“White Crow Moments”: The Ecstasies & Risks Of Spiritual Experiences

*Photo credit Monique Feil 

*Photo credit Monique Feil

“If you wish to upset the law that all crows are black, you mustn’t seek to show that no crows are; it is enough if you prove one single crow to be white.”

―William James

Many people walk through the world mired in the mud of material reality, unilluminated by the mysteries of the sacred.  When our orientation to the world revolves only around a cold, hard, scientific materialism, stripped of the holy spark of all creation,  life can feel pointless, meaningless, and hard to bear. Everyday life can feel like drudgery and grunt work, like the only point to existence is to be born, eat, sleep, shit, experience a lot of trauma, maybe reproduce, and then one day, become annihilated into a vast emptiness.

Throughout human existence, we have found ways to seek meaning beyond the mere materiality of this world, to make sense of our suffering and even use it for grist for growth and depth. This quest for meaning and purpose has birthed many religions.  Even those who have turned away from religion because of the countless traumas perpetrated in the name of religion seek something deeper than material reality to explain life’s great mysteries.  The growing population of people who identify as “spiritual but not religious” have flocked to the New Age or appropriated various Indigenous spiritual traditions or Eastern philosophies like Advaita Vedanta, Buddhism, yoga, or Taoism as a way to try to make sense of the world.

For billions around the world, this tendency to seek meaning, purpose, and “something more” via spirituality brings meaning, joy, peace, healing, community, ritual, celebration, and the desire to be of service to a suffering world. It is a noble quest. Yet it is also fraught with landmines, one of which is the temptation to throw oneself into a search for perpetual ecstasy, like a mystic drunk on love.

The Seduction of Peak Experiences

Most of us have had at least one numinous experience that defies rational explanation- a moment of great synchronicity, an intuitive hit, a dissolving of boundaries in nature, a heart-opening feeling of love and belonging in the eyes of another, a premonition that came true, a mystical vision while under the influence of psychedelics, witnessing something that seems to defy the laws of physics, a near death experience, a visitation from the other side, a stigmata phenomenon, a sighting of something that seems not from this planet, an unexpected cure from an incurable illness, a spiritual awakening. Once we have traveled beyond the veils of stark, skeptical materialism, we cannot unsee or unknow what we have experienced directly. To have our experience denied by those who say it cannot be real seems pure, confusing folly.

To wake up to the awareness that there is perhaps something more than our mundane human existence can be the beginning of a lifelong endeavor to see beyond the veils. But what next? How are we to integrate and ground such experiences, resisting the temptation to reify them or use them to inflate ourselves? What are we to make of these mystical experiences that leave us feeling intoxicated on the Divine? How do we integrate them into the experiences of daily life?  How do we negotiate the mundane with the ecstatic, or as Buddhist teacher Jack Kornfield says, “After the ecstasy, the laundry?” When should we seek to transcend this reality, and when is it best to immerse ourselves in it? After we have glimpsed the view from the mountain, when is it time to come back down to the muck of life?

Many of us have had peak experiences that feel like bliss. The mystical experience of feeling your boundaries dissolve into Oneness in meditation, the synchronicity that feels like an answer to prayer from a very personal universe that cares about you, the merging during intimate union with a romantic partner that feels like meeting God together, the sense that you’re being guided towards your sacred purpose and everything is unfolding as if it were meant just for you.

We feel glimpses of this bliss in flow states when we’re making art and time melts away. We glimpse the ecstatically pleasurable heart and body opening during lovemaking, the moment of standing under any icy waterfall in nature when you’re fully in your body and everything is Technicolor and alive, the endorphin-fueled rush of a long run, skinny dipping in a hot springs under a starry sky, holding a new puppy while it licks your face exuberantly, gazing into the God-lit eyes of a newborn. In moments like this, we feel God/Goddess up close and personal, and it feels good.

“White Crow Moments”

These feelings can be so ecstatically transformational that they change everything, creating a kind of “before” and “after” in our lives or what Larry Dossey, MD calls a “white crow moment.” In other words, it only takes one direct experience of a white crow to disprove the thesis that all crows are black. Just one crack in one’s certainty has the power to shatter your whole world view and open it to the infinitude of possibility. Taken too far, it can also lead to a distortion of reality that might suddenly make false or grandiose claims, such as “Because I have seen one white crow with my very eyes, all crows must be white” or “I am special because I have seen a white crow, and you’re not special because, to you, all crows are black.”

