Posts Tagged ‘Georgiana Houghton’

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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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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