I haven't been posting much lately, in part because I had computer problems that finally obliged me to get a new MacBook. But the other reason is that I find myself increasingly less interested in the endless back-and-forth of the survival debate. It seems that the same arguments are endlessly rehearsed, with Skeptics propounding some non-paranormal explanation for every NDE, OBE, apparition, past-life memory, and after-death communication ever reported, and treating each as if it were an isolated and rare event, while the pro-survival side comes up with more and more cases, only to be told that it's not enough (and even, according to some Skeptics, that none of it qualifies as evidence at all). Barring some breakthrough that will settle the matter once and for all, the debate, such as it is, appears likely to continue forever.
What does interest me these days is going beyond the empirical evidence, which has been aired pretty thoroughly on this blog and in countless books and on many other websites, and trying to formulate some kind of model that will make sense of things. Now, the first point to make about this is that it's an enterprise that cannot really succeed. What I mean is, no model is ever going to capture the full reality of what's going on. Any theoretical construct (much less a mere analogy or metaphor) will fail to encompass the complete range of the phenomena it's trying to cover. The menu is not the meal, the map is not the territory, etc. The value of a model is not that it is a complete or even an accurate representation, but that it can be useful. It is a way of organizing disparate observations into a more coherent whole. Its value is epistemological, not ontological; it can be an aid to thinking, even though it is by no means a perfect reflection of reality.
With that in mind, I'd say that the model that currently appeals most to me is the virtual reality model. I realize that this approach is open to the standard objection that we're just using the latest and most fashionable technology to conceptualize our world. As Newton's clockwork universe reflected the intricate clockwork mechanisms of his day, so we now turn to VR, the newest and coolest tech, to explain things in our time. This is true, but again, the goal is not to capture what is really going on, but to find a useful way of visualizing it. That being the case, it's not surprising that each new iteration of technology should provide us with new opportunities for metaphors and analogies. As long as we don't mistake the menu for the meal, we should be okay.
The virtual reality model is perhaps best summarized by words attributed to Roger Ebert shortly before his death: "It's all an elaborate hoax." Or perhaps by a well-known campfire song, which is more philosophically acute than most campers realize:
Row, row, row your boat
Gently down the stream
Merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily,
Life is but a dream
Or by Prospero's soliloquy in The Tempest:
You do look, my son, in a moved sort,
As if you were dismay'd: be cheerful, sir.
Our revels now are ended. These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits and
Are melted into air, into thin air:
And, like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capp'd towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on, and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.
It has much in common with Plato's theory of Forms or Ideas and with his allegory of the cave. It also has points in common with the broodings of mystics throughout the centuries, and with the insights of all those who are said to have experienced Cosmic Consciousness.
For me personally, it seems the richest and most satisfying model — though again, only a model, and not even a fully developed one, as yet — of reality. So what exactly is the virtual reality model?
Basically, it's the view that earthly life is a fully immersive role-playing game. This game is designed by our higher self, with which we are in only tenuous contact while embodied. The game is meant to be challenging and instructive. The stakes are, in one sense, real — we gain real wisdom and personal growth. In another sense, the stakes are illusory —Ebert's "elaborate hoax." Our physical gains and losses are of no real consequence, and even our joy and suffering are transient and ultimately trivial, no matter how powerfully they may affect us here and now. What matters is what we take away from our travails. As Kipling wrote in his most famous poem, If:
If you can dream—and not make dreams your master;
If you can think—and not make thoughts your aim;
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same;
If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
And stoop and build ’em up with worn-out tools:
If you can make one heap of all your winnings
And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings
And never breathe a word about your loss;
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: ‘Hold on!’
