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Butterfly Magritte v2

This short sequence sheds some light on the Parliament of Selves sequence.

The shortcomings of my memory described in the last post were bad enough, but what is even more disconcerting about it is that, even when I am exerting myself to the utmost, the full truth of my own potentially retrievable past can evade me and remain completely hidden for decades, and in some cases for life.

Recently, I was forcibly reminded of that fact.

Soon after I became a Bahá’í, almost 30 years ago, I wrote a poem fairly obviously ‘after the manner’ of George Herbert with a less obvious reference, in its abstractions, to Andrew Marvell‘s enigmatic minor masterpiece, The Definition of Love. I didn’t consciously presume to do that – it just came out that way. The first draft I have tracked back to January 1983 – so that’s a fact at least, which is a relief after the will-o’-the-wisp realities of the previous post.

Thief in the Night

Down the dark spinning stairway of my years
Under exalted space,
Abandoned, yet galled by compassion’s spears,
I walked with a blank face
Beneath my searching soul’s long scrutiny,
Wild in despair and helpless mutiny.

At last, locked in denial’s icy vault,
Belying the Sun’s power,
I outfroze each noon – congealed in my fault,
Blinded deafened by dour
Distrust, unmoving – proud perversity
Defrauding me of all tranquillity.

You, with a robber’s skill, intruded there,
Behind my barricades,
Contemptuous of lock and heavy bar.
God speed the Thief who raids
From Magnanimity!  Dear Lord, You left
Me rich in peace, only of pain bereft.

At the time of writing I was a bit uncomfortable about the poem. I was pleased it had come out onto the page needing relatively little editing. I was embarrassed about how overblown the language seemed to be as a description of a shift from atheism to faith: ‘I’ve only moved house from my old mild atheism to this tolerant faith,’ I said to myself, ‘Though the foundations are different, much of the furniture looks the same. It’s true that I’m much happier, but it’s not as though I’ve escaped from Topcliffe‘s dungeon.’

The truth was I did not understand my own poem fully. I only came to a true understanding much later – about three weeks ago in fact. The seed of that insight was in my last experience of therapy as a client about twenty six years ago.

Why did I go back there now? Well, a close friend asked me recently what my experience of Rebirthing had been like. In telling her I came to see a link that I had been blind to before, because I had never previously put the poem and the experience I am about to describe in the same frame of reference. This is true but barely credible given that the therapy took place less than three years after I wrote the poem. What stunned me most however is conveyed by that simple word – ‘after.’ I had written the poem before I knew what it meant.

Rebirthing provided the experience that gave me my last major break-through in self-understanding by means of some form of psychotherapy. I heard first about it from a talk I attended on the subject at an alternative therapies fair in Malvern in early 1985. I then bought a book on the subject. The key was breathing:

Jim Leonard saw what the key elements were and refined them into the five elements theory.

The five elements are (1) breathing mechanics, (2) awareness in detail, (3) intentional relaxation, (4) embracing whatever arises, and (5) trusting intuition.  These elements have been defined a little differently in several versions, but are similar in meaning.  Jim Leonard found that if a person persists in the breathing mechanics, then he or she eventually integrates the suppressed emotion.

It was as though what is known as body scanning were linked to a continuous conscious breathing form of meditation. All the subsequent steps (2-5) took place in the context of the breathing.

I found a therapist in Much Wenlock near where Housman had found the woods in trouble. I didn’t know how much trouble of a different kind I was going find. I went for eight sessions and it was the last one that brought about the dramatic shift in consciousness. It was on 11 July 1985, two and a half years after the poem was written: I have a journal entry to prove it. Another fact, thank goodness. The session lasted over three hours, and three hours was meant to be the maximum time I was paying for. I think the experience accounts for the brinkmanship.

So, there I was in the back room of a small cottage, lying on a mattress along the wall, a stone fireplace nearby, with the therapist on a cushion by my side. I can’t remember her name, which is rather sad. It’s fortunate that she ignored the clock for this session – a generous piece of good judgement for which I am extremely grateful.

The breathing had gone well as usual but this time, after less than half and hour, I began to tremble, then shiver, then shake uncontrollably. This was not a result of hyperventilation: I’d got past that trap long ago. She quietly reminded me that I simply needed to watch the experience and let go. Watching was no problem. Letting go was quite another matter. I couldn’t do it. I knew that it must be fear by now, but the fear remained nameless, purely physical. And this was the case for more than two hours of breathing. Eventually, we agreed that, in terms that made sense for me, Bahá’u’lláh was with me at this moment and no harm could befall me. There could be no damage to my soul and almost certainly no damage to my body.

And at that moment I let go.

Several things happened then that would be barely credible if I had not experienced it myself.

First, the quaking literally dissolved in an instant – the instant I let go – into a dazzling warmth that pervaded my whole body. My experience of the energy had been completely transformed.

Secondly, I knew that I was in the hospital as a child of four, my parents nowhere to be seen, being held down by several adults and chloroformed for the second time in my short life, unable to prevent it – terrified and furious at the same time.

This was not new material. I had always known that something like it happened. I had vague memories of the ward I was on and the gurney that took me to the operating theatre.  What was new was that I had vividly re-experienced the critical moment itself, the few seconds before I went unconscious. I remembered also what I had never got close to before, my feelings at the time, and even more than that I knew exactly what I had thought at the time as well.

