Posts Tagged ‘NDE’

Uncertainty Principle v3

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Separation from the Body

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’m desperate to know, really know

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

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

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

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

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

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last judgement

The Last Judgement Triptych (1470) by Hans Memling (For source of image see link)

Given my recent reference to this brilliant book it seemed worth reposting the full sequence.

Do we deserve them?

As we have seen in exploring Nancy Evans Bush’s excellent book on the subject, we are at a point of transition in our understanding of distressing NDEs (977):

It was initially believed that troubling NDEs are extremely rare. Later research indicates that as many as one out of five NDEs may be distressing.

Some components of all NDEs are becoming readily recognizable (1015):

Pleasurable or distressing, NDEs are likely to include an out-of-body episode, a sense of journeying, encounters with presences, and the familiar qualities of a transcendent experience described by William James: ineffability, noetic quality, transience, passivity.

There is one key difference between the reactions of others to the two types of experience (1037-57):

Truth to tell, a great many people who disdain organized religion and intensely dislike any concept of a literal heaven, hell, or ‘divine judgment’ immediately leap to an assumption about frightening near-death experiences that echoes the most conservative religious view. The difference is primarily that secular language replaces talk of sin with descriptions of psychological failure, spiritual weakness, or perhaps a characterological deficiency in the person who “attracted” the experience. . . . . Curiously, to my knowledge, no researcher has ever raised similar speculations about whether people who had a blissful NDE deserved it. There is no list of personal characteristics of those experiencers. Only the distressing experiences have drawn observers to such fascination.

Her conclusion is clear (1073):

There is, as of this writing, absolutely no evidence to support the conventional wisdom that deservingness has anything to do with having a glorious or dismal NDE.

None the less (1119), ‘Aversion to the dark experiences runs so deep that even ordinarily compassionate people turn their attention away.’ This turning away from darkness comes at a price (1155):

Greenspan again (26-27): “The world is in vital need of the truth that the dark emotions teach… When we master the art of staying fully awake in their presence, they move us through suffering. We discover that darkness has its own light.”

There are ways in which we will stunt our own growth by this kind of denial and repression (1161).

No Olympic gold medal winner has ever simply strolled to the podium without pain, without sacrifice. Siddartha did not find an end to suffering by sitting in the palace that was his birthright; Jesus did not remain in a small boat on the Sea of Galilee. In pain and darkness, in tragedy and struggle—there is where courage is found, and redemption. That is the path of sacred power. The least we can do is learn to deal with emotions we do not care for.

We are very much in the domain of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, with its emphasis upon our need to accept suffering as inevitable if we are to grow beyond it. The authors, in their book of the same title, state (page 247):

Many clients have long-standing and strongly reinforced avoidance repertoires that can be expected to reappear. . . . . . [T]he client’s job is not just to determine a direction but to reaffirm that direction when obstacles appear. . . . . [W]hen we are travelling in a particular direction, the journey can take us across difficult ground. . . . [W]e don’t walk into pain because we like pain. We walk through the pain in the service of taking a valued direction.

However, she has no wish to force us to interpret NDEs as absolute proof of the afterlife. In that respect we are in Hicks’s territory also: the world is set up so we can no more absolutely prove that God and the next world really exist than we can absolutely prove they do not (The Fifth Dimension: page 36-38).

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.

What are we to make of NDEs then, especially distressing ones?


For source of image see link

Struggling to make sense of them

Clearly the exact nature of the reality we are discussing has a bearing upon the impact the experience will have on the person who experiences it (1249):

A major reason for reluctance to look at distressing near-death experiences—and it is the source of terror for many experiencers—is a fear of discovering that the hell we hold in our minds may somehow actually exist. But despite the extent of that fear—or because of it—the subject is rarely discussed except in abstract theological terms or in religious circles that insist on a literal interpretation.

She discusses at fascinating length how the Biblical foundations for our ideas of hell are shaky to say the least. She concludes her argument by pointing out that (1443-1462)):

Sheol as a term seems to have confused the early English translators [of the Bible], who proved unwilling to understand it as meaning simply “the place of the dead.” By the time of the King James version the idea of hell as a physical place of torment apart from the presence of God had taken such firm root that for a translator confronted by “Sheol,” the translator’s preconception produced “hell” in place of “grave.” (Hanson, 1) The King James Old Testament translates Sheol 31 times as hell, in several places as “grave” or “pit,” and once even as “dust.” (Thayer, Orr). . . . . Gehenna came to represent anything that was foul and repulsive, deserving of severe judgment or condemnation. Common usage indicated a severity of punishment rather than a duration of time; there was no sense of “forever” about the word. . . . . Modern readers are clearly misled by anachronistic translations.

So, there is little or no authentic Biblical basis for our culture’s original and deeply ingrained concept of hell’s possible reality, something which subsequent corrections in more modern versions of the Bible would appear to have done little to dilute (see the following links for examples: Psalms, Proverbs and Amos).

