The Day I Visited Noetic Science
May 31, 2000
Yesterday morning I came out of the chrysalis and began editing stories for my book.
I decided to take a break and went out to my butterfly garden. There were three gulf fritillaries flying around and I offered them my finger.
Two came very close checking me out and hovering within inches of my finger. I have never had a fritillary land on me before and thought this would be the day. They didn't, but before I could be disappointed two other butterflies landed on me all within a few moments. They were skippers, a somewhat difficult butterfly to interact with as they are very flighty.
I went inside and turned around to find that one of them followed me inside and was sitting on the window. I offered it my finger and it hopped on. I took it out on the patio and it just stayed with me, even as I brought it close to
my eyes so we could get a good look at one another. I then placed my finger next to my nose and it hopped on instead of just flying away. I called to my friend who arrived just in time to see the butterfly still perched on my nose
before it flew off. Something told me this would be a great day!
I had an appointment at the Institute of Noetic Science which I had been eagerly awaiting for almost two years. My appointment was with Nola Lewis who is a projects and research coordinator. I showed her a book by Norie Huddle
called Butterfly. I began talking about the imaginal cells theory that Norie discusses. She was the first author to write about this as a metaphor for transformation. When Nola flicked open the book she had opened it up to the page on the imaginal cells.
She gave me a copy of IONS. When I got home I found the article What the Butterfly Knows and Wired for Wings which had the story of the imaginal cells.
Now that is Synchronicity!
What the Butterfly Knows
IONS - Issue 52, June - August 2000
When the Institute of Noetic Science - IONS - put out a call for "stories of transformation" unexpected life-changing events with a spiritual twist the responses came flooding in. Author and IONS editor Keith Thompson retells
some of these tales and explores their deeper implications.
“What the caterpillar calls the end of the world the rest of the world calls butterfly.” - Richard Bach
Wired for Wings
Metamorphosis. The word was seldom used by participants in the IONS study.
Yet the image of being made new and profoundly different occurred throughout the stories. One participant's use of the caterpillar-butterfly analogy
points to the ambivalence that inevitably comes with knowing that some part of us” literal, metaphoric, or both” dies in order for something new to be born.
A growing caterpillar's cells, which later become the butterfly's cells, are distributed at different locations within the body of the caterpillar. Small clusters of tiny cells, called imaginal buds, embody the blueprint of the
butterfly. The caterpillar's immune system recognizes these as foreign and tries to destroy them. (You'll never get me up in one of those things, one caterpillar is rumored to have told another as they watched a monarch ascend from a
cocoon in early spring). As the buds arrive faster and begin to link up, the
caterpillar's immune system breaks down and its body begins to disintegrate.
Still, the butterfly doesn't compete with the caterpillar.
There's no battle for dominance; the butterfly is not an alien organism developing within the caterpillar. The caterpillar/butterfly is a single organism, with the same
genetic code. Through a powerful, devastating process, it is no longer a caterpillar. It is transformed and reborn as a butterfly.
People who experience being engaged with a powerful force that seems to lift them beyond themselves seldom fully understand what happens in such moments.
Nor do they find it easy to talk about the experience. Something has been annihilated. Something extraordinary has been born.
The lucky ones, like the butterfly, realize they have a limited amount of time to spread their new wings, and soar.
(Imaginal buds or cells is a concept first discussed by Norie Huddle in her book Butterfly which was written to help usher in what she calls the "Butterfly Era" of global civilization.)
What the Butterfly Knows
Once Richard Gunther left the room, it all started. While participating in a Gestalt awareness workshop at California's Esalen Institute in the early 1970s, Gunther felt a sudden urge to walk onto the adjoining balcony.
It was a dazzingly bright day, and I was facing the dramatic, rocky
Big Sur coastline, Gunther recalls. The ocean swells were gentle, seals were at play, and behind me were the coastal mountains. I was totally immersed in this peaceful scene, but then realized I wasn't simply enjoying the scenery
in the normal sense. My consciousness had shifted. I had no sensation of standing on the balcony, but was fused with all of nature. I felt totally whole, as waves of joy and a calm inner strength possessed me. There was no I” only a
we™ as I became one with all I saw. I knew in those few moments that I was living at a level of reality that I had never achieved, or even believed was possible.
