April 11, 1999, in Washburn, WI.
Ellen: It’s good to be here with you. We are in Washburn, Wisconsin, on the 11th of April 1999, with Dr. Michael Piechowski. Or am I pronouncing it correctly?
Michael: Very good.
Ellen: Good. Thank you, Michael. I’m glad to be here with you. To talk about all of this stuff.
Michael: Well, it’s good to have you here, Ellen.
Ellen: Good, good. As you know, my project relates to underserved gifted students, and I’m wondering if you can tell me what group, or groups, of students—of gifted students—you feel are particularly underserved these days.
Michael: Well, the first one that come to my mind are the free spirits. Those who do not function well in structured classrooms, and they function best if they are unrestricted, free, and that’s when they are creative, imaginative, engaged, always finding new things to do and learn. So that’s the one group, the free spirits, the very creative free spirits. The other one that I thought about is the delinquents. Because as we know from many studies, and Ken Seeley’s especially, there is a very high proportion of gifted youth in prisons, and homes for juvenile delinquents. So they certainly are not served very well. They are not served at all.
Ellen: People look at them as problem children.
Michael: Yeah. Well, they weren’t served well before they took the path of discharging the intelligence and energy in unacceptable ways.
Ellen: I know how a number of people who suggested I come talk to you also suggested to me spiritually gifted students. Is this a category you would add to the other two, or?
Michael: I don’t know if it’s a category to be added to, because spiritual life is for the most part very hidden. And people talk about experiences often years and years later in their life that they had as children. I think the principle here that applies is the same everywhere. When the child talks about an unusual experience, the best and the only right thing you can do is to listen and appreciate it. But, as it happens, children are told that this is either wrong, or people get scared and that it’s too unusual, that it’s weird. Or they are accused of lies. I mean that’s very common that people don’t know anything about it, or to whom it is occult or something like that, um, or they disbelieve that the children actually report a true experience.
I have seen accounts of it in several places where someone in the family—grandmother or someone else—said that the child should be punished. Or they were punished. For telling lies. Which is no different from children who bring in an original piece of work and the teacher doesn’t believe that they wrote it.
Ellen: It’s not honoring the child.
Michael: It’s not honoring the child. It’s not trusting the child, and as one of my younger friends said, why do we require children to trust adults when we don’t trust children? Right? So this boils down to really one answer to all your questions.
Ellen: [Laughter.] OK. So?
Michael: That we all listen well. And listen with appreciation of the other. Whether the other is 2 years old or 200 years old. And that is what is missing.
Michael: People who go through counseling learn to listen. Unless they go through a counseling program that gives them formulas, you know. Put people in categories or something like that. But the basic skills of counseling are listening skills, the basic skills of conflict resolution are listening skills—to hear what the person has to say. Well, it applies to children. All kinds of children. And it’s particularly critical with gifted children because they are so disbelieved by adults, and because they don’t fit in so well. So that’s what we need to do. And that’s it. [Laughter.]
Ellen: Talk to me a little bit about gifted kids and particularly the ones that you’ve expressed concern about: the free spirits, and the delinquent kids, the kids at risk, the spiritually gifted kids. Kids that don’t fit in.
Michael: Well, the free spirits…schools sometimes can be so hard for them that they come home and get sick and vomit and have all kinds of horrible somatic reactions. And, you know, and we push them back in the classroom. They then come across as abnormal. They are labeled with some kind of pathology, which is simply the lack of fit between the child and the environment. In this case, classroom. Or the peer group, or whatever it may be. We know of many gifted children who are in families that don’t understand them, or the families are dysfunctional, so they don’t get any support. And because they don’t get any support, they don’t feel that they are worth anything. And it’s very hard from the outside to persuade them to capitalize on their gifts because 90% of them don’t have the resilience. From the studies that have been done, we know that 10% of those that come from very dysfunctional, abusive backgrounds have the resilience, but there’s 90% of them who do not have the resilience. The resilient ones are—in strange ways, they are able to figure out that what’s being done to them shouldn’t be happening. They somehow are able to step out, have a different perspective on it, and see that they don’t belong there.
