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Posts Tagged ‘David Fontana’

The previous post looked at the Grof’s account of Karen’s experience of a spiritual emergency and how it was dealt with. Now we need to look at some of the implications as well as other aspects of their approach.

The Context

I want to open this section with that part of Bahá’u’lláh’s Seven Valleys that has formed the focus of my morning meditations for the last few weeks. I have persisted so long in the hope that I will eventually understand it more fully. I believe that Shoghi Effendi, the great-grandson of Bahá’u’lláh and the one whom ‘Abdu’l-Bahá appointed as His successor, was of the opinion that one needed to read at least ten books by writers who were not Bahá’ís in order to have any hope of understanding a Bahá’í text fully. I may have conveniently chosen to believe that factoid in order to justify my own bookaholic tendencies.

Setting that aside for now, what matters at the moment are the resonances between the words of Bahá’u’lláh and the topic I am exploring more deeply here.

I have touched on how materialistic assumptions about reality will dismiss as rubbish or even pathologise phenomena their paradigm excludes from possibility.

Bahá’u’lláh directly addresses this point (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, and yet weak minds can never grasp the matters which we have related, but only the Supreme, Divine Intelligence can comprehend them:

How can feeble reason encompass the Qur’án,
Or the spider snare a phoenix in his web?

Our deification of reason has stripped the world we believe in of God and made it difficult, even impossible, in some cases for some people, to entertain the possibility that God in some form does exist, though that would not be as some white-bearded chariot-riding figure in the sky.

This is the Grofs take on this issue (page 247):

A system of thinking that deliberately discards everything that cannot be weighed and measured does not leave any opening for the recognition of creative cosmic intelligence, spiritual realities, or such entities as transpersonal experiences or the collective unconscious. . . . . . While they are clearly incompatible with traditional Newtonian-Cartesian thinking, they are actually in basic resonance with the revolutionary developments in various disciplines of modern science that are often referred to as the new paradigm.

This world-view seriously demeans us (page 248):

Human beings are described as material objects with Newtonian properties, more specifically as highly developed animals and thinking biological machines. . .

We have taken this model or simulation as the truth (ibid.):

In addition, the above description of the nature of reality and of human beings has in the past been generally seen not for what it is – a useful model organising the observations and knowledge available at a certain time in the history of science – but as a definitive and accurate description of reality itself. From a logical point of view, this would be considered a serious confusion of the ‘map’ with the ‘territory.’

This reductionist dogmatism has serious implications for psychosis (page 249):

Since the concept of objective reality and accurate reality testing are the key factors in determining whether the individual is mentally healthy, the scientific understanding of the nature of reality is absolutely critical in this regard. Therefore, any fundamental change in the scientific world-view has to have far-reaching consequences for the definition of psychosis.

A Holographic Approach

They contend that the paradigm is shifting (ibid.:)

. . . The physical universe has come to be viewed as a unified web of paradoxical, statistically determined events in which consciousness and creative intelligence play a critical role. . . This approach has become known as holographic because some of its remarkable features can be demonstrated with use of optical holograms as conceptual tools.

Their explanation of the holographic model is clear and straightforward (page 250):

The information in holographic systems is distributed in such a way that all of it is contained and available in each of its parts. . . .

It’s implications are profound:

If the individual and the brain are not isolated entities but integral parts of a universe with holographic properties – if they are in some way microcosms of a much larger system – then it is conceivable that they can have direct and immediate access to information outside themselves.

This resonates with what Bahá’u’lláh writes in the same section of the Seven Valleys:

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.

It is crucial for us all as well as for those labelled psychotic that we cease to reduce the mind to a machine. The Grofs spell out the implications for psychosis when we refuse to take the more transcendent perspective (page 252):

The discoveries of the last few decades strongly suggest that the psyche is not limited to postnatal biography and to the Freudian individual unconscious and confirm the perennial truth, found in many mystical traditions, that human beings might be commensurate with all there is. Transpersonal experiences and their extraordinary potential certainly attest to this fact.

. . . In traditional psychiatry, all holotropic experiences have been interpreted as pathological phenomena, in spite of the fact that the alleged disease process has never been identified; this reflects the fact that the old paradigm did not have an adequate explanation for these experiences and was not able to account for them in any other way.

Assuming that we do accept that possibility of a spiritual reality, what follows? They spell it out:

. . . . two important and frequently asked questions are how one can diagnose spiritual emergency and how it is possible to differentiate transformational crises from spiritual emergence and from mental illness.

This is only possible up to a point (page 253):

The psychological symptoms of… organic psychoses are clearly distinguishable from functional psychoses by means of psychiatric examination and psychological tests.

. . . . When the appropriate examinations and tests have excluded the possibility that the problem we are dealing with is organic in nature, the next task is to find out whether the client fits into the category of spiritual emergency – in other words, differentiate this state from functional psychoses. There is no way of establishing absolutely clear criteria for differentiation between spiritual emergency and psychosis or mental disease, since such terms themselves lack objective scientific validity. One should not confuse categories of this kind with such precisely defined disease entities as diabetes mellitus or pernicious anaemia. Functional psychoses are not diseases in a strictly medical sense and cannot be identified with the degree of accuracy that is required in medicine when establishing a differential diagnosis.

What they say next blends nicely with the points made in my recent posts about where the dubious basis of diagnosis takes us (page 256):

Since traditional psychiatry makes no distinction between psychotic reactions and mystical states, not the only crises of spiritual opening but also uncomplicated transpersonal experiences often receive a pathological label.

