ACADEMY OF SPIRITUALITY AND PARANORMAL STUDIES, INC.
ANNUAL CONFERENCE, 2008
Mysticism and Life After Death
Michael Grosso, Ph.D.
There are two common features of religious life: mystical experience and the belief in a life after death. Both of these seem to be based on contact with some kind of external reality. In my talk, I will show that these two aspects of religious life proceed from different but also opposing tendencies. Belief in a life after death is grounded in the desire of the empirical self to persist in a personal form. The mystical impulse aspires to shed the empirical self, forsake the individual personality, and enter an undifferentiated state of pure consciousness. Life after death is about the persistence of the self in time; mysticism is about transcending the self and experiencing the eternal. The search for life after death paves the way to the more radical pursuit of mystical consciousness, although both projects have a place in the economy of spiritual life.
In the great spiritual traditions you generally find two constants: the belief in postmortem survival and reports of mystical experience. Belief in a life after death and belief in the mystical experience are typically interpreted in light of some religion or system of salvation. However, survival of death and mystical experience may also be looked at in their own right as types of basic human experience, quite apart from any religious interpretation.
In this talk, we will attempt to see how they relate to the overall scheme of human spiritual aspiration. As we shall see, the two types of experience exist in a state of mutual tension, even of antagonism. In the end, however, I hope to show that the tension and antagonism are complementary, and that each needs the other for theoretical and practical support, although I give priority to the mystical.
Survival, Immortality, Eternity
We should begin by distinguishing three terms that may be confused: survival, immortality, and eternity.
Survival of bodily death is what psychical researchers try to prove; namely, that some conscious aspect of human personality survives death. I emphasize the term “conscious” because an apparition or haunting of a deceased person may be observed that survives but is not necessarily conscious. The evidence suggests only that some people for some period of time continue to be conscious after death. Still, any evidence for personal survival is a momentous advance beyond mainstream materialism.
Can we indeed lift the veil of ignorance? Is there real evidence for life after death? The surprising answer to me is yes. I will try to summarize the case for survival, in light of what I know – or think I know. What I want to say about this evidence, however, requires that we keep the other two terms in focus. Now, if survival is an empirical, or scientific, concept, tentative and provisional, immortality is a philosophical, sometimes a theological concept, and means something like “inherently deathless.”
In the Abrahamic religions, the Deity creates immortal souls and resurrection bodies, while among philosophers, Plato, for example, immortality, is a property of the soul. The soul is a simple substance, and being simple has no divisible parts and therefore cannot come apart, or be destroyed. Soul is substance, a thing unto itself. Other philosophical arguments, not very persuasive, have been used to prove human immortality. The idea of proving a priori, by argument alone, that the soul is inherently indestructible is out of fashion today. In our modern scientific world, we rely on empirical data, observable facts, as starting-points of our understanding of how the world works. Science is more humble. At most it hopes to prove that some aspect of human personality survives death – but who knows for how long?
Our last term, eternity, brings us back to direct experience, in fact, to a special type of experience called mystical. If immortality is a condition inferred from certain properties of the soul (i.e., its simplicity), the sense of eternity is immediately, perhaps, ineffably, experienced. Eternity is not about going on and on in successive time; the term for that is everlasting. Eternity refers to a different order of experience, in some sense outside ordinary time. Boethius the Roman philosopher wrote: “Eternity is the complete possession of eternal life all at once (totum simul).1” This eternal quality of experience is often reported in accounts of mystical experience. An experience of eternity is possible in life; survival is a hypothesis about what comes after life. Survival promises an extension of time after death; eternity is an experience of the abolition of time, before death. In eternal life, the idea of the everlasting becomes psychologically superfluous.
Evidence for Survival: General Remarks
Different people have different conceptions of what is convincing, different thresholds of credulity and incredulity. Two kinds of person are impervious to any kind of evidence: those who scorn evidence as an unnecessary distraction and those convinced a priori that no evidence is possible. We would hope here to be coming from a mean position that avoids the extremes of credulity and incredulity. I have no doubt that some people think my views prove I am credulous, while others see me as stinting in the extent of my beliefs on these matters. Some need consistently compelling evidence before they are even ready to cautiously entertain the possibility of survival. Some operate with easy standards for full-blooded belief. Some accept as useful evidence that is merely suggestive; Ian Stevenson, for example, never spoke of proof of survival. His first book was titled Twenty Cases Suggestive of Reincarnation.
