‘Near Death Experiences’ and Cultural Change.

Earth Rise from the Moon, 20th July 1969, NASA.

Earth Rise from the Moon, 20th July 1969, NASA.

“An unfathomable light fills the entire orb of the earth.
Ringing powerfully through and through is the most highly desired assurance”. 
J.S.Bach, Cantata no 125, With Peace and Joy I Depart.

While he was recovering in hospital from a heart attack, Carl Jung had a series of visionary experiences that have become widely known from the account in his autobiography: “it seemed to me that I was high up in space.  Far below I saw the globe of the Earth, bathed in a gloriously blue light.  I saw the deep blue sea and the continents.  Far below my feet lay Ceylon, and in the distance ahead of me the subcontinent of India.  My field of vision did not include the whole Earth, but its global shape was plainly distinguishable and its outlines shone with a silvery gleam through that wonderful blue light.  In many places the globe seemed coloured, or spotted dark green like oxidized silver.”  This was almost twenty five years before astronauts sent back images of Earthrise from the Moon.

Jung then became aware of a huge black stone floating nearby, reminiscent of some rocks he had seen on the coast of the Bay of Bengal in which temples has been carved.  A Hindu man was waiting for him at the entrance to just such a temple.  “As I approached the steps leading up to the entrance into the rock, a strange thing happened: I had the feeling that everything was being sloughed away; everything I aimed at or wished for or thought, the whole phantasmagoria of earthly existence, fell away or was stripped from me – an extremely painful process.  Nevertheless something remained; it was as if I now carried along with me everything I had ever experienced or done, everything that had happened around me. I might also say: it was with me, and I was it. I consisted of all that, so to speak. I consisted of my own history and I felt with great certainty: this is what I am. I am this bundle of what has been and what has been accomplished“.(1).

After many years’ work he had just completed Psychology and Alchemy, and had been meditating on alchemical symbolism.  It is perhaps not surprising then that he saw, or was shown, a huge black stone, or lapis.  The epilogue to Psychology and Alchemy  concludes with the prescient assertion that ‘mysterious life-processes’ pose riddles that can’t be solved by reason alone.  We must engage with direct experience.  ‘As the alchemists themselves warned us: “Rumpite libros, ne corda vestra rumpantur” -Rend the books, lest your heart be rent asunder’.

During the N.D.E vision Jung met his doctor in ‘primal form’.  Shortly after this he became furious with the doctor’s insistence that he return to the ‘prison’ of earthly life, and frustrated by his refusal to talk about their recent otherworldly meeting.  He was also seized by a premonitory conviction that his own life was about to be exchanged for that of the doctor.  Then, on the day he was finally allowed to sit up in bed the doctor came down with a fever that proved fatal.

After this he experienced a sequence of indescribably beautiful and intense visions of otherworldly weddings, including the mystic marriage between ‘All-father Zeus and Hera’.

Despite his marked reluctance to return to the ‘box system’ of Earthly life, Jung tells us that: “After the illness a fruitful period of work began for me.  A good many of my principal works were written only then   I surrendered myself to the current of my thoughts.  Thus one problem after the other revealed itself to me and took shape.”

In subsequent writings he discussed the alchemical notion of scintillae, or sparks from the light of nature -‘seeds of light broadcast in the chaos’ […] ‘dispersed or sprinkled in and throughout the structure of the great world into all fruits of the elements everywhere’.  I particularly like Cornelius Agrippa von Nettleheim’s observation that from this “luminositas sensus naturae”, ‘gleams of prophecy come down to the four footed beasts, the birds, and other living creatures, enabling them to foretell future things’.(2)  Many N.D.E. experiencers describe meeting beings of light (sometimes percieved as angels) that may lead or follow them, and take their pain away.

Jung’s account raises many questions -about the effect of cultural assumptions, emotional states, and spiritual practice, as well as about the nature of other dimensions or worlds and their inhabitants.  His perception of earthly life as a ‘prison’, for example, seems a rather extreme expression of the inevitable tension between otherworldly ecstasy and remembered pain in this world.  Perhaps he was influenced by the longstanding devaluation of material existence (and of women as agents of incarnation) in Western philosophy and transcendental religion?  This prejudice, which feminist theorists such as Val Plumwood and Grace Jantzen have traced back to Plato -whose Story of Er is regarded as one of the first recognisable ‘N.D.E’ accounts- reached its apogee in gnosticism, and is apparent where alchemy becomes a quest to liberate light ‘imprisoned’ in matter.

N.D.E. studies consistently find that people typically return with a deepened and broadened spiritual sensibility.  Some people have abandoned rigid religious views after meeting spiritual figures or deities from traditions other than their own.  On the other hand many N.D.E’rs don’t associate the ‘beings of light’ they meet with any religious tradition.  Jung’s account is the only one I’ve seen to date in which Pagan deities appear.  His visions differ from the classic ‘N.D.E’ in that they continued during an almost three week period of tenuous recovery, but were typically pluralistic (as well as reflective of his worldview) since he also encountered figures from Hindu, Jewish Kabbalistic, and Christian traditions.

Unfortunately much of the N.D.E. literature is framed in dualistic New Age or Christian terms.  Even Kenneth Ring, an American psychologist, talks about ‘black uncertainty’ and the ‘blackest moments’ of the twentieth Century, and refers to ‘the Light’ coming to show us our evolutionary way forward.(3)   Against this we might mention various positive references to fecund blackness in alchemy -‘the black earth in which the gold of the lapis is sown like the grain of wheat’, or ‘the exeeding precious stone proclaims: “I beget the light, but the darkness too is of my nature” ‘.(4)

My take on this is that we need to recognise the difference between duality and dualism.  Clearly, there needs to be debate about how ‘N.D.E’-like experiences are framed, and how they can be recruited into dominant religious discourse.  Some of the frightening ‘N.D.E’s that have been somewhat marginalised within the dualistic literature may be akin to ‘the perilous adventure of the night sea journey’, shamanic initiation, or the ordeal of the deceased in the Bardo realm of Tibetan lore.  Jung, did, after all, describe the ‘life review’-like element of his visionary experience as ‘an extremely painful process’, and felt depressed about the need to return.

Hieronymous Bosch, Ascent of the Blessed c1490-1516, Web Gallery of Art, Wikimedia Commons.