And together with that, they have the…which is a gift…of taking the little bit that someone else would give them, or find such people, and make the most of it. The little bit of support, the little bit of recognition, the little bit of kindness. And the studies that have been done show that it’s really not very much, but they can really draw huge interest on it. They can, in their imagination, they can go back to it and elaborate on it, or the cases of the people who go to childhood experiences and remember the days when things were good. And, for instance, Eleanor Roosevelt lost her father when she was 8 or 9, and all her life she carried his letters to her. He was a reliable father, he had disappointed her many times by forgetting about her and things like that, but he also brought…he felt, when she was that young, that he was the only one that she said who didn’t treat her as a criminal. Because from everyone else she was criticized for not being pretty or being too lively, or too sensitive, or whatever. But that sustained her. That sustained her, and I found other examples of people who really were sustained by memories. They had this inner faith, and who can use these little bit that’s given them, and get themselves out of situations which to others is unbearable, destructive, leads them to mental illness and suicide. And there is a difference. That’s 90% of everyone else. So there is huge amount of work to do for the whole society.
The other trouble is that we live in a society which does not value children. I have lived in this country now for so many years, I didn’t know how much I have absorbed the daily climate here. And one day I was watching a film about Kurdish people who decided to scrape up everything, take one of their boys, leave their other children with their parents. They were very poor farmers. And arrange to be smuggled into Switzerland. So they traveled from Turkey to Italy, traveled through Italy to meet the smugglers in the mountain region, where they made arrangements to be smuggled across the border. The three of them. When they arrived there, the smugglers looked at them and said, we knew nothing about the child. And what did I expect—that the smuggler would be rough, aggressive, unpleasant to the kid. Instead, they were…you know, they just responded to a child in a kind, even loving way. And that was when I realized, with a shock, that I expected them to act the way we see people act in grocery stores, supermarkets, or in movies toward children. An angry, aggressive way. Children being an inconvenience. That’s it.
I found evidence of that somewhere else, an anthropologist who spent 2 years, I think, in India. And their boy was growing up, he was only seven years old, people were interested in him, they played with him, interested in him, and then, when they got on the plane going back to the United States, he realized that something was different. Because people were telling the children hush up, and all that, and he caught on very quickly that the climate he was moving to was not friendly to children. So is it any wonder that we have such a hard time getting the programs for the gifted? Because they are children.
Ellen: Does this have an impact on them differently because of their giftedness?
Michael: Well, anything outside of the norm. School is a place of socialization. Of, as Miraca Gross said, cutting the tall poppies so that everything is even. OK. To fit in, and carry out the program that has been set out. That’s what we have. So there is anyone who is doing something different becomes an inconvenience. And teachers are overloaded. We cannot blame the teachers, always, because they have become overloaded, overburdened. The pressures and demands on them are too great. They have too many diverse kinds of children to deal with, because we have exceptionalities all over the place, and we have now different cultures entering the picture. It’s expecting too much of a teacher to deal with all of that. And then, also, be able to differentiate curriculum for the one or two highly gifted children who all of the sudden are there.
Ellen: What about the response of the gifted child himself or herself to this attitude towards children that you’re talking about? Does it affect them differently because of their own… is their own internal response different because of their giftedness?
Michael: Well because they see what’s going on much more clearly than other children. And they can…they are quite capable some of them to adapt on the surface, and play the role of the model student while at the same time knowing that they are not learning very much in the school. They are just doing time. Now, these are the ones who find…who find ways to adapt, but then that conflict has to be handled somewhere else. So either they become difficult at home, or they spend time playing Nintendo games all the time, which engages their energy, or something else is happening that they have to unload because they are really serving time every day. So that is one thing that happens. Now the other ones are so offended by having to work below level that they refuse to hand in work. And they rebel. Which is pretty good because they are still in… a lot of life and energy in them to rebel, but it’s trouble for everyone. It’s trouble for parents, trouble for school, and so on. And then the others get depressed. They become ungifted.
Ellen: Well, a lot of people don’t think you can become ungifted. They think the gifted will always make it.
Ellen: Tell me a little more about this becoming ungifted.