The game is about winning and losing, but the real victories are those of the mind and spirit. Being embodied, we tend to forget this. And as might be expected, our immersion in the fully convincing virtual environment tends to become more complete over time, as we gradually forget whatever we knew of our origins. Children are known for not treating reality as fully real, blurring imagination and facts, and engaging in endless play. Adults usually grow out of all that. We settle in to our circumstances and become more firmly nested in the familiar "real world." Or as Wordsworth wrote in Intimations of Immortality:
Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting:
The Soul that rises with us, our life's Star,
Hath had elsewhere its setting,
And cometh from afar:
Not in entire forgetfulness,
And not in utter nakedness,
But trailing clouds of glory do we come
From God, who is our home:
Heaven lies about us in our infancy!
Shades of the prison-house begin to close
Upon the growing Boy,
But he beholds the light, and whence it flows,
He sees it in his joy;
The Youth, who daily farther from the east
Must travel, still is Nature's priest,
And by the vision splendid
Is on his way attended;
At length the Man perceives it die away,
And fade into the light of common day.
Those who don't quite grow up, the mystics and dreamers, are derided by those practical types who, having more efficacy in the workaday world, tend to dominate the action here. But while these hardheaded realists are on top now, they often prove least insightful and least spiritually mature, and they are not learning the lessons that matter most. Ultimately, the last shall be first and the first shall be last; unless you become like a small child, you will not enter heaven's kingdom; the only treasure worth having is spiritual mastery, which is the pearl of great price.
Life on earth is hard and painful. There is no getting around this fact. Dr. Pangloss's encomia to "this best of all possible worlds" simply do not ring true for most of us. The "problem of pain" has vexed spiritual seekers of all descriptions. Why would a loving God or a beneficent universe allow so much pointless suffering? The usual explanation, that original sin and plain old human cussedness are responsible, doesn't account for such purely natural calamities as earthquakes, tidal waves, and malarial mosquitoes. And even human-caused catastrophes like war and tyranny plague those who are innocent of any wrongdoing. So what's it all about?
Well, just how interesting or instructive would any role-playing game be if there were no obstacles, hazards, and challenges? We seek conflict and drama in movies and novels — why not in the ultimate fictional story we've devised, the story of our own lives? An author does not shrink from making things difficult for his characters; he knows that the more they struggle, the better the narrative. Our higher self, with a kind of pitiless creativity, lays traps and snares for us as we navigate the virtual environment of our personal drama. To us, it may seem like sadism, just as an animal may perceive nothing but hostile intent in the jab of the veterinarian's needle. It takes a higher intelligence to know that the pain of the injection is the necessary price of avoiding rabies.
Moreover, while the game is planned in some respects, it is not planned out in detail. The players themselves can and will make pivotal decisions, writing their own script, which may deviate significantly from what the planners had in mind. Sometimes our higher self will nudge us back on track when we threaten to go too badly off course; others times, we are on our own. Like children learning to walk, we have to be allowed to fall.
But the real answer to the problem of pain is that the game, however real it seems to us while we are immersed in it, is only a game, and a brief one at that. It's a cliche that as people age, they look back on their lives and wonder where the time went. All those years look like only a moment — a lifetime seems like little more than a waking dream. I think this perception is correct. It is only a moment, only a dream. When viewed from the perspective of the higher self (a perspective as alien to us as the perspective of Spaceland is to a Flatlander), all this Sturm und Drang is only the passing agitation of troubled sleep.
Better be with the dead ...
Than on the torture of the mind to lie
In restless ecstasy. Duncan is in his grave;
After life’s fitful fever he sleeps well;
Treason has done his worst: nor steel, nor poison,
Malice domestic, foreign levy, nothing
Can touch him further.
Life's fitful fever is the restless excitement of the chase, the urgent pursuit of elusive goals, the playing of the game. Our seemingly real world — our virtual reality — affords us endless opportunities to strive and suffer. By playing the game, we learn and grow, or we fail to learn and repeat the same self-defeating mistakes. Either way, "it's all an elaborate hoax," and to the extent that we see through it, we become better players — more focused, more aware, less fearful.
And when we lose the need to win ... we've won.
