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Triggers of Potential Exceptional Human Experiences

Rhea A. White
Suzanne V. Brown
(1st ed., 1996; 2nd ed., 2000)

Several writers have compiled lists of "triggers," or circumstances predisposing people to have exceptional human experiences.The following list is compiled with the use of a num­ber of sources that are cited in the list itself. I am especially indebted to Greeley (1978), Grof & Grof (1989), Hardy (1979), Keutzer (1978), Laski (1961), and Quarrick (1989).Space does not permit listing all the bibliographic information for the references cited, but if anyone is interested in following up on some, please contact the EHE Network.

Some of the experiences listed are specific types of other experiences listed, e.g., precognitions as a form of extrasensory perception.In such cases both were listed if they were cited because people may think to look under one but not the other.

The list also reveals several experiences one would ordinarily seek to avoid: Danger, Death of another, Illness, Loss, Psychotic states, Rejection. These are all examples of "spiritual emergencies" (Grof & Grof, 1989). As the Grofs point out, any experience that spontaneously interrupts the tenor of one’s life can trigger an EHE immediately or eventually. Often it takes a jolt, such as a rejection or loss, to open us, or sometimes, as in the title of the autobiography of C.S. Lewis, to being "Surprised by Joy."

It is readily apparent that although some of the activities are religious and some are artistic/esthetic, a rather large number have to do with movement, play, and sports. I don’t think this is because this is simply because it is a special interest of mine (see Murphy & White, 1995). Religionist David L. Miller (1970, p. 138) has observed:

Play may be the root metaphor of an emergent mythology. ...We may be witnessing a mythological revolution, turning toward a new frontier in which leisure, meditation, and contemplation are potentially dominant. Instead of work being our model for both work and play, play may be the model for both our games of leisure and our games of vocation. Play may be the mythology of the new frontier.

An examination of the List of Potential EEs/EHEs also contains a great many "secular" or nonreligious types of exceptional or transcendent experiences. It appears that excep­tional or transcendent experiences, many of which were once as­sociated with religion, are being experienced by more people in the midst of daily life. This may be not so much because these experiences are becoming secularized, but because the sacred is being found in the midst of daily life. Thus, the "new frontier" may be our own lives, wherever and however they are lived. We may be in the beginning of the process of resacralizing the world, so that there will be no need for the term secular.

List of Predisposing Circumstances and Triggers

This list was initially based on the cited sources plus White’s recollections of triggers mentioned in the many accounts she had read plus those she knew from her own experiences. The list has been enlarged here by new triggers added by Brown and White prior to their study of 50 accounts plus the addition of new triggers that turned up in reading those accounts. A preliminary report of that research will eventually appear on this site in the EHE Research section.


Activity shared with another

Activity shared with group

Aesthetic experience (Quarrick, 1989)


Agoral gatherings (Biela & Tobacyk, 1987)


Alienation/ anomie, general feelings of

Anesthesia (James, 1902)


Archery (Herrigel, 1953)

Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD)

Auto and other types of racing (Manso, 1969; Moss with Purdy, 1963)




Baths, extreme temperature/ sequence of hot and cold

Bedside gathering around sickbed

Bedtime, not asleep/preparation for

Begging/fervent questioning for answer/help from higher power/god(dess)/universe

Being alone in church, cathedral, mosque, temple

Bible or other religious texts

Biofeedback (Brown, 1974; Green & Green, 1977)

Breathing exercises (Grof, 1988; Rossi, 1990)


Change in health considerations

Change in job/business

Change in lifestyle

Change of finances

Change of home/ physical location/ geography

Change of marriage/ partner/ family

Chanting, drumming, and other rhythmic activities (Meerloo, 1960;Segell, 1988)

Charismatic personality, encounter with

Childbirth (Hardy, 1979; Vaughan, 1979)

Chorale singing (Funk, 1985)

Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS)

