Mounting evidence of something incomprehensible and how the dominant discourses of my culture’s ontology failed to offer explanation.
(PLEASE READ INTRODUCTION TO THESIS CHAPTERS BEFORE STARTING THIS ONE)
I have selected three experiences to illustrate the impact of radical non-ordinary phenomena on my life. While they are some of the more dramatic instances of a substantial body from which to draw illustrations, they have been selected not for their implicit dramatic attributes but because they constituted profoundly disruptive and challenging events that assailed my sense of the real. They also constitute signal experiences, in that after each I was forced to undertake a re-evaluation of my life. The first two (ML, from Chapter One, and WM, following) involve unwitting and unwilling participants that are a marked contrast with the last, involving my partner (PJ), who was the primary focus of the phenomenon and I, the more passive secondaryparticipant.
The reactions of my co-experiencers had a strong impact upon me, precipitating, in the instances of ML and WM, rejection from their companionship and friendship. In the last, as a secondary participant I found myself in the reverse position, supporting another person distressed by what had happened and while having to deal with my own reactions.
The more disruptive paranormal experiences began in the latter part of 1970, culminating in the ML experience, which marked the commencement of an intense series of radical and disruptive experiences that ended with the WM episode, recounted next. This then precipitated an intense period of intellectual, spiritual and emotional turmoil of a largely solitary nature that ended in 1978, at the commencement of the PJ experiences, the last of the three accounts. The period between the WM and PJ experiences was an intense engagement with religious and rational paradigms as I sought to make sense of what had happened to me, and this period is explored subsequently.
The WM Incident
This incident is drawn from memory. It was so dramatic that it has been the subject of an unpublished short story drafted in several versions.
Following the ML encounter I removed to Adelaide where I hoped that a new location would contribute to a cessation of the non-ordinary phenomena. In Adelaide I had my first encounter with the Theosophical Society. This encounter raised the possibility of access to a substantial body of thought that dealt precisely with the kind of things I was experiencing. However rather than this being a grateful entry, at last, into a domain of succour and comprehension I experienced even more disruption. After about seven months in Adelaide I was feeling emotionally and intellectually exhausted. I had been writing to a school friend and bush walking companion who was nursing at the Royal Derwent Hospital, a psychiatric facility, in New Norfolk, Tasmania. WM was an avowed sceptic and atheist and was, then, scathingly intolerant of any discussion on any matter that was not rational. I now craved his company, hoping that escaping all reference to the non-ordinary would be a balm. We agreed to spend a few weeks camping and walking. I had told him nothing of what I had been experiencing.
Our plan was to head up the east coast of Tasmania to camp, walk and fish, and on the first day we drove to the Freycinet Peninsula, to a bay not far from Coles Bay, but on the ocean side. This was a rugged place with high granite hills to the immediate south and right on the relentless ocean, whose energy surged against the precipitous granite inclines. We camped on a flat sandy area with a few trees and a shallow creek that flowed into the ocean not far from our tent. The easiest place to get water was a short distance inland where the creek flowed around a large granite boulder and over a stone lip, beneath which was a small pool deep enough to accommodate a billy. Close on dusk I went to get water for the evening meal. As I neared the pool I could feel an intense sense of presence but tried to dismiss it as mere indulgence in the eeriness of the place that was emphasised by the deepening shadows of dusk. I had been to the pool several times before with no adverse response. Nevertheless I had to force myself not to run on return. By the time we had eaten it was dark and it was WM’s turn to fetch water to wash up and make tea. When he came back he seemed to be rattled and agitated, but he said nothing.
As we sat around the campfire drinking tea and chatting both of us became aware that something was moving around us. For me it was a sense of movement just beyond the range of the campfire’s light. It seemed like a fast moving shadow of indeterminate size and shape, almost lost in the growing dark, yet somehow perceptible. There was no noise. We agreed it must be a dog and several times, on signal, we sprang up with our flashlights in an effort to catch sight of it, but to no avail. It was distracting and we decided to turn it because the conversation was becoming strained by our unwilling and uneasy pre- occupation with what ever it was. Inside the tent we both saw movement around the tent and between the tent and fire, silent. It was a dark form and definitely far larger than a dog, but still with no discernible form, even so close. Unexpectedly, and with one accord we lost our nerve, hastily bundled up the tent and its contents and scrambled up the embankment to the car. We fled to the camping ground at Coles Bay leaving a good deal of our gear behind. In the morning early we returned to collect what had been left behind and then decided to head further north. During it all WM said nothing, though he was plainly disturbed by what had happened. I remained true to my undertaking and made no effort to engage him in discussion. I knew WM well enough. If he wanted to talk about it, he would.
What had we experienced? Was it, as we had first thought a dog, maybe hungry but too untrusting to come close to our camp? Later, in the tent, what had we seen move between the tent and the fire, casting the shapeless shadow? WM and I were both experienced bushwalkers and we had walked together several times in the southwest wilderness. We were not easily spooked by strange things in the night. That night, though, what we saw might have subsequently surrendered its mystery to rational explanation, but we both did something uncharacteristic. We fled in the middle of the night in undignified haste and disarray into the safety of a camping ground. We did so with almost wordless accord. The believer and the sceptic both apprehended, at some shared visceral level, a sense of threat beyond willing tolerance.
There is a disturbing, and more telling, sequel to this adventure.
We left Coles Bay the next day, eager to be away from the place that had so disrupted our plans for a relaxing time. We had not travelled far north when the car alarmingly and suddenly swerved across the road and came, mercifully, to a halt on a flat under some trees. We had hit nothing save some small deadwood. WM confessed that he had blacked out momentarily and this greatly distressed him. He then said he had intrusive thoughts that something or someone was out to ‘get me’ and he wanted no part of it. He drove in silence back to Hobart and ejected me from the car with the warning to stay away from him. I was left standing bewildered by the roadside. We did not meet again for over a decade.
