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feb-17-death-cafeJust another week to go before the next meeting of the Death Cafe on 15 February from 6-8 pm, so just re-posting this account of the last meeting I attended in January. If you are close by it would be good to see you there.

It took longer than usual to get my coffee at the Courtyard prior to the Death Cafe meeting last Wednesday. There were far more people at the counter than usual, most of them in my age group. The thought crossed my mind that we might be going to get a record attendance at the meeting, though there was no one in the queue I recognised.

I finally got my cappuccino just in time to make it across to the meeting room by a touch after six o’clock. As I approached I could see someone struggling with the wedge to make the door stay open. The room was dark. This did not bode well.

Holding my coffee perilously in my hand I unsuccessfully attempted to help with the wedge. ‘Better sit down before I drop this on the carpet,’ I thought. I switched the light on as I passed.

As I was arranging my coat on the back of the chair someone else came in before promptly disappearing again for a coffee.

By the time I’d sat down and made myself comfortable there were four of us in the room – the smallest number of people so far at any meeting I had attended. Even so, yet again I was energised by the range of issues we dealt with, some of them in considerable depth.

Maybe I was primed to enjoy this meeting whatever the numbers or the topics. I’d had about a fortnight of immersion in the tragic and death-dominated lives of the Brontës. Also within the last week I’ve had news of the deaths of two people I knew quite well – both much younger than me. Memento mori has been the flavour of the year so far.

This time the ground we covered included whether we preferred burial to cremation, whether we would want to be resuscitated or not, what did the idea of our own end make us think about, whether there is an after life or not and did we mind, did it matter what kind of funeral takes place after we have died, where have the supportive communities of old disappeared to, should we feel responsible in some way for creating the conditions that have made possible so-called ISIS and its killings, and how did we feel about the fact that our society is still letting so many people die.

Despite what they sound like, such topics don’t lead to one-foot-in-the-grave-type discussions. Unexpected positives often emerge.

The community question, for example, flagged up the existence of a promising initiative in Sandwell — Compassionate Community:

A Compassionate Community is a community that provides support to someone who is dying. The community could be family, neighbours, local organisations, a faith group, local businesses or people living in a particular area. It could be some or all of these.

People in a Compassionate Community help care for a dying person through small acts of compassion, supporting the dying person during their end of life, often enabling them to die well and, if possible, at home.

Palliative care professionals, such as doctors and care workers, are also a vital part of a Compassionate Community. However, to provide the best possible end of life care to someone they need extra support from the patient’s community, particularly if the patient wishes to die at home.

By working and pulling together a Compassionate Community can help a dying person, and their family and friends, get the support and care they need, helping them to deal with dying and death and the subsequent bereavement and loss of those left behind.

There are plans to test out a pilot project in Hereford apparently.

Even the worst sounding topics can trigger potentially life-enhancing deliberations.

Pondering on what our deaths made us think about, we delved into the problem of how do we decide what are the most important things to spend our time on. Does it have to be something useful? Can’t it just be something joyous and enriching like a trip to the opera? Would watching a murder mystery on television count as worthwhile enough? What about a walk in the country? We all probably felt that the arts and a connection with nature were worthwhile in themselves and that doing things that benefited others definitely qualified as a good use of our last days. Interestingly, in the context of our discussion at that point, no one mentioned using our time to come to terms with death even though that’s what we all have said is a crucially important task in life as a whole. Perhaps we all thought it too obvious to mention!

As usual the time flew by and the meeting was almost over. We found ourselves wondering at the end how we could attract more people to these meetings. I’m still pondering that one.

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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Grave & Courtyard v2

It took longer than usual to get my coffee at the Courtyard prior to the Death Cafe meeting last Wednesday. There were far more people at the counter than usual, most of them in my age group. The thought crossed my mind that we might be going to get a record attendance at the meeting, though there was no one in the queue I recognised.