Church, cathedral, mosque, temple, being inside a

Church service


Conflict at personal crossroads (on the horns of a dilemma), inner

Conscious dying

Conviction that one is dying (Stevenson, Cook, & McClean- Rice)

Crafts (Richards, 1962)

Creative activities (Ghiselin, 1952; Quarrick, 1989)

Crises in personal relationships (Hardy, 1979)

Crying/pleading for help from another

Dancing (Brown, 1927/1968; Greenstein, 1990; Hazzard-Gordon, 1991; Meerloo, 1960; Owen, 1983)

Danger, inviting

Danger, risk-taking

Danger, sense of immediate

Death of another

Déjà vu (Neppe, 1983)

Depression, despair (Hardy, 1979; James, 1902)

Development of mediumship or channeling (Hastings, 1991; Klimo, 1987)


Distress, financial/ poverty



Driving a vehicle


Encounter groups (Burton, 1969)

Endurance feats such as singlehanded sailing for many weeks (Noyce, 1958; Willis , 1955)

Engaging in any repetitious boring chore

Estranged from another

Exceptional human performance

Experiencing a series of meaningful coincidences promoting belief in the interconnectedness of everything (Jung 1952/1955; Vaughan, 1980)

Exploration, ideas

Exploration, tools/methods

Exploration, travel/places (Noyce, 1958)

Extrasensory perception (Greeley, 1975; Ryback with Schweitzer, 1988)

Fasting (Arbesmann, 1949-51; Johnson, 1978)


Fear/concern for another/ children

Fibromyalgia Syndrome (FMS)

Films, watching

Flow activities (Csikszentmihalyi, 1975)

Flying (Lindbergh, 1953; Mishima, 1970)

Frustration/futility, general feeling of


Guided imagery and/or music

Guru/Spiritual teacher encounter


Historical monument (e.g. Gettysburg)

Holotropic breathwork/breathing

Human interaction (Johnson, 1986; Quarrick, 1989)

Hypnagogic or hypnapompic experiences (Mavromatis, 1987)

Illness/Health (Dafter, 1990; Duff, 1993; Kunz, 1985)


Incubus experience (Hufford, 1982)

Induction/revelation technique

Insight of finally "seeing" the long-sought key to a problem/experience (Quarrick, 1989)

Intense sadness (James, 1902)

Intimate relationships (Leckey, 1985)

Jewelry-making (Mozur, 1990)

Life-threatening situation

Liminal situation

Listening to or observing highly integrated individuals (Greenland, 1966)

Listening to sermon or other stirring speech

Literature (Huttar, 1971; Mordell, 1921)

Loss (Grof & Grof, 1989)

Lucid dreams (Garfield, 1974; Gebremedhin, 1990)

Mantram, reciting

Martial arts (Heckler, 1985; Leonard, 1975)

Meditation and prayer (Heard, 1954; Underhill, 1930)

Mid-life crisis

Mirror writing

Moments of quiet reflection

Moon, phases of

Mountain climbing (Smythe, 1949)

Multiple sclerosis (MS)

Multiple personality (Litton, 1990; Richards, 1990)

Music (Crandall, 1986; Hamel, 1979; Quarrick, 1989)

Near-fatal circumstances (Flynn, 1986; Ring, 1984; Ring, 1992)

Observing animals (Lilly, 1967; Lorenz , 1952; MacDonald, 1965)

Observing children (Owen, 1983)

Ocean cruising (Csikszentimihalyi & Csikszentimihalyi, 1988)

Out-of-body experiences (Gabbard & Twemlow, 1984)

Outward Bound events (Godfrey, 1979; Miner & Boldt, 1981)

Performing/witnessing noble acts

Personal need for "more" in life

Physical activities (Leonard, 1975; Metheny, 1968)

Physical diagnosis

Play (Neale, 1967; Quarrick, 1989)

Poetry (Owen, 1983)

Politics (Weber, in Gerth & Mills, Eds., 1946)

