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Dreamproof (2/2)

Part 2 (Part 1 came out last Monday)

George H 3

George Herbert — image adapted from John Drury’s ‘Music at Midnight

After the latest episode of My Parliament of Selves it seemed a good idea to republish another story triggered by the death of a friend three years ago now.

She woke in tears, her heart beating fast. The light was off nowadays but her practised hand went straight to the switch, then the pen and she was soon scribbling fast to catch every detail of the dream.

Only three months in and she had had her first dream. She couldn’t believe how excited she was. How long would it be before the next one?

Why had he had to phone? Why didn’t she see him face-to-face? Why was he cut off? Why did he say he wasn’t supposed to be ringing yet?

Never mind. At least she’d heard from him. It was definitely his voice. She’d know it anywhere. Maybe it was really him and not just a construct from her memories. She would know soon enough when the second dream came and she could check out what was said against the contents of the packet.

At first she began to enjoy the routines of her life more because of the lift the dream had given her. Her yoga began to raise her spirits again. The children at her school, where she worked in the reception class, almost made her feel hopeful, though she never lost a background sense of sadness that she and Alistair had never been able to create a child of their own. She still steered clear of his family and friends most of the time: the elephant of his absence always stood between her and them, though he was never mentioned.

Only in her evenings alone and most of all just before she went to bed, did the grief hit her hard once more. She couldn’t listen to her favourite songs. They were mostly his as well. The first chords turned the sadness of six foot breakers into tsunamis of distress.

Still, she slept in hope each day, and every morning woke in disappointment.

As the weeks crept by at snail’s pace hope faded and her spirits began to sink. She went out less, except to work. Her thoughts darkened. She wondered how long she could endure this uncertainty. Surely, anything would be better than this – even the sure knowledge that her first dream had been wrong.

. . . . . . . . .

It was six months later. There’d been no other dream containing Alistair bearing a message of any kind – just fleeting moments of wish fulfilment when she saw him apparently alive again and with her in their home, cooking at the stove surrounded by more pans than they had ever owned, rinsing pots over the sink under the sunlight running from the taps, and sitting contentedly in the garden with his coffee and his book with yellow swallows darting overhead.

Then the pain of loss when each dream was over.

As she emptied the dishwasher after breakfast, she came to a decision. She wouldn’t wait any longer. She didn’t want all this focus on her dreams anymore.

She’d had a dream and got a message about the contents of the package. If it was right it would confirm that his mind lived on. If not, she was no worse off, and the uncertainty of waiting for the second dream wasn’t helping. Perhaps he wasn’t going to be allowed to come again. That’s what his message implied, or at least it might be so long in the future she couldn’t bear it. No, she’d go to see John, today if possible, and find out what was in the packet.

She picked up the phone. The dialling tone buzzed on for quite some time and she was just about resigned to hearing the answer phone when John’s voice cut across: ‘Hi, Dorothy.’

“Hi, can I come over. I want to open the packet.’

‘Have you had the second dream?’

‘No, but I can’t wait any longer.’

There was a silence. What was he thinking?

‘Are you sure about this? You know me. I don’t believe in this whole mad idea anyway, but you probably do and Alistair certainly did. If you come now you’re going against what he asked you to do. You could feel bad about this later.’

‘Yes, I’m sure. I’ve had the one dream with a clear message. That should be enough. It’ll either be right or wrong. Either way, that will be the same whether we open the package now or next year.’

‘Well, if you’re really sure . . . ,’ John tailed off.

. . . . . . . . .

She drove round to John’s after lunch.

He made a cup of coffee for them both before sitting down at the dining room table with the packet in front of them. It was quite small, about book size. This was encouraging. Any larger or smaller and she would have begun to regret her decision and might have changed her mind. But no, this looked good. She should carry on.

‘Right,’ she said as she sipped her coffee. ‘As I remember, Alistair said I must tell you what is in the packet before we open it. So, I’ve brought my transcript of the dream for you to read, so you can get the full context.’

She passed him a typewritten sheet of A4.

He quickly glanced through it.

‘The Everyman George Herbert then.’

‘Yes.’

‘Is there any way you could’ve have thought of this yourself and built it into a dream?’

‘Well, I bought the Everyman edition as a birthday present some years back, but it’s one present among many. I could have picked loads of others. I was always buying him books. This was one of his favourites but not the only one and I hadn’t thought about it for years till the dream itself. And there’s no way I could’ve noticed it was missing from his shelves. He had thousands of books and I haven’t begun to sort them yet. Too difficult.’

‘Is that the only copy of Herbert’s poetry he owned?’

‘No, he had two or three others, but none with all the poems in, which is why he specially wanted this one.’

‘ That could prove interesting. So, d’you want to go ahead?’

‘Definitely.’

John popped into the kitchen for a sharp knife to cut open the sellotape. He peeled back the brown paper. There was definitely a book inside. And a handwritten note. And something else – a CD.

This wasn’t quite what she expected. Should she have waited? Why was there a CD in there?

They picked up the note to read.

‘Dear both, if you are reading this you will have opened the packet. I hope you waited, Dorothy, till you’d had both dreams because I misled you. There are two things in here not one. And I planned to tell you about them one at a time. You know there is no sense of time in the next world. The second dream could be a long time after the first in your world but immediately after in mine. I wanted you to be able to tell John about both items, not just one. He’ll be a hard man to convince and I really want to convince him. Anyway, if you didn’t wait for the second dream it’s too late to go back now, because if you’ve seen this you’ll have caught sight of the second item. . . . . .’

Dorthy’s head was swimming. She was so angry with herself for going against what he’d said, but even more angry with him. He was a trickster. She had thought this was all for her but he had set her up to convince John. And now it was all a mess. Still, she had to know whether she was right about the book.

‘What’s the book, John? Am I right about that at least?’

‘Yes. It’s the Everyman George Herbert all right.’

He passed it to her. She opened the fly leaf. Sure enough – her writing. ‘Just your kind of stuff – the poems of a priest. Enjoy! Just don’t expect me to read it.’

Her words sounded a bit sour now, though she had meant them as an affectionate joke at the time. She wondered whether she had hurt his feelings with her more sceptical attitude. Had he picked this book to make that kind of point even after death?

John read her words over her shoulder.

‘Do you think you might have felt guilty about that? The mind holds onto things out of awareness you know. That would be enough to slide it into a dream.’

‘But I wrote that kind of thing all the time in the books I gave him. Why would I feel badly about this one in particular?’

He shrugged.

‘And it’s good that it’s the correct edition of the two or three he had.’

He gave her a quizzical look. ‘Shall we look at the other item?’ he asked.

She nodded.

Handel’s Messiah. She couldn’t remember how many times, through his study door, she’d heard the rousing Hallelujah Chorus or the plangent strains of ‘a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief.’

‘I could just as easily have dreamt that one by guesswork – more easily in fact. He played it all the time, for heaven’s sake. Why did I dream of the George Herbert instead?’

‘Well, that would depend upon which affected you most strongly at the deeper levels of your mind,’ John explained patiently, ‘outside your conscious . . .’

‘You know, John,’ she cut in, ‘in your different ways you both drove me nuts. He banged on about the soul and you hit me over the head with the mind all the time. And you know what? None of it makes any sense to me. It never did and it never will. You just can’t prove any of it. God, Freud, the after life, the unconscious. They’re all crap. Just fantasies to try and make sense of the mad mystery of life. I don’t know what I really thought when I dreamt of him, anymore than I know whether I’m going to live on or black out when I die. None of it helps. I just want Alistair back. I just want my old life again.’

She burst into tears once more, wracked by deeper sobs than John had ever heard from anyone in his entire life so far.

. . . . . . . . .

She drove home through winter twilight uncomforted and in a dark and desperate mood. She had no interest in food. She somehow managed to make herself a drink of hot chocolate and crept very early into bed.

It took a long time for sleep to come and with it came disturbing dreams of witches and beheadings. As the sky began to lighten just after dawn her sleep deepened.

She finds herself walking across a stretch of water she half-recognises. It reminds her of the bay in Cyprus where she and Alistair once stayed in the early days of their marriage. The air is warm and though there are waves on the surface of the water she does not trip. In fact, she feels lighter and lighter with every step almost as though she could fly.

Then she is on a hill high above the sea looking down at a sunset, with its darkening reds and golds. There is a boat on the water with purple sails moving fast towards her. The closer it gets the more peaceful she feels. When the boat is half-way across the water, it begins to glide into the air, rising higher and higher as it gets closer to where she stands.

She could swear, as it approaches overhead, that she can see Alistair at the prow gazing down at her and waving. He is too far away to speak but she knows he is not angry with her. She can almost believe that they will meet again.

When she wakes just after a cloudless sunrise, the brightness of the light through the crack in the curtains touches her heart and she knows that she will manage to rebuild her life without forgetting him but healed enough for happiness of some kind to return.

Tomorrow she will apologise to John.

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Dreamproof (1/2)

After the latest episode of My Parliament of Selves it seemed a good idea to republish another story triggered by the death of a friend three years ago now.

Orloj PragueDorothy[1] stared at the piles of paper on his desk. The magnolia just beginning to blossom outside the window proved that it was spring, but this was not the spring clean she had planned. It wasn’t his fault that the desk was covered in notebooks, newspaper cuttings, envelopes, scribbled sheets of A4, and bits of card in various colours. That was her doing.

She had known since the funeral that she would have to clear out his study at some point, but had put it off all winter. The short dark days had made it seem too difficult to tackle such a painful task.

She’d shipped his clothes to the Oxfam shop. He’d never been attached to them and nor was she, but this was different. His study held the heartbeat of his life’s work. She couldn’t face the bookshelves yet, nor the filing cabinet with all his journals in, so she’d attacked his desk with all the venom of her grief. Every heavy drawer was heaved out of its slot and dumped onto the rust-red leather surface until there was no more room.

The mounds reached almost to her chest. Scribbled scraps had fallen onto the carpet. No longer able to stand she sank into his chair just as the tears began once more to slide their customary path down along her cheeks.

Surely this would have to wait until another day. She was just about to get up and leave when her eyes fell on an envelope, originally at the bottom of a drawer but now at the top of the last hoard she had thrown onto the heap.

It had her name on it.

Hesitantly she pulled it towards her. The envelope felt thick and stiff, as though it held a card for her to read. Memories of anniversaries flooded back, of other cards in better days, in Paris in the Louvre in front of the Mona Lisa, beneath the Orloj in Prague’s Old Town Square, in Amsterdam with Rembrandt in the Rijksmuseum.

With misty eyes, she groped into the top left hand drawer – not one she’d emptied yet as she knew that all it contained were such things as staplers, pens, rulers, scissors and sellotape. And the brass letter opener she needed was there somewhere. Her hand finally detected it.

She slit open the envelope.

Sure enough, a card, with van Gogh’s sunflowers on the front.

