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."
In my last post I discussed a couple of issues raised by Michael Sudduth and Bernardo Kastrup in regard to Proof of Heaven, Eben Alexander's bestselling book about his NDE. Dr. Sudduth was good enough to respond via email, and to give me permission to post his response, which follows.
Thanks for commenting on my blog "In Defense of Sam Harris on Near-Death Experiences," as well as the responses to it. Let me say, at the outset, that I appreciate your less tilted and more sober analysis of the discussion. Nonetheless, I wanted to offer a rejoinder to your commentary, mostly in the spirit of clarification. Reality may be an irredeemable mess, but there's no good reason for supposing that arguments must be. So permit a few more flaps of the butterfly's wings, come what may.
As I made clear in my response to Kastrup, I didn't say (or imply) that on Harris' view Alexander's NDE could not be explained by postulating some purely natural mechanism, such as one invoking biologically active DMT compounds. Moreover, I didn't say, contrary to what you've suggested, that Harris wasn't trying to discredit Alexander's particular interpretation of his NDE by introducing such a possibility or by arguing for that Alexander's NDE resembles DMT experiences. The issue here is how the appeal is supposed to discredit Alexander's NDE.
To repeat what I stated in my original blog, and also in my response to Kastrup, I've objected to Kastrup's contention that Harris was trying to argue that a DMT explanation (or similar reductively naturalistic explanation) of Alexander's NDE is the likely explanation of the experience. There's no textual basis for attributing this strong claim to Harris, which as I illustrated actually contradicts what Harris said. Much less is there any textual support for attributing this claim to Harris for the reasons Kastrup invokes in the form of an argument Harris intact never presented.
The claims you and Kastrup have subsequently extracted from Harris are logically weaker claims than the claims Kastrup made in his original blog and book discussions of Harris. I'm assuming that we don't need a course in confirmation theory to understand the conceptual distinction between the following claims:
(i) Hypothesis h is a likely or probable explanation of an experience
(ii) Hypothesis h might explain the experience
(iii) Hypothesis h is a "far more credible" explanation of some experience than some other hypothesis h*.
Since these weaker claims ((ii) and (iii)) are logically compatible with everything I've said in my critique, adducing them does nothing to undermine what I originally argued concerning (i). It actually distracts from my original argument. It's an illustration of a red herring.
Moreover, to repeat the point central to Harris's actual discussion, Harris is not (by his own explicit admission) arguing that we have compelling reasons to suppose that Alexander's NDE was not a transcendent experience. He's arguing, as he says repeatedly (though systematically ignored by Kastrup) that Alexander has not provided good enough reason to accept that his NDE was a transcendent experience. Kastrup fails to grasp this, despite Harris' explicitly stating it at the beginning and end of his discussion. Kastrup's misrepresentation of Harris's larger argument, as well as my own, is an unfortunate and inexcusable amalgamation of poor critical thinking and poor textual exegesis. And his flagrant and flamboyant disregard for the need for conceptual clarity is an illustration of why the vast majority of professional philosophers, including those who believe in survival, don't take any of this stuff seriously.
As for your critical comments about Alexander's experience, I largely agree. But here I think we should return to the broader structure of Alexander's own argument. As Harris correctly points out, the transcendent interpretation of Alexander's experience depends on two crucial premises: (a) Alexander's cerebral cortex was completely inactive during his coma and (b) Alexander had his NDE when his cortex was completely inactive. Harris is correct that neither Alexander nor anyone else is justified claiming at least one of these premises. Consequently, Alexander's argument lacks cogency.
I'll have more to say about the factual and conceptual aspects to Alexander's NDE-argument in a subsequent blog, once I've completed my discussions with various neuroscientists and medical doctors, but sufficient for the day are the criticisms thereof.