This all came as a tightly wrapped bundle falling into my mind, as though someone had thrown it down from some window in my heart. It didn’t come in sequence, as I’m telling it, but all at once. It was a complete integrated realisation – the warm energy, the situation, the feelings and the thoughts. And yet I had no difficulty retaining it and explaining it to the therapist. And I remember it still without having taken any notes at all at the time that I can now find. The journal entry recording the event is a single line – no more.

And what were the thoughts?

I knew instantly that I had lost my faith in Christ, and therefore God – where was He right then? Nowhere. And they’d told me He would always look after me. I lost my faith in my family, especially my parents. Where were they? Nowhere to be seen. I obviously couldn’t rely on them. Then like a blaze of light from behind a cloud came the idea: ‘You’ve only yourself to rely on.’

This was more like a preverbal injunction to myself for which my adult mind found words instantly. For the child I was at the time, it had been a white-hot blend of intolerable pain and unshakable determination. It shaped a creed that had been branded on my heart at that traumatic moment, and its continuing but invisible hold on me till the explosion of insight was why it had taken me so long to let go.

At that young age I began to grow the carapace that would lead me eventually to feel safe only in trusting no one but myself. The shell continued to hide its origins even from me as its creator until that moment. It was the root of my atheism, the root that I had concealed from myself and everyone else for so many years. That was the true source of the poem, which I had completely failed to recognise even though I wrote it.

Sorry to bang on so emphatically about the degree of concealment, but I was, and perhaps still am, reeling from the shock of discovering something that, once discovered, looked as though it should have been obvious – what the poem really meant.

I had to revisit my faith in Bahá’u’lláh, before I could rediscover the root, and it was only that faith which enabled me to trust the therapist, to trust the therapy, and to let go. Otherwise I’d have been frozen in my fault forever. And when I used that phrase to describe the situation to my friend was when I remembered the poem again. So, it was not until three decades later, when I described that self-work to my friend about three weeks ago, that I fully understood the poem I had written so soon after becoming a Bahá’í. This probably makes the poem a failure for anyone who doesn’t know the background (perhaps even if they do). It seems, maybe, to be straining for an effect beyond the reach of its apparent subject.

(I am aware that this account so far begs a rather important question: how could I have embraced the Bahá’í Faith, or any form of religion, in the first place when, at the core of my being, I harboured such a distrustful script? There is a post that goes some way towards answering that, but the issue needs to be addressed more fully at another time, I think.)

I had cloaked myself from a conscious realisation of what I really meant in the poem, presumably to protect myself from the pain of it. Blind as I was to its true meaning, the imagery of cold for instance seemed over the top to me, until I understood the chloroform connection.  When you breath in chloroform it feels as though your lungs are filling with ice and unconsciousness invades your mind like a freezing gale blowing upwards from your chest. Then there is a dizzy plunge into oblivion – which makes more sense of the ‘dark spinning stairway of my years.’ The chloroform makes sense also of why a breathing therapy should be the one to help me re-integrate this trauma into consciousness.

I think it’s best to leave those who are curious, to pick up on any other parallels for themselves, if anyone has an appetite for the task. If it wasn’t my trauma, or someone’s I cared about, I’m not sure I would want to do that kind of work on it.

There is another question that I can’t ignore, much as I wish I could. Why should I trust this memory anymore than the one I deconstructed to such deflating effect in the previous post?

There is, of course, no completely convincing answer to that.

All I can say is that I do trust the amber of the core experience, not least because it is qualitatively different from the episodic memories that provide its setting and which are so susceptible to confabulation. My recollection of the details that surround the crucial moment are extremely vague. I can’t even be sure at this distance in time what the therapist looked like. The core memory has little or no such potentially counterfeit detail to undermine its credibility. Its glowing resin, of pure thought and emotion fused together, held such immediacy and power it was completely compelling. That’s why I believe I can trust it and I do.

I expect you’re hoping that I won’t be going back to memory lane any time soon. I’m glad I returned there this time though.  I’m not planning a third part called Memory (3/3): the perfect reproduction of events. I’m not going to write about elves either.

. . . the fancy cannot cheat so well
As she is famed to do, deceiving elf. . . . .
Was it a vision, or a waking dream?
Fled is that music:—do I wake or sleep?

(John Keats: Ode to a Nightingale)

This short sequence sheds some light on the Parliament of Selves sequence.

What seems like years ago I promised my wife I’d work on all those VHS camcorder cassettes we had buried in shoe boxes and make them digital. This Christmas I finally got round to starting on the task. Little did I think I’d end up playing the ghost of Christmas past to my own Scrooge. I sat and watched these images of people who had died and images of selves that had passed away with such a strange mixture of emotions.

It’s not everyday you have to encounter yourself as though you were somebody else, but I’ve been doing rather a lot of that recently, forced by circumstance to meet my old selves in video or scribble form. This post is going to have faint echoes of Krapp’s Last Tape, but without the existential dread you’ll be relieved to know.

I have subjected the readers of this blog to several depressing posts about memory lane. For those who know the kind of thing that’s coming, this may be the moment to move on to something else. I’m afraid I’ve been ambling down the pathways of the past again, but from a different angle this time and over somewhat different terrain.

What made it spookier was that some of the memories, which had already been transferred from their camera cassettes by some ham-fisted professional, were held on an ordinary VHS cassette with some of the images so blurred and distorted they looked like hybrids of impressionist paintings and bizarre moments from a fading dream. I have included one of those images at the top of this post.