I had no sense of threat, no sense of anything ‘out to get me’. I knew WM well enough to know that he took great pride in his rationality. He was also a courageous companion in whose company I had always felt safe, knowing he would not ‘bottle out’ when things got tough. That was always how it had been before. What had happened? I did not know whether WM suffered from any physical ailment that might cause him to black out without warning, but supposed that might be possible. Would he have told me? I did not know. How could I account for his bizarre claim to have perceived that something was ‘out to get me’? Coming from my deeply sceptical friend this wasunsettling. Did he, in saying it, fear he was going mad? Did he believe it? Was it symptomatic of the same thing that caused the black out? I left Tasmania and returned to Melbourne.
WM’s sober sceptical demeanour was severely challenged by what he had experienced. He chose not to engage with what had happened. I met him in Queensland some 15 years later. It was a brief meeting. When I told him of my interest in the occult, he asserted his disinterest. He was clearly uncomfortable with me and we parted, with mutual disappointment. WM’s unwillingness to engage with or explore what had happened reflected the degree to which the subject matter generated reaction among those who saw themselves ‘rational’. He had been there. It was a shared experience. He had put up a barrier, dissolving a friendship and firmly drawing a line between what may or may not inhabit his ontological construction. After 15 years I was less reactive against such rejection, but the confirmation of the death of what hadbeen a close friendship nevertheless underlined the degree to which my experiences had been, and continued to be, estranging.
There was one experience that could possibly be construed as something ‘out to get me’ It was the only time, at that stage, that I had felt in distinct danger. Some weeks before I left Adelaide to travel to Tasmania to meet WM I had an experience that was described to me as a “psychic attack” by a member of the Theosophical Society. It is not, apparently an uncommon ordeal.
Late one evening, I was sitting on my bed about to go to sleep when I felt surrounded by a dense and malign atmosphere and seemed to close in on me. I feared harm if it succeeded and I held it at bay by force of will. Then I knew none of the various means of self-defence or mantras to keep the mind safely focused. I spent the night, until first light, repeating the only thing I knew, the Lord’s Prayer. Even so there were times when my mind went blank I could do no more than repeat “Our Father…” over and over until recall returned. Eventually the sense of malignant presence dissipated as the sun came up.
Aside from this single encounter I felt no enduring sense of threat and was surprised and dismayed by WM’s assertion. Even now I am not prepared to say that I agreed with him. He did black out and the car did veer off the road. I accept that such had never happened to him before and I have no idea if it has since. I have to accept that for a deeply sceptical Mental Health worker to admit to me he had intrusive thoughts of this kind had to be extremely unusual. His subsequent conduct confirmed that he, at least, absolutely believed that he was at risk if he remained in my company. I should be grateful, perhaps, that I was not immediately ordered from the vehicle and left stranded on the east coast, from where, I knew from past experience, hitching a ride back to Hobart would have been difficult.
By then I was extremely emotionally disoriented even shattered and contemplated returning myself to psychiatric care, just to get some respite. I even contemplated taking psychotropic medication. In despair and frustration I called out and demanded that these bizarre events stop, and, strangely, they did. For the next nearly five years I was mercifully free of strongly disruptive phenomena. I had a steady stream of comparatively mild experiences, mostly intuitions that were consistently and helpfully reliable. However, on a personal level I had been damaged and I became determined to make sense of what had been happening. I read voraciously but in an undisciplined way, anything that seemed it might provide some explanation.
Both the ML and WM experiences concerned unwilling participants in radical events. Neither was aware of my situation, so neither had the opportunity to collaborate in any subjective or delusional activity in which I might have been engaged. The ‘dog’ incident with WM was a genuinely shared experience, with neither of us anticipating any of what happened. While it was a dramatic illustration of what might be a called an encounter with the spirit of a place, it was the second part of the drama, WM’s blackout and intrusive thoughts that displayed a compelling similarity with ML’s experience. Both had been unwilling participants in something that they said, related directly to me. In neither case did I share their direct experience. It was as if I were being given evidence that whatever was going on was not a product of my ‘madness’.
The emotional toll on me was immense. For the next five or so years, during which time I had been keeping journals, I was preoccupied with making sense of what had happened. The respite from disruptive experiences was welcome, but my journals reveal deep intellectual and emotional turmoil.
Intentional encounters with a willing participant
In March 1977 I left Tasmania and travelled to Sydney with the intent of staying briefly before heading west. However, I met people with a mutual interest and became involved in studying astrology. A new chapter in my life was about to start.
In December 1977 I met my partner (PJ) and we quickly discovered a mutual interest in things of a non- ordinary nature. She had some equally disruptive and disturbing experiences, and was vaguely aware that there were groups in Sydney with whom we might undergo some learning and training. We set out to discover one. I had also met a woman who styled herself as a witch and she agreed to provide some introductory education to us, including some basic rituals. It was immediately after the very first ritual that things took a surprising turn.
After we had finished the working, which we had conducted in PJ’s lounge room, PJ had gone to the toilet. I heard a massive “crack” and my immediate thought was that she had fallen against the oak dining table and broken it. She was a bit ‘spun out’ when she had left the room. I rushed to see the anticipated disaster and found her, instead, standing dazed by the door to the bedroom and I helped her on to the bed. As we both sat on the bed trying to discuss what happened the room seemed to fill up with an intense energy. She seemed to enter a trance-like state and I stayed, struggling, for full consciousness. At her insistence, I found a pen and paper and she scrawled in a poor hand the first words of contact with a spirit entity with whom we would subsequently work for a number of years. The following is an excerpt from volume one of my magical diaries. I have changed my partner’s name.