Hieronymous Bosch, Ascent of the Blessed c1490-1516, Web Gallery of Art, Wikimedia Commons.

Integration.

A recent research study involving fifty participants from an American town focussed on responding to the often problematic impact and after effects of N.D.E-like experiences.  Suzanne Gordon situated her research in the context of ‘escalating social and ecological crises and an in-progress paradigm-shift away from the still-official Newtonian/Cartesian material world view of Western culture’ [towards] a (re)emergent sacred worldview more comparable to diverse indigenous knowledge systems.  She argues that the marginalisation faced by people who have had Spiritually Transformative Experiences (not just N.D.E’s)  is comparable to discrimination on the basis of sexuality, and has been instrumental in setting up an organisation that aims to listen to the stories of experts-by-experience, de-medicalise spiritual/visionary experience, educate professionals, and establish peer support groups.(5)

Near Death Experiencers tend to become more altruistic and compassionate, and have an increased appreciation of life.  They may feel a greater concern for the ecological health of the planet and some acquire acute psychic sensitivity and/or healing abilities.  The process of re-integration within an uncomprehending mainstream is often challenging however.  Only three of Gordon’s fifty participants had little difficulty with integration -two of whom were the only two African American participants in her project.  One of these women said that her family ‘talk to dead people all the time’.  The only difference her N.D.E. had made was that her ‘windows were open a little more’, and she now had no fear of death.

To be continued …

B.T. 24nd February 2017.

Sources.

(1) Carl Jung, Memories, Dreams, Reflections, Knopf Doubleday 2011, and a longer extract here.

(2) Carl Jung, On the Nature of the Psyche, Routledge Classics, 2001, citing Khunrath and von Nettleheim, and Psychology and Alchemy, Routledge Kegan and Paul 1980 (first published 1944).

(3) For example his chapter in Lee W. Bailey and Jenny Yates, The Near Death Experience, A Reader, Routledge, 2013.

(4) Carl Jung, Pyschology and Alchemy, Routledge Kegan and Paul 1980 (first published 1944)

(5) Suzanne Gordon, Field Notes from the Light, PhD thesis, University of Maryland, 2007 and see the webiste of the American Centre for the Integration of Spirituality.

 

 

 

 

 

Roots Left Hanging in the Air

DSCF4974_2

The past few weeks have been quite intense.  Another flood ravaged the Calder Valley on Boxing Day -we were told that the floods in June 2012, and July 2013(!), were exceptional events, but this was worse- with unprecedented river levels, and extensive damage to homes, businesses, and historical infrastructure.  Chunks of canal bank ripped away.  Mudslides.  And in the small Clough (a wooded side valley) that I’ve been visiting for more than forty years, another mature oak has came down.

Richard Mabey reminds us that plants have more than twenty different senses. “Entire forests are linked by an underground “wood wide web” of fungal “roots” that transport and balance nutrient flows and carry signals about disease and drought throughout the network”. (more here)   The entire Clough now resembles a tree graveyard, towered over by mature Beeches, planted by our Victorian forbears.  A virulent fungal infection is now spreading amongst these, and some have fallen.  Pausing by the newly exposed roots of the latest casualty -the ripped cables of the ‘wood wide web’- I wondered what kind of chorus of alarm must have reverberated along the valley.

chriswithsunmask050b3_2

I was, no doubt, particularly attuned to the fate of that Oak, because Chris, a close friend, and fellow member of the meditation group that celebrated the seasonal festivals for five years during the late 80’s and early 90’s, died just before the Winter Solstice.  After a three week hiatus, I was privileged to be able to read a passage from his 1995 thesis, on Ecology and Postmodernity, at his funeral yesterday.  The event is far too ‘open’ to write about yet, of course.  Suffice it to day that funerals can be powerfully life-affirming rites.

Chris was well aware that his writing took place in an extravagantly abundant living world, and was delighted to hear about the following small incident that occured when I was reading another passage some years ago.  In a section entitled ‘Facing the Danger’ he talked about “the need to apprehend, to listen, to open oneself to the unhuman Other, to stop the interpreting, to feel, to identify with” and argued that ” in these encounters there is a sort of presence at work”. […] What is forgotten by cultural theory is “the void, the darkness, the concealment from which all unconcealment arises, [… ] an alterity (or otherness) […] whose nearest figures are silence, darkness, void, negativity and absolute limit”.  At that point I noticed a tiny orange mite crawling across the page, neatly underlining the concluding line, which read: “ecological sensibility reminds us, above all, of the smallness of the lighted clearing in which we (all of us, even the literate human ones) come to presence.”

Bon Voyage Chris, and May the Long Time Sun Shine upon You!

B.T. 12/1/16.

Chris Drinkwater (1995) Ecology and Postmodernity, PhD Thesis, University of Leeds, pp195-6.

 

 

 

 

 

Protest in Context; a (non-technical) astrological note in the wake of the 2015 U.K. election. .

demo_flyer_web

In the wake of a troubling general election I wanted to see what the astrological ‘weather forecast’ for the U.K. looked like over the next few years.  We don’t need astrological help to see difficulties ahead, of course, but astrology can deepen our appreciation of the cyclic nature of time, and might just enable us to ‘collaborate with the divine’ a bit more effectively as we resist injustice and ecological destruction, and try to create ‘more interesting, ingenious, and loving’ worlds.(1)

In order to illustrate this claim I want to focus on one major upcoming transit* -the passage of Pluto, ‘Lord of the Underworld’, opposite the U.K’s Moon (both circled yellow below), in a commonly used chart for the date of legal union between Great Britain and Ireland (2).  This transit will gradually build, augmented during 2016 by Uranus squaring the U.K. Moon, suggesting a continuation of the visceral impulse towards independence already seen in Scotland, and more worryingly, in the success of UKIP, and the planned referendum on E.U. membership.  It will be at its most intense during 2017-2018, and will then fade.

Major transits of Pluto to U.K 1801 Moon (shown outside circle), based on Solar Fire Graphic.

Major transits of Pluto to U.K 1801 Moon (outside circle), based on Solar Fire Graphic.

How might this work in a person’s life?

