Today I'm happy to present a guest post by Matt Rouge, a frequent commenter at this site.
Thank you, Michael, for having me guest-write for your blog. Considering the caliber of the host and commenters here, it is an honor.
What inspired the invitation was this very interesting post back in July: Overthinking it. Michael wrote:
In the modern world, a world steeped in technology and the fruits of the physical sciences, it's exceedingly difficult to believe in “spirits.” Something about the idea just seems too simple, almost childish. There's a natural tendency to want to dress it up in more scientific terms—to talk about discarnate personalities and fifth-dimensional geometry, or a matrix of information, or quantum theories of consciousness.
I'm not saying there's no value in these ideas. But ultimately they’re just ways of repackaging the simple, basic truths obtained by psychical researchers. If people in the modern Western world don't go in for spirits, maybe they will go in for higher-dimensional manifestations of quantum consciousness. It sounds a little more sophisticated, a little more 21st-century. But it amounts to the same thing.
Great truths are often simple. The essential truth about life after death may be simple enough for a child to understand.
In the comments, I disagreed:
Overthinking the evidence for the Afterlife to the point where one loses sight of the big picture and perhaps even loses hope that the Afterlife exists at all can be a problem. It's very easy to do in our culture, in which these things are regularly treated as impossible. But philosophizing based on that evidence is not the same thing.
Michael suggested I explain my view of how things work. Yet simply listing the elements of my belief system didn’t feel like the correct approach. It has taken me several months to ponder and discover the way of answering the question that feels right to me.
So I’d like to start with a quote from John Keats. He’s known more as a poet than a philosopher, of course, but to me this is one of the greatest quotes I know pertaining to philosophy, psychology, and spirituality. As Wikipedia explains, “The Mansion of Many Apartments is a metaphor that the poet John Keats expressed in a letter to John Hamilton Reynolds dated Sunday, 3 May 1818.” Here's the relevant excerpt:
I compare human life to a large Mansion of Many Apartments, two of which I can only describe, the doors of the rest being as yet shut upon me—The first we step into we call the infant or thoughtless Chamber, in which we remain as long as we do not think—We remain there a long while, and notwithstanding the doors of the second Chamber remain wide open, showing a bright appearance, we care not to hasten to it; but are at length imperceptibly impelled by awakening of the thinking principle—within us—we no sooner get into the second Chamber, which I shall call the Chamber of Maiden-Thought, than we become intoxicated with the light and the atmosphere, we see nothing but pleasant wonders, and think of delaying there for ever in delight: However among the effects this breathing is father of is that tremendous one of sharpening one's vision into the nature and heart of Man—of convincing one's nerves that the World is full of misery and Heartbreak, Pain, sickness and oppression—whereby This Chamber of Maiden Thought becomes gradually darken'd and at the same time on all sides of it many doors are set open—but all dark—all leading to dark passages—We see not the balance of good and evil. We are in a Mist—We are now in that state—We feel the burden of the Mystery.
This, I believe, serves as a direct answer to Michael’s “Overthinking it” post. Throughout history, the vast majority of people have lived in the “Thoughtless Chamber”: they’ve accepted the belief system that predominates around them without any particular thought or enthusiasm. Most people are not of an intellectual bent, and most people have been too busy surviving to have the time to think. Today, people in this chamber could be attending a particular church because they were born into it and have built their social circle around it. Perhaps they nominally believe, perhaps they doubt the religion somewhat, but they put no particular effort into discovering the truth. Or maybe they are atheists in China who have a similar relationship with non-belief, as the Party told them that was the truth. From my years in Japan, I would say that the vast majority of people there have a belief system that hovers lukewarm between the two poles: “Maybe there’s something out there, not sure.”
