Pierre Teilhard de Chardin? Wayne W. Dyer? Stephen R. Covey? Georges Gurdjieff? Anonymous?
Dear Quote Investigator: Antimetabole is a powerful rhetorical technique in which a phrase is repeated, but key elements are reordered. A popular statement about spirituality uses this strategy:
We are not human beings having a spiritual experience. We are spiritual beings having a human experience.
French philosopher and priest Pierre Teilhard de Chardin has received credit for this remark, but I have been unable to find a citation. Would you please help?
Quote Investigator: Researchers have not found this quotation in the works of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin who died 1955.
The earliest close match located by QI appeared in an advertisement in “Time” magazine in 1988. The automobile company Volkswagen invited the bestselling motivational author Wayne W. Dyer to craft “A Letter to the Next Generation”, and Dyer included the following rhetorical question aimed at people of the future. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1
Can you see yourselves as spiritual beings having a human experience, rather than human beings who may be having a spiritual experience?
Dyer elaborated on the question by discussing his three-year-old daughter who served him make believe food on toy dishes. She was expressing her love and caring for her father via invisible substances. He highlighted the importance of her beautiful thoughts and feelings which were also invisible. Dyer suggested that the father and daughter were spiritual beings.
Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.
In 1989 Dyer published “You’ll See It When You Believe It: The Way to Your Personal Transformation”. The back cover listed seven items described as: “The universal principles that lead to your self-realization”. The second principle was: 2
You are not a human being having a spiritual experience. You are a spiritual being having a human experience.
This above statement also appeared as the epigraph of chapter two within the book. Dyer did not attribute the words to anyone else in 1988 or 1989. Currently, QI believes he is the leading candidate for creator of the saying.
Dyer did attribute an unrelated quotation about love to Pierre Teilhard de Chardin within the 1989 book, but he did not link Chardin to the target quotation.
Also, in 1989 educator and motivational author Stephen R. Covey published the influential work “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People”. Covey presented an instance of the saying and credited Chardin, but he did not provide a citation: 3
To the degree to which we align ourselves with correct principles, divine endowments will be released within our nature in enabling us to fulfill the measure of our creation. In the words of Teilhard de Chardin, “We are not human beings having a spiritual experience. We are spiritual beings having a human experience.”
In 1991 another prominent motivational author Anthony Robbins employed the saying, and he credited Dyer: 4
Recently, my feelings were put into words when I had the opportunity to visit with author Wayne Dyer. He said something that day that typifies my feelings. He told me, “We are not human beings having a spiritual experience. We are spiritual beings having a human experience.” Our identity is the cornerstone of that experience.
In 1992 an interview with Covey appeared in “Training”, and he repeated the quotation with an ascription to Chardin: 5
I agree with Teilhard de Chardin, who said, “We are not human beings having a spiritual experience, we are spiritual beings having a human experience.”
In 1994 Moira Timms published “Beyond Prophecies and Predictions: Everyone’s Guide To the Coming Changes”. The epigraph of the fifth chapter credited the saying to a well-known mystic who died in 1949: 6
We are not human beings having a spiritual experience but spiritual beings having a human one.
—Georges I. Gurdjieff
In conclusion, this article presents a snapshot of current research. Wayne W. Dyer employed a version of the saying in 1988, and he is the most likely creator based on available evidence. This ascription may shift if new illuminating citations are uncovered. Stephen R. Covey attributed the saying to Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, but there is no substantive support for his claim at this time.
Image Notes: Illustration of meditation from Activedia at Pixabay. Image has been cropped and resized.
(Great thanks to Troy Deitrick and Richard Douglass whose inquiries led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration.)
- 1988 October 17, Time, Volume 132, Number 16, Section: Special Advertising Section for Volkswagen, A Letter to the Next Generation From Dr. Wayne W. Dyer, Start Page 2, Quote Page 2, Times Inc, New York. (Verified with microfiche) ↩
- 1989, You’ll See It When You Believe It: The Way to Your Personal Transformation by Wayne W. Dyer, The saying occurs three times, Back cover of book; Chapter: Introduction, Quote Page 16, (Also chapter two epigraph, Quote Page 47), William Morrow & Company, New York. (Verified with scans) ↩
- 1989, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People: Restoring the Character Ethic by Stephen R. Covey, Part 4: Renewal, Chapter: Inside-Out Again, Section: A Personal Note, Quote Page 319, Simon & Schuster, New York. (Verified with scans) ↩
- 1992 (Copyright 1991), Awaken the Giant Within by Anthony Robbins, Chapter 18: Identity: The Key to Expansion, Quote Page 431, A Fireside Book: Simon and Schuster, New York. (Verified with scans) ↩
- 1992 December, Training, Volume 29, Issue 12, INTERVIEW: Q & A with Stephen Covey, Start Page 37, Lakewood Media Group, LLC. (Gale Academic OneFile) ↩
- 1994, Beyond Prophecies and Predictions: Everyone’s Guide To the Coming Changes by Moira Timms, Chapter 5: Evolution and Involution, (Chapter 5 epigraph), Quote Page 62, Ballantine Books, New York. (Verified with scans) ↩