There are three good reasons for feeling this way. First, these experiences go against the tenets of science and the testimony of our own senses. Second, even if they are as they appear to be, they are so unusual (some would say paranormal) that they are best forgotten, and certainly, it is best not to mention them to anyone else. Third, they are considered by laypeople and most scientists who study them to be analogous to past events. In investigating them, emphasis is placed on determining exactly what happened and what may have caused the experience just as, say, one would observe an airplane crash and its possible physical determinants. They are seen as rooted to a particular time and place, and if one is lucky, these one-time events are not repeated.
However, a new conception of these exceptional experiences is developing. It is a more dynamic conception, one that views them as experiences that can influence experients throughout their lives. In this view, instead of being an end, they are seen as beginnings, as seeds. In a world in which people lack meaning, a sense of connection, and contact with the sacred, these experiences can serve as seeds of new growth which can, if honored and attended to, lead to a sense of connection with others and with life, to a sense of meaning, wonder, and delight.
In order for this to happen, we must weave our exceptional experiences into the fabric of our lives; and we must give these special experiences their full due. As each seed begins to sprout, we must provide it with the conditions of growth, including making time for it in our lives and space for it in our very selves. We must let it flow over into our outer lives and circumstances, even as a seedling finds a crack in a concrete sidewalk. For, in essence, these experiences can form the foundation for a connected, directed, creative sense of self, one no longer simply identified with one's organism, yet a self that is more deeply rooted in that organism than ever before.
Psychologist Edward Hoffman (1992), in Visions of Innocence, published accounts of childhood exceptional experiences, many of which served as lifelong sources of strength, guidance, and insight for the experiencers. One of the experiences reported was that of a retired office worker, whose dream when she was 13 years old epitomizes my conception of an EHE autobiography. She writes:
I'm holding a beautiful piece of fine fabric in my hands. As I fully admire it, slowly it's turned over so that I can now see its underside, which is incredibly more beautiful than the visible portion.
When I awoke I had a very warm and secure feeling, and I never forgot this dream. I don't think I really discussed it much with others, though. It seemed too private. Eventually I came to understand that the top side of the fabric represented my life as it would seem externally, or most superficially. The underside of the fabric represented God's hidden workings." (p. 170)
Applied to exceptional experiences, one could say that the outer fabric, beautiful though it may be, represents our outer lives—what we do that in principle any one can ascertain and objectively verify. The underside, however, is that which often not even we imagine is there. Yet this hidden side is even more vivid and beautiful. To me, the underside represents our inner lives, especially our exceptional experiences. Perhaps because it cannot be objectively verified, this inner side, unconstrained as it is by space and time, is free to shift, move anywhere, and eventually take on the properties of who we are. In writing an EHE autobiography, one concentrates on this inner/under side.
Although our exceptional human experiences (EHEs) may provide us with the kernel of a new story for our lives, which if developed would enrich us beyond any possible conception we might have beforehand, this cannot happen unless we cooperate. We need to gather our exceptional experiences to us, lovingly describe them in minute detail, and ponder them, go over them, try to discern what they are telling us about ourselves and about the world we live in. The best way to do that is to write one's EHE autobiography.
Writing an EHE autobiography is a very specific exercise in which, just as in the office worker's dream, you reverse the fabric of your life and describe the strands of color that highlight the inside, as opposed to the usual way of telling our lives by describing the objectively verifiable events of our lives: where we were born, to whom, our siblings and peers, what schools we attended, what jobs we held, what countries or states we visited, our recreational activities, awards and honors, significant possessions/acquisitions, and the significant others in our life.
This last may be a good place to begin trying first to recall and then to describe one's inner peaks, for a close friendship or love relationship or important collegial relationship almost always incorporates exceptional experiences. For one, our significant others light up our lives. They warm our insides, sometimes at very exceptional moments. Limerance, or the experience of falling in love, is an exceptional experience in itself. Even the outer world seems brighter and more inclined to favor one with benevolent synchronicities and fortunate coincidences, and with mystical feelings of oneness, not only with one's lover, but with the universe, and beyond that, with the sacred.
As you go back in your life to the earliest days you can remember, try to recall any strange experiences or encounters you had, or important unusual feelings that you decided not to tell anybody, or that if you did tell somebody, you were reprimanded. Try to bring those experiences back and describe them in your EHE autobiography. Do the same as in memory you move forward through your life from the earliest recollections to the present.
