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Personal Experiences and the Legitimization of Parapsychology:
Rhea A. White
This unpublished paper was originally submitted as a contribution to a symposium on unusual experiences of parapsychologists, which was cochaired by William G. Braud and myself, for the 36th annual convention of the Parapsychological Association held August 15-19, 1993, in Montreal, Canada. The other symposiasts were Russell Targ and Montague Ullman. The symposium was accepted by the referees, including this paper. But the referees asked for more theory, in my case, and one referee thought the part about children's literature should be cut back drastically. Most importantly, one referee wanted to know why I kept insisting that parapsychologists stop what they were doing and switch instead to what I advocated. This is a question I had to respond to, and in so doing I rewrote the entire paper, leaving only one paragraph for my own experiences! As this first version presents the exceptional human experiences that provided the impetus for me to enter parapsychology and that have informed my thinking about both parapsychology and the EHE concept, I am putting it on the EHE Network’s website as an example of a partial EHE autobiography.
However, I am not including it, as such, in my full EHE autobiography, which I am now writing, because the accounts it includes are for the most part too truncated because of time considerations imposed by the symposium format for which it was originally written. In the full autobiography, each individual experience will be treated as a separate chapter. Another reason for placing it in the website section on EHE autobiography is that it was in writing this paper that gave me the idea of the EHE autobiography technique as a new form of spiritual autobiography.in which you tell the story of your life primarily in terms of your anomalous experiences and anomalies of personal experience. In an EHE autobiography you not only describe each experience but also its meaning, as far as you can discern it. In this parapsychological EHE autobiography, I tried to stick to the symposium theme, which was how unusual (i.e., exceptional) experiences influenced me in regard to my work as a parapsychologist. Thus, readers should bear in mind that it was aimed at members of the Parapsychological Association, which is the international professional society of parapsychologists, not necessarily the general reader. It has been revised slightly for purposes of correction and clarification. In my fuller accounts, I also describe other ways in which these experiences changed me.
It was William Braud who thought of this symposium, prompted in part by reading a manuscript of a paper I gave at this year's  meeting of the Academy of Religion and Psychical Research titled "Exceptional Human Experiences as Vehicles of Grace: Parapsychology, Faith, and the Outlier Mentality" (White, 1993). [This paper will be posted on this website under "EHE Vistas" under "About EHEs."] I don't know how much background to give you about where my thinking, based on my divergence into exceptional human experience, has taken me. Those of you who do not subscribe to Exceptional Human Experience probably have little or no notion, and those who do may be crying "Enough already!"
I will try to give a concise overview. Exceptional human experience is not yet another term for psi. It is the best term I could devise to cover a variety of experiences (60 to date) that catapult the experiencer out of the paradigm we grew up with and that governs our daily lives. Psi experiences of every kind are certainly potential exceptional human experiences (or EHEs, for short), but so are many experiences not studied by parapsychologists, such as the aesthetic experience, the literary experience, nostalgia, mystical experience, NDEs, UFO encounters—the list goes on. I tried to look at these experiences, not to see how each one differs, for of course they do, but to look for commonalities. So far I have noted 10 possibilities, which I think justifies me in dealing with any of these individual experiences as members of a larger class of exceptional human experience.
It is apparent that not only do these experiences conflict with the current but waning consensus view of reality which for every day purposes is based in classical, Newtonian, deterministic physics, but each provides a glimpse of what seems to be an alternate paradigm. It is as if each type of exceptional experience provides a glimpse of different aspects of this alternate worldview, which is more in line with David Bohm’s implicate order, the nonlocality of quantum physics, and holonomic/holographic views of reality. This paradigm has not been pinned down nor its boundaries set, but indications are that it is a process-based reality in which there are no essential boundaries. Because this has not been worked out, I have called these experiences preparadigmatic. They provide the experiencer with a new view, even if only temporarily. One of the most important characteristics of these experiences—perhaps the one that most qualifies them as exceptional—is that they begin to change the experiencer's life in a way that is experienced as simultaneously inner and outer. If they don't fight or repress it, experiencers begin to feel part of a larger process that is not only personally but socially and globally meaningful.
Then, last fall I happened upon a book by theologian Tom Driver (1991) entitled The Magic of Ritual: Our Need for Liberating Rites That Transform Our Lives and Our Communities. The title interested me because I had just written a paper (White, 1992) on how EHEs could serve as the basis for what I called projects of transcendence. These projects would be developed and shared by both individuals and groups, and they would be initiated by and be centered on a specific EHE, which would be used to create meaningful rituals, which in turn would encourage additional experiences. This would lead to interchange between groups working with the same and different EHEs, which would also help to consolidate knowledge about EHEs in the groups and eventually within the culture. In addition to the personal and social benefits such projects could have, I viewed them as a major means of raising the level of working knowledge of EHEs and of heightening and deepening consciousness within society at large, and I hoped eventually this might trickle down into science.
