Thoughts On Life After Death – Does ‘Consciousness’ Survive When We Die?

With over 100 years of research into the nature of death and survival of consciousness, a more sophisticated way of looking at the evidence seems to be emerging. Based on a number of interviews and wide reading, Lance Butler outlines a new understanding based on science as well as spiritual experience.

Even Life after Death changes; like everything else, ideas about Survival have both a history and, if I can put it this way, a future. Some changes are modestly noticeable if one first looks back to the heyday of Spiritualism and the founding of the SPR in the late nineteenth century and then forward to the late twentieth century. In that time ouija boards, to put it schematically, were replaced by NDE research. But there is also a feeling of sameness, even latterly of stagnation, over the period.

During the last twenty or thirty years, too, things have moved forward slowly, but the feeling one still gets reading the main summarising or investigative texts in the field – say Gary Schwartz’s The Afterlife Experiments of 2003 or David Fontana’s Is There An Afterlife? of 2005 – is that the paradigm has remained unchanged. If we put together, for instance, recent examples of mediumship, the NDE material collected since Raymond Moody’s Life after Life of 1975, the ITC evidence (by definition modern), and Scole we find that although it constitutes more evidence, it is roughly the same kind of evidence as it was thirty-five or, in the case of mediumship, a hundred-and-thirty-five years ago.

Fontana, for instance, is able freely to cite nineteenth-century material, stories from the 1920s and 1940s, research from the 1960s, his own experience of poltergeists from the 1980s and the Scole material from around 2000. It all fits quite well; it all adds up to an interesting case for Survival; and it’s still there. One of the strongest arguments for Survival seems to be the fact that, in spite of modern scepticism and modern analytical and investigative techniques, Life after Death hasn’t simply gone away like Phlogiston theory or Geocentrism or Phrenology or bloodletting. Fontana’s evidence is not of a new nature, but it is increasingly solid.

The Need For A New Paradigm

And the evidence has continued to stack up, but it’s still apparent at the end of the first decade of the 21st century that the paradigm has not changed much. More veridical channelings, identifiable voices of the dead on untuned (sometimes even unplugged) radios, better NDEs, everything that happened at Scole – these are all useful grist to the Survival mill, but they do not seem to do have done much for a widening of scientific acceptance of any sort of afterlife. In particular we do not yet seem to have digested quantum physics properly, nor the recent thinking in consciousness studies.

In these circumstances I set out in 2009 to interview a handful of people, all well-known to the SMN, to find out ‘where they are now’ on the matter of Life after Death; I hoped thus to see if there are currently any developments of our Survival paradigm. The interviewees were Rupert Sheldrake, Bernard Carr, Peter Fenwick, David Lorimer, Iain McGilchrist, Matthew Manning and Pim van Lommel[1].

Van Lommel’s response to my opening question, which asked directly about the afterlife, was a little startling: ‘I never talk about life after death,’ he said. My heart sank a little. Had I got hold of the wrong Dutch cardiologist? But no, it appeared that what he meant is that ‘life after death’ may only temporarily resemble life as we know it here and now; more importantly the quantum ‘non-locality’ of the other side means that it is without time and can be considered to ‘contain’ past, present, and future simultaneously. It is ‘a space or dimension without place or time.’ The simultaneity of the Life Review during many NDEs is well known and that may give us a hint as to what the ‘infinite consciousness’ that apparently awaits us (while not of course really ‘awaiting’ anything) might be like.

Many people, van Lommel continued, have experienced non-duality, non-locality, greater or ‘cosmic’ consciousness. That is the ‘thing’ that is always there, timelessly; it is the incomprehensible greater ‘place’ with which we interface only at very special times. From the perspective of this quantum zone life and death are irrelevant concepts. ‘Life’ in this present world is a species of illusion that we go through, indeed that we actually create. Life ‘over there’ however is certainly not ‘life as we know it.’

Interestingly, van Lommel is quite happy to accept that NDE survivors cannot find the right language to describe their experiences adequately. Of course not. Our language is a tool for the here-and-now, for space and time. As is the case with quantum physics, we are able to mouth words about cosmic experiences, but the words have difficulty in demonstrating any significant content.

Beyond The Self?

I will return to van Lommel at the end of this but for now come with me to visit Peter Fenwick, who also managed to take the feet from under me when I questioned him; in his case the moment came after a good hour of explanation of his research into End-of-Life Experiences when he said, with the smaller of his two smiles, ‘But we do not have a personal self. We are embedded in the matrix of the universe which is our consciousness.’ Different words for pretty much what van Lommel was saying, then, and incidentally what Neale Donald Walsch says repeatedly in his Conversations with God series (‘There is only one of us’).

Fenwick suggests, following Alain Forget, that we can be ‘awakened’ here in this life (to moments of cosmic consciousness) and says that the ego ‘casts a pall over our consciousnesses.’ We are parts of a whole and need to ‘crystallise the light body’ as we do in dreams in similar states. The ‘limited ego’ is a ‘false self’ but even a glimpse of universal consciousness (‘available right now!’) shows us a bigger self.

In extreme NDE cases, Peter pointed out, people seem to go very far, ‘to the point where the illusion of separateness is about to collapse completely.’ In this life we merely make up our stories of life and death. When we recognise that the real is universal consciousness, questions of Survival become non-questions because there is really no birth and no death, just consciousness. Religions, seeking vainly to sift the saved from the non-saved, have lost their spiritual nature by not recognising this universality.

Bernard Carr filled in some of the detail of this radical and rather Buddhist conception of the afterlife. He suggested a ‘hierarchy of dimensions’ that may lead up to or end in ultimate consciousness (‘anatta’ – the empty centre of the onion) but meanwhile there are astral levels and reincarnation possibilities as we all head for what must, by definition, be the only possible goal. For Carr there are different levels of space to accommodate these dimensions and the mind creates the world both here and hereafter where a species of ‘dream-world’ awaits us.

