Thursday, August 12, 2010
At that time, FMS was welcomed by the scientific community as an organizing concept. Some of the stories emerging in therapy were so outlandish and alarming that they seemed impossible.
Ordinary housewives, cops, and truck drivers were remembering frightening episodes of alien abduction, satanic ritual abuse, and sexual exploitation at the hands of respected community figures. Some people were claiming to host hundreds of different personalities in one single brain and body.
It was all getting a little bit hallucinatory and hysterical and disturbing.
Science is by definition uncomfortable with strong emotion and vivid internal imagery anyway, so scientists were understandably anxious to tone down the volume ASAP.
Loftus helped that happen.
[Multiple personalities exit stage left. Shoo.]
However, even when Loftus first published her (self-described) groundbreaking research into FMS and confabulation within the therapeutic setting, it struck me that there was an ontological problem with the whole concept--a problem that, if rigorously examined, would likely reveal much more interesting stuff than the unremarkable fact that people in therapy are sometimes prone to suggestion.
No one was talking about this problem at all. They still aren't talking about it.
I realize now that no one will be talking about it, not ever--at least no one in mainstream science.
Yet we know that memory is not organized around this duality.
ALL memory is fluid and creative and informed by emotion and symbolic content. The way you remember an event the day after it happened differs radically from the way you remember it forty years later, and it should. The mind naturally alters memory to suit the current context, to provide the most needed information in whatever situation it finds itself. This is a normal process, not pathology.
The mind may also connect bits of events here and there to symbolic content in order to convey metacontent more efficiently than, say, a philosophy treatise: kind of like a mnemonic zip file. Some recent research even suggests that memory may be holographic in the sense that it can occupy many dimensions of experience at once.
Families also commonly construct group stories that when examined by an outsider turn out to be pure myth, yet most people in the family will readily verify all the details.
No one would look at memories of a pleasant childhood and cry 'false memory syndrome' when the family had itself implanted this falsely idyllic scene by consensus, but in fact such narratives do fit Loftus and Ofshe's definition. Such memories only become problematic when one family member exhibits pathology based on events that everyone else has edited out.
Likewise, the fact that a memory cannot be confirmed or verified in any way does not necessarily mean it contains no useful, genuine information. Such memories are not so much 'false' as they are complex and highly dependent on social context.
These people were truly suffering and sought help because of their genuine pain, but they literally could not say that their preachers, fathers, mothers, congregations, or beliefs were doing them grave harm. They lacked the social context to make any such statement.
Their consensual reality, their 'true memories' left these victims no room for seeing what was obvious to an observant outsider, much less the words to vocalize the problem. No one in their own right wing Christian world would validate such an accusation--it would have seemed like madness or heresy.
Social reality is always created by consensus, but consensual reality is highly limited and selective. When people tend to report as 'real' only events that can be confirmed by others or that validate their own views about what is possible it strengthens the group. There is real comfort in this. It's not all bad. The process makes daily life more comfortable and bearable.
'Confirmation bias' is widely documented in a bazillion solid behavioral studies that illustrate it in a bazillion different ways. This bias causes us to gravitate toward and validate what we already think we know. The up side is that this tendency makes community life possible. The down side is that it leaves communities vulnerable to group delusion and harmful rigidity.
In other words, consensual reality itself is a kind of socially implanted 'false memory syndrome', systematically editing out private, individual experience in favor of the group version. When a society demonizes and invalidates individual experience and gives it no place for expression and integration, it risks sailing off the edge of sanity itself.
We see this all the time in cults. And technology.
Other cultures have always found ways to integrate private and symbolic experience into the reality of the tribe without denigrating or invalidating the individual. The fact that our culture has not yet found a way to do this causes sporadic outbreaks of social hysteria, all manner of mental, physical, and emotional illness, and no small measure of mainstream delusional behavior--much of it within science itself.
One look at our earth reveals instantly that for all its hubris, science lacks even the most basic grounding.
Maybe we need a new term, a term for the tendency to debunk and invalidate all uncomfortable personal and social phenomena: Maybe, False Memory Research Syndrome?
Seriously, some psychologists can't handle the truth.
Saturday, August 7, 2010
I momentarily forgot: The secret to happiness is low expectations.
Or no expectations.
So it turned out the movie wasn't that good, and it wasn't all that funny either. The film tells the mostly true story of Ingo Swann and a U.S. government undercover operation that delved briefly into 'remote viewing,' a psychic visualization technique in which trained intuitives focus on a set of anonymous coordinates and sketch or report what they see.
The oddest part was that it turned out that reports of Soviet involvement were incorrect. Basically, the U.S. entered into a psychic intelligence race that was totally imaginary: a race with itself.
That part, I admit, is pretty delicious.
The biggest irony of all is that remote viewing does seem to actually work quite well under certain controlled conditions, especially if the viewers are trained in the technique and start out with a natural gift.
No one knows why remote viewing is so accurate, although it seems to draw some theoretical support from recent quantum physics experiments and from a view of the universe that is more multidimensional-dimensional and less linear.
Despite its unexpected effectiveness, the government claims to have dropped the program entirely and now, instead of spying psychically, Hollywood-type people make money making movies making fun of remote viewing and psychic spies.
Maybe the government really no longer does this. Maybe it does it all the time. Maybe it's remotely viewing this blog right now! (OK, probably not.)