Saturday night – Middle pillar ritual. Extraordinary powerful. I went to sleep for most part, All very happy & positive. After effect potent- whole house charged up. PJ went through auto writing – resisting full effect. Energy came upon us while we were sitting in the bedroom. PJ’s hand took up pen and proceeded to scrawl with some difficulty line which yielded no immediate apprehension of their significance, if any.
There was a great deal of force upon PJ & I sitting close by felt the force of its energy. I watched PJ quite motionless and seeming under a gentle command to be sit (sic).
After awhile the pen is dropped form PJ’s hand in apparent frustration. PJ then falls back into a trance-like state and proceeds to scrawl forms with her right hand. She is directed to Steiner’s Great initiates – section on same.
I played a passive role in the whole affair. Such was the benevolent aura the (sic) enveloped the energy I felt no sense of concern or worry for PJ.
I think on Friday night PJ was zapped & sent reeling back from the back door. B&I heard loud bang at that time (we were sitting in lounge room) when I met her (PJ) in the doorway she was proceeding to collapse backwards, I supported her onto the bed.
(Magical Diary Vol 1, 26 /2/78)
The second incident was similar. My recollection is that we were heading out of the house intending to go to a movie but as we neared the front door we were surrounded by an intense energy field, similar to the first, but considerably more potent. The same pattern of hesitant and barely legible writing occurred. What was represented here was a different entity, one whose presence, and our subsequent involvement with, was deeply problematic. My experience was that of being subjected to an intensely energetic influence within which I struggled to maintain consciousness and found co-ordinated movement quite difficult. In both instances the experience of a palpable radiation was remarkable because it added a shared experience dimension to what might otherwise have been no more than a case of my partner entering a trance-like state with no indication to me that might have been other than her own subjective or physical manifestation of even a pathological condition. Again the magical diary record is slightly different:
Report of events Monday 19/2/79. Evening time about 6.45. PJ and I were about to go out to movies (Fellini’s Casanova). We were taking our ease over coffee & Dr Who (TV) when PJ reported a particularly strong urge to write. I gave her pen & paper and quelled protestations that it was not a good time.
Some initial squiggles & spirals. I asked PJ to ask who it was. The response was P. I asked PJ to ask the entity the name and number of our teacher. (The response was accurate). I asked what the entity required. (a question and answer session followed). (Magical Diary Vol 1, 21/2/79)
I was taught that a safety precaution when dealing with discarnate entities is to require them to give a name and a number if they claim to be teachers or guides. Those who are familiar with the magical system will know that names and numbers have esoteric significance. In this case the first entity became a teacher to us and I recorded many pages of transcribed conversation, although several dozen tapes (now lost) remained untranscribed. In the second instance the entity P could have been mischief and asking him the name and number of our teacher was a way of assuring that he was not. It also was a way of determining whether he was familiar with the magical tradition. The difference between what I recorded and what I recall illustrates the problems of memory in terms of detail, but not in terms of the essential event.
These two experiences precipitated an ontological crisis in both of us, but with differing foci. Who or what were these entities and why were they intruding into our world and seeking communication with us? For PJ, as the primary experiencer these questions were vital at the personal level. She was the one acting out the apparent communication. She was worried. Had she precipitated some bizarre psychotic drama? As a witness and a passive participant my questions were less personally urgent. Something was happening, but what was it? Both times I experienced a seeming external source of radiant energy that engulfed both of us, and within which I had struggled to remain alert and focused. I did not think I was witnessing PJ acting out any kind delusional drama. We had similar questions: “What was going on here?” and “Whyus?”
Some of these questions were answered by degrees over the following years. I recorded a great deal of material as the entity spoke through PJ, at first with great difficulty and then, progressively with greater ease and fluency. I transcribed a number of the tapes, but only a small portion of the total. It was a slow and tedious business and life events drove on with other fascinating and challenging experiences, both mundane and supramundane.
Even though explanations were forthcoming PJ experienced tremendous difficulty in accepting what was happening and her willingness to explore the phenomenon diminished and eventually departed. She was having her own intense difficulties and I was left with half answered questions and many more unanswered. These ‘contact’ experiences had taken us outside the realm of ‘normal’ occult investigation, so much of the literature that had been helpful ceased to be useful. There seemed to be another level of meaning beyond the accessible material. Our association with several formal occult teaching groups became fraught, and we found ourselves alone. We learnedthat there were politics associated with such things and that in the view of those who ran the groups what was happening to us was outside their scheme of things and disruptive to the way they wanted things to go.
From my perspective what had held promise as a source of knowledge, training and fellowship had gone, and I was left in a somewhat solitary situation. PJ was dealing with her own drama, and I needed to work through mine. I did not have the answers I wanted. While we shared the experiences, from differing perspectives, our responses and personal challenges were distinct, with powerful individual foci, rather than a shared one.
Reflecting on the various interpretive options open to me
These recounted experiences represented critical steps in displacement from the shared ontological frames of my culture, and the movement towards seeking an alternative ontological construction.
Could I accept the diagnosis of paranoid schizophrenia? I did not feel mad. The voices were maddening – unwanted, uninvited and incomprehensible – but otherwise I had no personal sense of disordered thinking. The unwillingness of psychiatry to discuss or explore what was happening to me, to merely observe apparent evidence of insanity, was frustrating and disempowering. The solution of medication as a lifelong means of controlling the voices was not a palatable or acceptable option. If that was all that psychiatry could offer me then I would have to find another way.
