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Relaxing, Trusting, Falling into Joy: An EHE Autobiography
by Leslie G. McBride[Note: This EHE autobiography was published in Exceptional Human Experience, 2000, 16(2), 166-174.]
Life either throws you on the spiritual journey or it does not — (Hillman, 1994, p. xxi).
Whether inspiring or unsettling, compelling or subtle, my exceptional experiences are all precious to me. They are the jewels of my life. They are also its foundation—there is not one aspect of my life that they don’t inform on a regular basis. So, before I began writing this autobiography I thought long and hard about which experiences to include and which ones to set aside (at least for the time being). But, as soon as I picked "this one" for inclusion or decided "that one" should be left out, I would begin doubting my decision. They are all so important to me, how could I pick and choose among them? I was getting in my own way and knew I would continue to do so until I found a theme or criterion to guide my selection process—but what?
In the end, a line from Hillman’s (1994) EHE autobiography The Dancing Animal Woman, which I’ve used as the epigraph for this essay, provided the litmus test I was seeking. Smiling at the images Hillman’s observation called to mind, it dawned on me that I wanted to focus my autobiography on the experiences that had thrown me on the journey: the ones with such intriguing aspects they grabbed my attention before I could give it to them; the deeply embodied ones that reverberated through my entire system for prolonged periods of time; the ones that, before they were through with me, had re-calibrated my being and reprogrammed my life. Using this criterion, I’m including in this essay descriptions of two childhood EEs—experiences that established an unconscious readiness in me; the central EHE that initiated my EHE process (White, 1997b), and key EHEs that happened during the years immediately thereafter. Following a brief interlude to describe the impact of the EHE process on other aspects of my life—especially my career—I conclude with three EHEs that guided me toward, and gave me experiential insights into, Advaita—the wisdom tradition I now follow.
How old does one have to be, chronologically or developmentally, before an EE can have the life-changing impact of an EHE? I’m not sure I know. After writing down the two childhood experiences that follow, I realized that had they happened a little later in my life story, they probably would have called forth the new vision of life or lifeview that White (1997d) considers a distinguishing characteristic of exceptional human experience. Instead, they occurred when I was still in the discovery phase of life. Rather than change my lifeview, they added richness and transpersonal understanding to it. Because they address death and love, respectively, they are the two most compelling experiences of the first twenty years of my life. Their memories remain fresh because they are embodied—etched into my being.
When I was eight years old, I experienced a premonition of the death of my seven-year-old friend and next door neighbor, Jill. The premonition happened during summer vacation. To get me out of the kitchen but keep me within range of her forthcoming call to dinner, my mother had set me to the task of weeding my father’s rose bed that ran along the back of the garage. From her back porch, Jill spied me working away, climbed over the fence separating our yards, and trotted over to see if I could play. After telling her I was waiting for dinner, Jill plopped down on the grass next to me and chatted a few minutes before taking off in search of another playmate. We said goodbye, and as I turned to resume my weeding, I had the distinct impression that Jill would not "be around" much longer. The impression came as a word message; it appeared from nowhere and was completely unrelated to the conversation we had been having. It was as if the words came through me rather than that I had thought them on my own, and they were accompanied by a sense of assurance, a sense that there was no need to worry because Jill would be safe and sound and happy in her new home. I didn’t consider the experience odd or unusual in any way; perhaps I wasn’t old enough for that. These impressions stayed with me during the evening and then gradually faded into the background.
It wasn’t until a few weeks later when my mother came into my room one afternoon, sat down on my bed, and with great care and concern informed me that Jill and her mom had been killed in a car-train accident that the experience struck me as significant. Initially, it was the shock of the news that grabbed my attention. This was my first experience with human death and my young mind had a hard time developing a crude understanding of what death meant. I still remember trying so hard to understand how it would feel to be dead if part of being dead meant you could no longer feel. As I absorbed the shock of the news and struggled with the deeper meaning of it all, I suddenly remembered my premonition. I saw its connection to the accident immediately, and, in my innocence, worried over the possibility that the link was causal. Could the impressions I experienced that night in the backyard have played a role in the accident? (Oh no!) I spent the next day or so feeling deeply troubled and guilt-ridden. Eventually, I found some solace from the second half of the premonition—the loving assurance that Jill would be safe and sound and quite content in her new home. I wondered about this unusual and tragic sequence of events for some time.
Prior to the funeral, my parents took my brother and me to the funeral home to say our good-byes to Jill and her mother. As we approached the room containing the caskets, my mother took me aside and explained that they were open and that I would be able to see both bodies. She told me that she would be in the room with me the entire time and that it was completely up to me to decide how close I wanted to get to the caskets. After giving me a reassuring hug, we walked into the room. Mother’s display of concern surprised me; I hadn’t given much thought to what I might see or to how I might react.