She then returns to a point we heard earlier about the lack of grotesque detail in most accounts of distressing NDEs (1533-55):

In contrast to the deliberately imagined grotesqueries of the medieval religious fantasy and modern Hell House, most actual accounts of today’s hellish near-death experiences seem remarkably sedate, though they are no less terrifying. The horror and fear are deep and genuine, but their descriptions are primarily emotional rather than visual, internal rather than external. . . . . [M]odern NDEs strongly tend to be visually less violent and significantly less vindictively cruel, though they have lost none of their horrifying emotional power.

She locates the durability of the vivid concepts we hold to of heaven and hell to our innate wiring for ideas of fairness and justice. However, hell breaches aspects of our need in that respect (1657-64):

The idea of hell satisfies the reward/punishment imperative, but it is not without problems. First, when interpreted stringently it violates reciprocity, that basic criterion of justice, that punishment should fit the crime. . . . . [A]ccording to a narrow slice of theological thought, the wrath of God demands that [the guilty] will undergo limitless agony for a limitless duration of time for a finite cause.

The way we as a culture will predispose people to respond to an NDE will depend upon the ‘fundamentalism’ of the belief system of the individual, ie how literally (s)he takes what (s)he believes in order to achieve a firm foundation of certainty. This can be as disastrous for the sceptic as it is for a religious person (1827-1849):

A postmodern metaphysical journey, no less than that of an organized religious tradition, is based on beliefs and understandings, and has its own fundamentalism; a principle difference, is that whereas for most people religion is a search for the answers to questions, metaphysics looks for personal experience around the questions. . . . . After a glorious NDE, it has been too often the case that literalism in this tradition has led to disastrous inflation of the ego and corruption of personality. . . . . Conversely, with a distressing NDE, the risk is to take at face value that same “Law of Attraction” which leads to internalizing the idea that all of one’s life events are one’s own doing. The belief that an individual acted, however inadvertently, as a magnet to attract a terrifying NDE may suggest something evil inherent in that person’s life and self.


Western versus Eastern Models

Her discussion of this issue turns to an important distinction which can be made between Western and Eastern paradigms of spirituality. She argues plausibly that this distinction can account for a large part of the difficulty Westerners have with the distressing NDE experience. She begins by looking at Western assumptions (1961-65):

The United States, especially, has lived for three centuries with the great and largely unquestioned myth of the individual: that the very essence of being human is one’s individuality, to be one’s self, to be unique in the here-and-now . . . . each of us is saturated with the sense of individuality, personhood, specialness, selfhood.

Not so with Eastern Traditions (2013-25):

A quite different perspective exists in Eastern traditions, especially those which arose in India: Hinduism and its offshoot Buddhism in its many variations. . . .The task in Hinduism and Buddhism is to recognize that the ‘realities’ of the physical world are ultimately illusory, and to let go of identification with them. . . .  It is not the individual who matters, but the individual’s connectedness to the whole.

This leads her to ask an interesting question (2046): ‘What if the Void and heaven are not opposites but differing perspectives of whatever is ultimate?’

I am inevitably going to be even further simplifying a complex position which she supports with detailed evidence. The only solution will be to read this brilliant book and decide for yourselves. Personally I find her position quite persuasive.

She does not avoid the crunch issue (2061-67):

Western culture is not prepared to deal easily with the Void. Further, between the religious reverence for covenant and the capitalist reverence for things, we are trained into objects. . . . Here it becomes clear why experiences of the Void create such havoc for those who have grown up in Western ways of thinking. . . . . Any NDE is a mystical experience, but with few exceptions, Western people are not educated mystics. The fear in experiences of the Void rises out of profound, fathomless detachment from self and other, for which most of us are totally unprepared.

Margaret Donaldson has mounted a compelling argument in her excellent book, Human Minds: an exploration, to explain how high a price we might be paying in the West for discounting mystical experience as we do, for example in part at least (page 264 – my emphasis):

The very possibility of emotional development that is genuinely on a par with – as high as, level with – the development of reason is only seldom entertained. So long as this possibility is neglected, then if reason by itself is sensed as inadequate where else can one go but back? Thus there arises a regressive tendency, a desire to reject reason and all that was best in the Enlightenment, a yearning for some return to the mythic, the magical, the marvellous in old senses of these terms. This is very dangerous; but it has the advantage that it is altogether easier than trying to move forward into something genuinely new.

Now we have clearly seen that the cultivation of the advanced value-sensing mode [e.g. in meditation] is not of itself new. It has ancient roots. What would be new would be a culture where both kinds of enlightenment were respected and cultivated together. Is there any prospect that a new age of this kind might be dawning?

Bush is exploring here a further example of this cost. We will returning to Donaldson’s final question in the last post.

