While she was driving her ’36 Ford truck on a country road on the outskirts of Syracuse, New York, coming home from a sorority dance, a dense blizzard enshrouded the vehicle as it inched along route 11. White and her passenger, her friend Stu, could barely make out the dozens of cars stranded on the shoulder of the icy road as they tried to negotiate a steep hill. After numerous attempts to make it over the summit, White switched places with Stu, who wanted to give it a try.
He had managed to nudge the car to the top of the hill and creep on at about 15 miles an hour when a coal truck suddenly hurled out of the cottony blizzard and slammed, broadside, into White’s truck. The impact broke Stuís neck and killed him instantly. White catapulted through the windshield.
In the instant after the collision, White found herself floating high above the wreck. “While I was out of my body, I had this conviction: This is what it’s like to die. So I just lay back, because what else can you do if you are dying?” she says. then a voice in her mind assured her that nothing that lived could possibly die. She recalls feeling a sense of stillness, peace, wonder, and “pure aliveness.” Only later did she learn that these sensations are the hallmarks of a near-death experience.
White suffered 11 fractures in her shoulder, pelvis, and ribs, and in April her doctor declared that her injuries were so serious that she would never play golf again. Still, to everyone’s surprise, she healed quickly and by July of that same year was not only playing the sport but had reached the quarter-finals of the women’s state championship.
Yet her heart was no longer in the game. She soon gave up competitive golf to focus on her preoccupation with her near-death experience, replaying it again and again in her mind. “I knew something major had happened to me, but I couldn’t make sense of it,” she muses. She became a permanent fixture at the college library, poring over books on psychology, psychiatry, religion, and mysticism to find an explanation for what she had experienced. That search has been central to her life in the 45 years since.
White, who prior to the accident had studied English, launched a dual career as a research librarian and a parapsychologist. By 1954, two years after the fateful crash, she’d joined the staff of Duke University’s famed parapsychology lab, under the direction of its founder J.B. Rhine. She later received a master’s in library science and went on to work as a librarian and researcher for the American Society for Psychical Research in New York City, The Menninger Foundation in Topeka, Kansas, and the Department of Psychiatry at Maimonides Medical Center in Brooklyn, New York.
White started using the term exceptional experiences (EEs) to label phenomena ranging from encounters with ghosts or angels to acute feelings of nostalgia, transcendent experiences related to sports or periods of creativity, auras, channeling, ESP, precognitive dreams, out-of-body experiences, deja vu, synchronicity, and intuition. Soon she made a further distinction: Some paranormal experiences profoundly changed people’s lives. She then created a subcategory called exceptional human experiences (EHEs) to refer to exceptional experiences that transform the lives of those who encounter them.
Theoretical physicist, Fritjof Capra,in the preface to his 1975 book, The Tao of Physics, describes an exceptional human experience that occurred when he was sitting next to the ocean, says White. “Suddenly he felt that the entire environment was involved in a cosmic dance,” she explains. “He was able to ‘see’ energy cascading to Earth from outer space. He could even fell his body cells participating in the dance. He was experiencing what he knew intellectually from his work in physics,” she says. Out of this and subsequent experiences, a consistent worldview emerged that joined both Eastern mysticism and quantum physics.
In 1994 and 1995, White established the Exceptional Human Experience Network (EHE Network), a nonprofit group devoted to studying life-transforming exceptional experiences. One of the Network’s “raison d’etre” is to provide a safe environment for people to study, share, and explore their paranormal experiences instead of ignoring or discounting them, a typical response in our culture.
The EHE Network encourages the formation of support groups in the United States and worldwide and helps keep both researchers and laypeople informed. The organization also makes the EHENET database and other sources of information available and provides membership information, some of the organizationís publications, reading lists, a breakdown of 150 types of exceptional experiences, and soon to come, the EHE of the Week.
“I’m a connector,” says White. “My purpose is to connect subjective and objective, individual and cosmos, experiential and objectively verifiable, mystics and scientists, East and West, male and female, in as many ways as I can through the concept of exceptional human experiences.”
In the three years since she founded the Exceptional Human Experiences Network, the organization has already attracted 250 members in 20 countries. Headquarters is in her contemporary suburban home in New Bern, North Carolina, where almost every room is lined with bookcases and even her bedroom looks more like an office than sleeping quarters.
From this command center, patrolled by her four cats, White continually expands the organization’s databases and puts out the network’s numerous publications:
Exceptional Human Experiences — a semiannual journal of articles and abstracts about exceptional transformative experiences; EHE News, a semiannual newsletter geared to a general audience, and 42 pamphlets on topics ranging form EHE Network activities to the views of contemporary thinkers on the phenomenon of exceptional experience.