I don’t know whether my decision to walk right up to Jill’s casket was due to the confidence I gained from my mother’s words or to the peculiar connection I felt to the entire sequence of events because of my premonition. I suspect parts of both came into play. In any case, I remember standing close to Jill’s casket and examining her body with great intent and focus, coming to terms with how strangely still, how silent a body bereft of spirit appeared. I noticed that Jill’s ear, which must have been ripped off during the accident, had been stitched back to her head. The image repulsed me slightly, and yet I was transfixed by it. As I stared intently at the long, loose stitches of flesh-colored cord that appeared so out of place on a human body, I realized in a very profound way that a body without its animating life force was merely a carcass, a container with no purpose.Jill’s body was no different than the casket in which it now lay. Just as my premonition had described, "Jill" clearly wasn’t around any more. Although I had no idea where she was, I drew some comfort from the premonition’s assurance that she was safe and happy in her new home. I left the funeral home with a deep sense of awe and wonder about the mysteries of life.
When I was old enough to look back on this visit from a more mature perspective, I realized how unusual it is for a young child to become so absorbed in these aspects of death. I am sure I would not have experienced the same sense of fearless curiosity standing beside Jill’s casket, which then gave way to a sense of awe and wonder about the essence of life, without the sense of assurance and love that had accompanied my premonition.
Sometime during adolescence I had my first mystical dream. In it I gazed out into a wide expanse of darkness, of velvety rich blackness, that was as silent as a tomb while simultaneously containing a rich and vital presence, the essence of which was love. The presence seemed to be waiting for me—patiently and yet with a sense of urgency, as if it had been waiting a long time. As I peered out into the darkness, I sensed the presence coming toward me, rolling in like fog, reaching out, then making contact, and then absorbing me into it completely, filling me with its love. The love became me and I became the love, dissolving into the presence. I awoke the next morning absolutely burning with love. In my brief history, I had nothing with which to compare this. This love, which seemed to be emanating from me in a 360-degree manner, was utterly impersonal; it was for everyone and everything, including me. I now understood that I needn’t be dependent on a few individuals for the experience of loving and being loved. My dream gave me the conviction that love is the ground of our being; that it is the fundamental element of creation. Although the experience of feeling ablaze with universal love faded gradually over the next few days, my insights into love’s transpersonal nature have remained with me, giving me confidence and courage at times when I have had to make my way alone.
Enriched by these two early EEs, I spent the rest of my teens and early twenties seeking another taste of Self. In truth, the search was more unconscious than conscious. I wanted something more out of life, but I wasn’t sure what it was or where to find it. Having grown up in a Protestant family, I pursued that route first, trying on and then discarding the interpretations and rituals of one denomination after another. When my efforts failed to provide the taste I was seeking. (At this point in my life, I was very naïve about the wisdom traditions of the world and, therefore, of the various paths available to seekers.) I didn’t get discouraged—I don’t think I was conscious enough of the process to feel let down by it. I simply allowed the more compelling aspects of my life to divert my attention. The intellectual stimulation of graduate school followed closely by the heady challenge of my first university faculty position kept me engaged and fairly satisfied for nearly ten years. Still, in my quieter moments, when my natural inclinations led me back to life’s deeper mysteries, I was aware of a kind of gnawing hunger, a yearning that remained unsatisfied.
Writing this, I suddenly remembered that when I was in high school I enjoyed listening to Peggy Lee sing her hauntingly sad and bewitching rendition of "Is That All There Is?" As I listened to the recording, I would sense that my life lacked something important, but I wasn’t sure what. A few years later, after I had passed enough of life’s mile markers to gain a deeper appreciation for the song’s lyrics, I understood that unless the objective events of my life were accompanied by a subjective sense of rich inner meaning and connection, they hardly mattered.
More than twenty years passed before my next experience, the one that would mark the beginning of my EHE process, took place. The year was 1987 and I was 35. Immediately before the EHE occurred, I had been working at my university office catching up on paperwork—a handy excuse for avoiding going home to the stress of a struggling marriage. Around 10:00 p.m. I came to a stopping point and decided to call it quits for the day. I distinctly remember that while I packed my briefcase I was deeply immersed in the drama of my marriage difficulties. When I woke up to the fact that my mind was spinning itself out of control, I clearly, and with great determination, told myself that the time had come to do something about my situation. I needed to stop fretting, become proactive, and start thinking my way through to a solution. At this point I closed the door on my office and walked out of the building toward the multilevel parking structure where I’d left my car earlier that day.
Moments later, almost as soon as I’d walked far enough into the night to be enveloped by it, a voice broke through the problem-solving process I was now spinning out in my mind and asked, "Why don’t you just relax and trust?" I will never forget those words as long as I live. I paused for a moment to consider this advice. Before it even occurred to me to question what had just happened I stopped in my tracks, raised my eyes to the star-filled heavens, and in a frustrated and angry voice let fly my response: "Easy for you to say—you come down here and live in my situation, relaxing and trusting your way through it."
