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Opening Heaven's Door

Patricia Pearson is a Toronto-based author and journalist who has written a book called Opening Heaven’s Door: What the Dying Tell Us About Where They’re Going. It was mentioned here in a recent post and sparked some admiring comments. Having had a chance to read it now, I must say I too am impressed. (There's also a good interview with the author here.)

It’s fair to say that most people who get interested in psi and survival come to it from a personal experience, and that’s the case here. Pearson’s sister, the single mother of teenagers, fell ill with aggressive breast cancer. One night she woke to experience a profound vision of joy and healing. Was it the effect of people praying for her, she wondered?

The next day she learned that their father had died during the night. It was natural to link the two events, and Pearson’s subsequent journey of discovery revealed how common it is for people to have experiences of all kinds in relation to their own deaths, or the deaths of loved ones.

This reminded me of a book I read a few years ago by a British journalist Justine Picardie, who likewise embarked on a personal inquiry following the death of her sister from breast cancer. Justine seemed keen to believe her sister had survived death, if she could find convincing evidence. However her subsequent encounters with researchers and mediums were somewhat clumsy and half-hearted, and she encountered only silence.

By contrast Pearson started out with personal experience. She describes Katherine on her deathbed being pleased and interested by what she seemed to be observing, ‘as if she were engaged in a novel and pleasant adventure.’

She looked gorgeous, as if lit from within. Sometimes, she would have happy whispered conversations with a person I couldn’t see. At other times, she’d stare at the ceiling of her room as a full panoply of expressions played across her face: puzzled, amused, skeptical, surprised.

She just couldn’t find the words to describe it.

When one day Katherine announced she was leaving, she could have survived for weeks or months, but in fact died two days later. Pearson discovered that this is very common – patients can be crisply precise about when they will die, and far more accurate than doctors. (My father on his deathbed suddenly said, ‘I’m going to die tomorrow’, in the same tone as he might have said he was going to the dentist – and he did, even though there was nothing to suggest he couldn’t have gone on for a while longer.)

Yet more interestingly, Pearson also learned that the dying often use the language of a journey to convey the imminence of their departure, quizzing those around them about what arrangements have been made with regard to passports and tickets, and so on.

The book essentially covers Pearson’s research into all kinds of dreams, visions and intimations, from Nearing Death Awareness (termed Death Bed Visions in the early research), psi dreams and visions, apparitions coinciding with death, NDEs, and so on. I was particularly engaged by a chapter on Third Man experiences, where people in situations of great danger find themselves accompanied by an invisible yet somehow tangible presence, who guides them to safety.

Some of the material is published and may be familiar to readers, for instance the account by Yvonne Kason of her dramatic air crash into a frozen lake and the near-death experience it led to. But there are many similar anecdotes culled from Pearson’s own research. All of this is skilfully interwoven with surveys and scientific findings of various kinds, cultural, historical and religious references, and intelligent musings.

Several things make this book stand out. One is the lightness of touch. As a journalist Pearson knows how to present topics in an engaging way, with the eye of the novelist. There is a serious intent, though – in fact the book can be seen as a patient reproof to the response, ‘couldn’t you just have been imagining it?’ Always calm and equable, one nevertheless senses a certain steely impatience with the pretence that such things don’t really have any significance, and that to talk about them as if they do is a sure sign of credulity.

Professional experts like Peter Fenwick emphasise that hallucinations resulting from illness and drugs are unpleasant and fragmentary, whereas these are coherent and meaningful to the highest degree. But unless the point is driven home it remains easy for an agnostic to dismiss it as ‘something that happens in the brain’. That is dealt with in gratifying depth here. Pearson presses experiencers to reveal just how strongly they distinguished the event from anything else that had encountered, and to say why it reassured and sometimes changed them.

I also think that Pearson is absolutely right to emphasise the primacy of subjective experience. A book full of anecdotes is reassuring to sceptics, who tell themselves that anecdotes aren’t science. But theirs, if they only knew it, is the science of a dead world inhabited by zombies and robots. We need to share what we feel and experience, in order to communicate.

People like me bang on about scientific evidence and how it is to be interpreted. Her approach is to quietly layer experience on experience, to show just how completely normal all this really is and how absurd to repress it. Comfortingly, the book hints that more people are willing to speak up – the doctors and medical staff who observe death-bed phenomena, the hospice carers and relatives who witness it, and even on occasion share in the visions themselves – and leaves one with a sense that the mood is slowly changing.

Yet in a rather poignant coda, Pearson learns that she is as much subject to the general reticence as everyone else. She hears a medium in a public meeting say things that clearly come from her sister, but keeps quiet, and only afterwards confesses to him privately that she knew the statements were meant for her. Breaking a taboo is hard, even for those of us who would love to see it happen.


