My Uncle Michael, who died when I was 21, was a foreman for skyscraper construction. He would tell me stories about his time up on the scaffolds of buildings. Sometimes, he said, he would have to get to some part of the building quickly and so he would walk across steel beams many hundreds of feet in the air. The building was surrounded by scaffolds, networks of temporary walkways, and cables and equipment of all kinds. The scaffolding was part of how the building was constructed. When my uncle finally had kids of his own, he developed a fear of heights, but not for himself. The fear was for everyone else. He had seen people fall from scaffolds and beams and he worried that his kids might fall if they or their friends ever got close to the edge of anything. He saw buildings from the inside out and from perspectives we never get to see.
When I was initially conceiving of my book on Extraordinary Spiritual Experiences (ESEs), I imagined it to be a map-making exercise, a cartography, for clergy, therapists, and anyone seeking to integrate their weird and strange experience into their lives. There are certainly other maps and structures out there for understanding ESEs. Many of them come from the realm of psychedelic research. Now, as the psychedelic renaissance spirals up rapidly around the country and the world, new maps and scaffolds need to be created.
Meaning-making is an act of deconstruction and re-building. What gets built, or integrated, will not look like the scaffolding around it, and nor does the scaffolding necessarily tell you what is getting built. You can determine how big the structure will be. You can see some of the shapes rising up within the scaffolds the workers run up and down on. This is how I think of structures of experience – they provide a scaffold that eventually gets taken down so the building can stand on its own. Once the scaffolding is taken down, the building, the meaning, becomes clear. The structure of an ESE is also a map. It gets you to where you are going or tells you where you are so you can enjoy the territory you have traveled to. (Don’t get me started on the ridiculous saying about ‘confusing the map for the territory’…).
This week, I will lay out the four-fold structure of our scaffold/map. While every ESE is unique, there are elements or aspects within the structure of the experience that can provide pathways to meaning-making for us. How we understand our wild experiences very much determines how we perceive the experience itself. Meaning-making is an interpretive maneuver, one we cannot avoid. But before we make meaning, we must first have the experience for which we are making meaning. That means staying with the experience itself and mining it for the meaning the experience is trying to communicate to us. Most of us want to jump ahead and apply a dogma or a belief or a predetermined idea to the experience. To simply stay in the presence of the experience itself means we attune ourselves to the weird and the strange. We are ‘weirded’ and ‘stranged’ by the ESE, both in the experience of it and the hearing of it from others. We need to develop a taste for staying in one place before moving on to what we want the ESE to be.
We are ‘weirded’ and ‘stranged’ by the ESE, both in the experience of it and the hearing of it from others. We need to develop a taste for staying in one place before moving on to what we want the ESE to be.
ESEs are slippery. Our modern rational mind wants to find solutions, explanations, but the gears never quite catch. Wait, you saw what? I am sorry, say that again…there was a mist and you walked in and an hour later you were 100 miles away? Two things occupied the same space? You were in two places at once? Each aspect of an ESE can have multiple levels and those levels can lead us down various pathways, or ‘reality tunnels’ as Dr. Timothy Leary used to call them. As we discussed a couple weeks ago, structure is important as we consider ESEs.
The four aspects of an ESE are:
- Set and Setting
- and Disclosure
SET AND SETTING – The Where and When of an ESE
Each of the names for these aspects come from specific places. Set and Setting is from the world of psychedelics. From the very early days of research into psychedelics, particularly LSD, it became clear that controlling the set and setting of a psychedelic journey can have a tremendous impact on the outcome of the experience. “Set” refers to the mindset of the individual having the experience. “Setting” refers to the environment the individual is in when the experience is occurring. A calm mindset and a comfortable, attractive setting can drastically alter the experience of a psychedelic. A troubled mind and a difficult setting can make the experience really hard really quickly.
The idea of Set and Setting can help with understanding an ESE. When we are seeking to make meaning of an ESE, we can begin here, with Set and Setting. This begins with simple questions. Where were you? What were you feeling when the experience was beginning? What was your state of mind before the ESE started? How did the environment you were in make you feel? Without understanding the Set and Setting of an ESE, we limit significantly the amount of knowledge we have about the experience.