Driver's book not only consolidated but it transformed my view of how to approach EHEs, including psi experiences. It enabled me to envision a whole new way of validating not only exceptional experiences, but of legitimizing parapsychology itself. Driver discusses ritual performance as a way of acting out or living out that which is personally most meaningful. He in his book and I in my Academy of Religion and Psychical Research paper (White, 1993) go into this at great length. At base, it would mean that parapsychologists would start by owning and sharing their own experiences, which I hypothesize is the reason most of us became interested in parapsychology. Then we got into scientific parapsychology and the demanding yet exciting world of creating the perfect repeatable experiment, which we are honing and polishing in the grand hermetic tradition of alchemy. It is a noble profession. BUT, in looking for this pot of gold, which sometimes seems so close we feel we have touched it, even though we have not actually gotten a grip on it, I think that as battle-scarred professionals we have lost touch with the experiences that provided the impetus for us to enter the field. We have put aside our childish toys and daydreams. We may reason that they have served their purpose in getting us here, and now, one could say, "we are men, and must act like men in this man's world" (single gender intentional). We insist on using the hard standards and tools science has developed to deal with these soft, blurry, evanescent experiences. In fact, we do not even want to deal with the experiences as such at all—we only want to deal with the effects of variables we can control. This is a choice, not a necessity. In so doing, we may sometimes feel we are at the forefront of Western science, but I might point out that the paradigm we are using is the one we hope to supersede.
I disagree with this approach on two points. First, I do not think we should put our own experiences aside even for one minute; and I don't think we are at the forefront of Western science, and certainly not Western civilization, though I once did. I think that just as we were led by our experiences or those of others to come into this field, we should continue to be led by them while we are in it. Instead, primarily we are being led by our critics and by the skeptic that lives in each of us. We are feeding the part of us that is the goat and starving the sheep in us, the one who grows and glows only by believing. We disguise it from ourselves, and we justify doing so by calling what we are doing science.
So, first off, I think we should dig up those old experiences and see how they might inform our work today and in the future. Rex Stanford (1992), in one of his inimitable papers, sets forth several ways of doing this in a Parapsychology Foundation proceedings volume every one interested in parapsychology should own. Second, I think we should try to find the pulse of the worldview that is developing in the West—not only in the physical sciences, not only in the behavioral sciences, but in the social sciences and humanities. It seems to me that they are all moving forward whereas we are staying in place.
When I was identified solely with the parapsychology project, I delighted in finding interfaces with other fields where I could see the relevance of psi to their concerns, but now I look for aspects of other disciplines that would offer us a place to come aboard. I think we would profit more from interfacing with them than from expecting them to make their way back to us. Driver develops the concept of confessional performance, which is just one example of a position in another discipline that we could actually get a grip on. And if we were to consolidate even that one grip, we would be connected to the mainland of scholarship instead of trying to eke out an existence on our little island, where we emphasize how we are "para" everything else. We would be connected, not cut off; we would be a part of something larger, not apart from the human project itself.
To provide the gist of my Academy paper, I quote from the abstract: "Driver shows why we need rituals to enhance our sense of meaning, and in this paper the relationship between rituals and projects of transcendence that are outgrowths of exceptional human experiences is pointed out. Driver also stresses the need for ‘confessional performance’ to enliven the rituals and our lives and as a means of actually becoming and creating what we confess we are. This paper attempts to show that confessional performance, not experiments, is precisely what is needed to authenticate psychic and other exceptional human experiences. Moreover, by doing what we say, we develop the outlier mentality that is essential to pushing back the envelope of knowledge. By putting our selves on the line we find we are inside the new paradigm we have been seeking."
When William Braud proposed the symposium, I said I had not had any outstanding psi experiences, but he pointed out I had had an NDE and other EHEs. It is true, I have had many exceptional human experiences, and they certainly have affected my work in parapsychology. One could say they got me into parapsychology and they got me "para" parapsychology. I have been harping at parapsychologists for over 20 years to please remember whatever it was that moved them to become parapsychologists because I thought it vital for us to continue that movement, and not to get so caught up in problems of theory and method and responding to criticisms that we forget why we became engaged in parapsychology in the first place. This symposium provides me with a platform to do what I have urged on others, to share what experiences moved me to engage in parapsychology. So, here we go. I present my experiences in two categories: literary experiences engendered by reading children's fiction and some exceptional life experiences. As I try to tell you why I entered parapsychology, it should become clear why I have moved beyond parapsychology to the study of exceptional human experience.
