Persistent forms of nondual awareness, enlightenment, mystical experience, and so forth
(Persistent Non-Symbolic Experience) have been reported since antiquity. Though sporadic research has been performed on them, the research reported here represents the initial report from the first larger scale cognitive psychology study of this population.
A category of human experience has been reported in the writings of philosophers and mystics since antiquity (Hanson, 1991; Stace, 1960). It goes by many names, including: nondual awareness, enlightenment, mystical experience, peak experience, transcendental experience, the peace that passeth understanding, unity consciousness, union with God, and so forth ( Levin & Steele, 2005; MacDonald, 2000; Thomas & Cooper, 1980).
These types of experiences, referred to collectively in this paper as Persistent Non -Symbolic Experience (PNSE), are often reported in spiritual and religious individuals; however, atheists and agnostics also report them (Newberg, d’Aquili, & Rause, 2001; Newberg & Waldman, 2006, 2009).
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Virtually all information about these experiences comes from a highly variable self-reported data (McGinn, 1991; Stace, 1960). These types of experiences have traditionally been regarded as very difficult to examine scientifically. Given the number and range of research tools available it seems increasingly possible to rigorously examine these types of psychological claims. The present research set out to determine testable claims and collect detailed first person data in a way that side-stepped the religious, cultural, and other contextual ways in which PNSE is often described. Questions were asked that related to: sense of self, cognition, emotion, memory, and perception. The results suggested that similar psychological claims, in distinct groupings, were present across individuals self-reporting PNSE. These distinct groupings each appeared to offer a specific flavor of the experience.
Defining the Phrase: Persistent Non-Symbolic Experience (PNSE)
It was difficult to gain cooperation from this research population. They generally believed they would not and could not be understood scientifically. Finding language that did not push them away during their initial introduction to the research program was extremely important. Over the course of the research I tested a wide variety of words and phrases to find one that wold be widely accepted by them.
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The term non-symbolic was derived from Cook-Greuter’s (2000) research involving ego development and transcendence. While she generally favored the word postsymbolic, she used a term related to non-symbolic in a 2000 paper, in the following context:
Eastern psychologies have often pointed to the nonsymbolically mediated, or immediate ways of knowing as the only kind of knowing that can lead to enlightenment or true insight into human nature. In fact, they cnsider our additiction to language-mediated, discursive thought as a major hurdle in realizing the true or divine Self, or union with the Ground. (Cook-Greuter, p.230).
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