New Metaphors

For Rupert Sheldrake, we already know what it will be like to be disembodied because we have the experience of possessing a ‘dream-body’ at night when we sleep. And, of course, for a physicist like Carr, everything comes down to energy, that is frequencies. Already for Sheldrake there are, famously, morphic fields in which the unknown energies, perhaps those of the ‘non-local’ quantum ‘world,’ operate. And all this, to go back to van Lommel’s opening remarks, is here as may become apparent after death when we may begin to ‘know the place for the first time.’

Sheldrake also observed, as many now would, that, for a while at least, we may get the Life after Death that we expect. We can move beyond our entrapment in desires and the unreal and come to expect something higher and more real, but then again we may not escape from our present lives all at once. He approves of imagination in the shape of myths, fairytales, and dreams, and points out that these are fields that are not based in material reality. They enact some of the possibilities contained in the infinite quantum field. Like Carr, Sheldrake is ‘not dualistic,’ ‘not a super-naturalist’; there is no separate realm into which we can ‘go.’

Mathew Manning, speaking from the deepest and widest experience of things psychic, spiritual, or, as I would now say, ‘non-local,’ stressed that knowledge of Life after Death is not ordinary knowledge. In his view we learn what we need to know in this life and then move on to less knowable realms. He is also more interested in energy than in ‘life’ as a metaphor for Survival. His famous psychic recreation of Durer’s drawings, and of many other works of art and texts in languages unknown to him, are not so much, he says, ‘Durer coming through’ (the older version of Life after Death perhaps) as a psychic picking-up of the energy of the original moment of artistic creation; it is less a matter of an individual’s survival and more a matter of energy circulating as the scientists tell us it does.

Personality & Beyond

By this time I felt that some sort of a pattern was building up. The new paradigm is perhaps only subtly different from the old one but it seemed to be emerging with some new and useful emphases. The claims now made about Survival are less personal than they used to be, for one thing, and the respect for the ideas of quantum-physics more solid. David Lorimer, for instance, told me that he sees Life after Death as ‘another state of consciousness’ in which it may be ‘a less distinctive personality that is you.’ He says he is less concerned now with the survival of his own personality as such. We may come to see that each ‘personality’ is ‘an expression of the universal.’ He quotes Betty Kovacs: ‘Birth is a coming into being of form (‘me’) and death a dissolution of form.’ Cosmic consciousness would be the ‘dissolution of all boundaries.’ We are like blocks of ice floating in the Arctic Ocean of universal consciousness; there is development, evolution, both here and hereafter, but we all belong to and return to the same sea in the end. This is not new, of course, it belongs in Hinduism and Buddhism where we become more ‘ourselves’ by becoming less our individual selves; it is also, according to Lorimer, the inevitable direction of consciousness studies as pursued since the founding of the Journal of Consciousness Studies in 1994.

The most ‘materialist’ person I interviewed was Iain McGilchrist. For him, ‘materiality is an important part of any kind of being we might have’; as he pointed out to me, ‘the universe has gone to an awful lot of trouble to produce this material world.’ Surely a useful corrective. If, to put it bluntly, cosmic consciousness is so terrific, why did it have to add us, messy as we are, not to mention the immense quantum charade of the universe, to what it already had? Why bother to Big Bang if you could just go on being perfect? I know that there are good answers to these questions but McGilchrist’s approach reminds us not to fall into the trap of treating spirituality as if our dinners, our doings, and our bodies didn’t matter at all.

But McGilchrist too is singing off the same page of our now-slightly-revised hymn book. As he put it, ‘the notion that one would be forever oneself is an appalling idea.’ For him consciousness ‘pre-exists us and isn’t created by our brains; our brains simply transmit or transduce it.’ But there is and always will be an ‘I’ – it is ‘God,’ we may come to see, who is the ‘Great I’ that is all of us.

New Directions

The publication in 2010 of Pim van Lommel’s Consciousness Beyond Life has been tremendously convenient for this small investigation. His book, subtitled accurately ‘The Science of the Near-Death Experience,’ seems to me to effect the shift in thinking that we have needed.  It is not a huge shift but it should now change the quality of the debate.

Encouragingly, the interviews which I conducted before Pim’s book had been translated into English fit very well with its proposals. After undertaking them and reading Pim’s book I begin to discern the outlines of the altered paradigm. Here are some of its main features:

  • We shouldn’t be naïve about any possible life after death. The appearance of deceased relatives at the death-bed or during NDEs or channeling, in particular, may not mean that Granny is continuing her old life more or less as before. Life in another ‘dimension’ may be more a matter of thought, of our wishes and, of precisely, appearance.
  • The hitherto rather weak connection between Quantum Physics and Survival looks as if it has gained a toe-hold in the intellectually-respectable world. ‘Non-locality,’ a term with origins found exclusively in QP, may be an appropriate replacement for the older term ‘spiritual.’ Physics too does not stop and will surely become less and less like its nineteenth-century avatar; in other words it will become weirder, looser, more improbable, more closely associated with consciousness, more ‘non-local,’ less simply ‘materialist.’
  • Life after Death is really not either ‘life’ as we know it nor ‘after’ our deaths, for the ‘non-local’ is always with us and underpins our world and our lives all the time; or perhaps I should use some unthinkable expression such as ‘all the non-time.’
  • NDEs do definitely occur during periods of negative brain activity. Whatever else they may mean they constitute clear evidence that the brain cannot be the whole story when it comes to explaining consciousness. Van Lommel’s research has changed things a little, and it is only the beginning of a long process whose end seems, at the very least, less and less likely to be straightforward materialism as we have known it.
  • In the matter of Survival we should expect both everything and not too much. By ‘everything’ I mean that Survival is connected with the universal or ‘infinite’ consciousness from the perspective of which all other things are apparently in some way illusory. By ‘not too much’ I mean that one of the main things one may see through, as consciousness is liberated from the material, is one’s ‘own’ personality.
  • ‘Energy’ is perhaps the metaphor that best connects the world of the non-local (or transpersonal or spiritual) with the world of physics. We do not yet know how energy can exist in the non-local where the energetic, involving movement by definition, should be absent because in that ‘dimension’ there is no time or space. But that there is some energy there – in Dark Matter or as Dark Energy perhaps – is evident from the fact that we are here at all; it was some sort of energy that brought about the Big Bang and before that there was no locality by definition.
  • Here, and hereafter, we seem to create our own worlds through our personal consciousnesses. The great or universal consciousness may be what creates the universe. We may do the smaller job of creating our own ‘worlds’ and ‘lives.’ Language makes all, but it cannot describe adequately the process by which it does this.
  • Buddhists, Hindus, and mystics of all stripes have the right approach. We need to read Angelus Silesius rather than too much academic philosophy. We, or parts of us, may be temporarily reincarnated. For a while after death we may perhaps need to ‘live’ in a place that we recognise (we won’t find that too hard to create presumably) but there would then be a moving on, into realms literally indescribable.
  • Body is particle and consciousness is wave. Our particles at death undergo what they have always undergone, change into something else. The waves of consciousness persist just as the scientists tell us all energy forms persist, forever. But we do not infinitely persist as the ‘us’ we currently think we are; ‘we’ will persist, if we do, as something endlessly ‘greater’.
  • This is all embarrassingly similar to the propositions of many religions. But it is not, in itself, religion at all.
  • Inverted commas are needed in this area passim. ‘Life’ ‘after’ ‘death?’ We do not, and cannot, really ‘know’ about all this. Not even with the sensible and modest knowledge of science. Especially not with that.

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Written by Lance St John Butler, who is a Professor of British Literature in the University of Pau.

“We Are Not Alone” The Shamans of the World Tell Us

To disregard the problems facing the Earth and to proceed with business as usual in education would be a betrayal of trust. Our students want to know how to make a difference. They need hope. And it won’t come if all we can offer is another scientific theory or technological fix. We must expand our vision to seek non-scientific alternatives. To make a difference, we must search for different understandings. Let us look to the wisdom of our ancestors. They believed that intelligence is not restricted to humans but is possessed by all creatures – plants as well as animals — and by the Earth itself.

They also believed in spirits. Human welfare was understood to depend on tapping into these wellsprings of wisdom, and all ancient societies (just like indigenous peoples today) had specialists skilled in communication with the natural world and with spirits. These people we now call shamans, and this article argues for the inclusion of shamanic practice in the educational curriculum. Shamanism gives working access to an alternative technique of acquiring knowledge. Although a pragmatic, time-tested system, it makes no claim to be science. Its strengths and limitations are different from those of the sciences and thus complement them. Being affective and subjective, shamanism offers another way of knowing.

Reason sets the boundaries far too narrowly for us, and would have us accept only the known – and that too with limitations – and live in a known framework, just as if we were sure how far life actually extends. . . . The more the critical reason dominates, the more impoverished life becomes. . . . Overvalued reason has this in common with political absolutism: under its dominion the individual is pauperised. – Carl Jung

Of course science will offer some valuable new directions, but at the same time we must expand our vision to seek non-scientific alternatives. To make a difference, we must search for different understandings. I am fortunate to live in a country, New Zealand, where many of my compatriots have an understanding of past and future that is fundamentally different from the prevailing ‘Western’ view. Most in our civilisation consider it self-evident that we stand facing the future with the past behind us, but traditionally for New Zealand Maori it is the future that is behind them.

They stand facing the past and their ancestors, who are a living presence in spirit. It is the vision of the ancestors that guides the present generation into the unseen future, with one clear and overriding purpose: to prosper the generations yet to be born.

Nga wa o mua “The days of the past to which we are coming.” — Maori proverb

Let us take our cue from Maori and consider the vision of our own ancestors. No matter what our ethnic background, we will discover that our ancestors (except some of the most recent) believed, like Maori, in the existence of spirits. They also stood in awe of the rich diversity of life forms, and they believed there is mutual interdependency between these forms, humans included, given that everything that exists is alive and conscious. They were of the opinion that intelligence is not restricted to humans but is possessed by all creatures – plants as well as animals — and, for that matter, by the Earth itself. Rock, soil, stream, ocean, wind, air, sky, the stars – all are imbued with consciousness.

Recognising that the Earth and many of its creatures vastly predate humanity and are therefore possessed of much older wisdom, our forebears honoured selected landforms, trees, plants, and animals as their ancestors. They understood that there is deep wisdom in the rhythms of the Earth and an infinite variety of life experience stored by our fellow creatures and by spirits. Human health and welfare were understood to depend on tapping into this wellspring of wisdom. On a planet that is everywhere alive, conscious and inspirited, humans were believed to have many wise allies for counsel and aid.

What is the relevance of this to our current concern about the fate of the Earth? If the ‘star billing’ given by us moderns to our species is unwarranted – if sapiens (wisdom) is not exclusive to homo (humanity) – then could it be that the fate of the Earth is not exclusively or even primarily in our hands? By our ancestors’ measure, we have grossly exaggerated our self-importance in the intricate web of life. Is it not conceivable that among our intelligent companions on this whirling voyage through space are some who may be capable of restoring the balance we humans have disturbed, of undoing the damage we have wrought? Possibly there are many more shoulders sharing this burden than we think.