Could I accept the easy proposition that the voices were just as they were – beings attempting to communicate with me? Nothing I knew enabled me to accept such a proposition. I had then no sense of cultural heritage that accommodate the voices. Nothing in my learning made their reality a plausible proposition. I rejected the acceptance of the prospect of an invisible, populated and interactive realm on sound methodological grounds. It was not possible to subject such experiences to structured and disciplined inquiry and so I could not admit them into the realm of what could be known and asserted as real. But they had happened. Furthermore they had happened in company, so I could not discount them as purely personal experiences that might be safely put down to momentary aberrations that were misperceived and misconstrued. Even within the domain of shared experience the possibility of misperception and misinterpretation could not be ruled out. I speculated as to whether I could accept the proposition that there were non-ordinary or paranormal phenomena.
By the time of the PJ experiences I had a history of serial non-ordinary experiences, of both disruptive and gentle natures, and by now serial experience that incorporated both shared encounters and events that had distinctive utility were obliging me to deal with the proposition that there had to be an ontological frame that accommodated them as bona fide, not as malfunctions and misperceptions. Further more any explanation had to be reasonable and rational, and not merely in the guise of occult literature, whose surface rationality betrayed an underlying reliance on ‘givens’ that were not understood.
Direct experience of the milder non-ordinary phenomena did not present any significant challenges to my sense of being within my culture, because, although they were not explicable by science, they were sufficiently common, and shared by others, as well as being not especially disconcerting. They could be explored and thought about as interesting mysteries. The disruptive experiences that generated significant personal distress were a different matter. Understanding them became urgent because they were presenting serious challenges to my wellbeing. I was at serious risk.
Exploring the discourses
From the time my disruptive experiences began to make my life a miserable and bewildering adventure I sought explanations from the two major discourses that collectively constituted a substantial portion of the foundation of the Western ontology – religion and science. This was all I knew. While my brief encounter with the Theosophical Society opened up some prospect of more, left to my own devices I returned to familiar territory.
There are two distinct phases to this process of inquiry, the early initial response that was an immediate effort to address the disruption and the shock I was experiencing, and a later, more thoughtful and mature, inquiry as my reading advanced and my capacity to engage in dialogue improved.
I have taken particular caution here to separate out the two stages and to avoid putting wiser words in the younger mouth.
The religious options, and initial response
My parents, my twin sister and I migrated to Australia in 1955 from Northern Ireland and moved, with an interlude on a farm near Coleraine, to Casterton in Western Victoria. My father came from a committed Protestant family and my mother, less committed, was nevertheless content that we became an active church-going family. In Casterton I was exposed to family life dominated by the faith, forced into Sunday school and later into Church. I was not natively a religious child and had to be enticed with threats to participate.
My father’s Irish Protestantism was steeped in dogmatism and intolerance. It was only after his death that I found he had re-joined both the Apprentice Boys and Orange Lodge within a few years of arriving. I was expected to be a compliant heir to his tradition. But in a new country, without the same intense history of religious division, and in a small country town, it was impossible for me to accommodate his mono- cultural isolationism. I went to school with Catholics and Anglicans, who were also friends. The choice between unreasoned loathing and friendship was easily made. My reality as a child was dominated by the need for acceptance and inclusion. If religion was not going to serve that need then it had no benefit for me.
Religion had also become an incomprehensible and unpleasant thing fervently practiced by the least pleasant adults who came into my life. Initially I was obliged to attend Sunday school where I was fascinated by a large picture of Jesus that dominated the room. Children were sitting on his lap and were all around him in a frozen clamour of attention seeking. He was happy and accepting. I have no recollection of sitting on my father’s lap and remember him as an emotionally remote and troubled man. I was later to learn that he was raised in an emotionally abusive family. The wall mounted Jesus seemed to offer a type of religious experience alien to my real life. It was an ideal that I was not able to experience. When I became too old for Sunday school I was taken off to church, which I remember as a place of unalloyed boredom, induced by the incomprehensible droning of the minister and the awful hymn singing, hypnotic dirges that I loathed with a deep passion.
When my parents separated I went with my mother and in our new life I asked her to release me from any obligation to go to church, and she assented. My new step-father was not, at that time, inclined to religion. He would later become a dedicated Pentecostal, and the family entered a new phase of a religion-drenched life.
At high school I had enough curiosity to sample the range of scripture classes on offer. I harboured a doubt about my rejection of faith. This sampling was not particularly edifying, but I had a spectacularly acrimonious interchange with an arrogant nun who, in response to a question now well forgotten uttered the indelible response “That’s for God to know and for you to find out.” I walked out determined to find out, whatever it was. But this determination took a back seat to an active childhood and early adolescence, besides I had no guidance in religion and knew of nothing outsideChristianity.
Aside from some later attempts to read books on Christianity I had effectively dismissed religion, and Christianity in particular, from my life, so by the time of the experiences I not only saw no value in religion I had no motive at all for seeking guidance or succour from it.
