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The Act of Sharing EHEs as a Catalyst
Rhea A. White
This article was originally published in the Journal of Religion and Psychical Research, 1994, 17(3), 132-135 under the title "Sharing EHEs as a Catalyst." This second edition was revised for publication in Exceptional Human Experience, 15(1), 1997 (Background Papers II).
Recently I classified my list of exceptional human experience (the genus) into 5 broad groups (classes) and over 100 types (species) in these classes. I have searched for examples of each to take with me when I give talks because in the discussion period people often want to hear examples of various types of EHEs. Or, when members of the audience volunteer an experience of theirs, it is validating for them (and others present) to listen to a similar experience someone else has had. For example, in a talk I gave recently a woman mentioned that she and her husband, singly and together, had had several experiences of transcendental odors (she did not know the term), which they associated with her deceased mother, who was much beloved by both of them. Transcendental odors is on my list of EHEs, and I read them an account of someone else's experience.
This method of validating experiences seems to open up the group. I had asked people to share their experiences and only a few did, although about twice as many had raised their hands earlier when I asked how many had had an exceptional human experience. Then the woman told the transcendental odor story, which I confirmed with my example, and someone mentioned déjà vu, though she did not give an experience, and I gave some examples, and then more people began telling their stories, including one who had had a recurrent sense of a man in the basement behind the furnace every time she went to the basement, which she only did to do the laundry, and she told no one about it for 20 years until her daughter was to be married and they were discussing wedding plans. The bride-to-be asked her mother if they should invite the "man in the basement." When the mother, who feigned ignorance although she was flabbergasted by the question, replied, "What man in the basement?" Her daughter answered "Why, the man behind the furnace." Then her other daughter said, "He's not so bad. He seems harmless"; and her young son chipped in; "I'm scared stiff of him." I said this was known as "a sense of presence," and I read an example. This seemed to perk people up and others began to volunteer experiences.
I have gone into some detail here because I think this interaction illustrates the need for those who are aware they have had EEs to share them. Sharing them provides validation for one's own experiences as well as for those of others. Although the climate is changing, in our society having an EHE still makes individuals feel very alone. They react as though they had been given a secret that they dare not tell, even though they may be bursting to share it, either out of a sense of ecstasy or anxiety. The fear that people will think they are odd, crazy, unstable, deluded, misguided is stronger. When you rehearse your EHE to yourself, it can seem vague and shadowy—like a dream that is not understood. You have the impulse to shrug it off as a cobwebby, whispy, unsubstantial chimera. But if you try to honestly recall it in as much detail as possible by writing it down, much as one would do when one keeps track of dreams, that gives it more solidity. And if, at appropriate times, you tell it to another, you may find that other people have had variants of the same experience, and they may say something about theirs that resonates with yours that you hadn't thought of, and vice versa. If you tell the person that, it lends credence to their experience and yours. A bridge has been established. You are no longer alone with your experience. One other person shares it, and if there are two, there may be more. Once you have two data points, you can draw a line, and a line provides a sense of direction. If someone were to point out that a line can go left or right, up or down, in or out, and poses a big question as to which way to go, my answer would be: all of the above.
What I am calling "the reigning paradigm" would make short shrift of this. It would decree that this is most likely one daydream bolstering another. That is possible. But one has to judge by the fruits of the experience and the act of sharing it. If it brightens one's day, adds a dimension to one's life experience, provides one with the feeling that one is on the edge of some greater meaning, makes one feel closer to other people, then it is worth pursuing, if only provisionally. My advice is to go with it as far as you can, and do not be discouraged if the path peters out. Some paths indicated by EHEs are short, others are longer, and some provide a sense of direction that can last a lifetime. Even those that simply remain anomalous, both inexplicable and unconnected to yourself, if you don’t repress them, they remain as question marks, like the Cheshire cat, or as pinholes in the fabric of the reigning paradigm.
The reigning paradigm would say that there is no evidence beyond notoriously unreliable human testimony in what I am advocating. I say it is the reigning paradigm that has invalidated human testimony. Human testimony (i.e., honoring one's own experience and sharing it as honestly as possible) is all that we have to go on when it comes to EHEs, and for that matter, when it comes to our very own lives. It is true that there is some objective evidence for ESP and PK, but it does not speak to our individual experience except as an overarching validation that represents a chink in the armor of the reigning paradigm.