In one carefully controlled experiment, remote viewers who were given planets as targets (without being told that's what the targets were) came up with remarkably consistent and accurate descriptions of phenomena that had not yet been discovered by astronomers--phenomena like the rings on Jupiter or the color of the sky and the molten landscape of Mercury.
Initially this 'incorrect' info was taken as 'proof' that remote viewing is total rot. Then, later, the viewers turned out to be spot on.
Remote viewing isn't fool-proof: Viewers have to be trained to filter out their own interpretive tendencies and to distinguish between their own thoughts and actual target info, but some people get amazingly good at this, providing accurate information that should not be possible to obtain using nothing but the human mind.
And yet it is possible to obtain info this way. Possible and, with practice, reliable and likely.
When remote viewers are given targets involving the far future here on planet earth, the 'hits' are also remarkably consistent and detailed--and more than a little bit scary.
Most of the remote viewers asked about earth's future predict that:
- Starting around the year 2015, the earth will be hit with a series of volcanic eruptions that will cause major climate changes and crop failures. Many people and species will die.
- These volcanic eruptions will distract the human race from very serious problems involving environmental pollution. By the time the eruptions stop being an urgent problem consuming all human attention, the environmental destruction of the planet will be so out of control that earth will become for all practical purposes uninhabitable.
- People will slowly be pushed underground to survive. These underground communities will evolve into domed cities that look a bit like terrariums. Life outside them will be impossible. People will grow all their food and satisfy all their survival needs inside these enclosures. Violence and war will become rare to nonexistent because humans will be forced to use all of their energy on survival issues.
I guess we'll find out.
It reminds me of the bit about life being what happens while you are making other plans. We spend so much time these days worrying about what we think will be the catastrophic outcome of our own current behavior as a society, that it would be kind of darkly funny if while we are busy obsessing about THAT, some other catastrophe were to happen that we weren't even considering.
Really, that's how life usually goes at the personal level, doesn't it?
BTW I really don't want to see George Clooney kill another goat by staring at it.
But I might try to teach myself remote viewing.
I'm not doing anything else at the moment.
And time's a wastin'!
Thursday, July 22, 2010
Daemons were originally neither good nor evil. They often possessed both positive and negative traits, but they did tend to be tricksters with a darker than average sense of humor. They could become corporeal fleshy creatures or incorporeal spirits and phantasms at will.
People were most likely to encounter daemons when they themselves were faced with major life changes or transformative events. Such encounters were rarely without danger, but they gave life a depth and a degree of meaning that is utterly lacking when all is calm and under perfect control.
Change is rarely all-good or all-bad, but it is almost always frightening. Encountering a daemon almost was a sign that deep and major change was on the way, either personally, culturally, or both.
Christianity Demonizes Daemons
The Christian Church was the first to divide and separate the daemonic realm into a struggle between evil supernatural creatures versus good supernatural creatures with humans in the middle. This was a substantial departure from the original Greek concept of varied and naturally ambivalent creatures that mediated between people and the Gods.
Now, instead of the daemons standing between people and the divine, between the natural and the supernatural, people stood between good and evil daemonic forces that were themselves supernatural. Humans moved to center stage, the demons to either wing, and the Gods of antiquity were kicked out of the drama entirely.
Demons, by contrast, did the Devil's work and either tried to seduce human beings into evil by stealing their souls, or else tormented the good and the holy out of sheer resentment of their relentless goodness and holiness.
Discernment suddenly became a hot topic. Good demon or bad demon? How to decide, what to do, what to do?
Clergy stepped up to 'help', and thousands of people were burned alive and tortured to death to save their souls and cleanse them of unholy daemonic associations.
With the dawn of the Age of Reason, demons also came to be associated with ignorance, while angels were trivialized as fluffy tokens of a kind of naive trust in a benevolent higher power. This trivialization further exacerbated the Christian divide between good and bad demons that was already well underway, and also tended to discredit and belittle the daemonic realm in general.
Weirdly enough, during the transitional period between the Middle Ages and the Age of Enlightenment, many learned men of the Church practiced alchemy, science, and angelic/demonic magic side by side without feeling any conflict of interest whatsoever--but this eclecticism did not last.
By the end of the 17th century, magic, daemons, and even most forms of religious belief were pushed aside by science, which declared itself the one and only true way to know anything about anything.
Daemons and Demons
The complex, mercurial nature of the daemonic realm has been successfully reworked in the popular imagination into something terrifying and wholly bad.
This re-imagining of the daemonic is a serious perversion of its original and true nature.
The main difference between the daemonic and the demonic then is the pejorative taint attached to the latter term. Daemons have literally been demonized: first by the Church, and then by science.
Depth psychology (Carl Jung, James Hillman) preserved something of the original daemonic realm in the form of the Jungian archetypes and the concept of personal inner daemons that drive creativity (kind of like a muse, only more relentless).
Depth psychology instead made the polarization of the daemonic an inner/outer affair. Demons were neither good nor bad but they resided inside the personality: they were defined as psychological phenomena without physical substance. This too is a significant departure from the original meaning.
Are Daemons/Demons Real?
Yes. Yes they are. But you have to expand your understanding of reality in order to accommodate them, and you also have to let go of the need for total personal control, and embrace instead the notion that personal transformation is a major part of life, that tranformation is ongoing and unavoidable, and a that it is a worthy goal and one of the great joys and adventures of being a creature.
Until that happens on a grand cultural scale, the daemons/demons are likely to haunt and scare us, and scientists are likely to keep turning up their noses at them and laughing.
