Dancing Past the Dark http://www.dancingpastthedark.com distressing near-death experiences Tue, 02 Jun 2015 12:17:41 +0000 en-US hourly 1 The Elephant in the Universe http://www.dancingpastthedark.com/the-elephant-in-the-universe/ http://www.dancingpastthedark.com/the-elephant-in-the-universe/#comments Tue, 02 Jun 2015 12:17:41 +0000 http://www.dancingpastthedark.com/?p=1485 STAR TREK AND THE ELEPHANT IN THE UNIVERSE is an article on this website, and this is its concluding section. I’m posting it now because June 1 is my mother’s birthday (she would be 109), and of everything of mine that she read, this was her favorite, although it never ceased to amaze her that one of her children could say anything so…mystifying. It is that, and perhaps the most important thing I have found to say about NDEs. Here’s to all gracious mothers and their lasting ties with us. Part two of the Void will come next.

Dancing in the Dark

With the debut of Science three centuries ago, Religion lost first place on the dance card of Western civilization. The newcomer was dazzling and accomplished, and had soon whisked half the world out of its agricultural worldview and into the Industrial Revolution and on toward a technological wonderland and spiritual confusions. Between then and now, Religion has still found partners, but Science snapped up the flashy ones (and, of course, the funding); so after a while R. was sitting glumly on the sidelines with her declining church memberships, lamenting that no one knew how to waltz her any more. “The Dance,” she said, “is dead.”

Late-nineteenth-century physicists said the same thing about their discipline, confident that physics had learned almost all there was to learn about matter. “The field of physics is about dead.”  Both pronouncements were premature.

Within a generation, quantum mechanics had produced the astounding discovery that an atom could be subdivided, and what was more, that when looked at from one perspective, electrons behaved like solid particles; viewed from another perspective, they seemed like electromagnetic waves. Particle and wave; matter and energy. With this came the unsettling certitude that matter—the good, solid, physical, dependably measurable stuff—was dizzyingly otherwise: not solid things so much as fields of fizzing, unpredictable energy and infinitesimal vibrational entities at enormous distances from each other.

Consider the implications for yourself: Sub-atomic particles make up atoms; atoms make up molecules; molecules make up cells; cells make up organs; and organs make up . . . us . . . which leads to the incontrovertible conclusion that our very own bodies which seem so—well, physical, are constituted overwhelmingly of space, occasionally interspersed with bits of dynamic buzzy stuff. But if we’re not solid stuff—if we’re mostly space—what are we? Who are we? Where do I stop and you start? Where are our edges?

Philosopher/psychologist Jean Houston says, “We all have leaky margins.” (Think of your feelings of discomfort in a crowded elevator where everyone is ‘leaking’ on everyone else.) We are a whisk of buzzy atoms and sub-atomic particles, all in a whirl and dance. We are a soup of photons. British physicist David Bohm said, “Matter is frozen light.” Look at yourself, and at the people around you—frozen light. You are the salt of the earth. You are the city that is set on a hill. You are frozen light. You are particle and wave; matter and energy; one might say you are…body and spirit.

And God laughs.

Unhappily, Religion tends to be still moping about the decline of the dogmatic waltz and appears not to notice the atoms dancing all around her. On the other hand, people who think Religion is dumb or delusional don’t bother to notice that the body-and-spirit notion was her idea in the first place.  Look closer.

Maps and Territory

The universe is our elephant, and like the men of the old story, we try to describe that part of it which we happen to grasp. Like the elephant, it is too big for us to take in whole. Although Universe can neither be taken in by a human mind nor described completely from any single point of view, that has not kept us from trying: Bronze Age nomad, twelfth century monastic, 18th century mathematician, 20th century physicist, 21st century novelist or file clerk—we all look out on the same universe, look to the limit of our senses, describe what we find, and interpret our description. Our descriptions become models of how the universe works. Over time, these models have developed into theories, doctrines, belief systems: all the forms of religion, the varieties of philosophy, types of spiritual discipline, types of academic discipline, branches of science, each believing itself to represent Truth about the elephant of the universe.

I was struck, some some years back, by the stunning realization that as different and wide-ranging as our belief models are, many display a remarkable underlying consistency—what those more learned than I have called the “perennial philosophy.” Just look, for instance, at the models described by Scripture, by the mystics (the great spiritual technicians), by near-death experiencers, and by today’s particle physicists. Each set of descriptions is an attempt to picture Reality . . . Creation . . . the Whole. Each is a map of the great cosmic territory.

