The essence of faith is fewness of words and abundance of deeds; he whose words exceed his deeds, know verily his death is better than his life. The essence of true safety is to observe silence, to look at the end of things and to renounce the world.
Bahá’u’lláh says there is a sign (from God) in every phenomenon: the sign of the intellect is contemplation and the sign of contemplation is silence, because it is impossible for a man to do two things at one time—he cannot both speak and meditate. It is an axiomatic fact that while you meditate you are speaking with your own spirit. In that state of mind you put certain questions to your spirit and the spirit answers: the light breaks forth and the reality is revealed.
Progress on a spiritual path has often been associated with silence. Some years ago I heard almost the same words spoken as I watched the start of The Big Silence, which turned out to be a fascinating series of programmes on the spiritual impact of silence on five people over eight days – it’s almost exactly what this post is about, though from a somewhat different angle.
Christopher Jamison, the monk who led the group of five through this experience, described silence as the means for us to connect with our souls, and our souls as our means of connecting with God. That chimes with what ‘Abdu’l-Bahá said in the quotation at the head of this post. Not many of the five got that far but their journeys were fascinating to watch.
Stumbling across Evidence
But what, if any, is the possible scientific underpinning to this?
The convinced adherent of naturalism will rule out in advance even the faintest possibility of any such evidence existing, to such an extent that he, and it is often a ‘he,’ will not even look at the wealth of existing evidence that points firmly in this direction, much of it more rigorously produced than that which supports the efficacy of the drugs we swallow so trustingly.
Let me share how I stumbled across one small example to illustrate the care with which this kind of experimentation is devised and which makes the whole body of research impossible to dismiss arbitrarily. I won’t upset materialists by insisting that finding this book was synchronicity, but I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve found the book I needed at the time I needed it even when I didn’t know I needed it
With some friends, I recently visited Hay-on-Wye, with the intent of plugging some specific holes in my library with books on certain topics. I perhaps need to point out that my wife would not agree that there are any holes at all in my library if a hole is to be defined as shelf-space. I am not using ‘hole’ in that sense.
Having successfully located a sufficient supply of six such books in three shops I popped into a fourth shop for no good reason at all except I felt like it. I’d filled the gaps I was aware of, after all.
I had ten minutes to kill before we were all due to meet again and the temptation was just too strong. After picking a particularly fascinating book off the shelf in the mindfulness section I checked the price. £326. Perhaps not.
Just above were a handful of books on NDEs. I almost didn’t bother to look because I have so many. I should have known what was coming – this is usually the way it happens. One caught my eye. To help me recover from the shock of the other book’s price I took it down.
In Search of the Dead. It had the BBC logo on the cover.
‘Never heard of him. If this is a book of ghost stories I’ll put it back,’ I promised myself. It claimed on the cover to be a ‘scientific investigation of evidence of life after death.’
In fact it looked a mish-mash of good science and intriguing ancdotes. £2. I only had a couple of minutes left. ‘What the heck! It’s only two pounds. If it’s no good the Oxfam Shop can have it.’
This is how the last book that I bought that day, became the first book that I read. And I’m glad I have. It’s an accessible but by no means naïve treatment of the topic.
Right at the start I found myself in territory that lies at the heart of the matter: the relationship between silence and the subliminal. An example is described in detail of how to investigate this with a sound – do I mean ‘silent’? – methodology. What follows is a brutal summary to illustrate the rigour of what is described more fully between pages 3 and 11.
Silence and Science
Iverson was a journalist, working for the BBC and visiting the States in September 1990 to get a handle on psi, the unknown factor in extrasensory perception. He was at the HQ of the American Society of Psychical Research. Dr Nancy Sandow and Dr Keith Harary were the key researchers named. The phenomenon under investigation was a form of Remote Viewing (RV). In this case it meant one person providing incontrovertible details under tightly controlled conditions of someone else’s visual experience some distance away, specifically for this BBC programme in a small park in New York City.
There are many ways in which such an experiment could be flawed. The experimenters in this case had done their best to close them all down.
First of all the subject, Tessa, who was to receive the RV data was unfamiliar with New York. Also, she wasn’t even a trained or self-styled psychic: she was simply the Production Assistant in Iverson’s crew who was volunteered for the role. She came from Wales and had never been to New York before.
Secondly, four diverse locations were chosen offering a selection of very untypical New York scenes.
Thirdly, Dr Harary, to whom none of these scenes was known, sat with Tessa in the library with a locked-off camera recording all they did and said before any further steps were taken. The library was a no go area and all means of communication with outside world had been removed. He and Tessa knew that a third person would be at one of the four locations at a specific time that afternoon. It was at that time they began their attempt to describe where she was.
