Archive for the ‘Self and Soul’ Category

I’m about to recommend a book published in 1996. Not only does that seem a bit late in the day, but also much of the book makes bold statements about a mythological ‘reality’ for which absolutely no proof whatsoever can be adduced and with some of which I completely disagree. Why would I risk my already suspect and flakey reputation with sceptics for such a dubious course of action?

Partly this can be explained by the fact that the book contains genuine insights too valuable to ignore. To support that contention here is a quote of one.

Twenty years ago James Hillman wrote in The Soul’s Code (page 225), in his analysis of what he calls ‘The Bad Seed’:

(Hitler’s rote-learned information) proved his transcendence and disguised his lack of thought and reflection and his inability to hold a conversation. The demonic does not engage; rather, it smothers with details and jargon any possibility of depth.

Our republic should learn this lesson from Hitler, for we might one-day vote into power a hero who wins a giant TV trivia contest and educate our children to believe the Information Superhighway is the road to knowledge.

This quote exactly illustrates the dual nature of this text. It speaks of ‘demons’ in one breath, terminology I find hard to swallow, and follows it up with a breath-taking piece of intuition, the accuracy of which I leave you to judge for yourselves on the basis of recent evidence.

So thought-provoking are such comments that even when they are not as spot on as that one, it seems to me they make the book of great value in spite of its fairy-tale aspects. I am now going to try and make the argument in favour of that position.

One of my main difficulties with his core contention is this concept of the daimon as he spells it. Early in the book he writes (page 8):

The soul of each of us is given a unique daimon before we are born, and it has selected an image or pattern that we live on earth. . . . . The daimon remembers what is in your image and belongs to your pattern, and therefore your daimon is a carrier of your destiny.

As explained by the greatest of later Platonists, Plotinus (A.D. 205–270), we elected the body, the parents, the place, and the circumstances that suited the soul and that, as the myth says, belong to its necessity. This suggests that the circumstances, including my body and my parents whom I may curse, are my soul’s choice – and I do not understand this because I have forgotten.

He later unpacks a further implication (page 46):

Since ancient psychology usually located the soul around or with the heart, your heart holds the image of your destiny and called you to it. . . . . Each of our souls is guided by a daimon to that particular body and place, these parents and circumstances, by Necessity – and none of us had an inkling of this because it was eradicated on the plains of forgetting.

The Acorn Theory

While at one point asserting that the life we fall into is our ‘soul’s choice,’ he also states that our daimon has guided us to that decision. Either way I have a problem with the idea that we choose our destiny in this way, but that is not the main issue. I find it confusing that, while he makes it clear at this point in the book that we have a daimon and a soul, he proceeds, in my view, to fudge that distinction by conflating them.

He outlines what he calls his ‘acorn’ theory (page 6):

In a nutshell, then, this book is about calling, about fate, about character, about innate image. Together they make up the ‘acorn theory’, which holds that each person bears a uniqueness that asks to be lived and that is already present before it can be lived.

After explaining about the daimon and the soul, he states (page 10):

I will be using many of the terms for this acorn – image, character, fate, genius, calling, daimon, soul, destiny – rather interchangeably, preferring one or another depending on the context.

I find the original distinction unhelpful. My sense is that much can be explained perfectly well even in terms of what he is trying to explain and account for by simply using the word ‘soul’ and grasping that there is a dual potential in terms of the soul’s power and development. Turned heavenwards its impact is benign: mired in matter its effects are toxic. Either way it has immense power.

‘Abdu’l-Bahá makes this completely clear (Paris Talks, p. 97):

. . . when man does not open his mind and heart to the blessing of the spirit, but turns his soul towards the material side, towards the bodily part of his nature, then is he fallen from his high place and he becomes inferior to the inhabitants of the lower animal kingdom. In this case the man is in a sorry plight! For if the spiritual qualities of the soul, open to the breath of the Divine Spirit, are never used, they become atrophied, enfeebled, and at last incapable; whilst the soul’s material qualities alone being exercised, they become terribly powerful—and the unhappy, misguided man, becomes more savage, more unjust, more vile, more cruel, more malevolent than the lower animals themselves. All his aspirations and desires being strengthened by the lower side of the soul’s nature, he becomes more and more brutal, until his whole being is in no way superior to that of the beasts that perish.