I stood still, as if waiting for the response my rational mind knew would not be forthcoming, and as I stared up at the night sky, I began waking up to the presence of the clear, crisp autumn evening. Something in me opened to that presence, and as it did, deep feelings of peace and tranquility began spreading throughout my body. I basked in them and fell into joy. Suddenly I began to feel profoundly happy, content, and incredibly safe—like a child who, upon being shaken-up and frightened, is offered the much longed for protection of her mother’s arms. It was as if, after whispering its words of advice into my mind, this voice from eternity enveloped me in an experience of their truth. In this moment, as in my mystical dream as a teenager, I knew the feelings of being loved, protected, and deeply cared for that I was experiencing were ever-present and that all of creation was being held and watched over in the same way. I knew that even in times of great difficulty, there was every reason to be joyous—for everything was as it should be. Why not relax and trust?
As the compelling nature of the moment began to subside, I slowly resumed the walk to my car, absorbing what had happened—literally and figuratively. By the time I reached my car, I was in a very good mood: so good that I was unperturbed when I discovered someone had broken into my car in an attempt to steal audio equipment from it. This was the second break-in I had experienced in four days! To gain entry, the thief had broken the same pane of glass I had had repaired the day before. Normally, I would have found this extremely irritating—but not on this night. I remember brushing broken glass off the driver’s seat with my bare hands as if I were cleaning out crumbs. It’s not that I didn’t care whether I cut my hands; I was confident that I couldn’t (and didn’t). None of the impact from my experience dissipated during this process or during the 30 minutes it took to report the break-in to campus security. I remember the security officer commenting that he found my good mood rather unusual for someone reporting a theft. All I could do was smile.
Although the intensity of my experience left my system gradually over the next few days, one of its remarkable aftereffects was my ability to re-call and re-experience its physical sensations and my emotional reactions. Whenever feelings of despair or anguish settled over me during the following trying months surrounding my separation, I would call to mind the guidance I received that evening, and the feelings of peace, joy, and safety I felt during the EHE would return. I didn’t need to find a quiet setting or center myself to get the effect. All I needed to do was think the words, "relax and trust," and, rather like placing a spell over myself, I’d experience the sensations again. They weren’t as strong as those of the original experience, which was just as well, because my original level of absorption had been so deep. But the re-called feelings were strong enough to erase any distress I was feeling at the time and to restore a sense of comfort and ease in my being. This ability remained with me until my husband and I separated some eight to nine months later and I had moved into an apartment of my own. No longer needing respite from the tension in our relationship, the ability faded away.
As far as EHEs go, mine certainly didn’t pack the reality-shattering punch of an OBE, NDE, or kundalini awakening. What was remarkable about the experience, and the reason I refer to it as my central EHE, was the EHE-rich phase of life it seemed to initiate, a phase best described by what White (1997a) has called "inspired living." Everything in my life seemed pregnant with meaning, significance, sometimes even magic. Within a month following my central EHE, a guest lecturer in one of my classes happened to mention that he led a study group for A Course in Miracles (Foundation for Inner Peace, 1975). He paused, then looked at me intently and said, "You know, that’s something I think you’d enjoy." His comment sent such a sizeable jolt through my system that I borrowed a copy of the text from a friend that day. In no time at all I was devouring the text, rising at 5:00 each morning to read and digest a large enough serving to satisfy my craving for the day. Gradually, organically, I incorporated other spiritual literature and began following my reading with a morning walk so that I could spend more time to myself contemplating what I had read. This routine expanded to include prayer and, when I became familiar enough with the practice to feel comfortable with it, meditation
I developed a passion for subjects about which I knew little or nothing before my central EHE (e.g., Eastern wisdom traditions, holography, mysticism, quantum physics, and transpersonal psychology) and I poured over the work of scholars in these areas (Bohm, Capra, Grof, Kornfield, and Wilber). I also read about naturopathy, homeopathy, and healing practices of other cultures. None of these topics interested me before my central EHE. Now, captivated by anything that would help me make sense of and integrate the process I was going through, I bought book after book and spent my evenings and weekends devouring them. I read with a level of intensity and urgency that I had never before experienced—like an addict searching for a desperately needed fix. During trips to bookstores—to acquire my stash—I would feel the same way. Checking out the content of a text on my ever-growing reference list or feeling guided toward the discovery of a new book and scanning through its contents filled me with such intense excitement and fascination that these moments, in themselves, had an EHE-like quality. Never in my life had reading and learning about a topic resonated throughout my entire system. There was life-force, Self-force, involved in this process.
Paralleling my conscious fascination with these new intellectual and spiritual pursuits was a subconscious need for physical integration of the rapid changes I was experiencing. I was completely unaware of the field of somatics at that time; my understanding of the infinite number of interpenetrating relationships existing within the bodymindspirit system I called my body was still restricted to the mechanistic public health models I had learned and taught. So I had no conscious appreciation of the ways in which bodywork can support a person who is undergoing a period of rapid personal change. Nevertheless, almost overnight I developed the desire to go through a rolfing sequence, and I had no doubt that this was appropriate. In a book about kundalini I read that shiatzu was a helpful means of balancing the body’s energy, so I sought out the assistance of a shiatzu therapist. Because of an unusual sequence of events ending in my introduction to a holotrophic breathwork practitioner, and because of my interest in Stan Grof’s work, I enrolled in a series of five breathwork sessions. Around this time I also started practicing hatha yoga. My deep absorption in transpersonal topics, combined with the frequency and intensity of the bodywork I was doing, set off additional EHEs. These happened frequently, and I found them very compelling.
