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Exceptional Human Experiences: A Brief Overview

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


Exceptional human experience is an umbrella term for anomalous experiences that transform the individual who has them so that they are engaged in a process of realizing their full human potential, which makes the experience an exceptional human one. There are many types of experiences, usually instances of the psychic, mystical, healing, death-related, encounter, and desolation/nadir type, as well as those we call peak experiences. We have been studying accounts of a broad range of over 200 types of anomalous experience to discover how many general characteristics pertain across the whole class. See List of Potential EHEs. The reason that we are looking at these experiences as a group is that they may be points on a continuum, or else there may be connections between some if not all of them, which we would not see if we only looked at them as discrete experiences. For example, people who are not aware of ever having had psychic experiences note that they start having them after they have had near-death experiences, out-of-body experiences, multiple personality episodes, UFO encounters, and other forms of anomalous experience.

Anomalous experiences are customarily treated as one-time events. Those who take an interest in them usually examine all the data they can gather concerning the event/experience itself and any relevant circumstances that seem to lead up to it. Very little attention is given to the experience/event’s aftereffects or its subjective qualities. In our approach, we start with the experience, including any predisposing factors and triggers. Then we take a close look not only at the objectively verifiable components and the anomalous ones, but also the physical, physiological, feeling, psychological, and spiritual components. Because of their importance, our main concern has become the aftereffects. If an experience does not have any lasting effect on the experiencer, it remains simply an anomaly, and so can be viewed objectively as a one-time happening, now finished. However, some anomalous experiences become personalized. They become part of the experiencer’s life. They have become exceptional experiences (EEs). These, in turn, can initiate a process that has ongoing transformative aftereffects. Then the experience becomes an exceptional human experience (EHE). We are very interested in the process by which EHEs develop and in observing how they affect the experiencer both immediately and during the rest of his or her life. We are especially interested in any patterns that may emerge across both individuals and different types of experiences.

Some exceptional experiences are more likely to become transformative than others, such as mystical experiences, near-death experiences, and out-of-body experiences. But perhaps any anomalous experience can become an EHE, and we are interested in discovering if this is the case. We have drawn up the following very preliminary list of ten characteristics that seem to hold across several types of exceptional human experience.