Though it's been mentioned in the comments, I'd like to call additional attention to Stephen E. Braude's reply to Tom Butler's criticism of his work with Kai Mügge. His detailed response can be read here. (It has been posted via Dropbox, but you do not need to have a Dropbox account to read it or download it.)
In contemporary parapsychology, Braude is one of the very few serious researchers into physical and materialization mediumship, areas that have historically been plagued with fraud and ambiguity. For several decades the Society for Psychical Research largely refused to conduct any investigations into such claims, having found that virtually all cases they did examine proved fraudulent. The credibility of mediumship in general was severely undermined by public exposures of fake mediums of the physical/materialization type, carried out both by enterprising newspapermen and by Harry Houdini. The decline of widespread public interest in Spiritualism dates to this period.
Accordingly, it's only common sense to approach the subject with a degree of skepticism (healthy skepticism, not dogmatic Skepticism). And it's essential to be honest and open about any findings, even if they might be harmful to the medium or to some larger agenda. At the same time, owing to the tricksterish nature of these phenomena, it's necessary to avoid jumping to conclusions or painting with too broad a brush.
This is a difficult balancing act, but Dr. Braude has managed it throughout his career. His ongoing investigation of Kai, whatever its controversies, is one more important contribution to this perplexing field.
A new website has been set up to display infrared videos, presumably taken surreptitiously, that show what goes on behind the scenes at one physical/materialization medium's seances. His name is Gary Mannion. (No, I'd never heard of him, but apparently he has a following in the UK.)
It's interesting stuff, and a reminder that books like The Psychic Mafia tell an important part of the story.
More disturbing than the videos themselves is the likelihood that a not-insignificant portion of Mannion's clientele will accept whatever explanation he comes up with — probably that a malevolent spirit possessed him and made him cheat, just this one time.
Roger Knights informs me that The Witch of Napili, Michael Schmicker's fictionalized account of Eusapia Palladino's mediumship, is now available for free as a Kindle ebook.
Stephen E. Braude has published a follow-up report on the Felix physical mediumship circle. The credibility of medium "Kai" (a pseudonym) took a hard hit when it was revealed that he had cheated in some earlier sessions. Braude discusses the cheating in detail, but also explains his reasons for thinking that Kai was still worth studying. Unfortunately the new investigation was inconclusive, and the hoped-for infrared video of table levitations was not obtained. Braude's balanced, scrupulously fair report is well worth reading (as is everything he writes).
Update: Actually I meant to say that clear, unambiguous IR video of a table levitation was not obtained. There was video of a purported levitation, but it was not the iron-clad evidence the researchers were hoping for.
A pair of neuroscientists tried to see if contemporary approaches to understanding the brain would allow them to successfully interpret a simple computer program — in this case, the vintage Donkey Kong game. They found that they were unable to learn much at all about the program, calling into question the efficacy of the current computer-based model for studying brain functions.
Some years ago I used to argue with a Skeptic on the comments threads of this blog about the evidence for life after death. One point he liked to make was that evidence for UFOs was at least as good as evidence for an afterlife, so why would I believe in one but not the other? At the time I could only say that I hadn't studied UFOs and had no opinion on the subject, an answer he found unsatisfactory.
I still haven't studied UFOs in any depth, but I've read a little on the subject. My tentative conclusion now is that, while many of the reports are hoaxes or errors, some are probably valid. It doesn't follow that UFOs are physical spaceships that have crossed lightyears to visit us. Scott Rogo in his book The Haunted Universe makes the point that there are often close connections between psychic phenomena (premonitions, etc.) and UFO sightings; his suggestion is that UFOs are in some sense a psychic phenomenon in their own right. Carl Jung and Jacques Vallee seem to have had a similar notion. My best guess is that legitimate sightings of "flying saucers" could involve a glitch in the system, a sort of information leakage from one plane of reality to another, perhaps triggered by, or at least accompanied by changes in consciousness on the part of witnesses. This is vague, but it's the best I can do. They are "real," but maybe not physical, or only transiently physical. This would account for the known tendency of UFOs to behave unlike physical objects— to wink in and out of existence, for example.