However, although I had dismissed Christianity as a faith I had not eradicated the language, or the ideas. I remained intensely interested in the spiritual dimension. As I reviewed my journals I was struck by the references to Christ and God. My sense of relationship with such ideas was beyond Christian-based thinking and much more metaphysical. Whilst in Hawthorn, Victoria, I wrote:
I ask myself how may a truth be free from error and I can only answer that it is of God’s making and not one of man’s making. A man may interpret the truth of God but unless he himself is free of the bonds of self he may never transmit a truth of God without altering its nature. (Personal Journal Vol 2, 9/6/75)
I can see the influence of reading in Zen here, in the idea of freedom from self. Later the entrenched habit of Christian influenced thought is still evident. On my birthday in 1977 in Zeehan, Tasmania, I wrote:
Do I believe in God now? In a God of my own image yes. In so far as God made man in his own image then I perceive God in my own image. I do not imply that the God who made me and the God I perceive are (the) same image. That they are the same God I do believe. Perhaps one day the two images shall mirror each and each shall say I am he – but one shall be the maker and the other the made. (Personal Journal Vol 2, 22/1/77)
These two excerpts reveal a continuing desire to make sense of the religious, yet, increasingly, a clear sense that what may be knowable and believable was very much a matter of what is constructed in the mind. Making sense of the idea of God had become a focal point of my life and this is reflected in the last entry of Volume Three of my journals, my last, in Balmain, Sydney I wrote:
The spiritual quest is all I have ever known it to be and rarely read it to be. It is anguish & struggle & it is not a smooth magical transition from ignorance to enlightenment … Spiritual enlightenment is not the simplistic acceptance of religious dogma. It is a far far greater thing. It is comprehending & living a fullness of being human on this planet in this time. (Personal Journal Vol 3,24/10/79)
By 1978 I had begun a period of involvement with esoteric groups teaching and practicing ritual magic in the Western Mystery Tradition. The initial glamour of relief at discovering something that seemed to offer the promise of a rational and coherent system tarnished quite swiftly. A particular problem was the discovery that those with whom I became affiliated were significantly less driven in their passions than I was. I was still operating under an extreme sense of personal urgency and found it almost impossible to adjust to the more measured approach of the groups. Significant intellectual and ethical issues also emerged.
The science option, an initial response
From an early age I had a passionate questioning curiosity that drove my parents to distraction. My father gave up on me when I asked him why cows were different colours. I remember his exasperated response, which was to shape to give me a clip around the ears, save that my mother intervened. I was, inconsequence, provided with whatever knowledge-based books my mother could find. I was a voracious reader and serially exhausted various libraries of material at and above my reading age.
From year five I developed a passion for geology that culminated in an award of second prize in a science talent quest when I was in year 10. My teachers and parents presumed I was destined to study geology at university. It was an ambition that I was content to share. But I was a complete dunce at maths. In science I loved theory, but calculus of any nature seemed to defeat me utterly. Nevertheless I grew up with a love of science and a deep respect for scientific method. I was sceptical, but not a sceptic.
When I left home a little after I turned 17, I commenced working in the Taxation Office in Hobart. I spent a good deal of then meagre wage on periodicals, mostly related to photography, but I was an avid reader of Scientific American. I also read what more general books on science I could find in the State Library, and progressively developed an interest in science fiction, which, while not scientific, developed and maintained a speculative interest in technology and how it might be applied.
I was as imbued with the culture of the triumph of science and technology as one could be. I saw science as it was promoted, as purely rational truth seeking, a great intellectual adventure unravelling the mysteries of life and existence. It was a naïve perception that was just beginning to be shaken a little through my involvement in the campaign to save Lake Pedder. I had no involvement with medicine or psychiatry, so my anticipations in those fields were unformed.
When I began to have the invasive ‘voices’ I was initially curious and a little perturbed, and then eventually deeply perturbed. They had become increasingly frequent and more invasive and I did not want them. I sought psychiatric care in a naïve belief that psychiatry represented a reasonable and rational scientific approach to understanding human experience. I wanted to understand what was happening to me. I did not understand that I was mad because I did not credit the voices with any merit, and had been refusing to listen to them. I wanted help to get rid of them.
My encounter with psychiatry was disempowering and disappointing. Immediately on presentation and after a very brief description of my problem I was obliged to enter immediate in-patient care. I was not permitted to have any discussion with a psychiatrist and my determined efforts to do so resulted in a warning that I would be removed from the facility. I decided to be patient in the hope that something would change, but after a week I was given only a brief interview at which I was told I had been diagnosed as suffering from paranoid schizophrenia and that I would be taking medication for the rest of my life, and then dismissed.
I was struck by the remoteness between resident patients and staff and by the absence of any attempt to investigate my experiences, and yet arrive at a solution in the form of medication. I could not see the science here.
My brief experience of psychotropic medication was alarming. The medication, a phenothiazine marketed as Stelazine (trifluroperazine) did not actually remove the phenomenon, but what it did do was disable the capacity to react to it. Stelazine, as an antipsychotic or neuroleptic drug, works on the brain, and effects the nervous system, rather than on the relationship between the individual and the source of distress – other than the proposition that it was the brain itself that was the problem. If one is troubled by a non- existent biting dog, then calming the anxiety may be a sensible thing if the dog can be removed as well, but calming the anxiety while the dog is still biting can be terrifying on a different scale. In my case it was the phenomenon that bothered me, not the response. I thought my response sane and reasonable – I did not want the intrusion and could not make it go away unaided. All the medication did was leave me emotionally disengaged from the voices. I needed help to deal with what was, to me, a reality that was unwanted and intrusive. My cognitive processes were not disordered. I did not understand what madness meant to psychiatry, and psychiatry did not, in my encounter with it, understand what I wanted.
Outside of psychiatry I had no other sense of scientific involvement in my situation. Hence, for the time, while the disappointments of psychiatry waned, I could retain a comfortable anticipation that there was a scientific explanation. It would be a number of years before I returned to psychiatry as a subject of inquiry, reflecting back on my experiences and attempting to understand madness. By then I was motivated by concern that my involvement in magical and esoteric groups had exposed me to potentially delusional conduct and I discerned a need to develop a sufficient understanding of psychotic behaviour. This was partially self-protective and partially to better understand the people I was mixing with.