Michael: Stephanie Tolan has said it best. That if you have an athlete who runs well, if you draw lines and say, well you have to put your feet in between the lines, you cannot run faster than that, well, that athlete is not going to develop his abilities. He will be frustrated. And that’s what is happening to gifted children. And there are other dangers that the gifted children who…because nothing…they are not presented with the challenge which is appropriate to their level. They develop the habit of coasting, and then because they are always the best because it’s so easy for them, then they are afraid to meet the challenge, and would avoid it at any cost because the fear of failure all of the sudden being shown with something they cannot do, is putting them in the position of… their status is threatened. Which is quite understandable because adults do the same thing. So, yeah. There are all kinds of risks.
Ellen: You mentioned resilience before and I would like to go back to that for just a minute. Where does the resilience come from, that that 10% has? What do you think?
Michael: No one knows.
Ellen: Any theories?
Michael: The only theories are that there is some magical endowment that the child is born with, to be able to discern these things, and we would really have to go…. if we really want to understand things like that the same way we try to understand the highly gifted. If we don’t look at previous lives, we will never understand it in the framework of one life that…as we are working with. That’s pretty clear. I mean, why should some child’s nervous system take off so fast, and develop so fast, and mature so fast that they can start talking before year one in complete sentences. It cannot be just a biological phenomenon. It only looks like one, but we have a long way to go to understand these things.
Ellen: Is there something we can do to help children develop resilience?
Michael: Well, that’s an interesting question. The studies of helplessness would say that the way to develop resilience is because we deal both with success and failures. So that we understand that not everything we do is easy. We have the challenges and we understand that having challenges is proper. We can be introduced to examples of great people—whether in science or in art—who have worked on something for a great many years and suffered a great deal of frustration, but they persisted and finally had the solution to a problem. Whether it’s a problem in art or a problem in science. But it was very difficult, and then they often despaired of finding a solution, and that’s normal. And that’s what we know from the studies of helplessness, when we want to avert helplessness, we don’t give children only easy problems. We give them problems they can solve and problems they cannot solve and tell them, well, this one… this requires a little more effort. And that builds resilience and resistance to instant feelings of failure when the first obstacle is encountered.
Ellen: Do you think giftedness helps kids develop resilience? Do gifted kids have more capacity for resilience? [19:36]
Michael: I think that we need to investigate that. I don’t think…. No. I think it depends very much—it’s a combination of the inborn capacity for resilience in some, and in others, it is the way we are raised. And we never know, no matter what people say about the influence of genetics on behavior, and how much plays a role, we cannot decide in individual cases which is more important. We only know that there are cases where the most benign environment, or supportive environment, still was not able to give the kind of self-confidence to a child and a person. So then we can suspect that there must be some epigenetic load of interfering, messing up genes, and things like that. Where people are more prone to depression. In fact, there were data showing that there is more of genetic input toward negative emotions but that the positive ones depend more on the environment we grow up in. So if we grow up in an environment that supports our efforts and builds our confidence, that’s where it comes from. I mean, besides, you know, giftedness is such a spectrum and complex of all kinds of gifts and combinations that it’s impossible to decide for the gifted, whether by themselves…they have more capacity for resilience. I don’t think so. It depends on so many other things. [21:34]
Ellen: It seems like maybe we ought to back up and talk a little bit…
Ellen: But this is very interesting. Talk a little bit about how you would define giftedness, how you would describe gifted children in general. Since we’re already talking about the many faces of giftedness, I would like to hear you discuss this a little bit.
Michael: Well, describe them… Well, there is a stronger life force in them. There is more intensity, more vitality, greater depth of feeling, and the differences are not quantitative, they are qualitative. Because the combination of it makes for a difference, a qualitative difference. We just don’t have a continuum from, you know, a little bit more, and a little bit more, and then we get into the gifted range. No, the differences are very distinct. And so it has to do with…Gosh, it has to do with so many things. With the interest level, curiosity about things. Even in the many cases of ability to withstand pressure from the environment. Although many gifted kids are extremely vulnerable to the pressures of adolescence that Mary Pipher has described so well. That even the best prepared, it turns out, can succumb to that tremendous pressures and transitions to feel that we are worth something only if we are attractive to others in one way or another, whether it’s socially or aesthetically or in some other way. You know. [Pause.] My goodness, there’s such a diversity. [Laughter.]
I think that Annemarie Roeper said it best because she said there’s this greater awareness, greater awareness, which is being more strongly plugged into life on many levels. Understanding things, asking questions, feeling more deeply, and seeing possibilities. That’s greater awareness of all levels.
