Archive for March, 2014

'Newton' by William Blake

‘Newton’ by William Blake

Clash of Paradigms

With Bush’s help in her valuable treatment of these experiences, we have looked at the various problems people in our modern Western society will have making sense of a near-death experience (NDE) especially if it is negative. Where does all this leave the person who has experienced an NDE, negative or otherwise? Bush puts it well (2133-37):

The Catch-22 for many individuals after an NDE is that they know what they experienced but they can’t believe what they experienced; . . . . In the mainstream of Western thought, the physical world is the only possible real world, and therefore the only sane one.

Interpreting the experience as spiritual is not an easily available option for most of us. She quotes Grof again (2145:

The mystical nature of many experiences . . . . puts them automatically into the category of pathology, since spirituality is not seen as a legitimate dimension in the exclusively material universe of traditional science.

Our culture has a very different model (2184):

Especially in modern times there have developed ‘explanations of the ultimate meaning of life, and how to live accordingly’ which are not based on a notion of the transcendent, for example atheistic Marxism and secular humanism. Although in every respect these “explanations” function as religions traditionally have in human life, because they omit the idea of the transcendent it is best to give these a separate name. The name often used is ideology.

Bush doesn’t buy this model. She quotes Edinger as saying (2206): ‘There is in the unconscious a transpersonal center of latent consciousness and obscure intentionality.’

In grappling with both the limitations of Kahneman’s two system model of decisionmaking and what Bahá’u’lláh meant by the phraseunderstanding heart’ I have been seeking to explore this issue from various angles including dreams. Bush feels that (2208) ‘Dreams, fantasies, illness, accident and coincidence become potential messages from the unseen Partner with whom we share our life.’ She feels that negative NDEs are approaching the same territory from a different and more disturbing angle (2213-15):

Individuals who find themselves in distressing NDEs that involve a sense of transcendence with feelings of awe and terror may be encountering what the German scholar Rudolf Otto (1958, 12) termed the “numinosum,” the Holy. . . . . . .  This is not the tame ‘walking in the garden with God’ kind of holy but the original holy terror, ‘the fear of God’ so expertly captured by Old Testament writers as a sense of overpowering awe.

She sees the terror as at least in part derived from the threat to our ego (2290):

Life lived within the myth of the self comes up against the spiritual demand for surrender. We are aghast. What’s worse, we are unprepared.

She attacks the simplistic notion (2309), though, ‘the view that some experiences are terrifying because the individual “should have” given in to it, should have surrendered.’ She explains why (ibid.):

This assumes not only that the person knows this beforehand but that the response can be somehow both imagined and volitional from within the experience. This is a cultural dilemma. It also ignores the real possibility that sometimes one may be well advised not to be taken in by the terrifying vision, not to go with it but to find a different way around.

She argues, rather as McGilchrist might in the same territory, that we need to keep the left hemisphere of the brain on the case here (2335):

Without discernment and common sense (left hemisphere), we become easy marks for spiritual charlatans and crooks. Two halves make a whole brain and a whole person.

Old and NewA Point of Transition

Our world is deeply conflicted. She reminds us again of the difference between East and West on this particular subject. She quotes Richard J. Foster (2344):

‘Eastern meditation is an attempt to empty the mind; Christian meditation is an attempt to empty the mind in order to fill it. The two ideas are radically different.’

She argues (2386-2403) that we are in another ‘Axial Age:’

. . . . . in roughly the years between 800 and 200 BCE, something fundamental happened in the thinking and even in the very nature, of people around the world. Humanity discovered morality. . . . . . That same kind of turmoil is with us today, on a larger scale but with the same elements: stunningly new ideas, radical shifts in religion, globalism and a jostling of cultures, and economic upheavals. . . . . . Today we are amid a second Axial Age and are undergoing a period of transition similar to that of the first Axial Age.

I will resist going off into an explanation of the similarity of that view to the Bahá’í understanding of our current predicament, and refrain from recapitulating my reactions to Robert Wright’s Evolution of God and Paul Ray and Sherry Ruth Anderson’s brilliant analysis of this period of ‘parenthesis.’ However, the reference she quotes to our moving towards a ‘Global Civilisation’ should be a big enough hint (2409):

Leonard Swidler (2008), has said of the 20th century’s wars, ‘In fact, however, those vast world conflagrations were manifestations of the dark side of the unique breakthrough in the history of humankind [of] the modern development of Christendom-become-Western Civilization, now becoming Global Civilization. Never before had there been world wars; likewise, never before had there been world political organizations (League of Nations, United Nations).’

