The Next Big Thing appears to be virtual reality. Suddenly, VR headsets are being written up everywhere.
I was sufficiently intrigued to spend $15 on Google Cardboard, a VR viewer made of — yes — cardboard, which holds your smartphone in a snug little Velcro-tabbed flap and allows you to watch VR videos through two built-in lenses. The quality is not great (and why would it be for fifteen bucks?), but Cardboard does give you a taste of the VR experience. I watched a short documentary video via the free Vrse app; called "The Source," it concerned an Ethiopian village desperate for clean water. The image quality is not first-rate and the 3D effects are rather crude; figures in the foreground appear somewhat pasted on, like the images in an old stereopticon (or the ViewMaster toy from my childhood). But you do have a 360 degree view of the scene; turn your head and the point of view shifts appropriately. The experience was convincing enough to make me a little dizzy at times, and I was genuinely startled when someone abruptly appeared right "next to" me.
Even now, far more sophisticated VR gizmos are available, and naturally the technology will only get more realistic and affordable. It's not much of a stretch to assume that within ten years, and maybe much sooner, nearly everyone will be spending a certain part of his day plugged into an uncannily real virtual world.
All this has led my Facebook friend Ian, who occasionally comments here, to suggest that this trend represents, in part, an attempt to recreate the Summerland experience. I think he just might be right.
Image from a promotional video for the Oculus Rift VR headset
Summerland was a term coined by 19th century Spiritualists to designate the earthlike plane of spiritual reality to which most people gravitate shortly after they have died. Created out of the collective memories of the deceased, it feels as solid and real as physical reality does to the living. But unlike the earth plane, the Summerland environment is more directly under the control of consciousness, and some of its features can be creatively altered by an effort of imagination and will.
Because people at a similar level of spiritual development tend to flock together, Summerland is largely free of the conflicts and frictions that plague us on earth. And because it is a product of consciousness, it is an idealized environment - butterflies, but no mosquitoes; flowers, but no weeds.
If those of us who are currently alive retain any memory of a pre-birth existence, we may find ourselves unconsciously yearning for Summerland. This gnawing homesickness could be the basis of the persistent theme of paradise lost that resonates throughout world mythology. It may be why children, especially, are drawn to stories about magical kingdoms and happy endings. It may also be why some people become sad, even tearful, at the sight of a beautiful sunset or a scenic vista.
And it may help explain our urge to lose ourselves in a wondrous world of color and light, where nothing bad can happen to us no matter what adventures we embark on. For over a century, movies and television have exerted a hypnotic influence on millions of people (there's a reason Hollywood has been styled the Dream Factory); more recently, the entertainment experience has become interactive in the form of increasingly realistic first-person video games; and now VR is poised to take us to a whole new level of immersion in an unreal reality.
Some fans of the movie Avatar claimed to actually find it difficult to readjust to the real world after being immersed in the 3D (and sometimes Imax) world of Pandora. They said they felt sad and lost in mundane reality, and longed to return to the more colorful and exotic environment of the movie. Since Avatar arguably represents the highest technical and artistic level of 3D/CG imagery yet achieved, it's not too surprising that some people would get hooked on it. But VR technology will give us a vastly more immersive experience, one that makes even Avatar seem primitive by comparison. I will not be at all surprised if VR addiction (with its corollary: difficulty functioning in physical reality) becomes a leading issue in the next decade.
Imagine a fully immersive VR experience that is shared with thousands of other people via an online platform. Players interact with each other via avatars in a completely convincing 3D world. The environment has been meticulously designed to offer otherworldly beauty, dazzling variety, and total realism. The disagreeable features of real life are omitted, while the enjoyable aspects are abundantly available with no downside. In this world you can explore, study, party, fall in love, or just sit quietly on the bank of a babbling brook.
It sounds a lot like Summerland — the "heaven" that we may indistinctly remember. Maybe we are exerting our efforts as a society toward recreating that lost paradise so we can escape the travails of physical life and return to the place we came from.
But as Ian also observed in his Facebook post, Summerland is understood by Spiritualists to be a temporary place of rest and recuperation, a way station that prepares us for further challenges — either on higher planes or in a new earthly incarnation. If we should find a way to escape those challenges, are we missing out on the lessons that earthly life is intended to teach? Are we playing hooky when we should be in school, or going AWOL when we're meant to be in combat?
Or will VR serve, instead, to heighten our spiritual sense by reinforcing the idea that physical life is simply another drama played out for the ebenfit of consciousness — a "cosmic game," as Stanislav Grof described it? Will VR allows us to undergo shamanic vision quests without the need for ayahuasca, DMT, or peyote? Will it enable us to live a variety of alternate lives and have even more experiences (with concomitant opportunities for learning) than we can have now?
