By Bruce Siegel
During the 1990's I experienced a radical shift in my thinking and worldview. A longtime hard-core atheist, I gradually became convinced of the reality of psychic phenomena and life after death. It was an about-face as surprising as it was healing.
While there's much to say about what convinced me to change my mind, at the heart of my story is this: I came to understand that a belief system that had been extremely helpful to me - a therapy-cum-philosophy - was keeping me from seeing what was right under my nose.
So how skeptical was I? Extremely. If anything related to spirituality came up in conversation, I would get visibly annoyed, even angry.
Actually, the word skeptical doesn't quite fit. It implies a negative evaluation of the evidence. But you can't evaluate what you're not willing to look at, and when it came to supposedly wondrous, unexplainable events or abilities, my eyes were clenched tight.
I remember once on a blind date, a woman asked me what I thought about out-of-body experiences. The concept was new to me, and after making sure I had heard correctly, I said, in an irritated tone of voice that did little to advance my romantic hopes for the evening, "What?! How can anyone be outside their body? We ARE our bodies!"
Thinking back on it, she was probably eager to share an experience she had, and was sounding me out to see if I'd be receptive. But her telling me about it would have put fresh data on my plate, information I knew would be threatening to my worldview. So I did what I always did - I preemptively rejected it.
Another time, a friend simply asked if I believed in magic. Even that was enough to set me off.
To understand why I felt so strongly about these things, you need to know what it was that I did believe in. For a long time leading up to these events, I was deeply involved in psychotherapy. After a difficult period in my life, I was finally coming to terms with what was for me a much-neglected dimension of reality - my feelings.
Specifically, I was engaged in a healing process called primal therapy that focuses on allowing painful emotions to come to the surface, be fully experienced, and then released. I can't overstate how committed to this therapy I was. I saw it as my one chance to achieve the joyful, creative life I had sometimes glimpsed, but that too often seemed out of reach. So in 1972 I left my apartment in Brooklyn, New York, and moved to Los Angeles, the only place in the world primal therapy was then being practiced.
As I saw it, primal was not only a way to heal my own wounds, but an experience everyone needed. I thought that if people would only learn to feel (and thus begin to resolve) their pain instead of acting it out on others, the world would be an infinitely better place.
At the time, I wasn't alone in that hope. To get a sense of what I mean, listen to John Lennon's album Plastic Ono Band. He and Yoko were treated by Arthur Janov, founder of primal therapy, in 1970, and John recorded those songs during this period. His music is brimming with the raw honesty, sense of discovery, and deep sadness balanced by equal measures of love and optimism, that, for many of us, characterize the primal experience.
Now you might think that getting in touch with my feelings would have created an opening to the spiritual rather than turning me away from it. But as it happens, Janov was, and is, certain that there is no God or afterlife. (A belief that Lennon forcefully echoes in his songs.)
To be blunt, Janov equates people who believe in a higher power to narcotics users. Both, he says, are running away from their pain. To him, the notion of a spiritual realm has no basis whatsoever in reality. And for almost twenty years, I was so deeply immersed in Janov's therapy and worldview, it never occurred to me he might be wrong. Ironically, an atheistic therapy had become my religion. (Although I would have strongly denied it at the time.)
To be clear, I think Janov has made an important contribution to our understanding of suffering and how to alleviate it. The help I received from therapists he trained may well have saved my life. But based on that, I assumed he must be right about everything. Which is why, for two decades, I knew for sure that to be sane is to be an atheist. It's impossible to exaggerate how certain I was that spirituality is a sign of weakness. As I saw it, to believe in God is to be unable to face reality without clinging to the comforting fantasy of a heavenly parent who looks out for you.
My arrogance, of course, should have been a clue to my insecurity. For if the spiritual perspective were valid, primal therapy was not as complete a solution to life's mysteries, and my own problems, as I thought. And that's where things stood when, in 1990, almost twenty years after I came to L.A., I made a decision that seemed less than earthshaking at the time: I joined a book club.