She is therefore very aware, as she writes, that she must write in a way that is accessible to a wide variety of perspectives and world views. The multitude of terms that have been applied to the NDE experience scarcely touch never mind overlap. These terms are the filter through which people understand the experience (2450):

Historian of religion Ann Taves (2009, 162) has observed that when people use the adjectives ‘religious,’ ‘mystical,’ ‘magical,’ ‘superstitious,’ ‘spiritual,’ ‘ideological,’ or ‘secular’ to apply to such an experience, it is the preexisting belief of the speaker rather than the experience itself that determines which word will be chosen.

Whatever the terms used (2456) ‘whether religious, mystical, magical, superstitious, spiritual, ideological, or secular, it is the same individual experience.’

The ultimate effect of this has been disastrous for anyone trying to make sense of an NDE, especially a negative one (2502-05):

Experiencers have told many sad stories of going to a professional for help in understanding their NDE, only to find themselves caught up in the medical model, pathologized by a diagnostic label and the NDE dismissed as meaningless. . . . . . . People have also told of being dismissed by their rabbi or pastor as well, for in a secular society much awareness of deep spiritual process is lost or distorted, even within religious institutions themselves.

It seems likely that the insecurities of religious institutions are being triggered, at least in part, by the openness of these experiences (2512):

A great many experiencers have observed, often with dismay at their religious institution, that the message of their NDE was far more open, more universalizing and inclusive than what their tradition teaches.

It used to be well-known and widely accepted that (2542) ‘many dramatic and difficult episodes can occur during spiritual practice and that the road to enlightenment can be rough and stormy.’ Sadly that level of awareness has long been lost in the West at least. Jung’s view was that (2563) ‘After almost four centuries of deepening materialism and the dimming or outright loss of the West’s major religious and philosophical symbols. . . .  the energies of the psyche had begun saying, “enough”’

Moreover, in Bush’s view, (2605):

. . . . in the belief systems that were converging in the new broth, there was—not pantheism, “nature worship”—but panentheism, the conviction that God permeates all of creation, that God is in all and all are in God—which means that in some measure each individual person is directly connected not only to every other individual person and the universe itself but is connected to that One, that All… and is in some measure divine.

She contrasts that with the West’s prevailing orthodoxy which is spreading ever more widely (2624):

As opposed to the dominant culture, which has been outward, rational, reductionistic, dominated by the senses, and driven by the letter of the law, this alternative reality tradition has been inner, contemplative, ascetic, and mystical, believing itself to be the true aristocracy of the spirit from which the letter of the law was derived.

DaimonPaths Forward?

Which brings us to the last section of her book, which, as I indicated at the start of the series of posts, I would deal with briefly and come back to at more length later. To begin with she visits some ground previously traveled: attempts to define the NDE, understanding its purpose, the importance of the shock it administers to our world view.

In the end though she feels (2710-12) ‘Whether the events are literally, physically, materially real or not is irrelevant; they are real experiences, profoundly real in the imaginal sense, a sudden, shocking revelation of truths previously unrecognized about the world we thought we knew.

She examines some of the ancient imagery that is possibly helpful to consider in this context, for example, ‘daimons’ (2791):

Daimons were understood to be potentially both good and evil; but eventually the good gods and their destructive qualities were divided from the evil demons and their potential for good, shifting constructive qualities to the gods and destructive qualities onto the demons. It was one of the prices of monotheism, that loss of complexity.

In the end we lost something important. According to James Greer (2801): ‘In the original sense of the word, a monster is a revelation, something shown forth.’

Something like them can certainly feature in advanced spiritual practice (2807):

Shinzen Young (2005), an American Buddhist teacher of mindfulness meditation, has noted that terrifying images—insectoid, grotesquely otherworldly, demonic—may appear in advanced meditation. He teaches that they are ‘best interpreted as part of a natural process of release from the deep archetypal levels of the mind.’