In The Astrology of Fate Liz Greene wrote that ‘the primordial chaos from which life emerges and to which it returns belonged in the beginning to the Great Mother.  The male figure of Hades was a relatively late formulation … whenever myth portrays [his] entry into the upper world, he is shown persistently acting out one scenario: rape’.  The intrusion of Pluto into consciousness ‘feels like a violation, and we, like Persephone, the maiden of the myth, are powerless to resist’.  Her discussion considers the purposefulness of fate, but also evokes the sometimes un-bearable nature of ‘plutonic’ experience.(3)

Since 1984 we’ve hopefully become more aware that allegories of abduction and rape might be inappropriate in relation to cathartic experience and (not least when taken to imply cosmic purposefullness) crises caused by oppression and abuse.  We also have more access to other readings/versions of the story, in which Persephone-Kore, as the original and primary goddess, enters freely into a sacred marriage with Hades. (e.g Sara Pike’s review of Ann Suter’s The Narcissus and the Pomegranate).  That said, we still need to acknowledge the intensity of pain and struggle involved in both personal and communal crises, and the toxic ancestral inheritance that often impels such eruptions.

'Slum clearance', Manchester, 1972. Photo B.T.

‘Slum clearance’, a Personal Moon-Pluto Period in Manchester, 1972.

With the benefit of hindsight my own experience of this transit, in my early to mid-20’s was interesting and briefly turbulent, but ultimately constructive.  I left the parental home (natal Moon) for the last time and went to live in a wood where I meditated amongst the trees while three friends enacted a tense sexual triangle (a classic Pluto theme).  Moving to inner city Manchester I then got involved in housing action and crisis support.  During the following year a personal crisis culminated in an unforgettable visionary experience.

Astrology of the Collective

Parallels between individual stories and the life of nations are of limited value however.  The social is not an individual writ large, and history shows that on the collective level we are far from ‘powerless to resist’.

Mundane (‘of the world’) astrology should perhaps be approached with even more caution than natal astrology.  Its not necessarily obvious how the charts of nations work, and its all too easy to be seduced into making casual claims about history and politics.  What follows is intended as an exploratory excercise, but it does, I think, raise some quite profound existential questions.

The Moon in a nation’s chart is said to represent the people (the masses), and might be expected to reflect conditions for women, and for children.  The U.K’s Moon, at the top of the chart, in the public tenth house, has been linked to our tradition of parliamentary democracy, but could also be read as an image of a people uprooted from the land (far removed from the base of the chart, the ‘Earth Point’/4th house cusp, of roots, the home, inheritance, family origins, ‘property’, land, gardens, fields, orchards, ‘the tillage of the earth’***, and ecological foundations).  Pluto’s major transits signify (and perhaps unleash) periods of turbulence, power struggles, death (symbolic or physical) and destruction, and if conditions are favourable and things go well, transformation and renewal.  They may also indicate material interventions such as mining, or demolition and rebuilding.  A good way of illuminating the upcoming transit of Pluto opposite the U.K. Moon is to look at previous comparable transits.**

Margaret Thatcher Elected

When Pluto squared the U.K Moon in 1979-80, Margaret Thatcher’s election as Prime Minister inaugurated a period of manufacturing meltdown, with the loss of some two million jobs.  Inflation was brought down at the cost of steeply rising unemployment (by August 1980 to 2 million, for the first time since the 1930’s).  Many communities were subsequently devastated by multi-generational unemployment.  With the Pluto transit forming (in 1978) the Ridley Plan, a strategic document outlining the new government’s preparations for taking on the miners (who had defeated a Conservative government in the 1970’s), had been leaked to the press.  ‘Power’ is a keyword for astrological Pluto, and revenge is a Pluto/Scorpio theme.

Thatcher’s victory followed what the right wing media successfully mythologised as ‘the winter of discontent’.  In response to wage restraint and spending cuts (amounting to 20% of public spending) imposed by a Labour government at the behest of the neo-liberal I.M.F, some 2,000 strikes were organised by low paid public sector workers during an unusually severe winter.  Since much is still made of the supposed profligacy and ineptitude of ‘retro socialism’ effective counter-narratives are needed about the causes of these disputes (such as here).  The period was, nevertheless, ‘a positive and transformative time’ for many female activists.(4)  During the early 1980’s there were large scale trade union demonstrations, and inner city riots.

Ther Great Depression

Moving back through history we find Pluto crossing the U.K. Moon during 1929-30, which was, of course, the period of the Great Depression.  At this time unemployment rose steeply (to 2.9 million by the summer of 1932).  The ‘co-incidence’ of finding another period of mass unemployment under this transit cycle is, well, striking.  In 1931 unemployment benefits were cut by 10% and the means test introduced.  Attendance at work camps (‘slave camps’) was made compulsory for the long term unemployed, in the face of opposition from socialists and anarchists (see here and here).  The National Union of Unemployed Workers organised National Hunger Marches against the means test.

My granparents at Herne Bay, Kent, 1934.

My grandparents at Herne Bay, Kent, 1934.

The photograph above shows my mother (sitting on a farm gate) with her parents, on a trip to Herne Bay.  On a much less happy occasion, when my grandfather was made redundant (I don’t have an exact date), he walked about twenty five miles, from Charlton out into the Kent countryside, on the strength of a rumour that there were jobs to be had at an engineering works in Edenbridge.  By the time he got there the jobs had gone.  He would then have had to walk home.  This, apparently, was the only time my gran saw him cry.

Chartism and the Plug Riots

The next comparable transit occured in 1840-42, long before Pluto was discovered.  This was during the period of chartist agitation for universal male suffage, the repeal of the hated 1934 Poor Law that was forcing unemployed people into workhouses, and the repeal of the Act of Union with Ireland.  During the transit several massive petitions (and see here) were taken to parliament.  In the words of the 1838 petition, presented to parliament by a progressive M.P. from my home town:

“The land itself is goodly, the soil rich, and the temperature wholesome; it is abundantly furnished with the materials of commerce and trade; it has numerous and convenient harbours; in facility of internal communication it exceeds all others.  For three-and-twenty years we have enjoyed a profound peace. Yet with all these elements of national prosperity, and with every disposition and capacity to take advantage of them, we find ourselves overwhelmed with public and private suffering …

We have looked upon every side, we have searched diligently in order to find out the causes of a distress so sore and so long continued.  We can discover none, in nature, or in providence.  Heaven has dealt graciously by the people; but the foolishness of our rulers has made the goodness of God of none effect.