While my doctorate was on ESEs, the program through which I received my degree at Portland Seminary is called ‘Semiotics, Church, and Culture’. Semiotics is the study of signs and symbols and understanding how they work within cultures. When we speak of Set and Setting, we need to understand the symbolic elements that are present. The exploration of ESEs, the weird, and the strange is primarily an exercise in semiotics. Places and experiences become signifiers of things beyond and underneath. Place names can echo and resonate with deeper meanings that in turn provide depth and meaning to the ESE. Mindsets, the Set part of Set and Setting, also are influenced by signs and symbols, or are themselves a symbolic element when an ESE is occurring. This is all to say that the accumulation of understanding at this level includes the symbolic and the signified, as much as the physical, named, and perceived elements.
When we speak of Set and Setting, we need to understand the symbolic elements that are present. The exploration of ESEs, the weird, and the strange is primarily an exercise in semiotics.
It is likely there are multiple Sets and Settings in an ESE. Many ESEs take people to other places, other environments, even if they do not leave the literal environment where the experience is occurring. Mindspaces, other perceived dimensions and realities, feeling spaces – all of these add other levels to where the experience itself began and those levels have their own symbolic and signifying aspects that demand exploration.
APPEARANCE – The Who or What of an ESE
When I was studying for my Master of Arts in Religious Studies, I did an independent study of appearances of the Virgin Mary around the world and throughout history. This study took place while the Bosnia-Herzegovina War was happening in the early 1990s. Medjugorje is in a valley that is at the intersection of Bosnia and Herzegovina. There, six children were said to be receiving messages from Mother Mary. The appearances started in 1981 and switched between the children. Often, the appearances would present a world on fire. While the prophecy was understood to be global, it certainly became a reality for the locale during the war in the early 1990s. This aspect of ESEs is named Appearance to recognize the power and influence of what is showing up during the experience.
The aspect of Appearance refers to whatever and whoever is showing up for the experiencer of the ESE. Beings, entities, new worlds, transportation devices, morphing objects, shifting landscapes – whatever it may be is what we mean here. Often in an ESE, there may be many things or beings showing up rapidly or all at once. Confusion and the feeling of dislocation or displacement is common. Eventually, though, something or someone captures our attention. What is it? Who is it? What do they look like? What does it make you feel? Is there symbolic, historic, literary, or cultural references that contribute to the meaning-making process?
The aspect of Appearance refers to whatever and whoever is showing up for the experiencer of the ESE.
As with Set and Setting, there might be more than one Appearance. Each one may have a different meaning or resonance for us. This aspect is really about the description as much as the name we place upon the thing or person or sense feeling showing up. The more descriptive we can be, the more information is available for when we are trying to make meaning of the ESE.
REVELATION – The Why of an ESE
What makes an ESE particularly meaningful and powerful is the message(s) that is carried within the experience. For some, the message may be relatively simple. In Michael Pollan’s book, How To Change Your Mind, Pollan tells the story of a participant in a smoking cessation study with psychedelics. The subject, under a high dose of psilocybin (the psychoactive part of ‘magic mushrooms’), has the experience of breathing in clean air and what it feels like in his lungs. He came away from the experience wondering why he would ever want anything else than that feeling in his lungs. The Revelation from the experience ended his smoking habit then and there.
Revelation, in this aspect of an ESE, is when the entity, event, or encounter shows or tells the experiencer what is going on and who or what is being encountered, sometimes followed by instructions going forward. The Revelation is often the unveiling of the purpose, or the command, or the identity of the ESE. Sometimes, the Revelation is with words. Sometimes, the Revelation is with signs and symbols. Words may make the Revelation more clarified, but signs and symbols often make revelations more complex and clouded.
The Revelation is often the unveiling of the purpose, or the command, or the identity of the ESE. Sometimes, the Revelation is with words. Sometimes, the Revelation is with signs and symbols.
Until something is communicated and revealed in some way, there is generally very little information about who or what is being encountered in an ESE. One could say the Revelation is in the appearance itself, but that leaves empty spaces that we will fill with our own meanings.