As for my own views on survival, you wrote: "Michael Sudduth, a philosopher who is open to postmortem survival but thinks the current evidence and arguments for it are inadequate ..." Well, thanks for at least acknowledging my openness to postmortem survival. As you're probably aware, but it's worth reiterating, my agnosticism with respect to personal survival represents the further side of my earlier firm conviction on the matter. Nonetheless, as I've explained in several blogs, my views on survival are more nuanced than is usually recognized. For example, see my Personal Reflections on Life after Death. That being said, I don't say that the current evidence is inadequate. What I've consistently argued over the past few years is that the arguments purporting to show that the evidence is good are unsuccessful at showing this. I argue this in considerable detail in my recently published book, A Philosophical Critique of Empirical Arguments for Postmortem Survival (Palgrave Macmillan, 2015).
You also wrote: "As I've explained on other occasions (once in direct response to Michael Sudduth), I'm very skeptical of the super-psi idea, which Sudduth seems to find somewhat persuasive, or at least well worth considering." As Stephen Braude and I have argued for several years now (arguments that have gone largely unanswered), survivalist rejoinders to the super-psi hypothesis have been wrong-headed and steeped in some profound conceptual confusions. But this is all dialectical foreplay. I'm not entirely sure what you've taken away from our earlier discussions, Michael, but as it turns out, the fundamental problem infecting classical empirical arguments for survival doesn't really depend on attributing any plausibility to the so-called super-psi hypothesis. It's for this reason that I've been saying for some time now that there needs to be a rather profound recalibration of the entire empirical survival debate. That's the challenge my recent book offers.
So here's the thing. Neurosurgeon Eben Alexander wrote a best-selling book called Proof of Heaven, which made the cover of Newsweek. In the book he said that he had a profound NDE while comatose, and that the NDE constitutes empirical evidence of life after death. Sam Harris, an atheist philosopher who is open-minded on issues of psi and postmortem survival, criticized Alexander's claims and followed up with further criticism. Bernardo Kastrup, a philosopher and author who embraces Idealism (the idea that consciousness is everything), took on Harris's arguments in a blog post and then a second post. Michael Sudduth, a philosopher who is open to postmortem survival but thinks the current evidence and arguments for it are inadequate, criticized Kastrup for his opinion piece and defended Harris. Kastrup replied to Sudduth. Sudduth replied to Kastrup.
Yeah, it's a kerfuffle.
Though I'm a little reluctant to enter these roiled waters, I've decided to tug on my waders and give it a go. But since these arguments can persist forever without accomplishing much, I'm going to limit my comments to just a couple of issues, and to focus only on Kastrup and Sudduth.
First, I have to say that I think both of them make some good points. And what I want to do is highlight the single strongest point (in my opinion) that each of them makes.
I'll start with Kastrup. In his reply to Sudduth's initial post, Kastrup writes:
I ... argued that a chemical or physical trigger [such as the chemical DMT] does not necessarily invalidate the transcendent nature of [Alexander's] experience, since all NDEs are, ultimately, triggered by some physical event. What does Sudduth have to say about this? He writes: "Kastrup is correct, of course, that in at least one sense the similarity between Alexander’s NDE and DMT experiences doesn’t defeat the authenticity of the former as a valid transcendent experience." But this was my point. So Sudduth actually agrees with my point. What's his problem then? Well, he asserts that "Harris nowhere claims [that] Alexander’s NDE was produced by brain chemistry," so my point is a straw-man. What? With a blush of embarrassment, I leave it to you to judge it after you consider the following passage by Harris:
"Does Alexander know that DMT already exists in the brain as a neurotransmitter? Did his brain experience a surge of DMT release during his coma? This is pure speculation, of course, but it is a far more credible hypothesis than that his cortex 'shut down,' freeing his soul to travel to another dimension."
Can someone explain to me how is it that Harris is not suggesting here that DMT could explain Alexander's NDE on a purely chemical basis? I mean, how much clearer could this possibly be? Sudduth's grievance is that Harris does not outright state that the NDE was caused by chemicals; that Harris merely mentions the possibility that it was. Duh. So what? It would obviously have been ridiculous if Harris had asserted that he knew what caused Alexander's NDE. Raising the possibility of a chemical cause was as far as Harris could have gone to try to debunk Alexander.
In his reply, Sudduth defends his position, but I have to side with Kastrup here. It is, in my opinion, mere pettifoggery to suggest that Harris was not trying to discredit Alexander's NDE by suggesting that it could have been caused by a surge of DMT in the brain. True, Harris did not say definitively and unequivocally that this was the explanation, but he presented this hypothesis as "far more credible" than the postmortem-survival hypothesis.
Now, perhaps it is more credible in this case. It very well may be, as I'll discuss briefly below. But there is no point in pretending that Harris was doing something other than what he was very obviously doing.
That brings us to what I feel is Sudduth's strongest point, the issue of when exactly Alexander's NDE took place. In his initial post, he writes:
In Proof of Heaven, and in subsequent interviews and talks, Alexander ... argues, howbeit in a reserved manner, that his alleged veridical perceptions during his NDE provide evidence that his NDE occurred during his coma....
[H]e allegedly experienced communications from a person who tried, on particular occasions, psychically contacting him while he was in his coma, and he also saw faces that corresponded to actual people, five of whom were present at Alexander’s bedside shortly before he came out of his coma (Proof of Heaven, 108-10). If we regard these features of his experience as veridical perceptions, then, given the assumption of the time-anchor argument, it would seem that he had these perceptual experiences at specific points during his coma.
One fairly obvious response to the time-anchor argument would be to concede that Alexander had the veridical perceptual experiences (in his NDE) during his coma. This wouldn’t be extraordinary, and it certainly wouldn’t support the extrasomatic interpretation of his experience, unless there was good evidence that his cortex was shutdown at the time of the perceptions. As Harris noted, a significant number of coma patients have awareness during coma. Perhaps more significantly, there’s data that shows that even coma patients in a vegetative state can gradually transition into a state of minimal awareness, and then lapse back into a vegetative state (see Schnakers, Giacino, and Laureys). In the absence of functional data tracking patterns of brain activity, it’s difficult to see how Alexander can properly rule this out. Moreover, Alexander’s description of the human faces bubbling up out of a dark muck, and whose voices were unintelligible, wouldn’t be surprising as subjective features of a change in cortical activity shortly before regaining consciousness. While this would not explain the alleged communications with Susan Reintjes who was not physically present, if there’s any evidence for telepathic interactions between people, it’s drawn from persons whose cerebral cortex is actually functional.
Now let’s be clear here. I’m not suggesting that residual and changing cortical activity, generating moments of minimal awareness, actually explains the apparently veridical features of Alexander’s experience. I’m rather pointing out a consequence of Alexander’s lack of functional data: if he doesn’t have adequate evidence that his cerebral cortex was shutdown for the entire duration of his coma, establishing on the basis of time-anchors that he must have had the experiences during his coma doesn’t do much for the conclusion he wishes to establish.
I think Sudduth is right about this, and it's the biggest problem I've had with Alexander's story from the start. The strongest NDEs involve a veridical component that can be verified after the fact and can anchor the experience to events in the known world. Alexander's experience lacks this element. His vague impression of a psychic communication is too ambiguous to count for much, and his impressions of visitors at his bedside are not inconsistent with the limited perceptual capabilities of comatose patients. Alexander would probably argue that, because he remembers experiencing most of his otherworldly journey before these time-anchors occurred, it proves that his NDE must have taken place while he was deeply comatose. But we're not really justified in making that inference. His memory might be inaccurate, or the entire NDE might have occurred within just a few minutes during the period when he was recovering from the worst of his illness. As Sudduth points out, people who take psychogenic drugs often report elaborate, lengthy experiences that seem to go on for many hours, but which take place within just a few minutes of (what we might call) "Earth time."
I said this was the biggest problem I've had with Alexander's account. There are two other problems. One is that the experience really does seem like a drug trip. I've read accounts of DMT testing under controlled conditions by psychiatrist Rick Strassman, and the bizarre, hallucinatory narrative recounted by Alexander matches them very well. Though I've never taken hallucinogenic drugs myself, when I think of Alexander's book, the images that come to my mind are from the Beatles movie Yellow Submarine – imagery that was obviously inspired by LSD trips.
My other problem with Alexander's book is related but slightly different. His NDE is simply different in almost all respects from the standard NDE's that have been reported, documented, and tabulated for decades. I don't know of any other NDE where somebody reports flying around on the back of a giant butterfly, for instance. To me, one of the convincing features of NDEs is their relative consistency (taking into account cultural and personal differences). Alexander's NDE breaks the mold in so many ways that it is, at best, an outlier, and perhaps more plausibly, not a true NDE at all.
The fact is that Alexander's NDE is by no means the most convincing such case. It has been widely discussed because it is the first NDE, as far as I know, to be reported by a brain surgeon. Alexander's professional training and status provide his story with a certain intrinsic interest and perhaps make it more credible, to some people, than the account of (say) a plumber. But there are many other NDEs that boast more striking veridical details and which fit much more comfortably into established narrative patterns.
Many other issues have been raised in this discussion, but as I said, I'm not going to try to get into them all. As I've explained on other occasions (once in direct response to Michael Sudduth), I'm very skeptical of the super-psi idea, which Sudduth seems to find somewhat persuasive, or at least well worth considering. I'm also skeptical of Kastrup's philosophical idealism and the idea that reality can be explained in monistic terms – i.e., that everything can be reduced to a single thing. I suspect that reality, rather than being neat and simple and elegant, is actually something of a mess.
At the very least, this little dust-up has offered proof of a tenet of chaos theory: when a butterfly flaps its wings, it can indeed stir up a storm.
In some earlier blog posts, later collected as an essay, I talked about a diamond as an image of the oversoul or higher self, with each facet of the diamond corresponding to a different incarnate personality. Here I'd like to expand on that idea, taking the purely imaginary case of a particular oversoul and its incarnations.
Let's say that this oversoul has incarnated three times, first as Enos, a peasant; then as Redbeard, a pirate; and currently as Dave, a podiatrist. In this case the diamond has three facets. They are separate and distinct from each other, but they are all part of the diamond itself.
While incarnated, Dave is largely unconscious of the oversoul. I use the word “unconscious” deliberately, because I think that the unconscious (or subconscious) mind is the point of access to the higher self. The higher self is not the subconscious; on the contrary, it would more accurately be characterized as a superconsciousness. Both the subconscious and the superconscious are part of what F. W. H. Myers termed “the subliminal self.”
Dave is not entirely cut off from his higher self; intuitions and inspirations come to him from the oversoul, by way of dreams, meditation, or reverie. And it is possible for Dave to cultivate his openness to such information, expanding his awareness. Still, during his earthly lifetime, the oversoul is mostly out of sight – not unlike the 9/10 of an iceberg that lies submerged.
As a young child, Dave remembered a previous life in vivid detail – the life of Redbeard the pirate.* By the age of eight, these memories had faded. Young children have a more immediate connection to the oversoul; they do not draw a clear distinction between reality and imagination, or between the products of conscious thought and subconscious imagery. They are open to input from their higher self in a way that most adults are not. Dave remembered Redbeard's life, not because the Dave personality had previously existed as the Redbeard personality, but because both personalities stem from a common source, and the young Dave was in contact with that source.
It seems he was most likely to remember only the oversoul's most recent incarnation. He remembered Redbeard, but not Enos. If each incarnation is a stepping stone to the next one along a path of continuous growth, then it might be expected that the current personality would be most closely in touch with the last one. The Dave personality is, in some ways, an outgrowth of the Redbeard personality. In some cases, this outgrowth results in the carryover of specific personality traits or even physical traits (birthmarks or birth defects corresponding to wounds or injuries sustained in the life if the previous personality).