This would be another way of explaining why Hillman wonders whether some people might have no soul (see below).

Even so, there was much I resonated to, not least the idea that we all might have a special purpose to fulfill in life no matter how modest our situation or our means. Hillman also rightly pillories the sterile banality of our materialistic way of life, argues against our blindness to the transcendent, and eloquently explains the importance of having a ‘calling.’ The relevance of these issues draws me into his explorations of them.

In the first part of the book he draws most of his evidence from the well-documented lives of celebrities – explaining that he has done so because this is the easiest place from which to draw illustrative data. This makes for a glamorous but unconvincing panorama of film stars and politicians, with the occasional matador (Manolete) and dictator (Franco) thrown in for good measure. Even so the scattering of thought-provoking comments kept me reading.

Perhaps, rather than compile an anthology of one-liners at this point, it would be best to focus on one more substantial illustration, a thread that runs across 70 pages woven into the tapestry of his overall perspective. Any reader of this blog will recognize immediately that this is a theme close to my heart, acorn, daimon, destiny, soul or whatever.



We are inhabiting a materialistic culture that quarantines the transcendent as though it were the plague (page 110):

In the kingdom (or is it the mall?) of the west, consciousness has lifted the transcendent ever higher and further away from actual life. The bridgeable chasm has become a cosmic void.

This idea of course is nothing new. Even when he teases out little-mentioned aspects of its character, we are not breaking entirely new ground either (page 128-29):

Scientific psychology carves the kingdom of causes into only two parts, nature and nurture. . . . . We do need to recognise at the outset that division into two alternatives is a comfortable habit of the Western mind.

I did find it intriguing though to reflect on this insight and this was typical of my reaction to the book as a whole. We do live in a world that seems instinctively to dichotomise and categorise, that seems blind to dimensions and ambiguities. This makes what he refers to (page 150) as the ‘folly of reducing mind to brain’ appear almost inevitable and it’s therefore no surprise that it ‘never seems to leave the Western scene.’ As a result (page 151)

The simplistics of monogenic causes eventually leads to the control of behaviour by drugs – that is, to drugged behaviour.

So far a perspective that I agree with, well-expressed but mostly familiar. It’s the final devastating point that best illustrates the penetrating courage of his writing (page 184):

If a culture’s philosophy does not allow enough place for the other, give credit to the invisible, then the other must squeeze it self into our psychic system in distorted form. This suggests that some psychic dysfunctions would be better located in the dysfunctional worldview by which they are judged.

That final sentence exactly pins down a fundamental problem. We all too often place denigrating labels on those our culture has helped damage. He has shifted my understanding to a higher level. He does that often enough to make the book a rewarding read.

Vacuous Environments

Perhaps I need to add one briefer example.

We live in a world that has in general reduced our expectations from the numinous to the banal. This has become so familiar as to be largely unnoticed. Credit to him that he sees the issue clearly and refuses to fudge it even though his use of the term daimon may blind some of us to the basic value of his point (page 165):

Perhaps the worst of all atmospheres for your daimon, trying to live with your parents in their place and circumstances, arises when these parents have no fantasy whatsoever about you. This objective, neutral environment, this normative, rational life is a vacuum with nothing blowing through.

In case we didn’t get the point he repeats it later in slightly different terms (page 168):

. . . . It is not ultimately parental control or parental chaos that children run away from; they run from the void of living in a family without any fantasy beyond shopping, keeping up the car, and routines of niceness.

He’s nailed an essential truth again and, in this case, the spiritual aspect of his perspective lends his point an additional power for me at least.

However, in spite of all those positives I was still uneasy.

Bad Seed

The second challenging aspect for me of the first two-thirds of the book was that to Hillman it initially seemed not to matter whether the acorn produces a murderer, a Matador or mystic. There seemed to be a moral confusion blended with the murky mythology. It was only towards the end of the book that he confronts this problem head on and proves beyond doubt that he was not completely blind to it, even though in the end a skilled bullfighter still seems as admirable to him as Martin Luther King.

He first raises the question in the following terms (page 214):

Can the acorn harbour a bad seed? Or, perhaps the criminal psychopath has no soul at all?