She discusses in some detail the nature of negative experiences and concludes along with Grof that (2878):

‘The experience of extraordinary perception can be associated with deep metaphysical fear, since it challenges and undermines the world view that the Western culture typically subscribes to and associates with sanity.’

More than that even, they may be saying, as do positive ones as well, something about our essential being at the deepest levels (2886):

The bottom line about distressing NDEs in general and the hellish ones in particular seems to be that hell, like heaven, is very real—as a product of the imaginal system that produces experience. It is not a place, not a destination, but a built-in range of ideas that are part of us, and that we must deal with.

They are symbols representing a reality that cannot be accessed except through symbols. There is a catch, however. Bahá’u’lláh is very clear that what He is expressing, as He attempts to communicate to us about spiritual reality, is according to our understanding, not according to the reality He perceives (Hidden Words: 67):

All that I have revealed unto thee with the tongue of power, and have written for thee with the pen of might, hath been in accordance with thy capacity and understanding, not with My state and the melody of My voice.

He also explains that we cannot understand such symbols if we are not sufficiently detached (Kitáb-i-Íqán: pages 68-69):

Wert thou to cleanse the mirror of thy heart from the dust of malice, thou wouldst apprehend the meaning of the symbolic terms revealed by the all-embracing Word of God made manifest in every Dispensation, and wouldst discover the mysteries of divine knowledge.

There is much to explore here.

Bush explains that (2919) ‘NDEs cannot be the territory they represent: they are signposts, arrows; maps written in symbol.’

We have to be careful though to distinguish two different categories of thought when we are talking about symbols (2923):

What is imaginary does not really exist but is made up, pretend, fantasy. What is imaginal, on the other hand, as . . . . . Joseph Campbell . . . . noted, “is metaphysically grounded in a dreamlike mythological realm beyond space and time, which, since it is physically invisible, can be known only to the mind.”

What the logical mind interprets as destructive may not be so at this level of understanding. I will need to return to this again but one example she gives is fire (2935): ‘Fire signifies divine revelation—the burning bush, the ancient sacrifice, the burning lamp, the all-enveloping presence of God. It is a classic symbol of transformation.’ And (2940), ‘As in dreams, a suggestion of death or end times may point simply to change—to the end of a life phase or a major change in one’s awareness, the death of a particular time.’

These symbols have deep roots and should not be dismissed (2963):

Stanislav Grof has observed . . . . , “These mythologies and concepts of… heaven and hell… are an intrinsic part of the human personality that cannot be repressed and denied without serious damage.”

Also, it is worth bearing in mind the possibility adduced by Christopher Bache (2990) ‘that a distressing NDE represents a painful fragment of a potentially transcendent experience that either has insufficient impetus to blast through to the transcendent level or that gets “stuck” in the tunnel so many near-death experiencers describe.’

Basically Bush feels we should avoid simplistic one-dimensional interpretations (3018): ‘The more one knows about symbolic language, the wider the possible understanding of what an experience is about.’

What follows in her book is a deeper exploration of how someone might go about accessing more positive interpretations of what at first sight seem such dark and damaging experiences. She covers a remarkable amount of ground and draws on a wide range of thinkers and practitioners. There is no way I can do justice to it in this review. There is also no way I can resist bringing in more of my own ideas than is appropriate.

What I have tried to do in this review is demonstrate how rigorous and valuable her examination is of a hitherto virtually neglected body of experiences. It is well worth reading and brings this whole area out into the light where more of us can share it.

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Shortcuts Underground

For source of image see link

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Escaping the BoyAs a result of posting my recent review of Helen Beverly’s book The Other Side of Charm, I have been alerted to many informative and moving websites on this and related issues through blogs such as Torn 2 Peaces. I was particularly impressed by how brilliant a summary Paula has given of what we need to know to identify when we are in the potentially toxic presence of a sociopath.

Below is an extract: for the the full post, which is strongly recommended, see link. For example, she quotes a crucial point from Martha Stout about narcissism and sociopathy: ‘Although not all narcissists are sociopaths, all sociopaths are narcissists (Stout 2010). Therefore, if you can identify a narcissist, you’re one step closer to being able to recognize a sociopath.’

