Chapter 1—We are So Much More Than We Know
Stories reach us from around the world and through the centuries of men and women who have had extraordinary physical, mental, creative, intuitive, emotional, and perceptual experiences far beyond what are commonly considered possible.
Charlotte Hefflemire, nineteen years old, and home with her family for Thanksgiving in 2017, heard a loud crash and a shout coming from the family garage. She found her father trapped under his GMC pickup truck from which flames were rising. Charlotte still can’t fully explain what happened next.
“I lifted it [the truck] the first time, my father said ‘OK, you almost got it.’ Finally managed to get it on [the jack], it was some crazy strength, [and then] I pulled him out.” –Charlotte Hefflemire
In the book Seeing the Invisible, Meg Maxwell and Verena Tschudin compiled hundreds of accounts of highly moving personal spiritual experiences sent to the archives of the Alister Hardy Research Centre. In one story a young woman preparing a meal for her family was suddenly transported.
“[T]he kitchen and garden were filled with golden light. I became conscious that at the centre of the Universe, and in my garden, was a great pulsing dynamo that ceaselessly poured out love. This love poured over and through me, and I was part of it and it wholly encompassed me. It was overwhelmingly real, more real than anything I had experienced, although I had been in love, and the feelings after the birth of each of my children had been wonderful. The vision was of a far ‘realler’ quality.” –An unnamed woman
Ruth Stone, award-winning poet, author and teacher related the following story to Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat, Pray, Love:
“As [Stone] was growing up in rural Virginia, she would be out working in the fields and she would feel and hear a poem coming at her from over the landscape. It was like a thunderous train of air and it would come barreling down at her over the landscape. And when she felt it coming . . . ’cause it would shake the earth under her feet, she knew she had only one thing to do at that point. That was to, in her words, “run like hell” to the house as she would be chased by this poem.
The whole deal was that she had to get to a piece of paper fast enough so that when it thundered through her, she could collect it and grab it on the page. Other times she wouldn’t be fast enough, so she would be running and running, and she wouldn’t get to the house, and the poem would barrel through her and she would miss it, and it would “continue on across the landscape looking for another poet.”
And then there were these times, there were moments where she would almost miss it. She is running to the house and is looking for the paper and the poem passes through her. She grabs a pencil just as it’s going through her and she would reach out with her other hand and she would catch it. She would catch the poem by its tail and she would pull it backwards into her body as she was transcribing on the page. In those instances, the poem would come up on the page perfect and intact, but backwards, from the last word to the first.” –Elizabeth Gilbert
Astronaut Edgar Mitchell, the sixth man to walk on the moon, while on the long return journey to earth, had many profound experiences:
“What I experienced during that three-day trip home was nothing short of an overwhelming sense of universal connectedness. I actually felt what has been described as an ecstasy of unity. And there was the sense that our presence as space travelers and the existence of the universe itself, was not accidental but there was an intelligent process at work. I perceived the universe as in some way conscious.” –Edgar Mitchell, Apollo 14 Astronaut
Charles Lindberg took off from Long Island’s Roosevelt Field on the early morning of May 20th, 1927 to make the first solo flight across the Atlantic. The flight would require thirty-three and a half hours of unbroken concentration. Lindberg was already deeply tired from having put weeks of long hours and high energy into getting ready for the flight. The night before takeoff, hoping to get desperately needed sleep, he had instead spent many hours in final preparations, and then was kept up most of the night by a persistent reporter. Already severely fatigued and sleep deprived even before he took off, only a few hours into the flight he described his eyes as feeling like “salted stones.”
He struggled desperately against a nearly overwhelming urge to sleep.
