I've been enjoying Michael Tymn's new book about afterlife. At one time I read quite a lot about mediumship, so over the years I'm used to coming across the same quotes and stories - I'm not often surprised by anything. But Tymn's reading of psychic research and spiritualist literature is far wider than mine, and I found plenty that was new to me. Stafford Betty, in his foreword, describes him as a master of the evidential approach used to evaluate spirit communications, and says 'there is perhaps no one living today who has dissected so many of them and argued so successfully for their authenticity'. I can believe it.
Tymn starts by revealing that at age 75 he is threatened by a blood clot which could do for him at any time. Not a nice thing to have hanging over you, but apart from the normal concerns, such as the pain of illness and worries about leaving loved ones behind, he is quite excited about the idea of death. That's problematic in a culture in which we are supposed to think of death with fear and dread - or not think about it at all. How does one respond to people who, naturally perhaps, argue that thinking about death is morbid, that it's better to concentrate on this life rather than worry about the next? Tymn responds that the best way to live in the present is to 'live in eternity', as recommended by great artists and thinkers of the past. Life is sweeter when we are prepared for death, wrote Shakespeare, while Montaigne said that 'to practice death is to practice freedom'.
That meant more in an age that believed in a world to come, but what about now, when 20% of Americans don't (as many as half the populations of other Western countries)? Tymn has harsh things to say about the philosophy of materialism, which has resulted in 'an era of moral decadence, a time of egocentricity, intolerance, hatred, hypocrisy, disorder, flux, strife, chaos, and fear' and reduced many people to 'hedonistic materialists, consumed with the pursuit of pleasure and sensory gratification.' He laments, too, the failure of organized religions to address the issue of afterlife. In writing this book, he says, he hopes that at least some people might 'begin to visualize a spirit world, thereby helping them make friends with death, at the same time making this life more meaningful.' Also, knowing about how things work on the other side can make passing a good deal easier, he adds.
Nine chapters trace various topics, starting with the emergence of mediums and their study in the nineteenth century, deathbed visions, the process of separating from the body, the transition stage after death through Hades conditions and the 'second death', the life review, the different spheres or planes, the creative power of thought and imagination and the consequences of dying with unfinished business. A necessarily short final chapter describes what little can be said about the higher spheres, and there are appendices that discuss cases of precognition of death, the effects of suicide and the question of whether or not reincarnation occurs.
Tymn naturally mentions highly evidential cases, such as the deathbed visions where the 'spirit' forms that gathered round the patient's bed included, to her great surprise, an individual she did not know was dead. The back and forth on this question was covered in his earlier book The Articulate Dead; in this book, by contrast, the implication is that the evidence can't realistically be interpreted to mean anything other than survival of consciousness, and I think that's fair enough. Sceptics will wave it away as 'anecdotal', the magic word which neutralizes the challenge and saves them having to think about it. But for many minds the body of accumulated material from mediumship, so ably represented here, overwhelmingly points in that direction. If it doesn't mean what it seems to mean, then what on earth does it mean?
My personal interest in this topic quickens the further on we get from the deathbed and the business of actually passing over. In particular I'm interested in the moral dimension so powerfully present in the life review, and in the experience reported through mediums of being well-and-truly dead. Tymn has quite a lot about this: the quotes are well chosen and often moving, as this early twentieth century communication through automatic writing:
How can I describe to you that which has no parallel on earth? I can give you an imperfect idea of what now occurred, though it came to me with a force hitherto unparalleled in either my earthly or my spiritual existence. The air seemed filled with a strange murmur, and clouds descended and shut from my view all outward objects ...
The story of my life was being told in tones that, it seemed to me, must reach to the farthest heavens, and its events were pictured before me by the tossing clouds. I use the words heard and saw, and yet I am not sure that I did either. But the impression made upon my mind was as if all senses had united in one grand effort to place my past life in its true phases before me. I sat appalled and dismayed, and then as the record of weaknesses and failures went on, I covered my face with my hands and sank in agony and shame to the ground...
I summoned all my courage, and since I must sit in judgment on myself, I resolved to do so bravely and thoroughly. How many sombre pictures there were! How many half light, half shade; but now and then there was a bright one in which some unconscious unselfishness, some little deed I had done and forgotten, without any thought of secret self-glorification, and which had not only been good in its results, but which had sprung from a fountain of genuine good within my heart, shone out like a jewel from the dark clouds which surrounded it.
