Validating Unusual Experiences

Dr. Charles Tart


Dr. Charles T. Tart, Mindfulness, Institute of Transpersonal Psychology,

Lecture 4, Part 16 of 18 parts. To start class from beginning, click here.

CTT: It’s a very unusual environment here at ITP, going back to William’s concerns for a minute or so. We don’t have a doctrine. We’re not a particular spiritual system with tight parameters of what you should and shouldn’t experience, and what’s good and bad and all that.

But while we’re open in a lot of directions, there is a general receptivity and respect that makes things a lot safer and more productive. Nobody’s going to tell William, “Oh – you must be psychotic if you’re having funny experiences. You better go see a psychiatrist.” They’re more likely to say, “Oh. What happened? What was it like? What can I learn from that?” Something like that. Or make suggestions for particular things. This receptivity, I think, makes an enormous difference.

In the past, to find receptivity to unusual experiences, you generally had to belong to some particular religious or spiritual group. So you got people who respected you, but you got a very narrow container to try to fit things into. I think there are a lot of tragedy stories in traditional spiritual disciplines of people who were having deep and genuine experiences that could have been growthful, but they wouldn’t fit in a particular system that well, so they were looked upon as failures, or the work of the devil, or something like that. People suffered from them instead of growing from them.

I’ll tell you the story of the Spiritual Emergence Network.

For years, since I got a little reputation as someone who was interested in unusual kinds of things, I would hear from people. This was in the old days, so it was generally by telephone or letters. You guys remember letters? Pieces of paper?


People who had had some unusual experience and were worried about it, and they had heard that I knew something about it. A few of these communications would be from people who I thought really were psychologically disturbed. They needed psychological help and, I’m not a therapist, I couldn’t give it to them. Often, they were crazy enough, to use a “technical term,” that if I suggested psychological help, they’d just put me into their delusional system.

So that part was sad. But a lot of these people were ordinary people – you know, sane like us, they’re allowed to walk around the street loose without a keeper – who’d had an unusual psychic or spiritual experiences, and they simply needed someone to be receptive to that.

So I often functioned in a therapeutic way simply by being a professor who said “This is not necessarily a sign of craziness. It’s a phenomenon. Here’s a name for it. We know a little bit about it.”

And that was sufficient in an awful lot of cases. “Oh, I experienced ‘telepathy.’ Oh, okay. Professor says I’m not crazy.”

Student: So it’s validation that’s making the big differences.

CTT: Yes. They got a glimpse of a bigger container that would allow them their experiences. And a lot of times, I might have to tell them, “You know, you might be crazy. I don’t know you.”


But on the basis of this one experience, you don’t sound crazy to me. You sound like an ordinary person who’s had a strange experience.”

Eventually (1978) Stan Grof and his wife Christina founded the Spiritual Emergency Network, which was an international network of people who were tolerant of this sort of thing. They would have liked to have a network right away of experienced psychotherapists who were quite knowledgeable about spiritual and psychic experiences and could actually work with people. They couldn’t get all that, but they got people who were friendly, who weren’t freaked by them.

And so as people would contact this network – and I referred a lot of people to them – they weren’t promised anything spectacular. They’d say, “Oh, okay. You’re in Neosho, Missouri? We have a member in the next town who’d be happy to sit down and have coffee with you and listen to your story without acting like you’re weird or crazy.”

And again, for a lot of people, that was all they needed. A bigger container, another human being who would accept them, instead of somebody who wants to send them to a psychiatrist or to a priest to get exorcised, or something like that.

I don’t know what the current status of the Spiritual Emergency Network is now. They’ve changed to Emergence instead of Emergency to give it a more positive spin, and they’ve gone in and out of business several times, and I don’t know whether they’re in business at the moment. I believe they’ve always been dependent on the generosity of private donors. They have trained a lot of psychotherapists who now know something about transpersonal and spiritual kinds of experiences, so they’ve helped things that way. I don’t know if they still just do their basic networking of – for example – “Here’s somebody you can have coffee with who will be friendly.” I hope they get back in business, but I think they’re out of business at the moment for lack of money.

Student: And what was that again? Spiritual Emergence –?

CTT: Spiritual Emergence Network. It was headquartered at CIIS in its last incarnation. I’m not quite sure exactly where it is now.

Student: Sounds like a much needed service.

CTT: Yes. It was very needed.

Student: Yeah. Why don’t we start it here?

Student: Yeah.

CTT: I don’t know how many people have suffered uselessly because they’ve had an unusual experience and the only way they can interpret it – and the only social interpretation they get of it – is this is pathology, or the work of the devil. We don’t need that! I mean, some people are crazy and need help with pathology, but, really….

Okay, so we’ve done our mid-quarter review. I’m happy. You guys seem happy.

You’ve stayed very grounded tonight. I guess we’ve reached the point where I will collect papers and you will exchange papers and we’ll get to go home.

Thank you for being present.

Student: Thank you.

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