Containing a smaller portion of humanity, the “Chamber of Maiden-Thought” also includes both believers and non-believers. A person might convert to a new religion, and the belief system feels empowering, it just works, and everyone around him or her is so welcoming. At last, the truth! Or one may become an atheist and experience a similar elation, throwing off the shackles of dogma and superstition. Suddenly, all that stuff that people believe is so obviously, so laughably untrue. Reality is simple! In any case, the inhabitants of this Chamber are putting some energy behind, and receiving energy from, their beliefs, but they have yet to experience the catch, the rub, the fly in the ointment.
Yet, if one is in fact open to the truth and one has the negative capability to do so, one proceeds into the “Mist,” the “burden of the Mystery.” In my experience and parlance, one feels the needs to “connect the dots,” but the dots never completely connect.
The Mist comprises an infinite number of facts and experiences, as well as the inferences one may draw from them, but it admits no dogma. That is, it is supremely inhospitable to beliefs held because Revelation grants them or an authority requires them.
If one feels no discomfort in one’s belief system, one is most likely not in the Mist. I must admit I find traditional religions wholly inadequate in explaining Reality, and I am puzzled at how their advocates of an intellectual bent can persist in their belief. I think, however, they are often more troubled than they let on. For example, Mother Teresa:
She was reluctant to talk of her inner trials because she wanted to talk about the person who motivated her. But there is no mistaking the depth of the darkness in her mind from the late 1940s until her death in 1997. "I am told God loves me," she wrote, "and yet the reality of darkness and coldness and emptiness is so great that nothing touches my soul."
It is worth noting that these words came in a prayer that she wrote directed to Jesus, in whom she continued to have faith—faith without any discernible response.
If you Google a bit, you can read more of what she said. It is pretty harrowing. I think such a state counts as being in the Mist.
Further, whereas self-titled skeptics would have us believe they have completely thrown off the shackles of dogmatic belief and have achieved a pure and unprejudiced view of reality, we are liable to disagree who acknowledge the existence of NDEs and mediumistic communications with veridical content, poltergeists, ghosts, psi as demonstrated in the laboratory, and many other “paranormal” phenomena with overwhelming evidence to support them. We are likely to view them has having vastly oversimplified reality, joined a community characterized by crushing peer pressure, and taken up stubborn residence in the Chamber of Maiden-Thought.
To me, the suggestion not to “overthink” the “dots” of the phenomena we discuss here is a suggestion to remain in—or return to—this chamber. Now I know that Michael does not really think this way. He is constantly investigating the phenomena on a deep level, and he has a theory of Reality as information that largely overlaps with my own worldview. He is thinking it, not overthinking it, and I perceive Michael, as well as the majority of regular commenters here, to be open to the “burden of the Mystery.”
Just as the self-labeled skeptics are prone to look down upon those as yet clinging to their comforting beliefs and congratulate themselves on their ability to embrace the harsh truths of materialism, I am tempted to pat myself on the back for having accepted the “burden of the Mystery.” I am open to all of the phenomena out there! I do not simplify! I’m a true intellectual, dangit.
But when one is truly in the Mist, one finds difficulty cashing that check. There is no teller at the window. There is no one to confirm that, yes, one is just so right about everything. Indeed, the contradictions and issues one perceives impugn one’s ability to sort them all out, to paint the Big Picture once and for all. Should Michael permit, it is lack of ease and comfort in the Mist that I would like to explore in my next guest post.
And, as I try to wrap up this post, I perceive all the oversimplifications in which I have engaged. The metaphor of the Mansion of Many Apartments is but one angle from which to view things. Seeing everything through an intellectual lens is not necessarily the better way to live. Some people are born “solid”: they have an easygoing spirituality and a quiet wisdom that nothing can rattle. They transcend dogma not through thought but through being. Maybe, at the end of the day, I really am overthinking it.
I'm reading The Map of Heaven, a follow-up to the huge bestseller Proof of Heaven. Like the first book, this one was written by Eben Alexander and Ptolemy Tompkins; unlike the first book, The Map of Heaven makes more of an effort to understand Alexander's complex NDE and to locate it within spiritual and mythic traditions.
