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February 2017

Inner Light

I’m in touch with a Chinese professor of physics who’s written an entry for the Psi Encyclopedia on parapsychology in China. His English is quite limited, and the article needs a fair bit of work. But it contains some rather remarkable claims about work with children, which I’m keen to find out more about.

In one project, he writes, blind children were taught to ‘distinguish different colours by touch on the nose or ear, and even recognize the outlines of simple figures and numbers, thus improving their quality of life’. In another, blind children were taught to ‘see and read’ through skin contact.

Some children can now ‘skin read’ the colour, number and figure (animal shapes) on separate cards in some cases at up to 45 cards per minute, often with 100% accuracy. Blind children can be taught to telepathically communicate with each other and have even been taught to get together in a ‘virtual space’ and move objects by virtual PK. Most sighted children can be taught to develop their PK abilities to fold strips of paper or break matchsticks held in transparent sealed containers, and even write a few tiny words such as ‘Mother I love you’ and a figure of ‘love’ on a sealed match stick by using a mind controlled ‘virtual pen’.

Startling stuff. There are no references as yet, and I’m non-committal until I can find out more. But at the least, it seems like an interesting avenue for research. And I’d be curious to know what cultural differences might make it easier to do this sort of thing in China than the West, as I suspect is the case.

This brought to mind a detail in another Encyclopedia article, one that’s already published, on Extraordinary Light Phenomena, by a German philosopher Annekatrin Puhle.

She mentions the story of Jacques Lusseyran, a Frenchman who lost the sight of both eyes in a freak accident at the age of eight, but who, far from being devastated, was excited to discover an inner world bathed in brilliant light. This not only engaged his attention, it also helped him to continue to interact normally with the external world. Puhle quotes from his autobiography And There Was Light, and I found it so intriguing that I bought it, also a later book containing short articles in which he expands on the theme. Definitely worth checking out.

By his own account, Lusseyran enjoyed something of a charmed life growing up in Paris in the pre-war years. His parents sound quite enlightened, and they dealt with his blindness in what he considers to be an ideal way, ensuring as far as possible that he wasn’t treated differently from sighted children. They made him learn Braille at once. He recovered quickly, went back to the same school and was reading, walking, running and playing with other children within two months.

Lusseyran found that being blind was not as he had imagined, nor as other people seemed to think.

They told me that to be blind meant not to see. Yet how was I to believe them when I saw? Not at once, I admit. Not in the days immediately after the operation. For at that time I still wanted to use my eyes. I followed their usual path. I looked in the direction where I was in the habit of seeing before the accident, and there was anguish, a lack, something like a void which filled me with what grown-ups call despair.

Then he realised he was ‘looking in the wrong way’.

I began to look more closely, not at things but at a world closer to myself, looking from an inner place to one further within…

Immediately, the substance of the universe drew together, redefined and peopled itself anew. I was aware of a radiance emanating from a place I knew nothing about, a place which might as well have been outside me as within. But radiance was there, or, to put it more precisely, light. It was a fact, for light was there…

I saw light and went on seeing it though I was blind. I said so, but for many years I think I did not say it very loud. Until I was nearly fourteen I remember calling the experience, which kept renewing itself inside me, ‘my secret’, and speaking of it only to my intimate friends…

The amazing thing was that this was not magic for me at all, but reality. I could no more have denied it than people with eyes can deny that they see. I was not light myself, I knew that, but I bathed in it as an element which blindness had suddenly brought much closer. I could feel light rising, spreading, resting on objects, giving them form, then leaving them.

Withdrawing or diminishing is what I mean, for the opposite of light was never present. Sighted people always talk about the night of blindness, and that seems to them quite natural. But there is no such night, for at every waking hour and even in my dreams I lived in a stream of light.

Without my eyes light was much more stable than it had been with them. As I remember it, there were no longer the same differences between things lighted brightly, less brightly or not at all. I saw the whole world in light, existing through it and because of it.

