As we journey along the unique and unpredictable roads of spiritual transformation, be it through a one-time event or multiple experiences over many years, it’s common to stumble across the idea that the personal self must be overcome if we’re to grow successfully. Attaining and maintaining transcendent or awakened states require taming the ego, perhaps even quashing it completely, or so many popular teachings seem to profess. Our personality starts to sound like little more than a pothole on the road to embodying expanded ways of being.
Yet as a fellow experiencer of spiritually transformative experiences (STEs) and confidante to other experiencers, I’ve found this message causes confusion. The ego, after all, is the center of one’s field of consciousness and provides a sense of… continuity and identity (Jung, 1921/1990). It’s fundamental to our ability to make sense of who we are and the world we live in. Try reconciling your bank account or planning a birthday party without it!
Psychologically, however, when we attempt to remove or transcend our individual personality, a core part of us gets the message that “you’re not welcome here” and is driven into the shadows where other unaccepted parts of self may also feel shamed and abandoned. Moreover, rejecting what doesn’t fit our idea of how a “spiritually realized being” thinks and acts often plants seeds for the growth of spiritual ego and spiritual bypass.
Thus many experiencers acutely—and sometimes painfully—perceive a split between the existing self with its old, neurotic habits and quirks, and this newly revealed transpersonal self. They may feel “stuck” between worlds. This is problematic not just for an experiencer’s emotional, psychological, and spiritual wellbeing but can also spell disaster in relating with others and fulfilling an integrated life-path.
Having a deep interest in both the personal and transpersonal has led me to question how useful the message to overcome one’s personality really is for the modern person. Is it a true reflection of what happens as ordinary people go through and beyond extraordinary experiences? Or could our innate character instead have some kind of role to play in STEs and the meaning we make of them? Can personality even be helpful? Might it potentially be a necessary part of those experiences?
I explored these questions in my doctoral research by interviewing 20 people who had come through one or more non-ordinary transcendent experiences (NOTEs) that significantly changed their lives. Here’s what emerged from the research:
It turns out the dominant aspects of one’s personality do indeed appear to influence STEs, their aftereffects, and the meanings we make of them. For example, someone who tends to be a conceptual and abstract thinker in ordinary life, may report encountering highly conceptual and abstract content during their experience (the type that “blows the mind”) and may also afterwards rely on their power of thought to make sense of what occurred.
Another, who tends to be more relationship and socially focused in daily life, may report an experience that was particularly moving on the level of meaningful connection, and may integrate the experience by deepening their relationships with and service to other living beings. This doesn’t mean the abstract thinker won’t experience deep connection or the relationship-focused experiencer won’t encounter abstract thought; rather, one’s dominant traits seem simply to reveal what one will be more naturally focused on during and after the experience.
Thus, the personal appears to play an important role in helping to comprehend the transpersonal in a way best suited for each experiencer. In other words, how we make sense of things in ordinary life colors how we make sense of STEs, much as it would for any other transformative event. This explains why two people may share a similar near-death experience, for example, but come to wildly different conclusions about why it happened and what it meant, and use very different language to describe the experience.
It also emerged that personality traits appear to have transcendent dimensions. Using Jung’s model of psychological types (1921/1990), which describes eight tendencies of life-force energy that in their totality shape a personality, the research shed new light on the extraordinary aspects of these ordinary modes of human consciousness. They’re described here as eight gifts (Johnston, 2016). These descriptions were originally written for the ACISTE Cultural Competency Guidelines manual, a valuable reference for those working with experiencers of STEs.
The Aesthetic Gift (what Jung calls Introverted Sensation) perceives luminous innervations (i.e. enhanced perceptions) that transform outer objects in immanent ways. During or after an STE those with a dominant preference for this type may experience an increase in creative flow, perceive spirit throughout the physical world, have profound somatic energy experiences, and may be able to access the eternal through the present moment.