The scriptural model is made up of themes shared by sacred writings. These scriptures and hymns of  religious tradition include abundant mention of radiant light: “Immortal, invisible, God only wise; in light inexpressible hid from our eyes…” They speak of the importance of caring, of loving one’s neighbor, even one’s enemy. They look for communion and relationship and oneness. And whether in stories of Eden or of the Dreamtime of lost Ancient Ones, they tell of an unimaginably distant time of harmony and wholeness.

A second model comes from the world’s great mystics, those persons past and present who live with a radical sense of inbreaking spiritual experience. Their lives have been captivated by a sacred Presence, by an unseen Beloved. Their experience is described in terms of light and darkness. They are overwhelmed by the centrality of unconditional love. And they attempt to describe their flashing moments of union with the sacred Presence as a seamless and ineffable whole.

The third  model comes from the accounts of near-death experiences across the centuries, people who talk about the positive presence or absolute absence of light. They tell of presences, sometimes of a sacred Presence they may call by a name familiar to them from their religious tradition or refer to simply as a Being of Light. Their lives become driven by the conviction that the most important thing is love, that everything is connected to everything else in the universe.

From a fourth and quite different realm come the models of quantum physicists, their science described not in words but in the abstractions of mathematics. They have demonstrated that the most basic bit of existence is the photon, the smallest particle of light. Increasingly they say there seems to be, somehow, a shaping intelligence behind (or within) the workings of everything that is. They speak of their search for a unified field theory, following hints of a theoretical commonality linking all things. And particle physicists have documented the unarguable truth that at the sub-atomic level, there can be no objective observer and observed, for in a mysterious dance of oneness everything at the quantum level interconnects and interacts.


The Map Is Not the Territory

It would not be true to say that because these models share some commonalities, they are all saying the same things. Saying so would be equally naive as claiming that all religions are alike simply because they all deal with the spiritual. Physics is most emphatically not like religion, nor are idiosyncratic NDEs like disciplined mystical tradition. They are not all precisely the same . . . but because they are all describing the same observed universe, they point in a common direction. Taken singly, the models may have wildly differing interpretations; seen together, they describe a pattern in the universe: A mysterious and powerful motive force, perhaps a shaping consciousness. Light. Unity. Interconnection. Relationship.

The Nature of Things

Many years ago, now, the sister with whom I had shared a bedroom during our growing up was spending some time with my marriage family. We were in the kitchen one afternoon—Babs and I, her five children, and my three. The kids were playing some thunderous game that involved smacking the surface of the big round oak table, when one of the littlest ones asked, “What makes the noise?”

This was a group never at a loss for theorizing, and they came to sudden attention.My nephew Paul, who was nine, could always be depended on. “Noise,” he explained solemnly, “is the sound of molecules screaming. They’re very small, and when something hits them they explode. So they scream.”

Eight sets of eyes stared intently at the heavy table while they considered that pronouncement. Then:

“This table is really old. How come,” asked a six-year-old, “if the molecules have been exploding… how come the table is still here?”

Babs and I did not dare look at each other but waited for Paul’s response. It was bound to be good.

“Well,” he said, “the table is still here because . . . because molecules are always pregnant, and when they explode the babies escape, so there are always new molecules.”

My eleven-year-old was exasperated. “That is so stupid! How can molecules be pregnant?”

Paul looked at her with cool assurance. “Because,” he said, “it is in their nature to be so.”


What I believe about near-death experiences is that it is in their nature to bring messages carrying faint echoes of those of contemporary physics, and the experiences that founded our religions, and the testimony of humanity’s mystics. I believe they are fleeting excursions beyond all maps, into the Territory itself—momentary trips inside the skin of the elephant, experiential blips into the nature of the universe. Of course the experience is ineffable, because All-of-Creation cannot be encompassed by the mind of a single human individual, nor can it be squeezed into syntax and grammar and vocabulary. They announce that it is in the nature of the universe to be a dance of consciousness, of radiant light and terrifying darkness, of all things in relationship, and of a mysterious and ultimate unity. And because we are children of that universe, it is in our nature to be so as well.