About evidence, William James made a point that most researchers probably agree with: you have to look at the total pattern, not single out egregiously bad or even very good cases as the basis of judgment. James found it hard to believe that the total pattern of evidence was based on the deceptive antics of the subliminal mind, but never quite came out fully in favor of survival.
An analogy might be made to the dreaming mind. The content of most dreams is non-veridical and (apart from uses in therapy) fairly unimportant stuff. But the dreaming mind is also capable of producing artistic inspiration, scientific discoveries, transformative visions, precognitions, telepathic or clairvoyant impressions, and religious guidance. Likewise, amid the streams of psychic ideation there are flashes of light, openings to significant realities. The same perhaps may be said of the mass of mediumistic impressions of talented mediums.
Evidence can be direct or indirect. I will mention here one piece of interesting indirect evidence for survival. I have collected reports of persons with Alzheimer’s or other brain disease such as schizophrenia who recover their full mental faculties just prior to death. Such cases argue against the idea that brain disease destroys the mind; it seems rather only to prevent its function or expression. Recovery just before death raises the possibility that at death consciousness begins to disconnect from the brain and thus bypasses the constraints imposed by the sick brain.
There is a popular assumption in modern scientific culture that belief in life after death is irrational. The assumption is ill-founded, but there are reasons why this bias is so entrenched. The main one is the seeming triumph of scientific materialism. Modern psychical research arose in reaction to Darwinism. But, as it turns out, the co-founder of the theory of natural selection was also a pioneer in psychical research, Alfred Russell Wallace. Wallace saw no contradiction in this. In fact, he stated that natural selection was not the sole cause of organic evolution, and that certain mental agencies might play a role. As such Wallace’s vision was more comprehensive than Darwin’s.
Status of the Evidence
As far as I can see, there are four types of experience that argue for postmortem existence. 2 We employ the method used by lawyers, historians, and most practically intelligent people, called “inference to the best explanation.” We find claims, reports, declarations concerning the reality of survival of death. We then consider possible explanations, and rule out the weakest until we are left with the strongest, the best. In survival research, we assess the authenticity of the case – is it worthy testimony? Or fraudulent? Is it error-ridden? Or perhaps a mish-mash of them all? Then how shall we explain it? Misreportage, errors of memory, selective omissions, bias, exaggeration? Is survival, after all, the best explanation? What criteria come into play in forming our judgments? To what extent are we conscious of our emotions pushing us one way or the other? Do we really want to be objective? Is unconscious self-deception a factor? Let’s look at the first type of evidence:
Out-of-body experiences (OBEs) -- The out-of-body experience is not direct evidence for survival, but it has a dramatic impact. The out-of-body experience shows how it might feel to be out of the body after death. It becomes easy to imagine the possibility of other worlds after having a full-blown out-of-body experience. In light of the evidence of shamanism, I’m sure the belief in other worlds in part grew from such experiences.
There is a sub-type of OBE called veridical. In this experience, the person leaves her body and makes some verifiable statement of fact about the distant environment; perhaps accurately describe a scene on the other side of the hospital. Veridical cases of this type are reported from time to time. Now we have an out-of-body percipient reporting objective perceptions at a distance from his physical body. Clearly, to an experiencer it must seem at least plausible to imagine that something like this happens when the body dies, and one may gain the impression of entering into a kind of vestibule of the “next” world. In itself, this seems an interesting and fortunate experience, for the direct insight it might provide. Of course, we still don’t know if such veridical acts of perception at a distance depend on the living brain of the subject of consciousness. So, as I said, this can only count as indirect evidence for survival.
Apparitions of the Dead – It is a fact reported everywhere in history that the dead manifest to the living – visually, auditorily, sometimes by means of tangible presence. 3 These apparitions, or more broadly, after-death contacts, sometimes bear unexplained bits of information. Sometimes the best explanation is that the appearance is a communication from a deceased person. It depends on the character, quality, and quantity of the information. But of course there are all sorts of apparitions, and some have features that provide additional weight in proving their postmortem pedigree.
