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Posts Tagged ‘near death experience’

Mirror of the DivineHow is it possible for a person who simply sets words to paper, who plucks a string or dabs colour on a canvas, to play… a remarkable role in the spiritual life of man? The key lies in the fact that art has a direct and real effect on the human soul.

(Ludwig Tuman in Mirror of the Divine – page 81)

Both because I am about to revisit the purpose of literature in terms of poetry this time, and because it involves discussing the kind of bleakness this sequence references, it seemed doubly appropriate to republish it so soon after the last time, earlier this year. It is coming out on consecutive days.

To explore further this issue of whether or not there is a self beneath the flux of consciousness with some hope of clarity, I need to go back to what Harris says: ‘The implied center of cognition and emotion simply falls away, and it is obvious that consciousness is never truly confined by what it knows’ and ‘consciousness is intrinsically free of self.’

The No Self Issue

He may have disposed of the self in a way that preserves his atheism intact. What he skates over are the implications of the consciousness with which he is left. I can see that we are close to Buddhist ideas of the annihilation of the self as it merges back into the ground of being – blending its drop into the ocean once more.

But there’s a catch, isn’t there? There is still some kind of consciousness albeit without the usual boundaries. There is still an awareness with which he is connected and whose experience he remembers even if he cannot sustain that kind of awareness for long.

Setting aside my sense, which I have explored at length elsewhere, that the mere existence of consciousness warrants a transcendent explanation, and that reductionist explanations are missing the point, where does this leave us?

Eben Alexander

Eben Alexander

I am reminded here of the detailed, and in my view completely trustworthy, account of a near death experience given by Eben Alexander. I have dealt elsewhere on this blog with books that explore near death experiences (NDEs) in a more scientific way (see above links). I have chosen to quote here from one person’s experience partly because it is more appropriate to this examination of literature and also because it counterbalances Harris’s one-person account. If sceptics are happy to accept Harris’s conclusions from his experience, I can see no reason for me not to accept Alexander’s.

I need to quote from it at some length to make its relevance completely clear. Describing the early stages of his NDE he finds it frankly bizarre (page 77):

To say that at that point in the proceedings I still had no idea who I was or where I’d come from sounds somewhat perplexing, I know. After all, how could I be learning all these stunningly complex and beautiful things, how could I see the girl next to me, and the blossoming trees and waterfalls and villagers, and still not know that it was I, Eben Alexander, who was the one experiencing them? How could I understand all that I did, yet not realize that on earth I was a doctor, husband, and father?

The girl accompanies him through almost all the stages of his journey. When he makes his improbable recovery from the week-long encephalitis-induced coma, as an adopted child he goes back to exploring his birth family, an exploration interrupted almost before it began by his life-threatening illness. He makes contact and discovers that he had had a birth sister who died. When he finally sees the photograph of her a dramatic realization slowly dawns (pages 166-167):

In that one moment, in the bedroom of our house, on a rainy Tuesday morning, the higher and the lower worlds met. Seeing that photo made me feel a little like the boy in the fairy tale who travels to the other world and then returns, only to find that it was all a dream—until he looks in his pocket and finds a scintillating handful of magical earth from the realms beyond.

As much as I’d tried to deny it, for weeks now a fight had been going on inside me. A fight between the part of my mind that had been out there beyond the body, and the doctor—the healer who had pledged himself to science. I looked into the face of my sister, my angel, and I knew—knew completely—that the two people I had been in the last few months, since coming back, were indeed one. I needed to completely embrace my role as a doctor, as a scientist and healer, and as the subject of a very unlikely, very real, very important journey into the Divine itself. It was important not because of me, but because of the fantastically, deal-breakingly convincing details behind it. My NDE had healed my fragmented soul. It had let me know that I had always been loved, and it also showed me that absolutely everyone else in the universe is loved, too. And it had done so while placing my physical body into a state that, by medical science’s current terms, should have made it impossible for me to have experienced anything.

Proof-of-HeavenHe, as a sceptical scientist, on the basis of his very different experience, made a different decision from that of Harris.

His whole account absolutely requires careful reading. It is to be trusted in my view first of all because it is written by someone who was, before his NDE, an atheist, as Harris is, secondly because he is an academic as well as a highly regarded neurosurgeon with much to lose from declaring himself as a believer in such things, and lastly because he followed the advice of his son and recorded the whole experience before reading any NDE literature that might have unduly influenced his narrative.

What do the passages I have just quoted suggest?

Well, I think they bridge the gap between what Harris describes and what ‘Abdu’l-Bahá tells us (Tablets: page 730):

Know thou for a certainty that in the divine worlds the spiritual beloved ones will recognize one another, and will seek union with each other, but a spiritual union. Likewise a love that one may have entertained for anyone will not be forgotten in the world of the Kingdom, nor wilt thou forget there the life that thou hadst in the material world.

How come?

For a start, it shows someone conscious but without any memory for who he is – awareness stripped of self, in the terms we are using here. This leaves me feeling it maps onto, even if it goes beyond, the state of mind Harris describes.