This has paved the way to dealing with their approach to intervention and their criteria for distinguishing spiritual emergencies that can be helped from other states.

Holotropic Breathwork

Before we look briefly at their attempt to create criteria by which we might distinguish spiritual from purely functional phenomena I want to look at their recommended method for helping people work through inner crises. This method applies what the non-organic origin. This technique they call Holotropic Breathwork.

First they define what they mean by holotropic (page 258):

We use the term holotropic in two different ways – the therapeutic technique we have developed and for the mode of consciousness it induces. The use of the word holotropic in relation to therapy suggests that the goal is to overcome inner fragmentation as well as the sense of separation between the individual and the environment. The relationship between wholeness and healing is reflected in the English language, since both words have the same root.

They then look at its components and their effects (page 259):

The reaction to [a] combination of accelerated reading, music, and introspective focus of attention varies from person to person. After a period of about fifteen minutes to half an hour, most of the participants show strong active response. Some experience a buildup of intense emotions, such as sadness, joy, anger, fear, or sexual arousal.

They feel that this approach unlocks blocks between our awareness and the contents of the unconscious:

. . . .  It seems that the nonordinary state of consciousness induced by holotropic breathing is associated with biochemical changes in the brain that make it possible for the contents of the unconscious to surface, to be consciously experienced, and – if necessary – to be physically expressed. In our bodies and in our psyches we carry imprints of various traumatic events that we have not fully digested and assimilated psychologically. Holographic breathing makes them available, so that we can fully experience them and release the emotions that are associated with them.

As Fontana makes clear in his book Is there an Afterlife?, experience is the most compelling way to confirm the validity of a paradigm of reality, so my experience of continuous conscious breathing in the 70s and 80s gives me a strong sense that what the Grofs are saying about Holotropic Breathwork had validity. My experience in the mid-70s confirms the dramatic power of some of the possible effects: my experience in the mid-80s confirms their sense that the body stores memories to which breathwork can give access. I will not repeat these accounts in full as I have explored them elsewhere. I’ve consigned brief accounts to the footnotes.[1]

They go on to explain the possible advantages of Holotropic Breathwork over alternative therapies (pages 261-263):

The technique of Holotropic Breathwork is extremely simple in comparison with traditional forms of verbal psychotherapy, which emphasise the therapist’s understanding of the process, correct and properly timed interpretations, and work with transference . . . . It has a much less technical emphasis than many of the new experiential methods, such as Gestalt therapy, Rolfing, and bioenergetics. . . . . .

In the holotropic model, the client is seen as the real source of healing and is encouraged to realise that and to develop a sense of mastery and independence.

. . . . . In a certain sense, he or she is ultimately the only real expert because of his or her immediate access to the experiential process that provides all the clues.

Distinguishing Criteria

Below is the table they devised to differentiate between the two categories of spiritual emergence and what they term psychiatric disorder. They explain the purpose of the criteria (page 253):

The task of deciding whether we are dealing with a spiritual emergency in a particular case means in practical terms that we must assess whether the client could benefit from the strategies described in this book or should be treated in traditional ways. This is their table of criteria.

They are certainly not claiming that they have an unerring way of distinguishing between these states, nor that some of those who are placed in the ‘psychiatric’ have no aspects of spiritual emergency in the phenomena they are experiencing. Readers will also know by now that I am a strong advocate of more enlightened ways of managing any such problems than those which are implied in the term ‘traditional.’

Coda

This last post turned out to  be much longer than I planned. I hope it conveys my sense of the value of their approach and of the validity of their concept of a spiritual emergency.

My feeling that their approach is a good one derives largely from my own dramatic experience of what was an almost identical method involving breathwork. In a previous sequence I have dealt with the way the breakthrough I experienced in the 70s had lasting beneficial effects on my my life, first of all in terms of opening my mind so I was able to take advantage of other therapeutic interventions. Perhaps most importantly though in the first instance was the way that the first breakthrough loosened the grip of my previous pattern of anaesthetising myself against earlier grief and pain mostly by cigarettes, gambling and heavy social drinking, so that I could realise that I needed to undertake more mindwork.

I also find it reinforcing of my trust in the basic validity of their perspective that it has led them to draw much the same conclusions as I have about the dangers of materialism and its negative impact upon the way we deal with mental health problems

It doesn’t end my quest though for more evidence to support my sense that psychosis can and often does have a spiritual dimension. Hopefully you will be hearing more on this.

Footnote:

[1] Rebirthing provided the experience that gave me my last major break-through in self-understanding by means of some form of psychotherapy. I heard first about it from a talk I attended on the subject at an alternative therapies fair in Malvern in early 1985. I then bought a book on the subject. The key was breathing:

Jim Leonard saw what the key elements were and refined them into the five elements theory.

The five elements are (1) breathing mechanics, (2) awareness in detail, (3) intentional relaxation, (4) embracing whatever arises, and (5) trusting intuition.  These elements have been defined a little differently in several versions, but are similar in meaning.  Jim Leonard found that if a person persists in the breathing mechanics, then he or she eventually integrates the suppressed emotion.

It was as though what is known as body scanning were linked to a continuous conscious breathing form of meditation. All the subsequent steps (2-5) took place in the context of the breathing.

After three hours I was trembling all over. I was resisting letting go and ‘embracing’ the experience. When I eventually did the quaking literally dissolved in an instant into a dazzling warmth that pervaded my whole body. I knew that I was in the hospital as a child of four, my parents nowhere to be seen, being held down by several adults and chloroformed for the second time in my short life, unable to prevent it – terrified and furious at the same time. I had always known that something like it happened. What was new was that I had vividly re-experienced the critical moment itself, the few seconds before I went unconscious. I remembered also what I had never got close to before, my feelings at the time, and even more than that I knew exactly what I had thought at the time as well.