Collective percipience: To take a simple example, if nine people see something and agree on their observations about it, as opposed to one person seeing the same object, testimony of nine prima facie will be stronger than testimony of one. Collective percipience of post-death appearances are generally stronger than cases of single percipience. Still, a single percipient can carry weight; i.e. the well-documented Chaffin case involving the discovery of a hidden will by means of an apparition of the deceased. In this report used in a court of law as admissible evidence, the apparition of a dead man conveyed information about the whereabouts of his last will and testament, information that no living person possessed. Clearly, something here calls for an explanation.
Crisis Apparitions: One type of well studied phenomenon is called a crisis apparition, in which an apparition or other sign-giving (clocks stopping, photographs falling off walls) occurs at the time of death of a person. In a classic British study of 17 thousand cases, there were more crisis apparitions than chance would predict. Crisis apparitions provide an important piece of the total pattern of survival evidence, showing how the event of death is conducive to unusual psychic phenomena, including indications of survival.
Such appearances may occur through dreams or in the waking state. When they occur in a waking state we call them ghosts, fetches, phantoms, or apparitions of the dead. We might mention there are reports of living people who project appearances of themselves to other living people. I don’t see that this fact weighs for or against the survival hypothesis; it is certainly an interesting fact, and supports the idea of the separability of consciousness from the body.
Normal people in normal states of mind see apparitions, although meditative and near-death or death-bed conditions also seem conducive to appearances of the dead. Researcher William Roll once reported a case of a Zen meditator who became aware of an uncle who appeared to him, and announced his death, holding a chess piece in his hand. The man died at that moment, while he was playing chess.4 You are more likely to stumble into a revenant from the other side if the defensive shield of ordinary consciousness is lowered, as in meditative, relaxed, distracted, or dreaming states.
Near-death experience and death-bed visions. In the last quarter of the twentieth century, researchers studied two important types of apparitional experience. Karlis Osis and Erlendur Haraldsson examined “deathbed visions,” a phenomenon studied by English and Italian investigators earlier in the century, and reported widely throughout history. Certain features of these experiences seem compatible with the idea of survival. The visions of the dying are consistently of deceased people; why should they be? Perhaps because they are in fact being greeted by loved ones from the other side to faciliate their death.
Death-bed visions are impaired by drugs and delirium rather than caused by them. They are marked by an unexplained euphoria that makes sense on the assumption that the visionaries are having authentic encounters with deceased loved ones. Cases have been reported of a dying person seeing someone at the time not known to have been dead. Cases also exist in which persons other than the dying individual see the vision. Such collective percipience suggests a greater likelihood of objectivity to the vision. Now consider the next type of evidence.
Mediumship and possession -- It is a curious fact about the human personality that it has many modes of being; it seems naturally multiple in the way it periodically passes through waking, dreaming , and non-conscious sleep states. There is a normal elasticity and multiplicity in the forms of human consciousness. The psychiatric manuals speak of multiple personality and dissociative disorders, but multiplicity and dissociation also characterize normal behavior (doodling, automatic writing), extraordinary (artistic inspiration), or supernormal (mediumistic telepathy, clairvoyance, or psychokinesis).
Much interesting evidence pointing to survival comes from mediumship. The problem is that most mediums are performance artists with little interest or motivation to cooperate with scientists. As with apparitions, so with mediumship, there are more and less convincing types, claims, and reports. For example, in the pop mediumship of a John Edward the medium sometimes (after much fishing and “cold” reading) identifies a recently deceased person related to the questioner along with some facts about the deceased, i.e., he had red hair, died of lung cancer, occasionally lost his temper, etc.. This may be construed as a sign that the deceased person is hovering nearby, survived death, and so forth. But the medium could have extracted this information from the sitter by telepathy. The Victorian researchers used proxys as sitters; a person who knew nothing of the deceased person, and came only with his name or perhaps a lock of hair or other personal effect; if the same information were obtained by the medium now, it would at least be possible to rule out that she obtained the correct information from the sitter. In this case, we are forced to assume that the medium is more talented than we first assumed.