(Incidentally, I have now finished The Other Side of Charm. Amongst other aspects, the harrowing account of how blind the court system in the States is to the needs of women and children was deeply disturbing. The book is a must read for anyone wishing to fully understand how unacceptable society’s attitude still is to the victim’s of abuse. In the UK we have no reason to feel smug either as recent reports about the police attitude to domestic violence clearly indicate – see the BBC post on this.)

Sociopaths aren’t just the serial killers and rapists we see on the 6 o’clock news. They are our neighbors, co-workers, friends, family members, and sometimes our “soul mates.”

Sociopaths are the charmers and manipulators. They are the people who appear together and well-groomed at first glance, but hide many secrets and lies underneath their mask of sanity.

Sociopaths, in the early love-bombing stage of an intimate relationship, use many superlatives in order to woo and control their victims.

They say things to intoxicate you into compliance:

  • “You are the love of my life.”
  • “I have never known anyone like you.”
  • “You are perfect for me.”
  • “I want to spend the rest of my life with you.”
  • “I never want to leave your side.”
  • “You are the most beautiful person I have ever met.”
  • “We are perfect for each other.”
  • “You are exactly what I have been looking for my entire life.”

The following is taken from my book: Escaping the Boy: My Life with a Sociopath:

Do you know what it feels like to be locked up, placed in a dungeon of a partner’s creation? If so, you’re not alone. If not, pray you never do.

Abuse comes in many forms and affects many people in the victim’s life. Emotional, physical, and sexual abuses are equally degrading and harmful. One is not better than the other or worse than the other. They are ALL abuse.

This story is specifically about emotional abuse at the hands of a narcissistic sociopath.

According to Dr. Martha Stout’s book The Sociopath Next Door, sociopaths make up 4% of western society (Stout, 2010). That’s about 1 in 25 people walking around among us without a conscience, without the ability to measure, or care to measure, the morality of their decisions and actions. Would you know how to identify a sociopath if you saw one, met one, started an intimate relationship or entered into a business contract with one? More than likely, your answer is No, because unlike what we read on the television news or see in Hollywood movies, sociopaths aren’t just serial killers and murderers. Rather, they are members of our communities who we would never suspect of evil or wrong doing and who seamlessly blend into society with the rest of us. How? Through lies, manipulations, and more lies.

In romance, narcissistic sociopaths often appear too good to be true. They are charming, agreeable, and engaging. The narcissistic sociopath loves (or seems to love) everything about you. He hooks you. Then he breaks you. His emotional abuse is VERY subtle. The victim may not know she is being victimized until it is nearly too late.

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Lowry's 'The Fever Van.' For source of image see link.

Lowry’s ‘The Fever Van.’ For source of image see link.

Well, I know that Stockport is hardly next door to Liverpool, but I sensed the same warmth of familiarity as if I were in my home town. And much more than that as well.

As I stood in front of Lowry’s The Fever Van in the Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool and allowed its evocative image to sink in, memories came flooding back. I have known of Lowry’s paintings all my life and the back streets of my home town were just like this. Fever reminds me of my sister’s death in 1939. This was before I was born but the grief my parents suffered over-shadowed my childhood. Our road may have been slightly wider with the factories down a nearby lane and out of sight, but the community was connected just as this one clearly was, our lives were tightly intertwined.

Jing'an highrise

Other more recent memories mingled with these.

In Shanghai last year we saw the same juxtaposition as we see in Lowry’s painting – shrines to the sacred and to the commercial rubbing shoulders. In Shanghai it was shopping malls lowering down on temples; in the North, churches were dwarfed by factories.

The pollution hung in the air in the same way too.

China was recently building a coal-fired power station every week and killing nearly a million people a year from pollution-related diseases as the price for industrial development. I don’t think it has improved that much recently.

Our numbers were smaller in my smog-shrouded childhood but the basic effect was the same and our industrial revolution, fuelled from the Nineteenth Century most extremely in the Midlands and the North of England, was bought at a similar price. I remember waiting for the bus to school unable to see even its headlights until it was only yards away. Not surprisingly bronchitis was rife.

The upside to the trip far outweighed all this.

For example, Liverpool has an area, St George’s Quarter, where three Georgian buildings hold many treasures of the Lowry kind. Whereas all too often pride and wealth combine to create ever shinier and taller shopping malls and commercial centres, Liverpool has chosen to celebrate books, paintings, sculptures and many other artefacts from diverse cultures rather than brand names and multinationals.

