The Highly Sensitive Person

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Back to Comfort ZoneNovember 2005: Comfort Zone ONLINE
Sensitive Spirituality:
The Highly Sensitive Person and the Numinous

The obvious has occurred to me, finally: Compared to others, most HSPs crave contact with the "numinous." I suspect you sense what I'm referring to, even if this is a new word for you. Carl Jung used this term, which he borrowed from Rudolf Otto, who wrote about it in his book, The Idea of the Holy. Holiness, sacredness, the religious experience--whatever you call it, according to Otto, it has a specific yet inexpressible quality. That is, those who have had it know what it is, but part of its nature is that there are no good words to describe it. Still, we want one, and one that's worthy of it, so I am grateful for Otto's term, "numinous" (although also fearful it will become overused, like many other such terms, so let's keep it to ourselves).

How did Otto arrive at "numinous"? According to Lionel Corbett, writing in The Religious Function of the Psyche (which I reviewed in the May 2001 issue), Otto took his term "from the Latin numen, meaning a god, cognate with the verb nuere, to nod or beckon, indicating divine approval" (p. 11). God beckons approvingly. Good enough.

The numinous stirs us, creates a particular emotional state, what Otto calls the mysterium tremendum. Usually this feeling, or the source of it, is interpreted as God, but for some it might be the Absolute, or the Ancestors, or simply the uncanny, the supernatural. Paradoxically, this "particular" state can take many forms. For example, often it causes one to feel small, a mere creature. But sometimes the self or soul ceases to identify with the individual body and expands to become one with the One, not small at all. To some degree our culture or spiritual beliefs dictate the specific feelings we'll--swept into a trance, or a violent ecstasy, or reduced to a silent prayer or a deep peace. But some people seem to have known almost every type of emotional state associated with the numinous.

What are some of these emotional states? We all know about subtle peace and sweetness--certain music creates it, or being in nature, or with a loved one. The numinous form of this peace is even stronger--a deep, sweet tranquility, security, or knowingness. It may last quite a while--"forever" would be the goal for most who have had the experience. But usually it fades back into the every-day, nonreligious mood.

Another common emotion, transformed in this setting, is love or devotion. This love is felt towards something or someone, or is received from something or someone, but it is not a love between creatures. It is something more. Or the emotion may be terror, dread--but it's nothing like ordinary fear. It's the sense of being in the presence of this mysterium tremendum. Or the emotion may be ecstasy, contained inside or leading to intoxicating frenzy, even wild, demonic, or cruel behavior.

All of these emotions may come slowly, stealing over one during a day of meditating or a night of drumming and dancing, or arrive suddenly, as an eruption from the depths of the soul.

What is the nature of the cause of these emotions? Whether we witness it in quiet awe or are swept away by it--it feels mysterious and "above all creatures." It is also, for at least that moment, objective and true, outside the self, not subjective or psychological. It is "wholly other," whether God or the Void or the ghosts. So it produces a wonder and astonishment. And these special emotions and their mysterious source--all of it is extremely alluring. And, I think that for some reason it is even more so with HSPs.

Is It Real?

To some of you it will be important to digress for a moment into the question that comes up for many people with western, scientific educations, and that is, is the numinous actually objective and outside of the self? Or is that an illusion, a trick of the brain, a product of evolution, with evolution being the product of random mutations selected for by various randomly occurring environments. The objective reality of what is experienced as numinous is an issue that Corbett and Jung, as psychologists, not theologians, prefer to side step. They would leave that question up to theologians, and perhaps to each of us.

But I think it is important to note that our interpretation of our experience or that of others has enormous effects. If what's numinous were "objective," then it seems that it would be true, a fact, God's truth in this case, and it would seem that everyone ought to believe it, which leads to religious wars as well as people trying to believe in something they have heard about but never personally experienced, because the one who had the experience says it is Truth. On the other hand, if it is seen as a purely subjective, personal experience, that is often taken to mean, as I was saying, that the experience is numinous, but its source is not. The experience is only a psychological instinct, capacity, or tendency to see or believe that there is something real out there.

For a very entertaining exploration of these two positions, watch the 1997 movie Contact, about an imagined first communication with extraterrestrials. The public issue became, as I think it actually would, a burning question about whether God was sending the message or had God been our mistaken name for these extraterrestrials? And do we tell extraterrestrials about God, like missionaries, or will they tell us? It's based on a novel by Carl Sagan, and has Jodie Foster in the lead, so it's more than a cheap sci fi thriller.

There are solutions to this conundrum, such as that everything numinous has the same source, an outer source, but we each experience it through a personal lens. But then one still wants to ask, what source? Some would say this lens still would have to be something that evolved because it provided some survival benefit, so the source has to be something real that, if we ignored it, then ignoring it would reduce our odds of surviving. So it might be that very young children who experience their parents as numinous are more likely to survive, or in our past survival was enhanced for those adults who experienced nature, the sun, or even just very large animals as numinous--that is, as both profoundly, mysteriously dangerous and also as a source of all the important things in life, to be worshiped and at times to feel secure because it is nearby. And perhaps those who worship the ancestors are more likely to survive because, for example, they are more likely to heed traditional wisdom. Or one could argue, and some have, that more evolved beings gave us the ability to sense themselves, to be able to tune into their "frequencies."

But enough of, "is it real."

What's It Good For?