The energies of a mighty kingdom have been wasted in building up the power of selfish and ignorant men, and its resources squandered for their aggrandisement. The good of a party has been advanced to the sacrifice of the good of the nation; the few have governed for the interest of the few, while the interest of the many has been neglected, or insolently and tyrannously trampled upon”.

Atfer both this, and an even larger petition in 1842, had been rejected by parliament, the Chartists organised a massive wave of strikes that came to be known as the Plug Riots (see here, here, and here).  This ‘first general strike’ involved some half a million workers, and was the biggest excercise of working class strength in the nineteenth century.

The Factory System

Finally, and perhaps most surprisingly, in 1771, during a previous passage of undiscovered Pluto across 19 degrees Capricorn (where it will be once again in 2017-18), opposing the Moon in the chart of a yet-to-be-inaugurated United Kingdom, we find Richard Arkwright, inventor of the water frame and ‘father of the factory system’, establishing the first successful water powered cotton spinning mill.  Arkwright, who had moved from Preston to Nottingham to escape the militancy of Lancashire cotton spinners, started with 200 workers, mostly women and children.  Dr Andrew Ure, in his Philosophy of Manufactures (1835) wrote: “To devise and administer a successful code of factory discipline, suited to the necessities of factory dilligence, was the Herculean enterprise, the noble achievement of Arkwright”.  In a chapter on the moral economy of the factory system Ure extolled the ‘sublime spectacle’ of Sunday schools as ‘quiet fortresses’ at times of ‘political excitement'(5). ‘The great transformation’ had been unleashed.(6)

It would be interesting to make a fuller study of this cycle, looking at other possible significations of the Moon and Pluto, other aspects, and other transits (particularly the Uranus square).  But if we accept that the above demonstrates a cyclic pattern, we must surely also conclude that our lives, and the lives of the collectives we are part of, are to some extent ‘fated’ -choreographed by the cyclic dance of more-than-material bodies, planetary powers, some say gods, moving through the vastness of space; and that we live within an intimately communicative, sentient and/or ensouled cosmos.  Unfortunately ‘the foolishness of our leaders [still too often] makes the goodness of [those gods] of none effect …’.

B.T 2/7/15.

Notes:

* In astrology ‘transit’ refers to the passage of a planet either directly across, or making a signficant angular aspect to, a given point in a horoscope.  Both the transiting body and horoscope point are charged with symbolic meaning that will manifest in various ways during the period of the transit. ** I’ve restricted this discussion to the 4th harmonic ‘hard’ aspects -conjunctions, oppositions, and squares.  Each transit would be close for two or three years, and would fade in and out for several years before and after exactitude. I’ve mostly looked at events that occured while the transits were within a 2 degrees orb. ***Willilam Lilly Christian Astrology

Sources:  (1) adapted from ‘democratic animist’ astrologer Caroline Casey’s Making the Gods Work for You, Harmony Books, 1998.  (2) Michael Baigent, Nicholas Campion, and Charles Harvey, Mundane Astrology, Aquarian, 1984, pp533-439.  (3) Liz Greene, The Astrology of Fate, George Allen and Unwin, 1984. pp38-40. (4) Tara Martin-Lopez and Sheila Rowbotham, The Winter of Discontent; Myth, Memory, and History, Palgrave MacMillan 2013. (5) E.P. Thompson The Making of the English Working Class, 1963 pp395-7. (6) Karl Polanyi, via Molly Scott Cato The Bioregional Economy.

End of Life Experiences; Two Books by Peter Fenwick and Elizabeth Fenwick

Tree Woman, Coloured Sketch, Peter Goode.

Coloured Sketch, P.G.

A research study based on interviews with nurses, doctors, and carers in two hospices and one nursing home in London found that profoundly meaningful ‘end of life experiences’ were not uncommon.  Peter Fenwick, Hilary Lovelace, and Sue Brayne, conclude that the subjective experiences of people who are dying, and phenomena that occur around death, need to be taken seriously if we are to develop best practice in spiritual end-of-life care.

Amongst the end-of-life experiences commonly reported are visions of deceased relatives (or friends) sitting on or next to the patient’s bed providing emotional warmth and comfort (64% and 54% in retrospective and prospective studies), visions of relatives or ‘religious figures’ who appear to ‘collect’ the dying person (62% and 48%), a sense of transitioning between this world and another reality (33% and 48%), dreams or visions in which the person feels comforted and prepared for death (62% and 50%), a sense of being called or pulled by someone or something (56% and 57%), the symbolic appearance of a significant bird, animal, or insect near the time of death (45% and 35%), light surrounding or near the dying person (often seen by therapists), relatives or friends being ‘visited’ by them at the time of death (55% and 48%), and synchronic occurances such as clocks stopping or lights coming on.  The prevailing scientific view, however, has been that ELE’s, especially deathbed visions, ‘have no intrinsic value, and are either confusional or drug induced.'(1)

Although Peter Fenwick, a renowned neuropsychiatrist, is no critical or post- psychiatrist, he clearly realises the importance of taking what people say seriously, not least when many respondents feared they would be thought mad if they talked about their visions.  His writings therefore cast some interesting light on an important but culturally neglected area of human experience.  I’m reminded of the work of Marius Romme and Sandra Escher on voice hearing (which challenged the medicalisation of madness) and, to some extent, Stanislas Grof on perinatal and transpersonal experience (but see note 1).

In the first of two books (co-authored with his wife Elizabeth Fenwick, a writer on health issues) Peter Fenwick reviews some 350 responses to a questionnaire sent to people who responded to his media appearances.  Although the main features described in Near Death Experiences -passing along a tunnel towards a welcoming and compassionate light, meeting beings of ‘light’, a momentary but somehow panoramic life review, coming to a barrier of some kind where a decision is made, and returning to the physical body- have become quite well known, only 2% of Fenwick’s respondents had previously heard of N.D.E’s.  For most, their Near Death Experience was a spiritual awakening in a broad and universal sense.

The accounts of N.D.E’s presented in this and other studies (cited here) do, nevertheless, show considerable individual and cultural variation.  For example, American studies report many more appearances by Jesus and by angels, whilst a study of Indian experiences showed that most people there were collected by Yamraj, the messenger of the Hindu god of death, rather than by deceased relatives.  Some Western individuals, however, met figures from Eastern cultures -and had their religious horizons broadened as a result.  For one woman the welcoming presence was a tree.