One of my first selections was Cosmos, by Carl Sagan. In it, he describes the grandeur of the universe in such compelling terms, that for weeks after reading it, I went around breathlessly telling everyone I knew: there are more stars in the universe than all the grains of sand on all the beaches of the planet Earth!
(That still astonishes me. Imagine counting the grains in just a single spoonful of sand.)
It's funny - this book, written by a world-famous skeptic and atheist, opened the door to my tightly shut mind just enough to let in some fresh air. In trying to picture a universe so vast, my imagination expanded beyond its normal limits, stretching my usual sense of what was possible.
So when the book club offered The After Death Experience: The Physics of the Non-Physical by Ian Wilson, I bought it. And if that seems like an inexplicably huge leap for a skeptic like me, here's the blurb I read:
The purpose of this book is to explore the central question of whether death is unequivocally the end of our experience, or whether, just conceivably, something of us . . . carries on, to experience, and be experienced, after death.
Somehow, in my Cosmos-inspired, heady state, that made sense to me. I thought, "Well, what does happen to the molecules and atoms of my body when I die? Might they become part of the soil, and then turn into plants and so forth, and thus have some sort of conscious experience? And is there some way in which I (whatever "I" really means) might participate in that experience?"
The word "physics" in the title of the book put me at ease. It made me feel that I could join Wilson in exploring his provocative question, while remaining comfortably assured that matter is all that matters.
Well, the book turned out to be quite different than I expected - in fact, something altogether better. Wilson wrote with a no-nonsense skeptical tone that put me at ease. About half the book is devoted to offering supposed evidence for survival, such as past lives and mediumship, and then debunking it. (Though as I see it now, Wilson wasn't especially well-informed on either of those subjects.)
But he also introduced a phenomenon he couldn't explain away, one I knew nothing about - the near-death experience (NDE). I learned that a not insignificant percentage of the population claims to have had a medical crisis during which they died, and then returned to life. For despite the label we use to describe the event, these people usually insist that what they briefly tasted was not near-death, but death itself.
Intrigued, I looked for more information on the subject. (There are many excellent books now available; Wilson's is no longer one I would particularly recommend.) And as I began to get a clearer picture of what NDErs felt, saw, and learned during their surprising encounters, I became more and more interested.
There were many aspects of the NDE that drew me to it. But I was especially fascinated by claims such as "I felt love a thousand times more powerful than I had ever known." Given my devotion to a feeling-oriented therapy, it's not hard to understand that I would want to know more about a phenomenon of such emotional power.
But above all, there was the paradox that lies at the heart of the NDE, one I couldn't stop thinking about. NDEs often involve the stopping, or near-stopping, of all bodily functions. (Vital Signs can confirm this.) During that period, many people later report having had the most life-changing, aesthetically beautiful, real, and loving, experience, they've ever known. How is this possible and what does it mean?
I had no idea.
Trying to answer that question became my project and my passion. To skip ahead in the story, over the next five years I would devour the NDE literature (including the strongest skeptical arguments I could find), and join a group where I met regularly with near-death experiencers. I would discover, to my astonishment, compelling evidence of the psychic in my own life.
To gain a first-hand perspective of this new territory, I would explore the depths of my consciousness using a powerful shamanic approach.
And I would find myself questioning Janov on a crucial point. While he reduces spirituality to a neurotic behavior, was it possible he had things backwards? Might human psychology actually be a subset of a larger, more fundamental, spiritual order? If so, psychotherapy and spirituality were not adversaries, but partners waiting, and needing, to find each other.
But these thoughts, as I say, lay well in the future. In the immediate aftermath of learning about the NDE, I was still under the spell of the materialist-atheist philosophy that is Western Civilization's "official" position, still deeply invested in a worldview that kept me from fully enjoying my life.
Something was changing, though. As I continued to learn more, I occasionally found myself wondering if, up to then, all my thinking had been confined to a small box. Little by little, I began pondering ideas and possibilities I had long dismissed, or never even knew existed.
One chapter in my life was ending, one beginning.