Even my exceptional human experiences are not striking in themselves, unlike the experiences William Braud and Monte Ullman describe in this symposium. I have had a great many not very outwardly impressive experiences that nonetheless have had a profound inward effect on me. In fact, what makes them exceptional is primarily their effects—what they led me to. This may be a defining characteristic of EHEs—that they can have long-term, life-changing effects, and what may be more important than the experience itself is what one does with the experience, or how it informs our lives after we have had it. Instead we have treated psi experiences as endpoints, not as beginnings, and this has led us to look at them as isolated rather than as connected.
Most of my exceptional experiences were embedded in sensory situations, but the world they revealed was not. It was definitely an inward world. Whereas Monte and William had experiences "out there" in the form of imagery that concerned outer events or which somehow initiated outward events, only one of my experiences had an external focus. I do my best traveling within, there is no doubt about that. The outer world is usually a distraction, although without it I would not have had any of my experiences.
Exceptional Experiences and Children's Books
I think the type of EHE that has influenced me most is the literary experience, or the experience of having one's consciousness altered through reading. I believe my interest in both psychic and mystical experience was kindled by reading children's books, or having them read to me. Three of them stand out to this day: Black Beauty, by Anna Sewell (1915); The Enchanted Castle, by Edith Nesbit (1907/1966); and The Secret Garden, by Frances Hodgson Burnett (1911). I must say that it may have been because of an experience I shared with my mother that I will tell you later that caused me to be so very much taken by any book that involved discovering a hole in a wall or a forest and finding a secret garden. (I know, of course, what Freud would do with this imagery, single-pointed soul that he was!)
It has only been in the last 10 years that I recalled the parapsychological aspects of the Enchanted Castle and The Secret Garden. Most of my adult life I assumed they were special to me because of the hidden garden imagery. In my 20s and 30s I constantly tried to find a book I had read in childhood about a magic garden, and it was not until I was in my 40s that I rediscovered it. It was Nesbit's book. To my surprise, I found it was filled with parapsychological happenings, so I rather imagine that even though I was not conscious of it, that book and other children's books disposed me to be open to the reality of psi phenomena even though I had forgotten that they included examples of psi (I remembered them because of their numinous and mystical quality and the heart knowledge they conveyed.) But in fiction, the mystical is often associated with the psychical, as it is in the so-called "popular mind." The remembered meaning of Burnett's book was the beauty and wonder and mystical reality it communicated, and this past year I listened to it on audiotape and found it just as magical as ever—perhaps more so. It moved me to tears of joy and transformed my day. What surprised me was that it also contained clearcut examples of the sheep-goat effect, intimations of survival, and instances of ESP. So that book, too, which was so important to me for other reasons, undoubtedly fed the sheep in me rather than the goat.
I class the "literary experience" as an exceptional human experience because I believe it is a form of noetic experience and also because such experiences may contain psychic and numinous elements. Literature can provide us with experiences of the uncanny. Sometimes I have felt, in reading a book, that I had an uncanny sense of being in telepathic contact with the mind or being of the author, living or dead. This feeling was certainly special. It was not the sort of thing one was taught could happen, but there it was, rippling through me with a feeling of certitude far more penetrating than much of what occurred in my "real" life. I feel it especially strongly with T.S. Eliot, J.R.R. Tolkien, and William James. In the paradigm that EHEs point to, this is perfectly sensible, but that is a subject for a book.
Perhaps the earliest EHE I can remember is a feeling of nostalgia engendered by this paragraph from Black Beauty: "It was a calm sweet April night; there were no sounds, but a few low notes of a nightingale, and nothing moved but the white clouds near the moon, and a brown owl that flitted over the hedge. It made me think of the summer nights long ago, when I used to lie beside my mother in the green pleasant meadow at Farmer Grey's" (p. 111).
This passage still moves me to tears, as it did when I wrote it. It can easily be analyzed reductively to longing for the womb. But I don't think that is what such passages and such feelings are about. I seek to amplify their meaning, not reduce it. At the first level of experience, it may well refer back to the womb, or even before. But it also contains elements that were to haunt my future, "hauntingly beautiful" elements, one could say. The experience that at last did catapult me into parapsychology was a near-death experience I will describe later. This passage is reminiscent of that. The silence, the sense of deep peace, the sweetness, the feeling of being in tune with the world, and the idea of the hedge, which in children's books is often a kind of living membrane between this world and the land of magic, are all elements of mystical experience. Does it bring back hot summer nights when I was very small when my parents, uncle and aunt, and I used to sit or lie on a blanket spread out on the lawn or the pasture under the stars? This too gave me a feeling of belonging and also wonder. It could also be interpreted as my first conscious awareness of the imaginal world Ken Ring (1992) is writing about. In any case, such experiences need not dredge up specific memories of mine or anyone else's. Their import is something else, I believe. It is important to note that the inward reality such passages quickened into consciousness was more important to me than anything my immediate social world could provide, including my favorite games and toys. Perhaps I was what we now call a fantasy-prone child. Fantasy books have always been my favorite genre.