Tuesday, July 20, 2010
I've been frazzled and frustrated lately over several intractable 'problems' that I think I'm going to just let go as I seem to have no clue how to fix them. The other night I asked the Univerise, God, the ghost of Elvis, anyone really who might have some bright ideas... for a sign.
The next day, even though I hadn't told him I did this, my BF showed me the photo above online.
He thought it was funny.
I do too.
Sunday, July 11, 2010
In Carlos Castaneda's Don Juan series, the Mexican shaman Don Juan is always trying to teach the narrator to dream lucidly by reminding him to look at his hands.
Night after night Castaneda goes to bed intent on remembering to look at his hands in his dreams, and night after night forgets to look at his hands until he wakes up the next morning and realizes he hasn't done it.
The whole point of Don Juan teaching Castaneda to remember to look at his hands while dreaming is so Castaneda can then learn to move between dreaming and waking states freely, and so he can understand that the two realities are not that rigidly separate. Moving from one state to another at will is an important part of shamanic practice.
Learn to look at your hands in your dreams today, fly around in the body of a raven tomorrow.
It's all connected.
That's the idea anyway.
Every so often I have an experience with dreams that is lucid-like but is not exactly the same as what Don Juan was teaching Carlos. It's more passive and a bit unnerving.
I know this sounds weird. But it happens with some regularity, if not all the time or even every week. Jung called this phenomenon 'synchronicity', but sometimes it gets way weirder than synchronicity. I promise to post an example later to illustrate what I'm talking about.
Recently I've been thinking about this a lot, about how our culture is one of the few on earth that insists dreams are 'imaginary' (as in 'not real'), and then goes on to rigidly separate dreams from waking life, discounting the importance of these (often incredibly vivid) experiences.
Some psychologists do interpret dreams, but interpretation is a very different thing from believing in a matter of fact way that the dream reality is as real in its own way as the material reality we all imagine we share while awake.
Psychology lays down a fairly rigid barrier between inner and outer, personal and cultural, material and symbolic. It's a dualistic system of thought. The Ego versus the Dynamic Ground. The personal versus the Archetypes. "Psychological states' versus bodily illnesses. Blah, blah, blah.
What if that whole way of framing it is wrong?
I think maybe it is.
In truth, we don't really have a clue what reality is. If you think I'm overstating that, then you've never taken a single philosophy class--or at least you've never stayed awake all the way through one, which is completely understandable.
What if there are intelligences, alien or earthly, that can move enter dreams and reality at will? Why should this be an impossibility? Shamans claim to do it. Freddy Krueger does it. Maybe all sorts of other being do it.
Maybe we even do it.
I also think some people have thinner boundaries than others in general, and that people with very permeable personal boundaries may well notice more wanderers between states than people who are more rigidly defined.
I think this could explain quite a lot of paranormal perceptions without making any value judgments about thin or thick boundaried people. Some people may just be born this way, just like some people are born good at math, and others have perfect pitch, and others are color blind.
We know some people claim to learn to be this way.
I think that truly "there are more things in heaven and earth" than we know.
I wish we could study them more seriously, without all the ridicule.
Friday, June 25, 2010
Some people fear every aspect of the paranormal and are convinced that even the most superficial flirtation with these topics will quickly result a complete loss of autonomy and forcible invasion by some dark aspect of the spirit world.
Other people believe that just about any activity is safe so long as you 'cast a circle of light' around yourself and ask your Higher Power for protection.
Still others believe that only relentless positivity and prayer can protect you from demonic assault. And then of course there's the idea that 'the devil made me do it!'--The belief that just about any negative behavior or attitude is the direct result of spirit possession.
I personally believe that all of these ideas about possession are misguided or wrong.
Let's look at them one by one:
Flirtation with paranormal topics is dangerous and invites possession.
This is akin to saying that reading chocolate cake recipes makes you fat. The question of intent and self-discipline comes into play here. Are you reading chocolate cake recipes because you have a chocolate cake problem and can't think about anything else? Are you a person who eats NOTHING except chocolate cake and you are now exactly one pound away from death by morbid obesity? Are you one of those people who is powerless in the face of chocolate cake and have you been skipping your meetings?
People with a weak sense of self and people who have fantasies about power and control can get into trouble dabbling with the paranormal, but such people get in trouble with ordinary life, too. You may run into dark forces in paranormal work, that's true. You may also get robbed at gunpoint when you leave your house.
Or, you may be the victim of a home invasion even if you NEVER leave your house for fear of being robbed. Stuff happens. As with everything in life, what happens during paranormal investigations is partially about you, but it isn't ALL about you. Possessing a living human being is not that easy a feat for the disembodied. I don't say it never happens, but it isn't that easy to accomplish.
Cast a circle of light and that will make you safe.
In dealing with the paranormal or any other aspect of life, NOTHING will make you 'safe no matter what'. One of the most dangerous attitudes you can adopt in any context is that some trick of consciousness or ritual makes you 'safe no matter what'.
Discernment is a necessary skill for all aspects of life, and you can't put it down when approaching the paranormal, not ever. All that glisters is not gold. Much of what looks bright and shiny and good in the world of the paranormal is dangerous, in the same way that the best con men are usually the most likable.
That said, tremendous confidence and an understanding of who you are and where you begin and end is an asset when dealing with the spirit world.