Prayer group

Precognitive experiences (Ryback with Schweitzer, 1988; Vaughan, 1973)

Professional presentation, preparing/performing

Prospect of death (e.g., deathbed experiences; see Osis & Haraldsson)

Psychedelic drugs (Grof, 1988; Huxley, 1954; Masters & Hous­ton, 1966; Watts, 1963)

Psychotic states

Psychotherapy (Gottesfeld, 1985; Schoen, 1991)

Reading about transcendent experiences and other EHEs, especially first-hand accounts

Recovering from an ended relationship

Rejection (Grof & Grof, 1989)

Relaxationafter a period of exercise

Relaxation technique

Religious icon

Religious/spiritual matters discussed

Remarkable coincidence of events

Retrocognitive experiences (Ellwood, 1971)

Riding in vehicle

Risktaking (Boga, 1988)

Ritual cleansing

Running (Sheehan, 1978; Spino, 1968; Stevens, 1988))

Sacred places (Jarow, 1986; Swan, 1991)

Scents (Owens, 1983)


Science (Hargreaves, 1990; Hayward, 1984; Weber, in Gerth & Mills, Eds., 1946, p., 135)

Self-hypnosis (Maltz, 1960)

Sensitivity training (Golembiewski & Blumberg , 1970)

Sensory enhancement (Otto & Mann, 1968/1971]

Sensory isolation tank (Hood & Morris, 1981; Lilly, 1977)

Sexual lovemaking (Quarrick, 1989)

Shamanism (Goldwort, 1992; Kalweit, 1984/1988; Walsh, 1990; Wright, 1989)

Sharing experience with another

Silence(Greene, 1940; Shafii, 1973)


Slow-motional meditation (Howard, 1987)

Soaring (Wolters, 1971)

Solitary ordeals (Csikszentmilayi & Csikszentmihalyi, 1988)

Solitude (Borgeault, 1989; Rosegrant, 1976)

Spiritual emergency (Grof & Grof, 1989)

Sport of any kind (Bates, 1982; Leonard, 1975; Millman, 1985; Murphy & White, 1995; Neal, 1972)

State celebrations, such as coronations, inaugurations, etc. (Bellah & Hammond, 1980; Gehrig, 1979; Hammond, 1976)



Surrender (Wolff, 1964)

Survival-of-death type experiences (Gallup with Proctor, 1982; Greeley, 1976; Grof & Grof, 1980; Grosso, 1985)

Swordsmanship (Herrigel, 1953)

Television watching

Tending others

Trauma (Grof & Grof , 1989)

UFO encounter (Strieber, 1988; Thompson, 1989)

Vertigo (Gell, 1980)

Victims, sudden awareness of other abused (human, animal, environment)

Visual art (Quarrick, 1989)

Watching performing arts (Duncan, 1928, Owen, 1983, Quarrick, 1989)

Watching sports

Wilderness (Krutch, 1952/1960; Muir, 1945; Porter, 1962/1974; Wheelwright& Schmidt, 1991)

Wind (Owens, 1983)

Work (Ennis, 1967; Weber, 1920-21/1956)

Workshop/retreat, psychic/spiritual development

Workshop/retreat, self- development



Arbesmann, Rudolph. 1949-50. Fasting and prophecy in pagan and Christian antiquity. Traditio, 7 , 1-71

Bate, Raphael. 1982. "Physical Education and Enlightenment." Journal of Psycho-Social Aspects, 8, 34-55.

Bellah, Robert N., and Philip E. Hammond. 1980. Varieties of American Civil Religion. New York: Harper & Row.

Biela, Adam, and Jerome J. Tobacyk. 1987. "Self-Transcendence in the Agoral Gathering": A Case Study of Pope John Paul II's 1979 Visit to Poland." Journal of Humanistic Psychology, 27, 390-405.

Boga, Steve. 1988. Risk! An Exploration into the Lives of Athletes on the Edge. Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic.