So, with at least some resemblance to an extreme meditative state, it takes us one step further. It demonstrates consciousness without a brain. The coma has helpfully disconnected his brain, without any need for him to learn how to do it himself via meditation, and yet he is still aware.

Even more amazing is that, with his brain shut down, he has been able to retain detailed memories of a rich week-long experience and begin the process of reintegrating it into his brain-bound identity.

Equally surprisingly, a consciousness he didn’t know but which clearly knew him, a survivor of the body’s death, connects with him. Even though, in this NDE Alexander has forgotten who he is, and therefore does not confirm that aspect of what ‘Abdu’l-Bahá wrote, the consciousness of his dead sister had obviously retained a sense of who she had been and what her relationships were, even when there had been no interaction physically with Alexander during her mortal life. It seems legitimate to assume that, if Alexander’s experience is a precursor to an eternal afterlife, there would be time for him to reconnect with memories of who he was.

What has all this got to do with los Solitarios and Lehrer’s ideas about the novel?

Just to clarify, I am not simplistically concluding that all the Solitarios are equally reductionist. Pessoa, Machado and Rilke each have their own more spiritual take on reality at times. What I am suggesting here is that Proust and Beckett, along with other modernists such as James Joyce and Virginia Woolf, have fallen into the modernist trap to some degree.

Why do I call it a trap?

Once we deny any form of spiritual or transcendent reality it is only a short step to concluding that life has no meaning beyond what we arbitrarily give to it. Beckett’s existential despair becomes a predictable symptom, as does what Richard Davenport-Hines summarized as the degenerative, secularised squalor of the world Proust saw around him and depicted in his work.

A further consequence of this world picture is a powerful sense of alienation. This adds to the dispiriting bleakness of life as experienced through this lens. Both Beckett and Proust lived lives that were profoundly disconnected from the social world around them. I am on dangerous ground here if I simplistically attribute this disconnection only to their materialistic approach to the world. My other Solitarios are equally alienated from the social world but, with the possible exception of Rilke, do not inhabit as bleak a subjective reality. My contention is that the combination of a tendency to extreme introversion combined with a reductionist worldview is a toxic prescription for despair. As such the literature it engenders will render a seriously distorted view of existence.

If their versions of reality are unbalanced, what to do?

Is the novel, part of Beckett’s and all of Proust’s greatest work, an inherently materialist form? Is the same true of drama as well, so no get-out for Beckett there? Is only poetry suitable for and tending towards spiritual matters, hence the difference that exists between these two novelists and the work of Rilke, Machado and Pessoa?

The quality of Beckett’s and Proust’s writing is indisputable: the deficiencies of their moral and spiritual perspective create significant flaws in their overall achievement. What, if any, might be the remedy?

Beckett clearly felt there was none.

His absolute refusal to attempt anything of the kind may be part of the reason why Beckett as a writer fails to engage my interest. Few writers have ever seemed as trapped as Beckett was in a pillar-box consciousness that struggles and fails to find meaning in anything at all. I still fail to resonate to the overall negativity and nihilism of his world view, of the kind that meant that towards the end of his life, when he was asked (Cronin – page 590), ‘And now it’s nearly over, Sam, was there much of the journey you found worthwhile?’ he replied ‘Precious little.’

Reading Proust is less of a journey into an existential Arctic. However, although he has a strong sense of what he feels is right, the world his work explores has lost its moral compass a long time ago.

Three novels immediately spring to mind as having combined darkness with light in  a more balanced way.

tenant-of-wildfell-hallI recently drew attention to The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. The journal of the heroine is a disturbing description of an abusive marriage. Helen mistakenly marries the vulpine and narcissistic Huntington, and laments (The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, Penguin Edition Chapter 29 – page 243):

I have need of consolation in my son, for (to this silent paper I may confess it) I have but little in my husband. I love him still; and he loves me, in his own way — but oh, how different from the love I could have given, and once had hoped to receive! how little real sympathy there exists between us; how many of my thoughts and feelings are gloomily cloistered within my own mind; how much of my higher and better self is indeed unmarried — doomed either to harden and sour in the sunless shade of solitude, or to quite degenerate and fall away for lack of nutriment in this unwholesome soil!

And although she trusts things will get no worse, she is sadly mistaken.

What interests me particularly is the way that Emily Brontë blends her faith with her art. It’s signposted there with Helen’s use of the expression ‘higher and better self.’

Her novel integrates her faith with her art in way that adds depth, a depth upon which too much of modern art and writing has turned its back. I accept that some will find Helen’s piety disquieting in that it initially seems to influence her to suffer in silence. Even during that period though it gives her strength to cope with her husband’s oppressive vagaries, while also enabling her to hold onto the necessary critical perspective that means she never succumbs to the temptation to tolerate them as in some way acceptable.

Even more impressively, in the end we see Helen demonstrating that such piety is not incompatible with constructive self-assertion when the occasion demands it. The prime activating consideration here for Helen was the welfare of her son, whom she wished to rescue from the corrupting influence of his father (pages 352-53):

My child must not be abandoned to this corruption: better far that he should live in poverty and obscurity with a fugitive mother, than in luxury and affluence was such a father. . . I could endure it for myself, but for my son it must be borne no longer.