These white crow moments can have great value on the spiritual path. I’ve had my share of them, and they can shake you out of a fixed, rigid, materialist view of the world and open the doorway to Something Larger, to curiosity, to mystery, to wonder, to awe.

The Disappearing Harp

Psychoanalyst, researcher, and UC-Berkeley professor Elizabeth (“Lisby”) Lloyd Mayer had just such a white crow moment. One day in 1991, Lisby’s 11 year-old daughter Meg’s handmade harp was stolen from the theater where she was playing. For two months, Lisby tried everything to recover the harp. The police got involved. She contacted instrument dealers all over the country. A CBS TV news story even aired. But nothing worked. The harp was lost.

Then a friend of Lisby’s said, “If you really want that harp back, you should be willing to try anything. Try calling a dowser.”

Lisby was skeptical. All she knew about dowsers was that they were made up of odd people who walked around with forked sticks telling you where to drill wells.

But Lisby’s friend told her that really good dowsers could find not just underground water, but lost objects. At a loss, Lisby figured she had nothing to lose. She contacted the president of the American Society of Dowsers, Harold McCoy in Fayetteville, Arkansas, and explained that a harp had been stolen from Oakland, California. She asked Harold if he could help her locate the harp.

Harold said, “Give me a second. I’ll tell you if it’s still in Oakland.” He was silent for a moment and then said, “Well, it’s still there. Send me a street map of Oakland and I’ll locate that harp for you.”

Lisby overnighted Harold a map of Oakland. Two days later, he called to give her the address of where the harp was located. Lisby had never heard of the street he named, but she passed the information along to the police. The police shook their heads. They couldn’t issue a search warrant based on a hunch. So Lisby decided to drive over and post flyers within a two block radius of the address Harold had given her, offering a reward for the return of the harp.

Three days later, her phone rang. A man said that his neighbor had recently showed him the exact harp the flyer was describing. He promised to give it to a teenage boy who would deliver it to her in the rear parking lot of an all-night Safeway.

In spite of her own skepticism, Lisby showed up at the appointed time and place, where a young man loaded the harp into the back of her station wagon. That’s when Lisby came to the same conclusion Don would have come to if he had accepted what had happened with he and his roommate. This changes everything.

Lisby went on to write a wonderful book about white crow moments, and both the science and lack of science to explain such phenomena. It’s called Extraordinary Knowing: Science, Skepticism, and the Inexplicable Powers of the Human MindIn spite of having many white crow moments of my own, I was extremely skeptical of Lisby’s book, until the person I trust most in the world told me that she knew Lisby personally, that she was the one who recommended Lisby call Harold McCoy, and that, and I quote, “Lisby is a quintessential scientist. If Lisby wrote, I believe it’s true.” I borrowed my mentor’s trust and wrote a lot about Lisby’s research findings in my book The Fear Cure.

The Psychic Roommate

Tosha Silver also writes a lot about white crow moments. In her book Outrageous Openness, Tosha Silver writes about her straight-laced, highly-skeptical, economics professor friend Don, who liked to introduce Tosha as his “wacky, psychic pal with a degree from Yale.” One day, Tosha asked Don, “Really Don, total truth. Has anything ever happened that made you wonder if you had the full picture? Anything ever rock your perfect little rational world?”

Don went on to tell her about one night when he was in college, when he went to sleep before his roommate had come home for the night. At 3am, Don awoke with a pounding heart and heard his roommate calling his name, twice. But the room was empty. He stumbled out to his VW Bug, put on his clothes, walked to his car in a kind of daze, and started driving. He said it felt more like the car was driving itself to the side of the road, several blocks away. Like a magnet, Don was drawn to a spot ten blocks away, where he found his roommate buried under a snowbank, drunk, disoriented, and freezing.

Tosha was fascinated. “Man, you gotta be kidding me. This didn’t change your life at all?”

“No way,” said Don. “I had to see it all as a coincidence. If I hadn’t, I would have had to question everything.”