I believe that NDE accounts, like our theologies, offer glimpses of the nature of the universe, of the nature of God, the Source—choose your terminology—and that radiant or terrifying, they illuminate our understanding of where we are and what is required if we are to live well in this place:

The Sacred is in your midst. Pay attention. Love what is holy. Care for each other and for the world. Be just and merciful. Amen. Amen.

http://www.dancingpastthedark.com/the-elephant-in-the-universe/feed/ 8
The Yin Yang in an NDE of the Void http://www.dancingpastthedark.com/the-yin-yang-in-an-nde-of-the-void/ http://www.dancingpastthedark.com/the-yin-yang-in-an-nde-of-the-void/#comments Sun, 03 May 2015 19:53:59 +0000 http://www.dancingpastthedark.com/?p=1474 This mini-series of posts about reconciling my difficult experience of the Void[i]  came about because of a reader’s question. It was he, Steve, who introduced me two years ago to a stunning article on the Void by experiencer El Collie, and it was he, not I, who noticed that although I had posted her article here immediately and enthusiastically, I had totally avoided responding to it.

His recent question: “I’d really like to know how you actually view the void now and how you feel you’ve ‘come to terms’” via this view.” (Do not trifle with blog readers; they are made of stern stuff.)

Furthermore, he continues, “… regarding life’s balance, or the ‘yin/yang,’
I’ve never heard you expound on the obviously profound significance of this eastern symbol within your NDE. As impish as they were, they represented life: relativity, duality. Andbeing dualistic, they were Janus-faced, betraying life’s most profound paradox: Life as both savior and betrayer.”

Caught. I am indebted to readers in so many ways! Steve’s comments and his brilliant similes drive straight to the heart of the crux of things—what makes NDEs important, far beyond their superficial “golly-gosh” phenomenology. Beneath their eye-widening images lie treasures, if only we can get to them. Sometimes we are reluctant to go looking.

Life as both savior and betrayer. Ah.

What about those Yin Yang images?

Yin yang

Although it is difficult to remember such a possibility, the Yin Yang symbol was not universally recognizable throughout the United States in the early 1960s. From within mainstream Protestant culture of the time, I saw the images in my experience merely as unusual ‘circles.’ There was no deep familiarity with the symbol; it was not a part of my world, my upbringing, my understandings, and could bring nothing to my perceptions.

For one thing, what was an ancient Chinese philosophical symbol doing in the experience of a New England Congregationalist who did not understand it? What is the purpose of the Yin Yang here, and what can possibly be the purpose of a misunderstood symbol?

This is as good a spot as any in which to answer Steve’s question: At base, I have no idea how the Yin Yang got into my NDE or what purpose it might have served. In terms of immediate utility, it was a wasted effort, as I understood nothing about it. However, perhaps with a touch of that cosmic humor with which the world is possessed, in the long run, the impossibility of answering has helped me keep an open mind; and given fifty years and the comments of others, I can at least now piece together a response which seems to me to hold together. (Whether it is true or not is beyond my pay grade to know.)

The holding together

In its most common definition, the Yin Yang is a symbol of opposites in conflict. From a more accommodating perspective, Scottish homeopathic physician Bob Leckridge says, “I love what it represents, that flowing balance of darkness and light, the harmony of the male and female energies, and the subtle hint that each opposite contains the other.” Nowadays, everyone pretty much smiles and agrees. Similarly, in Wikipedia’s nuanced definition, the symbol describes “how apparently opposite or contrary forces are actually complementary, interconnected, and interdependent in the natural world, and how they give rise to each other as they interrelate to one another. …[They represent] complementary (rather than opposing) forces that interact to form a dynamic system in which the whole is greater than the assembled parts.”

Because I had no such understanding, for many years the only resonance for me was not  ‘flowing balance’ but the dread associated with a message I took to mean universal annihilation. The Yin Yang as symbol remained submerged beneath the shock of the Void as experiential residue; it has taken a long time and a determined effort for me to be able to distinguish between the power and elegance of the symbol and the lingering devastation of the experience.

It is in this sense that Steve’s simile strikes home: The Yin Yang (my ‘circles’) as our most profound paradox: Life, both savior and betrayer.

What is the betrayal and what the salvation?