It is not that such ideas are absent in our Western mystical tradition: it is that we have turned our backs on them for so long they have been almost completely forgotten (2068-75)

In addressing the fear produced by the Void, Gerald May quoted the fourteenth century spiritual guide, Theologica Germanica: “Nothing burns in hell but self-will.” . . . . [T]he contemplatives proclaim, with a conviction that can be absolutely frightening, that self-image must truly die… A dying image of self, or a dying belief in such an image, must be accompanied by a dying of one’s images of the world as well. It is not an easy business.

She goes on to make links between Nirvana, the Void and astrophysics whose validity lies far beyond my ability to assess but are well worth mentioning. She quotes Brian Greene (2080-82):

‘Empty space is not nothing; it’s something with hidden characteristics as real as all the stuff in our everyday lives.’

She therefore concludes (2088):

. . . [T]here is this curious resemblance among Godhead, space, the Void, and Nirvana—that what seems so empty may be full of everything there is.’

And on that paradoxical note we must leave it for now.

Next time we will be looking at how she develops these ideas further and explores the probability that we are in another Axial Age, one of potentially traumatic transition.

Then I plan to briefly outline her detailed and well-researched exploration of how we might approach these experiences as symbols that could function as pointers to a reality whose roots lie deep in our imagination but are not imaginary.

As I indicated at the start of this series of posts I plan to come back to that theme in far more detail as a topic that needs careful exploration in its own right, so important are her views about it but so distant is it from any conventional view of reality as articulated by our modern faith in pseudo-scientific naturalism.

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White Rose top

Given my recent reference to this brilliant book it seemed worth reposting the full sequence.

Whatever Happened to the Rose Garden?

Nancy Evans Bush’s book – Dancing Past the Dark: Distressing Near-Death Experiences – is a challenging but essential one. Among the many who followed with keen interest the unfolding story of the near-death experience (NDE), I was, as were most of us, happy to view the experience through the rose-tinted spectacles purveyed by the majority of NDErs who, until relatively recently, found their way into print.

This book is a wake up call.

We have moved from a position where (405) ‘of the 354 near-death experiences in eight major studies between the years 1975 and 2005, including the largest in-hospital investigations, there were no unpleasant reports.’

This reversal began slowly (410-11).

But then… “In 1978,” Kenneth Ring would write years later, “a dark cloud of chilling testimony began to penetrate into the previously luminous sky of reports of near-death experiences” (1994, 5). . . . . The “dark cloud” was a startling book published by Chattanooga cardiologist Maurice Rawlings (1978). In Beyond Death’s Door, Rawlings described in grim detail another kind of near-death experience for some of his patients being resuscitated from cardiac arrest. “Doc! Doc! Don’t let me go under again—I’m in hell!”

Bush admits that Rawlings evidence was somewhat shaky but he was not alone (432):

Psychologist Charles A. Garfield reported as early as 1979 that of 36 people interviewed, eight described vivid demonic or nightmarish visions, while another four reported alternating blissful and terrifying features.

Intriguingly, what was described was not some dramatic confirmation of the objective reality of Dante’s Inferno. In terms of the visual effects Hammer films would’ve had created some scarier ones even without computer graphics (456):

“. . . [T]he negative near-death experiences in our study,” Gallup summarized, “include some of the following features: featureless, sometimes forbidding faces; beings who are often merely present, but aren’t at all comforting; a sense of discomfort—especially emotional or mental unrest; feelings of confusion about the experience; a sense of being tricked or duped into ultimate destruction; and fear about what the finality of death may involve.”

Hardly X certificate material, then.

But the significance of these experiences is precisely because they do not conform to our ideas of a conventional hell at all and yet their impact upon those who experienced them and the reaction of those they disclosed the experiences to is completely disproportionate to the relative blankness of the visual canvas. We’ll come back to that point later.

The reluctance of people to come forward with these stories is a key characteristic and speaks volumes (470):

The infrequency of alarming NDEs in the materials then available . . .  is, in retrospect, not because distress does not exist in the modern near-death repertoire but because experiencers were not ready to come forward with them.

We need to unpack this point more fully to understand its true significance (485):

Medical social worker Kimberly Clark Sharp was the first to observe that this is a population that vanishes . . . . For many people with a painful NDE, simply admitting they have had such an experience is as much as they can do; describing it can seem impossible.

Bush’s own gathering of stories was a painfully slow process and (493-95):

It took nine years to find fifty people who could give enough detail to create a coherent sense of such experiences. . . . . [T]he “closeting” was so intense that even when our respondents could bring themselves to write their accounts, few were willing or able to complete the questionnaire, answer questions, or agree to an interview.

For a scientific study to be credible the sample of ‘subjects’ has to be as nearly random as possible to be truly representative. Random, these fifty people clearly were not but, she writes, (504): ‘From what we know about these fifty individuals, they are a representative group of ordinary people who have had an extraordinary experience.’

Though her main focus is on distressing NDEs, as she herself states towards the end of her exploration (3226):

The purpose of this book is to provide as even-handed a description as I can give of what is known about near-death experiences and how people of different backgrounds and faith standings make meaning of them, depending on their own point of view.

