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Posts Tagged ‘afterlife’

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

(James Hillman – The Soul’s Code: in search of character & calling – page 110)

Sharon Rawlette put me on to Leslie Kean’s brilliant and rigorous exploration of the evidence for an afterlife, Surviving Death. It was a compelling and inspiring read that triggered me to go back and re-read a book – David Fontana’s Is There an Afterlife? – which I had read long before I started blogging and from which I took no systematic notes.

As I went back over Fontana’s book I slowly became aware that there was a key issue I needed to explore that is flagged up strongly in both books. I decided that this took precedence for me at this point over their impressive research, because the feeling came through strongly from both writers that no matter how compelling the evidence and no matter how rigorous their presentation of it, there would be obdurate resistance to even considering it let alone accepting it. As I will examine later in this post such denial of legitimate evidence is far from uncommon in our supposedly scientific culture, and is not confined to matters of the spirit.

A key passage from Fontana reads (page 94):

We can go further and say that not only is the dogmatic approach by materialistic science to the mysteries of the human mind misleading it reveals a disturbing ignorance. Ignorance is not so much the act of not knowing something, it is the act of not knowing something but claiming to know. . . . . . Lacking any personal acquaintance with inner spiritual or psychic experiences, the materialistic scientist ‘knows’ that those who have such experiences are wrong in their interpretation of them, while he or she is of course right.

This insight follows immediately after his account of the life and death of Socrates and the conclusions he draws from that (page 93):

How interesting that nearly two and a half thousand years ago Socrates was giving very much the same explanation of mediumistic gifts and their inhibition by the conscious mind that we might give today. This brings home to us an essential but often forgotten truth, namely that the knowledge of the spiritual dimension possessed by the ancients has hardly been bettered. The myth of eternal progress in human understanding, which lies behind so much of our delusory intellectual arrogance in modern times, can clearly be seen at least in spiritual matters for what it is, a myth.

In his view we have sold ‘the birthright of our innate spiritual wisdom for the mess of potage of material progress.’

The arrogance of our ignorance goes back a long way and across more than one dimension of human experience.

Take for example John Fitzgerald Medina’s exploration of the misguided attitude of the European settlers to the native American mode of agriculture in his book Faith, Physics & Psychology.

The sophistication of the Native American model lay not just in politics (pages 199-200):

Contrary to the American colonists’ misinformed judgements, much evidence now exists to show that the American Indians were in fact, quite adept at cultivating a large variety of plants in a diversity of climates, soils, and environmental conditions. They utilised the Earths resources wisely, gently, and reverently.

This system may be at least equal if not superior to our environmentally disastrous monoculture (pages 201-02):

Unlike the Europeans, who planted row after row of the same plants, the Indians throughout North and Central America cultivated small plots of land that often looked like wild, haphazard gardens. . . . Scientific studies have shown that such Indian-style plots, call milpas in Mexico, are resilient to pests and weeds and protect the topsoil from erosion. . . . . .

Modern agronomists marvel at the simplicity and productivity of Indian-style agricultural plots, and some are actively studying it as an alternative to the European style, monocultural plantation form of farming, which leads to widespread soil erosion and degradation of topsoil due to the massive use of chemical pesticides, herbicides, and fertilisers.

Nonetheless, in the arrogance of our ignorance we dispossessed the native Americans of their land in the mistaken conviction that we knew better and they just didn’t know how to grow crops properly, justifying our actions by a distortion of scripture.

The irrigation system in ancient India was similarly disparaged with drastic consequences. Fred Pearce explains in his 2006 book, When the Rivers Run Dry (pages 301-02):

Until the early nineteenth century, much of India was irrigated from shallow mud-walled reservoirs in valley bottoms that captured the monsoon rains in summer. The Indians called them tanka, a word the English adopted into their own language as tanks.

Most of the tanks were quite small, covering a hectare at most, and irrigating perhaps twenty hectares. Farmers scooped the water from the tanks, diverted it down channels onto fields, or left it to sink into the soil and refill their wells. . . . Farmers guarded the slimy nutrient-rich mud in their tanks almost as much as the water. They dug it out to put onto their land, and turned silted-up former tanks into new farmland.

. . . The system thrived until the British took charge in India. . . . The British water engineers largely ignored the village tanks, apparently not realising that they were how India fed itself. . . . As the British and later the Indian government itself promoted more modern water gathering technologies, they gradually fell into disuse, but today, as the formal irrigation systems established on the Western model fail across the country, and as farmers are having to pump from ever greater depths to retrieve underground water, the old tanks are starting to be restored.

Before we get too smug about it, we need to realise that this kind of blindness is as prevalent as ever.

Sometimes it’s entirely wilful as with Holocaust denial, where the evidence is unquestionable and easily accessed. Sometimes it’s partly motivated by self-interest or an ostrich approach where keeping our head in the sand seems less of a problem than facing up to reality, but also the sheer complexity of an issue such a climate change can make denial seem rational in the face of such demanding data. I’ve dealt with the complexity issue elsewhere on this blog so won’t rehearse it all here.