He uses as his key example one of the three most notorious dictators of modern times – Hitler – locating part of the problem in the cultural assumptions and patterns of this age (pages 215-16):

Having once appeared in such a virulent form (as Hitler), may that demon not need to blind us again. Our enquiry also intends to lay out specific ways in which the daimon shows itself to be demonic, and a genius, evil. . . . . . Anyone who rises in a world that worships success should be suspect, for this is an age of psychopathy. . . . The habits of Hitler, reported by reliable informants and assessed by reliable historians and biographers, give evidence of an identification with or possession by his daimon. . . . As I want to demonstrate, the acorn theory offers as good a mode as any of imagining the Hitler phenomenon.

He begins by listing seven characteristics of Hitler that in his view capture the way he presents (pages 217-222): The Cold Heart, Hellfire, Wolf, Anality[1], Suicides of women, Freaks[2], and Humourless Hitler.

While these pointers may indeed be applicable to Hitler they don’t advance his case for the existence of a daimon, in my view.

More on that in the second and last post.


[1]. He explains: ‘Hitler gave himself enemas; he was immensely disturbed by his flatulence; he had obsessive ideas about touching and being touched, about diet, digestion, and personal cleanliness.’

[2] He explains: ‘Hitler’s entourage, however, was most unusual for its collection of freaks in high places, even as others physically like them were systematically expunged in the death camps.’

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Grave & Courtyard v2

Last week, I walked through soft rain at a brisk pace to get to the venue on time. I was sweating slightly as I walked to the counter to get my coffee. That’s the trouble with waterproof coats. They trap the heat as well as keeping out the rain.

As I ordered my coffee the Death Cafe facilitator indicated we’d switched rooms, but at least we had a room this week. We went upstairs together to a room tucked away in the far back corner. Apparently we’d been asked to keep our voices down a bit so the audience in the next door studio cinema weren’t disturbed in their enjoyment by any thoughts of death.

She went downstairs to direct people to the room. I stayed and sipped my coffee enjoying the silence and the opportunity to cool off a bit.

By five-past-six the room was still empty. Then, to my relief the Buddhist lady came in. By ten past no one else had arrived except the facilitator. In fact, it wasn’t until 6.30 that the fourth person arrived fresh from her yoga class.

Even so, what we lacked in numbers was made up for in intensity, depth and excitement. It was another great two hours of exploration of death-related issues from almost every possible angle. We had a Buddhist, a Bahá’í, a humanist (well, at least, that’s my label for her) and someone still searching, someone ‘on a quest’ as we put it later.

We roamed across such themes as our interconnectedness, the Buddhist and Bahá’í seeing this as something spiritual. The humanist agreed with the basic idea but not its spiritual dimension while the searcher was not completely sure.

The thorny issue of science and religion came up, and science’s dismissal of any idea of an afterlife. We pulled in references to Ken Wilber and his book  The Marriage of Sense & Soul. I’ve dealt with his powerful arguments elsewhere so I won’t dwell on him too long. For example he forcefully argues, science has invaded spirituality and the arts (page 56):

. . .[T]he I and the WE were colonised by the IT. ..  . . . Full and flush with stunning victories, empirical science became scientism,  the belief that there is no reality save that revealed by science, and no truth save that which science delivers. . . . Consciousness itself, and the mind and heart and soul of humankind, could not be seen with a microscope, a telescope, a cloud chamber, a photographic plate, and so all were pronounced epiphenomenal at best, illusory at worst. . . . . Art and morals and contemplation and spirit were all demolished by the scientific bull in the china shop of consciousness. And that was the disaster of modernity. . . . it was a thoroughly flatland holism. It was not a holism that actually included all the interior realms of the I and the WE (including the eye of contemplation). . . . [I] as the reduction of all of the value spheres to monological Its perceived by the eye of the flesh that, more than anything else, constituted the disaster of modernity.

Margaret Donaldson also came into the mix with her brilliant book, Human Minds: an exploration, which addresses a closely related question (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?

And that’s just a small sample of the invigorating ground we covered.

Death Cafes are held in many places. Maybe there’s one near you. Do you dare to give it a go?

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Given my preoccupation with the need to reconcile religion and science and my recent rant against the way our materialistic culture denies the spiritual dimension, I couldn’t resist posting a link to this illuminating article by Peter Terry on the Bahá’í Teaching website. Below is a short extract: for the full post see link.