The Visionary Gift (Introverted Intuition) receives luminous visions of images, symbols, and sequences that transcend ordinary time and space. During or after an STE, those with a dominant preference for this type may experience a heightened ability to read symbolically and synchronistically, experience greater flexibility of psychic boundaries, know or see existence in holotropic/transcendent ways, and may experience spontaneous witnessing states.
The Idealistic Gift (Introverted Feeling) connects to deeply felt luminous ideals that possess timeless holistic value. During or after an STE, those with a dominant preference for this type may experience an increased sense of calling, purpose and/or mission in life; perceive humanity’s interconnectedness; describe personal, collective, transpersonal, or mythical themes of light versus dark; and experience heightened feeling tones.
The Conceptual Gift (Introverted Thinking) organizes thoughts to fill out and clarify a luminous holistic idea. During or after an STE, those with a dominant preference for this type may experience an enhanced quality of information and ideas, perceive holistic templates sometimes via an epiphany, and may seek explanations for their STE in scientific theories particularly in the field of quantum physics.
The Realistic Gift (Extraverted Sensation) perceives facts of the physical world in luminous ways with heightened access to what is. During or after an STE, those with a dominant preference for this type may experience a heightened sense of being in the physical world, spontaneous here-and-now, Zen-like experiences, greater access to and knowledge of the facts of the world, and may seek practical forms of staying grounded.
The Catalytic Gift (Extraverted Intuition) perceives luminous possibilities and catalyzes expansive potentials in the world. During or after an STE, those with a dominant preference for this type may engage the expansiveness of their own and others potentials, experience something seemingly impossible made possible, and have a sense of being an active co-creator in the world where they take tangible, impactful steps towards co-creation.
The Social Gift (Extraverted Feeling) experiences luminous empathy that creates social harmony and benevolent action in the world. During or after an STE, those with a dominant preference for this type may feel profoundly attuned to social harmony and/or disturbed by social disharmony, develop deepened empathy and compassion, form a benevolent outlook and take concrete actions to better the lives of others, and experience heightened sensitivity to loving and being loved.
The Constructive Gift (Extraverted Thinking) perceives and constructs practical luminous order in the world. As there were no research participants with this as a dominant type, the definition provided here is purely hypothetical. Future research is needed to find how this type preference may impact STEs and their aftereffects.
Experiencers often say their STE(s) made them more of who they really are, helped them to come to know their “true” self, or even “upgraded” them to a higher level of functioning and being. Such statements agree with the finding that one’s innate personality is a pivotal part of one’s experience and can aid in its integration towards a more aligned way of being.
The takeaway? Do what works best for you. Go with the natural flow. This way, moving through an STE and its integration become far smoother. Our personalities reflect not only the parts of us that need to grow and develop, but also beautifully shape the unique gifts we are called to offer the world.
So is personality ultimately a hindrance or a help to STEs? Like all great paradoxes, there’s room for both arguments and many nuances in between. Although this article presents evidence pointing toward the helpfulness of personality, the counter argument remains both a popular and an ancient one for good reason. A healthy debate would be another article entirely. As always, it’s up to experiencers themselves to determine what rings true as we each do our best to navigate these uncharted territories.
ACISTE (2017). Cultural Competencies Guidelines. Retrieved from https://aciste.org/competency-guidelines-for-professionals/
Gruel, N. (2017). AfterNOTEs: non-ordinary transcendent experiences and their aftereffects though Jung’s typology. (doctoral dissertation). California Institute of Integral Studies, California. ProQuest Number 10274326.
Johnston, J. (2016). Jung’s indispensable compass: Navigating the dynamics of psychological types. Perrysburg, OH: MSE Press.
Jung, C. G. (1990). Psychological types (R. F. C. Hull’s rev. of H. G. Baynes, Trans.). In H. Read, M. Fordham, G. Adler, & R. F. C. Hull (Eds.), Collected works of C. G. Jung, Vol. 6 (2nd ed.). Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. (Original work published 1921)