As for alien abductions, I would see them as out-of-b0dy experiences misinterpreted as events in the physical world. Many "abduction" experiences start out with a sense that the body is vibrating uncontrollably; then the body levitates off the bed and floats through the wall. This is identical to descriptions of OBEs. The only difference is that OBErs look down and see their physical body left behind, while "abductees" apparently do not. Both experiences also have much in common with shamanic vision quests and with drug-induced experiences involving ketamine and DMT.
Incidentally, I don't think it's actually true that evidence for UFOs is as good as evidence for life after death. The advantage of afterlife studies is that some can be performed under controlled conditions (e.g., scientific tests of mediums) and others can be performed prospectively (e.g., hospital and hospice studies of deathbed visions and NDEs). UFOs can be studied only in the field and only after the fact, on the basis of eyewitness reports and occasional technological evidence such as videos or radar readings.
As a companion piece to my post on Richard Carlson's work, here's an old post from October 11, 2008, covering a related approach pioneered by David Burns. Incidentally, there's now an app for this — in fact, there's more than one. For iOS, the iCouch CBT app works pretty well. For Android, the Cognitive Diary CBT app looks good, though I haven't tried it.
Carlson's method involves not taking your thoughts too seriously. Burns's method involves subjecting your thoughts to a reality check. The common denominator of both approaches is to distance yourself from your thoughts — to look at a thought from a detached perspective, rather than letting it control you.
Neither method is a cure-all, but both can be helpful in preventing a "thought attack" — a cascade of negative thinking that often has little basis in reality.
In these stressful days, you may find it useful to study the ten cognitive distortions identified by Dr. David Burns. I first came across these in Burns' self-help book Feeling Good many years ago.
The basic technique is to write down a thought that's troubling you, and see which of the cognitive distortions may apply to it. Then reword the thought in more objective terms. It can also be helpful to rate your belief in the original thought and, later, in the revised thought.
For instance, suppose you are thinking, "I'll never get that promotion." Your belief in this is, say, 80% - you're almost certain of it.
Then consider if one or more of the distorted thought processes is at work here. You might decide that #7 applies - emotional reasoning. And maybe # 5(b) - fortune telling.
Something may feel true without necessarily being true. And predicting the future is dicey business. How many times have you made a false prediction or had a feeling of doom that turned out to be unjustified?
Next, ask yourself if you can replace the thought with one that is not affected by these distortions. You might say, "It seems as if getting that promotion will be harder than I hoped." Rate your belief in this new thought - maybe you believe it 60% or so.
Now go on to the next step: why will getting the promotion be harder than you hoped? "Because the boss hates me." Write this down. You believe it 100%.
But are there distortions in this thought, too? Maybe # 5(a) - mind reading. Perhaps also # 3 - mental filter.
Have you focused only on those times when your boss has been hostile, and suppressed your memory of those times when he has been pleasant? Have you assumed he has a negative attitude toward you personally, when you actually don't know what he's thinking?
Revise your thought. Now it might be something like: "My boss can be hard to get along with sometimes." Rate your belief in this, and then ask why you feel this way. You'll come up with another thought to analyze.
Continue in this way, digging deeper into your thoughts in a step-by-step fashion, until you have arrived at a clearer perspective, one that is not clouded by distorted thinking.
This deceptively simple technique can be amazingly powerful. Give it a try.
One of the most useful books I've read is a little self-help manual called You Can Be Happy Matter What, by Richard Carlson. The book was written early in Carlson's career, before he became famous for a series of bestsellers beginning with Don't Sweat the Small Stuff. The later books never appealed to me all that much, but You Can Be Happy … remains one of my favorites.
Carlson's central insight is that you are not your thoughts. His teaching is both simple and profound. He suggests that most of us have the wrong relationship to our own thinking, and that this misconstrued relationship is responsible for most of our angst, depression, worry, and unhappiness in general.
What is this relationship? It is that we think our thoughts are important, when most of the time they are not. They are just thoughts. Thoughts come and go, and it is up to us whether to grant them any importance by focusing on them, examining them, and pursuing them further, or instead to simply let them go.
Suppose you are having a perfectly ordinary day when, for no obvious reason, a thought pops into your head: I really screwed up on that blind date. Maybe the blind date happened yesterday or maybe it happened ten years ago; it doesn't matter. The usual – but wrong – response to this thought is to drill down into it. Yeah, I just can't handle blind dates. Maybe that's why I'm so bad at relationships. I just turn people off. Face it, I'm going to be alone forever.
At this point, you've turned a perfectly nice day into an exercise in self-accusation leading inevitably to a bad frame of mind – probably either anger at yourself, anger at the whole world, or depression. Whatever you were doing a minute earlier seems pointless now, and whatever you had planned to do in the next hour suddenly doesn't seem worth doing anymore. You lie down on the couch, feeling low, and naturally you continue to explore the same thoughts and memories that have brought you down, thus spiraling lower and lower.
This is how most of us behave, at least a good part of the time. We grant our thoughts too much power. We think that there's something significant about them, and that when we take notice of a thought, it must require our immediate attention. We also tend to think that analyzing a problem, worrying at it the way a dog worries at a bone, circling around it to see it from every possible vantage point, will help us to find a solution. It doesn't occur to us that we've spent countless hours analyzing this or similar problems in that way, and all it's ever gotten us is frustration and misery.
So what is the right way to react to the initial thought about the blind date gone awry? Actually, the best way is not to react to it at all. Nor is it to instantly suppress the thought, as if guiltily shoving it into a mental drawer where it can't be seen. That's only another way of giving the thought power – making it so powerful that it must be hidden away like some kind of occult talisman.
The best way is to say yourself, I don't know why I thought about that. It's not worth thinking about now. Or some words to that effect. Then just dismiss the thought and go on about your business.
Though it may be hard to believe, this really works. The subconscious is extremely suggestible, and if you tell it that a certain idea is not important or interesting and certainly not worth bringing up, then the subconscious is much less likely to bring it up again. And the more you reinforce this policy, the less likely it is that the thought will even occur to you. Your subconscious can be trained to stop bringing you things you don't want, much like dog that can be trained to stop bringing you scraps from the garbage can.
Now you might say, What if I would actually benefit from taking a good hard look at my mistakes on the blind date? How else am I going to learn? And that's a valid point. But you're not going to learn anything by an exercise in recrimination and self-abasement. You'd be better off approaching the subject neutrally, when you're in the mood to tackle it without being too hard on yourself. And you're unlikely to get much benefit out of repeating this exercise countless times. Learn what you can from your mistakes, and then close the book on that subject and move on. If your subconscious keeps nudging you to return to this topic after you've gotten what you can out of it, then simply ignore the nudges.
Carlson tells us that nearly all of our emotional and interpersonal difficulties come from granting our thoughts a power they don't deserve. He calls the spiraling nosedive of negative thinking a "thought attack," and observes that these attacks are best handled by nipping them in the bud. Take note of the first negative thought, acknowledge it (don't try to hide it or suppress it), and then simply decide not to take it seriously right now. You can even schedule a time later in the day when you might be willing to take it seriously. Most likely, when that time arrives, you won't even remember it. If you do remember it, you'll probably be sufficiently detached to be able to look at it more objectively and usefully.
From my own experience, I can say that this is a highly effective technique. It's also easy to forget. You can quickly lapse back into old habits. The imagined power of your own thoughts can exert a seductive hold on your ego, a hold difficult to break. But it can be done. It takes a kind of mindfulness, a willingness to step back and look at the thought before committing to it – I mean before committing to even taking it seriously or thinking about it further. Most of the time, once you've taken a step back, you'll find the thought is not worth your time, and you'll dismiss it as effortlessly as you would brush a mosquito off your arm.