My peak experience came when we stepped into Liverpool Central Library.

Entrance to Library

Level upon breath-taking level spiraled upwards. We didn’t have a clue where to start. The uniform in the entrance hall explained with a smile  that it was best to start on the first floor and work up – at least, I think he said ‘work’ but it might have been ‘walk.’ His accent delighted me and defeated my wife, so I quietly translated as we stood on the escalator.

At first, the book stacks distracted us but I caught sight of the word ‘Hornby’ in big blue letters just down a corridor. I hesitated for a moment with the associations of toy railways distracting me, then I remembered that the uniform had mentioned it as a definite place to visit. I whispered to my wife I was off on a mission. I hadn’t realised I was heading for Aladdin’s cave.

medieval chained book

Medieval Chained Book in the Hornby Library

In addition to thousands upon thousands of books on two levels on the shelves, there were priceless items in cases all around.

King John's seal 1207Until I encountered the King’s Seal above along with its explanation, I’d never stopped to think how Liverpool started. Yes, I knew it had made its money out of slaves long before cotton made it even richer, but as to how it all began I hadn’t a clue. Apparently King John needed a northern port but Chester was not an option due to its powerful and uncooperative Earl. So, at no cost to Liverpool because it was in his interests, he transformed the small hamlet into an important port. And the rest is history.

At this point I went back to the book stacks to drag my wife into the early 13th Century. We marveled for ages over the delights of this room, at how Edward Lear took up seven volumes with the sketches of his tours – he could really have used an iPhone . . .

An Edward Lear Print

An Edward Lear Print

. . . and if only Charles Dickens could have used email he wouldn’t have needed to fire off irritated letters about misdirected correspondance. He’d never have received it in the first place.

CD letterI realise I am in danger of inducing terminal boredom so I’ll switch into whirlwind tour mode.

We moved down a short corridor into the Oak Room. From one treasure trove to another basically.

The Oak RoomThis was full of quirky delights among the books stacked on its shelves. I have never seen a book glaring at me before, for example.

Crocus eyeAnd it will probably never happen again.

Moving on we found the Picton Reading Room.

Picton Reading RoomIf it wasn’t for my wife, I’d be there still, no more moving on – ever.

On higher levels still we found areas set aside for those who wanted to research their family histories.

Family ResearchAnd higher still there were meeting rooms. The place was plainly being used and of priceless benefit to the local community. Liverpool deserves congratulations for spending precious time and money refurbishing the building to such a high and culturally enriching standard.

And then there was a real opportunity to get on top of all that reading.

Keeping on top of the reading!Naturally we made the most of it. Our ghosts still linger there as you can see.

On the roofAll good things must sadly come to an end. We had to descend, but not before capturing the entrance from a different angle.

Looking downOne day, hopefully, I will return to this book lover’s paradise. Till then a composite set of pictures of the Reading Room will have to suffice me. I put these together as none of them came out as I wished but I thought the impression they conveyed was still worth sharing.


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last judgement

The Last Judgement Triptych (1470) by Hans Memling (For source of image see link)

Do we deserve them?

As we have seen in exploring Nancy Evans Bush’s excellent book on the subject, we are at a point of transition in our understanding of negative NDEs (977):

It was initially believed that troubling NDEs are extremely rare. Later research indicates that as many as one out of five NDEs may be distressing.

Some components of all NDEs are becoming readily recognizable (1015):

Pleasurable or distressing, NDEs are likely to include an out-of-body episode, a sense of journeying, encounters with presences, and the familiar qualities of a transcendent experience described by William James: ineffability, noetic quality, transience, passivity.

There is one key difference between the reactions of others to the two types of experience (1037-57):

Truth to tell, a great many people who disdain organized religion and intensely dislike any concept of a literal heaven, hell, or ‘divine judgment’ immediately leap to an assumption about frightening near-death experiences that echoes the most conservative religious view. The difference is primarily that secular language replaces talk of sin with descriptions of psychological failure, spiritual weakness, or perhaps a characterological deficiency in the person who “attracted” the experience. . . . . Curiously, to my knowledge, no researcher has ever raised similar speculations about whether people who had a blissful NDE deserved it. There is no list of personal characteristics of those experiencers. Only the distressing experiences have drawn observers to such fascination.