Nearly three decades later, Gunther” a successful Los Angeles entrepreneur” says he continues to find the experience compelling.Likewise, questions that
came in the immediate wake of the experience are no less alive for him today.
Is this how we were designed to live, before the pure joy was civilized out of us? Is there a universal consciousness that I touched for those few minutes?
Are we really all one, and is this connectedness and wholeness the true nature of reality?
His questioning took on new urgency in 1997, when Gunther’s
twelve-year-old granddaughter was hit by a car and killed instantly. She stepped out onto the street, was gone forever” and I am devastated, Gunther wrote at the time. I
have never known such pain, for my wife and me, for Eva and the life she will never have, and for our children whose lives are shattered. Struggling to make sense of the loss of my beloved Eva, Gunther found himself perplexed by
similarities between his experience of ecstatic oneness on the deck at Big Sur” and his experience of heartbreaking loss.
After the Esalen incident, I became less competitive. I saw the world with softer eyes, and I think it made me more tolerant and open, Gunther says.
Likewise, Evas death left him with broader, more piercing
compassion for the hurting world in which we live” the dying babies in Rwanda, the starving children in North Korea, the grinding poverty in Bangladesh. Yet it was what
seemed to him a metaphysical semblance between the two dissimilar experiences that
pushed Gunthers curiosity to new depths.
On the one hand, his moments of rapture on the California coast had left him with a visceral sense that the world is far more complex, subtle, and mystical than I had ever imagined. In the aftermath of Evas death, Gunther had an
equally organic sense that he could sometimes feel her energy. At times he tries to absorb her energy into my body so that she will always be a
part of me: Sometimes it happens, and other times I am left with only pain.
Gunther was also left with a desire to do what he could to find out if transformative experiences of various kinds can have a lasting effecton peoples
lives. If we can examine what triggers these feelings, he
thought, and if there are common elements involved, then perhaps one day we can deliberately
activate these personal growth opportunities. That's when he called the Institute of Noetic Sciences.
Talking with Dick Gunther about the challenges of studying
extraordinary experiences raised some excitingpossibilities, recalls Marilyn Schlitz, IONS
director of research and a cultural anthropologist by training. She noted that there have been a few first-rate studies comparing ordinary and extraordinary
human functioning. For Schlitz, that was the problem: too few. She cited as pioneering works William James™ Varieties of Religious Experience, Marghanita Laskis Ecstasy, Abraham Maslows The Farther Reaches of Human
Nature, and Michael Murphys The Future of the Body.
Freud introduced us to the psychopathology of everyday life, she continues. Modern psychology has left no stone unturned in documenting the myriad ways we humans fall short of what Abraham Lincoln called our better angels.
We've learned a great deal through that approach. Yet we're still largely ignorant about human capacities for self-transcendence, unitive experience, and exceptional functioning. After discussions with Gunther, Schlitz
invited interested IONS members to participate in an exploratory research project around
transformative life-changing experiences.
Isn't it time to balance the ledger by focusing more, Schlitz asks, on the kinds of experiences that so often lead us to say: ˜This is who I really am™ and ˜This is what it's all about?
The experience of many project participants suggests that mind and matter share something like a secret sympathy.
A young woman named Samvara was one of some 200 people who wrote down and sent in first-person stories of transformative experiences. She described how, at
28, she felt trapped in an abusive relationship; her reservoir of hope was low. She had no way of knowing how things were about to change” just around the bend. Literally. She and her then partner were en route to another town when a bicyclist was hit by a semi truck right in front of them. Skilled in
CPR, Samvara got out to help. Checking for a pulse, she found none.
There I was, sitting on the ground with the body of this young man still glistening with the sweat from his workout. I began to speak out loud to him: I am sorry that this accident happened to you, but you have died. Try not
to be afraid, because nothing can hurt anymore. You were riding your bike and a truck hit you. You need to let go of this world. Just then Samvara heard a voice in her head.
My name is Robert but they call me Bob, the voice said.