As a culture, we are not, in this literal, technological age, skilled in interpreting symbols, and much escapes us. Given enough thought, though, it is possible to recognize, as a Dutch theologian has noted,[ii] that “Despite the differences in meaning-making, human beings from different cultures and religions do not only share the human symbolizing capacity called culture, but also meet the same basic problems. These problems belong to the ‘existentials,’ the fixed features of human existence. Religious experience is marked by them.”

Those “fixed features of human existence” are the origin of Jung’s concept of archetypes. This should be a “Doh!” understanding: that as people across the globe and time share our common humanity, we also share issues and questions for which we devise images and understandings in terms our local culture will comprehend. Because they are addressed to similar issues, those images may overlap and share meanings.

One of these ‘existentials’ is the inescapable reality, built into our perceptual system, of either/or, of both/and–self and other, being and non-being, near and far, up and down—dualism. It is another of those “savior and betrayer” realities, the basic product of our physical senses and the working of our brains, and the trap in which our understandings are caught by their very nature. So far as we can tell, cultures since the beginning of human intelligence have struggled to comprehend such oppositions.

The Chinese Yin Yang stands as a focal expression of that duality, the essence of both/and, the image in which all opposites come together.  As a generic, nameless circle with no beginning and no end, it is the archetype of wholeness, eternity, completion, fullness. As Yin Yang, two distinct yet interrelated forms, it carries all of the circle’s implicit meanings plus the tension of Difference holding dualities together in paradoxical simultaneity: both/and, consciousness/non/consciousness, being/ non-being. (And if they click from Yin to Yang, black to white, interchanging Yes/No, the Both/And, no wonder it is confusing to the uninitiated.)

Because we tend to be ignorant of the depth and variety of symbolic implications, it has been too easy to miss completely the fact that the West also has its corollary symbol of the intersection of opposites. In Western Christianity, the central point at which conflicting forces meet and are reconciled, the point at which dualism is overcome, is the cross—body and spirit, life and death, empire and commonality, the loving Yes and the destroying No.

Seeing the cross only literally, as the sign of a single crucifixion, we miss its depth as symbol, its representation of “a unity transcending human consciousness.”[iii]  The cross as symbol is not identical with the Yin Yang; but is a close enough relative that we must at least pay attention to the family resemblance.

To bring this around even closer to our topic, metaphysician Alice Ouzounian asks,[iv] “What is represented by the center of the cross and the swastika, the basic principle at the center of the Wheel of the Universe, from which all flows and to which all returns; the center that is everywhere and nowhere?” At that center, she says, stands Emptiness. The Void.

We struggle to understand. We yearn for the radiant and affirming NDE, for the loving light, for the gloriously risen Christ; and of course they also hold a place in the many-storied universe. This other is not what we wanted, this paradox, this troubling puzzle. Yet it also seems deeply, inescapably true: Life as both savior and betrayer. Our task, surely, is to find a balance beyond the dualism.

More next time.

~ ~ ~


[i] An Experience of the Void,http://www.dancingpastthedark.com/articles-2/an-experience-of-the-void/

[ii] On Sharing Religious Experiences: Possibilities of Interfaith Mutuality, by Jerald D. Gort, p 49.

[iii] The Study of Religion: An Introduction to Key Ideas and Methods, George D. Chryssides, Ron Greaves p. 57.

[iv] “About Spiritual Emptiness or the Void,” Hermetic philosophy and the Mystery of Being,Alice Ouzounian,http://www.plotinus.com/spiritual%20emptiness_copy.htm

http://www.dancingpastthedark.com/the-yin-yang-in-an-nde-of-the-void/feed/ 18
Reconciliation #1: What the Void is not http://www.dancingpastthedark.com/reconciliation-1-what-the-void-is-not/ http://www.dancingpastthedark.com/reconciliation-1-what-the-void-is-not/#comments Fri, 17 Apr 2015 14:08:09 +0000 http://www.dancingpastthedark.com/?p=1465 There it sat, the source of my latest existential crisis (yet again! yet again!)—a web page read no doubt by far more people than this blog and my book, linked to a website which should know better. The “it” was a lengthy rhetorical piece on the Void, At least, the piece said it was about the Void, though it was not, at least not in any sense in which people who actually know the Void use the term. 