Another variation in mediumship is when an unknown and unsought persona intrudes into the medium’s consciousness and behavior, identifies itself in detail, (name, location of death and remains), later confirmed to be true. We cannot now say the medium is trying to satisfy (or is making use of) the sitter. In these cases, it looks like an independent agent has just “dropped in” and presented evidence for its own survival.
There are intriguing cases in which the unique artistic creativity of a deceased person seems to have come through a medium: the case of the Oscar Wilde scripts, for example, in which the great writer seemed to reveal unknown information about his personal life, in his own hand-writing, and displayed his characteristic style and wit through a medium. More impressive, in my view, is the Thompson-Gifford case reported in great detail by Professor Hyslop of Columbia University. Frederic Thompson was a goldsmith by trade who became obsessed by the need to draw and paint and subsequently did so in the style of a well-known, deceased artist, Robert Swain Gifford. Thompson had met Gifford once very briefly. After the latter’s death, Thompson heard Gifford’s voice ask him: “Can you not take up and finish my work?” Thompson was obsessed by themes and locales of Gifford’s art universe. The details of this story and the uncanny similarity of style and theme in the work of the goldsmith and the dead artist are fascinating, and seem very difficult to account for on the assumption that Thompson used his ESP to obtain the artistic effects he produced. For one thing, there is little evidence to suggest that personally acquired skills or talents can be transferred from one person to another by paranormal means.
Similar reasoning may be applied to the famous but difficult-to-assess cross-correspondence cases. This material is alleged to have come from several of the founders of psychical research after they died, Frederic Myers, among the most prominent. Myers and his colleagues understood that the greatest obstacle to the survival hypothesis was the existence of the psychic abilities of the living. In order to avoid that interpretation they apparently hit upon a plan after death. What Myers and his colleagues is said to have done was break up the parts of a coherent message or puzzle, usually based on classical literature, and then “transmit” the parts to different mental mediums. Eventually the different mediums pieced together their fragmentary messages and were able grasp the whole message and the rationale behind it.
These cases seemed like they were deliberately transmitted from an external source on the other side. The problem with appreciating their value as evidence is the recondite literary allusions involved as well as the highly intimate nature of the messages, difficult, if not impossible, to fully decipher without personal knowledge of the deceased parties.
Finally, under the heading of mediumship, I must cite at least one case I consider compelling, and that is the so-called “GP” case. A young lawyer acquaintance of Hodgson suddenly died from a fall in New York City and soon after appeared as the “control” for the medium, Eleanora Piper. I might as well quote Richard Hodgon: “I may say generally that out of a large number of sitters who went as strangers to Mrs. Piper, the communicating G.P. has picked out the friends of G.P. living, precisely as the G.P. living might have been expected to do. Thirty cases of recognition out of at least 150 who had sittings with Mrs. Piper . . . and no case of false recognition.” Such a level of performance strikes me as very strongly suggestive of survival.
The best cases of mediumship all attempt to countervail what may be the chief obstacle to belief in survival, and that is the unusual psychic powers of mediums, or perhaps of normal people who have no known mediumistic abilities but who may unexpectedly deploy them. The strong cases for survival are the ones that the monster “superpsi” cannot easily gobble up. However compelling such cases may seem, residual doubt may well remain and never be fully gotten rid of, for we simply do not know what the limits of our psychic and histrionic talents may be. In fact, the greater our mental capacities the more fertile and subtle the means to self-deception.
I think, however, there are three general points about the existence of psychic abilities that have bearing on the survival hypothesis. The first is that the existence of psychic reality – if accepted – undermines a powerful objection to the a priori possibility of survival. That objection is the idea that the whole of what we choose to call “real” is without exception physical; if so, the afterlife hypothesis is dead in the water. Once, however, (the second point) we do admit the reality of these powers we have the means to explain away at least a good deal of prima facie evidence for survival, a fact that is easily glossed over by those too eager to believe.
The third point is less often, if ever, made. Once we try to explain away the strong cases for survival by extending the range and subtlety of our self-deceptive psi powers, we run into a paradox: the greater the power of so-called “super-psi” that you invoke to explain away survival evidence, the less unlikely it appears that we really do possess the power to transcend the body and survive death. If the mind can do all that superpsi is supposed to do, why not the additional trick of actually surviving death? Speaking for myself, if human beings possess such uncanny, complex, and extensive internal resources for constructing a convincing appearance of survival, it seems almost a small step to embrace the idea of survival itself. The crucial, and in a way, decisive fact is the fact of psi itself; that is, the fact that some element of our being seems able to function, free from the constraints of physical reality.