The EHE Network’s newest area of investigation is called the Exceptional Outer Space Experience Project, inspired in part by Edgar Mitchell’s report on how his flight as an Apollo 14 astronaut changed his life: “On February 9, 1971, when I went to the moon” he writes, “I was as pragmatic a test pilot, engineer and scientist as any of my colleagues. But when I saw the planet Earth floating in the vastness of space … the presence of divinity became almost palpable, and I knew that life in the universe was not just an accident based on random processes.” From that experience, Mitchell went on to establish the Institute of Noetic Sciences, a research foundation in Sausalito, California, dedicated to the study of the mind, consciousness, and the healing arts.
Says White, “I am acting on an intuitive hunch that outer space is going to be increasingly more important to human beings for spiritual, as well as technological and scientific, purposes.”
Over the years, White has established five broad categories that encompass 150 types of transformative exceptional experiences. They include:
Upper Limits Experiences. Experiences such as deja vu, lucid dreams, and synesthesia (hearing colors, seeing sounds) that are within or just beyond the limits of what Western society considers ìnormal.
Mystical Experiences. Peak experiences, flow, or what’s known in sports as being “in the zone” are not considered by many to fall within the realm of mystical experiences, along with religious phenomena such as glossolalia (talking in tongues).
Psychic Experiences. Forms of extrasensory perception, such as clairvoyance, precognition, psychokinesis, and telepathy.
Death Related Experiences. Experiences ranging from a mystical sense of immortality to channeling, near-death experiences, and a watch or clock stopping at the moment of someone’s death.
Encounter Experiences. Observing and sometimes interacting with apparitions, alien beings, cultural-specific beings such as the “Old Hag” of Nova Scotia, or even Elvis Presley. Encounters with UFOs, angels, or holy places also fall under this category.
Exceptional experiences can be shrugged off, suppressed, explained away, or kept secret by the person experiencing them, who may be frightened or afraid she or he will be viewed as strange, weird or even mentally ill by others.
Yet, according to Suzanne v. Brown, the EHE Network’s director of research and development, “In recent public polls, depending on the type of experience surveyed, 25 to 85 percent of respondents acknowledged personal experience with an ëanomalousí phenomenon,” she says. “Twenty-five to 46 percent of the population claims at least one incidence of ESP, 59 percent report transcendent experiences, and 85 percent report synchronicity.”
Most people, when they face unusual phenomena, such as near-death experiences or precognitive dreams that don’t fit their previous perceptions of reality, typically try to figure events out rationally. Some dismiss the experience and revert to more comfortable, familiar ways of viewing the world, others deny even having had an exceptional experience. Occasionally, though people who have such experiences acquire new insights, which in turn sometimes lead to more exceptional experiences.
Besides seeing exceptional human experiences as life-enhancing moments, White believes that we have the far-reaching potential to awaken our species consciousness, so that we feel united with humanity, past, present, and future. She says that this sense of unity and reverence for life can also extend to a regard for other species, as well, whether theyíre domesticated animals, frogs, snakes, spiders, or koala bears.
White also believes that exceptional experiences have marked significant turning points in history, such as scientific discoveries, inventions, and new forms of art and literature. Popular examples include Archimedes’ “Eureka!” experience of discovering how to calculate specific gravity by measuring displacement of a volume of water; Bohr’s dream of electrons that appeared to him as miniature solar systems, Kekule’s dream of a snake with its tail in its mouth that led to his discovery of the molecular structure of benzene, and Fleming’s serendipitous discovery of penicillin.
How a person responds to an exceptional experience determines the effects it will have on his or her life. “It’s important to embrace the experiences rather than try to ignore them or rationalize them,” White says. If you don’t cooperate with the experiences, she observes “they will occur only sporadically, momentarily providing a spark that can only fade if we do not tend it.” She encourages people to talk about their exceptional experiences with others who will listen openly and without criticism.
Many people are comforted and reassured when they learn that others have had similar or related experiences. If you remain open and explore the meaning of an exceptional experience, White adds, you may adopt a sort of “double vision,” whereby you accommodate both the existing worldview of traditional thought and a fresh new perspective.
Those who experience unusual phenomena often go through a period in which they have a sense of living in two different worlds, the “normal” one based on their old way of thinking and the new world revealed by their exceptional experience. Often they become more attuned to the new world than to the old.
Eventually, they become more closely oriented to what White terms the Experiential Paradigm, a “sense of self [that is] both you and all things, [where] life is experienced as a flow between inner and outer, such that you find it difficult to tell where one leaves off and the other begins. You are open to and expect the unexpected. . . You are living an evolving human path, the end of which can only be guessed, with all of life (in all its forms) stretching out behind you and the future of the universe itself before you”.
by W. Bradford Swift