Ellen: So how would you say your work has helped develop understanding or raise consciousness about these children?
Michael: Hm. I think the ways to recognize the different forms of energy, what Dąbrowski called overexcitabilities, that thanks to his model it’s easier to see that higher energy level is not necessary hyperactivity or attention deficit. Because how can it be attention deficit if the kid who never pays attention in class can score so high on a test? Where did he get it from? How did it come into his head? OK? So that’s one of the things. The higher energy level is there, and that’s why it’s very hard for them to sit in one place for a long time.
Recognition of the value of imagination. That it’s essential to being creative. We know from study of creative people that imagination is important, but do we value imagination in children? No. Up to a point. At a certain point it becomes too weird, or we don’t believe it’s original—it’s their own production. And so knowing that this is possible could help someone understand gifted children better. Understand also the need for daydreaming, also understand that maybe daydreaming shouldn’t always be interrupted, because it’s really jarring to the system. If it’s done too much, it’s injurious, because it’s really like a trance state, being absorbed in some imagery. It doesn’t have to be escape, but it’s a basic need, basic necessity for the child. And I know those who said that they get the best ideas at the most inconvenient times. One boy was telling me that he was getting the best ideas for his projects during exams. It was most inconvenient. But he couldn’t help it. [Laughter.] So that’s, again, it’s not uncommon. Then the emotional intensity and sensitivity, which so often—almost always—is seen as immaturity. And seeing that many people say, well, this child cannot go into the gifted program because he’s too immature, when in fact that’s exactly what the child needs, to be in a place where emotional sensitivity and intensity is recognized. But unfortunately, it is so often thought of as being immaturity, or even pathological sensitivity. That something is wrong with the child.
We have not yet been systematically looking at the match between the child and the environment. Or the setting, the context. We take it for granted that the context is OK, and proper, which it often isn’t. And that comes so often with the students I had in teacher education that whenever we came up on a situation when it is to be decided that there is a conflict with a child and the teacher. Should we allow the child to move to another class, and of course, they already are so identified with the establishment they say, no, the child should learn to fit into this class. You know, instead of saying, well, it would be better for the child and the teacher to be in another classroom. We just refuse the rights that we take for granted for ourselves, for children. Why? Why? I always wonder.
We are free to choose our job, we are free to choose our friends, but we feel that children should play with the people we have stuck them with. And as Csikszentmihalyi showed, with his study of adolescents, when we have a job it has certain continuity, it has certain cohesion, and coherence, in what we do, and yet we expect young people to shift their attention between different topics all the time. Whatever they got interested in, they have to drop and do something else, and they have to shift their attention dozens of times during the day, and that’s supposed to… You know, eventually, it’s disequilibrating. So they cannot work at something and get fully engaged in something, at their own pace, and so on. It’s just disrupting the whole balance, psychophysical balance, of children and young people. And that’s…we’re not only talking about the classroom, we’re talking about the pressures of the peer groups and all that’s going on there, which is even stronger. That we, as adults, are not as much exposed to.
Ellen: You might talk a little more about that, because I think that is an important component, particularly for adolescents.
Michael: Yeah, I mean, there was a recent report saying that there’s no point, of even middle school children, especially adolescents, in the first two or three hours in a school day, they’re just not awake. So they are not learning anything. [Laughter.] But for some reason, the teacher and teaching establishment feels that 7 am is the proper time to start work. As all the conferences that are in education, the conference always starts at 7 am. So it’s a tyranny of the minority, of the early risers. That’s how it is.
Ellen: So talk a little bit about the overexcitabilities and how that impacts on all of these issues.
Michael: Well the overexcitabilities make anyone who has them to take in more stimulation and information and experience at any time, in many different ways and channels, and it doesn’t always agree with each other. I mean one can be at the same time emotionally ecstatic and euphoric and at the same time disturbed by some smell. Or as in many of the highly gifted children—it comes up repeatedly—that they have to have very soft, loose clothing because their body reacts so strongly. Some of them don’t tolerate coats, because it’s just too much pressure on the body or something like that. And so these heightened sensitivities can create problems in an environment where they are not recognized, or they are laughed at, that often happens. You know, the message to them goes always back—you are too much. So they say, cool it. But if you have these intensities and sensitivities, there’s no way you can do it, because that’s the way you are made up. So there is the lack of fit.