I knew instantly that I had lost my faith in Christ, and therefore God – where was He right then? Nowhere. And they’d told me He would always look after me. I lost my faith in my family, especially my parents. Where were they? Nowhere to be seen. I obviously couldn’t rely on them. Then like a blaze of light from behind a cloud came the idea: ‘You’ve only yourself to rely on.’

The earlier experience had been more confusing, with no specific experience to explain it by.

Saturday was the day I dynamited my way into my basement. Suddenly, without any warning that I can remember, I was catapulted from my cushioned platform of bored breathing into the underground river of my tears – tears that I had never known existed.

It was an Emily Dickinson moment:

And then a Plank in Reason, broke,
And I dropped down, and down –
And hit a World, at every plunge, . . .

I’m just not as capable of conveying my experience in words as vividly as she did hers.

Drowning is probably the best word to describe how it felt. Yes, of course I could breath, but every breath plunged me deeper into the pain. Somehow I felt safe enough in that room full of unorthodox fellow travellers, pillow pounders and stretched out deep breathers alike, to continue exploring this bizarre dam-breaking flood of feeling, searching for what it meant.

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[The] stone is the lowest degree of phenomena, but nevertheless within it a power of attraction is manifest without which the stone could not exist. This power of attraction in the mineral world is love, the only expression of love the stone can manifest. . . Finally, we reach the kingdom of man. Here we find that all the degrees of the mineral, vegetable and animal expressions of love are present plus unmistakable attractions of consciousness. That is to say, man is the possessor of a degree of attraction which is conscious and spiritual. Here is an immeasurable advance. In the human kingdom spiritual susceptibilities come into view, love exercises its superlative degree, and this is the cause of human life.

(‘Abdu’l-Bahá in The Promulgation of Universal Peace page 168-69)

Once we have explained all the physical structure in the vicinity of the brain, and we have explained how all the various brain functions are performed, there is a further sort of explanandum: consciousness itself. Why should all this structure and function give rise to experience? The story about the physical processes does not say.

(David J ChalmersThe Conscious Mind, page 107)

Materialism’s biggest problem is that consciousness does exist.

(The Science Delusion –  page 109)

In preparation for my next new post, coming out tomorrow, that deals with the idea of holographic consciousness, it seemed a good idea to republish this short sequence from 2012.

Putting my best foot forward?

 Three years ago I tackled the issue of the afterlife.  I felt, and still feel, that on this issue a good place to start is with the black swan problem and it works even better as an argument for the independence of consciousness from the brain.

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, something which points to consciousness being more than matter. There is one near death experience (NDE) which happens to involve the mind apparently functioning without any support at all from the brain.

What is this black swan?

In Atlanta Georgia, the case of Pam Reynolds was investigated in the 1990s by Dr Michael Sabom. His account is incorporated into a wider discussion of NDEs by David Fontana, a professor of psychology, in his book “Is There an Afterlife?” (page 184 passim). 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.

The problem here is that my ‘black swan’ torpedo, something that holes the titanic edifice of materialism below the waterline, is someone else’s ‘delusional anecdote’ only serving to prove how gullible we afterlifers are.

How good it is, then, to find a science heavy-weight pulling together a massive array of assorted evidence to call the whole enterprise of materialism into serious question. Rupert Sheldrake may not be a mainstream scientist accepted by the practitioners of the prevailing orthodoxy but he has too much credibility to be lightly dismissed.

The evidence he marshals in his book, The Science Delusion, covers many areas. For the purposes of this post I am focusing on the evidence that relates to consciousness in some way and supports the possibility of its not residing entirely in the brain. In fact, according to the evidence he quotes, some its most important aspects appear to be located elsewhere altogether.

Brainless means brain-dead, right?

Let me put a key point right up front.

Even the dimmest materialist can tell me that I must be wrong about consciousness because, when you do enough damage to the brain, the lights go out. Sheldrake enables me to ask, though, how much damage is enough? 25%? 50%? 75%? 95%?

He has an answer. There is no way of knowing how much damage will destroy effective consciousness and functioning in any individual case. Massive damage can sometimes have little detectable effect (page 193):

John Lorber . . . scanned the brains of more than six hundred people with hydrocephalus, and found that about sixty had more than 95 per cent of the cranial cavity filled with cerebrospinal fluid. Some were seriously retarded, but others were more or less normal, and some had IQs of well over 100. One young man who had an IQ of 126 and a first-class degree in mathematics, a student from Sheffield University, had ‘virtually no brain’. . . . . His mental activity and his memory were still able to function more or less normally even though he had a brain only five per cent of the normal size.

He looks then at the well-researched area of memory to unearth an intriguing possibility (page 194-198):

More than a century of intensive, well-funded research has failed to pin down memory traces in brains. There may be a very simple reason for this: the hypothetical traces do not exist. However long or hard researchers look for them they may never find them. Instead, memories may depend on morphic resonance from an organism’s own past. The brain may be more like a television set than a hard-drive recorder.

. . . the fact that injury and brain degeneration, as in Alzheimer’s disease, lead to loss of memory does not prove that memories are stored in the damaged tissue. If I snipped a wire or removed some components from the sound circuits of your TV set, I could render it speechless, or aphasic. But this would not mean that all the sounds were stored in the damaged components.

