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Anders Breivik

Like many people, I've been trying to make sense of the stuff Anders Breivik has been coming out with during his trial. He's clearly a fantasist, but not clinically insane; he knew what he was doing.

Those of us who aspire to some kind of spiritual goal have to discipline ourselves. It requires an act of will to face down selfish desires, impatience, and do the right thing. We also intuitively understand that deliberately to take another human life is wrong, and indeed the most evil act that anyone can commit.

But Breivik was going in the opposite direction. To kill young people in cold blood, he said, he had to steel himself to overcome his sensitive nature. When he had victims in his sights and his finger hesitated on the trigger he kept telling himself that they weren't really innocent; they were working for multi-culturalism, and thereby destroying Norway's precious national identity.

So he wasn't killing out of hatred, like other homicidal nationalists. Quite the contrary, it was out of compassion for his countrymen, whom he thought he was rescuing from a terrible fate. It's scary to think that in some people an idea can have so much force as to overcome the natural aversion to cruelty that many if not most humans feel. It recalls Heinrich Himmler explaining to his SS underlings that the business of butchering other humans - men, women, children, the old and infirm - was bound to be upsetting, but had to be done.

What interests me especially is that Breivik does claim to be religious, at least 'a little bit'. He calls himself a 'militant Christian' and says he believes in an afterlife. He compares himself favourably with the leftwing Bader-Meinhof terrorists - atheists who didn't want to die and weren't prepared to sacrifice themselves. Peversely, although Islam is the enemy, he feels kinship with Islamic suicide bombers because they are prepared to martyr themselves. He says he'd rather live than die, but that he'd prefer execution to the 'pathetic' punishment of the maximum 21-year jail sentence.

As with religious terrorists, I wonder what on earth Breivik thinks the afterlife is about. What kind of existence does he think it is? Does he expect to find his national identity has some holy status in heaven? A Valhalla for Nordic warriors?

Coincidentally I've been dipping into one of Jane Sherwood's books, The Country Beyond. Sherwood lost the love of her life in the 1914-18 war and never got over it. Having tried with little success to make contact with her dead husband 'on the other side' she tried her hand at automatic writing, which eventually worked. The text is based on exchanges she had with her husband and two other individuals about afterlife conditions.

One passage describes a gradual breakdown of barriers.

Nations keep their own languages and customs but they are less defined because movement has become more simple. Thus there is much coming and going among us and our sympathies are wider and knowledge of each other fuller. The language barrier begins to be removed because it is so much easier to pass thought between us. Groups are formed more for the purposes of special interests and occupations than for national reasons and thus we get aggregates of talent of a high level of attainment which cut across all artificial boundaries of nation and class. Here are brotherhoods of mutual interests having a rich and satisfying communal life. Co-operative activity and close and sympathetic human relationships bring into being many of the ideals of the world's dreamers. A social order emerges which brings satisfaction to all its members and enables each to arrive at full self-development.

The spiritual conception of life, beginning here and continuing after physical death, is of the gradual overcoming of separateness. The first step is to cease to glorify it, then look for ways to communicate with other beings, understanding them until the sense of individual boundaries are overcome, and finally we start to merge into groups - maintaining some individuality of our own, yet enriched by closeness of understanding with others.

But for Breivik, as for many people in our world, this process of breaking down barriers is profoundly threatening. For them, the boundaries guarantee their personal identity. If breached, the basis of their beliefs and being are compromised. The self is endangered.

Later in the book one of the communicators talks about the process of 'purgation'. This bears close echoes of the near-death experience, which however did not become known until at least four decades following the book's publication. At first, he says, one's thoughts are concerned with the previous life. Memory is dulled to begin with, but as one becomes used to the conditions the scenes and events of the past life begin to return vividly. But this time they are much more comprehensive.

The difference in this presentiment of the past is that included in it now is the reaction of other people. I find this difficult to explain. Everything that happens to you affects others as well as yourself and every event has therefore as many aspects in reality as there are consciousnesses affected by it.

Now, in this process of recollection, as an incident comes back to one's mind it brings with it the actual feelings, not of oneself alone but of the others who were affected by the event. All their feelings have now to be experienced in oneself as though they were one's own. This means that the effects of deeds on the lives of others must be experienced as intimately as though to do and to suffer the deed were one. Where sorrow and wrong have been inflicted, sorrow and wrong must be felt, not merely known to exist.