Perhaps the outcome will be mixed. Historical VR worlds may open us up to past-life memories, but also plant false memories of past lives. VR encounters with deceased loved ones may make some of us more accepting of a postmortem existence, while leading others to conclude that an afterlife is unnecessary. The convergence of physical and virtual reality may be liberating to some people and destabilizing to others.
I don't know. But I suspect that VR will be the next frontier in the expansion of consciousness and that it will take us in wildly unexpected directions. It may even take us home.
Years ago I posted a couple of essays on my author site called "Unusual Occurrences" and "More Unusual Occurrences." They were collections of mostly trivial and anecdotal synchronicities, coincidences, and premonitions from my personal life I still keep a record of such things in a journal.
Yes, I'm aware that they can be "explained" by the ever-helpful truism, usually delivered with condescending weariness, that in a universe of infinite possibilities, even very unlikely things are bound to happen now and then. How persuasive anyone finds this mantra is a personal matter. For me, it can explain a certain amount of strangeness in the world, but not an unlimited amount.
Anyway, within the last 24 hours I had two such occurrences, both very trivial, and I figured I would mention them here. They do not prove anything, but to me they are indicative of the everyday role that psi plays in our lives — a role so clandestine and marginal that we are usually unaware of it.
Yesterday I found myself thinking of a satirical variation on the nursery rhyme "Humpty Dumpty," which would begin, "Humpty Trumpty sat on a wall…" I thought this could be a clever dig at Donald Trump, but I was unable to complete the rhyme. Later that day I flipped through a copy of a magazine called The Week and came across this cartoon:
Political cartoon by Glenn McCoy, available online here.
At a different time yesterday, I was musing on old-time special-effects master Ray Harryhausen, and specifically thinking about the death pose of his creation the Cyclops (in The 7th Voyage of Sinbad), which is almost identical to the death pose of his earlier creation, the Ymir (in Twenty Million Miles to Earth). The fact that he chose almost the exact same pose for both models, which were built around the same (refused) armature, struck me as either a stylistic decision or an inside joke. Anyway, the first thing I saw on my Facebook newsfeed this morning was a post from a Harryhausen group with this photo:
That's the Ymir in its death pose.
Pure chance in both cases? Could be. I've been thinking a lot (in fact, too much) about Trump lately, and I've always been a bit Harryhausen-obsessed. But the specific parallels, right down to the fact that the Humpty Trumpty poem was unfinished in the cartoon just as I was unable to finish it in my thoughts, are suggestive to me.
As Goldfinger says in the movie named after him, "Once is happenstance. Twice is coincidence. The third time it's enemy action." Rightly or wrongly, when things like this happen often enough, I see a pattern.
As a palette cleanser after our political kerfuffle, here's a book review that I originally posted on June 21, 2008. Happily it is Trump-free, though trumpets do make an appearance.
Arthur Findlay's On the Edge of the Etheric was first published in 1931. The used edition I purchased came out in 1970; it was the 66th printing in the United Kingdom. The book has been translated into at least 19 languages as well as Braille. According to Amazon.com, the book remains in print to this day.
Clearly, On the Edge of the Etheric has found an audience. And it's easy enough to see why. Arthur Findlay provides a convincing portrait of an otherwise little-known British medium, John C. Sloan.
Sloan appears to have been a man of high moral scruples. He accepted no remuneration of any kind for the many séances he conducted, preferring to maintain a regular 9-to-5 job to pay his bills. He practiced trance mediumship as well as direct voice and produced various physical effects such as levitating trumpets. He supplied a great deal of accurate and detailed information without prompting, often addressing sitters who were strangers to him and whose names he had never been given. He cooperated with sensible tests carried out to preclude fraud. Findlay reports putting his ear against the medium's lips while direct voice communication was in progress. Though the voice continued, there was no sound emanating from Sloan's mouth. On another occasion, Findlay heard a slight hissing sound from Sloan while the voice emanated from the center of the room some distance away. Sometimes two or three voices would talk at once. Sitters were able to identify deceased loved ones by their distinctive voices and by the specific, personal information that was conveyed.
There seems to be no possibility that Sloan used an accomplice, since his lodgings were typically searched before each session. Moreover, it would be hard to imagine any motive for an elaborate deception lasting for many years, even decades, when there was no money or fame involved. Sloan sought no publicity and would probably not be remembered at all if not for Findlay's book, which was published some years after the séances took place.
Findlay gives examples of Sloan's readings, classifying them as A1 and A2 cases. The A1 cases are those in which Findlay feels that fraud, telepathy, cryptaesthesia, and other non-survival explanations can be ruled out. In the A2 cases the evidence is not quite as clear cut but still highly suggestive.