Don is not the only rationalist to sweep under the carpet an anomalous experience that didn’t fit into his world view. If he had allowed himself to realize that he had come face to the face with the kind of mystery, wonder, and awe that doesn’t jive with scientific materialism, he might have faced a threatening realization, that perhaps his worldview isn’t large enough to encompass the mysterious phenomena that really do happen to some people.

Some people might take that mysterious experience and made up a grandiose story about it. “I’m psychic. Don and I have a twin flames telepathic relationship. God chose me to save Don’s life, so I must be a guardian angel.” Others, like Don, might compartmentalize the whole experience and pretend it never happened, so as not to deal with the cognitive dissonance between what actually happened in his direct experience and the dogma of his rationality.

The Neurosurgeon Who Quits Teaching Because He Can’t Tell Med Students Why His Patients Rarely Die

One story Lisby shares in Extraordinary Knowing is the story of a celebrated neurosurgeon with impeccable credentials and an uncanny ability to perform the most dangerous surgeries. In spite of how life-threatening his surgeries were, his patients never seemed to die. But this neurosurgeon kept getting migraines, and standard treatment wasn’t working, so he went to see Lisby.

She helped him pinpoint exactly when the headaches began. It turns out the headaches started right when he stopped teaching medical students and residents at the university hospital. Why did he stop teaching? He was reluctant to tell her, but he finally confessed.

The neurosurgeon admitted that his success rates are so high because he waits until a white light surrounds the patient’s head. Then—and only then—he knows it’s safe to operate. But how can he teach this to medical students? Surely he can’t train residents to look for halos around people with brain tumors and aneurysms?

Because he felt like he had to hide the mystical experiences that help him guide his patients safely through surgery, he quit teaching, and perhaps the discord within him led to migraines. The neurosurgeon was stuck. He felt he couldn’t tell anyone at the university that he sees white lights nobody else sees. Surely, it would ruin his reputation. By betraying what was true for him, he was getting migraines. It’s a conundrum many face when we deny our own experience of reality because it doesn’t fit with our neat little world views.

Literally Or Mytho-Poetically Real?

Whether white crow moments come from mystical experience in meditation, near-death experiences, psychedelic journeying, boundaryless merging in nature, lucid dreaming trips to the galactic chamber, visitations from alien beings, the experience of channeling another being, or interpersonal edge-walking with the plane of love with a Tantric lover, these transcendent moments can be beautiful moments of true awakening, of glimpsing beyond the veils. Whether such experiences are literally real or not may be less important than the impact they have on the experiencer.

My partner Jeffrey Rediger, MD, MDiv spent many years assisting the infamous Harvard psychiatrist John Mack, MD, the subject of Ralph Blumenthal’s biography The Believer: Alien Encounters, Hard Science, & The Passion of John Mack. John was notorious for interviewing people who claimed to have been abducted by aliens. He did psychiatric evaluations on these folks and claimed he believed that their stories were literally true, that he believed people were literally having sex with aliens, and that they were not hallucinating, psychotic, or delusional.

This assertion got him blackballed at Harvard, and even though he won a lawsuit over it, he lost his credibility among most legitimate doctors and scientists. While Jeff didn’t go as far down the rabbit hole of true believer status as John did, Jeff took the position, as a psychiatrist and someone who had experienced several white crow moments himself, that these mysterious experiences deserve to be heard, honored, and validated. He considers them at least mytho-poetically real, even if they’re not necessarily always literally real. They are very real for the experiencer- and that may be enough to change someone’s life forever. He sees psychiatrists and therapists as authority figures who can help someone integrate such experiences, while also keeping them grounded and avoiding reifying the experiences.

It was this curiosity to better understand and explain- or at least verify- spiritual experiences that fueled Jeff’s 17 years of research on patients who claimed to have been cured of incurable illnesses. While allegations of alien abduction cannot easily be verified as fact or fiction, claims of spiritual healing can at least be verified with before and after medical records, which is what Jeff sought out and published in his book CURED. (If you’re curious to learn more, you can learn more in the online program Jeff and I did together- The Mysteries of Spontaneous Healing.)