Most of the accounts were intensely autobiographical, but a few people were ‘shown glimpses of the past or of the future on a more cosmic scale’.  One man who could see Peterborough cathedral and small W’s of swans flying across the sky as he waited for an operation, but then suffered a coronory thrombosis followed by cardiac arrest and was rushed into Intensive Care, felt himself “become weightless several times and float up into the sky” where he joined the swans as a “very junior member of their family group”.  During some of these flights he was aware that the cathedral had not been built yet.  “It was as though the fens were in a primeval state”.  He saw men in medieval dress punting on the great meres, and the cathedral being built. “I felt as if I had existed forever, my being and ‘soul’ had been this way before.” (Fenwick 1996 pp131-2)

Cultural variation could be taken to show that such experiences are socially constructed in much the same way as dreams, but of course, otherworlds might also be constructed in ways that make them familiar and welcoming – congruent with the expectations, needs, and understandings of new arrivals.  Intriguingly, 38% of respondents met someone ‘on the other side’ who was still alive.  Does this mean that their experiences were ‘just dreams’?  Shortly after the death of her mother, a Japanese woman dreamt that she was standing in the middle of a river with her parents on either side.  Her mother was beckoning her father to cross, but he didn’t.  Although, in keeping with Japanese Buddhist symbolism, the barrier between worlds often takes the form of a river in Japanese N.D.E accounts, this woman had been brought up a Christian with no knowledge of Buddhism, and no recollection of hearing about the river symbolism. (we are not told whether she’d heard about the Styx though).

Given the intensely subjective and emotional nature of these experiences I was not entirely suprised to see that 78% of respondents were women.

In the Fenwicks’ second book, which reports findings from the study of London health professionals and carers, the concept of a journey emerges as a central theme.  The other world which people visit has a quality of absolute reality, but in the case of ‘deathbed visions’ it is as though ‘this world and the other reality overlap, dissolving into each other so that both can be experienced at once’. (2008 p44)  The dying person is rarely confused by this, is usually aware that not everyone can see what they can see, and may conduct separate simultaneous conversations with this-worldy and other-worldly visitors.  Given the importance of sorting out unfinshed business, it’s interesting that many carers report that two or three days before a death a room often becomes extremely peaceful and dominated by feelings of love, as though the process of death somehow sets up conditions that facilitate the resolution of personal conflict.  For me this (along with various phenomena mentioned in other accounts) raises questions about the agency and power of other-worldly people vis-a-vis this worldly affairs.

There are fairly brief discussions of the Tibetan Book of the Dead, mythological themes, Jungian archetypes, quantum entanglement, and the notion of extended and inter-connected mind.  I couldn’t help noticing some tension between two authorial voices -within Peter Fenwick I suspect.  One regards ghosts and mediumship as ‘tiger country for scientists’, writes that most of us ‘cling to this pale ghost … like a child with its comfort blanket’, persists in referring to visions as hallucinations even where the person is lucid (and despite instances where a vision is shared by other people), and eagerly anticipates ‘a body of homespun Western mystics becoming available for study’, whilst another is open-mindedly empathetic and, for example, regards co-incidence as a simplistic explanation for many of these phenomena.  I was also concerned that the authors’ perspective veered towards over-valuing the transcendental.  Their work, nonetheless, constitutes a significant challenge to cultural amnesia, and to insititutional resistance against respecting intimate subjective experience.

I’ll close by quoting from a contribution from a woman describing her sister’s death: “I saw a fast moving ‘Willo-the-wisp’ appear to leave her body from the side of her mouth on the right. The shock and beauty of it made me gasp.  It appeared like a fluid or gaseous diamond, pristine, sparkly, and pure, akin to the view from above of an eddy in the clearest pool you can imagine.”

B.T 26/4/15

Note 1: Unlike Peter Fenwick, Stanislas Grof developed an intensive ‘therapeutic’ method, inclduing controversial experimental work with LSD.

Sources:

(1) Fenwick, P et al, (2009) Comfort for the Dying: five year retrospective and one year prospective studies of end of life experiences. Archives of Gerontology and Geriatrics, 2009. doi: 10.1016/j.archger.2009.10.004

Fenwick, P (2004) Dying, a Spiritual Experience as shown by Near Death Experiences and Deathbed Visions. http://www.rcpsych.ac.uk/PDF/PFenwickNearDeath.pdf (accessed 17/3/15).

Fenwick, P and Fenwick, E (1996) The Truth in the Light, An Investigation of over 300 Near-Death Experiences, White Crow Books.

Fenwick, P and Fenwick, E. (2008) The Art of Dying, London, Bloomsbury.

Fenwick P. (2012) Dr Peter Fenwick Discusses Dying, Death, and Survivial, Interview by White Crow Books:

Spirits of Place? Animism as Deep Political Ecology.

High Close Field Systems, Grassington.  Image courtesy of Yorkshire Dales National Park Authority.

High Close Field Systems, Grassington, where medieval field walls overlay prehistoric field boundaries.  Image courtesy of Yorkshire Dales National Park Authority.

Very occasionally a place has touched me in a profound way and left me with an overwhelming sense of peace and wellbeing, or with what I suppose I would have to call a visionary experience.  Moments like this feel fated, and divinatory.  On one occasion we were walking along the side of a glacial valley in Swaledale.  There were patches of late snow on the hillsides.  Pausing by the ruins of an old farmstead, I sat down to look at the view.  As I sat there I began to feel an extraordinary happiness, quite different from the giddy euphoria I usually associate with snowy landscapes.  That feeling was so intense, so rooted, that I became very reluctant to leave the spot.

My formal connections with the Yorkshire Dales are fairly tenuous.  Some recent ancestors on my father’s side were church people in the Ripon area, not far away.  I had very little to do with them, and haven’t researched the genealogy, but that experience, some years ago, made me wonder about ancestry, and the possibility of past lives.