In particular, I remember a session mid-way through my rolfing series when the connective tissues and musculature around my torso responded to the bodywork with a marked shift. I was both impressed by the sensations that accompanied this physical shift and naïve as to the nature of the aftershocks that would most likely follow. Understanding this, the rolfer I was seeing advised me to take it easy for a few days while the profound shifts my body had just experienced made their way through the various layers of my being. I thanked him for his advice—having no intention of heeding it. Fortunately, it was Friday afternoon, and although I had to return to campus, the only obligation remaining on my schedule was a meeting with the assistant dean of students. To any uninformed onlooker, and I’m sure to the dean, what took place during our meeting was a brief, perfunctory, and completely innocuous exchange of information between two administrators (I was serving a term as department chair at the time). I, on the other hand, could not have felt more miserable or more under attack if I’d been on the front lines of a civil war battle. As the meeting began, I was still basking in the afterglow of my rolfing session. This came to an abrupt end when, in an attempt to give a thoughtful response to what the dean had just said, I realized that my mind was not merely relaxed, it was entirely blank. I would really have to concentrate to get anything coherent out of my mouth. Toward the end of my first response, I lost my train of thought. As I struggled to retrieve it, the dean (in an act of what I’m sure he considered compassionate assistance) finished my response for me.
No big deal—right? Wrong! To my amazement, it felt as if the man had fired a cannon ball right through my mid-section. I was horrified! While he continued to talk, I scurried around inside myself, gathered up my shattered pieces of body image, and attempted to re-armor them. Simultaneously, I tried to tighten up my relaxed mind to prepare it for the next response it was going to need to make. Thinking that I wouldn’t be able to withstand much additional friendly fire, I figured my best defense was a more effective offense. I would need to launch my contributions to the discussion as quickly as possible. My efforts were in vain. I soon discovered that my imagined adversary made a habit of finishing people’s sentences for them. Each time he did this for me, I felt another cannon ball rip right through me. Additionally, I discovered that anything the man said that I took the slightest bit of exception to felt like another blow to my gut. Nothing I could do—no tensing of my abdominal muscles, no sitting sideways in my chair—shielded me from the volley. I was astonished. I had no idea that I had worn such armor over my gut, and I had been totally unaware of how regularly and effectively I used it.
Blessedly, it was a short meeting. Fifteen minutes (and 10 or 12 rounds of cannon fire) later I staggered out of the dean’s office. I walked straight to my own, and without saying a word to any of the surprised office staff, quickly gathered up my work and made a bee-line for home. Once there, I wrapped myself in a comforter, curled up in my favorite chair in the corner of the living room, and remained there all weekend. It wasn’t that I was upset by what had happened during the meeting; I found that rather humorous. I simply realized that I needed to take my rolfer’s advice to heart. I now understood that I needed to support my adjustment period by resting and remaining quiet. Doing so allowed additional aftershocks to travel through my system with more ease and less distress. Unless I had actually experienced this pronounced phenomenological shift—this exquisite illustration of the deep and yet subtle connections between body, body image, and mind—I could never have conceived of (or believed) it to be possible. This incident, as well as other less dramatic experiences related to my shiatzu and holotropic breathwork sessions, gave me an immense respect for the profound connections between mind and body.
When making major choices in life, I’ve been inclined to go with my heart’s guidance rather than my head’s advice. In either case, I tended to worry too much about the ultimate outcome of the choice I was making (i.e., I had not learned to relax and trust). During the months following my central EHE, however, I found myself in situation after situation that seemed to demand relaxing and trusting in the larger forces at work in my life—and doing so to an extent that I had never before thought possible—or desirable. Again and again, I witnessed the wisdom behind my guidance. The most dramatic example of this process happened during my separation from my husband. I had applied for and was offered a faculty position at a school of public health on the East Coast but was having a difficult time deciding whether or not to accept it. Although I dearly wanted to leave behind the heartache I was experiencing in my personal life and longed for the opportunity to make a fresh start, intuitively I felt that the move would be more destructive than constructive. I was still undecided on the day I was to respond to the offer.
Upon returning from class, I learned I had received a call from that school’s department chair and that he was expecting a return call from me. When I called, I was told he was at lunch and would call back. I sat in my office awaiting his call, still not knowing what to say. The phone rang, but instead of the department chair I found myself talking to a faculty member at another university in the Pacific Northwest. This man told me he wasn’t sure why he was calling and that he hoped I wouldn’t think he was meddling. He had heard that I had applied for a position at the same university he had left recently and if I was interested in his input, he would be happy to share some of his experiences and opinions about the situation at this school. Whether I decided for or against the position, it was his hope that our conversation would help me make a more informed choice.