Light threw its colour on things and on people. My father and mother, the people I met or ran into in the street, all had their characteristic colour which I had never seen before I went blind. Yet now this special attribute impressed itself on me as part of them as definitely as any impression created by a face.

Lusseyran experiments to see if he can block out the light, but he finds he can’t do that by willing it – it’s not something he imagines, but is objective, outside himself. But he does discover that it will disappear if his mood darkens: if he either starts to become narrow and calculating, or angry and impatient. Then he loses his bearings and crashes into things.

He talks in a similar way about sound, to which he has become super-sensitive, and which now seems to emanate from objects in a characteristic way that he learns to recognise. More than that, he seems to sense objects like walls as being present, as though they press in on him.

What makes Lusseyran’s story so riveting is what came next. Growing up in the 1930s he became very aware of what was happening in Nazi Germany, and took the trouble to learn German. During the Occupation, aged 17, he started a youth resistance group, which specialised in printing and distributing an underground newspaper based on BBC bulletins and other clandestine sources. This sounds fantastically dangerous. Yet his blindness, far from being a handicap, seems to have helped him. He took responsibility for recruiting, and a special ability to recognise a person’s inner nature ensured that he got people who were reliable and committed – some six hundred eventually. His group later merged with a much larger underground publication that eventually became France Soir, one of the country’s highest circulation newspapers in the 1950s and 60s.

Inevitably, Lusseyran and his colleagues were betrayed to the Gestapo, and he was sent to Buchenwald concentration camp. He made it to the end of the war, about eighteen months later, one of only a small handful of survivors of the thousands of French people imprisoned there. Afterwards he had to struggle because of a law passed by the Vichy regime that prevented blind people from teaching. But he prevailed, and eventually went to the US to teach French literature. He gave lectures about his experience of blindness (reprinted in his second book Against the Pollution of the I) and was on his way to deliver the last of them when he was killed in a car crash, aged 46.

As a European growing up in the post-war era, I’ve always been impressed by these sorts of heroics. Often I’ve found myself wondering how I personally would have measured up if I’d been in such circumstances, and to my great regret, feel certain I’d have been one of the masses who kept their heads down, hoping to get to the end in one piece. So it’s hard to put myself in the position of someone like Lusseyran.

I kept coming back to the inner light thing, reading the relevant passages over and over. Did he really mean he could see, in the sense of making out objects in his vicinity, both nearby and at a distance? How could that be? There certainly seemed to plenty going on in his internal vision that conveyed information to him, and some of this information helped him to move about. And he does sometimes seem to suggest that, in a literal sense, he could make things out, for instance the presence of a wall, or the line of distant mountains, and that, conversely, these shadows (as I think of them) disappeared completely when he was in a depressed or scheming state of mind, obliging him to maintain a cheery disposition.

But if he’s grateful, it’s not because he’d been left with a scrap of what he once had, that in some strange way survived without any sensory basis, but because he’d been gifted with something more. What one absolutely gets is his intense satisfaction with it all, as though he was privileged to experience something out of the ordinary, and pitied we ordinary mortals who merely see in a superficial way.

Wondering about this, I recalled that sometimes I’ve experienced a sense of illumination while meditating, with eyes closed, of a light field beginning to bloom. It doesn’t last long, and it doesn’t actually illuminate anything – it’s more a brightening of the darkness. And although it feels interesting, and potentially a portent of something meaningful, it doesn't lead anywhere.

I also remembered speculating in a similar away about the discarnate experience, trying to make sense of what’s said about it in NDE testimony and mediumistic texts. Clearly, this is not seeing with ocular apparatus, yet light and colour and visual beauty are pervasive characteristics, and there’s also a strong sense that they’re felt or experienced, subjectively, as much as observed in an objective way. Similarly suggestive descriptions are also found in narratives of mystical experience and psychedelic drug visions. So perhaps what Lusseyran was experiencing is essentially this, a way of relating to reality that’s obscured in the incarnate state, but starts to become evident when the physical mechanisms break down. What we think of as sight is merely a mechanical analogy of the real thing.

