‘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 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.

 

 

 

 

 

Taking Soul Birds Seriously.

Peacock Butterfly, Aglais Io.

Peacock Butterfly, Aglais Io.

Appropriately, on this variously named festival of the first fruits of the northern hemisphere harvest, Saturn, a.k.a. the Reaper, so named both for the necessity of death-in-life, and as ‘the one who harvests fruitful deeds'(1), turns direct in the heavens and starts to move forward across the last degrees of Scorpio, resonating with a potent configuration of other planets. (see astrological footnote**).

Having stumbled upon Peter Fenwick‘s finding that encounters with a personally significant animal, bird, or butterfly, are quite often reported around the time of a death, I wove this into an article that can now be found online in the latest issue of Paranthropology,  Journal of Anthropological Approaches to the Paranormal ‘Taking Soul Birds Seriously, a Post-secular Animist Perspective on Extra-Ordinary Communications revisits a series of kingfisher dreams and appearances that preceded and followed the death of a very dear friend in 2012, in the context of debates around contemporary animism.

One strand in these discussions has been whether we should abandon the term ‘spirits’.   Because it comes to us saturated in dualistic (neo-)Platonic and Christian assumptions that privilege celestial realms (‘Heaven’) over ecological concerns and the wonders of material embodiment, its uncritical use has undoubtedly distorted Western understandings of indigenous traditions.  My preference, however, has been to reclaim ‘spirit’ and ‘soul’, with due care, for earth-centred spirituality.

Having cited Graham Harvey on this, and sensing considerable scepticism about extra-ordinary experience in his Food Sex and Strangers, I was pleased to hear from him that he has no scepticism about the otherworld or its inhabitants.  His critique was, apparently, aimed at the casual approach of some Pagans towards otherworldly beings.

In the Paranthropology article I argue that we need terms that unambiguously signify discarnate persons or beings, whether or not we accept the possibility of their existence, and that the ontological status of visions, voices, or presences, may well be less important than their meaning and effect, and the power relations surrounding them.  I pick up on Brian Morris’s reminder that binary distinctions need not be interpreted dualistically, and on Patrick Curry’s similar argument that ‘contingent local distinctions between spiritual or mental and material … are not the problem, any more than are either rationality or spirituality per se. It is their conversion into an ideology and programme (rationalism, spiritualism, etc) which is pathological.”(2)

I wouldn’t want to ‘pathologise’ ingrained discursive habits such as dualism, but since, from a human perspective, nature seems riven with dualities -none more radical than the apparent chasm between ‘life’ and ‘death’- this simple move hopefully enables us to separate accounts of ecstatic or transcendental experiences and realities from their dualistic misuse, whilst ‘End of Life Experiences’, not least those involving the arrival of helpful and  loving presences, whoever they are and however we perceive and address them, appear (one way or another) to affirm existential continuity.

B.T. 1/8/15 (updated 2/8/15).

Astrological Footnote:  On the first of August 2015 Saturn went direct on 28 Scorpio, square Venus and Jupiter (on 27 and 29 Leo), and semi-square Pluto (on 13 Capricorn).  Pluto was therefore ‘with’ the midpoints Venus-Saturn and Jupiter-Saturn at 13 Libra.  Stationery periods, when a planet appears to hover at one point for a while, are said to concentrate the planet’s astrological effect – or if you prefer, to intensify the phenomena being signified.  Interestingly, Saturn is concerned with boundaries, thus also binary distinctions and ‘othering’, and (as Chronos) with time.  Death is undoubtedly a ‘limit experience’, and temporal boundary.

Sources:

(1) Alan Leo, Saturn: the Reaper, Samuel Weiser, 1916.

Graham Harvey, Food, Sex, and Strangers, Understanding Religion as Everyday Life, Acumen, 2013.  

(2) Patrick Curry, (2012) Revaluing Body and Earth, in Brady E. and Phemister P (eds), Human-Environment Relations: Transformative Values in Theory and Practice, Dordrecht, Springer, 41-54.
http://www.patrickcurry.co.uk/papers/Revaluing%20Body,%20Place%20and%20Earth.pdf

Subtle Bodies, a book review.