Other aspects of memory, in terms of what goes on in my head compared with what ends up on paper that I forget, have proved equally spooky though in a different way. The first situation I describe was just a bit weird: the second was something I’d rather ignore, but I can’t.

In the previous sequence of posts I talked of the way I used to interweave notes from my reading with scraps of information about my day.  When I wrote those posts I was trying to track down a page reference for the Koestenbaum quote (I still haven’t found it – there are pages and pages of notes from his book and I haven’t had the time to read through them all). On a scrap of paper at the very point where I began my search are the notes I made after throwing coins for a reading of the I-Ching on 30 August 1982. I wrote, as a gloss on Hexagram 45 Gathering Together, ‘religion as the basis of gathering together’ and ‘only collective moral force can unite the world’ (Richard Wilhelm: pages 616 and 175), alongside a quote from Sam Reifler, who calls the Hexagram Accord:

The path that is right for you has as its basis community devotion and a communal spiritual sympathy.

As an introverted atheist at the time I presumably felt all this was very wide of the mark, but wrote it down, as I was in the habit of doing, as a way of tracking the bibliomancy systematically in case it ever amounted to anything. Interestingly, as far as I can remember, I’ve never read those words again since I noted them down at the time. I never remembered writing them down until now. So much for the tracking theory of my motivation.

I also failed until now to register their uncanny prescience. I accept that it might have been the power of suggestion rather than of prophecy. Or it could be that the process of using the I-Ching did what it says on the tin – it resonates with and gives you information about the deeper levels of your being. Maybe it was just a coincidence: these ideas are central to the philosophy of the I-Ching and come up often. I used to throw the I-Ching a lot so some hits of this kind were bound to happen sooner or later. Anyway, it made for weird reading at this remove of time given that in December that same year I committed myself to exactly that kind of path with no clue in August that this was where I was heading, and I never threw the I-Ching again.

This rather added to the force of the surprise of discovering that I had read the Koestenbaum book in the month immediately before I realised I was a Bahá’í, rather than some years before, as I had always thought. Given that both the reading of his book and my committing to the Bahá’í path were events of great significance to me, it’s a bit deflating to realise that I had failed to retain how closely connected they were in time, and perhaps also in how the one paved the way for the other. That I transferred a lot of the Koestenbaum notes onto sheets of paper for some talks I was giving about a year or so later, didn’t seem to help me make the link, I’m afraid. It seems that my mind  sometimes, perhaps often, continues to believe what it wants to believe, until forced to do otherwise.

Which brings me onto the next example of how memory works. It involves a complete distortion and will pave the way for an even more disconcerting example in the next post. When anyone used to ask me to tell them about situations where my declaration as a Bahá’í brought me into conflict with the assumptions of my profession as a psychologist, I was a touch too happy to share the story of the time I went for an informal interview for a clinical post soon after I qualified. I was walking with the neuropsychologist, I would say, down towards her office. She was dressed in a white coat so she looked like a doctor from the back. The only thing missing was a stethoscope.

As we walked she cast a sideways glance at me and said: ‘Thank goodness Blackmore has finally put paid to the idea of God, don’t you agree?’

‘Not really,’ I distinctly remembered saying,’I have an idea about God that I believe in.’

She glared at me, as I vividly recalled it, and we walked the rest of the short way to her office in silence.

I come out of that version of events reasonably well and believed, until late last month, that this was exactly what happened, not that I’ve had cause to tell that story in recent years. I believed it until, that is, I read my journal of that period looking for the page reference. Imagine my feelings when I discovered, in my own hand-writing, an almost completely different version of events. First of all it happened in September. I didn’t hear about the Bahá’í Faith until November. First hole below the waterline. I wrote:

She wore a white coat [at least I got that right] with her name written on a badge. My revulsion against psychologists who wish to masquerade as doctors was barely containable. And when I heard her mouthing with obvious contempt such things as ‘. . . .people who don’t realise that the mind is not separate from the brain’ I did not know what to say. . . . .

All I could say was ‘I haven’t thought about it a lot.’

‘I’m very sorry to hear that . . . very sorry . . . I’m very sorry to hear that indeed.’

Quite why I couldn’t fight back I don’t know. Perhaps my feelings were running too high – they were certainly strong by this time. I just wanted to get out, I think.

According to my journal I mumbled some jargon strewn with impressive names but basically ducked the point. I believed the mind was not reducible to the brain but couldn’t say so. So, it was nothing to do with God and I copped out anyway. Memory’s junk sunk.

These two accounts, though they have a kernel of common truth, couldn’t be more different. When I had become a Bahá’í I did speak out but definitely not then and not in the way I convinced myself it had happened. I clearly didn’t want to remember my craven evasion so I backdated my eventual moral courage and believed my own propaganda.

I now believe that my journals will be littered with ego deflating realities I have chosen to remember differently. I’m also pretty convinced that, without the protection of a strong value system to inoculate us, we will all chronically succumb to the virus of self-serving self-deception. I also have to recognise the probability that many other entries in my journal will have gone through a self-serving filter long before the ink hit the page.

Of course, it is also quite possible that none of these versions of reality is to be trusted; maybe all of them are distorted in their various ways and the truth is to be found somewhere completely different.

I think I’ll leave that possibility alone for now. I’m beginning to feel quite dizzy as though my view of the world is swirling and blurred in a heat haze. The last example I want to look at will have to wait till next time. It was for me the most stunning example I have ever experienced of the smoke and mirrors side of memory. In the meantime I’ll sit down and wait for the vertigo to pass.