Bourgeault, Cynthia. 1989. "the Gift of Life: The Unified Solitude of the Desert Fathers." Parabola, 14, 27-35.

Brown, Barbara B. 1974. New Mind, New Body; Bio-feedback: New Directions for the Mind. New York: Harper & Row.

Brown, John Porter. (1927) 1968. The Darvishes; or, Oriental Spiritualism.

Burton, Arthur, ed. 1970 Encounter: The Theory and Practice of Encounter Groups. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Crandall, Joanne. 1986. Self-Transformation Through Music. Wheaton, IL: Theosophical Publishing House.

Dafter, Roger. 1990. "Individuation in Illness." Psychological Perspectives, No. 22, 24-37.

Duncan, Isadora. 1928. The Art of the Dance. New York: Theatre Arts.

Ellwood, Gracia Fay. 1971. Psychic Visits to the Past: An Exploration of Retrocognition. New York: New American Library.

Ennis, Philip H. 1967. "Ecstasy and Everyday Life." Journal for the Scien­tific Study of Religion , 6, 40-48.

Flynn, Charles P. 1986. After the Beyond: Human Transformation and the Near-Death Experience. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prntice- Hall.

Funk, Joel. 1985. "Choral Singing and Peak Experience." American Theosophist, 73, 165-174.

Gabbard, Glen O., and Stuart W. Twemlow. 1984. With the Eyes of the Mind--An Empirical Analaysis of Out-of- Body States. New York: Praeger.

Gallup, George Jr., with William Proctor. 1982.Adventures in Immortality. New york: McGraw- Hill.

Garfield, Patricia.1974. Creative Dreaming. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Gebremedhin, Elinor. 1990. "Differences Between Lucid and NonLucid Ecstatic Dreaming." Lucidity Letter, 9, 36-48.

Gehrig, Gail. 1979. American Civil Religion: An Assessment.Storrs, CT: Society for the Scientific Study of Religion.

Gell, Alfred. 1980. "The Gods at Play: Vertigo and Possession in Muria Religion." Man, 15, 219-248.

Gerth, H.H., and C. Wright Mills. 1946. From Max Weber: Essays in Sociol­ogy.New York: Oxford University Press.

Ghiselin, Brewster, ed. 1952. The Creative Process: A Symposium. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Glock, Charles Y, and Rodney Stark. 1965.Religion and Society in Tension. Chicago: Rand McNally.

Godfrey, Robert. 1979. Outward Bound: Schools of the Possible. New York: Doubleday.

Goldwert, Marvin. 1922. "The Psychiatrist as Shaman: Sullivan and Schizophrenia." Psychological Reports, 70, 669-670.

Golembiewski, Robert T., and Blumberg, Arthur. 1970. Sensitivity Training and the Laboratory Approach: Readings About Concepts and Applica­tions.Itasca, IL: F.E. Peacock.

Gottesfeld, Mary L. 1985. Psychoanalytic Review, 72, 589-597.

Greeley, Andrew. 1975. The Sociology of the Paranormal: a Reconaissance.Beverly Hills, CA: Sage.

________. 1976. Death and Beyond. Chicago: Thomas More.

_______. 1978. Religion: A Secular Theory. New York: Free Press/Macmillan.

Green, Elmer, and Alyce Green. 1977. Beyond Biofeedback. New York: Delacorte Press.

Greene, Alice Borchard. 1940. The Philosophy of Silence. New York: Richard R. Smith.

Greenland, Cyril. 1966. "Richard Maurice Bucke, M.D. 1837-1902: The Evolution of a Mystic." Canadian Psychiatric Association Journal, 11, 146-154.

Greenstein, M.A. 1990. "Dancing into Empty Space: The Role of Dance in Contemporary American Buddhist Studies." Anthropology of Conscious­ness, 1, 1-2, 16-19.

Grof, Stanislav, and Christina Grof. 1980. Beyond Death: The Gates of Consciousness. New York: Thames and Hudson.