Last week we went up to Wharfedale.  Walks by the river seemed to confirm the redundancy of the term ‘spirit’, at least in relation to the exuberant busyness of the more-than-human ‘natural world’ at this beautifully embodying time of the year.  The place was buzzing with life.  I’ve never seen so many sand martins.  They were zipping about amongst clouds of mayflies, taking food back to their mud-tunnel nest holes to feed rapidly growing youngsters.  Common sandpipers systematically worked the water’s edge.  Dippers hurtled along, engrossed in territorial displays.  Immaculate oystercatchers announced their presence with loud piping calls.  Mandarin drakes flew russet pennants.  Buzzards floated overhead.  Trout hovered motionless in the current -‘like paintings of themselves’, someone said- their mouths breaking the surface every now and again.  Young men leapt from an improbably high outcrop.  All of us revelling in the surprise of warm sunny weather.

River Wharfe at

River Wharfe at Loup Scar.

One day we walked up to have a look at the ancient field systems near Grassington.  At places like this the depth of human habitation in this landscape is palpable.  Beneath long parallel medieval dry stone walls, which are about six feet high, an intricate pattern of small prehistoric field boundaries radiates around a Bronze Age burial cairn.  In the same area there’s also the site of a former medieval village, a beautiful walk-through cave -more a rock shelter really- in which animal bones and a single, possibly Iron Age, burial, have been found, and a Brigantian hill top fort.

And, of course, wild flowers in profusion.  The limestone scar around the cave was a mass of colour.  We found shining and cut leaf cranesbill, rock rose, stitchwort, crosswort. speedwell, forget-me-knot, gromwell, biting and English stonecrop, wood sage, sweet cicely, and lots of hawthorn blossom.  Nearby there were also bluebells (deep indigo carpets in the wood – which was also home to swathes of lily-of-the-valley, and clusters of cowslips and primroses ), cow parsley (everywhere along the lanes), nettles, and lady’s mantle.

Not surprisingly, I came away from that day’s walk elated, and with a sense that it was not just ‘me’ -that for some ‘people’, some of the time, at least, this had been a happy place.  Once again a very particular ‘glow’ that seemed to have come from a specific locality, accompanied me for the rest of the day.  Had I met some benevolent genius loci, some guardian of the hillside?  I don’t know.

Mossy Moor and Dumpit Hill Stone Circle (I think!).

Mossy Moor and Dumpit Hill Stone Circle (I think!).  Please avoid disturbance to ground nesting birds (i.e look from a distance) between March and July.

However, not least because Wharfedale has a long and significant industrial history, this place (as a whole) hasn’t always been a haven of peace.  On the way up towards Grassington Moor the local curlews struck up a raucous chorus of alarm and circled us, tilting their heads to check our intentions.  They must have had nests near the track.  The same thing happened at Mossy Moor, which was teeming with ground nesting birds.

The atmosphere at the top of Hebden Gill and round to Yarnbury was very different.  I didn’t get round the whole area, but the sense of post-industrial desecration was familiar to me from similar scenes where coal has been mined not far from where I live.  It looked as though those in charge had taken what they wanted and left buldings to crumble and spoil heaps to pollute.  If trauma happened here -and, in various ways, it surely did- its memory has become entangled in the complexities and machinations of power, much as happens with memories of personal abuse.  There are dry historical summaries, a small museum with a few artefacts, and a lead mining trail promoted as an ‘interesting day out’.

Lead was being exported from the Pennines by the Brigantes.  The Romans sent their prisoners of war to the lead mines on nearby Greenhow hill.  Eventually the Yorkshire Pennine lead-zinc-flourite orefield produced some 1 million tonnes of lead concentrates, and lesser amounts of associated minerals.(1)  Production above Grassington declined from the late nineteenth century, and with it an entire culture and vocabulary disappeared into the archives, and ultimately tourist brochures.  Words such as bales, ore-hearths, meer stones, gin shafts, hushes, bouse teems, buddles, crushers, dressing areas, knocking floors, coes, leats, and adits, no longer have functioning referents.

Remains of mining activity, Hebden Gill.

Remains of mining buildings, Hebden Gill.

Spoil Heaps on Grassington Moor.  Geograph. org.uk. Chris Heaton, Creative Commons.

Spoil Heaps on Grassington Moor. Geograph.org.uk. Chris Heaton, Creative Commons.

The ‘gleaming, white and deadly’ lead, once eagerly sought for its practical versatility, has left a legacy of human suffering and environmental damage.  The harm it does to the nervous, digestive, and reproductive systems, and calcium metabolism of the human body – especially to the neurological development of children- is all too familiar.  An account of the 1851 census for Swaledale shows that the lead mines there employed more than three times as many children under the age of 15 as men over 60.  The Kinnaird commision of 1864 found that the average age of death for lead miners and smelters was 46.67 years, compared with 60.79 for those in other occupations.(3)  If ‘I’, in some past life, or some contented ancestor of mine, once lived in Swaledale, it was surely not as a lead miner!  Conditions in the mines, where poorly ventilated seams were opened up by gunpowder and worked by the light of home made candles, were clearly not conducive to a long and happy life.  No wonder they pegged lucky stones (ones with a natural hole) to the wall by mine entrances, or carried small ones on pieces of string.

Geomorphologists have recently shown that much of the immediate floodplain of the Swale still has either ‘a high probability’ or ‘a likelihood’ of being contaminated by lead, and that ‘a substantial proportion of the metals [mined] have been incorporated into alluvial deposits’ and ‘will continue to act as a major secondary source of metal contaminants over many hundreds of years’.(4)  It wouldn’t be a good idea to eat the trout then!  Back at Grassington you don’t have to be Frederick Engels to notice that this is a landscape shaped by social class.  During four centuries for which records are available, only three families owned mineral rights on the Grassington Liberty.(5)  Higher up on the moor, the aristocracy have enjoyed Grouse shooting for some 250 years.  Risking draconian penalties, local miners ‘had a reputation’ as poachers.

Grouse shooting has long been associated with the persecution of birds of prey.  An ecological study of the breeding success of Peregrine Falcons, published ten years ago concluded “the breeding data show that there is significant variation in Peregrine breeding success between nest sites, with those in areas managed for grouse shooting resulting in markedly fewer fledged young than sites away from grouse moors, on average. This difference is statistically significant and cannot be explained by any natural factors.”(6)

The above suggests that listening to voices that speak from, and especially ‘for’, a particular place, is by no means a simple matter, that ‘otherworlds’ might be as complicated and politically fraught as this one.  I suspect that most animists would agree that we need to understand the ‘political’ as well as ‘deep’ ecology of the places that we love.  One of the legacies of growing up in a culture that marginalises both earth-centred ‘spirituality’ and critical political analysis, is that I sometimes feel as though these two kinds of knowledge and practice come from completely different parts of me.  That’s why friends who understand why they’re intimately connected are so important.