I finally got my cappuccino just in time to make it across to the meeting room by a touch after six o’clock. As I approached I could see someone struggling with the wedge to make the door stay open. The room was dark. This did not bode well.

Holding my coffee perilously in my hand I unsuccessfully attempted to help with the wedge. ‘Better sit down before I drop this on the carpet,’ I thought. I switched the light on as I passed.

As I was arranging my coat on the back of the chair someone else came in before promptly disappearing again for a coffee.

By the time I’d sat down and made myself comfortable there were four of us in the room – the smallest number of people so far at any meeting I had attended. Even so, yet again I was energised by the range of issues we dealt with, some of them in considerable depth.

Maybe I was primed to enjoy this meeting whatever the numbers or the topics. I’d had about a fortnight of immersion in the tragic and death-dominated lives of the Brontës. Also within the last week I’ve had news of the deaths of two people I knew quite well – both much younger than me. Memento mori has been the flavour of the year so far.

This time the ground we covered included whether we preferred burial to cremation, whether we would want to be resuscitated or not, what did the idea of our own end make us think about, whether there is an after life or not and did we mind, did it matter what kind of funeral takes place after we have died, where have the supportive communities of old disappeared to, should we feel responsible in some way for creating the conditions that have made possible so-called ISIS and its killings, and how did we feel about the fact that our society is still letting so many people die.

Despite what they sound like, such topics don’t lead to one-foot-in-the-grave-type discussions. Unexpected positives often emerge.

The community question, for example, flagged up the existence of a promising initiative in Sandwell — Compassionate Community:

A Compassionate Community is a community that provides support to someone who is dying. The community could be family, neighbours, local organisations, a faith group, local businesses or people living in a particular area. It could be some or all of these.

People in a Compassionate Community help care for a dying person through small acts of compassion, supporting the dying person during their end of life, often enabling them to die well and, if possible, at home.

Palliative care professionals, such as doctors and care workers, are also a vital part of a Compassionate Community. However, to provide the best possible end of life care to someone they need extra support from the patient’s community, particularly if the patient wishes to die at home.

By working and pulling together a Compassionate Community can help a dying person, and their family and friends, get the support and care they need, helping them to deal with dying and death and the subsequent bereavement and loss of those left behind.

There are plans to test out a pilot project in Hereford apparently.

Even the worst sounding topics can trigger potentially life-enhancing deliberations.

Pondering on what our deaths made us think about, we delved into the problem of how do we decide what are the most important things to spend our time on. Does it have to be something useful? Can’t it just be something joyous and enriching like a trip to the opera? Would watching a murder mystery on television count as worthwhile enough? What about a walk in the country? We all probably felt that the arts and a connection with nature were worthwhile in themselves and that doing things that benefited others definitely qualified as a good use of our last days. Interestingly, in the context of our discussion at that point, no one mentioned using our time to come to terms with death even though that’s what we all have said is a crucially important task in life as a whole. Perhaps we all thought it too obvious to mention!

As usual the time flew by and the meeting was almost over. We found ourselves wondering at the end how we could attract more people to these meetings. I’m still pondering that one.

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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death-cafe-jan-17

Just another few days to go before the next meeting of the Death Cafe on 18 January from 6-8 pm, so just re-posting this account of the last meeting I attended. If you are close by it would be good to see you there.

The walk to the Courtyard last Wednesday was more complicated than the first 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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Hints of Wood Smoke v2

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Separation from the Body

(freely adapted from Ken Ring: Lessons from the Light pages 286-91)

. . . . . the next thing – I’m standing in this dark room
there’s my body on the bed and a deep darkness
I’m here and I’m also over there
one whole wall in the room a dark forest
the sun rising behind it and a path out through the woods.

Ah!
I realise what’s happening.
If I go up that path to the edge of the woods into that light
I’ll be dead.
Yet it’s so peaceful.

I move up the path. The light grows massive. I see memories
of all my sadness. I urge, “Stop!”
Everything stops! I’m shocked. I realize
I can talk to the light and it responds!

