How to Talk About Spiritual Encounters [1st ed.] 9783030452070, 9783030452087

This book develops a new and innovative way of understanding how language is used when people describe their spiritual a

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How to Talk About Spiritual Encounters [1st ed.]
 9783030452070, 9783030452087

Table of contents :
Front Matter ....Pages i-viii
Café Capri (Peter J. Adams)....Pages 1-12
Describing Encounters (Peter J. Adams)....Pages 13-25
Trouble Talking (Peter J. Adams)....Pages 27-38
Making it Happen? (Peter J. Adams)....Pages 39-51
Collecting Specimens (Peter J. Adams)....Pages 53-66
The Rhetorical Turn (Peter J. Adams)....Pages 67-81
Big Devices, Little Devices (Peter J. Adams)....Pages 83-94
Expressive Vagueness (Peter J. Adams)....Pages 95-107
Provocative Gaps (Peter J. Adams)....Pages 109-121
Gaps by Missing Content (Peter J. Adams)....Pages 123-135
Gaps by Grammatical Shifts (Peter J. Adams)....Pages 137-152
Gaps by Metaphor (Peter J. Adams)....Pages 153-172
Gaps by Marking (Peter J. Adams)....Pages 173-186
Counting Exercises (Peter J. Adams)....Pages 187-201
Are They Unique? (Peter J. Adams)....Pages 203-216
God-Talk (Peter J. Adams)....Pages 217-227
Reducing Reluctance (Peter J. Adams)....Pages 229-238
Device Play (Peter J. Adams)....Pages 239-249
Creating a Description (Peter J. Adams)....Pages 251-261
Practitioner Opportunities (Peter J. Adams)....Pages 263-275
Fostering Gap-Talk (Peter J. Adams)....Pages 277-287
Postscript (Peter J. Adams)....Pages 289-297
Back Matter ....Pages 299-327

Citation preview

How to Talk About Spiritual Encounters

Peter J. Adams

Praise for How to Talk About Spiritual Encounters “Peter Adams has written an excellent, accessible, interesting and evidence informed book on spiritual encounters. The central theme suggests that spiritual encounters are more common than most people think; they are useful and add meaning to life; and while we live in a world that is mostly spirituality illiterate, when we try, we can articulate and share these experiences producing positive outcomes for all. Peter has written a book that will draw readers into the conversation, into ‘spiritual talk,’ that is both everyday (‘spiritually tuned-in while gardening’) and transcendent. Highly recommended!” —Richard Egan, Senior Lecturer, Co-Director, Social & Behavioural Research Unit, University of Otago, New Zealand “This book offers an imaginative exploration of key themes in contemporary spiritual studies through a series of café conversations. The narrative approach allows flexibility, nuance and a sense of process, inviting the reader to participate as a further contributor to the conversation. The content is accessible, but thoroughly grounded in critical sources.” —Bruce Rumbold OAM, Director, Palliative Care Unit, School of Psychology & Public Health, La Trobe University, Australia “Spirituality is a topic on many people’s minds at the moment but we find it difficult, awkward or embarrassing to discuss. How to put in words what is often regarded as beyond expression? How to Talk About Spiritual Encounters explores this problem in an informal setting, using colloquial language. It is an ingenious work that should interest a wide range of readers, and many will find their own experiences reflected in these pages.” —David Tacey, Emeritus Professor, La Trobe University, Australia, author of The Spirituality Revolution and The Postsecular Sacred

Peter J. Adams

How to Talk About Spiritual Encounters

Peter J. Adams School of Population Health The University of Auckland Auckland, New Zealand

ISBN 978-3-030-45207-0    ISBN 978-3-030-45208-7 (eBook) © The Editor(s) (if applicable) and The Author(s), under exclusive licence to Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2020 This work is subject to copyright. All rights are solely and exclusively licensed by the Publisher, whether the whole or part of the material is concerned, specifically the rights of translation, reprinting, reuse of illustrations, recitation, broadcasting, reproduction on microfilms or in any other physical way, and transmission or information storage and retrieval, electronic adaptation, computer software, or by similar or dissimilar methodology now known or hereafter developed. The use of general descriptive names, registered names, trademarks, service marks, etc. in this publication does not imply, even in the absence of a specific statement, that such names are exempt from the relevant protective laws and regulations and therefore free for general use. The publisher, the authors and the editors are safe to assume that the advice and information in this book are believed to be true and accurate at the date of publication. Neither the publisher nor the authors or the editors give a warranty, expressed or implied, with respect to the material contained herein or for any errors or omissions that may have been made. The publisher remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations. Cover illustration: Junghyun Photo © GettyImages This Palgrave Macmillan imprint is published by the registered company Springer Nature Switzerland AG. The registered company address is: Gewerbestrasse 11, 6330 Cham, Switzerland


My initial interest in how people speak about their spiritual and mystical encounters was sparked off in the early 1980s when, by chance, I watched a British television documentary on religious experience. At a key moment in the program, David Hay described an interview study in which as high as a quarter of those who reported having had such experiences claimed to have never spoken about them with anyone else in their lives—not even with their closest intimates. This struck me immediately as very curious. Why would they choose to hide this positive and powerful part of their lives? What could account for this reluctance to share what for many is a critical dimension of their being? It intrigued me that this reluctance was so widespread, and I kept imagining what must have been involved in maintaining silence about such matters from one’s spouse during the course of a lifetime together. I continued to deliberate on this for several years, and I began making a point of talking to people about their spiritual encounters. I found that, while most seemed comfortable about talking to me, they did, indeed, confide a certain weariness in describing them to others in the course of their lives. This reinforced my curiosity. At one level, these sensible and articulate people were expressing confidence in the reality and high significance of their spiritual encounters, and yet at another level, they appeared remarkably lacking in confidence regarding their ability to convey to others what their experiences were really like. The opportunity to explore these issues further came in the late 1980s when I enrolled in PhD studies on the topic. At first, like many before me, I focused on what these encounters might mean for those who v



experienced them. I anticipated that something in the nature and significance of these experiences might explain why they are kept hidden. As I listened to more accounts, it struck me that the difficulties lay less with the nature of the experience and more with the activity of speaking about them. The more I delved into it, the more obvious it became that the reluctance to speak had something to do with the challenges posed in speaking about them, not in the experiences themselves. Along the way, a wide variety of people assisted me in the completion of this book. First, I need to thank John Raeburn and Barbara Docherty for the evening discussions in which we first challenged each other to develop our ideas into books. I wish also to acknowledge, with humility, the strong guidance I received from academic guides and mentors, especially Bernard Pflaum, Paul Feyerabend, John Wren Lewis, Judy Holt and John Gribben. They knew considerably more about related topics than I could ever hope to achieve. I particularly want to acknowledge Clive Pearson who, through his inspirational teaching on Martin Heidegger, first introduced me to the rhetorical power of talking about spirituality. During my early PhD study on this topic, I am grateful for the advice and support provided by my supervisor Guy von Sturmer. In subsequent years, I wish to convey heartfelt thanks to those colleagues who have in various ways encouraged and supported my writing, particularly John Raeburn, Charles Livingstone, Ray Nairn, Ruth Allen, Paul Maloney, Nicola Gavey, David Newcombe, Margaret Wetherell, Helen Keane, Alison Towns, Monique Jonas, Rachel Simon-Kumar and Janine Wiles. Finally, I wish to sincerely thank members of my family for their unflagging support, particularly my wife Judith and our four children Emily, William, Josie and Stephanie. I am particularly grateful to my father, Bob, for his assistance in co-rating the testimonials. Sadly, he passed away in November 2002. I also wish to thank my mother, Nelly, for, among many other things, providing me with a space to write. Auckland December 2019

Peter J. Adams


1 Café Capri  1 2 Describing Encounters 13 3 Trouble Talking 27 4 Making it Happen? 39 5 Collecting Specimens 53 6 The Rhetorical Turn 67 7 Big Devices, Little Devices 83 8 Expressive Vagueness 95 9 Provocative Gaps109 10 Gaps by Missing Content123 11 Gaps by Grammatical Shifts137 12 Gaps by Metaphor153 vii



13 Gaps by Marking173 14 Counting Exercises187 15 Are They Unique?203 16 God-Talk217 17 Reducing Reluctance229 18 Device Play239 19 Creating a Description251 20 Practitioner Opportunities263 21 Fostering Gap-Talk277 22 Postscript289 Appendix 1: Device Categories299 Appendix 2: List of Practitioner Skills305 Bibliography309 Index321


Café Capri

The café sat between a second-hand furniture store and a hairdresser in the shopping area of an older inner-city suburb. It had occupied this site for several decades and its ragged façade was showing the puckered nicks and marks that betray years of fluctuating care and maintenance. The café’s large awning stretched out over a wide concrete pavement and its frontage was lined by an untidy row of tables and chairs. A constant flow of pedestrians filed under the awning walking back and forth from a railway station five minutes away. A large “Café Capri” sign hung across the top of the awning and a faded mural of an Italian village decorated the wall in between its two large windows. Entering inside the first impression was one of confusion. In the back areas dim lighting made it difficult to follow staff activities and in the front areas bright light streaming in from the windows dazzled the gaze when looking outwards. Small tables of varying styles were scattered haphazardly throughout the space, each surrounded by a random collection of steel and wooden chairs. Eight years ago, the café owners had leased the shop next door which had enabled them to knock a connecting archway between the two spaces and to fill the new area with additional tables. The differences in style and décor between the two areas further enhanced the café’s chaotic informality. It was mid-morning when an old man carrying a battered leather satchel entered the café, waved to the woman behind the till and hobbled through the connecting arch to sit at the table in the far corner by the window of © The Author(s) 2020 P. J. Adams, How to Talk About Spiritual Encounters,




the “newer” part of the café. This was his usual place and it allowed him to both watch the goings and comings and to stare outside as the sunlight travelled across the walls of adjacent buildings. Regular customers understood this table as his table, and they would never consider occupying it themselves, especially in the mornings. Occasionally a casual visitor might have unknowingly sat at it but, when the old man arrived, unperturbed, he would sit at a nearby table patiently waiting for the invader to depart. “Thank you,” he muttered as his coffee and a piece of cake were placed beside him. “Just yell out if you need anything,” commented the young waitress. Most mornings the old man was content to sit sipping his coffee and biding his time either staring out the window at the passing bustle or burying himself in the papers and books which he pulled out of his battered leather satchel. At other times one of the regular patrons might join him to speak about an issue or a worry. He would listen attentively, encourage them with reassurance and advice and sometimes assist them in devising solutions. While he enjoyed these discussions, he was equally content to sit alone, staring out the window or reading through his papers. The old man, now in his late seventies, had been coming to Café Capri for over twelve years.1 His morning routine started a decade earlier after he retired from his work as a physician at the local hospital. Since then his clothing had become progressively shabbier and his appearance more unkempt. Despite his scruffy appearance, other patrons still felt drawn to him, particularly when they noticed his warm smile and the flashes of intelligence and mischief in his eyes. He was a familiar and accepted sight. The café waiters knew automatically how he liked his coffee and which biscuit or cakes he preferred. They also knew when he was likely to arrive, and they made sure his table was clear well before his morning visit. The old man’s main companion was an old Labrador-Boxer cross named Soren. He lay outside under the awning below the café window with his back against the warm stucco wall. From his table the old man could see the dog’s legs splayed out across the pavement and he could keep an eye on him in case of pestering from other dogs or children. He had loosely tied Soren’s leash to a rail but, whether tied or not, he knew Soren was content to lie there with little interest in wandering. This Monday morning was the start of an unusually busy week for the old man. Besides his normal discussions with Monique and Dorothy, he was also about to meet someone new; someone who would engage him in intense discussions for some time to come.



Jarrod had stopped off for a coffee on his way to the library at the college where he was studying. He had been visiting the café regularly in the last few weeks for respite from study pressure. He was also charmed by its rambling familiarity and he liked observing the wide range of different people who came in. He strode confidently over to the counter and ordered a coffee. He was dressed in jeans and a black tee-shirt with a canvas bag slung over his shoulder. As he carried his coffee through the connecting arch, his tall lean body moved effortlessly into the new part of the Café where he picked out an empty table on the dark side against the inside wall. He sat down and pulled out a textbook from his shoulder bag. During several of Jarrod’s previous visits, while sipping his coffee and scanning the room, he had found his eyes drawn to this scruffily dressed old man in the corner by the window. He noticed how he sometimes had someone sitting with him and he had become increasingly curious about what they were discussing. At times he imagined the old man was a Marxist agitator and that his visitors were all part of his revolutionary cell. At other times he thought of them as relatives trying to convince him to move into a rest home; but that seemed unlikely given the quiet intensity of the conversations. On this morning, burning with inquisitiveness, Jarrod resolved to approach the old man and strike up a conversation and see if he could decipher more about him. “Excuse me,” he remarked politely, “would you have the time please?” The old man checked his watch. “Hmm… half eleven…” He lifted his gaze to look out the window. “Not a bad day out there.” “No, I mean yes… It’s great; a great day to be out.” “Ahh… out?” queries the old man as he looked back up at Jarrod. “What do you get up to in late summer when you’re ‘out’?” “Oh, I like to get out of the city, into the forests or by the sea. That’s where I’d go on a day like this.” “So why aren’t you there?” “I’m stuck with the first assignments of my course, I’m afraid. I’ve got to study; got to keep focused. I come in here for a break.” Jarrod stood awkwardly by the table, unsure whether the conversation had run its course. “You don’t have to keep standing there, young man. Sit down and tell me more about your studies.” Without any further hesitation Jarrod pulled the chair out opposite and slid nimbly into position. “By the way, I’m Jarrod,” he declared with a shy smile.



“Good morning Jarrod, I’m Bernard.” “So, what should I call you?” “Oh, I don’t particularly mind what you call me. You can call me ‘old man’ or ‘old codger’ or ‘Old Bernard’ for all I care.” “Bernard?” It had a nice ring to it. “Okay, Bernard… it’s good to meet you.” He felt slightly awkward talking this way to a stranger, particularly one much his senior. Bernard spotted Jarrod’s embarrassment and, in response, a myriad of wrinkles spread across his face as he smiled benignly back and reached out to shake Jarrod’s hand. Jarrod smiled back nervously unsure how to respond to Bernard’s off-­ hand references to youth and aging. “So, Jarrod, fill me in on what you’re studying?” “Oh, I’m in my third year of study for a communications degree at the College. This is my last semester; not long to go now, thank God.” “What? Don’t you like what you’re studying?” “No, I don’t mind it, but I want to move on. I want to get out and start doing things: earning a living, take on responsibilities, learning about the world… Study is all I’ve done so far.” The conversation continued and Jarrod found Bernard an attentive listener. He soon lost himself in free and open disclosure of a wide range of aspects of his life. He spoke about how he was brought up with his family in a small mining town over a hundred miles from this city, how he’d escaped from there to enroll in a degree, how he was having problems with the three other students with whom he shared an apartment, how he’d met and started dating an attractive young women… He was surprised how easy it was to talk candidly with this old man. None of the older members of his family had ever listened to him so closely. It felt like sailing out from an enclosed harbor into the wide-open sea. Then, suddenly, Jarrod paused and looked with horror at his watch. “Oh, drat, I’m late; I’ve missed my media lecture.” He frowned then in one athletic movement stood up, picked up his shoulder bag and turned to leave. Equally abruptly he halted and swiveled his head around. “Ah, Bernard, I’m sorry, I’m gonna have to take off now.” “Don’t apologize. It was good to hear all about what’s going on. Take care, and maybe we’ll carry this on another time.” * * *



Tuesday morning and Bernard had only just managed to settle at his table with a coffee and some papers when he glanced up to see the young man bounding directly toward him. “Ah, Jarrod, good to see you again.” Jarrod responded with a preoccupied nod and sat down opposite him. “Look, I’m sorry. I ended our conversation so rudely yesterday. It’s been bothering me ever since. I just had to call in to apologize.” “I understand,” stated Bernard as he took a first sip of his coffee. “It’s certainly not good to miss out on your classes.” “But it’s more than that. I only talked about myself; I didn’t ask you anything!” “No, truly, I was interested in what you had to say. My life’s so slow and boring compared to your’s.” Bernard beamed at him with a reassuring smile. “But, look, you ask me something, anything, and I’ll fill you in.” “Well…” Jarrod glanced down at the table. “I couldn’t help noticing all the papers and books you’re working through,” commented Jarrod hesitantly. “It’s like you’re studying for an exam?” “Oh no, I’m too old for that,” said Bernard, his chortle moving onto a raspy cough. Jarrod waited for his coughing to subside. “So, what are you reading?” “Well,” said Bernard leaning back and studying the young man carefully. “Well, it’s an important area for me.” He maintained a steady gaze. “Ever since I retired from work at the hospital, I’ve been pursuing a quest.” “A quest?” queried Jarrod with mind exploding with possibilities. “Yes, I’m on a quest to understand something better. I’ve wanted for some time to know what people are doing when they talk about spiritual encounters.” Jarrod paused. He had not expected this from the old man. The phrase ‘spiritual encounters’ buzzed around in his mind triggering off a wild range of associations. “Ah, I…” He was unclear as to how to respond. Bernard locked into his gaze and could see anxiety and uncertainty flickering across the young man’s face. “No, go on, say what you’re going to say.” “Hmm…. well, I’ve really no idea what you mean by ‘spiritual encounters’.” “Um, I understand them as small or large events when people feel they have formed some sort of connection with something bigger and more meaningful than their own individual lives.”



Jarrod paused again. He was feeling himself sliding on a slippery slope in a direction he did not wish to proceed. “A ‘connection’?” “Yes, a sense people have of being part of a wider spiritual or religious realm.” “Ah, look… I don’t mean to be rude, but… But don’t you think spiritual encounters are just ordinary explainable events which people have somehow persuaded themselves involve extra or special meanings?” “Maybe; maybe from the outside they don’t mean much, but inside, for people who have them, a spiritual encounter can be the most important event in their lives.” “But I can have important dreams or important ideas, or even important hallucinations. This doesn’t make them any more real.”2 Bernard cast a quizzical glance across the table. He was surprised by how frank this young man could be so early in their acquaintance. He seemed to have very strong views on this topic. Perhaps he needed to approach him from a different angle. “Before retiring, I worked as a doctor in the hospital specializing in helping people with terminal illnesses.” He took a long sip from his coffee. “So, for me, the focus was much more on caring than curing; we had no solutions except empathic listening and pain relief. This meant much more of our energy was focused on the mind and the soul. And, you know, over time, what impressed me the most was how important discussions of spirituality could be during this last period of life.” Jarrod shifted awkwardly in his seat and fiddled with a teaspoon. Bernard continued, “It didn’t matter whether they talked about spirituality in terms of God or the universe or nature or love, or even angels. Some had difficulty finding ways to speak. Some had never talked this way before. For others it was mixed up with sadness, grief and fear.” He stared intensely across at Jarrod. “But it seemed to me nearly everyone wanted to venture into this territory in some form or other… And what’s more, their talking had an effect. The more experience I had, the more I talking with them about spirituality, the more I saw it helping them find places of calm and meaning.” “But you have…” “Now, hold on,” interrupted Bernard softly. “Maybe the spirituality they talk of isn’t ‘real’ in the sense you were meaning. Maybe it’s made up; a reassuring fantasy or a comforting delusion… who knows. But I’m damn sure of one thing, in their situation, facing their ultimate removal from this



world, their talk of spirituality had a real impact; a realer impact than any of the pills and therapies we could offer.” “Okay, I see all that,” said Jarrod in a matching soft voice; “but your argument is unfair because you’ve focused on an extreme situation. Of course, things are different when you’re dying. But in everyday life, for most people, I don’t think spirituality matters that much.” “Hmm, since leaving the hospital and thinking more about this, I see it differently. I think our spiritual connections and our spiritual encounters are very important. And it concerns me deeply how seldom and how few opportunities people have to access that side of themselves.” Jarrod looked across at Bernard and could see the intensity burning in his eyes. He recognized this was not a good time to carry on disagreeing with this earnest old man. Perhaps there will be other times to argue it through. “Ah, well Bernard, all I can say is I beg to differ.” He leaned forward in his seat. “Look, I only meant to pop in briefly to apologize. Maybe we can continue this discussion another time?” * * * On Wednesday morning Bernard was sitting at his table half expecting Jarrod to reappear. He was genuinely interested in what the young man had to say because his life seemed full of many of the same issues and dilemmas that he grappled with at a similar age. He sensed someone’s presence and looked up to see the slim, fit figure of Monique standing over him. Monique, a woman in her mid-thirties, had first met Bernard about three months earlier. They had struck up a conversation after her eight-­ year-­old daughter had taken an interest in the old man who kept smiling at her as she ran around the tables. Since then she had made a point of calling in after dropping her two children off at school. She was always pleased to find Bernard by himself and had no hesitation in approaching his table for a one-to-one chat. She placed her chamomile tea down on the table and lowered her large handbag onto the window ledge. “Whew, it’s still quite warm out there.” “How’s it going at home?” enquired Bernard. “Oh, all’s good. The kids have both settled in well with their teachers and they’re fit and healthy. John’s been promoted, which keeps him happy, but it does involve him travelling out of town more often.”



Her husband was a practical man who seldom indulged in talking about his inner feelings. He considered such talk idle chatter and much preferred conversations with a task focus. Lacking the opportunity for intimate chats at home, Monique felt drawn to visit and mix with her friends, partly as a shelter from her busy day and partly as a space for intimate discussions. Also, since having children, she had decided to leave her work as a counselor at a local mental health service, a job she had found challenging and rewarding, and this had furthered her interest in adult company. Of all her talking buddies she found her conversations with Bernard most rewarding, particularly since he engaged so willingly and patiently in conversations that traversed so many issues, including local politics, the care of the elderly, literary novels and, of course, spirituality. “But I guess the promotion helps the finances,” remarked Bernard. “And your new practice? How’s that going?” “Ah, I’ve now picked up a couple of regular clients in the afternoons, and I seem to be getting some new referrals, enough to keep things ticking over.” With both children at school, Monique had commandeered the back room in their home to open her own counseling practice. For now, it was only part time, mostly in the afternoons, but she was aiming for the number of sessions to increase over the next year. She was also hoping to contain it enough to preserve time for her talking buddies. “And, how’s your reading going?” “Ah, I took your advice and read through that book on mysticism; very interesting; I liked the way he spoke about transcendence.” Over the last month their conversations had focused increasingly on spirituality. She was gradually feeling more confident about sharing her ideas and spiritual insights. For reasons she did not fully understand, she had not previously discussed these interests with other people, but with Bernard she was feeling increasingly more comfortable. On this morning, following a brisk walk through the park, her spirits were more buoyant than usual, and she felt ready to push their discussion to a new level. “I’ve been meaning to tell you about this for some time.” She jiggled her tea bag then took a careful sip from the rim of her cup. “I’d like to talk about an experience I had when I, I think I was sixteen… um, seventeen or eighteen… eighteen maybe.” Bernard nodded encouragingly without commenting.



“I used to wander about in a local forest by myself on Sundays—I know all the tracks, it’s not very big. If I walked slowly, I could easily spend three hours or more wandering in it. I enjoyed walking under the trees… watching the light on the leaves and listening to the birds. It wouldn’t take long and my worries would fade away. I remember getting to a part which is about an-hour-and-a-half in… It was a point at which there’s a bend in the stream… And, quite unexpectedly, this feeling came across me… a feeling of, um, the beauty and intricacy of the place. I could hear the tinkle of the stream, I could smell the rotting leaves—a powerful, warm, rich smell— and I could hear the sound of the trees gently… you know—it was a windy day above… The trees went swish, and the sunlight was coming through green and gold behind the swaying leaves…” “Yes, I know what you mean.” “And then, all of a sudden, I felt a sense of something welling up within me… It was a sense of… of… you know… I didn’t know what to call it. It would be a long time before I read anything about it and the only word that popped into my head, at the time, was ‘love’… I felt totally in love with everything; as if I’d become part of the tree next to me, as though I’d been absorbed into the ground and had become part of the earth, roots, sap and trees around me… I felt completely in love as though I had become one with everything… At that point I think I actually hugged a tree fern… Pretty crazy, eh. It was a very strong sense that lasted maybe, I’m not sure, twenty minutes or so, and ‘love’ was the only word I could think of to describe it.” As Monique finished, they both sat silently staring out the window. Her body felt as though it was floating, and her mind was spinning with excitement. It was a great relief to finally share what she had recounted privately over in her mind many times before. But her relief was also tinged by some embarrassment. She glanced awkwardly down at the table. “I’m sorry; the way I said all that was fairly rough. It’s crude; it doesn’t in any way capture what it was really like.” “I think you did fine,” stated Bernard reassuringly. “And I’d really like to speak with you about it some more. There’s plenty in what you’ve said that I can help you explore further.” * * * On Thursday morning, after tying Soren up to the rail, Bernard was looking forward to a quiet morning reading through his notes and papers. He



sat down with his coffee and biscuit, gazed contentedly out at the passers­by and reflected on the conversations from earlier in the week. He had felt somewhat overwhelmed by the intensity of the discussions with both Jarrod and Monique. He was comfortable now to just sit without interruptions and think over what they had covered. But his reflections halted abruptly: this was Thursday morning; the time when Dorothy would usually drop by. Sure enough, at ten-thirty, punctual as usual, he could see Dorothy making her way toward his table. “Hi Bernie,” greeted Dorothy as she deposited the bag she was carrying under the table, sat down and began stirring her coffee. Dorothy was a distinguished-looking woman in his early sixties. Her neat dress suit, tasteful jewelry and colorful scarf contrasted with Bernard’s shabby appearance. She worked as an accountant two buildings up the street in a busy partnership with two other accountants. At least once a week she liked to drop by Café Capri to take a break from her accounts, particularly as her aging eyesight was straining increasingly at picking out numbers across the spreadsheets. “Dorothy, you’re looking in particularly good nick today,” stated Bernard cheerfully. Indeed, she was proud of the way she looked. Each day she commuted by train to work from an outlying suburb and the half-hour or so of walk to-and-from the train contributed to her fitness along with her weekend preoccupations of gardening and hiking. She lived with her husband in a comfortable home and, while all three of her children were still at home, as young adults they were busy building their lives elsewhere. This enabled her and her husband time to indulge in their passions for healthy eating and maintaining their fitness. “Ah Bernie, right now I do feel on top of my game. But, I must admit, I’m not so sure about the future.” “So, you’re still wondering what life holds for you once you retire?” “Well, yes; it’s less than three years away. I need to make plans for setting up my new routines.” Dorothy had known Bernard for many years. They first met at the hospital where he had been the physician in charge of care for his mother as she died from liver cancer. She was exceedingly grateful for the supportive and attentive care that Bernard had provided to both her and the rest of his family. She could also recall overhearing some of his conversations with his mother. She could distinctly remember the calm and gentle manner



with which he talked her through her anxieties about dying and her uncertainties about the afterlife. Bernard too remembers Dorothy from this time. This all happened close to his retirement. She struck him as a compassionate woman, someone truly devoted to others in her life, and he was impressed with the genuine care and respect she displayed toward her mother as her cancer took hold. Sometime after her mother’s funeral and after he had retired from the hospital, they had run into each other in the street and it was Dorothy who had first suggested they establish a regular time for meeting up. “Ah Dorothy, I don’t think you’d have any trouble with routines. You’ve always been good at them. What I’d be more concerned about is how meaningful you’d find them.” “Hmm, certainly, that is more what worries me. I don’t want to do things just for the sake of keeping occupied. I want to do things that make a difference and be appreciated. I could do more gardening and help more with church events, but these are more like hobbies. They’re not sufficient to frame up why I get out of bed in the morning.” “Yeah, I faced the same fears when I retired,” admitted Bernard. “But I found my quest to understand spirituality has provided me with more than enough in terms of a core direction. I think you just need to keep thinking about what it is that most matters to you.” “I dunno. It’s like a big black hole,” stated Dorothy glumly. “Ah, Dorothy, I tell you what.” He looked up at her with an earnest and concerned expression. “I’ve managed to learn a few things that I think you’d find really helpful. If it’s okay with you, I’d like to share some of them with you.”

Notes 1. The five characters in this book are composites of features derived from many people I have known. I have in no way modeled the characters on any particular individual. During the writing of the book, whenever inadvertent resemblances to a person I have known are detected, I have sought to water down the similarity by introducing unrelated characteristics. Accordingly, any resemblance to a particular person, whether dead or alive, is purely coincidental.



2. The reality of these experiences throw up a range of philosophical issues which are summarised in books such as William Alston, Perceiving God (Cornell University Press, 1991), Keith Yandall, The Epistemology of Religious Experience (Cambridge University Press, 1993) and Keith Ward, The Big Questions in Science and Religion (Pennsylvania: Templeton Foundation Press, 2008).


Describing Encounters

Bernard looked out through the café window. It was autumn and the plane trees outside had turned to shades of brown and gold. He glanced back across the table to find his friend Dorothy had settled into the seat opposite and was sipping a cup of coffee. It was time for their Thursday morning catch-up. “You know, Dorothy, a number of people have talked to me about having major spiritual encounters early in their lives. I have felt very privileged when they share these experiences, and I’m striving to understand better what they’re talking about.” “Well, Bernie, I don’t think I’ve ever had one of those intense spiritual or mystical moments, or whatever you call them. I know some people do have them, but they’ve never really hit me.” “Many people refer to them as ‘religious experiences’ or ‘mystical experiences’… they’re the most common labels.”1 Bernard sipped the froth off the top of his coffee. “But others have come up with a range of other imaginative labels.” He wiped his lips and sat back in his seat. “Like, over a hundred years ago, Richard Bucke spoke of them as ‘cosmic consciousness’; and a little later—and I like this one— Sigmund Freud spoke of them as ‘oceanic consciousness’… Marghanita Laski talked of them as ‘transcendental ecstasy’ and… oh yes, and then there’s Abraham Maslow who talked of them as ‘peak experiences’, and Agehananda Bharati who called them, mysteriously, ‘the zero experience’.”2 © The Author(s) 2020 P. J. Adams, How to Talk About Spiritual Encounters,




“Good grief Bernie, how on earth can you remember all that?” “I told you, I’ve been studying them for some time.” He looked down and sipped at the rim of his coffee cup. “Since retiring, I’ve been reading anything that I can lay my hands on. And, you know what I’ve found?” He gazed up at Dorothy from under his eyebrows. “I’ve found a massive number of books on them, all with very different ways of describing and thinking about them.” “Hmm, it’s kind of a pity we don’t have a common way of talking; but, on the other hand, I guess each label brings with it a different set of meanings and associations, and, I suppose, these differences can be important.” “Yeah, that’s right, not everyone wants them to be narrowed down to experiences associated with organized religions; others prefer more general and mysterious labels.”3 “Um, but Bernie, as you know, I’m a regular church-goer. I realize it’s not fashionable, but for me the Church, I mean the Episcopalian Church, is what it’s all about.” She glanced across and spotted the hint of a smile on Bernard’s lips. “You old devil, you’re winding me up.” She frowned and looked away. “Look, me and my husband have been going to church every week since we were married thirty-eight years ago. For us religion is a serious matter.” “Yes, Dorothy, I know, and I respect that. While I’m not a church-goer myself, I can appreciate how important it can be. But I also think there are other ways.” “Okay, okay… but, Bernie, whatever labels you prefer, how do you understand what people mean when they talk of religious experiences or spiritual encounters—or whatever else you call them?” “Ah, interesting you should ask. Over the last two years, that just happens to be one of the areas I’ve been exploring.” He paused and looked vacantly up at the ceiling. “I’m not sure I can answer it straight off… but I can provide a sort of answer by showing you something.” He leaned across to his battered satchel that sat slumped on an empty chair and pulled out a scruffy blue ring-binder overflowing with sheets of paper. He also pulled out a small tatty case out of which he pulled a thick pair of brown rimmed reading glasses. He mounted the glasses half-way down his nose, bent forwards, opened the ring-binder then began rustling through its well-thumbed pages. “What’s that, Bernie?” “Ah, well, this is a collection I’ve built up… of authors writing about their encounters. They’re… um… now, I know I’ve got a good example



somewhere… here, here, this one.” He unclipped the rings and lifted out a page so he could read it more clearly in the light from the window. The faded page had been typed out on an old portable typewriter many years before. “Now listen to this… I think you’ll like it. It’s by a Unitarian minister, John Trevor, describing his encounter about a hundred years ago.” Bernard cleared his throat, angled the page to improve the illumination and began reading it slowly and carefully. One brilliant Sunday morning, my wife and boys went to the Unitarian Chapel in Macclesfield. I felt it impossible to accompany them - as though to leave the sunshine on the hills, and go down there to the chapel, would be for the time an act of spiritual suicide. And I felt such need for new inspiration and expansion in my life. So, very reluctantly and sadly, I left my wife and boys to go down into the town, while I went further up into the hills with my stick and my dog. In the loveliness of the morning, and the beauty of the hills and valleys, I soon lost my sense of sadness and regret.

He coughed again to clear his throat and straightened out the page. For nearly an hour I walked along the road to the “Cat an ̓ Fiddle,” and then returned. On the way back, suddenly, without warning, I felt that I was in Heaven - an inward state of peace and joy and assurance indescribably intense, accompanied with a sense of being bathed in a warm glow of light, as though the external condition had brought about the internal effect - a feeling of having passed beyond the body, though the scene around me stood out more clearly and as if nearer to me than before, by reason of the illumination in the midst of which I seemed to be placed. This deep emotion lasted, though with decreasing strength, until I reached home, and for some time after, only gradually passing away.4

Bernard paused and glanced across at Dorothy, “Well?” “Bernie, that was lovely… It sounded such a beautifully profound experience.” “Yes, I find the passage quite moving… And can you pick out some of the key features? Some of what is typical of such encounters?” “Well, he speaks of ‘the loveliness of the morning’ and ‘an inward state of peace.’ To me he’s clearly talking about something that is exceedingly joyful, perhaps even ecstatic.”



“Ah ha,” nodded Bernard approvingly. “His experience certainly does appear to involve intense positive emotions.5 And what else?” “Hmm. Well, I guess he’s talking about it happening ‘without warning’; it seemed he didn’t plan it; he didn’t set out expecting it to occur—it just happened.” “Yes, that’s right, he was a passive recipient.6 Anything else? Anything about the timing?” “Nah, I can’t… ah… well, it was all over and done with by the time he reached home. I suppose it must’ve taken less than an hour, maybe only half-an-hour. In the scheme of things, it was relatively brief.” “Hmm, brief and transient7; that’s how most these encounters tend to be… go on, anything else? … Any other features? … No?… Well what do you make of his use of the word ‘indescribable’?” “Ah, yes, I guess he means it’s hard to put into words. And, indeed, what he says is very vague; as though he’s working hard, or perhaps struggling to find some way of describing it. He talks of ‘Heaven’ and ‘a warm glow of light’: these seem to me very slippery ideas.” “I agree. Like most people seem to find, he found his encounter difficult to describe; most people say something about them being ‘ineffable’ or ‘inexpressible’.8 But look, there’s a couple of other features that are worth noting.” “Okay… but, I thought I was doing pretty good.” Dorothy looked up and grimaced as though trying to squeeze an idea from her mind. “Nope, I can’t think of anything else… Give me a clue?” “All right, I’ll help you by reading another description.” He fumbled through his ring-binder and pulled out another page and placed it under the window light. “Now this is an encounter described by Sir Alister Hardy, an Oxford professor with an intense interest in this topic. Listen to it and see if you can spot another feature”: One day as I was walking along Marylebone Road I was suddenly seized with an extraordinary sense of great joy and exaltation, as though a marvelous beam of spiritual power had shot through me linking me in a rapture with the world, the Universe, Life with a capital L, and all the beings around me. All delight and power, all things living, all time fused in a brief second.9

“Hmm… That’s a shorter description,” remarked Dorothy, “but just as expressive.” “What other things did you notice?” “Well, he certainly talks of it happening unexpectedly and it sounds like it was brief, joyful and difficult to describe.” She took a long sip of coffee



then stared distantly out the window. “I guess with both descriptions they’re describing it as an encounter with something real. I mean they don’t consider it like a dream or a hallucination. They see themselves as actually connecting with something; that guy Trevor talked of it as ‘an illumination’, and Hardy of it as ‘the Universe, Life’. This suggests they were both discovering something real.” “You mean they saw their encounters as genuinely informative?”10 “Yeah, they’re finding out something real, meaningful and profound.” “Right, and another writer, William James, calls this feature ‘noumenal’, meaning by this that the person feels they are discovering something that is fundamentally true and informative in itself—as true as anything else in their lives.” Bernard paused and flicked at a fly circling around his coffee cup. “It’s always struck me as impressive that though William James was writing about these encounters over a hundred years ago, even today his writing is still one of the clearest works on the topic. He’d already identified the four key features we’ve discussed so far.” “Bernie, you really are becoming an expert on such matters,” said Dorothy with a puzzled expression. “But I don’t think I’ve ever had strong encounters like this.” “Really?” queried Bernard as he looked up with a surprised expression. “I’ve always considered you a deeply spiritual person.” “No, I’ve never had visions, or totally immersive experiences… or bolts of light from above. Hearing people describe these makes me feel I’ve been missing out. My spiritual awareness is much more mundane. I just have this ongoing sense of something there… kind of a spiritual presence.” “A presence?” “I’m not sure how to explain it… I feel it most strongly when I’m working in my garden. But, even then, it’s only a vague awareness, and it’s much the same as what I feel generally…” “Go on. Tell me more about how it seems.” “Okay, I’ll try.” She leaned forward and looked up at the wall opposite. “In my garden, as I lift the earth, as I plant a bush, as I watch the light dancing on the leaves, I just have this on-going and indescribable sense of something divine; a sense of an abiding spiritual presence wrapped all around me… It’s very reassuring but it never seems like a thing or a person. It’s just a presence; always there and looking after me.” “Well, that sounds like some sort of spiritual encounter.” “Hmm, maybe. But it’s not definite. It’s not strong and overwhelming. It’s not like Saint Paul on the road to Damascus where a blinding light



knocked him off his horse. It’s more like tuning into a distant radio station: a signal that’s always there but, depending on my involvements during the day, my internal tuner scans in and out of reception.” They both laugh. “I dunno, forgive me mixing metaphors, but I see this awareness more as an ongoing dimension of how I experience things rather than the time-bound sort of encounters that your other friends were talking about.”11 “Okay, I get what you’re talking about.” Bernard began rummaging through his ring-binder again. “And I’ve got another description in here… yes, here it is,” he unclipped another crumpled sheet and raised it to the light. “It’s part of an account by H. G. Wells, you know, the novelist who wrote ‘The Time Machine’, and he…” “… I know who he is.” “Okay, okay… sorry.” He cleared his throat and began reading. At times in the silence of the night and in rare lonely moments, I come upon a sort of communion of myself and something great that is not myself. It is perhaps poverty of mind and language which obliges me to say that this universal scheme takes on the effect of a sympathetic Person—and my communion a quality of fearless worship. These moments happen, and they are the supreme fact of my religious life to me; they are the crown of my religious experience.12

“Yeah, that’s more like it,” declared Dorothy. “That’s more like how I find it; more like I’m constantly ‘communing’ with some-thing, some presence, some… Funny to think of a science fiction author writing this way.” “Also, notice the way he talks of ‘rare lonely moments’ and a ‘poverty of mind and language’ and ‘the supreme fact’; all features William James had identified. However, there’s something James didn’t recognize but has been recognized by another writer, William Stace, sixty years later. H. G. Wells refers to it here as a ‘communion of myself and something great’ and Stace referred to it more generally as ‘a sense of unity’.13 You can pick it also in the earlier descriptions—Trevor’s connection to ‘Heaven’ and Hardy’s link to ‘the Universe’. It’s a sense in these encounters of being strongly connected or even immersed into some great otherness.”14 “Hmm, I see what you mean… I guess it’s kind of that sense of unity and oneness I feel when I get spiritually tuned-in while gardening.”



“But there’s another way I’ve heard people talking about this sense of unity, and that’s more a unity with your insides than with something outside or other.” Bernard flipped further into his ring-binder. “Um… Here, this is how a writer on Eastern mysticism, Alan Watts, describes it”: When I leave the Church and the city behind and go out under the sky, when I am with the birds, for all their voraciousness, with the clouds, for all their thunders, and with the oceans, for all their tempests and submerged monsters—I cannot feel Christianly because I am in a world which grows from within. I am simply incapable of feeling its life as coming from above, from beyond the stars, even recognizing this to be a figure of speech.

He glanced up, his eyes twinkling, to check Dorothy was attending. More exactly, I cannot feel that its life comes from Another, from one who is qualitatively and spiritually external to all that lives and grows. On the contrary, I feel this whole world to be moved from the inside, and from an inside so deep that it is my inside as well, more truly than my surface consciousness.15

Dorothy thought about the description for a few moments. “I see, so he’s talking of tuning into something deep within, and not to some abiding other, like God… I can see how he might want to approach it that way. But for me this option is too abstract, too impersonal. Since God is always there as this abiding other, I can have an ongoing relationship with Him; a relationship full of all the dialogue and passion that I have with any of my other important relationships.” “Aha, but I kind of like the way Watt’s makes this inner connection intrinsic to all other aspects of the self,” commented Bernard as he closed the ring-binder and returned it to his satchel. Dorothy attempted to spoon the froth from the bottom of her coffee cup. “So, Bernie, putting this all together, these six features—positive emotions, inexpressibility, transience, passivity, informativeness… and, oh yes, this outer or inner sense of unity—they are what you’d use to identify a spiritual encounter?” “Ah, but not all descriptions of these encounters will have all these features. Some descriptions might only refer to a couple of these. But, I



think, if you get a chance to encourage people to describe them more fully, you’d probably find they’d refer to the majority of these features.” * * * The following Monday, as Bernard settled at the table and placed his books and papers before him, Jarrod bustled into Café Capri keen for a coffee and a chat. “Jarrod, great to see you,” welcomed Bernard. Jarrod nodded then slid into the seat opposite. “I’ve got a break for a couple of hours, so I thought I’d call in.” “Good. Now tell me, how’s all that study of yours going?” “Fine, final exams coming up,” said Jarrod looking enquiringly at Bernard’s papers. “But it looks like you’re more into study than me?” “Oh, yes,” laughed Bernard. “Yes, that’s right, this is my study, but I don’t have to sit any exams.” “Okay, so what’re you studying today?” “I’ve been reading through my collection of people describing their spiritual encounters.” Jarrod sat quietly for a moment remembering back to earlier conversations. He wanted to avoid unnecessary argument with the old man, but he also wanted him to appreciate his disdain for spiritual matters. He looked up and asked, “Oh, you mean like how people have encounters with spirits and ghosts and gods, and that sort of thing?” “Hmm, sort of,” replied Bernard, unruffled by the sarcasm. “But less to do with specific objects and more to do with how they experience spiritual moments.” “Huh, ‘spiritual moments’? Surely you mean when they’ve convinced themselves their sensing objects in some other realm?” Bernard paused and glanced across at Jarrod. “Hmm, perhaps it’s best if I read you an example.” He leaned across and pulled out the tatty blue ring-binder from out of his satchel and put on his reading glasses. “Now, I’m going to read you a description of a spiritual encounter as described by an Irish writer, Forrest Reid.” It was as if I had never realized before how lovely the world was. I lay down on my back in the warm, dry moss and listened to the skylark singing as it mounted up from the fields near the sea into the dark clear sky. No other music ever gave me the same pleasure as that passionately joyous



singing. It was a kind of leaping, exultant ecstasy, a bright, flame-like sound, rejoicing in itself. And then a curious experience befell me. It was as if everything that had seemed to be external and around me were suddenly within me. The whole world seemed to be within me. It was within me that the trees waved their green branches, it was within me that the skylark was singing, it was within me that the hot sun shone, and that the shade was cool. A cloud rose in the sky, and passed in a light shower that pattered on the leaves, and I felt its freshness dropping into my soul, and I felt in all my being the delicious fragrance of the earth and the grass and the plants and the rich brown soil. I could have sobbed with joy.16

Jarrod had sat politely listening to the description. “It sounds all very nice.” “Nice? What does ‘nice’ mean?” “Well I don’t know. I can relate to all the natural features—the trees waving, the bird singing, the rain pattering—but I can’t see why on earth he’s talked about ‘leaping ecstasy’ and ‘freshness dropping into my soul.’ I mean, those bits spoil it for me; they sound like mumbo-jumbo, like he’s gone ever-so-slightly bonkers.” “But why doubt it? To him this encounter was meaningful and real. He was using all his skills as a writer to capture something that had genuinely happened to him. Why do you need to doubt it?” “Okay, he might think it’s real, but it could be happening for all sorts of other reasons than an actual experience. Perhaps he’d been taking some psychedelic drugs earlier in the day and they were making him hallucinate. Maybe he was having some sort of brain event, like an epileptic seizure. I’ve read somewhere that seizures from the side lobes of the brain, the temporal lobes, can trigger all sorts of weird and wonderful experiences.”17 “I think it would be highly unlikely that either of those were happening. He’s describing a common experience; so common that it’s unlikely to coincide with those events.” “Okay, then maybe it is a common experience—an interesting and powerful experience—but one I’ve not had.” Jarrod was speaking with increasing emphasis. “But it’s the added bits I can’t accept. Sure, he’s having a very pleasant experience, but it’s all the extra meanings and interpretations I have trouble with.”