One particularly interesting section concerns ancient ideas of the afterlife and how they evolved under the influence of the Eleusinian mystery cult. The book relates early descriptions of the afterlife realm as a dim, murky region inhabited by joyless, half-aware spirits—think of the Greek Hades or the Hebrew Sheol. This sad underworld was a limbo of darkness and mist, in which even the most heroic figures were mere shadows of their former selves—enervated, muttering shades with only vague recollections of their earthly glories.
This depressing outlook was challenged by the Eleusinian mysteries, a secret cult that survived for more than a thousand years and was a major spiritual force in the Greco-Roman world. Some of its iconography persisted in later cultures. Indeed, its elemental mythic narrative—of a psychically wounded male hero guided by a mysterious female consort into a new realm of understanding—survives even today in the many movies and novels that use this story arc as a basis for the plot. (For example, Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code ... or my own novella Chasing Omega.)
Though the details of the mysteries were a closely guarded secret and remain largely unknown, it seems clear enough that their purpose was to guide the initiate through a symbolic death and rebirth, while teaching that the afterlife, properly understood, was not a realm of terror or malaise but of joy. The mysteries had a powerful effect on many people, similar to near-death experiences in our era. The famed 1st century AD biographer Plutarch, who underwent his own initiation into the mysteries, writes about the afterlife in terms not much different from modern NDErs or spiritualists:
Thus death and initiation closely correspond; even the words (teleutan and teleisthai) correspond, and so do the things. At first there are wanderings, and toilsome running about in circles and journeys through the dark over uncertain roads and culs de sac; then, just before the end, there are all kinds of terrors, with shivering, trembling, sweating, and utter amazement. After this, a strange and wonderful light meets the wanderer; he is admitted into clean and verdant meadows, where he discerns gentle voices, and choric dances, and the majesty of holy sounds and sacred visions. Here the now fully initiated is free, and walks at liberty like a crowned and dedicated victim, joining in the revelry; he is the companion of pure and holy men, and looks down upon the uninitiated and unpurified crowd here below in the mud and fog, trampling itself down and crowded together, though of death remaining still sunk in its evils, unable to believe in the blessings that lie beyond. That the wedding and close union of the soul with the body is a thing really contrary to nature may clearly be seen from all this.
[Fragment from "On the Soul"; source here.]
A different translation of the same text is included in the postscript to this post.
The Map of Heaven covers this territory in an interesting way:
"Happy is he who has seen this," says the mystery text of the initiate who has seen through the terrors of death to the wonders lying beyond. "Who has not taken part in the initiation will not have the same lot after death in the gloomy darkness." That gray, grim realm bears more than a little similarity to where I started out on my journey: that elementary, mud-like "place" that in Proof of Heaven I call the Realm of the Earthworm's-Eye View ... It bears a great resemblance to the dim, swampy, lower areas of the afterlife as described by many ancient societies.
The realm of the soul is like an ocean. It's vast. When the physical body and brain, which act as buffers for this world while we are alive, fall away, we risk falling into the lower realms of the spiritual world: realms that correspond directly to the lower portions of our psyche and are, as such, murky in the extreme.
That, I believe, is what the ancients were talking about whenever they brought up realms of afterlife that were grim, dark, and miserable. And that's why initiation was so important, both in Greece and in so many other ancient cultures. Through initiations, people were reminded experientially of their true identities as cosmic beings whose inner structure directly mirrored the structure of the spiritual worlds that waited at death. The idea that the human soul is modeled on the spiritual world met that by following the ancient Greek injunction to "know thyself," one learned to know the cosmos that gave us birth as well.
Initiations were often frightening in parts because the spiritual world has its darker areas, just as the human psyche does. But mostly these rites appear to have been deeply affirming. The initiates knew that the rites they had experienced had prepared them both to bear the burdens of earthly life and to find their way back home to the higher regions of the world beyond when they reentered it at death. These were realities for these ancient peoples. What they had to say about them was based at least in some part on experience, which is why their writings on the subject can be thrilling and, for some people, terrifying.