Coffe cup on garden tableI’m asleep. At least I think I am. We’re altogether this time, sitting round the glass table in the garden. We are wrestling with the problem of how to find out if my head has any other entities lurking beneath consciousness and if so, how to get in touch with them. We’ve postponed trying to reach agreement on how to reflect more often and more effectively until we’ve sorted this issue out.

‘We don’t seem to be getting very far with our watching brief plan. And I don’t think we’re going to. We need to do something more proactive.’ He paused for a moment and when no one else spoke he added, ‘Why don’t we try using an ouija board?’ Frederick Mires seems slightly embarrassed to be making this suggestion.

‘Good to see a brain scientist prepared to put something so discredited to the test, Fred.’ Christopher Humfreeze finds it hard to conceal his pleasure at scoring such an unlikely point. For once he is not on the receiving end of Mires’s unremitting need to test the validity of his faith in meditation.

‘Too easy to fake, isn’t it?’ comments the pragmatic Emma Pancake dismissively. Anything so flaky is unlikely to receive the support of such a hard-line campaigner in the socio-political sphere.

‘What’s an Ouija board?’ asks the bewildered William Wordless. Exploring and rhapsodising about mountains and forests has obviously given him too little time to explore the esoteric.

I feel it’s time I stepped in.

‘I don’t think we have to explain that to you, Bill, I’m happy to say. I’m not convinced that tables, letter cards and up-turned tumblers are going to get us very far towards solving this problem. We’re not in a material space now but an immaterial one: dreamland requires a different approach, I feel.’

There is a period of silence.

‘I have an idea but it’s unlikely to work,’ Mires muses.

‘We’d be glad to hear it, whatever it is,’ is my attempt at an encouraging response.

The Conscious Universe IRM‘Well, you know I’ve been investigating consciousness for decades now, and there is one method that in my view, if it can work at all, could just possibly work as well in dreamland as in waking time.’ He pauses dramatically.

‘Come on, Fred. Don’t keep us hanging in suspense.’ Pancake has little patience with anyone’s dramatics except her own.

‘Calm down, Emmie! I’m going to tell you now. If we had access to a psychic, a spirit medium, we could possibly detect and access whatever is there.’

‘That puts the kibosh on that one then,’ gloats Pancake. ‘We haven’t got a medium.’

‘Slow down a moment, folks. Not so hasty.’ Bill clearly doesn’t like Pancake’s knee jerk dismissal of this idea. There’s always been a tension between them. He knows she despises his love of poetry: she sees it as an impractical waste of time. He, on the other hand, distrusts the frantic activity with which she chases her dream of changing the world.

‘Maybe we have someone who doesn’t know they’re a medium.’

‘How likely is that, Bill?’ asks Mires. ‘We’ve been together in here for decades. We know each other really well. I don’t see anyone among us with a secret gift for contacting spirits.’

‘That’s where I think you’re mistaken, Fred. You’ve never been convinced that meditation does what Chris says it can. What if he’s right? What if he is closer to his soul than any of us? What if that means he can tune in to the world of souls and spirits that we can’t sense?’

‘Steady on, Bill, for heaven’s sake,’ Humfreeze butts in. ‘It’s my head you’re talking about here. Don’t let your poetic imagination run away with you. I have never had, and I do not expect ever to have, psychic powers, whatever they are. That’s not why I meditate.’

‘I’m not suggesting that is why you do it, only that it might have helped you be able to do it and not even know. Why don’t you just give it try? We really need to find a way to do this.’

Humfreeze seems to be shrinking with repugnance at the whole idea.

Image adapted from the Taschen edition of Renee Magritte

Image adapted from the Taschen edition of Renee Magritte

‘I know this probably cuts across everything you feel you are trying to do,’ Mires interjects sympathetically, ‘and I will respect and understand whatever decision you make in the end. However, I think there is something here that trumps your reluctance. If there is a hidden entity inside Pete’s head and if contacting it results in us all becoming more able to do more good, then there’s no blame attached to your testing the existence of a possible skill you never tried to acquire. It can do no harm and might do a lot of good.’

‘That’s an awful lot of ifs,’ laments Humfreeze. He pauses for a moment as he ponders what to say. We all realise this is a tipping point and keep schtum.

‘OK. This is the deal. I want to hear everyone’s opinion on this insane suggestion. If I end up feeling that all of you are definitely in favour of this plan, I will give it a go. I will try three times and three times only. If nothing happens, I’m not doing it again, do you all understand?’

‘Thank you, Chris. That’s very gracious of you, and we really appreciate how much it cost you to say that. So, what do we all think of the plan, then? You first, Emmie.’ Mires gives Pancake a searching look.

‘Did you have to start with me, Fred?’ Pancake complains. ‘I need more time. Ask someone else.’

Mires’s stops himself from commenting that this is the first occasion to his knowledge that she has wanted more time before deciding to act.

‘I’ll come back to you then. What do you think, Bill. Are you still for the idea?’

‘Definitely. I think we have to give it a go.’

‘Pete, what do you think?’

‘Well, I’m not very happy to go down this road, but I can’t think of a better idea. I have a really strong sense there is some kind of being underneath our awareness that we absolutely need to get in touch with, so I feel we should accept Chris’s generous offer and see if he’s psychic after all.’