“So how would you explain why he is so confident he’s encountering something real?” “I just think that, maybe through evolution, our psyche has just become hard-wired to interpret things we find hard to explain in terms of this grand other realm. It’s just a natural tendency. Whenever we run into things that seem mysterious and inexplicable, we project the cause out to some unknown other realm. Humankind has done this from earliest times… but it doesn’t mean this other realm actually exists.”18 “All right, I’m willing to accept that you see what Forrest Reid has encountered as something contrived and not real. I personally don’t see it that way; but I can accept that you might see it as such. But, don’t you think it’s still rather interesting? Interesting that people speak this way and talk as though these encounters really matter to them?” Jarrod stared blankly across the room. “Hmm, I suppose, if I kind of put the reality of these encounters to one side, I can see they might be interesting and perhaps worth exploring a bit further.” “Great, well, that’s exactly what I’ve been doing. I’ve been closely examining how people describe these encounters as a way of learning more about them. Whether or not they refer to anything real can be left to each person to decide.” Jarrod sat in silence pondering the last statement. He gazed across at the old man with a look of admiration. He was amazed at his tenacity for taking on such a challenge this late in his life. “It sounds to me like a very big job.” “It is; and not one I’m ever going to complete. It might take decades, even centuries to make real progress. But I’m reassured to know that many other people are embarking on a similar quest; I’m not the only one.” “So, are you connecting up with any of these other people?” “Well, actually, I have connected with one key person; a young woman called Jonella Hurst; she’s taking this topic on as a serious area of study.” “How did you hook up with her?” “Since retiring I’ve been reading and studying up all I can get my hands regarding this topic. This led me on frequent visits to the university library to look up hard-to-find books on spirituality. I’d been there a few times and I’d noticed this young woman hovering around the same shelves. Eventually, as I passed, I said hello and we started chatting. In no time at all, I found out she was passionate about the same topic… then, to avoid disturbing other readers, we used to go out for coffee breaks.” “Oh Bernard, chatting up young women in the library, how corny,” teased Jarrod.



“No, no, it wasn’t anything like that,” Bernard declared defensively. He grinned as he realized, he was being taunted. “That’s what young men like you are into; I view her more as a colleague than a prospect… Anyway, as we were having coffee, she told me she was planning to enroll in a PhD with this topic as her central focus.” His grin spread into a broad smile that lit up his wrinkled face. “Can you imagine how excited I was to find someone with a similar passion? I was exceedingly keen to keep connected, so I now go one afternoon a week to the university to discuss her project. It was early in her planning, so I’ve had considerable input into how she’s conducting her research. She has her formal supervisors, but they’re not so critically interested in the topic. I’m the one who’s having the most input. It’s been such fun. And I’ve offered to help her with any aspect of her research; to help her even with the boring stuff.” “Hmm, that sounds exciting. So, does she think these encounters involve connections with anything real?” Bernard’s smile collapsed into a puzzled frown. “Actually, I’ve never asked her that. I sense she sees them as real, at least real to the people who have them… But I’ve never asked. Maybe, as we said before, you can treat them as important even if you don’t fully believe in the reality they’re describing.”

Notes 1. Early writers on the topic tended to prefer what William Inge, Christian Mysticism (London: Methuen, 1948, 1899) referred to as “mystical experience” and what William James, Varieties of Religious Experience (New York: Longmans, 1902) referred to as “religious experience.” The choice here seemed to vary in the extent to which writers feel comfortable discussing them in religious contexts. 2. The sources for the labels discussed here are Richard Bucke’s, Cosmic Consciousness (New York: Dutton & Co, 1923, 1901), Sigmund Freud’s “oceanic consciousness” in The Future of an Illusion (London: Hogarth Press, 1928), Marghanita Laski’s “transcendental ecstasy” in Ecstasy: A Study of Some Secular and Religious Experiences (London: Cresset Press, 1961), Abraham Maslow’s “peak experience” in Religions, Values and Peak-­Experiences (Ohio State University Press, 1964) and Agehananda Bharati’s “the zero experience” in The Light at the Centre (London: EastWest, 1976). 3. In conducting a search of libraries, despite the broad range of potential terms, the three most preferred labels by far were “religious experience,” “mystical experience” and “spiritual encounters.” For the purposes of this book, the term “religious experience” will not be used because of its more



exclusive implied relationship with organized religions. Those people without affiliations to any organized religion, especially those with negative past experiences of religious organizations, tend to have troubles with the word “religious.” The term “mystical” is also problematic because it is often confused with paranormal phenomena. This book has opted for the more neutral and inclusive term, “spiritual encounters.” 4. John Trevor, My Quest for God (London: Labour Prophet Office, 1897) pp. 268–269. 5. The place of these intensely positive emotions is variously described as “joy” by writers such as Raynour Johnson, The Imprisoned Splendour (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1953) and M. Laski (op. cit.). 6. This quality of “passivity” is outlined by W. James (op. cit.), Evelyn Underhill, Mysticism: A Study in the Nature and Development of Man’s Spiritual Consciousness (London: Methuen, 1911) and James Leuba, The Psychology of Religious Mysticism (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1972, 1925). 7. The quality of “transience” is discussed by William James (op. cit.) and Wayne Proudfoot, Religious Experience (University of California Press, 1985). 8. I have opted for the term “inexpressible,” but this feature has also been extensively discussed as “ineffability” by writers such as W. James (op. cit.), Louis Dupre, The Deeper Life (New York: Crossroad, 1981) and Robert Ellwood, Mysticism and Religion (New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, 1980). 9. Alister Hardy, The Spiritual Nature of Man (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1979) p. 1. 10. The feature of being informative or possessing a “noetic quality” is emphasized in works by W.  James (op. cit.), R.  Bucke (op. cit.) and Rudolph Otto, The Idea of the Holy (Oxford University Press, 1958, 1923). 11. I am grateful to Judy Holt for introducing me to the concept of dimensional versus episodic religious experience as described in her doctoral dissertation Religious Experience (Unpublished PhD Dissertation, Boston University, 1986). 12. H. G. Wells, First and Last Things (London: Cassell, 1917) p. 56. 13. See W. Stace (op. cit.). 14. The external “sense of unity,” sometimes referred to as “apprehension of unity,” was documented in M. Laski (op. cit.), W.  Stace (op. cit.) and A. Maslow (op. cit.). The internal “sense of unity,” or “unitary consciousness,” is discussed by W. Stace (op. cit.) and R. Margolis and K. Elifson, “A typology of religious experience,” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion (18;1, 61–7, 1979). 15. Alan Watts, Does It Matter? (New York: Pantheon, 1970) p. 37.



16. Forest Reid, Following Darkness (London: Arnold, 1902) p. 42. 17. The potential involvement of the brain and spiritual encounters was summarised in D.  Nichols and B.  Chemel, “The neuropharmacology of ­religious experience,” in Where God and Science Meet, P. McNamara, ed. (Westport CT: Praeger, 2006). 18. A growing literature is emerging on the debate regarding the relevance of evolutionary theory in explaining our propensity for spiritual encounters and religious beliefs. Summaries of this literature can be found in Robert Wright, The Evolution of God (London: Little, Brown & Co., 2009) and John Shook, The God Debates (Chichester: Wiley Blackwell, 2010).


Trouble Talking

A cold wind was sweeping down the street, grabbing hold of bundles of leaves and casting them in flurries across the shop fronts. Monique paused before the café entrance. She stomped her feet and slapped her gloved hands together as she watched Bernard progressing slowly against the wind. She could see he was wrapped tight in a brown great-coat and a tartan scarf around his neck. A striped woolen hat sat oddly perched on his head with tufts of white hair poking out either side. He walked stiffly as though many of the bones in his legs had fused together with the cold. She waved to him as he looked up after tying Soren’s leash to the railing. “Is he gonna be okay out here?” Bernard nodded. “He’ll be just fine. It’s nice and sheltered up against the window.” They walked through the entrance to the café and Monique helped him take off his coat and hang it up on the row of hangers behind the door. She ordered a coffee and a chamomile tea then proceeded to guide him across to sit at the table by the window. Bernard stretched out his stiff arms and caressed his cold hands. “It’s not getting any easier,” he muttered. Their drinks arrived. Monique warmed her hands on the side of the cup then looked up across to Bernard and asked quietly, “You know how some time back I told you about my spiritual encounter in the forest?” He nodded. “Hmm, yes, I remember you talking of being overwhelmed by your love for a tree-fern.” He smiled benignly. © The Author(s) 2020 P. J. Adams, How to Talk About Spiritual Encounters,




“Well I just wondered, from what you’ve read, how often are people likely to have encounters like that?” Bernard raised his head and stared past her at the condensation on the windows. “Hmm… that’s tricky, particularly since everyone has a different idea of what qualifies as one. Some writers reckon they’re reasonably commonplace event. For example, John Cohen and John-Francis Phipps wrote about it as ‘the common experience’. They go so far as to declare that everyone is capable, and most people are likely to have them.”1 “So, what I had, that would probably qualify?” queried Monique. “Certainly, at least according to their criteria. But other people would disagree about them being that common. For example, Richard Bucke argued that truly spiritual encounters, in their highest form of what he called ‘cosmic consciousness’, occur for very few people; perhaps as frequently as once per century.”2 He leaned over to his leather satchel and pulled out his glasses case and a crinkled black notebook then thumbed vigorously through its pages. Monique was immediately curious. She had not seen this notebook before and wondered what precious information it might hold. Bernard noticed her stare and raised the book slightly. “Ah, this is where I record all the interesting stuff I find from my reading.” He resumed flipping through its pages and muttered, “I’m sure I’ve noted it down somewhere… Ah, here it is: Agehananda Bharati claimed, ‘The zero-experience comes to those to whom it comes, regardless of what they do; it also comes, I believe, to those few who try very hard over a long period of time.’”3 “Hmm, but that’s really confusing,” groaned Monique. “Both common and not common?” “Yeah, I know, and that’s all because of problems with putting these experiences into words. Our main struggle is with the language.” He leaned back in his chair and glanced across at Monique. “But, as far as I can work out, most people tend to have some form of spiritual encounter sometime in their lives.” “Um, but how do you know that? I mean, people don’t run around shouting about them.” “Yeah, that’s right.” He leaned forward and picked up his crumpled notebook again. “One way we know about this is through doing surveys. There’s been a number of national telephone surveys which have asked people directly about them.” He put on his glasses and shuffled through the notebook’s pages. “Here, sometime ago, Andrew Greeley conducted



a national survey in the United States and found that out of the thirty-five percent who admitted to having had a ‘religious experience’, around half indicated it had happened to them only ‘once or twice’, a third said ‘several times’ leaving only fourteen percent who said it happened ‘often’.”4 “Hmm, thirty-five percent said they’d had these encounters…” pondered Monique. “Yes, and that was with a stranger phoning them up and asking them cold.” Bernard looked back down at his notebook. “And for Britain, here’s what another national survey found: of the thirty-six percent who admitted having these experiences, half indicated ‘once or twice’, twenty-­ eight percent ‘several times’, seventeen percent ‘often’ and six percent ‘all the time’.”5 “Gosh, they got very similar results as the US survey… surprising when in England there’s fewer and fewer people going to church.” “Hmm, that is curious. Furthermore, the researchers found, when they took more time to build some rapport, the number of people admitting to such experiences went up.6 What’s more, one of the researchers, David Hay, took this one step further by moving from telephone interviews to interviewing people face-to-face in their homes. He sat down with around a hundred people from the British survey and spent an hour talking openly with them about spirituality. To his surprise, the proportion of people admitting to having had these encounters almost doubled to sixty-two percent.”7 “So, if he’d talked longer, he may have found even more?” “Perhaps; but what I find really interesting is that, of those who acknowledged having had an encounter, as high as one quarter had never disclosed this to anyone else before—some didn’t even tell their lifelong partners. What’s more, this proportion rose to one third when partly disclosed encounters were included.” “That’s extraordinary. So, you mean a man in his sixties, married for forty years, mightn’t even tell his wife about these amazing encounters?” “Ah ha.” “I understand it’s not easy to talk about them,” said Monique as she sipped at her tea. “So, I’m not the only one who struggles to describe them.” “Nope, you’re one in a large group of people who struggle with expression.” Bernard returned to flipping through the well-thumbed pages of his notebook. “Um, here’s some of what people told David Hay when he asked about talking to other people: an eighteen-year-old factory worker said, ‘Never! Just laugh at me; well they’d probably listen but they



wouldn’t understand;’ a middle-aged factory worker said, ‘No, I’ve not told anyone. For the simple reason, there’s such a lot of disbelievers about, and they’d ridicule you;’ and a churchgoer said, ‘Probably not… but on the understanding that they know I like to go to church and believe in God… I wouldn’t like people to turn around and laugh at me’.”8 “Huh, even the churchgoer has problems admitting to them.” “Yes, so, you see, you’re certainly not alone.” Bernard stirred his coffee, clinked the teaspoon on the edge of his cup then glanced up toward the windows. Though the windows had fogged up he could still see the misty outline of people striding resolutely along the cold pavement. He looked back at Monique. “I often find, when talking with people about these encounters, before they speak, they seem very reluctant to say anything; they even seem suspicious of my questions. Then, when they do speak, they might start out with something like: ‘you may think I’m crazy but…’ or ‘don’t laugh but…’ or ‘please don’t think I’m a freak but…’.” He paused to study her reaction. “I find such reluctance curious. It suggests a strong fear of being laughed at, ridiculed or seen as mentally deranged.” He took a long sip of his coffee then looked up. “It bothers me that people should feel this way.” He opened his satchel and pulled out a folder of loose sheeted pages. “Here’s another… this is what a forty-year old social worker said:” Well it took me six months to find someone who could understand what had happened to me… I actually tried to find some Jehovah Witnesses to express all this stuff to, and found they didn’t know what the hell I was talking about. Then I came home one day and some bikes were pressed up against the fence; I thought “oh, God’s sent me these Mormon people to talk with”, so I impressed them to stay, and really tried to get them to understand. They thought I’d gone mad… and then it was months later that I found a Baptist woman… who actually knew what I was going on about.9

“Ah that’s like me,” exclaimed Monique; “wanting so much to find some way of talking to people but never finding the right occasion… that is, Bernie, until I started talking with you.” “You’re too kind, Monique… And here’s what a forty-two-year-old nurse said:”



I feel embarrassed saying this because this only touches the surface of something that is so private and fundamental to me and the words sound so clicheˊ d and trite when I read them. However, accept them as you will.10

“Exactly! That’s exactly what I feel,” stated Monique vigorously. “I feel these encounters are so precious to me that I don’t want to speak with people who won’t respect them. It’s almost as though I need to walk around with some form of antenna sticking out and checking out whether a person is going to be receptive or not. I think that’s why you need to start out tentatively, probing to see which way the other person is likely to react; testing whether they might want to listen.” “So, how did you work out I would react positively?” “Hmm, I dunno. I guess I could see from the light in your eyes that you were interested. You didn’t interrupt… you seemed sympathetic…” “I’m pleased. And now you’ve talked to me about them many times.” “Yes, and… and…” Monique halted and glanced nervously down at the table. “And, go on; say what you’re going to say.” “I was going to tell you how I felt connected again a couple of days ago.” “That’s good. So, fill me in on what happened?” “Well, I was taking the children for a walk in the park down by the river. While it was a cold winter day, the sun was shining, and people had come out to enjoy the sun’s warmth. The children took off to play amongst the trees. I sat down on a park bench and watched the families strolling, talking and playing. The sun shone down on everything through the bare trees and lit up everything around me. Everybody, including me, seemed happy and content just soaking up the warmth from the sun.” “A biscuit box scene.” “Yes, you’ve got it. Then, all of a sudden, I felt somehow as if I was intimately connected with everyone in the park. It wasn’t a mind-blowing experience, but it was definite. I felt… I sensed, you know, a kind of connectedness… It didn’t last long.” “What type of connectedness?” “It was simply like being connected to…” she paused, trying desperately in her mind to retrieve the right words. “Not like a wire connection as with a phone or electrical lead; a connection to a… to a something… Oh, I have such difficulty describing it.” Monique glanced across at Bernard with an exasperated expression. “More like I was part of them



and they were part of me. I had a feeling… a sense of being linked… joined… merged… you know… a sense of…” “Ah, Monique, I realize it’s really hard to put such things into words. Take your time; try not to let yourself get flustered.”11 “I know, deep down I want to tell people about these experiences, but there just doesn’t seem to be any proper nor any acceptable way of saying it right. It seems to me that I need to use language in a different way than I normally do.” “A special way of speaking?” prompted Bernard. “Yes, a way of speaking that doesn’t say quite what it means.” She relaxed her cheeks and allowed the hint of a smile to form. “A way of speaking that indirectly signals its meaning through the use of colorful and evocative phrases. I guess this, this way of speaking hints and insinuates what it means.” Her frown returned. “And, damn it, I don’t feel I’m any good at it.” “That sounds like you see it as closer to poetry than direct speech?” “Yeah, and sometimes with friends I’ve almost said something, but then I feel it’s going to sound silly. Like, I realize I’m going to have to talk all vague and slushy, and then I worry they’ll judge me for it, so I clam up… It feels kind-of-like I don’t have permission to talk this way.” “Hmm, Monique, I’ve often wondered about this dilemma. Maybe in modern times our use of language has become so specific and purpose-­ driven that the soft and open ways in which we talk about spirituality are no longer legitimate.” “Yes, ‘legitimate’, that’s a good word. When I try to speak this way, I often sense that it isn’t legitimate.” She leaned forward and took a long sip of her tea, then sat back and smiled. “I’ve just thought of another reason why I have trouble describing these experiences. It’s not because I lack the skills, but because I’m trying hard not to misrepresent them, or not to spoil them with half-baked accounts.” “But how can talking about them spoil them?” enquired Bernard. “What I mean is the act of describing them to others involves changing and reinterpreting them in ways that doesn’t do any justice to the full force of what they are like. Maybe I don’t want people to form the wrong impression.” “You won’t know that unless you try, and then you’d be able to judge for yourself how people react.” “No, it’s more than that. Certainly, it does worry me how others will react, but I’m also worried about how speaking out loud will change how



I remember them. Once they’re out there, they’re public property and no longer my precious treasure. It’s a bit like those brilliant ideas you have in the middle of the night, they tend to degrade once you tell someone about them in the cool light of day.” “Okay, they are special, but, despite that, you’ve still managed to describe them to me. And you’ve said it felt good talking.” Bernard raised his cup high, emptied what remained then lowered the cup and pushed it into to the middle of the table. “In my view, what we need to create is a warmer, safer, more supportive environment for people to talk about these encounters. We can’t just leave this to the brave and the articulate. Everyone can benefit from talking about them, so we need to create spaces where ordinary people feel less self-conscious and more relaxed when talking about them.” * * * At ten-thirty precisely the following Thursday, Bernard was sitting at his table watching Dorothy making her way carefully over carrying a coffee and two large chocolate biscuits. “Here Bernie, I know you like these; you have one.” He smiled up at his friend. Her grey hair had been tussled by the wintry wind and its disarray contrasted with the neatness of her work attire. “Thanks Dorothy,” said Bernard as he dunked his chocolate biscuit into the coffee. “So, how’s it going at home?” “Oh, it’s all fine on the home front: everyone’s happy, the garden is in order and I went for a terrific walk in the forest on the weekend.” “So, how about your retirement plans?” “Ah, I’m still finding that troubling. It’s hard to imagine how I’ll adjust to not working. It scares me. It reminds me of the time before I left school; you know, the scariness of not knowing what my adult life would involve. But this time it’s worse, because, this time I could do absolutely anything, and there’s no clarity around how long I’d be able to continue.” “Hmm. But you could maintain your health for decades to come.” He glanced out the window at figures struggling against the winter wind. “Well, Dorothy, lately I’ve been exploring why people feel so reluctant to talk about their spiritual encounters.” She takes a few tentative sips of her coffee. “I figure it’s mainly because they’re so damn difficult to put into words. You’re the only person I feel in any way comfortable talking to about them, and, despite your patience,



it’s still incredibly difficult.” They both smiled. “It’s the nature of the beast: spiritual and mystical encounters by their very nature are difficult to talk about. By definition, they’re mystical, which means they’re essentially mysterious, unfathomable, indescribable…” “Ah ha,” agreed Bernard as he took a gulp of his coffee. Somehow the coffee went down the wrong way and he erupted into a fierce bout of coughing. Dorothy quickly stood up next to him and slapped him on the back. This assisted in halting his cough, but he continued to stoop over panting vigorously. “You all right?” “Ah… yep… I’m fine now,” said Bernard in between gasps for breath. He sat back upright, his face was red with sweat beads forming across his forehead. “Where were we? What were you saying?” Dorothy returned to her seat and gazed across at him with a worried expression. “I was just saying how spiritual awareness is mysterious and indescribable.” “Ah, yes; indescribable. In trying to describe them, you immediately run up against the limitations of language.” Bernard paused to take a couple of deep breaths. “Our language, as we ordinarily use it, is simply not equipped to give adequate expression to what they mean.” “Yes, that’s exactly how it seems; language isn’t up to the task.” This prompted Bernard to lean over to his satchel, pull out his glasses case and open his crinkled black notebook. “Dorothy, you’ve reminded me of some quotes I jotted down a while ago.” He flipped through until he found the correct page. “Here… this statement was made over two-­ and-­a-half thousand years ago by a Chinese Daoist, Lao Tzu: ‘One who knows does not speak; one who speaks does not know’.”12 “Ah, so true,” said Dorothy approvingly. “I wish certain people in my office would take that on board.” Bernard turned a few more pages. “And an anonymous fourteenth century writer talked of: ‘Than wil He [God] sumtyme paraventure [perhaps] seend oute a beme of goostly [spiritual] light, peersyng [piercing] this cloude of unknowing that is bitwix thee and Hym, and schewe thee sum of His priveté [secrets], the whiche man may not, ne kan not, speke’.”13 “I like that bit: ‘the whiche man may not, ne kan not, speke’,” remarked Dorothy. “It kind-of puts it all in a nutshell. I often feel I’m struggling through a cloud of unknowing.” “Yes, but it does seem somewhat contradictory to view not knowing as a form of knowing, and vice versa.” Bernard turned to another page. “And



more recently, one of last century’s leading philosophers, Ludwig Wittgenstein, chose to finish his first major work by stating: ‘There are, indeed, things that cannot be put into words. They make themselves manifest. They are what is mystical…’ Funny an analytic philosopher talking this way. ‘My propositions serve as elucidations in the following way: anyone who understands me eventually recognizes them as nonsensical, when he has used them—as steps—to climb up beyond them. (He must, so to speak, throw away the ladder after he has climbed up it.)’ And he finishes with: ‘What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence’.”14 Dorothy sat suddenly upright and stared straight ahead with a worried expression. “But Bernie, this is hopeless,” she declared in a slightly exasperated tone. “These statements make out we won’t ever be able to talk about such encounters.” “Yes, they claim they’re inexpressible, and just about everyone who comments on them seems to agree. In general people recognize that what they encounter can’t really be described, but…” He breathed in slowly. “But—and this is a big ‘BUT’—despite all these claims about them being inexpressible, people sure do have a lot to say about them. Knowing they’re indescribable hasn’t stopped anyone from having a go. Mystics in both Eastern and Western traditions have been writing about their experiences throughout recorded history.”15 “I suppose you’re right,” said Dorothy relaxing back into her chair. “Sometimes, on the weekends, I like to spend a bit of time browsing through bookshops and I’m always amazed at how many books there are lining the shelves on spirituality, mysticism, religion and inspiration. These traditions aren’t showing any signs of diminishing; on the contrary, volumes of spiritual writings are being snapped up just as much as they ever were.” “So, as far as writers are concerned, despite the reported difficulties in conveying spiritual encounters, many are still choosing to persevere with some sort of expression. If we must be silent about that which we cannot speak, then there seems to be lots of people willing to violate such a prohibition.” “Hmm, okay, some people have a lot to say, but most ordinary people, not accomplished writers, are very reluctant to talk openly about them. They see such encounters as a private matter; something they might only discuss in rare circumstances with very close friends.” Bernard looked up directly into his old friend’s innocent eyes. “You know,” he lowered his eyebrows to the edge of a frown, “it needn’t be like



that. Despite this reluctance, whenever I’ve spoken with people about their encounters, I’ve been repeatedly impressed at how capable they are at providing a spontaneous description. For many, despite seldom having—or, for some, never having—openly described these experiences, they still manage to talk in imaginative and expressive ways about them. Sometimes it appears to me as though they have an innate ability at expressing them.” “Nah, I wouldn’t say it’s innate,” objected Dorothy. “When you think about it, people keep them private because they don’t wish to appear mad or silly, and this gives them lots of time to think about them in their own heads. For most, these encounters are very important events, so they’re bound to spend time thinking over what happened… And, as they churn them around in their memories, they gradually compose their own private descriptions.” “So, you mean people store away these private descriptions in their memories and pull them out from time to time to examine and improve on them.” “Well isn’t… Isn’t that one way of explaining how descriptions are so well-formed?” asked Dorothy shrugging. “People rehearse them in their minds, then, when they eventually find someone respectful and trustworthy to speak with, they have a pre-assembled account, a fully crafted description ready-at-hand.” “Dorothy, I think you might be onto something there,” remarked Bernard as he paused for a thoughtful sip of his coffee. “But I can think of another explanation for people being reluctant to speak. Perhaps since these encounters fall outside the normal course of everyday experience, they have little value other than providing a peculiar and amusing sideline… Perhaps they’re similar to phenomena such as mirages or those light after-images which appear when you shut your eyes. At the time the experiences seem interesting, but they’re soon forgotten, or, maybe, not thought about until specifically discussed.” Dorothy leant back and gazed at him suspiciously. “Aw, Bernie, you’re not serious about that, are you?” “Um, no; you’re right. I was just playing devil’s advocate,” admitted Bernard with a guilty smirk spreading across his face. “I don’t believe that for a moment. Besides, it doesn’t explain why people are ready with such well-formed descriptions.” “Nor does it fit with people claiming they are really important moments; moments capable of changing their whole outlook on life.”16 She lifted her



cup up and slurped down the remainder of the coffee. She was due back at the office soon. Bernard noticed her fidgeting and, as he pushed his empty cup away, he stated, “Okay, so far we’ve agreed on this much: they’re significant events, people struggle to speak about them and, when they do speak, they often display quite advanced skills even though they’ve never spoken about them before.” “Yep, that all makes sense to me,” acknowledged Dorothy; “but, you know what still puzzles me… Why is it, when people are just about to tell you about their encounters, they still insist they’re beyond words and totally inexpressible?” “Yes, I wonder about that as well,” said Bernard. “But perhaps what they’re trying to tell you, as a listener, is to switch your listening mode. They’re signaling to you not to listen to what they say with your literal ear but to start hearing it with your non-literal ear.” “I see; so saying it’s ‘indescribable’ or ‘ineffable’ is like a driver on a motorway indicating he’s about to change lanes.” “Yeah, and if you don’t accommodate him you could end up crashing.” Bernard smiled and Dorothy chuckled. “But I think it’s a good parallel,” continued Bernard. “When I tell you it’s ‘inexpressible’ I’m suggesting you should change your listening from the literal lane—the lane of information conveyance—to the figurative lane—the lane of imaginative and interpretive engagement.” Dorothy smiled then looked apprehensively out at the blurred figures moving outside the fogged-up windows.

Notes 1. See J. Cohen and J.-F. Phipps, eds., The Common Experience (New York: Pergamon, 1979). 2. Richard Bucke, Cosmic Consciousness (New York: Dutton & Co., 1923, 1901) p. 38. 3. A. Bharati The Light at the Centre (London: East-West Publications, 1976) p. 65. 4. A.  M. Greeley, Ecstasy: A Way of Knowing (New Jersey: PrenticeHall, 1974). 5. Results from D. Hay and A. Morisy, “Reports of ecstatic, paranormal, or religious experience in Great Britain, and the United States,” Journal for



the Scientific Study of Religion (17;3, 255–68,1978). A national Opinion Poll with 1864 respondents. 6. For example, a series of three national Gallup Polls (1962, 1966 and 1967) conducted in the US found that proportions increased as they worked on strategies to improve interviewer skills at asking sensitive questions and accordingly improving interviewee’s level of trust. See K.  Back and L.  Bourque, “Can feelings be enumerated,” Behavioural Science (15;6, 487–496, 1970). 7. See David Hay, Exploring Inner Space (Middlesex: Penguin Books, 1982) pp. 131–2. 8. Ibid., pp. 158–9. 9. From transcribed focus group conducted by the author and part of the studies described in Chaps. 14 and 15. 10. Same source as in previous note. 11. For discussion on the challenges in describing these encounters see relevant sections in Paul van Buren, “Analyses of theological language,” in Philosophy of Religion, G.  Abernathy and T.  Langford, eds. (London: Macmillan, 1962) and M.  J. Charlesworth, The Problem of Religious Language (New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, 1974). 12. Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching, trans. D.  C. Lau (Middlesex: Penguin Books, 1963) Bk 2, p. 117. 13. From Chapter 26 of The Cloud of Unknowing, and quoted John Fergusson, Encyclopedia of Mysticism and Mystery Religions (New York: Crossroads, 1982) p. 40. 14. Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, trans. C. Ogden and F. Ramsey (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1922) p. 151. 15. Numerous books have documented what Aldous Huxley referred to as “the perennial philosophy” to the extent that writing about spiritual and mystical encounters occurs regularly in most cultures and most eras. For detailed discussion of these traditions see C.  Butler, Western Mysticism (London: Arrow Books, 1960), W. Capps and W. Wright, Silent Fire: An Invitation to Western Mysticism (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1979) and Geoffrey Parrinder, Mysticism in the World’s Religions (London: Sheldon Press, 1976). 16. David Hay (op. cit.) asked whether his participants believed their experiences had altered their outlook on life, to which three quarters declared that they had. He hypothesized that perhaps, in modern western societies, a taboo surrounds expression of spiritual and mystical encounters similar to that surrounding open discussion of intimate sexual material.


Making it Happen?

“To tell you the truth,” Monique confessed to Bernard, “I’ve only had two or maybe three major encounters in my entire life, and they all occurred before I turned twenty-five. Since then it’s really only their memory which drives my spiritual awareness.” “You sometimes speak about them as though they occurred last week?” “Yeah, I know. I do have twinges at times; small events that remind me of some aspect of the earlier experiences, but with nothing of their force and scale.” “But that’s okay. Your focus is still strong.” “I suppose so. But I still crave to repeat those experiences. Ever since then I’ve searched for ways that might trigger a big experience again: I’ve read piles of books on spirituality, I’ve attended many workshops and lectures, I’ve followed gurus, I’ve listened to spiritually inspired music. I’ve tried out different faiths such as Christian mysticism, Buddhism, Sufism and Baha’i. I’ve even indulged in fringe practices such as fasting, purging and crystal-gazing.” “These are indeed positive things to try!” “Yeah, sure, it drives my husband mad… But, in the end, each technique has been disappointing. They all remind me of those first experiences, but they’ve never really delivered on any major new ones.” “So, when was your last big encounter?” “Ah, well that happened when I was twenty-five while giving birth to Monica, my first child. It was an intense and joyful experience. I felt this © The Author(s) 2020 P. J. Adams, How to Talk About Spiritual Encounters,




overwhelming sense that everything, including me and the baby, were all in our right place… like I was in touch… it was… some powerful force… Have I described this before?” “No, not exactly. You’ve mentioned a couple of important encounters, but none of them while giving birth.” “Well, most of the labor itself was tiring and painful and by the end I was exhausted. But eventually, as Monica came out, I felt a strange sensation spreading through my body. It made me forget all about the pain because my mind was totally absorbed with what I was witnessing. I was seeing things like I’d never seen them before. I had this overwhelming sense that everything around me was in its correct place. I know that sounds silly, but that’s exactly how it appeared. I felt that it was right for everyone in the room to be the way they were; it was right for the baby to be as perfect as she was; it was right for me to be a mother. Everything was totally correct… right in its own way… proper as it was meant to be.” “Was rightness all you felt?” “Hmm…” she paused to consider the question. “Everything was correct in itself, but deep underneath this correctness resided a single powerful force; a force that is always there and impossible to resist. It was in connecting to this force that rightness emerged.” She shook her head and glanced across at Bernard. “Sorry, this doesn’t do justice to the intensity or meaning of the experience. It was so strong, so self-evident, so… ah… and I’ve never had as powerful an experience since. That’s why I’m searching for ways to spark them off again.” Bernard was studying Monique as she spoke. Her eyes sparkled with an energy and exuberance for her quest. He enjoyed her enthusiasm, but he also feared her hope for further big encounters would result in bitter disappointment. “As far as I can work out, these encounters occur very seldom in any one person’s life, and they usually don’t last very long.”1 “Huh, I got the impression that some people have them quite often?” “They might want you to think that,” said Bernard staring out the window at the dull facades of the buildings opposite. “Some time ago, Marghanita Laski did some in-depth interviews with a group of around a hundred and twenty people, asking them about their encounters. She included both Christians and non-Christians; most of them told her their encounters were relatively brief—a few moments to maybe half-an-hour, at the most.”2



“Well, that’s a pity, because, they’re such awesome events,” remarked Monique glumly. “Isn’t there some way we could help them happen more often?” “Ah, well, if you knew how to do that then you’d make a lot of money.” He smiled and began fiddling with a sugar sachet. “Researchers have had a go. With most other kinds of inner experience, they’ve found ways of being present to monitor what’s going on. For example, dreams are frequent enough to measure body changes—like rapid-eye movement—and environment links are easy to track, such as links to events during the day. Major emotions like fear and anger are also common enough to be observed.”3 “Yeah, but I bet they found spiritual encounters aren’t so accessible. They’re so damn fickle and unpredictable. I mean, within the half to a million hours that make up one person’s life, the chances of a researcher being present for that brief private moment of an encounter is surely minuscule.” “Precisely, so researchers are forced to rely on other, more indirect ways of recording them. And one method has come to dominate all other approaches.” Bernard paused and glanced across to connect with Monique’s attentive stare. “They rely almost exclusively on descriptions of people’s encounters at some time after they’ve had them. It’s the written record, the testimonial of the encounter, which forms the center of their investigations.” “Well if they can’t be there to witness them, I guess that’s all they can do,” sighed Monique. “Hmm. But… but if we had some way of making them happen.” She looked down and frowned. “No maybe that’s too ambitious.” She looked up and resumed her intense stare. “But if we had some way of stimulating or triggering or putting people in situations where they’re more likely to happen, then we might be able to predict when they’d occur and then be in a position to measure them.4 Like with giving birth, it only happens a few times in a woman’s life, but because you can roughly predict when it’s about to occur, you can prepare yourself with microphones and instruments, then record body changes and collect reports of thoughts and feelings as they happen.” “But, even so, I’d expect these encounters still occur too rarely and too unpredictably and too inwardly for them to be observed.” “Well that’s a pity because I’ve devoted a lot of time and energy to searching for ways to make them happen.” “Okay, so what’ve you tried?”



“Well, I’ve looked into all sorts of things.” Monique glanced up as she scanned over in her mind. “One thing I’ve done plenty of is reading up what other people have tried.” She folded her shawl across her front. “For instance, I read about this guy Ralph Hood who was taking city dwellers out into nature and seeing if that triggered spiritual encounters. He figured that spending some time alone in a beautiful natural setting could, for those who are ready, activate these experiences.”5 “Well, did he find it worked?” “No, not really… at least not with nature by itself,” admitted Monique with a disgruntled expression. “Before I got married, I tried it out myself; I made a point of spending plenty of time walking around alone in the forest or by the lake. I could wander for hours; I’d lose all sense of myself and just enjoy the feeling of being connected with nature.” “Ah, yes, that’s a great zone for the soul,” remarked Bernard. “But, it didn’t come with any of the strength of my earlier experiences.” She motioned energetically with her hands. “Sure, I’d come home relaxed and refreshed, and, sometimes I felt some form of mystical connection. But that’s different from having a truly intense spiritual encounter. I’ve tried this, tried this many times, and, while it stimulates me spiritually, it’s only a shadow of what I encountered when I was younger.” She lowered her hands onto the table and shrugged. “And this is the same as what Ralph Hood found. Something else inside your head needed to happen before natural environments could do their magic.” “So, what did he think needed to be happening in your head?” “He wondered about a variety of things, but he looked particularly at whether some form of moderately stressful state would do the trick. He figured it might work like this: if, to start with, someone was worrying during the week about the dangers of a weekend hike, and if it should turn out to be far less stressful than expected, then the sense of achievement plus the beautiful surroundings might be enough, acting together, to stimulate some sort of spiritual awareness. He tried this out with varying levels of stress with groups of students—white-water rafting, rock climbing, canoeing, that sort of thing—and he found that moderate excitement and relief did make it more likely for nature to trigger spiritual feelings.”6 “That’s very interesting Monique,” remarked Bernard as he took another thoughtful sip of his coffee. “But I’d expect a bit of anxiety isn’t really enough to make them happen.” “Yeah, you’re right… I think even he acknowledged it was a fairly unreliable trigger.”



Bernard leaned back in his seat. “So, what other things have you tried?” Monique gazed blankly out across the café. “Um, I did try using drugs for a while. I was too young to join in the late-sixties LSD craze, and, besides, at that age I was rather too timid—a quiet obedient young thing I was. But in my late twenties that all changed. One weekend I attended a workshop on spirituality where people discussed this marvelous new drug, ecstasy.” “Hmm, MDMA, I’ve read some articles on it being used to promote spiritual encounters.” “They told me to make sure I was in a good mood and in a positive environment, otherwise the experiences can turn bad. So, I got hold of some ecstasy through a friend, I prepared my lounge carefully—you know, nice music, low lighting, soft pillows—then I lay back and swallowed the drug.” “And let everything flow over you?” “Yes, that’s it. I tried doing it several times. I even resorted to some other hallucinogens—like magic mushrooms and mescaline. Later I also joined in sessions with a group taking them for what they called ‘mind games’.”7 “And did any of it work? Did it activate something spiritual?” “Well, kind of… It was fun, but I wasn’t keen on the feeling of being out of control. The pills did change how I perceived things, and I encountered a range of strange and wondrous sensations. But, as far as spiritual encounters, the sessions prompted only distant glimpses—nothing like my early big encounters.” “You really have had a go at things,” remarked Bernard leaning forward and massaging his stiff hands. “I’ve read quite a bit of research about the use of mind-altering drugs as a trigger. There was a great deal of interest in them some decades back. First it was mescaline, but this was soon eclipsed in the late 1960s by LSD.”8 Bernard stretched out his hands briefly then dropped them down by his sides. “There was one research study in the mid-sixties that caught everyone’s attention. This guy Pahnke got together twenty theology students and divided them into two groups, giving those in one group a psychedelic drug—psilocybin I think—and those in the other group a placebo—some sort of nicotine pill. They then all attended a long religious service. When interviewed afterwards, nine of the ten students receiving the drug showed signs of having had some sort of spiritual or mystical awareness, while only one of the placebo group showed signs.”9



“Yeah but, surely the investigators knew who was in which group?” “No, they were divided randomly, and neither the students nor the interviewers knew which group they were in.” “Ah, but… But couldn’t they spot who’d had the drugs by the way they acted?” “Yes, Monique, well done; you’re onto it,” remarked Bernard admiringly. “That was a weakness. The counter-culture leader, Timothy Leary, who had participated as a guide in Pahnke’s study, admitted years later that although they didn’t know who was in which group, both the participants and administrators would’ve had to have been fairly unobservant not to spot the drug-affected participants by their changes in posture, gait and manner. So, that takes us back to square-one; like with your drug experiences, they don’t necessarily lead onto spiritual encounters.”10 “Well, what about meditation?” Monique blurted out vigorously. “Surely meditation is a great way of facilitating spiritual awareness.11 It’s been around for thousands of years and been an important part of different religious traditions including Christian prayer, yogic mantra and of course Buddhist meditation. And I’ve heard there’s plenty of solid research on the positive effects of meditation on physical and psychological health.”12 “Oh, I don’t wish to dampen your enthusiasm, but I’ve also looked into this too, and found that, despite the frequent claims of a connection between meditation and spiritual encounters, the matter has attracted little serious attention.”13 “That’s not the impression I got from what mystical teachers are claiming. They sold meditation to me as a spiritual journey; that if I meditated enough, then new levels of mystical awareness would open up. So, for many years I practiced meditation every day. I started out using transcendental meditation as a way of reducing stress when the kids were very little. I then read about the spiritual elements in Buddhist meditation, and joined a Buddhist meditation group. More recently I’ve been involved in mindfulness meditation.” “Um, good, these are certainly good things to do, particularly for maintaining inner wellbeing. But, um, with all these, did they help trigger any spiritual moments?” “Hmm…” Monique screwed her face up and stared across at the wall. “Well, I found, as with drugs, meditation helped open up my mind to spirituality in a broad way, but this too lacked the intensity of my first experiences.”



