Archive for the ‘Self and Soul’ Category

Grave & Courtyard v2

The walk to the Courtyard last Wednesday was more complicated than the last time I described it. I won’t bore you with the details but the short cut across the car park I usually take has been blocked off. They’re in the process of building a by-pass. It was a warm evening and rushing to make up the time meant that when I arrived I had to discreetly wipe beads of sweat off the counter as I ordered my coffee.

I know. Why order coffee when I was sweating buckets? Well, I was going to a meeting of the Death Cafe. What else could I drink?

We weren’t in our usual room either. I had to carry my coffee upstairs to the Arts Studio, trying not to drip into the cup as I went.

But it was all worth it. Two hours of inspiring and uplifting conversation followed. Partly it was the sharing of difficult memories. But that really was only part of it.

Early in the meeting a key question came up yet again. Why, if we told people where we were going, did so many recoil in horror at the very idea?

We didn’t come to any firm conclusion about that, but it did feel such a shame that so many people were missing out on a great evening of laughter and insight.

I know poets, for instance, have grappled with the problem of death ever since people began writing poems. In the past two views of mortality were strongly connected with images of death such as skulls and tombs: memento mori and carpe diem. Each view of mortality has a different take on morality, interestingly enough: ‘Gather ye rose buds while ye may’ (Herrick) versus ‘be mindful of thy last end and thou wilt never sin’ (translated from the Vulgate‘s Latin rendering of Ecclesiasticus 7:40).  Ode to his Coy MistressAndrew Marvell’s masterpiece of lyric poetry, ironically explores these two responses of his time.

The Grave’s a fine and private place,
But none I think do there embrace.
Now therefore, while the youthful hew
Sits on thy skin like morning glew,
And while thy willing Soul transpires
At every pore with instant Fires,
Now let us sport us while we may . . .

The balance is heavily tilted here towards ‘Gather ye rosebuds while ye may,’ but the menace of the grave, the reminder of death, is not disguised. He manages to look both possibilities squarely in the face. Shira Wolosky has written a brilliant critique of this feat in The Art of Poetry pages 70-79. She states:

The poem offers, then, not one, but two topoi [themes]: the overt “carpe diem” and a subversive remembrance of death inscribed into the text alongside the call to seduction. . . . . . Both topoi are urgent calls, calls to weigh your life to see what, in its short compass of time and space, you really can accomplish; what, in its short span, really has value; what you should be striving for.

(page 79)

Graveside Stockport

We dug deep into what that same dilemma meant for our society, if anything. Our children don’t often die before us as all too many did in Marvell’s time. It’s easier to ignore death. Too much of the time we seem to be in denial, distracting ourselves with all the glitter at our disposal, and there’s a lot of it. That may be why the idea of a Death Cafe seems so repellant.

But if we do not face the inevitability of death, we wondered, how can we make the most of our lives? This distracted discounting of our destination may have consequences beyond our individual selves. Maybe the denial of personal death is echoed in and contributes to the widespread denial of what we are doing to the planet, and therefore ultimately to ourselves.

Part of it, we felt, may be the short term perspective evolution has hard-wired us with, which reality requires that we transcend. But taking the long view is hard, though not impossible we felt. We’re hard-wired for that kind of effort as well, but it’s something we have to consciously decide to do and stick with.

The fact that we are living so much longer makes it harder to take the long view: death seems too far off to most of us a lot of the time. Paradoxically though, our longer lives don’t mean we can afford to be less concerned about death. We should take it more seriously. There are more of us exploiting the surface of this planet than ever, so we are damaging it more. When the time comes, as it must for all of is, we can also expect a much longer and slower acquaintanceship with death, both our own and that of others’ close to us, than the plague or death in childbirth ever allowed.

There’s yet another obstacle to full awareness, as we explored.

While our longer lives, our global connectedness, and the global challenges we face, make it imperative we also face the destructive consequences of our mindless consumerism and consider the well-being of all life on our planetary home, we are wired strongly to give priority to the family, the tribe and more recently the nation, and find it harder to widen our embrace to include those who fall outside those boundaries. We felt this has to change. A tipping point has to come where the world of humanity tilts over into compassion for the world as whole.

Putting our heads under the sands of time as though its passing had no consequences is not the answer. Maybe coming to proper terms with our personal death could enable us to live in a way that cherishes all life, not just our own.

We all felt that these were inspiring not depressing thoughts. There are Death Cafes in many places. It might be worth your while finding out where your nearest one meets and give it a try.

I walked out into the mild darkness of that autumn evening with a new spring in my step. And that pun is just a mild reminder of the jokes that flew around the table as we debated death.

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Sept death cafe poster

Just another week to go before the next meeting of the Death Cafe, so just re-posting this account of the first meeting I attended a few months back as a reminder.  