There is another piece of this speculative puzzle I want to mention. Suppose we ask a basic question. In two words: Why psi? Why do human beings possess psychic abilities? Why psychokinesis, telepathy, precognition, clairvoyance, retrocognition? In terms of Darwinian evolution, it is hard to conceive an explanation of the origin of psi abilities.
Perhaps the greatest difficulty is not just its strangeness, but its total unreliability. The evolution of any function in living nature is tied to two things: possible genetic variations based on errors of replication and the advantage of the changes produced by that variation. On both counts, the emergence of psi from living nature would seem to be impossible. The first is obvious; we know nothing of the genetics or indeed the physicality of psi. But what of the second point? To evolve a new function, it must produce an advantage; if not, it would not become an acquired function, latent or otherwise. Now psi function is notoriously unreliable. There is, for example, the phenomenon of the “decline effect” (the best scores occur at the start of a test or experiment then drop to average performance.) In some macro-PK experiments, there is talk of the phenomenon’s “observer shyness.” In 2003, J. Kennedy published a very interesting paper, “The Capricious, Actively Evasive, and Unsustainable Nature of Psi: A Summary and Hypotheses.” 5 The paper documents the strange, unpredictable, rebellious nature of this aspect of our mental life. It is, as George Hansen said in a fascinating book, evidence for the “trickster” archetype; it may also be seen as a manifestation of the “spirit going where it listeth,” or, as Jan Huizinger would say, the “play” element in culture. However we characterize this capricious and therefore generally useless function that we call psi, it’s very existence is a puzzle, if not a mystery. Well, I am going to suggest, without trying to elaborate, that there is an answer to the question, Why psi? And the answer is, psi constitutes the postmortem environment and what we need to negotiate that environment. Psi is the “matter” of the next world; just as matter has its complex laws, so does psi, the pure mental component of our being.
This postmortem environment may be fully emerged or a still emergent phase of human evolution. In the postmortem environment, of course, our psychic equipment, our “subtle” or “imaginal” bodies, would constitute our being. H.H. Price has useful things to say about this adaptation, and his writings repay close study. I do not say this conception of psi and the afterlife is true; I only say it seems to me a possible and coherent scenario. Looking at the matter in this fashion, the existence of psi is a basic part of the supporting structure of the afterlife hypothesis.
Reincarnation Memories -- But we have yet to discuss the extraordinary findings of Ian Stevenson and other researchers of reincarnation memories. Stevenson et alia have collected thousands of cases. Here we find evidence for mental and physical continuities across the lives of persons who occupy successive bodies. In this research, children, roughly, up to the age of eight, retain two kinds of memories, cognitive and behavioral, apparently from previous lives. A child will remember a place where he was born in another town, a different family; have likes and dislikes, fears, attachments, talents and interests, and even bodily marks of a previous personality. When such correlations hold, the best explanation may be that parts of the child’s mental and physical being were reproduced, replicated, or, as we say, reincarnated from a deceased person. That counts as a form of survival, different, however, from surviving in a disembodied world and in possession of one’s former personality.
In Hinduism and Buddhism, we should note, reincarnation is not a desirable outcome. The purpose of being human is not to submit to this curious game of cosmic repetition compulsion, but to be released, to get off the wheel of death and rebirth. Evidence for reincarnation is still important, however, for it points to a spark of immortality in us, an element of continuity through many lives. It’s therapeutic importance cannot be fully ignored; but that is not our concern here. Theoretically, then, the evidence for reincarnation is very important; but as a possible form of survival the idea of reincarnation is perhaps the least attractive to Westerners who crave to survive with their personalities intact. This failure to satisfy our deepest needs implied by the nature of reincarnation furnishes a good segue to the main point of my talk.
The Way Beyond Survival Research
We have looked at four types of evidence that support the survival hypothesis. We should view this evidence against the background of a mysterious, latent, but strangely evasive, psychic potential, for the most part useless, and often capricious, whose function may be pre-adaptive to a postmortem environment.