Fourthly, Iverson received from Dr Sandow, who had selected the sites, a sealed envelope with all four locations specified. Then he was quarantined.
When all was set up, Dr Sandow got in a cab and randomly generated a number between 1 and 4, and set off for the designated destination. Before she clicked on the number she had no idea which of the four sites she’d be going to.
When she had stayed at that spot for the requisite period of time at the designated time period, the next phase began.
Meanwhile, Tessa had remained in the library for the duration of Dr Sandow’s visit to the site. Dr Harary then took the notes they had created, met up with Iverson and the envelope, and was driven to the four sites in a randomly chosen sequence. His job was to rank order the sites in terms of their correspondence to the description he was carrying.
To cut a long story short, the correct site was streets ahead of any of the others, only one of which had even the faintest resemblance to the target park. What was even more impressive was that every detail Tessa had mentioned was correct – the tall trees, the T-shaped path, a red and white awning over a shop, and above all a winged metal statue going slightly green (see the picture of the statue and her drawing of it).
Conclusions and Caveats
The researchers were keen to point out that from that one study you could not conclude that psi or something like it was substantiated. Even with so many details correct, there were only four scenes for Dr Harary to choose from so he had a 25% chance of being correct. It is the sheer weight of the evidence gathered in hundreds of such examples that points to the reality of something that needs to be explained rather than dismissed as outright fraud or sloppy methodology. The investigators were themselves keen to emphasise this to Iverson.
Iverson himself quotes Charles Honorton as an example (page 41):
In 1200 individual trials over the [previous] 15 years, where random guesses would statistically be expected to produce a success rate of 25%, the . . . average has been 34% – a 9% markup on chance. “The mathematical odds against chance are in the trillions to one, and even critics of parapsychology acknowledge results cannot be due to chance,” he says.
Honorton was joined in conducting a computerised and even more tightly controlled set of experiments by a sceptic, Dr Ray Hyman, who said at the end (ibid.), ‘We agreed that the results so far cannot be due to chance and are not likely to be due to improper selections of favourable data. However, we still disagree over whether this [sic] data constitutes evidence for psi or for some form of error that has not been detected.”
Honorton is unequivocal (ibid.):
‘We feel now the burden of proof is on the sceptics to say why these results should not be accepted. . . . The evidence for psi is very strong but is still not generally accepted by the scientific community, mainly because they are not aware of the better research going on.
What Iverson felt the investigators he worked with conveyed clearly to him was:
- Everyone is capable of psi (whatever that is – they didn’t pretend to know exactly);
- For its full manifestation it depends upon a person feeling safe and for distracting stimuli to be reduced as far as possible to zero; and
- The conditions most closely matching the ideal were
- sleep, which we all know leads to dreams some of which some people feel contain psi material;
- meditation, the consistent practice of which is widely reported to lead to transpersonal and mystic experiences; and
- the Ganzfeld procedure which systematically cuts down visual and auditory stimuli.
I have to modify the first statement somewhat in that the statistics, while very significantly above chance, do not suggest that everyone was scoring hits anywhere near consistently. It seems obvious that some people must not have been scoring hits at all and/or people were inconsistent. I am not at all sure therefore that everyone is currently capable of psi: however, I am hopeful that over a long period of time humanity will evolve to a point at which this could well be so. (I have already blogged in some detail about this: see link.)
Basically, though, if we are calm and can sit in a quiet place for long enough, most of us will get in touch with what usually falls well below the threshold of our awareness. Some of what we then experience may, for some of us at least, be out of the reach of our ordinary senses but none the less correct. When what we experience by these means is a material reality it can of course be checked against known facts, as in the experiment described briefly above.
When it is not a material reality, what then?
It seems to me that it is not so obvious, in the light of all the successful experiments with data that can be checked and found correct, that we should dismiss as hallucinations less probable experiences, even when they cross the boundaries of the material. I also accept though that we cannot safely conclude that every experience generated by sensory deprivation of some form is authentic.
How can we steer a true course between dangerous gullibility and unwarranted scepticism? What are we to think when what we experience is so unusual and so sublime that it beggars belief? I have already blogged about many aspects of this in terms of extraordinary experiences. I hope to return to it again soon in the context of silence and the sublime.
For the visually inclined
Later on I thought it would be good if I could find the original BBC programmes and I did – on YouTube. The one that deals with the remote viewing experiment is below. The other two I plan to come back to later when I look at some other aspects of the book.
The Power of the Mind: