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Post-Traumatic Post-Mortem

Tsunami 5 A reader sent me a link to this extraordinary article in the London Review of Books about ghosts of the Japanese tsunami, which seemingly I overlooked when it appeared in February. Stories of this kind were current in the aftermath of the tsunami of 2005, particularly in Thailand. But I can’t recall ever seeing anything so dramatic and detailed as this in relation to a natural disaster.

The stories were recounted to the author, Richard Lloyd Parry, by Buddhist priests who helped survivors come to terms with the trauma.

[The survivors] described sightings of ghostly strangers, friends and neighbours, and dead loved ones. They reported hauntings at home, at work, in offices and public places, on the beaches and in the ruined towns. The experiences ranged from eerie dreams and feelings of vague unease to cases ... of outright possession.

A civil servant in Soma visited a devastated stretch of coast, and saw a solitary woman in a scarlet dress far from the nearest road or house, with no means of transport in sight. When he looked for her again she had disappeared.

A fire station in Tagajo received calls to places where all the houses had been destroyed by the tsunami. The crews went out to the ruins anyway and prayed for the spirits of those who had died – and the ghostly calls ceased.

One man described seeing one evening as night fell,

figures walking past the house: parents and children, a group of young friends, a grandfather and a child. ‘They were covered in mud,’ he said. ‘They were no more than twenty feet away, and they stared at me, but I wasn’t afraid. I just thought, “Why are they in those muddy things? Why don’t they change their clothes? Perhaps their washing machine’s broken.” They were like people I might have known once, or seen before somewhere. The scene was flickering, like a film. But I felt perfectly normal, and I thought that they were just ordinary people.’

I suppose one would call these conventional ghost sightings, the stuff of TV dramas and horror films, easy to think of as the imaginings of traumatised people. Some of the stories do sound like familiar urban myths – like the cab drivers with passengers who asked to be taken to an address that no longer existed, and who then disappeared half way through the journey. But the priests said they also encountered people who appeared to be possessed by spirits of tsunami victims. One woman was taken over by a long succession of confused visitors, all of whom had to have their situation explained to them, and be persuaded to move on.

Psychologists and doctors were able to empathise with the survivors and try to heal them while not taking their accounts literally. That’s fair enough. And I don’t think one could argue that this sort of thing is particularly evidential.

It's sometimes argued that a ghost sighting has nothing to do with the survival of a dead person, a continuing living mind, but is rather the accidental replaying of a section of some cosmic memory. It would be like a film projector that has been left running in a loop, that we might stumble across now and again. That sort of approach might seem to fit with descriptions such as these, where the dead appear obsessively to try to revisit their homes and loved ones, failing and each time starting over, or keep replaying to themselves their panic-stricken attempt to escape.

But if we believe, on the basis of credible research, that survival happens, these accounts offer insights into how the transition can go badly wrong. The dead are trapped in a trauma and unable to escape. It reinforces the idea that a shocking and violent death of this kind could be one of the most difficult experiences a human being has ever to undergo, that it’s not over when it’s over - in the reassuring narrative of the near-death experience, full of light and reassurance - but that the horror must be endured repeatedly until one either finds a way out or gets rescued.

And there are reasons to think this is exactly what might happen if a person passes as a result of violent and chaotic circumstances. Humans easily get stuck in a rut of obsessive mentation at times of great stress - I think almost everyone experiences this to varying degrees. Certainly I’ve had the experience replaying a disturbing event in my mind in every excruciating detail, and then when I’m done, going back and replaying it again. And again. And again. With absolutely no idea why, or what purpose it serves, as if the mere act of repetition might change something, or somehow make the event more bearable.

Over the years I’ve learned to observe this curious phenomenon as it occurs, but I can still find it hard to switch it off. In extreme cases that only happens through the application of serious mental exercises. Why do we insist on torturing ourselves in this way? Or, more exactly, since no one voluntarily does it, what force subjects us to it?

So the implication in these descriptions is that post-traumatic stress is not something that we can rely on death to release us from, but, on the contrary, may be caused by death itself, and is equally requiring of healing in the discarnate state. This is one reason why we need to expand our ideas about post-mortem realities in the light of psychic research. And it underscores the point that research into these matters, and truly getting to the bottom of them, is not some quixotic, marginal activity for bored or superstitious minds, but something fundamental to human enlightenment, that will one day become generally accepted.

Psi and Psychedelics

Psychedelia image 1

I’ve been dipping into one of my favourite reads, The Varieties of Psychedelic Experience by Robert Masters and Jean Houston. This is in anticipation of Saturday’s study day on psi and psychedelics at the Society for Psychical Research in London (April 26). These events aren’t always that well attended, but I expect this one will be. As the prohibition on cannabis splutters to an end there’s a sense that cracks might also start to develop in the ban on the use of hallucinogens, with who knows what exciting results.

Varieties describes research into the effects of LSD and peyote in some 200 sessions, with detailed descriptions of different kinds of experiences. It’s like entering into another world, and it’s extraordinary to think that in the right circumstances any of us could gain access to it. As I think Aldous Huxley was the first to suggest, this altered state of consciousness should ideally be part of everyone’s education

I regret that my own experiences in the early 1970s were not particularly coherent or pleasant. I should have approached it with more respect. As it was, I either under or overdosed, and didn’t take good enough care to be in ideal surroundings. (The need for this is made abundantly clear in the book.) However I did get a memorable glimpse of its awesome power, and was deeply impressed by the sense, famously described by William James, that there are many valid ways of experiencing the world besides the one we’re used to.

Does the psychedelic experience stimulate psi? There are various reports by ethnologists and explorers that it does, with native people under the influence of hallucinogens suddenly showing uncanny knowledge of things going on in distant locations (as was subsequently verified). Many subjects of LSD and peyote sessions believed themselves to be in telepathic rapport with others. So the authors set about doing some experiments.

They started with Zener cards. The average score of 27 subjects was 3.5, or 1.5 below chance, which they speculated might indicate psi-missing – a possibility if only because the subjects understandably found it a boring waste of time. However four of the subjects produced consistently high scores on LSD, but poorly without. It seems other researchers had similarly dismal results with card guessing in psychedelic states, with the sole exception of Andrija Puharich, as reported in his book Beyond Telepathy.

The authors had more success by getting people to image a scene that had been briefly described in a sealed envelope. In the case of one high-scoring subject ‘Viking ship tossed in storm’ produced an image of a snake with arched head swimming in tossed seas. ‘Rain forest in the Amazon’ produced lush vegetation, exotic, flowers, startling greens. ‘Atlas holding up the world’ led to ‘Hercules tossing a ball up and down in his hand’; a sailboat off a rocky coast – sailboat sailing around a cliff; etc.

In a third type of experiment the subject was asked to get inside the head of some historical character.

In some of these cases the results were remarkable, the subject changing his voice, way of speaking, posture and even, it seemed, his appearance and way of thinking. The subject would not, however, lose his awareness of his own identity. He would, rather, ‘be two people,’ and would talk about his ‘new’ and ‘second self’ with a plausibility that sometimes verged on the uncanny.

Psychedelia image 2It was clear to the authors that the psychedelic state is not necessarily more conducive to psi phenomena than the normal state. But some evidence of a spontaneous telepathic rapport did emerge. One group session included a pair of female twins who, as children, had been made to wear the same clothes and do the same things, and later rebelled, becoming strongly antagonistic to each other, and striving to be as unlike as possible (one was a scientist, the other an avant-garde painter).

For the first hour of the session they kept up their customary bickering. Then, as the drug took hold, they became absorbed in their altered perceptions and started comparing notes. To their consternation they discovered these were almost completely alike – at any given moment each was experiencing exactly what the other was experiencing (and yet, when they checked, not at all what was going on in the heads of three others in the group). Eventually, the authors write, they went into ‘a profound and almost trancelike sort of communion’ in which, as they said later, they discovered themselves to be essentially the same person. Each proclaimed herself to be ‘variations on my twin’, but declared that the ‘overlapping of identities was no longer a discomfort’.

There were also some striking instances of clairvoyance. In one instance a young woman said she could ‘see’ her little daughter back at home in her kitchen taking advantage of her absence to hunt for the cookie jar. She then reported that the child, perched on a chair and rummaging through the cabinets, had knocked over a glass sugar bowl which had shattered, spilling sugar everywhere. She forgot this episode, but later, when she was making some coffee, she couldn’t find the sugar bowl, and was informed by her husband that their daughter had ‘made a mess while looking for cookies’, knocking the bowl from the shelf and smashing it.