Children are more likely to remember a past life that ended abruptly, usually because of violence or the sudden onset of disease. Most spontaneous past-life memories reported by young children are of this type. Possibly this is because a life interrupted represents a partially missed opportunity, which the new incarnation is intended to correct. Redbeard, not unlike many pirates, lived fast and died young, before he could learn the lessons planned by the oversoul; Dave represents the chance to complete this phase of the oversoul's education.
Dave, as an adult, has a near-death experience in which he finds himself, in his own recognizable human body, meeting departed friends and loved ones in a beautiful garden. The experience plays out this way because he is still identified with the Dave personality and not with the oversoul. At a certain point in his NDE, Dave encounters a being of light, which he first interprets as Jesus (a holdover from his religious upbringing) and then, more broadly, as God. Actually, the being of light is the oversoul, which Dave, who is consciously unfamiliar with it, interprets as an outside entity. He simply cannot imagine himself as part of this radiant superconsciousness, which is so far above his own limited awareness. But as the being of light draws nearer, he finds himself merging with it – though only partially and temporarily. For Dave, this is an unforgettable experience. It feels as if he has merged with God, become one with everything, and attained infinite wisdom. In fact, however, he has merged – not with God – but with his own oversoul, and his wisdom, while greatly expanded, falls well short of omniscience.
Sometime after his NDE, Dave goes to a hypnotist who puts him in a deep trance and regresses him to a point before his own birth. In that state he experiences a "between lives" existence, as reported by the hypnotized subjects of Michael Newton, Brian Weiss, and others. Because he has been regressed to a stage before birth — that is, before the Dave personality came into existence — he is now identifying with the oversoul, which is the source of that personality. As a result, Dave's recollection of his between lives existence differs from his NDE. In his NDE he was still identifying with the Dave personality, so he experienced himself having Dave's body, meeting Dave's friends, and seeing religious imagery consistent with Dave's belief system. In his hypnotic regression, he is not identifying with the Dave personality but with the oversoul, so he experiences himself without a human body and without Dave's personal characteristics. Typically, Newton’s subjects saw themselves and their friends (who are other oversouls) as shapes of light in different colors, moving through an abstract geometrical landscape. They had a full recollection of their various incarnations, as well as a full memory of their between-lives schooling and associations.
In short, the being of pure light moving through an unearthly geometric environment is the oversoul, while the recognizable human form moving through a garden paradise is the incarnate personality.
But which one is the real locus of consciousness? Is it Dave or Redbeard or Enos or the oversoul? Arguably, each one of them represents the same locus of consciousness, only viewed from a different perspective. It's a Flatland thing. Flatland is the classic 19th century satire by Edwin Abbott that presents two-dimensional people living in a two-dimensional world. When one of them is lifted into Spaceland, our three-dimensional plane, he sees things from a whole new perspective. Some of what he sees would have been inconceivable to him when he was still in Flatland. For instance, he can now see inside a windowless Flatland house even if all the doors are closed. Why? Because Flatland houses have no roofs (there is no third dimension, hence no up or down). The displaced Flatlander, hovering over the flat sheet of paper on which Flatland is drawn, can simply look down and see the interior of the house. It's a very simple and obvious, but only if one has the perspective afforded by the third dimension. My guess is that the spiritual realm has additional dimensions not only of space but of consciousness, and that these additional dimensions provide the perspective necessary to resolve what appear to be impossible contradictions in our realm.
When the hypnotist regresses Dave to an even earlier point, he remembers the life of Redbeard the pirate and even the life of Enos the peasant. But he reports those lives from a somewhat detached perspective, because he is still predominantly identifying with the oversoul. I remember that one of Newton’s patients, after discussing a life lived as a woman two or three hundred years ago, spoke some words to this effect: "the experience was good for me, and I believe it was good for her, too." (I’m paraphrasing from memory.) I always found this rather confusing. The hypnotized subject seemed to be treating the incarnate woman as a separate person, rather than as himself in a different guise. But in terms of our present hypothesis, the statement makes sense. It is the oversoul commenting on a particular incarnate personality. Dave's oversoul could be expected to make the same kind of statement: “The experience of the Dave personality was useful to me, and I believe it was a positive experience for the Dave personality itself."