“My guess is that ‘meditative experience’ and ‘spiritual encounters’ need to be seen as two different domains. One does not entail the other and vice versa.” “Yes, that sums it up. They both share some spiritual elements but engage with spirituality in quite different ways.” Bernard nodded and took another sip of his coffee. “But I think you’ve missed out on one important possibility: that meditation could be used in combination with something else to stimulate spiritual awareness. I’ve read up on the work of this guy Jan Van der Lans who led a research team exploring the combination of meditation with what he called a ‘religious reference frame’—a kind of inner spiritual mind pattern.14 He argued that activating spiritual encounters require mental processes at two levels: first there’s activities that stimulate experiences such as the use of symbols or guided fantasies or nature involvements, and second are activities that suppress the memory schemes that usually determine how information will be processed.” “Sounds complicated.” She frowned and looked momentarily confused. “So, you mean the mind needs to be diverted away from its usual worries and dramas?” “Yes, and meditation is an ideal technique for accomplishing this.” “So, to test the need for this combination of activities, his team asked forty-five people to undertake a four-week course on Zen meditation. Their initial interviews had identified fourteen people who did have and twenty-one people who did not have access to a ‘religious reference frame’. At the conclusion of the course they were questioned directly about spiritual encounters and their descriptions analyzed by three independent raters. He found that half the religious reference frame group and none of the control group were judged to have had spiritual encounters.” “Hmm, that’s really interesting. That suggests, for meditation to get spiritual, your mind needs to have some framework for interpreting what goes on.” “Perhaps, but this is just one approach, and people have criticized it because their participants were students who already had an interest in meditation. Besides their ways of assessing spirituality are questionable as are the definitions and criteria for what qualifies as a ‘religious reference frame’.” “So, in the end, what you seem to be telling me is that we don’t know very much about where these encounters come from and how to control



them. They’re too inward, too ambiguous, too infrequent and too unpredictable.” “Yes, that seems to be the case.” Monique smiled fondly across at the old man. “So that’s that. There’s no point in me chasing the big ones any further.” * * * A couple of mornings later, Jarrod breezed unexpectedly into the café just as Bernard was beginning to pack up his papers. “Can’t stay long. Got to catch up with my girlfriend,” stated Jarrod as he placed his cup roughly on the table spilling coffee into his saucer. “I just need to check in with you about what’s been going on over the last couple of months. I’ve been following up what we talked about… you know, about how the mind and the brain cause these spiritual events.” He put his cup to one side, lifted his saucer then noisily sipped up the spilt coffee. “I’ve been looking up stuff on the internet and browsing through all sorts of books.” “Hmm, and what, may I ask, are your conclusions?” asked Bernard with a wry smile. “As I told you before, I had no trouble finding work on how our brains have evolved to trigger these events. Lots of work on how having these encounters and believing in them improves our capacity to survive. This can be seen in the way, when faced with overwhelming adversity, we use our minds to project out onto some sort of supreme being, which then allows us to connect up together as groups of people and to withstand forces we can’t understand. This has strong survival value.”15 “So, you don’t think these encounters in themselves have anything to offer?” “Well… Well, no. They don’t tell us anything; they’re simply there because of their survival value.” Bernard lowered his head and gazed at Jarrod from under his eyebrows. “Hmm, so you still seem just as convinced that these encounters are essentially delusional?” “Well, have you got anything that could possibly convince me otherwise?” asked Jarrod stretching out his hands. “I mean, can you point to anything that is solid, reliable, objective?… Something I can actually observe that lets me know beyond reasonable doubt that the content of these encounters is real?”



“No… I guess not,” mumbled Bernard. “Um, if you’re after something solid, I suppose there’s the brain wave studies.” “Yes, I looked at some of them, particularly those recording small changes in the electrical patterns across the brains of Zen, Hindu and Buddhist masters.”16 “That’s right. They found high amplitude wave patterns when their eyes were open, patterns usually associated when people’s eyes are closed or when entering a drowsy hypnosis-like state.” Bernard glanced across at Jarrod. “But, as I was telling someone else, these patterns are observed during meditation, which isn’t necessarily the same as observing them during a spiritual encounter.” “How do you mean?” “Well, while it’s possible for you to have a spiritual encounter during meditation, I think they occur more often outside of meditative states. Also, I’ve known several regular meditators who’ve never had any spiritual encounters.” “Okay, so you’re saying it’s like trying to speak one poorly understood language with symbols from another poorly understood language and relying on something in between—that is meditation—which has only a vague connection with both.”17 “Yes, that’s right.” “Hmm, okay, but I still reckon we’re biologically programmed to have such experiences,” stated Jarrod energetically. “What about with temporal lobe epilepsy? It’s long been observed that this form of epilepsy can stimulate all sorts of spiritual-like experiences.” “Hmm, so what do you think that tells us?” queried Bernard. “It tells us how evolution has pre-set our brains to react this way… Like, I read about this neuro-scientist, Michael Persinger, who’s constructed what he calls a ‘brain helmet’ which stimulates part of the temporal lobes of the brain and leads people to have weird experiences, including visions of God or a sensed presence of mysterious beings.”18 “Ah, but can you imagine the types of expectations people are likely to have sitting in that helmet?” “Yeah, I suppose that must’ve been a factor,” admitted Jarrod; “and they did say these experiences occurred for only a few people; not enough to really claim it triggered them.” “Look, Jarrod, I think this stuff is interesting, but, with the greatest respect, I think it misses the point. The mechanisms by which we trigger such experiences belong to a different domain than what it means to



actually have them; a better understanding of the triggers doesn’t change the sheer strength and meaningfulness of the experiences themselves.” “Okay, I get it, maybe we don’t yet know enough about how the brain works; maybe we’ve got to wait until brain science develops enough to provide more insight,” said Jarrod as he bent forward and rested his chin on his hands. “But, in the meantime, psychologists are ploughing ahead in understanding more about how the mind works and they’ve come up with some interesting explanations.19 For example, one group has looked at how our minds tend to attribute things we have difficulty controlling to mysterious outside forces.20 It’s a natural tendency: so, rather than thinking I’m failing my exams because of something inside me—like poor motivation, or being too stupid—instead I project the causes outside of myself and come up with reasons like poor teaching or lack of reading material.” “I see,” remarked Bernard, “so they’re relating this to what happens in primitive societies when they feel out of control of life-threatening events, like diseases or pestilence or floods. People build up in their minds the image of a great outside force, and they start offering prayers and gifts to influence its future intent.” “That’s right,” said Jarrod, still resting his chin on his hands. “And I reckon that was what was going on in those descriptions you showed me last time. From what I remember, each description started by describing a mysterious emotional experience; one that is earth-shattering but very difficult to express.” He sat up, folded his arms then gazed intensely across at Bernard. “Then the descriptions gradually shifted towards some form of interpretation that projects out towards some external entity, like a ‘God’ or a ‘universal consciousness’ or a ‘transcendent being’.”21 “Yes, they do that, but not always. Some people project outwards, but just as many people talk of inward things. I don’t think we can reduce this all to a psychological need for an abiding outer presence. These encounters seem far more potent and significant than what these explanations offer. Besides, like all the research in this area, they rely almost entirely on people providing descriptions well after the event, and, surely, we don’t yet know enough about what people are doing when they speak about these events. Without this we have a poor base for coming up with other explanations.” “Ah well, again, I think we’ll need to agree to differ,” Jarrod declared as he smiled across the table.



Notes 1. William James, in Varieties of Religious Experience (New York: Longmans, Green, 1902), acknowledged the brevity of such experiences by nominating transiency as one of his four identifying characteristics. He claimed, “Mystical states cannot be sustained for long. Except in rare instances, half an hour, or at most an hour or two, seems to be the limit beyond which they fade into the light of common day” p. 293. 2. From Marghanita Laski Ecstasy (London: Cresset, 1961) where she conducted in-depth interviews with 40 Christians and 79 “nonbelievers”. 3. Discussion of measurement issues for dream research is provided by I.  Strauch and B.  Meier in, In Search of Dreams (State University of New York Press, 1996), and, for emotion research, by Garth Fletcher in, The New Science of Intimate Relationships (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2002). 4. Summaries on the literature on triggers for spiritual encounters are provided by C.  Batson and W.  Ventis in, The Religious Experience (Oxford University Press, 1982) and B. Spilka, R. Hood and R. Gorsuch in, The Psychology of Religion (Engelwood, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1985). They both indicate how spiritual encounters can occur in a wide variety of different contexts—perhaps too wide to suggest any general patterns. 5. For example, M. Laski (op. cit.) examined a set of 114 written reports of spiritual encounters in terms of what she termed “triggers”. Other investigators, particularly in psychology have examined a wide range of antecedents and potential triggers for such encounters. 6. Ralph Hood in, “Anticipatory set and setting” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion (17;3, 279–87, 1978) asked 23 student participants to complete his 20-item Mysticism Scale both before and after they had spent one week of dangerous (white-water rafting, rock climbing) and not-so-­ dangerous (calm canoeing, walking) outdoor pursuits. The results from the nature study suggested that both those who anticipated high stress in what actually turned out to be low-stress situations and those who anticipated low stress in actually high-stress situations were more likely to report having mystical experiences. He then repeated this study with a further 64 students following a 24-hour solo nature experience and his results indicated similar trends. Hood’s results are interesting, but even with the added ingredients of excitement or relief, nature-triggered encounters proved still too unreliable and infrequent to provide a means of accessing the experiences as they happened. 7. This approach was developed in R.  Masters and J.  Houston in, Mind Games (New York: Delta Books, 1972). 8. See reviews by Stanislov Grof, Realms of the Human Unconscious: Observations from Lsd Research (New York: Viking Press, 1975), by William



Richards, “Entheogens in the study of mystical and archetypal experiences,” Journal of Religion and Health (44;4, 377–389, 2005), and by Morgan Shipley, Psychedelic Mysticism (Lanham: Lexington Books, 2015). 9. W. Pahnke and W. Richards, “Implications of LSD and experimental mysticism,” Journal of Religion and Health (5;1, 175–208, 1966). 10. See the methodological critique by Rick Doblin, “Pahnke’s ‘Good Friday experiment,” Journal of Transpersonal Psychology (23;1, 1–28, 1991). 11. For example, the relationship between meditation and spirituality is discussed in: Daniel Goleman, The Varieties of Meditative Experience (Los Angeles: Tarcher, 1988), and A. Wachholtz and K. Pargament, “Is spirituality a critical ingredient of meditation?” Journal of Behavioral Medicine (28;4, 369–84, 2005). 12. The wellbeing benefits of meditation are covered in many sources such as, S. Ma and J. Teasdale, “Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy for depression,” Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology (72;1, 31–40, 2004) and J. Carmody et al., “Mindfulness, spirituality, and health-related symptoms,” Journal of Psychosomatic Research (64;4, 393–403, 2008). 13. Batson and Ventis (op. cit.), p. 120, point this out but also acknowledge how researchers have looked into the relationship between mystical experience and other intermediary variables consistent with the experience such as: self-actualization, brain waves and “field independent” perception. 14. See Jan van der Lans, “Frame of reference as a prerequisite for the induction of religious experience through meditation,” in L.  Brown, ed., Advances in the Psychology of Religion (Oxford: Pergamon, 1985). 15. The evolutionary potential of religious phenomena, including spiritual encounters, has been popularized in books such as: Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2006) and Daniel Clement Dennett, Breaking the Spell (Middlesex UK: Penguin Books, 2007). 16. Early brain wave recordings with Yogic meditators were conducted by B. Anand, G. Chhina, and B. Singh, “Some aspects of electroencephalographic studies of Yogis,” Electroencephalographic Clinical Neurophysiology (13;3, 452–456, 1961), and with Christian meditators by W.  Johnston, Silent Music (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1979). A more recent summary is provided by B. Ivanovski and G. Malhi, “The psychological and neurophysiological concomitants of mindfulness forms of meditation,” Acta Neuropsychiatrica (19;2, 76–91, 2007). 17. Researchers have also questioned the link between spiritual encounters and meditation. In the second of two studies using TM meditators, P Fenwick et  al., “Metabolic and EEG changes during transcendental meditation,” Biological Psychiatry (5;2, 101–118, 1977), recorded both a small drop in oxygen consumption and EEG patterns consistent with sleep onset. But their results suggested that both changes were too small to have any physi-



ological significance other than what would be expected with muscle relaxation and a normal drowsy “hypnagogic” state. They concluded that their study did not support claims that meditation produces a unique state of consciousness or metabolic functioning. See also S. R. Bishop, “What do we really know about mindfulness-based stress reduction?” Psychosomatic Medicine (64;1, 71–83, 2002). 18. This and other work on the role of the brain in spiritual awareness is described in Michael Persinger, Neuropsychological Bases of God Beliefs (New York: Praeger, 1987). 19. For example, H. Newton Malony in, “Religious experiencing,” Journal of Psychology & Theology (9;4, 326–34, 1981) employed phenomenological methods in an analysis of what makes mystical experience qualitatively different from other experiences. Debra Moehle in, “Cognitive dimensions of religious experiences,” Journal of experimental Social Psychology (19;2, 122–45, 1983) attempted to identify cognitive dimensions in reports of mystical experience using a multi-dimensional scaling technique. Harry Hunt in, “The cognitive psychology of mystical and altered state experience,” Perceptual and Motor Skills (58;2, 467–513, 1984) employed a range of concepts on loan from cognitive psychology including “deep structures”, “imaginal-synesthetic processes” and “schematic rearrangement”. Carol Preston in, “Meaning and organization in religious experience,” Review of Religious Research (28,3, 252–67, 1987) studied the cognitive organization of the personal meanings experiencers associate with elements of their experience (prayer, church activities, music etc.). 20. The importance of this is covered by W.  Proudfoot and P.  Shaver, “Attribution theory and the psychology of religion,” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion (14;4, 317–30, 1975) and by Ann Taves, “Ascription, attribution, and cognition in the study of experiences deemed religious,” Religion (38;2, 125–40, 2008). 21. Spilka et  al. (op. cit) pushed this contention even further by organizing each chapter of their comprehensive textbook on the psychology of religion around a discussion of attribution theory. They also repeatedly contrasted dispositional factors (such as religious orientation, socialization and mood) with situational factors (such as setting and triggers) and finished the book with a call for more attribution research.


Collecting Specimens

Bernard gazed from his table out at the sunlight playing with the trees lining the street. He marveled at the tender green shoots that were squeezing out from the rough brown hardness of the gnarled branches. They announced for him months of summery warmth that will reduce the nagging stiffness in his joints. He glanced across the café and, as expected on Thursdays, Dorothy was striding purposefully towards him clutching her coffee and biscuit. “Hi Dorothy; nice day wouldn’t you say?” “Sure is… a real touch of spring.” She hung her suit jacket over the back of the chair and sat down. She lifted her cup and took a first sip of her coffee then smiled warmly across the table. “Bernie, I don’t know if I’ve ever told you how eternally grateful I’ve been for the way you helped my mother during her final days.” “You have mentioned it before,” he said, fidgeting uncomfortably with his hands. “What was really important to me was the way you spoke to her about her spiritual concerns. She’d never talked that way with any of us.” “It didn’t really take much. She was already well prepared to speak. All she needed was space, permission and encouragement.” “I’ve been thinking about that,” said Dorothy taking a couple more sips of her coffee. “I’ve been wondering whether it would’ve been better for her to start talking about spirituality well before she was dying.”

© The Author(s) 2020 P. J. Adams, How to Talk About Spiritual Encounters,




“Hmm… probably…” Bernard glanced quizzically across at Dorothy. “I’ve a funny feeling you’re not really talking about her.” “Aha, you’re right. Recently I’ve found my mind gravitating to thoughts about my own death. Bit morbid, I know… but sometimes it seems so worryingly close.” A frown spread momentarily across her face which she then cast off with a quick shake of her head. “But I don’t want to reach my death-bed unable to talk about spiritual matters. I want to be well prepared for such talk; able to discuss it as much as possible and with whoever is willing to listen. Isn’t that a reasonable goal?” “Well, of course,” agreed Bernard with a smile; “and I think we’re making fine progress with our coffee chats. I’m closer to the end of life, so I’m keeping really focused on that goal.” “Good…” Dorothy paused unsure where to take this topic further. She gazed across at a painting of an Italian opera singer on the opposite wall. “Um, tell me Bernie, how’re you getting on with that researcher at the University?” “Ah, Jonella?” replied Bernard somewhat surprised by the abrupt change in topic. “Well, at the moment I’m helping her organize a set of descriptions for analysis. They all have to be labelled, coded and typed into a computer.” “Sounds like a lot of work.” “It keeps me busy, but I really enjoy the involvement, especially the discussions I have with Jonella.” “Good…” she said as she continued to stare blankly at the painting. Bernard wondered whether she might be thinking about her death again. He could ask her more about it but that would risk prompting one of her morose moods. Instead he announced, “I’ve been reading about the work of this interesting guy.” “Oh yeah?” replied Dorothy absentmindedly. “Hmm, yes, the late Sir Alister Hardy… ever heard of him? I might have mentioned him to you before.” “Sounds familiar… I can’t recall who he is,” replied Dorothy vaguely. “Ah, he was a real adventurer,” continued Bernard; “but less an adventurer of the outdoor kind and more an adventurer in ideas. He built his career in science by doing research into the zoology and ecology of marine life. He gained a formidable reputation for his books The Open Sea and The Living Stream and from his later championing of the ‘aquatic ape’ theory.”



“Ah, I know who you mean now,” interjected Dorothy. “You mean the chap responsible for those theories about our ancestors losing most of their fur and standing upright in order to forage better along the coastline of Africa?”1 “Correct. But, besides having a strong commitment to evolutionary theory, he was equally fascinated with the influence spirituality played in everyday life. Whether the organism he studied was as small as a plankton or as large as a whale, his writings were often oriented around a profound sensitivity to the mysteries of organic life. He later admitted to having long nurtured an ambition to combine naturalist research with a systematic study of religion.” Bernard leant over to his satchel and wrenched out his glasses case and his crinkled black notebook. He placed his glasses half way down his nose and shuffled through the notebook until he found the page he wanted. “This is what he said: ‘All the ideas as to the possible nature of what man has called God have been based entirely upon interpretations of his past and present experience.’ I think he was prone to exaggeration. He carried on: ‘The study, which I envisage as a branch of a greatly widened biology, will be built upon the records of man’s experience and upon studies of his behavior. It will be a science allied to the fields of ecology and ethology. However, before it becomes anything like a science, it will have to pass through a long period of natural history, a period of comparative observations rather than one of quantitative or experimental studies.’”2 Bernard took off his glasses and glanced across at Dorothy. “Now, acting on these ambitions Hardy then sought to establish a scientific basis for studying spiritual encounters. First, he set about attracting funds, then in 1969 he founded the Religious Experience Research Unit—or RERU for short—at Manchester College, Oxford.” “Hmm, very prestigious,” commented Dorothy with an approving smile. “Then, over the next two decades, RERU supported a variety of projects which varied in scale according to the background of those who participated and the amount of funding available.3 Its largest and crowning achievement was the collection of well over four thousand written descriptions of what they called ‘religious experiences’.” “Quite an impressive number, I guess,” added Dorothy. “This achievement reflected the true spirit of Hardy’s original intentions. He believed people’s individual descriptions of these encounters could be treated in a manner parallel to biological specimens. Just as a



naturalist works methodically to develop a system of coding for classifying plants, or just as a chemist would identify compounds on the periodic table, these specimen descriptions could be organized into a reliable and comprehensive system.” Bernard put his glasses back on and flipped through his notebook. “One of Hardy’s main collaborators, David Hay said… Yes, here it is; he said: ‘Hardy saw his role as that of the natural historian, collecting and classifying specimens, somewhat like a Victorian naturalist laying down the factual basis for the theories of twentieth century biology.’”4 “Hmm, it’s a bit strange thinking of religious experiences being collected, coded then filed away into varnished drawers.” “It is rather strange… And, interestingly, Hay himself was originally trained as a zoologist, and another major contributor, Edward Robinson, was trained as a botanist,” he said raising his eyebrows for emphasis. “Once all these descriptions or ‘specimens’ were collected, Hardy then faced the problem of what to do with them. Working progressively over a series of projects, those involved dissected their sample of descriptions into various themes. By 1979 he was able to report that their team had identified 102 themes which they then grouped into twelve categories.”5 He leaned over and pulled out a shabby green manila folder from his satchel then searched through its loose pages. “Here’s a shortened list of six of his twelve categories:” Categories



Sensory or quasi-­sensory experience: Visual


Sensory or quasi-­sensory experience: Auditory Supposed extra-­sensory perception Cognitive & affective elements

(a) Visions (b) illuminations (c) a particular light (d) ‘out-of-body’ (e) unity with surroundings (f) transformation of surrounds (g) ‘deja vu’ (a) ‘voices’ calming (b) ‘voices’ guiding (c) ‘being spoken through’, gift of tongues (d) music & other sounds. (a) Telepathy (b) precognition (c) clairvoyance (d) supposed contact with the dead (e) apparitions. Sense of: (a) security/peace (b) joy/happiness (c) new strength (e) awe/wonder (f) certainty/clarity (g) exaltation/ecstasy (j) timelessness (n) fulfillment … (i) Positive or constructive: (a) initiative beyond self (b) growth of awareness … (ii) negative or destructive: (m) sense of evil force … (i) (a) natural beauty (b) sacred places (e) music… (ii) (w) drugs, anaesthetics (x) drugs, psychedelic

5. 7.


Dynamic patterns in experience

11. Antecedents of ‘triggers’ of experience



“See how he extracted and organized the various themes,” continued Bernard as he ran his index finger down the page. “He organized them like elements on a periodic table. But then he faced the problem of explaining how they occurred in individual descriptions of spiritual encounters. As he said himself, this was no easy task.” He put on his glasses and returned to his black notebook. “This is what he claimed: ‘At first, with my biological background, I had thought that we might classify the records with a system not unlike that used by the naturalists; perhaps to begin with we could divide them into two main kinds (almost like the division between the plant and animal kingdoms) with, on the one hand, those describing a more general sense of spiritual awareness and, on the other, those which were of a more dramatic, ecstatic, mystical character. Then I had imagined that the various individual examples within each of these major divisions could be classed in a hierarchical system like biological specimens: those of the same kind might form a labelled unit corresponding to a species, and such units whose members were slightly different from those of other units, yet had many points in common, would be grouped together into a higher category, and these again into yet higher ones and so on. We very soon found, however, that such a system could not work, for the situation was much more complex.’”6 Bernard closed his notebook and looked across at Dorothy. “So, to get around this he opted for a labelling system in which each experience can be given a coded label with any possible combination of the listed elements.” “So, you mean,” remarked Dorothy excitedly, “someone’s experience could be labelled: 1e ‘unity with surroundings’, um…” She ran her forefinger down the table. “Ah, 7b ‘joy/happiness’, ah… 9b ‘initiative in self’, and… 11(i)(a) ‘natural beauty’.” “Yes, that’s what he’d do.” “So, he could speak to a colleague about a ‘1(d)7(b)(e)’ experience or a ‘6(a)7(a)8(c)’ experience and they’d both know what he’s talking about.” Bernard laughed and returned to his notebook. “I think that’s precisely what he did. Listen to this: ‘Such classificatory labels tell us the main items to be found in any particular account of an experience, just as in chemistry the formula H2SO4 tells us the different elements involved in the composition of sulphuric acid.’7 So, you see,” continued Bernard enthusiastically, “he saw this classification system as revolutionizing the science of spirituality just as had the taxonomies of botany and chemistry revolutionized their sciences. And Hardy wasn’t alone. Whether these descriptions were



viewed as reporting on fact or fiction, those who studied them both before and after Hardy were also keen to find ways of classifying them.” “Well, I think it’s only natural for us to want to organize our raw data,” stated Dorothy approvingly. “What most of them did was to pull together their own collections of descriptions by writers, mystics, family members, friends and students, then they typically read and re-read what they had, then they sifted out a number of common themes.” Bernard flipped further into his black notebook. “Here’s a typical example… Richard Bucke, writing in 1901, observed from one description in his collection by great mystics: ‘The person, suddenly, without warning, has a sense of being immersed in a flame, or rose-colored cloud, or perhaps rather a sense that the mind is itself filled with such a cloud of haze.’8 And, because of the highly visual character of this commonly reported theme, Bucke called this experience ‘subjective light’ and listed it together with ten other similarly inferred categories.” “Hmm, with all these various studies, didn’t they start converging on an agreed list of categories and labels?” asked Dorothy. “You’d think they’d be worried about repeating the same exercise over and over. I mean, if we could find some agreement as to which experiences are of a certain basic type then we could move closer to each study building on each other.” Bernard lowered his head and stared at Dorothy over the top of his glasses. “Unfortunately, they couldn’t move beyond this. Each analysis appears to yield a different list of elements which in turn seemed to reflect the personal preferences and orientations of the author.9 For instance, sixty years after Bucke, William Stace worked in a very similar manner to sift out nine basic themes from his wide reading of the reports of published mystics. He then went on to propose two major types of spiritual encounter made up of different combinations of basic themes; on the one hand, what he called ‘extrovertive’ experiences involve awareness of ‘the universal life of the world’, while, on the other, ‘introvertive’ experiences involve reaching up ‘to the realization of a universal consciousness of mind’.”10 “Goodness, I can see how reaching a consensus on the types of these experiences would pose problems.” “Yes, the qualities of what people described in spiritual encounters proved very slippery and would not slot easily into discrete categories. Sometime later, a couple of guys, Margolis and Elifson, carefully read over



and analyzed sixty-nine accounts of spiritual encounters and identified a range of themes which they classified and counted.11 They found the themes tended to overlap, which prevented any neat division of the experiences into types. They argued that, rather than talking of experiences being of one type or another, it’s far more useful to approach spiritual and mystical encounters as multidimensional—in other words made up of a combination of independently varying features.” “Ah, so differences between experiences can then be related more to each having separate combinations of certain basic features and not because they are of different types,” clarified Dorothy approvingly. “Yes, I agree with them on the futility of working with categories or types.” Bernard placed his glasses carefully down on the table and gazed thoughtfully across at Dorothy. “It’s a bit like dissecting an animal where, though the angle and size of the cuts can vary, you try to find the natural partings and aim, for example, for the joints so you avoid cutting unnecessarily through the muscle and bone.” “Ah, rather messy, but I catch your drift,” remarked Dorothy smiling. “In an ideal world, category boundaries should reflect natural or logical divisions in the material. And these descriptions are too variable and fluid for us to ever find their natural partings.” “Hmm, precisely,” nodded Bernard. “But even so, you can’t help but admire Hardy’s commitment in pursuing such an organized way of classifying spiritual encounters. He went to enormous lengths and managed to classify a massive set of descriptions.” “It certainly sounds like he was serious about his system,” added Dorothy. “And it’s a shame he didn’t succeed. I’d certainly like to know whether other people have experiences similar to me.” “I agree. It would be comforting to be able to pick up a manual and say, ‘aha, that’s where my experience fits in’….” “… and whether you’re having a genuine encounter or not.” “I don’t know about needing to prove they’re genuine,” mumbled Bernard as he snatched a querying glance across at Dorothy. “But unfortunately, these experiences can’t be talked about in this way. From my reading, I’ve realized that people have all kinds of encounters which they call ‘spiritual’: some are single big events, some are multiple small events, some involve sensations and visions, some involve just different ways of looking at ordinary things, and some, like your own, are not events, but some sort of abiding awareness.” “It makes you wonder whether we are all talking about the same thing.”



“Yes, maybe we’re not,” agreed Bernard. “But I wonder if it’s less to do with the encounters themselves and more to do with the different ways we go about expressing them. Perhaps the meaning of such experiences is similar for people, but they vary more in terms of how they are expressed.” “Like variations on the same single theme?” “Yes, perhaps… I guess there would be no way of really knowing.” Bernard gazed vacantly out the window while Dorothy sat silently staring at the table wondering whether the conversation had run its course. “Bernie, I’m gonna need to get back to work soon,” stated Dorothy as she drained the remnants of her coffee. “But I can see now why Hardy’s specimen-collecting approach failed to lead anywhere.” Bernard turned back and stated, “Yes, I think his approach suffers from three major problems.” “Three problems? Is that all?” queried Dorothy sardonically. Bernard smiled, “Do you have time to discuss this?” “Yes, I can stay a little longer. But not too long.” “Good, well, the first problem with Hardy’s system is—as with any classification system—that slapping a label on something doesn’t really explain it.” “That’s for sure. Like when someone labels his son ‘aggressive’, it doesn’t really explain why he’s acting so hostile. There’s probably a whole range of legitimate reasons why he’s angry.” “What Hardy did was merely construct a list of themes. But underlying such a list he didn’t provide any rationale or explanation. While it provides an abbreviated way of communicating aspects of spiritual encounters, it does not appear to provide a better way of understanding or organizing the material.” “Okay, I get that,” stated Dorothy. “So, what’s his second problem.” “His second problem is accuracy. The usefulness of a system like this relies on the accuracy of the categorization. Without that, the whole system begins to crumble.” “Ah, yes, in chemistry the periodic table works well because you can accurately measure aspects of each element.” “Once the boundaries start to blur, the integrity of the whole system is at risk. I know this well from the current classification system we use for identifying psychiatric disorders.12 It makes sense to seek a common understanding in mental health of terms for communication and research purposes, but people have this unhelpful knack of making any system messy and complicated.”



“That’s right. I mean, accountancy would be really straightforward if people weren’t involved.” “Let’s take one important category, what we call ‘depression’,” continued Bernard with an authoritative tone. “Other doctors know what is meant when you say someone is ‘depressed’ because the word is carefully defined according to fixed and agreed-on criteria. This makes sense, but, unfortunately, when applying these criteria to the messiness of people’s daily lives, there are many opportunities for inaccuracies to creep in. Categorizing someone’s mental health relies heavily on people observing and judging that person’s behavior, and these observations always come with some degree of bias and uncertainty.” “Yeah, and I suppose that gets worse when you look at personality disorders and different types of psychosis?” “Yes, exactly. It’s quite different than measuring atomic mass. And what’s worse, when the category is misapplied it can lead to all sorts of horrific consequences such as unnecessary and perhaps coerced treatments.” “Ah, I see; the usefulness of categorization is outweighed by the risk of making mistakes.”13 “Added to this, the whole system, which is based on precision and reliability, ends up being discredited and leads some to conclude we’re better off without it.” Bernard frowned as he took a sip of his coffee. “You can imagine, if a classificatory system for mental disorders has problems with accuracy, an even looser and more amorphous area such as spirituality, is bound to struggle with credibility.” “Okay, I get this…” stated Dorothy impatiently. “But you said Hardy had three main problems?” “Oh yes, the third problem—this for me is the big one. The third problem relates to what he assumes people are doing when they speak about spiritual encounters… Um, but this is going to take me a little time to explain. Don’t you have to get back to work?” “I do, but… But Bernie now you’ve got me all curious and intrigued,” complained Dorothy shrugging her shoulders. She smiled and pulled out her mobile phone from her neatly pressed suit-jacket and called up her office. “Jean, Dorothy here… I’m gonna be tied up here for a while. Can you change the next appointment to later in the afternoon? Yes, he’ll understand… his office is very close… thanks.” She slid the phone back into her jacket. “There. Now tell me about what Hardy’s assumed?”



“Hmm, how do I explain this?” Bernard drummed his fingers on the table and stared blankly across the room. “It has to do with assuming how when someone talks or writes about a spiritual encounter, the description has some form of direct relationship with what was experienced. It has…” His words faded into silence as he continued to stare blankly across the room. Then suddenly his posture stiffened, and he turned to stare intensely at Dorothy. “I know. I’ll start with how we make observations in science.” He relaxed back into his chair. “You know the way astronomers from the past would set out to systematically study the motions of stars?” “Ah ha, you mean astronomers like Galileo and Copernicus?” “Yes, and even more recent ones,” nodded Bernard. “Well, as their measurements became more precise, they found, when they added up their estimates of gravitational forces between the various heavenly bodies, their figures did not accurately predict how the bodies behaved. In order to predict this accurately they needed the presence of another gravitational force. Accordingly, they posited that perhaps certain masses existed in space that could not be observed but which possessed gravitational fields so powerful that nothing could escape, including light. Indeed, once they allowed for these ‘black holes’ they were able to more accurately predict celestial motion.” “Hmm, so in a sense they were first able to ‘observe’ these masses indirectly through the medium of their mathematical calculations.” “Yeah, sort of… Now, let’s apply this to spiritual encounters. Try to imagine yourself as an observer standing outside your own consciousness.” “I can think or imagine it, but I’m not really doing the observing. I can’t because I’m always caught in it.” “Okay then, just imagine it,” said Bernard slightly annoyed with his companion’s pedantic tendencies. “Imagine standing outside human consciousness trying to make sense of what’s being experienced.” “I can’t. There’s nothing I can refer to from outside that would mean anything.” “Right, so, in a way, spiritual encounters occupy a position similar to that of black-holes in astronomy. These encounters cannot be directly observed from the outside and you only have a sense of them because those who have had them repeatedly declare they are there.” “I see what you mean. As with black holes, light never escapes directly from these encounters… direct access is always denied.”



“Yes, and knowledge of them is always filtered through the medium of how they are described. The encounter itself is a black hole for which descriptions provide only indirect and suggestive hints. No investigator can escape this. The encounters happen too infrequently and too unpredictably for them to be directly observed. They are forced to rely on descriptions provided well after the event.” “So, we are forced to take this on trust,” sighed Dorothy. “I can see how this poses an enormous challenge for researchers.” “And what’s worse, it is so often assumed that the content of a description somehow matches directly the content of an encounter. This is a mistake. It shows that people haven’t really thought through what’s going on when people describe them.” “How do you mean, Bernie?” asked Dorothy with a confused expression. Bernard bent over to open his satchel and pull out a writing pad and a pen. “You remember how when describing these encounters people often claim they’re difficult—if not impossible—to describe?” “Yes, but that doesn’t stop them trying.” “What I think they’re trying to signal is that they are not using language in a literal way.” Bernard drew a cloud-like circle on one side of the page and a square on the other side. “Now, let’s make this cloud the actual experience and this square its description.” He draws two dots in the cloud. “Let’s say these are two elements in the encounter—say a sense of unity and a feeling of joy.” He drew another two dots in the square. “Here’s where those elements are described in the description.” He draws lines connecting the dots.



“Now what researchers like Hardy are assuming is that this element in the encounter matches directly this content in the description.” He pointed back and forth between the dots. “They’re assuming that when someone talks about ‘being at one with everything’ that matches exactly what happened during the experience.” “Yeah, but what else can you assume?” “Well, given that people often signal these are difficult to express, it’s more logical to assume that what they say isn’t intended to be taken literally…” Bernard paused briefly to check Dorothy was following. “They’ve overlooked how these descriptions are creative or non-literal forms of expression. Here, let me draw it for you.” He turned over the page to a new sheet and, with his hands trembling slightly, he redrew the cloud and the square but this time in between he drew a face and at the end he put in a vertical row of faces.

“I can see you’ve complicated things a bit,” remarked Dorothy. “Yes, look here,” he pointed to the two arrows. “There are now two important points of transfer. First there’s the point at which a person composes the description and, second, there’s the point at which readers or listeners respond and interpret the description.” “Hmm, so what you’re saying is that because of these transfer points, we can’t assume any direct or one-to-one relation between the experience and its description.”



“Yes, precisely. I’m claiming that descriptions of these encounters require a creative use of language. They’re not flat, neutral descriptions; they’re full of non-literal and innovative ways of speaking.” He pointed to the first arrow, “So here, the speaker is actively adding elements while working out what to say.” He pointed to the second arrow, “And what’s more, listeners contribute equally to the creative aspects of this transfer.” “Whew,” sighed Dorothy. “I can see how speakers might use creative ways of communicating, but I can’t see how this applies to listeners.” “The creative engagement of listeners is very important,” stated Bernard vigorously. He paused and glanced over at Dorothy to see her scratching her head with a confused look. “Ah, never mind; we’ll talk about the listeners another time. For now, let’s just stick with the speakers.” Bernard returned to pointing at his drawing. “Let’s consider what this person, here, is doing with language when he talks about his encounter. For instance, let’s consider what he’s doing when he claims he’s connected with something that is ‘Infinite’ and ‘Eternal’. How’s he describing these objects? Has he actually encountered ‘Infinity’ as one would when meeting a friend in the street?” “No, of course not,” chortled Dorothy. “He’s using these words in a special way.” “Um, if so, how can we possibly draw any inferences about the nature of the experience until we are clear about what this special sense entails?” “I guess you’re right. We do need to take a much closer look at what’s going on when someone describes these encounters.” “Yes, and I realize what I’m saying is a bit negative, maybe even a bit destructive, because it casts doubt on how research has been conducted so far.” He relaxed away from his drawing. “But we do need to take a step back and shift attention away from the encounters themselves and examine how language is being used.” “We do indeed,” stated Dorothy laying both her hands gently down on the table. “But look, it’s way past the time when I’m meant to be back in the office, so I’m going to have to leave.” She pushed herself up into a standing position. “Bernie, that was good, and I really want to continue this further.” She straightened her suit jacket, waved then turned to walk away.



Notes 1. As a marine biologist, Alister Hardy developed the idea that during one period in evolution, early humanoids were forced to seek food along the coastline and this led to changes such as the upright position and forward-­ facing eyes; see his, “Was man more aquatic in the past,” New Scientist (7;March, 642–5, 1960). The aquatic ape hypothesis is not currently widely accepted by scientists. 2. Alister Hardy, The Biology of God (London: Jonathan Cape, 1975) p. 20. 3. Some of the main projects include: Timothy Beardsworth, A Sense of Presence (Oxford Religious Experience Research Unit, 1977), Edward Robinson, The Original Vision (Oxford Religious Experience Research Unit, 1977) and D. Hay and A. Morisy, “Reports of ecstatic, paranormal, or religious experience in Great Britain, and the United States,” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion (17;3, 255–268, 1978). 4. This is discussed by David Hay in, Exploring Inner Space (Middlesex: Penguin Books, 1982) p. 111. 5. Hardy adopted the term “religious experience”, which for the purposes of this book, we have widened by referring to them as “spiritual encounters”. 6. Alister Hardy, The Spiritual Nature of Man (Oxford: Clarendon, 1979) p. 22. 7. Ibid. p. 24. 8. Richard Bucke, Cosmic Consciousness (New York: Dutton & Co., 1923, 1901) p. 72. 9. Each new analysis derived a different number of elements, themes, types and factors. Furthermore, the number of themes and types generally increases with the larger samples of testimonials—the smaller samples of 50 to 70 reports yield two to eight types or factors, whereas the larger sample of 3000 reports yields 102 elements and 12 factors. Both these indications suggest that further studies of this type will yield new configurations and even more categories. 10. William Stace, Mysticism and Philosophy (London: Macmillan, 1961) p. 133. 11. R. Margolis and K. Elifson, “A typology of religious experience,” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion (18;1, 61–67, 1979). 12. The main classificatory system in use, the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th Edition, is widely used and provides detail on classification of all major mental disorders and related issues. 13. Classic criticisms of the risks associated with psychiatric labelling can be found in works such as Thomas Szasz, The Myth of Mental Illness (New York: Harper & Row, 1974), and J.  Read and J.  Dillon, eds., Models of Madness (Hove: Brunner-Routledge, 2013).


The Rhetorical Turn

Bernard was gazing out the café window at the sparrows and blackbirds hopping through the thick foliage of the plane trees. A patch of early summer sun was peeking between a slit in the awning and shining a pattern onto the floor beside him. Suddenly the pattern disappeared, and he turned to find a young man standing over him holding a cup of coffee. “Jarrod, it’s you? What’ve you been up to?” Jarrod swiveled nimbly into his seat. “Ah, Bernard, I’m sorry, I’ve been so busy; I haven’t managed to make it in here for over four months.” “So, what’s been happening?” “Well, after finishing my degree I went out looking for work.” “Any success?” “Found a couple of temporary jobs, but I’m chuffed because a couple of weeks ago I landed this nine-month position as a camera operator for a documentary series. It’s a great job. The doco is all about architectural wonders and some of it involves travelling to far-flung places.” “Good on you. What a great opportunity,” remarked Bernard warmly. “Oh, and there’s also a new woman in my life,” stated Jarrod coyly. “Her name’s Alice. The relationship’s already fairly serious and we’ve moved into the same apartment.” “Jarrod, things really are moving fast. But what happened to your previous girlfriend?”

© The Author(s) 2020 P. J. Adams, How to Talk About Spiritual Encounters,




“Ah, that went gradually cold then we both agreed it was best to end it.” He took two large slurps of his coffee. “Enough of me, so what’ve you been up to?” “I’ve been thinking about how to convince you about the merits of talking about spirituality.” “Oh Bernard, don’t bother convincing me. I think it’s all waffle, and I’m gonna keep thinking that way.” “Ah, perhaps it is a kind of waffle, but I think you need to recognize the extent to which much of the way we talk in our everyday lives involves different types of waffle.” “How do you mean?” asked Jarrod with a curious smile. “Okay, Jarrod, you imagine this situation: One of your past lecturers is working late preparing a lecture for the following day…” “That’s a joke,” interrupted Jarrod. “I don’t think many of my lecturers ever bothered changing their lectures from year to year.” “Okay, okay; but let’s just say he did spend time planning,” clarified Bernard in an impatient tone. “Now, he has labored many years on his specialist subject and has merely one hour to convey two hard-earned insights to a theatre full of bored students. As he sits there, what do you think would be upper most in his mind? Is his major concern going to be the accuracy and comprehensiveness of his presentation?” “Of course not; he should already have that all sorted,” retorted Jarrod. “If he does happen to think about it, he’d be more likely to be worrying about how he comes across.” “So, this means you’d expect him to be thinking over strategies and sequences that will make his insights more interesting and more accessible to his students?” He looked up to check Jarrod was following. “See how, in such situations, we’re often less worried about what we say and more about how we say it?” “Okay, but that doesn’t mean we don’t care about the accuracy of what we’re saying.” “No. He’d still want what he says to be accurate, but… But he’d be focused more on the manner of how it will be presented.” He paused briefly to study Jarrod’s skeptical expression. “Well, consider another example: a relationships counsellor is sitting in her office waiting for a client. She reads over the client’s progress notes and is concerned about how her client continually accepts blame for things that go wrong in her life.” “Sounds like a few people I know.”