In another case a subject reported seeing ‘a ship caught in ice floes, somewhere in the northern seas’ – the name on the bow of the ship was France. Three days later news was published of a ship named France having been freed from ice somewhere near Greenland, after becoming trapped apparently at around the time of the session.

Psychedelia image 3Among other things the SPR event will focus on these sorts of experiments, and I guess will speculate about how they might be updated in the light of techniques developed since the ban on psychedelics in the mid 1960s. Which is all good, and will be interesting to hear about. But in a way, a focus on psi can seem like a distraction from its central meaning. Reading Varieties, the notion of psychic operation for once seemed positively humdrum amid the chaotic passion and force of the event as a subjective experience. This is so often a journey into a world of images, symbols and meanings; of sudden crashing insights about the self, that heal and transform; or of epic five-hour struggles with monsters, gods and demons.

The authors are drily dismissive of the New Age-type utterances of some of their subjects – who may grandly proclaim to feel expansive love or to have become ‘One with the All’ – which they associate with the half-digested, half-baked mysticism of the sixties counter-culture. They are also exasperated by the excesses promoted by the likes of Timothy Leary. But they leave no doubt about the immense therapeutic value the experience can have, especially when supervised by a seasoned guide who makes useful suggestions about how to go forward, get out of awkward situations and move into new areas.

Alas, that’s something I’m unlikely ever to experience, as for (mild) medical reasons I’m probably contraindicated as a subject. But just reading about it can be breathtaking too.

One for Aficionados of Precognitive Dreams

Lawrence Brennan got in touch last weekend to talk about a dream he thought might be precognitive. It’s happened to him a few times, as he described interestingly in Paranormalia a while back. The imagery in this particular dream seemed to suggest a runner in the Grand National, so he had a punt.

Then a thought struck him about what the dream might really signify.

Long story short – no fortunes were made. But the episode underlined some interesting points, which Lawrence has identified and analysed in some detail. Here’s the correspondence, lightly edited.

Lawrence to Robert, Wednesday April 2   I was going to offer this to you so you could be a witness, should I prove successful in finally using this purported ability to predict something before it happens (my success rate so far being zero.) And I was full of hope this could be the one.

Instead it may have just turned into an example of why these things are so damned elusive.  I feel like Scully in the X Files ... there’s always a get-out.

I discovered by accident a few nights ago that I could determine the content of that night’s dreams by telling myself (two or three times, eyes closed, just before drifting off, as if hypnotising myself) what I was to dream about.  I say by accident, as what I was actually instructing myself to do was to have very clear, very precise and well remembered precognitive dreams that night.  Seemed worth a go.

As far as I know or recall, nothing I dreamt about did indeed come true.  However, to my surprise, each of the night’s dreams referenced the subject of precognitive dreaming as part of their plot.   That was interesting.   Did this suggest I could consciously shape the contents of my dreams before sleep? I decided to test it the next night by instructing myself in the same way to dream about a particular individual. Sure enough, I did.   Well this could be handy!   A way to potentially make use of this newly realised ability occurred to me the next day, Monday.  Sometime during the day a nagging half thought started tugging at my mind.. a forgotten something I was struggling to get hold of. I had a notion that I’d had a dream some time recently that was related to the Grand National. What dream, or even if there was one, or when it had happened, I still don’t know.  I just felt James Dean – whether the man or his name – had something to do with it.

This annoying niggle in my mind prompted a related idea.  Why not tell myself to dream about the Grand National, and see if I emerge from my slumbers with a name that matches with a real horse in the race?  So on Monday night I did just that. Instructed myself to dream of the National and get the name of the winner ...  

I had no dreams involving races or horses.  Ah well. Still I decided to Google this year’s race, find out what horses were listed and if their names meant anything to me. First read through – nothing.  Read it again five minutes later and ... hold on ... “Vintage Star”.  James Dean reference?  Could be.  Hmm..  Five minutes later it hit me. I’d had no dreams about horse racing the night before, but what I had dreamt about was: Vintage black and white photos of old Hollywood stars followed by another group of veteran elderly movie actors in period costumes.   Oh my!  Vintage Star!  The name describes all parts of these dreams, including the earlier James Dean half-memory.  It has to be.  Vintage Star to win the National.  If my dreams didn’t foresee the winner they sure as hell foresaw me zoning in on the name of this horse.

  I placed a free bet online and stand to win several hundred pounds if it wins, and I told half a dozen friends individually as witnesses to my ‘prediction’.    This was when I was also going to write this email to you: if it wins you’d have a story, if it doesn’t, ho hum, and who need ever know? As I’ve always said, I’m not psychic.  

But then this morning ... damn and blast. I did something I immediately regretted and which, if nothing else, is an object lesson in the sheer impossible-to-grab-hold-of nature of this stuff.  By way of promoting and cheering on my prediction for the coming event I dug out two photos of myself and a friend in front of giant black-and-white pictures of Clark Gable and Rudolf Valentino – pictures very much like the ones in the dream -  posting the former as my Facebook cover photo and sending the latter to him.  As soon as I’d done so I wanted to kick myself.  Perhaps you’ve already worked out why?

  If we take seriously my central premise that the dream imagery was taken from near-future events and experiences, how can I know it referred to the horse race and not, say, my posting of those photographs?  The latter in fact is more literally reminiscent of the content of the dream after all.   Like Planet of the Apes this would be mind-bogglingly circular. I only posted the photos because I had the dream and now face the possibility I only had that particular dream because I was going to post those photographs.   I started off all but convinced I’ve successfully foreseen the winner of this year’s Grand National, but may instead have triggered a temporal paradox.  And don’t you just hate it when that happens?  

Robert to Lawrence, Saturday April 5, 2.18pm

lol !   Well, I agree with your reasoning. But it’s always good to have a reason to back a horse at 50-1, so I’ve a little punt too.   Here’s hoping!

[For non-Brits I should explain that it’s normally insane to bet on the Grand National, a notoriously dangerous steeplechase in which most of the horses fall over. A rank outsider is always in with a chance – this year’s actual winner was priced at 25-1.]

Lawrence to Robert Saturday April 5, 4.38pm

Bah humbug!  This is why I gave up that tent on Blackpool pier.   There was something else I didn’t mention before:   First I reasoned my way out of the time-loop problem by deciding that I chose the horse because of the (slightly less convincing) James Dean connection ... and that this therefore was the reason I was always going to choose it, always put up those photos, and therefore had the precognitive dream triggered by the latter act.  Paradox resolved. 

Then on Thursday night I woke between dreams for a few minutes and tried sleepily, but consciously this time, to ‘foresee’ the result. Jockeys’ silks appeared vividly in my mind’s eye.  Yellow and Green quarters.  Next morning the sweepstakes in the papers included little graphics of each rider’s colours.  Two of the forty had the yellow and green quarters design. And one of them was .... Vintage Star.

Once again I had personally convincing evidence I’d ‘seen the future’, but had no way to know whether I was foreseeing the colours of the horse that was going to win ... only that I was foreseeing the colours of the horse I had already decided to follow!  Which is useless, and means the predictive proof of precognition that might satisfy other people remains as elusive as ever.  

In the light of this experience Lawrence later sent this link on classic and recent examples of people dreaming the winners of horse races. He analysed the cases as follows:

The first thing of note in each incident described is very significant ... that in each case the precognitive dream actually showed literally what it was about. That is, it involved horses in a race and the announced winner. In other words, no interpreting signs or metaphors are necessary at all. That’s a strong clue as to their qualitative difference from my attempts, and a reminder that I keep making the same mistake over and over ... seeing hidden meaning in my dreams where none exists. 

However there’s a second characteristic of the stories that belies my own experiences and observations (which I’m going to list) in the cases above, as reported at least. This is a clear suggestion that the individuals only pay attention (and indeed seek out) the precognized event because of the dream. Which suggests that either someone or something was planting the dreams in their mind, or else that we’re back to time loops.  Either way, it’s not how it appears to work in my own experience at all.  

So what do I know - perhaps others would say ‘believe’ - about precognitive dreaming, as far as my own experiences go?