“My dearest Dorothy,” it read, “I should have put this somewhere more obvious but I thought it was best to make this task as difficult as I could for obvious reasons. I have given a packet for John to keep until you ask him for it. I am requesting you not to do so until I enter your dreams twice, on two separate nights, and tell you what the packet contains. There is one thing inside that I only want you to find after you have seen me twice in a dream and I have told you what the envelope contains. You must tell John what is inside the envelope before you open it in his presence. In that way we will make it as certain as possible that, if you are right, my continuing life after death is confirmed at least for the two of you, the most important people in my life. Of course, if you are wrong, while it will not prove that my mind is still alive, as I sincerely hope it is at the time that you read this, it does not prove the opposite either. Whichever way this goes, please remember that in this life at least I have loved you more than any other person, place or thing.

“With deepest love, Alistair.”

She could hold back the sobs no longer as her mind carried her back to the late winter morning just over a year ago, after the surgeon had confirmed there was nothing more they could do. Alistair had sat where she sat now, as she stood in the doorway watching him, a steaming cup of coffee in her hand. They had just got up and the heating was only just beginning to loosen the grip of a frosty night.

He had explained to her, with a wide grin on his face, his latest plan.

‘Jesus!’ she spluttered in her drink, ‘You’ve got to be bloody joking.’

‘Why? It’d be a great experiment. If I did come back you’d be so comforted.’

‘But what if you didn’t?’

‘Well, you’d be no worse off than if we didn’t work this plan.’

. . . . . . . . .

John was just biting into a wholemeal biscuit when his mobile rang. It was Dorothy. For a moment he was tempted to ignore it but relented. She didn’t ring often after all.

‘’Hi, Dorothy. How goes?’

‘D’you know what I’ve found,’ she burst out loudly at high speed.

‘Tell me,’ he responded wearily.

‘The card,’ she shouted. ‘The one telling me about the packet Alistair left with you.’

He paused. He’d been dreading this moment.

Not only did he feel guilty that he hadn’t given Dorothy more time and support in these difficult days, but he regarded the whole ‘experiment’ Alistair had set up as a complete waste of time. He’d always known of his dead friend’s obsession with the possibility of the afterlife. They’d had many a conversation in which he’d tried to bring him back to his senses. Nothing had worked. And now he resented the way his friend had dragged him into this pointless charade. It was not only embarrassing but would probably leave Dorothy feeling even more hurt and let down than ever. And he would have to deal with all this.

‘I know the one you mean. Do you really feel we need to go through with this? It’ll drag on for ages and slow down any chance you have of grieving properly and moving on.’

‘Of course we have to go through with it,’ she snapped. ‘He wanted it and it’s what I want as well.’

‘But it’ll only lead to disappointment . . . . ,’ he began.

‘You don’t know that. You believe whatever you want. Believe in nothing for all I care. But I believe something else is possible and this may be the only chance I ever get of proving it to myself at least.’ She stopped. ‘Maybe it’ll change your mind as well.’

‘Fat chance,’ he thought but said nothing.

‘What is it that you want me to do?’

. . . . . . . . .

Dorothy sat at the garden table in the late afternoon sun. Its light scattered off the dimpled glass in snaking patterns. She knew John wasn’t happy to continue with this plan but she was grateful that, out of loyalty to Alistair probably, he was on board with it at least for the time being.

The next big problem was her dreams. She never remembered any. Alistair had banged on endlessly about how everyone dreams, and about how important they were as messengers from ‘the subliminal mind.’ How irritating all that psychobabble was while he was still alive and how much she missed it now.

On the table was a book about dreaming. It was one he had recommended to her many times over the years. She’d always refused to go near it. Well, he’d won the battle in the end. She picked it up and began to read, skimming past the early chapters trying to find where this wonderful advice was about capturing the dreams she felt she never had. Ah, got it. She read more carefully. She had to prime her mind before sleep and ask to be given dreams. Then, if she woke and remembered even the faintest fragment of a dream, she must catch it and write it down even in the middle of the night.

It all seemed a bit mad to her. Was this his way of getting her to do now he was dead, what he could never persuade her to consider while he was alive? Perhaps it wasn’t about proving his mind lived on at all. Perhaps he believed that tuning into her dreams would help her with her grief and the rest of her life without him. Should she ring John and tell him to call it off?

She remembered that Alistair was not a trickster. He didn’t play those kinds of mind games. He was obsessed with near-death experiences and bored you almost to death endlessly explaining them. He almost certainly did want to test this theory out. Maybe he wanted her to value her dreams as well but definitely not instead.

She read on.

That night she placed a pad and pencil next to the bed. She decided to leave the light on as well. Her sleep would be more broken, which might help, and she wouldn’t have to grope for the pencil and risk losing the dream.

This became her nightly ritual for weeks. She faithfully recorded what she could remember of her dreams.

At first mere wisps of smoke with no sign of the fire.

She was on a green train going somewhere. She was trying to make a phone call but the screen of her mobile didn’t work. She was in a meeting with a report to make but she had left her draft at home. She is at the window of a house on fire, helping people to escape.

Slowly, over time the dreams became more detailed and more weird.