Now suppose there is a good, even a high, probability that we survive bodily death. It might still occur to us to ask: do we really want to? Is surviving death a value worthy of our interest and admiration? In Indian philosophy, as is well known, mere survival in the form of reincarnation is not believed to be the highest value or the true goal of life. Something else is: wisdom, enlightenment, compassion for all sentient beings, total release from the cycle of death and rebirth. This idea is related to the viewpoint of the mystic. If we gave the mystic a voice and a chance to comment on our quest for evidence for life after death, we might hear something like the following:
“With all due respect, you seekers of evidence for life after death, you fail to grasp the most important point, which is not merely about survival but about the quality of survival, however brief or prolonged it may be. In fact, we humans suffer precisely because we want so badly to survive, blindly craving to perpetuate our being at all costs. We share this craving in common with all living things, an expression of the most mechanical side of living organisms. There is in fact a better and a wiser way to spend your time grappling with the riddle of existence. And that is to strive for enlightenment, discover the highest form of consciousness, a mode of being worthy of your efforts and sufferings. Isn’t there a danger of getting sidetracked by the obsession with personal survival? This thing you would perpetuate for all time, this dubious, anxious, quasi-fictional thing you call your personal self, or ego, is something you need to get rid of. You’re wasting your time and the precious energies of your spirit searching for survival evidence. A greater challenge and higher adventure cries out for attention, and that is the quest for self-knowledge and self-transcendence.”
The tension between survival research and mysticism is most evident in the case of Buddhism, which is based on the doctrine of anatta or “no self.” From a Buddhist perspective, concern over survival of our personalities is pointless. And in light of the quest for nirvana, it’s an obstacle. So, from this stark point of view, there is not only a contrast, but a conflict, between the goal of survival and the goal of enlightenment. Mystical enlightenment consists of graduating to an entirely new plane of consciousness in which the mechanism propelling one’s ordinary personality forward with grasping need is suspended and deconstructed.
Moreover, this new plane of consciousness may be obtained with complete fullness and satisfaction at any moment during one’s lifetime. In the mystical state, one both possesses and transcends the entire series of one’s previous personalities, passing beyond survival to the possession of eternal life. In contrast to the typical Western emphasis on the affirmation of personality, Buddhists and mystics from all traditions view reincarnation or the concern with any form of personal survival as a spiritual defect, an indication that one hasn’t achieved the optimal state of wisdom. In fact, the appeal of reincarnation seems slight. As indicated by the evidence, the bits and pieces of one’s personal identity that do survive, are minute, fragmentary, and apparently play a small role in the conscious life of the new self. Achievements of previous selves are swallowed up in oblivion; the reincarnated self re-starts its life adventure from scratch. One is here reminded of the futility of the fate of Sisyphus, who was condemned again and again to roll a heavy stone to the top of a hill only for it to roll back down to the bottom. So, at one level there is a conflict between survival research and the quest for spiritual enlightenment.
The mystical path offers a model of spiritual activity that sharply differs from survival research. It is precisely the individual details that identify us as unique human beings that a mystic like the Buddha or the English author of the Cloud of Unknowing or the Greek Areopagite would have us make every effort to thoroughly forget. Mysticism is the art of forgetting. Wishing merely to survive as the conscious person I normally am is the opposite to wishing to enter an entirely different order of consciousness. In the new state, the sense of the ego is drastically diminished. The two projects, survival research and mysticism, are deeply at odds, theoretically and practically. For in the one we use our skills to prove the survival of personal consciousness; in the other, we use them to get past the limits of rational, sense-mediated consciousness. Two different psychologies drive this research: the one is fed by anxiety over the ego’s extinction; the other is happy at the prospect of the ego’s extinction. The mystic, with Freud, sees the ego as the seat of anxiety. The task therefore of the mystic is to cut the root, and dismantle, the self-affirming activities of the ego. This is the only way to “unseat” the ego from its anxiety.