  1) Such dreams relate to utterly trivial and seemingly random matters.  There are no ‘messages’, warnings or other intentions behind them. I’ve yet to experience anything that suggests future events, of a particular emotional impact or significance, are likely to show up in a dream.  

2) The plot is irrelevant, and almost always pure nonsense/fantasy.  Trying to read meanings or symbolism into it is fruitless.  The precognitive aspects relate only to visuals ... TV or movie scenes, news headlines, photos, unusual surroundings, peculiar actions ... and will appear pretty much as themselves within the otherwise unrelated plot. Unless the image in question is novel or confusing, in which case it may be distorted to make sense within the story.  I have identified no rule or quality that makes any particular object or incident turn up rather than another.

  3) The future-relevant visuals that do turn up are inspired by one’s own experience of witnessing/reading/hearing about those incidents. They are not objectively inspired by the incident itself (eg, it’s the experience of receiving the news of a plane crash, with all its errors and conjectures, rather than the plane crash itself, that would fuel the content of the dream).  If I’m not going to see it in real life, in some sense, then it’s not going to show up in my dream.  

4) The dreams cannot ever be used to make a prediction.  You only notice they referred to the future after it happens. The only way one might predict, that I can currently conceive of, is to say ‘X’ turned up in the plot of my dream, so ‘X’ is likely to turn up in my personal viewing/reading etc in the next day or so.

    5) The elements of a dream that are taken from the future rather than the past or from pure fantasy, are not qualitatively distinct or identifiable.  Having said that, I have noted in the past that where a new face or object imposes itself upon another in the recall of the dream (eg. what was originally ‘John’ somehow mid-action turns into ‘Mike’), then the latter  - the interloper - often seems to be the thing that turns up, particularly the next morning.  

6) The passage of time seems to be somehow simultaneously relevant, and irrelevant to the precognized imagery.  That’s to say, the fact the great majority of foreseen images happen within the first several  hours, or perhaps days, after waking from the dream suggests nearness in time to the event is relevant. And yet I’ve noticed striking correlations between a dream and events that occurred five months later ... which suggests there is no such time limit at all.

It also might suggest that far more material from one’s dreams than is ever noticed will turn up in future ... but the time lapse prevents you recalling the dream (even if you recorded it at the time) or spotting the connection!

  7)  I now have two personal anecdotes that suggest the period just after waking from slumber is conducive to consciously trying to foresee a specific thing in a ‘remote viewing’ kind of way.  However, setting out in advance to repeat the exercise the following night seems to be counter-productive, and may suggest lazy spontaneity is required.  

8) My newly-observed ability to decide what I would dream about equally only lasted two nights, and I’ve not been able to replicate it since.

Lawrence concludes:  

So these are my own observations of how it works for me and, I’m fairly confident, for the other 95% of the population who don’t claim special powers.  I leave 5%, because I’ve now read two books by people who have PDs, and in each case they seem utterly sincere, yet describe experiences far beyond any I recognize ... ones where their visions do seem directed and directable, and often involve spirit encounters and OOBEs etc.  These perhaps are the people who see plane crashes rather than scenes from tomorrow’s episode of Frasier. So if they’re not making it up, I can only surmise that they differ from me in that they are indeed ‘psychics’ or mediums.

Perhaps their dreams are being used as means of communication. I know mine aren’t, or I’d now be claiming 800 quid from an online bookie.  

An Incomplete Mystical Experience

I see that Barbara Ehrenreich, the author of Smile or Die (Bright-Sided in the US), will soon have new book out. If you don’t know Smile or Die, it’s about the tyranny of positive thinking, not daring to have bad thoughts about having cancer in case they finish you off. I didn’t read the book, but it’s something that needed to be said.

Ehrenreich seems to be well-known in the US as a writer on health and feminist issues. Time magazine calls her a ‘noted and staunch atheist’. From her Wikipedia profile she sort of matches up with our Polly Toynbee, another leftwing intellectual with a social conscience (interestingly, both wrote harrowing books about their experiences of trying to survive on the minimum wage). Toynbee is a very noted atheist, her thundering denunciations up there with Dawkins.