Do you think of yourself as primarily a material person, or primarily a spiritual person?

If you’re more of a material person, you probably tend to focus on the outer world the senses can perceive—your natural instincts, your human drives and the physical world you encounter every day.

If you’re more of a spiritual person, you probably tend to focus on the inner world—your feelings and emotions, your intellectual life, the unseen but powerful reality of the human spirit.

Philosophers have named these two basic concepts materialism and idealism. Materialism (sometimes called physicalism) maintains that matter and the interactions that occur between matter make up the true reality of existence. Idealism (sometimes called spiritualism), on the other hand, concludes that the mind and the spirit constitute the fundamental basis of reality—that matter is secondary and less important.

The Baha’i teachings strike a balance between these two viewpoints, while emphasizing that the human reality is essentially spiritual:

As for the spiritual perfections they are man’s birthright and belong to him alone of all creation. Man is, in reality, a spiritual being, and only when he lives in the spirit is he truly happy. This spiritual longing and perception belongs to all men alike … – Abdu’l-BahaParis Talks, p. 73.

Abdu’l-Baha spoke at length about this subject:

One of the strangest things witnessed is that the materialists of today are proud of their natural instincts and bondage. They state that nothing is entitled to belief and acceptance except that which is sensible or tangible. By their own statements they are captives of nature, unconscious of the spiritual world, uninformed of the divine Kingdom and unaware of heavenly bestowals. If this be a virtue, the animal has attained to it to a superlative degree … The animal would agree with the materialist in denying the existence of that which transcends the senses. If we admit that being limited to the plane of the senses is a virtue, the animal is indeed more virtuous than man, for it is entirely bereft of that which lies beyond … – The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 177.

Those who reject or ignore the realm beyond the senses, Abdu’l-Baha said, miss the most important part of human existence:

Therefore, if it be a perfection and virtue to be without knowledge of God and His Kingdom, the animals have attained the highest degree of excellence and proficiency. – Ibid., p. 262.

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Last year I played with the idea of a community of inner selves in a sequence of posts I called My Parliament of Selves. I’ve also dealt with this idea in less personal terms.

I called into question the idea of an automatically unified and integrated self. A vast body of theory, clinical practice and research has accumulated which calls this assumption gravely into question. Split brain research and resulting theories, clinical experiences with multiple personalities and auditory hallucinations, as well as psychoanalytic theory (Freud and Jung especially) and its offspring are all useful starting points in revising a simplistic view.

For instance, Berne, the founding father of Transactional Analysis, saw us as beings organised into at least three different semi-autonomous and incompletely conscious subselves. These he called the Parent, the Adult and the Child. The extent to which these subselves are in harmonious cooperation is one of the determinants of well-being.

A model of therapy often used in coordination with Transactional Analysis is the Gestalt Therapy of Fritz Perls whose most fundamental tenet is that we are divided beings seeking to become whole. His therapy is a form of consultation between conflicting aspects of the person.

I am also aware of the literature which deals with not just dissociated multiple personalities but also mediumship.

None of that prepared me for the shock I felt on revisiting a diary entry of mine from early 2000, which recorded some dream work I had done. I was looking for some notes I took at about that time on the subject of near-death experiences. This was something altogether different.

One way of working a dream, as I have described elsewhere, is the Gestalt technique of assuming the role of a dream element, whether that be a person or a thing and speaking in its voice. In the dream the night before the entry was made I had seen myself reflected in a mirror as a woman, so, when I woke, I worked on the dream by stepping into her presence and speaking her thoughts.

The Dragon of Smoke Escaping from Mt Fuji (for source of image see link)

‘So you have found me at last,” she says out of her mirror. “Do you like what you see? Will you turn away from me again? My delicacy looks vulnerable and you do not trust me in your world. You do not trust me to be your guide. You think I’ll come to harm. I am not so delicate as you think. Or you fear I’ll bring you to harm. Look at my eyes – a deep deep black. I am in a way your soul. I am the unacknowledged strivings of your truest self. I am beauty. I am truth. I am life. I am love. I am your connection with the infinite. Through me you can know what lies out of your reach otherwise. I know what feeds your spirit and what does not. I am the repository of all the rich experiences you have ever known. Who do you think listens to this Chopin you are playing right now? Who responds to the views of Mount Fuji? Why do you never give me the time truly to savour those wonders? Why do you always wrench me away into the arid distractions of your daily unlife? Why when you usually write this journal do you never wait for me to have my say? Why do you fill it will the froth that floats on top of your mind? Is my path too steep for you? Do you fear your being will not bear the strain of it? Do you fear that paying attention to my concerns will make you careless of your responsibilities in the world? That is not true. Working in the world from my perspective will be richer and more telling.