To fall asleep was to die. Lindberg could not allow himself to lift either of his feet from the rudder controls or to take both hands from the stick. To lose control of the plane for even a few minutes could mean crashing into the ocean. Because he was flying by dead reckoning, five minutes of inattention could cause the plane to veer just enough off course to run out of fuel before he found land. For many long hours he fought sleep. He left his cockpit window open to let in a frigid blast of air. Even that wasn’t enough. Mid-flight he put every shred of his will and concentration into staying awake. Nearing his utmost limits, his single-minded concentration caused him to break into an awareness unlike anything he had ever experienced.
“There’s no limit to my sight—my skull is one great eye, seeing everywhere at once…. All sense of substance leaves. There’s no longer weight to my body, no longer hardness to the stick. The feeling of flesh is gone. I become independent of physical laws—of food, of shelter, of life. I’m …less tangible than air, universal as aether. I’m on the border line of life and a greater realm beyond, as though caught in the field of gravitation between two planets, acted on by forces I can’t control, forces too weak to be measured by any means at my command, yet representing powers incomparably stronger than I’ve ever known. . . . Death no longer seems the final end it used to be, but rather the entrance to a new and free existence which includes all space, all time. Am I now more man or spirit? Will I…become a consciousness in space, all-seeing, all-knowing, unhampered by materialistic fetters of the world?” –Charles Lindberg, The Spirit of Saint Louis
Richard Maurice Bucke (1837–1902), a Canadian psychiatrist, author of Cosmic Consciousness, and friend and admirer of Walt Whitman, had an astonishing experience one evening while out walking.
“All at once, without warning of any kind, he found himself wrapped around as it were by a flame-coloured cloud . . . he knew that the light was within himself. Directly afterwards came upon him a sense of exaltation, of immense joyousness accompanied or immediately followed by an intellectual illumination quite impossible to describe . . . he saw and knew that the cosmos is not dead matter but a living Presence, that the soul of man is immortal, that the universe is so ordered that without any peradventure all things work together for the good of each and all, that the foundation principle of the world is what we call love.” —Richard Maurice Bucke
Young Hefflemire’s feat of strength and Lindberg’s out-of-body-awareness point to enormous untapped human potentials. These potentials are usually either ignored or explained away by the scientific mainstream—sometimes attributed to extreme survival mechanisms kicking in when the organism is in danger; or to the wonderfully vague condition known as hysteria; or to the effects of an unusually rapid release of hormones and neurotransmitters, such as adrenaline and dopamine, which cause hallucinatory experiences that cannot be reproduced consciously and deliberately.
The unnamed woman’s overwhelming experience of love, Ruth Stone’s unusual creative experiences, Edgar Mitchell’s moment of transcendent interconnectedness, peace, and open-heartedness, and Bucke’s inner illumination and perception of a “living Presence” are also dismissed by the scientific mainstream as irreproducible and unique “mysteries” of the human brain and nervous system. Most doctors, psychologists, and neuroscientists say that such experiences demonstrate the “amazing” capabilities of the human brain to produce seemingly real, but not actually real experiences. Their implication is that the unnamed woman’s profound experience was probably an unusually strong estrogen-induced emotion; that Ruth Stone’s poems didn’t come from outside her like a train of air, that her experience was just her brain’s unusual way of coming up with ideas; that Edgar Mitchell did not experience anything that was beyond his own brain and body, that his brain had simply provided him a unique perspective perhaps brought on by lack of sleep, sustained stress, or disorientation caused by weightlessness; that Bucke didn’t experience Divine illumination, that his brain instead had had a seizure that left him with the blinding light of a migraine headache and that his limbic system had misfired and given him a more intense than usual experience of his own emotions.
Belying these unproven explanations are the many people who experience such emotions, abilities, and perceptions without being in the midst of life-threatening danger or extreme circumstances—and who can, at will, repeat their experiences.