His experience might be described in psychic jargon – the colour emanations from people as ‘auras’, for instance, and his inner reality as the ‘astral’ – but I don’t think he’s familiar with this literature, and clearly doesn’t think in these limiting terms. He does occasionally talk about God, though, in a confident, unpreachy way, as the foundation of reality:

By the time I was ten years old, I knew with absolute certainty that everything in the world was a sign of something else, ready to take its place if it should fall by the way. And this continued miracle of healing I heard expressed fully in the Lord’s Prayer that I repeated at night before going to sleep.

But what does this mean: ‘everything in the world is a sign of something else?’ It’s obscure, but also potentially meaningful, if we grasp for it. He’s very aware of the limitations of language. He says that what he describes is ‘not magic but reality’; nevertheless, most people, I think, will fall back to supposing that this is how a blind person copes: he makes some kind of involuntary adjustment, a reordering of the neurological apparatus that enables him to continue to interact with the world – albeit in his case, in a rather exceptional way. It’s a very private experience, with no other relevance beyond his particular circumstances.

For others, like me, Lusseyran convinces that, on the contrary, his experience is important, and worth striving to understand. In a rather good introduction to Against the Pollution of the I, Christopher Bamford describes him as a ‘secular saint’, which is what I too found myself thinking: someone whose inner world is reflected in the exemplary moral courage of his outward actions, and whose testimony acts as a sort of beacon for the rest of us.

Thoughts on Mind and Matter

It seems to me that a lot of people in the spirituality business positively embrace the idea that mind and matter are intimately related. In principle, I go along with that. In practice, though, I’m bound to say that my ideas about the relationship between mind and the external world are quite conflicted.

At the end of a busy day last week, I thought I’d squeeze in an hour clearing up loose ends on the Psi Encylopedia. One chore was to update a particular page. When I went to it, I found a new draft had been created. I’d no recollection of having made it, and in this instance no one else could have done it. So I decided to get rid of it.

Just as I was hovering over the delete button I heard a stentorian voice in the street outside shouting ‘WAIT! WAIT!’ I knew it was my neighbour shouting at his dog, but it crossed my mind that this might also have some relevance to my current circumstance. Then, as often happens, I rebelled against the thought. The idea that external events might have neatly coordinated themselves in order to send me a message hardly bears thinking about. I prefer to rely on my own judgement, make my own decisions.

So I went ahead and hit delete. I quickly discovered that, having misunderstood the function (which is one I don’t generally use) I’d deleted not only the draft but the entire original page. I hunted around, but it was gone. I couldn’t fish it out of the recycle bin, as there isn’t one. I had to contact support and get them to recover it from the backup, which was time-consuming and costly – and embarrassing.

So yes: ‘Wait!’ would have been good advice to follow. I should have put it off until the next morning, when I’d have been fresh, and would have taken the trouble to check before taking action.

In that case, I could say the mechanism – whatever it is, and however it should be described – is essentially benign – at least in this case. So why resist it? There doesn’t even have to be a metaphysical dimension: my subconscious mind wants to tell me something, and opportunistically takes account of something in the external world to bring it to my attention.

And to be sure, accepted this way it can be useful. I recall a morning at work many years ago being utterly frustrated by a seemingly intractable problem. Then I had to go out on an errand, which involved a short journey on the underground. As it happened, just days earlier new ticket barriers had been installed, the kind that are still in operation in London today, where ‘exit’ flashes up in green when you present your card, and ‘seek assistance’ in red comes up if the card isn’t working. On this occasion, there must have been something wrong with my card, and I got ‘seek assistance’. Given my current preoccupation, that seemed like good advice. So when I got back I consulted a colleague, and between us we soon figured out a solution.

I’ve seen ‘seek assistance’ hundreds of times since, without attaching any special significance to it. So I could say, it’s all in the mind. If you experience something that seems meaningful in a special way, it’s because your subconscious is trying to tell you something.

Fair enough. But there are times when the externals seem to order themselves in a very particular way, combining with my inner world to bring about a result that could not occur simply by random. It can even seem like a joint operation: a mysterious outside influence co-operating with my subconscious – almost as if two people are conspiring to attract the attention of a rather obtuse third party.

