Explanation March

Changed by the Unexplained: What Is An Extraordinary Spiritual Experience (ESE)?

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Last week, I talked about the value of structure when we consider what is happening in an Extraordinary Spiritual Experience (ESE). The goal in understanding that structure is to create scaffolds that allow for meaning-making of the experience. More often than not, the process of making meaning of an ESE is a long-term project, commonly called integration in the world of psychedelic therapy. There is the immediate event of the ESE, and then there is the attempt to understand the ESE after the event. But what is an ESE?

Let’s define some terms:

By “Extraordinary”, I mean an experience or event that defies normal, everyday happenings. The experience or event is beyond the ordinary, and likely beyond normal explanation. Many ESEs are ‘one-offs’ – bizarre, unrepeatable events that sound wacky and so far outside the ‘normal’ they are difficult to describe efficiently. “Extraordinary” simultaneously refers to the origin of the experience—it is from outside the person—and to the outcome of the experience—the altered behavior and approach to the world.

By “Spiritual”, I mean any experience or event that crosses over from our material existence into the realms of God (or gods, if you are so inclined), higher powers, and non-material entities and encounters. By “Spiritual”, I include experiences that involve talk of soul or souls, higher consciousness, and experiences of oneness and unity with all things. Not all ESEs are spiritual, nor are all spiritual events ESEs. “Spiritual,” for our purposes, means anything relating to, consisting of, or influencing the spirit and the supernatural, which directly or indirectly affects the soul (“Spiritual,” The Free Dictionary, https://www.thefreedictionary.com/spiritual). This definition presumes the existence of a reality that is beyond and inclusive of the material, observable world we appear to occupy.

By “Experience”, I mean the narrative of a particular event. There is a beginning, middle, and end. While the narrative may not be coherent in terms of story-telling, the event itself is enclosed. Any number of things happen to an individual during a day. Those events which rise to the level of awareness are “experienced.” Those events which have staying power, which are etched into our memories, rise to the level of “an experience.” An experience can generally be recalled and remembered, and more so, an ESE can be recalled throughout one’s life, in exceptional detail, often even repeating or reliving the ESE for the experiencer upon remembrance.

Putting all these together, ESEs are dynamic, profound events which reorient our awareness, spirituality, and perception. They are beyond the ordinary, pressing us to the very edges of understanding and comprehension, often defying our ability to put language to the event. An ESE circumnavigates a contoured and shifting landscape of the strange, unusual, and weird. An ESE will likely change a person, altering perception and understanding of self and world; there is pre-ESE person, and then a post-ESE person. My interest is in ESEs that change people. 

Very often, an ESE will alter a person’s understanding of the world and the needs of the world. A visit by Mary, the mother of Jesus, will turn a person toward a life of faith. An abduction by a UFO will change a person into an advocate of conservation and protecting the earth from human pollution and destruction. An encounter with a person long dead will bring a person into a knowing that individual consciousness survives death. 

Many of the mystics in the religious traditions only had one, maybe two, ESEs in their lives. Then they spent the rest of their lives trying to interpret and understand what had happened to them. Even if other ESEs occurred, they would often refer that experience back to the original ESE. A great example of this way of thinking about ESEs is Julian of Norwich, who authored the book Revelations of Divine Love. The book is a personal recounting and analysis of her ESE, which lasted several hours as she lay dying from what was likely the Black Death when she was in her late teens. Revelations was written and rewritten several times during Julian’s life. She makes it clear that every experience she had since the initial ESE was built on that first ESE. 

On the other hand, an ESE often opens a person up in physical, mental, and spiritual ways and makes one more available to future ESEs. Think, for instance, of people who have been struck by lightning and survived. It appears, at least anecdotally, that this makes you a target to be struck again as well. The record seems to be a man who was struck 11 times (10 People Who Have Been Struck By Lightning Multiple Times – Listverse). Once one ESE has happened, a person is primed for more ESEs. 

St. Francis of Assisi had a profound ESE as he also lay sick in bed. This led him to a larger ESE at the Church of San Damiano. Many other ESEs followed. St. Francis himself often referred to the San Damiano experience, however, as his primary experience. It bears mentioning here that St. Francis also experienced what is known as ‘stigmata’ toward the end of his life, which are the wounds of Christ born on the body. A high order ESE, to be sure. However, St. Francis struggled mightily to make sense of why he had the stigmata and its meaning. He died soon after receiving the stigmata, from pain and probably infection.

ESEs often shift our understanding of the nature of reality itself. They restructure our understanding of how the spiritual impacts the material world. Sometimes, an ESE will flip everything upside down. We live now, for instance, in a world that prioritizes and believes that the spiritual is completely dependent on the material. The spiritual, being an aspect of conscious awareness, is spoken of sometimes as an epiphenomenon, an experience that is a result of a material process, based on how the brain is putting perception together. We are the producers of all that we feel and experience, and it is the result of the brain, which produces what we call ‘mind’, or ‘I’, or ‘the world’. 

This perspective often flips upside down after an ESE. The material becomes dependent on the spiritual. Bodies, earth, experience, and mind are understood to be different wavelengths of the spiritual manifesting itself in different ways. Once the flip takes place (see The Flip by Jeffrey Kripal. I am taking some liberties with what Kripal means here) we have to reorient how we perceive what is happening in the world. Aldous Huxley called the human brain a “reducing valve” as it can diminish our conscious awareness of the depths of the universe and spiritual realities. An ESE opens the valve and new information pours in. Huxley says,

…each one of us is potentially Mind at Large (Huxley’s phrase for the primary constructing force that generates reality). But insofar as we are animals, our business is at all costs to survive. To make biological survival possible, Mind at Large has to be funneled through the reducing valve of the brain and nervous system. What comes out at the other end is a measly trickle of the kind of consciousness which will help us to stay alive on the surface of this particular planet.

(Aldous Huxley, Delphi Complete Works of Aldous Huxley (Illustrated), East Sussex, United Kingdom: Delphi Publishing, 2018), Kindle)

I know I said last week, we would look at the structure of an ESE this week, but I realized we need to define some terms first and I need to let you know what I mean by an ESE. Next week, I will describe the structure of an ESE for you. 

Thank you for reading! Comment below!

Grace and peace to all of you preparing for Holy Week and Passover this coming week!

Rev. Dr. Seth Jones

The Psychedelic Pastor

4 thoughts on “Changed by the Unexplained: What Is An Extraordinary Spiritual Experience (ESE)?”

  1. I continue to be amazed by your ability to articulate what, for me, can never adequately described much less explained. The classification of these experience as “spiritual” and potentially “soul-altering” is a wonderful way to contextualize it. Thank you, Seth,

    1. Well said, Rachel! The conversational style of Psychedelic Pastor’s writing invites possibility for academic boundaries that so often surround definitions to become porous and accessible. In the expansion of this invitation, Rev. Dr. Seth Jones allows the reader to be wholly present amidst the constellation of their experience because of the firm foundation he provides in his clear and care-filled writing.

      It is good to sit at the table with you and all.

  2. Hello, All–

    Just discovering this site after a visit to Seth’s comment on the Parliament of World Religions, which I sought out when learning last fall of the panel discussion on “Sacramental Plants and Fungi…” I also agree with Rachel; Seth puts into words that which is often ineffable. (Like God, no?!) I appreciate it and will be back.

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