The nature of mystical practice is clear from the writings of the great mystics. There are different ways of describing it, but in essence it consists of systematically disengaging attention from sensations, images, feelings, willings, and concepts. The German mystic, Jacob Boehme, said: “If a person could stop thinking and willing for one hour, he or she would see God.” Yoga, says Patanjali, is the “suppression (nirodha) of all mental activity” (citti). Tantrik writers speak of the “reversal of the prop.” The mystic, not interested in what happens after death, is very interested in stripping down to his essential being, and seeing what’s there.
Robert Forman, a contemporary scholar and practical mystic, speaks of this encounter with the essential self as an encounter with “pure consciousness.” 6 Forman uses the techniques of transcendental meditation to attain states of pure consciousness, and there are tried and tested methods of mystical training, described in the literature. Mysticism is in principle experimental. There is a way to find out by experiment something about our deepest nature. According to numerous accounts, the results are of supreme interest and value, but unavailable in glib formulas. Indeed, ineffability, being on a plane beyond all symbols, is often emphasized. In the region of experience we’re describing, one experiences “eternity,” in which succession is replaced by simultaneity. We may obtain glimpses of this fuller mode of consciousness in certain kinds of esthetic experience, a Picasso painting where a figure is seen broken up on a flat plane or a poem by Apollonaire where the metaphors make distant connections, i.e., leap from an image of railway tracks to the Pleiades.
The psychophysiology of mysticism is interesting. As subjects slip deeper into increasingly pure states of consciousness, their organism becomes more hypometabolic, a state of reduced metabolism, in which respiration, oxidation, fluctuations of affect, are de-activated, toned down, and approximate states of hybernation and estivation (torpor). Studies of meditative hypometabolism reveal the psychophysics of epiphany; we find correlations between decreased oxygen consumption and flashes of pure consciousness. Since in pure consciousness there are no parts, no discrete entities in spatial relations, there can be no sensation of time passing, and no sensation of space or boundaries. In this state, it appears, an intuition of one’s boundless nature as pure consciousness becomes possible. There is an inherent quale to this state, which in Sanskrit is called ananda, or bliss. Strip consciousness down to its naked self – the claim seems to be -- and one may discover pure happiness. The highest good may be likened to the experience of eternity, or sense of complete possession of eternal life totum simul – all at once. The music of the Renaissance composer, Palestrina, evokes a sense of the totum simul, in my opinion. It was also the opinion of Friedrich Nietzsche who spoke of Palestrina’s “timeless, spaceless” music.
Conclusion: Bringing It All Together
Is there a way we can bring together the two spiritual activities we’re discussing? We might point out that survival evidence and mystical evidence occasionally overlap. For example, the out-of-body experience is a type of indirect evidence for life after death and also a type of mystical ecstasy. The most spectacular historical example is the conversion of Saint Paul, a mystical experience that was “paradisal” and transformative but also involved an out-of-body state (“whether in the body or out I know not,” wrote Paul.) So, when we emphasize the ecstatic state we in effect call attention to the mystical dimension; when we emphaszie the condition of being out of the body we call attention to the afterlife component.
There are also points where mysticism and near-death research overlap. For example, there are in the near-death state reports of panoramic memory that resemble the totum simul or “eternity” of the mystical experience. Then there is this. If there is such a thing as pure consciousness, we are likely to encounter some form of it after death when we have shed our bodies and the use of our senses. Hypometabolism, associated with mystical states, looks like a type of near-death experience; one empties the contents from consciousness and slows respiration down to the edge of death. Mentally and physically, the mystic “dies to” the world, achieving pure consciousness, which we may think of as a voluntary near-death experience.
People who come close to death as a result of cardiac arrest or other medical emergency sometimes report experiences that strongly resemble accounts of mystical experience. There is, for example, the often reported encounter of fusion with a pure blissful light being. Like the mystical experience, the near-death experience can be profoundly transformative. The near-death and the mystical experience provide an intuitive sense of oneself as part of a larger being. The ordinary sense of oneself as isolated and therefore vulnerable is transcended.
So, there may be a sense in which survival research and the mystical quest are at odds: the former treasures the individual and wants to know if it will survive death; the latter aspires to freedom from the limitations of personality, and wants to experience something transpersonal. But these two interests are part of the human condition, and each has a right to a claim on our attention. For those who cherish their loved ones and community, and value their personal history, the idea of survival must be of central importance; at the same time, there is another claim, related to but different from survival research. Mysticism is about the possibility of direct experience of the divine, at any rate, about extraordinary states of consciousness interpreted as divine.