Most of our deeds on earth are performed in ignorance of their real bearing on the lives of others. There may be an uneasy sense that others are involved in suffering because of us but we often choose to ignore this. We have understood a situation with our mere intellect and have kept back sympathy which is the beginning of knowing in oneself what this suffering is. So often we have remained in ignorance of the real events we have set going in the lives of others and these things are now gradually revealed to us as a part of our own experience. We have to face the reliving of our whole earth experience in this way.

If this is true, then Breivik has set up a formidable challenge for himself in the next life. He must fully experience the feelings of every one of his seventy-seven victims, and of all their families and friends who were devastated by their loss. In that case, two or three decades in jail would be a mercy, giving him an opportunity to slowly grasp the enormity of what he has done, rather than go directly into a new state of being, where it would crash into him with the force of a speeding truck.

There's always a temptation to feel satisfaction at the idea of a cruel man getting his just desserts, in the next world if not here. It's fair enough to be angry. But if we fully understand the implications we may also feel some compassion. And reflecting further, we realise that we ourselves can't afford to be complacent: we too will have shocks to deal with when the time comes.

Chris Carter's Science and Psychic Phenomena

Carter book

I've been having another look at Chris Carter's excellent book Parapsychology and the Skeptics, which I reviewed here. It's out in a new edition with the title Science and Psychic Phenomena: The Fall of the House of Skeptics. It looks good (although the original was good too).

In a new postscript, Carter says he came to write the book after stumbling across a website devoted to debunking the belief in an afterlife.

Having read several serious books on the subject, I was shocked by the crudity of the author's arguments and by his utter ignorance of the vast amount of research that has been done on the topic over the past 12 years. I sent him an e-mail message, trying to get him to reconsider his dogmatic position, and, to my surprise, he responded with counterarguments. For the next few weeks, we engaged in a debate via e-mail, and I learned much about the so-called "skeptical" mind-set. I realized that it was based upon a certain set of metaphysical assumptions that were not treated as assumptions but as incontrovertible facts; and that it was also based upon an ignorance of certain facts that cast strong doubts on the validity of those assumptions.

I also realized that nothing I could possibly say would ever change his "skeptical" opinion. He had made up his mind, and that was that.

When I first read Carter's book I was impressed with the detail and clarity he brings to the descriptions of ganzfeld and other controversies. This time I've been paying more attention to his treatment of the philosophical challenge raised by psi, which is just as important. It's silly for sceptics to say there's no evidence for psychic functioning, but fair enough that they should have misgivings about how it fits in with established science.

A classic way to deal with the problem is to state that for psi to be true, science would have to be completely turned on its head, or "unravel all the way back to Galileo". I like this idea, like knitting coming undone (I think it comes from Steven Weinberg, or maybe James Alcock.) But intuitively I always thought it was crock. Psi has nothing to say about Newton's laws of motion, or the laws of thermodynamics, optics, chemical interactions, etc. It seems instead to have implications for the underlying basis of all matter, the realm of quantum mechanics, which at present is very imperfectly understood.

The Copenhagen interpretation, which seems to be the most commonly accepted, is that the act of measurement causes the collapse of the wave function into individual particles. The result depends on the observation; it is not a property of the electron itself. But in this interaction, if I understand it correctly, a mechanical device will do the trick just the same as a human observer. This never made any sense to me; it looks like an evasion, of the kind that physicists, not being philosophers, would easily content themselves with.

200px-JohnvonNeumann-LosAlamosCarter focuses instead on mathematician John Von Neumann's idea that it's consciousness itself that collapses quantum possibilities into facts. This interpretation is a strictly minority view among physicists (although it was promoted by Eugene Wigner and others). How could consciousness, a product of matter, exert a causal influence on matter?

But it's remarkable, as Carter quotes physicist Nick Herbert saying, that the claim should come 'not from an otherworldly mystic in private meditation but from one of the world's most practical mathematicians deducing the logical consequences of a highly successful and purely materialistic model of the world - the theoretical basis for the billion-dollar computer industry'.

Carter goes on to describe a time-displaced PK experiment by physicist Helmut Schmidt, in which signals from a binary random event generator were recorded simultaneously on two cassette tapes, without anyone listening to them. One tape was given to a subject to listen to, with instructions to produce more 0s or 1s (usually in the form of clicks on the left or right of stereo headphones). When the results were analysed the influence of PK was observed. However the results also matched the other tape, which had been untouched.