Some people would say that numinous experiences, as they have led to organized religion, are the source of most of the world's problems--war, fanaticism, intolerance, and divine permission for all sorts of excesses. But an equal number would say that the numinous has granted us or given authority to our greatest moral teachings, our finest art and other aspects of culture, and the reasons we should go on living--something humans seem to need very much.

A central tenet of Jungian psychology is that the numinous heals us. The numinous was Carl Jung's real interest, from boyhood--not studying or treating mental illness. It was mine too. But fortunately for all of us, it turned out that the numinous does seem to heal mental illness, as shamans and other healers have always known. Thus Jungians look for and find the numinous in dreams, in waking visions and "active imagination," in the numinous aspects of therapy relationships and other relationships outside of therapy, in spontaneous artistic productions, and in meaningful coincidences or synchronistic events, which become unusually common while engaged in deep inner work. (Synchronicities are events that are connected for a reason, but not by the usual physical causes--for example, you dream about a turtle and the next day you see a turtle for the first time in years, then hear a song about a turtle, and have someone call you a turtle because of your hard shell.) Jungians will interpret this material, finding it symbolic of something personal (maybe, "you spend a lot of time in your shell"), but also symbolic of an aspect of the numinous itself (for example, in some creation myths, the universe is carried by the turtle). Finding a personal link to the numinous is often exceedingly meaningful and healing in itself, for many reasons you can imagine. It is part of why HSPs do well in, and like so much, Jungian psychotherapy.

HSPs and the Numinous

I am not sure how much HSPs differ from others about this, but I am certain, first, that HSPs have numinous experiences fairly regularly or readily. Second, they crave such experiences, which may be due either to who we are or what the numinous is.

One indicator of my first point, that we have many such experiences, is that as a group we report more vivid, unusual dreams. Dreams can be numinous--that is, they produce the emotions I've described, along with seeming to come from elsewhere and leading to a desire for more such dreams, even if they are upsetting. But HSPs also spontaneously report visions, blissful meditations, moments of ecstasy in nature, while listening to music, during a religious ritual, or during prayer, and much more.

Second, about our craving for all of this, why would that be stronger in us? Does our craving simply motivate us to seek to experience more of the numinous, or is it something else about us? I can only speculate. It could be the result of our processing things more deeply, so that we reach these "transpersonal" levels more readily. Or it could be the result of our pondering more deeply the difficult questions, such as what happens after I die or why is there so much suffering, and that this questioning itself somehow leads to the numinous. Or perhaps we are the ones who suffer so much, and so must find some comfort in something greater, so that with or without craving it, it comes to us more.

Some would argue that HSPs are simply by nature psychic sensitives, "good receivers" of communications that are always there, coming in nonmaterial ways. Others would argue that we were created by the divine in order to bear witness to or guide others to the numinous.

What's The Bottom Line?

Enough about things I have no answer to. I can now write the few sentences I wanted to say all along.

How are you feeling these days? Do you feel better when you have been touched by the numinous? Has it happened lately, and if not, why? As an HSP, it could be that you need such experiences as much as you need food, water, and air. And we live in a world where numinosity is as threatened with contaminants as are the rest of life's necessities. Indeed, for some reason, it seems to me that our media constantly diminishes the numinous by making fun of it or trying to usurp it for commercial or political purposes. I'm not imagining some conspiracy. It seems to just happen--people outdo each other in calling up the sacred for non-sacred purposes such as making "edgy" jokes. Our bulldozers remove the wild places in nature where it might happen. Casual friends may become uncomfortable if they sense it in your life. Sacred space always needs protection; it's always sensitive. My point is, if you aren't careful, you will begin to suffer from a kind of subtle malnutrition in this area without hardly noticing, and if you do notice, you may not know what to do. Join a church? Practice yoga?

I believe it requires real thought to make space for the numinous in life. By this I do not mean creating a numinous experience. That would be the opposite of what it is. I'm just fairly certain you can make it hard to have the numinous overtake you. For example, you won't remember dreams very often (although you always have them) if you work all evening, get ready for bed late, do crossword puzzles in bed, then wake up in the morning to an alarm. Remembering your dreams require you to be rested, and they also seem to like it when you turn your mind to a deep personal question or to anything deeper before sleep. I guess it shows you're interested in what the psyche has to say. So, in the morning you also must have time to remember as you are waking what you dreamed during the night.

The same applies to other ways of making space for the numinous. Sometimes exhaustion helps, but usually it does not. Sometimes these things happen in the middle of work, but not often. Sometimes they happen to us even though everyone around us has rarely had a numinous experience and wouldn't care if they did, but usually it helps to know some people who support your experiences and with whom you can share yours, even a little. On the other hand, getting on the internet and emailing all of your friends about you numinous dream may bring a good response, but often these experiences flourish better in an atmosphere of privacy, even sanctity.

Finally, emotion is central to numinous experiences. Do you squash yours? Fear them? Experience them vicariously by watching TV or reading newspapers? Is there a place where you can explore them, talk with someone who shares your craving? Or perhaps by journaling, drawing your dream images, talking to the animals, the trees? Listening to your body? It's an organ of emotions, in every sense.

I don't mean to preach. Only to remind you, and to keep The Comfort Zone a place that is friendly to the numinous.

November 2005 Articles:
A Letter from Elaine
Sensitive Spirituality: The Highly Sensitive Person and the Numinous
Coping Corner: Teaching HSCs And HSPs to Swim, Drive, or Anything Else
Sensitive (Mental) Health: HSPs and Burnout

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