[CollegeContemplative will feature Guest Bloggers from October 2013-February 2014. Welcome, Bart Everson!]
Hello, it’s me again, Bart Everson. In my introductory post I promised to trace my personal journey. So here goes nothing.
I take my own story as a starting point in hopes of illuminating the connection between personal experience and professional life, in hopes of showing how one person’s development can inform a program of development.
I was raised in a suburb of a major Midwestern metropolis. Though I attended public school, I was given a thorough religious education through a doctrinally-conservative Protestant church.
At age 17 I experienced a “falling away” from the faith of my childhood. It did not feel like a choice. It felt like a nonchoice, a difficult necessity born of cognitive conflict. I simply could not credit the truth-claims of the church any longer. It was painful; I kept this a secret from my family for many years.
I often wondered why many of my apostate peers experienced only a gradual drifting away from religion without much angst. For me it was a sudden, distinct, devastating event. And yet, in retrospect, I feel that my life-journey began with this negation.
Over the coming years, my experience of atheism encompassed a broad range of emotions: pain, sorrow, fear, anger, despair, defiance, confusion, ambivalence, acceptance, compassion, humility, wonder, and even ecstasy.
At age 22 I had a “peak experience”, what might also be called an “episode of unitive consciousness.”
One experiences dissolution of personal boundaries and has a sense of becoming one with other people, with nature, or with the entire universe. This process has a very sacred quality and feels like one is merging with creative cosmic energy, or God. The usual categories of time and space seem to be transcended, and one can have a sense of infinity and eternity. The emotions associated with this state range from profound peace and serenity to exuberant joy and ecstatic rapture. The American psychologist Abraham Maslow, who studied these experiences in many hundreds of people, gave them the name “peak experiences.” (Grof & Grof, 1989)
Though the experience itself seemed outside of time, by objective measures it lasted about five minutes. I spent the next week in an elevated, intensely integrative state. I spent the next year or two trying to write a novel which would somehow capture this indescribable experience. During this same period (perhaps not coincidentally) I was on bad terms with my family; I was finishing up school and supporting myself financially for the first time. I lacked a supportive framework for interpreting the experience or sustaining the sense of value, purpose and meaning.
Many other things happened over the next ten years: I got married. I put the first TV show on the internet. I went back to school and got a graduate degree. I gloss over these major milestones in the interest of brevity.
Coming to Xavier
At age 32 I was hired at Xavier University of Louisiana to work on the staff of the Center for the Advancement of Teaching. I moved to New Orleans and have worked here ever since.
I was hired to help faculty with multimedia production. I had not heard of “faculty development” before this job opportunity, and for years I did not identify myself as a faculty developer. I saw myself as a technology expert and an artist.
The One-Two Punch
Pardon the violent metaphor, but two things happened in the aughts which may have been precursors to later changes. I think of these as a sort of one-two punch.
The first punch came in August of 2005, when Hurricane Katrina made landfall on the Gulf Coast. A failure of federally constructed and maintained infrastructure led to the flooding of 80% of the city of New Orleans, including my neighborhood (Mid-City) and my home. I was 38 at this time.
For approximately the next three years or so, I lived in a state of high anxiety. These were hard times. A friend of mine was murdered. My wife had a painful miscarriage. I did a lot of hard drinking. But I was also highly engaged in my community. For example, I helped found a nonprofit group dedicated to promoting the creation of a multiuse trail through the heart of the city.
The experience of living in post-Katrina New Orleans “softened me up” for the second punch, which came two and a half years after the flood, when my daughter was born. This was five weeks after my 41st birthday.
I realized that I was a part of something bigger than myself.
Over the next couple years I experienced a spiritual awakening. It might be more accurate to call it a re-awakening, as I felt a profound resonance and revival of my experience at age 22. Yet this was much gentler, more like a slow-motion unfolding rather than a soul-shaking explosion.
I didn’t know the term at the time, but it seems like a plateau experience:
This is serene and calm rather than a poignantly emotional, climactic, autonomic response to the miraculous, the awesome, the sacralized, the Unitive, the B-values. So far as I can now tell, the high plateau-experience always has a noetic and cognitive element, which is not always true for peak experiences, which can be purely and exclusively emotional. It is far more voluntary than peak experiences are. One can learn to see in this Unitive way almost at will. It then becomes a witnessing, an appreciating, what one might call a serene, cognitive blissfulness which can, however, have a quality of casualness and of lounging about. (Maslow, 1964)
Eventually my plateau experience started losing its natural momentum. I realized that if I wanted to maintain my personal growth and development, I would have to work at it. You could say that I “got religion” as I slowly began to cobble together a contemplative, eclectic, Earth-centered practice. I desire to honor, celebrate, venerate and attend the larger processes working in and around and through me, through us all.
Many of the specific details of this re-awakening are intertwined with my professional life and faculty development, which I’ll get into next time I post here.
Grof, S., & Grof, C. (1989). Spiritual emergency: when personal transformation becomes a crisis. Los Angeles; New York: Tarcher ; Distributed by St. Martin’s Press.
Maslow, A. H. (1964). Religions, values, and peak-experiences. Columbus: Ohio State University Press.