Bahiyyih-Nakhjavani-009

Bahiyyih Nakhjavani

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall blends art and spirituality superbly well: another book that comes close is Bahiyyih Nakhjavani’s masterpiece The Woman Who Read Too Mucha brilliant evocation of the life and times of the woman given the name Táhirih(“The Pure One”), who famously stated at her point of death at the hands of a group of assassins: ‘You can kill me as soon as you like, but you cannot stop the emancipation of women!’

I must also include Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead.  To quote the Goodread’s review: ‘Writing in the tradition of Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman, Marilynne Robinson’s beautiful, spare, and spiritual prose allows “even the faithless reader to feel the possibility of transcendent order” (Slate).’

It clearly can be done, and, if those three books are anything to go by, a strong focus on the consciousness of the characters depicted does not require a reductionist approach. These novels are very much in the tradition of Joyce, Beckett and Proust in this respect. But they do not lack a sense of the spiritual or transcendent also.

In addition, for me at least, they combine the capturing of consciousness with some form of interest-sustaining narrative, and it’s the echoes of the story and its implications that linger longest in my memory. If an author strays too far from some form of narrative it is possible he might diminish the long-term impact of his book on the reader.

Interestingly, all three books are by women authors.

Art, in my view, should create an experience that deepens our understanding of reality without unduly distorting it. Paradoxically, feminine writers are more effective in that respect than masculine ones, it seems. (It may be that ultimately I mean writers of a female cast of mind regardless of ostensible gender.)

Anyhow, when I now ponder on my current pantheon of novelists, women outnumber men. Jane Austen, the Brontês, Mary Anne Evans (pen name George Eliot), Elizabeth Gaskell, Doris Lessing, Hilary Mantell, A S Byatt, Margaret Attwood, Bahiyyih Nakhjavani and Marilynne Robinson, to name but the most important to me, leave Ford Madox Ford, Joseph Conrad and Fyodor Doestoyevsky trailing forlornly in the rear.

This realisation has come as a bit of a shock to me. I hadn’t expected it to turn out quite such a one-sided contest. It was not always thus – it’s only since I recently realised that Charles Dickens, Thomas Hardy and William Makepeace Thackeray amongst others, have fallen from grace in my mind’s eye over the years.

I need to digest this insight and test its validity against a re-reading of some of the authors I’ve just mentioned before I leap to a firm conclusion that those with a feminine cast of mind seem to hold the balance between spirit and matter, plot and consciousness, better on the whole than those whose orientation is more macho.

Whatever the truth of the gender idea may be, that at least some writers can achieve this balance confirms it is not impossible, and, if we believe as I do, that there is a spiritual dimension to reality, for the reasons I have given throughout this blog, then art has a duty to incorporate it into its representations of experience. It does not need to do so explicitly, any more than The Handmaid’s Tale has to spell out in detail the moral code that condemns the abuses it depicts but the moral code has to at least be implicit and not completely absent.

Well, that new slant on things has made my rather demoralising exploration of Proust and Beckett well worthwhile.

There will soon be more on the value of the feminine perspective.

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How dost thou reckon thyself only a puny form

When within thee the universe is folded?

(Ali, Successor to Muhammad,

quoted by Bahá’u’lláh in ‘The Seven Valleys‘ page 34)

sunset

Revisiting ‘The Marriage of Self and Soul‘ triggered me into thinking there would be some value in republishing this sequence from 2009. The first three posts will appear consecutively: the last next Tuesday and Wednesday.

Star-Stuff

Near death experiences come to the same conclusion as Ali:

As I indicated at the outset, what I have quoted here from our conversation describes only a portion of Mellen’s NDE, but it is enough, I think, to make clear that his vision is one of absolute wholeness in which all things are connected in a living cosmic web of organic unity. The visible universe is a universe of vibrating fields within fields, a dance of exquisite harmony, where, as Blake said, “Energy is eternal delight,” and everything sings of God’s immanent presence. At its core, exfoliating from the Void, is that radiant Light, which some have called the Central Sun, and which metaphorically may have its physical representation in the Big Bang, the genesis of it all, including the star-stuff we call ourselves. Because all things are truly one within this vision of life, we human beings-indeed, all living creatures-are one body indivisible and, as such, not separate from God either, but His very manifestation.

(‘Lessons from the Light‘: page 291)

Reductionists, those who would explain everything in the simplest possible material terms and insist there is nothing left over, find all such experiences irrelevant to an understanding of ‘reality.’ When we explore the issue carefully though, it is my belief that we will find a way of reconciling the idea of a soul and a limitless interior (inscape as I called it in an earlier post) with ordinary human experience.

Let’s start relatively small.

The Ghost in the Machine

The argument rages over whether the ghost in the machine, the pilot in the cockpit of our being, really exists or not. The question would then become not ‘Are we a self or a soul?’ but ‘Are we even a self?’

Daniel Dennett is clear. There is no ghost whatsoever in the machine. It’s a myth. Serial consciousness is itself an illusion. We also kid ourselves  if we believe for one moment that the self we feel ourselves to be is really in charge.