In one instance, Findlay seems to misclassify a case. This is the second case listed in chapter 8. Here, Findlay reports knowing some details about a painting owned by a friend. At a later séance, a different friend was addressed by the direct voice, which said, "Tell your friend Dr. Lamond, 18 Regent Terrace, Edinburgh, that I am much obliged to him for keeping his promise and placing my picture on his mantelpiece." The name and address given were correct, but the friend knew nothing about the painting. Findlay writes, "This is another fool-proof case ... it being quite free from any other explanation than that the personality of [the painter] was present, and spoke. Otherwise how could such a message have come?" Of course, there is another possible explanation -- telepathy. Since Findlay himself knew all the details of the painting, it is at least conceivable that the medium read his mind. It seems odd that Findlay overlooked this obvious objection, and it does cast some doubt on how accurately he categorized the cases in general.
Nevertheless, the evidence he gives is quite persuasive overall. There seems little doubt that John C. Sloan was an exceptionally talented trance and direct voice medium who was immune to the blandishments of fame and fortune.
A large part of the book is taken up with an explanation of how séances are conducted "on the other side." How exactly is the direct voice manifested? According to Findlay, who asked this question many times during the séances and received detailed answers, some vital force known as ectoplasm is elicited from the medium and the sitters, and is then collected in a kind of bowl. Using this ectoplasm, the communicator is able to materialize his hands, which he then uses to create a masklike form. He presses his face into this mask until it coats his mouth, tongue, and throat. With this coating in place, the communicator's etheric body takes on the "heaviness" necessary to produce sound vibrations in the physical world.
Of course the concept of ectoplasm is difficult for many of us to accept; it is too reminiscent of cheesy Hollywood movies and the pronouncements of fraudulent mediums. But if materializations are possible, then presumably some kind of quasi-physical substance is involved, and ectoplasm is probably as good a word for it as any.
Another large portion of the book concerns the allegedly scientific basis for materialization and direct voice mediumship. Unfortunately, Findlay's argument is based on the now-outdated notion of the ether, a substance once thought to pervade the cosmos and serve as the medium for the propagation of electromagnetic waves. Findlay believed that the key to mediumship was understanding differences in the frequency of vibration of the ether. Indeed, many sources affirm that "vibrations" of some sort are critical in mediumistic communication. If there is no such thing as ether, then what is vibrating? As far as I know, there is no answer to this question (though The Unobstructed Universe, by Stewart Edward White, attempts to supply one -- as I recall, the book posits "vibrations of consciousness").
A minor impediment to accepting the phenomena Findlay describes is the nature of Sloan's spirit control, an American Indian named Whitefeather. As was all too common in séances of this period, Whitefeather spoke in broken English, using the cliché expressions of a B-movie Indian. It is hard to take this personality at face value, although Findlay does mention that, in life, Whitefeather knew no English and learned his English by participating in the séances. If true, this might suggest that the expectations of the sitters influenced the idioms used by the spirit control. In other words, perhaps Whitefeather spoke like an Indian in a penny-dreadful novel because that was how his audience expected him to speak.
Interestingly, another Indian communicator spoke flawless English. The explanation he provided was that he learned English in his earthly life.
Whatever the deficiencies of the spirit controls, the information that came through the séances is quite impressive. Findlay gives only a few cases out of the scores he witnessed, but these are highly convincing. Here is an abbreviated version of one of the best:
I took my brother with me to a séance shortly after he was demobilised from the Army in 1919. He knew no one present, and was not introduced. No one present, except myself, knew that he had been in the Army. No one present knew where he had been during his time in the Army. His health had not permitted him to go abroad, and he was stationed part of the time near Lowestoft at a small village called Kessingland, and part of the time at Lowestoft, training gunners ...
During the course of the sitting the trumpet was distinctly heard moving about the room, and various voices spoke through it. Suddenly it tapped my brother on the right knee, and a voice directly in front of him said, "Eric Saunders". My brother asked if the voice were addressing him, and it replied "Yes", whereupon he said that there must be some mistake, as he had never known anybody of that name....
[My brother] asked where he had met him. The answer was: "In the Army." My brother mentioned a number of places, such as Aldershot, Bisley, France, Palestine, etc., but carefully omitted Lowestoft, where he had been stationed for the greater part of his army life. The voice replied "No, none of those places. I knew you when you were near Lowestoft." My brother asked why he said "Near Lowestoft," and he replied: "You were not in Lowestoft then, but at Kessingland." ...