L0043615 Acupuncture points and meridians. The arm. Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images images@wellcome.ac.uk http://wellcomeimages.org Acupuncture points and meridians. The arm taken from I-tsung chiu-chien, 'The Golden Mirror of Medicine' a compendium of medical works edited by Wu Chien and first published in 1742 19th Century Published:  -  Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0 http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/

Acupuncture points and meridians: the arm.  I-tsung chiu-chien, ‘The Golden Mirror of Medicine’, edited by Wu Chien, 1742.  Wellcome Library, Creative Commons

Although my occasional full bodied roars drew complaints from accountants in the office upstairs, my acupuncturist agreed that it was a good way to release energy.  I found the needles quite helpful, though sometimes difficult (they tend to be more uncomfortable when you need them most).  But however warm the welcome, I felt a slight sense of disjuncture going into a setting shaped by a cosmology and symbol system from the other side of the world.  As an astrologer I worked with four elements, not five, and had a different model of seasonal/energetic change.  That said, I’m generally drawn to eclectic, syncretic, and plural approaches (up to a point), rather than narrowly singular traditions.  Even the Western medical herbalist I went to used to read my pulses in the Chinese style.

It seems that Eastern cosmologies, and associated therapeutic, meditation, and magical practices involving variously conceived subtle bodies, were enthusiastically adopted on the margins of Western culture during the ‘early Modernist period’ (1880-1930).  The term ‘subtle body’ was introduced by the Theosophists, initially as a translation of suksmasarira, a key concept in Vedanta philosophy.  In the work of Samkara (who lived aound 800 CE) it formed part of a series of three bodies -the material or physical, subtle, and causal bodies.  Various Theosophists went on to proposed a series of ‘higher’ bodies including astral, mental, causal, and etheric, corresponding to ‘higher planes’ of existence and progressively finer materiality.

Despite scholarly discomfort with its Theosophical origins, and subsequent popularisation in the West, Geoffrey Samuel and Jay Johnston, editors of Religion and the Subtle Body in Asia and the West, Between mind and body find ‘subtle body’ a useful generic term.  Their book works well as a resource on the genealogy of related concepts, covering Daoist, Indian, Tibetan, Shamanic, and Buddhist traditions, before moving on to Sufism, Neoplatonism, neo-shamanism/magical consciousnesss (Susan Greenwood), and a multitude of Western borrowings in art and culture.  The editors’ argument that subtle-body concepts ‘assume a quasi-material level of human functioning … intermediate between conventional concepts of body and mind’ is picked up by several authors who consider them as a way of overcoming Cartesian dualism.  This, and Samuel and Johnston’s claim that ‘subtle body language can open up our picture of the individual to include relationship with others’, suggests that subtle bodies may be a missing conceptual link in current debates around ‘new’ animism?

Crystal Addey discusses the neoplatonic concept of ‘vehicle of the soul’, ochema pneuma, as a bridge between soul and body.  The practice of theurgy -‘god work’-  combining ethical behaviour with contemplative and meditative practices (purification of powers of perception and ‘imagination’ to facilitate visions of, and from, the gods) were designed to enable the adept to become godlike.  Although religion and ritual was about ‘a lifelong endeavour of moral development’ and active involvement in the world, Neoplatonism has a strongly transcendental orientation.  Over identification with matter was said (by Hierocles) to weigh the soul down with ‘material stains and pollution’.  Nevertheless some of the neoplatonic material on divination is interesting.

Angela Sumegi juxtaposes a shamanic sense that other worlds are real, and accessible by means of soul or spirit journeys, with the Buddhist doctrine of no-soul or no-self, anatman.  She defines shamanism as ‘grounded in an animistic world view and involving distinctive practices that focus on the ability of certain individuals to … [mediate] between culturally accepted dimensions of the world in response to the needs of a particular group’.  It thrives where there is a belief that the world and its beings are constituted of visible and invisible dimensions.

Communication with unseen aspects depends on assistance from spirit persons, and takes place primarily through alternate states of consciousness including trance, possession, and dream or waking visions.  Deceased Mongolian shamans, or ongons, and other spirits, are said to travel along well defined pathways with rest stops along the way, often by a special tree or mountain pass. Mongolian death rituals apparently include a ‘bone carrying person’ who wears his clothes and hat inside out or back to front, and sprinkles offerings at crossroads or streams.

‘From a shamanic perspective, the spirit or soul of a thing signifies its most fundamental mode of existence, its being in relation’.  Thus, Sumegi sees shamanic soul theory as a way of personalising every aspect of human existence (rather than as an acknowledgement that other-than-human beings are persons).  By contrast, Buddhist practitioners aim to realise the essencelessness or illusory nature of persons and things, though Tibetan Buddhist subtle body concepts, including the dream body, illusory body, and rainbow body (purified from dualistic habit patterns), and the Mahayana theory of the three bodies of the Buddha, ‘express the primordial personhood of the most sublime state of liberation’.