Astonished, Samvara spoke back. ˜I’m so sorry that you had this happen to you, Bob, just relax and let go of your body. Then Samvara broke down and cried. When she told her
boyfriend what had happened, his verdict was instantaneous: You're just hearing things. They proceeded on their out-of-town trip. When they got back several days later, Samvara went to the local newspaper office and
found out that the bicyclist's name was Robert Wojeski.
At that moment my life changed forever, Samvara says. I had
never had a belief in anything I couldn’t see. I got out of the bad relationship and made several other major changes in my life. It was a pivotal point for me. I set
out on a course of discovery, which I still travel.
Samvara’s story is remarkable in an obvious sense: It hinges on a transaction-communication between the living and the dead that mainstream science holds not to be possible. When she told her story, something powerful
happened. It changed. Not the story's details or content; Samvara's account of the facts stayed the same. What changed was the story's framework. By sharing herexperience
via the research project, her context of awkward isolation shifted to a context of shared meaning.
Sue Mehrtens of Mineola, New York, reflecting on a similar personal breakthrough, wrote: I had never heard of anyone having an experience like mine. But I have also come to believe that everyone who is˜waking up is doing so in
his or her unique way. On the night of November 25, 1983, Mehrtens had a dream. It was unlike anything I had ever experienced. There was no narrative, no action, like a typical dream. Rather, it was like a loud megaphone went
off in my bedroom: "Friends will die. Relatives will die. You will give up everything and your life will be transformed."
While still in the dream state, Mehrtens experienced an ineffable bliss.
She didn't want to leave that bliss, but found herself waking up. I shared this experience with my husband, and then promptly forgot all about it” until five days later, when I learned of the death of my friend Hazel Crafts. I told my husband of Hazels death, and he was the one who remembered my dream. He thought it was predictive, but, given my Cartesian prejudices, I pooh-poohed the idea.
In the following six weeks, Mehrtens lost another friend, two aunts,and an uncle, and her marriage disintegrated. As everything in my life began to fall away, I had to face the fact that my view of reality had been far too limited:
Clearly some dreams had to be taken seriously. What she calls voice-over dreams continued, giving her specific instructions. Over the next twelve years I left college teaching, gave up my home in Maine, left all my friends,
moved across country to the San Francisco Bay Area, set up a research business, named the business with the unintelligible name I was given in a dream,networked for work, as instructed in a dream, took clients, refused clients, moved ten times more . . . . Needless to say, many people in my family and circle of acquaintances thought I had gone bonkers.
Eventually she found a Jungian who was able to recognize the archetypal experiences I was going through, and to assure me that I was not crazy™ but was living out a mid-life crisis of rather substantial dimensions. Slowly,
living from analytical session to analytical session, I began to feel better, to stop crying so much, and to get on with life.
Looking back, she now realizes that her marriage, home, job, and professional identity were easy to give up . . . compared to the difficulty of giving up beliefs about myself, my lack of self-esteem, and what I expect from
Mehrtens chronicled her rite of passage in a book entitled Dreaming to Wake to Life (Potlatch Press).
Near the end of the IONS research project, more than a dozen teachers
of transformation” all long-term explorers of human potential” came together to reflect on the project. What patterns connected the stories of participants? What conclusions could be reached about the IONS project to guide futureresearch? At a time when fundamental worldviews, paradigms of reality, and conceptions of
human nature are being questioned and challenged, what insights could be distilled and disseminated to the growing number of people who feel reality is rapidly changing but aren't sure whether the changes are around us or inside us,
The agenda was a bold one, but it never got off the page. Instead, the experts spoke from their hearts. I've been sitting here trying to figure out how to explain myself in the light of this conversation, said Luisa Teish, ritualist, storyteller, and Voudon priestess. The question I need to ask myself is what was the most transformative experience I had that turned me into the person I am today. Teish's remark ushered a silent sense of collective
recognition, and relief, that this was a safe place for truth telling.
Conceiving a child, Teish continued, her voice calmly resonant. Participating in something primal and ancient and common to everything. Nurturing something I couldn't see but was dedicated to, nurturing it, not knowing what it
would be. Embracing and nursing a mystery. Having the experience of laboring for 23 hours, putting energy out, working for something to be born, and then in 12 hours watching that die. I often think: one hour short of a day to birth it, half a day of life, and then it dies.
