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How the EHE Network’s Approach is Different
Rhea A. White
Many organizations are now looking into anomalous experiences, from the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP) at one end, which exists to debunk so-called paranormal claims, to the Religious Experience Research Centre (RERC), which has collected nearly 6,000 accounts of mystical, religious, and other exceptional experiences. Like the RERC, most organizations are devoted to only one type of exceptional experience, and they do important work in investigating experiences of that type. The most scholarly is the International Association of Near-Death Studies (IANDS), but very good work has been done by some UFO organizations. One that stands out is the Program for Extraordinary Experience Research (PEER), John Mack’s organization, which is devoted to working with individuals who report alien abduction experiences in order to assist them in potentiating the meaning of their experiences.
The EHE Network is unique, however, in several ways. No other organization casts its net as widely as we do. Because our data are subjective reports of experiences, we are not limited to anomalous experiences that consist of reported phenomena, such as crop circles, poltergeists, hauntings, precognition of future events, UFO sightings, and many more. Nor have other organizations realized the importance of anomalies of personal experience. These are very often personal "firsts"—in Rhea White's case, seeing her first horseshoe crab was such an experience and still reverberates in her after nearly 60 years. Others are personal bests, such as running a sub-five-minute mile for the first time or playing the first round of golf in the 70s. These experiences bring with them the feeling of somehow being in new territory, and are accompanied by all the freshness and drama such experiences have. Sometimes one actually is in new territory, as when for the first time overlooking the Grand Canyon or seeing Mt. Everest from a distance or entering Chartres Cathedral. There is a sense of awe and of the numinous surrounding them. According to the classification we use, most of them are peak experiences. Yet they function as anomalies for the individual involved, anomalies within their own personal experience of reality. Anomalies of personal experience extend our conception of reality, providing us the More. Other organizations emphasize the paranormal, whereas all of what we call anomalies of personal experience are dismissed as being within the normal range, albeit at the limits, at least for the individual concerned. Nonetheless, as peak experiences they are potentially transformative experiences as are anomalous experiences, which of course we also study.
Other organizations, such as the Institute of Noetic Sciences and the International Transpersonal Association, study the major types of mystical and transcendent experiences, including their transformative aspects, but their findings are usually related to traditional world religions or to shamanism or to various schools of psychotherapy or psychology. Usually the form of traditional wisdom or scholarly discipline or psychological approach is the primary subject and experiences are used primarily as examples or illustrations. The ideas or theories set forth are the main aim. The Foundation for Shamanic Studies, founded by Michael Harner, could serve as a model for any organization devoted to a specific experience. It conducts research, educates people about shamanism, and teaches the general public not only about shamanism, but it trains people to become shamans. Thus, although practical, the Foundation is extending firsthand knowledge and exploration of shamanic experiences themselves. Through its journal, books, tapes, and its workshops, the Foundation transmits what it has learned.
EHEN has developed a specialized terminology and concepts as well, but they are derived from studying the experiences themselves. To us the experience is the important thing, as if each one were a plant in a widely flung garden. It might contain a lane flanked by some specific types of flowers that could be analogous to a Project of Transcendence. An overall view of the garden from a nearby hillside or from a low-flying plane could be considered comparable to the Experiential Paradigm. The process of growth, from providing a seed or seedling with the proper soil, sun, and water, and cultivating, trimming, fertilizing, and doing whatever else each plant needs in its individual way to flourish is comparable to the EHE process. The gardener’s aim is to learn and then apply to each plant the conditions that will potentiate its fullest growth. Similarly, our aim is to understand what conditions and activities will enable experiencers to potentiate or realize the full meaning of their experiences. The theory is not the main thing, nor falsifying the experience, nor the terminology, but the meaning inherent in the experience itself. To discover that is what fuels all the work that we do.