I was both relieved that it wasn’t the department chair and extremely interested in learning more information that might help me make up my mind. Excitedly, I encouraged my contact to begin. He was quite candid with me, and by the time we finished our conversation I had decided—I would stay where I was. I had no sooner thanked him and hung up when the phone rang again. It was the department chair. As graciously and appreciatively as possible, I turned down the offer. Once off the phone, I bolted from my office. The impeccability of the timing and the obvious connection between what had just happened and my guidance to "Relax and trust" was too much to take sitting down. Feeling extraordinarily energized, I went out for a run, replaying everything in my mind. I had no idea how the faculty member who had called and spoken so candidly had learned I was a candidate for the position. Neither could I understand why he felt motivated to call (we hardly knew one another) or why he called at that particular moment (he knew I had applied for the position but had no idea how far the search had progressed or whether I was a serious candidate). I saw him once more following this conversation. We smiled in acknowledgment but never had the opportunity to speak. I haven’t heard from (or about) him since.
Reviewing the sequence of events in the preceding paragraph, I realize how my understanding of my central EHE’s instruction, "Relax and trust" has matured over the last 11 years. At the time it occurred, I felt as if some form of divine intervention had graced my life to illustrate the importance of relaxing and trusting. And I knew, from a practical standpoint, that more willingness on my part to relax and trust in the processes of life would save my body and psyche a lot of unnecessary stress and strain. Today, while still appreciating the more immediate and practical aspects of the guidance, I can also relate to its deeper message. That is, if there’s nothing to seek, nothing to work for, nowhere to go—if it’s all right here, right now—well, why not relax and trust?
Before my central EHE, I had experienced only one or two synchronicities that were illuminating in any way. So when the frequency and significance of synchronicities in my life increased markedly following my central EHE, I took note. Some delighted and entertained; a couple knocked my socks off. A surprising number from both categories were connected with my dream life, which was now richer and more vivid than it had ever been. For example, I’d have a dream during the night, which I might or might not remember, go out for my morning walk, and run across one of its dream characters (e.g., a child on a tricycle, a woman walking two scotties in the park). If I hadn’t remembered the dream, my memory of it would come rushing back, often stopping me in my tracks.
In one of my most startling synchronicities of this sort (which actually happened around seven years after my central EHE), I dreamed that I was a passenger aboard an airliner that was in trouble and heading down. In the pandemonium that ensued, a flight attendant took control in the cockpit and began pulling back mightily on the steering mechanism in a supreme effort to bring the aircraft out of its dive. Her efforts grabbed and held my attention and, as I watched her struggle, a magnificent celestial being began to materialize around her, lending additional—and no doubt significant—force to her efforts. The aircraft was still out of control as my dream ended, but my terror was gone. The celestial support the flight attendant was receiving reminded me that everything was safe and sound no matter what happened. At that point I woke up. It was early in the morning, around 4:30 or so, but I was feeling extremely energized so I got up, made myself a cup of coffee, and sat down to read. A recent copy of the Journal of Near-Death Studies caught my eye, and because I hadn’t read any of the journal’s recent issues I scanned its table of contents. I spied Yvonne Kason’s (1994) near-death account and, being familiar with her kundalini research, I decided to read it. I was astonished to find a lengthy account of her plane crash and of the guidance she received that led to her survival and rescue. The synchronistic association between my dream and her accident was striking. The interplay between inner and outer landscapes (dreamscapes?) in these synchronicities stimulated much reflection on my part over the relationship between consciousness and physical reality. This was incredibly instructive and led to my consideration of larger ontological and epistemological issues that, in turn, sparked my growing interest in human science research and related areas. I will discuss this interest, and how it has helped chart my career path, in the section below titled "Interlude."
Perhaps a year after my central EHE I had a dream in which a highly realized teacher helped me to interpret life events from a wiser, more awakened perspective. In the dream, I would watch an ordinary event take place and notice my usual reactions to it—including my interpretations of and emotional involvement in what I had seen. Once my usual set of responses had run its course, I reviewed the event again, this time seeing it through the eyes of my teacher and with direct access to his reactions, interpretations, and emotions. The implicit goal was to move my understanding progressively closer to his. I viewed a series of events in this manner, gradually acquiring his wiser perspective as the series progressed. The dream ended after watching a car accident, which I responded to immediately with the same degree of realization as my teacher. At that point, I felt his acknowledgment and approval and then, having reached our goal, his mind withdrew itself from mine and the dream ended.
I also went through a period when I seemed to be receiving extremely profound information as I slept. This channeling process was intense enough to disturb my sleep. I’d toss and turn, aware of the extraordinary knowledge and wisdom contained in the information passing through me, but not quite able to rouse myself sufficiently to write it down. I would remember the experience in the morning but would not be able to recall the specific content.
Except for descriptions of three EHEs in the following section, those described above are the EHEs in my life that have thrown me on the spiritual journey. They are my re-calibrating and re-programming EHEs. There are others that I consider equally precious, but they have been more reinforcing than initiatory in nature. My original intention for this section was to discuss the impact of my EHE process on the larger, general patterns of my life. Now, looking back over what I’ve actually written, I see that much of this is already self-evident. As redundancy is not my goal, I will confine my comments to a few brief observations on the composite impact of my EHEs on my life. Then, I will turn to an area where there is more to explore: the impact they have had on my career.