No, this was a mash-up of badly misunderstood metaphysics, no doubt earnest but superficial spirituality, absent psychodynamics, uninformed references claiming equation of the void (small ‘v’) with hell, purgatory, and the outer darkness. There were claims of objects and entities: animals are there, it said, and “strange creatures,” along with “ignorant souls which many people would consider to be evil.” Oh, and the souls of those who committed suicide, in a foggy section.  Anyone’s presence in the Void was attributed to—of course—a stubbornly determined “lack of love” and refusal to accept the light.

The piece will reveal “the purpose of the void and how to escape it,” it said. The void, it said, sits right next to the earthbound realm as a lower level of debasement and evil. For self-absorbed souls who refuse love and light, it said, there are many Beings of Light nearby to help them find their way to the Light and heaven. The moment the choice for light and love is made, it said, the light and tunnel appear and the soul is drawn into the light.

It said all that and more.  And more. Glints of recognizable Truth flashed briefly but then fled. I was in a wash of tears of frustration and rage and helpless sadness. People are coming for information, for help, and this is what they get?


No. No and no. And more no’s. I don’t know where those arguments all come from, but certainly not from mature interpretations of mystical experience, nor from informed reading beyond a very narrow shelf, and certainly not from any actual encounter with the Void. It was like reading a religious tract found at a bus stop. For all I know, some people may believe that an experience of the Void results from insufficient vitamin D; that is no more fanciful than much of what appears in that article.

I do not for an instant doubt the sincerity of the people who believe those things; I am simply stating that they are seriously and harmfully misunderstanding the Void.

The chaotic jumble described above is not the Void of deep spiritual experience (NDE or otherwise), not the Void of the Christian mystics and Buddhist sages and Islamic Sufis, not the Void experienced however peripherally by El Collie and me and others who read this blog. Not at all.

  1. The true Void is Emptiness; it is not populated at all, not by animal, human, object, spirit, weirdness, or concept. Empty of everything but potential.
  2. The Void is terrifying but it is not hell. It is not Purgatory. It is neither the Outer Darkness nor alienation from God. If anything, it is terrifying in its proximity to the Source.
  3. The Void is at the center of everything; it is not a debased realm.
  4. The Void holds love and all goodness in the same way it holds depression and hatred and suffering and the individual self: released beyond all recognition into that Emptiness.

What Mystics Say

It is a commonplace in mystical literature that the emptiness of the Void is paradoxically full of everything, and a simple Google search brings up abundant and experienced commentary. In the words of metaphysician Alice Ouzounian[i], in a Tantric Buddhist symbol “Emptiness is represented by the central dot and symbolizes a focal point, the seed of the spirit in which everything is in a potential but static state.” In Christianity, she notes, ‘it is represented by the center of the cross and the swastika, the basic principle at the center of the Wheel of the Universe, from which all flows and to which all returns; the center that is everywhere and nowhere.”

It is important to notice that where everything exists only as potential, nothing is visible; nothing has emerged; there is no-thing for the senses to engage. Emptiness.

British philosopher and mystic Paul Brunton[ii] explains that everything any of us knows and experiences are things in this world of the five senses. But the ultimate journey to what he calls the Overself “is not within their sphere of operation and therefore not to be known and experienced in the same way. This is why the first real entry into it must necessarily be an entry into no-thing-ness. The mystical phenomena and mystical raptures happen merely on the journey to this void.”

Brunton also observes that with the Void:

“All that consciousness holds must be reduced to nothing. When the personal mind is stripped of its memories and anticipations, when all sense-impressions and thoughts entirely drop away from it, then it enters the realm of empty unnameable Nothingness.

“[The mystic] must make a final act of surrender whereby his whole sense of personality–all that makes up what he believed to be “I”–is let go as the last of his thoughts to vanish into a Void. He must make the abrupt leap into self-identification with the wide pure impersonal thought-less Thought. He must give up the last of all thoughts–which is the “I” thought–and accept in return whatever may come to him out of the great Unknown. A fear rises up and overcomes him for a time that with this leap he may so endanger his own existence as to plunge into utter annihilation.”

Psychotherapist David Richo[iii] states flatly,

“At the deepest level the Void is a terror, a fear of abandonment by every spiritual support. If prayer works, it is not the Void. If activities work, it is not the Void. If anything works, it is not the Void. The terror in this spiritual panic attack is that nothing works to save us from the vacuum into which we have been thrown. The experience of the Void means no foothold, no handle on things, no end in sight, no light at the end of the tunnel. It is not quite adequately described as aloneness, loneliness, emptiness, forsakenness, abandonment, desperation, isolation, or even despair. It is all of these at once!”