I class nostalgia as an exceptional human experience because it, along with déjà vu and the experience of eternal recurrence, seem to be at the beginning of a continuum that includes altered time experiences such as precognition, retrocognition, and past-life memories. As exceptional human experiences go, nostalgia seems quite unprepossessing. It is fleeting, momentary, and its quality of momentousness seems all out of proportion to its content. But the profound sense of significance in experiences of nostalgia is undeniable—as if there were a secret knowledge and significance in the past that eludes us now—and, for that matter, that most likely eluded us then. One could then project the same for the future, looking back on a present moment of nostalgia—except for one thing. When one has the experience again, one may remember having had it before. One's consciousness has been raised, or is it deepened? But more importantly, if the context is not seen as important, what one is left with is the mysterium tremendum or numinous component present in that moment, like the cheshire cat's smile hanging in the air, disconnected from everything else.. If the poignancy one senses was not in the past, not in the present, and by extrapolation, not in the future, then it must be either outside time or in oneself or both. This is what makes it an exceptional human experience. That, and the fact that such moments of nostalgia can be profoundly moving—they can actually influence lives, as was the case with C.S. Lewis (1956, p. 16).
In leafing through Black Beauty looking for the passage I quoted, I came upon an instance of animal psi in which Black Beauty, in the dark of the night, in spite of much remonstrance, obstinately refuses to cross a toll bridge. While he and his rider stood halted on the near side, the voice of the toll gate keeper calls from the other side that the bridge was broken in the middle and part of it was carried away. One could hypothesize, and undoubtedly a good parapsychologist would have to hypothesize, that the horse may have had better sensory acuity than the humans and had physically sensed what his master and groom had not. But Anna Sewell, the author of Black Beauty, has this to say about it: "God had given . . . animals knowledge which did not depend on reason [italics added], and which was much more prompt and perfect in its way, and by which they had often saved the lives of men" (pp. 52-53).
I am sure this passage affected me strongly, even though I didn't consciously recall it. In fact, in this passage I recognize well my own definition of ESP, which is "the ability to obtain information without using sensory or rational faculties." Surely that seed was sewn or at least stirred by Sewall's phrase, "knowledge which did not depend on reason." My own very active and impressionistic mind must have made the leap then, if it had not already, to the thought that humans, too, are animals, and they too may have knowledge that does not depend on rational inference. So one could say Sewell's seemingly innocuous little phrase got me both into parapsychology and beyond it, because I still believe with my whole body that humans have access to knowledge that completely bypasses reason. And I say my whole body because now that I am no longer obsessed with trying to understand a mental capacity that is beyond the limits of my body, I am acutely aware of how physically involved one is when one has an EHE, including one that is psychical. I have already referred a few times to being moved to tears; that one's hair can stand on end and one can get goosebumps are well known; one can feel the swirl followed by the swoon of vertigo; one's heartbeat can intensify; and one's breath be taken away. I have to say it: an exceptional human experience can be downright orgasmic!
I got into parapsychology to try to study other forms of knowing because I thought it offered the most promise of advancing that frontier. But I have reluctantly come to the position that parapsychology is engaged in stepping on the gas with one foot and the brake pedal with the other, and that is why the field has been on a plateau since before I entered it in 1954. I am not saying that progress has not been made. My criticism is that what we have learned is always "more of the same"—on the same level, as it were. We need to get to another level to make real progress. From the paradigm in which we are rooted we don't seem able to learn anything truly new. And even worse, we are not making any significant connections with what the rest of the world is discovering. To me, that is much more important than getting the rest of the world to attend to what parapsychology is doing. If parapsychologists had a real understanding of their subject matter, there would be no need for us to tout it. The world would flock to us of its own accord.