We study experiences not so that we can devise a theory or develop a concept, but because we are the students, and we want to learn what the experiences have to teach us. Our teachers are the experiences and the experiencers themselves. Because we have sat before many of these teachers, we are in a good position to spot some commonalities, for which we have devised terms and hypotheses. But once an experience has taught us something, that is not the end. There may be no end to what an account of an EHE can teach us. It depends, really, on the experiencer’s own growth and understanding and that of the person who is studying it. When we are ready and able to see, the experiences of others as well as our own will teach us. We have no file drawer problem. Every EHE is alive and self-fueling and should never be put in a drawer where it will lie forgotten and unshared.
This was brought home to one of us (Rhea White) most tellingly in 1998. Because of a project she and Suzanne Brown carried out, which was funded by the Institute of Noetic Sciences, she reread 50 experiential accounts from 50 different people who had submitted them to EHEN in 1994 for the Eighth Alexander Imich Contest on EHEs. These 50 were drawn at random from the 171 essays that were received. White had read them 1-4 times when she selected the finalists. She then read them again, some more than once, when she served as a judge. There were several that stood out, and she has since published some of them in Exceptional Human Experience.
The 50 randomly selected accounts contained a few from finalists, but the most of them were not. White had to read them all two, three or more times again to carry out the research project, as did Brown (A preliminary report by Brown and White, 1997, was published in Exceptional Human Experience in 1999.) At that time she earmarked several that jumped out at her as deserving publication.
Later, for purposes of the EHE Encyclopedia, she began to process all 50 and others from other Imich contests to provide data for the William James Centennial Committee to read in order that they might follow the procedure James used in writing Varieties of Religious Experience. All of a sudden each one was brimful of meaning. If the contest were done again, it seemed to her that almost all of them should have been finalists! This is because she could see earmarks of the EHE Process and Experiential Paradigm in each one, and several involved Projects of Transcendence. (Note: definitions of these and other EHE-related terms may be found in the Dictionary of EHE-Related Terms.) Back in 1994 White had set out to take a longitudinal approach to experiences, but she had not yet been exposed to what that would reveal. Looking back, she probably picked the finalists on the basis of the unusualness of their experiences and the amount of detail recorded. Now what we look for is not so much striking individual experiences but the growth value of an experience, even if initially it does not stand out, and its relationship to past and subsequent experiences. This relationship does not become evident unless a person writes his or her EHE autobiography, a technique developed by Rhea White. Thus, the first feature of our work that sets us apart is, just as Heidegger exhorted students to go back to "the things themselves," our emphasis is on going back to the subjective experience itself.
Of the eight classes of nonordinary experiences that are potential exceptional human experiences (EHEs), four are composed primarily of anomalous experiences: the death-related, encounter, healing, and psychical experiences. Three are primarily anomalies of personal experience, or experiences that extend to the limits of or may even extend the limits themselves of the experiencer’s consciousness: desolation/nadir, mystical, and peak experiences. One has qualities of each: Dissociative. In the case of all eight types, the experience itself is beyond what the experiencer had considered "normal"—until he or she had the experience.
Our approach is different because we do not think of an experience as a "happening" or "event" that is rooted to a certain time or place. No doubt its first occurrence can be localized, but that is only the beginning, comparable to planting a seed. However, the soil in which that seed is planted is not a time and place in the past but the experiencer’s own self. The experiencer carries the seed wherever he or she goes. Whether or not it will grow depends on the experiencer’s attitude toward it. In any case, we view each experience as the beginning of a dynamic process of growth that in some cases continues to fuel and refuel a lifetime. Or, by various means, the life in the seed can be aborted or else the first fruit can be stillborn.