My brother then asked what company [Saunders] had been attached to, and, as he could not make out whether he said "B" or "C", my brother asked if he could remember the name of the Company Commander. The reply was "Macnamara." This was the name of the officer commanding "B" Company at that time. By way of a test, my brother pretended that he remembered the man, and said: "Oh yes, you were one of my Lewis gunners, were you not?" The reply was: "No, you had not the Lewis guns then, it was the Hotchkiss." This was quite correct, as the Lewis guns were taken from them in April 1917, and were replaced by Hotchkiss ....
[Saunders] told my brother he had been killed in France, and my brother asked him when he had gone out. He replied that he had gone with the "Big Draft in August 1917". My brother asked him why he called it the Big Draft, and he said: "Don't you remember the Big Draft, when the Colonel came on the parade ground and made a speech." This reference was to a particularly large draft sent out to France that month, and was the only occasion on which my brother remembered the Colonel ever personally saying good-bye to the men ....
About six months after the above incident my brother was in London, and met, by appointment, the corporal who had been his assistant with the light guns in his battalion at the time. My brother told him the above story, and asked if he remembered any man named "Eric Saunders"....
The corporal had brought with him an old pocket diary, in which he had been in the habit of keeping a full list of men under training, and other information. He pulled it out of his pocket, and together they looked back until they came to the records of "B" Company during 1917. Sure enough the name appear there, "Eric Saunders, f.q., August '17", with a red-ink line drawn through it; f.q. stood for fully qualified, and, though my brother knew the meaning of the red-ink line, he asked the corporal when it meant. He replied: "Don't you remember, Mr. Findlay, I always drew a line through the man's names when they went away. This shows that Saunders went out in August 1917."...
It is a remarkable case, as it is fraud proof, telepathy proof, and cryptaesthesia proof. Not only did no one present know my brother, but my brother did not know the speaker, and cannot even to-day recollect him, as he was passing hundreds of men through their training ... This case contains fourteen separate facts; each one was correct.
No, this isn't a political blog. But sometimes I can't help myself.
I posted something in Facebook that I thought was pretty good, so I decided to post it here, too, with added links.
After all, there's more to life than, um, death.
I spent part of Sunday reading online articles on the question of whether or not Trump is a fascist. Some argued yes, some argued no. You can easily find the same opinion pieces by Googling Trump + fascist. Anyway, after digesting all this back-and-forth, here's my opinion:
Trump is not technically a fascist. Fascism, among other things, involves the direct use of physical force to intimidate opponents. Gangs of brownshirts roaming the streets, death threats and assassinations, that sort of thing. It also historically has meant the explicit demand to overthrow democratic institutions and institute autocracy. And it is rabidly collectivist, insisting that all individual purposes must be subordinated to the state.
On the other hand, Trump does employ some of the theatrics of fascism – the strongman bluster (complete with Mussolini's jutting chin), the jingoistic demonization of "the other," the hyper-nationalistic calls for a return to the glory days of the past ("Make America great again"), the word-salad speechifying that defies rational analysis but hits hot-button buzzwords. And Trump resembles historical fascists in two other ways: his aggressive non-intellectualism and his worship of brute strength (he admires Putin) with a corresponding contempt for weakness.
Perhaps the best way to characterize Trump is that he is a right-wing populist with proto-fascist tendencies. That's not to say all his supporters are wrong in feeling left out and left behind, frustrated and angry, fed up with the establishment, and convinced that they do not factor into the political-economic calculus of the elites. They have perfectly valid reasons to want to upset the apple cart. But Trump, in my opinion, is not the answer. He appeals to the worst in human nature, and he appears to be a pretty poor example of human nature in his own right. As George Will quipped, "Is there a disagreeable human trait he does not have?"
The New York Times ran a somewhat interesting piece on deathbed visions recently. Called "A New Vision for Dreams of the Dying," it was written by Jan Hoffman and appeared originally on February 2, 2016. Throughout the article, the term "deathbed" is used rather loosely, as some of these visions occurred months before the patients actually died.
A woman who died of ovarian cancer is quoted as saying:
I was laying in bed and people were walking very slowly by me. The right-hand side I didn’t know, but they were all very friendly and they touched my arm and my hand as they went by. But the other side were people that I knew — my mom and dad were there, my uncle. Everybody I knew that was dead was there. The only thing was, my husband wasn’t there, nor was my dog, and I knew that I would be seeing them.
This account is given of a 13-year-old girl:
While the patient was lying in bed, her mother by her side, she had a vision: She saw her mother’s best friend, Mary, who died of leukemia years ago, in her mother’s bedroom, playing with the curtains. Mary’s hair was long again. “I had a feeling she was coming to say, ‘You’re going to be O.K.’ I felt relief and happiness and I wasn’t afraid of it at all.”
An octogenarian WWII vet had visions that were both disturbing and omforting:
The patient had never really talked about the war. But in his final dreams, the stories emerged. In the first, the bloody dying were everywhere. On Omaha Beach, at Normandy. In the waves. He was a 17-year-old gunner on a rescue boat, trying frantically to bring them back to the U.S.S. Texas. “There is nothing but death and dead soldiers all around me,” he said. In another, a dead soldier told him, “They are going to come get you next week.” Finally, he dreamed of getting his discharge papers, which he described as “comforting.” He died in his sleep two days later.
The article notes that disturbing visions, while less common, are not unheard of:
Not all end-of-life dreams soothe the dying. Researchers found that about 20 percent were upsetting. Often, those who had suffered trauma might revisit it in their dying dreams. Some can resolve those experiences. Some cannot ...
This fall, Mrs. Brennan, the nurse, would check in on a patient with end-stage lung cancer who was a former police officer. He told her that he had “done bad stuff” on the job. He said he had cheated on his wife and was estranged from his children. His dreams are never peaceful, Mrs. Brennan said. “He gets stabbed, shot or can’t breathe. He apologizes to his wife, and she isn’t responding, or she reminds him that he broke her heart. He’s a tortured soul.”
Researchers make the point that these experiences should be called visions rather than hallucinations, a term with derogatory connotations. There is an ongoing debate about whether or not to sedate patients whose visions are troubling. Should the caregivers' priority be ensuring the patient's comfort or facilitating his/her spiritual journey?
No researcher quoted in the piece explicitly endorses the idea that some of these visions may be veridical, but at least the value of such visions is not dismissed out of hand, as might have been the case a few years ago.
Let's continue our exploration of the relationship between the incarnate self (the ego) and the higher self. We begin by taking a step back to look at the overall picture of human mentality.
First, there is the conscious ego of the incarnate personality. Then there is the subliminal self (as F.W.H. Myers called it), which includes both the subconscious and the superconscious.
The subconscious – dubbed "George" by Arthur Ellison, who compared it to the autopilot of an airplane – is a programmable faculty that can access information and provide creative breakthroughs when properly instructed. It functions largely as an information retrieval service and as a way of organizing information.
The superconscious is the total intelligence of which the earthly incarnation is only a small part. It is typically difficult to access while we are incarnate. Perhaps because the brain serves as a kind of filter, most of the knowledge and wisdom of our higher self or super-consciousness is denied to us during our earthly journey. On rare occasions, some individuals do enjoy brief, tantalizing, life-changing direct access to the superconscious. Such episodes are known as instances of "cosmic consciousness," as described by Maurice Bucke. For the most part, our exposure to the superconscious is limited to bits and pieces that manage to bleed through whatever barrier ordinarily blocks them; it seems that the subconscious serves as a backdoor access route to the superconscious in these cases, and the material often reaches us in dreams or reveries.
The superconscious is what I've called the diamond (an image that's not original with me, having been used by the channeled entity Silver Birch, among others). Our incarnate ego-consciousness is one facet of the diamond. The diamond has many facets, each representing a distinct incarnate personality, which collectively can be described, somewhat inaccurately, as a series of "reincarnations." Together these various personalities and their experiences make up the total self.
But – and here is where it starts to get interesting – the total self is also interacting with other selves, other diamonds. We see evidence of this interaction in the work of hypnotic regression therapists such as Michael Newton who bring patients to a "between lives" state. In this condition, the patient appears to identify not with the incarnate ego but with the higher self. She typically remembers multiple incarnations while understanding her true self to be distinct from any of them. She also remembers the process of learning from each incarnation and choosing the conditions of her next incarnation. And the patient invariably describes herself – i.e., her higher self – as one member of a group of colleagues who are all engaged in the same kind of exploration. In fact, intense emotional bonds form among these various higher selves; hypnotically regressed patients would frequently break down in tears when reunited with their "between lives" friends.
So the diamond is not an isolated thing. Unlike Simon and Garfunkel, it would not sing, "I am a rock, I am an island ..." Instead it is part of a community of souls all striving for advancement and needing to advance together.
To extend the diamond imagery, we can imagine these various diamonds as parts of a continuous chain – a diamond bracelet or necklace, so to speak. The total string of diamonds, which may be unimaginably vast, presumably equals the totality of consciousness in existence and is therefore equivalent to "God."
Now here's the tricky part. The diamonds exist outside of our space-time cosmos. They are not bound by temporal linearity. So what they will do, they have already done, and what they will become, they already are. The journeys undertaken by the component psyches have all been accomplished, and the stringing-together of the diamonds into an unbroken strand has already been done.