People who experience white crow moments are often desperate for validation, for someone else to tell them they’re not crazy, that they believe what they’re being told is true and real. The world of scientific materialism has such a strong hold on the Western world that it’s very confusing if someone has a world view-shattering experience. Without appropriate grounding, support, and validation of their experiences, white crow moments can be so ungrounding and bewildering that people have psychotic breaks from reality. And then they’re even more likely to feel invalidated, because now someone has locked them in a psych ward and labelled them with a DSM diagnosis.

Those who deny such experiences may have the benefit of staying more grounded, of resisting the potential for inflation. But they also lose out on the positive aspects of mysterious experiences, the lifting of the veils to see a more expansive spiritual possibility that can give life meaning, purpose, and joy.

The Risks & Benefits Of White Crow Moments

While white crow moments have the potential to be healing, to shift world views, to open your eyes and heart to a greater potential for awe, wonder, joy, and mystery, to awaken you spiritually, such mysterious experiences can also be perilous. It can be seductive to take on the specialness of spiritual experiences, to feel uplifted, to feel grandiose, to feel like God has chosen you, singling you out from the masses to give you a gift that has been denied to others.

If your cancer is cured or you cure someone else’s cancer, if you are used as a vessel of Divine love to save someone else’s life, if you channel the most beautiful poetry ever written, if you get a psychic vision that helps protect someone else, if you have a near death experience that shows you a glimpse of the other side, if some shaman tells you that you, and you alone, are here to fulfill a grandiose purpose, or if you exercise your spiritual superpowers to impact reality in some unmistakable way, it’s natural that some of our parts might take that on and inflate us.

The problem comes not in discerning what is or is not real, but what stories and meaning one makes from such experiences. People tend to get in trouble when they get an ecstatic rush of narcissistic or manic grandiosity as the result of spiritual experiences, and they lack good facilitation from a spiritual counselor or transpersonal psychologist or therapist who knows how to glean the gold from such experiences while minimizing the risks. They also get in trouble when they think such moments of awakening are the destination, rather than the beginning of the journey.

It’s Normal To Need Validation

It’s natural to have real needs for feeling validated, chosen, good enough, and special to at least a special someone, like a caregiver, spouse, or best friend. Especially if our caregivers in childhood made us feel deflated, not special, unchosen, unimportant, “less than,” it can be especially intoxicating to feel spiritually high, to feel “better than,” to feel chosen by some special deity, to feel like our life has meaning and we’ve been singled out from the other 8 billion people on this planet to do or be or become someone…well…special.

One the plus side, if one grew up feeling disempowered, unloved, unspecial, worthless, neglected, rejected, spiritual experiences can be a balm for all that pain, loneliness, rejection, and intolerable feelings of worthlessness, helplessness, powerlessness, and hopelessness. If your current life doesn’t have enough safe, loving intimacy, if you’re not feeling special to a partner or chosen by a bestie or at least on top of your game in your career, a spiritual experience can become a substitute for that very legitimate need for validation, which can have a positive impact on your mental health.

These moments can also confirm our intuition that we are more than our bodies, more than our thoughts, more than our emotions, more than a separate self in a world of other separate selves, vying for survival and maximizing self-interest as a way to get ahead of all the other separate selves. These moments shatter the certainty of scientific materialism and dogma, leaving us in the thrust of the mystery without explanation, without certainty, but full of awe, wonder, and ecstatic joy.

When “Special” Turns To “Better Than”

There’s nothing wrong with peak experiences, with awe and wonder, with moments that feel magical and lift us out of the doldrums of the mundane aspects of human life. The problem is that, without appropriate humility, mystical experiences and white crow moments can be spiritual cul de sacs that inflate us and lead to grandiosity, one of the hallmarks of narcissism. We can reify these experiences and make up stories about them that position us as better than, more enlightened than, more “whatever” than others who have not glimpsed beyond the veil. The problem is that, the minute we lift up ourselves or other “spiritual” people, that means we put someone else “one down,” positioning ourselves as the special “Hogwarts witches and wizards,” while viewing those who might not have had white crow moments as “less than,” unspecial, boringly-grounded-in-3D reality Muggles.

We saw a lot of this in spiritual communities during the pandemic, where people got a hit of specialness by claiming to know the “truth” about Covid- and spun off into dangerous conspiracy theory territory. By being “in the know,” by feeling a rush of belonging with conspiracy theory-touting spiritual leaders who seduced followers (and cashed in on delivering “insider knowledge,”) it was easy for some trauma survivors to manage the uncertainty and anxiety of the pandemic by becoming full on delusional, bordering on psychotic, and brainwashed by spiritual leaders who preyed upon this vulnerability all the way to the bank.

