Wrestling with the Angel, Integrating Spiritual Experience

Dr. Charles Tart


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

Lecture 4, Part 14 of 18 parts. To start class from beginning, click here.

Student: I think I agree with what everyone said, and there’s also a thing about worrying about losing something. That I’ve had this and I know if I don’t do something I’m going to lose it. I think that the intellect might not understand what happened yet, might not fully understand it, and may never fully understand it.

I know your intellect probably wants to understand it. And it may understand it more and more over time. But what you really needed to get out of the experience, you’ve probably already gotten out of the experience. Your intellect may not understand what it was and what you got out of it, but I’m sure that you’ve been changed and educated by that experience in a way which is irreversible and which you can never lose.

Student: You know, the irreversible nature, too, I think can actually introduce an idea of trauma into the experience too, because we can’t be the way we were before.

Another Student: Yeah, it’s a pretty significant thing. For example, I have a lot of stuff left over from my childhood that would be cool if it could be resolved quicker, but it takes quite a lot of effort. It’s taken quite a lot of effort to change the way that’s affected me.

This is a significant experience, so it’s not like over time it’s going to fade and it won’t affect you anymore. It will continue to affect you, because it’s like a trauma. It’s not really a trauma, but it’s a significant life experience.

Student: You say your intellect might not figure it out, or whatever. It seems like the intellect’s job is to incorporate the wisdom into the world view, or something like that.

Another Student: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah.

Student: And it will do that without conscious effort anyway. It will seek to do that without so much energy.

Student: Well, I don’t know if that’s true. I think a lot of people will have an experience, like, see a ghost or something, and then just be like, “Oh, no. It didn’t happen. It doesn’t mean anything.” You know?

Student: Yeah. I know what you mean.

Student: You know. I’m just talkin’ here, but…

Student: I think William is scared to know yet. But it is harsh when you have an experience like that, and then you’re told to just experience it then forget about it, move on, you know? Because it’s massive, right? And it’s going to….

I’ve experienced it that way. I had an experience and I spoke to a spiritual director about it. She told me that I was… she basically had a go at me, and was really angry and aggressive.

CTT: She was angry because you…?

Student: She said I shouldn’t talk about those things. Basically what she did is she started saying, “You can’t have experienced that. You’d be a saint.”

And I said, “I’m not a saint, and I did experience it.”

And she said, “Well, you don’t walk like a saint.”

And I was, like, “Well, I’m not a saint.” And this conversation progressed with her telling me all the ways that I didn’t behave like a saint, and me saying well, I’m not a saint. And finally I wondered when she was going to just have a conversation with me about my experience.


And now coming here (ITP), and seeing the way the people are here, and the way the professors are, and the whole training and spiritual guidance, I’m like, “Wow. She’s completely off the end of the scale from a well-trained spiritual adviser.”

CTT: Yes. See, if you’re in a particular spiritual system that’s got hundreds or thousands of years of tradition behind it, they may have pretty specific rules on how to handle particular kinds of experiences. Whereas here at ITP, we’re new. Thirty, thirty-five years old for the whole field of Transpersonal Psychology. We’ve got a little bit of this, a little bit of that; a dash of this, a dash of that. And we’re trying to create something new.

Student: Yeah. You’re dangerous!

CTT: And we’re dangerous? Yeah, I think we’re dangerous.



Student: And I think that’s really awesome because, for me, when I’ve had experiences like that – when it’s still affecting me and I’m tryin’ to sort of latch onto what happened, I like to pull from different kinds of methods. I’ll run through a bunch of different creative methods, through writing, dancing, through art. Then I’ll just intellectualize everything, going through the theories, you know? And then talk to other people about it and see what they think.

So I think there is a benefit in working it through, working it through your system. So that once you’re actually tired of it, you can put it down and then put it away for now, until it comes up again.

Another Student: There’s also a benefit in not doing anything at all about it for a long time, or a little time. Just relax for a minute.

CTT: So you see we’re advocating a very big container to work with the experience in, and that’s an appropriate thing to do here at ITP. We don’t have some small traditional container that we’re going to force it into, some revealed religion that we think is The Truth, no matter what. And that’s good.

Now I want to make a process comment. I think we’ve been very good about staying pretty grounded in the present tonight, and I haven’t been giving any reminders to sense, look and listen. But I’ve been very impressed with the quality of the discussion. So I want to thank all you people for staying present and real. That’s kind of nice.