Medley

Yes I know, I’ve been bunking off, bad boy, but I’m back now. Sort of. Here’s a little medley of items - a soupçon, if you will - to fill space while I try to think of something interesting to say.

First, the link to a podcast interview I did with Jim Harold a few weeks ago. I haven’t listened to it, but I remember the topic of James Randi came up.

The Institute of Arts and Ideas has asked me to draw attention to the debate they recently recorded that features Rupert Sheldrake, which of course I’m glad to do. The blurb reads:

Our understanding of the body is permeated with mechanical metaphors, but is it an error to believe that the body is a machine? Should we find a new adventure in alternative metaphors of the body? Author of The Science Delusion, Rupert Sheldrake, Oxford neuroscientist Colin Blakemore and award-winning novelist Joanna Kavenna reimagine the human being.

Check out this article from a 1960s issue of the Journal of the Society for Psychical Research (which I’ve posted as a separate item). It’s about a 1960s out-of-body-mystical type experience. I have particular reasons for publishing it here, which I will come back to later.

Finally, it gives me great pleasure to welcome to this space Henry Brand, aka our very own Rabbitdawg. He emailed me this book recommendation a few days ago, which I felt was too good not to share.

That’s it from Robert, now over to Henry:

I feel compelled to tip you off about a wonderfully refreshing new book concerning the paranormal that came out on May 13th. I have never heard of the author before, nor have I read the book...yet...um...but I have it on order...wait a minute...uh...I can explain.

The book, Opening Heaven's Door: What The Dying May Be Trying to Tell Us About Where They Are Going, is by Patricia Pearson, a professional pedigreed journalist who has never written about spirituality or the paranormal before. I got wind of her on one of the many Facebook posts The Human Consciousness Project puts out. The post linked to an interview by the author, and it intrigued me enough to give it a shot. Normally my life is too busy to listen to near-hour long audio interviews, but... I was mesmerized.

Seriously, so much of what passes for paranormal literature these days is just a repackaging of the same tired old anecdotes, arguments, theories and bitchin' about sceptics that first started coming to the forefront thirty years ago. Every now and then someone brings a new delicious and/or nutritious entree to the discussion table, yet so often it seems like there's nothing new under the Sun, or The Source Light, or whatever.

But this lady has a heartfelt focus that energizes the subject. She's done her research. As I pointed out earlier, her perspective and insight is so refreshing. A lot like Debora Blum (of Ghosthunters: William James and the Search for Scientific Proof of Life After Death fame), but dealing with day present issues. Every few minutes she says something that I want to write down and quote, but I won't do that here, because it wouldn't do her justice. It's a matter of context and tone.

Like I've pointed out in the past, researchers and experiencers should leave the writing and publishing up to journalists. It's what they do.

Suffice it to say I strongly suggest people listen to her interview. It's an episode on a CBC Radio One show called Tapestry.

After the obligatory mindless 60 second intro, the show takes off and gets your attention. Put it like this, at least listen to the first ten minutes, and if it doesn't completely draw you in, then click it off. In my opinion, it's that good. And it gets deeper and better as it goes along.

Check it out.

Tip: After the 50 minute mark, just when you think the show is over, they tuck in one last anecdote called in by a listener. It's pretty cool.


A 1960s OBE/Mystical Experience

I'm posting here a report that was first published in a 1967 issue of the Journal of the Society for Psychical Research. It's interesting as a twist on the classic near-death-type experience, of which nothing was known publicly at the time.

The article has particular relevance right now, about which more in a later post.

TWO SYNCHRONOUS EXPERIENCES CONNECTED WITH A DEATH  by G. W. LAMBERT 

In the following narratives, actual names and addresses are withheld; initials are altered; dates are altered as to month (not day of month); and years are actual. The case, as a whole, is of peculiar interest, as it combines features which are usually found independently of one another, and each of the two experiences was described by the percipient to someone else before the close coincidence of them in time was discovered. 

The writer of this report heard of the case through a mutual friend and invited the statements, which were furnished in answer to a request. Further comment is reserved until the end of this report. 

STATEMENT I by Mr Peter Davidson written down March 1966, copy sent to the SPR, 26 Jan. 1967.   I come from a family of five children. I am the only son with two older sisters and two younger. My eldest sister Constance is in her early fifties and I am in my late forties. 

My Father died on the 29 August, 1965 and my mother suffered a coronary thrombosis some weeks later and was taken from her Kensington flat to the local hospital. She recovered sufficiently well to return to her flat in December and my eldest sister Constance moved in to look after her. 