Much of what is hanging around the ether waiting to chat is akin the the guys who hang around dive bars all the time and want to buy anything in a skirt a drink. Keep your wits about you and don't be chatting up every stiff that floats by your Ouija board no matter how lit up your circle is. You have to know when to say 'buzz off' and when to call it quits. Not all inquiries are productive.
Protection from demonic assault/recovery from demonic assault.
I have long noticed that the people most often featured in stories, books, and movies about possession are people who are trying very hard to be perfect, nice, and good every single minute.
Christians are especially susceptible to possession because they frequently believe that they must push away and deny their own personal darkness, and additionally, they are already used to giving away all personal authority and power to an outside entity: the Church. When dark forces invade their lives, they believe it is their piety that has attracted them, and in a way it is.
These people are are unbalanced; they have allowed another parasite (the Church) to make them weak and ill and now they are food for wraiths. Their fear of darkness is so huge, and their shame at their own darkness is so equally huge, that any kind of darkness can now use that huge reservoir of fear to magnify itself. The best possible protective course is the hardest one: Face the fears, look inside, make friends with yourself, all of your parts, the pretty and the ugly and the not so nice.
Often you hear these debates about, "Is it darkness coming from inside (psychological projection) or is it an actual dark external spirit? (demon or entity)" I think this is not really a useful question. The answer is often: "both, all of the above." The real issue is not where the dark force originates, the issue is the lack of balance, self-possession, and enormous fear present in the person under psychic attack.
Just as predators in the material world look for the weakest animals to eat, dark psychic forces look for people who fear their own darkness and are used to be being bossed around.
Check your intent
When approaching paranormal topics, check your intent and your attitude. If you are goofing around, expect goofiness and mischievous responses in return. If you are very fearful, expect to be intimidated and harassed. If you are curious and centered, expect to learn a few things.
Be careful. Don't isolate. Proceed with caution always.
And to thine own Self be true.
Thursday, June 3, 2010
But magically speaking, enchantment has a more technical meaning, and its effects are not always so benign.
The word 'chant' is at the literal center of the word 'enchantment'. Chant is the practical tool or device used to en-chant; and the state of being soothed, changed, redirected, or controlled by chant is called 'enchantment'.
A chant can be made up of any repetitive collection of words used to produce a desired effect. When we think of chant today, we might imagine some primitive people dancing around a fire in scanty clothing, repeating a single syllable over and over again, (a scene featured in TONS of cartoonishly offensive B movies, including Tarzan flicks.)
Or maybe we remember chant as a familiar part of high school pep assemblies and the 'cheers' that were used (as chant) to whip up student emotions for essentially meaningless sporting contests. (We're #1!) Perhaps the soothing music sung by Gregorian monks springs to mind. Or the exotic mantras used in some forms of Eastern meditation to focus attention.
Chant has been confined by contemporary culture and thought in these familiar and polarized boxes: the trivial or the exotic, the silly or the deeply sacred. But chant occurs in the middle too--all the time--in daily life, in the media, in advertising and 'spin', between our own ears.
Chant and Magical Thinking
I've been recently enjoying a weekly blog written by John Michael Greer called The Archdruid Report.
Greer is an actual Druid, a practitioner of magic, and the author of a number of books on the topics of magic and myth, but The Archdruid Report is not about all that. Instead, it's about peak oil and sustainable living (another topic that Greer has written about extensively). The blog contains Greer's passing thoughts on contemporary culture and the major social changes already in progress.
Greer's June 2nd post entitled "Magical Thinking" veers uncharacteristically into his magical interests with a discussion on chant and on how Americans use to it all the time to convince themselves of things that are patently untrue--things for which there is not one shred of evidence. He points to the current oil blowout in the Gulf and the frantic conviction among many that "science can fix anything," which it can't, and that detonating a nuclear bomb at the bottom of the ocean is the way to go, which it isn't.
The longer crisis goes on, the more people come forward to insist that nuclear annihilation of the sea floor is the fix we need, even though this has never been tried--(The Soviets claim to have successfully stopped leaking gas wells on the surface, not on the ocean floor, by detonating bombs, but they also claim that they've tried this and failed--all claims, none of them addressing problems a mile underwater involving oil). Most experts say bombing the ocean floor is an atrocious idea that could have even graver consequences than the ones we already face.
One joke spreading through the internet right now sums the idea up this way:
QUESTION: What's worse than an oil leak at the bottom of the ocean?
ANSWER: A radioactive oil leak at the bottom of the ocean.
(Remember "Bomb, bomb, bomb--bomb bomb Iran"?)
In fact, much of what passes for discourse these days is nothing but clusters of chants repeated by the variously enchanted:
Americans are the hardest working people in the world.
America country can do anything.
The free market is self-regulating.
Taxes are tyrannical.
So and so is a [fascist/socialist...fill in whichever, it doesn't really matter].
All of these words are mindless and invoked to create the illusion of security and power. What you have to ask yourself is, who is invoking these chants and to what end? But of course, if you're already enchanted, you're not really capable of asking that kind of question.
That's the whole point of enchantment.
The Tower of Babel and Images of Apocalypse
At the end of his essay on "Magical Thinking" and the Gulf disaster, Greer talks about the image of the Tower in Tarot iconography and its relation to the Tower of Babel and negative uses of enchantment. Weirdly, (or maybe not) when I read this, I had just finished writing a review of Pontypool, the movie version of Tony Burgess's postmodern uber-zombie novel that addresses similar concerns--a review which I ended by talking about the image of The Tower.