Incidentally, this is one of the objections I have to the New Age mantra "thoughts are things." I think this gives thoughts entirely too much reality and importance. It also encourages us to suppress (or repress) our thoughts, by investing them with a fearful power that makes them dangerous to look upon. The opposite is closer to the truth: "thoughts are nothing."
There are limitations to Carlson's method. Though he insists that our happiness is entirely a matter of our own interpretation and that outside circumstances have nothing to do with it, I think some outside circumstances are so dire that no amount of mindfulness, short of the otherworldly detachment of a Zen master, could make them bearable. If you're a prisoner in a concentration camp or the captive of a serial killer, your happiness is really not in your own control. But most of us, thankfully, are not likely to find ourselves in those circumstances. For the ordinary ups and downs of everyday life, the frictions and frustrations, the arguments and disappointments, Carlson's approach works extraordinarily well.
It also has a certain relevance to the whole question of the nature of consciousness. If we are not our thoughts, then what are we? Evidently we are the mind that looks at our thoughts and either investigates them or shoos them away. Which means we are something like "the witness" who habitually stands back from our thoughts and actions, observing and sometimes judging in an impersonal way.
Perhaps it is the witness who is fully real and accounts for the continuity of consciousness that persists across many changes of mind – changes of opinion, changes of knowledge, changes of mood, changes of psychological maturity, etc. When we regard ourselves as essentially the same person we were at the age of six, maybe what we are acknowledging is the persistence of the witness, the observer who is outside the ego with its changeable nature, its endless conflicts, its Sturm und Drang. We are the eye of the storm, and the I in the storm.
And when we get caught up in petty quarrels, ego-based rivalries, and counterproductive obsessions, we're forgetting our essential nature as the witness and becoming ensnared in a briar patch of thoughts that ultimately have no reality at all. We're like a spider that gets stuck in its own web.
At this point we've gotten a little bit away from Richard Carlson's book, so let me circle back to it by saying that my summary of his views is necessarily incomplete and, in itself, probably not very helpful. If it interests you, I suggest reading the whole thing. It's not a long or difficult read, and you just may find it helpful. I know I have.
I recently came across an article by Robert Lanza and Bob Berman, proponents of the "biocentric" theory presented in their book Beyond Biocentrism: Rethinking Time, Space, Consciousness, and the Illusion of Death.
The article, "There is no death, only a series of eternal ‘nows’," argues that
biocentrism, in which life and consciousness create the reality around them, has no space for death ... [E]verything we see and experience is a whirl of information occurring in our head ...
Of course, as you’re reading this, you’re experiencing a ‘now’. But consider: from your great-grandmother’s perspective, your nows exist in her future and her great-grandmother’s nows exist in her past. The words ‘past’ and ‘future’ are just ideas relative to each individual observer.
So what happened to your great-grandmother after she died? To start with – since time doesn’t exist – there is no ‘after death’, except the death of her physical body in your now. Since everything is just nows, there is no absolute space/time matrix for her energy to dissipate – it’s simply impossible for her to have ‘gone’ anywhere.
Think of it like one of those old phonographs. The information on the record is turned into a three-dimensional reality that we can experience a moment at a time. All the other information on the record exists as potential. Any causal history leading up to the ‘now’ being experienced can be thought of as the ‘past’ (ie, the songs that played before wherever the needle is), and any events that follow occur in the ‘future’; these parallel nows are said to be in superposition. Likewise, the before-death state, including your current life with its memories, goes back into superposition, into the part of the record that represents just information.
In short, death does not actually exist ... And if death and time are illusions, so too is the continuity in the connection of nows.
The model is interesting, but I think at a certain point it fails. If we assume that the needle of the phonograph corresponds to consciousness, then presumably death corresponds to the moment when the needle is lifted off the record. But at that point the needle no longer can play any tracks on the record. Yes, the information encoded in the grooves remains, but it is inaccessible to consciousness. It might be seen as a store of information akin to the Akashic Records, but it would not be part of a dynamic, living personality.