In my very conventional upbringing, personal development of authenticity and a life rich in meaning and purpose were not only considered unimportant, they were not, as they say, even "on the radar screen." Of paramount importance in my family was development of a stylish, polished image; a job with some prestige; a country club membership; and—upon their consideration of image, job, club membership, and the like—a general acknowledgment among relatives, friends, and associates that your success was deserving of their admiration. Although we didn’t talk about it as such, maintaining appearances and keeping up with the Joneses comprised my family’s basic goals in life. It’s not that my parents didn’t have a spiritual or deeper side to them, they did; and they were most loving and supportive of each other, my brother, and me. But in their early and middle years, the superficial aspects of life received most of their time and attention.
Although I found these pursuits unfulfilling and sought meaning and purpose from other sources, prior to my central EHE my efforts proved fruitless. After that EHE, life seemed to turn around and come running after me, bringing with it answers to my questions and fill-ins for my blanks. Perhaps that is why I found my central EHE process so compelling—I was thrust out of the wasteland and into paradise. My famine was over; my feast had begun. During this time (off the top of my head, and in no particular order) the following internal shifts took place: looking out for number one transformed into compassion for others and reverence for all life; striving for perfection turned into opening to my full humanity; eating high on the hog yielded to eating low on the food chain; my sense of isolation gave way to a sense of communion and connection; the ends became more important than the means; the making of lists gave way to an honoring of inner priorities; and my search for enjoyment turned from external sources to internal resources. There’s more, but that’s enough to provide a basic sense of the changes that occurred. Since my central EHE took place 12 years ago, I’m aware that some of these changes may well be due to good ole mother nature and her maturational processes. But then again, whenever I read the paper, or watch TV, or listen to the radio, or in some other manner compare my priorities to current cultural expressions of what’s cool, trendy, or hip, I think to myself, Nah! Something in addition to the normal aging process is at work in my life.
The gap that exists between my life and the life of the average American can prove problematic, however. And this has been particularly true in my career. For several years I’ve struggled with the question of whether or not to remain at the state-supported, urban university where I work. I often yearn for a quieter and more supportive lifestyle than the one that comes with the frenetic pace and ubiquitous scrambling involved in working at an understaffed, underfunded, underappreciated institution with a crumbling infrastructure and an urban commute. Thus far, I’ve chosen to remain in the fray, considering teaching under these circumstances to be a form of service. In my better moments, I remember that when the time comes to leave, leaving will happen—whether I’m self-propelled or pushed out of the nest. In my darker moments, my ambivalence returns.
Struggles aside, my EHEs have informed my work in a number of positive ways. In fact, as I look at my teaching, scholarship, and a good amount of my university service in recent years, I must admit that most of my innovations and cutting edge contributions are tied directly to my EHE process. I’d like to describe some of these now.
The immense amount of reading I did immediately following my central EHE dramatically changed my ideas about health and well-being. I found current models of health and health care hopelessly limited and inappropriately derived. I think it was Deepak Chopra who once said, "Asking a physician how to become healthy makes about as much sense as asking a beggar how to become rich." I couldn’t agree more. Pathology and dysfunction are strange starting points for models attempting to explain health and well-being. When I decided to explore these issues in a more structured fashion and to share with students some of the instructive and illuminating materials I had uncovered in my search, I put together a course—Health and Human Wholeness—which I offered for the first time in 1989 (My graduate degrees are in education with emphases in health behavior, health promotion, and community health. In 1989, I was teaching in the Department of Public Health Education.)
Similar to the striking sequence of events that ended in my refusal of the faculty position I had been offered on the East Coast, another chain of unlikely events carried the Health and Human Wholeness course through a successful review by the university curriculum committee. The committee endorsed the course, recommending it for inclusion in the university catalog. The fact that a cynical, critical, and somewhat weary chemist, who enjoyed his reputation for conducting tough reviews, chaired the committee made my rather unusual (for a university) course’s successful review particularly affirming. The process helped me see that when something is ready to come into form, it will. I realized that the process was largely impersonal, and that although I did as much as I could to set the stage for a successful review, I was essentially no more than a midwife. The course was ready to be born, and all I needed to do, after helping to assure a healthy gestation, was stand back and let nature take its course.
Over time, Health and Human Wholeness has expanded to become two separate courses—both carrying the title of Mindbody Health (without any punctuation separating "mind" from "body"). One course is subtitled Disease Prevention and the other carries the subtitle of Human Potential. The disease prevention course presents a basic overview of the literature that currently comprises the field of mind-body medicine (The presence of the hyphen this time reflects the way the term is currently punctuated by scholars working in the field. I think it also represents an inability to feel completely comfortable with letting go of now out-dated beliefs—the mind is contained within the brain, the brain is carried from place to place by the body, and ne’er the two shall meet—but that’s inference on my part.) The course devoted to human potential presents an overview of the theory and research in medicine, psychology, parapsychology, education, religion, philosophy, and sport that contribute to our understanding of the leading edges of human capabilities.