It was a pleasant walk yesterday evening to the Courtyard. It was an obvious venue to choose in some respects. It’s accessible, and connected in most people’s minds with pleasant memories of films, plays and shows. Just the sort of place to attract people to an event.

There was a catch though. Who wants to go to a Death Cafe? Would the magnet of the venue be enough to overcome the unmentionable word’s repellent effect?

Well, it seems that it was.

There were nine of us turned up for the experience. Admittedly, it sounded from what was said that even those who tried had failed to persuade any of their friends to come along as well. Incredulity combined with revulsion seemed the order of the day for most people.

That was one of the topics we explored together.

Why was our society so reluctant to talk openly about death? We shared stories of how the dying were met with refusal when they tried to open up the subject with their nearest and dearest. We contrasted it with other cultures whose traditions encourage them to sit in the same room as the dead person for hours, sharing moments of alternating laughter and sadness as they remember the life that has ended.

We were a mixed bunch.

Not all of us had been or still were in the ‘helping professions.’ A couple of us were people whose ordinary lives alone had caused them to seek a deeper understanding of death. One described how she had been visited by her parents as they died. Another how advancing years and his wife’s struggle with ill health was forcing death upon his attention.

Some openly mentioned their faith, including a Buddhist whose work was with the dying and bereaved, and a Christian who had experienced healing communion services that allowed the unquiet dead to rest.

We covered many other topics, amongst others: how knowing you are dying can lead to feelings of hopelessness, boredom, helplessness and an absence of all meaning; wondering how to deal with pain more effectively; and looking at ways of preparing for our death, and helping those who are left to celebrate our lives in the way we would have wished.

I even heard of roles unknown to me before. The idea of a ‘soul midwife’ had never crossed my ken. I also had not realised that the local hospice also ran a ‘hospice at home’ service.

I was given an opportunity to voice my somewhat crusading concerns about how a materialist model of psychology, which I feel is still the default position, could make interventions unhelpful or even damaging, discounting as it does the possibility of a spiritual dimension.

And everyone agreed that, regardless of all the different ways of describing that ineffable reality, we are talking about fundamentally the same thing, and it is something that binds us all together. The different way we speak of and understand it should not become a source of division and disagreement.

We tackled the question of how our individualistic and competitive society could recover or recreate a sense of connectedness in families and neighbourhoods so that people would be prepared to put themselves out to help others and that this sense of compassionate connectedness would endure rather than fizzle out. The evidence that Jonathan Haidt quotes, in The Righteous Mind, was mentioned, suggesting that groups requiring members to make sacrifices lasted longer if there was a spiritual worldview underpinning them.

At the end of the meeting our attention was drawn to a website recently launched which facilitates the sharing of ideas to help meet life’s challenges including those at the end of life. It works on the basis that pooling ideas enhances our ability to create solutions. See link for more info.

The two hours of the meeting flew by. We were keen to make sure there will be another one next month.

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Image scanned from Marcel Paquet ‘Magritte’ (Taschen)

The essence of faith is fewness of words and abundance of deeds; he whose words exceed his deeds, know verily his death is better than his life. The essence of true safety is to observe silence, to look at the end of things and to renounce the world.

(Tablets of Bahá’u’lláh: page 156)

Bahá’u’lláh says there is a sign (from God) in every phenomenon: the sign of the intellect is contemplation and the sign of contemplation is silence, because it is impossible for a man to do two things at one time—he cannot both speak and meditate. It is an axiomatic fact that while you meditate you are speaking with your own spirit. In that state of mind you put certain questions to your spirit and the spirit answers: the light breaks forth and the reality is revealed.

( ‘Abdu’l-Bahá: Paris Talks page 174)

And yet another post it seemed appropriate to republish at this point.

Progress on a spiritual path has often been associated with silence. Some years ago I heard almost the same words spoken as I watched the start of The Big Silence, which turned out to be a fascinating series of programmes on the spiritual impact of silence on five people over eight days  – it’s almost exactly what this post is about, though from a somewhat different angle.

Christopher Jamison, the monk who led the group of five through this experience, described silence as the means for us to connect with our souls, and our souls as our means of connecting with God. That chimes with what ‘Abdu’l-Bahá said in the quotation at the head of this post. Not many of the five got that far but their journeys were fascinating to watch.

Stumbling across Evidence

But what, if any, is the possible scientific underpinning to this?

The convinced adherent of naturalism will rule out in advance even the faintest possibility of any such evidence existing, to such an extent that he, and it is often a ‘he,’ will not even look at the wealth of existing evidence that points firmly in this direction, much of it more rigorously produced than that which supports the efficacy of the drugs we swallow so trustingly.