She was in what seemed to be a church, sitting on the kind of shiny reddish-brown wooden bench that usually constitutes a pew. There were quite a few people around. Across an aisle there was a bench or barrier with some kind of platform in front of it. It didn’t look like those tombstones found in a church but it was about the same height. There were several people in front of it watching some kind of mythical creature pacing up-and-down, perhaps even dancing. It was of medium height and possibly had wings. A girl, with a bow and arrow in her hands, clearly felt the creature was dangerous and she had to kill it before it harmed someone. She loved the creature dearly and really didn’t want to kill it. She went close to the platform and shot it with an arrow. She had to go so close so as to be sure to kill the creature and not hurt someone else. Dorothy burst out sobbing. She was so intensely sad. She felt embarrassed and, looking round, was relieved to see a skinny girl to her left also holding back her tears on the same bench.

After this dream she woke up feeling something really significant had happened. She didn’t know quite how to go about decoding it. There were tinges of the Cupid legend and ideas of love. There was grief there, and death. Also there was religion with all that implied about faith and the afterlife. She wondered if it meant that she was getting closer to a meeting with Alistair in a dream. She didn’t know who the other girl was – her younger self perhaps?

The following week there was a longer dream.

Dorothy is wandering around a vast campus. The experience is like a fusion of starting university and being at a conference. One moment she is stepping between people sitting on the central steps of a massive auditorium, as she strides down towards the stage to give a talk. Next she is opening doors off corridors into what should be laboratories, lecture halls or seminar rooms, to find people asleep in them in the daytime. She feels they must have travelled vast distances to get here and are jet lagged. Then she is striding long pathways in flat blank spaces outside completely alone and talking to herself. She is feeling really strange and tense. She seems to know no one.

It’s coming up to 5 p.m. She decides to ring home and gets her mobile out. It’s useless. It’s all in Greek. There is a pretty scene of some ancient building depicted on the screen. There is no address book and no way to ring numbers. She is desperate to make the phone call. Her battery is going flat – it’s showing 19% and she doesn’t have her portable charger with her. She finds a group of red phone boxes near something like a factory and goes into one with her change in her hand but can’t understand the slots for the coins. They seem to be specialised for factory-made discs to go into. Then the phone in her booth rings. She hesitates, then picks it up.

‘Hallo,’ she whispers.

‘Hi, love, it’s Alistair.’

Her heart leaps. She can hardly speak.

‘You’ve done it. You’ve come into my dream.’

‘Listen, love. I haven’t got much time. I’m not meant to ring you yet. In the packet is a book – the Everyman edition of George Herbert’s . . . . .’

The phone went dead.

(Part 2: Next Monday)

Footnote:

[1] This was begun after we attended the funeral of a close friend. She was a complete sceptic so in a way this is written partly from her point of view.

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Grave & Courtyard v2

I went to the DeathCafe by car this time. A musician friend of mine had expressed an interest in attending, so he popped into our place for soup, then we drove together to the Courtyard. He seemed as fascinated by death as I am, a rare meeting of minds.

We dropped the car in a side road to save parking expenses. As we walked back to the venue we spotted another frequenter of the Death Cafe, someone previously connected with mental health as I was. We headed together straight for the bar to get our drinks, and amazingly there was yet another member of the group waiting at the bar for her giant sized mocha. As we chatted I noticed the facilitator from the local hospice passing behind us to check out the room. It was going to be another big meeting again.

The man in the hat turned up next. We exchanged greetings. We left him at the bar once we got our drinks and headed to the ground floor meeting room. It was the one we all liked best. It is easily accessible and you don’t get the full blast of the theatre performances coming through the wall.

As always it’s impossible to summarise all the topics we covered in two hours of energised discussion, spiced with humour and laced with sadness.

What I remember most, perhaps understandably, is that I was not the only one to be coming to terms with a body no longer responding energetically to the demands of the mind. There was at least one other person there with the same issue. We kicked that topic around for a while before the focus moved on to other things.

Inevitably, I suppose, we came back at one point to the big question: what happens when we die? Do we circle back through the loop of reincarnation, do we pass on to a journey through the next world, or do we simply black out.

In Gustave Doré’s illustrations for the fourth circle of Dante’s hell, the weights are huge money bags. (For source of image see link.)

Some weren’t sure but worked on a variation of Pascal’s wager. As Wikipedia explains: ‘Pascal argues that a rational person should live as though God exists and seek to believe in God. If God does not actually exist, such a person will have only a finite loss (some pleasures, luxury, etc.), whereas they stand to receive infinite gains (as represented by eternity in Heaven) and avoid infinite losses (eternity in Hell).’ A strong prompt for a pause of thought, even if with me you don’t share a belief in the medieval concept of hell so grimly portrayed in Dante’s Inferno. Some in the group had decided that it was just a happier place to be, to assume that there was a life beyond death, even though they couldn’t prove it.

Others, including my friend and I, were pretty clear we believed there was something after death, and it was a source of comfort and even joy, one of us quoting the words of Bahá’u’lláh in support of this:

O SON OF THE SUPREME!
I have made death a messenger of joy to thee. Wherefore dost thou grieve?

Yes, we would grieve at the loss of a relative or friend, because they were no longer with us, but this pain would be tempered by the knowledge (yes, we used that word) they were in a better place.

At least one person doubted there was anything beyond death while another, who had a strong sense at times of having been here before, has placed her money on coming back again and again.

I didn’t have the chance to share my own thoughts in detail on that one. Though the Bahá’í Faith teaches that we do not come back, there are examples not easily dismissed of evidence that points in the direction of some kind of knowledge of a previous life. I’ve dealt with most of that in detail in previous posts. One thing I’ve recently read in Fontana’s excellent book on the after life suggests that returning spirits say that some people ask to come back and some are sent back. Given the rigour with which he examines evidence, I feel I need to give this idea due weight. It needs an explanation of some kind. The evidence needs taking seriously: though we may explain it in different ways, it should not be ignored.