________. 1989. Spiritual Emergency: When Personal Transformation Becomes a Crisis. Los Angeles, CA: Tarcher.

Grosso, Michael. 1985. The Final Choice: Playing the Survival Game. Wal­pole, NH: Stillpoint.

Hamel, Peter Michael. 1979. Through Music to the Self. Boulder, CO: Shambhala.

Hammond, Philip E. 1976. "The Sociology of American Civil Religion: A Bibliographic Essay." Sociological Analysis, 37, 169-182.

Hardy, Sir Alister. 1979. The Spiritual Nature of Man. New York: Oxford University Press.

Hargreaves, Hal. 1990.Visions and Discoveries: Reflections on the Nature of Scientific Inquiry.Lanham, MD: University Press of America.

Hastings, Arthur. 1991. With the Tongues of Men and Angels: A Study of Channeling. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston.

Hayward, Jeremy W. (1984). Perceiving Ordinary Magic: Science and Intui­tive Wisdom. New York: Shambhala.

Hazzard-Gordon, Katrina. 1991. "Dancing to Rebalance the Universe--African-American Secular Dance." Journal of Physical Education, Recreation and Dance, 62, 36-39, 48.

Heard, Gerald. 1944. A Preface to Prayer. New York: Harper.

Herrigel, Eugen. 1953. Zen in the Art of Archery. New York: Pantheon.

Hood, Ralph W., Jr., and Morris, Ronald J. 1981. "Sensory Isolation and the Differential Elicitation of Religious Imagery in Intrinsic and Extrinsic Persons."Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 20, 261-273.

Howard, Colin F. 1987. Slow-Motional Meditation (Bradykinesthesia). Ar­lington, VA: Olam.

Hufford, D.J. 1982. The Terror That Comes in the Night: An Experience-Centered Study of Supernatural Assault Traditions. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Huttar, Charles, ed. 1971. Imagination and the Spirit. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans.

Huxley, Aldous. 1954.The Doors of Perception. New York: Harper.

James, William. 1902. The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature. New York: Dutton.

Jarow, Rick. 1986. In Search of the Sacred: A Pilgrimage to Holy Places. Wheaton, IL: Quest Books.

Johnson, Charles W., Jr. 1978. Fasting, Longevity, and Immortality. Haddam, CT: Survival.

Johnson, David W. 1986. Reaching Out: Interpersonal Effectiveness and Self-Actualization. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice- Hall.

Kalweit, Holger. [1984] 1988. Dreamtime & Inner Space: The World of the Shaman. Boston: Shambhala.

Keutzer, Carolin S. 1978. "Whatever Turns You On: Triggers to Transcen­dent Experiences." Journal of Humanistic Psychology, 18(3),77-80.

Klimo, Jon. 1987. Channeling: Investigations on Receiving Information from Paranormal Sources. Los Angeles, CA: Tarcher.

Krutch, Joseph Wood. (1952) 1960. The Desert Year. New York: Viking.

Kunz, Dora, ed. 1985. Spiritual Aspects of the Healing Arts. Wheaton, IL: Quest Books.

Laski, Marghanita. 1961. Ecstacy: A Study of Some Secular and Religious Experiences. Indianapolis: Indiana University Press.

Lecky, Dolores R. 1985."The Spirituality of Mariage: A Pilgrimage of Sorts." Studies in Formative Spirituality, 6, 227-240.

Leonard, George. 1975. The Ultimate Athlete. New York: Viking.

Lilly, John C. 1967. The Mind of the Dolphin: A Nonhuman Intelligence. New York: Avon Books.

________. 1977. The Deep Self: Profound Relaxation and the Tank Isolation Technique. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Lindbergh, Charles. 1953. The Spirit of St. Louis. New York: Scribner's.

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Masters, Robert E.L., and Jean Houston. 1966. The Varieties of Psychedelic Experience. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston.