Her conclusion is clear (1073):

There is, as of this writing, absolutely no evidence to support the conventional wisdom that deservingness has anything to do with having a glorious or dismal NDE.

None the less (1119), ‘Aversion to the dark experiences runs so deep that even ordinarily compassionate people turn their attention away.’ This turning away from darkness comes at a price (1155):

Greenspan again (26-27): “The world is in vital need of the truth that the dark emotions teach… When we master the art of staying fully awake in their presence, they move us through suffering. We discover that darkness has its own light.”

There are ways in which we will stunt our own growth by this kind of denial and repression (1161).

No Olympic gold medal winner has ever simply strolled to the podium without pain, without sacrifice. Siddartha did not find an end to suffering by sitting in the palace that was his birthright; Jesus did not remain in a small boat on the Sea of Galilee. In pain and darkness, in tragedy and struggle—there is where courage is found, and redemption. That is the path of sacred power. The least we can do is learn to deal with emotions we do not care for.

We are very much in the domain of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, with its emphasis upon our need to accept suffering as inevitable if we are to grow beyond it. The authors, in their book of the same title, state (page 247):

Many clients have long-standing and strongly reinforced avoidance repertoires that can be expected to reappear. . . . . . [T]he client’s job is not just to determine a direction but to reaffirm that direction when obstacles appear. . . . . [W]hen we are travelling in a particular direction, the journey can take us across difficult ground. . . . [W]e don’t walk into pain because we like pain. We walk through the pain in the service of taking a valued direction.

However, she has no wish to force us to interpret NDEs as absolute proof of the afterlife. In that respect we are in Hicks’s territory also: the world is set up so we can no more absolutely prove that God and the next world really exist than we can absolutely prove they do not (The Fifth Dimension: page 36-38).

This is why religious awareness does not share the compulsory character of sense awareness. Our physical environment must force itself upon our attention if we are to survive within it. But our supra-natural environment, the fifth dimension of the universe, must not be forced upon our attention if we are to exist within it as free spiritual beings. . . . To be a person is, amongst many other things, to be a (relatively) free agent in relation to those aspects of reality that place us under a moral or spiritual claim.

What are we to make of NDEs then, especially negative ones?


For source of image see link

Struggling to make sense of them

Clearly the exact nature of the reality we are discussing has a bearing upon the impact the experience will have on the person who experiences it (1249):

A major reason for reluctance to look at distressing near-death experiences—and it is the source of terror for many experiencers—is a fear of discovering that the hell we hold in our minds may somehow actually exist. But despite the extent of that fear—or because of it—the subject is rarely discussed except in abstract theological terms or in religious circles that insist on a literal interpretation.

She discusses at fascinating length how the Biblical foundations for our ideas of hell are shaky to say the least. She concludes her argument by pointing out that (1443-1462)):

Sheol as a term seems to have confused the early English translators [of the Bible], who proved unwilling to understand it as meaning simply “the place of the dead.” By the time of the King James version the idea of hell as a physical place of torment apart from the presence of God had taken such firm root that for a translator confronted by “Sheol,” the translator’s preconception produced “hell” in place of “grave.” (Hanson, 1) The King James Old Testament translates Sheol 31 times as hell, in several places as “grave” or “pit,” and once even as “dust.” (Thayer, Orr). . . . . Gehenna came to represent anything that was foul and repulsive, deserving of severe judgment or condemnation. Common usage indicated a severity of punishment rather than a duration of time; there was no sense of “forever” about the word. . . . . Modern readers are clearly misled by anachronistic translations.

So, there is little or no authentic Biblical basis for our culture’s original and deeply ingrained concept of hell’s possible reality, something which subsequent corrections in more modern versions of the Bible would appear to have done little to dilute (see the following links for examples: Psalms, Proverbs and Amos).

She then returns to a point we heard earlier about the lack of grotesque detail in most negative NDE accounts (1533-55):

In contrast to the deliberately imagined grotesqueries of the medieval religious fantasy and modern Hell House, most actual accounts of today’s hellish near-death experiences seem remarkably sedate, though they are no less terrifying. The horror and fear are deep and genuine, but their descriptions are primarily emotional rather than visual, internal rather than external. . . . . [M]odern NDEs strongly tend to be visually less violent and significantly less vindictively cruel, though they have lost none of their horrifying emotional power.