One day about a year ago, I stepped into the street and was startled to see a hearse parked outside. Right by my front door. It seemed odd, but I thought no more about it, and the next day it was gone. But two days later, there it was again! I was spooked – it felt like a visit from the Grim Reaper. I did a quick mental scan: a distant relation was seriously ill, but I didn’t feel a connection there; my own family were all fine. Then I caught what I was doing. Looking for a rational explanation I recalled that a funeral company had recently started up two blocks away. Perhaps it owned the hearse, and for lack of a parking space was obliged to share the residential parking. In this way I put it out of my mind.

I recalled the incident again six weeks later, when I saw the same vehicle parked in a neighbouring street. Two things immediately struck me.

The first was that it wasn’t a hearse at all; it was a Mercedes Benz E350 estate car, sleek and black and shiny, with lots of chrome and a square rear-end, but nothing out of the ordinary, and not remotely big enough to carry a coffin. So what on earth made me think it was a hearse?

The second thought was that, just a day or two after my second sighting of the ‘hearse’, our twelve-year-old Staffie, on a trip to the vet for his annual jabs, was unexpectedly diagnosed with terminal cancer, and three weeks later had to be put down. He was a much-loved family member, and his passing threw the household into uproar.

Putting all this together, I reasoned as follows: On a subconscious level I had some premonition of a coming tide of emotional turbulence related to a death. To bring it up to the surface, some part of myself subtly altered my conscious perception of an external object in such a way as to create a particular meaning, which did indeed lead to the desired result. That done, I could make of it what I would – which in my case was nothing, since I prefer not to pay attention to such intimations. And surely I was right not to. It would have been no great help to precognise this sort of event, on the contrary, it would have caused needless anxiety. If stuff’s going to happen, it will.

But in my heart of hearts I can’t really accept that there’s nothing going on here that isn’t entirely explicable in terms of everyday psychology. In the case of the dog-walker telling me to wait, it’s true that he goes out every day, also that I’ve heard him shouting like that once or twice before. But to explain why the shout came at the precise second that it was needed, and not ten seconds before, or ten seconds after, or at any other time, one has to resort to the Argument from Pure Coincidence, which sometimes works, but at other times looks transparently like a means to avoid what one finds unsettling.

Again, it’s true that my misidentification of a car precipitated an internal drama that uncannily matched a subsequent event. But it’s also true that an appropriate vehicle was parked in the only place where it’s presence would force itself on my attention, and when this didn’t happen, got parked in exactly the same place a second time, as if whatever organising principle was at work was having another attempt (I’d never seen it there before, and never saw it there again.)

So I’m left with the idea that a part of myself psychokinetically interacted with my external reality in order to bring about a physical event, perhaps with the additional involvement of some other agency.

This shocks me, but then I consider: shouldn’t I also be equally shocked by the idea of precognition? To many minds that’s so destructive of common-sense notions as to be hardly worth thinking about. Yet for some reason precognition doesn’t disturb me in the same way, I just take it to be an indication that our reality is not as we take it to be, and that one day perhaps far in the future it will be understood in a different way. In another sense, of course, precognition fits into the current evolutionary framework as an adaptation that confers a potential advantage on animals seeking to evade predators. That helps create the comforting illusion that it can, after all, be explained from a naturalistic perspective.

Precognition is essentially passive, a channel for information that one can act on or disregard, or in most cases simply not be aware of. Certainly, if one thinks through the implications it can be terrifying.

But psychokinesis is on another level altogether. The idea that humans may actively influence their environment at a distance by the power of thought has a terrible history. It would be equally disturbing, whether it goes on unconsciously all the time or can be employed as a deliberate means to manipulate. And it must surely be obvious that for science to validate psi would introduce a dangerously destabilising factor into social relations. Looked at from this perspective, surely, no one can reasonably complain about psi phenomena being taboo, or denounce ‘psi-deniers’ for standing in the way of reason.