My interests in ontology and epistemology, which grew out of my experiences with synchronicity and lucid dreaming, expressed themselves professionally through my developing interests in qualitative research and the field of social constructionism. As I watched my understanding of reality expand and revise itself under the influence of my EHEs, I realized that realities must shift from culture to culture, historical period to historical period, and context to context. Additionally, I saw that if research in health education and health promotion was ever going to develop a rich understanding of why people engage in the health behaviors they do, more research would need to explore the meanings people ascribe to their behaviors. Following a sabbatical leave in 1992, during which I completed an extensive literature review of both social constructionism and qualitative research, I organized the results of my review into a course on qualitative research design. I offered the course on an experimental basis in 1993. It has since become the foundation course in a three-course research sequence (Qualitative Research Design, Qualitative Data Collection, and Qualitative Data Analysis) that is available on an interdisciplinary basis to any graduate students interested in doing qualitative studies for their theses or dissertations.
With two colleagues (one the former ecumenical minister on campus, the other a professor of anthropology and Black studies) I helped develop a series of lectures/discussions for faculty, students, and staff interested in exploring the spiritual side of scholarship. Our discussions have ranged from EHE autobiographies to Jungian interpretations of relationship to African shamanism. This series, titled Expanding the Boundaries of Knowledge, has been well received and is now in its fourth year.
Saving the most interesting EHE innovation to conclude this section, for three years now I have used Rhea White’s (1997c) EHE autobiography writing guidelines as the basis for a major assignment in my human potential course. Students and I learn a lot about ourselves over the term as we explore the topic of EHEs, reflect back on our own, share our EHE accounts with classmates, and attempt to write up our accounts in narrative form. During the Spring 1999 course, over half of the students enrolled indicated on their course evaluations that the most meaningful aspect of the course was reading about, discussing, and then writing about exceptional human experience. As one student said as she handed me her autobiography at term end, "I’ve never worked as hard on an assignment in my life." And then smiling she continued, "And I’ve never learned more from one."
End of interlude and almost, but not quite, the end of this autobiography. I want to return now to Hillman’s opening quote about being thrown on the spiritual journey because the EHEs in my autobiography didn’t merely throw me on my way. Once I picked up my staff and started to walk, they guided me along the path to Advaita. The following section describes how this happened.
Wisdom Tradition-Related EHEs
As my understanding of and relationship to my conscious and dreaming selves changed, I became interested in LaBerge’s work on lucid dreaming. I bought the workbook he co-authored with Rheingold (1990), and after practicing his techniques for a week or so, I had my first lucid dream. I was both fascinated by the extraordinary changes that took place in my consciousness when I became lucid and intrigued by the deeper philosophical issues towards which lucid dreaming points. After an initial period when I became lucid during one or two dreams a month, the process tapered off. This didn’t surprise me as a more demanding schedule had interfered with my regular practice of the recommended exercises. Still, every few months—sometimes for no particular reason, of which I was aware, sometimes because of a specific prompt I noticed at the time it occurred—I would again become lucid in a dream. In 1993 I had the following dream, which I consider one of my most significant wisdom teachings.
Prior to becoming lucid, I was wandering around a church hall in the midst of a social gathering searching for a friend. I became lucid when it occurred to me that my search efforts were being stymied repeatedly and in ridiculous ways. Once lucid, my attention was drawn to the sensations I was experiencing as I walked across the floor and this naturally segued into a walking meditation. Practicing mindfulness, paying attention to each step, I carefully and with full attention placed one foot ahead of the other, feeling all the sensations, in minute detail, that accompany a walking meditation when fully awake. As I dreamed, my deeper awareness enjoyed the unique perspective of knowing that the entire time my physical body was asleep in my bed under my red comforter in the upstairs bedroom of my home on Pendleton Street, my dreaming self was simultaneously experiencing all the physical sensations involved in practicing a walking meditation! When I awoke, I was struck immediately by how incredibly life-like my dream-walking experience had been. Every single sensation, right down to the minute changes in pressure I felt as different parts of my sole came in and out of contact with the floor, registered in my awareness exactly as it would have if I had been awake. I was amazed. As I lay in bed appreciating the significance of this miracle of consciousness, I suddenly saw the connection between what I had just experienced and what all the wisdom traditions are alluding to when they teach that what we take to be reality is nothing but a dream—and that we can, and will, awaken from it. This was a most profound realization for me.