  1. All of these experiences, including those induced by drugs or hypnosis, occur spontaneously, at least initially. They happen to you—you can’t make them happen.
  2. Each type of experience in one way or another is an experience of transcendence, which means “to rise above; surpass; exceed.” In an out-of-body experience, for example, you have the experience of literally rising above your body, being able to look down upon it as if from outside. In near-death and post-death experiences, you seem to transcend the boundary between life and death. In clairvoyance and telepathy, you transcend space (and in the latter case, also personality). In precognition, you transcend time; and so it goes.
  3. Each one represents a new experience of the self, of who or what we are. Whereas we previously assumed we were bound by time, space, our bodies, personalities, individualities, and certainly death, these experiences give the lie to that view. They tell us we are more than we thought we were.
  4. They are all experiences of connection, first to different levels of ourselves, but also to others, to other forms of life, to the planet, to the universe, and to the sacred.
  5. Each is an experience of opening to a reality we were taught could not be true. This opening occurs directly. That is, we don’t have to think about it or question it—during the experience we are there. They also open us inwardly, thus predisposing us to have further experiences, unless we shut down the process through fear or misunderstanding of what is happening.
  6. Although EHEs are experiences of opening, connecting, and transcending, the fact that there is no sense of separation applies both within and without the person. There is no separation felt between mind and body, so that you respond with your whole self. This means there is often an orgasmic element in EHEs. You are in a heightened state physiologically, psychologically, and spiritually. Physically, you can experience tingling, swooning, rapid heartbeat, flush, raised hairs, goosebumps, and breathlessness. A good test of an EHE is that you can feel it in your toes.
  7. Although there are scholars and scientists willing to grant that these experiences merit investigation, they have done so using the methods of Western science and analysis. This has led to their being treated as static events--one-time occurrences that, once they are over, are considered done with. For example, an investigator might look into a dream that X had in May 1991 that corresponded in considerable detail to an event that occurred in June 1991, thus indicating that the dream could have been precognitive. The investigator tries to find witnesses to both dream and event. He or she compares the details of the dream with the details of the event, notes the person’s age, sex, occupation, education, etc., and when finished, adds this information to other such statistics. It will most likely molder away in a file somewhere. We haven’t learned anything that connects to anything else. Instead, we should view such experiences not as one-time events comparable, say to one’s first tooth or car, but more to one’s job or one’s significant relationships--in other words, to experiences that occur within an ongoing process. Exceptional experiences are more like seeds. They happen to us not like events but as initiators of a process, waiting to unfold in us even as the oak tree unfolds from the acorn, but with a major difference--the oak tree, as far as we know, grows spontaneously and naturally. But the process that unfolds in a human being, at least after a certain stage is reached, requires our conscious cooperation and participation. We need to pay attention to these experiences, try to glimpse what they may be telling us, discern where they may be leading us, trust the visions they reveal to us, and incorporate them in our lives. So, although initially they occur spontaneously, they are invitations to participate in a process of growth that requires our cooperation. Instead, we tend to shelve these experiences, to repress them, and not tell others about them, because although they may be exciting, thrilling, wonderful experiences in themselves, in the context of the consensus worldview they are weird, strange, unreal, or even sick. In this view, it is natural not to look to them for insight and guidance.
  8. In science everyone is looking for a new paradigm (or worldview) to account for everything. Physicists are trying to account for the mind-matter interface. Psychologists and philosophers call it the mind-body relationship. We call EHEs preparadigmatic experiences, because they seem to herald a new paradigm, or at the least, they fly in the face of the one with which we now live. So each one really offers the experiencer (and to some extent, those who read or hear about a given experience) a window with a new view, and they provide an opportunity to choose between belief and doubt. (This is an opportunity of unparalleled importance.) The experiencer must decide whether to provisionally trust the experience or explain it away or dismiss it. Those who choose to believe find they have opened a door leading to additional experiences that provide entrance to a world where their lives become charged with meaning. They have entered what we call the Experiential Paradigm. Those who doubt continue to remain encased in the familiar inhospitable and even abusive arms of the worldview that has been with us since the Enlightenment, which we were taught was the only reality. Many people’s lives are chaotic and bereft of meaning, and many turn to drugs, not to embrace the world, but to forget it.
  9. What we need is a story that will unite science and spirituality, self and world. But first it must occur at the individual level, which brings us to the ninth characteristic. Each of us needs a story that charges our daily lives with meaning and puts us personally in touch with the sacred. There are many books about writing, or better yet, living your own story, your own myth. But the myths of old contained an element that is missing from most stories told today, and that is a link with the sacred. Exceptional human experiences can serve as those links; they are those happenings in our lives that can pull us out of boredom and disconnection and into a world of meaning and connection. We have to learn how to honor these experiences and let them into our lives. When a sufficient number of people do that, the larger story will emerge. Exceptional human experiences catapult us into the new paradigm. We become a part of it and we discover it is a part of us. When we enter the Experiential Paradigm, we are no longer apart from it. The scientific method cannot take us there. But once we ourselves are there, and when we are willing to take the further leap of sharing our experiences with others, we will not only be inside the new view that is needed to join physical and spiritual, mind and matter, body and mind, but we will also be playing a significant part in transforming it into consensus reality. Once more, as in ages past, the story of each human will be the story of humankind, and vice versa. We and our times will be in step and able to move forward as one. Science can do nothing but follow, as it is right that it should.
  10. Creating one’s story is not simply something the experiencer can do alone. Telling it in part involves living it out in some way (i.e., acting on it). So only does it really become real to the experiencer and to others. One of the first ways to do this is to tell others about it, in a context where it seems relevant, even though it may be embarrassing or difficult. By sharing our EHEs, the other person validates the experience, even if he or she reacts negatively. But often the response is positive, and when it is, the other person may be moved by the first person’s story to share his or her EHEs as well. This heightens the sense of meaning and reality for both in ways that go beyond simply describing one’s EHEs. A process seems to be initiated by such interchanges that operates independently of both persons and that leads to connectedness and interconnections. One has entered into the process of spinning the web of the new paradigm. We don’t think it out; we live out of it and into a new way of being in the world. Then we can conceptualize it in the same way that we open our eyes and see.


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