Suddenly, The Tower seems to be everywhere. Yikes.
Words have power and enchantment works, but at some point, too much of a bad thing leads to the collapse of meaning. When language is only used to control and obfuscate, to conjure destructive illusions and reduce people to their basest instincts, humans literally become zombies--mindless recipients of viral codes and commands--and society falls apart.
Greer thinks that society's fall will be long and slow, not apocalyptic. But there's good reason why zombies are suddenly replacing vampires as the paranormal creature du jour. Real zombies--the walking talking victims of negative enchantment--are everywhere these days.
Vampires & Zombies: Enchanters & Enchanted
Zombies and vampires are actually mirror images of each other, narratively speaking. They speak to the most important oppositional obsessions of our age:
- Vampires are undead and powerful, zombies are undead and enslaved.
- Vampires are undead and sexy, zombies are undead and repulsive.
- Vampires are undead and sensitive, zombies are undead and barely conscious.
- Vampires feed on living blood. Zombies go right for living flesh.
- Vampires can only be destroyed with a stake through the heart. Zombies have to have be shot in the brain.
You could say (simplistically) that vampires are the enchanters and zombies are the enchanted.
Vampires enchant and control. Zombies are enchanted and controlled.
Both are not exactly alive and not exactly dead.
In fairy tales, there's always a way to break a negative enchantment, to change the monster in the mirror back into a handsome prince or beautiful princess. A kiss will often do it.
In zombie and vampire lore, the only cure is death. Death ends up being a kindness, a respite, an object of constant longing and desire.
It's important to point out here that in the Tarot, the pictorial story continues well after the image of the Tower is presented. There are other cards. Many of them. There are even cards that follow Death.
There are many, many Tarot card stories, and each of the stories is connected to all the other stories, and the whole collection is cyclic and ever-changing. Death itself is never the end, but occurs as a card halfway through the 22 cards in the Major Arcana. The Death card is symbolic not so much of finality and loss, as personal transformation through endings and destruction.
An ending is what we are after now--that much is certain--and on so many, many levels.
I for one will be very glad when this particular story is finished.
Thursday, May 27, 2010
Several years ago I came across an amazing little book called Daimonic Reality by an Irish writer named Patrick Harpur.
In Daimonic Reality, Harpur proposes that paranormal shapeshifting creatures do actually exist, and that they simultaneously inhabit both physical and spiritual realms, shifting back and forth between these realms at will.
Encountering one of these creatures is by definition a Big Deal.
Encounters with shapeshifters like Bigfoot, aliens, huge black cats, werewolves, and other paranormal entities are distinguished from sightings of ordinary animals by the intensely emotional quality of the experience, which can be so huge as to be disorient the experiencer for years.
Typically the person who encounters such a creature is deeply changed as a result. What's more, specific kinds of creatures have long running mythic associations with specific kinds of changes.
Harpur's point is that psychologizing strange phenomena in no way explains them; it simply retells a story from a perspective that makes less sense than the standard one used by almost every other culture except our own: Namely, something actually happened.
The word daimon actually comes from a Greek term meaning something like 'spirit of place.' Daimons were not the 'demons' of contemporary Christian lore, but much, much older entities that pagan peoples recognized as being associated with actual locations or natural landmarks.
Thus werewolves live in the deep woods, aliens descend from the sky, faeries disappear into circles of rocks, sea serpents inhabit lonely landlocked lakes, and trolls guard crossings, bridges, and borders.
Daimonic Reality is still one of my all-time favorite books on the paranormal, because it strikes me as being the simple truth of the matter. The book cuts through the endless annoying debate over whether paranormal creatures are material or psychological in nature, whether they are 'real' or 'imaginary'.
Harpur's answer is, "Both!"
It's a hard answer for most of us to get our heads around, and yet it instantly makes sense of the stories and firsthand accounts, which almost always are profound and unambiguous. Witnesses not only saw something real, it was so incredibly real and so memorable they tell the story for the rest of their lives.
I think that contemporary culture needs these stories so much. The created world is a mysterious living entity with a soul and a consciousness, and it seems to me that devaluing direct experience of its sentience bleeds life of color and meaning. Something goes missing when every damned thing comes with a 'rational explanation'.
Three words! Occam's razor, you know?
In a similar book, The Terror that Comes in the Night, folklorist David Hufford recounts his research on the 'Old hag' phenomenon which today goes by the more familiar term sleep paralysis, and in medevial times was known as an incubus or succubus.
Hufford very methodically and rationally comes to the conclusion that this specifc bit of folklore is grounded in an actual experience. We may not know the nature of the experience. But that doesn't make it less 'real'.
In other words, just because we have folk tales that are cross-culturally consistent, and just because an experience has a physical and perceptual component, there is absolutely no basis for concluding that something 'real' is not actually happening to people who have the encounter. 'Brain chemistry' explanations are non-explanations. They are philosophically bankrupt.
Hufford's book made groundbreaking and risky claims, but his work and his perspective are now widely accepted as valid. The book is very readable, though maybe not as much fun as Harpur's.
I personally believe we need our 'damned things' way more than we need rational explanations for them. We need our daimons. We need to encounter and respect mystery. Such encounters remind us that the world is not composed of dead matter, and we are not located in the dead center of it.
I'm currently halfway through Patrick Harpur's new book, The Philosopher's Secret Fire, and that one is pretty good too.