The room waits to take its next breath.
˜No, he is gone, mama, he is gone. That statement threw me
into being nuts! I couldn't keep my cells together. I slept all day and cried all night, for two years. And then came the words in my mind: Donut you realize that in a
village when this happens to a woman, she then becomes the wise woman who can tell everybody else how to face different things? A change comes, and it happens in your cells and everything is new. I saw that the conscious part of me had gone crazy, the caterpillar, but, underneath, somebody else was putting all of this in order, the butterfly.
Poring over so many life-changing stories, brimming with non ordinary experiences of different kinds, I was reminded of my early journalistic days when, in the name of theory, I developed a method for keeping reports of high-weirdness
at a safe conceptual distance, while simultaneously claiming the high ground of objectivity.
Your job was to make a reasoned, dispassionate case on behalf of, say, extrasensory perception of distant physical events. My job was to respond, as much by nuance as with words: Yes, I've seen the studies. Then I would trot out my
One Question. What's the mechanism? You'd respond: Well, we
don't know. I'd be impressed with your honesty” not to be confused with being willing to concede ground. Tell me exactly how anomalous mind-matter interactions work, or
go away. I never actually said such a thing, but it was my attitude.
Arrogant? Unspeakably. But it served to keep mind and matter as they belonged” separate. Reality remained safe. I slept well. Somewhere along the way, I woke up. That's to say things changed when I met William James (Essays in Radical Empiricism) and became friends with his notion that accurate and fair observations depend upon disciplined familiarity with actual data. The familiarity might come through controlled experiment; or by examination of naturally occurring events; or by comparisons of subjective reports and dependable testimonies to unusual phenomena.
What matters most, writes Michael Murphy in The Future of the Body, is that without data from many domains of inquiry, without various kinds of knowing, our understanding of human development will be incomplete.
These days I smile when I hear echoes of my former Quest for Mechanism in the words of Arbiters of Reality, who busy themselves with ridding science of inconvenient anomalies. While working on this article, I mentioned to a
self-styled debunker the existence of cases in which someone is said to exert subliminal influence upon others in ways that harmonize conflicting persons;
or conversel use the subliminal influence to cause discord and suffering.
Well, he replied, after a long silence. Of course this begs
the question of how such a transaction could be possible . Bad faith in the guise of skepticism? Almost certainly. Still, I can't bring myself to get too haughty, because I myself continue to wrestle with a version of my old how
does it work conundrum. Presently this takes the form of trying to weave together two threads one of cosmic scale, the other closer to the subject of this article.
1) In evolution, matter seems to have preceded the emergence of organic life, which in turn seems to have preceded the emergence of mind. So far, fine. But
how could dead atoms or quanta (the materialist definition of matter) generate, or give rise to, meaning, purpose, value, and creativity?
2) Numerous participants in the IONS project described experiences suggesting that, far from being essentially separate, mind and matter share something like a secret sympathy. As opposed to being merely coincidental, this
sympathy seems to be an irreducible fact of existence, at least in the tiny portion of the Milky Way we call home. Consider these core elements from the project:
Feeling that someone is watching you, then turning to meet his or her gaze. Correctly sensing the location of lost objects without the help of sensory cues.
Spontaneously apprehending the presence of someone physically distant or dead, by direct and vivid contact.
Feeling the pains of a distant friend, then discovering he or she is ill or injured. Accurately sensing someone's prayers on your behalf.
Saying something unexpected in unison with someone else. Having the same dream a friend does. Appearing to correct a machine's malfunction by mental intention alone.
Out-of-body experience (during which you may see your own body) after which you report events that could not be known to you in ordinary circumstances.
Feeling that you have invisible hands that touch another person, after which the person responds as if he or she had been touched.
I can appreciate the visceral inclination, especially among
philosophical materialists, to stand against the unsettling implications of such mental-physical hybrids. However, I'm unacquainted with evidence that the ultimate intention of reality is to satisfy human categorical preferences. Even ordinary day-to-day experience cuts across our cuts between possible/impossible,
real/unreal, inner/outer, here/there, now/then, subject/object, illusion/reality, all the time, writes R. D. Laing in The Voice of Experience. We often enough have
to concede that what cannot be, must be, only because it is.