One interpretation is that PK reached back in time to when the random events were originally generated. But a more interesting possibility, consistent with the Von Neumann interpretation, and put forward by Schmidt and his co-experimenters, is that events are not physically real until there has been an observation.

From this viewpoint, the PK effort would not have to reach into the past because nature had not yet decided on the outcome before the PK subject, the first observer, saw the result. Then, the PK effort should no longer succeed if we have some other observer look at the pre-recorded data previous to the PK subject's attempt. [An] experiment to study this situation ... has, indeed, reported a blocking of the PK effect by a previous observation.

The Von Neumann theory inevitably tends to invite quasi-theological speculation. What happened before there were conscious observers? If consciousness was needed to create humans - as conscious observers - then God or supernatural beings enter the equation. Carter quotes quantum theorist Euan Squires:

It is remarkable that such ideas should arise from a study of the behavior of the most elementary of systems. That such systems point to a world beyond themselves is a fact that will be loved by all who believe that there are truths of which we know little, that there are mysteries seen only by mystics, and that there are phenomena inexplicable within our normal view of what is possible. There is no harm in this - physics indeed points to the unknown. The emphasis, however, must be on the unknown, on the mystery, on the truths dimly glimpsed, on things inexpressible except in the language of poetry, or religion, or metaphor.

Sceptics could legitimately look for faults in experiments like Schmidt's to save themselves the bother of thinking about any of this. They can also complain - as they do - that quantum mechanics has been misappropriated and misunderstood by the spirituality community. But they would not convince me that there is not a mystery here, or that physicists are the people who really understand what's going on.

Graham Nicholls and the Out-of-body Experience

One of the first books I read on paranormal matters was Sylvian Muldoon's Projection of the Astral Body, published (I think) during the 1930s. It talks about how he started having out-of-the-body experiences, and how he learned to bring them on regularly. I'd never come across such a thing before, and the idea of it blew me away.

Later I came across collections of OBE anecdotes by Robert Crookall and Celia Green, the work of Robert Monroe and others, and realised that this is a well attested phenomenon. I was also impressed by veridical details that suggest it's genuinely supernormal. By the time I discovered Susan Blackmore's study I was disinclined to accept her 'all-in-the-mind' explanation, which I found well argued but thinly supported by experience, being derived from her single episode.

Yet I realise now that I've treated the out-of-body experience from a research perspective, not from a practical one, as something that might be exciting - and spiritually educational - to actually do. When Graham Nicholls, an out-of-body expert, got in touch to invite me to one of his workshops last year, I was tempted, but it seemed like a big leap to take.

Now Nicholls has sent me his new book to review, about how to induce OBEs. I soon realised it would make no sense without reading his first one, Avenues of the Human Spirit, which tells how he first started having these experiences. So this post is by way of comment on both.

Nicholls's background is working class London, where he was brought up in the often difficult circumstances of the inner city. He describes a harrowing mugging incident, and hanging out with delinquent youths in his teens, yet he clearly possesses a highly sensitive and spiritually-inclined temperament. His first psychic experience occurred as a child when he awoke one night feeling a powerful sense of energy all around him. He found himself getting out of bed and going into the corridor outside, where he encountered an unfamiliar tall figure staring intently at him.

I looked up to find that the energy continued to flow in every direction and even the doorway in which the figure stood seemed to extend out into another place or time.... Although my fear held me to the spot, there was also a feeling that something very important and transformative was taking place. The fear came from me, not from anything the apparition had done. In fact it had more of the feeling of a messenger or guide than of anything negative...

The more I looked into the eyes of the tall ethereal figure the more I felt like I was being given something. Looking back now, even without appealing to mystical explanations for what took place, it is clear that I was opened to a new and life-changing avenue of enquiry in my life.

At age twelve he started to have the frequent sense of floating a few feet above the ground, and sometimes woke from sleep to find himself briefly looking at the sky above him, as if he was somehow seeing through walls. Later he discovered Janet Lee Mitchell's book Out-of-Body Experiences, and spent several months trying to induce one by means of complex visualisations. Eventually he succeeded:

I had not been lying there long when an almost violent surge shot through my body, like all the effort of the previous months had built up into a single transformative moment. I opened my eyes to the realisation that I was floating above my body like a translucent reflection of myself. Currents of energy seemed to pulse and flow throughout my shimmering form, and although I could barely move, and only side-to-side as if a pole extended from my head to my feet, the intensity of what was happening gave me a deep sense of freedom.