I sometimes think this sort of reported experience is the only religious text anyone really needs.
The impression one gets from near-death experiences is that the judgment, or life review, happens immediately after death. Actually it's absent from most NDEs, although one might assume that it would have taken place if the experience had lasted a bit longer. On the other hand that is not borne out by mediumistic accounts, where the life review figures rather little. At the very least it seems to be delayed. Tymn surmises that the inconsistency might be explained in terms of the non-local aspect of time in the spirit world, and quotes a communicator who talks of the life review taking place when one is ready for it. He also quotes physicist James Beichler, who in his 2008 book To Die For speculated that
a person who has a highly-developed spiritual consciousness - one that has kept pace with the development of the mind - may not need a life review as the person has reviewed his or her life when alive in the flesh. At the other extreme, there are those not advanced enough in their conscious evolution to appreciate a life review, and still others who may not accept a life review because they deny their death and sense nothing at all.
It seems natural enough that the life review would be delayed until the time is right and one is morally and mentally prepared for it. (Although I can't agree that any self-examination while living could substitute for the intensity of the experience in the discarnate state, and if it was available surely one would eventually want to see it.) But it's still puzzling that the near-death experience implies the life review to be an immediate event, when this is not at all confirmed by mediumistic communications. It reinforces my personal - and admittedly highly speculative - sense that the life review in the near-death experience is not to be viewed entirely as an automatic process, akin to the biological process of dying itself, but at least in some respects as a planned campaign of enlightenment, brought on prematurely in certain cases for the benefit of the individual and in order to send a message to the living.
I admit to being fascinated by the idea of a world moulded by the imagination, which is what comes through mediumistic reports of afterlife conditions. There are plenty of good descriptions and quotes here from the likes of Mike Swain, Raymond Lodge, Frederic Myers and William Stead, which give a good sense of this. Actually I think this exploration might have gone a bit further - I found relatively little reference to Jane Sherwood's T.E. Lawrence and Helen Greaves's Frances Banks, and none to Albert Pauchard, the Swiss spiritualist who talks interestingly in his little book of having to be purged of unacknowledged moral defects and of symbolic imagery being employed in teaching experiences. But of course experience at this level becomes ever more a matter of speculation, and it's true that, as Tymn concludes, 'the celestial world does not easily lend itself to analyses by using terrestrial methods and reasoning'.
There are some key messages to take from this material, which Tymn covers deftly. One is the clear indication that we don't go empty-headed into the beyond, but on the contrary, remain burdened by a lifetime of habits, obsessions and unresolved conflicts. Unless we clearly confront these and deal with them before our demise, they may mould our experience and weigh us down.
Another pressing issue is the consequence of suicide, which emerges as a serious no-no. Cutting short a life, it appears, not only robs the individual of the chance to learn important lessons but leaves him/her in a desperately weakened state akin to a coma. On this, more than any other subject, communicators are agreed, Tymn says. But obviously there are major issues here. As western society wrestles with the idea of assisted suicide, and the desperate wish of those with appalling conditions like motor neuron disease to have some control over their demise, one is bound to ask what, from a spiritual perspective, the true moral criteria really are. Tymn rather sidesteps this question, but he does at least offer a quote from Silver Birch, the spirit teacher channeled by Maurice Barbanell:
It depends upon the soul's progress; and, above all these things, it depends on the motive. The churches are wrong when they say that all suicide comes in the same category; it does not. While you have no right to terminate your earthly existence, there are undoubtedly in many cases, ameliorating factors, mitigating circumstances, to be considered. No soul is better off because it has terminated its earthly existence. But it does not automatically follow that every suicide is consigned for aeons of time into the darkest of dark sphere.
Certainly that would be a hard punishment for simply saying no thanks to a death by slow strangulation. From a human perspective it's hard to deny that a person who takes a trip to the Dignitas clinic in Switzerland, or gets a friend or relative to administer poison in order to avoid this ghastly fate, would be a good deal 'better off'. And those of us who take psychic and near-death reports seriously, and believe they carry an important message about the after-death state, will have increasingly to try to reconcile these apparently divergent positions.
But in the meantime this is an excellent book, and I can thoroughly recommend it. It's absolutely packed with quotes and anecdotes, not just bland descriptions, a here-it-is-make-of-it-what-you-will approach that I've often come across, but showing a passionate engagement with the material with a clear message about its implications. It should do well.