Some of the strongest of those shoulders may be the smallest, as was demonstrated dramatically in the aftermath of the 2010 Gulf of Mexico oil well explosion. As millions of barrels of oil poured unchecked into the ocean from the uncapped well, there was a scramble to devise human technologies that would mitigate an environmental disaster of colossal scope. It took months before the flow was stopped, but in the meantime it was discovered that petroleum-eating bacteria had flourished in the oil plume and contained a vast amount of it. The micro-organisms had not only multiplied at an astounding rate, they also had ramped up their own internal metabolism to digest the oil efficiently. They formed a natural clean-up crew capable of reducing the amount of oil in the undersea plume by half every three days.

We may take hope from the fact that this kind of help is available, but we must also start paying attention, as did our ancestors, to what our travelling companions have to say to us. Every ancient society developed communication with the natural world and with spirits, and they had specialists skilled in the techniques of that communication. These women and men were held in high regard, but they were approached with trepidation, because they were perceived to be communing with mysterious and awesome forces. In Old French they were called “sorcier,” those in touch with the “Source.” The Anglo-Saxons spoke of the “Ways of Wyrd” known to “wizards” and “witches.”

Shamanism is the term now applied to what has come to be recognised as a worldwide phenomenon, whose practice can be found as far back as we can go in human history. Given the association in the popular imagination of the term shamanism with ‘native, tribal’ cultures, it will come as a surprise to many to learn that their own ancestors practiced shamanism. We are all descendants of shamanic peoples.

Research over the past 150 years by scholars of comparative religion, pre-history and anthropology has revealed strikingly close similarities in the shamanic techniques employed in ancient cultures and in modern indigenous societies worldwide.(4) The word shaman is borrowed from one of those contemporary indigenous societies, the Tungus of Siberia. We are fortunate there are native shamans still at work, despite the sustained, and in many cases brutal, efforts of colonial governments, Christian churches, and medical authorities to suppress them. In the past forty years there has also been a Western revival of shamanic practice inspired by indigenous teachers and reinforced by the recognition that these ancient spiritual traditions are our shared inheritance.

The Role of Shamans

What do shamans do? They work to maintain or restore harmonious balance between humans and the rest of nature through powerful connections with spirit helpers. This requires a mastery of the techniques of journeying.

A shamanic journey is a trance state purposefully induced by a mind-altering activity such as rhythmic movement or repetitive sound, most often steady and sustained drumming. Less commonly, a psychotropic substance is ingested. In their altered state of consciousness, using disciplined techniques, individuals can experience visions of flying or entering into the Earth. On their journeys, participants ask animal or guardian spirits to appear and help in finding the answer to a question about their life or about someone else who has requested aid. Healing is the primary shamanic work. This includes healing of the Earth and its plants and animals. It also includes human healing, both the healing of dissension in groups and of physical and emotional illness in individuals. In the shamanic worldview, dis-ease is understood to result from loss of connection to the spirits of nature and consequent loss of soul – individual or collective.(6) Shamanic journeys take us to places where we can recover fragments of lost soul.

Journeying is useful for a wide range of practical purposes, and the experience can be powerful, often surprising the beginner with the cogency and helpfulness of what is revealed. Here is a personal example. Buying property is tricky at the best of times, but when you have been living in America for 30 years and would like to find a place in your home country, New Zealand, it’s a major challenge. That’s how it was for me in 1991, and I needed help. I received it from a guardian spirit, an eagle. In a shamanic journey, the eagle took me flying over the Marlborough Sounds and showed me a remote property in such detail that I was able to draw a sketch map: the position of the house in relation to two garden plots; the boat shed; the jetty; the shape of the bay. My wife Jo and I brought the map with us when we came to New Zealand three years later. We found a place listed at the first real estate office we visited, and when we were taken to the land, we knew within ten minutes it was the place to which my eagle had flown me. We had no need to look at other properties.

I have another story of shamanic success in real estate. I once participated with 30 others in a shamanic journey to look for a new campus for the California Institute of Integral Studies, the small San Francisco post-graduate school of which I was then president. Many participants found themselves led by their spirit guardians to one particular city neighbourhood. Three people in the journeying group described ornamentation on the outside of a building. One went down a chimney and saw a room with a polished wooden floor and an oriental rug. Another person reported a delicious aroma of baking. Most amusingly, some in the journeying group remarked on a pervasive smell of marijuana in the area. Little wonder. Three weeks later, we found an excellent property half a block from the corner of Haight and Ashbury Streets! As we were to discover, the nearest shop, just two hundred metres from our new campus, was a deli, whose baked goods would become favourites of students and faculty, and the journey details of the ornamentation on the building, the chimney, and the room with the polished wooden floor and oriental rug all proved equally accurate.

As this suggests, shamanism can be fun! Shamans are theatrical. In order to rivet the attention of participants, shamans typically wear dramatic costumes and display colourful talismans as they burn herbs and rhythmically whirl, stamp, clap and drum loudly. Almost all of the physical senses of the participants are engaged. As teachers, we should acknowledge shamans as exemplars of excellent educational practice. People learn most forcefully from forms that engage more than their intellects. They remember best what they do, rather than what they read or are told. Effective education must have a large experiential component, and shamanic practice can be a totally engaging experience.

Shamans may be playful, but they are not playing games. Their work has a serious purpose: the evocation of powerful spiritual forces. Shamanic practitioners, as a consequence, must assume responsibility for the welfare of the individuals and groups they guide. As with psychotherapy and similar practices that may bring to awareness deep subconscious memories arousing strong emotions, shamanism must be practiced with disciplined restraint and ethical integrity. Also, with humility. “In shamanism (as well as with other forms of healing) it is not the shaman who does the work,” shamanic counselor Sandra Ingerman observes. “Shamans are just the instruments through which the power of the universe works. Therefore, asking the spirits for help and trusting that they will be there is the basis of the shaman’s responsibilities. Remember, an instrument cannot play itself.”