And we are not tolerant of it. The society is not very tolerant of it, and that’s a problem. So if, you know, people around enjoy the imagination and the tall tales and inventions of someone, it’s very good. And that’s the easier part. The curiosity, well, children who ask questions, unrelentingly, can wear out their parents and everyone around them, because they have to know. They have to understand. And, or some of them express their opinions on everything and demand to be heard and recognized. That can be taxing, too. [Laughter.] The energy level has to be engaged. I think the hardest to deal with is probably the emotional sensitivity, because it goes so deep, and it can be so—the upsets—can be so deep and so long-lasting. So people have to be well-informed how to approach a child about an impending change in life, whether they are moving and leaving one house and moving somewhere else. It can be very hard.
Diana Howard—I just read her dissertation. I wish I had known about it years ago, when she did it, in 94. The girl was about 5, and she was asked whether one can have different feelings about the same thing. She said, yes, when we were moving, I was sad to leave the house and happy at the new house, but I was sad about the house we were leaving. And her mother said she had to be carefully prepared for the change, because it was so hard on her, and there are many other children that parents have said, well, we certainly cannot move for a long time because of the attachments to the garden, the trees, or the neighborhood, or something like that. So the inevitable ruptures which always occur whether it’s losing a dog, or a friend moves out, or something like that, they are so hard. And even if they react strongly one point, the traces of it stay there. Even if they are not mentioned. So that part is the hardest because the emotions are so deep, and so strong, and the wounds can be so deep.
Ellen: I’m thinking as you’re talking about that, that in this country, particularly in schools, we don’t pay a lot of attention to emotions.
Michael: No, we don’t. We are supposed to be even-keeled and control the emotions. And not to have too much of it. [Laughter.]
Ellen: So if we’re describing gifted children, in general, probably too much. [Laughter.]
Michael: Yeah, and if you have…. That’s right, if you have emotional boys, the way they are criticized is the most damaging. Because they are called sissies, and girls, and that is considered, and received, as the worst shaming criticism. And yet, it’s used so widely, and so commonly. So that drives a child into hiding, and really when we were talking about the spiritual experiences, it takes only one critical remark or lack of recognition of acceptance, of the experience of the child as related, and that child will learn that that’s something I shouldn’t be talking about. Goes into hiding, and then it has no recourse because the lesson is no one is going to believe you, no one is going to listen, and you have no one to talk to. So that creates a condition of loneliness that no one knows about. That, again, happens very often. Many of the people reported in Hoffman’s study on their early experiences, that’s what they said. That they were clearly told, and they knew they had to keep it to themselves. And some of them didn’t know whether they were normal or not, because of that, because of these criticisms. Then looking back, they felt sadness that they were told something they shouldn’t have been told. That they were made to doubt themselves.
Ellen: So if you were to create the ideal environment for a gifted child, particularly the kinds of kids we’re talking about here, what would that look like?
Michael: Well, that would look like well-informed adults. Well-informed, interested in the children, able to listen and respond to them appropriately. To trust the children. So that the child, every time, would feel that what they are saying is, when they say it in earnest, it’s taken seriously. Because of course they joke, and like to play games and things like that, so that’s different. But that they can be open about their inner experience and what they feel and understand.
Ellen: How did you happen to get interested in gifted children in general and in particular in these free spirits, and the highly gifted, spiritually gifted, the gifted kids who don’t fit in?
Michael: Well, I was first a scientist. And I was first studying plant science, in which I got a master’s degree, in Poland, and then I started molecular biology and when I got the degree in it, spent several years doing research in molecular biology. And then when I realized that that’s not where my future is, I went and studied counseling psychology. It so happened that at the University of Wisconsin, when I went for my counseling graduate program, there was the Laboratory for Superior Students. Which was started by John Rothney, and then was run by Sanborn and Perrone. And Pulvino later on. So this was to serve the gifted kids as designated by schools, and so we did school visits, they came to the laboratory in Madison, and they were tested, and they had visits on campus, and so that’s how we got into contact with some gifted children. Some of whom were very exciting, interesting people. And that’s when I started the study. I just was naturally drawn to them. They were interesting to me. So since I was, at that time, already doing research with Dąbrowski. I devised a questionnaire, to ask a number of these students who were coming to this laboratory to answer these questions. There were 46 questions. It was a 10-page questionnaire. I don’t know whether kids today would answer them, but this was the 70s, so they still did. And I had them nominated by the people who worked with them because there were several research assistants in the lab. So by nomination, I got a better response. I then had a pool of 30-some—I think it was 30-some—questionnaires with very interesting material that I have used, and then that was the first report on it was on the 1979 New Voices in Counseling the Gifted that Nick Colangelo and Ron Zaffrann put together. So that’s how I entered the scene. With overexcitabilities.