I’d better say, right at the outset, I’m not a philosopher as Dennett is. I am or was until I retired an applied psychologist by profession and before that a teacher of English Literature. When it comes to philosophy I’m about as advanced as Dr Johnson when he kicked a lamp post to refute Bishop Berkeley‘s solipsistic claim that things existed only as ideas in our minds placed there by God.

I will argue none the less that Dennett is fundamentally mistaken.

He produces what for him is compelling evidence that our complex brain has plotted and initiated its responses before we were even aware of what we intended to do let alone had the faintest possibility of making a decision about it. The fact is though he is talking about a response time experiment when we also know, for instance, that athletes delegate their decision to react to the gun to parts of the brain that respond subliminally before conscious attention gets the signal. That’s one of the reasons you get false starts.

But the decision to delegate is not made by those parts of the brain. So that we do not get eaten all that often by tigers and the like, evolution has shaped us to be able, in emergency situations, to react faster than we can think: that does not mean we choose to do that all the time. It’s not how we decide to buy a house or write a book. If it were ‘Consciousness Explained‘, the Dennett book in which this theory is propounded, would simply be the product of the automatic processes of a complex calculating machine not the purposeful carefully wrought creation of a person.

The brain has also evolved to automate well-learned skills such as driving a car. We’ve all had the experience of driving several  miles on ‘automatic pilot.’ To suppose, as Dennett seems to do, that  this is the same kind of process as deciding where to drive is treating mud as though it were cheese. Even if we were blindfolded with a peg on our nose, the latter error would become immediately obvious when we put the mud in our mouth. Unfortunately we do not have a similar palate wired in for distinguishing logic from confusion. So, Dennett gets away with his extravagant overgeneralisation. We end up believing, if we are not very careful, that my decision to go and visit my cousin in Manchester was not an act of will but of unseen processes in the brain automatically unfolding.

I’m afraid free will is a lamp post for me. When I decided to write this blog I kicked it and it was definitely there. (The brain’s complex automation adds a further complication to this which, for simplicity’s sake here, I am deferring to a later post: in spite of it I still can kick my lamp post of free will!)

But if there is still some kind of ghost in the machine what kind of ghost and what kind of machine are we talking about?

Identity, Self, Character and Soul

Previous posts on this blog looked at some of the arguments and evidence as to whether or not we will enjoy some kind of afterlife. If this belief has substance, then we have some kind of soul. What are the implications of that for our identity?

‘Abdu’l-Bahá, in his conversations with Laura Clifford Barney (Some Answered Questions [SAQ]: Page 212), explained that there are three kinds of character: the inherited, the acquired and the innate.

`The inherited character’, which he sees as the source of weakness of strength, most closely corresponds in layman’s terms to the idea of `temperament’ or `constitution’. ‘The acquired character,’ which for ‘Abdu’l-Bahá is the source of good and evil, has no simple equivalent being a composite of all that results from our life experiences: the concepts that stand closest to it are the `empirical self’, (which interacts with others, performs social roles and meets the gaze of introspection), and, perhaps, the `personality’ (which, it is claimed by some, can be measured by questionnaires and tests but generally has no moral implications for the psychologist who studies it).  The last, `the innate character’, is described as `purely good’ because it is a `divine creation.’ This seems to relate it closely to the human soul: `The personality of the rational soul is from its beginning; it is not due to the instrumentality of the body . . .’ (SAQ, page 240).

This description suggests that our sense of who we are is likely to be a composite and we may choose at different times to identify with these different aspects. We could be a self and a soul on this model, and not have to choose between the two as the title of this post suggested.

It is easy to see how we come to identify with our body and with the character we slowly develop as we grow and learn from interactions with the world and with other people. It may be harder, if not impossible for some of us, to experience our soul at all let alone identify with it.

How do we do that? What does it feel like?

Those are big questions and will have to wait for the next post.

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thompson

In the light of my recent sequence on pointers towards a spiritual psychology, this seems a good point to republish this sequence from 2017. This is the second and last post.

I argued in Thursday’s post, which describes my journey from atheism to belief in God, that finding completely compelling empirical evidence in support or refutation of the possibility of a spiritual dimension will be vanishingly hard to come by. I said I would examine a typical example in this post.

Pim van Lommel’s research on near-death experiences is robustly attacked by Evan Thompson in his existentially philosophical treatise, Waking, Dreaming, Being which also claims to have turned my black swan, Pam Reynolds’ NDE, into a dead albatross.

Quotations from Thompson’s sceptical and Mario Beauregard’s convinced account will illustrate the problem. I’ll focus on the hearing issue, though that is by no means the only point of contention (readers of my recent post on this issue can skip this bit). Pam Reynolds had a tumour deep in the brain stem, surgery for which required a total shut down of her brain, drained of all blood and kept at a low enough temperature to fend off brain cell death within the time frame of the operation.