She is therefore redressing the balance rather than taking the distressing experiences completely out of context.

In attempting to review this book, which covers the topic from at least three main angles, I am going to focus mainly on the first two sections of her treatment: the experience itself and the issues relating to how we interpret that experience. These are the least subjective aspects of her treatment, and the rigorous, dispassionate and thorough way she approaches her material means that what she says should carry weight for all of us and deserves our careful attention.

Her third section, which consists mainly of pointers and signposts to help those who have had a distressing NDE find a constructive and healing way to understand it, I will explore very briefly in this sequence of posts.

It refers to a mass of material which potentially can help people move past the negativity: it is therefore, for those who are struggling, her most crucial. However I need to return to it more fully later as a topic in itself if I am to do it justice. I will have to draw on other aspects of my reading which need more room than I can spare in this review if it is not to sprawl beyond reasonable limits.

'Void Devouring the Gadget Era' by Mark Tobey

‘Void Devouring the Gadget Era’ by Mark Tobey

What did these accounts reveal?

Those of us who want nice clear lists of typical components are not in for a treat unfortunately (505):

The basic finding of the study was quickly apparent: there is no universal “distressing experience.” In fact, there was greater variety of phenomena within these accounts than among those of pleasurable experiences.

They did, though, fall into certain categories so I began to breathe more easily again (515):

In the most common, the elements of the classic pleasurable NDE were experienced as terrifying. The second type was an experience of nothingness, of being without sensation and/or of existing in a limitless, featureless void. The third type, with by far the fewest accounts, corresponds more closely to the hell of the popular imagination.

I found that last point particularly intriguing as it weighs heavily in favour of the credibility of these accounts. If they were fuelled purely by our culture’s expectations we would find in most of these accounts a world populated by medieval devils and animated gargoyles against a backdrop of fire and brimstone. But we don’t. This argues for the probability that something else more objectively valid is going on here, something not directly subject to, certainly not the product of our desires and expectations as most materialists would contend. And it is experienced by a more coherent consciousness than anoxia, drugs or delirium would permit.

Given that the experiences are so bleak and stark, as against teeming with malevolent culturally influenced stereotypes, what makes them so disturbing – too disturbing to share, quite often? This is where Bush’s analysis really comes into its own. She fully recognizes the nature of the challenge this poses and rises to it admirably.

Her first point is obvious enough and begs the question to some extent (563): ‘. . . . what is frightening in this type of experience is not so much its objective content as the person’s subjective reaction to the content.’

One problem for the Western mind experiencing any NDE is that, according to the prevailing materialistic paradigm, none of this should be happening (568):

Here for the first time we see the conceptual difficulty of encountering a realm that is other. The world of science, remember, does not “do” the non-physical. Few of us are contemplative monks, saturated in the world of the transcendent and well versed in the history of spiritual practice; most of us have no language, no context for this kind of event.

In addition, NDEs press certain panic buttons for us, all the more so when they are not the uplifting kind, though even the latter can be ill-received by some experiencers. She lists these buttons as safety, control and surrender (571-582):

Safety lies in control. Especially for people whose preference in dealing with the world is cognitive, rational, analytical – the preferred mode in Western culture – the perception of chaos may be extremely alarming. . . . NDEs are risky. . . . .  Perhaps one reason that people respond so differently to an NDE lies in their ability to tolerate the radical riskiness of free-fall into otherness. . . . . Ram Dass quotes Mahatma Gandhi as saying, ‘God demands nothing less than complete self-surrender as the price for the only freedom that is worth having.’

It is not a comfortable place to be for a Western left-brain-dominated control freak – forced into a position possibly requiring surrender to the completely unknown.

If the unknown in these negative experiences were a recognizable something, the situation might be slightly less terrifying. The problem is it’s not recognisable at all according to those rare and courageous individuals prepared to talk about what they experienced to someone who was clearly a very skilled listener (598):

What the second type of experiences have in common is some version of the Void, a palpable emptiness, a mental but otherwise non-sensory negation of self and world.

In discussing this she has pointed me back to someone whose book has lain unfinished on my shelves since 1995 – a not uncommon fate for books in my possession, I’m sorry to admit. My pocket has proved much deeper than my appetite for ideas, it would seem. She writes (632):

“The experience of the Void,” says psychiatrist Stanislav Grof . . .  “is the most enigmatic and paradoxical of all the transpersonal experiences. It is experiential identification with the primordial Emptiness, Nothingness, and Silence, which seem to be the ultimate cradle of all existence.

Such a way of thinking about our possible destination raises a crucial question in her mind (651):

Isn’t it odd, as a friend once commented, that we practice guitar and saxophone and piano; we practice golf and gymnastics; we practice aerobics; but we rarely, if ever, practice anything in our inner life. We spend months planning a two-week vacation, but we do not plan to die—nor, for that matter, do we plan how to live. We tend to think it will just happen. And so, although we would not dream of asking an amateur to pilot a mission to outer space, we somehow expect ourselves to encounter inner space without training or assistance.