“Crazy strength” like Charlotte Hefflemire’s can be deliberately harnessed. Joseph Greenstein was one of the last great strongmen, from the nearly forgotten era of the Strongman at the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth century. His stage-name was the Mighty Atom. Joseph Greenstein was only 5’4” tall and weighed only about 140 pounds. Unlike most of his contemporaries who amazed and astounded by lifting great weights, the Mighty Atom tackled metal. He twisted iron horseshoes into pretzels with his bare hands, bent half inch rolled steel rods into heart shapes, drove nails through wood with a blow from his open hand, or broke chains that had been wrapped tightly around him by forcefully expanding his chest with a mighty inhalation.
Joseph Greenstein made a lifelong study of the Kabbalah, a Jewish mystical tradition, and among many of his insights he found inspiring connections between the Kabbalah’s “inner light” and the Chinese and Japanese notions of life force which we often hear referred to as “chi.” It was the quest for mastery of his life force and the demonstration of its power that was Joe Greenstein’s personal “spiritual endeavor.”
“This spirituality which he sought was pragmatic, for the higher his understanding, the greater the result in his physical performance. For him, the bending of metal became a spiritual endeavor. An indescribable impulse, a wave of energy, would sweep over him, as if it were no longer himself but something much greater. He could feel it being transmitted out of his eyes and converging into the shiny steel, feel the waves of it over his face, coursing through his hands. And at the zenith of this moment, when he had pitted his very being against the center point of the object: “…you will give way…NOW!” The mind commanded, the body reacted, and the object inevitably succumbed.” –Ed Spielman, The Mighty Atom, The Spiritual Journey of Joseph L. Greenstein
Unlike the unnamed woman who had one extraordinary moment of love, but never experienced it again, Paramhansa Yogananda, author of Autobiography of a Yogi, experienced such profound love daily.
“Thrill after thrill! Like gentle zephyrs His love comes over the soul. Day and night, week after week, year after year, it goes on increasing—you don’t know where the end is.” –Paramhansa Yogananda, yoga master
Unlike Ruth Stone’s highly unusual and unpredictable gifts of poetry, the famous composer Johannes Brahms could deliberately enter a deep state of concentration and receive his musical compositions, “in a semi-trance condition….”
“Straightaway the ideas flow in upon me, directly from God, and not only do I see distinct themes in my mind’s eye, but they are clothed in the right forms, harmonies and orchestration. Measure by measure, the finished product is revealed to me…. I have to be in a semi-trance condition to get such results—a condition when the conscious mind is in temporary abeyance…. I have to be careful, however, not to lose consciousness, otherwise the ideas fade away.” –Johannes Brahms
Unlike Edgar Mitchell’s life-changing but never-again-personally-achieved perception of interconnectedness and harmony, the philosopher, yogi, and poet Sri Aurobindo of India states from his own experience that we can “infallibly awaken this presence within us”:
“In our ordinary life this truth is hidden from us or only dimly glimpsed at times or imperfectly held and conceived. But if we learn to live within, we infallibly awaken to this presence within us which is our more real self, a presence profound, calm, joyous . . . of which the world is not the master.” –Sri Aurobindo
Unlike Lindberg’s one-time experience of life-saving awareness, Paramhansa Yogananda had innumerable body-transcending experiences brought about, not by extreme life-threatening circumstances, but through dedicated meditation, including one in which “ordinary frontal vision was now changed to a vast spherical sight….”:
“My body became immovably rooted; breath was drawn out of my lungs as if by some huge magnet. Soul and mind instantly lost their physical bondage, and streamed out like a fluid piercing light from my every pore. The flesh was as though dead, yet in my intense awareness I knew that never before had I been fully alive. My sense of identity was no longer narrowly confined to a body, but embraced the circumambient atoms. People on distant streets seemed to be moving gently over my own remote periphery. The roots of plants and trees appeared through a dim transparency of the soil; I discerned the inward flow of their sap. The whole vicinity lay bare before me. My ordinary frontal vision was now changed to a vast spherical sight, simultaneously all-perceptive.” –Paramhansa Yogananda, yoga master
Unlike Maurice Bucke, who never had again his singular transcendent experience, Britain and Ireland’s Poet Laureate, Alfred Lord Tennyson (1809–1892), had similar experiences that he described in his memoirs as having “often come upon me.”