Try to remember dreams that somehow you still recall snatches of from time to time. Write down as much about them as you can.
Try to remember visions or daydreams or imaginings of a different life for yourself or a different self. An exceptional experience may be associated with some of these envisionings.
If you aren't sure of what the types of exceptional human experience are, you may contact the Exceptional Human Experience Network for a classified list. Make the effort to obtain this list, which is available for $1 ($2 if outside the U.S.) Doing so is a sign that you are in earnest about your EHE autobiography. Then go through it several times, checking those experiences you yourself have had. Then describe them in your EHE autobiography.
After you have made a written record of your exceptional experiences, reread the account at least once a day for a week. Add any new experiences that come to mind. As you reread it, try to see connections between your experiences—look for similarities and differences. Most importantly, try to discern those experiences that still cause you to skip a heart beat, still warm your toes, still raise goose pimples, still fill you with fear or a sense of awe.
These are the experiences you should go back to, writing down what message you think they bring you about your life today and in the near future. Do they suggest you should change your life in some way? If so, how? Do they suggest you have capabilities beyond those you generally identify with? If so, what? Do they suggest the world is both more open and more connected than you were taught to believe? If so, in what ways? Do they give rise to very powerful feelings, positive or negative? If so, describe them. Write all these details in a revised version of your EHE autobiography.
In the final stage, reread what you have written every day for another week. Try to discern whether you feel about yourself and your life in a new way as a result of having written your EHE autobiography. If the answer is yes, add a new section describing in what ways. For example, if you feel more connected, then describe all the things you feel more connected to. If you feel you have abilities you had not developed or never even imagined, write about them.
When you think you have completed your EHE autobiography, put it aside for another week. As you do so, open your mind to the possibility that during the coming week some relevant insights or recollections may come to you of which you are not yet aware. Then go about your business for a week.
Once more, get out your EHE autobiography and read it through slowly, remembering and cherishing the experiences and insights described. Then add any new memories, insights, or connections that may come to you. This time read it as if it were a kind of blueprint for your life. Certain portions may be filled with details that you feel warmed by recalling. Don't let these portions slip back into the past, into your memory bank where you seldom think of them. Think of ways you can build on them in your outer life. Other portions will be quite sketchy. Try to think of ways in which you can flesh them out and give them life. If you are haunted by a vague recollection that you were once in two places at once (for example), then think what that may mean. Even though it was so vague and shadowy that up until now you have always dismissed it as a dream fragment or an imaginary figment, feed it a bit. What difference might it make to your life if it were true? Maybe you should go to the library to find out more about such experiences. If you can't locate any information, don't be shy about consulting a librarian. You can always contact the Exceptional Human Experience Network for specific articles and books, which you can ask your library to obtain for you.
Now add a final section to your EHE autobiography. Write about how you plan to incorporate these experiences in your present life and in the future. If you don't know how you can do it, ask or pray for help and insight, promising to follow up on any lead no matter how crazy or scary it may appear at first sight.
I would like to receive a copy of your EHE autobiography. When you send it, please add a note indicating whether or not you found the exercise of writing your EHE autobiography worthwhile. If the answer is yes, please explain why and in what ways it has helped you.
To those who would ask what value is to be gained in contemplating one's own life in such an impractical way, I would answer: We need a new story to make sense of who we are as human beings and why we are here. The story of mechanistic, behavioristic science has resulted in anomie, loss of meaning and connection, boredom, and the need for ever more violent "kicks" and dangerous "highs." There is a dangerous lack of reverence toward other humans, life forms, and life itself. Perhaps the most practical thing we can do is write a better story. To do so, one must begin with oneself and write a new story, weaving in not what parents and siblings and friends and intimate others have said about us, but what that still small voice within whispers to us. Write about those exceptional experiences that came to you to take you out of your ordinary rut, tempting you to claim your birthright, to exercise your uniqueness, and in so doing, find your common humanity and your connection to all life. You will find yourself living in a new and wonderful world, and it is where you are now.
Hoffman, E. (1992). Visions of Innocence. Boston: Shambhala.
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Rhea A. White, Director
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