From my pile of unfinished tomes

What do they mean?

I’m going to make a small jump now to an issue of particular fascination for me, given my sense that a defining characteristic of human beings is their need to make meaning out of experience. She quotes Miriam Greenspan as saying (815) ‘Meaning-making is a defining characteristic of what it is to be human. Existing without purpose or meaning, for humans, is like existing without air. You can only go for so long before you choke.’ The meaning we make of an experience such as the negative NDE can have a devastating impact upon our lives.

In Bush’s view this impulse towards meaning provokes one of three, possibly four, reactions to an NDE, especially of the distressing kind (822-25):

Perhaps the most common is conversion, turning one’s life around. Another is reductionism, replacing an alarming explanation by one that feels more manageable. The third response is a failure of resolution, which can range from bewilderment and a searching for one’s life mission to a lingering disbelief and despair. . . . . To these three types of response, repression might be added in the case of stark terror.

Because a distressing NDE is terrifying the most common response is likely to be conversion, but not necessarily in the sense of changing one’s religion (831):

Among people whose NDE was genuinely terrifying and even hellish, it is likely that most fit this model. They understand the message of the NDE as simple: This is a warning; something in your life is wrong and must change, or there will be unwelcome outcomes.

This can make conservative religious movements attractive such as Bible-based Christianity or Orthodox Judaism.

On the other hand (861) ‘Reductionism is common among investigators who deny any spiritual claims about NDEs.’ According to Corbett ‘reductionism is a “defense [that] allows one to repudiate the meaning of an event which does not fit into a safe category.”’

And last of all we find (901) ‘lack of resolution moves [the experiencer] from reductionism to this third group, which has identified no comprehensible meaning in their near-death experiences.’ They are caught in an irresolvable conflict (914):

Conversations and correspondence indicate that these experiencers are typically articulate people haunted by the existential dimension of the event and searching for an explanation that is both intellectually and emotionally grounding. Intellectually unable to accept a literal reading of the event, they also find reductionist explanations inadequate, as the theories assign a cause but do not address the question of meaning or integration.

I need to make this a series of posts, even while treating the last section of her exploration briefly, as every section of her book poses serious questions about an experience that has been discounted for decades and now needs to be integrated into our paradigm of reality. I think that is excuse enough for a series of three posts at this point. I hope that by the end of it you will agree.

No matter how long this sequence is it will not be a substitute for reading this compelling book as I have ruthlessly omitted scores of telling points and moving accounts of NDEs.

Till the next time then.

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. . . . psychotic symptoms exist on a continuum even in healthy individuals (Stefanis et al., 2002). This, too, seems to be explicable if psychosis is a way to cope with existential distress – as psychosis would be quantitatively, rather than qualitatively, different from normal.

(Psychosis as Coping by Grant S Shields – page 146 in Existential Analysis 25.1: January 2014)

There is growing interest in the idea of that ‘psychotic’ crises can sometimes be part of, or related to spiritual crises, and many people feel that their crises have contributed to spiritual growth. A number of clinical psychologists have also explored the interface between psychosis and spirituality. Some believe that at least some ‘psychotic’ episodes can be transformative crises that contain the potential for personal, including spiritual, growth. Many people who believe that there is a spiritual element to their experiences find support from others with similar beliefs invaluable, for example within faith communities.

(From Understanding Psychosis and Schizophrenia published by the British Psychological Society – page 55)

In the last post I began to look at a paper (pages 41-49, from the British Journal of Clinical Psychology – 2012 – 51, 37-53) by Charles Heriot-Maitland, Matthew Knight and Emmanuelle Peters on the subject of what they call Out-of-the-Ordinary-Experiences or OOEs.

Where their findings became even more intriguing from my point of view was when their discussion used terminology with clear spiritual implications that are held in common across NDEs, mystical states and meditative practices. They write:

Another subjective phenomenon reported by both [clinical] and [nonclinical] participants was the sensation of ego loss, what essentially seemed to be a breakdown of the normal psychological relationships between mind-body and/or self-others.

A fear reaction was frequently reported and ‘is likely to have largely come from the unfamiliarity of [the] experience . . . . It is possible that more prolonged absorption was caused by the emotionally fulfilling roll of the OOE in a psychological problem-solving process.’

This was followed in their report by more of a spiritual nature concerning the discovery of deeper meaning:

This symbolic, deeper meaning perhaps reflects the quality of awareness that is not filtered or confined by the conceptual boundaries of ordinary day-to-day experience… If the ego breaks down, then it may be that perception of the world becomes unbounded and limitless . . . .