She locates the durability of the vivid concepts we hold to of heaven and hell to our innate wiring for ideas of fairness and justice. However, hell breaches aspects of our need in that respect (1657-64):

The idea of hell satisfies the reward/punishment imperative, but it is not without problems. First, when interpreted stringently it violates reciprocity, that basic criterion of justice, that punishment should fit the crime. . . . . [A]ccording to a narrow slice of theological thought, the wrath of God demands that [the guilty] will undergo limitless agony for a limitless duration of time for a finite cause.

The way we as a culture will predispose people to respond to an NDE will depend upon the ‘fundamentalism’ of the belief system of the individual, ie how literally (s)he takes what (s)he believes in order to achieve a firm foundation of certainty. This can be as disastrous for the sceptic as it is for a religious person (1827-1849):

A postmodern metaphysical journey, no less than that of an organized religious tradition, is based on beliefs and understandings, and has its own fundamentalism; a principle difference, is that whereas for most people religion is a search for the answers to questions, metaphysics looks for personal experience around the questions. . . . . After a glorious NDE, it has been too often the case that literalism in this tradition has led to disastrous inflation of the ego and corruption of personality. . . . . Conversely, with a distressing NDE, the risk is to take at face value that same “Law of Attraction” which leads to internalizing the idea that all of one’s life events are one’s own doing. The belief that an individual acted, however inadvertently, as a magnet to attract a terrifying NDE may suggest something evil inherent in that person’s life and self.


Western versus Eastern Models

Her discussion of this issue turns to an important distinction which can be made between Western and Eastern paradigms of spirituality. She argues plausibly that this distinction can account for a large part of the difficulty Westerners have with the negative NDE experience. She begins by looking at Western assumptions (1961-65):

The United States, especially, has lived for three centuries with the great and largely unquestioned myth of the individual: that the very essence of being human is one’s individuality, to be one’s self, to be unique in the here-and-now . . . . each of us is saturated with the sense of individuality, personhood, specialness, selfhood.

Not so with Eastern Traditions (2013-25):

A quite different perspective exists in Eastern traditions, especially those which arose in India: Hinduism and its offshoot Buddhism in its many variations. . . .The task in Hinduism and Buddhism is to recognize that the ‘realities’ of the physical world are ultimately illusory, and to let go of identification with them. . . .  It is not the individual who matters, but the individual’s connectedness to the whole.

This leads her to ask an interesting question (2046): ‘What if the Void and heaven are not opposites but differing perspectives of whatever is ultimate?’

I am inevitably going to be even further simplifying a complex position which she supports with detailed evidence. The only solution will be to read this brilliant book and decide for yourselves. Personally I find her position quite persuasive.

She does not avoid the crunch issue (2061-67):

Western culture is not prepared to deal easily with the Void. Further, between the religious reverence for covenant and the capitalist reverence for things, we are trained into objects. . . . Here it becomes clear why experiences of the Void create such havoc for those who have grown up in Western ways of thinking. . . . . Any NDE is a mystical experience, but with few exceptions, Western people are not educated mystics. The fear in experiences of the Void rises out of profound, fathomless detachment from self and other, for which most of us are totally unprepared.

Margaret Donaldson has mounted a compelling argument in her excellent book, Human Minds: an exploration, to explain how high a price we might be paying in the West for discounting mystical experience as we do, for example in part at least (page 264 – my emphasis):

The very possibility of emotional development that is genuinely on a par with – as high as, level with – the development of reason is only seldom entertained. So long as this possibility is neglected, then if reason by itself is sensed as inadequate where else can one go but back? Thus there arises a regressive tendency, a desire to reject reason and all that was best in the Enlightenment, a yearning for some return to the mythic, the magical, the marvellous in old senses of these terms. This is very dangerous; but it has the advantage that it is altogether easier than trying to move forward into something genuinely new.

Now we have clearly seen that the cultivation of the advanced value-sensing mode [e.g. in meditation] is not of itself new. It has ancient roots. What would be new would be a culture where both kinds of enlightenment were respected and cultivated together. Is there any prospect that a new age of this kind might be dawning?

