In early September, I had the honour of delivering a presentation to the British Psychological Society’s (CEP) Annual Conference in London. The conference was held at the beautiful Regents University in Regent’s Park; a wonderful setting for two days of inspirational learning, sharing of ideas and connecting with others.
This year’s annual conference addressed the cutting-edge topic of Exceptional Experiences and involved an exploration of many fascinating topics such as the paranormal, mystical experiences, psychedelic drug induced experiences, altered states of consciousness, spontaneous exceptional experiences and the implications for our understanding of consciousness. Should you be interested in more detail, you can follow the link here to an e-copy of the full conference programme. It illustrates the specific topics that were covered, together with a detailed abstract for each presentation, and identifies the speakers.
Conference speakers flew in from Europe and the USA, with the majority being UK-based. My presentation drew on specific case studies from my own research data base and was titled, Specific cases of near-death and transient-death experiences™ that question the current view of consciousness and highlight their transformative impact (see page 21 in the conference programme). As my previous blogs have outlined, the term transient-death experience is a term I have constructed to refer specifically to the profound experiences of those who were clinically dead at the time of their experience. I also designed a poster for one-on-one discussion titled, An exploration of commonalities across different types of exceptional human experience suggests a different view of reality (see page 27 in the conference programme). The response to my endeavours has been very uplifting, and the degree of interest and research in the field of exceptional experiences is clearly substantive, significant and growing.
So, what is the significance of this increased interest, this substantial research, this growth? Although there are many important answers to this question, I have chosen to focus on three main benefits, as I see them.
Firstly, it highlights that exceptional experiences are far more prevalent than one might expect. In highlighting the frequency of exceptional experiences, and creating a heightened awareness of them, research is, in fact, illustrating just how natural and normal they are. Millions of people, across the globe, have had an exceptional experience of one form or another. These experiences are now being taken increasingly seriously and, as such, more attention is being paid to experiences that have previously been dismissed as anomalous and/or of little significance, and disregarded. This is empowering people to speak out about their exceptional experiences, to share them with open-minded individuals without fear and, in the process, to fully acknowledge, accept, process and integrate what is, more often than not, a profound personal experience.
This observation is an integral part of the second benefit which is that of context. In the past, many people have been unwilling to disclose an experience of this nature for fear of the experience being misunderstood, dismissed as an aberration, or pathologised. Indeed, and on reflection, how many of us have ourselves chosen to disregard certain personal ‘odd’ experiences, such as ‘knowing’ that a certain person is about to call you, and they do; or a sense that something is wrong with one of your children, and there is? These experiences are exceptional in their own right. If the general response, however, is for us to dismiss these ‘odd’ experiences, consider how challenging it is for someone to share, or come to terms with, a near-death experience. Consider the risk they take sharing one of the most profound, deeply meaningful and transformative life events with others when the response may be potentially unhelpful or, at worst, destructive. Many of my clients, some of whom may, for example, have experienced accurate, predictive dreams or felt the presence of a deceased loved one, suggest that they chose not to share their experience with anyone else at the time. Furthermore, their subsequent response to such an experience is often to attempt to suppress further experiences and to shut them down. In some instances, this response is linked to fear, a fear of these experiences. In many cases, however, it occurs because such experiences were, and still are, regarded as taboo, strange and, quite simply, may lead to the suggestion that the experiencer ‘needs help,’ sometimes in the form of medication.
Bringing exceptional experiences into the foreground, however, is creating a different context within which these experiences can be explored and discussed. This is a context which recognises that these experiences occur, that they are a natural part of being human, and that they are meaningful to those who have them. Furthermore, this is a context that recognises the validity of these experiences, creates an environment in which the experiencer can come to terms with their experience, helps the experiencer to integrate the experience and its impact and, when necessary, to move through a supported healing process. This is the healing power of acknowledging the reality of exceptional experiences, embracing them as a valid part of our humanity, and allowing a context within which the experiencer can find meaning and value in that experience. Beyond this, this healing potential also underpins, and is further expanded by, the renewed research into drug-induced exceptional experiences; which leads me to the third benefit, namely the healing potential of psychedelics.
This third and significant benefit of increased interest and research relates to an understanding of the use of specific psychedelic drugs as a treatment for, by way of example, anxiety and depression, and as a facilitator of therapeutic transformation. These hallucinogenic substances include, amongst others, psilocybin, ayahuasca and dimethyltryptamine (DMT), as well as LSD. Active research into hallucinogenic treatment was discontinued in the 1970s, despite some of the promising results that were being achieved. In one particular research and intervention undertaking, for example, hallucinogenic drugs were administered to individuals suffering from advanced, terminal cancer. These individuals exhibited a significant improvement in mood and anxiety regulation, in the capacity to find meaning in life, and in the ability to connect to other people in the time they had left. Some of them also had a strong mystical or psycho-spiritual experience resulting in a decreased fear of death, less psychological distress and reduced physical pain. Unfortunately, cultural and political issues at the time ended research into, and interventions of, this nature. Now, however, there is renewed interest in the healing potential of psychedelic drugs when administered correctly, and by professionals, offering promise to many.
Recent research affirms, for example, that therapy with psilocybin is largely well tolerated by those with advanced illnesses who are facing the end of their life. The duration of the intervention required for significant results is short, and the process is inexpensive. Psilocybin has few reported side-effects (and those that may emerge can be managed) and has no known tissue toxicity. Patients to whom psilocybin has been administered describe experiencing clarity, an expanded worldview or context, and a sense of having a future. Anxiety and depression are alleviated, and some report a long-lasting sense of well-being. This treatment is associated with more confidence in the future, a feeling of peace, gratitude for life, forgiveness of self and others, and reduced fear, all within the context of knowing that physical death is imminent or inevitable. Clearly the potential for alleviating suffering among the dying through a treatment regimen that includes psychedelics, administered under optimal and controlled conditions, is significant.
The increasing awareness of exceptional experiences, and their impact, together with the scientific research being conducted across differing types of exceptional experience, are paving the way for greater psychological health, improved intervention and treatment for those in need, and increased well-being. Exceptional experiences are providing an expanded understanding of what it is to be human and can bring heightened meaning and value into one’s life. At a deeper level, this research momentum is also providing greater insights into the ongoing mystery of consciousness and its true nature; and this, of course, is associated with one of humankind’s most profound and complex questions – who am I?
Dr Elaine L Finkelstein is a registered clinical psychologist and a registered occupational psychologist. She is a chartered psychologist (UK) and an associate fellow of the British Psychological Society. Elaine is also the founder of the Transformative End-of-Life Experiences Research Foundation.
The author of this blog is not dispensing medical or psychological advice, or prescribing the use of any technique as a form of treatment for physical, medical or psychological problems. The advice of an independent physician or mental health professional, either directly or indirectly is required for this. The intent of the author is only to offer information of a general nature to help you in your quest for emotional and spiritual well-being. In the event that you use any of the information in this blog for yourself, which is your right, the author assumes no responsibility for your actions.
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