Thompson writes in Waking, Dreaming, Being (page 307):

Reynolds’s eyes were taped shut, so she wouldn’t have been able to see what was going on around her. Although she was wearing fitted ear plugs that delivered 40-decibel white noise to one ear and 95-decibel clicks every eleventh of a second to her other ear (in order to monitor her auditory brainstem response), she probably would have been able to hear the sound of the saw through bone conduction (as when you hear inside your head the sound of the dentist’s drill). On the basis of hearing the sound, she may have generated a visual image of the saw, which she described as looking like an electric toothbrush. She would have been familiar with the surgical procedure from the surgeon’s description and from having read and signed the informed consent form, and she would have seen the layout of the operating room because she was awake when she was wheeled in. [An alternative account posits that the theatre staff had hidden the instruments to avoid alarming her.] So she probably had enough knowledge to create an accurate visual and cognitive map of her surroundings during her out-of-body experience. Reynolds’s ability to hear what the cardiac surgeon said may seem less likely, but to my knowledge no one has tried to replicate the auditory stimulus conditions to determine whether speech is comprehensible through those sound levels or during the pauses between the clicks.

Pam reynold's surgeryBeauregard’s view is different (Exploring Frontiers of the Mind-Brain Relationship – page 132):

Sceptics will argue that when Reynolds saw the surgeon cutting her skull or heard a female voice say something about the size of her blood vessels, she was not clinically dead yet. Nevertheless, her ears were blocked by small moulded speakers continuously emitting 100-dB clicks (100 dB correspond approximately to the noise produced by a speeding express train). Medical records confirmed that these words were effectively pronounced (Seabom 1998). Moreover, the speakers were fixed with tape and gauze. It is thus highly unlikely that Reynolds could have physically overheard operating room conversation.

In terms of Reynold’s supposedly prior knowledge, it is perhaps also worth quoting Penny Sartori’s 2008 work in Swansea, quoted by Fenwick in a later chapter of the mind-brain book. In her study she was able to ask (page 148):

. . . whether the patients who said they left their bodies during the cardiac arrest were able to give a more accurate account of what happened during their resuscitation, than those who did not claim to have left their bodies or to have any memory of seeing the resuscitation. She asked both groups to describe what they thought had happened during the resuscitation and found that those who said they had seen the resuscitation were more accurate in their account of what had occurred than those who were simply guessing. This finding is important as it is the first prospective study which suggests that veridical information may indeed be obtained in some manner by someone who is deeply unconscious and who has none of the cerebral functions which would enable them either to see or to remember.

past-livesReincarnation:

Much later in the game I came back to giving reincarnation another look. It can’t really be ignored in any honest open-minded investigation. There is far too much evidence that suggests there are phenomena that invite interpretation as supporting reincarnation.

I explored reincarnation when I was investigating Buddhism and rejected it, so it is not only because my current belief in the Bahá’í Faith discounts it, that I am drawn to another way of interpreting the data.

Peter and Elizabeth Fenwick, in their excellent book Past Lives, have a whole section on this take on the issue. They also look at whether psi alone might be a sufficient explanation. Personally, though they do not close the door on that possibility themselves, for reasons concerning the degree of identification that the strongest cases exhibit (see below) psi does not seem to me the best candidate.

They then move on to what they refer to (page 278) as the ‘Cosmic Memory Bank.’ They describe ‘field theories’ and refer to Rupert Sheldrake’s idea of ‘morphic resonance.’ They add (page 279):

If memories (information) are held in this way they would exist independently of the brain and therefore be accessible to another brain which ‘resonated’ with them.

They accept that this could explain cases where (page 280) ‘more than one person remembers the same past life’ but feel that it is improbable that a child’s brain would be capable of resonating to an adult consciousness. They also feel that where memories of a past life display ‘continuity’ and ‘detail,’ this would not usually the case where psi is involved and for them accessing a universal mind would entail the use of psi.

The idea of a Cosmic Memory Bank appeals to me partly because this idea is to be found in other sources that I trust in different ways. Yeats refers to it as the Anima Mundi and Jung speaks of the ‘collective unconscious.’ The Bahá’í Writings refer to the ‘universal mind’ as when ‘Abdu’l-Bahá responds to a woman’s letter advising her: ‘to forget this world of possession, become wholly heavenly, become embodied spirit and attain to universal mind. This arena is vast and unlimited . . . .’

The introduction to Albright’s Everyman edition of Yeats’s poems puts his view succinctly (page xxi):

He came to the conclusion that there was in fact one source, a universal warehouse of images that he called the Anima Mundi, the Soul of the World. Each human soul could attune itself to revelation, to miracle, because each partook in the world’s general soul.

If we can accept this possibility, it provides, in my view, another possible way of explaining the data which points also towards the possibility of reincarnation. Unfortunately, as always in this kind of area, greater certainty is inevitably elusive.

spiritual-brainWhere does that leave us?

In the end I’ve come to feel as Mario Beauregard does.

In The Spiritual Brain he refers in summary to the areas of exploration he has adduced which he feels a nonmaterialist view can explain more adequately (2528):

For example, a nonmaterialist view can account for the neuroimaging studies that show human subjects in the very act of self-regulating their emotions by concentrating on them. It can account for the placebo effect (the sugar pill that cures, provided the patient is convinced that it is a potent remedy). A nonmaterialist view can also offer science-based explanations of puzzling phenomena that are currently shelved by materialist views. One of these is psi, the apparent ability of some humans to consistently score above chance in controlled studies of mental influences on events. Another is the claim, encountered surprisingly often among patients who have undergone trauma or major surgery, that they experienced a life-changing mystical awareness while unconscious.