“Now, the counsellor is convinced that the client’s ongoing acceptance of unfair blame has repeatedly blocked her from establishing any lasting self-esteem. So how do you think she’d plan to talk about this with her client? Again, would she concentrate on the accuracy of her insight, or would she be more likely to be thinking up strategies which might help her client discover similar insights for herself?” “The latter I suppose… Look, I get what you’re saying. The way we use language is a complex business, with many layers and many purposes.” Jarrod took another slurp of his coffee. “But, now let me give you an example: During a summer break a couple of years ago, I spent two months travelling around Northern India with my previous girlfriend.” “Yes, I remember you telling me a bit about those adventures.” “Well, after I got back, I caught up with a friend in a bar and tried to tell him about what went on. I’d never been to a place like India—the color, the sights, the sounds… I wanted him to have some idea of what it was like.” “You could just tell him what happened. You know, provide him with a list of where you went and what you did?” Jarrod glanced across at Bernard, a little surprised at the hint of sarcasm. “No, my friend had never been to Asia and I wanted to capture what it was like to be in such an alien environment. So, like in your other examples, I was less interested in conveying information and more in capturing some sense of what it was like to be there; the heat, the smells, the colorful clothes, the donkeys, the camels, the holy cows…” “And how did you describe it?” “I guess I resorted to painting images with my words: portraying critical scenes, describing key objects, trying to capture how I felt… And as I described a scene, I emphasized all the bits that most impressed me. I wanted to stimulate in the mind of my friend some appreciation of what I was feeling.” “Aha, so while the content mattered, you were more concerned with the manner in which you described these scenes.” “Yes, I suppose the way we communicate is just as important as what we have to say.” “Which is precisely what I was trying to tell you before.” “Look, Bernard, I’m not stupid. This is the same as what our communication study lecturers used to keep ramming down our throats. They would go on and on about the importance of style, the value of framing



and the power of all sorts techniques for impressing and influencing people.” Bernard paused, stirred his coffee slowly then glanced across to Jarrod. “And I know of all this by the label, ‘rhetoric’.” He paused again, leant over to his satchel and pulled out his glasses case and tatty black notebook. “I’ve been keeping something in my bag to show you; some examples of the importance of the way we say things.” He put on his brown glasses and pulled out a couple of loose pages folded under the cover of the notebook. “Here’s a writer about music, Leonard Bernstein, discussing one of Wagner’s operas”: Somehow, in the very first few bars of Tristan, Wagner had already created a music that was so dissonant, so expressive, so chromatic, so wandering in its modulations from key to key that the poor listener had almost lost his tonal bearings. He didn’t know where he was, he was hard put to it to find a tonic home plate. Where are we in this music? We are suspended in some highly perfumed region, floating around in an atmosphere of unconsummated desire.1

Bernard looked up. “Hear the way he describes himself as listening like a ‘lost wanderer’? Hear also the expressive references to ‘floating’ and ‘unconsummated desire’.” He paused briefly to unfold another page. “And this is by an art historian, Kenneth Clark, describing his response to a painting by John Turner”: When I look back at it across the gallery... I no longer think about its design, but about its color; and I see the dramatic effect of light is not achieved by contrast of tone… but by a most subtle alternation of color. As a result, oil paint achieves a new consistency, an iridescence, which is more like that of some living thing... than a painted simulacrum.2

“Hmm,” pondered Jarrod, “‘dramatic’, ‘subtle’, ‘consistency’, ‘iridescence’, ‘simulacrum’…” He tapped his fingers gently on his coffee cup. “Using language this way reminds me of when we were asked to analyze films; it reminds me of when we examined the use of all sorts of techniques, particularly narrative structure, metaphor and metonymy.” “Good, so you’re familiar with some of the main devices of rhetoric?” “I guess so, but we didn’t call it ‘rhetoric’.” Jarrod looked across at Bernard with a serious expression. “What we were taught was that, while language is often assumed to be an efficient vehicle for communicating



information about the world, it’s an inaccurate and cumbersome medium for conveying highly personal and inner insights and experiences. Writers and film-makers need to invest considerable time and energy in attempts to communicate the world of emotions. A film is crafted using all sorts of techniques that help viewers enter the inner world of the characters.” “Huh, yes, that’s right,” stated Bernard, a little surprised by Jarrod’s familiarity with these devices. “But the use of such language isn’t confined to talking about our inner responses to music, paintings or film. It’s also used when trying to describe difficult ideas.” Bernard unfolded another page. “Here’s a passage from an educational theorist, Richard Peters”: In a teaching situation love must be of a type that is appropriate to the special type of relationship in which the teacher is placed... The teacher must always remember that he is dealing with others who are distinctive centers of consciousness, with peculiar idiosyncratic purposes and feelings that crisscross their institutional roles. Each one is bound up with and takes pride of some sort in his own achievements; each one mirrors the world from a distinct point of view.3

“Hmm, it’s a bit more abstract,” responded Jarrod, “but I can see him making use of the same devices. Look at phrases like: ‘centers of consciousness’ and ‘mirrors of the world’.” “Okay, so why does this prominent educationalist communicate his ideas by using vague and airy-fairy phrases? Why this talk of ‘idiosyncratic purposes’ and ‘crisscrossing roles’? These phrases are so vague and non-­ specific; you could be excused for thinking he’s talking waffle, much the same sort of waffle used when talking about spirituality.” “Well, I don’t know,” stated Jarrod looking a little annoyed at the aside. “He’s speaking like any other academic… or anyone else trying to explain any sort of theory. I guess he feels compelled to speak this way because there’s no other way to convey complex ideas.” “And this is precisely why rhetoric is so important. The way we say things, what we use to frame and embellish our talk, this really matters when it comes to communicating effectively.” “Okay, if it’s so important, why isn’t it a major field of study? Why don’t we have schools and departments devoted to rhetoric?” queried Jarrod insistently. “It hardly rates a mention, even in communication studies.”



“Ah, now behind that hangs a very interesting story,” stated Bernard. Then, following a brief pause, he cast an enquiring glance across at Jarrod. “Can I tell it to you? Have you got time? It’s a sad tale but one that sheds light on what we’re discussing.” Jarrod glanced at his watch. “Okay, I’m not too busy this morning, but I’ll need to refuel with another coffee. You want another one?” “Ah, okay. That’d be nice.” Bernard watched the young man weaving effortlessly through the tables. He admired the freedom and ease with which he moved, and he envied the wide range of ways in which his life was opening up; Jarrod’s life was about opening doors, his life was about closing them. He watched the way he paid the woman behind the counter and the shy twinkly smiles they gave each other. He watched him turn effortlessly around and zigzag his way back to the table. “Thanks for the coffee,” said Bernard as he broke a sachet of sugar into his cup. “So, I’ll try to make this as brief as I can. You can trace the origins of rhetoric in our European traditions back to ancient Greek times. According to the works of Plato, rhetoric originally evolved as a necessary part of democratic process. Once a society abandons brute force as the primary means of motivating a population, then the skills of persuasion become central in expressing ideas and influencing the beliefs of others.”4 “Not unlike how it works in our governments today.” “Yes, quite,” said Bernard, clearly keen to proceed with his story. “During the Classical Period of Athens, teachers of rhetoric were known as Sophists. Thinkers like Isocrates were part of an influential group who argued for the parallel development of rhetorical skills alongside learning and wisdom. Their teachings were publicly recognized as vital to the functioning of the state.”5 “Hold on, I thought that what Sophists said were full of verbiage and lacking in substance. Isn’t that where we get the term ‘sophistry’?” “Correct. Plato’s ‘Dialogues’ describe Socrates repeatedly attacking Sophists for developing rhetoric without regard to knowledge.”6 Bernard paused for a couple of quick sips of coffee. “Nonetheless, despite heavy criticism of the Sophists, Socratic dialogue itself captures the essence of what early Sophists were advocating and how the Greeks generally viewed the role of rhetoric. Plato described Socrates as employing defined forms of argument, with regular use of rhetorical strategies like metaphor, deletion and analogy. Socratic dialogue was very persuasive. And, for the Greeks, it wasn’t considered enough simply to possess good ideas; the



ability to convey, persuade and convince others was equally important.7 They figured that without rhetoric, knowledge is impotent, and without knowledge rhetoric is vacuous.” “Hence the need for communication studies,” stated Jarrod ironically. “Perhaps, but selling bottles of soft-drink is not what I think they had in mind.” Bernard paused for a big swallow of coffee. “Now, in a more systematic manner, Plato’s pupil Aristotle pursued the same interest as his master regarding the connection between knowledge and rhetoric. Aristotle’s rhetoric divides the art of persuasion into several sub-­disciplines, and he took on the task of labeling many of the strategies used in forming effective arguments. His works provided the first major foundation upon which rhetoric as a discipline was later to develop.”8 Bernard looked up to check whether he was maintaining Jarrod’s interest. He could see from Jarrod’s intense gaze that he was following the thrust of his story. “A bit later, in Roman times, rhetoric continued its prominent position in formal education. The ability to communicate ideas in a persuasive manner was seen as indispensable to public careers and the orderly management of state. Major works such as Aristotle’s third book of his ‘Rhetoric’ and Quintilian’s ‘Institutio Oratoria’ became basic texts and, as the Sophists had advocated, an understanding of rhetoric—especially in its verbal form of oratory—was viewed as essential to an adequate education.9 In this way thinkers and administrators were not viewed as independent spirits; they were seen as having a responsibility to the state and therefore duty-bound to find ways to promote their ideas in the minds of other people.”10 “So, rhetoric was seen as a noble art, not the art of deception which we view it today.” “Precisely,” confirmed Bernard as he unfolded another page from his notebook. “Here’s the grand master of oratory, Cicero, describing how much rhetoric was prized”: In every free nation, and most of all in communities which have attained the enjoyment of peace and tranquility, this one art has always flourished over the rest and ever reigned supreme... What function is so kingly, so worthy of the free, so generous, as to bring help to the suppliant, to raise up those who are cast down, to bestow security, to set free from peril, to maintain men in their civil rights? ... The wise control of the complete orator is that which chiefly upholds not only his own dignity, but the safety of countless individuals and of the entire state.11



“Hell’s teeth, they really took it seriously,” remarked Jarrod. “So too from classical Greek and Roman times, the teaching of rhetoric also figured strongly throughout Medieval and Renaissance thinking, right up to the Industrial Revolution.12 Rhetoric in the Medieval times, although a little less popular than classical times, remained one of the three central disciplines in the repertoire of the Medieval scholar. Then, during the European Renaissance, rhetoric was revitalized and a competence in techniques of communication, particularly those relating to ‘elocution’ or style, regained widespread appeal.”13 “Hmm… so it was really central to all learning, but it’s not like that now. What went wrong?” Jarrod was indeed captivated by the story. Since a small boy he had taken an intense interested in the history of other civilizations. What Bernard was describing was connecting with so many territories that he had already read about. “Well, like the Roman Empire, the decline and fall of rhetoric followed a long and jagged path. Early signs occurred in the seventeenth century when people like Francis Bacon started singing the praises of scientific method. Then the great eighteenth-century philosopher Immanuel Kant declared oratory was the art of ‘playing for one’s own purpose upon the weaknesses of men’ and ‘merits no respect whatever’.”14 “Ooh, that’s fairly damning,” muttered Jarrod. “But surely this was the time when science, as we know it today, really took off? The same science that has transformed our lives in so many positive ways?” “Yes, you’re right. This did lead on to the Enlightenment which swept through Europe and succeeded in transforming so many aspects of our learning, science and political systems.” “Ah yes, the world of Rousseau and Voltaire, Locke and Newton, exploration and discovery, the French and American revolutions… quite a time. From what I’ve read, the Enlightenment laid the foundations for much the progress we’ve made over the last century. Surely the loss of rhetoric was a relatively small sacrifice?” “Hmm, perhaps,” replied Bernard looking slightly worried by Jarrod’s unabashed praise of the Enlightenment. “Anyway, by the early nineteenth century the tide of academic opinion had definitely turned. Rhetoric had deteriorated from a dynamic and developing discipline into a static cataloguing of figures of speech.”15 He unfolded another page that was wedged into his tatty notebook. “Here’s how one writer of the time, Edward de Quincey, put it”:



The age of rhetoric, like that of chivalry, has passed amongst forgotten things; and the rhetorician can have no more chance for returning than the rhapsodist of early Greece or the troubadour of romance.16

“Yeah, well that’s what I was thinking. Rhetoric was a thing of the past; like alchemy, inquisitions and astrology; it’s not really needed anymore.” “That’s certainly how it was viewed,” said Bernard looking morosely down at the froth in his coffee. “So, during the twentieth century, the study of rhetoric gradually disappeared. By the 1930s most schools and colleges in England and America no longer taught it; then by the 1960s its last residue, ‘figures of speech,’ vanished from most English literature textbooks.”17 “I guess that’s when rhetoric came to mean ‘empty words’ and ‘persuasive but not accurate’.” “Hmm, that’s what it was reduced to… What the Ancients saw as a cornerstone of civilization had turned into a brutish art concerned with deception and exploitation.” “Um, but if rhetoric is an obstacle to science and progress, maybe it’s good riddance?” suggested Jarrod regretting the comment almost immediately. He noticed a barely perceptible wince pass across Bernard’s lips. He had no intention to upset this kind, earnest old man; he so much wanted to keep their lively conversations going. Bernard took a couple of small sips from his coffee, wiped the froth from his upper lip then stared blankly out the window. “You know…” He paused and stared out with a sadness in his eyes. “When I was working in the hospital, I, like my other medical colleagues, would avoid talking openly with patients about what they were really going through. We tended to talk to patients about test results, diagnosis, treatments, when to discharge… that sort of thing; all very factual and task-oriented.” “Hmm, I guess that wouldn’t give someone with a serious illness much opportunity to discuss what’s happening to them on their insides.” “Yes, and that really bothered me. I could see they were being blocked from talking about their inner struggles. So, fairly early in my career, I revolted. I started talking to patients that were very sick about their inner worlds, and I soon found this engaged them in a very different way than was normally the case.” “But didn’t that make you less efficient as a doctor? I mean, it would’ve taken up more time and diverted your attention from looking for treatments and cures?”



“No, in fact the opposite; I found speaking to patients about their inner worlds and about their spirituality allowed me to come far closer to what they were about and what they needed.” Jarrod detected strong emotion in the old man’s voice and felt reluctant to develop his skeptical position further. “Okay, I can see that finding ways of speaking about spirituality can be important to some people and that this requires some level of ability with rhetoric. But, in your mind, why did rhetoric have such a dramatic fall from grace? I mean, how do you account for its disappearance?” Bernard looked up and wiped away his morose expression with a smile. “Oh, there’s been plenty of explanations… Some have argued that rhetoric slowly strangled itself by an obsessive enthusiasm to classify every possible rhetorical device or figure of speech.18 Others have argued that the post-industrial rise of the middle classes led to rhetoric being dismissed as another form of unnecessary aristocratic decoration.19 Others have argued that over the course of history the popularity of rhetoric does tend to wax and wane and, at its low points, it doesn’t disappear, but gets dispersed into other disciplines, like linguistics or literary criticism.”20 “So instead of viewing rhetoric as dying, it could be seen as active but dispersed and therefore immanently capable of a strong revival.” “Yes. What I see as most important is how the fall of rhetoric coincided with the rise of a particular way of thinking about language and truth. This way of thinking, often referred to as ‘positivism,’ views truth as something fixed and unassailable and language as merely a neutral vehicle for transporting knowledge of this truth.”21 “Ah, I’ve heard of positivism as a philosophy that looks at reality as out-­ there, solid and independent of our minds. The job of scientists is to systematically work out what this reality is like, then communicate it to the world so everyone can benefit from it.” “That’s right, and underlying this belief in a solid, singular reality, lies a belief that we should strive as much as possible to use language as clearly as possible. Part of the enterprise of science is to create a rhetoric-free language, devoid as much as possible from any non-literal associations.” “Hmm, as occurs when writing a mathematical formula or theorems?” “Yes, a mathematical theorem would be the ideal: so pure, so clear, no room for double meanings. Rhetorically-laden ways of speaking provide such unreliable receptacles for containing and transporting knowledge. Embellished language would jeopardize the clarity and security of what we discover. Rhetoric is capable of perverting the truth; it should be seen as a



hindrance to the growth of science and must be confined, as much as possible, to its true position in media studies and the arts.” “Hmm, but don’t you think there’s something in that?” Bernard, rummaged through some more of the pages folded untidily into his notebook. “Here, here’s a typical example of this way of thinking,” He unfolded and flourished one of the pages. “It’s from an introductory psychology textbook”: As scientists, we believe that behaviors, like other natural phenomena, are subject to objective investigation. Like other scientists, psychologists must follow the procedures and principles of the scientific method ... A scientist attempts to discover relations among events, and to phrase these relations in language that is precise enough to be understood by others but general enough to apply to a wide variety of phenomena.22

“So, you see, this insistence on language being clear and unambiguous, free of double meanings and unnecessary decorations, is brilliant for hard-­ nosed scientists, but it cuts out all sorts of ways of speaking which are better at expressing inner experiences like emotions, culture and spirituality.”23 “I can follow what you’re getting at,” said Jarrod tipping some sugar grains onto the table then raking them into patterns. “But feelings and perceptions can be illusory. In the end we have to rely on the facts.” Bernard sighed as a serious expression spread across his face. He lowered his voice almost to a whisper. “When I was working in Africa, a major drought hit Zambia and I was called in to help treat the starving. It was a desperate and heartbreaking situation. But what I found most difficult was reconciling how people in Western countries were viewing it compared to how it actually appeared on the ground. On the outside, newspapers were declaring, ‘50,000 people in Zambia are dying from starvation.’ This was a fact.” “As a fact it’s fairly alarming.” “But for me it was far more than a fact; it was the layers of meaning to this fact that really mattered. Every day I was watching mothers holding onto their children as they died… and I could do nothing to help. Every morning I was confronted with an endless queue of thin and distended bodies. It was the raw sight of the extent of human misery, wave upon wave of suffering, and the helplessness you feel…”



“Okay, okay. I think I’ve got a sense of it. I can see the way you’re speaking has moved beyond the facts, and you’re now trying to give me the impression of something else.” “For me, describing the detail and emotion of what happened captures more about the substance of life than a bald description of the facts.” “Okay, but you must admit there’s good reason to be suspicious of rhetoric. I mean, in Nazi Germany, Goebels made use of it in speeches, films and other forms of propaganda… And look at all the rhetoric in advertising, blogging, political speeches…” Jarrod wiped the spilt sugar into his hands and shook it into his saucer. “For example, consider someone trying to sell a particular electric drill. He might put it in a fancy wrapping, surround it with pictures of attractive people with happy faces, set up videos explaining how easy it is to use then display a large signs that claims, ‘You’ll be surprised how the new WONDER drill works for you!’ or ‘The new WONDER drill - for that professional finish’.” His eyes twinkled with energy. “The poor buyer might already have a fully functioning drill at home but in a moment of weakness the rhetoric of its promotion tips the balance and he makes an unnecessary purchase. Later, with two drills lying idle in his work-shed, he’s likely to regret the purchase and to resolve from then on to view similar sales rhetoric as deceptive.” “Okay, the way people talk can be deceptive,” admitted Bernard; “but so can facts and statistics, so can the internet, so can any form of communication. There’s nothing inherently deceptive about rhetoric; it all depends on the intentions of the user. Rhetoric is a study of devices and techniques… the tools it imparts can be used to guide or they can be used to deceive, but a knowledge of rhetoric leads to deception as much as a knowledge of facts leads to telling lies.” “I’m not so sure about that,” responded Jarrod weakly. “There’s something devious about its use.” “Look, using rhetoric in effect introduces another level of accountability. Not only does well-intentioned use require some level of accuracy, but it also needs to be judged by whether it makes a difference.” He looked imploringly across at Jarrod. “See rhetoric is a very practical discipline. You judge it by its effectiveness.” “How do you mean?” “Hmm, let me run this one past you: imagine a helmsman standing on deck alone in an off-shore yacht race. The rest of the crew are busy below deck. About midday he turns to his left and notices a freak storm speeding towards the boat. He has little time to react and he realizes the main sail



must be furled immediately to avoid dismasting. Now, what is he going to do?” “He’s going to call out loudly to the crew, ‘There’s a storm coming’.” “Ahh, but this statement runs the risk of the crew taking too long,” said Bernard smiling. “He’s more likely to have success if he shouts out with a ring of urgency, ‘There’s a MASSIVE storm brewing and bearing down on us REALLY fast’.” They both laugh. “Unlike simply stating, ‘There’s a storm coming’, my statement is full of rhetorical emphasis and, I’m sure you’d agree, it’s more likely to lead to some form of action.” Bernard gazed warmly across at Jarrod. “You see? My statement must be judged not only by whether the storm actually came but also by the extra expectation, ‘did the crew come?’” “Ah, I guess you have a point.” “This is why rhetoric deserves to be treated as a serious area of study,” stated Bernard fervently; “and we would have great difficulty communicating in many aspects of our life if we didn’t have it. This applies particularly to talking about our inner lives which, of course, includes our desire to speak about our spiritual encounters.”24

Notes 1. Leonard Bernstein, The Joy of Music (London: Panther Books, 1969) p. 205. 2. Kenneth Clark, Looking at Pictures (London: John Murray, 1960) p. 146. 3. Richard Peters, Authority, Responsibility and Education (London: Allen & Unwin, 1973) p. 101. 4. See George Kennedy, A New History of Classical Rhetoric (Princeton University Press, 2009). 5. See Kennedy (ibid.). 6. As provided by Plato in his dialogues Phaedrus and Protagarus. 7. The issues discussed here are described more fully by Gwynneth Mathews in Plato’s Epistemology and Related Logical Problems (London: Faber & Faber, 1972) and Robert Wardy in The Birth of Rhetoric (New York: Routledge, 1998). 8. Aristotle’s more analytic approach to rhetoric is described more fully by Lambros Couloubaritsis in “Dialectic, rhetoric & critique in Aristotle,” in M.  Meyer, ed., From Metaphysics to Rhetoric, pp.  95–110 (Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic, 1989) and by D. Furley and A. Nehamas in Aristotle’s Rhetoric (Princeton University Press, 1994).



9. The central role of rhetoric in Roman learning is described more fully by historians such as Robert Bolgar, The Classical Heritage and Its Beneficiaries (Cambridge University Press, 1954). 10. The positive and constructive role which Romans viewed rhetoric as having is described in more detail in J. J. Murphy et al., A Synoptic History of Classical Rhetoric (Mahwah, NJ: Hermagoras Press, 2003). 11. Cicero, De Oratare, edited by A.  Williams (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1892) i.8.30–4. 12. The history of rhetoric from Medieval to modern times is covered by E.  P. J.  Corbett, Classical Rhetoric for the Modern Student (Oxford University Press, 1971), by Brian Vickers, In Defence of Rhetoric (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1988) and by John Ward, Classical Rhetoric in the Middle Ages (Leiden: Brill, 2018). 13. The Renaissance revival of rhetoric is described more fully by Peter Dixon, Rhetoric (Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge, 2017) and J.  J. Murphy, Latin Rhetoric and Education in the Middle Ages and Renaissance (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2005). 14. From a footnote in Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Judgment as quoted in H.  Nisbet and C.  Rawson, The Cambridge History of Literary Criticism (Cambridge University Press, 2005) p. 408. 15. This decline is documented in Vickers (op. cit.). 16. Thomas de Quincey, Selected Essays on Rhetoric (Southern Illinois University Press, 1967, 1897) X81, 97. 17. The marginalisation of rhetoric and its descent into a study of “figures of speech” is described in detail by M.  Moran and M.  Ballif, TwentiethCentury Rhetorics and Rhetoricians (Westport: Greenwood Press, 2000). 18. In his analysis of metaphor, Paul Ricoeur in The Rule of Metaphor (London: Routledge, 2003) argued that rhetoric was slowly strangled by “figurefetishists” who dissected persuasive communication so finely that the growing list of hundreds of devices served to frighten more than encourage learners into the discipline. 19. R. Young, A. Becker and K. Pike in Rhetoric: Discovery and Change (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1970) linked the decline of rhetoric to the post-industrial advance of the middle classes. Together with their rising aspirations of wealth, the European middle classes began to view rhetoric as a way of identifying class boundaries and, therefore, as a means of restricting access to wealth. To counter this constraint, they attempted to strip communication down to its essential meaning so all classes had equal access to the truth. 20. Vickers (op. cit.) pointed out how the long history of rhetoric has involved an ongoing waxing and waning of public and academic favor and that its



low points tended to coincide with its fragmentation into other ­disciplines. He argued that the modern era is just such a time of fragmentation. 21. Positivism was part of a set of interlinked movements variously referred to as “objectivism,” “verificationism,” “cartesian dualism,” “empiricism” and “associationism.” The literature on positivism is vast. The basic assumptions are clearly articulated in collections such as M. Maxwell and C. Savage, eds., Science, Mind and Psychology (University Press of America, 1989). 22. From a first-year introductory text book on psychology by N.  Carlson, Psychology; the Science of Behavior (Boston: Allyn & Bacon, 1987) p. 31. 23. The failure to attend to rhetorical elements is heavily criticized by Herbert Simons, ed., Rhetoric in the Human Sciences (London: Sage, 1989) and by authors such as Michael Billig, Arguing and Thinking (Cambridge University Press, 1987). Both books recognize the absence of an academic base, particularly in psychology, in studying the rhetorical dynamics of language. 24. The importance of rhetoric in everyday conversations has been argued by many rhetoricians such as Wayne Booth in The Rhetoric of Rhetoric (Malden: Blackwell, 2004), Rom Harré in “Situational rhetoric and self-­ representation,” in J.  Forgas, ed., Language and Social Situations, pp. 175–88 (New York: Springer Verlag, 1985) and Algirdas Greimas, ed., On Meaning (University of Minnesota Press, 1987).


Big Devices, Little Devices

Bernard looked up from his papers to see Monique bobbing toward him. She was wearing a brightly colored dress with a hibiscus pattern and he noticed her skin was tanned and her long dark hair was flecked with golden streaks from the sun. “Goodness, Monique, you look a healthy sight,” observed Bernard amiably. “So how was your holiday?” “Oh, it was great. We spent two weeks camping by one of those lakes up north. We had one large tent for us and a small one for the children. They spent most their time mucking around in the water, and I mostly lay in the sun and read.” “Ah, it must have been a great break. So, what books did you get into?” “Actually… and you’d be surprised by this… before we went away, I followed up on our discussion about language and went out and bought a couple of introductory books on rhetoric.” “Hmm. Not exactly a relaxing read.” “No, but I also took a couple of junk novels for when I got bored. But, after our talks, I was really interested to find out more about the subject.” “So, what did you discover?” “Well, like you told me, over the last hundred years there’s been a steady revival of interest in the field of rhetoric. I read how it started as a trickle in the nineteen-thirties with Ivor Richards.1 He argued that our study of language needs to widen to view every individual meaning as having dynamic relationships with the contexts in which they are delivered. A © The Author(s) 2020 P. J. Adams, How to Talk About Spiritual Encounters,




little later Kenneth Burke backed him up by pointing out how we use language not just to communicate but also to make a difference in the world.”2 Monique glanced up to check on how Bernard was responding. He was grinning and nodding for her to continue, “Go on… go on…” “Okay, then I read how Chaïm Perelman came onto the scene and drew on his legal background to highlight the important role of argumentation. He wanted to categorize those features of an argument that are most likely to lead to conviction and commitment in an audience.3 For example, he was interested in when the defense of a client is better served by calling an expert witness and when arguments with illustrations and examples are more likely to prove effective.” “Yes, and we use forms of argument whenever we try to convince others of something. It’s not just confined to the courtroom.” “Yeah, when I’m arguing a position with my husband or a client, there are certain ways in which I can put things, and some ways will prove more effective than others.” Monique raised her cup, took a couple of slow sips of her tea then resumed her story. “Then, in the sixties and seventies, the revival was cranked up a notch when people started focusing more on universal theories for how rhetoric worked.”4 “That’s right. They were seeking some overall way of understanding how effects were achieved.” “Hmm, and this emerged in several different fields of study: there was the anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss looking at frameworks in the symbolism of kinship systems; there was the linguist Naom Chomsky looking at how our use of language is governed by our innate access to a ‘universal grammar’,5 and there was the social scientist Bennison Gray who picked apart the muddle of interconnected assertions that organize our speech.”6 “That’s great Monique,” smiled Bernard with a look of genuine admiration. “You can see how this can be seen as the beginning of something very promising.” “You mean the beginning of the revival of something very promising!” Bernard smiled. “Ah yes, well corrected.” “Oh, and I forgot to mention Roland Barthes. He started taking a closer look at the more non-verbal aspects of our communications in forms such as films, sports and the fashion industry.”7 “Yes, his work is important,” acknowledged Bernard. “But probably the most ambitious attempt at a universal framework was taken on by a



group of rhetoricians in Liege, Belgium, calling themselves, mysteriously, ‘Group Mu’.” “‘Group Mu’… I didn’t read about them. Why that name?” “I think it has something to do with the Greek term for metaphor. Anyway, they were in effect a think-tank of expert rhetoricians and one of their main challenges was to produce a comprehensive taxonomy of rhetorical devices. It was a huge task. It involved incorporating all the devices identified in Ancient and Medieval times along with all that had been identified more recently.”8 “Gosh, I bet they had their work cut out,” remarked Monique as she gathered her hair and tied it back to prevent it drooping into her tea. “But… But from what I read, these grand systems ran into problems because our use of rhetoric is too fluid and too complex to pin down into a unitary system.9 So in the last thirty years, rhetoric has turned away from universal systems and more towards pragmatic applications.” “Exactly so; more recent applications of rhetoric focus on particular contexts and tend to steer away from trying to generalize understandings across all situations.”10 “And, from what I read,” said Monique trying hard to continue the thread of the story, “people are using rhetoric in all sorts of settings: some with political language, others with advertising and the media, others with court proceedings, others with rituals and customs like weddings and funerals… and, of course, some with religious language.”11 “‘Religious language’,” repeated Bernard. “I guess we’ll be talking more about that later.” He leant forward and took a sip of his coffee. “But I tell you one writer I’ve particularly enjoyed. Deirdre McCloskey wrote this book ‘A Rhetoric of Economics’ in which she pulled apart the common rhetorical features of influential academic papers by economists and pointed out how forms of argument—and therefore rhetoric—is central to an article’s success.”12 “So, she’s saying the way scientists seek dispassionate clarity in their articles is really a ploy?” “Sort of. She wasn’t saying it’s deceptive, more that rhetoric is always present.” He leaned stiffly back in his chair and gazed benignly at Monique. “So, you see, we’re immersed in rhetoric… we’re totally immersed in it whether we like it or not; we’re swimming in it all the time. So why not look at it more closely?” “Hmm, I agree,” said Monique staring earnestly back and Bernard. “But, you know, while spending all that time reading about rhetoric, I



kept trying to figure out how I might apply it to the way I talk about spirituality.” “Ah Monique, that’s going to take some time to work out.” “No, Bernard, it’s important to me. I really need to make spirituality more visible in my life.” Her face screwed into an imploring frown. “It’s so frustrating… Like, when we were away camping at the lake, my sister and her husband visited us for a couple of nights. They put their tent up in the next plot. Late one evening, when it was dark, my sister and I were sitting together on a log looking out over the water. It was a perfectly tranquil scene, a special moment; so, I felt it appropriate to start telling her about some of my spiritual encounters.” “Gr-ea-t…” burbled Bernard incoherently as he was drawn unexpectedly into a fit of coughing. “Ah… Okay… You told me before you’d never spoken about these with any of your family because you thought they wouldn’t be comfortable listening. Did she try to change the topic?” “No, she was good. She sat there listening without interrupting. The problem was more with me listening to myself. As I spoke, all I could hear was what was coming out my mouth and it was a string of nonsensical drivel. I was trying hard to describe what had happened, but all I could muster were vague, nebulous phrases. I’m sure she didn’t know what the heck I was on about.” “I doubt it. It would have meant something to her… What you say always make sense to me.” “Maybe, but I felt so embarrassed talking this way. I felt kind-of exposed; as though I was making it all up, or, perhaps, talking about nothing in particular.” “Ah, so almost like you’re playing a game of your own making?” “Yes, like I’m talking this way because it looks like something I enjoy doing; like playing tennis or a musical instrument.” “So, you felt she listened patiently simply to keep you amused?” “That’s how it felt. Like she was humoring me, and she wasn’t really interested in what I had to say… But for me, what I’m talking about is really important; I want people to understand; it’s not about talking for its own sake.” “Did she do anything that made you think this way?” “Nothing whatsoever. It was all spinning around in my own head. I guess what I really need is to find some way of feeling more confident about what I’m doing when I talk this way.”



“Well, your confidence probably depends on understanding a little more about what you’re doing, and this, I would argue, all hinges around a better grasp of how you use rhetorical devices in talking about spirituality.”13 “Hmm, ‘devices’; they interest me Bernie,” remarked Monique, “The books I read often talked about these ‘devices’, but I was never quite sure what the word meant.” “Well, I like to think of them as dividing into two major types: big devices and little devices,” explained Bernard. “A big device is a rhetorical feature which extends over the course of a communication, like a particular sequence or a particular narrative. A little device is a rhetorical feature that occurs at a particular place in a communication, like emphasizing a word by saying it louder or by strategically missing a word out.” He paused to sip his coffee. “For little devices, lots of work has been done on naming and classifying them. The range is enormous. There’s what you can do with the sound of words, like repeating similar sounds, as in ‘the cat is on the mat’—this is called ‘isophony’—then there’s the changes you can make to the structure of grammar of a sentence as when using double negatives, ‘John won’t stop drinking’—this is called ‘exadversion’—and then there’s ways of substituting in other meanings, as in, ‘Their house looks like a prison’—an example of simile—and then…” “Um, I don’t need to hear about all of them; I know there’re lots. Besides, keep going like this and you’ll to end up with another monstrous and unwieldy classification system.”14 She smiled as she gently sipped her tea. “But, what about big devices?” “Um, big devices… Well, they’re devices you can’t spot by looking at just one sentence. They involve patterns or sequences of meaning and to see them you usually need to look at a communication as a whole, and sometimes to look beyond what is being said. For instance, the delivery might be paced in a certain way—fast or slow—there might be particular elements which are repeated; if it’s a document it might be presented in a particular style, perhaps with special binding or with special types of illustration… The range of ways these can be combined and their potential effect on readers or listeners are unlimited.” “Unlimited…” pondered Monique. “That’s daunting!” “Ah, but you can learn about the most common devices. For example, the big device that has attracted most attention is the use of stories.” Bernard leant slowly forward, clasped his hands and rested his weight on his elbows. “Stories have this marvelous ability of drawing people in. The



use of a temporal sequence with characters facing challenges and uncertainties, has, for most people, a powerful magnetic attraction. Take for example the use of allegories or myths. From way back when we were living in caves, we’ve relied on myths to explain how the world was created and where we’ve come from.” “Yeah, they certainly are potent; listening to what happens to characters in a myth allows you to engage in the humanity of what is being described.” “So, stories, or narratives, as they are often called, have this uncanny knack of engaging the imagination and drawing people into identifying with the fate of the characters.” “Hmm, this is a territory I know well. In my counselling, when someone is depressed they feel irresistibly drawn to casting themselves in a story where they are to blame, and, because of this, they expect everything to continue going wrong. It’s virtually impossible to convince them otherwise. The trick is to slowly engage them with the possibility of alternative stories; stories where they might begin to see themselves as overcoming adversity.” “Ah yes, I often saw that in palliative care. It’s painstaking work, but a slight change in a life narrative can make a huge difference to how a person approaches dying.” Bernard gazed into a blank space above Monique’s head. “Anyway, as far as rhetoric is concerned, every communication is comprised of a complex mixture of various devices. It’s just a matter of finding ways to unpack them and to examine the effect they are having. Take, for example, a statement like: ‘God is the sustainer of all creation.’ Now, that’s full of rhetoric. Not only is the word ‘God’ ripe with meanings and associations, but you can see connections to big devices like myths of creation and little devices like the metaphor of a gardener sustaining life.” “Ah, that’s great Bernard,” remarked Monique with a grateful smile. “You’ve led all this back to how we talk about spirituality. I was wondering when you’d bring it back to that.” Bernard smiled, “Yeah, well-spotted.” “So, speaking of religion, has there been anyone looking seriously at rhetoric in religious talk?” “Hmm, yes, I’ve read a number of books looking at the language of religion, but I’ve only found a couple looking specifically at the rhetoric of spirituality.” “Well, that strikes me as odd,” said Monique raising her eyebrows; “because talk about religion and spirituality is so obviously ripe with



devices, big and small. Anyone can see such talk is full of analogy, metaphor, myth, and poetic innuendo.”15 “The lack of interest does seem odd. I reckon quite a few writers got side-tracked into debates about the differences between the languages of religion and science.” “Huh, what was that all about?” “Well, we commonly see the language of science as factual and clear, and the language of religion as symbolic and vague. But this division is hotly contested. One crowd argues there is indeed a fundamental difference; that the two ways of speaking belong to different language systems framed by very different purposes.”16 “Ah, sounds to me like this view keeps the language of science protected from closer scrutiny.” “Hmm, never thought of that,” admitted Bernard. “So according to them, unlike the language of science, spiritual assertions function at the frontier of language and involve completely different conceptual frames.17 This means that assessing one in terms of another would be like comparing how we play football with how we court a marriage partner.” “Yeah, exercises which are completely different… though, I can think of some parallels.” “Ah, sorry, a poor example,” apologized Bernard. “Now, another crowd, the opposing group, adopted a more pragmatic view; they contended that talking about spirituality involves stating something real about the human condition; that both forms of speaking are trying to relate to something solid in our experience.18 In their view both forms of speaking make use of rhetorical devices. For example, Thomas Fawcett argued that both scientists and religious people base their explanations on devices like analogies and metaphors.”19 “So, what’s your position in this debate?” “Well, to tell you the truth, I don’t really have a position. Maybe religious talk is referring to something real, maybe it’s not… perhaps the issue itself isn’t that important. What can be said is that this debate has sucked up considerable energy and not advanced our understanding much. I’d much rather focus on looking specifically at what people are actually doing when they talk of spiritual matters.” “So has anyone ever tried to do that before? … To look in detail at such language?” “Yes, a few people have looked at what’s going on,” said Bernard; “and the attempt that’s impressed me the most involved an analysis of



descriptions of spiritual encounters conducted by an English journalist, Marghanita Laski. She really did break new ground. She looked closely at 114 descriptions and used them to develop her own framework for classifying devices. Altogether, she identified sixteen devices, six of which were organized according to one key concept, namely the device’s ability to induce or ‘trigger’ spiritual encounters. For example, she named it a ‘trigger comparison’ where two or more things capable of arousing the same feeling are compared, as in, ‘Charity is sweet music to the soul’.”20 “Sounds very technical; but can they really be considered as triggers?” “No, probably not, but that’s what she called them,” replied Bernard absentmindedly. “And another device she called, ‘unitive symbol’; that’s when images evoke a sense of permanence and timelessness, as in, ‘The word, and nothing else endures’.” “Ah, but listening to these, I suspect she was creating these labels as she went; I’d expect that, when she looked at another couple of hundred descriptions, she’d end up with another sixteen devices.” “Yes, that might be the case because in another similar study by Diane Goldstein she identified a smaller set of four strategies—metaphor, analogy and hyperbolic and negative modifiers—each of which she claimed involved ‘transpositions’ similar to the way we transpose from a three dimensional scene onto a two dimensional drawing; they’re similar because both pictorial and language transpositions require the use of rhetorical skills.”21 “There, see, her analysis came up with a completely different set of devices.” “Yes, you’ve got a good point there,” acknowledged Bernard. “But they are pioneering efforts, and they both highlight the important role rhetorical devices play in crafting these descriptions. What is a real shame is how these projects occurred on such a small-scale. As such, they haven’t managed to stimulate other projects.” “That’s a pity,” said Monique glancing down at her watch then looking up again. “Oh Bernard, this has been a long conversation. I’d quite forgotten I need to do some shopping before my next appointment.” She stood up and gathered up her handbag. “Look I must fly. Thanks for this discussion. Perhaps we’ll continue it further another time…”



Notes 1. Leading the way, Ivor Richards in The Philosophy of Rhetoric (Oxford University Press, 1936) expressed concerns about the growing trend toward viewing language as merely a system of signs. 2. Kenneth Burke in A Rhetoric of Motives (University of California Press, 1969) presented detailed analyses of a broad range of both effective and ineffective literary texts. In each analysis, he illustrated how these communications were not merely attempts to state the way things are in the world, they were also intended to “do something” for participants. The author of a communication will organize and frame the delivery, edit out unwanted material and introduce double meanings according to what enhances the persuasiveness of the central message. 3. In two major works by Chaïm Perelman, C. Perelman and L. Olbrechts-­ Tyteca, The New Rhetoric (University of Notre Dame Press, 1969, 1958) and C. Perelman, The Realm of Rhetoric (University of Notre Dame Press, 1982), the importance of persuasive elements of a communication as forms of “argumentation” was developed. Rhetorical elements are not merely tacked on to provide extra decoration to a theory. 4. Early work on rhetoric was greatly stimulated by Ferdinand de Sassure’s, Course in General Linguistics (New York: Philosophical Library, 1959, 1916), particularly his call for a “structuralist framework” for interpreting “linguistic signs.” Later works by Stephen Toulmin, The Uses of Argument (Cambridge University Press, 1958) and Martin Steinmann, New Rhetorics (New York: Scribner, 1967) followed with various attempts to provide analyses of rhetorical content but their main preoccupations surfaced both as a reaction to the recent past and to announce what they saw as a direction for the future. 5. See Naom Chomsky, Aspects of the Theory of Syntax (MIT Press, 1965). 6. Bennison Gray in The Grammatical Foundations of Rhetorics (The Hague: Mouton, 1977) advocated the construction of what he called a “generative rhetoric” for breaking down the sentences of everyday dialogue into the constituent assertions. He viewed sentences as harboring a muddle of interconnected assertions which, once identified, can be ordered in ways that reflect the underlying “structure of assertions.” 7. Roland Barthes in two works, Elements of Semiology (New York: Hill & Wang, 1968) and “Rhetoric of the image,” in R.  Innis, ed., Semiotics, pp.  190–205 (London: Hutchinson, 1985), made use of the rapidly expanding discipline of semiotics to develop his “spectral-analysis” of the messages contained in images. This then assisted in the expansion of rhetoric into analysis of non-verbal communications.



8. In a major work by “Group Mu,” J.  Dubois et  al., A General Rhetoric (John Hopkins University Press, 1981), they organized devices in their classification system according to whether what was done involved changes in the structure or changes in the meaning of an utterance. For example, rhyme and alliteration were seen as involving changes in structure and metaphor, paradox and parable seen as involving changes in meaning. Furthermore, they distinguished between devices that operated at the molecular level of words (as with synonyms) from those at the more molar level of multiple sentences and even of whole documents (as with allegory). These different features provided the dimensions upon which they plotted out the full range of rhetorical opportunities. 9. Structuralist rhetoric has attracted the same criticisms leveled at structuralist theories in general. For example, Roman Jakobson in “Closing statement: Linguistics and poetics,” in T.  Sebeok, ed., Style in Language, pp. 350–77 (MIT Press, 1960), highlighted how the expressive or “poetic” features of language are better understood in terms of their function rather than searching for underlying structures. Emile Benveniste in Problems in General Linguistics (University of Miami Press, 1971) argued that de Saussure’s essentially linguistic perspective on “signs” was too restrictive and that multiple and non-linguistic models would allow for more opportunities to study the whole gamut of symbolic systems including music, film, dance and so on. But perhaps the strongest criticisms came in the wake of Jacques Derrida’s, Of Grammatology (John Hopkins University Press, 1974), from when post-structuralists of various persuasions began questioning the whole legitimacy of analyzing communications separate from the context in which they occur. 10. Writers who have advocated for a shift from general to focused applications of rhetoric include Edwin Black, Rhetorical Criticism (University of Wisconsin Press, 1978), C. Brooks and R. Warren, Modern Rhetoric (New York: Harcourt Brace Jobranovich, 1972) and Susan Thomas, What Is the New Rhetoric? (Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2007). 11. Over the last fifty years, applications of rhetoric have focused more pragmatically on rhetorical devices as they occur within particular genres of speaking or in particular types of settings. To pick out a few examples: P.  Brooks and P.  Gewirtz, Law’s Stories (Yale University Press, 1996), Ronald Carpenter, History as Rhetoric (University of South Carolina Press, 1995), Judith Hoover, Corporate Advocacy (Westport: Quorum Books, 1997), Robert Root, The Rhetoric of Popular Culture (New York: Greenwood, 1987) and Paul Duro, The Rhetoric of the Frame (Cambridge University Press, 1996). 12. In Deirdre McCloskey, The Rhetoric of Economics (University of Wisconsin Press, 1985), she began the book with a critique of modernism where she



explained how much of science has been duped into viewing truth and knowledge as having objective status and rhetoric as merely being a means of distorting their reality. She pointed out how argument rather than fact is central to the success of a scientific paper and how the rhetorical features which help promote these arguments have attracted little attention. For example, in the rhetoric of empirical methods, the use of statistical packages and tests of statistical significance are frequently over-emphasized to the detriment of the central argument. See also Benjamin Balak, Mccloskey’s Rhetoric (London: Routledge, 2006). 13. In western rhetorical traditions, “devices” were more commonly referred to as “tropes.” Devices are also referred to variously as “figures” or “strategies,” each of which refers to elements within a communication by means of which the speaker enhances the pervasive impact of a message on listeners. I have opted for the term “device” because for most modern readers the term “trope” is less familiar. 14. The complexities of the system that evolved for classifying rhetorical devices/tropes are described by Ross Winterowd in Rhetoric (New York: Holt, Rinehart & Wilson, 1968) and by Antonio Barcelona, ed., in Metaphor and Metonymy at the Crossroads (Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter, 2003). 15. The paucity of research into the rhetorical features of spiritual and mystical communications has been noted by other writers. See C.  Batson and W. Ventis, The Religious Experience (Oxford University Press) pp. 125–6, and David Tacey, Religion as Metaphor (Abingdon Oxon: Routledge, 2017). 16. Authors emphasizing the symbolic language of religion and spirituality include Ian Barbour, Religion and Science (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 2013), particularly p. 264, Peter Donovan, Religious Language (London: Sheldon Press, 1976) and Patrick Sherry, Religion, Truth and Language-­ Games (London: Macmillan, 1977). 17. The idea of religious discourse as lying on “the frontiers of language” is developed by Paul van Buren in The Edges of Language (New York: Macmillan, 1972). The related idea that religious language is built around key models, metaphors and gestalts has been developed by many authors including Anders Jeffner, The Study of Religious Language (London: SCM Press, 1972) and Sallie McFague, Metaphorical Theology (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1982). 18. The similarities between science and religion were explored by William Stace in Mysticism and Philosophy (London: Macmillan, 1961), where he stated, “the language is paradoxical only because the experience is paradoxical,” p. 305. This was expanded further by Grahame Miles in Science and Religious Experience (Eastbourne: Sussex Academic Press, 2007) and by John Polkinghorne in Exploring Reality (Yale University Press, 2007).