The struggle to remain true to my love of science and rational thought is reflected in my journals. In 1976, in Strahan, I wrote:
My head is going about a de-mystifying and a de-glorifying. I am doubting and disposing some long held and long cherished beliefs. I am not discarding them utterly but more putting in their proper place as possibilities rather than knowledges. (Personal Journal Vol 2, 7/4/76)
Doubting seemed to be important to me. Earlier I had written:
Our dilemma is only our unwillingness to doubt sufficiently, to forget in our consciousness significant things. Our dilemma is what we call need, necessity. What it is that constitutes our “reality”. (Personal Journal Vol 2, 5/1/76)
This blended both the mystical sense of doubt and the rational sense of inquiry, but the activity of doubting was essentially reflective, rather than through acts of more ‘scientific inquiry. This is evident in my journal entry in March, 1976:
What it is I am yet to know. It seems inexpressible and unknowable yet oft it is expressed in fragments and knowable in fragments. If I chase it as fragments it is not for the sake of the fragments but for the sake of the whole. How, what and why is unanswerable though not quite unknowable.
(Personal Journal Vol 2, 15/376)
I was struggling. On Thursday 29 April 1976 in Strahan I noted: ”Information breeds (sic) more & doubts multiply along with possibilities. God knows when this confusion shall end.” (Personal Journal Vol 2)
The science/religion concern that dominated my thinking was expressed passionately and optimistically in a journal entry on Wed 23 April 1976, Strahan:
Our science draws nearer the lore of the magician yet is held from it by the cult of reason which shies from things sensible otherwise to a man whose head & heart are combined. We may yet see the day upon this world when the scientist priest is supreme. As yet the priest is bound from reason save it be cloaked in mystery and foolishness and similarly the scientist suffers the bonds of over reason. Between the two lies a realm wondrous which is narrowed in the passing of each year.( Personal Journal Vol 2)
I took to reading in philosophy in my first year away from home, with State Library conveniently located between home and work. By the end of the first year, before I turned 18 I had read through three volumes of Russell and one each of Kant, Hegel, and Kierkegaard. I also read a book on Greek philosophy and a compendium on Western philosophy. Though I found the philosophers fascinating they were also dense and dry, and without companionship to share the interest and stimulate further thought, I left them behind. They were, at the time, no useful source of practical assistance. I continued to read in books of a philosophical nature, but tended to be drawn to those whose influences were chiefly Eastern.
I don’t recall much of those readings save that I took a dislike to Russell, but nevertheless endured all the volumes of his autobiography, and I sufficiently objected to Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason that I penned a lengthy rebuttal. It was, no doubt, complete naïve nonsense and at the time I had not the slightest sense of the arrogance of the act.
What I took from reading in philosophy was, chiefly, the sense of relief that ideas might be explored in depth, and that nothing stood, of itself, as a pure assertion of truth or fact. The diversity of my reading left me with no clear sense of a personal philosophic position, other than the sense of excitement towards the possibility of thinking through things in a deep way. I was aware of my own ignorance, awed by the complexity of thought I had encountered. But none of the Western philosophers touched me as much as my reading of Paul Brunton’s Hidden Teaching Beyond Yoga.
I had acquired this book at age 16 from a friend’s mother and it had taken me over 18 months to read it. As an exploration of Hindu metaphysics it seemed to me to possess a clarity and coherence that was not as evident in the Western tradition. I did not come across books of a similar nature for some years. There were certainly none in the library. In effect my reading in Western philosophy, while it excited my curiosity, came about only because I not find any follow up reading to Brunton. Whilst still at Matriculation College I had contacted the University of Tasmania to determine whether it was possible to study eastern metaphysics. It was not. My interest in going to university declined thereafter.
I rediscovered a copy of Brunton for the first time in January 2008. I could immediately see the distinction between the styles of writing. Brunton was not attempting formal philosophic thought, so the writing was far less formal, but no less stimulating. I briefly reread a portion of the book, realising that not much of it would have made a great deal of sense to me at the time. Perhaps the main appeal was the discovery of writing on deeper and spiritual matters that offered far more than my previous exposure to religious thought. Until then I was unaware of the existence of other religious ideas or of philosophy or philosophers. All I knew was religion, science and literature. I loathed the former, loved the next, and though I was a voracious reader of fiction (and non-fiction) I never quite took to English as a subject in high school.
In the absence of an environment in which philosophy was studied under guidance and with a disciplined and systematic approach the more formal nature of the works, and their density of thought, did not sit well with the more urgent personal sense of meaning making that drove me through the 1970s.
Parapsychology – an early encounter
I eventually found books on parapsychology and read many, though now I have no recall of which, save that they were, for the most part, in the form of popular literature, rather than scholarly works. What I recall were detailed and dry accounts of experimentation to demonstrate the reality of ‘psychic powers’, ghosts, poltergeists and the like. While I was prepared to be convinced with no great resistance, nothing I read offered me any kind of useful practical advice that related to what I was experiencing. Eventually, too, the books became repetitive and I lost interest.
Parapsychology did at least encourage me that there was some serious consideration of phenomena and ‘powers’ of the mind. I was also keenly aware that such research stood, at best, at the fringe of valid scientific investigation and that there was passionate objection to it from ‘proper’ science. I was less concerned with the ‘fringe’ nature of the studies than the fact that no amount of reading in the field advanced an understanding of my own position. I had ample demonstration from my own directexperience of the validity of the proposition that extra sensory perception was real, and I was generally willing to accept the ‘reality’ of the more spectacular powers such astelekinesis.