But the reigning paradigm is much weaker than it was. There are holes in it everywhere, and out of the holes is billowing a new worldview, one that puts the individual first, and in place of the "observer" in the deterministic worldview a "participant" is being revealed. Conscious participation in the cosmic dance is the watchword of the coming paradigm, which as far as I can see means becoming as aware of one's exceptional experiences as possible and sharing them with others as well as sharing other's experiences. In this way we can build a rainbow that bridges the gap between mind and body, self and world, time and eternity, subjective and objective.
How the Reigning Paradigm Shuts EHEs Out Without Even Trying
One type of exceptional human experience that is not often cited is the literary experience. It has been very important in my life, In fact, when in 1993 I was given the task of writing about the exceptional experiences that had prompted me to become a parapsychologist, half of the paper was devoted to passages from children's books! This surprised even me. I knew they had been important, exceptional, in fact, but I hadn't realized the extent to which they influenced me.
I have been aware my entire adult life, however, of the importance of the "literary experience" as an EHE, even though I had not yet coined that term. I have two shelves of books that are about it, directly or tangentially. So I went to these books to find an account of a literary experience. The best I could come up with in a book entirely devoted to the subject, which was entitled The Literature of Ecstasy (Mordell, 1921), was a definition! There were no experiential accounts in the book. I will at least quote the definition, which is right on the mark as far as EHEs are concerned. He defines what he calls "poetry," but what it turns out to be is the "aesthetic" experience, of which the literary experience is a subtype. Keep that in mind as you read the word "poetry" in the following definition:
Poetry is not a department of literature in the sense that the novel or the essay or the drama is, but is an atmosphere which bathes literature whenever ecstasy and emotion are present. It is not a distinct division of art as literature, music or painting is, for poetry is the very essence of all these arts whether it is transmitted by words, sounds or colors. It is the ecstatic emotional spirit which pervades all good literature (or any of the arts) whether in verse or prose, in their finest parts. It is an aesthetic quality which gives tone to a literary work or any portion or portions of it. (p. 52)
By this definition, I think exceptional human experiences are the poetry of our very beings, and it is these experiences that give tone to our lives.
Mordell's book, however, was published in 1921 at a time when the behavioristic paradigm was strong. Therefore the entire book was about the literary experience, but an account of how a literary experience feels to the person who has it and how it affected that person's life had no place in a treatise with any pretense to objectivity. So here was a book honoring and lauding and explicating the literary experience to the nth degree, and it did not contain a single instance of what it is about!
I will give an example from my experience. It was a passage in Edith Nesbit's (1907/1966) Enchanted Castle that may have given me my first knowledge that there were exceptional experiences to be had. And for me, reading about exceptional experience is the same as having one. The following passage from Nesbit's book, which I read when I was in fifth or sixth grade, still has a powerful effect on me; it carries me to the other side of the curtain she writes of:
There is a curtain, thin as gossamer, clear as glass, strong as iron, that hangs forever 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)
To my mind, EHEs are our magic rings and amulets.
The same behavioristic paradigm that inhibited Mordell from giving any firsthand literary experiences imbues the science of parapsychology. Parapsychology, which has objectively demonstrated the far reach of experimenter influence, has little to say about what it is about those experimenters that catalyzes that influence, nor does it speak to those psi experiences that presumably spawned the experiments in the first place.
Although the old paradigm may be cracking, it is still very much in control, and a high-placed exponent of it at the 1993 convention of the Parapsychological Association in Toronto pretentiously tossed off the following remark as if it were known and accepted by all: "Anecdotal accounts, of course, mean absolutely nothing." Yet, if one were to ask him to give an account of his entire important life, all he could give us would be anecdotes. He could document his account with a birth certificate, diplomas, a marriage certificate or two—nothing that billions of others couldn't do as well. But that about him which is unique and exceptional—his underside as opposed to the externals of his life—would be purely anecdotal. He alone could testify to it. I say we dare not discount anecdote. We must build on it, or we throw away our very selves.
In doing this, I think the humanities, including literature, particularly that concerning narrative, can lead the way. To make use of a memorable title: it may even take us to The Heart of the Matter (Graham Greene). Wouldn't it be fun and serve those pompous objectivists right if it turned out that it would take us to the heart of matter as well as of what matters most to each and every one of us?
Mordell, A. (1921). The Literature of Ecstasy. Port Washington, NY: Kennikat Press.
Nesbit, E. (1986). The Enchanted Castle. New York: Platt & Munk. (Original work published 1907)
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