Mavromatis, Andreas. 1987. Hypnagogia: The Unique State of Consciousness Between Wakefulness and Sleep. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Meerloo, Joost A.M. 1960. The Dance: From Ritual to Rockand Roll--Ballet to Ballroom. Philadelphia: Chilton.

Methany, Eleanor. 1968. Movement and Meaning. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Miller, D.L.1970. Gods and Games. New York: World.

Millman, Dan. 1985.The Warrior Athlete: Body, Mind and Spirit: Self-Transformation Through Total Training. Walpole NH: Stillpoint.

Miner, Joshua L., and Joe Boldt. 1981. Outward Bound USA, Learning Through Experience in Adventure-Based Education. New York: Morrow Quill.

Mishima, Yukio. 1970. Sun and Steel. Palo Alto, CA: Kodansha Interna­tional.

Mishra, Ramurti S. (1963). The Textbook of Yoga Psychology. New York: Julian Press.

Mordell, Albert. 1921.The Literature of Ecstasy. Port Washington, NY: Kennikat.

Moss, Stirling, with Ken Purdy. 1963. All But My Life. New York: Dutton.

Mozur, Nancy. 1990. "Alchemical Silver: Ancestral and Personal Memories." Psychological Perspectives, No. 22, 124-131.

Muir, Linnie Marsh. 1945. Son of the Wilderness: The Life of John Muir. New York: Knopf.

Murphy, Michael, and Rhea A. White. 1978. The Psychic Side of Sports. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley.

Neal, Patsy. 1972.Sport and Identity. Philadelphia: Dorrance.

Neale, Robert E. 1967. "Play and the Sacred." InRalph Slovenko and James A. Knight (Eds.), Motivation in Play, Games and Sport (pp. 148-157). Springfield, IL: Charles C Thomas.

Neppe, Vernon. 1983. The Psychology of Deja Vu: Have I Been Here Before? Johannesburg, South Africa: University of Witwatersrand Press.

Noyce, Wilfred. 1958. The Springs of Adventure. Cleveland: World.

Otto, Herbert A., and John Mann, eds.(1968) 1971. Ways of Growth: Ap­proachesto Expanding Awareness. New York: Pocket Books.

Owen, Claire Myers. 1983. Small Ecstasies.San Diego, CA: ACS Publications.

Porter, Eliot. (1962) 1974. "In Wildness is the Preservation of the World". New York: Ballantine Books.

Quarrick, Gene. 1989. Our Sweetest Hours: Recreation and the Mental State of Absorption. Jefferson, NC: McFarland.

Richards, Douglas G. 1990. "Dissociation and Transformation." Journal of Humanistic Psychology , 30, 54-83.

Richards, Mary Caroline. 1961.Centering in Pottery, Poetry, and the Per­son. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press.

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Segell, Michael. 1988. "Rhythmatism." American Health, 7(10), 58-62.

Shafii, Mohammad. 1973. "Silence in the Service of Ego:Psychoanalytic Study of Meditation." International Journal of Psycho-analysis, 54, 431-443.

Sheehan, George. 1978. Running and Being: The Total Experience. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Smythe, Frank. 1949. The Mountain Vision. London: Hodder and Stoughton.

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Stevens, John. 1988. The Marathon Monks of Mount Hiei. Boston: Shambhala.

Strieber, Whiteley. 1988.Transformation: The Breakthrough. New York: William Morrow.

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Vaughan, Alan. 1980. Incredible Coincidence: The Baffling World of Synchronicity. New York: New American Library.

Walsh, Roger N. 1990. The Spirit of Shamanism.Los Angeles, CA: Jeremy P. Tarcher.

Watts, Alan. 1963. "The Individual as Man/World." Psychedelic Review, 1(1), 54-65.

Weber, Max. (1920-21) 1956. The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism.New York: Scribner's.

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Wright, Peggy Ann. 1989. "The Nature of the Shamanic State of Conscious­ness: A Review." Journal of Psychoactive Drugs.21, 25-33.


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