AMERICAN CENTER FOR THE INTEGRATION OF SPIRITUALLY TRANSFORMATIVE EXPERIENCES

Why We Started ACISTE : A Founder’s Perspective

Yolaine Stout is the founding President of ACISTE, which incorporated in 2009. Since the passing of her husband in 2016, she continues to serve as a volunteer Executive Director, advisor, and life coach. Here she talks about her inspiration for ACISTE, its development, and her ongoing passion to support experiencers.

I was a near-death experiencer as a result of a suicide attempt in 1982. In the aftermath, I struggled with many of the same challenges that others who have had spiritually transformative experiences often face: divorce, a sense of alienation, keeping silent about my new reality. Even after I met my soulmate (an experiencer himself, he readily accepted my NDE), I still grappled with integrating the spiritual shift in my values while trying desperately to find my purpose.

Eventually I opened up to others besides my husband, and my world changed dramatically from that moment on. I discovered a worldwide and growing community of other experiencers! Interacting with them, sharing stories, and forming lifelong friendships blasted open my limited world and …led to me to found ACISTE. Supporting experiencers with whatever skills I have continues to be my passion and a big part of my purpose in life.

Along my journey the International Association for Near-Death Studies invited me to join its board. Over time I learned much about the positive transformation experiencers often undergo, but there was little emphasis on the integration process and its difficulties. Positive transformations do not necessarily happen overnight. Integrating the impact of these life-changing experiences can take years and often means lots of challenging personal growth work and good social support.

My now late husband, Dr. Charles D. Stout, a molecular chemist who managed to be both a material scientist and spiritually grounded man, continued to support my ever-deepening process. One day he said, Yolaine, it seems so much of the current research is focused on the ‘song,’ but the song cannot be separated from the singer, can it? He was absolutely right!

So I began to do some of my own research on the challenges of integration. In 2008, the results were published in an article titled Six Major Challenges Faced by Near-Death Experiencers. Fellow ACISTE founders Linda Jacquin and PMH Atwater co-wrote the article with me, which was published in the Journal of Near-Death Studies at the encouragement and support of Dr. Bruce Greyson. We also made a film of 26 experiencers talking about their own challenges and had many wonderful opportunities to present about our work.

In the meantime, Dr. L. Suzanne Gordon, who still serves on the ACISTE board, was encouraging me to start a nonprofit dedicated to supporting all experiencers – not just NDErs. Given my nonprofit development know-how, I decided it was finally time to help birth what would soon become the American Center for the Integration of Spiritually Transformative Experiences.

We spent three solid years surveying experiencers’ needs, developing a strategic plan, and establishing policies and procedures. We then felt equipped to roll out programs based on real people’s needs, not on some experience-distant theory, method, or philosophy. Our approach was simple: What do experiencers need that we could help with? What were the issues they faced? What programs would they like to see?

Our research dispelled some common assumptions or myths:

  1. People don’t have to be dead, sick, or nearly dead to have an experience very much like an NDE. They can happen to anybody, at any time, under any circumstance. What we suspect – and this would be a great research project! – is that emotional and/or spiritual needs are more likely to evoke a spiritually transformative experience (STE) rather than a physical circumstance or state.

  2. These experiences are far from rare. According to a 2004 survey by the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago, 35.7% of the adult US population has had at least one religious or spiritual experience “that changed their life.”

  3. While there are many features that are commonly shared, every experience is unique. I’ve met hundreds of experiencers and have read thousands of accounts, yet I still hear something new from each one. Every STE seems to be a unique ‘song’ meant for that singer in support of his or her own personal journey.

It would take a textbook to write up all the things we’ve learned along the way. Even so, this is a new field with many more issues that deserve careful, in-depth study. With continued research, we can expand and improve our educational and support programs for experiencers throughout the US.

Our survey also revealed that some challenges were so severe (suicide, depression, addiction, co-occurring mental illness, etc.) that we needed to train and certify mental health professionals to provide quality care for those suffering the most. ACISTE needed a safety net in place so that our other support programs (peer groups, mentors, life coaches, spiritual guidance counselors, online forum, and phone line) would have a place to refer an experiencer as needed.

Ultimately we hope the mental health profession will accept and competently incorporate experiencer needs into its training programs and treatment practices. While there is more acceptance and awareness of this common human experience, we’re still a long way off from mainstream education about STEs.

The programs desired by the largest percentage of surveyed experiencers are now beginning to roll out – the final phase of our program development. Volunteer, peer-facilitated support and discussion groups, as well as volunteer peer mentors, are being developed for local communities.

On a personal note, I have a not very secret agenda that drives my passion for ACISTE. If we can support experiencers in their own transformative process, they can better help the world transform as well.

Can you imagine the chorus of all those millions of beautiful singers adding their voice to a song of global healing and transformation?

Yolaine Stout, BA, CFRM, ACSLC

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