But the journeys were and are necessary to inform the diamonds. And the journeys were and are bound by linear time.
In other words, we can look at the situation from two very different perspectives – the perspective of linear time, with which we are personally familiar, and the perspective of existence outside of time, about which we can only speculate. Our own perspective, as incarnate beings here on earth, is limited, while the perspective of the total self is unlimited or at least radically less limited. And each perspective is correct in its own terms.
Previously in this blog, we've talked about the brilliant 19th century satire Flatland, by Edwin Abbott, which compares the limited perspective of a two-dimensional being to the more advanced perspective of a three-dimensional being. Flatland is directly relevant to the issue we're facing here.
From a Flatland perspective we are engaged in a long ongoing journey, but from a higher perspective we have already completed the journey. And yet the journey was necessary in order to make the perfection of the diamond possible. What we're talking about is a strange loop, a tangled hierarchy, a hand drawing itself, a snake swallowing its own tail, a Mobius strip. The end is implicit in the beginning; the beginning contains the end. Like the time traveler who saves his ancestor's life and thus ensures that he will be born, the perfected diamond directs the journeys that will make possible its own perfection.
I admit that there is no way to fully grasp this, inasmuch as it would require a higher dimensional level of understanding, which we as incarnate beings simply don't have. That doesn't mean it's not true, any more than the third dimension (height) is untrue just because Flatlanders can't perceive it. I suppose this is where faith comes in – faith in the original sense of "trust" (the ancient Greek word is pistis). We have to trust that there are not only quantitatively but qualitatively different levels of reality and of consciousness, and that at higher levels the paradoxes and mysteries that presently bedevil us will dissolve.
We can say, then, that the higher self both is and is not God. And the incarnate self both is and is not God. From a timeless perspective, in which everything has been accomplished, the incarnate self is part of the higher self which in turn is part of God, and therefore the incarnate self partakes of God. But from a space-time perspective, the incarnate self is still busy informing and perfecting the diamond – the facets have not yet been polished to a high shine – and the diamond has not yet linked up with the other diamonds, because it is not yet ready.
So from a Flatland vantage point, the incarnate self is on a journey to become a polished facet of the diamond, and the diamond in turn is on the journey to become one facet of God. But from a more elevated perspective, these journeys have already been completed and the incarnate self already is – and always has been – a polished facet of the diamond, which already is (and always has been) a facet of God.
Since we cannot really grasp a non-Flatland perspective except as intellectual abstraction, we cannot quite "see" the diamond chain as a completed fact. To us, if we intuit its reality at all, it is a work in progress. But this is a feature of our limited perspective. If we were able to grasp higher perspectives of consciousness, we would see the whole matter quite simply – just as the hero of Abbott's Flatland, the redoubtable Mr. A. Square, saw everything with startling new clarity when he was lifted up, quite against his will, into Spaceland and observed his two-dimensional home from a height for the first time.
I wrote this post as a reply to a Facebook friend who was (correctly) criticizing the fashionable notion that all religions say the same thing. It seemed worth sharing here, if only because it saves me the trouble of writing something new.
I think all religions are the same in one sense. They all seem to involve getting in touch with one's higher self. This higher self may be identified as God, Jesus, one's Buddha nature, the Ground of Being, or whatever. Also, all religions seem to have been founded by someone who actually did get in touch with his higher self and then tried to pass on what he had learned. He may have had an NDE or a series of OBEs, or he may have been an expert meditator, or he may have experimented with psychogenic drugs, or he may have had some neurological quirk that opened up his consciousness. One way or another, he experienced "cosmic consciousness," at least fleetingly, and was able to retain and communicate some of what he had learned.
The differences among religions, which are substantial, come about because a) it's difficult even for an adept to distinguish between the wisdom of the higher self and the fears and biases of the ego, b) the acolytes are not nearly as advanced as the founder and tend to misunderstand his teachings, and c) as the movement grows, it becomes more ossified, ritualized, bureaucratic, political, and worldly.
I'd add to the above that one possible explanation of the divine figures seen by NDErs is that they are symbolic representations of the experiencer's own higher self. So there may be a consistent tendency, whether one is incarnate or discarnate, to objectify and misinterpret the higher self as an outside entity.
A new development in the study of schizophrenia could possibly be interpreted as providing support for the filter model of consciousness.
An NPR report tells us,
People with schizophrenia — more than 21 million worldwide — tend to have less gray matter and fewer connections in their brain than healthy peers. But scientists aren't sure why. The research, for the first time, suggests that variations in a gene called complement component 4, or C4, for short, could be important. The gene had previously been known to help the immune system target infections.