My long-standing personal commitment to investigating issues for myself and checking out the evidence carefully has been further reinforced by the faith I have chosen to follow. Bahá’í Scripture is unequivocal on this issue. We must investigate for ourselves if truth and justice are to be well served (see link for a fuller exploration of this theme).

At the individual level justice is that faculty of the human soul that enables each person to distinguish truth from falsehood. In the sight of God, Bahá’u’lláh avers, Justice is ‘the best beloved of all things[1]’ since it permits each individual to see with his own eyes rather than the eyes of others, to know through his own knowledge rather than the knowledge of his neighbour or group.

(Prosperity of Humankind – Section II)

There is no get-out clause:

If, in the Day when all the peoples of the earth will be gathered together, any man should, whilst standing in the presence of God, be asked: ‘Wherefore hast thou disbelieved in My beauty and turned away from My Self?’ and if such a man should reply and say: ‘Inasmuch as all men have erred, and none hath been found willing to turn his face to the Truth, I, too, following their example, have grievously failed to recognize the Beauty of the Eternal,’ such a plea will, assuredly, be rejected.

(Gleanings from the Writings of Bahá’u’lláh – LXXV)

I won’t labour the point any further. In the next post I’ll move onto to considering further implications.

Footnote:

[1] Hidden Words of Bahá’u’lláh, Arabic No: 2.

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A couple of weeks back I spotted Sharon Rawlette’s review of Kean’s book. I’d already benefited from her alerts. She flagged up a book last year on her blog – Immortal Remains by Stephen Braude – which I bought and then devoured with great interest. Surviving Death seemed at least as intriguing. I’m halfway through and I have to say that for me Sharon’s high estimate of the text is spot on. For example, I hadn’t appreciated at all before that there are organisations that vet mediums to ensure the public are protected from frauds and that there are ways to access these mediums that make fraud almost impossible. The accounts of Kean’s own consultations with two such people (Chapters 12 & 13) illustrate clearly how this process works and how it powerfully suggests that, whether you accept that this is a genuine communication from a still living spirit or believe that it is some form of super-psi, something is going on that is far beyond the ability of a purely materialistic science to explain. Below is a short extract from Sharon’s review: for the full post click link – it’s well worth a look.

I almost didn’t buy Leslie Kean‘s new book Surviving Deathbecause I was worried it was nothing more than an overview of the afterlife evidence I’m already quite familiar with. But while there was certainly some description of the seminal case studies, there was also so much new material that it was absolutely worth the money I paid for a hardback copy. And Kean brings to it a subtlety of analysis that is often missing from other journalistic work in this area.

Kean’s book is divided into four parts. The first focuses on children’s past-life memories, with an in-depth look at two of the best documented American cases: those of James Leininger and Ryan Hammons. The second part of the book focuses on near-death, actual-death, and end-of-life experiences, with a very short chapter on children’s memories of life “between lives.” (This last was something I felt was missing from Stephen Braude’s otherwise very thorough book Immortal Remains.) The third part is devoted to ostensible communications from the dead, whether they come through a medium, odd coincidences, or apparitions. And finally the fourth part of the book takes the idea of mediumistic communication to a whole new level, exploring the evidence for what’s called “physical mediumship,” when the spirits of the dead seem to affect the material world in extraordinary ways, including by materializing objects and apparently living things.

Rather than summarize each of these sections in turn, I’m going to go straight to the material I found most fascinating. Kean reminds the reader throughout the book that it is very difficult to be certain whether any particular paranormal phenomenon is actually produced by discarnate spirits and not simply by the psychic abilities of living persons, who may have a very strong interest in manifesting “evidence” of their loved ones’ continued existence. I appreciated this philosophical rigor, and I was particularly interested by the cases in her book that seemed to weigh in favor of actual discarnate spirits.

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After yesterday’s post about the latest Death Cafe meeting this seemed a good poem to follow up with. 

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Dreamproof (2/2)

Part 2 (Part 1 came out on Monday)

George H 3

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

I’m republishing this short story in two parts to commemorate the death of a good friend two years ago – the event that inspired it. She was a sceptic about the afterlife!

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)

Orloj Prague

I’m republishing this short story in two parts to commemorate the death of a good friend two years ago – the event that inspired it. She was a sceptic about the afterlife!

Dorothy[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: Thursday)

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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Pam reynold's surgeryIs it just a question of faith?

I ended the previous post with a question: why should the existence or not of an afterlife matter to you if you don’t believe it, even if it matters to me who does. Why on earth should you consider believing what I believe?

Let’s see if we can make some progress on that one.

Some people believe there is an afterlife and I am now one of them, though it was one of the more difficult things I had to accept when I investigated the spiritual life. After all why should beings so imperfect have an immortal soul? We hardly seemed entitled to such a privilege. To be honest, as a former atheist, I found it easier to believe in God than in an immortal soul.

The Bahá’í Faith is clear on the issue:

The soul is not a combination of elements, it is not composed of many atoms, it is of one indivisible substance and therefore eternal. It is entirely out of the order of the physical creation; it is immortal!