In the beginning this didn't bother me. (I doubt I was even aware of it.) I felt we were an advance scouting party, way ahead of the rest of the academic world. I felt sure that world would eventually catch up to us. But thanks to compiling and editing Parapsychology Abstracts International, which required that I keep a finger on the pulse of folklore studies, anthropology, sociology, literary criticism, humanistic and transpersonal psychology, philosophy, religion, psychiatry, and the helping professions, religion—not just parapsychology and its primary model, academic psychology—I realized that not only do these other fields have much to offer us, but some scholars in these disciplines were actually dealing with psi in new and creative ways—ways that what I can only call "behavioristic" mainline parapsychology either could not countenance or that those associated with parapsychology dismissed by saying these approaches were "just" anthropology or sociology but not parapsychology, principally because these "outside" researchers did not choose to "prove" the existence of psi before they theorized,about it, surveyed it, or interviewed experiencers about their experiences. and designed experiments. To parapsychologists, they were naïve not to incorporate a way of assessing the evidentiality of psi as part of their research as parapsychologists have been doing for 120 years without yet succeeding to meet their own very high standards.(On occasion I have allowed myself to daydream about what may happen in parapsychologists would conduct their research starting from the assumption that psi does exist. It would usher in a whole new ball game, one researchers in other fields have already started to play.)
For me, these new approaches by scholars in the other fields were not only refreshing; but they made me feel like a desert upon which rain was finally falling, enabling all kinds of new growth to spring up. As I began to read further, getting into areas of the social sciences and human sciences that did not deal with parapsychology, as such, but that, to my mind, I dealt with theories and approaches that I thought could be used with great profit in parapsychology. It finally began to dawn upon me that the world of academe had indeed moved on and was now well out in front of us; it is we who have remained behind. When I realized this, I must confess I turned my back on parapsychology and began running as fast as I could to catch up with the leaders in many other fields—the humanities, the social sciences, and feminist and postmodern views in all the other disciplines. I report what I find in Exceptional Human Experience. But any reader of Exceptional Human Experience—and some of you are subscribers—knows that although I might be directing my thoughts to the general class of exceptional human experience, I often revert to that aspect of exceptional human experience I know best—parapsychological experiences. I can't tell you how I got into parapsychology without touching on what got me beyond it, because they are the same. In a sense, I felt I had to choose between psi and parapsychology, and I chose psi. I am still very interested in ways of knowing that are not dependent upon reason and the physical senses, but parapsychology does not teach me as much about it as some other fields are doing.
The last children's book I will quote from is Edith Nesbit's Enchanted Castle. What she describes in it I believe is at the core of exceptional human experience. The first passage clearly refers to the exceptional human experiences children have, and it tells why we tend to repress them. I must confess that as the editor of Exceptional Human Experience, I identify with the protagonist in this passage: "When you are young so many things are difficult to believe, and yet the dullest people will tell you that they are true—such…as that the earth goes around the sun, and that it is not flat but round. But the things that seem really likely, like fairy tales and magic, are, so say the grown-ups, not true at all. Yet they are so easy to believe, especially when you see them happening. And . . . the most wonderful things happen to all sorts of people, only you never hear about them because the people think that no one will believe their stories, and so they don't tell them to anyone except me. And they tell me, because they know that I can believe anything" (p. 23).
Then, there is a passage that comes just before two of the children follow what Louisa Rhine called a compulsion or hunch. A spontaneous psi experience is then movingly described. But even more moving is the preceding passage I just alluded to. It is this: "There is a curtain, thin as gossamer, clear as glass, strong as iron, that hangs for ever between the world of magic and the world that seems to us to be real. And when once people have found one of the little weak spots in that curtain which are marked by magic rings, and amulets, and the like, almost anything may happen" (p. 189).
At the climax of the book, the main characters share a mystical vision induced by a moonbeam falling on an ancient ritual stone: "The moonbeam slants more and more. . . now at last [it] touches the very heart and center of that . . . stone. And then it is as though a spring were touched, a fountain of light released. Everything changes. Or, rather, everything is revealed. There are no more secrets. The plan of the world seems plain, like an easy sum that one writes in big figures on a child's slate. One wonders how one can ever have wondered about anything. Space is not; every place that one has seen or dreamed of is here. Time is not; into this instant is crowded all that one has ever done or dreamed of doing. It is a moment, and it is the universe itself. The eternal light rests on and illuminates the eternal heart of things" (pp. 269-270).
Nesbit closes this scene with some lines that clearly show why EHEs are not simply one-time events but can change a person's life and continue to do so. In fact, my first prompting to move from parapsychology to the study of exceptional human experience could have been because of these lines I first read over a half century ago: "Afterward none of them could ever remember at all what had happened. But they never forgot that they had been somewhere where everything was easy and beautiful. And people who can remember even that much are never quite the same again. . . . Next day they found that to each some little part of that night's great enlightenment was left" (p. 271).
Three of my major forms of exceptional human experience I will only mention, because I have had many of each and rather than remembering one, they all blend together. One is limerence, that wonderful term for the state of being in love; another is getting ideas "out of the blue," as it were; and the third is mystical experiences engendered by the natural world. The first two are associated with synchronicities and intimate forms of communication and connection, as I'm sure all of you know fully as well as I. And I would guess that the third, nature mysticism, is better known to most people today than the more esoteric forms of experiences associated with the mystical path.
