because Western civilization is based almost entirely on the conception of the separate skin-encapsulated ego-self, we in the West have lost our awareness of and become dissociated from the All-Self, except for special moments. These "special moments" are exceptional experiences; through cultivating them, we can once more achieve the frequent or even constant awareness of the All-Self to complement the ego-self. (To be more accurate, in as many different ways as there are individual humans, each person increasingly reflects the All-Self in his or her way of life. This is a basic tenet of the world’s religions, but it is basic EHE psychology. It is also the subject matter of transpersonal psychology.)

  1. Initially, a person experiences a spontaneous anomalous experience. "Anomalous" implies that the experience is unexpected according to standard Western science. It does not commit to any particular type of explanation. Labeling an experience as "anomalous" often results in its not being considered as part of consensus reality. It is then neglected and forgotten, and anyone who says they have had one is often laughed at and considered deluded. Thus, at this first stage, the anomalous experience, whether it be perceptual, cognitive, or behavioral, originates outside the mainstream of the experiencer’s ordinary conscious awareness or self-concept. At this stage the experience is only an anomalous experience. Often it goes no further. Because it is an anomaly, it is simply dismissed.
  2. Some who have an anomalous experience feel singled out by it in a personal way. At the least, the experience seems personally very special and meaningful. This may be the beginning of the turn from a simple anomalous experience to an exceptional experience (EE), which is a stage in the development of an exceptional human experience.. Those who are unable to make the progression to an exceptional human experience may panic and ask, "Why did this happen to me?"--as if the sky had fallen upon them. They tend to find life-depotentiating ways to distance themselves from the experience and exclude it from their lives except as a curiosity they cannot entirely forget. Those who respond in a life-potentiating way are bolstered by this feeling of being singled out (although they may well be frightened by it as well) and begin to weave it into their life narrative. In Frontiers of the Soul, Grosso (Quest, 1992) writes: "An extraordinary experience can be an ally or an enemy. ...Whether we advance or retreat...depends on an act of our imagination, on the way we see the pattern, on the meaning we take from the experience" (p. 224).
  3. The experiencer also tries to apply various ordinary explanations to the experience, but it resists all attempts to explain it away. Here "ordinary" refers to the assumptions of the ruling Western paradigm, so basically this means one must be able to rule out all sensory cues as well as the possibility of rational inference in trying to account for the experience. Thus, it becomes an EE: the experiencer admits to him- or herself that this anomalous experience or else anomaly of experience actually happened in his or her case. (An anomaly of experience is a "personal first" or a "personal best" in the experiencer’s life that go beyond the previous limits of their experience.) Of course, coincidence can never be ruled out, and the point at which one decides an experience can be passed off as "mere coincidence" or "dumb luck" is a matter of personal disposition, although in the case of extrasensory perception, precognition, and psychokinesis, experimental parapsychology can provide specific probabilities of the occurrence of each. An experiencer must also consider various forms of self-delusion.
  4. If the experience withstands examination in Condition 3, the experiencer can only conclude that it was genuine in terms of his or her own private experience of reality up to this point. In other words, the experience seems as real as any other life experience, in spite of its exceptional features.
  5. As mainstream Western culture rejects such experiences, experiencers at the EE stage tend to feel separated from the conventional view of reality, and they are afraid of what others would think about them if they knew about their experiences. Nonetheless, they resolve to include the EE in their personal life stories. This is an early stage in distancing from the ego-self by holding to the conviction that the experience in fact did happen even if it contradicts the prevailing worldview. Here the ego-self plays a pivotal role, because bolstered by the conviction provided by the All-Self, it nonetheless is the ego that chooses to believe in the experience rather than give in to consensus reality and dismiss it.
  6. In spite of the sense of estrangement, the experience begins to work in the experiencer like yeast in flour. It is almost as though the experience has altered one’s being or shifted it in some way so that one’s attention is moved to a new angle, and the "I" that sees, thinks, and experiences is wider, deeper, fuller, and altogether more than the person was aware of before the experience. Thus, the experience itself to some extent distances one from the ego-self. As the experiencer begins to respond constructively to the cognitive dissonance that is created between the prevailing worldview, which says the experience could not occur, and his or her conviction that it did, by continuously affirming that the experience happened (as opposed to suppressing the experience or belittling and dismissing it), the seemingly anomalous event alters the daily life and consciousness of the experiencer. The experiencer becomes aware of being tuned in, at special moments, to what is experienced phenomenologically as a "different frequency." A sense of peace and of the rightness of the world counteracts the sense of discord between what is happening to the ego-self and the promptings of the exceptional experience.
  7. The experiencer becomes more dissociated from the ego-self and begins to associate more to the All-Self. Awareness of the latter is sometimes palpable and can be turned to at will. A potentially long-term process has been initiated that can eventually partly or fully transform the experiencer’s identity and worldview in a direction that is outside consensus reality but is more fully human. This transformation not only involves self-actualization but also an experienced connectedness with the All-Self, including other humans, life forms, the earth, and the cosmos. One could say that the person has gained a sense that "the personal is the cosmic." It is because these experiences, when one accepts them and changes sufficiently to assimilate them, help experiencers to reach their fuller human potential that one can call them exceptional human experiences. Experiencers become more human than they were before they had the EHE.