19. This overlap is developed by Thomas Fawcett in The Symbolic Language of Religion (London: SCM, 1970). It is similarly argued by Earl MacCormac in Metaphor and Myth in Science and Religion (Duke University Press, 1976) where he stated, “Theology and science both find confirmation of their theories in human experience with the former stressing the dimensions of feeling and value, and the latter, perception” (p.  151). Janet Soskice in Metaphor and Religious Language (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1985) advances this position further by illustrating how science underrates its own use of metaphor and how it has devalued the capability of religious language to communicate meaningfully about human realities. 20. Discussion of these devices is presented by Marghanita Laski in Ecstasy (London: Cresset, 1961). 21. Diane Goldstein explored this in “The language of religious experience and its implications for fieldwork,” Western Folklore (42;2, 105–13, 1983), where she focused on the “speech strategies” used in reports of “personal religious experience.” Her informants were members of an occult/metaphysical church in Philadelphia calling themselves “The Church of Ageless Wisdom.” She spent several months attending services, meetings and dinners as well as conducting detailed interviews with church members.


Expressive Vagueness

Bernard glanced up from his reading to watch the wind buffeting the trees outside. The leaves of the plane trees were already turning brown and many had already fallen to be scattered wildly among the power lines, the car traffic and the pedestrians. The wind certainly was strong. Some gusts managed to funnel up under the awning nudging passers-by up against the café window. He recognized one of the struggling figures. It was Jarrod. He was bracing himself against a particularly strong gust and, by his manner, was clearly annoyed by being buffeting in this inhospitable squall. Jarrod burst through the door, ordered his coffee then advanced toward Bernard in purposeful strides. Bernard pushed his papers to one side. “Ah, Jarrod; I saw you being thrown around out there.” “Yes, damn wind. It’s also ruined all the filming we’d planned for the day.” He slid into his seat, sighed and looked askance at Bernard with the hint of a smile. “So, I thought I’d come here and annoy you.” Jarrod’s coffee arrived. He stirred it and began spooning up the froth. “Bernard, I’ve been thinking about those descriptions you’re going on about and, no matter what way I think about them, they still come across to me as waffle.” Bernard cast a brief enquiring glance across at Jarrod, then turned and bent over to his satchel and pulled out his glasses case and the scruffy blue ring-binder. He donned his glasses, glanced again at Jarrod, then flipped © The Author(s) 2020 P. J. Adams, How to Talk About Spiritual Encounters,




through the ring-binder. “Let me read something to you… It’s a description, by a physicist, Fritjoff Capra, who made an attempt to describe one of his spiritual encounters… Ah, this was how he put it.” I was sitting by the ocean one late summer afternoon, watching the waves rolling in and feeling the rhythm of my breathing...1

Bernard looked up. “See, up to this point he’s described the scene reasonably clearly. All his words refer to real objects.” He paused, raised his eyebrows briefly then looked back down at the page. “He goes on”: Being a physicist, I knew that the sand, rocks, water and air around me were made of vibrating molecules and atoms, and that these consisted of particles which interacted with one another by creating and destroying other particles. I knew also that the earthʼs atmosphere was continually bombarded by showers of “cosmic rays”, particles of high energy undergoing multiple collisions as they penetrated the air. All this was familiar to me from my research in high-energy physics, but until that moment I had only experienced it through graphs, diagrams and mathematical theories.

He paused and glanced briefly at Jarrod. “This also seems fairly clear; many of the words refer to familiar things… solid and specific objects. Some words have perhaps more concrete meanings for the scientist than for someone unfamiliar to physics—such as molecules and energy—but the overall picture of small particles continually colliding has a certain clarity. Then he says”: As I sat on that beach my former experiences came to life; I “saw” the atoms of the elements and those of my body participating in this cosmic dance of energy; I felt its rhythm and I “heard” its sound, and at that moment I knew that this was the Dance of Shiva, the Lord of dancers worshipped by the Hindus.

Bernard closed the ring-binder, took off his glasses and gazed across at Jarrod. “Now this is not so clear.” The lines on his forehead wrinkled up. “Why has he shifted to these vague expressions? Why spoil a relatively clear picture with such muddled language?”



“Yeah, why’d he do that? Why spoil it?” remarked Jarrod with a perplexed expression. “How on earth do we make sense of a phrase like a ‘cosmic dance of energy’?” “Yes, earlier he’d used ‘cosmic’ in its specialized sense from astrophysics, and ‘energy’ as it occurs in molecular physics. But, by combining them with the concept of a dance, he’s thrown it all into a chaotic jumble of suggestive associations: ‘dance’ implies rhythm, order, intention, personality, attraction. Does he mean to liken molecules to people consciously interacting according to some grand plan? Does he intend to compare them to the constant movement of people on the dance floor? Or is he referring more to the way the separate movements of an individual dancer can be combined into the orderly movements of a whole group?” “I do find it a bit surprising. I mean, as a scientist Capra must have been trained in communicating clearly and precisely. His laboratory experience would’ve refined his ability to report clearly on his observations. He would presumably strive as much as possible to give an accurate description of his experiences and avoid leaving his readers in a state of confusion. So why has he regressed into this drivel?” “Hmm, yes, that’s it. He appears to have willingly abandoned any attempt to be clear and precise,” stated Bernard smiling. “He’s opted for language which is essentially vague… vague without any apologies. His scientific background doesn’t seem to have helped him in the slightest way to find a clearer way of speaking.” He studied Jarrod’s confused expression. “Since you’ve talked to me before about the importance of science and reason, I’ve made a point of bringing along some descriptions by scientists to think about.” He flipped to a page in his ring-binder marked by a tab. “It intrigues me that hard-nosed scientists are equally susceptible to these encounters and choose to talk about them in the same vague way. Here check this one out… It’s by an archaeologist, Jacquetta Hawkes.” For those minutes, and I have no notion how many they were, I had the heightened sensibility of one passionately in love and with the power to transmute all that the senses perceived into symbols of burning significance.2

Bernard paused, without commenting, then flipped to a tabbed paged further in the ring-binder. “Here’s another guy, a J. H. M. Whiteman; he’s a mathematician; he describes how”:



All at once, without any further change, my eyes were opened. Above and in front, yet in me, of me, and around, was the Glory of the Archetypal Light. Nothing can be more truly light, since that Light makes all other light to be light; nor is it a flat material light, but a creative light of life itself, streaming forth in Love and Understanding, and forming all other lives out of its substance.3

Bernard peered over the rim of his glasses. “Surely, as a scientist, if he’d known a clearer way to say this, he would have done so?” “I dunno,” remarked Jarrod weakly. “I find it really hard to see this vague-talk as desirable. At work, on the film set, vague-talk is very frowned upon—it annoys the hell out of people. Most the time we speak to convey facts or information about the objects we work with.” He leaned back thoughtfully and put his hands behind his head. “Hmm, say, for example, when we listen to the weather forecast when planning our filming. The announcer might say, ‘The weather for today will be cloudy with the occasional shower.’ Each word refers to recognizable objects, and the sentence as a whole says something definite. But if the announcer was to introduce some vagueness by, say, removing ‘for today’ and referring instead more generally to ‘the weather’ then we’d be left guessing what to expect: ‘The weather will be cloudy…’ For how long will it be cloudy? Will there be showers? With such vagueness, we’d have difficulty planning out our day.” “Hmm, quite so,” muttered Bernard as he turned to another marked page. “So, that would be a long way from the way the author Dion Fortune was speaking when she said”: It is only when the mind is imbued with the realization of this endless unchanging being of the utmost concentration and intensity that it can have any realization of limitless power.4

He flipped to another sheet. “And even further away from the philosopher Martin Heidegger when he said”: The existential-ontological constitution of Dasein’s [therebeing’s] totality is grounded in temporality. Hence the ecstatical projection of Being must be made possible by some primordial way in which ecstatical temporality temporalizes.5



“Aghh, Bernard, that’s just drivel… absolute drivel,” groaned Jarrod making a rasping sound at the back of his throat. “What the hell is an ‘endless unchanging being’ and an ‘ecstatical projection’. How would you go about checking what these terms are talking about? How would you tell an ‘unchanging being’ from a ‘changing being’? And I’ve no idea when ‘Being’ might be or might not be ‘ecstatically projected’!” Jarrod cast a flustered glance in Bernard’s direction. “I don’t consider myself stupid, but this just seems a total abuse of language; its vagueness gone absolutely berserk.” “Sure, these descriptions are vague and nebulous, but, for many people, they really are saying something.” “Orr, how can they? How can they when they don’t refer to anything?” said Jarrod, his voice rising in indignation. “I reckon these writers are intentionally trying to confuse us.” He leaned forward and prodded the table in an animated fashion. “They’re trying to look intelligent, or mysterious, because deep down they know nobody will really understand what they’re on about… It really annoys me this sort of thing. I reckon we shouldn’t expend any further energy on this sort of rubbish. There are far more important things to worry about.” “Whoa Jarrod, whoa,” said Bernard raising his hands and making a pushing motion across the table. “I’m sorry; maybe I took it a bit far, but I was trying to make a point.” He waited for Jarrod to settle back in his chair. “Now, you have to accept that many people do consider these accounts expressive; they mean something, otherwise they wouldn’t attract so many readers.” “Ah, readers who are fooling themselves, getting sucked in by all this mad gibberish,” muttered Jarrod shaking his head and staring down at the table. “Oh, hold on, Jarrod,” stated Bernard more firmly. “Hold on.” He cast an annoyed frown in Jarrod’s direction. “I happen to know it’s not the least like how people talk when they’re mad.” He leant over and rummaged through his satchel, pulling out from deep inside it a wad of folded pages. “I know this because when working at the hospital, I had to talk with many people who were actively psychotic.” He unfolded one crumpled sheet. “This is from a conversation a doctor was having with a patient in the midst of a psychotic episode”: “What is the name of this place?” “This place is called a star”.



“Who is the doctor in charge of your ward?” “A body just like yours, sir. They can make you black and white. I say good morning, but he just comes through there. At first it was a colony. They said it was heaven. These buildings are not solid at the time, and I am positive that this is in the same place. They have others just like it. People die, and all the microbes talk over there, and prestigitis you know is sending you from here to another world... I was sent by the government to the United States to Washington to some star, and they had a pretty nice country there...”6

“Now, this truly is a weird way of talking,” stated Bernard casting an intense glance across at Jarrod. “Sure, many of the words are vague: I’ve got only a faint idea of what he might be referring to with words like ‘colony,’ ‘microbes’ or ‘heaven’, and I’ve no idea what ‘prestigitis’ means. You could, therefore, argue that the way he is talking is similar to the vagueness we use in talking about spirituality.” “Yeah, I’d agree.” “But, when you think about it, the vagueness here differs because it doesn’t express anything. The listener remains confused as to what these incongruous terms have in common. Is the speaker confused or is he following some undisclosed logic? A very clever psychiatrist might be able to unpick meanings and patterns, however, for most listeners, deciphering this talk would take considerable effort and this inaccessibility negates its expressive impact.” “Um, yes, I can see how disorganized it is, and how it lacks coherence.” “It’s my contention that the vagueness in talk about spiritual encounters is quite different. It makes use of vagueness precisely to achieve more effective expression.” Jarrod opened his mouth as though he intended to speak. “Now hold on; let me finish,” requested Bernard raising his right hand. “The use of vague terms in talk about spirituality—words like ‘oneness’, ‘totality’, ‘love’—these aren’t used randomly. Their use follows a pattern; a pattern that many listeners find engaging; a pattern that appears to open up the imaginations of those willing to engage.” “Well, it doesn’t open up my imagination.” “Yes, we’ll look more into that later; but for now, let’s just take it as a given that many people actually do find this way of talking meaningful.” “Aww, Bernard, I find that really hard to believe.”



“Well, what about humor. The way we tell jokes relies heavily ambiguities and double meanings. Humor is full of vague language, and if you can’t respond to the vagueness in jokes, you’re going to miss out on the ongoing play with words that brings joy into the constant banter of everyday conversations. You can’t tell me that joking is mad-talk?” “I laugh at jokes as easily as anyone,” claimed Jarrod defensively. Bernard smiled warmly. “I mean no offence, but… But since humor relies heavily on vague ways of speaking, can’t you grant talk about spirituality some credence? Even though you have trouble responding to it?” “Okay, but you seem to be implying there’s something wrong with me; that I’ve got a blind spot or something.” “No, I don’t think of it that way… I think you’re very perceptive. Besides, many people have difficulty responding to spirituality-talk.” He narrowed his gaze into a reassuring stare. “Yet, looking at this from another angle, what a bland and exceedingly impoverished world it would be without vague language! To inhabit such a place would mean losing most of the depth and wealth in language that makes speaking and interacting with others worth pursuing. I mean, gone would be the vast terrain of poetry and literature, and, perhaps most importantly of all, gone would be the capacity for people to speak about their inner lives because literal speech, by its very nature, lacks the capacity to convey the inner reality of sensation, feelings and artistic responses. Without these capacities we would be locked within the bounds of our own experience; unable to provide others with glimpses of their inner world. It would be such a soulless existence.” Bernard paused. Jarrod had been sitting passively all through this impassioned address. He wondered whether he might have said too much. He nodded toward Jarrod. “So, we don’t just speak to convey information,” he concluded weakly. “I know that,” responded Jarrod raising his eyes up to study the ceiling. “We speak for many other reasons.” “And one of those is to convey something about our inner worlds.” He sensed that Jarrod had disengaged from their debate. “So, Jarrod, I see vagueness not as an optional or peripheral or even an unfortunate aspect of conversations about spirituality. The use of vagueness is intentional and has been crafted in such a way to express this inner reality in a way that is vitally different from the clear and specific ways we convey information.” “Yep, that’s the way it is,” said Jarrod limply as he stood and gazed vacantly down. “Look, Bernard, I’ve got an appointment to make. I’ll catch you again soon.”



* * * Thursday morning, at ten-thirty precisely, Dorothy slid into the seat opposite Bernard. Her hair had been ruffled by fresh autumn winds and her nose had turned red in the cold. She lifted her cup and took a couple of long sips of coffee. Bernard nodded and asked, “Tell me more about what you described last week; you know, your constant sense of the divine.” “Well hello! That’s a great welcome,” said Dorothy with a whimsical smile. “No, I’m just kidding.” She placed her cup down. “Hmm, how to put that into words… I suppose it feels like I’m living in two parallel spaces. There’s my everyday world—you know the soap operas of work, relationships, aging and so forth—and then there’s this other space, this other world; a world beyond the soap operas; a private world… a misty expanse with its own beautiful features and terrain.” “Like the far-off Land of Oz?” “Um, no, not really a separate land. It’s there all the time, ready at hand, almost bubbling up and bursting through, but never quite present.” Dorothy lifted her cup to take a further couple of sips. “When I stand back and look at these two worlds, as they crisscross about and nearly connect, I can choose to focus purely on the soap operas, or I can choose to stare through the soap operas into this other reality.” “It’s interesting the way you put that,” pondered Bernard. “‘Misty expanse’, ‘bubbling and bursting through’… I like those phrases.” “Thanks Bernie. Even though people I know avoid speaking in this loose and flowery way, I don’t think they’re immune to it.” “How do you mean?” “Well, you just think about it. Even in my everyday work world as an accountant, I’m experienced enough to recognize that how you say things can have just as much impact as what you say.” “But surely a balance sheet is a balance sheet? What can you change there?” “Well, it’s all a matter of how you frame that balance sheet: the way the columns are set out, the different typefaces, what you choose to bold… And, of course, there’s my commentary that follows. I know which particular emphases, or which particular words will trigger a strong response.” “Like ‘bankrupt’ or ‘fraud’?” “No, more subtle than that,” laughed Dorothy. “If I place emphasis on any losses and combine it with words like ‘inconsistent’ or ‘irregular’, I



can guarantee a strong emotional response. It’s all a matter of how you bring the different elements together.” Bernard watched her gazing down at the froth rotating slowly in her cup. He could tell she had something on her mind. He waited patiently in silence for his friend to speak. “Bernie, I’ve been thinking.” She hesitated momentarily. “I’ve been thinking about what we’ve been discussing over the last few years.” “That’s quite a lot to think about.” “Hmm… I don’t mean all the detail; more the general trends in what we talk about.” “Sorry,” said Bernard regretting his flippant comment. “Go on. I’m with you.” “Well, have you noticed that during our chats we inevitably end up talking about spiritual matters?” Bernard nodded then looked askance at Dorothy. “Okay,” continued Dorothy; “and, have you noticed that when we talk this way, we speak very differently than the way we would in our everyday lives?” “Yes, but… But, so what?” “Well, it interests me that I only talk this way to you—nobody else. When we talk about spiritual matters, we seem to flip into a vague and colorful way of speaking; a way I wouldn’t ever dare to speak with other people in my life.” “I’ve noticed that too,” agreed Bernard. “But even though it’s loose and flowery, we still manage to communicate.” “Exactly… And isn’t that strange? Someone listening to us would probably think we’re talking a load of rubbish. But we know precisely what we’re saying to each other.” “Yes, I’ve been discussing the use of vagueness with somebody else recently, and he thinks it’s intentionally adopted in order to confuse people.” “Well, I certainly don’t think its purpose is to confuse. On the contrary, it’s there to communicate. But I agree with him that it is intentional.” “Being intentionally vague? Don’t you mean being craftily vague?” responded Bernard teasingly. “No, Bernie, I’d prefer to call it being artfully vague.” “Hmm, ‘artfully vague’, that’s a nice way of saying it,” commented Bernard as his wrinkled face lit up with a smile. “Being artfully vague is a definite feature of the way we talk.” He lifted his cup and took a long sip



of his coffee. “But what really interests me is how we manage to achieve this vagueness.” “Yes, me too.” She glanced directly at him. “Actually, Bernie, I’ve been thinking lately about the different ways of speaking vaguely.” “Aha, and what ways are these?” “Well, one important way that’s struck me is simply to leave out bits of content. We do it all the time, particularly when the missing content is already understood by convention or by context. Take the way a sign at a road intersection says, ‘STOP’. No other detail is supplied but we know instantly that it means. The long version is, ‘Stop your car in front of the double yellow line, look both ways and only proceed if the way is clear of traffic’.” “Yeah, I suppose we know from the road code how the missing content needs to be filled up.” “Ah no, I think it comes more from context and convention,” corrected Dorothy. “The road code just gives expression to that convention.” “The same thing happens with headlines in newspapers,” joined in Bernard. “Take one like, ‘Pope meets Prime Minister.’ It’s left for the reader to fill in the detail from their knowledge of things like: who the Pope is, when he will arrive, where the meeting will take place and so on. The reader needs to be actively involved in connecting up all the relevant bits.” “Perhaps the same happens when we talk about spirituality,” Dorothy suggested cautiously. “Bits are intentionally left out. For instance, when the Oracle at Delphi entreated us to, ‘Know thyself!’ You can see here how lots of content has been intentionally left out.” “That’s right. For instance, he’s left out, ‘who it is that should know what about me.’ The content has been intentionally omitted; omitted to make way for listeners to insert their own content.” Bernard glanced enquiringly across at Dorothy. “So, what about some of the ways you Christians speak. What about a statement like, ‘Jesus cares’?” “Yes, yes,” she agreed looking somewhat uncomfortable. “It doesn’t say who He cares about, nor in which way He cares. That’s left up to me as a Christian to interpret in my own way.” “You know, Dorothy, what you’re saying cuts right to the core of my interest in talking about spirituality. I see this expressive vagueness as its most important feature.” He paused and stared silently out the window. Following his argument with Jarrod the day before, he was both pleased



and relieved that Dorothy seemed to be on the same wavelength. He turned back to her and smiled. “But, hey, I’ll tell you another way of generating vagueness, and that’s by referring to things in very general ways. For example, if I was to walk into a room and ask, ‘How is everybody?’ some people in the room might think by ‘everybody’ I’m referring to the whole of humanity.” “No, but you wouldn’t because you know from everyday contexts that this usually just refers to those in the room. If we had to spell everything out in our conversations, we’d drown in unbearable detail.” “So, maybe we’re doing the same when listening to talk about spirituality. I mean words like ‘the universe’, ‘humanity’, ‘the world’, ‘nature’, ‘the divine’… These are such general words and speakers who use them seldom provide specific information for the listener to work out what they’re referring to. It’s left intentionally vague; left for each listener to interpret in their own peculiar way. It sets up…” “Huh, talking of generalizations,” interrupted Dorothy; “I’ll tell you another common way of being vague, and that’s through innuendo. For example, take someone declaring, ‘Politicians often claim to be telling the truth’.” “Hmm, that is a sly statement,” remarked Bernard. “It kind-of suggests they’re lying.” “Yes, it subtly triggers common knowledge regarding the duplicity of politicians, and insinuates or hints or implies that they might not be telling the truth. Journalists can achieve similar effects by using emotionally charged words like, ‘rape’, ‘fact’, ‘sex’, ‘terror’, ‘democracy’ and ‘tax’. The same thing when talking about spirituality, as with words like ‘hope’, ‘forgiveness’, ‘spirit’, ‘freedom’, ‘truth’… They’re all words with a wide range of meanings and ripe with innuendo and suggestion.” Bernard leant over to pull his scruffy blue ring-binder out of his satchel. “Um, so let’s look at this in action.” He flipped it open randomly at one page. “Now I’m going to point to a passage without looking… Ah, okay, this’ll do. This is by the Protestant theologian Leslie Weatherhead.” All men were shining and glorious beings who in the end would enter incredible joy. Beauty, music, joy, love unmeasurable and a glory unspeakable, all this they would inherit.7

“Ah, I hear it,” declared Dorothy. “I can hear all the hints and suggestions: ‘joy’, ‘love’, ‘glory’. Listen to how many of his words create



innuendo, and how they seem to be calling you to fill them in with more detail.” “Indeed; hints, innuendos, double meanings,” added Bernard. “I’ve been looking particularly closely at the use of double meaning or ambiguity.” He rubbed his hands together enthusiastically. “I found some psychological studies conducted by Janet Bavelas and her colleagues in which they argued that indirect, contradictory, evasive and other forms of ambiguous speech shouldn’t be treated as poor communication.8 Their studies showed how, when all possible clear and specific messages are seen as leading to negative consequences, people solve this by replying with ambiguous messages. For instance, when a hostage is asked at gunpoint to confess to an unpardonable crime, an ambiguous declaration might just satisfy the hostage takers while at the same time not fully confessing to the crime. In this and many other ways, ambiguity can serve strategic purposes in social situations.” “Ah, Bernie, you’re not suggesting that the goal of ambiguity in talking about spirituality is get out of a tricky situation?” enquired Dorothy smiling. “No, all I’m saying is that some researchers are finding that talking clearly isn’t automatically the best way to communicate,” he stated emphatically; “that vagueness and ambiguity can fill a variety of positive functions.”9 “Okay; I was just teasing,” she confessed. “I agree with you. The vagueness and ambiguity in spirituality talk is not inadvertent… neither is it poor communication. Multiple meanings are intentionally included for expressive purposes.” She smiled caringly across at her old friend. “So, when someone says, ‘the source lightens up my existence’ or ‘hope springs eternal’, the key words—‘source’ and ‘hope’—are included precisely because the uncertainty of their meanings prompts me as a listener to actively engage.” Bernard smiled back then looked down and shuffled again through his blue ring-binder. “Here’s another interesting description by the great Catholic mystic, Evelyn Underhill”: Though the sense of your own dwelling within the Eternal transfuses and illuminates it, the sense of your own necessary efforts, a perpetual renewal of contact with the Spiritual World, a perpetual self-donation, shall animate it too. When the greater love overwhelms the lesser, and your small



self-­consciousness is lost in the consciousness of the Whole, it will be felt as an intense stillness, a quiet fruition of Reality.10

“Ah, there they all are. It’s dense with generalizations, innuendos, ambiguities and suggestions,” responded Dorothy. “Hmm, perhaps they’re even a little too dense.” “Hmm, maybe she has laid it on a bit too thick,” he admitted. “But, as usual, her intentional use of vagueness will only be effective if her readers engage in actively filling in what she is leaving out. The readers need to complete what she’s saying in their own minds.” Dorothy nodded, smiled then stood up. “I can tell we’ll have more to talk about next time.”

Notes 1. Fritjoff Capra, The Tao of Physics (New York: Fontana, 1976) p. xix. 2. Jacquetta Hawkes, Man on Earth (London: Cresset, 1954) p. 16. 3. J. H. M. Whiteman, The Mystical Life (London: Faber & Faber, 1961) p. 18. 4. Dion Fortune, The Mystical Qabalah (London: Ernest Benn, 1935) p. 111. 5. Martin Heidegger, Being and Time (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1973) p. 488. 6. Quoted in G.  Davison and J.  Neale, Abnormal Psychology (New York: Wiley, 1986) p. 338. The extract was recorded from a dialogue between a psychiatrist and a patient in an active psychotic state. 7. Leslie Weatherhead, The Christian Agnostic (London: Hodder & Stroughton, 1965) p. 34. 8. See Janet Bavelas et  al., Equivocal Communication (Newbury Park: Sage, 1990). 9. For example, Israel Scheffler in Beyond the Letter (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1979) identified up to six types of ambiguity based on differences in their logical placement. 10. Evelyn Underhill, Practical Mysticism (London: Dent & Sons, 1919) p. 140.


Provocative Gaps

Bernard was sitting at his table trying to rub some life back into his frozen hands which had seized up in the wintery wind. The weather had been particularly cold this week and the aching in his joints had increased. It was so cold he had made the unusual decision to leave Soren back in his apartment. He glanced over to a dark-coated figure gliding through the café entrance. The person looked vaguely familiar. As the figure hung up the coat and turned to face the counter he recognized, to his surprise, that it was Monique. But, how she had changed: her glossy dark hair, which looked so healthy a couple of months ago, now hung untidily in dull, limp strands across her shoulders. As she walked toward him with her tea, he noticed how, instead of striding with her usual bouncy enthusiasm, she now trudged forward in heavy mechanical movements. She slumped into her chair, glanced at Bernard then looked fixedly down at her fingers and pulled roughly at her fingernails. “Bernard, things haven’t been going too well. I’m sorry; I haven’t been able to make it in here to meet with you. I’ve really missed our little chats.” “Don’t apologize. I’m happy to see you whenever you can make it. I know your life is very demanding.” He studied her as she continued to look down in silence. “Are you all right?” “Aw, Bernard, it’s been very rough.” She glanced up briefly allowing him to see the pain in her eyes and the slight quivering of her chin. “Over the last few months my husband and I have been getting into more and © The Author(s) 2020 P. J. Adams, How to Talk About Spiritual Encounters,




more arguments; usually over nothing… But he does keep insisting we should be selling our house and moving to another city. I keep telling him that wouldn’t be fair on the children… Any rate, a couple of weeks, quite out of the blue, he informed me that he needed to take a break from our relationship.” “Oh, I’m sorry to hear that. You’ve done so much together,” commiserated Bernard. “Yeah, it’s a bit rugged when we’ve been together for over eighteen years.” She sighed and returned to gazing at her fingers. “So, on the weekend he moved out to an apartment that he’d rented; all very smooth… It makes me think he’s been planning this for some time.” “But how are the children coping?” “Well they’re in their mid-teens; old enough to understand; but they’re still finding it hard. Neither wants to visit him in his new place.” “What about you?” “Oh, I’m totally at sea. I didn’t see this coming.” A couple of tears ran down her cheeks. She brushed them quickly away with the side of her hand. “Besides the shock of him telling me he wanted a break, what I’m finding most difficult is the uncertainty. That’s what’s really cutting me up. I’m not sure whether this break is his way of letting me down gently, and that his real intention is to leave. I don’t know whether he’s in a new relationship. I don’t know whether this is just a temporary life crisis and it’s all going to blow over in a couple of weeks.” She looked up and trained her reddened eyes directly at Bernard. “I’ve got no idea which future I’m heading for.” “Hmm, Monique, no idea of your future; I’d find that extremely difficult.” “If he’s intending to leave, I’d rather he’d tell me outright. Sure, it would be hard, but at least I would know where I stand.” She reached one arm over and gently clasped one of his hands. “I’m sorry, Bernard; I didn’t mean to burden you with all this. I’ve had to take a break from work and now I’m the one who’s going to counselling… I’ve really come here to get away from all these worries and to talk with you some more about spirituality.” “Look, I’m really concerned about you; I’m more than happy for you to continue talking about your difficulties.” “No, really, I’m getting what I need elsewhere. I want to carry on as normal; carry on with things that are important to me; and talking with you about spirituality is very important to me.”



“Okay,” said Bernard maintaining a concerned expression. “If you’re sure you want to focus on that and not your difficulties, I’m happy to go along with that.” She leaned back in her chair and smiled. “Well, as you’d appreciate, my head hasn’t been able to focus much on chasing spiritual encounters. But, funnily enough, I’m finding various forms of spiritual awareness are starting to approach me. It’s weird. I chase it for years, now when I pull back, it comes to me.” “Hmm, it could be that this is a time when such awareness would be most helpful to you.” “Hmm, that’s a possibility, and… And I need to tell you something that happened last night. It was three nights since my husband left, and I had been tossing and turning in the bed, my head spinning with fears and worries. I could see by my alarm-clock it was two o’clock and I just couldn’t sleep, so I thought I may as well be up. I got out of bed and wandered out into the garden. The moon hadn’t risen yet, so the stars were hanging as a vast canopy across the sky.” “Ah, aren’t they majestic?” “Yeah… but the main thing for me was the quiet. I’d been in turmoil all day, and now I was surrounded by complete quiet, total stillness. I sat down on the bench, looked up at the stars and listened to the silence… and I just thought.” “I can picture the scene.” “Everything was quiet, and I sat there and thought: open, pure, uninterrupted thought… And all my worries faded briefly into the background.” Monique leaned over to take a large sip of her now lukewarm tea. “Bernard, I remember last time we met you’d been telling me how, when we talk about spiritual encounters, we engage in a way of speaking that is intentionally vague.” “Yes, that’s right. I see this vagueness as inviting listeners to participate actively in the communication.” “I’ve been curious about this. How, in your mind, do you think this is achieved?” “Well, as we’ve discussed before, this vagueness is generated by a range of rhetorical devices, devices embedded in a communication in a way that opens listeners up.” “Big devices, and small devices,” stated Monique remembering previous conversations.



“Yes, precisely. In particular, I see all these devices as providing locations for gaps to occur.” “Gaps?” “Yes, gaps: gaps in content, gaps in meaning, gaps in expectations.” Bernard could see, by the way her eyes darted sideways, that she was struggling with this idea. “Okay, let me help by talking a little about gaps.” “Yes, I’m not entirely sure what you’re on about,” admitted Monique. “We encounter gaps often in our everyday lives. We might talk of gaps in floors, in ceilings, in walls as well as gaps in teeth, gaps in traffic, gaps in vision, gaps in time, gaps in speech…” “…gaps in communication, gaps in homes, gaps in relationships,” added Monique, her face lighting up with a mischievous smile. Bernard smiled back. “Yes, all sorts of gaps. Then, at a more conceptual level we might speak of gaps in a person’s logic, gaps in memory and gaps in education. At an even more esoteric level we might talk of gaps in meaning, gaps in emotion and gaps in a person’s faith.” “Okay, okay; so, we’re surrounded by gaps. And, I know, they’re very versatile; they can occur with solid, concrete things and occur right up to abstract things like feelings and ideas.” “Good. Now I’d like us to look more closely at some of the key aspects of a gap.” He pulled over his half-drunk coffee. “I’ve got three aspects in mind: In the first place, a gap, in its simplest and most concrete form, involves the omission of expected content. It marks a location where something could or should have been. Like, for instance, the way the gap in a picket fence tells us a picket’s missing. But it does more than just signal the absence of something; the missing picket also calls attention to itself as missing; it highlights or marks its own absence… And this marking is an active process.” “You mean you notice the missing picket more than you notice the presence of the two pickets next to the gap?” “Yes, precisely,” confirmed Bernard taking a couple of large sips of coffee. “Now, the second thing a gap signals is a location of incomplete content. For instance, if someone knocked out one of your front teeth, the gaping hole sitting between the other teeth announces that this is an incomplete set of teeth, and this lack of completion triggers the expectation that the missing object may require some form of replacement or filling in.” “So, the gap in the teeth prompts me to fill it with something like an artificial tooth?”



“Yes, that’s right.” He paused to drain the remains of his coffee. “And the third feature follows from the second one. The gap and its surrounding material provide us with some indications as to the type of insertion that ideally should take place. With a gap in a wall, you know automatically that it should be plugged with a substance that is similar to the wall—perhaps something like plaster, wood, brick or mortar—less suitable insertions would be a jacket, a hand, a book, or your lunch. Similarly, you don’t fill up gaps in your understanding with plaster or wood; you fill it with more reading, practice, or advice.” He paused to check she was following. “But there is room for some flexibility; you usually have some discretion. While the surrounding clues might limit the number of probable fillers, the list of possible fillers can be quite extensive.” “Ah, so if I had a gap in my hedge, I could fill it in with a fence, a shed, a tree, a hunk of metal; lots of things, just as long as the filler does the job of filling.” “Aha.” He smiled encouragingly. “Similarly, when it comes to language, the easiest way of forming gaps is to simply miss words out or by not completing sentences.” He glanced across at Monique. “Now, if you don’t mind, would you tell me again about the meaning of that major encounter you had when you were younger.” “What, that first one in the forest?” She stared pensively at the stark scene out the window. “Well, it was nothing like I’d ever experienced before.” Her gaze returned to staring blankly at the table-top. “The feeling then was pure awareness. It was… It was a state of…” “Hmm.” Bernard nodded understandingly. “It was being in itself… an inner oneness… a feeling that was…” she paused, smiled slowly and looked up. She could immediately see in his eyes that he knew exactly what she was talking about. “The experience, like, it was…” “Yes, I know, it is definitely hard to describe. But, for me, your unfinished sentences appear to call me in to finish them off. When you say, ‘Like it was…’ my mind thinks, ‘Like it was a state of what?’… perhaps a state of bliss, or a state of turmoil, or a state of peace… Who’s to say? You’ve left me plenty of space to complete it in my own way.” “Yeah, and I can tell you’re following me by the twinkle in your eye.”



Bernard leant across and rummaged in his satchel. “I know… I know.” He pulled out a slim paperback. “I found an amusing example of what we’re talking about in this book by Jerzy Kosinski.” He placed the book on the table and pulled out his glasses case. “This was later made into a film starring Peter Sellers called ‘Being There’.” He donned his glasses and opened the book at a dog-eared page. “It’s about a simple-minded fellow called Chance Gardiner who had lived a cloistered life with the sole job of looking after an old man’s garden. When the old man dies, Chance is cast out into an unfamiliar world where people are soon attracted by his simple and direct manner. Through a series of fortuitous incidents, Chance ends up meeting the President of the United States who asks him what he thought of the current difficulties experienced on Wall Street. Chance replies with reference to what he knows.” “In a garden... growth has its season. There are spring and summer, but there are also fall and winter. And then spring and summer again. As long as the roots are not severed, all is well and all will be well.” He raised his eyes... The President seemed quite pleased. “I must admit, Mr Gardiner,” the President said, “that what you’ve just said is one of the most refreshing and optimistic statements I’ve heard in a very, very long time.” He rose and stood erect, with his back to the fireplace. “Many of us forget that nature and society are one! Yes, though we have tried to cut ourselves off from nature, we are still part of it. Like nature, our economic system remains, in the long run, stable and rational, and that’s why we must not fear to be at its mercy.” The President hesitated for a moment... “We welcome the inevitable seasons of nature, yet we are upset by the seasons of our economy! How foolish of us!” He smiled at Chance...1

“See, the joke is that Chance meant nothing of the kind. Chance mixed economy of speech with a pleasant and often automatic acquiescence. Though totally confused by the President’s reaction, he responded to it with his usual ‘I understand’. Into the gaps provided by Chance’s vague and metaphoric speech, listeners, like the President, inserted their own meanings.” “I see, so Chance simply failed to correct their misapprehensions, so the insertions kept happening and they became increasingly more elaborate.” “Yes, and we do something similar when we listen to descriptions of spiritual encounters. The vagueness created by gaps provides listeners with the opportunity to insert their own content. On the down side, speakers are forced to relinquish much of the control over how the descriptions are understood; but the pay-off is that listeners are actively engaged and, as



they hear the gaps, they respond by supplying, in their imaginations, the content required for the gap-ridden statements to become complete.” “So, even though I’m struggling to find the right words, my pauses and unfinished sentences are in fact giving the listener space into which to insert their own stuff?” “Yes, precisely.” A smile spread across his face. “I know another comparison.” He rummaged in the side-pocket of his satchel. “This also works similar to the way we use standard letters.” He pulled out a crumpled envelope and unfolded the letter it contained. “Yes, here,” he proclaimed triumphantly. He placed the letter on the table. “Here’s an incomplete one from the tax department that a friend gave me”: Dear ____________, We reviewed your Interim Tax Credit on ________. We understand $______.___ was due for payment on _______. You will be charged ____% interest on this amount bringing the total due for your next tax instalment to: $______.____. If you have any enquiries, the Returning officer handling your account is: Name: _____________ Phone: __________ Ext: _______ Yours Faithfully Officer)



“Scary stuff,” remarked Monique. “You could fill it in with any figures and send it to anyone!” “Hmm, hadn’t thought about that,” pondered Bernard. “But, look, if you read over this letter as it stands, it makes very little sense. However, if by,” he made a horizontal stroke silently with his hand, “you understand ‘insert a name here’ or ‘insert some numbers here’, then the letter not only makes sense, but its content opens up a range of possibilities. The person sending the letter could send it to different people, for different amounts, charging varying interest rates and nominating different returning officers.” “So, you’re saying the gaps provide the opportunity for the meaning of the letter to vary according to the writer’s intentions?”



“That’s correct. And this has its parallels in talk about spirituality, but, instead of the sender filling in the gaps, it’s the listener who is invited to provide the missing meanings.” “But, if I was a listener,” suggested Monique; “I mightn’t feel inclined to fill in the missing bits. I mightn’t want to be bothered.” “Hmm… That’s possible, particularly if you don’t notice the gaps. But I suspect we are all naturally drawn towards completing missing bits. I notice this in myself. Whenever I see things missing, I’m often itching to fill them in. Like sometimes when I’m really bored, I find myself idly filling in the enclosed spaces in letters like ‘o’, ‘p’, ‘d’. A bit obsessive, I know, but I find it strangely satisfying to see all the spaces colored in blue.” “So, you’re saying that, once we know there’s a gap there, we often feel compelled to fill it in?” “Ah ha,” he nodded. “But I wouldn’t say ‘compelled’. It’s more like being prodded. The way I think of it is that gaps provoke us to respond… That’s why I call them ‘provocative gaps’.” He leaned across to his satchel and pulled out his tatty blue ring-binder. “Now, let’s see how this all works when people talk about their spiritual encounters.” He flipped through the pages. “Here, consider this one; it’s from a description by the American mystic, Joel Goldsmith”: It is true that this [the realization of the truth] may bring with it a sense of emptiness, but strangely enough with that sense of emptiness, there comes a sense of completeness and perfection.2

“Despite the familiarity of some of his words, they’ve been placed into sentences in ways seldom found in day-to-day conversation. Take a closer look at a word like ‘emptiness’. This is a strange term. The word is normally used in saying things like, ‘That milk bottle is empty’ or, ‘Put it in the empty bin,’ or you might even refer to ‘the emptiness of the glass’. In each case an object which is empty has been specified. But what happens when no such object is mentioned? Is emptiness an object like any other object or has it been converted from an adjective into an object word in order to avoid direct reference to that-which-is-empty?” “I don’t know… I find this a bit confusing,” complained Monique sighing. “So, you’re saying talk of ‘emptiness’ by itself fails to specify the object that is in this state of emptiness?” “Ah ha. And if you look at it that way, the word creates a gap much like the blanks in that standard letter.” He spoke slowly, stroking with his hand to indicate spaces, “So, ‘emptiness’ becomes ‘an empty… blank’; the word ‘perfection’ on its own becomes ‘a perfect… blank’.”



“I see, so the blank, or the gap, is embedded into its place in the sentence.” “Yes, so,” Bernard leaned across to his satchel, pulled out a pad and a pen, then began scrawling on the blank page. “If I translate what Goldsmith has said, it becomes, blah-blah-blah… then…” … a sense of empty _______, but strangely enough with that sense of empty _______, there comes a sense of complete _______ and perfect _______.

Monique laughed and pointed at the blanks in the new version. “So, with the previously disguised gaps now exposed, the participation of the reader becomes obvious.” “Yes, the sentence doesn’t make sense until you fill in the blanks.” He flipped to another sheet in the ring-binder. “Here’s another passage by Evelyn Underhill.” When the greater love overwhelms the lesser, and your small self-­consciousness is lost in the consciousness of the Whole, it will be felt as an intense stillness, a quiet fruition of Reality.3

Bernard smiled as he scrawled out his translation on the pad. When [the] _______ greater love [of] _______ overwhelms the lesser, and your small self-consciousness is lost in _______ [being] conscious of the Whole _______, it will be felt as an intense[ly] still _______, a quiet fruition of Real _______.

“Goodness, that’s riddled with blanks,” laughed Monique; “lots of gaps just begging to be filled. I feel somewhat like a dry sponge on a wet floor: the holes in the substance are just sucking content from me.” “This is why I call them ‘provocative gaps’. The missing bits act like empty vessels in linguistic space and as such they call out to you for completion. The vague sentence challenges you because you recognize that it’s incomplete; it urges you, it cajoles you to come up with the missing content… And once you imaginatively plug in your content, hey presto, the sentence starts to make sense… but only to you in your own special way.” “So, the written expression is shared but my reading of it is a private affair because how I read and insert meanings will be different from somebody else?”



“Precisely.” Bernard leant back and grinned affectionately at her across the table. “Monique, you know, I think you’re really getting the hang of this. What you’re saying is spot on.” He raised his eyebrows. “The gaps provide sites for you, the reader, to actively participate in shaping the communication so that the expression becomes more relevant to your personal experience.” At this point, as Bernard paused to check Monique’s reaction, he noticed she was staring out the window with a concentrated, almost pained expression. “You okay?” “Hmm… Provocative gaps…” She turned and trained her glistening eyes on Bernard. “It’s quite a strange term. But, I guess, spirituality-talk does provoke my imagination. I’m visualizing a hole in the ground with a stick protruding out trying to prod me into doing something with the hole.” Bernard grunted. “Hmm, a strange image, but I get what you mean.” He paused to check whether she might be worrying about her problems at home. She smiled back and nodded. “Okay… but look, there’s one more aspect to this I should mention.” He hesitated, then glanced again at her over the rim of his glasses. “Hmm… the insertions you make into these gaps can’t occur unguided; you can’t fill it in with just any information. For instance, with the tax department’s standard letter, you can’t say, ‘We understand 20th of March was due for payment on $243.75’. It just doesn’t make any sense. For insertions you need some sort of guidance as to what can and can’t be inserted.” “Well, I guess you would be guided by the gap’s context within the sentence.” “Yes, that’s right. The range of legitimate insertions is usually signaled by cues surrounding the gap. In the sentence: ‘We reviewed your Tax on …’ you have a good idea a date is required because of your knowledge of the intentions of the letter and the blank’s position in the sentence. From this you also know instantly that, ‘We reviewed your Tax on $564.99’ is not right.” “And that would be the same with, ‘We reviewed your Tax on a fast-­ moving train to Chicago’,” added Monique with the hint of a smile. “Yes, you, the blank-filler, need to look around within the context for clues as to what might qualify as legitimate insertions. And this would require some active involvement.”