That’s when the “special” experiences become dangerous, when they unground you from reality in ways that harm you and potentially harm others. Then you become a puppet under the strings of manipulative, calculating, predatory, narcissistic spiritual leaders who callously exploit your vulnerability for their own personal gain. (The Center For Digital Hate listed 12 people, many of them online influencer physicians, as the source of 65% of Covid disinformation, so yes, “Disinformation Dozen,” I’m talking about you.)

Next thing you know, people who got swept under the spell of this kind of indoctrination from disinformation-spreading doctors, angel channelers, and people who claimed to be benevolent aliens here on a rescue mission for earth are abandoning their families, joining online cults, and refusing to cooperate with public health measures intended to protect the most vulnerable among us. This is when the narcissistic inflation of spiritual experiences can hit the ground running and become seriously problematic.

Getting Support For White Crow Moments

So how are you to wrestle with your own white crow moments without getting swept off track on your spiritual seeking quest? Finding a good transpersonal psychologist, someone familiar with how to help people integrate spiritual experiences, can be a good place to start. The Spiritual Emergence Network, started by Dr. Stan Grof, has resources that can help. In case it’s helpful, here’s an article about spiritual emergency and “kundalini awakening” that I co-wrote from one of the leaders of the Spiritual Emergence Network, Dr. Ted Esser about how white crow moments can destabilize and unground people- and how to get the help you need.

In upcoming posts, I’ll be talking more about spiritual experiences, trauma, and how to enjoy the benefits of spirituality while avoiding the hazards of “spiritual bypassing.’

If you’re interested in learning more about spirituality without spiritual bypassing, consider:

  • Becoming a paid subscriber on my Subtack, where we go deeper into this topic
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  • Internal Family Systems founder Richard Schwartz and I did a live online group healing for people with spiritually bypassing parts in 2020. If you’re curious to get to know your spiritually bypassing parts, watch this free video. If you resonate with approaching IFS as an antidote to spiritual bypassing, you can go deeper into the IFS approach to recovering and off-ramping from spiritual bypassing in a series of online classes I created to meet that tender need. It’s not easy to realize that you may have been fed a lot of hurtful, oppressive nonsense in the name of spirituality, but IFS gives us a gentle way to love and extend compassion, even to our spiritual bypassing parts.
  • You can register for Spiritual Bypassing Recovery 101, an IFS-informed online program I taught throughout the pandemic to help people who were struggling to off ramp from spiritual bypassing tendencies without losing the benefits of spiritual life and practice. This was the first in a series of 3. This program featured the quickly dwindling group of non-bypassing, trauma-informed, anti-racist teachers that I trusted and discerned were safe enough to listen to their teachings, all while most of the other teachers were self-destructing during Covid. Guest teachers included: Dick Schwartz, Thomas Hübl, Rebekah Borucki, Karla McLaren, Tosha Silver, Shiloh Sophia, Carol Penn, and my sister Keli Rankin.
  • You can register for Spiritual Bypassing Recovery 2.0, the follow up to Spiritual Bypassing Recovery 101. Each IFS-informed class is a stand alone class, but 2.0 does build upon 101 and goes more deeply into the implications of a variety of common spiritual teachings- and the harm they can cause, not only to you, but to people in oppressed groups. Guest teachers included: Resmaa Menakem, Anasuya Godis, Steve Hassan, Jeffrey Rediger, Shiloh Sophia, and Rachel Carlton Abrams.
  • Once we’ve identified the muddy and even racist bathwater of spiritual bypassing belief systems and practices, we’re left with the mother lode question- “What’s the baby in the bathwater worth keeping?” In other words, how do we avoid just ditching spirituality altogether, once we realize we may have been conned, spiritually abused, and fed oppressive belief systems intended to keep us from protesting when oppressive spiritual leaders try to dominate us? IFS founder Dick Schwartz and I tackled this deep question in a provocative class full of rumbles: Spirituality Without Bypassing.

I’d love to hear what comes up in you when we touch the subject of spiritual bypassing.

Learn more and register here