I am rising into this tunnel of light.
I ask, “What is this light? What are you really?”
The light reveals itself directly, vividly, to my mind.
I can feel it, I can feel this light in me.
And the light unfolds its message in my mind:
“I could be Jesus, I could be Buddha,
I could be Krishna. It’s how you see me.”

But desperate for understanding
I insist, “But what are you really?”
The light changes into a mandala of souls
all our souls, our true selves, are fused,
we are one being,
we are the same being,
distinct aspects of the same Being.
I enter this mandala of human souls
white hot with all the love we’ve ever wanted,
a love that can heal everything, everyone

I’m desperate to know, really know

I am taken into the light and
instantly the world shrinks with distance
the solar system’s pinpricks
without moving I see galaxies upon galaxies
dancing across cold empty blackness
my consciousness is expanding so fast

here comes another light right at me
I hit this light
I dissolve
I disappear
I understand

I have passed the singularity
I have traversed the big bang
I went through that membrane into this –
the Void
I am aware of everything
that has ever been created
I’m looking out of God’s eyes
I know why every atom is

then everything reverses
I return through the singularity
I understand that everything since that first word
is actually the first vibration
there is a place before any vibration was

after the Void, I returned knowing
that God is not only there
God is here
everything is here – no need to search
while we are now God’s always

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What is the dust which obscures the mirror? It is attachment to the world, avarice, envy, love of luxury and comfort, haughtiness and self-desire; this is the dust which prevents reflection of the rays of the Sun of Reality in the mirror. The natural emotions are blameworthy and are like rust which deprives the heart of the bounties of God.

(‘Abdu’l-Bahá: Promulgation of Universal Peace – page 244)

assagioli

Because my current sequence of posts refers to the Kellys and their thought-provoking text Irreducible Mind, it seemed a good idea to republish this sequence from March 2013. This is the last of the three parts.

In the previous two posts I’ve been moaning about how I was robbed when my training in psychology steered me away from the work of thinkers such as FWH Myers as though they had the plague. What I probably need to do to redress the balance is mention how much I was influenced by thinkers who were deeply influenced by Myers. In one case I know that for certain because I still have Roberto Assagioli‘s introductory text on psychosynthesis, which I read in 1976 and which cites Myers in the list of references at the end of Chapter I. Another was a seminal book I borrowed but never bought, so it is impossible to say whether the influence was direct and acknowledged: this was Peter Koestenbaum’s New Images of the Person.

Assagioli explained in his book the importance of what he calls a ‘disidentification exercise’ (page 22):

After having discovered [various elements of our personality], we have to take possession of them and acquire control over them. The most effective method by which we can achieve this is that of disidentification. This is based on a fundamental psychological principle which may be formulated as follows:

We are dominated by everything with which our self becomes identified. We can dominate and control everything from which we disidentify ourselves.

(For the psychosynthesis disidentification exercise see the following link.)

Then, in another exciting moment, I came upon Koestenbaum’s ideas about reflection six years after I had read Assagioli. Reflection is the ‘capacity to separate consciousness from its contents’ (Koestenbaum: 1979). We can step back, inspect and think about our experiences. We become capable of changing our relationship with them and altering their meanings for us. It is like a mirror learning to see that it is not the same as what is reflected in it. So here was a writer in the existentialist tradition speaking in almost the same terms as psychosynthesis. I had practised Assagioli’s exercise for a long period after reading his book. Now I was triggered into resuming the practice again by what Koestenbaum had written.

I came across Koestenbaum’s book just before I discovered the existence of the Bahá’í Faith (for a fuller account see link). It helped me take what I had found in Assagioli and fuse it with what I had found in the Faith and create an experiential exercise to express that understanding in action in a way that helped me immensely to adjust to spiritual concepts which until that point had been completely alien to me for decades – all my adult life in fact. The Baha’i Writings talk about certain key powers of the soul: loving, knowing and willing as well as introducing me to the idea of the heart, the core of our being, as a mirror. I pulled this into my version of the exercise (see below). What I didn’t realise until later was that Assagioli had corresponded with ‘Abdu’l-Bahá and had therefore to some degree been influenced by Bahá’í thought. (See Disidentification exercise for the final version that I used myself rather than this one I revised to share for the use of others).