‘Back to you then, Emmie. I’m in favour of trying this out even though I’m anything but sure it will work. It can’t do any harm and there’s a lot at stake here, and I’ve been wrong before.’

‘Can I have that in writing, Fred, for use in future arguments?’ quips Pancake. We all laugh, glad to have an excuse to break the tension a little.

‘I’ve had time to think and I agree we should go with this idea. I find it hard to believe it will work but we’ve got nothing to lose by trying.’

‘That’s it then, Chris. I come back to you with a unanimous decision that we ask you to try.’

‘I was afraid that would be how it turned out. I said I would do it if you all agreed and I’ll stick to my word. Can you give me just a bit more time to prepare?’

We all nod and agree to meet as soon as Humfreeze lets us know he’s ready.

Coming through the open window in the heat, the sound of the milkman’s van outside wakes me up. It’s light already but far too early to get up. I turn on my other side mulling over the contents of the dream as the mist of sleep slowly blots out my thoughts.

James Cook's 370-ton bark Endeavour, launched 1764, scuttled 1778. (Public domain.)

James Cook’s 370-ton bark Endeavour, launched 1764, scuttled 1778. (Public domain.)

This sequence from two years ago still seems relevant.

My recent post on psi, as well as a positive reference to it in Irreducible Mind, triggered me to go back to a book I read many years ago before I started blogging. It is Dean Radin’s The Conscious Universe. This is the second of two posts; the first was published yesterday.

Processes of Distortion

Radin devotes a whole chapter to explaining the various processes that contribute to our persistent distortion of reality. These processes apply to all of us and are not unique to scientists, but scientists should theoretically be the group of people least susceptible to them. Unfortunately, as the evidence cited in the previous post indicates, this is very far from being the case.

Some of what Radin explores we have already looked at in some detail on this blog, for example Kahneman’s analysis of what he terms System 1 thinking, and which I have referred to as our gut instinct about things which is quick to reach strongly held conclusions about reality but frequently wrong about complex matters. These are important aspects of the problem but I don’t intend to repeat my exploration of them here. Those who are interested should click on the links.

He also includes, in his list of factors, filtering processes such as suppression, repression and dissociation (something existential approaches term ‘discounting’). While intriguing I’m not convinced these are among the most important.

To my mind social factors, which he deals with at length in other parts of his book, carry more weight. Scientists concerned about their careers or those for whom the opinion of colleagues carries excessive weight will clearly be motivated to deny what they see. They will probably, though, be aware at some level that this is what they are doing. I want to focus here on some of the unconscious processes that are at work among biased scientists convinced that they are merely being objective.

An over-arching consideration is what in lay terms is called ‘wishful thinking.’ Radin writes (page 229):

We do not perceive the world as it is, but as we wish it to be. . . . . Essentially, we construct mental models of the world which reflect our expectations, biases, and desires, a world that is comfortable for our egos, that does not threaten our beliefs, and that is consistent, stable, and coherent.

This process creates a degree of commitment (page 235) that mobilises us to defend our egos when the picture we believe in is threatened. It also links with what he terms ‘expectancy effects’ (page 234).

He also brings into focus (page 237) a well-attested problem of a similar nature known as confirmation bias. Our brains are wired to accept information that fits with our existing views of the world and to reject out of hand and almost automatically anything that clashes.

All of these aspects combine to create the phenomenon demonstrated in a possibly apocryphal story from the past. A sceptical version from the North Coast Journal goes like this:

Have you heard of the invisible ships phenomenon, cited in several new-age books and movies? It goes like this: When Captain Cook/Columbus/Magellan (depending on the version of the story you’re hearing) arrived at the coast of Australia/Cuba/South America, the native people completely ignored them, presumably because huge ships were so alien to their experience that “… their highly filtered perceptions couldn’t register what was happening, and they literally failed to ‘see’ the ships.” (Quoting here from JZ Knight’s What the Bleep Do We Know?)

The story seems to have originated with Joseph Banks, botanist on Captain James Cook’s 1770 voyage. On several occasions while they were off the coast of Australia, he commented that the natives paid virtually no attention to the 106-foot long Endeavour. On April 28, sailing north along the east coast of Australia, he recorded in his diary that fishermen “… seemd to be totaly engag’d in what they were about: the ship passd within a quarter of a mile of them and yet they scarce lifted their eyes from their employment … ”

Banks seemed to be troubled by not being the star attraction: “Not one was once observd to stop and look towards the ship; they pursued their way in all appearance intirely unmovd by the neighbourhood of so remarkable an object as a ship must necessarily be to people who have never seen one.”

For course of image see link

For source of image see link

Radin gives us a well-replicated example of the power of ‘prior convictions’ that is far closer to home (page 231).

Bruner and Postman created a deck of normal playing cards, except that some of the suit symbols were colour-reversed. For example, the queen of diamonds had black-coloured diamonds instead of red. The special cards were shuffled into an ordinary deck, and then as they were displayed one at a time, people were asked to identify them as fast as possible.

At short exposures the obvious mistakes were made and people failed completely to spot the anomalies, labelling a card either the queen of spades or the queen of diamonds rather than noting the dissonance. Even increased exposure times did not necessarily create accurate perceptions.

When the researchers increased the amount of time that the cards were displayed, some people eventually began to notice that something was amiss, but they did not know exactly what was wrong. One person, while directly gazing at a red six of spades, said, “That’s the six of spades but there’s something wrong with it – the black spade has a red border.”