Brian Taylor 29/5/14.

Some Sources:

(1) A Jones et al, Mine Water Geochemistry and Metal Flux in a Major Historic  Pb-Zn-F Orefield, the Yorkshire Pennines, U.K.  Environmental Science and Pollution Research 20:7570-7581, 2013.

(2) Janet Montgomery, et al, Gleaming, White, and Deadly, using lead to track human exposure and geographic origins in the Roman period in Britain. Journal of Roman Archaeology, suppl 78 pp199-226.

(3) J.L,.Barker, The Lead Miners of Swaledale and Arkengarthdale in 1851Memoirs, Northern Caverns and Mines Research Society, Vol2. No2 pp89-97.

(4) M.G.Mackin, et al A Geomorphological Approach to the Management of Rivers Contaminated by Metal Mining, Geomorphology 79, 2006 pp423-444. and The Significance of Pollution from Historic Metal Mining in the Pennine Orefields in River Sediment Contaminant Fluxes to the North Sea, Science of the Total Environment, vols 194-5, 291-397, feb 1997.

K.A.Hudson-Edwards et al. Assessment of Metal Mining Contaminated River Sediments in England and Wales, Environment Agency, 2008.

(5) M.C.Gill, The Grassington Mines, British Mines No 46, A monograph of the Northern Mines Reserch Society, Keighley, May 1993.

(6) Ian R. Court, et al. Status and Productivity of Peregrine Falcons in the Yorkshire Dales, British Birds 97, September 2004, 456-463.

 

Those Cruel Wars, Part 2.

My Father, taken in 1945 near a former Nazi labour camp,

My Father, outside a former Nazi labour camp near Hamburg, 1945.

Moving forward to the end of the Second World War -widely understood to have been a continuation of the first- I have a photograph of my father on an army motorbike taken less than three years before I was born.  The picture was taken near a former Nazi labour camp where he took turns guarding 10,000 Waffen S.S. prisoners of war, and was told that the parade ground they were using was a mass grave.  This was four miles from Belsen, where he saw huge piles of discarded clothing and number discs.  In a late conversation with my gran she described his condition after the war as ‘shell shock’.

Fascism and Animism.

How then might all of this relate to animism?  Well, at the most basic level, of course, for those of us who believe that the whole of Nature is suffused with mind, intelligence, or ‘spirit’, the ecological damage of war adds another, often overlooked, dimension to the epic tragedies of war.  Until Michael Morpurgo’s Warhorse came out in 1982, for example, the slaughter of a million horses in the First World War had barely been registered.(5)  Faced with the evidence of war, we might wonder what kind of animal we are; whether representing men as rutting stags, or ‘predators’, is helpful, either in relation to understanding other-than-human persons, or in relation to the patriarchal ideology of imperialism that has precipitated so many wars (6); and perhaps, what kind of deities would preside over such slaughter?

For postmodern animists, one of the most troubling connections that needs to be addressed is encapsulated in the following quotation: “We recognise that separating humanity from nature, from the whole of life, leads to humankind’s own destruction and to the death of nations … Humankind alone is no longer the focus of thought, but rather life as a whole … This striving toward connectedness with the totality of life, with nature itself, a nature into which we are born, this is the deepest meaning and the true essence of National Socialist thought.”

Those words, written by Ernst Lehmann -a professor of botany who described National Socialism as ‘politically applied biology’- appear at the head of Peter Stuadenmaier’s disturbing essay on the “Green Wing” of the Nazi Party.(7)  Staudenmaier traces a strand of biocentric and nationalistic thought in 19th Century Germany that, by most current definitions, is clearly animistic.  Despite being a xenophobic nationalist, for example, Ernst Moritz Arndt wrote: ‘When one sees nature in a necessary connectedness and interrelationship, then all things are equally important – shrub, worm, plant, human, stone, nothing first or last, but all one single unity’.  The Volkish movement combined ethnocentric populism with nature mysticism, and sought to reconstruct a society ‘rooted in nature, and in communion with the cosmic life spirit’.  In 1867 Ernst Heckel coined the term ‘ecology’, and developed a ‘monist’ critique of anthropocentrism.

In the twentieth Century, the renowned philosopher Martin Heidegger, who had been an active member of the Nazi party and remained silent about their crimes after the war, wrote poetically about humanity’s ‘play’ or ‘dance’ with earth, sky, and gods, and the need for authentic ‘dwelling’ on earth.

Les Jouers de Skat, Otto Dix, 1920. Cypriconan, Creative Commons.

Skat Players, Otto Dix, 1920. Cypriconan, Creative Commons.

Nazi ideology embraced organicism, holism, nature conservation, and re-agrarianisation.  Hitler referred to ‘the eternal laws of nature’s processes’, and was knowledgeable about renewable energy sources.  There seems to be little room for doubt that many of the inner circle of the Nazi Party were vegetarians and animal lovers, given that they implemented ecological farming, nature protection, and animal welfare policies that were well ahead of their time.

Staudenmaeir concludes that ‘even the most laudable of causes can be perverted in the service of criminal savagery’.  The “Green Wing” of the N.S.D.A.P were fully complicit in the Party’s infamous genocidal programme.  Their biocentric perspective and fetishisation of natural ‘purity’ provided a veneer of compensatory respectability, and fueled their virulently racist ideology.  For Staudenmaier the Nazi’s displacement of clear-sighted social analysis by mystical ecology is a key issue.

As something of a ‘mystical ecologist’, my initial response to this is to suggest that animists need to be anthropocentric enough to be able to distinguish between intra-species and inter-species ethics.  The parameters of respectful relationship -our ethical, social, and political responsibility towards other human beings, and towards other-than-human beings, have to be negotiated in each particular context -and there’s a fundamental difference (that need not imply a simple hierarchy of value) between intra-species and inter-species relationships.

That said, the Nazi’s biocentrism was framed within a thoroughly anthropocentric conception of the nation state as a Darwinian organism (a matrix of blood and soil) competing for ‘lebensraum’ with other nation states, and beset by various human ‘parasites’ and ‘cancers’.  There can be no clearer evidence that animism needs to be explicitly framed, informed, and accompanied, not only by clear sighted and critical minded social understanding -especially of processes of ‘othering’ and dissociation- but by an ethical commitment to diversity, care, compassion, and either non-violence, or the minimisation of violence and harm.