All shall be well

Before taking a nihilistic plunge after reading those comments, please know that this is post #1 of a small series on reconciliation after an experience of the Void. I hope you will want to stay tuned for where this goes. Although the truth (Truth) of the Void has its terrors, they are far less inchoate and meaningless than what I consider the flat-out incoherence mentioned earlier. Hang on! It’ll be a good ride.


[i] Ouzounian, Alice. “About Spiritual Emptiness or the Void,” Hermetic philosophy and the Mystery of Being. http://www.plotinus.com/spiritual%20emptiness_copy.htm. Acessed April 15, 2015.

[ii] Brunton, Paul. “The Void as Contemplative Experience.” http://paulbrunton.org/notebooks/23/8. Accessed April 16, 2015.

[iii] Richo, David. “Standing Alone at the Edge of the Void.” http://www.vitalitylink.com/article-spiritual-growth-and-well-being-1261-standing-edge-void-ego-face-emptiness.  Accessed April 15, 2015.

http://www.dancingpastthedark.com/reconciliation-1-what-the-void-is-not/feed/ 35
Psychedelics return, find us living in silos http://www.dancingpastthedark.com/psychedelics-return-find-us-living-in-silos/ http://www.dancingpastthedark.com/psychedelics-return-find-us-living-in-silos/#comments Thu, 12 Mar 2015 19:18:53 +0000 http://www.dancingpastthedark.com/?p=1460 The headline of a feature article in The New Yorker (February 5, 1915) reports with some breathlessness that after several years of university investigation, “Research into psychedelics, shut down for decades, is now yielding exciting results.”

The less breathless author of the excellent and lengthy article, journalist Michael Pollan, describes the history of psychedelic research and reports on new clinical trials at New York University in which “psilocybin—the active ingredient in so-called magic mushrooms—was being administered to cancer patients in an effort to relieve their anxiety and ‘existential distress.’” One participant had applied to the study after reading that under the influence of the hallucinogen, “individuals transcend their primary identification with their bodies and experience ego-free states . . . and return with a new perspective and profound acceptance.” (That sounds oddly familiar…do you hear it?)

The NYU project is “part of a renaissance of psychedelic research taking place at several universities in the United States, including Johns Hopkins, the Harbor-U.C.L.A. Medical Center, and the University of New Mexico, as well as at Imperial College, in London, and the University of Zurich.”

Pollan notes that “The first wave of research into psychedelics was doomed by an excessive exuberance about their potential” (which also sounds familiar). He quotes Stanislav Grof as saying that psychedelics ‘“loosed the Dionysian element’ on America, posing a threat to the country’s Puritan values that was bound to be repulsed. (He thinks the same thing could happen again.)”

The threat to conventional values and hierarchical structures was perceived as so great that forty-five years ago, Nixon’s Controlled Substances Act prohibited the use of most  psychedelics in the US for any purpose and effectively closing down research. With these new studies here and in the UK and Switzerland, governments are guardedly allowing limited study to resume, introducing a new generation of scientists to the mysteries of psychedelics.

This is exceptionally good news and about time.But keep listening.

Pollan notes that with the Act, “what had been learned was all but erased from the field of psychiatry.” An early-middle-aged leader of the NYU study says, “By the time I got to medical school, no one even talked about it.”

What is language for, if not to pass on what earlier generations have learned?

“Many researchers I spoke with,” said Pollan, “described their findings with excitement, some using words like ‘mind-blowing.’” Here are some other quotes from the NYU scientists:

“I felt a little like an archeologist unearthing a completely buried body of knowledge,…Some of the best minds in psychiatry had seriously studied these compounds in therapeutic models, with government funding.”

“I thought the first ten or twenty people were plants—that they must be faking it.…They were saying things like ‘I understand love is the most powerful force on the planet,’ or ‘I had an encounter with my cancer, this black cloud of smoke.’ People who had been palpably scared of death—they lost their fear. The fact that a drug given once can have such an effect for so long is an unprecedented finding. We have never had anything like it in the psychiatric field.”

“People don’t realize how few tools we have in psychiatry to address existential distress. Xanax isn’t the answer. So how can we not explore this, if it can recalibrate how we die?”