Ellen: What were some of your findings at that time?
Michael: Well, I compared the results that I got from them, for each overexcitability, with the behavioral checklist that was existing at that time. I was able to show that the behavioral checklist was too much oriented toward intellectual items—very little to imagination, very little to emotions. Very little to sensual overexcitability. So that was one way of showing that the spectrum of what makes a person tick—a gifted child, a gifted adolescent—tick is much broader and richer than what we were tapping into at that time. I mean, that checklist has been since revised and is much broader, but at that time, it was pretty one-sided.
It just gave me lots of wonderful examples of the overexcitabilities. Firsthand. Because I had the first pool of examples of overexcitability I had from the autobiographical material that we studied—Dąbrowski’s research—and that was only 7 cases that we looked at, in detail, because we had autobiographies that these people wrote and some other material. And from that, I had several hundred examples of overexcitability from these people. One of them was fairly young, he was 17, I think, but the others were 20s, 30s, and 40s. Even older. So it was interesting to tap into direct responses, of these adolescents, and find very interesting things they were saying. One thing that came up was how much they were aware of death, and how much they were concerned about the death of their grandparents, or other people, or accidents, and how much it affected them, how much they thought about it, and how deeply they felt about it. So that was one of the things that came up. But that allowed me to write out the items for each overexcitability that became the table of manifestations and expressions. So that table, that was revised a little bit, but not too much. Most of the basic stuff was established in that time.
Ellen: And so since then, are there some things that you’ve really been thinking about that are very much on your mind right now, in regard to this?
Michael: Well, the thing since then was when I was introduced to Annemarie’s concept of emotional giftedness, thanks to Linda Silverman when she reminded me of it. After a few years, I had material that really illustrated what she talked about and gave only one example of it. It became a much larger, again, a much larger picture, of what it means to be emotionally gifted. Because the critical statement that she makes is the people not only that have these intense emotions and awareness, but who dare to act on it. Who dare to act on it. And so there are many of examples of those who dare to act on it and some of them we call whistleblowers because that’s a high-risk thing to do. Most people pay severe consequences for doing something like that, and that’s where I found this very strong overlap between her concept of emotional giftedness and Dąbrowski’s concept of positive maladjustment. Of not compromising your principles, ideas, and what you understand to be the right thing.
That was one of the things, but then, when I found the material on the people who were abused and resilient… Then I found in the examples of what could be looked upon as spiritual strength because they were able to rely so much on their inner resources when everything—they had no support or help from anything outside. For many years, people were asking the question, is there such a thing as spiritual giftedness, and they said, well there should be. But no one was able to come up with examples of what it would consist of, and it first occurred to me that there is this thing, spiritual giftedness, not only emotional but spiritual, when I met people who, taking up spiritual disciplines, there are certain specific techniques to do… And they found that they don’t have to struggle very hard to do them—they have natural ability in that direction. Natural ability for the inner work for going very deep inside. And do actual work of restructuring and healing parts of their lives that were very damaged, and very serious, and the capacity to truly forgive. Which is not easy. Not easy that it’s really, true forgiveness, in other words—there’s no residue. That is not easy. Even the most accomplished people, like the moral exemplars studied by Colby and Damon—even they said that forgiving can be hard, and they have to work at it.
So that opened my eyes to spiritual giftedness. And then I went back to William James, Varieties of Religious Experience, and there he says, a hundred years ago, if we want to understand what spiritual experience is, religious experience is, we have to go to the people who do it best. Which means spiritually gifted people. He didn’t call them that, but it’s obvious because he said that, he calls them the extremer examples, who have the profounder experiences. (Laughter) That’s how he says it. So, and actually, thanks to William James, we have a very nice criterion of deciding what is a true spiritual experience, and what is not. He says very clearly that this is the one that changes the person for the better and the effects can be seen. That the person is better disposed to others. They have some measure of inner peace, and they are changed. Pragmatic philosophy. You see the results and then you can say, by the results, you can say if the cause was good or not. Was effective or not.