“A kind of waking trance (this for lack of a better word) I have frequently had quite up from boyhood, when I have been all alone. This has often come upon me through repeating my own name to myself silently, till all at once as it were out of the intensity of the consciousness of individuality the individuality itself seemed to dissolve and fade away into boundless being—and this not a confused state but the clearest of the clearest, the surest of the surest, utterly beyond words—where Death was an almost laughable impossibility—the loss of personality (if so it were) seeming no extinction but the only true life.” —Alfred Lord Tennyson, Poet Laureate of Great Britain and Ireland
In far less dramatic circumstances, and with far less dramatic results, I also had an extraordinary and life-changing experience not readily explainable by science. Mine occurred during my college years when I took a hallucinogenic drug. During the experience, and for days afterward, I felt as I had never before felt. I was completely at ease with myself. All the usual cares of life dropped away. I was spontaneously and generously giving and caring in all my encounters with other people. I quickly accomplished all my usual tasks with relaxed concentration, energy, and success. I was effortlessly happy in a way that had nothing to do with whether good things or bad were happening in my life. I had insights into myself and unlooked for clarity about what I would become and do in my life—insights and clarity that have remained true to this day. The entire experience felt sacred: I was conscious that an unseen but deeply felt Presence was giving me a gift to awaken me. It was beyond wonderful.
(Lest you draw the wrong conclusion, I do not recommend that anyone try hallucinogenic drugs. There is no guarantee that you would have a transformative experience such as mine. I had other experiences with hallucinogenic drugs during my college days and none other were like the one I describe—in fact there were some that were confusing and unpleasant. More importantly, I don’t recommend taking such drugs simply because you don’t need them. As you will learn in this book there are many safer and more reliable ways to tap into your highest potentials. In particular, I have found that through meditation I can consistently return to the essence of my experience—not every day, and not always as deeply, although sometimes deeper yet, and, best yet, over time my meditation-supported awareness has transformed me and awakened potentials I had never before truly known I had.)
While mainstream science attributes such experiences to mere accidental biochemistry, stories such as the Mighty Atom’s or Yogananda’s, and scores more I will share ahead, strongly challenge the notion that such extraordinary experiences are only irreproducible and accidental flukes of biology. These individuals have been able, at will, repeatedly to demonstrate such abilities and intentionally attain such high levels of awareness.
Furthermore, when the individuals who have had such experiences are asked about them, they have no doubt whatsoever that their abilities and perceptions arise from a source beyond the brain and body. In fact, a shared theme that runs through the extraordinary experiences of all those who have had them, either by accident or through deliberate preparation, is the sense of tapping into something greater, something that transcends normal physical awareness and abilities.
“There are moments of glory that go beyond the human expectation, beyond the physical and emotional ability of the individual. Something unexplainable takes over and breathes life into the known life. Call it a state of grace, or an act of faith . . . or an act of God. It is there, and the impossible becomes possible. . . . The athlete goes beyond herself; she transcends the natural. She touches a piece of heaven and becomes the recipient of power from an unknown source. The power goes beyond that which can be defined as physical or mental. The performance almost becomes a holy place—where a spiritual awakening seems to take place. The individual becomes swept up in the action around her—she almost floats through the performance, drawing on forces she has never previously been aware of.” –Patsy Neal, Women’s Basketball Hall of Famer
This experience of something greater, whether experienced mentally, emotionally, or perceptually, is described in the various stories above as both human and sacred, both natural to us and beyond the physical limitations of our perception. But because most of today’s enormously influential and commonly shared scientific models rest entirely on the assumption that everything we can do or experience has to be a result solely of physical laws, physical reality, and the resulting physical abilities of the body and brain, for many people, this something greater is difficult to embrace.