How does one communicate the meaning of the appearance if there are no words or symbols to pass on to others? If there is no revelation, how do we know why the event is happening at all?
Without the message, without the Revelation, we fill in the gaps within the ESE.
We are pattern-forming and pattern-seeking creatures, and it is within the patterns that we find meaning. Without a discernible reason for the being or situation showing up in our ESE, we are left to make up the reasons why on our own.
DISCLOSURE – The Meaning-Making of an ESE
As the pandemic that began in March of 2020 deepened and the ‘global weirding’ was well entrenched, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence released an incredible document entitled “Preliminary Assessment: Unidentified Aerial Phenomenon”. The document discloses numerous documented sightings of UAPS (the name change is deliberate, but we all know they mean UFOs) by pilots and radar personnel over the course of the last 20 years. Significant and unexplained phenomena were seen, objects which often defied our present scientific understanding in terms of how they moved through the skies.
This event heralded a long anticipated moment in UFO circles, which they have called The Disclosure for many decades. The ODNI document in many ways affirmed sightings going back to the early 1950s, and provided external proof, previously denied and obfuscated by the military and government, to many experiencers in the UFO subculture. Many of those UFO experiences qualify as ESEs.
The release of the document did not create a huge upsurge in the general culture, however. I think this is because the release of the document was timed to coincide with the height of the single weirdest event (so far – we are just getting started…) in modern human history – a global pandemic which everyone everywhere had full access to, fueled by moment by moment through social media and the internet.
For us, Disclosure refers to the act of meaning-making of the ESE itself. Making meaning of an ESE is often a long-term effort. The extraordinariness of the experience, in conjunction with the weirdness of the ESE, does not lend itself to quick interpretations, particularly when we keep the ESE to ourselves. Kept to oneself, the meaning-making is limited to our own reflection and self-awareness, which can only get us so far.
This is because ESEs are, finally, communal. Full meaning cannot be made until the ESE is shared with others. How we tell the story of our ESE influences our prior or present experience of the ESE itself and reinforces or deconstructs how the ESE is understood. This process is often called ‘integration’.
The Disclosure, then, is the open-ended process that seeks meaning across time and place. Meaning-making is fluid, slippery, and subject to revision over time and across personal and cultural boundaries. While meaning-making requires community, that community may have layered definitions. These layers may include a close community of like-minded, committed people, as in a church or a circle of friends. It may include an academic community where ideas and experiments are tossed back and forth and analyzed for depth and understanding, as in a research lab. The community may stretch across time and place by way of books and writings about the subject, or today, YouTube videos and social media. This seeking of meaning across multiple channels is a primary part of an ESE. The structure of an ESE demands meaning be made of the experience by way of disclosure to a community of interest.
The Disclosure, then, is the open-ended process that seeks meaning across time and place. Meaning-making is fluid, slippery, and subject to revision over time and across personal and cultural boundaries.
The Shifting Spheres of Engagement
Each of the elements of an ESE – Set and Setting, Appearance, Revelation, and Disclosure – can be imagined as quadrants of a sphere. One does not have primacy over the other, and nor is this structure meant to suggest a staged process from one part to the next. An ESE often does follow these aspects as unfolding stages, but it doesn’t have to. In the discreet story of an ESE some or all of these aspects will be present, in the same way a map will show some or all of the aspects of a landscape, depending on the experience and the interpretive lens we bring to the ESE.
It is important to understand that some ESEs do not include all these aspects. Some ESEs stall out at the aspect of Set and Setting or Appearance. Meaning-making in these types of ESEs becomes much more difficult. For the person who is helping someone understand what has happened in their ESE, staying aware of how the empty space is being filled in by one’s own desires, background, and impressions is of great importance.
Sometimes, there is no meaning to be made and the experiencer is left with a constant, aching, unending sense of things left out, a creeping incompleteness.
The weird does not always wish to be understood or interpreted.
But we will seek understanding and interpretation anyway.
In the coming weeks, I will try to expand on each of these aspects and show how they highlight and help us understand the ESE experience.
Peace to all, especially if you are celebrating Easter or Passover this week!
Rev. Dr. Seth Jones