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Stephen Slade Tien’s Phase Theory of Transition Applied to EHEs

Rhea A. White
pub: EHE Network, Inc.
Copyright©2001 EHE Network, Inc.


In 1996 I wrote this fellow finder flyer on clinical psychologist Tien because he presents a "phase" theory of major transitions of the sense of self. He applied his theory to NDEs in an article in the Journal of Near-Death Studies. This folded naturally into my own interest in how EHEs in general and specific types of EHEs are instrumental in changing identity. His phase theory is also of interest in connection with the model of the EHE process, so in this flyer I compare and contrast his phase theory with EHE process theory.


This is the second in a series of pamphlets entitled "Fellow Finders." Each one sets forth the observations of other scholars and points out their relevance to exceptional human experience. The first one was entitled "Alfred Alschuler’s Transcendent Education and EHEs." To get the most out of this pamphlet it is best to read the related one entitled "What Are Exceptional Human Experiences?" The information on Tien’s theory is taken from an article he published in the Journal of Near-Death Studies, 7(1), Fall, 1988, pp. 32-37. He uses an NDE experience, which the experiencer called a thanatoperience, to illustrate his theory. Dr. Tien is a clinical psychologist with the New York City Department of Mental Health.

Tien’s "phase theory" provides a way of analyzing and dealing with major transitions and/or transformations of one’s sense of self. It breaks the process down into seven phases, each of which "describes an ontological condition of the self … a psychological state that colors the person’s sense of being" (p. 33).

As pointed out in "What are Exceptional Human Experiences," exceptional or anomalous experiences can trigger a process of self-transformation, even as in Tien’s example an NDE set off such a process. Some exceptional experiences (EEs) trigger the transformation process quickly (as in NDEs and many mystical types of experience); others, such as psychic and encounter experiences, usually take longer. When an exceptional experience initiates a process of transformation in which the individual realizes more of his/her human potential, it is called an exceptional human experience.

Tien’s phase theory is helpful in understanding the components involved in the transition, which he points out do not occur sequentially, much less statically. Rather, the experiencer is caught up in "a moving, living and constantly changing experience" (p. 33). In his classification of phases, Tien deliberately reduces the experience for purposes of "understanding the whole of it more fully thereafter" (p. 33).

Tien’s Seven Phases Described and Applied to EHEs

Immanence=Being In

This is the sense of self one finds oneself in before the transition occurs. It seems equivalent to the ordinary skin-encapsulated sense of self that most people in Western society grow into in adulthood. Tien calls it "a sort of mental status quo, a psychological state of self engaged with the ongoing, everyday flow of life" (p. 35).

Obstruence=Being Stuck

In this phase the self has come to the end of the resources it has for coping with what happens in the course of living. Life circumstances force a choice. One cannot simply go on as before. Obstruence occurs when a person has an exceptional experience, if the experiencer finds he or she isn’t able to dismiss it, and it turns out to be true—one’s whole world goes topsy turvy. This isn’t supposed to happen. The experiencer is forced by the experience to question all he or she has been taught.

Descendence=Being Down

Unable to relate to the experience by using one’s (former) ordinary coping mechanisms and unable to forget the glimpse of another order of reality the EE provided, the experiencer’s sense of self begins to disintegrate. The experiencer can no longer return to "ordinary life as usual." He or she is unable to get a hold on or cope with the reality momentarily glimpsed in the exceptional experience. In a sense, as Tien points out, the experiencer must surrender "to the chaos or cosmos (order) surrounding him" (p. 35) or her. It is a rootless kind of experience in which one often feels unattached—a sense of falling—or being cut loose from all moorings.

Experience=Being Through

In this phase Tien writes: "The broken or fallen self gradually comes together again through inner work. The self passes out, passes through, and gives form to itself … [and] involves a kind of death-rebirth" (p. 36). In the process of letting go the experiencer opens up to and reaches out to new experiences and experiencers. In the course of doing so, a new sense of self is formed.

Ascendence=Being Up

Here the experiencer becomes consciously aware of a new sense of self. In the EHE model, the person finds that his or her larger self is the self we all are, which embraces everything. It comes to the rescue, via synchronicity and additional EHEs, to guide, strengthen, and assist the individual in forming the new identity.

Emergence=Being Out

The person again is active in the world but finds him- or herself coping in very different ways—ways based on the new sense of self, which is often experienced as a process involving forces both inside and outside the organism, the seen and the unseen.

Transcendence=Being Beyond

The process of going from an EE to an EHE is finished, in one sense. In another sense, one has become involved in a process that is unending. Tien writes: "This process…affords the self a new immanence or being—into everyday life and reality" (p. 36). But nothing will be again as it was before. The base of the old self has been transcended. Exceptional human experiences reveal that the base of the new self is transcendence.


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