Reconnecting With Nature

Effective education must have a large experiential component, I said. Given the current critical imbalance between humans and other species, nature should be a primary area of experiential education. We should balance the abstractions of our classrooms with experiences of the wholeness of living, growing wild things. Following the centuries-old practice of shamans, students and their teachers should spend time in wilderness to restore direct awareness of the intricate interconnections that sustain life. Quiet time spent away from the elaborate constructions of our cities can help us gain the stillness in which we may hear nature’s voices.

Shamanic journeying also can lead to an intimate acquaintance with Nature. In his book The Adventure of Self-Discovery, psychotherapist Stan Grof reports that in the journeys he and wife Christina direct,(8) many participants experience “complete and realistic identification” with animals and plants and are given extraordinary knowledge of organic processes. In this mode of consciousness, “it is possible to gain experiential insight into what it feels like when a cat is curious, an eagle frightened, a cobra hungry, a turtle sexually aroused, or when a shark is breathing through the gills.” This can lead to profound new understandings. “Subjects have reported that they witnessed botanical processes on the sub-cellular or molecular level” and had “experiences of plant consciousness.”

Grof commented that to speak of plant consciousness might seem “fantastic and absurd … to a traditional scientist.”(10) He was writing in the late 1980s when biology was dominated by molecular geneticists, who, at the time, were supremely confident that all biological function was programmed by DNA sequencing. In the subsequent 20 years, however, there has been a conceptual revolution in genetics and cell biology, with the recognition that cellular networks in organisms are dynamic systems responding intelligently to changing external conditions, even modifying the structure of DNA where necessary. In his 2005 book, The Biology of Belief, cell biologist Bruce Lipton writes:

… each cell is an intelligent being that can survive on its own. . . . These smart cells are imbued with intent and purpose; they actively seek environments that support their survival while simultaneously avoiding toxic or hostile ones. Like humans, single cells analyse thousands of stimuli from the microenvironment they inhabit. Through the analysis of this data, cells select appropriate behavioral responses to ensure their survival. Single cells are also capable of learning through these environmental experiences and are able to create cellular memories, which they pass on to their offspring.

On the basis of such path-breaking research, Fritjof Capra concludes: “The organising activity of living systems … is mental activity. . . . Mind … is immanent in matter at all levels of life.”

Shared Consciousness

We have already observed that this perception of universal consciousness is the crux of the shamanic worldview. By entering the eagle’s keen eye, the bear’s great strength, the herb’s healing power, or the flame’s searing heat, the shaman shows us passageways to the spirit wisdom of natural forms. Shamans are shape-shifters, teaching that the boundaries between forms are not as impermeable as they may seem. Dramatically, this ancient knowledge that “there is no wall between species,” rejected for three centuries by reductionist Cartesian science, has been rediscovered in this decade by molecular biologists. Lipton again:

Recent advances in genome science have revealed [that] living organisms … actually integrate their cellular communities by sharing their genes. It had been thought that genes are passed on only to progeny of an individual organism through reproduction. Now scientists realise that genes are shared not only among the individual members of a species, but also among members of different species. The sharing of genetic information via gene transfer speeds up evolution since organisms can acquire ‘learned’ experiences from other organisms. Given this sharing of genes, organisms can no longer be seen as disconnected entities; there is no wall between species.

“It seems that every process in the universe that one can observe objectively in the ordinary state of consciousness also has a subjective experiential counterpart” in altered states.(14) This observation by Stan Grof suggests an important reason for the inclusion of shamanic practice in the educational curriculum. Shamanism gives working access to an alternative technique of acquiring knowledge. Although a pragmatic, time-tested system, it makes no claim to be science. Its strengths and limitations are different from those of the sciences and thus complement them. Being affective and subjective, shamanism offers another way of knowing.

Science As A Construct

In this it serves as shock therapy for students who have grown up with the unexamined belief that modern science is the only true path to knowledge. They have been taught that the scientific method is of a different order from all other human systems of understanding. The claim is that science, and only science, provides a clear window on reality and has the ultimate capacity to answer every question about nature. These assertions are untenable. Modern Western civilisation’s representation of reality is limited like that of every other civilisation. The sciences are cultural constructions to help us get by in the world. “A scientific theory is just a mathematical model we make to describe our observations,” cautions Stephen Hawking. “It exists only in our minds.”(15) Science is a simplification of the universe, which in its unfathomable vastness is always threatening to overwhelm the limited capacity of the human organism to comprehend. “I suspect there could be life and intelligence out there in forms we can’t conceive,” observes Martin Rees, British Astronomer Royal. “It could be there are aspects of reality that are beyond the capacity of our brains.”

Nonetheless, science reigns supreme and blinds most of our students, like the vast majority of us, to the diverse and richly varied paths to knowledge offered by other civilisations, contemporary and historic. “Today, the doors of the faerie hills remain sealed against us, for we keep the eyes of our mythic consciousness shut equally tight, refusing to allow cracks to appear in the walls of our present, desacralised world-view.” The writer is Mara Freeman, whose field is Celtic and British folklore. “Few of us dare to open what W.B. Yeats called the ‘flaming door’ and explore the power that crackles on the thresholds of our reality structures. But to do so might send a revitalising current through the wasteland of our culture.” Traditionally, Freeman says, it was shamans who had the courage and skill to throw open the “flaming door.” “Those skilled in walking between the worlds knew how to harness the power of the threshold where the normal rules of time and space hang suspended.”