Janet Chawla’s chapter on The life-bearing body in dais’ birth imagery considers the ethno-medical knowledge, body imagery, cosmological understandings, and practices of India’s traditional midwives or dais.  These lower caste or out-caste women ‘serve the poorest of the poor -and have always been concerned with embodiment not enlightenment’. Their birth work is often regarded by privileged Indians with ‘an exaggerated colonial disdain’.  One of their practices involves retaining the umbilical cord, partly so that it can be heated in order to revive an apparently lifeless baby.  The cord is considered to contain channels/naari through which jee or life-force flows.

Chawla discusses the ‘geo-mysticism’ associated with the female ‘deity/demon’ Bemata, who lives deep within the earth narak -commonly translated as ‘hell’.  As ruler of that domain she’s repsonsible for the conception, birth, and growth, of humans as well as all vegetation and animal life.  Reclaiming the work of the dais involves re-valuing the underground, unseen, cthonic realm – lowest of the three realms in both textual Hinduism and folk culture (below the mundane/earthly/visible, and the celestial).  Their conception of narak allows for the mapping of the unseen, inner world of the body … and also facilitates negotiation with the spirit world’.

Geoffrey Samuel concludes the book with an attempt to model subtle body concepts in universal terms, suggesting they may be about ‘barely conscious drives and desires … the impulses below or beyond individuals’ conscious awareness’, and how to control these.  They may also relate to our social and ecological context.  He attempts to steer between naive materialism and naive idealism, treating the subtle body as relational, constructed, but nevertheless real and ‘capable of being grounded in our best current sense of neurophysiology’.  This still sounds like materialism to me, so I like it less than his inclusive curiosity and acknowledgment of the importance of openness to the experiences of those who have, or claim to have, worked with subtle body processes.  Susan Greenwood, in a reworking of material about her shamanic journeying in the form of an owl, is the only contributor writing from direct subjective experience.

There’s a lot more, but this is quite an expensive hardback (to date), and my copy, obtained through inter-library loans (use public libraries or lose them!) is due back tomorrow, so I’ll have to close there with a recommendation to read some of this for yourself.

B.T. 1/7/15

Geoffrey Samuel and Jay Johnston, eds. Religion and the Subtle Body in Asia and the West, between mind and body, Routledge, 2013.

Note excerpts can be browsed online using Google Books.

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:

Spirit Possession, Deities, and Gnats.

Yellow Legged Fungus Gnat from John Curtis, British Entemology, folio 134, 1826.

Yellow Legged Fungus Gnat from John Curtis, British Entemology, folio 134, 1826.

Western discourse about spirit possession emerged from a long history of Christian demonology.  After the Enlightenment it came to be regarded as ‘one of the key markers of the primitive stage in the evolution of human civilization’, and, thanks to E.B.Tylor’s late nineteenth century theory of animism, became ‘a founding term in the discipline of anthropology’.  Tylor’s observation that “to the minds of the lower races it seems that nature is possessed, pervaded, crowded, with spiritual beings” expresses the sense that, for animists the spirit world was (and still is) inhabited by all manner of other-than-human beings.(1)

A recent review of spirit possession encompasses both ‘the belief that spirits can involuntarily occupy the body of an individual, causing illness’, and ‘the voluntary incorporation of spirits, ancestors, and deities, for social and ritual reasons’.  Although traditions vary considerably, the use of altered states to communicate with a spirit world and the divine is still recognised as a global phenomenon.(2)  For present purposes, I want to set aside questions about the dualistic origin of the terminology of ‘spirits’ and ‘deities’ in order to ponder lived experience.

The recent proliferation of neo-Shamanic practices has encouraged many Westerners to become the kind of animists Tylor denounced as primitive.  Re-reading some passages from Michael Harner’s influential book The Way of the Shaman I was struck by some implausible statements.  For instance: “the guardian animal spirit resident in the mind-body of a person wants to have the enjoyment of once again existing in material form.  It is a trade off, for the person gets the power of the whole genus or species of animals represented by that guardian spirit“.(my italics).(3)  That kind of claim makes me wonder about the appeal of core shamanism, about how it perceives illness and disability, and about its therapeutic approach.

Critics have argued that, unlike most traditional shamans, Harner emphasises the controllability of shamanic experience, and that this plays on Western stereotypes that devalue practices such as trance and spirit possession that involve a temporary suspension of control and rationality.  Against this, however, Harner has been concerned for the safety of vulnerable workshop attendees.(4)  He also believes that we can have ‘power animals’ without being aware of their presence, or knowing when they go AWOL.  In that sense, shamanic consciousness could be seen as restoring a degree of much needed agency.