‘When I look back over your day I can explain why you were so silent for so much of it. Do you remember your thoughts about suffering? All the people that you encountered [she names them but it is best I do not for reasons of confidentiality] – they all speak to the same issue. Suffering is not what we think it is. Its fire turns the clay of our imperfections to flawless china; suffering perfects the soul and enables it to rise to its highest destiny.

‘You do not believe that. I can feel the writhing of your disbelief. You revolt against the idea of bearing such sorrows and such pains in this world. You feel you could not ever do so. You want to evade such pain. That may be your good fortune – to avoid it — but it should not blind you to the purpose of suffering in others. Even those who bear it badly will see how they were blessed when they discard their body and ascend. Even if you had been able to think what I am saying you could not have shared it and what you did think was so negative and bleak there was no point in saying it. So you stayed silent and felt sad. If you have truly learned your lesson from this – which I doubt – you will not turn your back on me again. Try what this life is like – the life lived in full consciousness of me.’

The power of this took my breath away. What’s more I was stunned to realise that I had forgotten the whole encounter entirely, even though I wrote it down so fully at the time and added: ‘I would like to pledge that I will explore the world from this perspective to the best of my ability. But can I do so?’

My doubts were clearly well-founded.

There are many ways of interpreting this persona or sub-personality. Jung’s idea of the anima is perhaps the first to spring to mind. One website defines the anima as follows:

The anima is both a personal complex and an archetypal image of woman in the male psyche. It is an unconscious factor incarnated anew in every male child, and is responsible for the mechanism of projection. Initially identified with the personal mother, the anima is later experienced not only in other women but as a pervasive influence in a man’s life.

Jung did not see this as the soul in the way my sub-self forcefully asserted herself to be.

The anima is not the soul in the dogmatic sense, not an anima rationalis, which is a philosophical conception, but a natural archetype that satisfactorily sums up all the statements of the unconscious, of the primitive mind, of the history of language and religion. … It is always the a priori element in [a man’s] moods, reactions, impulses, and whatever else is spontaneous in psychic life.[“Archetypes of the Collective Unconscious,” CW 9i, par. 57.]

And the depth and power of the spiritual insights my mirror-self articulates, especially concerning suffering, seem at odds with all that is written about the anima.

The link with suffering might be giving me a clue to where some of the passion of the persona derives from. I have explored at length how my parent’s grief over my sister’s death four years before I was born scorched my early years.

In addition, the rebukes she spits out about my not devoting time to immersing myself in deep experiences resonates with my work over the years on improving my powers of reflection (see diagram at the foot of this post for my latest perspective on this).

None of this though quite accounts for the sense of a whole personality expressing itself in this outburst – a personality to whom I have denied expression, something I have failed to integrate. I have consigned her to fulminating under the surface most of the time. The anger is searing.

It is possible that the persona was not in fact the anima at all, but rather something more akin to another concept Jung explores in his essay on the mana-personality (Collected Works, Volume 7, page 236). It is something around which the ego unconsciously revolves rather as the earth circles round the sun. He writes:

I call this centre the self.… It might equally well be called the ‘God within us.’ The beginnings of our whole psychic life seem to be inextricably rooted in this point, and all out highest and ultimate purposes seem to be striving towards it.

The Society of Friends refers to ‘that of God within us.’ Bahá’u’lláh Himself writes (AHW: 13):

Turn thy sight unto thyself, that thou mayest find Me standing within thee, mighty, powerful and self-subsisting.

In The Seven Valleys He quotes ‘Alí, the Successor to Muhammad, as saying:

Dost thou reckon thyself only a puny form
When within thee the universe is folded?

1: Lower Unconscious 2: Middle Unconscious 3: Higher Unconscious 4: Field of Consciousness 5: Conscious Self or “I” 6: Higher Self 7: Collective Unconscious (For the source of the image see link.)