This, in their view, paves the way for a shift in consciousness:

Following on from the previous theme, which conveys an awareness that is free from the influences of a ‘conditioned’ conceptual framework, this theme suggests the implementation of a new conceptual framework, or a new way of looking at the world.

levels-of-consciousness v3Where their work maps onto that of Jenny Wade is in the idea that, when our old models of reality cease to work in new situations, a state of uncomfortable dissonance is created that leads to a breakthrough to new levels of understanding:

It could be that the initial psychological crisis arose in many participants due to an inadequacy of their existing conceptual framework in making sense of their emotional experience. . . . . . It may be that a new way of thinking was the necessary, adaptive ‘solution’ to the crisis; that the old conceptual framework had to be replaced by a new one for the emotional experience to become integrated.

Dabrowski's TPD diagramWade’s model maps closely onto Dabrowski’s Theory of Positive Disintegration in key respects. She analyses, in a more close-grained fashion than Dabrowski, which kind of conflict and discomfort spurs us to move up from the comfort zone of our present level of consciousness to the next step up the ladder of awareness. Dabrowski, as I have explored elsewhere, correlates this most strongly with an intensity best described as suffering.

The next point the paper makes is crucial:

[T]he fact that, apart from existential questioning, there has been no notable difference up to this point in the OOEs of [clinical] and [non-clinical] groups implies that this problem-solving process is neither pathological nor indicative of clinical psychosis.

The real issue lies somewhere else altogether. They explain in a particularly important passage:

More of the [nonclinical] participants received validating/accepting responses from others, and more of the [clinical] group received invalidating responses, as these quotes illustrate:

‘[I] relayed this experience to psychiatrists in the [hospital] and was sent for EEG tests, was told that I was hallucinating – this guy just didn’t listen to, just obviously haven’t heard anything really that I’d said . . .’

‘Somebody came up to me and said “well, you know, we really need to hear from you. That’s a very powerful message to people, and they need to hear that message.” And that did matter to me.’

For the individual who is, perhaps, already slightly hesitant about how best to incorporate their experience into their social worlds, the difference between these two social interactions could be immense.

All non-clinical participants demonstrated some prior understanding or interest in their OOEs, which are generally described as ‘life-enhancing.’ Furthermore, ‘These life-enhancing qualities, which were reported by the majority of participants, add further support to the psychological problem-solving hypothesis. Not only did the OOEs provide many participants with relief from emotional suffering, but they also added a dimension that enriched other life domains. . . . . The medical (illness) explanation clearly presented barriers to similar reflections in the clinical population . . .’

The blame for why some people’s experiences are eventually experienced as dark, negative and ultimately inescapable seems to lie with the negative approach adopted by others, especially the medical profession:

More [non-clinical] than [clinical] participants viewed their experience as a temporary stage or process. . . . . . [I]f the causes and subjective nature of OOEs are no different between [non-clinical] and [clinical] groups, then it seems misleading for professionals to inform one group that their OOEs signal ‘the end,’ [ie they are stuck with them] while the other group continue with their (enhanced) lives.’

dancing-past-the-darkThis has echoes for me of how the reaction of others determines how the experiencer responds to distressing NDEs, which also has an impact on their future mental well-being. Nancy Evans Bush writes (Dancing Past the Dark: Kindle reference 2502-05):

Experiencers have told many sad stories of going to a professional for help in understanding their NDE, only to find themselves caught up in the medical model, pathologized by a diagnostic label and the NDE dismissed as meaningless. . . . . . . People have also told of being dismissed by their rabbi or pastor as well, for in a secular society much awareness of deep spiritual process is lost or distorted, even within religious institutions themselves.

Stephanie Beards and Helen Fisher, in a 2014 paper (Social Psychiatry Psychiatric Epidemiology 49: 1541–1544), shed further light on the dynamics of this. They write (page 1542):

It has been proposed that negative core schemas [ingrained patterns of thought or behaviour that affect experience] are formed early in life and may result from adverse experiences in childhood. If an individual experiences further trauma later in life, these schemas could become (re)activated, leading to emotional changes which may not only cause the development of psychotic experiences, but alter the appraisal of these anomalous occurrences, further increasing distress, and preventing a benign explanation from being concluded.

Even so, such experiences do not need to cast a shadow over the rest of a person’s life. The experiences themselves, as the current British Journal of Clinical Psychology study demonstrates, are not significantly different between the two groups, nor are the potential explanations they develop. Nearly all participants gave some acknowledgement of the link between psychotic and spiritual experience.

Because the OOEs of all participants seemed, at some level, to fulfil a psychological purpose, they were interpreted as being a part of an adaptive psychological problem-solving process, which frequently involved the breakdown of conceptual ego boundaries, and the formation of a new conceptual outlook.

However, regarding group differences (my emphases), they write:

[T]here was a sense that [non-clinical] participants were better able to incorporate their OOEs into their personal and social world. This was partly due to more [non-clinical] participants having prior conceptual knowledge of, and in some cases, open attitudes towards, there OOEs; however, the more prominent reason seem to be that more [non-clinical] participants received validation and acceptance from others.

The saddest point of all perhaps is this:

It would seem that the more OOEs are associated with clinical psychosis, the less chance people have of recognising their desirability, transiency, and psychological benefits, and the more chance they have of detrimental clinical consequences.