In The Way  of the Shaman Harner writes that a patient’s power animal is hardly ever an insect.  Whilst we might agree that swarming insects are best left alone, whether materially embodied or in spirit form, others have pointed out that insects such as spiders, butterflies, or bees, may have considerable cultural or personal significance.  Experience suggests that, like birds and mammals, insects are occasionally willing to help humans by appearing, in the flesh, at times of need, or as divinatory messengers.  I’ve personally seen, read, or been reliably told about, instances involving butterflies, moths, ants, and wasps.

Unidentified Species of Gnat, Andre Baruch, Creative Commons.

Unidentified Species of Gnat, Andre Baruch, Creative Commons.

In his 1967 poem Gnat Psalm, Ted Hughes, an early advocate of neo-Shamanism, gleefully describes dancing gnats in angelic and cosmic terms, and declares God to be ‘an Almighty Gnat’.  This, of course, graphically highlights the anthropocentric nature of most deities venerated by humans.  It also invites us to wonder why other-than-human beings have so often been demonised, or portrayed as machines.  Since much of the work of traditional shamans entails inter-species mediation in situations where predation or control of other animals by humans becomes unavoidable, we should not be surprised that many writers on spirit possession discuss the potential dangerousness of some spirit beings.(5)

Where Harner has been criticised for sanitising shamanism, American neo-Pagans Kenaz Filan and Raven Kaldera, who describe their own experiences of possession vividly, have been taken to task for popularising a dangerously intense form of practice.  Kaldera, who has always seen auras, tells us that from the age of sixteen “my vision would blur, I would feel as though I was falling, and then I would hear through a fog a distant voice speaking to the friend next to me.  It was my voice, but it didn’t sound like me”.  On one occasion he was surprised to be told that he had addressed her using a secret name know only to herself.  “Another presence had moved into my body and shoved me aside.  I could only flounder as it used me and moved on”.

At the age of seventeen he left home and found acceptance at a Voudou Umband House where he was shown ‘the practicalities of god possession’.  Watching participants possessed by deities he saw their auras shrink away to almost nothing before “Something Else blossomed in their place -something with an aura that reached out across the room, bright and powerful like nothing I’d seen in a body before”.  He then realised that he too had a ‘gift/curse’ that could not be unchosen.  His own experiences of trance possession also begin with a sense of ‘receding’ from one’s own body and senses, followed by the arrival of the Spirit ‘in a rush of colour, image, and pure feeling, much larger than oneself’.(6)  Once again this does seems to be about power of some kind coming through.

I recognise enough of the elements here to trust this account of the phenomenology of the further reaches of spirit possession.  My younger self would certainly have benefited from some first hand practical information.  Given that I also had visionary experiences at a time of existential crisis, and given the long history of medicalising both madness and spirit possession, however, I hope the authors of this book -who are clearly well intentioned and informed about other political sensibilities- will reconsider their uncritical use of biomedical psychiatric labels (‘mental illness’, ‘florid schizophrenia’, ‘psychosis’ etc).  Sadly they’re not alone among neo-Pagan authors in appearing not to have noticed many decades of struggle and writing by the psychiatric survivor and critical mental health movements (e.g. around hearing voices).  Stanislav and Christina Grof’s notion of ‘spiritual emergency’ also offers an alternative to psychiatric diagnosis in such situations and has received favourable attention within psychiatry.(7)

Filan and Kaldera do point out that in traditional societies people often fear and resist the call to shamanism, and emphasise the need to avoid romanticising the gift/curse of spirit-work, especially where it involves full blown possession rather than mediumship (a.k.a. channelling, or co-consciousness).  Personally I’ve not been convinced of the advantage of spirit possession as distinct from these latter, less intrusive, less dramatic, more dialogical forms of contact, as a means of providing help, healing, guidance, or divinatory knowledge -which, hopefully, is what all of this is about.  That said though, there’s clearly a need to discuss a phenomenon that some people evidently have no option but to engage with, and for the kinds of peer support amongst spirit-workers that these authors call for.

B.T. 2/3/15 (re-edited 3/3/15).

Sources:

(1) Paul Christopher Johnson, Whence Spirit Possession?, in Graham Harvey ed. The Handbook of Contemporary Animism’, quoting from E.B.Tylor’s Primitive Culture.  Johnson discusses spirit posession as a response to slavery and colonialism.