Sometimes the EHE that initially calls one out is often synonymous with a sense of vocation. This type of experience can be an EHE in itself, but it may also be a component of many EHEs. It is as if before one has an EHE one is a seeker; afterward one is a finder. Having contacted what William James, in Varieties of Religious Experience, called one’s "higher part that is conterminous and continuous with a MORE [his emphasis] which is operative in the universe outside" (p. 499), answers start coming not only from within but from without. One finds oneself immersed in a vast reciprocal process that is experienced as both inside and outside. (This makes sense as the All-Self is both inside and outside.) Sometimes the experiences that come from outside and some of those from within are additional EHEs, and the former, especially, reassure the experiencer that something genuine is taking place and that he or she is not simply deluded. Moreover, there sometimes are witnesses to these additional EHEs, if not the first one.

These additional experiences and their confirmation by others over a period of time give the experiencer the sense that a path is opening up, and his or her resolve is then increased not only to recall the initial experience and follow it but to try to discover the path indicated by the subsequent experiences, and if possible, never to lose sight of it. This process, which I call the EHE process, becomes not only personally but socially meaningful, because it leads to changes in the way the person lives his or her life, and this affects an increasingly larger circle of people. Experiencers begin to meet many new people who have had a glimpse of the All-Self, which increases their conviction of being on the right path, and earlier relationships with persons who are totally identified with the ego-self may fall away.

But though many are called, not everyone chooses to follow unequivocally. To distance oneself nearly totally from one’s identification with the ego-self can be harrowing. It is as if one were being asked to step off a cliff with no certainty as to how far one might fall. The life-potentiating wonder of this fateful step is expressed beautifully by NDEer Anne Kahn. Following a car wreck in which she nearly died, she recalls that "at the bleakest moment I was given this poem: When you come to the edge of all your light and know that you must step forward, you also know one of two things must happen. Either you will be given support, or taught how to fly."

Once one makes this leap, the die has been cast. It will no longer be possible to identify solely with the ego-self. It will often recede from awareness, as one is drawn ever more strongly, often by means of additional exceptional human experiences, to the warmth, light, and certitude of the All-Self, which by definition brings one to an awareness of one’s interconnectedness with all things: all aspects of one’s self, other people, animals, plants--even the mineral kingdom and the Earth itself, and beyond, the cosmos. And living in this knowledge, the way EHEers live their lives change as well, but that is another story.

This is based in part on a chapter by the author titled "Dissociation, Narrative, and Exceptional Human Experiences" written for Broken Images, Broken Selves (Brunner/Mazel, 1997), edited by Stanley Krippner and Susan M. Powers. See also the articles by White and Brown under EHE Process.


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