As part of that discussion, the problem with how to deal with the pain of grief came up. Many of us had noticed that some seem broken by grief and never really recover, while others pick themselves up and, when the intense pain of the first period of grief is over, begin to engage in activities that lead to a more positive life. The idea put forward by Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) was briefly explored: there is pain, which is inescapable, and suffering, which is the avoidable layer that we add to pain by our own take on it.

I couldn’t resist plugging my own panacea for pain and other uncomfortable experiences: reflection. I won’t bang on about it here at any length as I’ve explored it over and over on this blog already, except to say that developing the ability to step back from the contents of our consciousness, whether that be intrusive and negative thoughts or strong feelings of pain, enables us to contain them, rather than repress them or be their victim. Containment allow us to explore them safely and decide how to deal with them constructively.

As we walked back to the car together my friend said, with no prompting from me,’That was great. I really enjoyed it.’

The next meeting of the Hereford Death Cafe is on Wednesday 18th October at 18.00. See you there maybe?

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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Beech hedge

As I noted briefly on this blog, I’ve been reading back through the notes I took from Peter Koestenbaum’s book The New Image of the Person. That reminded me of this poem which I couldn’t resist republishing.

Letter to a dear Friend in Winter

I wanted to see now
Without then between. How
Impossible! Yet hope haunts me.
The colours of regret stain you
And everything. O for the white
Light of outdoors,
Not church colours!
At times, pain forced me into flight
Towards desolate pleasures, through
Bars, packs of shuffling days: each lie
Weakened my hold on any vow.

Now I scribble a lot
Searching for what is not.
The sunrise of autumn hedgerows
Warned me about this mud and stone
Sky. Beech leaves cling like memories –
Dry, brittle, dust-
Coloured. I must
Make sense of what all sense denies.
Cells, nerves, too feeble on their own
To decipher what the snail shows,
Or the corpse whose wheels of mind rot.

Once I held a fledgeling
At point of death – I’d sing
Of death who’d never watched the last
Act’s surrender or victory –
A sigh was all betrayed the change –
No, not sigh – death –
But flight of breath –
Quiet sundering to unhinge
The gate of thought! When our mind’s eye
No longer detects in the vast
Dark the flame to which we cling

What has become of us?
Here is the syllabus.
Where is the teacher and the school?
At this question all our endeavour
Ends. Perhaps it’s better to ask:
‘What if the mind
Fails to find,
On the bleak shore where the dead bask,
The shelter it always yearns for,
Are we to suppose it a fool
As it scours the dark for warm places?’

I’ve no affinity
With God as Trinity
For sure, since my need for answers
Finds finespun theology wide
Of the mark. So, here I stand.
My evidence
Preserved silence
In the question of my still hand,
A small ball whose still feathers hid
Still warm flesh. Nothing reassures.
I felt the infinity

Between fledgling and meat
Silence my every thought . . . .
Until the habit of thinking
Resumed its race to run the truth
To ground. If this opportunity
Beneath the skies,
Though shared with flies
And blind with relativity,
Is not to be wasted like my youth,
From my heart’s earth love must spring
– God knows how I’ll choose to act.

Pete Hulme Text © 1982[1]


[1] This is a poem written in the year I became a Bahá’í and reflects the struggles I was having then which are explored from a different angle in Irreducible Mind (2/3).

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Georgiana Houghton‘s ‘Glory Be to God’ (image scanned from ‘Spirit Drawings’ – the Courtauld Gallery)

Likewise, reflect upon the perfection of man’s creation, and that all these planes and states are folded up and hidden away within him.

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

Then we must labor to destroy the animal condition, till the meaning of humanity shall come to light.

(Bahá’u’lláh in the Seven Valleys – page 34)

The Background

Everyday, soon after I wake, I read passages from the Bahá’í Writings. At present I am fixated on the Seven Valleys, which I have recently read through twice in succession. Over the last few days my focus has narrowed to a short sequence of paragraphs. I’m not entirely sure why, although part of the reason is clearly because an aspect of their message encourages me to hold onto my abiding sense of the limitations of our materialistic worldview in the West.

Bahá’u’lláh, in his letter to a respected Sufi referring to such experiences as dreams that foretold the future, wrote (page 33):

God, the Exalted, hath placed these signs in men, to the end that philosophers may not deny the mysteries of the life beyond nor belittle that which hath been promised them. For some hold to reason and deny whatever the reason comprehendeth not . . . .

By philosophers He means materialistic thinkers such as most scientists.

We live in a time when statements about a transcendent reality are regarded not just with a rational scepticism which is open to evidence, but with an absolute and irrational belief which regards examining the evidence as a complete waste of time.

You might think that evidence of a material kind would be the most compelling.

Certainly Fontana shares that view as he explains in his masterly survey of the evidence in Is There an Afterlife? In his list of reasons why physical mediumship is worth investigating (page 245) he states:

The second reason why physical mediumship remains important is that, unlike mental mediumship, the phenomena which they manifest are purely objective.

However, it seems to attract even more withering dismissal than subtler experiences, possibly because giving it even a nanosecond’s serious consideration would be far too threatening.