When I finish it, I promise to come back and share the secret.
(At least, I promise to come back.)
Sunday, May 23, 2010
While the crowd is 'looking over there' the magician does something 'over here' and presto! An object appears or disappears in a seemingly impossible fashion and everyone has a bit of fun being amazed and amused.
Before the Age of Reason, however, such tricks were accepted as a part of daily life. Pranks of altered consciousness were played on ordinary humans by faeries and household sprites, by witches and sorcerers, by ghosts and demons, and by all manner of other supernatural forces.
Two specific types of trick--the glamour and the pishogue--were especially common and were regularly discussed.
A pishogue is when someone or something casts a spell over a person that confuses or changes how that person perceives an object. A glamour, by contrast, is when the spell is cast over the object itself in order to change how it appears or even to make it disappear entirely (or cause it to become invisible).
Faeries were said to be especially skilled in the art of pishogue. Faeries could easily alter human perception to make people see whatever they wanted them to see, and could appear to humans in whatever form they wished. (Many writers versed in faery lore believe that today's 'aliens' are actually the same faery folk our ancestors talked about as a matter of course.)
Faeries are notoriously private and don't appreciate human nosiness into their affairs. Their skill at deception and the alteration of human consciousness remain legendary to this day.
Glamours were more often cast by witches or sorcerers. The Malleus Malleficarum, the infamous 15th century text that allowed the Church to burn and torture thousands of women accused of witchcraft, goes into great detail on the matter of the use of glamours, especially in regard to stealing the male member or causing it to disappear altogether:
f his exterior sense, such as sight or touch, can he perceive that it is present."
It's easy to look at a piece of text like this one and conclude that the author must have been speaking metaphorically, but the quote is actually pretty clear: It says plainly that the guy whose dick has been glamoured off isn't dealing with impotence or a mere loss of confidence. He literally can't see a dick where once a dick used to plainly obvious.
Witches also cast glamours to make themselves appear to be beautiful when in reality they were hideously ugly or deformed. This is where we get the modern usage of the word 'glamour' as having something to do with sexy women's clothes and the proper make up and attitude. It's important to point out, however, that nothing that pedestrian was meant by the original term. Today's 'glamour' is a very watered down, tame version of the original concept.
It's odd how the everyday practice of magic has lost so much credence even though we absolutely know magic exists and that it is a powerful, amazing art. It's almost as if science has cast its own glamour over the notion of glamour itself.
Illusionists like David Copperfield successfully make large buildings disappear and Chris Angel hovers in midair, and we accept all these feats easily as long as it is a form of entertainment. We've given our consent, asked to be amazed, suspended our disbelief, and are happy when we get our wish.
Yet when we read defunct texts from the prescientific era we laugh off such claims as simple ignorance and superstition--as though it would be impossible to fool anyone who hadn't given advance consent. We are not all that comfortable with the idea that magic can be used against us when we don't want it, or when its aim is something other than entertaining games and fun. We know on some level that it can be used this way and is used this way, but we don't like it so we pretend it's all impossible.
The Church wasn't all that comfortable with that idea either. They responded rather badly.
Basic principles of magic such as pishogue and glamour are still used today by the press, by Hollywood, by the government, by amateur and professional hypnotists, by psychotherapists, and most especially by the advertising industry. This is just a short list of the open uses of pishogue and glamour. Think of the art of 'spin' and how big a part of all our lives that art really is.
When I read accounts from alien abductees I often wonder about covert uses of these techniques.
Just because the Church reacted in a totally batshit manner to accusations of magic 500 years ago doesn't mean magic isn't real and isn't still being practiced today by those who know how.
We don't really need to roast anybody.
But it is food for thought.
Friday, May 14, 2010
Today's science is far ahead of what most of us imagine, and our educational system is so lame that most of us aren't even capable of imagining it.
Most scientists would still agree that science is a way of knowing the world that is based on reason and logic. Science is a methodology grounded in doubt.
Scientists must test their ideas through experimentation, and these experiments must be replicated by other scientists. Even then, science departments at major universities hammer at facts and theories just to see if they will break.
That kind of constant challenge is a good thing: It is meant to keep theories and information accurate, to keep inquiry democratic, and to keep researchers on their toes.
The attack on science by today's political right is disturbing on many levels, but perhaps the most disturbing thing about such attacks is that they misunderstand what science is and then offer up something even worse: bad religion.
This is often the case with New Age critiques of science too. Just because you can't understand quantuum physics that doesn't mean you are free to make it all up in your spare time and use it as evidence that your daily conversations with alien superbeings are 'real'--whatever 'real' means.
That approach is just so wrong on so many levels that it would take a separate essay to list them all.
Science is neither as bad nor as good as its press. It's a tool, period, and if you want to learn to use it effectively you must be trained in the craft. Used well, science is a really powerful tool. But it isn't always the right tool and it can't account for all phenomena.
Science always comes up in discussions of the paranormal in this way, as if it were the only portal into any examination of the unknown, as in, "Is there any scientific evidence for it?" or "Can it be proved by science?"
The right answer is often, "Who cares?"
Most paranormal phenomena lie outside the realm of science, in the shadows science wants to avoid--in traditions of magic and imagination, in methods of concealment and deception, in defunct inner disciplines of transformation, in embodied narratives like myth and folklore that see information in emotion, pattern, and dreams.