But there is no need to fear. Once free of the buffering system that our physical brains and bodies provide, we will make it to where we belong. Even if we are not perfect (and I know a little about this because I certainly am not) we will make it to that realm of light and love and acceptance … It is, I believe, about being open. Open enough to allow ourselves to be pulled from the realms of darkness in the afterlife, which correspond to the sea of our own darker, dimmer regions, up into those regions of light that we all have the ability to enter if we want to ...
But there are people who are not open to that good, when it comes for them. When that light descends, nothing in them says yes to it. So they stay where they are—in the dark—until they are ready to be brought out of it. Knowing this ahead of time is invaluable. That's why, for the ancients, knowledge of the existence of the worlds beyond, and of what they look like, was one of the greatest gifts of heaven.
[pp 11-13; I broke up a long paragraph into shorter ones for easier reading.— MP]
I think there's a lot of truth in this, and that it serves to encompass both the "earthbound" and low-level entities encountered by mystical explorers as well as the higher beings. And I'd point out that some NDErs who report hellish or nightmarish experiences also say that when they prayed for help, or opened themselves to the possibility of rescue, they suddenly found themselves in a better place. Howard Storm's NDE is one example.
Increasingly I think that these negative experiences are under-appreciated, and that they suggest levels of the afterlife realm that can be most unpleasant. The natural temptation to focus on positive, reassuring NDEs (which do seem to be the majority) may have blinded us to the flip side of the experience, which can be equally important and equally real. The long-term significance of NDEs, then, can be compared to the cultural significance of the Eleusinian mysteries, which opened people's minds to a more positive vision of the soul and its destiny, and thus apparently made it easier for the newly dead to navigate the sometimes treacherous waters of the next world.
P.S. An alternative translation of the fragment from Plutarch's "On the Soul":
When a man dies, he is like those who are being initiated into the mysteries. The one expression teleutan the other teleisthai correspond ... Our whole life is but a succession of wanderings, of painful courses, of long journeys by tortuous ways without outlet. At the moment of quitting it, fears, terrors, quiverings, mortal sweats, and a lethargic stupor, come over us and overwhelm us; but as soon as we are out of it pure spots and meadows receive us, with voices and dances and the solemnities of sacred words and holy sights. It is there that man, having become perfect and initiated—restored to liberty, really master of himself—celebrates crowned with myrtle the most august mysteries, and holds converse with just and pure souls.
Neat news item about a woman who spontaneously recovered after 45 minutes (!) without a pulse.
Promising new website devoted to open-minded science:
Lately I've been reading The Life and Lyrics of Sir Edward Dyer, by Ralph M. Sargent (1935), a biography of a minor Elizabethan courtier and poet. A key incident in Dyer's life struck me as particularly interesting. It involved alchemy.
Setting out from Utrecht in the middle of June 1588, Dyer required over a month to reach his destination in Bohemia. Only a most alluring prospect or a significant commission, it would seem, could have induced a courtier heavily burdened with debt to undertake such a journey at this time.
Dyer indeed did see an alluring prospect in Bohemia: the ability to turn lead into gold!
For some years now, Dyer's old friend Dr. John Dee had been pursuing his alchemical experiments in the vicinity of Prague, under the protection of Emperor Rudolph II of the Holy Roman Empire; with Dee was another English adept, Edward Kelley, who had already achieved a high reputation as an experimenter in the occult sciences. Some time earlier in this year Dyer had received the astounding news from Dee that his collaborator had at last achieved the secret of the ages, that Kelley could indeed transmute base metals into gold ...
In the sixteenth century, at the very dawn of the age of science, interest in alchemy flared up anew throughout Europe … In hidden places and in high places, adepts plied their furnaces, tended their cucurbits and alembics. Demonstrations were held before emperors, princes, cardinals, and wealthy merchants. For this was the age of wonders. Anything might happen ...