And that was the time when Jane Piirto mentioned to me the book by Edward Hoffman, Visions of Innocence. This is the most amazing collection that he got from over 250 people of their childhood spiritual experiences. I was just amazed. Because I was reading his examples and they were just incredible. Children 3 and 4 years old having experiences of wonders, of infinity, of going before the creation of the universe. Reporting later on that they were actually in touch with the emptiness from which everything comes, that everything is a potential in it. Children who, thinking about a mathematical problem, had ecstatic experiences. All right? Those who were able to… There are a number of examples of experiencing the pulsating energy, of the light that was permeating them. Being healed by it. Independent of religious denomination, independent of whether they were raised in a religious home or not. Independent of what the adults told them was wrong. They knew that the adults were mistaken and deceiving themselves and deceiving the children. Amazing. And who reported, and the sense of identity, that some of them realize that their identity is not the body. That their consciousness, their identity, is something apart from the body.
One of them, for instance, said it so well, that she felt confined by the body and that she realized—I think she was feeling like she was out of the body for a while, or looking at it or something like that—and then she said that when she’s out of the body, again, she’ll be able to have a circular vision. Now that kind of thing is what the mystics described. This comes spontaneously to children under age of ten, OK? So Edward Hoffman has done amazing work. He just advertised, asking people for it, and he got these 250 reports from several different countries, and they’re just so wonderful. They are so genuine. Some people remember 60 years back because all of these experiences had a strong positive influence on their life. So they meet William James’s criterion of positive effect. So, yes, now I understand that there is such a thing as spiritual giftedness.
Ellen: So where do you go with that from here?
Michael: Well, it has to be printed. [Laughter.]
Michael: That’s where I go. That’s where I go with that.
Ellen: So, book?
Michael: Part of.
Ellen: Part of.
Michael: Part of. Part of. Yes, I have to get the whole emotional development out. When I studied the adult cases, you know like Peace Pilgrim or Etty Hillesum—they would be the adult examples of spiritual giftedness and emotional growth in which there is this very fundamental inner change. We call it transformation, which is really illogical because it’s metanoia, which is transmutation. It is not change of form; it is change in the very being of the person. So that gave very important illustration of the growth process, inner growth that Dabrowski was talking about in his theory. So now we have a much better grasp of it thanks to these cases. And can understand it when we come across new cases and things like that.
Ellen: Is this always a singular kind of experience or is it an evolutionary process for the individual?
Michael: Well, it comes in all kinds of ways. The people who talked or wrote to Edward Hoffman, some of them because of their experience became spiritual seekers. And they were either seekers from early on or resumed the search when they were young adults or something like that. One woman, for instance, who was in her 60s, reported that she had this wonderful experience of oneness… and this sense of God-present in creation, and in the world, and then she said she never had this kind of experience, she was searching for it, in people, in houses, in churches, she never found it. But she said, I have never felt as alone as I was before that experience. Which she had at the age of 8, or 10, or something like that. So it really left this indelible mark, but also the more aware longing, and hunger, for our spiritual world, to which we belong, and from which we are exiled in this reality. The everyday reality that limits us so much. Or, as people have experienced, the body is limiting, and everything is limited.
And there are the people who take up the inner growth out of a spontaneous feeling that there’s something wrong with them. William James talked about that, too. That the beginning of change is the feeling that we are not well inside ourselves. Things are not right. And then the search begins, and some of them have a breakthrough, which is like a very strong spiritual experience, for others, the change is gradual. But from that comes the motive, the push, to look, to search, to try, and so on. And then the drama of the search begins. You know, people have part of life where they are spiritually elevated, and then something happens, and they become addicts and drinkers and whatnot and become like they have lost what they had. I mean, Dan Millman, in his Peaceful Warrior describes that. He received very thorough spiritual training when he was a student at Berkeley, and then it seemed like he lost it all. Got married to the wrong woman, became very unhappy and depressed. He was depressed from the day of his wedding, and it went on for many years, and later, he picked up the thread again. That’s the drama of our lives.