(2) Jack Hunter, Folk Models of Mind and Matter, in Jack Hunter and David Luke, Talking with the Spirits, Ethnographies from Between the Worlds, Daily Grail, 2014.

(3) Michael Harner, The Way of the Shaman, Harper and Row, 1980/1990, p68.

(4) Robert Wallis, Shamans/Neo-Shamans; Ecstasy, alternative archaeologies and contemporary Paganisms, Routledge, 2003, p54.

(5) Ted Hughes, Collected Poems, 2003, or Wodwo, 1967, Faber and Faber.

(6) Kenaz Filan and Raven Kaldera, Drawing Down the Spirits; the Traditions and Techniques of Spirit Posession, Destiny Books, 2009.

(7) Nicki Crowley, Psychosis or Spiritual Emergence? -Consideration of the Transpersonal Perspective within Psychiatry 2006.

Rufus May and Elanor Longdon Hearing Voices and Self Help.

U.K. Spiritual Crisis Network.

Mad in America website.

The Blackest Earth, Reclaiming Alchemy?

Tabula Smaragdina, Macrocosm and microcosm.  Engraving attached to Basilica Philosophica, 3rd vol of Johann Daniel Mylius, Opus Medico-Chymicum. 1618.  Matthaus Merian.

Tabula Smaragdina, Macrocosm and microcosm. Engraving attached to Basilica Philosophica, 3rd vol of Johann Daniel Mylius, Opus Medico-Chymicum. 1618. Matthaus Merian.

Several years ago, when writing an article on Ted Hughes, Shaman of the Tribe, I decided to have a look at The Chymical Wedding of Christian Rosenkreutz, a Rosicrucian allegory of spiritual transformation, written by Johann Valentin Andreae and published in 1616.  Hughes regarded the Chymical Wedding as a tribal dream, and wrote Difficulties of a Bridegroom under its influence.  In one of his letters he suggests imagining Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure performed at a meeting of Rosicrucian practitioners of hermetic magic and religious philosophy, and argues that the characters in such plays perform a symbolic function. The Chymical Wedding includes a description of a play that resembles a mysterious pageant (1), and is itself something of a dreamlike pageant.

I didn’t share Hughes’s enthusiasm for the story, and struggled to make much sense of its alchemical imagery, but was sitting reading the following episode from the sixth of the story’s seven days: – “In this room a bath was prepared for the bird … but after it began to heat, by reason of the lamps placed under it, we had enough to do to keep him in the bath.  We therefore clapped a cover on the kettle and suffered him to thrust out his head through a hole till he had lost all his feathers in the bath, and was as smooth as a new born babe, yet the heat did him no further harm …” -when I was distracted by a commotion in the garden.  I looked out of the window and saw a wood pigeon columba palumbus flapping about frantically in the grass at the foot of the bird table, before flying noisily away (as they do), leaving ‘feathers scattered in the air’ and over the ground.

Magpies chattered raucously.  Jackdaws cawed.  I went up into the garden and was greeted by a robin who flew down and perched in the elder, two or three feet from my head, and ‘proceeded to tell me what had happened’ with great urgency.  Although I was unable to translate the finer points of robin language this had clearly been a sparrowhawk attack.  Had it been the black cat that occasionaly hunted in our garden a pigeon on the ground wouldn’t have escaped. Later that day a lone jackdaw returned and perched, trapeze fashion, on the phone line, bent down over the scene of the crime, and cursed volubly.

The mythical bird in The Chymical Wedding had previously changed his plumage from black to white, and then to colours of incomparable beauty, becoming progresively more docile.  Once his feathers had been removed in the heated bath, a collar was put round his neck.  I can’t claim that woodpigeons (or any other actual species) resemble the bird in the story, and although the pigeon in question left an impressive trail of feathers, she hadn’t been stripped bare.  They do, however, have a white mark on either side of their necks that suggests a collar, giving rise to the widespread folk name ‘ring dove’, and the image of scalding heat removing feathers but causing no further harm seemed a reasonable, if imprecise, metaphor for the sting of the predator’s talons from which the bird had narrowly escaped.

Wood Pigeon, Columba palumba, photo: nottsexaminer, Creative Commons.

Wood Pigeon, Columba palumbus, photo: Nottsexaminer, Creative Commons.