Science competed fiercely with traditions of alchemy and magic in the 17th and 18th centuries and won. But science went too far in declaring victory. Science was a sore winner.
The fact that today we hear the word 'imagination' as nearly synonymous with 'falsehood' shows how far the mark was overshot. The degradation of imagination is a distortion, and a serious one. It does real violence to the human race and is as limiting in its own way as any religious dogma.
Part of scientific overkill was grounded in political rebellion against the Church, which in that era was usually the same entity as the State in most parts of the world, and which had become crushing, unjust, and damaging to the human spirit.
But another part of the overkill was a kind of covering over of basic legitimacy in the older traditions. If you want to be the new boss, you have to make the old boss look bad--even the parts of his performance that aren't bad at all, even the parts that are valuable.
Something valuable was definitely lost in transition, and now science seems always to be nervously looking over its shoulder, always waiting for something to jump out of the shadows and shout "Boo!"
Modern Western culture is the ONLY culture in mankind's history that has no respected tradition that includes spirits, energies, big stories, magic, and other paranormal phenomena. Not only do we not have such a tradition, science feels the need to make fun of people who seek to resurrect one.
Why the defensiveness?
A recent batch of scientific experiments revealed that when people had to make decisions based on logic alone, they were soon crippled with confusion. They could not function at all. Subjects would spend hours, days, deciding what to eat for lunch.
It turns out emotion precedes logic and guides it.
Emotion contains real information, necessary information that grounds us and embeds us functionally in our surroundings. The notion of the detached, rational observer (an 18th century notion, by the way), is a fiction, a conceit that makes certain kinds of experimentation easier--and yet it is still widely touted as both possible and superior and, worst of all, the only legitimate way to relate to matter, the only sensible way to be in and of the world. Detached. Separate. Examining.
I submit that science was never big enough, good enough or true enough to be a guiding philosophical principle. Trying to make it so is like declaring your blender is God. Declare that function all you like. It's still putting an awfully heavy burden on your blender. Why not just use the thing to make smoothies, which is what it was designed to do? Why not let science just be science: an epistemological tool among many--good for some tasks, bad for others.
Deepak Chopra was on TV last night promoting his book about the Shadow of each individual human personality--about how the part of us we push away, deny, and repress actually enriches each of us and makes us who were are, makes us whole people with unique contributions--if we can only acknowledge and embrace it.
The same could be said culturally. The Shadow of science is not a garbage can. It's worth exploring in a serious, thoughtful fashion. That doesn't mean every weird idea that comes down the pike is as valid as the next. But it does mean that, as Shakespeare said in the play Hamlet,
"There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy."
Thursday, May 6, 2010
For about a year before the collapse of the Silver Bridge, hundreds of sightings of a creature that later came to be known as the Mothman came to the attention of the Mason county police department. The sightings are widely believed to have been warnings of the bridge disaster. To this day legend has it that the Mothman shows up just before a major catastrophe.
Paranormal investigator and professional magician John A Keel collected what he claimed to be a large quantity of first hand accounts of Mothman encounters, then published them in his book The Mothman Prophecies. In 2002 Keel's book was made into a seriously disturbing movie by the same name starring Richard Gere, Laura Linney, Debra Messing, and Will Patton.
Keel's views on the Mothman are unique and his chronicle controversial. Keel believed that the Mothman encounters were directly related to a rash of UFO sightings occurring in the Mason County area for over a year before the collapse of Silver Bridge.
Keel spent most of his life studying the strong connections between UFO sightings, paranormal phenomena, stage magic, and religious magic, and often implied that all of these were interrelated in a complex fashion that was not easily accessible to the Western mind.
Fortean Times writers made him especially aware of the power of concealment and trickery in the world of occult phenomena and in the problem of studying the occult.
At the same time, Keel believed--in fact, knew first hand--that worlds beyond this one do indeed exist and that through meditation and rigorous training some human beings are able to access and use these other worlds--if the other worlds didn't use them first. Keel was never convinced of the Extraterrestrial Hypothesis regarding alien beings and UFOs, and maintained that they were more likely a modern expression of the same forces behind 19th Century Spirtualism. He understood the trickster dimension to these phenomena very well.
Keel and his writer friends were adventurers and pranksters themselves, and often pranked each other. Keel's friend Gray Davis, who also wrote popular articles and books about the paranormal, was famous for setting up elaborate and deliberate hoaxes, often to tease his fringe journalism colleagues.
After the publication of Keel's The Mothman Prophecies, Gray Davis told the Skeptical Inquirer that Keel had written the Mothman accounts up quite differently in personal letters than he did in the published book, suggesting that the information presented in the book was therefore suspect. It is almost impossible to assess the motives behind Davis's public charge against Keel.
Superficially it would seem that Davis clearly intended to impugn Keel's claims about the Mothman. On the other hand, knowing Davis's love of pranking, it is also quite possible that Keel did not disclose everything to him or did not disclose it honestly, or that Davis's Skeptical Inquirer article was itself meant to gig Keel just for laughs.
Davis himself was a rather suspect character, and he reveled in this side of his personality.
Whatever the case, The Mothman Prophecies is a chilling tale that anyone who has ever picked up a Ouija Board will recognize as at least partially true. Mothman entities differ from those smaller forces attached to a Ouija only in strength and level of terror.