“Hmm, I think I understand, but would you mind reading me out some more examples of how this works?” Bernard pulled over and opened the blue ring-binder. “Okay, here’s a statement by the Tibetan Buddhist master, Chőgham Trungpa”: Depression and ignorance, the emotions, whatever experience, are all real and contain tremendous truth.4


“Hmm, ‘depression’, ‘ignorance’, ‘emotions’… that sounds fairly gappy,” commented Monique. Bernard flipped further into the ring-binder. “Here’s another by the psychiatrist, Viktor Frankl”: At the moment when we bring in the “I ought", we complement the subjective aspect of human existence, being, with its objective counterpart, which is meaning.5

“Again, I can sense the gaps prodding at me… ah, I mean, provoking me to do something with sentence to make it meaningful.” “Yes, it does contain plenty of vague words like ‘existence’, ‘being’, ‘meaning’; all prime candidates for an active response from readers.” “Hmm, but in this example, there are rather a lot of gappy words,” noted Monique hesitantly. “Bernard, do you think it’s possible to overdo this a bit? I mean, could there be so many gaps in a sentence that I, the gap-filler, get lost as to how to fill in the gaps?” “Ah yes, I agree. I think there are limits to the number of gaps a sentence can contain. It’s a bit like a wall; there’s surely an upper limit to the number of holes a wall can sustain before it begins to crumble. It’s the same for all rhetorical devices; there is a limit to the frequency a device can be used before it becomes too obvious and, thereby, loses any rhetorical effectiveness.” He flipped back through the blue ring-binder. “Listen to some more of that description by Joel Goldsmith”: Once we are united with our Source, we discover that our life is really the life of the Life-stream, the life of the Source of life which is now flowing as our life. We are being fed by the Stream, by the Waters falling from the clouds above, by a Source greater than ourselves which is now flowing as our life.6



“Ah yes, I sort of like his image of ‘time as a river’,” commented Monique, “but, as you say, he’s gone a bit over the top. He’s filled his sentences up with so many devices that I, the listener, am struggling to know where to engage.” “Yes, each device has a limit to its effectiveness; over-use risks confusing or annoying the gap-filling listener.” “Hah, that’s right. I was sure swimming with that last quote.” “So, you see, when people describe their spiritual encounters, they are, in a sense, placing an unofficial contract before the listeners. The contract states, ‘I, the speaker, will provide you, the listener, an organized assembly within which there are gaps’; this is one side of the understanding. Then on the other side the contract says, ‘I, the listener, will fill in the gaps that you, the speaker, have provided, and what you have said will become meaningful to me’. This is the arrangement and if either party fails to deliver, the communication doesn’t succeed. When the listener…” Bernard halted because he noticed Monique was staring blankly out the window again and a tear was trickling down her face. “I’m sorry Bernard. It’s been so good talking about this with you; very stimulating; it took me far away from my troubles. But my mind keeps going in-and-out of what’s happening at home. I can’t help it.” “That’s okay.” “Oh, he’s such a bastard. How could he act this way at this stage in our lives? He’s so selfish; so terribly cruel to both me and the children… Part of me wants to be the one that breaks away; then it’d be me who has some control.” She wiped her tears away with a tissue and turned back to face Bernard. “I’m sorry; I don’t mean to burden all this on you.” She turned quickly away and stood up. Bernard reached out and grasped her arm just below the elbow. “Thank you for sharing today, and if there’s anything I can do, just ask.” Monique clasped his hand briefly and tried to force her quivering lips into a smile, “Bernard…” She turned and with her head bent moved with heavy strides toward her coat and the door.

Notes 1. Jerzy Kosinski, Being There (London: Pan Books, 1970) p. 43. 2. Joel Goldsmith, A Parenthesis in Eternity (New York: Harper & Row, 1963) p. 51. 3. Evelyn Underhill, Practical Mysticism (London: Dent & Sons, 1919) p. 140.



4. Chogyam Trungpa, Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism (London: Robinson & Watkins, 1973) p. 69. 5. Viktor Frankl, Psychotherapy and Existentialism (New York: Washington Square Press, 1967) p. 54. 6. Joel Goldsmith (op. cit.) p. 51.


Gaps by Missing Content

“Hah, Bernard, still reading all that spiritual guff,” commented a familiar voice. Bernard looked up from his papers as Jarrod scraped his chair noisily out and sat down with a forced sigh. He had not seen Jarrod since their lively and, at times, fractious conversation about vagueness. He had all but resigned himself to not seeing the young man again. “Jarrod. I’m so pleased you’ve called in.” “Yeah, I’ve been meaning to pop by to tell you that my work on the TV doco is winding up, and me and my girlfriend are planning to set off on more travel adventures.” “Good on you.” “Well, I’ve learnt lots from doing the filming and, we figure, since we’ve saved up a bit, and we’re not tied down by children or mortgages, we may as well explore what’s going on elsewhere in the world.” “Great. Different places, different cultures.” “Sure, that’s very much on our agenda.” Jarrod took a long sip of his coffee then glanced directly across at Bernard. “So, seriously, how are you getting on with making sense of those descriptions?” “Oh, I’m finding it interesting; very interesting. I’ve been examining how expressive vagueness is generated by means of a whole series of embedded gaps.” He noticed Jarrod’s eyebrows raised into skeptical expression. “Let me explain in more detail.”

© The Author(s) 2020 P. J. Adams, How to Talk About Spiritual Encounters,




Bernard proceeded to outline how various forms of ambiguity, innuendo and generality are intentionally inserted into accounts of spiritual encounters as a way of engaging the active participation of listeners. He did his best to draw on the examples and parallels that he had used with Monique. However, while he spoke, Jarrod avoided eye contact and stared out at the spring growth on the trees outside. “So, you see,” finished Bernard, “these gaps provide sites for receptive listeners to insert their own content, and, having done so, this then rounds off the communication.” “Ah, look Bernard,” said Jarrod turning back with a pained expression; “I still find this way of talking difficult to take seriously. I’m sorry; for me it still sounds like vague gibberish.” “I know… I know that’s how it sounds to you,” responded Bernard defensively. “But you did ask me, and I’m trying to tell you what I’m up to.” “Okay, hold on, I mean no offense; I’m just being straight up; this talk doesn’t mean much to me.” “All right, but, as we’ve discussed before, it is meaningful to other people. So, even from where you’re standing, it’s still interesting to ask why people might find it meaningful.” Bernard leaned forward and wrinkled up his forehead. “Aren’t you curious?” He sat back, lay his arms on the table and clasped his hands together. “Could you just suspend your disbelief for a short while?” “Can’t do that.” “Orr, come on. It’s not going to do you any harm. Just imagine how they might be meaningful. You might be surprised what you find.” “Oh, all right, I’ll pretend,” stated Jarrod with mock indignation. “I’ll pretend they’re meaningful just for now, so long as you understand what a strain this is for me.” “Good,” said Bernard smiling then bending forward to take two large sips of coffee. “Now, I want to introduce you to two broad types of gap-­ making: one by omitting or missing out content and the other by including too much general or non-specific content.” He glanced across at Jarrod to check he was following. “To explain this separation, imagine a famous detective trying to solve a murder mystery: the body of a woman lies dead on the floor; the autopsy states she died from bullet wounds; three people were in the house at the time and all three had motives for wanting her dead. Now, the first gap in information facing the detective is the absence of a murder weapon. The focus here does involve something that is clearly missing, namely the gun, and accordingly the detective



orders a detailed search of the house and its grounds. The second major gap in information concerns who is most likely to have committed the murder. The gap here does not really involve the absence of something, rather the presence of three equal suspects introduces too many possibilities. The detective’s main task here is to try to eliminate two of these people as suspects. Accordingly, the first gap in information can be considered a ‘gap by omission’ because information is absent; and the second gap can be considered a ‘gap by over-inclusion’ because information has not been specified enough to know what fits.” “Right, two sorts of gaps: first, those with content missing, second, those with too much non-specific content.” “Good. So, out of the two, gaps by omission are the simplest and easiest to use. I’ll give you an example.” Bernard cleared his throat and sat more upright in his seat. “One winter’s day I was on the coast walking along a large beach. It was a calm day and the ocean was dead flat. The sky was overcast, and the clouds were hanging low on the horizon.” He paused briefly. “I’d been walking for about an hour and my mind was thinking about nothing in particular. At one point I stopped and looked out over the vast, glassy expanse of the ocean.” He made a sweeping motion with his arm. “Everything was still and grey; the ocean seemed to stretch out forever.” He paused again. “As I looked out, I had this overwhelming sense of …” He looked at Jarrod. “It was a feeling of…” He rotated his raised hands, “a feeling of… of…” He remained silent for several seconds. “Hah,” grunted Jarrod smiling. “I know what you’re trying to do. It’s very leading, but I do find myself imagining times when I too have looked out over the ocean.” “Yes, exactly, and my unfinished sentences, they call for you to use your imagination to complete what I’m saying: was it a feeling of joy, a feeling of wonder or perhaps even a feeling of dread? You’re left unsure… And this then calls on you, the listener, to fill in the content for yourself.” “Hmm, especially when you pause abruptly and look at me suggestively: I can’t help but feel you’re beckoning me to join in.” Jarrod’s smile switched to a frown. “But you can’t get away with this in written descriptions. I mean, with writing you can’t use gestures and facial expressions, and, besides, you’d expect a higher standard of completion in written pieces.” “True. The writer has more time to prepare and edit a piece and blatantly unfinished sentences wouldn’t be that acceptable. This is why, when writing



it down, gaps tend to be a little more disguised. For example, instead of blatantly missing out content, sentences are presented as only partially incomplete.” Bernard reached into his satchel and pulled out his glasses case and the tatty blue ring-binder. He put on his glasses, browsed through the pages then turned the ring-binder around and pointed to a passage for Jarrod to read. “Here, read the use of partial omissions by Krishnamurti.” Wander by the seashore and let this meditative quality come upon you. If it does, don’t pursue it. What you pursue will be the memory of what it was—and what was is the death of what is.1

“Ah, yes, I can spot them,” said Jarrod. “His ‘what was’ and ‘what is’ kind of fits… They’re not blatantly obvious gaps, but they do hang there unspecified. Like you did earlier, they’re calling you to think about ‘what was’ what and ‘what is’ what… The ‘whats’ dangle like fish lures tempting you to examine them further…” “… and offering receptive readers opportunities to insert their own meanings,” interrupted Bernard as he flipped pages then pointed to another passage. “Here, read this bit by Douglas Harding:” But it [me] certainly isn’t a mere nothing. First, I am aware: this Emptiness here is fully awake to itself as empty: it enjoys itself as speckless Clarity. Second....2

“Hmm. Again, I can see when he says, ‘I am aware’”, said Jarrod, “you could read it as complete or you could read it as needing something more. It’s ambiguous.” “That’s right. And this ambiguity lets him get away with a partially concealed gap.” “So, an ignoramus like me would simply read ‘I am aware’ as meaning ‘I’m awake’, but one of those super-mystical people would instantly recognize it as a space for insertion: ‘I am aware…’ of what?” “Precisely. Sorry, not the bit about you being an ignoramus,” remarked Bernard apologetically. “I mean, partially incomplete sentences dangle before receptive readers as invitations for completion.”3 Bernard smiled and peered over the rim of his glasses. “Okay, so that’s what I call, ‘gaps by omission’. The other way to miss out content is, as I said before, by using gaps by over-inclusion. These are spaces which are so full they could be open for any sort of content. I consider these gaps because on the



surface they appear to mimic specific referencing, but in effect they provide a non-specific or generalized slot into which a listener can insert a broad range of personal content… And there’s quite a range of ways of doing this.” He glanced across at Jarrod and noticed his confused expression. “If it’s okay with you, I’ll run through a few examples.” Jarrod nodded and adjusted his seating position. Bernard nodded back. “The simplest way to create gaps by over-­ inclusion is by referring to things in non-specific ways. This is usually done by using words like: ‘something’, ‘anything,’ ‘someone’, ‘anyone’, ‘another’, ‘certain’… any words with unspecified open content.” He put his glasses on and flipped through his ring-binder. “Here, read this passage by John Cohen.” As I came out into the dark, something changed inside me— almost with a click, like adjustment of a mechanism—that related me—or rather something that was not the habitual me—to the night and something beyond it.4

“See the way he uses ‘something’?” remarked Bernard. “See how he’s used it in, ‘something changed inside me’? He could be referring to anything, and it is…” “… and it’s left for the reader to finish it off in their own mind. Okay, I get it.” “That’s right, and here’s another passage by H. G. Wells:” At times in the silence of the night and in rare lonely moments, I come upon a sort of communion of myself and something great that is not myself.5

Bernard glanced at Jarrod over his glasses. “Again, his ‘something great that is not myself’ could refer to anything. It functions a bit like a big blank. Putting it another way he’s saying: ‘I came upon a sort of communion of myself and a great … BLANK … that is not myself.’” “Yeah, I can see that. It’s like he’s saying to me, ‘It is something other than that to which I’m referring’.” “Just so… And here, read how Alan Watts makes use of another form of non-specific referencing.” I cannot feel that its life comes from Another, from one who is qualitatively and spiritually external to all that lives



and grows. On the contrary, I feel this whole world to be moved from the inside, and from an inside so deep that it is my inside as well, more truly than my surface consciousness.6

“See how the word ‘Another’ could refer to any shape or size of ‘Other’?” “Hmm, I’m following what you’re saying,” remarked Jarrod with a slightly unconvinced tone. “But surely they’re not used that often?” “I dunno. There’s lots of other varieties of non-specific referencing; they include talk of things like, ‘a certain feeling’ or, ‘the now’ or, ‘the spot’ or, ‘this lump of stuff’…”.7 “Okay, so are you claiming these ‘gaps by over-inclusion’ are used fairly often?” “Hmm, yeah… no, I’m not really sure. It’s something me and Jonella are looking into—you know, the woman I’m helping out at the University?” muttered Bernard as he returned to browsing through his ring-binder. “Now, a second way of creating gaps by over-inclusion is by using what we’ve labelled as ‘generalized referencing’. This is when what is referenced is open to an unlimited number of possibilities.” Bernard clicked his lips and pointed to another passage. “Here, read this example by Thomas Merton.” The thing about all this is that there is no puzzle, no problem, and really no “mystery”. All problems are resolved and everything is clear, simply because what matters is clear. The rock, all matter, all life is charged with dharmakaya ... everything is emptiness and everything is compassion.8

“There… He uses ‘all’ to open up a wide range of possible interpretations: ‘all problems’, ‘all matter’, ‘all life’… Each of these could refer to everything or anything.” He turned to another page. “It’s similar in this passage by Rajneesh.” The whole thing passes, the whole life passes—good and bad, success and failure, praise and blame—everything passes. Disease and health, youth and old age, birth and death— everything passes, and you are untouched by it.9

Bernard turned the ring-binder back, gazed briefly down at the page and put it to one side. “His use of a word like ‘whole’ or ‘everything’ appears on the surface to function as a universal in the sentence; it seems to be referring, in some general sense, to every object, to every-‘thing’ in



the cosmos. But such universals are difficult to conceptualize. You can’t possibly think of every object in the world. It would take too long. Instead, you think of it as an open category into which any object can potentially fit.” “Okay,” said Jarrod with a smile on his lips, “following on from what you did before, this ‘everything’ in ‘everything passes’, could be converted into a string; it’s meaning is ‘blank, blank, blank, blank…’ and so on into infinity.” “Precisely; an endless array of blanks. And that’s how these embedded blanks invite receptive listeners to provide their own content.” “Ah, but not for me; I wouldn’t bother filling that ‘everything’ in.” “No, but you know what I mean. It’s an open space.” Bernard paused to sip his coffee. He glanced out the window to check on Soren and was reassured to see his legs outstretched which signaled he was sleeping contentedly with his back against the wall. “Now there’s another special way, a more solid way of making generalized references, and one I’d like you to think about. This way involves converting them into some form of symbolic object.” “Hmm, like a merchandising figurine for a blockbuster movie?” queried Jarrod cheekily. “Ah, Jarrod, you’re quick,” said Bernard waving his finger in mock disapproval. “Actually, that’s not too far off. These are like solid representations of something general. They seem to be referring to a specific object but, when you look at them more closely, what they refer to is unlimited. Take, for example, the word ‘world’; we often use ‘world’ to refer to a specific solid object: the planet earth rotating around the sun and all that happens on its surface. But we also use ‘world’ to refer more abstractly and universally to all the experiences that one person has or will ever have—as in, ‘he’s lost in his own world’, or, ‘it opened up a whole new world’. You can see this interplay between generality and specificity in common words like: ‘the universe’, ‘man’, ‘the body’, ‘the mind’, ‘the heart’, ‘the spirit’, ‘the cosmos’, ‘the self’, ‘matter’, ‘energy’, and so on.” “You mean, they appear to refer to something more concrete and solid, but really they signal something more general,” Jarrod summarized helpfully. “So, what name would you give such a device? You always seem to come up with some sort of label.” “Well, me and Jonella weren’t quite sure what to call these, but at the moment we’re calling them ‘entified general nouns’.” “Yuck, that’s a mouthful!” complained Jarrod.



“Sorry, but that’s the best we could think of. They are ‘nouns’—or object words—for something general that’s been converted into a more solid entity; hence the label, ‘entified, general, nouns’.” “Okay, okay, it’ll have to do,” sighed Jarrod. “So, what do they look like in action?” Bernard opened the blue ring-binder and flipped through its pages. “Here, read how Henri Nouwen uses them:” I pray that I will have the strength to keep the light alive in my heart so that I can see and point to the promising shadows appearing on the walls of our world.10

“Hear his use of ‘our world’?” asked Bernard. “It’s solid but it could be referring to anything.” “Yeah, and I guess his reference to ‘the light’ does much the same.” Bernard nodded as he turned the pages. “Here, read this other bit by Krishnamurti.” What is important in meditation is the quality of the mind and the heart. It is not what you achieve, or what you say you attain, but rather the quality of a mind that is innocent and vulnerable.11

“I see,” said Jarrod, “he’s talking about ‘the mind’ and ‘the heart’ as though they are solid things, but, in fact, they both refer to general or universal concepts.” “Yes, they do appear to be referring to something more solid, but, in reality, they’re general and open… In other words, they form a space for listeners to insert their own content.” Bernard shut the ring-binder then looked across at Jarrod. “I must say, you seem more positive about this way of speaking than in our previous discussions. Has anything happened?” “Actually Bernard, to tell you the truth, lately I’m finding my mind’s open to anything and everything,” stated Jarrod, smiling proudly. “I think part of it’s to do with my excitement at travelling, part of it’s to do with how close I’m getting to my girlfriend, but also, since starting work, I’m generally more open to what’s happening around me.” He took a long slow sip of his coffee then looked up and squinted at Bernard. “Actually, I really only called in to tell you that we’re taking off. I wasn’t intending to get into all of this stuff.” “Okay, so tell me, where do you plan to go?”



“Oh, first we thought we’d go to London, then we’ve organized for a rail-pass so we can zoom around Europe and get out bearings. Then we’ll take it from there.” “Hmm, and what about exposure to those different cultural contexts; you know, in the Muslim, Hindu and African lands?” “Yes, yes; we definitely plan to visit some South East Asian countries— Vietnam, Thailand, Malaysia. At this stage we’re not quite sure where, but we’re definitely gonna see some of them.” He glanced down at the table and frowned. “Bernard, I have found what we’ve talked about today interesting. And I am impressed by all the work you’ve done, but ….” “But? Does there always need to be a ‘but’?” “Well yes. In the back of my mind I can’t help thinking what you’re talking about is fairly minor. All you’ve shown me so far is how people talking about spirituality stick in gaps by missing out words or using general terms. I don’t think that captures what it means to speak this way.” “Okay, okay,” said Bernard frowning. “These are minor devices, but they do demonstrate some of the key aspects of what is going on.” He glanced over his glasses enquiringly at Jarrod. “Please, let me show you one more device; one that I think has a stronger rhetorical impact. I’ll leave it with you to think about on your travels.” “Ah, ah…” Jarrod was unsure whether he wished to engage in another topic. “Ooo-kay” he responded hesitantly. Bernard nodded approvingly. “Now, as I told you before, there are big devices and little devices and so far we’ve been talking about little devices. This next device involves changes across the whole of a description.” He was speaking in his precise matter-of-fact voice. “Jonella and I have named this big device, ‘sequential gaps’. By this we mean gaps which are created by changes in the form or type of content over the course of a description.” “Hmm, so how does that create gaps?” queried Jarrod. “Well, the gaps are generated by starting out with sentences that are concrete and specific and moving later to more abstract and non-specific content.” Bernard pulled over the blue ring-binder and flipped through the pages. “Ah, I remember; here’s a good example. It’s from a participant in one of Alister Hardy’s studies.” [I was] standing at the back of my house one night and watching the lights of cars coming up the nearby main road. Suddenly I became aware not only was this a highly significant experience, but that it carried with it an overwhelming



conviction that it had happened to me before. I have never been able to ascertain whether it had or not, but the feeling has always remained with me, which is a familiar one to most people, and which was crystallized by J. B. Priestley in his play I Have Been Here Before. The experience was definitely spiritual in that it seemed to go deeper than ordinary experience. The car lights suddenly became enormously significant and the darkness took on an almost supernatural quality as though it had a life of its own.12

Bernard glanced enquiringly up at Jarrod. “See how he started with ‘the back of my house’ and ended talking of a ‘supernatural quality’? He’s moved from talking about solid objects to talking about the general and ephemeral.” “Yes, but at the start he was just setting the scene. This is normally what you do when describing something. I don’t think it’s about setting up a contrast.” “But this happens so often and so dramatically,” objected Bernard vigorously. He flipped quickly further into his ring-binder. “Here, look at this one by Richard Bucke. At the beginning of his description he’s saying”: I had spent the evening in a great city, with two friends, reading and discussing poetry and philosophy. We parted at midnight. I had a long drive in a hansom to my lodging. My mind... .13

“And by the end he’s talking about:” ... I had attained to a point of view from which I saw that it must be true. That view, that conviction, I may say that consciousness, has never, even during periods of deepest depression, been lost.

“See? He’s moved from ‘a great city’, ‘friends’ and a ‘hansom’ carriage to talking about ‘conviction’, ‘consciousness’ and ‘depression’…” He glanced across despairingly at Jarrod’s skeptical expression, then flipped through more pages. “Here’s another by Loren Hurnscot. Listen to this bit at the beginning”: Just at dusk, I was there on the rock by the river. I had to wait in the woods for the people to go. There was silence at



last. I burnt a card—the nine of diamonds—that I had seen in a street in Bloomsbury....14

“Then, by the end, the description is talking about”: ... It had always been pride that had held me off from Him [God]. Now it was broken the obstacle was gone. One is never simple enough, while things go well.

“Okay, so these descriptions move from objects, like rocks, rivers and woods, to much more abstract things, like pride and God,” conceded Jarrod. “But this shift is just a conventional shift: first set the scene then later explain what’s happening.” Bernard frowned as he returned to flipping through his collection. “Okay, what about this one by Genevieve Foster. It starts out with”: It must have been during the college vacation, because I was at home on a Monday afternoon and the children were not around. I lay down for a nap on the living room sofa...

“And she finishes with:” ... if my ego could manage to annex or engulf the experience I might well be tilted toward psychosis. Yet the experience was so overwhelmingly good that I couldn’t mistrust it. I knew that it was important to keep my feet on the ground, to keep my nose to the grindstone.

“Now, you’d have to admit this is a massive contrast?” stated Bernard emphatically. “At the beginning she didn’t need to be that specific. Instead of ‘Monday afternoon… on the living room sofa’ it would have been sufficient to say, ‘One day at home’. Then at the end she’s taking of her ‘ego’ managing to ‘annex’ and ‘engulf’. She doesn’t really need to get that abstract… I reckon the contrast is being exaggerated to have an effect.” “Okay, okay,” replied Jarrod. “I see the pattern: start with concrete objects and move to abstract concepts. But I’m not convinced this is being used as an expressive device.” Bernard closed his ring-binder, paused then gazed across at his stubborn companion. “All right,” he said gently; “let’s consider something different… music. Whatever the type of music—whether it’s pop, rock or classical—a



piece usually opens by establishing something specific. It might be a particular tone, or a particular melody or a particular rhythm; this gets anchored in the listener’s mind. Then, as the piece proceeds, the initial features are played around with. The piece might change key, or its speed changes or it even gets flipped upside-down: the tone gets broadened, or the rhythm subtly changes, or parts of the melody are repeated in different ways.” “Yeah, that’s the best part… when you feel the music broaden out into other possibilities.” “Just so. As the listener, you notice the subtle changes and you feel engaged by them. This is where the pleasure resides. When the composer or song-writer gets it right, you find yourself, in the later parts of the piece, imaginatively involved… almost co-composing, like you’re inserting content into the spaces that begin opening up as the piece proceeds.” “So, you’re claiming that with descriptions of spiritual encounters this is an intentional contrast.” “No, I’m not sure how intentional it is,” clarified Bernard. “What I am saying is that it is an effective contrast. It’s one that hooks listeners in by moving from a concrete content then gradually emptying this into abstract and general language. The contrast generates gaps much as the way music invites listeners to actively participate.” “Aw, I don’t know. You might be reading too much into this,” suggested Jarrod shaking his head. “You might also argue these speakers start out with concrete and specific content in order to help establish their description as a narrative and to impress on listeners that ‘this actually happened to me’: it credentials their description. Or maybe it’s just a ploy to engage the interest of listeners because to start out with abstract concepts might risk putting people off.” “Yes, these are possibilities,” acknowledged Bernard, “but, when it comes to descriptions of spiritual encounters, people use this device so often and so markedly that I’m convinced it achieves more than saying ‘this happened to me’.” “Hmm, perhaps you’re right,” said Jarrod pushing his coffee cup to the middle of the table. He sat forward and looked directly at Bernard. “But, I’m sorry Bernard, I really have to take off in a second. It’s been fascinating looking at some of these devices, and perhaps someday we’ll have another chance to talk further.” Bernard was surprised that the conversation would be cut short so abruptly. “Ah, okay… so I’ve introduced three types of gap-provoking devices: gaps by omission, gaps by over inclusion and sequential gaps.” He



gazed back at Jarrod with a disappointed frown. “But these are only three minor devices in a toolkit of many other devices.” “Well, obviously I don’t have time to hear about all those others today,” remarked Jarrod gently. Bernard relaxed into a smile. “Hmm, don’t worry; maybe we’ll talk more about them when you come back from your travels.”

Notes 1. Jiddu Krishnamurti, The Second Krishnamurti Reader (Middlesex: Penguin Books, 1973) p. 14. 2. Douglas Harding, The Science of the First Person (London: Shollond, 1974) p. 284. 3. The variations of gaps by omission can be divided into four types: (1) incomplete sentences, “The sea seemed…”, (2) incomplete sub-clauses, “What was is the death of what is”, (3) incomplete sub-clauses in parentheses, “The ‘I am’ is something we all must discover” and (4) partial omissions, ambiguous word placement with the potential to be read as missing out expected content, “I was simply aware”. 4. John Cohen, “Personal Passages,” in J. Cohen and J.-F. Phipps, eds., The Common Experience (New York: Pergamon, 1979) p. 44. 5. H. G. Wells, First and Last Things (London: Cassell, 1917) p. 56. 6. Alan Watts, “Psychedelics and religious experience,” California Law Review (56;1, 74–85, 1968) p. 37. 7. These various forms of non-specific referencing will be divided into six forms: (1) indefinite references (something, anything, anyone), (2) indefinite other references (another, something else), (3) indefinite qualifiers (certain actions, a particular emotion, individual people), (4) indefinite locatives (here and now, the spot I occupy), (5) general references (everything, everybody, all, nothing) and (6) entified general references (the universe, the world, man, the heart). 8. Thomas Merton, The Asian Journal of Thomas Merton (New York: New Direction Books, 1975) p. 235. 9. Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, The Book of Secrets (London: Thames & Hudson, 1974) p. 367. 10. Henri Nouwen, The Genesee Diary (New York: Doubleday, 1976) p. 191. 11. Krishnamurti (op. cit.) p. 14. 12. Alister Hardy, The Spiritual Nature of Man (Oxford: Clarendon, 1979) participant 266, p. 83. 13. Richard Bucke, Cosmic Consciousness (New York: Dutton & Co., 1923, 1901) pp. 7–8. 14. Loren Hurnscot, A Prison, a Paradise (New York: Viking Press, 1959) p. 198.


Gaps by Grammatical Shifts

Bernard watched Monique as she carefully negotiated the other tables and chairs carrying her chamomile tea over to his table. For the first time this season she was wearing a flowery dress, and, while she lacked the healthy exuberance of last summer, he could see the color returning to her previously pallid complexion. She halted briefly before the table and beamed a warm smile down on Bernard. “Monique, you’re sure looking summery today.” She placed her cup on the table and slid gracefully into her seat. “Bernard, at last we’ve reached an agreement around the children. Our lawyers are drawing it up. He’ll look after them for three nights, which includes the weekend, and I’ll have them for the remainder of the week.” “What about his new partner?” “He says she’s not living in his apartment and he’s agreed that she’ll not come around while the children are there; it’ll only confuse them at the moment.” She carefully tested the side of her hot cup with her lips. “I don’t know how long it will last; they’re bound to end up living together eventually, but I’m okay with this arrangement in the meantime; we’ve at least got the basis for an agreement.” “After all the arguments over the last six months, it must be a relief to have that sorted?” “Oh, you can’t believe how much difference it’s made. That first month, when I wasn’t sure what was going on; then my shock at © The Author(s) 2020 P. J. Adams, How to Talk About Spiritual Encounters,




discovering he was in a new relationship; I was so at sea: feeling so shocked, so angry, so betrayed… so hurt. How could he do that to the children and me?” As she looked down at the steam rising from her cup, her eyes brimmed with tears. “But now I need to move on. I need to let this all go.” “Ah yes, and I guess you know, from your counselling experience, this will take time.” Monique pulled a tissue from her handbag and wiped the tears away from the corner of eyes. She took a couple of slow tentative sips of tea. Blinking, she looked up and squeezed out a smile. “But look, I didn’t intend to expend more energy on him. Go on, Bernard, tell me more about what you’re up to.” Bernard remained briefly connected with her stare then turned away to gaze blankly out at the green exuberance of the leaves on the plane trees. “Hmm, there’s one device that Jonella and I have been looking at that we think is very important.” He snatched an enquiring glance back at Monique. “But it will take a bit of time to explain.” Monique nodded keenly. “Ah, today I’ve got all the time in the world.” She smiled and took a quick sip her of tea. “Go on, explain how it works.” “Okay, but you’ll need to bear with me; it’s fairly involved.” He cleared his throat then slowly and carefully commenced his explanation. “As you know, we’ve been looking at devices that generate provocative gaps and Jonella has identified some ways gaps can be formed by shifting words from their common grammatical positions into novel, innovative or, at least, less common grammatical positions.” “Ah, grammar-play, sounds like fun,” commented Monique brightly. “We’d sometimes do that for a laugh. Um, like referring to people by their descriptors: calling someone who always spills his drink, ‘Mr Sloppy’ or someone who always works fast, ‘Jane Speedy’. You know, changing some aspect of their appearance into names.” “Yes, you’re onto it,” he laughed. “Now, have a listen to this.” He leant stiffly across to his satchel and pulled out his glasses case and the tatty blue ring-binder. “I’ve got a few good examples.” He put on his brown glasses and flipped through the pages. “Ah, yes, this is one by the famous American poet, Walt Whitman; he wrote this about watching the sky at twilight”: There, in abstraction and stillness... the copiousness, the removedness, vitality, loose-clear-crowdedness, of that stellar concave spreading overhead, softly absorbed into me, rising so free, interminably high, stretching east, west, north, south – and I, though but a point in the centre below, embodying all.1



“Whew, that’s laying it on a bit thick,” remarked Monique. “Surely that vagueness is a bit over-the-top?” “Hmm… But notice his use of words like ‘abstraction’, ‘stillness’, ‘copiousness’, ‘removedness’ and ‘vitality’. See how they sit in the grammatical position of an object word—or what others refer to as a ‘noun’.” “Yeah, I know what you mean; they’re acting like words that name something.” “But when you think about it, this is a curious grammatical position to find them.” He paused to sip his coffee. “In everyday speech you’re less likely to find them as object words and more likely to find them as words that sit next to and modify object words…” “… at school we used to call them ‘adjectives.’” “Yes, adjectives, that’s right. You’d normally talk about ‘an abstract something’ or ‘a copious something’. But Whitman, by shifting adjectives into naming words, he’s able to leave out mentioning any ‘something’. The objects to which these qualities apply are left unspecified.” “That’s very naughty of him.” Bernard looked momentarily confused. “Huh… no, I think you’ll find this device used very often when people are describing spiritual encounters.”2 “So how come he’s able to get away with it?” “Ah, I don’t know how it works with other languages; I suspect very much the same; but what allows him to do this is the flexibility of the English language. Our grammar allows us to shift the position of words quite fluidly. Just like a sheet of plastic can be shaped and molded to fit a purpose, so a sentence can change its structure but still keep its meanings the same.” He paused to check Monique was following. “Look, I’ll show you with some simple examples. Take a simple sentence like, ‘John loves Mary’. First off, it’s possible to shift this sentence from active to passive form as in ‘Mary is loved by John’; this shift doesn’t really change any grammatical positions. But look what happens when you start playing with the positions. For example, I can shift the doing word ‘love’ to an adjective, ‘loveable’, and then talk about ‘the loveableness of John’… and notice how, with that shift, I don’t even need to say anything about Mary.”3 He looked up with an earnest row of wrinkles spreading across his forehead. “See, our language is just so amazingly flexible… and we use this flexibility all sorts of creative ways.” “How do you mean?”



“Ah… there are just so many examples.” He looked down and pondered the table-top. “Let’s say you’re a scientist watching a line moving on a computer monitor and you want to tell someone about when the line is reaching a peak. You might then start talking about it ‘peaking’… See, he’s shifted an object word ‘peak’ into a doing word ‘peaking’. You could do the same with forming crystals by talking about ‘crystallizing’, or with vapor by talking about ‘vaporizing’.” He nodded across enquiringly at Monique. “Yeah, I get it. In my work as a counsellor we often make similar shifts. Like, I’d often talk about someone being ‘conscious’ of something, like ‘John is conscious of his anger’; but, alternatively, I could have just referred to it as ‘consciousness’: the doing word has become an object word.” “Right, and when using ‘consciousness’, you no longer need to say who is ‘conscious’ of what.” Monique’s eyes darted from side to side as though searching for something. “Okay, let me explain this a bit more.” He put on his glasses then leant across and pulled out of his satchel a pen and a pad. He placed the pad at an angle on the table and began drawing with the pen. First, he drew a circle and wrote “wolf” in it. “Okay, I’m going to represent an object position, a noun, with a circle. So, this here could refer to ‘a wolf’ or ‘the wolf’ or ‘a pack of wolves’. Okay?” “Yeah, that seems straightforward,” replied Monique smiling. He then drew a triangle next to the circle, “Now I’m going to use this triangle to represent an attribute of the wolf like ‘old’ or ‘brown’ or ‘hungry’.” He scrawled “hungry” into the triangle. “It’s an adjective that modifies this object, so… I draw a line between them, and this can now represent phrases like: ‘the hungry wolf’ or ‘the wolf is hungry’… Right, now if I draw another object here… and give it a name, say, ‘Dan’… I can use an arrow to represent an action or relationship between the two objects which could be expressed in sentences like: ‘the wolf eats Dan’ or ‘Dan is eaten by the wolf’.”



“Oh, poor Dan; it’s not going very well for him,” remarked Monique. “No, I suppose not.” Bernard then linked up another triangle with ‘careless’ in it and sat back to admire his diagram. “Now, see, the positions are all laid out for you to say something like, ‘The hungry wolf eats careless Dan’.”4 “So, with this simple combination of three symbols, I reckon I can demonstrate to you how shifting grammatical positions can generate gaps.” “Yeah, but I…” Monique halted abruptly, squinted with her head to one side and placed her hands gently on the table. “Okay, Bernie, you show me.” “Right.” He lifted his pad and began pointing to parts of the diagram. “Well, what this shows is the way these shifts can occur in two different directions: shifting in one direction increases the need for more content— I’ll call these ‘plus-shifts’—and shifting in the other direction decreases the need for content—I’ll call these ‘gap-shifts’.” “This is getting a bit complicated,” commented Monique, frowning. “No, Monique, don’t worry; it’s not too hard to grasp. It took me and Jonella a while to work it out, but it’s quite simple really. Let me explain.” Bernard gazed into space above her head, pondering over a way to illustrate the difference. To him it was clear; but to describe it to someone else was going to require some innovative explaining. “All right, let’s talk first about plus-shifts. Now, say a teacher is trying to describe to his students how writing a synopsis of a book would help clarify their impressions. To describe this, he could call on a common object word like ‘concrete’ and shift it to an action word like ‘concretize’ in order to say something like, ‘the synopsis will help concretize your ideas’… It’s not a great example, but you get what I mean?” “You mean he shifts the common object word position into a doing word position, and not only does it carry the meanings of making-­ something-­concrete, but it implies a dynamic process.”



“Yes, that’s good,” stated Bernard, somewhat taken aback by her perceptiveness. “Yes, these plus-shift words—such as ‘actualize’, ‘schematize’, ‘grounded’ and ‘functional’—do have this ability to convert static words into something more dynamic. But what’s more important is the extra demands the shift places on content. While the word ‘concrete’ can be placed comfortably into object word slots, when you place ‘concretize’ in a doing word slot it immediately calls out for more content; to make sense the teacher needs to specify both what-does-the-concretizing and what-is-concretized.” “I get it, so when using these plus-shifts you need to add more content to form complete sentences?” “Precisely. But, when it comes to gap-shifts, all this goes in the opposite direction. I mean, you’re able to form complete sentences using less specific content. This usually takes place when you shift either a doing word or an adjective into the position of an object word, like when you use words like ‘oneness’ or ‘rightness’ or… Here let me draw it for you…” He flipped his pad to a blank page and drew the outline of a cardboard box. “Now, I could say something here like, ‘The box is empty’ or ‘The empty box’… and this could be put into a diagram as…” He drew a circle connecting with a triangle. “If I now shift positions, I could then talk about, ‘The emptiness of the box’ or ‘The box’s emptiness’. However, neither of these creates any gaps. Gaps begin appearing when I shift words to completely new grammatical positions.” He drew another circle below into which he wrote “emptiness.” “See, the object word ‘emptiness’ stands by itself.” He then drew dotted outlines where the missing objects would have been. “I see what you’ve done,” said Monique. “When you shift the adjective ‘empty’ to the object position of ‘emptiness’ it creates a vacant space in which the object-which-is-empty remains quite comfortably unspecified.” “Right, so this means, for someone talking about spirituality, on the surface the sentence may appear grammatically complete—adjectives are attached properly to object words and verbs have the correct number of subjects and objects—however, on closer inspection these gap-shifts are generating all sorts of empty spaces that receptive listeners might potentially hear as being incomplete. Accordingly, the implied gap prompts them to insert their own meanings.” “Heck, our language is so rich. I could muck around with this in all sorts of ways. I could use a word like ‘emptiness’ and say something mysterious like… like, ‘All I could see was a great emptiness all around me’.”



“Good,” Bernard remarked approvingly then paused to take several quick gulps of his coffee. “Now, this use of ‘emptiness’ involves shifting an adjective to the position of an object word, and this generates one gap. But you can also generate two gaps by shifting a doing word to an object word. Let me show you this in a diagram as well…” He drew two figures facing each other. “Here’s Bert and here’s Ruby. They love each other, so I can say, ‘Bert loves Ruby’ or ‘Ruby is loved by Bert’, and you could diagram this as…” He draws two circles with an arrow in between. “Now I will shift these in two steps; first I will convert the doing word ‘love’ into an adjective by talking about ‘the loveableness of Ruby’. This creates one gap because Bert, who does the loving, is not referenced. Then I can shift it a second time to an object word by simply referring to ‘love’ and not mentioning either Bert or Ruby.” “See?” queried Bernard as he draws in dotted lines where the object words would have been. “Yeah, I see,” replied Monique thoughtfully. “By using the word ‘love’ as an object word, you no longer have to specify who-does-the-loving or who-is-loved. It creates two embedded gaps; and it’s these gaps that encourage a listener to fill them in with their own content.”



“Good, you’ve got it. It’s not really that complicated. Doing this allows you to say things like: ‘Love lasts forever,’ or, ‘What is the meaning of love?’ or, ‘It is love which drives him to do these courageous deeds’.” “Yeah, I suppose… and ‘love is eternal,’ and ‘love is a many splendored thing’.” “Now, as you’d expect, because of this ability to create gaps, when it comes to describing spiritual encounters, people tend to use far more gap-­ shifts than plus-shifts.” “That makes sense.” “Let’s have a closer look at these in action.” He pulled across his blue ring-binder and opened it randomly at one description in his collection. “Okay, this description is by the scientist and science fiction writer, Arthur Koestler.” This change in perspective was accompanied by an equally pronounced physiological change. The sensation of choking with indignation was succeeded by the relaxed quietude and self-dissolving stillness of the “oceanic feeling”.5

“I guess,” commented Monique, “words like ‘quietude’ and ‘stillness’ are gap-shifts because you don’t know who or what is ‘quiet’ and ‘still’.” “Yes, they both involve shifting adjectives into object word positions.” He flipped randomly further into the ring-binder. “And here’s part of a



description by the Indian guru, Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, where he’s talking about the importance of living in the ‘here and now’.” You will be transformed through it because it is a deep cleaning, an unwinding. Then you can know that your body, your mind, your existence in time, are not your basic reality. The substantial reality is different.6

“Ah, there they are,” pondered Monique. “He uses gap-shifts like ‘a cleaning’ and ‘an unwinding’.” “Yes, and I’m interested in his combination of ‘substantial’ with ‘reality’ when saying the ‘substantial reality is different’.” “Hmm, yes, it does sound rather curious.” “That’s because ‘substantial’ is a plus-shift from the object word ‘substance’ and ‘reality’ is a gap-shift from the adjective ‘real’. It combines both, so your mind doesn’t know whether it’s coming or going.” “Well that’s a mean trick.” “Umm, maybe; but not really a trick; more a way of suggesting mysteriousness. The same combination was used earlier by Arthur Koestler when he talked of ‘oceanic feeling’; and I also noticed the combination when Abraham Maslow talks of ‘peak experiences’ and Richard Bucke with his ‘cosmic consciousness’.7 See how the plus-shift of ‘cosmos’ into ‘cosmic’ has been combined with the gap-shift of ‘conscious’ into ‘consciousness’; an evocative and provocative combination, isn’t it?” “Yes, but are these used very often?” “No, I’ve not seen that combination too often. Mostly people tend to use gap-shifts by themselves.” Bernard lifted his cup high to drain the remainder of his coffee. “But the wide range and diversity of gap-shifts people use is truly remarkable. Sometimes what they use involve manipulations of logical or numerical operators—like ‘nothingness’, ‘possibilities’, ‘totality’—or words related to sound and movement—like ‘stillness’, ‘aliveness’, ‘quietness’, ‘tranquility’—or others related to social processes—like ‘liberation’, ‘empowerment’, ‘connectedness’, ‘power’—or others to do with experience—‘awareness’, ‘beauty’, ‘love’—or... Look I could keep going on and on. We humans are just so clever at making them up.” “Hmm, I didn’t appreciate how imaginatively we use them.” “Now,” Bernard leaned across to his satchel and pulled out a red plastic folder. “I can also show you some examples from people who’ve provided descriptions as part of our research.” He planted a loose page before



Monique and pointed out one passage. “Read here where I’ve underlined the gap-shifts”: All distractions had fallen away. I had a great sense of wholeness, of containment. There were no thoughts of past or present, no attachments or aversions. Only the delight of being now. My mind, body and breathe, one vibrant lightand-color filled whole.8

Monique read over the section then remarked thoughtfully, “Umm, I see you’ve underlined five gap-shifts. That’s quite a few in three sentences… And these were ordinary people?” “Yes; people who’d hardly ever talked about their encounters before.” He fumbled through the folder and pulled out another page. “Now read this bit”: Everything seemed to be so vibrant and alive, yet I felt as if I was drifting with it, or onto it, somehow I was part of this whole stillness – it seemed to be a stillness, as well as being a vibrant aliveness – I had no idea of time or event, but had every idea of an awareness that I was somehow motionlessly, silently yet vibrantly involved with.9

Monique raised her head up enquiringly. “It makes me wonder whether I might have used gap-shifts when I told you about my encounters?” “You certainly did; I noticed them.” Bernie smiled wryly. “Try telling me again something about those encounters.” “Ah.” She gazed blankly across the room. “When I think about my major spiritual moments, it leads back to the same understanding…” “… that they’re hard to describe?” “Well yes that’s true; but more than that. What I recall is that during those moments I feel as though the connection was meant to happen; as though the moment possesses a level of correctness and rightness that goes way beyond other forms of knowing.” “Rightness in itself?” he queried smiling. “Yes, a rightness that speaks directly to the soul.” “Okay, see… see how you adopted the words ‘correctness’ and ‘rightness’? Both are gap-shifts.” “Umm, yeah; they just seem the correct and right words to use,” she explained chuckling. “I dunno… You just have to use words like this; that’s why they’re so common.”