As the display time increased even more, people became more confused and hesitant. Eventually, most people saw what was before their eyes. But even when the cards were displayed for 40 times the length of time needed to recognise normal playing cards, about 10 per cent of the colour-reversed cards were never correctly identified by any of the people!

If something so simple can create such confusion it’s not entirely surprising, even if it is disappointing, that scientists, most of whom are committed in advance to the impossibility of psi which is a far more complex phenomenon, should fail to recognise it even when they have fallen over it.

Radin concludes this exploration by saying about this issue (page 246):

The expectations of the scientific elite actually put them more at risk of being swayed by perceptual biases than the general public. After all, the scientific elite have lifelong careers and their credibility on the line. They are strongly motivated to maintain a certain belief system. By contrast, most members of the general public do not know or care about the expectations of science.

Bahá’u’lláh emphasizes the fundamental obligation of human beings to acquire knowledge with their “own eyes and not through the eyes of others.” . . . . God has given each human being a mind and the capacity to differentiate truth from falsehood. If individuals fail to use their reasoning capacities and choose instead to accept without question certain opinions and ideas, either out of admiration for or fear of those who hold them, then they are neglecting their basic moral responsibility as human beings. Moreover, when people act in this way, they often become attached to some particular opinion or tradition and thus intolerant of those who do not share it.

(Quoted from the official Bahá’í website)

The Conscious Universe IRM

This sequence from two years ago still seems relevant.

My recent post on psi, as well as a positive reference to it in Irreducible Mind, triggered me to go back to a book I read many years ago before I started blogging. It is Dean Radin’s The Conscious Universe.

It deals in depth with the wealth of research that had been undertaken until that point on the vexed issue of psi. It reveals how meticulously those involved in this research had taken on board the criticisms of the sceptics and refined their methodology until it had reached the point where its replicated confirmation of the reality of psi could not be explained away by any serious scientist who bothered to examine dispassionately the work that had been done.

I won’t review the whole of his book, which I am convinced will amply reward anyone prepared to read it. It covers the whole area, including methodology, from telepathy through remote viewing to field theories of consciousness.

I will instead confine myself to one example of how carefully considered his treatment is of this issue, then I’ll focus on his chapters exploring the reasons for the prevailing scepticism – endemic then in 1997 and still a common response within the scientific mainstream – before outlining briefly in a second post the sources of some of the distortions of thinking operating here and elsewhere.

The Point of Detail

Remote Viewing SketchWhen I recently published a post on psi I noted that I was doubtful that everyone could demonstrate the level of remote viewing skill Jeffrey Iverson quotes in his book. I concluded:

I am not at all sure . . . 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.

Radin has helped me refine that view in the light of two pieces of research. In terms of remote viewing (page 102), he states:

. . . . . mass screening to find talented remote viewers revealed that about Remote Viewing Angel1% of those tested were consistently successful. This says that first class remote-viewing ability is relatively rare, but it probably varies across the general population much like athletic ability and musical talent.

Neither practice nor training seems to do much to improve upon someone’s starting level of ability.

However, micropsychokinesis, tested by means of random number generators (RNGs) tells a different story, perhaps because influencing electronically generated numbers is a less demanding skill (page 143):

Roger Nelson and his colleagues found that the main RNG effect . . . . [contained] no “star” performers – this means that the overall effect reflected an accumulation of small effects from each person rather than a few outstanding results from “special people.”

This is just one example among thousands of what has been revealed by decades of painstaking research.

So, do scientists irrationally persist in not taking the reality of psi seriously?

Radin demonstrates that this is very much the case before tackling head on the question of why that might be so.

A Field Guide to Scepticism

There are two ways to be fooled. One is to believe what isn’t true; the other is to refuse to believe what is true.

Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855)

We can start by considering how well-informed scepticism was at the time of Radin’s writing this book. He quotes Paul Churchland as a not untypical example (page 207):

‘… There is not a single parapsychological effect that can be repeatedly or reliably produced in any laboratory suitably equipped to perform and control the experiment. Not one.’

Radin’s reposte, which his book proves is completely warranted is (ibid.):

Wrong. As we’ve seen, there are a half dozen psi effects that have been replicated dozens to hundreds of times in laboratories around the world.

Radin goes onto explain that such sceptics as Churchland have not even bothered to find out what the tiny handful of well-informed sceptics had come to accept (page 209):

Today, informed sceptics no longer claim that the outcomes of psi experiments are due to mere chance because we know that some parapsychological effects are, to use sceptical psychologist Ray Hyman’s words, “astronomically significant.” This is a key concession because it shifts the focus of the debate away from the mere existence of interesting effects to their proper interpretation.

Part of this resistance to the clearly proven stems from something I have explored at length already on this blog: the a priori assumption that psi is impossible, no respectable scientist need therefore investigate it and any evidence that claims to support the idea must be flawed. That this can lead to wildly unsubstantiable claims almost beggars belief (page 211):

. . . . in 1983 the well-known sceptic Martin Gardner wrote: “How can the public know that for 50 years sceptical psychologist been trying their best to replicate classic psi experiments, and with notable unsuccess [sic]?”

Radin confirms that Gardner made no attempt to support his assertion, which was in any case pure fiction. There was no such body of careful experimentation by sceptics.