Each domain provides factual support for two basic spiritual ideas; that consciousness can operate independently of brains and the idea that there is a uniquely transcendent experience (mystical) available to human beings, either spontaneously or by means of meditation. In one sense, mysticism is of primary importance, for it speaks to the idea of the highest good. As I said, we can ask if survival as such is of value. The sheer fact of survival tells us little about our fate and is riddled with uncertainties. So in my view, mysticism as a general human project offers something more positive. It enables us to focus on the present and detaches us so we can be flexible about handling the future, whatever it has to offer. Survival research, by contrast, may have some liberating effects, but fails to get to the root of our predicament, which as Freud and the Buddha maintained, is the precarious status of the everyday ego.
The mystical path, in which the self or ego is stripped bare of everything -- sensations, images, concepts,willings, etc. – offers an experience of enlightenment, a transformation of attitude, a new dimension of consciousness, an altogether new perspective on everything. This includes the perspective on death. Richard Bucke noticed that experieneces of cosmic consciousness produced the inward certitude of immortality. In other words, the mystical experience may provide evidence for a sense of immortality and eternity. Evidence for survival alone, however, says nothing to us about our deeper nature or the nature and value of postmortem existence. An element of uncertainty hangs immoveably like a gray cloud over survival research.
Nevertheless, it does on one point contribute a critically important element. The symbolism and mythology of spiritual life everywhere assumes that consciousness transcends matter, time, and space. It is one thing to claim that consciousness can be experienced as pure, and to demonstrate the hypometabolic indicators of this “purity” in the body. Other claims about spiritual powers, however, will seem doubtful to mainstream reductionists. If the spiritual seeker wants to ratify the transcendent properties of spirit, psychical research undermines the dogma of materialism. Taken together, then, mystical experience plus survival research provide the enterprise of spiritual life with solid credible building blocks.
Finally, let me say that in my opinion, there’s an advantage in having to rely on myself for the crucial evidence in the mystical quest; whereas in survival research, I have to rely on the testimony of others. Also, there’s something unsatisfactory about a hypothesis I can only confirm after I die; if I don’t survive, I’ll never know it. The benefits of the mystical hypothesis are knowable in the course of our lives, and that seems like an advantage. And if by chance, I do catch a glimpse of the light of the mystics, I will probably be changed for the better, both for this life and, if there is one, for the next. None of this is meant to denigrate the value or the need for survival research. But, since life is short and art and wisdom long, a proper ranking of the relative value of the two enterprises seems worth reflecting upon.
Michael Grosso, Ph.D., studied classical Greek and received his Ph.D. in philosophy at Columbia University. He taught philosophy and the humanities in New York and New Jersey. His interests span psychical research, metaphysical art, the parapsychology of religion, and primarily, philosophy. He’s a Board member of the American Philosophical Practitioners Association, and has published books on topics ranging from life after death to the mythologies of end time. Some of his books include Experiencing the Next World Now (2004), The Millennium Myth (1995), and Soulmaking (1997). His most recent book was co-authored with Ed&Emily Kelly, Irreducible Mind (2007) presently he’s affiliated with the Division of Perceptual Studies at the University of Virginia where the late Dr. Ian Stevenson focused his studies on reincarnation. Michael also conducts discussion groups that apply philosophy to problems of everyday life, and is a painter.
Michael Grosso, Ph.D., 1115 Altavista Avenue, Charlottesville, VA 22902, 434-989-7063. firstname.lastname@example.org
Readers may like to view Michael Grosso's paintings
1 The consolation of Philosophy (1968) Modern Library: New York, p.71
2The summaries below are based on my Experiencing the Next World Now, 2004, Simon & Schuster
3P.G. Maxwell Stuart, Ghosts: A History of Phantoms, Ghouls ad Other Spirits of the Dead. Tempus:2006
5The Journal of Parapsychology, Vol. 67, Spring 2003 (pp.53-74).
6Robert Forman ed. The Problem of Pure Consciousness: Mysticism and Philosophy, Oxford University Press, 1990