Outside the more dramatic accounts of research and the speculations on the nature of the phenomena, the recounting of finely controlled experiments demonstrating ‘better than chance’ instances of cognitive phenomena tended to suggest only that such phenomena manifested randomly and without any forms of control, save in some rare instances. This fitted with my own experience.
Chiefly I saw a clear distinction between the discipline of intentionally planned and conducted experiments that gave good data and kind of wild unexpected things that had been happening to me, with no prospect of applying scientific method in exploring their nature or validating their occurrence.
As my interest in magical and esoteric thought deepened parapsychology became less attractive as a specific field of inquiry, other than something I would occasionally look into out of curiosity to see what developments there were. It is perhaps significant that I had essentially forgotten to include it as an influence in my thinking until I was prompted to do so, and then recalled that I had actually read quite a bit on the subject.
Up the time that I relocated to Adelaide and I encountered the poster advising of the Theosophical Society presentation I was reading as constantly as I could through borrowed books from friends, though now I have no recollection of what I read. I was, from childhood a voracious and fast reader, so I read for interest and distraction, both fiction and non-fiction.
The Theosophical Society opened up a whole range of possibilities as I became aware, for the first time, of an organised community of interest that might have the answers I was seeking. I did not, subsequently, form any connection with the Theosophical Society, largely because my lifestyle was erratic and mobile, and would be for some years to come. Also, at that stage my cultural orientation was distinctly ‘alternative’ and it did not fit well with apparent sober conservatism of the Society.
I came across individuals who were members of various informal groups with an interest in the occult and UFO, or who had joined any of the range of Eastern religious sects that had become popular. None appealed to me. I wanted some sense of sceptical rational inquiry, not easy acceptance of teachings and dogmas. While I had no interest in joining any of the groups I encountered I was happy to spend time talking with members, collectively and individually. I had a number of friends who had been attracted to missionary branches of various Indian religious movements and spent a good deal of time with them and their fellow adherents, but I could not be persuaded to join. Nevertheless I read their literature and participated in discussions. In some ways I envied their fellowship.
It would not be until 1978 that I became intensely involved with occult orders and esoteric schools.
Confrontation between the astonishing and the rational – the sense of ontological crisis
With the opportunity to review my journals from a research perspective I was struck by the swinging between enthusiastic response to new ideas and decline into a profound sense of spiritual and intellectual angst as it seemed that nothing I explored finally served the healing purpose I hope for. The period from the early 19070s to 1979 marked a profoundly difficult time as I worked through the dilemma of meaning. My almost mono-maniacal focus finding some resolution had led to the dissolution of my first marriage and the loss of close friends.
On Tuesday 25 (Jan) 1977, in Zeehan, I wrote:
The fear of being invalid is a constant companion. It is not a matter of not being here, but a fear of being a fabrication – a process of not defining self but reinforcing self delusion – reinforcing the armour of deep seated – deep rooted suspicion – fear of what? Even now I cannot put it to words – it arises out of doubt & believing. I write frequently of vision – a vision of something a reality which fractures and in fracturing loses its omnipotence. Once shattered the vision must refine itself and once again become omnipotent. Who can tell what is shattered and how much is shattered. This is part of the necessary condition of experience. (Personal Journal Vol 3)
This was a low point, shortly after my 25th birthday, celebrated alone. I had not been able to resolve my experiences, even after nearly six years. Others experiences than these recorded here had added to the burden. The more I inquired into them the less I found answers, and what seemed to be happening was that doubts and inquiry were exacerbating my situation, rather than being a balm my sense of self. I didn’t feelauthentic because I had no ground, no ontological foundation, and no assured senseof belief. I was also pre-occupied with intellectual merit, writing that “Intellectual honesty and a consuming passion for understanding is the essence and not intellectual capacity.”(Personal Journal Vol 2, 11/6/75, Hawthorn).
My idea of vision was how one sees the world, and is all embracing, and all powerful. It is an ontology, a way of believing what is so and real. When it is shattered, as with radical non-ordinary phenomena, its power is broken, but one does not know what of the vision or how much of it is shattered. Only as one experiences the consequences does this become evident. The objective is to refine the vision, to rework the ontology until its power is restored.
What I was doing was becoming overly extreme and fixated. In 1975 I wrote:
I struggle with my eyes to see differently, with my ears to hear differently, with my voice to utter differently, my body to act and feel differently, my mind to perceive & conceive differently. All this to change according to my knowledge and my faith in my ability to enable my knowledge to grow untain(t)ed by base fears and prejudices. (Personal Journal Vol 2, 9/1/75)
Two years later when my first marriage had finally collapsed I record “Conversation with J today lead (sic) me to more attempts to make a comprehensible summary of my thoughts. I am thwarted by the apparent assumptions that appear and by the sheer magnitude of the scope that is necessarily covered.” (Personal Journal Vol 2 1/4/77, Tasmania). A short time later, on April 24, I wrote “I am well aware of the precarious situation within my own mind. It may be that I shall soon reach a crisis that will require a vast and strenuous effort to pull myself back onto my feet.” (Personal Journal Vol 2). The last paragraph for the same entry reflects the degree to which I had become determined to drive myself to a point of resolution. I wrote: “J’s repeated comment that what I am doing is ‘risky’ haunts me. That she should regard the degree of risk as a valid consideration for action surprises me.” I was surprised that she thought it was not worth the risk. I did not see I had an option.