“Yes, they’re really common,” he muttered as he swapped back to his blue ring-binder and flipped through its pages. “Here, I found this description in the novel ‘The Magus’ by John Fowles.10 He put these words into the mouth of his main character… but I’m sure Fowles was describing one of his own encounters.” He handed the sheet over to Monique and explained, “Now, Jonella and I’ve gone through it and underlined all the gap-shifts and in two columns we’ve divided them into single or double gap-shifts and counted up all the embedded gaps.” Single Gap-shift I had the sense that this was the fundamental reality and that reality had a universal mouth to tell me so; no sense of divinity, of communion, of the brotherhood of man, of anything I had expected before I became suggestible. No pantheism, no humanism. But something much wider, cooler and more abstruse. That reality was endless interaction. No good, no evil; no beauty, no ugliness. No sympathy, no antipathy. But simply interaction. The endless solitude of the one, its total enislement from all else, seemed the same thing as the total interrelationship of the all. All opposites seemed one, because each was indispensable to each. The indifference and the indispensability of all seemed one. I suddenly knew, but in a new hitherto unexperienced sense of knowing, that all else exists. Knowing, willing, beingwise, being good, education, information, classification, knowledge of all kinds, sensibility, sexuality, these things seemed superficial. I had no desire to state or define or analyze this interaction, I simply wished to constitute it not even “wished to” - I constituted it. I was volitionless. There was no meaning. Only being. Number of gaps:

Double Gap-shift

– 2 1 1 – 1 1 2 2 1 2 – 1 – 1 – – 1 2 1 1 – – – 1

– – 1 – 1 – – 1 2 1 – – 2 – 1 – 2 2 1 2 – – 1 – 1



“Heck. That’s twenty-one singles, eighteen doubles, so altogether, fifty-nine potential gaps!” noted Monique. “Ah ha. But, when putting this together, Jonella and I did argue a bit over which ones were single and which ones were double gap-shifts. But,



as you can see, Fowles has used them fairly often; almost as though he’s throwing out strings of gaps which combine together into a net; a net with which he’s trying to catch hold of the imagination of the reader.” “So, as you’ve told me before, these gaps generate a vagueness that provokes the active participation of readers. In themselves they don’t mean much, but when readers fill them in with their minds, what he’s saying can be received as very meaningful.” “Yes, exactly… What the gap-shifts are actually referring to are left dangling, and this provides opportunities for receptive listeners to complete them with their own meanings.” “I’ve just thought of something,” muttered Monique as she hoisted her handbag up from the floor and pulled out a folded women’s magazine. “Sometimes, when I get bored at home, I like to have a cup of tea do the puzzles. And what you’re saying reminded me of those Spot-the-Difference puzzles.” She flipped through the pages at the back of the magazine. “Here look at this one.”

“When you play this game,” she continued, “you need to look backwards and forwards between the two pictures and work out what’s missing. Look there, the gun on the cactus on the right in the first picture is filled in, but in the second picture it’s missing… See? … Also, the gun of the cactus on the left sticks out but it’s missing in the second picture.” “Yeah, I see what you’re getting at. If we had only one picture these details would be inconsequential, but, when we compare the two, the missing bits take on a whole new significance.” Bernard sat back with a beaming smile and gazed quizzically at Monique. “Ah, you’ve really caught on to what this is about; what’s more, you’re now coming up with ideas I’d never even thought about.”



Monique chuckled and gently grasped his hands. “Ah, I’m really enjoying this now. It’s taken my mind off all those terrible hassles with my husband. I feel quite refreshed.” Bernard leant over and pulled a packet of peppermints from the side pocket of his satchel and offered them to Monique. She shook her head. He popped a peppermint into his mouth and grinned. “I guess he’s not likely to be your husband much longer, and I...” “But, hey,” she interrupted vigorously. “I just thought of something else. You could really play around with these gap-shifts; perhaps even use them to generate your own spiritual language.” “Help… slow down,” pleaded Bernard waving his hands. “You’re moving a bit too fast for me.” “No, no. Let’s give it a whirl. Let’s see if we can artificially manipulate a sentence so it sounds more mysterious, more spiritual.” She pulled his pad and pen over and picked up her magazine again and began searching through the articles on interior design. “Here’s an interesting statement: ‘Genuine solutions are based on simple, clear questions.’ Now, if I understand you correctly, we can place all these words into their grammatical slots according to your symbols.” She drew triangles, circles and arrows and placed the words into position.



“Good, you’ve put them all in their correct positions,” remarked Bernard as he leant across to study her drawing. “Now let’s shift them around… ‘genuine’ to an object word ‘genuineness’… ‘are based on’ to an adjective, ‘basic’ …” She gradually shifted all the words into new positions. “There,” she declared triumphantly. “Our new sentence reads: ‘A basic genuineness is revealed in clarity and simplicity’.” They both point and laugh at the new construction. “Oh Monique, it certainly sounds vague, and I’ve got absolutely no idea what it means. But if a holy-man said it, I’m sure that in my mind I’d be inserting lots of my own meanings, and then I’m sure it would come across to me as deeply profound.” “Look,” said Monique casting a piercing stare at Bernard. “I’m not trying to make fun of spiritual talk. It’s just interesting how these devices work. From now on, I’m certainly going to make a point of using them.” “Now, hold on, you need to take care,” cautioned Bernard. “Like with all these devices, you need to be careful not to overuse them. It’s similar to how we use medication: both medication and gap-shifts have a window of effectiveness, and when you use them too often, they tend to become too conspicuous and can end up losing their appeal. I’ll show you what I mean.” He pulled over his blue ring-binder and searched through its pages. “Here, I’ve underlined all the gap-shifts in this passage by a famous early writer on spirituality, Evelyn Underhill.” First, the manifested, flowing, evolving life of multiplicity: felt by you in its wonder and wholeness, once you learned to yield yourself to its rhythms, received in simplicity the life, the eternal and unconditioned Whole, transcending all succession: a world inaccessible alike to senses and intelligence, but felt – vaguely, darkly, yet intensely – by the quiet and surrendered consciousness11

“Now, I don’t know how it comes across to you,” said Bernard, “but for me I read it as too rich; she’s used too many gap-shifts and, to be honest, I find that rather off-putting.” “Hmm, maybe; but it still seems quite expressive to me.”



He flipped further into the ring-binder. “All right then, look at this passage by the occult writer Dion Fortune.” The affirmation of pure being, eternal, unchanging, without attributes or activities, underlying, maintaining, and conditioning all, is the primary formula of all magical working. It is only when the mind is imbued with the realization of this endless unchanging being of the utmost concentration and intensity that it can have any realization of limitless power. 12

“Okay, okay; I agree,” said Monique; “that’s a bit over-the-top. It’s like the gap-shifts have created so many empty slots that I’m forced to scramble around in my mind hunting for suitable insertions.” “Yeah, it’s too full of gaps, it’s too busy; it’s risking the patience of readers.” Monique smiled then leaned across to pick up her handbag. “Thanks Bernard. I’ve forgotten my woes for over an hour.” She stood up and combed her long hair back with her fingers. “But, alas, I must return. I look forward to continuing this discussion sometime next week.” She turned and trotted lightly toward the door.

Notes 1. Walt Whitman, Specimen Days (New York: New American Library, 1961) p. 161. 2. The effect of these grammatical shifts or “displacements” was developed by Donald Schon, Displacement of Concepts (London: Tavistock, 1963), and applied to metaphors by Richard Boyd, “Metaphor and theory change,” in A.  Ortony, ed., Metaphor and Thought, pp.  481–532 (Cambridge University Press, 2012). They argued that concepts displaced from familiar to ­unfamiliar contexts have both a “radical” function in generating novel perspectives and a “conservative” function in helping old concepts find new relevance. Although this general notion of displacement has some relevance to the current discussion, the concern here is focused more specifically on displacement as it occurs with grammatical positioning. 3. In the example provided by Bernard, identification of innovative grammatical shifts cannot be reliably identified by looking at the words as they occur in isolation from common usage. To recognize that a word has undergone a novel grammatical shift the listener needs to have an idea of the usual position from which the word has been shifted. Use of a word



like “loveableness” can only be understood as a novel shift if the listener is already familiar with its most common position as the doing word “loves.” 4. The labels chosen for the positions have been adapted from the Gentner’s cognitive psychology of mental models in Dedre Gentner, “Are scientific analogies metaphors?” in D. Miall, ed., Metaphor: Problems and Perspectives, pp.  106–32 (Sussex: Harvester Press, 1982) and D.  Gentner and A.  Markman, “Structure mapping in analogy and similarity,” American Psychologist (52;1, 45–56, 1997). 5. Arthur Koestler, Arrow in the Blue (London: Collins, 1952) p. 98. 6. Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh (op. cit.) p. 367. 7. See Chap. 2, Note 2 for cited examples of the use of these terms. 8. From Participant 18 in the study described in Chap. 15. 9. From Participant 2 in the second study described in Chap. 14. 10. John Fowles, The Magus (London: Jonathan Cape, 1977) pp. 238–9. 11. Evelyn Underhill, Practical Mysticism (London: Dent & Sons, 1919) p. 139. 12. Dion Fortune, The Mystical Qabalah (London: Ernest Benn, 1935) p. 302.


Gaps by Metaphor

Dorothy placed her coffee on the table and hung her suit-jacket over the back of the chair. “Whew, sure is hot out there this morning.” “Yes, maybe we’re in for a long, hot summer,” remarked Bernard as he watched her settle into her seat. “So, Dorothy, how’s it all going?” “Oh, all right, I suppose.” “That don’t sound too bright?” “No, I’m feeling unsettled… and I’m not quite sure why,” she sighed. “I mean, don’t get me wrong, everything in my life is going fine: my work, my home, my marriage, my finances… But, Bernie, and I know I can tell you this, I feel I’m going through the motions without any clear purpose.” She emptied a sachet of sugar into her coffee and stirred it in. “I think maybe our discussions could have had something to do with it.” “Well then, we’ll have to stop having them,” suggested Bernard with a mischievous smile. Dorothy laughed. “Don’t be silly. I find them most stimulating.” She raised her cup and took a first careful sip. “In fact, I’ve been thinking about those devices we discussed for generating expressive vagueness.” “Hmm. Actually, there’s one device we haven’t talked about. It’s perhaps the most obvious and familiar of all the little devices… and that’s the use of metaphors.” “Umm, yes, I’ve been wondering when you’d get around to them. To my mind metaphor is the most common device.” She took another couple of sips from her raised cup. “I’m aware of us using them all the time. I hear © The Author(s) 2020 P. J. Adams, How to Talk About Spiritual Encounters,




them commonly in conversations with friends: when they talk about ‘dying of fright’, or, ‘shooting down to the shops’, or, ‘flying around a corner’, or, ‘descending into a depression’… or, ‘being angry enough to explode’.”1 “Hah, yes; imagine if you really did explode?” “Yes, it’d be fairly messy.” She took another sip then lowered her cup to the table. “But, as you know, talking this way does not of course literally mean you’re going to ‘die’, ‘shoot’, ‘fly’, ‘descend’ or ‘explode’. We know this… We know these aren’t meant in any literal way.” She wiped her lips with a serviette. “You know, Bernie, for a long time I’ve taken a strong interest in how we use them in our everyday life, and I think a metaphor works by comparing one thing with another in a way that evokes an image or the impression of an explanatory similarity.” “You’re surely right, Dorothy. We do use them all the time; they help us communicate and explain things,” acknowledged Bernard authoritatively. “Like sometimes I notice them when people talk as though minds operate similar to a machine; as when they say things like, ‘His cogs aren’t turning at this time in the morning,’ or, ‘She’s a little rusty at solving puzzles’.” “Um, yes. Similarly, I’ve heard people talking of attention as though it’s a radio receiver, like when they say things such as, ‘She just tuned out of the debate’, or, one I particularly dislike, ‘we must keep all channels open’.” “And I remember when I worked as a doctor how I’d often use them to explain complex things to patients; for example, I’d liken the immune system to a military system and refer to processes such as, ‘Building up a wall of defense’, or, ‘Fighting off hostile infections’.”2 “Same with accounting,” said Dorothy. “I’d often use pressure or fluid metaphors to explain mortgage fluctuations by saying things like, ‘Pressure in the housing market’, or ‘The interest rate bubble is about to burst’.” Bernard smiled as he looked down and studied the froth patterns in his coffee. “That reminds me of how my physics teacher loved spatial metaphors.3 One moment he’d be talking of light travelling like particles and the next it was travelling like waves. And as for electricity, sometimes he spoke of it moving like flowing water in a pipe and next moment it was like a teeming crowd in a street.”4 “Yeah, yeah, same with those who specialize in studying people,” remarked Dorothy as she stirred more sugar into her coffee. “I once went to this staff training session with this psychologist who kept talking about



‘personal space’ and ‘emotional distance’ and ‘close attachments’. The spatial imagery she drew on was extraordinary, and unrelenting.” “Don’t get me started on psychologists,” groaned Bernard. “But, yes, they draw on a massive arsenal of metaphors. At times they talk of the mind as some sort of container, like when they talk of, ‘memory capacity’, or, ‘perceptual defense’, or, ‘inner experience’.” “Hmm, they also turn consciousness into some sort of light display by talking of, ‘mental imagery’, or, ‘projection of feelings’, or, ‘self-reflection’.”5 “Yeah, yeah, it’s rife,” laughed Bernard. He sat up straight in his chair and gazed earnestly across at Dorothy. “Okay, now this rich use of metaphors is particularly strong when people try to describe their spiritual encounters.” He reached over to his satchel for his glasses and tatty blue ring-binder then began flipping through its pages. “Now, let me see… here’s a brief section by one of my favorite poets, W. B. Yeats.” There had swept over me a sense of weakness, of dependence on a great personal Being somewhere far off yet near at hand.6

Bernard glanced up directly at Dorothy. “Here he’s managed to slip in a range of gap-provoking devices, like generalized references, ‘somewhere far off’, and gap-shifts, ‘Being’, ‘dependence’, but what most interests me is the way he’s used metaphors to suggest to readers what they might insert into these gaps. For example, he’s repeatedly used words which hint at spatial relationships: ‘swept over’, ‘dependence on’, ‘somewhere far off’, ‘near at hand’. These suggest that something about the way objects behave in space reflects some aspect of what he’s talking about.” “Hmm, when you speak of it like that,” remarked Dorothy nodding, “I can hear in it several layers of association that seem to be beckoning my imagination to join in.” “Yes, that’s it. The metaphors act like an invitation for you to engage imaginatively with what is being said.” “And, I suppose, when it comes to describing spiritual encounters, we draw on all sorts of metaphors.” “Actually, Jonella and I have looking into just that,” stated Bernard leaning slightly forward; “and we’ve grouped them into six general varieties or clusters of metaphor.”7 “Only six; I thought they’d be a lot more.”



“No, these are just very general groupings,” clarified Bernard. “First off, spatial metaphors; these are popular because they’re simple, concrete and easily grasped. They can be identified by the way they draw on the primary features of spatial relationships such as ‘territory’, ‘depth’, ‘boundaries’, ‘containers’, ‘platforms’, ‘worlds’ and so on. An example would be how people sometimes talk of entering into a new realm, as in, ‘I passed beyond ordinary reality into a new awareness’.” “Yeah, I’ve heard people in my church talk that way.” “A second cluster draws on features associated with the passage of time. We’ve called these ‘temporal metaphors.’ You know, those that mention ‘time’, ‘change’, ‘causality’, ‘transition’ and so on; as when someone might talk about, ‘the eternal Whole, transcending all succession’.” Dorothy wrinkled up her forehead as though adding up a series of numbers. “I guess temporal and spatial metaphors also tend to overlap, as when we talk about ‘trapped in the moment’ or ‘life lines’.” “Just so. And a third cluster is what we’ve labelled ‘logical metaphors’. I include here not just logical functions like addition and negation but also numeric concepts, like ‘unity’, ‘oneness’ and ‘duality’, along with super-­ logical functions like ‘being’ and ‘existence’.”8 “Yeah, I’ve already seen these commonly used in the descriptions we’ve looked at earlier.” “The next cluster we’ve called ‘behavioral metaphors’ because they draw on the behavior of living organisms. Its variants include basic concepts like ‘growth’ and ‘movement’, as used in a statement like ‘the earth stood still for a moment’; or they may refer more to what animals can do, like ‘leaping’, ‘standing’, or, ‘inheriting’, as in, ‘The whole night danced about me’. Or they may refer specifically to complex human behaviors like ‘driving’, ‘justifying’, or, ‘loving’, as when someone says, ‘It felt like a self-­ validating, self-justifying moment’.” “I see, so they transpose simple everyday behaviors onto something more complex.” “Yes, and, in doing so, they also evoke particular images,” said Bernard taking another sip of his coffee. “Now, a fifth cluster we’ve named ‘relational metaphors’ because they refer to the diverse ways in which people interrelate. This includes how we live in the world, as with ‘dependence’ and ‘possession’; you know, as when someone says, ‘an overwhelming sense possessed me’. Alternatively, some of them refer to the way societies are organized as in ‘hierarchies’, ‘superiority’, or, ‘dominance’, as when someone talks of, ‘Being completely enslaved to the will of God’.”



“Well that seems to me to draw more on military relationships as in, ‘Giving over to a more complete surrender’,” commented Dorothy, smiling playfully. “I can see this cluster linking strongly with another cluster, behavioral metaphors, because they both rely on observations of how people behave and interact.” “Yeah, you’re right. They are sometimes hard to tell apart,” conceded Bernard. “I’ll have to speak with Jonella more about that.” He shook his head and tapped the side of his cup with his finger. “Now, metaphors in the final cluster are very broad; we’ve opted to call them ‘experiential metaphors’. They draw on common understandings of conscious processes. Some refer to sensory processes using words like ‘clarity’, ‘taste’, ‘noiselessness’, others refer more to thinking processes using words like, ‘dreaming’, ‘awareness’, ‘remembering’, and still others refer to emotional processes like ‘love’, ‘awe’, and ‘joy’.” “I guess when we come to talking about spirituality,” remarked Dorothy; “we’re likely to make heavy use of experiential metaphors because of the highly experiential and inward nature of these encounters.” She glanced up toward the ceiling. “Come to think of it, you’d expect all these clusters of metaphors to find their way into spirituality-talk.” “Yes. I’d agree. People’s descriptions typically include a rich mix of metaphors.” He pulled over the blue ring-binder and flipped quickly through its pages. “Here, this one; this description is by the German Buddhist Lama, Anagarika Govinda.” I only felt that there was something about the surface of this wall that held my attention, as if it were a fascinating landscape. But no, it was far from suggesting a landscape. These apparently accidental forms were related to each other in some mysterious way; they grew more and more plastic and coherent. Their outlines became clearly defined and raised from the background... the transformation which took place on the surface of the wall was as natural and convincing as if I had watched an invisible sculptor in the creation of a life-size relief. The only difference was that the invisible sculptor worked from within his material and in all places at the same time.9

“Hear that?” queried Bernard. “Govinda starts out talking of ‘walls’, then moves onto ‘landscape’, then ‘form’, ‘transformation’, ‘sculpture’, and finally onto an ‘invisible sculpture’ working inside the surface of the wall.”



“Hmm, yeah; what a mix! The images jostle around playfully in your mind… but they also appear to be converging on the same impression… An impression that suggests familiar objects can be seen in different ways.” “Yes, I see that too. And I think this is central to what metaphors achieve in these descriptions. They seem to me to suggest that, behind the reality of everyday objects, there’s another not-so-easily-accessed reality.” “Like an extra-ordinary reality?” propose Dorothy tentatively. “Yes, it seems to me that these metaphors by-and-large contrast objects in the world as ordinarily experienced—an ordinary reality—with access to a different sort of reality—as you call it, an extra-ordinary reality. Now let’s have a look at some other examples. Here’s one by the Chinese thinker, Chang Chung-yuan”: “Flowers are red and not red; willows are green and yet not green”... [this] statement involves both affirmation and negation, but they are not contradictory to one another. It helps us, rather, to enter the realm of absolute reality, because in this realm there is no need for the process of rational analysis or discursive thinking... It is by such simple steps that we enter into and unlock the nature of boundless infinitude, thus losing our ego-selves.10

“Ah ha,” grunted Dorothy enthusiastically. “His talk of ‘realms’ and ‘steps’ conjures up in my mind images of a person moving out of the constraints of everyday life and entering a new context where these constraints no longer apply.” “Yes, again, he conveys a kind of journey from one world to another,” suggested Bernard staring with equal enthusiasm back at Dorothy. “Has your spiritual awareness ever seemed like that?” “Yes, I suppose it has, particularly when, as a teenager, I was first becoming aware of spiritual concerns. It felt like a new world was opening out before me.” “New world? How do you mean?” Bernard prompted gently. “It was of course the same world: the same house, the same garden, the same table, the same bed; they were as solid as ever. But, somehow, I was looking at them differently… And it was within this difference that I gazed out on a new horizon. At first, I was unsure of the new terrain; I didn’t know what I was encountering, nor how to speak about it. Things seemed strangely different and a little scary. But slowly I travelled more confidently, and lately, thanks to you, I’m progressing in leaps and bounds.”



“Hmm, I’ve heard other people talk of this ‘journey’ as similar to travelling down a stream.” He shuffled through the ring-binder. “Here, listen to this description by Joel Goldsmith”: Once we are united with our Source, we discover that our life is really the life of the Life-stream, the life of the Source of life which is now flowing as our life. We are being fed by the Stream, by the Waters falling from the clouds above, by a Source greater than ourselves which is now flowing as our life.11

“Hmm, that’s nice,” remarked Dorothy. “He’s talking of ordinary reality becoming part of ‘the Life-stream’ which is flowing from the extra-­ ordinary reality of ‘the Source’.” “Hmm, and, have a listen to this other description by the American poet, Kenneth Patchen”: Sometimes I think that every man’s life has a meaning in a greater life which is being lived by a single creature whose nerves and cells and tissues we are. Just as there is no star, but stars; no tree, but trees; no brook or hill or sea which exists alone from all others of its kind; no road, but roads whose direction is everywhere; just as there is no pain or joy or fear which has not been felt by all of us; so must there forever be no man, but men whose lives cross and recross in a majestic pattern, unknowing, unstained, and beautiful, therefore, beyond comprehension. We are, to put it another way, cells in the brain of God.12

“Ah, in this one,” observed Dorothy, “Patchen’s using a kind of organic part-whole metaphor. He’s describing how all humans, including himself, maintain ongoing relationships with the objects of ordinary reality, and, at the same time, how these objects are participating as parts of a greater organism; a unified and interconnected extra-ordinary reality.” “I agree,” nodded Bernard; “and others use the vastness of the ocean to capture this part-whole interconnectedness. Have a listen to this by the Scottish author, George MacDonald.” I was a peaceful ocean upon which the ground swell of a living joy was continually lifting new waves; yet was the joy ever the same joy, the eternal joy, with tens of thousands of changing forms. 13



“That reminds me of when I first became spiritually aware,” stated Dorothy. “I guess as I became more tuned into this spiritual world it was like I was waking up from a deep sleep. Prior to then I was sleep-walking; I was moving around objects, living my life, functioning quite well, but at the same time I wasn’t really seeing things. I was missing out on all the true meanings.” Bernard smiled warmly across at his dear friend. “Sort of… sort of going through the motions without any particular purpose?” “Yeah, a bit like that. As I awoke to this new way of seeing, I started to see my own experience as no longer separated or alone. It’s funny, Bernie, I don’t really know how to describe it, but it’s like my little zone of awareness is a small part—a minor expression—of some bigger form of awareness. Sure, I have a sense of the insignificance of my experience, but it’s more empowering… like my experience matters because it expresses or… or is a manifestation this greater awareness.” She sat up and glanced across the café. “Gosh I’m all steamed up. That coffee was rather strong. Please excuse me; I’ve something to attend to.” Bernard watched Dorothy weave her way urgently toward the restrooms. He felt conflicted over whether to continue exploring Dorothy’s initial comments regarding her general uneasiness with life or whether to continue their lively discussion about metaphors. Perhaps her general worries are only a passing phase? But it is interesting that several of her examples of metaphor relate to her current challenges. Maybe he could point that out… “That’s much better,” declared Dorothy as she resumed her seat. So, tell me Bernie, how do you think metaphors work the way they do?” “Phew, well that’s a big question.” He leant back in his seat and looked out at the sunlight baking the pavements. “But I can tell you a bit about how people have been studying them. First, you need to be aware that there’s already a massive literature on metaphors,14 which is understandable because of the wide range of flexible ways in which they can be used. On top of this, lots of people have come up with theories about how they work. There are now several schools of thought, ranging from those who see them as merely ornamental to those who see them as drawing on fundamental models that frame how we think. I get lost following all the variants within each school.”15 “So what school do you favor?” “Well, I subscribe to the view that metaphors exploit some form of congruence between what is said and what is intended.16 What matters is the way metaphors map one arrangement of objects onto another arrangement.” “Ah, I’m not with you. You’ll have to give me some examples.”



“Okay. Let’s say a preacher says to his congregation: ‘Life is a long journey towards our ultimate destination.’” “Yeah, he’s talking as though a lifespan can be thought of as resembling a journey. That’s reasonable because both share particular qualities, such as having a beginning and an end, and they both involve encountering difficulties on the way. I suppose that’s what you mean by congruence?” “Sort of… Congruence requires you to make conceptual leaps in your mind that match one set of objects with another set of objects.” Dorothy continued to stare across at him with a confused expression. “Okay, but…” “Ah, perhaps I need to illustrate this. You remember the symbols we used for looking at grammatical positions?” “Yeah, you mean those ones we used to explain gap-shifts?” “Yes, well they can also be used to look at how metaphors operate.” He put on his glasses then pulled out a pen and a pad from his satchel. “Now, imagine a political journalist stating, ‘Those who handle our economy are the high priests of our age’.” “Well, as an accountant, I can’t help but agree; though I’ve learnt through bitter experience that many of those economists are prone to talking gibberish.” Bernard smiled then picked up his pen and placed its end casually between his lips. He looked vaguely across the room then bent over and drew two circles with a double-arrowed line between them.

He put his pen down and glanced across at Dorothy. “Now, the main object words in the sentence are ‘economists’ and ‘high priests’. So, you might think the metaphor merely links or draws on a similarity between the two?”



Dorothy nodded. “But if it was simply a matter of similarities, this would not explain the expressive power of metaphor; by that I mean the power they have to stimulate the imagination into forming all sorts of associations.” He stared intensely across at Dorothy, then began drawing a new set of circles and lines. “What’s important here is that by referring to ‘economists’ the journalist is at the same time referring to the complex of relationships that surround ‘economists’; relationships with manufacturers, consumers, clients, money exchange, the market and modern society. Similarly, the term ‘high priests’ indirectly references relationships to surrounding objects such as worshipers, traditional practices, temples and primitive society… see how some of this fits together?” “Yeah, I can see how words like that bring with them all these linkages.” “And that’s what metaphors do… They don’t just involve the simple matching of objects, but, more importantly, they involve matching the relationships between objects.” He scribbled out his previous diagram and below it began drawing out a new arrangement. “See, with metaphors, what your mind does is to recognize a similarity between the arrangements of objects.”



“I see what you’re getting at,” claimed Dorothy hesitantly. “So, the metaphor invites us to explore the parallels between the economist-client and the high priest-worshiper, as well as similarities between economist-­ modern society and high priest-primitive society, and so on.”17 “Yes, you are in fact at liberty to track through any number of these suggested relationships; perhaps even to pursue a trail of ideas that the journalist never fully intended. For example, you could end up imagining the slightly disturbing parallel between stock exchanges and temples of worship.” “Well, that is disturbing; although ritual sacrifice and a little blood-­ letting are not unheard of,” added Dorothy smiling. “And so, metaphors invite your imagination to extend what is being described into new territories. And with spiritual encounters, this capacity for extending or extrapolating can be used to provoke receptive listeners into pursuing their own trails of possible meanings and associations.” “Okay, okay; I know what you’re going to say next: they create gaps!” “Precisely.” “Funny, I wondered when you’d get onto this,” teased Dorothy. “No, no. They really do create gaps,” insisted Bernard looking flustered. “Look, I’ll show you how.” He leant over and turned the pad to a blank page. “Let’s just say a politician was to proclaim: ‘Knowledge is the key!’” “Now, the word ‘key’ implies ‘door’, which in turn implies ‘opening onto something’; but notice how in this sentence the ‘something’ which knowledge ‘opens onto’ has not been specified. The politician may have well said…” Knowledge opens onto ______________!

“Yeah, I get it,” said Dorothy. “What ‘knowledge’ as the ‘key’ opens ‘onto’ hangs unspecified in the metaphor and dangles like bait before a hungry fish, tempting listeners to fill the gap by implanting their own meanings and understandings.”



Bernard smiled, unsure whether Dorothy was parodying him. “Yes, and this gap-provoking capacity for metaphors is…” “… but, but,” interrupted Dorothy; “but we usually use metaphors in science and medicine to help clarify things, not obscure them. I mean, when a doctor speaks of…” “… no, as I said before, I don’t see the vagueness of spiritual language as obscuring for receptive listeners. That’s certainly not the way it comes across to them.” Dorothy looked doubtful. “Okay, I’m not explaining this well.” He scratched the side of his chin. “I think I’ll illustrate all this with two simple metaphors that are common in these descriptions: the first has to do with light and the second to do with depth.” Bernard returned to browsing through his blue ring-binder. “Ah, first, have a read of how light is used here by Henri Nouwen”: I am already awed by the immense greatness of God’s love appearing in my world. Without the radiant beam of light shining into the darkness there is little to be seen.18

“Yes, I like reading Nouwen’s spiritual writings,” remarked Dorothy. “And elsewhere I’ve run into him talking of God’s love as a ‘radiant beam of light’.” Bernard flipped further pages. “Here’s another example by Genevieve Foster”: There was light everywhere. It was the end of March, and everywhere outdoors shrubs were in flower, and indoors and out, the world was flooded with light, the supernal light that so many of the mystics describe and a few of the poets.19

“Hmm, ‘flooded with supernal light’,” repeated Dorothy. Bernard pulled over his pad and flipped to a blank sheet then began drawing an image of the sun and the outline of a person. “Now see here”:



“See how the person connects to objects in the world via reflected light, but, at the same time, this light originates as pure light from a definite source. So, the person is both seeing the objects and, in an indirect sense, ‘seeing’ the source as well.” “You mean,” clarified Dorothy, “the person’s connection to ordinary objects are mediated and connected by the transmission of light.” “Yes, so using the distinction we talked about earlier between ordinary reality and extra-ordinary reality…” He moved his pen down the page and drew another set of circles and arrows. “There, the configuration looks something like”:



“Okay, Dorothy, now look at how the two arrangements map onto each other.” “Yeah, I can see how reflected light corresponds to ordinary reality… and pure light corresponds to some sense of an extra-ordinary reality… and by extension the light source… Well, it corresponds to something unspecified… perhaps to an all-powerful, unitary something-great-but-­ inexpressible source of all reality.” They both laughed. Bernard peered over the rim of his glasses. “Hmm, that might be your take on it, but because it remains unspecified, the nature of the source hangs suspended waiting for responsive listeners to fill the gap with ‘God’, ‘Allah’, ‘Life-force’, ‘Higher Power’, ‘Nature’ or whatever they believe in.” “Okay, okay, I can see how something unspecified is implied. But it might only be a feature of that particular metaphor.” “Well then, let’s look at another common example; one that uses the concept of ‘depth’ to depict this relationship.” He pulled over the blue ring-binder and selected a page. “Here, listen to this one by the theologian Paul Tillich.”



It [the psychology of depth] leads us from the surface of our self-knowledge into levels where things are recorded which we knew nothing about on the surface of our consciousness ... It can help us to find the way into our depth, although it cannot help us in an ultimate way, because it cannot guide us to the deepest ground of our being and of all being, the depth of life itself.20

Dorothy gazed blankly across the room. “Hmmm…. I see his use of ‘surface’ to represent ordinary reality and ‘depth’ to represent something else.” “Yes, and the relationship between the two can be characterized by words like ‘emerging’, ‘absorbing’, ‘interfusing’, ‘permeating’…” “… and by ‘plunging’, ‘fathoming’, ‘underlying’,” added Dorothy. “Yes,” agreed Bernard as he flipped over further pages. “And have a listen to it in this passage by Thomas Merton.” I know and have seen what I was obscurely looking for. I don’t know what else remains but I have now seen and have pierced through the surface and have got beyond the shadow and the disguise.21

Dorothy looked thoughtfully down at the table. “This surface-­ appearance comparison points out that, while most the time we only focus on how things appear on the surface, occasionally we see through and can penetrate into the depths… It’s almost suggesting that during our spiritual awareness we can penetrate deeper and deeper through the underlying reality and perhaps eventually discover at depth an extra-ordinary reality.” “Yes,” agreed Bernard as he reached for his pad then flipped to a blank sheet. “All this stimulates your imagination to explore the complexity of the suggested links.” He began drawing the rough outline of a person and a series of lines. “Now, imagine this is you looking out from a wharf across a stretch of water”:



He drew five dotted lines radiating out from the person. “Okay, so when you look out across the water you can potentially make five connections: one connection with the air, which you can see through, one with the surface of the water, one with the shallow water, which you might be able to see into, another with the deep water, which you can’t see, and then the bottom, which you probably can’t see either.” “Yeah, I can follow all that.” “So, each of these connections could form the base for a wide range of metaphoric references: you could talk of the difficulties in seeing beyond the surface into the depths beneath; you could describe the meaning of the varying levels of depth; you could focus on the importance of the solidly unified base that underlies the depth”: “Yes, and you could talk of the deep currents flowing beneath the shallow layers.”



“Good one. So, if we put this into a diagram…” He moved down the page and drew out another set of circles and arrows, “the objects involved might be arranged like this”: “I see,” commented Dorothy. “Each of these objects map onto each other, and as you move towards the less visible—the less specified—they turn into empty spaces; spaces which you can interpret in your own way.” “Yes, what might be meant by ‘deep water’ or ‘bottom’ remains unspecified, and they become sites where receptive listeners might insert their own content.” “Hmm, I see now how metaphors unleash powerful responses in the minds of receptive listeners,” she said, leaning forward as though she was about to stand. “I really must start making more use of them.” “But, remember, as we discussed with the other devices, you need to use them sparingly. You might risk overcooking with them.” Bernard rummaged through his ring-binder. “Read through this passage by an Indian guru, Paramahansa Yogananda.”



The divine dispersion of rays poured from an Eternal Source, blazing into galaxies, transfigured with ineffable auras. Again and again I saw the creative beams condense into constellations, then resolve into sheets of transparent flame... Irradiating splendor issued from my nucleus to every part of the universal structure... The creative voice of God I heard resounding as Aum, the vibration of the Cosmic Motor.22

“Huh, ‘eternal Source’, ‘universal structure’, and as for ‘cosmic motor’… That’s a whole conglomeration of metaphors,” complained Dorothy as she leant forward, pushed with her hands and stood up. “He’s taken it a bit far. Perhaps he was hedging his bets and hoping to hook in every possible reader.” She moved behind his chair, pulled up her suit-­ jacket then slid it on and adjusted it into position. “On that note, I’m now well and truly due back in the office. See you next Thursday.”

Notes 1. This everyday use of metaphors was championed by George Lakoff and colleagues in G. Lakoff and M. Johnson, Metaphors We Live By (University of Chicago Press, 1979), G. Lakoff, Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things (University of Chicago Press, 1987) and G. Lakoff and M. Turner, More Than Cool Reason (University of Chicago Press, 1989). 2. Study on the medical uses of metaphor have generated considerable interest as described in books such as Geraldine van Rijn-van Tongeren, Metaphors in Medical Texts (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1997) and Alan Bleakley, Thinking with Metaphors in Medicine (London: Routledge, 2017). 3. Many writers have documented the common use of metaphors in disciplines such as physics, chemistry and engineering. See E. MacCormac and T. Brown, Making Truth: Metaphor in Science (University of Illinois Press, 2003) and Paul Feyerabend, The Tyranny of Science (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2011). 4. An interesting analysis of metaphors used in thinking about electricity can be found in D. Gentner and D. R. Gentner, “Flowing waters or teeming crowds: Mental models of electricity,” in D. Gentner and A. Stevens, eds., Mental Models, pp. 99–130 (New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum, 1983) and on causality in Günter Radden, “Spatial metaphors underlying prepositions of causality,” in W.  Paprotte and W.  Dirven, eds., The Ubiquity of Metaphor, pp. 177–208 (Amsterdam: John Benjamins, 1985). 5. Psychology and other social sciences are rich in metaphorical references which have been the study of rhetoricians in works such as D. Gentner and J. Grudin, “The evolution of mental metaphors in psychology” American



Psychologist (40;2, 181–92, 1985) and John Soyland, Psychology as Metaphor (London: Sage Publications, 1994). 6. W.  B. Yeats, The Celtic Twilight (New York: New American Library, 1962) p. 79. 7. These categories of metaphor need to be viewed as gross categories. Metaphors by their very nature change and vary, their meanings can overlap and their intended references are often ambiguous. Consequently, this list should not be seen as a basis for any fixed or accurate taxonomy of metaphors of spirituality. Instead, their purpose is to provide a rough way of grouping general tendencies. 8. Traditional metaphysicians view “logic” in a much broader sense than processes associated with rational and deductive reasoning. This broader sense of logic is clearly adopted by thinkers such as Immanuel Kant, G. W. F. Hegel and Martin Heidegger. 9. Lama Govinda, The Way of the White Clouds (London: Rider, 1966) p. 48. 10. Chang Chung-Yuan, Creativity and Taoism (London: Wildwood House, 1963) p. 93. 11. Joel Goldsmith, A Parenthesis in Eternity (New York: Harper & Row, 1963) p. 51. 12. Kenneth Patchen, They Keep Riding Down All the Time (New York: Padell, 1946) p. 17. 13. George MacDonald, The Visionary Novels of George Macdonald (New York: Noonday, 1954) p. 251. 14. Summaries of the literature on metaphor can be found in Eva Kittay, Metaphor: Its Cognitive Force and Linguistic Structure (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1987), Denis Donoghue, Metaphor (Harvard University Press, 2014) and L. David Ritchie, Metaphor (Cambridge University Press, 2013). 15. Most explanations of how metaphors work can be clustered as variations of three basic theories: substitution, comparison and conceptual theories. Substitution theorists argue that they are employed to add variety or color to a sentence; see Don Swanson, “Toward a psychology of metaphor,” in S. Sacks, ed., On Metaphor, pp. 161–64 (The University of Chicago Press, 1979). Alternatively, comparison theorists argued in favor of some conceptual recognition of similarity between the presented term and what is being referenced; see Paul Ricoeur, “Creativity in language: Word, polysemy, metaphor,” Philosophy Today (17;2, 97–111, 1973). Conceptual theorists argued that the mind is actively involved in mapping arrangements of objects; see Antonio Barcelona, ed., Metaphor and Metonymy at the Crossroads (Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter, 2000). More on this perspective later. 16. The term “congruence” between a complex of relations has been adopted here but other similar concepts have been applied such as “coherence,” Lakoff and Johnson (op. cit.), and “isomorphic similarity,” David Gordon, Therapeutic Metaphors (California: Meta Publications, 1978).



17. In the light of these complex interconnections, Gordon (ibid.) has proposed the notion of isomorphy—or structural rather than semantic similarity—to explain this process. A word used metaphorically references itself in relationship to other objects, and these are then contrasted in a comparison mapping, one relationship against the other, to produce, if successful, a new and irreducible way of viewing the original subject. The idea of metaphoric isomorphy has been further developed by D.  Gentner and A.  Markman, Structure mapping in analogy and similarity, American Psychologist (52;1, 45–56, 1997), and Eric Steinhart, The Logic of Metaphor (Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic, 2001). 18. Henri Nouwen, The Genesee Diary (New York: Doubleday, 1976) p. 191. 19. Genevieve Foster, The World Was Flooded with Light (University of Pittsburgh Press, 1985) p. 43. 20. Paul Tillich, The Shaking of the Foundations (Middlesex: Penguin Books, 1949) p. 63. 21. Thomas Merton, The Asian Journal of Thomas Merton (New York: New Direction Books, 1975) p. 236. 22. Paramahansa Yogananda, Autobiography of a Yogi (Los Angeles: California Self Realization Fellowship, 1946) p. 168.