Even in England, where the corrosive force of scepticism had eaten deeply into men's minds, alchemy still had the power to fascinate. Elizabeth, while yet a princess, had her horoscope cast by Dr. John Dee, and during the whole of her reign she and many of her nobles continued to consult and patronize him. In 1565 and 1566, at the time of Edward Dyer's advent at Court, the queen had in her employee one Cornelius de Lannoy as a private alchemist. Dyer's friend, the Countess of Pembroke, had an alchemical laboratory constructed for her own use at Wilton.
In such an atmosphere, Dee's astounding claim demanded to be taken seriously. And in fact, there is no indication that Dee was a charlatan. He seems to have been honestly devoted to alchemy—which was, at the time, indistinguishable from any other science.
His collaborator Kelley, on the other hand, appears to have been a man of a different sort.
Kelley's early history is clouded with allegations. One finds accusations of forgery and of counterfeiting against his name. Some time in 1582 he entered Dee's household as a 'skryer', or a medium claiming to transmit spirit messages ... [Later, when settled in Bohemia,] the novelty of the crystal gazing had worn off, so he turned his talents to alchemy. Towards the end of 1586 Kelly claimed to have achieved the grand transmutation ... Dr. Dee, fully credulous, was deeply impressed. Although this experiment had apparently been performed wholly within Dee's observation, the venerable doctor confessed his ignorance of the vital process. Kelley attributed his success to certain tinctures of which he had mysteriously become possessed ...
With the proclamation of Kelley's alchemical skill, grandiose rumors began to drift back to England. The secret of secrets had been solved: Kelley could manufacture gold; he would soon have at his disposal fabulous wealth! ... When, therefore, Edward Dyer found himself on the continent in the summer of 1588, he could not resist the temptation to continue his journey and investigate the alchemical labors of Kelley in person.
Meantime all was not well between Dee and Kelly. The latter, finding his claims to transmutation accepted, became more and more audacious. He told Dee that the spirits ordered them to have all things in common, including their respective wives. The protests of Mistress Dee at this pronouncement began a rift between Dee and Kelly. An open breach occurred early in 1588, so that Kelley withdrew to Prague, taking with him his magical powder, apparatus, and books.
It was to Prague that Dyer hastened. There, his curiosity was rewarded by a demonstration of the mysterious process. Dyer saw it with his own eyes, and later reported as much to the queen:
I do wish your Grace, that that I shall tell you is true. I am an eyewitness thereof, and if I had not seen it, I should not have believed it. I saw Master Kelley put of the base metal into the crucible, and after it was set a little upon the fire, and a very small quantity of the medicine put in, and stirred with a stick of wood, it came forth in great proportion perfect gold, to the touch, to the hammer, to the test.
But Kelley would not reveal how it was done.
[Dyer] knew that Kelley's claim to the making of gold was by no means unique; other alleged transmutations had been enacted by self-styled alchemists, usually to be followed by humiliating exposures of chicanery. Dyer could expect little credence in England for the tale he had to tell. As for himself, however, an experienced worker in metals, what he had seen with his own eyes was enough to remove all doubts of the genuine nature of Kelley's achievement.
As it turned out, both Elizabeth and her Treasurer and closest adviser, Lord Burghley, were willing to be convinced by Dyer's story. The problem now was to get Kelley away from Prague and back to England, where he could commence producing gold on a grand scale. (It never seemed to occur to anybody that the scarcity of gold accounted for its value, and that the more commonplace it became, the less it would be worth.)
Kelley, in any event, was not eager to leave Bohemia, where he was feted as an honored guest by the emperor. No doubt he also was not eager to subject his claims to a more serious test. Once in England, he would have to start making mountains of gold, a possibility that naturally concerned him. Whatever trick he had used to fool Dyer and the emperor (who was already showing signs of hereditary insanity), he could not hope to fake the production of large quantities of the precious metal. So he stalled.