Fontana conveys a sense of this kind of default dismissal ending with a measured response to it. For example, after examining the work of Sir William Crookes, one of the 19th century investigators of Daniel Dunglas Home amongst other mediums, he responds to the 20th century critics who dismiss Home out of hand (page 257):

I doubt very much if the critics concerned read the work of . . . . Crookes on the subject in any detail or with any care. If they did so, they could hardly fail to be aware that . . . . Crookes had little need of modern infrared cameras when many of the phenomena were produced in good light, had little cause to wire the medium up to modern electrical circuits and circuit breakers when the phenomena occurred on the opposite side of the room from him, and had little reason to suspect the kind of elaborate modern stage props and hidden accomplices necessary for levitating the medium nearly to ceiling level when these levitations occurred on the home territory of Crookes . . . rather than in Home’s lodgings. . . . .

The best way of demonstrating [trickery’s] existence would be for critics to duplicate the phenomena under the conditions described by Crookes. To my knowledge no attempt has yet been made to do this.

Crookes’ exasperation was only too obvious and understandable as well (page 253):

‘Will not my critics give me credit for the possession of some amount of common sense?’ He also asked reasonably why they could not ‘imagine the obvious precautions, which occur to them as soon as they sit down to pick holes in my experiments, are not unlikely to have also occurred to me in the course of prolonged and patient investigations?’

From a Bahá’í point of view anecdotal examples of possibly miraculous events are not meant to be what determines whether we choose to follow this path or not. That has to be based on a careful investigation of the teachings of the Bahá’í Faith.

The Kinneys

The Boots

However, as I am arguing that materialists should take paradigm-threatening material phenomena more seriously I want to start with one such example from the Bahá’í literature before examining briefly evidence which has been more systematically gathered.

This story is included in a collection of stories about ‘Abdu’l-Bahá in ‘Abdu’l-Bahá in their Midst by Earl Redman (pages 269-270):

It was at the home of the Kinneys that Abdu’l-Baha stayed the second time he came to New York and it was from this home that He left to return to Haifa. The day before He was to take ship to leave He asked Mr. Kinney if there was something amongst His belongings that He might offer as a gift of farewell. At first, Mr. Kinney was reluctant to choose, but finally he admitted that well, might he be given a pair of Abdu’l-Baha’s boots? Those boots that had sheltered the feet that walked with such serene certainty upon the Path of God? Mr. Kinney would cherish these above all else.

So, with smiling love, Abdu’l-Baha gave a pair of His boots to Edward Kinney. Reverently and joyfully, Mr. Kinney laid them in a bureau drawer in his bedroom, carefully wrapped in a nest of tissue paper. Very rarely – since the boots were such an intimate and precious thing, were they shown to anyone though Mr. Kinney touched them frequently as he prayed.

Then one day, he did wish to show them to someone. He went to the bureau, pulled out the drawer – and the boots were gone – completely gone. No sign of them in the tissue paper, no sign of them in any other drawer, no sign of them in any part of the room which was searched carefully. There simply were no boots anywhere.

So Dad Kinney (he became ‘Dad to all the hundreds who loved him) began to pray and he prayed, shaken, from the depths of his troubled soul. Why had the beloved boots been taken from him? Where had they gone? What could have happened? Was he, had he become – unworthy to possess them? And, at last, he knew this was it. He was no longer worthy to hold the precious boots. Then why was he no longer worthy? What had he done between the time when he had last held the boots in his hands and the moment when he had discovered their absence?

It had been, he estimated, some two, possibly three weeks. So in deepest meditation, he went back, day by day, hour by hour, moment by moment over this period. He remembered his actions; he analyzed his motives; he reviewed his thoughts. And suddenly, in a blaze of illumination, he knew what it was. Deeply selfish materialism; clouded hypocritical motives; unjust actions. He had been guilty of all these. But he had deluded himself by calling them such fair and pretty names. No wonder the boots had been taken away. In all justice he had proved himself in no way worthy to hold such treasure. Humbled and ashamed, he prayed abjectly for forgiveness – and then, mournfully, he went to the bureau drawer – just to touch the tissue paper that once had protected the boots. And lo! the boots had returned. They were there, real and tangible; the leather soft beneath his fingertips, the well-worn soles smooth to his touch. They were there, but the warning was never forgotten – the lesson was well learned.

I have no reason to doubt the veracity of this story. On its own this would obviously do little if anything to dent the disbelief of a sceptic, and I can quite understand why.

The Scole Group

However, there are other examples in the paranormal literature where careful constraints have been put in place to ensure that neither fraud nor wishful thinking could possibly play a part in the observed effects – at least as far as it is humanly possibly to eliminate such flaws. My hope is that before dismissing the paranormal as a figment of gullible imaginations, sceptics would take the time carefully to examine the evidence adduced in such books as Fontana’s on the afterlife and Leslie Kean’s on Surviving Death, before leaping gungho to their materialistic conclusions.

Take this example from Fontana where, as he gives an account of his own rigourously conducted investigations of the Scole Group phenomena, he highlights the newspaper apport as of particular significance (pages 335-336):