Carrying the analogy with pregnancy further, one could say an anomalous experience or an experience of a personal anomaly is like a sperm. It enters the uterus but it may not penetrate an ovum. If it does, the experiencer senses a quickening. In what is usually a very amorphous lengthy unconscious way the experiencer senses a movement within. Often it cannot be verbalized at first, and the experiencer can dismiss and forget it for awhile, but it comes back, each time a little stronger, until the experiencer realizes it is not going to go away and he or she must somehow relate to it. At this point it becomes an exceptional experience (EE), an impetus to conscious growth that has entered his or her life apparently stemming from the anomalous experience or anomaly of personal experience he or she had. As the new life within begins to take form in consciousness, it begins to change the direction of the experiencer’s life, often by means of additional experiences. Once the experiencer actually begins to change his or her attitudes and ways of thinking, feeling, and being, that is, realize some portion of his or her higher human potential, the exceptional experience becomes an exceptional human experience (EHE). The experiencer recognizes that it has opened the door for him or her to enter a process of growth in which he or she will realize more of his/her human potential than he/she had previously known existed, and to feel progressively more connected with all living things and even with the so-called inanimate world.
Our study of the pattern that emerges when it is possible to view EHEs within a significant portion of the experiencer’s lifetime reveals the following hypotheses.
1. These exceptional experiences can be worked with, by the individual and others, in such a way that increased knowledge and insightful interpretation can lead the experiencer to important moments of inspiration and growth.
2. As these insights add up, more exceptional experiences tend to occur, especially transformational dreams and synchronicities. Eventually people begin to feel that they are on a meaningful path, both in the events that happen outside of themselves and in the inner experiences they have. When an experiencer is able to see how an EE potentiates his or her personal and spiritual growth, it becomes an exceptional human experience (EHE). And when he or she experiences a synergy between inner and outer worlds, he/she has entered the EHE Process.
3. We also hypothesize that EHEs have a cumulative effect, and that there will come a culminating EHE in which the experiencer sees him or herself and the whole world in an entirely different way, one in which everything is one and all things are interconnected. When this happens, we say the person is seeing the world from within the Experiential Paradigm (EP). Once one begins to sense the EHE process at work, and especially once an EHE has taken the person inside the EP, his or her other life begin to change. Life-potentiating events and experiences begin to happen. For this reason we are also different in that we emphasize the positive aftereffects of EHEs. (We also are mindful that some experiences have negative aftereffects, and we are looking for ways of understanding these as well.)
4. Our approach is also unique in that we value the individual experiencer and his or her unique experiences. We emphasize meaning rather than evidence. We are not out to explain an experience away, although all normal explanations should be taken into account. If the experience is still inexplicable or at least not sufficiently explained away as far as the experiencer is concerned, our aim is to work with the person to elucidate its meaning. In doing so, we draw on a large multidisciplinary network of people and information resources.
5. We are different in that we study the entire wide range of exceptional experiences, looking into what they may be showing us as a whole and in individual types of EEs or groupings of them. We note the similarities and emerging patterns, meaningful insights, developing challenges, and discoveries described by the experiencers themselves. We observe the differences between experiencers who choose to potentiate and probe the meaning of the experiences versus those who choose to diminish the value of their experiences and in effect, depotentiate them. We honor the positive, self-actualizing, and potentially transformative capacities of these experiences to enhance lives.
6. Overall, the EHEN is investigating, developing, defining, and sharing a new Experiential Paradigm that the experiences themselves reveal to the experiencers and that can be shared with others. The glimpses of the new reality these experiences provide have short-and long-term effects upon individuals, their sense of who they are, and the nature of the world they/we live in.
7. We are collating and looking for patterns and connections in these aftereffects. Rather than demanding independent proof to substantiate these experiences, rationalizing them to fit some preconceived ideology, or sensationalizing them for vapid media consumption, we create an accepting and confidential environment in which EHEers may submit personal written accounts, share insights, and gain information. In this endeavor, we have learned that what our culture considers to be "anomalous" experiences can develop and mature into Exceptional Human Experiences, which have the capacity to shift perspectives, which benefits not only the individual but also society and the environment.
We trust that by providing a safe, accepting, and nonideological venue for experiencers to share their accounts; by offering quality information across a rich variety of resources, scholarship, and research; and by looking at the overall pattern of what these many types of experience may be showing us as a whole, we can assist experiencers, and they can assist us, in revealing the meaning of their experiences and of the new worldview that is the Experiential Paradigm.
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