At least, this is how I read it. It's possible, however, that I've misunderstood what the authors are saying. as best I can tell, if your life "goes back into superposition, into the part of the record that represents just information," then "you" are not actualized and, as such, "you" do not exist.
A more complicated but perhaps slightly more satisfactory model occurs to me. It involves holography. (Somewhere, Art is cheering.)
Image from Phys.org.
A holographic plate consists of wave-interference patterns that encode the information necessary to generate a three-dimensional image. Such a plate can be either reflective or transparent. A beam of focused light reflects off the plate or passes through it, creating, in either case, a three-dimensional projection. For our purposes, let's imagine that the plate is transparent.
The projection is fully three-dimensional, a fact that a spectator can appreciate only by circling around the image. From any given vantage point, only part of the image – one narrow slice of it, so to speak – can be seen. To take in the entire image, one must move around it, seeing first one side, then the front, then the other side.
Now let's say that this three-dimensional image corresponds to the entire content of the spacetime universe. And let's say that the spectator slowly making his way around the image and taking it in bit by bit in sequential fashion is egoic consciousness. What, then, is the beam of focused light? I suggest it can be analogized to the higher self, the larger consciousness of which the ego is only a small fragment or offshoot.
The higher self converts raw information into rendered images (using the word image in the broad sense to include objects that can be felt, smelled, tasted, etc.). The higher self sees the entire panoply of images as a single whole; the focused light of its consciousness pervades the entire spectrum of information, illuminating all of it. The egoic self, in contrast, perceives the hologram from one particular angle at any given moment; its movement along the axis of time creates the impression of change, as each new slice of (rendered) information comes into view and previously observed information moves out of view. The ego's point of view is narrow and limited, while the point of view of the higher self is omniscient, at least as far as the spacetime cosmos is concerned.
This is how things usually work, but occasionally the ego gets a glimpse of the bigger picture. In bursts of inspiration known as "cosmic consciousness," or in certain kinds of drug-induced visions, or in near-death experiences, or in death itself, the ego is – temporarily and partially – merged with the higher self. From this vantage point, the ego perceives the whole spectrum of rendered information all at once. The experience is overwhelming. It can be described as seeing the world from God's point of view, seeing and knowing everything there is, bursting free from the limitations of time and space, leaving Flatland to enter a higher-dimensional realm, etc. It can also be described as a "life review," in which all the events of one's life are reexperienced either simultaneously or nearly so.
In all cases other than actual death, the ego soon detaches from the higher self and is left once more with its familiar narrow perspective. But the memory of the transcendent experience never completely fades. It can provide the impetus for personal growth, religious or spiritual innovations, and even the development of psychic powers.
In death, the aftermath is less clear. Some would say that the ego simply dissolves into the higher self, while others would say that the ego detaches and continues its progress in an illusory replica of the spacetime world. The Tibetan Book of the Dead, among other sources, seems to suggest that the newly dead person can, with an effort of will, maintain the ego's merger with the higher self, but in the absence of this will (and the highly cultivated self-awareness it entails), the ego will inevitably retrogress. This opinion seems to be seconded by many channeled communications stating that the earthlike realms of the afterlife are ultimately illusions that must be transcended, and that the ego is progressively sloughed off as spiritual evolution proceeds. It is also borne out by the many postmortem communications strongly suggesting the persistence of the individual personality.
The end result, in either case, would be the (immediate or eventual) immersion of the ego in the higher self, which, standing outside time and space, is indestructible and self-contained. This would seem to be the ultimate destiny toward which we are all striving.
That's not to say that the higher self known to us is all that exists. It may well be the case – in fact, I suspect it is – that there are many higher selves, and that they ultimately comprise all of the consciousness there is; the sum total would be akin to what we call God, and the awareness of all these higher selves together would encompass many planes of reality, not just our physical plane.
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.