Early in 1966 my mother had another coronary and was re-admitted to the local hospital where she died on 20th February, 1966 at 'just before 3 a.m.' (Originally the hospital gave me the time of death as 3.30 a.m. but after I had the experience related below I asked the hospital chaplain to find out for me the exact time of death, and after he made enquiries from the night nursing staff he told me that it was just before 3 a.m.) 

I live in a flat a few miles from my mother's Kensington flat—in Knightsbridge. In the early hours of the morning of the 22nd February, 1966 (48 hours after my mother's death)—I woke up to find myself in a state of what I presume is called a trance. I was lying in bed on my back in a sleep-like conscious state. I did not (or could not?) move. I was breathing heavily—pantingly—with effort. (I thought/ felt 'this is what my mother experienced at the time of her death'). The thing that impressed me most was the heavy, thump-thump beat of my heart—it was so loud that the beats were thumping in my eardrums. 

Mentally I saw a television screen and I immediately thought 'I am now going to see my mother and father together or a message in pictorial form'. I was greatly disappointed when I only saw some female nut brown hair coming out of the TV screen, in the bottom right hand corner. Again, I thought this is not my mother's hair— hers was black going grey and very long. This was short and curly. I reached out to grasp and pull the hair towards me. Instead of the hair coming towards me it literally pulled me head first through the TV screen. The moment I went through the screen my heart stopped beating and I no longer had to breathe. I literally floated through. I had an instant glimpse of a golden yellow light above me. Apart from this I cannot recall seeing or hearing anything after passing through the screen. (I have tried to remember but cannot do so—I was then virtually unconscious and have no reckoning as to the lapse of time). I do remember thinking—this (communication?) is so easy—I must do it again. 

The next thing I knew I was lying in my bed and felt my heart coming to life again—only with a difference. My heart felt burning hot with love and joy—words cannot describe it. I felt my heart being filled with liquid divine love—an exquisitely heavenly experience. I was now fully conscious and breathing quite normally with my eyes still closed. I no longer heard my heart-beats. During this state of ecstasy I saw a number of scenes of places of my childhood days— very rapidly—one of these was a vision of my four sisters and myself sitting round our dining room table 37 to 40 years ago but the chairs at the two ends of the table, where my mother and father sat were empty—to my regret. I also saw the letter 5. Finally, I had a quick flash of seeing a policeman walking towards me and I was lying in a gutter opposite Kensington High Street underground station. (My mother was knocked down by a car on the pedestrian crossing at Ken. High St. Station some years ago when she was 74.) 

I then opened my eyes and saw a luminous cloud about 18 inches or so from my face. I hoped it would form into my mother's face but it just seemed to disappear. 

I switched on the bed light and looked at my watch, it was 2.55 a.m. I felt a very strong urge to go over immediately to the Kensington flat to my sister Constance. It was so strong I got out of bed to get dressed. On reflection I realised how absurd it would be to waken her at that hour of the morning and then went back to bed. As I lay in bed I pictured a slum street scene with 'God is Love' chalked on a wall and for the first time in my life I realised the truth and deeper meaning of this phrase. I felt so elated (with a feeling of enormous power) that had I been sentenced to death I would have gone to my execution with joy in my heart and welcomed life in spirit. 

The following morning I told my wife about my marvellous experience—I was still feeling enormously elated. My feelings of sadness about my mother had completely gone—somehow and I could not think why or how, I felt blissfully happy about her. My younger sister Rhona called in to see me and I told her about it. We decided to go over together to visit Constance at the Kensington flat. 

When we got over to the Kensington flat we found that my youngest sister, Lily, and her husband had called in and Constance had already told them of an experience she had had in the early hours of that morning. (Up to this time neither Constance or I had any knowledge about each other's experience and we had both related the details to other persons before this meeting.) 

Constance's experience was as follows: She had been very unhappy the previous evening, alone in the flat—crying and reproaching herself. She took a strong sleeping tablet and went to bed about midnight— this usually makes her sleep heavily and soundly. She was woken up by having her head or hair pulled and then heard our mother's voice speaking—she heard the message, opened her eyes but could see nothing in the room. She then called out 'Mummy, darling' and my mother repeated the message, only much louder this time, and with more emphasis on the 'anything'. This was as follows: 

‘Nobody need reproach themselves for anything. All my children have been wonderful.' 

The voice did not seem to come from any particular direction but went right through the flat.

She said it sounded like our mother's voice when she was much younger, perhaps 30 or 40 years ago. It was very strong and clear. 

Constance then switched on her light and looked at her watch it said 3 a.m. (but she told me that this could have been 4 or 5 minutes fast). Something made her write down the message immediately. 