This doesn't mean we're obliged to embrace evidence for human transformability simply because the world happens to be filled with remarkable possibilities which frequently decline to fit human expectations or preferences. It
does mean that the intellectual burden rests with those who would assert that the sampling presented in the IONS project is uncorroborated, therefore dismissible.
To the contrary, the IONS database of transformational experiences is strikingly consistent with reports of extraordinary physical, mental, and spiritual
capacities as recorded in the oral and written histories of every culture supplemented by contemporary scientific studies of exceptional functioning.
The challenge rather is to search for coherent conceptual frameworks (there may be more than one) that are compatible, remembering Michael Murphy's stipulation, with data from many domains of inquiry and various kinds of
knowing. What might be the simplest model capable of accounting for consistently reported elements of such reports (for instance, the experience of
saying something unexpected in unison with someone else)? What predictions might that model
offer beyond the observed features themselves? How might our future change if such predictions are valid? In the spirit of these questions, I consider the following hypothesis:
Before there was evolution, there was involution.
Involution is the doctrine advanced by Hegel, Henry James Sr, Sri Aurobindo, and others that the world's development is based on the implicit action, descent, or involution (literally, the state of being involved or entangled) of
a Supreme Principle or Divinity. Each of these philosophers believed that the
progressive expression of higher forms or qualities is made possible by their
secret existence of immanence in nature, writes Murphy in The Future of the Body.
Here's the core idea. The Source (also known as Spirit; God; Tao; Rigpa; Mahamaya; Geist; Brahman; Archetypal Form; Big Bang) periodically gets lost for the sheer play of it by throwing itself outward as far as possible, to see
how far out it can get. Thereby Source temporarily forgets
itself in each descending level of decreasing consciousness all the way down to a point at which Source exists in a state of alienation, separation,
dismemberment, and fragmentation. When involution is complete that is, when Source (the higher) has become completely enfolded in matter (the lower)the process of
unfoldment can begin and does, according to this doctrine. Thus does Source, having never truly lost itself at all, return to itself through the process of evolution, beginning in and through matter, which seems to be
dead but is actually brimming with the stuff of Source, as potential waiting to be tapped.
This idea, which finds expression in the world's great esoteric traditions, provides insight, language, and philosophic grounding for many of the most provocative features of transformative experiences. One such feature is
the frequently reported insight that the entire world is alive or sentient. The philosopher Alfred North Whitehead gives voice to this view in the doctrine of panpsychism, or panexperientialism, which holds that all phenomena in
the universe subatomic entities, cells, and humans alike continually contact and influence other entities, with varying degrees of creativity. This perspective finds soul, experience, or subjectivity everywhere, even in physical
Involution also provides conceptual underpinnings for the observation that evolution seems to produce emergent structures, processes, and laws (or habits) that had not previously existed. We encounter what we experience as
novelties that cannot be explained or predicted by or reduced to the conditions, events, or patterns they grew out of. For instance, in a purely materialistic
universe, the experience of saying something unexpected in unison with another person can only be a coincidence. In a universe where Source is involved in varying degrees at various levels, such an experience could be seen to
confirm the secret sympathy mentioned earlier.
There's one additional feature of transformative reports the experience of a radical widening and deepening of personal identity which doctrines of involution help bring into clear relief. Several research participants echoed Richard Gunther's striking experience at Big Sur: I had no sensation of standing on the balcony, but rather was fused with all of nature . . . . There was no I only a we as I became one with all I saw. Many subjects mentioned moments
of apprehending all objects of perception as if the objects were contained within them; awakening to a witness self that's fundamentally distinct from particular thoughts, impulses, feelings, or sensations; feeling as if they were
suddenly more real, more genuine, more authentically themselves.
If something like involution does precede evolution and if our essential nature is identical with the primordial Source it's possible that there's something shockingly normal about the radical restructuring of the entire psyche that has been variously referred to as cosmic consciousness, mystical experience, union with God, peak experience, ecstasy, or liberation.