Bush is exploring here a further example of this cost. We will returning to Donaldson’s final question in the last post.

It is not that such ideas are absent in our Western mystical tradition: it is that we have turned our backs on them for so long they have been almost completely forgotten (2068-75)

In addressing the fear produced by the Void, Gerald May quoted the fourteenth century spiritual guide, Theologica Germanica: “Nothing burns in hell but self-will.” . . . . [T]he contemplatives proclaim, with a conviction that can be absolutely frightening, that self-image must truly die… A dying image of self, or a dying belief in such an image, must be accompanied by a dying of one’s images of the world as well. It is not an easy business.

She goes on to make links between Nirvana, the Void and astrophysics whose validity lies far beyond my ability to assess but are well worth mentioning. She quotes Brian Greene (2080-82):

‘Empty space is not nothing; it’s something with hidden characteristics as real as all the stuff in our everyday lives.’

She therefore concludes (2088):

. . . [T]here is this curious resemblance among Godhead, space, the Void, and Nirvana—that what seems so empty may be full of everything there is.’

And on that paradoxical note we must leave it for now.

Next time we will be looking at how she develops these ideas further and explores the probability that we are in another Axial Age, one of potentially traumatic transition.

Then I plan to briefly outline her detailed and well-researched exploration of how we might approach these experiences as symbols that could function as pointers to a reality whose roots lie deep in our imagination but are not imaginary.

As I indicated at the start of this series of posts I plan to come back to that theme in far more detail as a topic that needs careful exploration in its own right, so important are her views about it but so distant is it from any conventional view of reality as articulated by our modern faith in pseudo-scientific naturalism.

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charmcoverwebsiteI have just started to read a book I bought as a result of Sharon Rawlette’s powerful review. The book is so compelling I thought I’d better not wait to finish reading it before flagging up its existence, most of all perhaps because, if my several searches are anything to go by, it puzzlingly seems to still lie below the radar of mainstream and professional reviewers. It’s perhaps no coincidence that, at this point, all four reviewers on the US Amazon site seem to be women. We’ve met this problem of remorseless malignity before on this blog, but scarcely at all from the point of view of the victim, yet this surely is an important perspective we should not ignore.

I am not even half-way through the book yet, but its perfectly chosen, breathless stifling style creates in me, as reader, the same trapped feelings of relentless pressure, confusion and blindness, as the writer experienced while these traumatic events were unfolding over a period of years. As Sharon says, it is indeed brilliantly written, and is causing me to wonder how many times I’ve been taken in by such ruthless deployers of unscrupulous charm. The book is an essential read if only because it poses that question to all of us in a way that permits no evasion.

As I steel myself to continue with her intensely affecting story, I struggle to believe her at times. How can someone so obviously capable as the writer of this book have been a victim for so long? Maybe this only adds further weight to the case she is making. Her FB page convinces me of her integrity. Maybe my reaction suggests that the victim’s perspective in such situations will often seem inherently incredible, a bias our society might need to be on guard against if our judicial system is to be effective.

Below is a short extract from Sharon’s excellent review: for the full post see link.

“You will learn that when the truth isn’t pretty, expected, or delivered with a fair dose of charm, people will almost always put their faith in a lie.” So reads one of many chilling lines in H.G. Beverly‘s recently released memoir The Other Side of Charm, about her unwitting marriage to a sociopath.

Before her marriage to Wyatt, Beverly believed – as I imagine most of us do – that evil is recognizable. “Like most anyone else,” she says, “you’ll think that evil must be somewhat easy to identify it might come right at you with a gun or it might have squinty or buggy eyes or it might be a man trying to trick you into his car or it might be a creepy uncle who pats little children on the bottom all the time.” But evil came to her in the form of a charming, romantic man she’d known since they were kids, a man who professed all of her values for family and farm and forever, and then, the very week of their wedding, abruptly changed. Oh, he still professed all those things to everyone else. He was still as charismatic as could be – when he was in public. But she soon realized with horror that, in private, he was none of those things. In private, he was capable of the worst sorts of physical and mental abuse, for which he felt absolutely no remorse. And no one outside her family would believe it. He was so charming, after all. The problem must be her.

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For the meaning click on Naw-Rúz

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