Separating the Mirror from its Reflections

How amazing then to find Emily Kelly, in the book Irreducible Mind, quoting Myers quoting Thomas Reid, an 18th century philosopher (page 74):

The conviction which every man has of his identity . . . needs no aid of philosophy to strengthen it; and no philosophy can weaken it.… I am not thought, I am not action, I am not feeling; I am something that thinks, and acts, and suffers. My thoughts and actions and feelings change every moment…; But that Self or I, to which they belong, is permanent…

What I regret therefore now is that the usefulness of this exercise did not make me trace it back to its source and find out more of what Myers thought about this and many other things of great importance to me. So, better late than never, that is what I am about to do now.

Myers’s the self and the Self

The disidentification exercise rattled the cage of my previous ideas about who I was in essence. While I didn’t quite buy into Assagioli’s other ideas about consciousness at that time I felt, both intuitively and from the experiences I was having, that his idea was completely right that there is some form of pure consciousness underpinning our identity.

So, as good a place as any to pick up the thread of Myers’s thinking again is with his ideas of the self and the Self. There are some problems to grapple with before we can move on. Emily Kelly writes (page 83):

These ‘concepts central to his theory’ are undoubtedly difficult, but despite some inconsistency in his usage or spelling Myers was quite clear in his intent to distinguish between a subliminal ‘self’ (a personality alternate or in addition to the normal waking one) and a Subliminal ‘Self’ or ‘Individuality’ (which is his real ‘unifying theoretical principle’). In this book we will try to keep this distinction clear in our readers minds by using the term ‘subliminal consciousness’ to refer to any conscious psychological processes occurring outside ordinary awareness; the term “subliminal self” (lower case) to refer to ‘any chain of memory sufficiently continuous, and embracing sufficient particulars, to acquire what is popularly called a “character” of its own;’ and the term ‘Individuality’ or “’Subliminal Self” (upper case) to refer to the underlying larger Self.

Myers believed that the evidence in favour of supraliminal experiences, used here by me in the sense of things that leak through the membrane from above, is strong enough to warrant serious consideration and he distinguishes between that and subliminal experiences that come, as it were, from underneath (page 87):

Supernormal processes such as telepathy do seem to occur more frequently while either the recipient or the agent (or both) is asleep, in the states between sleeping and waking, in a state of ill health, or dying; and subliminal functioning in general emerges more readily during altered states of consciousness such as hypnosis, hysteria, or even ordinary distraction.

He felt that we needed to find some way of reliably tapping into these levels of consciousness (page 91)

The primary methodological challenge to psychology, therefore, lies in developing methods, or ‘artifices,’ for extending observations of the contents or capacities of mind beyond the visible portion of the psychological spectrum, just as the physical sciences have developed artificial means of extending sensory perception beyond ordinary limits.

titania-l

Midsummer Night’s Dream

Thin Partitions

He also has much that is interesting and valuable to say about the implications of a proper understanding of these upper and lower thresholds, especially when they are too porous, for both genius and mental health (page 98):

When there is ‘a lack of liminal stability, an excessive permeability, if I may say so, of the psychical diaphragm that separates the empirical [conscious] from the latent [subliminal: unconscious] faculties and man,’ then there may be either an expansion of consciousness (an ‘uprush’ of latent material from the subliminal into the supraliminal) or, conversely, a narrowing of consciousness (a ‘downdraught’ from the supraliminal into the subliminal). The former is genius, the latter is hysteria.

