In my first post I described the spiritual experience of Gen Foster, an elderly psychologist. That was an entirely unexpected experience and it was life transforming for Gen. It was also the most wonderful experience of her life. But not all spiritual experiences are wonderful. Some are terrifying. I spent years studying one such experience, an experience that is common throughout the world (at least 20% of the population) but almost unheard of in modern, Western society–unheard of because those who have it are usually afraid to tell others. The following is an example recounted to me by one of my medical students. It had happened to him in his dorm room as he took an afternoon nap.
What woke me up was the door slamming. “OK,” I thought, “It’s my roommate….” I was laying on my back just kinda looking up. And the door slammed, and I kinda opened my eyes. I was awake. Everything was light in the room. My roommate wasn’t there and the door was still closed….
But the next thing I knew, I realized that I couldn’t move…. I kind of like gazed over to the door and there was no one there. But the next thing I knew, from one of the areas of the room this grayish, brownish murky presence was there. And it kind of swept down over the bed and I was terrified!… It was like nothing I had ever seen before. And I felt–I felt this pressing down all over me. I couldn’t breathe. I couldn’t move. And the whole thing was that–there was like–I could hear the stereo in the room next to me. I was wide awake, you know…. And I couldn’t move and I was helpless and I was really–I was really scared…. And this murky presence–just kind of–this was evil! This was evil! You know this is weird! You must think I’m a–…. This thing was there! I felt a pressure on me and it was like enveloping me. It was a very, very, very strange thing. And as I remember I struggled. I struggled to move and get out. And–you know, eventually, I think eventually what happened was I kind of like moved my arm. And again the whole thing–just kind of dissipated away. The presence, everything. But everything else just remained the same. The same stereo was playing next door. The same stuff was going on. (Case #10 in Hufford, The Terror That Comes in the Night. University of Pennsylvania Press, 1982. Pp. 58‑59.)
As usual with these interviews, this student asked me not to tell anyone that he had described such an experience, and I have always kept this (and all cases in my research) anonymous; Genevieve Foster’s mystical experience is an exception because she revealed it in her published memoir and did not seek anonymity.
It is interesting to compare this student’s experience with Gen Foster’s. Both involve a mysterious presence, although Gen’s presence was invisible and my student’s was visible. But it is not rare for the presence in the paralysis attacks to be invisible. In both cases the subjects “simply knew” something about the presence and their relationship to it; in Gen’s case love, and in the student’s case evil. Both involved accurate perception of their physical environment with a bizarre perceptual addition: extraordinary light for Gen, and in the student’s case a dark presence. In both cases the subject had no prior belief in or awareness of such experiences; in fact, both were very sophisticated and highly educated individuals. But in both cases, they were certain the event was real, and they remained certain afterwards.
When I began my research on the terrifying paralysis experience in 1970 I was able to connect it with the event known to sleep researchers as “sleep paralysis,” (SP). SP is a condition in which one is actually awake, but unable to move because of a brain mechanism connected with rapid eye movement sleep (REM). In REM, the stage in which dreams occur, muscle tone is suppressed and one’s body is in a limp paralysis which functions to prevent the dreamer from acting out the motions of their dream and waking themselves up. In 1970 SP was thought to be a rare symptom of narcolepsy (a disorder of excessive sleepiness). But my research, initially carried out in Newfoundland, Canada, found a prevalence of around 20% which has been confirmed in many populations since then, and SP is now recognized as common and is not an indication of any disorder. One might think that such a mixture of dreaming and waking would explain the strange content of SP, and if these experiences contained a wide variety of dreamlike features it would. What is most challenging about SP experiences is that content of the experience is remarkably similar across cultures, and among subjects (like my medical student) who have no cultural connection remotely suggesting such an experience!
SP, with the terrifying intruder so frequently present, is a spiritual experience; that is, it is an event that is experienced as an encounter with a non-physical being, an extraordinary spiritual experience (ESE). At the same time, it is connected to a neurophysiological event that has been studied scientifically–but the results of scientific study do not explain the spiritual aspects of the event. Similarly, we can associate near-death experiences with cardiac arrest (in many, though not all, cases), but we cannot say that NDEs simply “are cardiac arrest” or that cardiac arrest explains NDEs. Sleep paralysis, NDEs and a variety of other spiritual experiences have strong associations with various physiological states, but are not explained by those states, because those states do not account for the consistent features of the experience, features perceived as external to the subject. In the same way, we would not say that ordinary experiences are explained by the physical states in which we have them. We assume that ordinary experience is a complex product of internal and external factors. The challenge of ESEs is that they also appear to be complex events that cannot be explained entirely on the basis of subjective internal factors. Perhaps some or all of these features will eventually come to be explained internally, but at present that seems very unlikely for reasons that we will explore.
We will consider all this in more detail in future posts. At present I will end with an invitation for those of you who have had such an experience to write in about it! Just go to the Contact page and fill out the Contact Form or use the the email icon on the right under “Get In Touch” to email us directly. You can also use the comments section below. Post your story, I promise it will be taken seriously!