This, then, had been a showing (synchronicity, if you prefer), albeit a minor and unbidden one.  Such occurances need to be read in context, which, in this case, included several other more intimate showings around that time (as ever the best ‘evidence’ is too personal to present to naive or hostile sceptics!), and by then over twenty years of encounters and dreams, many of which decisively associated bird allies with greater or lesser deaths.

My first thought was that the rest of the content of the Chymical Wedding had little to do with this event, which I saw as another example of how the world works -if only we were alert to her cues.  It now occurs to me, however, that the symbolism associated with the dove -a bird of fertility, courtship, and sexual love (Venus) in many cultures, but also the most favoured bird (at least in the form of a white dove) in Christian iconography, where it represents the holy ghost (a dove shown in rays of light or flames), the souls of the redeemed, spiritual love, and innocence, is paradigmatic of the split that alchemy potentially heals.  The dove’s (or columbine) kiss, said to be accompanied by the lovers ‘dying’ in a sexual sense -as Petronius put it: “We clung passionate together and transfused our straying souls back and forth through our lips.  Farewell mortal cares!  Thus I began to die”- was, for instance, reframed by the church fathers as ‘the image of unity and peace which the faithful should have in their contact with each other’.(2)  So, as is often the case, that world-moment may have been more meaning-filled than I first thought.

Alchemische Vereinigung.  Illustration im Buch Donam Dei - Ortus diviciarum sapiencie Dei.  17th Century.

Alchemische Vereinigung. Illustration im Buch Donam Dei – Ortus diviciarum sapiencie Dei. 17th Century.

The central theme of the Chymical Wedding is an enactment of the hieros gamos, the wedding of a King and Queen, representing a union of (actual or apparent) cosmic opposites – female and male, light and dark, inner and outer, matter and spirit.  Ted Hughes reworked the theme beautifully in Bride and Groom Lie Hidden for Three Days in his ‘alchemical cave drama’ sequence, Cave Birds.  I had thought that alchemy was mostly about dramatising transcendence -releasing spirit trapped in (dead) matter, and/or restoring the world by spiritualising matter- but Aaron Cheake’s Alchemical Traditions in which he argues for alchemy as a ‘nondual process’ in which “so called ‘material’ and ‘spiritual’ realities (are) co-present, interdependent expressions of a deeper ‘existential’ field of being” appeared to offer an alternative view.(3)

Most animists would have little difficulty agreeing with him that ‘the deep relationship … between metallurgised and physiological processes all pertain strongly to the hidden continuity between all bodies, from the mineral to the divine’.  As a Buddhist, however, Cheake still talks in terms of alchemy engaging material existence, at its most dissolute, ‘in order to turn it into a vehicle of liberation’ of the soul from ‘cycles of generation and corruption’, and even of physis, ‘nature herself’.  In this vision a primordial solar nature ‘transforms its material bindings … into vehicles of transcendence’.  Yet the term alchemy can be traced to ancient Egyptian and Coptic names for Egypt (km.t, keme, kemi, chemia) that, according to Plutarch, refer both to ‘the blackest of soils’ and ‘the black portion of the eye’, and to a cosmology valuing both divine darkness and the infinitely subtle material matrix of nature.

In Cave Birds the Socratic rationalist/complacent cock-sure protagonist is eventually metamorphosed into falcon form (as Horus, consort of the goddess), but as Ann Skea points out, alchemical synthesis must be constantly repeated.  The ‘Great Work’ is never finished.(4)  So the apocalyptic cosmic hypersensivity of the last two poems, The Owl Flower and The Risen, is followed by a brief finale announcing the appearance of a goblin.  As animists we might wonder whether the use of bird symbolism in alchemy, and the various traditions it emerged from, reduces other-than-human persons to caricatures and cyphers.  Or might cockerell, peacock, raven, dove, and falcon-persons have become experts in embodying particular divine ‘energies’, particular facets of nature, in which case might it not be reasonable for we humans, not least with all the science, poetry, and free range intuition now at our disposal, to notice and learn from them?

B.T 5/10/14.

Sources

(1) Ted Hughes’s Letter to Donya Feuer, 1979 – in Christopher Reid, ed The Letters of Ted Hughes, Faber and Faber, p412.

(2) Beryl Rowland, Birds with Human Souls, a Guide to Bird Symbolism, University of Tennessee Press, 1978 (quoting  Petronius’s Satyricon).

(3) Aaron Cheake, Alchemical Traditions, from Antiquity to the Avant Garde, Numen Books, 2013.

(4) Ann Skea, Ted Hughes, The Poetic Quest, University of New England, 1994 has a detailed account of Ted Hughes’s use of alchemy in Cave Birds.