This paves the way for finding the idea of mid-brain independence credible.

He also refers to the work in neuroplasticity which I have also dealt with on this blog (2605):

Generally, Schwartz says, success with the four-step method depends on the patient doing two things: recognizing that faulty brain messages cause obsessive-compulsive behavior and realizing that these messages are not part of the self. In this therapy, the patient is entirely in control. Both the existence and the role of the mind as independent of the brain are accepted; indeed, that is the basis of the therapy’s success.

He ends up on Alvin Plantinga’s ground at one point (Kindle Reference: 2520):

We regard promissory materialism as superstition without a rational foundation. The more we discover about the brain, the more clearly do we distinguish between the brain events and the mental phenomena, and the more wonderful do both the brain events and the mental phenomena become. Promissory materialism is simply a religious belief held by dogmatic materialists…who often confuse their religion with their science.

conscious-universeIn addition, Dean Radin’s The Conscious Universe marshalls acres of evidence in favour of Psi, though it has been accused of overstating its case. He even quotes a sceptic in support of its rigour, thereby hopefully dismissing the spurious claims of dogmatic a priori sceptics (page 209):

Today, informed sceptics no longer claim that the outcomes of psi experiments are due to mere chance because we know that some parapsychological effects are, to use sceptical psychologist Ray Hyman’s words, “astronomically significant.” This is a key concession because it shifts the focus of the debate away from the mere existence of interesting effects to their proper interpretation.

There is enough here overall, I feel, to give all but the most died-in-the-wool materialist pause for thought. Even if you only give credence to ‘hard’ scientifically gathered evidence, it seems clear that the exact nature of consciousness is an open question rather than a closed case.

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last judgement

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

Given my recent return to the topic of the afterlife it seemed useful to flag up this brilliant book again by 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?

Sheol

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.

nirvana-buddha

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 return to the topic of the afterlife it seemed useful to flag up this brilliant book again by 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.

Grof

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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Mirror of the DivineHow is it possible for a person who simply sets words to paper, who plucks a string or dabs colour on a canvas, to play… a remarkable role in the spiritual life of man? The key lies in the fact that art has a direct and real effect on the human soul.

(Ludwig Tuman in Mirror of the Divine – page 81)

Both because I have recently republished a sequence on Virginia Woolf and also because I am looking again at introversion, it seemed doubly appropriate for obvious reasons to republish this sequence.

To explore further this issue of whether or not there is a self beneath the flux of consciousness with some hope of clarity, I need to go back to what Harris says: ‘The implied center of cognition and emotion simply falls away, and it is obvious that consciousness is never truly confined by what it knows’ and ‘consciousness is intrinsically free of self.’

The No Self Issue

He may have disposed of the self in a way that preserves his atheism intact. What he skates over are the implications of the consciousness with which he is left. I can see that we are close to Buddhist ideas of the annihilation of the self as it merges back into the ground of being – blending its drop into the ocean once more.

But there’s a catch, isn’t there? There is still some kind of consciousness albeit without the usual boundaries. There is still an awareness with which he is connected and whose experience he remembers even if he cannot sustain that kind of awareness for long.

Setting aside my sense, which I have explored at length elsewhere, that the mere existence of consciousness warrants a transcendent explanation, and that reductionist explanations are missing the point, where does this leave us?

Eben Alexander

Eben Alexander

I am reminded here of the detailed, and in my view completely trustworthy, account of a near death experience given by Eben Alexander. I have dealt elsewhere on this blog with books that explore near death experiences (NDEs) in a more scientific way (see above links). I have chosen to quote here from one person’s experience partly because it is more appropriate to this examination of literature and also because it counterbalances Harris’s one-person account. If sceptics are happy to accept Harris’s conclusions from his experience, I can see no reason for me not to accept Alexander’s.

I need to quote from it at some length to make its relevance completely clear. Describing the early stages of his NDE he finds it frankly bizarre (page 77):

To say that at that point in the proceedings I still had no idea who I was or where I’d come from sounds somewhat perplexing, I know. After all, how could I be learning all these stunningly complex and beautiful things, how could I see the girl next to me, and the blossoming trees and waterfalls and villagers, and still not know that it was I, Eben Alexander, who was the one experiencing them? How could I understand all that I did, yet not realize that on earth I was a doctor, husband, and father?

The girl accompanies him through almost all the stages of his journey. When he makes his improbable recovery from the week-long encephalitis-induced coma, as an adopted child he goes back to exploring his birth family, an exploration interrupted almost before it began by his life-threatening illness. He makes contact and discovers that he had had a birth sister who died. When he finally sees the photograph of her a dramatic realization slowly dawns (pages 166-167):

In that one moment, in the bedroom of our house, on a rainy Tuesday morning, the higher and the lower worlds met. Seeing that photo made me feel a little like the boy in the fairy tale who travels to the other world and then returns, only to find that it was all a dream—until he looks in his pocket and finds a scintillating handful of magical earth from the realms beyond.