. . . But what if the holographic wave-patterns are not stored in the brain at all? Pribram later came to this conclusion, and thought of the brain as a ‘wave-form analyser’ rather than a storage system, comparing it to a radio receiver that picked up wave-forms from the ‘implicate order’, rendering them explicate.

And it’s a small step from there to Goswami’s ‘consciousness is the ground of being’ which we described in the earlier post (page 114-115):

The philosopher Galen Strawson, himself a materialist, is amazed by the willingness of so many of his fellow philosophers to deny the reality of their own experience . . . He argues that a consistent materialism must imply panpsychism, namely the idea that even atoms and molecules have a primitive kind of mentality or experience. . . Panpsychism does not mean that atoms are conscious in the sense that we are, but only that some aspects of mentality or experience are present in the simplest physical systems. More complex forms of mind or experience emerge in more complex systems.

It all depends upon your point of view perhaps (page 119):

The philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce saw the physical and mental as different aspects of underlying reality: ‘All mind more or less partakes of the nature of matter . . . Viewing a thing from the outside . . . it appears as matter. Viewing it from the inside . . . it appears as consciousness.’

David Bohm

Our point of view will have consequences

It is an important issue though as our conclusions about it have implications for the way we live. Consciousness may be inherent in the universe. Bohm is another who raises this point (page 126):

Bohm observed, ‘The question is whether matter is rather crude and mechanical or whether it gets more and more subtle and becomes indistinguishable from what people have called mind.’ . . . In other words, mind is already inherent in every electron, and the processes of human consciousness differ only in degree but not in kind from the processes of choice between quantum states which we call ‘chance’ when they are made by an electron.

If so what are the implications then? A sense of purpose is a major one (page 128).

It makes a big difference if you think of yourself as a zombie-like mechanism in an unconscious mechanical world, or as a truly conscious being capable of making choices, living among other beings with sensations, experiences and desires.

Maybe what we make of ourselves and of our world, in other words our entire future, will in part hinge on the answer we find to the question of consciousness (page 130):

Purposes exist in a virtual realm, rather than a physical reality. They connect organisms to ends or goals that have not yet happened; they are attractors, in the language of dynamics, a branch of modern mathematics. Purposes or attractors cannot be weighed; they are not material.

To make the point completely clear he later states (page 140):

Developing systems are attracted towards their ends or goals. They are not only pushed from the past, they are pulled from the future.

Yes, there is a push from the past and this is driven mostly from our unconscious as a 2012 Horizon programme on BBC2 illustrated very powerfully. But, as we have already said, there is also a pull from the future which is mostly responded to in consciousness.

So, what is going to happen lies in our own hands and depends to a significant extent upon our conscious choices. If we come to feel that those choices are all already completely determined by some billiard-ball-type interactions among our billions of neurones, we will behave very differently from how we would behave if we felt that we could freely choose a course of action determined to a significant extent by a freely chosen vision of what we wanted to achieve. At the very least, it creates a greater sense of responsibility for our actions.

What is also important is that the concept of consciousness being explored here by Sheldrake implies a strong degree of interconnectedness that in turn, for me, suggests that more than mirror neurones lie behind the experience of compassion. It is interesting in this light to read Thomas Mellen‘s account, in his story of his near death experience, of when he encountered the being of Light (Ken Ring – Lessons from the Light – page  287):

And at that time, the Light revealed itself to me on a level that I had never been to before. I can’t say it’s words; it was a telepathic understanding more than anything else, very vivid. I could feel it, I could feel this light. And the Light just reacted and revealed itself on another level, and the message was “Yes, [for] most people, depending on where you are coming from, it could be Jesus, it could be Buddha, it could be Krishna, whatever.”

But I said, “But what it is really?” And the Light then changed into – the only thing I can tell you [is that] it turned into a matrix, a mandala of human souls, and what I saw was that what we call our higher self in each of us is a matrix. It’s also a conduit to the source; each one of us comes directly, as a direct experience [from] the source. And it became very clear to me that all the higher selves are connected as one being, all humans are connected as one being, we are actually the same being, different aspects of the same being. And I saw this mandala of human souls. It was the most beautiful thing I have ever seen, just [voice trembles], I just went into it and [voice falters], it was just overwhelming [he chokes], it was like all the love you’ve ever wanted, and it was the kind of love that cures, heals, regenerates.

And before you say it, if my preference for this picture, based on the evidence I have adduced, has in fact really been predetermined, then so has the preference of a materialist for a different reductionist picture. So why would his or her views have more weight than mine?

We all know the choice is ours really. Nothing can rationalise that reality away, I believe. A lot depends upon it.

No pressure then.

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. . . the mind is the power of the human spirit. Spirit is the lamp; mind is the light which shines from the lamp. Spirit is the tree, and the mind is the fruit.

‘Abdu’l-Bahá  in Some Answered Questions, page 208)

The sciences evolve, and so do religions. No religion is the same today as it was at the time of its founder. Instead of the bitter conflicts and mutual distrust caused by the materialist worldview, we are entering an era in which sciences and religions may enrich each other through shared explorations.

(Baumeister & Tierney: Willpower, page 340)

What is mind? No matter. What is matter? Never mind.

(George Berkeley)

In preparation for my next new post, coming out on Thursday, that deals with the idea of holographic consciousness, it seemed as good idea to republish this short sequence from 2012: part two comes out again tomorrow. 

Consciousness is preposterous. It can’t be possible yet it exists. I know it does because I am writing this. You know it does if you are reading this. Because it exists and we are in a sense (well, five of them at least, actually) the experience of consciousness, we are usually blind to its sheer improbability. So much for the senses, then.