There is at least one fully articulated model of therapy that incorporates a sense of a higher self and seeks to help us connect with it: this is Assagioli’s Psychosynthesis, which I have explored in various places on this blog. A coloured adaptation of his basic diagram illustrates this perspective clearly enough for now.

Clearly I need to take great care before jumping to the conclusion that this passionate dream element was definitely my Higher Self summoning me to better things. Even so, I also need to think hard before yet again dismissing this experience irretrievably to an  archive shelf somewhere deep in my memory store.

Perhaps a bit of reflection would help?

There is one other theory that might conceivably apply but which has much that feels dubious about it. I will take a look at that hopefully next week. The explanation is a strange mixture of ideas that resonate with and idiosyncrasies that repel me. I want to dig a bit deeper at least in terms of the best bits.

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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)

As Hay-on-Wye seems the trend this week I thought I’d share this post even though I’d republished it already last September. So just in case you missed it here it is.

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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Grave & Courtyard v2

Usually I stroll to the Death Cafe from home after an early dinner. This time the situation was a bit more hectic, which might have been a sign of things to come.

I had spent too long in town and was dashing to the Courtyard to grab a sandwich before the six o’clock start. I got there just before 5.30. The reception area and the cafe was buzzing. The queue at the counter wasn’t too bad so I got my order in and my cappuccino reasonably quickly, though there was a bit of a crisis when fake news came through that they had run out of brown bread. I hate white for reasons I won’t bore you with right now. Anyway panic over when they established I’d apparently got there in time to catch the last slices of brown.

By ten to six I’d finished my sandwich and picked up my coffee to take to the meeting room. That’s where the problems started. I pulled open the door to see a room full of clothing, presumably costumes of some kind. I caught up with a member of staff who said the meeting was on the mezzanine floor. I carried my coffee carefully up the stairs and checked out the room at that level – crammed with people I didn’t know definitely not talking about death. Not there then.

On the way back to the stairs I saw the white hair of one of our clan bobbing up the stairs.

‘It’s not on the mezzanine,’ he said. ‘I don’t know where it is.’

I decided to check with the reception desk.

‘It is on that floor,’ the girl at the till told me. ‘It’s past the cafe.’

On the way back to the stairs for the second time I met another death enthusiast.

‘Where’s the meeting?’ she asked clutching her coffee and cake.

‘Follow me,’ I asserted confidently. We trekked up the stairs. She waited with her coffee and cake at a nearby table where I placed my coffee as well for safety while I checked out the room, which turned out to be either non-existent or a Platform 9¾ problem. I opted for non-existent and went back to the table where we sat for a while, she nibbling her cake and me scanning the stairs between sips of almost cold coffee for any hints about where the meeting was going to be.

After about five minutes, I decided it was time to go back to reception again. As I reached the bottom of the stairs, I saw a familiar face talking to what looked like the manager. She didn’t look happy.

‘So we haven’t got a room tonight?’ she probed.

‘I’m really sorry but demand was so high today we’ve had to use every available space,’ he flustered.

‘What do we do then?’ she asked with surprising politeness.

‘Well, there’s a table upstairs on the gallery floor with enough chairs.’

As we could only just hear him speak against the background noise we were not pleased about this, but there was nothing else we could do.

We trooped upstairs again but went one floor higher this time.

Two tables were at the stairwell where the noise was loudest.

We pulled them together and surrounded them with chairs, trying to make sure we would all be as close together as possible.

After a few moments more people trickled in and we got ourselves seated.

I was pleased to see the lady from the train had come. I gave a full account of our first meeting in a previous post. She was someone with a keen interest in consciousness and spirituality.

And there were two new faces as well – and they were young. I was happy to see that as it would make it easier to answer a question I’ve been asked more than once when talking about the Death Cafe: ‘Are there any young people there?’ Brilliant! I could now say an emphatic ‘Yes!’

It was hard going at first to make ourselves heard against the background noise, most of it caused by young children waiting for their programme to start in the main theatre. At least the noise would drop once the doors opened and they went in.

‘When someone is dementing, do their family go through a grieving process even before they die?’ This was an entirely unexpected question from someone so young, one of the new arrivals. Her voice was too quiet at first so she had to  repeat what she said.