Let me share how I stumbled across one small example to illustrate the care with which this kind of experimentation is devised and which makes the whole body of research impossible to dismiss arbitrarily. I won’t upset materialists by insisting that finding this book was synchronicity, but I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve found the book I needed at the time I needed it even when I didn’t know I needed it

With some friends, I recently visited Hay-on-Wye, with the intent of plugging some specific holes in my library with books on certain topics. I perhaps need to point out that my wife would not agree that there are any holes at all in my library if a hole is to be defined as shelf-space. I am not using ‘hole’ in that sense.

Having successfully located a sufficient supply of six such books in three shops I popped into a fourth shop for no good reason at all except I felt like it. I’d filled the gaps I was aware of, after all.

I had ten minutes to kill before we were all due to meet again and the temptation was just too strong. After picking a particularly fascinating book off the shelf in the mindfulness section I checked the price. £326. Perhaps not.

In Search of the DeadJust above were a handful of books on NDEs. I almost didn’t bother to look because I have so many. I should have known what was coming – this is usually the way it happens. One caught my eye. To help me recover from the shock of the other book’s price I took it down.

In Search of the Dead. It had the BBC logo on the cover.

Jeffrey Iverson.

‘Never heard of him. If this is a book of ghost stories I’ll put it back,’ I promised myself. It claimed on the cover to be a ‘scientific investigation of evidence of life after death.’

In fact it looked a mish-mash of good science and intriguing ancdotes. £2. I only had a couple of minutes left. ‘What the heck! It’s only two pounds. If it’s no good the Oxfam Shop can have it.’

This is how the last book that I bought that day, became the first book that I read. And I’m glad I have. It’s an accessible but by no means naïve treatment of the topic.

Right at the start I found myself in territory that lies at the heart of the matter: the relationship between silence and the subliminal. An example is described in detail of how to investigate this with a sound – do I mean ‘silent’? – methodology. What follows is a brutal summary to illustrate the rigour of what is described more fully between pages 3 and 11.

Silence and Science

Iverson was a journalist, working for the BBC and visiting the States in September 1990 to get a handle on psi, the unknown factor in extrasensory perception. He was at the HQ of the American Society of Psychical Research. Dr Nancy Sandow and Dr Keith Harary were the key researchers named. The phenomenon under investigation was a form of Remote Viewing (RV). In this case it meant one person providing incontrovertible details under tightly controlled conditions of someone else’s visual experience some distance away, specifically for this BBC programme in a small park in New York City.

There are many ways in which such an experiment could be flawed. The experimenters in this case had done their best to close them all down.

First of all the subject, Tessa, who was to receive the RV data was unfamiliar with New York. Also, she wasn’t even a Remote Viewing Sketchtrained or self-styled psychic: she was simply the Production Assistant in Iverson’s crew who was volunteered for the role. She came from Wales and had never been to New York before.

Secondly, four diverse locations were chosen offering a selection of very untypical New York scenes.

Thirdly, Dr Harary, to whom none of these scenes was known, sat with Tessa in the library with a locked-off camera recording all they did and said before any further steps were taken. The library was a no go area and all means of communication with outside world had been removed. He and Tessa knew that a third person would be at one of the four locations at a specific time that afternoon. It was at that time they began their attempt to describe where she was.

Fourthly, Iverson received from Dr Sandow, who had selected the sites, a sealed envelope with all four locations specified. Then he was quarantined.

When all was set up, Dr Sandow got in a cab and randomly generated a number between 1 and 4, and set off for the designated destination. Before she clicked on the number she had no idea which of the four sites she’d be going to.

When she had stayed at that spot for the requisite period of time at the designated time period, the next phase began.

Meanwhile, Tessa had remained in the library for the duration of Dr Sandow’s visit to the site. Dr Harary then took the notes they had created, met up with Iverson and the envelope, and was driven to the four sites in a randomly chosen sequence. His job was to rank order the sites in terms of their correspondence to the description he was carrying.

Remote Viewing AngelTo cut a long story short, the correct site was streets ahead of any of the others, only one of which had even the faintest resemblance to the target park. What was even more impressive was that every detail Tessa had mentioned was correct – the tall trees, the T-shaped path, a red and white awning over a shop, and above all a winged metal statue going slightly green (see the picture of the statue and her drawing of it).

Conclusions and Caveats

The researchers were keen to point out that from that one study you could not conclude that psi or something like it was substantiated. Even with so many details correct, there were only four scenes for Dr Harary to choose from so he had a 25% chance of being correct. It is the sheer weight of the evidence gathered in hundreds of such examples that points to the reality of something that needs to be explained rather than dismissed as outright fraud or sloppy methodology. The investigators were themselves keen to emphasise this to Iverson.