They draw some very strong conclusions from this:

An important clinical implication is that psychotic experiences should be normalised, and people with psychosis should be helped to re-connect the meaning of their OOEs with the genuine emotional and existential concerns that preceded them. . . . . . However, the current findings suggest that the argument for normalisation goes far deeper than just its clinical usefulness; they imply that a more ‘radical normalisation’ approach is needed, when normalising OOEs becomes an intrinsic formulation and treatment principle.

During my decluttering, I also came across a number of journals which describe current approaches to creating psychological descriptions of a patient’s problems, known as formulations in psychobabble. Nowhere, for any patient group, did I find reference to any kind of spiritual dimension, though the word ‘cultural’ was thrown in from time to time, and might have concealed an entrance through which such considerations could possibly have infiltrated the consultation process.

When it comes to psychosis, where the default first-line treatment is medication rather than therapy (or meditation), there is an additional problem:

Unlike antipsychotic drugs, which can suppress the emotional expression, this approach [of accepting the validity of the emotions underlying the OOEs] would validate and encourage the emotional expression, whilst working on building a more helpful conceptualisation or narrative about the emotional concerns.’

The authors do not regard their paper as definitive. They are all to aware of its possible limitations, shown, for example, by their reference to methodological caveats concerning small sample size and possible confounding variables not having been picked up at screening and thereafter controlled for.

I do not think those caveats constitute reasons for ignoring or minimising the significance of their findings, but rather they should be a motivating factor for the generation of further work on this issue. In the meantime, even in advance of further findings, we should be spurred to introduce into the clinical setting a far greater sensitivity to the emotional and spiritual meaning of such experiences.

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A particularly shocking demonstration of the limitations of the genetic argument is an epidemiological analysis of the prevalence and incidence of schizophrenia in Nazi Germany, wherein it is estimated between 220,000 and 269,500 citizens with the diagnosis were forcibly sterilized or murdered by the Nazi regime (Read & Masson, 2013; Torrey & Yolken, 2010). Contrary to everything that is known about genetic, heritable conditions, the rates of schizophrenia diagnoses in Germany did not diminish after the war but increased. The analysis showed this atrocity provided proof against the very reasoning used to instigate it.

(The Role of Social Adversity in the Etiology of Psychosis by
Eleanor Longden and John Read – page 11)

schwartzSome time ago on this blog I addressed the issue of neuroplasticity. I shared my frustration at how the neuroscientific community’s resistance to the idea that the mature brain could change had been a damaging doctrine for decades.

As I wrote in 2012, even if you only date the start of a belief in neuroplasticity at 1962 – and there is some evidence it could fairly be backdated earlier than that – 34 years seems a long time to wait for such a clinically vital concept to surface into general practice.

I can testify to that from personal experience. From when I first studied psychology in 1975 until I qualified as a clinical psychologist in 1982, the conventional wisdom was that the adult brain had virtually no capacity to change itself. I cannot exactly remember when it became respectable to doubt that dogma, but I am fairly sure it was well into the 90s. And even then it was a qualified scepticism only. We were into the new century before I became aware of the wide-ranging and radical possibilities that people like Schwartz have written about.

It is horrifying to contemplate the human cost of such resolute intransigence in the face of compelling data.

I have expressed equal frustration, if not more, at the obdurate dogmatism with which mainstream materialistic science denies validity to spiritual experiences of almost any kind.

Not even once in my entire experience of being taught psychology did I ever hear of Frederick William Henry Myers, a resolute explorer of the borderland between mind and spirit. The closest encounter I ever had of this kind was with William James. He was mentioned in asides with a dismissive and grudging kind of respect. The implication was that he was an amazing thinker for his time but nowadays very much old hat. I gave him a quick glance and moved on.

Looking back now I realise I was robbed.

Irreducible MindKelly and Kelly capture it neatly and clearly in the introduction to their brave, thorough and well-researched book, Irreducible Mind (pages xvii-xviii):

[William] James’s person-centered and synoptic approach was soon largely abandoned . . . in favour of a much narrower conception of scientific psychology. Deeply rooted in earlier 19th-century thought, this approach advocated deliberate emulation of the presuppositions and methods – and thus, it was hoped, the stunning success – of the “hard” sciences especially physics. . . . Psychology was no longer to be the science of mental life, as James had defined it. Rather it was to be the science of behaviour, “a purely objective experimental branch of natural science”. It should “never use the terms consciousness, mental states, mind, content, introspectively verifiable, imagery, and the like.”

And, sadly, in some senses nothing much has changed. Too many psychologists are still, for the most part, pursuing the Holy Grail of a complete materialistic explanation for every aspect of consciousness and the working of the mind.

I have a comparable, perhaps even greater, sense of frustration about a similarly destructive dogmatism that bedevils the clinical/psychiatric approach to so-called psychotic experiences. This is far more damaging, for reasons that will become clear in a moment, than the a priori rubbishing of psi or near death experiences, unhealthy as that undoubtedly is.