Other materialisations took the form of apports, though I was only present on one occasion when an apport arrived. Emily Bradshaw had jokingly bet Montague Keen half a crown (an old coin no longer used) over some factual matter on which they have disagreed, and when she was proved wrong (much to Montague’s triumphant amusement) we heard something clatter onto the floor. After the séance was over Montague found it was the promised half crown. The Scole Group had a wide range of even more impressive objects that had apparently arrived during their own private séances (which they continued to hold throughout the two years of our investigation). One of the most notable of these was a copy of the Daily Mail newspaper of April 1, 1944 containing an account of the celebrated trial of medium Helen Duncan. The newspaper was in pristine condition, the paper on which it was printed was as white as if it had been printed only that day. Our supposition was that it might be a modern facsimile edition of the kind that can be bought from some newspaper publishers. However, analysis of the paper and the newsprint by the prestigious Print Industry Research Association (PRIA), carried out at the request of Montague Keen and handled by him throughout, revealed that this supposition was incorrect. The PRIA confirmed that far from being modern, the newspaper was in fact printed by the old-fashioned letterpress method in use in 1944, and that the paper on which it was printed dated from the same era. The PRIA expressed itself baffled by the newspaper’s perfect condition. Dating from 1944, it should have shown the ageing and yellowing inevitable in a newspaper of that age. Unless an explanation can be found, the newspaper may therefore be what is known by psychical researchers as a PPO (a Permanent Paranormal Object – an object apparently produced or modified paranormally that remains with us as a subject for study), and thus represents one of the Holy Grail of psychical research.

Why does it matter?

Well, in my view, for the reasons I explained at some length to a young and deeply thoughtful Colombian student on a crowded train back to Hereford the other day. We sat in a four-seater stall animatedly talking diagonally across the other two occupants who had perhaps sensibly decided to leave us to it.

‘If we are to address the massive challenges facing us in our increasingly global so-called civilisation,’ I suggested, ‘we need a meaning system that will motivate us to work with unremitting determination over many decades, centuries even, in the face of innumerable obstacles, if we are to resolve them.’

Interestingly, the student did not accept the label ‘humanist’ to describe his more sceptical position. He admitted he had been attracted to that approach, but now felt it placed us too much at the centre stage. Some better way of describing his perspective was needed but he didn’t have one.

As I have argued elsewhere on this blog, simply believing we matter, or our children matter, or even the planet matters, may not be enough. We need to feel empowered by something beyond material means, in my view. A sense of a spiritual dimension is not only necessary if we are to care enough about others because of a sense of interconnectedness, but is also crucial if we are to feel ourselves capable of doing anything remotely effective over such testing spans of time.

A deep sense of our interconnectedness would make it harder for anyone to harm another living being or the planet upon which our lives depend. By harming others we would know we are also harming ourselves. A sense that there are powers greater than ourselves ready to aid us as we strive to heal this breaking world would lift us to higher levels of sustained effort.

I pulled Fontana’s book out of my bag and showed it him and said, ‘People need to look carefully at this evidence before deciding they don’t accept it. It matters. Without the soul and its transcendent connections, evidence supporting which he investigates thoroughly, we will never lift ourselves to the necessary level of activity for the required amount of time.’

He scanned the covers of the book briefly.

‘So, does he believe there is an afterlife?’ he asked, handing it back to me.

‘He doesn’t feel the paranormal evidence can absolutely prove it, but he does believe that on balance it is the more likely possibility.’

At that point the loud speaker announced the train was arriving at my station and I said goodbye as I scrambled my things together.

Just as so often with this blog, I’ll never know how far my words shifted his thinking, if at all.

I didn’t have time to read him Fontana’s closing words before I got off the train of thought (page 469):

Ultimately our acceptance of the reality of survival may not come solely from the evidence but from our personal experience and from some inner, intuitive certainty about our real nature. We are who we are, and at some deep level within ourselves we may be the answer to our own questions.  If your answer is that you are more than a biological accident whose ultimately meaningless life is bounded by the cradle and the grave, then I have to say I agree with you.

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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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A passion to cage the invisible by visible methods continues to motivate the science of psychology, even though that science has given up the century-long search for the soul in various body parts and systems.

(James Hillman – The Soul’s Code: in search of character & calling – page 92)

In the last post I looked at some of the ways in which the arrogance of our convictions creates problems for us all, a theme triggered by excellent books on the afterlife by Fontana and Kean, who both emphasise the way our culture dismisses compelling evidence that supports the idea of the transcendent.

Basically, human beings are prone to asserting their unexamined convictions in the face of contradictory evidence.

One important reason for this has been labelled confirmation biasShahram Heshmat, in a Psychology Today article, explains:

[This] occurs from the direct influence of desire on beliefs. When people would like a certain idea/concept to be true, they end up believing it to be true. They are motivated by wishful thinking. This error leads the individual to stop gathering information when the evidence gathered so far confirms the views (prejudices) one would like to be true.

Once we have formed a view, we embrace information that confirms that view while ignoring, or rejecting, information that casts doubt on it. Confirmation bias suggests that we don’t perceive circumstances objectively. We pick out those bits of data that make us feel good because they confirm our prejudices. Thus, we may become prisoners of our assumptions.

This tendency is not much of a problem when the belief in question does no harm. When beliefs do damage, this tendency is fundamentally unacceptable, especially if the beliefs spread, as they often do, and when our sense of self is deeply invested in them.

What do I mean by that exactly?

To answer that question, at least in part, let’s come back to the issue of the afterlife.

Fontana writes (page 94):

Just as once the multitudes were persuaded by the priesthood they had no right to approach the divine except through the intermediation of the church, so the multitudes are now persuaded by the materialistic creed of our times that they have no right to approach mental life except through the intermediation of those who put their faith in prescription drugs and brain scans.

Those who have invested their credulity in scientism plainly do not see that they are operating just like a Holocaust denier. Denial and arrogant ignorance is toxic enough when applied to the facts of history, and could potentially create the conditions for a repetition of the same abusive genocide. Denial of our spiritual dimension allied to a denigration of our more extraordinary experiences is not just potentially destructive, it is actually damaging huge numbers of people already, as previous posts on this blog have explored.