His use of supra- and subliminal is slightly confusing here but the main point is that genius expands what we are aware of, and more comes above the threshold, whereas hysteria narrows our experience so that less comes into consciousness. This is partly clarified by Kelly explaining (page 99):

In short, Myers believed that hysteria, when viewed as a psychological phenomenon, gives ‘striking’ support to ‘my own principal thesis’, namely, that all personality is a filtering or narrowing of the field of consciousness from a larger Self, the rest of which remains latent and capable of emerging only under the appropriate conditions.

Even the expanded consciousness of genius, in this view, is still filtering a lot out – in fact, it still leaves most of potential consciousness untapped.

There is in addition a common quality of excessive porousness which explains why, in Shakespeare’s phrase, the ‘lunatic . . . . . and the poet are of imagination all compact.’ Myers’s view is that (page 100):

Because genius and madness both involve similar psychological mechanisms – namely, a permeability of the psychological boundary – it is to be expected that they might frequently occur in the same person; but any nervous disorders that accompany genius signal, not dissolution, but a ‘perturbation which masks evolution.’

For Myers dreams, though they may indeed be common and frequently discounted, they are nonetheless important sources of data (pages 102-103):

Myers argued [that] dreams provide a readily available means of studying the ‘language’ of the subliminal, a language that may underlie other, less common forms of automatism or subliminal processes. . . . Myers’s model of mind predicts that that if sleep is a state of consciousness in which subliminal processes take over from supraliminal ones, then sleep should facilitate subliminal functioning, not only in the organic or ‘infrared’ region, but also in the “ultraviolet” range of the psychological spectrum, such as the emergence of telepathic impressions in dreams.

This has certainly been my own experience. A post I wrote two years ago will perhaps serve to illustrate that for those who are interested. My dream of the hearth, recounted there, was, incidentally, the only dream I have ever had in which I experienced the presence of God, another reason for my attaching such great importance to it.

An important related topic he also addresses is that of ‘hallucinations.’ People tend to be quite closed minded on this topic, seeing visions and voices as the sign of a mind gone wrong. This is quite unhelpful. There is a mass of evidence that I may come back to some time to indicate that ‘hallucinations’ range from the darkly destructive to the life enhancing and it important to pay close attention to the details of them and the circumstances under which they occur before coming to any conclusion about them. Our society’s default position, the result of exactly the backward step under discussion here that both psychology and psychiatry took in the name of pseudo-science, is harmful rather than helpful quite often (I have explored a more positive approach on this blog – see the six links to An Approach to Psychosis). Pim van Lommel’s research into NDEs replicates the same kind of pattern in that patients whose families and friends were unsympathetic took much longer to integrate their experiences and found it a more painful process than those who were met with support and understanding. He summarises this (page 51):

When someone first tries to disclose the NDE, the other person’s reaction is absolutely crucial. If this initial reaction is negative or skeptical, the process of accepting and integrating the NDE typically presents far greater problems than if this initial reaction is positive, sympathetic, or neutral. Evidence has shown that positive responses facilitate and accelerate the integration process. In fact, without the possibility of communication, the process of coming to terms with the NDE often fails to get under way at all.

We tend to underestimate the frequency of ‘hallucinations’ in the ‘normal’ population, something the Myers was already aware of (page 108):

One of the most important accomplishments of Myers, Guerney, and their colleagues in psychical research was in demonstrating the previously suspected, but as it turns out not infrequent, occurrence of hallucinations in normal, healthy individuals.

Not all them should be dismissed as fantasy (page 109):

These studies and surveys also demonstrated that such hallucinations are not always purely subjective in origin. Some, in fact, are veridical – that is, they involve seeing, hearing, or otherwise sensing some event happening at a physically remote location. . . . . Using their own figures for the frequency with which people recall having hallucinations in a waking, healthy state, together with statistics regarding the incidence of death in the United Kingdom, they concluded that hallucinations coinciding with a death happened too frequently to be attributable to chance.