Incidentally, hypnotic past-life regression is often explained in terms of cryptomnesia — the purported ability to remember even the most trivial details of books and movies that the person encountered decades earlier. Though these details have been consciously forgotten, they are aid to be retained in the subconscious and to be brought forward under hypnosis. There’s no doubt that many, though not all, regression cases can be explained this way (see The Search for Yesterday, by D. Scott Rogo), but the explanation itself raises interesting questions. By what mechanism does the mind retain all these details, and how does hypnosis afford access to them? I would suggest that the details are retained by the superconscious, and that a deep hypnotic trance opens the door to this fund of knowledge. I'd also suggest that the life review reported in some NDEs involves immersion in this memory archive. And since the oversouls collectively represent all the souls that have ever incarnated, they collectively have a complete record of all memories and subjective experience — a treasure trove known in mystical circles as the Akashic records.
Continuing his spiritual exploration, Dave starts going to mediums. Some appear to have genuine paranormal abilities. He finds that they talk about different “levels of vibration” corresponding to different spiritual planes. He begins to suspect that the higher vibrational levels correspond to higher dimensions of consciousness — that the mediums are really talking about changes in the frequency of consciousness itself. (The channeled book The Unobstructed Universe makes this point.) The Dave personality exists at one vibrational level, while the oversoul exists at a higher vibrational level. Moreover, as Dave learned from his hypnotic regression, the oversoul itself is part of a select group of oversouls who work together on their mutual development – what might be called a collective oversoul. And it is certainly within the realm of possibility that each collective oversoul is part of a still higher collective, and so on, as consciousness expands in widening ripples.
Dave also finds that discarnate personalities speaking through mediums say they must lower their vibrational level in order to communicate with those of us on earth. He speculates that a deceased person, having transitioned to the afterlife, has greater access to the oversoul and thus is raised in vibration – just as he was, temporarily, when he partially merged with the being of light. The thin pipeline connecting the Dave personality to the oversoul's superconsciousness via the subconscious was expanded, albeit briefly, into a wide channel. He suspects that, had the NDE continued, he would have retained his own personality but also enjoyed access, on a continuing basis, to a wider spectrum of the oversoul's awareness. The deceased people speaking through the mediums are in this condition of expanded consciousness, but to communicate with earthly human beings, they must restrict their newfound access to the oversoul and shrink down to something close to their original limitations. This is why spirit communicators often say that they can only express a fraction of who they now are and what they now know. It is also why spirit communication is so difficult for those on the other side.
Another thing Dave notices is that a medium never says that a given communicator is unavailable, having already reincarnated. Skeptics sometimes seize on this fact to question either mediumship or reincarnation. But if the diamond hypothesis is correct, then we would expect all deceased personalities (Enos and Redbeard, for instance) to remain in the spirit world; reincarnation involves the manifestation of a new personality extruded from the oversoul, not the recycling of a previous personality.
What Dave is learning is that he is part of something larger than himself, which is in turn part of something still larger. His ego may resist this idea; it wants to be Mr. Big! His spiritual journey involves letting go of the ego, at least to some degree. Not coincidentally, by diminishing his attachment to the ego, he reduces his identification with the Dave personality and increases his identification with the oversoul, which he may experience, subjectively, as “the witness” who observes his thoughts and actions in the background — a witness who becomes apparent during those meditative moments when he quiets his chattering mind.
*I'm using some artistic license in having the young Dave recall a life as a pirate, since children who recall a past life almost always remember a life that ended only a few months or years before they were born. Redbeard presumably died much earlier than that.