Constance did not shed any more tears and was of course overjoyed. She felt happy right through the funeral and showed no emotion which I am sure she would have done had it not been for this experience. 

My feeling of ecstasy lasted for 10 to 14 days, fading away very gradually. It has left me with a very happy feeling about my experience, an absolute conviction of survival of the human personality, an awareness and a strong desire to be a better and more loving person than I was before I had the experience. 

STATEMENT II by Mrs Constance Edwards (née Davidson) - sister of Peter Davidson 

The following is a true account of my experience on the night of 2ist/22nd February 1966: 

My mother died in the early hours of February 20th and I continued to live on in her flat where I had nursed her through part of her illness. 

During the evening of February' 21st I was alone in the flat and had been going through old letters and diaries belonging to my mother, which naturally saddened me. I was feeling very unhappy and miserable, thinking, as one does on such occasions, that I ought to have done more for my mother and bitterly regretting something I had said to her on one occasion. 

Around midnight, feeling sad and extremely weary I took a strong sleeping pill and went to bed. In the early hours of the morning I was suddenly woken up. I felt someone rock my head by tugging at my hair. I immediately heard my mother's voice speaking to me. I was so amazed I just could not believe it. I had heard the message. I called out to her 'Darling, where are you' and sat up in bed. The room was in darkness and I could not see anything. I deliberately called out to her hoping she would speak to me again to make sure I had not been dreaming or deluding myself. My mother then repeated the message, only this time it seemed much louder, when she said: 'Nobody need reproach themselves for anything. All my children have been wonderful.' Her voice was so strong it reminded me of the way she used to speak when she was in her thirties or forties. I quickly switched on the light hoping that I might see her—but of course I didn't. 

I knew I had to write down the message straight away lest I should forget it or think it was a dream. I wrote out the message. It was then 3 a.m. I lay there for a little while feeling rather stunned but blissfully happy. I longed for the morning to tell the family although I feared  that they might not believe me. I then fell into a deep peaceful sleep. 

The following morning my youngest sister, Lily and her husband, James called in early for coffee and I told them exactly what had happened. Shortly afterwards, whilst they were still in the flat, my brother Peter called in with another sister, Rhona. We then both learned for the first time about each other's experiences of that morning. I was stunned, yet relieved, as it was in a way a sort of corroboration of my experience. My brother was also pleased for the same reason. 

My sister Lily and brother-in-law James (Cmdr. & Mrs. J. Bell R.N.) can confirm that the details given above are a truthful account as far as their part in it is concerned. 

Constance Edwards (Signed) 

Confirmation [partial] of Statement II 

We are the brother-in-law and sister respectively of the writer of Statement II above, and confirm the details so far as we are concerned, notably, that we learned about Mrs Edwards' experience before we heard about Peter Davidson's experience.   J. Bell. .. Cmdr. R.N.  Lily Bell ... Wife of above 

COMMENT 

Mr P. D. has been interviewed by the writer of this report. Before this experience he was not interested in psychical research, and is sure he had never read any literature on ‘out-of-the-body’ experiences or 'crisis dreams'. His wife had a copy of the two-volume edition of Human Personality by F. W. H. Myers, but nothing by Muldoon and Carrington or Prof. J. H. Whiteman. It is therefore interesting to compare the description of the onset of the experience in paragraph 5 of Statement I with the following passage in Professor Whiteman's description of the onset of a 'separation' experience given by him (Vol. 534, October 1935).

I seemed to be awake in bed. ... Alongside I perceived, in a startling flash, a human head, turned away so that chiefly the back of it was seen, the person being instinctively named within me as myself ... I reached out with a hand (in the separated state) in an endeavour to confirm or refute this presence. For a few moments I was conscious of the warm feel of the head and hair, being too startled however to see anything further. On becoming able to see again, the person was no longer there.... (Proc. 50, 259) 

For 'the glimpse of a golden yellow light above me' compare Prof. Whiteman's 'general view of sunlight, golden in quality* (ibid. 264). For the feeling of elation after the experience, see Prof. Whiteman, passim. For two or more experiences in different places apparently connected with the same crisis and death, see the 'La Plata' case and cases cited therein (Jnl. 41, 193-8). 

As in the case now under consideration the death was already known to both percipients, it may be thought that each experience was the natural result of grief, and a mere reflection in dramatic form of some reassurance for which there was a strong subconscious wish. The first night's sleep following the announcement of the death may in each case have brought about a psycho-physical condition conducive to such an emotional release. 

But such an explanation would hardly account for two curious features : 

(1) the close coincidence in time of the two experiences;   (2) the remarkable similarity of the Davidson and 'Whiteman experiences, as described above, indicating in the case of the former, that it was an incipient out-of-the-body experience, not a mere dream.