Shamans are edge-walkers and shape-shifters, who dispel the illusion that all is fixed and orderly and controllable.

A stone’s throw out on either hand From the well-ordered road we tread, And all the world is wild and strange; Churl and ghoul and Djinn and sprite Shall bear us company to-night, For we have reached the Oldest Land Wherein the powers of Darkness range. – Rudyard Kipling

Shamanism is an acknowledgment of the awesome spiritual powers that shape the universe. It is an acknowledgement that mystery will remain despite all our science and scholarship.

Let us encourage our students to delight in the permanence of the unknowable and to sit in reverence and awe before the majesty of the mysterious. Let us encourage them also to hear the message of the shamans that the moving force in the universe is spirit, which makes life possible and gives it meaning. The exhilarating news the shamans bring is that we are not alone. On a planet that is everywhere alive, conscious and inspirited, humans have many wise allies for counsel and aid. We should lay to rest our exaggerated fears that we do not have the resources to keep this show going. Equally, we must learn humility. The hubris of homo sapiens in claiming superiority over all other species has been the source of severe damage. Humanity is merely one spirit form among countless billions.

The smallest indivisible reality is, to my mind, intelligent and is waiting there to be used by human spirits if we reach out and call them in. We rush too much with nervous hands and worried minds. We are impatient for results. What we need … is reinforcement of the soul by the invisible power waiting to be used. . . . I know there are reservoirs of spiritual strength from which we human beings thoughtlessly cut ourselves off. — Henry Ford, Detroit News, 7 February 1926

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Written by John Broomfield. John is a teacher, writer, educational consultant and leader of cross-cultural study tours and shamanic workshops. Former Professor of History at the University of Michigan and President of the California Institute of Integral Studies, he is the author of Other Ways of Knowing: Recharting Our Future with Ageless Wisdom published by Inner Traditions. A student of sacred ecology and interspecies communication, he lives on remote land in the Marlborough Sounds, NZ, to learn directly from animals, plants and earth.  His website is www.eagle-tours.co.nz and he is available at eagle@ts.co.nz.

SOURCES

This article is reprinted with permission from Social Ecology: Applying Ecological Understanding to our Lives and our Planet (eds. David Wright, Catherine Camden-Pratt & Stuart Hill, Stroud, Hawthorn Press, 2011).

C.G. Jung: Memories, Dreams, Reflections (ed. Aniela Jaffé, New York, Pantheon, 1961) p. 302

Terry Hazen et al.: ‘Deep-sea Oil Plume Enriches Indigenous Oil-degrading Bacteria,’ Science (26 August 2010,  online)

Piers Vitebsky: Shamanism (Norman, University of Oklahoma Press, 2001); Jeremy Narby & Francis Huxley eds.: Shamans Through Time: 500 Years on the Path to Knowledge (New York, Tarcher/Putnam, 2001); Ralph Metzner: The Well of Remembrance: Rediscovering the Earth Wisdom Myths of Northern Europe (Boston & London, Shambhala, 1994); Tom Cowan: Fire in the Head: Shamanism and the Celtic Spirit (San Francisco, Harper, 1993); Joseph Campbell: The Way of the Animal Powers: Historical Atlas of  World Mythology, vol. 1 (San Francisco, Harper & Row, 1983); Mircea Eliade: Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy (translated by Willard R. Trask, Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1972).

Narby & Huxley, op. cit., pp. 243-305; Vitebsky, op. cit., pp. 150-153 & 168-170; Roger N. Walsh: The Spirit of Shamanism (Los Angeles, Tarcher, 1990); Michael Harner: The Way of the Shaman (San Francisco, Harper, 1980); Sandra Ingerman: Soul Retrieval: Mending the Fragmented Self (San Francisco, Harper, 1991); Jeanne Achterberg: Imagery in Healing: Shamanism and Modern Medicine (Boston & London, Shambhala, 1987): Journal of Shamanic Practice (Olivenhain, California, twice yearly).

Stanislav Grof: The Adventure of Self-Discovery: Dimensions of Consciousness and New Perspectives in Psychotherapy and Inner Exploration (Albany, SUNY, 1988) pp. 52-53 & 58-59

Grof, op. cit., p. 59

Bruce H. Lipton: The Biology of Belief: Unleashing the Power of Consciousness, Matter and Miracles (Carlsbad CA, Hay, 2005), pp. 37-38

Fritjof Capra: The Hidden Connections (London, Harper Collins, 2002) p. 30. See also Evelyn Fox Keller: The Century of the Gene (Cambridge, Mass.; Harvard, 2000).

Lipton, op. cit., pp. 44-45

Grof, op. cit., p. 62

Stephen W. Hawking: A Brief History of Time from the Big Bang to Black Holes (NY, Bantam, 1988) p. 139

Telegraph.co.uk, 22 February 2010

Mara Freeman: ‘The Flaming Door,’ Parabola, vol. 25, no. 1, February 2000, pp. 45-51

Rudyard Kipling’s Verse: Inclusive Edition, 1885-1918 (London, Hodder & Stoughton,), pp. 575-576

Rebalancing The Masculine & The Feminine

When the masculine and the feminine are in balance, there is fluidity, relationship, a flow of energy, unity, totality. This fluidity and balance is perhaps best illustrated by the Taoist image of the indissoluble relationship and complementarity of Yin and Yang. In the broadest terms, the feminine is a containing pattern of energy: receptive, connecting, holding things in relationship to each other; the masculine is an expanding pattern of energy: seeking extension, expansion towards what is beyond. More specifically, the feminine reflects the instinctual matrix and the feeling (heart) values of consciousness; the masculine reflects the questing, goal-defining, ordering, discriminating qualities of consciousness, generally associated with mind or intellect. For millennia women have lived closer to the first pattern; men to the second. But now, there is a deep impulse to balance these within ourselves and in our culture. There is an urgent need to temper the present over-emphasis on the masculine value with a conscious effort to integrate the feminine one.