A mutant form of the gene makes proteins that tag an excess number of brain synapses for destruction. This explanation meshes neatly with the tendency of schizophrenia to arise during adolescence, a period during which even healthy brains are busy pruning lots of connections.
What struck me about this story was the first sentence I quoted — that schizophrenics usually have "less gray matter and fewer connections in their brain" than other people. The new discovery suggests that a genetic malfunction causes the brain to clear away too many synaptic connections (a process called synaptic pruning).
The filter theory, popularized by Aldous Huxley, sees the brain as a kind of reducing valve for consciousness. There is a vast ocean of higher consciousness, and then there is the far more limited consciousness ordinarily available to us during our physical, earthly existence. The brain's function, according to this view, is not to originate consciousness but to funnel it to us in small, manageable quantities. A corollary of this claim is that less brain function should, at least in some cases, lead to more consciousness — even too much of it. With the brain-filter mechanism impaired, an unmanageable flood of consciousness can get through, overwhelming us.
Series of drawings by a schizophrenic illustrating how his perceptions changed as the episode became more severe. Image borrowed from this Viralnova page, which includes other examples of schizophrenic art.
Schizophrenia seems to be characterized by just this sense of being overwhelmed by a floodtide of thoughts and hyper-awareness. A schizophrenic is not someone with a "split personality," as popularly imagined. Instead, schizophrenics find themselves overreacting to stimuli and weaving complex connections between unrelated events. They experience, one might say, an excess of consciousness, taking the form of elaborate theorizing, arcane symbolism, complex ritualistic behaviors, and one or more sub-personalities that communicate with them, usually in the form of voices that only they can hear. The cartoon image of a schizophrenic wearing a tinfoil hat has roots in reality: some schizophrenics feel as if thoughts are being beamed into their skulls from an outside source, and try to shut out these unwanted thoughts any way they can.
Anyone who has read the writings of schizophrenics knows that such persons cannot focus on a single topic for very long. They start with one idea, but it quickly ramifies in a hundred different directions. I remember someone showing me a letter written by a schizophrenic which began, "In a nutshell ..." and then continued for more than twenty pages of minuscule handwriting without ever getting to the point.
All of this is broadly consistent with the idea that an unfiltered (or at least radically less filtered) consciousness is being downloaded into their brains, leading to feelings of confusion, helplessness, hypervigilance, and overstimulation, an inability to control their own thinking, and a frightening sense of being out of control.
Another artwork by a schizophrenic, illustrating what it feels like to be in the grip of the disease. Source is the same Viralnova page linked above.
Paranoia is often a feature of schizophrenia, precisely because schizophrenics feel that their thoughts originate outside of themselves, and because they perceive alarming patterns in innocuous details. Many schizophrenics assign religious meaning to the voices they hear and to the patterns they detect; they think they are in contact with gods or demons. A case can be made that, historically, the higher self has been interpreted as God (or gods) and demons by many mystics and religionists, and that this same misidentification occurs even in contemporary mystical experiences, such as NDEs. Julian Jaynes's book The Origin of Consciousness ... includes many interesting quotes from unmedicated 19th century schizophrenics who interpreted their voices in blatantly religious terms. (This is not to suggest that I agree with Jaynes's overall theory. I don't.)
It's interesting to note that schizophrenia seems to involve fewer synaptic connections — yet, paradoxically, more mental connections. That is, the schizophrenic is constantly making spurious or fanciful mental connections between events. Why would this be, if synaptic connections are the necessary underpinning of mental connections?
Similarly, schizophrenics are not characterized by less mental activity, but by more mental activity — in fact, by far too much of it. Yet they have less gray matter. Again, this seems paradoxical. Why should a reduction in gray matter correlate with an explosion of thoughts?
On the basis of the filter model, these paradoxes disappear. The more synaptic connections there are, the tighter the sieve that filters consciousness down to manageable limits. The fewer synaptic connections, the looser the sieve and the less effective the filter — meaning that consciousness becomes unmanageable. The more gray matter there is, the better the filter that prevents thoughts from running amok. The less gray matter, the greater the likelihood that a surfeit of thoughts will spin out of control.
The close relationship between mysticism and madness (and between madness and artistic or scientific genius) has often been commented on.* Perhaps the same loosening of the brain-filter that can afford access to mystical insights, artistic inspiration, and scientific innovation can also, in less happy cases, let in such a tidal wave of consciousness that the victim is left drowning in it.
One more example of schizophrenic art. Source is the Viralnova page linked above.