Perhaps this paradox is why it is currently a battle ground between those who believe mind is merely matter and those who believe that mind is much more than matter. This difference, as we will see, has implications for whether our actions are completely determined by unconscious processes or are freely chosen. Yes, there is a push from our unconscious, partly the result of evolution and partly the result of automated memories, as last Tuesday’s Horizon programme on BBC2 illustrated very powerfully. But – and it’s a very important but – there is also a sense of purpose which creates a pull from the future which is mostly mediated through our conscious mind.

In my lifetime I have switched sides in this battle for reasons too many to list here. I used to believe in nothing that I couldn’t directly experience with my ordinary senses. Now I believe there is a spiritual dimension even though it would be fair to say I have never experienced it directly. Other people that I have come to trust have had such experiences though and my earlier conversion to this point of view is constantly reaffirmed by their testimony.

A Physicist’s Personal Testimony

Amit Goswami, the physicist, in an interview about his book, The Self-Aware Universe, which I quoted in a post about three years ago,  confirms the mystic insight and vividly conveys his sense of it:

So then one time — and this is where the breakthrough happened — my wife and I were in Ventura, California and a mystic friend, Joel Morwood, came down from Los Angeles, and we all went to hear Krishnamurti. And Krishnamurti, of course, is extremely impressive, a very great mystic. So we heard him and then we came back home. We had dinner and we were talking, and I was giving Joel a spiel about my latest ideas of the quantum theory of consciousness and Joel just challenged me. He said, “Can consciousness be explained?” And I tried to wriggle my way through that but he wouldn’t listen. He said, “You are putting on scientific blinders. You don’t realize that consciousness is the ground of all being.” He didn’t use that particular word, but he said something like, “There is nothing but God.”

And something flipped inside of me which I cannot quite explain. This is the ultimate cognition, that I had at that very moment. There was a complete about-turn in my psyche and I just realized that consciousness is the ground of all being. I remember staying up that night, looking at the sky and having a real mystical feeling about what the world is, and the complete conviction that this is the way the world is, this is the way that reality is, and one can do science. You see, the prevalent notion — even among people like David Bohm — was, “How can you ever do science without assuming that there is reality and material and all this? How can you do science if you let consciousness do things which are ‘arbitrary’?” But I became completely convinced — there has not been a shred of doubt ever since — that one can do science on this basis.

More Mystical Angles on the Matter

Andrew Powell, in Thinking Beyond the Brainan intriguing book edited by David Lorimer, put me onto Goswami. He concludes, ‘Everything is mind,’ (page 182) and goes on to say (page 186):

. . . there is a more important truth to be discovered, that we are one. If humankind should ever learn that what belongs to one belongs to all, heaven on earth will be assured.

In the same book (pages 128-131) there is an account of a similar but not identical mystical experience. Charles Tart quotes the story of a Doctor S who was an atheist at the time. He was alone, watching the sunset, which was particularly beautiful that evening. All verbal thinking stopped. While what he experienced was, he said, impossible to express, he did try to convey it in words (page 130):

I was certain that the universe was one whole and that it was benign and loving at its ground. . . . . God as experienced in cosmic consciousness is the very ground or beingness of the Universe and has no human characteristics in the usual sense of the word. The Universe could no more be separate from God than my body could separate from its cells. Moreover the only emotion that I would associate with God is love, but it would be more accurate to say that God is love, than that God is loving.

Most religions, and the Bahá’í Faith is no exception, hold that God is more than the universe: they mostly agree also that God permeates the universe in some way. Which means, of course, that He is in us also. Bahá’u’lláh confirms this when He exhorts us to:

Turn thy sight unto thyself, that thou mayest find Me standing within thee . . .

(Hidden Words from the Arabic: Number 13)

The implications for the nature of consciousness are immense if, as I do, you believe this to be true. What if you don’t?

Is this the best hard evidence we can get?

Aren’t these just anecdotes and metaphors, carrying no more weight than any other personal opinion? Is this going to help reconcile the differences between faith and science in this all important area?

Fortunately, since I first explored this question much more research has come into the public domain. And I’m not talking about things like Near Death Experiences (see the links at the end of this post), or David Fontana‘s explorations of the reality of the soul and the afterlife. I’m referring to work such as Schwartz‘s that demonstrates that the mind is not easily reducible to the brain but rather can, by force of deliberate willed attention, change the brain. Not quite enough to carry a hard-line materialist with me, though? Not even enough to cause him or her a fleeting doubt?

Well, beyond that, and most recently, there has been Rupert Sheldrake‘s book The Science Delusion. In the next post I will seek to unpack some of the most telling points he makes that should cause us to question too glib an attachment to a materialist explanation of consciousness.

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Is the Afterlife Hypothesis Useful (3/3)

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So, as I asked at the end of the previous post, what chance do Christina and Stefan Grof stand in their efforts to prove the mystical component of psychosis?

I need to repeat the caveats I voiced at the start of this sequence about their book, The Stormy Search for the Self: understanding and living with spiritual emergency, so that I do not come across as easily taken in. It is not easy to tread the razor’s edge between the default positions of intransigent incredulity and irremediable gullibility, but here goes.

Their book has echoes for me of Hillman’s The Soul’s Code in that it combines deep insights with what read like wild flights of fancy and carefully substantiated accounts of concrete experience with vague waves at unspecified bodies of invisible evidence. Even so, so much of it is clearly derived from careful observation and direct experience, and goes a long way towards defining what look convincingly like spiritual manifestations which are currently dismissed as mere madness. It seemed important to flag the book up at this point.