In the ancient world the feminine principle in the image of the goddess stood for relationship – the hidden connection of all things to each other. Secondly, it stood for justice, wisdom and compassion. Thirdly, and most importantly, it was identified with the unseen dimension beyond the known world – a dimension that may be imagined as a matrix connecting invisible spirit with visible nature. The word used then to name this matrix was goddess; later it was soul. The feminine principle offered an image of the oneness, sacredness and inviolability of all life; the phenomenal world (nature, matter, body) was regarded as sacred because it was a theopany or manifestation of invisible spirit.

The greatest flaw in patriarchal civilisation has been the over-emphasis on the masculine archetype (identified with spirit) and the devaluation of the feminine one (identified with nature). This has been reflected in the fact that the god-head has no feminine dimension, in the consistent neglect of feeling values and in the misogyny responsible for the repression and suffering of women. The history of the last 4000 years has been forged by men, determined by male perspectives and directed towards goals defined by men – principally the goals of conquest and control. (this is no sense intended as a criticism; in the context of prevailing belief systems and general level of consciousness, things could not have been different).

However, religion and science – all our cultural ideas and patterns of behaviour – have developed from this unbalanced foundation. Throughout this time, everything designated as “feminine” (nature, body, woman) was devalued and repressed, including the rich diversity of the Pagan legacy of the ancient world. In the domain of religion, heretics were eliminated; diverse ways of relating directly to the transcendent were lost. Naturally, this has created a deep imbalance in the culture and in the human psyche. It has led finally to the tyrannies of this century where the lives of some 200 million people have been sacrificed to totalitarian regimes. We can see the brutal legacy of this imbalance in Afghanistan, Bosnia, Russia and now Kosovo. But we can also see it in the ethos that dominates Western culture. The modern tyrant is the extreme reflection of a deeply-rooted pathology derived from a long-standing cultural imbalance between the masculine and feminine archetypes and, at the human level, between men and women. I would like to read you this extract from a recent article:

“This is a world of monstrous tyranny. Everywhere there are governments which by design or neglect are starving people, wrecking their livelihoods, breaking up their families. Everywhere there is the oppression of women, of other races, of ways of life which are dear to people. Property is confiscated, villages are set on fire, disease and malnutrition left to rage unchecked. And what all these victims, tens of millions of them, have in common – what brings their suffering to the forefront of my indignation – is this: they did not ask for this; they cannot avoid this; there is nothing they can do to change this; they have no choice.” (Matthew Parris, The Times, London 6/9/98)

Where there is no relationship and balance between the masculine and feminine principles, the masculine principle becomes pathologically exaggerated, inflated; the feminine pathologically diminished, inarticulate, ineffective. The symptoms of a pathological masculine are rigidity, dogmatic inflexibility, omnipotence, and an obsession with or addiction to power and control. There will be a clear definition of goals but no receptivity to ideas and values that conflict with these goals. The horizon of the human imagination will be restricted by an overt or subtle censorship. We can see this pathology reflected today in the ruthless values that govern the media, politics, and the technological drive of the modern world. We can see the predatory impulse to acquire or to conquer new territory in the drive for global control of world markets, in the ideology of growth, in new technologies such as the genetic modification of food. We see exaggerated competitiveness – the drive to go further, grow faster, achieve more, acquire more, elevated to the status of a cult. There is contempt for the feeling values grounded in the experience of relationship with others and with the environment. There is a predatory and compulsive sexuality in both men and women who increasingly lose the capacity for relationship. There is continuous expansion in a linear sense but no expansion in depth, in insight. The pressure of things to do constantly accelerates.

What is the result? Exhaustion, anxiety, depression, illness which afflict more and more people. There is no time or place for human relationships. Above all, there is no time for relationship with the dimension of spirit. The water of life no longer flows. Men and women and, above all, children, become the victims of this harsh, competitive, uncaring ethos: women, in their disorientation, and because the feminine value has no clear definition or recognition in our culture, are drawn to copy the pathological image of the masculine which itself incorporates fear of the feminine.

Because to a large extent, this whole situation arises unconsciously, not much can be done about it until catastrophe intervenes. Reflecting on this, I remembered the following story:

Once, not long ago, there was a great drought in a province of China. The situation was catastrophic. The Catholics made processions, the Protestants made prayers, and the Chinese burned joss-sticks and shot off guns to frighten away the demons of the drought; but to no avail. Finally the people said: “We will fetch the rain-maker.” And from another province a dried up old man appeared. The only thing he asked for was a quiet little house somewhere, and there he locked himself in for three days. On the fourth day the clouds gathered and there was a great snow-storm at the time of year when no snow was expected – an unusual amount – and the town was filled with rumours about the wonderful rain-maker. Asked what he had been doing during the three days that had caused the snow to fall on the fourth he said: “I come from another country where things are in order. Here they are out of order; they are not as they should be by the ordinance of heaven. Therefore the whole country is not in Tao, and I also am not in the natural order of things because I am in a disordered country. So I had to wait three days until I was back in Tao and then naturally, the rain came.”

The rain-maker did not do anything. He waited until he was in balance. Then, his quality of being rectified the state of imbalance that existed around him. Perhaps we need to become rain-makers…

I feel we are living in a time of kairos – a mythic time of choice – a time of stupendous scientific discoveries which are enlarging our vision of the universe, shattering the vessel of our old concepts about the nature of reality. Yet the delicate organism of life on our planet and the survival of our species are threatened as never before by technologies driven by an ethos of the conquest and control of nature, technologies which are applied with an utter disregard of the perils of our interference with the complex web of relationships upon which the life of our planet depends. The choice is between clinging to an outworn and unbalanced ethos and maturing beyond it towards a more responsible and sensitive capacity for relationship. If we are unable to develop this empathic capacity to relate, we will surely destroy ourselves and the environment that sustains our life.