There are four other types of EHEs for which individual experiences stand out—one may have been a collective hallucination, another is a near-death experience, one is a mystical experience induced by meditation, and the fourth is an experience of what Osis (1982) called "guru psi," but I call it the "aura of sanctity."
First, let me say a little about my parents, because each in their way predisposed me to parapsychology. My mother considered herself to be psychic. On at least one occasion my parents canceled a trip because of a premonition of disaster she had. They were planning to drive, so there was no opportunity to learn if the premonition would have come true as might have been the case had they been flying or going on a cruise. I was quite young and unthinking then, so I did not inquire, but I have often wondered since how she got my father to go along with it. I do not recall his openly espousing parapsychology, but he was an open-minded man. He was troubled with ulcers and cured himself, he felt, by imagining "little green men" cleaning his stomach wall. He got the idea from reading Claude Bristol's (1948) The Magic of Believing, and he even recommended that I read it. I was rather disdainful of it as I recall, but it did mention Rhine's research, and I took that seriously, because Rhine was applying the scientific method to the evanescent seemingly unreliable sort of experiences my mother spoke of having. My mother often said these experiences were fleeting, and that one must not talk about them, not because of fear of social censure, but because it would dispel their magic. She often used the word intangible in connection with them. I was to use it myself in the subtitle of Exceptional Human Experience, when I changed from Parapsychology Abstracts International, and still needed the letters P, S, and I to justify my logo, which is the Greek letter psi holding a globe. (In the latest issue, however, I changed the I-word again—to Imaginal.) I must confess I did not have much respect for my mother's ideas in general, but I did half listen to what she said about the psychic. On the other hand, I highly respected my father, and I took his "little green men" very seriously. His bent was definitely practical, commonsense, outer reality-oriented, whereas my mother was more poetic, intuitive, very inner oriented, and she was a gifted story teller (she kept alive the legends of our tribe, and I never tired of hearing her repeat those stories). I found myself incorporating both sides, and I think this influenced my choice of parapsychology as a career—I felt it would demand the full use of both sides of the brain, and my parents' legacy to me was appreciation for both sides, though as I get older it is scary how much more I am coming to resemble my mother! I believe William Braud's (1992) address to the Parapsychological Association is the best expression of both sides in our literature.
One of the most important experiences of my life again occurred when I was 3 or 4—preschool, I believe. I grew up in the country in upstate New York. We had 16 acres of property, mostly rolling pastureland, which about a mile behind our house became woodland, a relatively deep woods that was also the property of others. Beginning at this early age and up until I left home at age 20, a big event of my year was going mayflowering in the spring at the edge of the woods where there were dogtooth violets and pink spring beauties and Dutchman's breeches, and in the open woods where there were violets, hepaticas, trilliums, and the rarer Indian pipe. An experience that has haunted me all my life was shared by my mother, and it must have occurred on one of my first trips to the woods (it was a long walk for a three-four-year old—no baby carriage or stroller could be used in that bumpy pasture). We had what we always spoke of thereafter, even when I was an adult, as an actual physical experience, but now I wonder if it was a collective hallucination? We came to a kind of circular open glade in the woods that was filled with flowers. In our joint recollection, there were roses growing there. I don't know if this was a later gloss on our memory or not. (It is very unlikely that roses were growing in those woods.) At any rate, we were caught up in beauty, wonder, and delight at our discovery. We tried to go back there the next year and many years thereafter, but we could never find any place even closely resembling it. As I got older, I became familiar with every foot of those woods. My cousins and I did all our major playing there. I never could find that glade again nor any huge profusion of flowers, though on occasions I found large patches of one wildflower or another. But it wasn't the same thing. It later made Eliot's words "towards the door we never opened into the rose garden" resonate with nostalgia and meaning.
Even more apt are a few lines from Thoreau (1948), who tries to describe—as he puts it—some of the "enterprises which he had cherished." I think he is referring to exceptional human experiences in that passage, because he notes that those who knew only the outward events of his life would probably be surprised. At any rate, he writes: "I long ago lost a hound, a bay horse, and a turtledove, and I am still on their trail. Many are the travelers I have spoken [to] concerning them, describing their tracks and what calls they answered to. I have met one or two who had heard the hound, and the tramp of the horse, and even seen the dove disappear behind cloud, and they seemed as anxious to recover them as if they had lost them themselves" (pp. 12-13).
I think I know what he meant. And he also describes very well how people react when we tell them our EHEs. They often do not laugh or reject as we might think and fear they would. They seem "as anxious to recover them as if they had lost them themselves." (The catch may be that to evoke this reaction the EHE must be one that was genuinely experienced and affected the experiencer strongly, and was not made up.)