All in all, Myers’s mould-breaking approach to the mind and to the problems of consciousness is refreshing to say the least, and maps onto my own long-standing interests in spirituality, creativity and ‘psychosis.’ It was icing on the cake to find what he said about science and religion, a point to savour and a good note to end this post on (page 113) :

On the one hand, . . . he believed that science could ‘prove the preamble of all religions’ – namely, that the universe extends far beyond the perceptible material world. On the other hand., religion could contribute to ‘the expansion of Science herself until she can satisfy those questions which the human heart will rightly ask, but to which Religion alone has thus far attempted an answer.’

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Reality Model

Because my current sequence of posts refers to the Kellys and their thought-provoking text Irreducible Mind, it seemed a good idea to republish this sequence from March 2013. The third part will appear on Wednesday.

Why it matters to me

As I partly explained in the previous post, my education as a psychologist was rooted in a discipline whose mainstream had chosen for almost a century to ignore subjective consciousness, probably the most important spectrum of human experience, in favour of what could be more easily quantified and externally observed. Most psychologists solved, and continue to solve, the mind-brain-reality problem by turning their backs both on the mind in any sense that is not reducible to brain activity and on any reality that appears to challenge the idea that there is nothing but matter.  The poem I once posted – Letter to a Friend in Winter – gives a sense of the issues I was wrestling with on the eve of my first encounter with the Bahá’í Faith in the spring of 1982: the same can also be said of the next poem I will be posting.

Deciding to become a Bahá’í pulled me up short, as I described in the first post of this series. I had not realised that we do not have to choose between material and spiritual models of mind and reality. There is in fact a third way. It involves opening the mind to all the evidence on both sides of the divide and developing a more adequate simulation of reality. And that’s precisely the challenge that Myers had taken up in the 19th Century. It’s time I did him the respect of beginning to grapple, albeit through an intermediary, with his position on this instead of looking only to modern writers for help. I have bought his key text – Human Personality and its Survival of Bodily Death (the title was given posthumously and gives too narrow a sense of the book, apparently) – ready for the next stage, but feel I need to limber up in this way before tackling him head on.

If we start from the core point it will be easiest. To quote Ellen Kelly in the Kellys’ monumental book Irreducible Mind  (page 64):

In keeping with his “tertium quid” approach, [Myers] believes that the challenge to science does not end but begins precisely when one comes up against two contradictory findings, positions, or theories, and that breakthroughs occur when one continues to work with conflicting data and ideas until a new picture emerges that can put conflicts and paradoxes in a new light or a larger perspective.

She quotes from the man himself in terms of his sense of the divide between spirit and matter (page 70):

“The line between the ‘material’ and the ‘immaterial,’ as these words are commonly used, means little more than the line between the phenomena which our senses or instruments can detect or register and the phenomena which they can not.”

Is the mind only our brain?

The mind-brain data throws up a tough problem, though. Most of us come to think that if you damage the brain you damage the mind because all the evidence we hear about points that way. We are not generally presented with any other model or any of the evidence that might call conventional wisdom into question, at least not by the elder statesmen of the scientific community. There are such models though (page 73):

The first step towards translating the mind-body problem into an empirical problem, therefore, is to recognise that there is more than one way to interpret mind-brain correlation. A few individuals have suggested that the brain may not produce consciousness, as the vast majority of 19th and 20th century scientists assumed; the brain may instead filter, or shape, consciousness. In that case consciousness maybe only partly dependent on the brain, and it might therefore conceivably survive the death of the body.

transceiver

A Transceiver

Others are of course now following where he marked out the ground but we have had to wait a long time for people like van Lommel to show up in his book Consciousness Beyond Life: The Science of the Near-Death Experience with all the perplexities and puzzles of modern physics to draw upon (page 177):

It is now becoming increasingly clear that brain activity in itself cannot explain consciousness. . . . . Composed of “unconscious building blocks,” the brain is certainly capable of facilitating consciousness. But does the brain actually “produce” our consciousness?