That set the first ball rolling. Sadly, the white-haired man I mentioned earlier really struggled as he had a hearing problem. Turning up his hearing aid was no solution as it simply made the shouting from below even more of a problem. He wasn’t the only one by any means who was struggling. Most of us had a hard time hearing someone on the other side of the table.

‘It’s not the Death Cafe tonight,’ I quipped, ‘more like the Deaf Cafe.’ It seemed to ease the tension slightly, and fortunately the man with the hearing aid couldn’t hear me. (My apologies to David Lodge for stealing his joke: he published a novel in 2008 called Deaf Sentence about a man struggling with hearing loss.)

From dementia we slid into DMT because the topic had shifted to whether the mind is affected by the brain or somehow separate from it and whether we could somehow access a transcendent realm. I had to do some research when I got home as I’d never heard of DMT.

It was mentioned in the meeting as a pineal hormone with transliminal effects. Wikipedia writes:

N,N-Dimethyltryptamine (DMT or N,N-DMT) is a powerful psychedelic compound of the tryptamine family. It is a structural analog of serotonin and melatonin and a functional analog of other psychedelic tryptamines such as 4-AcO-DMT, 5-MeO-DMT, 5-HO-DMT, psilocybin (4-PO-DMT), and psilocin (4-HO-DMT).

Most of that went over my head. The next bit was more accessible.

Historically, it has been consumed by indigenous Amazonian cultures in the form of ayahuasca for divinatory and healing purposes. It was first synthesised in 1931, and in 1946, microbiologist Oswaldo Gonçalves de Lima discovered its natural presence in plants. In the 1960s, it was detected in mammalian organisms as well.

I can’t find support for the pineal connection (for example):

And although Strassman clearly states that his ideas about DMT and the pineal gland “are not proven”, many people have accepted them as fact. As of June 2010, there is currently no scientific evidence that the pineal gland produces DMT, much less any evidence for the more far-out speculations that Strassman makes about DMT being a chemical modulator of the human soul. When Strassman examined the pineal glands from “about ten” human corpse brains, there was nary a trace of DMT to be found in them. This doesn’t invalidate his theory, since DMT is metabolized quickly, and none of the corpse brains were fresh-frozen. Further tests on fresh-frozen brains could be done. Someday there may be evidence that DMT is produced in the pineal gland, but that day has not yet arrived.

It did remind me though of Aldous Huxley’s work on the ‘doors of perception’ and Stanislav Grof’s on LSD.

Just as the other new comer was about to speak the loudspeaker blared out a fifteen minute warning about when people should make a move to take their seats.

She had to start again. She picked up on what the lady from the train had shared about Faith, Physics & Psychology concerning various books such as those by Fritjof Kapra and David Bohm. She explained her deep interest in matters of the mind, consciousness and spirituality, something which was clearly shared by others present including me.

Somehow, I have no idea now of how, we moved onto exploring virtual selves in this age of the internet and social media. Would we be mourned after we die by other FB users who had never met us? Does excessive reliance on social media cut us off from real contact with other people? We concluded that social media, just like all other leaps forward in terms of tools and technology throughout human history, was a mixed blessing – just like fire, which we can use to keep warm in winter and cook our food or to burn down a neighbour’s hut if he has upset us.

At about this point the blaring began again to summon all the noisy ones downstairs to their seats. Bliss. Silence.

We had a long exploration then of whether there is a soul, a spiritual dimension, a mind independent of the body – all my favourite stuff. I was astonished to find that someone did not agree that agnosticism is the only rational stance if you rely on reason alone. To believe there is or there is not a God is an act of faith.

‘Well, that’s not how I see it?’ a different voice chipped in.

‘How do you see it then?’ I asked trying to hide my shock at this denial of the obvious.

‘I’m not quite sure. I think it’s more a question of acceptance.’

I’m still not quite sure what she meant by that but we went onto explore whether truth was on a ‘huge hill,’ as John Donne expressed it, and we’re all on our different paths towards it or is there a better metaphor.

I think there was general agreement in the end with the other part of Donne’s position as expressed in his third satire (line 77): ‘doubt wisely.’

Whatever else, we all felt at the end of the evening, as we said our goodbyes, that it had been a great experience which we had all enjoyed enormously.

And I’ll end on my usual challenge. Death Cafes are held in many places. Maybe there’s one near you. Do you dare to give it a go?

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Beneath the Debris

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