My recent decluttering process triggered the feeling all over again. I’ve been sorting through back issues of my psychology journals. In the process, I found one article of particular interest on this theme. Sadly it was the only one I found in the dozens of journals I have checked through for items of interest before deciding whether to discard them. (As I later discovered through trawling the web and my British Psychological Society website in particular, there are others sailing against the hitherto prevailing current of dogmatic biodeterminism, but they are still the exception rather than the rule. The BPS as a body, to its credit, is getting on board as well, as quotes I use in later posts will testify.)

The journal[1] was dated 2012 and contained a paper by Charles Heriot-Maitland, Matthew Knight and Emmanuelle Peters on the subject of what they call Out-of-the-Ordinary-Experiences or OOEs. The focus of the study was to use a phenomenological interview process that enabled them to compare the experiences of two small groups of people, one group who had been diagnosed as psychotic, labelled the clinical (C) group, and other who had not, labelled the non-clinical (NC) group.

Their operating assumption from the start was that voice-hearing prevalence, which runs at 10-15%, (page 38) ‘suggests that OOEs do not inevitably lead to psychiatric conditions, and that people can experience psychotic-like phenomena whilst continuing to function effectively.’

They also refer to two other pieces of research from this sparsely populated field of investigation.

First of all, they quote Brett et al (2007) as finding that ‘while [their Diagnosed] group were more likely to appraise their experiences as external and caused by other people, the [Undiagnosed] group made more psychological, spiritual and normalising appraisals, and reported higher perceived understanding from others. . . . . They . . . did find trauma levels in both groups to be higher than in the general population.’

Jackson and Fulford (1997), which they describe as the only known published qualitative study of clinical and nonclinical populations with OOEs, also found that psychotic-like experiences were triggered in both groups by intense stress in the context of existential crises, and that the subsequent group distinction depended on ‘the way in which psychotic phenomena are embedded in the values and beliefs of the person concerned.’

Later work has expanded on this. For instance, Eleanor Longden and John Read in their review of the evidence concerning the role of social adversity in the etiology of psychosis (American Journal of Psychotherapy, Vol. 70, No. 1, 2016: pages 21-22) summarise a wealth of data that suggests that, not only is trauma a clear factor in the incidence of psychosis, but also psychotic experiences relate strongly to the nature of the trauma experienced. For example, work with 41 patients experiencing a first episode of psychosis found that attributes of stressful events in the year preceding psychosis onset were significantly associated with core themes of both delusions and hallucinations (Raune, Bebbington, Dunn, & Kuipers, 2006).

Where the OOE work is particularly significant is in the emphasis it places on the potentially positive function of the psychotic experience in and of itself, a rare perspective indeed. Even a paper on the existential approach (Grant S Shields – Existential Analysis 25.1: January 2014 – page 143) takes a somewhat darker view of such experiences, seeing psychosis as ‘a mechanism for coping with existential distress – a way of being that allows an individual to escape existential realities when that individual cannot avoid these things otherwise.’ I will be returning to a more detailed consideration of his valuable but different position in a later post.


Later in this sequence I will refer back to other thinking and data that expand on the relationship between levels of consciousness or understanding, and the stress caused by experiences that challenge the models of reality we have so far developed. I’ll just focus in the reminder of this first post in the sequence on the basics of what this study found (pages 41-49). Please bear in mind as you read that we should do our best to see the experiences labelled ‘psychotic’ not as some alien state remote from anything we might ever have to undergo ourselves, but as simply part of a continuum, a dimension, along which we all are placed and therefore could at some point also be thrust to a similar extreme, given the wrong circumstances. I’ll be retiring to they theme in a later sequence as well.

Nearly all participants in both groups reported a period of emotional suffering before their first OOE. There was a sense, therefore, that the first OOE was a direct expression of emotional concerns at the time. For details of what some of the OOEs were like, see the table above.

A process of existential questioning came into the mix. Similar to the emotional suffering, there also seemed to be some direct relevance of OOEs to the context of participants’ existential questioning. From this, it could be interpreted that the OOE actually emerged as a direct expression of, or indeed solution to, some kind of psychological crisis.

Isolation, which was reported equally across both groups, was either caused by intentional social withdrawal, or by private pre-occupation with other activities. It may therefore be that isolation has more of a causal role in triggering the experience itself, perhaps because it encourages introspective focus on the kinds of emotional and/or existential concerns mentioned above.

At first I thought the authors might be operating on an implicit assumption that isolation is generally undesirable, but revised that view in the light of the paper as a whole.

One of their most striking findings was the powerful language used by participants to describe the emotionally fulfilling and euphoric qualities of their experiences.

Next Monday I’ll be looking more directly at the spiritual implications of this.


[1] British Journal of Clinical Psychology (2012) 51, pages 37-52.


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I’m re-posting this after the Badi poem, as a reminder that martyrdom is testing as well as potentially inspiring, at least to the English mind.  


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