Radin quotes Honorton as defining this whole approach as (page 212) ‘counteradvocacy masquerading as scepticism.’ In other words, not the cautious mindset of a true scientist, but convinced and intransigent disbelief.

Another tactic, given the weight of evidence (ibid.), was to claim that the effect of psi was too weak to be interesting, a claim that conveniently forgets the history of electricity, whose initial manifestations (page 213) were decidedly weak and ‘erratic.’

In the end it is hard not to disagree with an early sceptic, Donald O. Hebb’s own description of his inability to accept the overwhelming evidence (page 214): ‘My own rejection of [Rhine’s] views is in a literal sense prejudice.’

It was hardly surprising that the popular press followed suit (page 219), when the National Research Council (page 215) and introductory psychology textbooks (page 223) danced to the same mocking music, even when they could and should have known better.

In the end, one of the most fruitful ways of looking at this tendency to discount, distort or completely ignore the evidence for psi is to see it as the mirror image of what sceptics accuse believers in psi of doing – warping what they see to confirm what they believe and then, consciously or unconsciously, faking the evidence to prove it (page 224-25).

This paves the way for his more detailed examination of the processes that reinforce this very human tendency. More of that tomorrow.

A powerful article was published on the Bahá’í News website earlier this week. Below is a short extract: for the full post see link.

SANA’A, Yemen — An extraordinary wave of support by organizations and individuals has kindled hope in the hearts of the Baha’is of Yemen in the wake of recent arrests there. It has also revealed the degree to which the motivation of Baha’is to build unity has resonated with so many in that country and across the region. One statement of support opened with this dramatic assertion of solidarity: “We are all Baha’is”.

On 10 August, armed, masked soldiers raided an educational gathering organized jointly by the Nida Foundation for Development as well as the Baha’i community of Yemen on the theme of moral empowerment and service. More than sixty participants were arrested, among them youth and children. Half were Baha’is and, currently, it is believed some fourteen remain in prison, including young mothers.

Yet the raid has provoked an unprecedented response from citizens and civil society. Widespread coverage in the region’s media—on television, on the Internet, and in print—has also highlighted the constructive endeavors of the Baha’i community and the baselessness and illogicality of the arrests.

Two of the leading daily pan-Arab newspapers—Al-Arab and Al Quds Al-Arabi—covered the story extensively. Among the countless other news sources that have published related stories have been Al Morasel, Al Modon, Akhbar Al Khaleej, Gulf Eyes, Al Masdar, Mosnad News, Sadaa Adan, and Yemen Shabab.

“Why arrest a group of peaceful Baha’is when the country is full of arms dealers, gangs, instigators of sedition, saboteurs, spies, and lurking terrorists? What courage is there in the arrest of a group of defenseless children and youth, when Yemen is full of thousands of murderers, thieves, criminals, gangs, and armed religious militias?” asks writer Sadiq Al-Qadi in an article on Al-Morasel News titled “For the Sake of Faith, Nation, and Humanity: Release the Baha’is”.

“How does the country benefit from persecuting a group that believes in obedience to one’s country? What benefit in arresting people who regard work as worship and strive to serve the community?” continues the article.

The Nida Foundation and the Baha’i community in Yemen have been involved in programs for the empowerment of youth so that they become oriented towards the social, moral, and intellectual development of society in practical ways. Both have also been concerned with raising the status of women and promoting the concept of equality and, in particular, the education of the girl child. Furthermore, the Nida Foundation has held discussions with tribal leaders on the profound implications of peace, reconciliation, and co-existence in that war-torn society.

supraliminal

I saw Eternity the other night,
Like a great ring of pure and endless light,
All calm, as it was bright;
And round beneath it, Time in hours, days, years,
Driv’n by the spheres
Like a vast shadow mov’d; in which the world
And all her train were hurl’d.

(From The World by Henry Vaughan)

Given the unfolding story of my Parliament of Selves, republishing this sequence on consecutive days seemed a no-brainer.

In the previous post I described the experience of being dynamited into an awareness of subliminal forces operating below the lower threshold of my consciousness. Now I need to turn, in this attempt to explain why this whole issue of filters and thresholds fascinates me so much, to my experiences of higher consciousness.

I need to clarify right from the start that I am a slightly disappointed mystic manqué, so anyone hoping for stories about the higher flights of mysticism probably needs to go somewhere else to find them. However, there are aspects of my journey from the basement of my brain to something somewhat closer to the heaven of true understanding that might reward attention.

Quest

There is a 13 year gap between the closest I have ever got to a mystical experience and the breakthrough I described earlier into the cellar of my mind. Those 13 years covered a journey through further breathwork in a therapeutic community in the Lake District close to Wordsworth’s birthplace. In the end I remained stuck at the same level as I have described in the previous post – floating endlessly in the tank of tears just beneath the surface of my consciousness.

So there was then a disillusioned return to the mainstream. This was not simply the result of a frustration at my own lack of progress. I also saw that a few others who came to the commune for help, some of them seriously in need, went away in a worse state than they came after a fruitless few days in a tent at the bottom of the garden. I ended up packing my few belongings, leaving the commune and driving back to London, taking with me one of the people I felt we had failed to where he would hopefully find more effective help and friendship. I know that my having a car is evidence of an even worse attachment to the world I was affecting to despise than that of the dervish who dashed back from the mountains to the palace he had been staying at to get the begging bowl he’d left behind while the prince he had persuaded to leave his palace and come with him looked on in complete amazement, but it was at least the means by which I got someone else as well as myself out of an unpleasant and unhelpful predicament.