Ellen: And for those who can pick up the thread again, perhaps it’s those seeds of resilience?
Michael: Could be. I don’t know. Don’t know.
Ellen: The mystery of it all.
Michael: The mystery of it all. But since we are exiles, not all of us return to home country. And some of us do. Some of us manage that. Some of us are getting closer. Very. Some of us have short visits. But that’s the pattern. I mean, different patterns in different lives.
Ellen: So there are gifted kids who are aware that they’re living in exile?
Michael: Oh, that is fairly common. Feeling alien. Feeling like being from another planet. Yes.
Ellen: Tell me a little more about that. Yes, I’ve seen that, too.
Michael: You have seen that, too. Well, what can I say about it? They have the awareness that they are here for some strange reason, but that’s not where they belong. And some of them had this very early, before the age of 10, they had this experience that they belong somewhere else. That that’s not where they truly belong. In spite of the fact that they can experience things with great intensity, and great joy, and so on and so forth, but once this awareness is there… and like everyone else, they look for their own kind. Maslow said very well about self-actualizing people that they are looking for their own kind. Well, everyone is looking for his own kind. If you go to taverns to drink, they are drinking with their own kind. [Laughter.] Musicians associate with musicians, it’s their own kind. And people who have spiritual hunger, or the spiritual bug if you want to say it, they look for, you know, people, and some of them find and some of them don’t find. I just had a letter from a friend who said she had very important, deep, intense spiritual experiences, but for a long time she hasn’t found people with whom she could talk about it, because when she did, all of a sudden, she found herself with the other person competing with her for who had better spiritual experience. Or people not understanding and telling her she was crazy, or something like that. So there is that risk.
But there is always the looking for affirmation, for your kind, because no matter what we don’t want to be alone and isolated. If we want to be special of one kind, we want to be with others who recognize that we are special. We cannot be special in a vacuum. It just doesn’t work—we are not made that way. And if someone would affirm that, then we know there’s something wrong with that person. But yes, that search is always there. And you wonder, why is it easier for some people to find their own kind, and it’s harder for others.
Ellen: Well, that also seems to have some very strong implications in an era where we tell kids that they have to learn to get along with everybody in the world, and so we’re going to put them all in heterogeneous classes and we’re not going to have gifted programs.
Michael: And we don’t give them any example that we are getting along with everyone. They actually… the evidence is not there. We are requiring them something which we find impossible. I mean, these kinds of contradictions are abundant. It is just only one of them. It’s only one of them. It’s just so ridiculous.
Ellen: So, for the gifted kid…
Michael: Who sees through things much more readily, yes…
Ellen: They’re in an even worse predicament.
Michael: Well, yeah, the predicament depends on the degree of confidence they have in themselves to be able to speak out their mind, and not to be destroyed by critical remarks and things like that. But we just start criticizing so early that they hear it at the age of 4 or 5, and then they know they have to clam up. Or they have to be careful, or whatever, so, yeah.
Ellen: Doesn’t the emotional sensitivity feed into that, too?
Michael: Extremely. Extremely. And they understand much better about what it takes to get along, and that’s why they’re shocked that people are not getting along with each other. People do not cooperate. People have war. Fight with each other. Parents fight and get divorced, and they can’t understand why. Why people cannot get along with each other. When it really takes a little bit of goodwill and foresight and listening to each other. Listening. Always that.
Ellen: So what would you say are your most pressing concerns about these kids?
Michael: I cannot say they are the most pressing because they have been pressing forever. [Laughter.] They have been always there. Most pressing concerns… Goodness. Give them the room to breathe. That’s what I would say. And our vigilance… Many of them adapt by becoming good achievers. And that’s how they often fool us because we don’t see what’s going on inside. That they may be achieving, but they know they are doing that to be accepted, to please others, and inside it feels hollow. And no one knows that, and they are depressed, but they always say everything is OK. Or no one asks. Because everything looks OK. Now that…there’s quite a lot of that. We don’t know it, because either we don’t ask, or they would tell us that everything is OK. Because they are not able to tell us what’s going on.
This interview was transcribed by Chris Wells on November 2, 2018. We would like to express our gratitude to Dr. Michele Kane for first sharing these interviews with Chris in October 2018.