In 1994 and again in 1996 I had an experience in which the center of my individual self-referencing consciousness dropped away and, for a brief period of time, there was absorption in and identification with the All that is. In the first instance, I had spent the morning and early afternoon climbing Mt. McLoughlin in Southern Oregon and, having reached the summit, had settled down to eat lunch and admire the view. Suddenly, I became the quiet that was the mountain and its vista. There was no Leslie looking out at the expansive view beneath her, there was simply consciousness experiencing and participating in the view. All was silent even though the noise of several nearby climbers was present. If I, Leslie, experienced something, I could only describe it as a deep sense of Presence. This lasted for several minutes before gradually fading. Appreciating what had happened for what I thought it was, I attributed its cause to high altitude and rapid elevation gain. Two years later, having returned the day before from a week-long silent meditation retreat on the Oregon coast, I was standing in my kitchen making toast when the same phenomenon occurred. My self-referential center of awareness dropped away and, once again, there was simply Presence. All was silent—although there was sound arising within the silence. Except for the dramatic difference in surroundings (spacious mountain top vs. cluttered counter top) the experiences were identical. Neither episode filled me with ecstatic excitement or wonder. Rather, both felt more like silent benedictions—each one intensely familiar, like a call from home reminding me of my origins. Perhaps that’s why I found them more quietly affirming than dramatically moving. With an "Ah so" type of feeling, I simply accepted these gifts of grace—these "free samples" as Ramesh Balsekar calls them—with profound gratitude. Oh yes, one more thing. By this time I had read Nisargadatta’s I Am That (1994), a profoundly moving text for me, that led to a great thirst for other texts on Advaita. Reading the teachings of Ramana Maharshi, Nisargadatta, Balsekar, and other teachers of Advaita felt more like receiving a transmission than learning new information. And, although the information was new—I’d certainly never read anything like it before—it reminded me of something intensely familiar that seemed to be located deep within my soul. I had already embraced Advaita as my path by the time I had my mountain summit experience; I interpreted both experiences as affirmations, gave thanks, then moved on.
I have one final tale to tell, and this tale ties the guidance from my central EHE, "Relax and trust," directly back to Rhea White—which I believe is a most fitting way to bring this manuscript to a close. In 1994, one of my dearest and most respected friends, Shelley, called my office one morning to insist that I stop what I was doing and run down to the neighborhood natural food store to buy a copy of the latest issue of Magical Blend (Harary, 1994). If the store had already sold out, she would loan me her copy. Curious, as it was not at all like Shelley to get this excited over an issue of a magazine, I made it a point to thumb through a copy the next time I was shopping. When I did, what I saw nearly took my breath away: an interview with Rhea White on exceptional human experience. I scanned the contents quickly to see if these exceptional experiences meant what I hoped they might. Bingo! I rushed home, sat down, and poured over the article. This was what I’d been searching for. Rhea was talking about the same kinds of experiences I had been having. Suddenly, everything made sense. It was as if the movie of my life had just come into sharper focus. I don’t believe that I’ve ever felt as affirmed by life as I did at that moment.
Each morning for several mornings in a row, I would reread the interview, familiarizing myself with Rhea’s ideas, digesting different concepts, and thinking about the relevance of her work for my own. I realized that we shared an interest not only in EHE but also in subjective experience—in meaning—and, therefore in qualitative research as well. I couldn’t stand it any longer; I wrote to her. When three months or so had passed and I hadn’t received a response, I wrote to her again. Around two weeks later I received a package in the mail from the EHE Network, tore it open, read Rhea’s long, thoughtful reply, and cried.
Over the years, Rhea has become a unique blend of cherished friend, respected colleague, mentor, role model, and main e-mail pal. This summer she graced my university with her expertise, teaching a specially featured week-long course titled "Exceptional Human Experience and Personal Growth." Her presence and the content that she presented turned out to be a life-changing (and life-affirming) event for several students. And Rhea received immediate feedback regarding her EHE concepts and a sense of flow in the classroom that led to an energized refocusing of her approach.
Relax and trust? Amen.
ReferencesFoundation for Inner Peace. (1975). A Course in Miracles. Farmingdale, NY: Coleman Graphics.
Harary, K. (1994, April). Exceptional human experience and the human psyche: An interview with Rhea White.Magical Blend, No. 42, 61-65.
Hillman, A. (1994). The Dancing Animal Woman. Norfolk, CT: Bramble Books.
Kason, Y. (1994). Near-death experiences and kundalini awakening: Exploring the link. Journal of Near-Death Studies, 12, 143-157.
Nisargadatta, M. (1994). I Am That: Talks with Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj S.S. Dikshit, Ed. (M. Friedman, Trans.). Durham, NC: Acorn.
White, R.A. (1997a). Aftereffects of exceptional human experiences. New Bern, NC: EHE Network.
White, R.A. (1997b). The EHE process: The subjective standpoint. Exceptional Human Experience, 15, 49-50 (Special issue entitled Background Papers II. The EHE Network, 1995-1998: Progress and Possibilities).
White, R.A. (1997c). How to write an EHE autobiography. New Bern, NC: EHE Network.
White, R.A. (1997d). New terms associated with exceptional human experience. New Bern, NC: EHE Network.
White, R.A. (1997c). How to write an EHE autobiography. New Bern, NC: EHE Network.
White, R.A. (1997d). New terms associated with exceptional human experience. New Bern, NC: EHE Network.
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