I was also strongly motivated by a desire to have more chance to work therapeutically with more people more effectively. I realised that this could not be done from the outside of society looking in as I had previously thought. It was better to be on the inside where most other people and many more resources were to be found.

I spent several years working in social services at a day centre. I rapidly realised that social work was not for me – too many forms to fill in and court appearances to make. Even now, I always fill in forms first of all in pencil before I commit to ink, as I always make at least one major mistake on every form, no matter how simple. As for the combination in court of drama and detail, that was always too big a stretch for me. I prefer working behind the scenes and am purblind to details.

In any case, I was far more interested in what goes on between people’s ears. So, in spite of some misgivings about the experimental side of the course, I enrolled to do a psychology degree in the evenings at Birkbeck College. I also participated in a Transactional Analysis/Gestalt Group for a year, and then began learning meditation at the same time as qualifying as a Clinical Psychologist at the University of Surrey.

While I think the meditation helped me stay grounded as I juggled a wide range of different commitments throughout that process, and while I certainly found the psychologically penetrating insights of Buddhism a humbling and effective vaccine against the hubris of scientism that infected my profession, I cannot boast of any transcendental states – just of a relative ease in maintaining a simple calm unflustered state of mind under stress and occasional access to a tingling energy which pervaded by whole being for brief periods. I still committed major blunders from time to time but I got through to the end of the qualification experience relatively unscathed, thanks in part to the ballast meditation provided to keep my mind’s boat stable in rough seas.

Shrine of the Bab

At the end of that long journey, triggered by a visit to Hendon library, a story I will share another time, I started to tread the Baha’i path. My first three hour visit to the Baha’i Centre in London induced a buzzing energetic state of mind which lasted for a fortnight and which hours of meditation would have failed to achieve for me. I read my way through a bagful of books with only about four hours sleep a night – those close to me who know my aptitude for sleep will testify to how remarkable that was.

Two years after that I married and soon after the birth of our son we all went as a family to Israel on pilgrimage in 1987. We stayed in Haifa and visited Akka.  The Baha’i Holy places are located there and this is where the experiences I want to describe took place.

Pilgrimage

I was unable to enter the Shrine of the Bab the first time I saw it. It was evening and the Shrine was closed so I had to stand some distance away, as the sun was beginning to set, and lean against an iron gate. I found myself uncontrollably sobbing. This was not the pool of tears I was so used to from my encounter group experiences. These were tears of profound relief. The best way I can describe how I felt is to say that it was like an exile coming home after many long years of believing he would never see his longed-for native land again.

This of course does not constitute conclusive evidence of any kind of mystical reality. It was an intense experience but can be explained, if you wish, without evoking other realms of reality than the material. Nonetheless, for me personally this was the beginning of a completely unexpected sequence of reactions to the whole experience of pilgrimage. I was as unprepared for the power of this sense of return as I had been for the breakthrough to my mind’s basement all those years earlier. That I had not been anticipating any such response suggests there was a break through of some kind from across a threshold. I cannot prove it was a breakthrough from above but it felt as though it was.

The following day I stood at the door of the Shrine of the Bab totally unable to cross that particular threshold. It was not until several others had entered before me, while I stood there dithering, that I could bring myself to go inside. Then, somehow, I managed to force myself to enter. Completely contrary to my expectation at the time, I felt waves of immense power pass over me and the whole air vibrate with an irresistible intensity.

I had expected a completely different experience altogether. I had expected something like a warm glow of love to envelope me. It would have fitted more with the sense I had of the Bab’s personality. Indiscussing the possible objective validity of near death experiences, Mark Fox attaches considerable importance to the fact that, in many reports, what the person experienced was very different from what his culture had led him to expect. That this was also true, though in a less specific way, of this experience prompts me to feel that there was something outside my own projections at work here, something to do with an objective out-there quality of the Bab’s spiritual reality. It was this combination of intensity and unexpectedness that leads to me feel this quite strongly. It was also a very different feeling from the one I had been engulfed by when I stood by the gate the previous evening. This would have primed me for some kind of repetition of the same thing: what actually occurred was very different.

Each Shrine that I stepped into on that pilgrimage had its own particular impact. The Shrine of the Master glowed gently with a warm acceptance, much as I had thought it would. So expectations were not contradicted here. However, the Shrine of Baha’u’llah at Bahji, on the other hand, also totally defied my expectations. Here was where I had expected the raw power, but felt instead enveloped in a loving embrace of such unconditional completeness that I sobbed uncontrollably once more.

I won’t test your patience by repeating the same line of reasoning again but for me it applies here also, and for two out of three experiences in the Shrines to go against expectation so intensely confirms for me my sense that there was something outside my own projections that was shaping that impact. I was not aware then and cannot recall now any influences from other pilgrims that might have had the effects upon my reactions that would have been necessary to go so strongly against the grain of my expectations.

I am sure you are all already aware that I have no expectation that these accounts of my experiences will necessarily persuade you to come to the same conclusions as I have on the basis of them. I have shared them as a way of beginning to explain why I am so fascinated by the borderlands of consciousness and what might lie beyond, and why I keep reading in search of evidence that might point ever more clearly towards their true significance. I tend to shy away from such personal sharing because I am all too aware that its power to shape a sense of reality does not extend beyond my skull. Still, maybe the risk was worth taking.

Shrine Entrance Bahji

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