So, once again, it was the evanescent, elusive, and in everyday terms, "unreal" reality that hinted to me of another reality more important in the sense that it was potentially more meaningful than the world of everyday, which either belied it—or that it belied.
My near-death experience occurred when I was a junior in college and had driven my 1936 Ford Dolores from Penn State to Syracuse University to pick up a friend whose car was being repaired. He was to be my guest at a big weekend at Penn State. A terrible driving snowstorm developed. Visibility was almost nil as we started back south. There is a long hill as one leaves Syracuse, and try as I might, I could not get to the top. I was not the only one. Both sides of the road were lined with stranded cars. My friend asked me if I'd like him to try, and although my father had told me never to let anyone else drive my car, I answered—fatefully, as it turned out: "Well, we'll never get there with me driving!" So we switched. My friend Stu was a very good dancer; he had a light touch with his feet; and he maneuvered Dolores up the long hill and we were on our way, with Stu still at the wheel. We went along for 10 minutes or so, going about 15 miles an hour, when out of the swirling snow ahead came a coal truck skidding toward us. The next thing I knew I was up in space, or so it seemed, looking down on the Eastern seaboard of the United States, watching State College, Pennsylvania recede as I rose higher, and it suddenly occurred to me, "This is what it's like to die!" And with that, I relaxed, lay back, and instantly, I felt the "everlasting arms" holding me. I was filled with the absolute conviction that "nothing that ever lived could possibly die."
The next thing I knew I was lying on the hood of my car, in pain, unable to move, with the sound of the metal of the car tinkling as it settled, and seeing cars creeping along, with people craning their necks out of their windows to look at us. I called to Stu but got no answer. The truck driver brought help, and—as I was to learn later—Stu was killed instantly when the truck totaled the car, entering on the driver's side. Perhaps it was the impact of his body on mine that pushed me into the roof and then into the windshield, which fortunately pushed out in one piece, landing me in the only viable space—on the hood. I had 11 fractures. I was in and out of a drugged state for days, but when I was alone and awake, I could sense this singing stillness. It was what I had felt when I was up in space. I felt deep peace and a kind of poised expectancy. And I could feel myself healing, feel my bones knitting. This also was an exceptional experience, because somehow I could consciously feel it in my bone cells.
I should say that up until that time, my best dream was to become a champion golfer. Because I had three breaks in my left shoulder and three in my pelvis, the orthopedist—himself a golfer—did not think I would ever be able to swing a club again. But I healed very fast. The accident happened in mid-March, and after Easter vacation I was able to go back to school and finish the semester. I played in the New York State Women's Golf Championship that July, and my father and I even drove to Syracuse to play 18 holes with my orthopedic surgeon who had feared, at the time of the accident, that I would never be able to play golf again. But my interest in golf was giving way to another passion. I couldn't forget that feeling of peace and living stillness. I wanted to know more about what I had been in contact with in those moments following the accident. I turned to books on religion, philosophy, mysticism, psychology, psychiatry, and parapsychology. I began to meditate, eventually practicing stillness three hours a day. This brought me in touch much more often and more acutely with the stillness of my experience during the accident. (For years I referred to my experience simply as "the accident," but what I meant was what happened right after impact, but I had no words for it. Then I read Raymond Moody's book when it was first published, and it seemed to me I must have had a mild NDE, but that realization had to wait for another 23 years.) This points up the need to educate the public about all the forms of exceptional human experience, so they are better equipped to understand and incorporate them in their lives.
Of the many books I read, I was awed by Evelyn Underhill's works on the contemplative life. I was touched deeply by William James. I was most grateful to C.G. Jung, for he provided legitimacy for introversion, granting it a grasp of reality as valid as that which extraverts (and Western science) extol. But, I was most moved, emotionally and intellectually, by the books of Gerald Heard, who cited J.B. Rhine's work. I eventually wrote to Rhine, and we agreed I would come to the Duke Parapsychology Laboratory on a trial basis. If we both liked it, they would find some money for me. In the meantime, I lived on the insurance money from the accident. After a year, Eileen Garrett provided money to the Lab, and I became a research assistant.
During the two years or so when I was meditating several hours a day, my life began to change. I became more outgoing; more trusting of life; and I felt "high" much of the time. I had lots of energy. Then, one afternoon, after I had been in Durham a couple of months, I had a kind of satori experience. I felt absolute unity with the universe, starting with the telephone pole outside my window. I called it the "Curtain Experience," because I felt a curtain had been withdrawn and that at last I could "see." I no longer felt separate from the divine, from others, from anything. There was nothing outside of this unity that I could reach out to in meditation as I had been doing. Usual life was the very Tao. So, after consulting with Gerald Heard, I stopped meditating. And started learning parapsychology, putting aside my preconceptions, and throwing myself into it with all my considerable will. The rest, such as it is, is history.
The last experience—the aura of sanctity—is the hardest to describe. I think it is cut off the same bolt as "charisma," and it is related to what parapsychologists call the "experimenter effect." There are many aspects of the experimenter effect, but one is the (sometimes psi-based) capacity some people have to induce controlled psi effects. J.B. Rhine was no longer actively experimenting when I knew him, but I suspect he had it. I know Margaret Anderson (White, 1987) had it. The best way I can put it is to say she affected subjects extrasensorially, not just sensorially. I swear she could get ESP out of a stone.
I experienced the aura of sanctity in association with Gerald Heard, who was a science writer but also a practicing contemplative. If you have read Underhill's (1930) Mysticism, you know what I mean when I say he was well along the mystical path. He not only wrote and lectured about it, he lived it and knew it at first hand. Other people knew it about him, too. He never said anything about it himself. But simply after attending a lecture by him, people had been known to stop ingrained habits such as smoking, not because he said they should or even mentioned smoking at all, but because being in his presence generated the impulse to change.
For a period of about two years, in the early 1950s, I attended two or three of Heard's weekend retreats at Wainwright House, went to some of his lectures, visited him in Los Angeles, and corresponded with him. I found that after I had heard him or received a letter from him, my energy level was higher, my spiritual resolve was more deeply centered, my intellectual capacity was heightened, and my willpower was greatly strengthened. It would last for several weeks. Then I would need to contact him again. I got off on what he said, undoubtedly. I also got high on what he wrote. But there was something about his very being that had an even more profound effect. It certainly wasn't rational, and I question whether it was physical, in the usual sense of the word.
So there you are. These are my exceptional human experiences. They got me into parapsychology and they have taken me into exceptional human experience. Each of my experiences, it seems to me, offered a glimpse of the Imaginal world as set forth by Ken Ring (1992), Michael Grosso (1985), and several others. They were not psychic experiences, though some may have had psychic components. Yet these experiences did propel me into parapsychology, and I long thought parapsychology could shed light on them. I had a numinous dream when I first went to Duke. In it the sky was on the ground and the ground was in the sky. I couldn't make head or tail of it then. Now I think I can. I think it says that parapsychology cannot make sense of the Imaginal, but the Imaginal can help to make sense of parapsychology. To do so, however, I think parapsychologists must experience it, and then they must use what they have experienced. In other words, parapsychologists must reverse the way they have been doing things. They must go within to learn about psi as it is reflected in the outer world not only spontaneously in daily life but in the parapsychology laboratory.
In essence, my experiences have been about ways of knowing that are not rational or are arational or sometimes downright irrational. Parapsychology is also involved with some of these ways of knowing. At base I think I have been compelled to diverge from parapsychology because it does not honor and privilege its own ways of knowing. I don't think people are going to evidence much interest in it until parapsychologists live from their subject matter rather than just rationalize about it.
William James (1902) always seems to say it best. In the passage I will quote he is writing about religious experiences, but I think what he says applies just as well to parapsychology, and beyond that, to exceptional human experience. He explains why he has been "so individualistic throughout these lectures, and why I have seemed so bent on rehabilitating the element of feeling in religion and subordinating its intellectual part. Individuality is founded in feeling; and the recesses of feeling . . . are the only places in the world in which we catch real fact in the making, and directly perceive how events happen, and how work is actually done" (p. 492).
He adds" "It is absurd for science to say that the egotistic elements of experience should be suppressed. The axis of reality runs solely through the egotistic places—they are strung upon it like so many beads To describe the world with all the various feelings of the individual pinch of destiny, all the various spiritual attitudes, left out from the description—they being as describable as anything else—would be something like offering a printed bill of fare as the equivalent for a solid meal" (p. 490).
I leave you with the thought that in writing that "the axis of reality runs solely through the egotistic places"—James was referring to you and me—each one of us, in our daily lives and selves. And it is our exceptional human experiences that are strung out on our individual lifelines like so many beads, or as James put it, on our "feeling component," not our "intellectual part." When we ignore our exceptional experiences, which generally have a large feeling component, it is at our own peril. Deny that axis and you deny yourself. In this most egotistical of all possible worlds, if we continue to ignore that axis can we expect to attract students, funding, academic and social acceptance? The answer, I fear, is . . . . . NOT!
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White, R.A. (1993). Exceptional human experiences as vehicles of grace: Parapsychology, faith, and the outlier mentality. 1993 Annual Academy of Religion and Psychical Research Conference Proceedings, pp. 77-88.
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