I am going to focus on what I feel are their strongest points: concrete experiences that illustrate their perspective and their brave and, in my opinion, largely successful attempts to make a clear distinction between mystic and merely disturbed experiences, not that the latter are to be dismissed as meaningless. It’s just that their meaning is to be found in life events not in the transcendent.

First I’ll deal with their account of one person’s spiritual crisis. In the last post I’ll be looking at their scheme of diagnostic distinction.

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

A Concrete Example

What follows is a highly condensed summary of one person’s story. A key point to hold in mind is one the Grofs made earlier in the book (page 71):

Often, individuals benefit from their encounter with the divine but have problems with the environment. In some instances, people talk to those close to them about a powerful mystical state. If their family, friends, or therapists do not understand the healing potential of these dimensions, they may not treat them as valid or may automatically become concerned about the sanity of the loved one or client. If the person who has had the experience is at all hesitant about its validity or concerned about his or her state of mind, the concern of others may exaggerate these doubts, compromising, clouding, or obscuring the richness of the original feelings and sensations.

Karen’s Story

They begin by providing some background (pages 191-92):

[S]he had a difficult childhood; her mother committed suicide when she was three, and she grew up with an alcoholic father and his second wife. Leaving home in her late teens, she lived through periods of depression and struggled periodically with compulsive eating.

Assuming that her subsequent experiences were what they seem to be, and I do, then it is clear that just because there is trauma in someone’s background does mean that the unusual experiences they report are entirely reducible to some form of post-traumatic stress response any more than they can be explained satisfactorily simply in terms of brain malfunction. Whatever is going on in the brain is just a correlate but not a cause, and previous trauma may have rendered any filter susceptible to leaks from a transcendent reality. I am restraining myself from leaping too soon to that last and much desired conclusion.

Interestingly, it’s possible that there was an organic trigger to her spiritual crisis (page 192):

. . . [F]ive days before her episode, Karen had begun taking medication for an intestinal parasite, stopping as the daily experience started. . . . . It is difficult to accurately assess its role in the onset of this event. . . . Whatever the source, her crisis contained all the elements of a true spiritual emergency. It lasted three-and-a-half weeks and completely interrupted her ordinary functioning, necessitating twenty-four-hour attention.

Her friends asked the Grofs to become involved in her care so they were able to observe the whole situation as it unfolded.

That Karen was able to avoid being admitted to psychiatric hospital was down to the support of a wide circle of friends. That this meant that she did not have to take any medication is important, according to the Grofs and other sources. Anti-pychotic medication has the effect of blocking the very processes that a successful integration of the challenging experiences requires. They describe the lay nature of her support (pages 192-93):

[B]ecause of Karen’s obvious need and the reluctance of those around her to involve her in traditional psychiatric approaches, her care was largely improvised. Most of the people who became involved were not primarily dedicated to working with spiritual emergencies.

What were her experiences like during this period of what they call ‘spiritual emergency’?

Their description covers several pages (page 194-196). This is a very brief selection of some of the main aspects. To Karen her vision seemed clearer. She also ‘heard women’s voices telling her that she was entering a benign and important experience. . . .’ Observers noted that ‘heat radiated throughout Karen’s body and it was noted that ‘she saw visions of fire and fields of red, at times feeling herself consumed by flames. . . .’

What is also particularly interesting is her re-experience of previous life crises: ‘[S]he struggled through the physical and emotional pain of her own biological birth and repeatedly relived the delivery of her daughter,’ as well as confronting ‘death many times and in many forms, and her preoccupation with dying caused her sitters to become concerned about the possibility of a suicide attempt.’ She was too well protected for that to be a serious risk.

In the last post I will be linking a therapeutic technique the Grofs advocate, Holotropic Breathwork, with some of my own experiences. This makes their description of how this technique can uncover repressed memories of traumatic experiences all the more credible to me. More of that later. That Karen should have been triggered into such regressions is not therefore surprising to me.

By way of supporting her through this, ‘telling her that it was possible to experience death symbolically without actually dying physically, her sitters asked her to keep her eyes closed and encouraged her to fully experience the sequences of dying inwardly and to express the difficult emotions involved.’ It is significant for their model that encouragement and support in facing what we might otherwise be tempted to flee from helps. ‘She complied, and in a short time she moved past the intense confrontation with death to other experiences. . . .’

Given my interest in the relationship between apparently disturbed mental states and creativity, it was noteworthy that ‘[f]or several days, Karen tapped directly into a powerful stream of creativity, expressing many of her experiences in the form of songs. It was amazing to witness: after an inner theme would surface into awareness, she would either make up a song about it or recall one from memory, lustily singing herself through that phase of her process.’

They describe her during this period as ‘extremely psychic, highly sensitive, and acutely attuned to the world around her.’ For example she was ‘able to “see through” everyone around her, often anticipating their comments and actions.’

Georgiana Houghton‘s ‘The Glory of the Lord’ (image scanned from ‘Spirit Drawings’ – the Courtauld Gallery)

 

Things began to take a more positive turn (page 196):

After about two weeks, some of the difficult, painful states started to subside and Karen receive increasingly benevolent, light-filled experiences and felt more and more connected with a divine source.

Perhaps I need to clarify that I am not attempting to adduce this as evidence of the reality of the spiritual world. People like David Fontana and Leslie Kean have collated such evidence far better than I ever could, and sorted out the wheat from the chaff with honesty and discernment.