Yet today’s mainstream scientific models come with a high and generally unrecognized price. The assumption that we are nothing more than higher animals, governed by physics, biology, familial and societal conditioning, and instinctive drives, imposes a built-in limit to what people believe they can do and perceive. Such an assumption appears to eliminate the possibility that the abilities and perceptions described in the stories told above are anything more than curious anomalies—if true at all—let alone potentially accessible to everyone.
“The story of the human race is the story of men and women selling themselves short.” –Abraham Maslow, pioneering psychologist
Rebelling against the inbuilt and limiting material assumptions of mainstream science, many people turn to spiritual teachings, especially Eastern experiential teachings, which offer an expansive vision of our highest potentials, and which can also explain extraordinary anomalies of human behavior such as the ones shared in the stories above.
At the same time those drawn to Eastern experiential spirituality’s model of the highest human potentials often find it difficult to integrate its conceptual framework with the conceptual framework of science and neuroscience with which they are more familiar. Confronted with the hoary dictum, atman is Brahman (the soul is God), most Westerners, and most Easterners for that matter, have no idea how to put that stirring wisdom into action when going to work on Monday morning. Finding such wisdom out of practical reach, and unable to explain it even to themselves using their own understanding of science or neuroscience, they can find themselves in a confused no-man’s-land between science and spirituality, drawn to concepts from both, but unable to reconcile them, and so gaining the full benefit of neither.
I have found, however, that the discoveries of science and direct experiential spiritual perceptions are not inherently incompatible—neither conceptually nor practically. Important discoveries in science and, particularly, neuroscience dovetail with the insights of experiential spirituality. In particular, experimental science and experiential spirituality both reveal how our brain can be rewired to awaken our vast human potentials. I hope to convince you that the extraordinary feats and experiences of Lindberg, Brahms, and the Mighty Atom are not irreproducible and freakish outliers of human experience but rather harbingers of your own high potentials.
You probably have no interest in bending steel bars like the Mighty Atom, but you are likely to want to tap into more energy to do the things you want to do. You are unlikely to want to be chased across the landscape by poems, but you are likely to want to make your life more creative, whether in the traditional paths of the artist, or in your work and personal life. You may not think you are ready to experience the vast embrace of the universe that astronaut Edgar Mitchell experienced on his return from the moon, but you are likely to want to feel a deeper, more heart-felt connection to friends, family, and humanity. You may not (yet) feel any desire to transcend your physical body like Lindberg, Yogananda, Bucke, and Tennyson but I’m almost certain you are attracted by the possibility of experiencing such rich feelings of Love and Unity.
The key to accessing your highest potentials is to rewire your brain so that you can become more superconsciously aware. The term superconsciousness is used by many humanistic and transpersonal psychologists, as well as by contemporary spiritual teachers, to describe an always present reality accessible to everyone. Awareness of the superconscious is not an experience that comes only when in dire need nor one that only the exceptional manage to access. It is central to your being and it is almost certain that you have already experienced the superconscious, even if only momentarily: when you had the perfect idea come to you at just the right moment; when you had accurate intuitive hunches about how things would unfold; when you got a mysterious and welcome “second-wind” in the midst of a physical challenge; when you were moved to unexpected compassion; when you had a magic moment of awe in the midst of nature’s beauty and bounty; when you had a tantalizing frisson of something greater within you.
Superconsciousness is not an odd and unusual expression of human consciousness. It is the other way around: your everyday awareness is only a limited expression of your unlimited superconscious potential. Your innate superconscious awareness gives you access to worlds unseen, to realities beyond the physical. When accessed, your superconscious transforms you, like a river that carries you to a wider sea. It uplifts, improves, enables, inspires, exalts, energizes, and ennobles anyone who taps into it. It is the secret to success, love, health, peak experience, and happiness. It is the bridge between you and God, between your soul and Spirit.
“You were born with wings. Why prefer to crawl through life?” –Rumi, Sufi mystic
Copyright: Joseph Selbie, 2022