To coax him out of Prague, Dyer once again traveled there. By now, an emboldened Kelley had enlarged his claims.
He proclaimed himself a master of alchemy in all its branches; by means of his secret concoctions, for instance, he could heal most manners of sickness. One can only marvel at the brazen genius of the man which enabled him to carry off such boasts.
His newfound healing powers sufficiently impressed the emperor that Kelley was knighted and awarded large landed estates. Back in England, poor Burghley (then more than seventy years old) was reduced to pleading for a small sample of the all-powerful medicine so as to relieve his rheumatism and gastrointestinal complaints.
Dyer's second trip proved futile, but his efforts were not yet exhausted. In 1590 he again made the trek to Bohemia, only to find Kelley "so deeply involved with the emperor that he could not have left the Empire even had he wished to do so." Dyer and Kelley then made a remarkable bargain. Since Kelley could not leave, he would impart to Dyer the secret of making gold!
Presumably this was yet another stalling tactic; perhaps Kelley just wanted to keep Dyer around for companionship or for protection from the increasingly unstable emperor; or perhaps he wanted Dyer's money (which was freely given in exchange for the lessons - just one of many reasons why Sir Edward ended up nearly bankrupt at the end of his life). Whatever his motive, Kelley proceeded to teach the eager courtier how to master the arcane alchemical process. "The whole winter was given over to the pursuit," Sargent relates. And yet somehow the final secret eluded Dyer, who could not reproduve Kelley's results.
And then things finally went sideways for the famed alchemist.
Kelley's exorbitant claims inevitably led to trouble. Rudolph had expected more than an occasional production of a few grains of gold at a 'demonstration' … Rudolph, never doubting Kelley's ability to make gold, laid his reticence to obstinacy. Relations began to cool between the two. The emperor grew darkly suspicious of ulterior motives in Kelley's conduct distinctly disloyal to his imperial majesty. And then Rudolph thought of Dyer. What was this Englishman doing in Prague anyway? ... Finally some informers brought word that Kelley was preparing to leave the realm. Stirred with the vengeful feelings of a man who feels his confidences betrayed, his expectations about to be thwarted, Rudolph moved swiftly and fearfully.
His officers descended on Kelley and Dyer. Kelley, slippery as always, managed to elude capture. Dyer, not so lucky, was held under house arrest, facing the prospect of torture or execution. "This was the age of the Inquisition, and Rudolph was a demented tyrant who would stop at nothing." Happily, Dyer was able to acquit himself well in his first interview with the emperor and to escape immediate peril, though he remained a prisoner. In short order, an envoy from England arrived to vigorously protest Dyer's confinement. Rudolph relented, and Dyer was free to go. He never returned to Bohemia, and he never saw Kelley again.
Kelley meanwhile had found refuge in the castle of Count Rosenberg at Trebona. When the emperor discovered this, he sent his dragoons to seize Kelley. He was returned to Prague and confined in the White Tower on the Hradschin. Here Rudolph subjected the alchemist to torture, in an attempt to extract his secrets. The task was naturally futile.
Naturally! One can only imagine, with dismay, the sad old charlatan suffering the extremities of torture while unable either to confess his own fraudulence (which surely would have led to his death) or to reveal the precious secret of making lead into gold (which he didn't possess).
In 1593 Kelley was finally released, only to be imprisoned again two years later. In 1593 he tried to escape from his cell by jumping out a window. The attempt proved fatal. The great alchemist—or at least, the great con artist and prestidigitator—was dead.
Sargent sums up,
Faith in Kelly died hard. Although Dyer's expectations of a share in the golden harvest had been crushed by the action of Rudolph, his confidence that Kelley would some day make good his claims seems to have remained with Dyer. And probably he felt that a secret of inestimable worth was lost when Kelley died. How much Dyer had sacrificed to the cause of alchemy in his mistaken devotion to Kelley will never be known.