What I am hoping to do is use this as a demonstration that sometimes at least what could be written off as meaningless and irrational brain noise might not only be significantly related to early experiences in life, as the trauma work suggests, but also to a spiritual dimension whose reality our culture usually denies with the result that the experiences are pathologised. The outcome in this case strongly suggests that pathologising them needlessly prolongs them and blocks life-enhancing changes that would otherwise have resulted.

They go onto describe the end of the episode and its aftermath (ibid.):

. . . . As Karen began to come through her experience, she became less and less absorbed by her in the world and more interested in her daughter and the other people around her. She began to eat and sleep more regularly and was increasingly able to care for some of her daily needs. . . .

Rather as was the case with Fontana and his poltergeist investigation, as the vividness of the experiences receded, doubts beganset in (ibid.:)

As she became increasingly in touch with ordinary reality, Karen’s mind started to analyse her experiences, and she began to feel for the first time that she had been involved in a negative process. The only logical way of explaining these events to herself was that something had gone wrong, that perhaps she had truly lost her mind. Self-doubt is a common stage in spiritual emergencies, appearing when people begin to surface from the dramatic manifestations . . .

She was not blind to the positives in the end (page 197):

Two years later, when we discussed her experience with her, Karen said that she has mixed feelings about the episode. She is able to appreciate many aspects of what happened to her. She says that she has learnt a great deal of value about herself and her capacities, feeling that through her crisis she gained wisdom that she can tap any time. Karen has visited realms within herself that she previously had no idea were there, has felt enormous creativity flow through her, and has survived the previously frightening experiences of birth, death, and madness. Her depressions have disappeared, as well as her tendency toward compulsive overeating.

But her doubts persisted, and may have been to some extent fuelled by her family and friends’ reactions and the lack of informed support (page 198):

On the other hand, Karen also has some criticisms. Even though she could not have resisted the powerful states during her episode, she feels that she was unprepared for the hard, painful work involved. In spite of the fact that she received a great deal of assistance during the three weeks, she feels that she was not yet ready to venture forth into the daily world when she was required to do so by the exhaustion of the resources of those around her. Since that time, she has lacked contact with people with whom to further process her experiences. She considers herself somewhat “different” for having had the episode (an opinion also indirectly expressed by her family and some of her friends) and has tended to downgrade it by concentrating on its negative effects.

The support had to be reduced after the three-week peak period because the support network was burning out. The Grofs felt (ibid.:)

Many of these problems could have been avoided if Karen had had consistent and knowledgeable support immediately following her crisis, perhaps in a halfway house, and follow-up help – in the form of ongoing therapy, support groups, and spiritual practice – for a more extended period of time.

It is dangerous to extrapolate too wildly but I feel that in Karen’s story there are real grounds for hope. She recovered from an apparently devastating episode of mental disturbance without drugs. She demonstrated modest but lasting mental health gains in terms of no subsequent depression or compulsive eating. There is every reason to suppose given this experience and the evidence of Dr Sami Timimi’s study, adduced by James Davies in Cracked and described in the previous post, that an outcome like this could apply far more widely across the so-called psychotic spectrum. Yes, the intervention was time intensive, but it was brief and successful. This compares with long-term interventions involving medication resulting in symptoms that continue to simmer for years or even decades, blighting the whole life of the sufferer and the lives of close family.

The Grofs then explore models of help and aftercare, which I won’t go into now as the main focus I want to take is on their ideas of how to distinguish a spiritual emergency such as Karen’s from other forms of disturbance. This is clearly an important distinction to be able to make as the approaches taken when dealing with trauma-related disturbances and spiritual crises will be somewhat different, though Karen’s case implies there might well be an overlap.

However, all the evidence that has accumulated since they wrote suggests that all such so-called psychotic episodes are better dealt with in a non-diagnostic way, which is an issue that the Grofs do not fully address, probably because at the time of their writing placing spiritual emergency on the agenda seemed a more urgent issue, given that it was and still is doubly disparaged.

Now for the difficult distinction in the next post, along with a brief description of their recommended intervention.

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In the last post I ended up exploring James Davies’ perspective in his recent book Cracked. I was focusing upon his emphasis on relationships rather then medication as the more effective way to help those with psychotic experiences.

Pseudo-Science

It’s where he goes next that I found most unexpected but most welcome to my heart. He leads into it with an interview with Thomas Sasz just before his death at the age of 92 (page 276). He asks Szasz, ‘why do we believe as a culture that suffering must be removed chemically rather than understood in many cases as a natural human phenomenon, and possibly something from which we can learn and grow if worked through productively?’

Szasz’s response is fascinating:

Our age has replaced a religious point of view with a pseudo-scientific point of view. . .   Now everything is explained in terms of molecules and atoms and brain scans. It is a reduction of the human being to a biological machine. We don’t have existential or religious or mental suffering any more. Instead we have brain disorders.

This resonates strongly with the Bahá’í position as expressed, for instance, in Century of Light (page 136):

What [Bahá’ís]  find themselves struggling against daily is the pressure of a dogmatic materialism, claiming to be the voice of “science“, that seeks systematically to exclude from intellectual life all impulses arising from the spiritual level of human consciousness.

Davies summarises Szasz’s position on psychiatry (page 277): ‘It had become deluded in its belief that its physical technologies, its ECT machines and laboratory-manufactured molecules, could solve the deeper dilemmas of the soul, society and self.’