  1. This post really hit home for me. You have no idea how many times I’ve gone to someone for help coping with unusual experiences, only to be told in no uncertain terms to deny those experiences.

    As a kid, admitting to seeing imaginary friends was what got me taken out of class and sent to the counselor’s office. They tried to convince my parents that I needed drugs and I was sent for testing every week to find out what was wrong with me. I’m lucky my parents fought the school on giving me drugs. But I still got singled out and sent to the office every week for tests so every kid at school knew there was something wrong with me and for the most part had nothing to do with me.

    I eventually learned to hide my experiences. Those counselors turned a sweet kid with imaginary friends into a wild teenager who distrusted authority and didn’t see any difference between lying about what I might be experiencing and lying about where I was at 2 AM and how much alcohol was involved. I figured dishonesty was how adults handled everything, so why shouldn’t I? The trick to growing up was telling people what they wanted to hear.

    I’ve spent most of my life thinking that having experiences is bad. There have been a few people who have accepted me being this way, but for the most part I still find myself denying what I experience. I hate having to be dishonest. Everyone has that line in the sand in regards to what things I can tell them without causing them alarm. I’m very good at figuring out where the line is and staying well back from it.

    I recently discovered that my mom has experiences that she pretty much rationalizes away and ignores as best she can. Appliances turn on in the middle of the night. The windows on her car go up and down by themselves, even when the motor is off and the car is locked. There are strange bangs from the walls at night. Mom just pretends these things don’t happen.

    I have a niece that is almost at the same age I was when I started being sent for counselling. She has difficulty being in crowded noisy places, which is what classrooms are. I was the same way at that age. I’m hoping things go better for her in school. I’m hoping that if she goes to an adult for help and trusts that adult with her angels (that’s what she talks about sometimes), she won’t be called a bad kid. I hope they don’t try to fix her.

    1. I hope you can be the adult your niece can talk to, at least partly. But that’s a very delicate task for you, since you can’t be sure she wouldn’t inappropriately repeat whatever you say to those who are trying to suppress her and have them brand you a bad influence that they want to keep her away from….
      It’s very sad that society can be so sick, and can’t see the difference between not encouraging or helping people who really do have some mental problems versus those who are more open to the wider world and need support, need training in how to “pass” for normal as appropriate, but not deny their inner selves.
      You’ve learned a lot about doing that, but you learned it the hard way thru suffering – too common a route…. ;-(

      1. Unfortunately, I don’t get to spend much time with her, since she lives over 5000 Km away. She’s being raised by my parents, who are getting a second chance at raising a child who may be unusual. Mom seems to be handling things very differently this time. She’s being much more of an advocate, and isn’t letting herself be bullied into thinking there is something wrong with a poor kid who has imaginary friends and doesn’t outgrow them at the age specified by the powers that be.

        When I was a kid, my parents were very young compared to the other kid’s parents. They were high school sweethearts (and dropouts) who got married as teenagers. Mom worked in a non-traditional job. She got a lot of criticism for being a young working mom back then. It was much harder for my parents to stand up to authority. And they did try. As grandparents now raising four grandchildren, they have an easier time getting listened to by the teachers. I think that helps.

        A few months ago I spent some time with Mom discussing some of the research I’ve been a participant in in Sudbury. It’s funny how getting science involved suddenly makes it OK to have experiences. I showed her this little pinwheel I have and got it to spin inside a sealed jar. Her first response was that it was sort of creepy, but then she wondered if my brother would be able to do that too. She joked that it would really bug him if I can do something he can’t. By then the spinning pinwheel inside the jar was no big deal. Something for scientists to worry about, but not us. That’s one of the reason I’ve been participating in research. For whatever reason, people have an easier time with something if scientists are looking into it.

        I do keep in contact with my niece via the internet. Hopefully she’ll feel comfortable talking to the cool aunt who knits her dolls and posts pictures of bugs for her on facebook if she ever needs to. Last Christmas, she was so excited about a doll I sent her. It was hand knit, so it was entirely unique. She knew what the doll was going to look like before I even had sent it. She was so excited to receive it because in her words, I “got it just right, all the parts were just the way I wanted”. I don’t know if she had a precognitive experience about a doll I was making, or if I picked up on a signal sent by my niece about the exact doll she wanted me to make for her. Either way, we seem to have some sort of a connection. I hope we always do.

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