So how could we help to redress the balance between the masculine and feminine in ourselves and in our culture? First of all, where are we, as individuals out of balance? Where are we driven by the unbalanced cultural ethos of achieving power and control, ignoring our feelings of depression, anxiety or symptoms of the body’s distress? Are we allowing ourselves enough time for reflection, for relationships, for connection with a deeper dimension of reality? The priority as I see it is to make the fact of this pathology a matter of public discussion. Shift the emphasis from achieving power to achieving balance. Secondly, here are some suggestions for strengthening the feminine principle in our society.

  • Free the Imagination from the stranglehold exercised by a controlling minority which excludes the non-rational from inclusion in our understanding of life.
  • Formulate a new image of spirit as the totality of all that is – both seen and unseen. Recover the lost and devalued feminine aspects of spirit: restore nature, matter and the physical body (including sexuality) to the realm of the sacred.
  • Imagine the Soul as a cosmic internet. We belong to an immense field or matrix of relationships. We could imagine the soul in this new way as something we belong to and can develop a relationship with.
  • Religion – Relinquish the dogmatic formulations of the past: Monotheism as Mytheism. (Ravi Ravindra) Recognise the negative effects of deeply rooted beliefs – such as the belief in original sin – on our interpretation of life and its meaning. Welcome the idea of direct individual experience of the sacred and the numinous.
  • Science – Integrate the principle of empathic relationship with what is studied in scientific teaching and practice. In education give children an empathic understanding of their own bodies and of nature rather than the image of the body and the universe as a machine. Help them to become aware of their environment as a great chain of relationships in which their lives are embedded. Nourish their sense of wonder.
  • The psyche: develop a greater insight into predatory and psychopathic patterns of behaviour. Learn to recognise and transform patterns of imbalance. Heal the split between mind and soul. Recognise that feeling is a valid mode of perceiving reality and must be integrated with thinking. The main problem in our society is emotional immaturity.
  • Politics: develop a forum beyond national and international politics where the true problems of the planet can be articulated and addressed. Recognise grandiosity, standardisation, the drive for control, the proliferation of bureaucracy as symptoms of the pathology of an inflated and unrelated masculine principle.
  • Medicine: integrate alternative (complementary) methods of healing with orthodox ones as a deliberate policy. Focus on preventive medicine. The modern GP has no time for an empathic relationship with his or her patient. The pressure of numbers is simply too great. However, in some surgeries and hospitals alternative practises are being integrated with orthodox ones. This integration could be expanded.
  • Agriculture: Focus on increasing the production of organic food. Removal of pesticides, antibiotics and toxins from our food and water.
  • Care of Children: A much higher level of prenatal care. Compared with the rest of Europe, we are way behind (Sweden is the most advanced). Attention to quality of children’s’ diet and to nourishing the imagination as well as the intellect.
  • Educate Women to be aware of their own specific value and the importance of their contribution to the culture. Articulating feeling values without fear or shame. The vital importance of choosing partners with greater care; Value and prepare for the responsibility of motherhood.
  • Educate Adolescents in awareness of the responsibilities of relationships and of the parent towards the child. Teach them the psychology of the child; its dependency; its sensitivity, its potential for emotional growth. Teach them about the complexities of neuroscience so they understand how their emotions affect their bodies and vice-versa. Ask them to invent ways of caring for the environment.
  • Control bulling by a deliberate stated policy of making schools a sanctuary. Children could help to make their own schools sanctuaries. Meditation in schools from the beginning – positive effects on capacity to learn and emotional balance. (Maharishi School in Skelmersdale – report The Sunday Times 19/9/98).
  • Teaching Methods: integrate right-hemispheric consciousness with the linear consciousness of the left hemisphere – opening to the creative power of the image – poetry, art, drama and music (no exams for these). Balance in the curriculum between developing the capacity for logical thought and creative imagining and participation. This poem by a 12 year old boy at school in Southampton shows how a teacher can provide the environment in which a child can dare to express his true feelings:

I hear my inner voice talking to me,
Explaining, encouraging,
Opening the part of me that I thought was lost.
In this world of cruelty and fear little lights are burning.
Everyone has a flame inside their hearts,
If only they had the courage to find it.
The light can trickle out through a hole in your mind.
When the inside is out
You are transformed and revealed.
There is no need to be afraid,
But be curious
As you will probably never know
where the force is coming from.
– Daniel Webster

Jonathan Schell wrote the following words in his book, The Fate of the Earth, “Because everything we do and everything we are is in jeopardy, every person is the right person to act and every moment is the right moment to begin.” Each of us is called to focus on rebalancing the masculine and feminine in ourselves and in our culture. This could effect a profound alchemy in our lives. Women and men could both participate in a process of transformation which could bring into being a new cultural focus whose emphasis is no longer on power and control but on relationship, balance and connectedness. The phrase “the conquest of nature” could be replaced by the awareness that humanity and nature participate in a deeper and still unknown reality that embraces them both.

At the end of The Undiscovered Self, Jung asks, “Does the individual know that he or she is the makeweight that tips the scales that infinitesimal unit on whom a world depends?” Millions of people have no choice. Those of us who do have a measure of choice could rise to the immense challenge of defining and living a new and responsible role in relation to each other and our planetary home.

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Written by Anne Baring. Anne is a Jungian analyst – co-author of The Myth of the Goddess, The Mystic Vision and The Divine Feminine and author of The Birds Who Flew Beyond Time