A follow-up study…found that the psilocybin experience also had a positive and lasting effect on the personality of most participants. This is a striking result, since the conventional wisdom in psychology holds that personality is usually fixed by age thirty and thereafter is unlikely to substantially change. But more than a year after their psilocybin sessions volunteers who had had the most complete mystical experiences showed significant increases in their “openness,” one of the five domains that psychologists look at in assessing personality traits.

“I don’t want to use the word ‘mind-blowing,’…but, as a scientific phenomenon, if you can create conditions in which seventy per cent of people will say they have had one of the five most meaningful experiences of their lives? To a scientist, that’s just incredible.”

~ ~ ~

Well, now. Quite frankly, I am still shaking my head.

What strikes me in reading Pollan’s superb article is the tone of utter astonishment in the researchers—astonishment equating with silo-bred ignorance not only of the years immediately preceding their arrival in the world but, as scientists, of what has been going on all along in related fields. What they are discovering has not been ‘a completely buried field of knowledge.” Stanislav Grof has never stopped his work on these states of consciousness.  Life After Life has been selling well since 1975, piling up mountains of corroborating experience accounts saying exactly what these researchers are hearing from their study participants. How have they missed Eben Alexander? The whole field of Transpersonal Psychology emerged during those years. There has been no end of conversation and policy-making around psychedelics and spirituality. How did that all pass them by?

How is it possible they have not encountered these ideas in all their years of education?

Mind you, I am as guilty as the psychiatrists of living in the silo of my own life experience. It’s just that psychedelics had such a profound impact on the music, literature, awareness, and cultural shaping of the world they grew into, it seems insane that the subject could so thoroughly vanish. The article does at least notice Stanislav Grof, but only in passing.

What is language for, if not to pass on what earlier generations have learned?

Granted, the intensity of grad school professional training pushes everything else to the side. But how have these educated people managed to bypass the media attention to near-death experience? An amazing agility, perhaps. As pleased as I am for them and their excitement, I do a doubletake at the sense that they have planted their own flag claiming this as new territory, and all theirs. Neurospirituality!

This all reminds me of another story, from the 1990s when University of New Mexico psychiatrist Rick Strassman, author of the groundbreaking DMT: The Spirit Molecule had received unprecedented government and university approval for a study of the possibility that the endogenous (natural) psychedelic DMT might play a role in triggering mystical experience. Over five years, Strassman administered roughly 400 doses of DMT to sixty volunteer subjects to chart the range of their psychological experiences.

The experiences they reported ranged from brief episodes that were like full-fledged psychotic episodes with paranoid fantasies to sessions that seemed to be mystical experiences—bliss, ineffability, timelessness. However, it was also evident that for individuals unprepared for the possible effects of DMT, the effects could be terrifying.

Almost half of Strassman’s sample encountered otherworldly beings, described as clowns, elves, robots, insects, E.T.-style humanoids, or “entities” that defied description. They were not always friendly. One of Strassman’s subjects claimed to have been eaten alive by insectoid creatures. In part out of concern about this negative experience, Strassman discontinued his research.

Shinzen Young, the American Buddhist teacher of mindfulness meditation, has a quote which throws a curious and remarkable light on Strassman’s findings. In one of the teaching sessions on his CD series titled The Science of Enlightenment, Shinzen talks about the terrifying images that may appear in advanced meditation—grotesque, otherworldly, demonic, even insectoid (my italics)—just like the images reported by Strassman’s volunteers.

Here is what Shinzen says about the images:

[T]hey are best interpreted as part of a natural process of release from the deep archetypal levels of the mind. Such upwelling visionary material is a natural function of human consciousness and should not be cause for the slightest concern:  You are not going crazy. You are not going to get weird. You are not going to be possessed by devils, assailed by Satanists, or devoured by monsters. You are not going to be sucked into another world. However, if you have a history of prior mental illness, you should discuss these phenomena both with your meditation teacher and a therapist.

Unfortunately, psychiatric and meditative silos apparently have no shared communication. Strassman evidently had not heard of anything like Shinzen Young’s analysis, for that might have saved a major research project and provided useful information to study participants. The difficult experiences in the Strassman study contribute background to the worried reactions today, which are mentioned in the Pollan article. (University of New Mexico is one of the renaissance research sites.)