One short quote from James Davies’s book Cracked in support of this contention will have to suffice here. He is addressing the issue of our exportation of our psychiatric model to the rest of the world. In the chapter dealing with the export issue he first summarises his case up to that point (page 258 – square brackets pull in additional points he has made elsewhere):

Western psychiatry has just too many fissures in the system to warrant its wholesale exportation, not just because psychiatric diagnostic manuals are more products of culture than science (chapter 2) [and have labelled as disorders many normal responses to experience], or because the efficacy of our drugs is far from encouraging (Chapter 4), or because behind Western psychiatry lie a variety of cultural assumptions about human nature and the role of suffering of often questionable validity and utility (Chapter 9), or because pharmaceutical marketing can’t be relied on to report the facts unadulterated and unadorned [and its influence has helped consolidate the stranglehold of diagnosis and a simplistic psychiatric approach] (Chapter 10), or finally because our exported practices may undermine successful local ways of managing distress. If there is any conclusion to which the chapters of this book should point, it is that we must think twice before confidently imparting to unsuspecting people around the globe our particular brand of biological psychiatry, our wholly negative views of suffering, our medicalisation of everyday life, and our fearfulness of any emotion that may bring us down.

Not an entirely healthy approach to human experience then. Hillman defines the problem neatly (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 itself into our psychic system in distorted form. This suggests that some psychic dysfunctions would be better located in the dysfunctional world view by which they are judged.

So, the widespread self-serving disparagement of the evidence in favour of an afterlife is just one troubling symptom of a prevalent materialistic disease.

It does not have to be so. There is a remedy and it is a matter of urgency that enough of us come to recognise that.

For a start, an important principle of my faith asserts that religion and science are in harmony, something I have  explored at length on this blog in the work of Alvin Plantinga and am republishing currently.

The third principle or teaching of Bahá’u’lláh is the oneness of religion and science. Any religious belief which is not conformable with scientific proof and investigation is superstition, for true science is reason and reality, and religion is essentially reality and pure reason; therefore, the two must correspond. Religious teaching which is at variance with science and reason is human invention and imagination unworthy of acceptance, for the antithesis and opposite of knowledge is superstition born of the ignorance of man. If we say religion is opposed to science, we lack knowledge of either true science or true religion, for both are founded upon the premises and conclusions of reason, and both must bear its test

(Promulgation of Universal Peace – page 106)

Moreover, in the Bahá’í view the existence of the spiritual dimension is supported by evidence, though such a proposition is not one that is widely accepted.

If you should ask a thousand persons, ‘What are the proofs of the reality of Divinity?’ perhaps not one would be able to answer. If you should ask further, ‘What proofs have you regarding the essence of God?’ ‘How do you explain inspiration and revelation?’ ‘What are the evidences of conscious intelligence beyond the material universe?’ ‘Can you suggest a plan and method for the betterment of human moralities?’ ‘Can you clearly define and differentiate the world of nature and the world of Divinity?’ — you would receive very little real knowledge and enlightenment upon these questions….

The intellectual proofs of Divinity are based upon observation and evidence which constitute decisive argument, logically proving the reality of Divinity, the effulgence of mercy, the certainty of inspiration and immortality of the spirit. This is, in reality, the science of Divinity

(Promulgation of Universal Peace – page 326)

Stewart in his home studio: for source of image see link.

The two books under consideration here provide a plethora of hard evidence for the reality of some kind of transcendent dimension. Kean’s account of her direct experience of  Stewart Alexander’s mediumship is just one of many such pieces of evidence (pages 321-344). It contains much that would trigger the incredulity of a convinced and dogmatic sceptic, including physical manifestations: however the conditions under which these phenomena occurred make it hard, perhaps virtually impossible to dismiss them out of hand.

She quotes Fontana in their defence (page 326):

Despite his distaste for travel, Stewart has held séances in Scotland and Wales, as well as Sweden, Switzerland, Germany, and Spain. He has sat for sceptics, researchers, and parapsychological organisations. For these public sittings, he was often bodily searched, and his chair and every aspect of the various rooms were thoroughly searched. ‘Apart from the very few and unconvincing accusations made against him by ill-informed individuals,’ David Fontana wrote in 2010, ‘Stewart’s long career has been free from attempts to cast doubt on the genuine nature of the phenomena associated with his mediumship.’

In fact, the evidence in favour of this transcendent reality has often been more rigorously generated and seems more convincing, in my view, than that which recommends our ingestion of chemicals with a multitude of unpleasant effects in addition to their dubious benefits.

Kean’s words towards the end of her book seem a good place to stop (page 360):

No matter where the force that produces these extraordinary phenomena comes from, any intellectually honest person who studies the literature and engages directly with authentic, skilled mediums cannot deny that psi is real. . . . . I’m not a scientist, but I would think that if consciousness is nonlocal and there are nonphysical realms, these would naturally exist outside the confines of the material world and would therefore not be subject to the laws of physics. My only request of those who deny any of this is possible is to simply look at the evidence with an open mind.

Where the afterlife is concerned, there would be no better place to start such an investigation than these two books. There are of course other issues to explore. For the deficiencies of psychiatry James Davies and Richard Bentall are to be highly recommended: in terms of our econocracy Earle et al’s book is a good one.

Whatever area we want to explore we need to ‘look [and look hard] at the evidence with an open mind’ if we are not simply to be dupes of our prevailing materialistic, consumer oriented, economic-growth-is-good mythology.

Oh, and I’ll be looking at mythology again in the next post or two.

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