The imagery Lommel uses in his introduction is slightly different from that of Myers, as we will see – “The function of the brain can be compared to a transceiver; our brain has a facilitating rather than a producing role: it enables the experience of consciousness” – but the point is essentially the same. Whereas we now can draw upon all the complexities of Quantum Theory to help us define exactly what might be going on behind the screen of consciousness, and Lommel certainly does that, Myers had no such advantage. Nonetheless, he creates a rich and subtle picture of what consciousness might be comprised. He starts with the most basic levels (page 73):

. . . . our normal waking consciousness (called by Myers the supraliminal consciousness) reflects simply those relatively few psychological elements and processes that have been selected from that more extensive consciousness (called by Myers the Subliminal Self) in adaptation to the demands of our present environment: and . . . the biological organism, instead of producing consciousness, is the adaptive mechanism that limits and shapes ordinary waking consciousness out of this larger, mostly latent, Self.

So what is consciousness?

But in keeping with his ‘tertium quid’ approach, Myers believed (page 74) that “The reconcilement of the two opposing systems [the spiritual and material] in a profounder synthesis” is possible. According to Kelly (page 75) he drew on many traditions:

The rapidly multiplying observations of experimental psychology, neurology, psychopathology, and hypnotism clearly showed that the human mind is far more extensive than ordinarily thought, since much psychological functioning remains outside the range of our conscious mental life . . . .

He defined exactly what he meant (page 76):

. . . .  something is ‘conscious’ if it is capable of entering waking awareness, given the appropriate conditions or the discovery of an ‘appropriate artifice’ or experimental method to elicit it . . . . Given this new, expanded conception of what is ‘conscious,’ Myers therefore considered such terms as “‘Unconscious’ or even ‘Subconscious’ . . .  [to be] directly misleading” and he proposed instead the words ‘supraliminal, and ‘subliminal’ to distinguish between streams of consciousness that are and are not, respectively, identifiable with ordinary awareness. (page 76)

Kelly agrees that these two uses of the threshold concept can cause confusion. Myers is after all not only concerned with what rises into consciousness from beneath a lower threshold and but also what falls into it from above through a higher one.

em_spectrum

Stellar Spectra (from this website)

This problem is illustrated by Myers’s very helpful original analogy, and it shows just how far he was prepared to go in taking into account disciplines that others would have felt were beyond the pale (page 78):

Our ordinary waking consciousness corresponds only to that small segment of the electromagnetic spectrum that is visible to the naked eye (and varies species to species); but just as the electromagnetic spectrum extends in either direction far beyond the small portion normally visible, so human consciousness extends in either direction beyond the small portion of which we are ordinarily aware. In the ‘infrared’ region of consciousness are older, more primitive processes – processes that are unconscious, automatic, and primarily physiological. Thus, ‘at the red end (so to say) consciousness disappears among the organic processes’ (Myers, 1894-1895). Sleep, for example, and its associated psychophysiological processes are an important manifestation of an older, more primitive state. In contrast, in the ‘ultraviolet’ region of the spectrum are all those mental capacities that the remain latent because they have not yet emerged at a supraliminal level through adaptive evolutionary processes. . . . . Such latent, ‘ultraviolet’ capacities include telepathy, the inspirations of creative genius, mystical perceptions, and other such phenomena that occasionally emerge.

He does not feel we are yet at our highest achievable level (page 80): ‘. . . our present sensory capacities and our normal waking consciousness [do not] mark the final point of the evolutionary process.’ This gels strongly with my own feelings about the matter as does most of what he wrote. Basically, consciousness is to all intents and purposes infinite. Currently we can read only a tiny fraction of it.  Our brains are capable of evolving far further and of taking in or ‘reading’ a broader range of wavelengths from this spectrum of consciousness.

From here Kelly goes onto look at his concept of the self. This is too complex a topic to cram into the end of this post so it will have to wait for next time.

Parapsychology

Picture from this link.

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