Now, once again, we hear researchers believing they have discovered something altogether unique, exciting yet possibly dangerous. They will devote their energies and their funding to an exploration of the biochemistry of psilocybin and LSD and whatever other psychedelics they are permitted to study.

I hope their silo has windows through which they can see their relationship with the decades of work of Carl Jung and Stanislav Grof, demonstrating that something about the human psyche functions as a gigantic warehouse with the “deep archetypal levels” Shinzen mentions. I hope they can have some connection with the work of Charles Tart and Ken Wilber. I hope they find Shinzen Young.

The new generation of research seems likely to identify the chemistry of those deepest levels, what Jung called the “collective unconscious,” the repository of  humanity’s symbols and icons and most moving images (and sometimes the most horrifying). But why? How? What do they mean? Are mystical/spiritual experiences only drug responses?

Not even the new batch of biochemical studies can answer those questions. That’s for the rest of us to deal with. Let us be very certain our silos have a clear view of the entire landscape.





http://www.dancingpastthedark.com/psychedelics-return-find-us-living-in-silos/feed/ 25
What is the purpose of life? http://www.dancingpastthedark.com/purpose-life/ http://www.dancingpastthedark.com/purpose-life/#comments Fri, 20 Feb 2015 15:40:21 +0000 http://www.dancingpastthedark.com/?p=1455 Toma is a reader of this blog who keeps asking unanswerable questions…to which I do my best to provide responses. Just the other day he wrote, “What is the purpose of life?” and I answered, “I’ll have to think about whether that even feels do-able.”

Frankly, I thought coming up with a reasonable response was unlikely to be do-able at all. But that was before Oliver Sacks learned he has terminal cancer. 

Oliver Sacks is a professor of neurology and psychiatry at the New York University School of Medicine. He is best known to the public for his intellect, humor, and wide-ranging curiosity about how the mind works, which has led to his best-selling books featuring case studies of people with neurological disorders. The dozen or more titles include Musicophilia, Awakenings, Hallucinations, and The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat.  Time magazine calls him “ one of the leading public intellectuals of the last half-century.”

In keeping with all of those attributes, Sacks learned of his terminal cancer and wrote a brief essay about his prognosis for the New York Times. He concludes:

…I have been increasingly conscious, for the last 10 years or so, of deaths among my contemporaries. My generation is on the way out, and each death I have felt as an abruption, a tearing away of part of myself. There will be no one like us when we are gone, but then there is no one like anyone else, ever. When people die, they cannot be replaced. They leave holes that cannot be filled, for it is the fate — the genetic and neural fate — of every human being to be a unique individual, to find his own path, to live his own life, to die his own death.

I cannot pretend I am without fear. But my predominant feeling is one of gratitude. I have loved and been loved; I have been given much and I have given something in return; I have read and traveled and thought and written. I have had an intercourse with the world, the special intercourse of writers and readers.

Above all, I have been a sentient being, a thinking animal, on this beautiful planet, and that in itself has been an enormous privilege and adventure.

 And there, I think, is a worthwhile answer to the question of purpose. The purpose of our existence is being, in the same way the ancient name of the Hebrew God—YHWH, or Yahweh—has something to do with the verb “to be.” Because we are the creatures we are, for us being involves awareness, cognition, consciousness. We are aware that we are.

Perhaps evolutionary biologist Julian Huxley was right, back in 1957, writing, “As a result of a thousand million years of evolution, the universe is becoming conscious of itself, able to understand something of its past history and its possible future.” Is that truly our function, to be the consciousness of the universe? Or perhaps that is simply another example of human self-absorption and grandiosity. Other animals notice—some far better than we—the details of their physical environment. But the fact remains that we are the only creatures on this planet able to reason and communicate in ways that extend beyond our immediate environment and our physical lifetimes, able to speculate about how it all works and the “why” of our being here. And there is that word again: being.

Is this the ‘right’ answer to the question of the purpose of life—that our purpose is to be and to notice? Obviously, I have no way of knowing. In terms of satisfaction, though, it seems hard to do better than this from Oliver Sacks:

“Above all, I have been a sentient being, a thinking animal, on this beautiful planet, and that in itself has been an enormous privilege and adventure.”




http://www.dancingpastthedark.com/purpose-life/feed/ 12