Iverson himself quotes Charles Honorton as an example (page 41):

In 1200 individual trials over the [previous] 15 years, where random guesses would statistically be expected to produce a success rate of 25%, the . . . average has been 34% – a 9% markup on chance. “The mathematical odds against chance are in the trillions to one, and even critics of parapsychology acknowledge results cannot be due to chance,” he says.

Honorton was joined in conducting a computerised and even more tightly controlled set of experiments by a sceptic, Dr Ray Hyman, who said at the end (ibid.), ‘We agreed that the results so far cannot be due to chance and are not likely to be due to improper selections of favourable data. However, we still disagree over whether this [sic] data constitutes evidence for psi or for some form of error that has not been detected.”

Honorton is unequivocal (ibid.):

‘We feel now the burden of proof is on the sceptics to say why these results should not be accepted. . . . The evidence for psi is very strong but is still not generally accepted by the scientific community, mainly because they are not aware of the better research going on.

What Iverson felt the investigators he worked with conveyed clearly to him was:

  • Everyone is capable of psi (whatever that is – they didn’t pretend to know exactly);
  • For its full manifestation it depends upon a person feeling safe and for distracting stimuli to be reduced as far as possible to zero; and
  • The conditions most closely matching the ideal were
    • sleep, which we all know leads to dreams some of which some people feel contain psi material;
    • meditation, the consistent practice of which is widely reported to lead to transpersonal and mystic experiences; and
    • the Ganzfeld procedure which systematically cuts down visual and auditory stimuli.

I have to modify the first statement somewhat in that the statistics, while very significantly above chance, do not suggest that everyone was scoring hits anywhere near consistently. It seems obvious that some people must not have been scoring hits at all and/or people were inconsistent. I am not at all sure therefore that everyone is currently capable of psi: however, I am hopeful that over a long period of time humanity will evolve to a point at which this could well be so. (I have already blogged in some detail about this: see link.)

Basically, though, if we are calm and can sit in a quiet place for long enough, most of us will get in touch with what usually falls well below the threshold of our awareness. Some of what we then experience may, for some of us at least, be out of the reach of our ordinary senses but none the less correct. When what we experience by these means is a material reality it can of course be checked against known facts, as in the experiment described briefly above.

When it is not a material reality, what then?

It seems to me that it is not so obvious, in the light of all the successful experiments with data that can be checked and found correct, that we should dismiss as hallucinations less probable experiences, even when they cross the boundaries of the material. I also accept though that we cannot safely conclude that every experience generated by sensory deprivation of some form is authentic.

How can we steer a true course between dangerous gullibility and unwarranted scepticism? What are we to think when what we experience is so unusual and so sublime that it beggars belief? I have already blogged about many aspects of this in terms of extraordinary experiences. I hope to return to it again soon in the context of silence and the sublime.

For the visually inclined

Later on I thought it would be good if I could find the original BBC programmes and I did – on YouTube. The one that deals with the remote viewing experiment is below. The other two I plan to come back to later when I look at some other aspects of the book.

The Power of the Mind:

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For source of image see link

For the original Spanish see link

The full importance of bees for this this blog will become apparent towards the end of the current sequence of posts.

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Stranger to Myself briefFor Background Mandala see link

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Bonecave Dweller

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mind v3Given all that I have recently published about death, partly triggered by Death Awareness Week, it seemed logical also to post a link to piece by David Langness about the Bahá’í view of death on the Bahá’í Teaching website. Below is a short extract: for the full post see link.

Know that, although human souls have existed upon the earth for a myriad ages and cycles, the human soul is nonetheless originated. And since it is a sign of God, once it has come into being it is everlasting. The human spirit has a beginning but no end: It endures forever…

Our meaning is that, although human souls are originated, they are nevertheless immortal, enduring, and everlasting.

(Abdu’l-BahaSome Answered Questions, newly revised edition, p. 173.)

If you believe you have an immortal soul, what do you think happens to it when your physical body dies?

That question—probably the biggest and most profound question human beings have ever asked—occurs, sooner or later, to each one of us.

Three traditional answers exist:

  • Our souls reincarnate, either in human or animal form;
  • Our souls enter heaven;
  • Our souls enter hell.

The Baha’i teachings offer a new paradigm, a fresh answer to that eternal question:

And now concerning thy question regarding the soul of man and its survival after death. Know thou of a truth that the soul, after its separation from the body, will continue to progress until it attaineth the presence of God, in a state and condition which neither the revolution of ages and centuries, nor the changes and chances of this world, can alter. It will endure as long as the Kingdom of God, His sovereignty, His dominion and power will endure. It will manifest the signs of God and His attributes, and will reveal His loving kindness and bounty.

(Baha’u’llahGleanings from the Writings of Baha’u’llah, pp. 155-156.)

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