(‘Abdu’l-Bahá: Paris Talks: pages 90-91)

It is also clear that how we live now will affect the kind of afterlife we have. This is to do with how well we have fed our souls. When our spirit goes from the narrow womb of this world to the vast expanses of the next we will need all our spiritual faculties in the best possible order if we are to cope.

And just as, if human life in the womb were limited to that uterine world, existence there would be nonsensical, irrelevant — so too if the life of this world, the deeds here done and their fruitage, did not come forth in the world beyond, the whole process would be irrational and foolish.

(Selections from the Writings of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá: No. 156)

I needed help with coming to terms with this improbable hypothesis and found it hard to take it simply on trust, though I did try.

I’m going to be basing a strong case to support the idea that beliefs in transcendence and the afterlife are the strongest possible motivators to building a better world. There is a problem with that though as an argument to defeat people who are sceptical. They could concede the point while still saying that there is no afterlife. There are many examples we could draw on to support the view that mistaken beliefs can be very motivating indeed. People have died and been killed for them – in fact are still dying and being killed. If the only difference is that one person’s belief wreaks havoc while the other one’s creed enhances life, we haven’t moved all that far in terms of truth value: just because a belief seems benign doesn’t make it true.

So if this pragmatic argument were the best one going in support of transcendence and the existence of an afterlife, we’d have to say that the case was at least one wing short of a complete aeroplane! Even high levels of positive usefulness, after all, do not prove truth.

So, before we move in more deeply to the implications for our society of a belief or lack of it in transcendence and the afterlife, it seems a good idea to tackle the evidence issue from another angle.

Black swan bookA Black Swan: the Case of Pam Reynolds

Is there really no evidence for an afterlife and/or the value of transcendence other than indirect and inconclusive notions of how it is better for our society if you believe it than if you don’t?

I think there is. We need to start with the black swan problem.

Taleb has used this as the title for his extremely relevant guide to the inevitability of the market crashes which continue to astonish us despite all the evidence confirming their eventual recurrence, but that is not the point for now.

It’s to Karl Popper that we need to turn. He originated the term in a discussion about falsifiability. If you assert that all swans are white, you cannot prove it even by discovering an extremely long sequence of white swans. You can though falsify it. One black swan will sink the theory.

The same can be said of mind/brain independence. I accept that a near death experience (NDE) which happens to involve the mind apparently functioning without any support at all from the brain does not absolutely prove there is life after death, but it is a necessary if not sufficient condition for maintaining that belief. I believe that this necessary condition has possibly been fulfilled at least once under completely controlled conditions. I think it may constitute a black swan for those that say an afterlife can be ruled out as completely impossible.

What is this black swan?

In Atlanta Georgia, the case of Pam Reynolds was investigated in the 1990s by Dr Michael Sabom (page 184 passim). His account is incorporated into a wider discussion of NDEs by David Fontana, a professor of psychology, in his book “Is There an Afterlife?”. Sabom states, and the surgical team corroborates it, that Pam was fully instrumented, under constant medical observation and completely unconscious as indicated for part of the time by the flatline EEG (a measure of brain activity: flatline would mean no brain activity at all that would support consciousness). It was as close to a controlled experiment as we are ever likely to get, he said on a television documentary on NDEs some time later. The surgical procedure she needed required a complete shut down of brain and heart activity in order safely to operate on an aneurysm at the base of the brain.

None the less, after being anaesthetised for 90 minutes but not as the video suggested when she was flatlined, she accurately observed aspects of the surgical procedure which were either a departure from what would have been the standard order of events or had unusual features, such as the bizarre appearance of the “saw” used, of which she could have had no prior knowledge. The surgeon in the case, and others who commented such as Peter Fenwick, felt that the usual methods of registering visual perceptions and memories in the brain would certainly have been  unavailable to her and could offer no explanation of how she could have subsequently had access to the experiences she described.

There is a huge literature on NDEs which many people with a materialist perspective refuse to inspect on the grounds that no amount of evidence can prove the impossible. This is scientism, not science, and I would urge everyone, no matter how sceptical, to investigate this thoroughly for themselves. The arguments parroted by so many that NDEs are the results of material causes such as anoxia or drugs just don’t stand up in this case (or in many others, according to Peter Fenwick).

What is of additional interest here is that the investigations of Ken Ring plainly indicate that NDEs are life transforming. His list of the changes they induce includes: appreciation for life, concern for others, reverence for life, antimaterialism, anticompetitiveness, spirituality, sense of purpose, and belief in God (pages 125-127). These are all things that we will hopefully come back to in more detail in the lifetime of this blog (though for some people it may already seem to have gone on far too long).

That list of Ring’s is a very significant one that paves the way for the next more pragmatic approach to the issue of why it should matter to everyone, why everyone needs to investigate carefully before they jump to the conclusion that an afterlife is impossible. A sense of the transcendent allied to a belief in life after death does seem to create a different more life- and community-enhancing pattern of behaviour in the individual who possesses them.

Time for a break, I think: more on that next time.

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