In her new book, Living With a Wild God, Ehrenreich tackles religion from an experiential perspective. (These details are from an article she wrote for the New York Times.) Aged 17 she went on a skiing trip having made few serious preparations, arriving tired and hungry. When she stepped into the street something happened:

There were no visions, no prophetic voices or visits by totemic animals, just this blazing everywhere. Something poured into me and I poured out into it. This was not the passive beatific merger with “the All,” as promised by the Eastern mystics. It was a furious encounter with a living substance that was coming at me through all things at once, too vast and violent to hold on to, too heartbreakingly beautiful to let go of.  It seemed to me that whether you start as a twig or a gorgeous tapestry, you will be recruited into the flame and made indistinguishable from the rest of the blaze. I felt ecstatic and somehow completed, but also shattered.

Having no framework in which to place the experience she assumed it was some kind of breakdown and tried to put it behind her. It was a long time before she realised that it’s a not uncommon experience. All kinds of people have uncanny experiences that they can see as transcendental, and these people include atheists like herself. In her case there were no visions, hallucinations or voices, and it didn’t convert her to religious belief. But neither did she think it could be explained away along the usual lines – intoxicants, temporal lobe epilepsy, ‘primary or mood-disorder-associated psychotic disorders’, etc, etc.

Paradoxically it was her scientific education that convinced her to think about it in a different way.

One of the things I learned was that you do not discard anomalous results. If you have a result that doesn’t fit your theory, that falls way off the curve in your graph – I’m sorry, you don’t get to erase that. You have to figure out what’s going on. I’m just opening up the conversation. If in the process I completely ruin my reputation as a rational person and end up in a locked ward, that’s the chance I’m taking.

Perhaps the ‘insanity’ explanation is just a cop-out. This might really have been some sort of encounter. But an encounter with what? She thinks science should be willing to investigate.

We need more data and more subjective accounts. But we also need a neuroscience bold enough to go beyond the observation that we are “wired” for transcendent experience; the real challenge is to figure out what happens when those wires connect. Is science ready to take on the search for the source of our most uncanny experiences?

Fortunately, she goes on, science itself has been changing.

It was simply overwhelmed by the empirical evidence, starting with quantum mechanics and the realization that even the most austere vacuum is a happening place, bursting with possibility and giving birth to bits of something, even if they’re only fleeting particles of matter and antimatter. Without invoking anything supernatural, we may be ready to acknowledge that we are not, after all, alone in the universe. There is no evidence for a God or gods, least of all caring ones, but our mystical experiences give us tantalizing glimpses of other forms of consciousness, which may be beings of some kind, ordinarily invisible to us and our instruments. Or it could be that the universe is itself pulsing with a kind of life, and capable of bursting into something that looks to us momentarily like the flame.

It’s always heartening to see someone with a scientific education talking sense about these things. Most scientists think they absolutely should discard anomalous results.

But then we remember that it requires an actual experience to make this shift. If it had been someone else’s experience Ehrenreich would doubtless be using exactly the same reductionist terms as other atheists and scientists. It wouldn’t be an experience at all – just something that a person says who hasn’t had a proper scientific education and doesn’t know any better.

In the end, though, Ehrenreich’s expanded thinking is not just a response to her own experience, it’s also limited by it. It permits her to make a tentative step outside the confines of reductionist science, which to her is daring enough. But it doesn't stop her being dismissive of the idea of a 'caring' God.

This is surprising in a way. I assume she’s read the literature of mystical experience, in which case she will have read of many, many cases of people who had a sudden revelation every bit as powerful as hers, but who, unlike her, felt swept up in the loving embrace of a God of love, that permeated every cell of their being, and convinced them for the rest of their days that love is the real stuff of the universe.

Why does she think that the meaning she derives from her experience is valid, when the meaning that others have derived from theirs – clearly in the same class as hers - is not? She seems to imply that in other people such an experience can still lead to wrong ideas, not to say religious delusions. That doesn’t add up to me.

It’s not a criticism, as I have no idea how I’d behave in such circumstances. And as I say, it’s good to see credible people talking this way.

But always I want to know what is really going on in the rationalist’s mind. Ehrenreich has joined the growing number of people who sit on the cusp of two worldviews, facing both ways. They have to make sense of an experience that jars mightily with what their tribe considers to be true. It’s the ultimate challenge for a responsible, thinking person – to reconcile their idea of what ought to be the case with the strong suspicion that it’s actually something quite different.