Images of involution suggest that capacities for transformation may well be inherent in the world fabric of which we are woven. If so, opportunities for
awakenings are literally everywhere; we're cultivating transformation (or choosing not to) in each moment of our lives. Since numinous experience so often emerges spontaneously, it's tempting to imagine the enfoldment of
higherstates and stages in the givens of ordinary experience as signals awaiting our response. Moments of deep connection, typically resonant with images of
homecoming, suggest the ancient Platonic doctrine anamnesis, or recollection, which
asserts that we can remember primordial ideas underlying sense impressions.
Perhaps it's time to get serious about attempting to identifyactivities that characteristically evoke such capacities, and assemble these elements
into open-ended, nondogmatic programs of practice. If embraced by enough people, such
practice might constitute a decisive next step in the world's evolutionary adventure; that's the predictive dimension of the hypothesis. If we are indeed
wired for transformation, getting good at transformative practice is synonymous with experimenting with the codes.
This assumes that evolution is unfinished. And that, in a way that's suddenly imaginable, the next step may be up to us.
Keith Thompson's articles have appeared in The New York Times, Esquire, Psychology Today, and Utne Reader. He is the author of Angels and Aliens: UFOs and
the Mythic Imagination and To Be a Man: In Search of the Deep Masculine.
The Beginnings of a Research Project
IONS research department is interested in learning about the different facets of transformative life-changing experiences and invites you to help us with
this research. If you have had an experience that has changed your life to any degree, and especially if it has had a lasting effect, we would like to hear from you. Specifically, we are interested in exploring the pivotal
event itself. For example, was there anything that precipitated the experience? What were your feelings at that time, and what insights did you gain into yourself and
your view of the world? And most important, how did that event change how you now live your life?
This notice in the spring 1997 issue of the former IONS magazine Connections spurred some 200 responses, some sent by mail, others to IONS website (www.noetic.org). Narrowing the sample to the accounts of 126 participants, IONS
research director Marilyn Schlitz worked with associate Moira Killoran to identify common elements in respondents experiences.
We looked closely at how participants narrated what happened, how
they storied their experience, notes Schlitz. There were clear echoes of traditional stages of initiation and rites of passage in the tendency of many participants to speak of their experience in terms of receiving a call to action,
facing obstacles, coming to pivotal points, climaxes, resolutions, or the ending of a cycle and the beginning of a new cycle.
The narratives revealed that traditional, historical American cultural values have taken on even greater meaning in the lives of the participants,
Killoran and Schlitz wrote in their August 1999 preliminary report. The overarching value in all of the stories is a belief in the capacity to change.
Attempting to standardize the language used for future studies, and hoping to reach as wide an audience as possible, the IONS project turned to the work of
Rhea White, a noted researcher in the field of transpersonal psychology. White is a pioneering investigator of what she terms Exceptional Human
Experiences (EHEs) She proposes that even though the phenomenology
of exceptional experiences may differ (seeing an apparition, sensing mystical oneness
whole of existence, having precognitive dreams),each one, and many other types of exceptional (anomalous) experience can serve as a portal to a new worldview.
To help isolate potentially life-transformative elements in exceptional experiences, the IONS project employed White's thesis that exceptional experiences have three core constituents: predisposing circumstances (triggers);
various experiential components that are part of the experience (concomitants); and what happens to the person as a result of the experience(after-effects)
Emphasizing the preliminary, open-ended nature of the study, and their intention to conduct future research, Killoran and Schlitz reached the
One of the first steps in the process is a deepening awareness of one's inner authority, be it a voice or simply trusting one's intuition and/or transformational learning experience. Transformative moments often seem to occur spontaneously. At the same time, long-term transformation seems to require long-term practice. This practice
requires a willingness to die over and over again, and a
willingness to entertain fundamental shifts in personal identity.
This process is often intensified by personal tragedies, sorrows, and wounds that enable us to heal, also by peak performances, states of ecstasy, and epiphany experiences.
Spiritual practice and/or faith, reverence, and awe yield the trust and willingness to listen to that inner yearning, so that there is an emergence of the next evolutionary steps, a reconstruction of who we are so that something
else can be born.