He quotes Bracken’s view on how this brings in capitalism (page 278):

What complicates things more is that we also live in a capitalist society, where there is always going to be someone trying to sell you something… In fact, some people would argue that capitalism can only continue by constantly making us dissatisfied with our lives.… You know, if everybody said I am very happy with my television, my car and everything else I’ve got, and I’m perfectly content with my lifestyle, the whole economy would come shattering down around our ears.

He continues (page 279):

What we customarily call mental illness is not always illness in the medical sense. It’s often a natural outcome of struggling to make our way in a world where the traditional guides, props and understandings are rapidly disappearing… Not all mental strife is therefore due to an internal malfunction but often to the outcome of living in a malfunctioning world. The solution is not yet more medicalisation, but an overhaul of our cultural beliefs, a reinfusing of life with spiritual, religious or humanistic meaning with emphasis on the essential involvement of community, and with whatever helps bring us greater direction, understanding, courage and purpose.

Instinctive Incredulity

However, we are even further away from generally accepting that some experiences labelled psychotic may have spiritual dimensions.

Christina and Stefan Grof’s indictment of our civilisation in their book The Stormy Search for the Self: understanding and living with spiritual emergency sings from essentially the same hymn sheet as Davies (page 235):

Though the problems in the world have many different forms, they are nothing but symptoms of one underlying condition: the emotional, moral, and spiritual state of modern humanity. In the last analysis, they are the collective result of the present level of consciousness of individual human beings. The only effective and lasting solution to these problems would, therefore, be a radical inner transformation of humanity on a large scale and its consequent rise to a higher level of awareness and maturity.

David Fontana also writes from direct experience of this painful level of materialism and its default stance of resolute incredulity when faced with any evidence, no matter how compelling, in favour of a spiritual dimension to reality. He had to combat it at almost every turn of his investigations. He even bravely admits to being contaminated by it himself. In the in-depth survey of his book Is there an afterlife? he writes (page 335):

My difficulty in writing about Scole [a long and detailed exploration of psychic phenomena including material effects] is not because the experiences we had with a group have faded. They are as clear as if they happened only weeks ago. The difficulty is to make them sound believable. It is a strange fact of life that whereas most psychical researchers interested in fieldwork are able to accept – or at least greet with open minds – the events of many years ago connected with the mediumship of physical mediums such as Home, Palladino, and Florence Cook, a strain of scepticism fostered by scientific training makes it much harder for them to accept that similar events may happen today, and may even be witnessed by those of us fortunate enough to be there when they occur. I mentioned in my discussion of the Cardiff poltergeist case… the struggle I had with my own belief system after seeing the phenomena concerned. When in the room while they were taking place I had no doubt they were genuine, but as soon as I began to drive home I started to doubt. . . . . The whole thing seemed simply unbelievable.

He adds:

It took a lengthy investigation, including one occasion when I witnessed phenomena while I was on my own in one of the rooms where the disturbances took place and the owners were two hundred miles away on holiday, before I could fully accept that poltergeist phenomena can indeed be genuine, and provide evidence not only of paranormality but, at least in some cases, of survival.

The Grofs articulate the challenge exactly (page 236)

The task of creating an entirely different set of values and tendencies for humanity might appear to be too unrealistic and utopian to offer any hope. What would it take to transform contemporary mankind into a species of individuals capable of peaceful coexistence with their fellow men and women regardless of colour, language, or political conviction – much less with other species?

They list our current characteristics in detail including violence, greed, habitual dissatisfaction and a severe lack of awareness that we are connected with nature. They conclude, ‘In the last analysis, all these characteristics seem to be symptomatic of severe alienation from inner life and loss of spiritual values.’

To describe it as an uphill struggle would be an understatement. Climbing Everest alone and unequipped seems closer to the mark.

They see at least one window through which the light of hope shines (page 237)

[M]any researchers in the field of transpersonal psychology believe that the growing interest in spirituality and the increasing incidence of spontaneous mystical experiences represent an evolutionary trend toward an entirely new level of human consciousness.

As we will see in the final two posts, our medicalisation of schizophrenia and psychosis might well be slowing this process down. If so there is all the more reason to give the Grofs’ case a fair and careful hearing. This will not be easy for the reasons that Fontana has explained.

Incidentally, after acknowledging that absolutely convincing proof of the paranormal seems permanently elusive, after all his years of meticulous investigation Fontana reaches a conclusion very close to that put forward by John Hick (op. cit.: page 327):

Professor William James may have been right when he lamented that it rather looks as if the Almighty has decreed that this area should forever retain its mystery. If this is indeed the case, then I assume it is because the Almighty has decreed that the personal search for meaning and purpose in life and in death are of more value than having meaning and purpose handed down as certainties from others.

In his book The Fifth Dimension, John Hick contends that experiencing the spiritual world in this material one would compel belief whereas God wants us to be free to choose whether to believe or not (pages 37-38):

In terms of the monotheistic traditions first, why should not the personal divine presence be unmistakably evident to us? The answer is that in order for us to exist as autonomous finite persons in God’s presence, God must not be compulsorily evident to us. To make space for human freedom, God must be deus absconditus, the hidden God – hidden and yet so readily found by those who are willing to exist in the divine presence, . . . . . This is why religious awareness does not share the compulsory character of sense awareness. Our physical environment must force itself upon our attention if we are to survive within it. But our supra-natural environment, the fifth dimension of the universe, must not be forced upon our attention if we are to exist within it as free spiritual beings. . . . To be a person is, amongst many other things, to be a (relatively) free agent in relation to those aspects of reality that place us under a moral or spiritual claim.

So what chance do Christina and Stefan Grof stand in their efforts to prove the mystical component of psychosis?

More of that next time.

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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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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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