Looking down, his body appeared grey and stony, almost statuesque. His 'second' body was 'luminous and radiating, and seemed to add a slight hue to the room.

It took a while to learn how to move, and longer still to reach beyond the confines of his home. He found that organic objects, such as trees, seemed to vibrate on a subtler frequency to concrete and glass, which, counterintuitively, seemed more energised. But the frequencies seem to shift; sometimes living things seem 'almost unbearably luminescent' while at other times they appear dull and almost invisible.

He began experimenting with ways to push himself to more distant locations, using techniques such as meditation and yogic breathing. Physical exhaustion, he found, is an ideal condition in which to have an OBE. On one such occasion, during a trip to the New Forest, he witnessed

the most vivid and intense colour cascading around me. As I became used to the intensity of the scene I could make out trees and countryside with a level of detail that my physical eyes had never achieved... The leaves of plants seemed to glisten with light and as I focused on their surface my eyes seemed to look deep into them giving a sense of the life and fertility flowing through their delicate structures... I felt ecstatic travelling over the treetops with a sense of total peace and freedom; everything was alive and transfused with light.

Some incidents provided veridical details. In one of the first, he found himself looking down at a street near Paddington in North London. Going down to street level he focused on a sign outside a restaurant that listed the day's specials, and going to check it later found it to be exactly as he had seen it while in an out-of-body state. This persuaded him it was not just a hallucination. (I'd need more details to be convinced of this myself, but if confirmed, it's the kind of thing that refutes the implication in Blackmore's single experience, where the details she observed turned out not to conform with the facts.)

Some of his experiences turned out to be precognitive, but not in a good way. He describes witnessing the 1999 Soho pub bombing, an event that actually took place five days later, and also the 2005 underground train bombings, viewing one of the attacks near Liverpool Street a year before it happened. He describes these experiences as being suffused with a cerulean-blue light, which he now takes as an indication that it is likely to be precognitive.

Such incidents nurtured Nicholls's gradual spiritual development, although more by seeking knowledge and experience rather than following any particular religion or ideology. He started holding workshops, and developed innovative methods of bringing on an OBE. He especially favours immersive techniques, such as the ganzfeld, not necessarily to create OBEs, but to help nurture the conditions for experiences to occur.

These are described in some detail in his new book, Navigating the Out of Body Experience: Radical New Techniques. Other approaches include relaxation, visualising, massage, movement, physical exhaustion, and so on. He also discusses the of geometric patterns and other visual symbols, similar to those used by occultists, and there are sections on related topics, such as healing, nutrition (he is a keen vegan), sleep, exercise and sex. A substantial appendix gives a variety of methods in a step-by-step form for readers to follow.

He also looks at the scientific (parapsychological) background, referring to theories of the extended mind and quantum entanglement, and the relationship with remote viewing and near-death experiences. He talks about mediumship, precognition and the afterlife. I read attentively the section on fears: my personal worry would be about finding my way back, having separated from the body, but Nicholls is quite reassuring on these and other points.

He makes some useful comments on sceptical disbelief. In the case of Susan Blackmore's single experience, the fact that she was able to go on communicating with other people who were present in the room at the time suggests to him that it was a hallucination - unsurprising, since it was brought on by smoking a joint at a party.

He doesn't think much either of the Swiss neurophysiologist Olaf Blanke, who simulates OBE-type experiences by using virtual technology and claims this proves it is all in the mind. Blanke's view has been uncritically accepted by much of the media - a pity, as he has merely shown that the brain can be tricked or manipulated, so that it becomes confused about the position of the body or limbs in space. That tells us little if anything about full out-of-body experiences, which he has not demonstrated, as NDE specialist Dr Peter Fenwick also points out.

I found both these books fascinating, both on a general level and in terms of specifics. The OBE has been something of a dead end for parapsychologists, and the difficulty of verifying veridical perception has been a challenge for near-death researchers too. But adepts like Nicholls show how rich the experience can be on a personal level, in which the separation of the self from the physical body opens the eyes to all sorts of transformative possibilities.

Where dabblers like me try to find a place for spirituality in our otherwise quite unspiritual lives, Nicholls is one of those people for whom it has always been the main thing; it informs all his ideas and activities. The out-of-body experience is central to this. Thanks to the efforts of such pioneers, others can follow in their footsteps into the extraordinary world that lies close by, but of which most human beings have no knowledge whatever.

Navigating the Out-of-body Experience is published on April 8. Details of Graham Nicholls's workshops here.