Interestingly, Mothman encounters also frequently tended to leave physical aftereffects consistent with UFO experiences--red eyes, extreme fatigue, altered states of consciousness, psychic ability, strange phone calls made up of static or unrecognizable languages, and the likelihood of further contact. Keel claimed to have extended personal contact by phone with the Mothman, who he said would return and possess those who had seen him. The humans thus possessed had no recollection of these conversations, even though Keel was able to record and capture them.
Mothman sightings and connections have continued unabated since the Point Pleasant Silver Bridge incident in 1967, both around Point Pleasant and in other locations. Several investigators who felt that they were closing in on an explanation for the experiences met with violent accidents or deaths. For a full catalogue, check out Loren Coleman's Mothman Death List.
Monday, April 26, 2010
In March of 1987 WTCM morning radio personality Jack O'Malley thought it would be fun to create a Michigan monster as an April Fool's joke. An avid folklorist, O'Malley cobbled together various local legends into a composite creature he dubbed "the Michigan Dog Man."
Half dog, half man, the creature O'Malley imagined was a kind of modern day werewolf that stood on two feet like Bigfoot or the Boggy Creek Monster, and had a glowing red eyes like the Jersey Devil. O'Malley wrote a poem about his invented creature that morphed into a song, and then put the whole thing on the air as an April Fool's joke.
Then the calls and sightings started to trickle in.
At first, O'Malley assumed that the sightings were hoaxes or misidentifications triggered by his April Fool's joke, but the sightings kept coming. When a cabin in Luther, MI was attacked by what appeared to be an unnaturally large, vicious dog, (the creature attempted to chew right through the doors and windows and left blood and saliva samples), the story went national.
To O'Malley's astonishment, the Ojibway tribe native to the Michigan area had long believed in a shapeshifting half dog, half man creature. The early French trappers who visited Michigan in the 1700s also reported a half dog, half man creature they called the loup garou, (which is French for 'wolfman').
A record of sightings stretching back over 250 years soon emerged, all authentic, all carefully documented.
How is it that O'Malley's prank turned out to be based on a real local legend after all? Maybe he'd heard of the creature and just forgotten it--although, considering his rabid interest in legends and cryptids that isn't very likely. Maybe all such shapeshifting creatures share common features that make them 'fit' almost any made-up story. Certainly he took features from several other shapeshifting entities to create this one.
Or maybe there really are 'spirits of place'--creatures that are neither all-spirit nor all-flesh--creatures that move between the spirit world and the 'real' world without impediment.
Whatever the reason, the next time you are walking through the Michigan woods and you think you hear the howl of a wolf, don't doubt yourself.
But do bar the door.
Thursday, April 22, 2010
The story of the vanishing hitchhiker is one of the oldest known urban legends. Vanishing hitchhikers appear in the Bible and in religious texts going back thousands of years before Christ. Supposedly these stories speak to the danger of journeying at night and the hazards of road travel in general, and yet, the specifics are weird enough that you really have to wonder why they persist in this exact form.
One of the most famous vanishing hitchhiker stories is the tale of Resurrection Mary--Chicago's most famous ghost--who is seen walking along Archer Avenue on they city's southwest side. Since the 1930s at least half a dozen credible encounters with Resurrection Mary have been reported.
The story of Resurrection Mary fits the vanishing hitchhiker outline perfectly.
A driver is traveling between Willowbrook Ballroom and Resurrection Cemetary on Archer Avenue late at night. The driver (usually a man) sees a very young woman in a white dress walking along the side of the road. He stops to offer her a ride, thinking it odd and a little dangerous that she is out at this hour in cold weather, alone. She climbs in the car and gives him her home address.
She is quiet and pale and the car feels cold as soon as she closes the door. As they approach Resurrection Cemetery, the girl suddenly calls out for the driver to stop. When he does pull over, she jumps out of the car and runs toward the iron gates of the cemetery entrance, vanishing before the driver's eyes just as she hits them.
In some versions of this story the driver takes the young woman all the way home, but in her hurry to get inside she leaves a scarf on the seat. When the driver returns the next day to return the scarf, he is invited into the house by a stunned older woman. A photo of the girl the sits on a bureau in the front room. The driver learns that the young woman is the older woman's daughter, and that she died years ag in a hit-and-run accident on Archer Avenue while walking home from a dance.
So many people have seen Resurrection Mary over the past 80 years that paranormal researchers have even narrowed down the girl's identity to two possible real women: Mary Bregovy, who died in an auto accident in the Chicago loop in 1934--or Anna Norkus, who died on her way home from the Oh Henry Ballroom in 1927. Anna Norkus fits the actual story much better than Mary Bregovy, although for years Mary Bregovy was assumed to be the real Resurrection Mary because she is the only candidate actually buried in Resurrection Cemetery.
Resurrection Mary and other vanishing hitchhiker ghost follow a familiar pattern in paranormal research. On the one hand are the eyewitnesses who swear the event was physically, materially real. On the other are the folklorists and psychologists who insist that the whole thing is a compelling story or myth that is passed down from generation to generation.
It is almost as if some stories force us to question and expand our view of reality; as if the purpose of a certain kind of story is to cause exactly this kind of confusion and questioning.
But another possibility that rarely gets mentioned is that some stories literally 'take on flesh' and become real over time. In bygone days when people believed in magic--not stage magic, but real practical magic--putting flesh onto words was one of many things a skilled magician might do.
A world that doesn't believe in magic is kind of at its mercy.
Just something to think about the next time you find yourself driving down a deserted cemetery road late at night, alone.
You might not be as alone as you imagine.