I’ve know several fathers and sons in my own postwar generation who, perhaps unsurprisingly, took opposite stands in the pacifism v just war debate.  The paradox of Fascism, of course, is that at the very point where its crimes illuminate the necessity of a tolerant, compassionate, democratic, non-hierarchical, post-dualistic, social order, they also test the principle of non-violence, perhaps to the limit.(8)

As a boy I had a visceral abhorrence of regimentation.  When asked, at the age of ten, which Grammar School I’d like to go to, I chose the only one that didn’t demand membership of the scouts or cadet corps.  As a student in the 1960’s my youthful androgynous looks caused predictable confusion.  A group of Italian customs officers, who wouldn’t have seen a young man with hair as long as mine, seemed genuinely puzzled about my gender.  My father, a gentle nature loving soul, was also troubled by my evident ‘softness’.  One day in my late teens, he asked me to come round to the garage with him, where he confided that he’d like me, as his eldest son, to have his Sam Browne army belt.  Suppressing a gut-wrenching jolt of emotion, I said ‘I won’t be needing that’.  His reply, which seemed to combine incomprehension, exasperation, and contempt, was ‘if Gerry came back today, he’d cut through your lot like a knife through hot butter’.  I protested that Gerry wasn’t coming back, and that what we were facing now was the atomic bomb’.  Looking back, from what feels like a rather more fully ‘human’ vantage point, I can now empathise with both positions.

I have become unashamedly pragmatic.  We are so much creatures of our time, place, generation, and community, that its not possible to say who we might have been, or how we would have acted, under different circumstances.  Nor can moral decisions be made on the basis of perfect knowledge and/or cold objectivity.  Embodied human existence is, indeed, unavoidably messy and morally complex.

B.T 1/2/14.

Sources:

(5) Michael Morpurgo, Warhorse, Egmont, 2007.

(6) See, for example, my recent post Changing Men.

(7) Peter Staudenmaier, Fascist Ideology: the ‘Green Wing’ of the Nazi Party and its Historical Antecedents, 1996quoting Ernst Lehmann, Biologischer Wille und Ziele biologischer Arbeit im neuen Reich, München, 1934.  George Mosse, The Crisis of German Ideology: Intellectual Origins of the Third Reich, New York 1964.

also Laura Elaine Hudson, The Apocalyptic Animal, 2008 (via Google books).

(8) A pacifist case (for ‘active sustained nonviolence’)  is put by Quaker human ecologist Alistair MacIntosh, in A NonViolent Challenge to Conflict, in Whetham (ed) Ethics, Law, and Military Operations, Palgrave MacMillan, 2010.  He cites successful mass non-violent resistance against the Nazis, involving large numbers of people who were willing to put their lives on the line.

Changing Men?

Eco-feminists have traced a Western hyper-separation from Nature back to Plato -whose gendered conception of reason underpinned a master identity defined in terms of domination and exclusion of the feminine, the slave (race, class, and gender oppression), the animal, and the natural- and Descartes, whose cogito -“I think therefore I am”- establishes its claim to authority through separation from the body and nature.(1)  What follows is a brief autobiographical commentary on a meeting of an anti-sexist men’s group, c1983. 

Thomas Taylor, born in the1850's.

Thomas Taylor, born in the 1850’s.

When my turn came to suggest a theme for a meeting of our anti-sexist men’s group, I chose a colour healing exercise. This entailed getting into pairs, centring ourselves, and taking turns to visualise a colour and ‘pass’ it through the palms of our hands to the hands of another man, who would then say which colour he’d received.(2) We were quite surprised, perhaps a bit spooked, by the accuracy with which we all seemed to be picking up these delicate invisible transmissions. Some will, of course, dismiss this episode an outbreak of unreason, a collective delusion, but my understanding of what happened is that our success reflected the high level of trust we had painstakingly established, by doing a lot of careful talking. In other words, it was not a trick, or a technical skill, that could be taken off the shelf and made to work in any circumstances.

But were such activities nothing more than cosy, or effete, self-indulgence? Some critics insisted that what we were doing was irrelevant to the lives of ordinary-decent-hardworking ‘blokes’. In retrospect I certainly find the juxtaposition of that almost magically peaceful gathering of men, and my father’s wartime exposure to such convincing approximations of hell, at about the same age, poignant. I now have a much clearer sense of how our bodies were both imprinted by, and enmeshed in the writing of, incommensurable yet intimately interwoven histories. At dad’s funeral, a distant uncle was visibly shocked when I walked into the room, and said it was ‘just like having Eddie coming in, -you’re just like him’. Although I found this timely observation both unexpectedly and profoundly pleasing, my life continued to be very different from my father’s. During his married life, for instance, he had no close friendships with other men, -in fact, no friends outside the family at all. I remember him becoming so embarrassed once, when two footballers hugged on the television, that he hurried out of the room. It was as though masculinity happened through him, its code of ingrained habits and assumptions remarked upon only in the breach. Relations between us mellowed considerably in his later years, but I was never able to talk to him in the way I would have liked, about the strange new world that had my men’s group in it.

Unfortunately, the atmosphere of relaxed openness in that group appeared to deter potential ‘recruits’. One man, who came once and didn’t return, said he’d assumed we were all gay. (this was a ‘mixed’ group). Some initially rather awkward and obligatory hugging had paved the way for a much more relaxed and open way of relating, and because most of us were co-counselling, we were used to sharing quite intense emotional support with other men. But my recollection is that we also had enough experience to keep a fairly clear perspective on the political implications of meeting as members of a privileged group. We were hoping to change the world as well as our own lives, and most of us had been, were, or soon would be, engaged in the wider community. Coming together consciously as men, and learning to work together in new ways, informed the rest of our lives.

(1) Val Plumwood, Feminism and the Mastery of Nature, Routledge, 1993.

(2) This came from a then recently published book, by a professor of nursing. ( The Therapuetic Touch, Kreiger, 1979 ).

This account was first published in  Brian Taylor, Responding to Men in Crisis, Routledge, 2005.

The theme relates to the upcoming Animist Ethics ‘issue’ of Animist Blog Carnival.