As much as I’d tried to deny it, for weeks now a fight had been going on inside me. A fight between the part of my mind that had been out there beyond the body, and the doctor—the healer who had pledged himself to science. I looked into the face of my sister, my angel, and I knew—knew completely—that the two people I had been in the last few months, since coming back, were indeed one. I needed to completely embrace my role as a doctor, as a scientist and healer, and as the subject of a very unlikely, very real, very important journey into the Divine itself. It was important not because of me, but because of the fantastically, deal-breakingly convincing details behind it. My NDE had healed my fragmented soul. It had let me know that I had always been loved, and it also showed me that absolutely everyone else in the universe is loved, too. And it had done so while placing my physical body into a state that, by medical science’s current terms, should have made it impossible for me to have experienced anything.

Proof-of-HeavenHe, as a sceptical scientist, on the basis of his very different experience, made a different decision from that of Harris.

His whole account absolutely requires careful reading. It is to be trusted in my view first of all because it is written by someone who was, before his NDE, an atheist, as Harris is, secondly because he is an academic as well as a highly regarded neurosurgeon with much to lose from declaring himself as a believer in such things, and lastly because he followed the advice of his son and recorded the whole experience before reading any NDE literature that might have unduly influenced his narrative.

What do the passages I have just quoted suggest?

Well, I think they bridge the gap between what Harris describes and what ‘Abdu’l-Bahá tells us (Tablets: page 730):

Know thou for a certainty that in the divine worlds the spiritual beloved ones will recognize one another, and will seek union with each other, but a spiritual union. Likewise a love that one may have entertained for anyone will not be forgotten in the world of the Kingdom, nor wilt thou forget there the life that thou hadst in the material world.

How come?

For a start, it shows someone conscious but without any memory for who he is – awareness stripped of self, in the terms we are using here. This leaves me feeling it maps onto, even if it goes beyond, the state of mind Harris describes.

So, with at least some resemblance to an extreme meditative state, it takes us one step further. It demonstrates consciousness without a brain. The coma has helpfully disconnected his brain, without any need for him to learn how to do it himself via meditation, and yet he is still aware.

Even more amazing is that, with his brain shut down, he has been able to retain detailed memories of a rich week-long experience and begin the process of reintegrating it into his brain-bound identity.

Equally surprisingly, a consciousness he didn’t know but which clearly knew him, a survivor of the body’s death, connects with him. Even though, in this NDE Alexander has forgotten who he is, and therefore does not confirm that aspect of what ‘Abdu’l-Bahá wrote, the consciousness of his dead sister had obviously retained a sense of who she had been and what her relationships were, even when there had been no interaction physically with Alexander during her mortal life. It seems legitimate to assume that, if Alexander’s experience is a precursor to an eternal afterlife, there would be time for him to reconnect with memories of who he was.

What has all this got to do with los Solitarios and Lehrer’s ideas about the novel?

Just to clarify, I am not simplistically concluding that all the Solitarios are equally reductionist. Pessoa, Machado and Rilke each have their own more spiritual take on reality at times. What I am suggesting here is that Proust and Beckett, along with other modernists such as James Joyce and Virginia Woolf, have fallen into the modernist trap to some degree.

Why do I call it a trap?

Once we deny any form of spiritual or transcendent reality it is only a short step to concluding that life has no meaning beyond what we arbitrarily give to it. Beckett’s existential despair becomes a predictable symptom, as does what Richard Davenport-Hines summarized as the degenerative, secularised squalor of the world Proust saw around him and depicted in his work.

A further consequence of this world picture is a powerful sense of alienation. This adds to the dispiriting bleakness of life as experienced through this lens. Both Beckett and Proust lived lives that were profoundly disconnected from the social world around them. I am on dangerous ground here if I simplistically attribute this disconnection only to their materialistic approach to the world. My other Solitarios are equally alienated from the social world but, with the possible exception of Rilke, do not inhabit as bleak a subjective reality. My contention is that the combination of a tendency to extreme introversion combined with a reductionist worldview is a toxic prescription for despair. As such the literature it engenders will render a seriously distorted view of existence.

If their versions of reality are unbalanced, what to do?

Is the novel, part of Beckett’s and all of Proust’s greatest work, an inherently materialist form? Is the same true of drama as well, so no get-out for Beckett there? Is only poetry suitable for and tending towards spiritual matters, hence the difference that exists between these two novelists and the work of Rilke, Machado and Pessoa?

The quality of Beckett’s and Proust’s writing is indisputable: the deficiencies of their moral and spiritual perspective create significant flaws in their overall achievement. What, if any, might be the remedy?

Beckett clearly felt there was none.

His absolute refusal to attempt anything of the kind may be part of the reason why Beckett as a writer fails to engage my interest. Few writers have ever seemed as trapped as Beckett was in a pillar-box consciousness that struggles and fails to find meaning in anything at all. I still fail to resonate to the overall negativity and nihilism of his world view, of the kind that meant that towards the end of his life, when he was asked (Cronin – page 590), ‘And now it’s nearly over, Sam, was there much of the journey you found worthwhile?’ he replied ‘Precious little.’