Gaps by Marking

Monique collapsed triumphantly into the chair opposite Bernard. “You know what? Yesterday something special, something really spiritual happened to me which I’ve never experienced before.” “That’s great Monique. You’ve been looking out for this for ages. Tell me about it.” She paused. “I was waiting for a bus coming home from yoga last night.” Again, she paused. “The moon was up there,” she pointed upwards, “and the clouds were passing across it,” she motioned sideways with her hands, “but, strangely, it seemed like the clouds were fixed and the earth and the moon were the things moving; like they were moving in tight formation.” “I feel like that sometimes when I lie on my back and watch the clouds moving across the sky.” “It was the earth moving.” She resumed the motion of her hands. “Everything was moving.” She paused and raises her eyebrows. “Everything is movement. Everything is…” again she paused, stared intensely at Bernard, then, speaking with clipped pauses between each word, she stated, “I’ve never seen things this way before, never. But at that moment,” she raised her hands upwards; “I felt everything… I mean everything was part of a… a never-ending flux.” “Hmm, I like the way you’re talking about that experience. It’s very evocative. It reminds me of what others have described.” Bernard leant

© The Author(s) 2020 P. J. Adams, How to Talk About Spiritual Encounters,




over to his satchel and pulled out his glasses and the tatty blue ring-binder. “I know just the passage… It’s by that Eastern mystic, Da Free John”: I cannot consider the very existence of anything and everything without developing a thrill in my back and head, so that it feels as if my hair is about to stand on end. We do not know what even a single thing is, or where it is, or when it is, or how it came to be. We are confronted by an irreducible Mystery, and that Mystery is profound. If you will truly consider, even for a moment, the matter of paradox of the existence of anything whatsoever, you will feel intuitively in touch with the Mystery that is Reality Itself. The mind falls away in that moment, and even though you will not have come up with any “knowing” explanations of the world, you will enjoy a tacit sense of Communion with the Living Reality of the world and of your own mind and body.1

“Well, what he says seems to make use of…” Monique gazed into space as she grappled for the right words. “Well, he certainly uses fairly vague and open concepts.” “Maybe, but look more closely at how he’s phrased things,” encouraged Bernard peering over the rim of his glasses. “Notice how many of the key words have been presented with some form of emphasis.” He bent forward to examine the passage again. “Look, he doesn’t just say ‘not a thing’ or ‘anything’, but, he says ‘not even a single thing’ and ‘anything whatsoever’.” He looked up over his glasses again to check on Monique’s reaction. “See those extra words? Why are they there? What role do you think they play?” He glanced back down at the folder and turned it partially to face Monique. He started pointing out to her specific parts of the description. “Look here, instead of simply referring to ‘a mystery’ or ‘a reality,’ he talks of ‘an irreducible Mystery’ and ‘Reality Itself’… And over here, ‘the Living Reality’… See what he’s done?” “Yeah, I see,” replied Monique looking a little perplexed. “But surely that’s his writing style. He’s included those words as a flowery way of talking.” “Hmm, perhaps… But he’s also included some other curious features,” continued Bernard pointing again at parts of the page. “Look here, instead of simply saying ‘knowing’, he refers with inverted commas suggestively to a “knowing”. Also, look at all these capitals; here, here, here and here.



Take this one, why does he talk of Communion with a capital ‘C’ rather than a small ‘c’? Why’s he doing this?” “Gosh, I don’t know. I guess I’ve never thought about it. Is it really that important?” “What I’d argue is that these additional words and quirky textual changes play quite an important role in how we talk about spirituality. Jonella and I see them as ways of emphasizing key words in a description and, accordingly, we’ve decided to call this device ‘marking’. They mark key words in special ways.” “Hmm, I must admit, now you’ve pointed them out, he has used quite a few of them.” “And he hasn’t done so for no reason.” Bernard took his glasses off then gazed across at Monique. “Just as you did a little earlier when you talked about what happened as you stood in the moonlight. For instance, you put extra emphasis on words like ‘is’ and ‘never’.” “Did I?” queried Monique. “Hmm, yeah, I suppose I did… So, marking is a device where particular words and phrases are singled out or given special emphasis.2 But we do that all the time, not just in talking about spirituality.” Bernard nodded, put his glasses back on then pointed across to an empty table. “Monique, would you mind grabbing that newspaper behind you?” She passed it to him and watched him with curiosity as he shuffled through its pages. Strangely, he seemed to be concentrating more on the advertisements than the articles. “Monique, take a look at how emphasis is used in the wording in this ad.” He placed the paper on the table, turned it at an angle and pointed to the center of a large advertisement. CORFU The Fabulous Jean Pure fashion jeans With a fabulous fit.

Bernard looked up. “Okay, now notice how some words are in capitals, and how one word is bolded… And see how they are not just a pair of jeans, but ‘The Fabulous Jean’. What does the word ‘Fabulous’ mean here?” “I guess it suggests the jeans are special,” Monique vaguely muttered. “Have a look at these two ads on the side of this page”:



CAREFREE TAMPONS Simply no better protection Carefree tampons are perfect for your active, energetic lifestyle. WEIL Paris Natural Woman, Delicate and Soft, Delightfully feminine. To you, Weil dedicated ANTILOPE A deep, floral Parfum de Toilette

“As you can see, they’re using several types of marking.” He ran his index finger across the page and pointed to the emphasized words. “But I would group these varieties of marking into two main types: the first type is what I’d call ‘analogue marking’.” Monique shifted uncomfortably in her chair. “Ah Monique, but it’s not complicated,” reassured Bernard. “This simply involves over-laying or superimposing forms of emphasis like using capital letters—as with ‘Natural Woman, Delicate and Soft’—or changing typefaces—as with ‘ANTILOPE’.” He leant sideways and took a quick sip of his coffee. “Other forms of analogue marking common in ads include changes in color, size, orientation, background… Anything that makes you read a word slightly differently.” “Yeah, I can see them. I don’t understand their function, but I can see them. So, what’s the second type?” “Well the second type of marking is what Jonella and I have decided to call ‘binary opposition marking’; they involve…” “Oh, now, come on,” interrupted Monique. “A ‘binary’ what? That sounds far too technical.” “Sorry, but it’s the only way we could think of naming them. If you can hold on to that question for a bit, I’ll explain what they are; they’re not really that complicated. This type of marking involves putting in additional words as a form of emphasis. For example, Corfu Jeans aren’t just in fashion, they are, ‘fabulous and pure fashion’. See those extra words, ‘fabulous’ and ‘pure’. They don’t add any further real information about the jeans, so why are they there?” “I dunno; I suppose, like you say, they serve to mark the jeans in some positive way.”



“Yes, and the same occurs when Antilope Perfume is marked as ‘deep, delicate and feminine’. These words overlay positive qualities on the product by exploiting binary oppositions… I’m sorry, I’ll explain this a little later.” He paused and glanced at Monique’s confused expression. “Okay, we first need to take a closer look at how analogue marking works and before we can talk about binary oppositions.” Bernard folded the newspaper and placed it to one side, then waited for Monique to finish sipping her tea. “Okay, there’s lots of different ways for a speaker to single out specific words and to mark them as having special meaning. You can raise or lower the tone, pitch or volume of your voice; you can use gestures and facial expressions to mark out the importance of certain phrases; you can even create emphasis by changing the pace of delivery and using cleverly timed pauses.” “Yes, most people, when they’re speaking, do that all the time. But you can’t use these forms of emphasis so easily when you’re writing.” “That’s true. A writer has far fewer opportunities to use analogue marking. But, when writing about your encounters, there’s still lots of ways to use them. In Medieval times, monks used analogue marking in their manuscripts by putting in color-enhanced lettering, highly decorative pictures, guilt-edged paper, complex calligraphy, leather binding and so on. Modern writers of spirituality have continued this tradition, but in more subdued forms.” “Yes, I’ve noticed how prayer books and the holy books from other religions tend to mark passages in various ways.” “Okay, let’s have a look at some of the most common varieties of analogue marking.” Bernard pulled over his blue ring-binder and flipped through to a particular page. He tapped the chair next to him for Monique to swap over so she can read along with him. He pointed to one sentence on the page. “Read here at how Fritjoff Capra makes use of inverted commas:” I “saw” the atoms of the elements and those of my body participating in this cosmic dance of energy; I felt its rhythm and I “heard” its sound. 3

“See, by putting inverted commas around ‘saw’ and ‘heard’, he appears to suggest that he is perceiving something not quite in the same way you would normally perceive things.” “I see what you mean,” agreed Monique. “Like ‘seeing’ and ‘hearing’ is occurring in a special way. Perhaps it’s referring to a mysteriously



different form of perception… Or maybe what he’s perceiving has some unique qualities… Or perhaps he’s seeing through the objects into another realm.” “Yes, that’s what it does; it signals other potential and special meanings. Here’s another one by R. H. Ward.” Last night as I was walking home from the station, I had one of those strange experiences of “rising up within oneself”, of “coming inwardly alive”.4

“Yeah, let me say something about this,” said Monique enthusiastically. “When he puts ‘rising up within oneself’ in inverted commas, he could be quoting someone, but he hasn’t specified who he might have quoted, so it sounds like he’s saying: ‘read this as meaning something extra’.” “Okay, good. Now let’s look at a similar type of analogue marking, the use of capital letters. Here’s part of a description by Da Free John.” And that release will establish you, at least for a moment, in the wordless experiential sense of Communion with Life, or the Nameless Radiance that pervades the world and the body of Man.5

“Ah ha, same again,” declared Monique. “The capitals suggest the words have some other implied meaning.” “And it’s not like when you use capital letters to name a place, as in referring to New York or London. The capitals open up rather than close down references. Now, besides capitals, there are lots of ways that people use changes in typeface. Here’s an example written by a participant in Alister Hardy’s study”: One day I was sweeping the stairs down in the house in which I was working, when suddenly I was overcome, overwhelmed, saturated, no word is adequate, with a sense of most sublime and living LOVE. It not only affected me, but seemed to bring everything around me to LIFE.6

“Yeah, this person’s capitalized whole words,” noted Monique. “It’s like you’re being shouted at.” “Perhaps.” Bernard flipped further. “Here’s another typeface change by the writer H. Warner Allen.”



Then Illumination, a wordless stream of complex feelings in which the experience of Union combined with the rhythmic emotion of the music.7

Monique sat back and glanced side-on at Bernard. “Again, his use of wordless is already a curious term, but the change of typeface to ‘a wordless stream’ further increases its uniqueness and seems to suggest something over-and-above its literal meaning.” “Precisely,” he said sharply, keen to move onto other examples. “Another range involves the creative use of punctuation. Sometimes parentheses are used, as does Alice Bailey in”: I grasped—faintly—that human beings needed the Christ and the Buddha and all the Members of the planetary hierarchy.8

“See? But what does it mean to grasp ‘—faintly—’? The parentheses help suggest it’s different than other forms of grasping: it’s a vague, uncertain and perhaps ethereal form of grasping.” Bernard flipped enthusiastically further into his collection. “And then there’s the suggestive use of marked pauses as in this example by John Coburn”: Have you ever concentrated on being a tree, wondering what it’s like to be rooted and grounded... sturdy... stretching... bending? 9

“That’s a cunning way of leaving big blanks,” commented Monique as she adjusted her posture awkwardly on her chair. “It’s almost as if the sentence is incomplete. It seems to leave a space between each word for you to imagine in your own content. By saying a tree is ‘grounded... sturdy... stretching...’ I feel I’m being invited within the space to pause and ponder and maybe insert my own imaginings. It’s like when someone says, ‘The hours ticked by…;’ the pause encourages me to think about matters that are special but unspecified.”10 “Yes, and that’s what all these analogue markers achieve. As you said earlier, you feel invited to consider the word as having special but unspecified meaning.” Bernard absentmindedly flipped the pages of his ring-binder, then closed it and put it to one side. “I forgot to ask, how’re things going at home?” “Not bad. We’re into a routine now: I look after the children during the week and he has them for Fridays and the weekends. I’ve started



counselling on Saturday to bring in a bit more money, and Sunday I devote to my own interests. That’s when I read up on some of the things we talk about.” She paused and looked enquiringly at Bernard. “But let’s carry on… Earlier, you said there was another type of marking besides analogue marking. Something like ‘binary transformation marking’.” “Ah, yes, binary opposition marking.” He studied Monique’s expression closely. “Well, just as you can superimpose typeface changes to emphasize a word, you can also put certain words next to them which end up having a very similar effect. We do it all the time. Like, imagine a client coming into your counselling room and saying something like: ‘I’ve had a bother of a day! The sodding car wouldn’t start, I soiled my sodding suit trying to fix the sodding thing, and then, to cap it all off, someone’s damn dog urinated on my bag’.” Monique laughs. “Yeah, yeah; though I doubt whether his swear-words would be quite so polite.” “Well, as you can hear, each swear-word is attached to an object word, but they don’t really change the object word’s meaning. The word ‘sodding’ next to ‘car’ adds little in the way of information about the car, other than telling us he’s feeling somewhat angry about it.” “Okay, so, like with analogue marking, you’re saying these swear-words provide some sort of emphasis.” “Yes. Now binary oppositions are another sub-variety of this type of marking. They consist of pairs of linked words, usually binary opposites, which, when one pole is used to mark one word, by implication the other pole can be read as indirectly marking other words with the opposite attribute.” He noticed Monique was staring at him blankly again. “Okay, ahh…” He reached over to the newspaper and browsed through its advertisements. “Here’s one: ‘Come and hear our new, fantastic offer’. The words ‘new’ and ‘fantastic’ don’t really add any information on what this ‘offer’ might involve, do they? What they do is draw on our understanding of embedded binaries, in this case ‘new/old’ and ‘fantastic/ not-so-fantastic’.” “Yes but…” “I know, words like ‘new’, ‘tremendous’, ‘dependable’, ‘simple’ and ‘affordable’ have become so over-used that they convey little about the product. Yet, despite their lack of informational content, advertisers persist in using these binaries, and their function seems to extend well beyond informing the consumer. They appear to serve the purposes of both



cloaking the product in an aura of positivity and, by implication, linking competing products with their negative polar opposites.”11 Monique glanced out the window at the browning autumn leaves. “So, you mean these binary pairs allow an advertiser to suggest bad things about competing products?” “Yes, kind of,” he replied still scanning over the newspaper pages. “Here’s another one: ‘Anchor butter, smooth and natural’. Two binaries here: ‘smooth/rough’ and ‘natural/unnatural’.” He took off his glasses and folds up the newspaper. “What I find interesting here is that, because of the strong inherent link in these oppositions, saying this butter is ‘smooth’ implies some other product—maybe margarine or another brand of butter—is not-smooth. In other words, an unmentioned object gets linked to the implied opposite pole.” “So, you mean when I claim this butter is natural, it suggests there are other butter-like products that are unnatural? It really is a cunning device for trashing opposing brands?” “Um… I’d say it’s a way of referring to the qualities of something without naming it, which, of course, is exactly what we’re trying to do when we speak about spiritual encounters.” “Oh, but surely the language of advertising is a long way from how we talk about spirituality?” “Ah, not so far away, really,” stated Bernard. “There are lots of strong parallels.” He smiled and glanced at Monique. “To illustrate, would you mind telling me again how you felt during one of your encounters?” Monique sat back and replied, slowly and jerkily at first, then more freely as she went on. “Umm… well, when I have these incredible moments of connection… I feel this inexpressible sense of joy… and my whole inner self appears to lose its isolated separate existence and I feel myself merging into a total, an amorphous, unity—a kind of absolute togetherness… I don’t know where this overwhelming joy comes from, but it feels a little like the joy of returning home after a long voyage; I’m coming home but not to the little home where I live, but to an inner, undifferentiated and fundamental home where everything is connected.” “That’s lovely, Monique… But in case you didn’t notice, you’ve made use of all sorts of binary oppositions; words like, ‘incredible’, ‘inexpressible’, ‘total’, ‘amorphous’, ‘absolute’, ‘fundamental’.” “Huh… You’re not trying to tell me my description’s like a piece of advertising; like I’m trying to sell you something? … I talk this way because… I guess, because that’s what seems a natural way to express it.”



“Okay; I don’t think you’re trying to sell me something, but a word like ‘incredible’ does act in much the same as the binary oppositions in advertising. It doesn’t add much in the way of information to the sentence. When you say ‘incredible moment’ you’re stating it needs to be seen as in some way different than ‘credible’—or ‘not-so-incredible’— moments. Similarly, when you say, ‘absolute togetherness’, you’re drawing on a connection between ‘absolute’ and ‘not absolute’ and suggesting this ‘togetherness’ is of a special kind.”12 He put on his glasses again and flipped through the ring-binder. “Here, see if you can spot the binary opposition marking in this description by the English writer C. E. Montague:” Another effect of the drug is that, while it is acting strongly, the whole adventure of mankind upon the earth gains, in our sight, a new momentousness, precariousness and beauty. The new and higher scale of power in ourselves seems to be challenged by an equal increase in the size of the objects on which it is exercised.13

Monique nodded and stated, “He’s talking about a ‘new’ and ‘higher scale’ of power. This suggests the power he’s talking about should be taken up a few notches.” “Good, and what about the binary marking in this passage by the nature writer Richard Jeffries”: Touching the crumble of the earth, the blade of grass, the thyme flower, breathing the earth-encircling air, thinking of the sea and the sky, holding out my hand for the sunbeams to touch it, thus I prayed that I might touch the unutterable existence infinitely higher than deity.14

“Hmm,” considered Monique. “There, ‘unutterable’ and ‘infinitely’. I can see the way these binaries suggest other meanings. But…” She looked across enquiringly at Bernard. “But how do they work? How do they generate gaps?” “Ah, for that we’re going to have to call on those diagrams again.” He reached over to his satchel and pulled out a pad and pen. “You remember that ad we found that talked about Corfu Jeans?” “Yes, it claimed they were ‘fabulous’ and ‘pure fashion’.” He begins drawing a diagram of circles triangles and lines.



He pointed at the arrows. “Notice in this arrangement how the object attached to the implied opposites—‘impure’ and ‘not fabulous’—is signaled but not specified.” “You mean they’re attached to where you’ve stuck a question mark?” clarified Monique. “Yes, there… the implied unmarked object hangs suspended waiting for readers to supply some content.” “Yeah, presumably the most likely candidates to fill that gap would be other jeans. It might be suggesting Levi’s Jeans are made of impure materials and are not so fabulously stylish.” She rested her head on her right hand supported at the elbow by the table. “So, as for the binary oppositions I used in describing my spiritual encounters, if, according to you, I made plenty of use of them, how was I doing something similar to this?” “Hmm, well you talked about the experience taking you beyond your ordinary world?” “Yes, that’s right. Most of the time I’m limited within my mundane, finite existence. In these moments the restraints are lifted, and I’m set free into another realm.” “Okay, let’s take those binaries—finite/infinite and mundane/extraordinary—and stick them into a diagram.” He moved further down the page and drew out the same configuration of circles and triangles.



“Hmm,” responded Monique thoughtfully. “So, I attach ‘finite’ and ‘mundane’ to my ‘existence’, and the implied opposites, ‘infinite’ and ‘extraordinary’, they’re attached to something else, some other existence; something which I haven’t specified. I’ve left it to the listener to interpret in their own way what that might be.” “That’s right,” grinned Bernard. “The powerful links embedded in each binary draw receptive listeners into detecting an unspecified space, a provocative gap, which in turn offers them a site to imaginatively insert their own meanings.” He peered across at Monique over the rim of his glasses and stated in a serious tone. “But, just as with the other devices, you need to take care not to use these forms of marking too often.” He flipped through the ring-binder. “Here, look at the analogue and binary opposition marking that Evelyn Underhill has indulged in.” Then, the actual unchanging ground of life, the eternal and unconditioned Whole, transcending all succession: a world inaccessible alike to senses and intelligence, but felt—vaguely, darkly, yet intensely—by the quiet and surrendered consciousness. But now you are solicited, whether you will or no, by a greater Reality, the final inclusive Fact, the Unmeasured Love, which “is through all things everlastingly ”.15

“Whew, that’s sure is an emphasis overload,” remarked Monique vigorously; “analogue and binary opposition marking all over the place. I can see how readers might get irritated by that.”



Notes 1. Da Free John, Scientific Proof of the Existence of God Will Soon Be Announced by the White House (California: Dawn Horse Press, 1980) p. 20. 2. A loosely related family of theories has developed the concept of “markedness” in applications to many aspects of language, as in, for example, the Russian linguist Nikolay Trubetskoy, Principles of Phonology, (University of California Press, 1969) and Trubetskoy’s Letters and Notes, R. Jakobson, ed. (The Hague: Mouton, 1975) formulated a theory of markedness to explain regularities between languages in the use of different speech sounds or phonological emphasis. He observed how speakers would emphasize certain words with changes in intonation, pauses and other forms of marking. Other linguists have studied how marking some words with sound while leaving other words unmarked can play an important role in the meaning of sentences. Such work has led on to the concept of markedness being employed in a variety of ways in the linguistic studies of both the sound and structural properties of language. For example, see Edna Andrews, Markedness Theory (Duke University Press, 1990) and Edwin Battistella, The Logic of Markedness (Oxford University Press, 1996). 3. Fritjoff Capra, The Tao of Physics (New York, Fontana, 1976) p. xix. 4. R. H. Ward, A Drug-Taker’s Notes (London: Gollancz, 1957) p. 195. 5. Da Free John (op. cit.) p. 21. 6. Alister Hardy, The Spiritual Nature of Man (Oxford: Clarendon, 1979) Participant 1753, p. 89. 7. H. Warner Allen, The Timeless Moment (London: Faber, 1946) p. 31. 8. Alice Bailey, The Unfinished Autobiography of Alice A.  Bailey (London: Lucis Press, 1951) p. 39. 9. John Coburn, The Hope of Glory (New York: Seabury Press, 1976) p. 11. 10. The tendency in spirituality-talk to superimpose emphasis on particular words and phrases might be seen to serve five expressive functions: (1) “Pay attention here,” where marking draws the attention of receivers toward the words that are marked. (2) “This word comes from another context,” such as the use of inverted commas. (3) “This word has a special sense,” such as the use of capital letters to indicate special meanings. (4) “This word has more senses than its literal meaning,” such as marking the word as “awareness,” awareness or even AWARENESS as a way to suggest both that the word has a meaning different than its customary usage and that this meaning is something else, something unspecified, something beyond its literal meaning. 11. Binary oppositions have attracted recurring interest in various studies of the ways we use language. For example, Jacques Derrida in Positions (University of Chicago Press, 1981, 1972) focuses on them in



­ econstructions of underlying cultural binaries. This aligns with Roman d Jakobson in, “Mark and feature,” in his Selected Writings VII (Berlin: Mouton, 1974), focused on the way marking one pole on a binary references the other pole. In semiotics, Emile Benveniste in “The semiology of language,” in R. Innis, ed., Semiotics, pp. 226–246 (London: Hutchinson, 1985), studied the action of and people’s reactions to binary oppositions in common forms of communications such as traffic lights, music and the plastic arts. Also, Efraim Sicher in, “Binary oppositions and spatial representation,” Semiotica (60;3/4, 211–4, 1986) explored how with a binary connection, a statement of one state of affairs automatically throws up the possibility of the opposite state of affairs. 12. Varda Leymore in Hidden Myth: Structure and Symbolism in Advertising (London: Heinemann, 1975) explored how binary oppositions can be divided into three major varieties: “contradictories,” “contraries” and “converses”. “Contradictories” are the truly binary form of this type of marking. Their poles can be considered mutually exclusive and exhaustive of all possibilities. For example, using a term like “absolute” is linked to its opposite “not-absolute”; together both poles are mutually exclusive and exhaustive because something and everything is either absolute or it isn’t. Other examples of contradictory binaries include: credible/incredible, true/false, every/not-every, all/none, recurrent/non-recurrent, living/ dead, external/internal, boundless/bounded, eternal/not-eternal. “Contrary” binaries exploit more possibilities in a graded continuum between the opposing poles. This means they are exhaustive of the universe of discourse but not mutually exclusive. For instance, in describing something as pure, the opposite impure is implied and together they exhaust the continuum, but they do not completely exclude each other because a number of degrees of purity can be seen to occur between the two poles; objects can be more-or-less-­ pure and more-or-less-impure. Other contraries encountered in mystical communications include: profound↔shallow, placid↔rough, special↔ordinary, good↔bad, rare↔common, simple↔difficult, clear↔unclear and so forth. “Converse” binary oppositions are neither mutually exclusive nor completely exhaustive of the universe of discourse. Many of the object words we use can be considered as converse binaries; for example, sun/moon, father/mother, water/land, top/bottom, visual/auditory and so forth. 13. C.  E. Montague, A Writer’s Notes on His Trade (Middlesex: Penguin Books, 1930) p. 184. 14. Richard Jefferies, The Story of My Heart (London: Duckworth, 1912) p. 4. 15. Evelyn Underhill, Practical Mysticism (London: Dent & Sons, 1919) p. 139.


Counting Exercises

“So, you’re telling me, the main job of these devices is to create gaps?” checked out Dorothy as she dunked her chocolate-chip biscuit into her coffee. “Yes, that’s it, provocative gaps,” replied Bernard politely, his voice sounding nasal from an early winter head-cold. “We’ve discussed how gaps generate the vagueness that calls out for listeners to engage with their own content.” “Okay, I get that,” said Dorothy gesturing with the biscuit in her hand. “But how can you be sure? It might only be characteristic of a few writers. How do you know this is really what’s going on?” “Ah… Are you suggesting that I’m making this all up?” “No, it makes perfect sense. I’m just not convinced that this is the main aspect of how people talk about spirituality.” “I, ah….” faltered Bernard as he tried to clear his nasal passages with a series of energetic snuffles. He wiped his nose with his handkerchief and stirred a sachet of sugar into his coffee. “What I’ve noticed, over the years, is that when people talk this way—including my former patients—they appear to be using language in a special way… quite a special way.” He paused and gazed fixedly down at the froth circling in his coffee. “I often wonder how this way of speaking works. I’m not sure, but I reckon its vague quality is part of what makes it so expressive.” “Yes, but how can you be sure that that’s what’s happening?”

© The Author(s) 2020 P. J. Adams, How to Talk About Spiritual Encounters,




“Well, that’s where the work I’ve been helping Jonella with comes in. As we’ve already discussed, I’ve been helping her with the research for her PhD. It’s been lots of work, but also lots of fun. We’ve now completed two small studies looking at the way people use these devices when writing about their encounters.” “What?” asked Dorothy with a look of surprise. “You mean you’ve been analyzing these descriptions in an organized way?” “Yes, we’ve been examining them very closely… but, at this stage, we’re only able to do this in a very crude way. Actually, we’ve been counting up how often writers use these vagueness devices.” “Goodness, in that case, have you got any data?” Bernard glanced across briefly at Dorothy, drew a crackly breath back through his nose then gazed out at the tangled line of leafless branches of the plane trees. “Well, first, about a year ago, I helped Jonella select fifty descriptions of spiritual encounters by published authors.1 Most of them came from my own collection.” He pointed at his scruffy blue ring-binder poking out from his satchel.2 “We made sure we chose as diverse a collection as possible—Christian, Buddhist, Hindu, New Age, non-religious writers, scientists—but we stuck only to descriptions in English, so translation wasn’t an issue. We also only used authors writing in the twentieth century, in case styles were different further back.”3 “Very sensible,” said Dorothy approvingly. “Now, besides counting the frequencies of these devices, Jonella was also interested in whether the use of these devices affected how readers liked them.” “You mean whether better descriptions used these devices more or less frequently?” “Yes. We had no idea of how readers might react… So she asked nine people to indicate how they liked each description across a set of rating scales.4 From their ratings we selected out twenty-five descriptions which included ten descriptions they had rated consistently positively—we called these the ‘preferred’ descriptions—and five descriptions they had rated consistently negatively—which we called the ‘non-preferred’ descriptions.” “Hmm, I’d be interested in people’s different reactions to preferred compared to non-preferred descriptions,” muttered Dorothy as she gazed out the window. “So, tell me, how exactly did you count the devices?” “Well, that was quite involved. First, we broke each description down into separate sentences then typed them into a computer—into what



Jonella called ‘a database’.5 She arranged all that because I’m hopeless when it comes to computers. For long sentences, you know, ones that are really two sentences joined by an ‘and’ or a ‘but’, we entered them separately.”6 “So, twenty-five descriptions with say… twelve sentences each… no, more if you split some… Say fifteen sentences each, that would mean you would’ve had around four hundred sentences.” “Ah, good to have an accountant on board!” sniffed Bernard. “Yes, somewhere around that.” He took a couple of sips of his coffee. “What the computer allowed us to do was to present each sentence randomly.” “So, the person spotting the devices had no idea where the sentence came from?” “That’s right, and Jonella designed drop-down menus, error messages and help messages to assist with the coding. We then worked through all the sentences one-by-one and counted what devices we could spot.” “But you could’ve easily influenced each other. I mean, your judgements would’ve surely started to converge?” “No, we worked completely separately, and only afterwards did we look at how much we agreed.” “Hmm, okay… but some of these devices, like metaphor, are quite subtle; you must’ve seen them quite differently?” “Yes, differing judgements were an issue, but to reduce this, Jonella had worked out a strict set of definitions and guidelines. I’ve got them here in my bag if you want to see them?” [see Appendix 1]. Dorothy shook her head. “No, I don’t need to see them. I believe you… But how did you learn to use those definitions? Did you learn them as you went?” “No, Jonella organized several rehearsals. She used some of the twenty-­ five descriptions we’d discarded, and we worked separately through their sentences until we reached reasonable levels of agreement… I think it was an agreement rate of better than eighty percent.” “Ah, now this is my territory,” claimed Dorothy with an enthusiastic smile. “How did you calculate agreement?” “I don’t know all the detail, but I think she calculated it two ways: one was agreement per sentence and the other was agreement per judgement. You’d have to ask her for the detail.”7 “Ah… no need, that sounds reasonable to me,” nodded Dorothy. “And then what?”



Bernard sniffed again and wiped his nose. “Well, then we needed a standard way of presenting the frequencies of each device. The number of sentences per description varied, so we calculated frequencies as proportions by converting them into frequency per hundred sentences.8 And, now, we have compiled most the data,” stated Bernard proudly; “but Jonella is a bit worried about people seeing them. She hasn’t published any of it yet, and she’s concerned that showing them will affect whether they’re accepted by a journal.” “Okay, okay,” exclaimed Dorothy impatiently, “I’m certainly not going to tell people, and I’m not likely to put any of it on the internet… Well, am I?” “No, no; I trust you.” Bernard leaned over to his satchel and pulled out his glasses and a transparent folder brimming with loose pages. He put on his glasses and carefully selected one page and laid it down carefully in front of Dorothy. “Okay, here’s what we found”: Overall frequency of gap-provoking devices per 100 sentences Type of gap By omission (missing content) By over-inclusion (generality) By gap-shifts By metaphors By analogue marking By binary opposition marking

Preferred (n = 10)

Non-preferred (n = 5)

All (n = 25)

3 18 62 77 17 36

9 31 187 138 28 93

5 22 102 101 21 45

“Goodness,” commented Dorothy as her practiced accountant’s gaze scanned through the numbers. “Under the ‘All’ column, I must say, the frequency of these devices is surprisingly high! And look how high it is for gap-shifts and metaphor, 102 and 101; that means they occurred on average just over one per sentence!” “Yes, you’ve read that right. We were surprised by those frequencies too.” “And, as I look down the other two columns, I can see consistently higher frequencies for the non-preferred descriptions.” “Ah ha,” confirmed Bernard smiling. “And what’s more all those differences are statistically significant.”9



“Hmm, well it doesn’t look as though the preferences can be explained by the use of devices because the preferred descriptions still occur at fairly high frequencies. Perhaps it’s something to do with over-use?” “Yes, that’s how we see it too. It backs up what I’ve been telling you before: if you use a device too often it tends to diminish its effectiveness.” Bernard picked up the page and placed it back in the transparent folder. “Now, if it’s okay with you, I’d like to take you through the results for each device one at a time.” He slipped out another page and placed it carefully down in front of Dorothy. “These are the figures for gaps by omission”: Frequency of gaps by omission per hundred sentences Type Incomplete sentences Incomplete sub-clauses Incomplete sub-clauses in parentheses Partial omission Total



0 1 0

2 0 4

2 3

3 9

“Um, these gaps aren’t used that often,” commented Dorothy; “too few, perhaps, to mean much.” “Yes, gaps by omission are probably more likely to be used when people are speaking.” He placed out another sheet. “Here’s the gaps by over-inclusion”: Frequency of gaps by over-inclusion per hundred sentences Type Indefinite nouns Indefinite other Indefinite qualifiers Indefinite locatives General nouns Entified general nouns Total



1 1 0 2 1 12 17

2 0 1 3 10 17 31



“Well, they’re similarly less common,” observed Dorothy. “Hmm, all except for ‘entified general nouns’… Remind me what they are again?” “Oh, they’re words like ‘devil’, ‘cosmos’, ‘spiritual power’, ‘heart’, and so on. Notice how both forms of general nouns are more common with the non-preferred descriptions. We wondered whether this indicates that people don’t like descriptions that are too non-specific; perhaps they prefer a bit of specific content.” Bernard placed the sheet back in the folder. “Anyway, now for the more heavily used devices.” He pulled out his handkerchief and blew his nose vigorously. “Now, you remember how we discussed the effects of shifting the grammatical position of words?” “Yes, I remember how plus-shifts increased the demands for content— like shifting ‘crystal’ to ‘crystalize’—and gap-shifts decreased the demands for content—like shifting ‘one’ to ‘oneness’—and in this way generated provocative gaps.” “That’s right,” acknowledged Bernard as he placed another loose page in front of Dorothy. “In this graph we’ve added up the plus-shift generated insertions—the grey bars—and the gap-shift generated gaps—the black bars.” 250

Per 100 Sentences

200 150 100 50 0



Grammatical-shift-generated gaps and insertions (with error bars)

“Goodness, the gap-shifts really were used far more often,” commented Dorothy excitedly. “Sure were,” agreed Bernard. “And they were over three-times more common in the non-preferred than in the preferred descriptions.”



“I suppose you’re going to tell me that’s because they lose their effect when they’re used too often?” “Yes, that’s exactly what I’d say. But gap-shifts are still used heavily in the preferred descriptions compared with plus-shifts.” He replaced the page with another page. “Now, here are the frequencies for the different types of metaphor”: Frequency of metaphor per hundred sentences Type of metaphor Spatial Experiential Behavioral Logical Relational Temporal Other



23 19 15 11 6 2 1

43 24 27 18 9 12 6

“Hmm… Comparing the two columns, they appear remarkably consistent,” commented Dorothy. “And spatial metaphors are tracking up to about one every two sentences in the non-preferred descriptions.” She looked up enquiringly at Bernard. “I’m having a little trouble remembering the types of metaphor. Would you be able to give me a few examples?” Bernard reached over to his satchel and pulled out a green manila folder and picked out a page of examples. “Okay, an example of a spatial metaphor is… Thomas Merton claiming he, ‘pierced through the surface’; an example of an experiential metaphor… John Trevor claiming he was, ‘bathed in a warm glow of light’; a behavioral metaphor… Whiteman saying, ‘the heavens declared the glory of God’, and…” “Okay, that’s enough. I’m remembering them now.” Dorothy paused to take a long sip of her coffee. “So, these two devices, gap-shifts and metaphors, they’re the big ones; they’re clearly the winners in terms of frequency of use.” “Yes. It’s led Jonella and I to conclude that when you try to describe an encounter, these devices are the most important; that is, as long as you don’t use them too often.” “Okay, but you’ve left one out. What about the use of marking?”



Bernard returned to rummaging through his transparent folder. “Hmm… first analogue marking; you remember, that’s where you put words in inverted commas or capitals or bold or repeat them, and so on.” He placed another sheet in front of her. “They’re used less often than metaphors, but still occur reasonably frequently.” Frequency of analogue marking per hundred sentences Type Capitals Hyphens In quotation marks Repetitions Change typeface Other Total



9 3 2 2 0 1 17

10 3 9 5 0 1 28

“Capitals are used most often,” observed Dorothy. “Probably a hang-over from the Christian era,” suggested Bernard playfully. “Um, I’d like to think we’re still in that era. Quite a few of us still go to church regularly.” “Okay, okay,” said Bernard smiling apologetically. “That’s enough of analogue marking… Now the results with binary opposition marking. You remember them?” “Yes, that’s when you use strong binary terms—like true-false, new-­ old—to mark key words. Like when you talk about ‘absolute freedom’ or ‘total bliss’.” “That’s right,” confirmed Bernard. “Now, you saw before how the frequency of these was around forty-five per hundred sentences—that’s twice the rate of analogue marking—but while the ‘preferred’ descriptions used them reasonably frequently—36 per hundred sentences—they were used almost three times more frequently in ‘non-preferred’ descriptions— ninety-three per hundred sentences.” “So again, this strongly suggests that using these devices too often reduces their effectiveness?”



“That’s right,” nodded Bernard before bursting into a violent fit of sneezing. He bent his head forward and blew repeatedly into his now sopping handkerchief. He squeezed the bridge of his nose and rubbed his temples. Dorothy watched on sympathetically. “Look, we don’t need to carry on doing this now. You should take some cold medication and go to bed.” “Ah no; it’s just a cold. And I’d much rather be out and about than stuck in bed.” Dorothy stared across at him with a quizzical look. “Okay. I can see you’ve gone to a lot of trouble with your research, but I’ve got this one nagging doubt in the back of my head.” Her forehead crinkled enquiringly. “They were all by published authors, right?” “Yes; most of them were famous authors.” “Well surely those people are highly skilled at putting their ideas down on paper; they must have learnt how to use such devices in the course of learning to write properly.” “Hmm… possibly.” “So, what you’re describing isn’t what you’d expect of ordinary people?” “I get you, and, certainly, Jonella and I were also concerned about this possibility.” Bernard relaxed back into his chair. “For that reason, we repeated this study but this time using descriptions provided by ordinary people.” Bernard leaned over to his satchel and pulled out a purple folder. “First we asked people around us to provide us with descriptions of their spiritual encounters: some were friends and interested acquaintances, others were in university classes and others volunteered because they’d heard about what we were doing.10 Eventually twenty-six people provided us with written descriptions, and these were entered into the computer in exactly the same way as we did with the published authors.”11 “Ah ha, so you repeated everything, with you two rating them independently and making sure you reached a high level of agreement?” “Yes, exactly the same.”12 He selected a page from the folder and laid it carefully down in front of Dorothy. “There, that’s the device frequencies for both the previous study—labelled ‘published’—and this second study—labelled ‘personal’.”



Overall frequency of gap-provoking devices per 100 sentences Type of gap By omission (missing content) By over-inclusion (generality) By gap-shifts By metaphors By analogue marking By binary opposition marking

Published (n = 25)

Personal (n = 26)

5 22 102 101 21 45

4 43 82 83 21 41

Dorothy looked carefully down the columns. “Wow, they’re remarkably similar! Slightly fewer gap-shifts and metaphors for the personal accounts, but, overall, very similar rates.” “Yes, we were surprised by the similarity too,” commented Bernard. “We looked closer at the descriptions to see what might explain some of the differences. For instance, the higher number of over-inclusion in the personal descriptions was nearly all from using more entified general nouns, like ‘the world’, ‘man’ and ‘the heart’.” “That figures.” “And like before, while gap-shifts occurred at 82 per hundred sentences, plus-shifts occurred only 6 per hundred sentences. Also, when we looked at how they compared with preferred and non-preferred published descriptions, these rates were far closer to the preferred—61 per hundred sentences—than the non-preferred—185 per hundred sentences.” “Hmm…” She stared thoughtfully down at the figures. “I guess that almost suggests that ordinary people are more competent at writing about spiritual encounters than most published authors!” “I wouldn’t take it that far, but it does suggest that even those who are not used to talking about them still possess the skills for doing so.” Dorothy sat back in her seat. “So, I’m interested in a little more detail. Tell me, Bernie, what were the sorts of gap-shifts they used?” Bernard pulled out another page from the purple folder. “Here’s one example”: It seemed to be a stillness, as well as being a vibrant aliveness.13

“Ah, interesting,” commented Dorothy. “I think this person’s use of both ‘stillness’ and ‘aliveness’ shows a reasonable level of rhetorical competence.”



“Here’s another.” I felt I was a part of all beauty, knowledge, love, power, time, balance, and some part of a totality.14

“Hmm, this person’s gone over-the-top,” she remarked. “I can count a row of seven gap-shifts, none of which are attached to any object in particular. I’d have trouble responding to that.” “Yes. For me, I’d put this description in my less preferred pile,” said Bernard as he laid out another page. “Look, here’s what happened with metaphors”: Frequency of metaphor per 100 sentences Type Spatial Experiential Behavioral Logical Relational Temporal

Published (n = 25)

Personal (n = 26)

28 20 19 12 9 4

35 12 7 6 9 2

“Ah yes, again they’re remarkably similar except for the heavier use of spatial metaphors.” “Yes, it did surprise us how personal descriptions made similarly heavy use of metaphors—eighty-three per hundred sentences. Moreover, this rate was closer to the preferred descriptions of seventy-seven per hundred sentences than to the non-preferred ones at 138 per hundred.” “I suppose you’re going to say this suggests ordinary people are much more competent at this than they realize.” “Ah ha.” He pulled out another page of examples. “And here’s how a couple of them made use of spatial metaphors”: • An over-whelming feeling of joy, of being part of an enormous whole spreading beyond horizons came across me. • I also had an inability or desire to contain or control or extend the experience.15



He pulled out another page. “And examples of the use of experiential metaphors included”: • There was a palpable stillness, a sense of “no boundary”, a powerful feeling of equanimity and “ownership” of the universe. • The light and the warmth spread throughout my body until every part of me could SEE and feel it.16 “I’m glad you showed me those, Bernie,” remarked Dorothy. “I can certainly see here how innovatively they’re making use of metaphors. And did you notice in that last one the use of analogue marking, ‘SEE’?” “I certainly did,” said Bernard as he pulled out another page from the transparent folder and placed it in front of Dorothy. “Here’s what happened with analogue marking”: Frequency of analogue marking per hundred sentences Type Capitals Hyphens In quotations Change typeface Other Total

Published (n = 25)

Personal (n = 26)

10 5 3 0 3 22

4 2 9 3 4 22

“Ah well, they’re not heavily used,” commented Dorothy. “But they are being used, particularly quotation marks. And when we looked at binary opposition marking, again we found they were more common than analogue marking and remarkably similar to the first study. Interestingly their rates in personal accounts were closer—forty per hundred sentences—to those of the ‘preferred’ published descriptions— thirty-eight per hundred sentences—than those of the ‘non-preferred’ descriptions—ninety-four per hundred sentences.” “Yep, that’s even more evidence that ordinary people are surprisingly competent.” Bernard shut all three of his folders, bundled them into his satchel, sat back, then stared enquiringly across at Dorothy. “Well that’s it. That’s as far as we’ve got. So, what do you make of all that?”



Dorothy drained what was left of her cold coffee, gazed back at Bernard and smiled. “I guess the first thing that’s impressed me is how all those devices were actually used both by published authors and ordinary people. Some, particularly metaphor and gap-shifts, were used as high as one per sentence.” Bernard nodded, “And? …” “And right across the board, descriptions lost their appeal with readers when devices were used too frequently.” Dorothy sat up straight in her chair then leant over to grab hold of her bag. “Finally, and this really did surprise me, the rates at which ordinary people used these devices was closer to the good rather than the overdone published descriptions. Now that’s perplexing.”

Notes 1. By meeting standards for publication this choice assumes these authors have attained some degree of competence in both writing and rhetoric. Admittedly, some accounts will engage listeners less than others, but their differing expressiveness should be detectable when asking readers to rate their responses. The advantages of published authors include their international availability and their variety of styles. Some disadvantages include not knowing the context in which the account was written and uncertainty over the writer’s intentions. 2. The search for suitable descriptions began with looking through original works by authors well known for their interest in spirituality. These authors referred to other sources, which led in turn to other writers on spirituality and so on. Eventually sixty-five suitable accounts were identified but were subsequently reduced to fifty either because they involved multiple accounts by the same author or because their spiritual or mystical content was questionable. 3. To avoid the intervening effects of translation, the accounts chosen needed to be originally written in English. To contain the scope, the accounts needed to be written as prose and not as poetry. These criteria eliminated nearly all of the most well-known mystical writers such as Gurdijev, St John of the Cross and Lao-Tzu. 4. Raters were recruited voluntarily from my friends and colleagues. The mean age of the raters was 45 years, four were male and five had received university education. Furthermore, four scored in the mystical range on the Hood Mystical Scale and only two had a specific religious affiliation. Ratings included unstructured impressions, twelve semantic differentials and a question concerning the reader’s perception of the author’s inten-



tions. Raters were asked to rate each account on seven-point scales between opposites such as “sophisticated” to “naïve” and “easy to read” to “difficult to read.” Analysis of variance of the effects of the order of presentation indicated a sequencing effect for two of the twelve scales (n=300, p0.6) and only one with a low correlation (r