*For a famous instance of the tendency to link insanity with artistic inspiration (and romantic love), see A Midsummer Night's Dream, Act V, Sc. 1:
“Lovers and madmen have such seething brains,
Such shaping fantasies, that apprehend
More than cool reason ever comprehends.
The lunatic, the lover and the poet
Are of imagination all compact:
One sees more devils than vast hell can hold,
That is, the madman: the lover, all as frantic,
Sees Helen's beauty in a brow of Egypt:
The poet's eye, in fine frenzy rolling,
Doth glance from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven;
And as imagination bodies forth
The forms of things unknown, the poet's pen
Turns them to shapes and gives to airy nothing
A local habitation and a name.”
I scoured the Internet (and my memory) for some well-known last words of famous people. Not all of these are literally the last words the person ever spoke, but they are alleged to be among the person's final communications. A lot of urban legends have sprung up about deathbed quotations, and it's possible that some of these quotes are made up or embellished. Where I'm aware of a discrepancy, I've noted it.
"Crito, I owe a cock to Asclepius; will you remember to pay the debt?" – Socrates just before drinking hemlock. This quote is often misunderstood as an example of Socrates making a trivial, homely allusion immediately prior to his death. Actually, he was making a reference to the practice of donating a cock (= rooster) to the god of healing, Asclepius, after one had been cured of an illness. The implication is that life is the illness which death will cure. The quotation appears in Plato's work Phaedo, and may or may not be historically accurate.
"Thomas Jefferson ..." - John Adams. This quote is often rendered as "Thomas Jefferson survives," or in similar words. But it seems that only the name Thomas Jefferson was distinctly heard by the people at Adams's bedside. Adams and Jefferson had become friends in their old age, though they had been rivals earlier. It is usually assumed that Adams meant to say that Jefferson was still alive even as he lay dying (though in fact Jefferson had died a few hours earlier). An alternative explanation is that Adams had a deathbed vision of the newly deceased Jefferson waiting for him on the "other side."
"It is very beautiful over there." – Thomas Edison. According to Wikiquote, "These have sometimes been reported as his last words, but were actually spoken several days before his death, as he awoke from a nap, gazing upwards, as reported by his physician Dr. Hubert S. Howe, in Thomas A. Edison, Benefactor of Mankind : The Romantic Life Story of the World's Greatest Inventor (1931) by Francis Trevelyan Miller, Ch. 25 : Edison's Views on Life — His Philosophy and Religion, p. 295."
"Turn up the lights, I don't want to go home in the dark." – O. Henry, quoting a popular song of his day.
"I see black light" – Victor Hugo.
"Curtain! Fast music! Light! Ready for the last finale! Great! The show looks good, the show looks good!" – Florenz Ziegfeld, the legendary showman and creator of the Ziegfeld Follies. This quote is often given, but seems to be considerably embellished. However, it does appear to be true that Ziegfeld died giving stage directions and that his last words were something like, "Looks good! Looks good!"
"You're right. It's time. I love you all." – Michael Landon, the American TV star, after his family had gathered around him and his son had told him it was time to move on. These do not seem to have been literally his last words, but he spoke them only a few hours before he died. He is said to have been alone with his wife Cindy at the moment of passing, and his actual last words were "I love you."
"A certain butterfly is already on the wing." – Vladimir Nabokov, author of Lolita. Nabokov was a great butterfly enthusiast. Although this could certainly be a reference to the liberation of the soul from the body, it could also refer to an actual butterfly that Nabokov had been chasing and which had eluded him. Possibly it means both things.
"This is all an elaborate hoax." – Roger Ebert, in a note to his wife on the day before his death.
"Oh wow. Oh wow. Oh wow." – Steve Jobs' last words, according to his sister Mona Simpson. There is also an Internet story that has gone viral on social media claiming that Jobs' last words were an elaborate rejection of materialism and worldly success, but this claim has been thoroughly debunked.
"Let us cross over the river and rest under the shade of the trees." – Gen. "Stonewall" Jackson, after being shot by one of his own men.
"I've got to get to the top of the hill." – Financier J.P. Morgan.
"I can't see a damned thing." – lawman Morgan Earp to his brother, Wyatt Earp. They had promised each other to report any vision of the next life if they had the chance.
And finally this example of understated heroism from the explorer Robert Scott, whose Antarctic expedition ended in tragedy when the entire team froze to death. These words were found in Scott's diary, though they were not the very last entry:
"We are weak, writing is difficult, but for my own sake I do not regret this journey, which has shown that Englishmen can endure hardships, help one another, and meet death with as great a fortitude as ever in the past. We took risks, we knew we took them; things have come out against us, and therefore we have no cause for complaint, but bow to the will of Providence, determined still to do our best to the last."