Reading Proust is less of a journey into an existential Arctic. However, although he has a strong sense of what he feels is right, the world his work explores has lost its moral compass a long time ago.

Three novels immediately spring to mind as having combined darkness with light in  a more balanced way.

tenant-of-wildfell-hallI recently drew attention to The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. The journal of the heroine is a disturbing description of an abusive marriage. Helen mistakenly marries the vulpine and narcissistic Huntington, and laments (The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, Penguin Edition Chapter 29 – page 243):

I have need of consolation in my son, for (to this silent paper I may confess it) I have but little in my husband. I love him still; and he loves me, in his own way — but oh, how different from the love I could have given, and once had hoped to receive! how little real sympathy there exists between us; how many of my thoughts and feelings are gloomily cloistered within my own mind; how much of my higher and better self is indeed unmarried — doomed either to harden and sour in the sunless shade of solitude, or to quite degenerate and fall away for lack of nutriment in this unwholesome soil!

And although she trusts things will get no worse, she is sadly mistaken.

What interests me particularly is the way that Emily Brontë blends her faith with her art. It’s signposted there with Helen’s use of the expression ‘higher and better self.’

Her novel integrates her faith with her art in way that adds depth, a depth upon which too much of modern art and writing has turned its back. I accept that some will find Helen’s piety disquieting in that it initially seems to influence her to suffer in silence. Even during that period though it gives her strength to cope with her husband’s oppressive vagaries, while also enabling her to hold onto the necessary critical perspective that means she never succumbs to the temptation to tolerate them as in some way acceptable.

Even more impressively, in the end we see Helen demonstrating that such piety is not incompatible with constructive self-assertion when the occasion demands it. The prime activating consideration here for Helen was the welfare of her son, whom she wished to rescue from the corrupting influence of his father (pages 352-53):

My child must not be abandoned to this corruption: better far that he should live in poverty and obscurity with a fugitive mother, than in luxury and affluence was such a father. . . I could endure it for myself, but for my son it must be borne no longer.

Bahiyyih-Nakhjavani-009

Bahiyyih Nakhjavani

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall blends art and spirituality superbly well: another book that comes close is Bahiyyih Nakhjavani’s masterpiece The Woman Who Read Too Mucha brilliant evocation of the life and times of the woman given the name Táhirih(“The Pure One”), who famously stated at her point of death at the hands of a group of assassins: ‘You can kill me as soon as you like, but you cannot stop the emancipation of women!’

I must also include Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead.  To quote the Goodread’s review: ‘Writing in the tradition of Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman, Marilynne Robinson’s beautiful, spare, and spiritual prose allows “even the faithless reader to feel the possibility of transcendent order” (Slate).’

It clearly can be done, and, if those three books are anything to go by, a strong focus on the consciousness of the characters depicted does not require a reductionist approach. These novels are very much in the tradition of Joyce, Beckett and Proust in this respect. But they do not lack a sense of the spiritual or transcendent also.

In addition, for me at least, they combine the capturing of consciousness with some form of interest-sustaining narrative, and it’s the echoes of the story and its implications that linger longest in my memory. If an author strays too far from some form of narrative it is possible he might diminish the long-term impact of his book on the reader.

Interestingly, all three books are by women authors.

Art, in my view, should create an experience that deepens our understanding of reality without unduly distorting it. Paradoxically, feminine writers are more effective in that respect than masculine ones, it seems. (It may be that ultimately I mean writers of a female cast of mind regardless of ostensible gender.)

Anyhow, when I now ponder on my current pantheon of novelists, women outnumber men. Jane Austen, the Brontês, Mary Anne Evans (pen name George Eliot), Elizabeth Gaskell, Doris Lessing, Hilary Mantell, A S Byatt, Margaret Attwood, Bahiyyih Nakhjavani and Marilynne Robinson, to name but the most important to me, leave Ford Madox Ford, Joseph Conrad and Fyodor Doestoyevsky trailing forlornly in the rear.

This realisation has come as a bit of a shock to me. I hadn’t expected it to turn out quite such a one-sided contest. It was not always thus – it’s only since I recently realised that Charles Dickens, Thomas Hardy and William Makepeace Thackeray amongst others, have fallen from grace in my mind’s eye over the years.

I need to digest this insight and test its validity against a re-reading of some of the authors I’ve just mentioned before I leap to a firm conclusion that those with a feminine cast of mind seem to hold the balance between spirit and matter, plot and consciousness, better on the whole than those whose orientation is more macho.

Whatever the truth of the gender idea may be, that at least some writers can achieve this balance confirms it is not impossible, and, if we believe as I do, that there is a spiritual dimension to reality, for the reasons I have given throughout this blog, then art has a duty to incorporate it into its representations of experience. It does not need to do so explicitly, any more than The Handmaid’s Tale has to spell out in detail the moral code that condemns the abuses it depicts but the moral code has to at least be implicit and not completely absent.

Well, that new slant on things has made my rather demoralising exploration of Proust and Beckett well worthwhile.

There will soon be more on the value of the feminine perspective.

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