The fact that I felt a persistent risk of inauthenticity arising from not being able to have a clear sense of intellectual or spiritual foundation was not helped by my interest in Eastern philosophies. In a journal entry dated May 17-18 Tues-Wed 1977 Sandy Bay Rd, I wrote:
I feel I have reached a crucial point in my thoughts upon the philosophies of life and how they are applicable to our culture without violent polarization. These thoughts are largely generated form my own discomfort and to a lesser degree an abiding fascination with the process of our civilization. Thinking upon Tao, Shinto & Zen have (sic) forced me to radical debates whose resolutions are yet more radical. (Personal Journal Vol 3)
This was written shortly before I left Tasmania in 1977, effectively marking the end of a particular chapter in my life. I had been attracted to these traditions, for their style of thought, but knew that I did not want to adopt their full expression. I was happy to be influenced and inspired. The deep sense of connection with the natural world had powerful appeal to me, but I sensed that by becoming a devotee, as with any of the Indian sects, meant further particularisation of self, and marking myself as distinct, different. The more I internally debated their merits the less I could see them as fitting within my parent culture without precipitating stark polarisation, as was evident to me, most clearly demonstrated by my observations of the Hare Krishna movement. I knew several devotees, with whom I got on well on a personal level. I could not, however, share their sense of certainty and missionary zeal, or their sartorial extremes. While I had no desire to be invisible, I did not want to a starkly visible moving target. They stood in their certainty, their devotion to their beliefs. I had no certainty, not even the certainty of uncertainty.
Looking further afield and later reflections on the religious and scientific discourses
After I moved from Tasmania to Sydney my life quickly changed. The options open to me were far more substantial than my early level of awareness enabled me to grasp. Without the advantage of an overview, and on the basis of very limited knowledge I had pursued an idiosyncratic path of inquiry that eventually led me eventually into the Western Mystery Tradition and Wicca. While my involvement in the Western Mystery Tradition and Wicca was a time of rich and rewarding experience, neither of knowledge systems satisfied my need to find meaning that was comprehensible within wider cultural narrative. My entrenched aversion to belief and faith, born of my childhood Christian experience, caused me to chaff against the legitimate limits these systems had to offer. But here I began to develop a sense of rational and coherent structures. In particular study of the Kabbalah helped me see that it was possible to have a complex, coherent, sophisticated and intellectually challenging system. This was what, I realised, I had craved.
Both the Western Mystery Tradition and Wicca were fundamentally practice-based systems in which the theoretical elements reinforced the practice. They did not seem designed for intellectual inquiry and for speculation, indeed such was not only not supported, but, from my experience, actively discouraged. Certainly both had an experimental and exploratory side, but this was not evident in my initial encounters, wherein conformity and acceptance dominated.
The foundational knowledge was ‘given’ and came as highly specific ideas in a language peculiar to the system. This was, in essence, no different from learning physics or chemistry, but unlike foundational ideas of science, these knowledge systems did not provide a commonly accepted body of ideas that explained how the world worked in a way that satisfied my need for rational explanations. For the most part knowledge was imbibed and expressed within a discrete community of like-minded participants, many of whom were content operate within the limits of ‘privileged’knowledge, which was, in any case, often imparted with injunctions to secrecy. In practical terms the advantage of secrecy lay not in the risk of imparting knowledge that was privileged, but in not sounding like a complete idiot to an outsider to whom what was said was incomprehensible nonsense.
There were certainly controls on knowledge that had real regard to safety against ill-advised practice. As with any practice-based or empirical praxis, there are stages by which skills are developed and experiences undertaken. However the injunction against revealing what one learned did more to prevent contention and embarrassment than anything else, and this highlighted a particular problem for me. The ideas were not articulated in contemporary language, nor did they take account of contemporary developments in learning. It was entirely possible for a person with little education and learning to dedicate their time to the study of these knowledge systems with little equivalence by way of learning in the world. This limitation, that is a consequence of both degree of interest and ability as well as time, pointed up another major concern for me. Practice-based systems blend knowledge and narrative into a single discourse that does not need to be tested against external environments so long as it meets the needs of functionality and personal satisfaction. This means there is a risk of the development of a self-serving belief system that is reinforced by compliance and conformity. It can sit outside the cultural norm, self-perceived as superior to it. This does not contribute to the integration of disparate ontological elements into a sharednarrative.
The groups with which I associated were structured on a traditional hierarchical system, with those holding senior offices possessing a higher degree of training in the various techniques such as meditation, structured visualisations and conduct of ceremonial rites. Their roles also included supervision of study programs, and this meant leading discussions on various themes. Without exception I found such individuals ill-equipped for, and disinterested in, exploratory discussions. I found a similar difficulty with distance learning courses where supervisors were overseas and communication was confined to written responses to study and practice reports. These mail-based affiliations did not last long. As well as concerns over the intellectual content I also became disaffected by the conduct of meetings and the overall attitude to what I saw then as an earnestly serious matter. On reflection I think I was a little extreme in my attitude.
My magical diary entry of 19 April 1978 reflects the degree of discontent felt in relation to the first group I was involved with: “Rethinking much about (group) and my affiliation. PJ doing likewise. Its muddlesomeness is getting to us and the people are becoming boring again. Still much serious contemplation is done so that no hasty or ill-advised thoughts or actions manifest”. (Magical Diary Vol. 1 p.64)
Months later, on July 6th the same discontent is evident:
My displeasure with the order disturbs me and there is nowhere I can turn to seek dispassionate advice. I find the members presently singularly dull and unimaginative and in response I annoy them… The meetings are deadly boring I dislike feeling obliged to attend what is an utter waste of time … I may put in several hours of highly profitable reading in the time I endure the merciless waffle … Is my attitude disloyal? I say not for I demand quality and abhor its absence. (Magical Diary Vol. 1)
These early group-based experiences did offer some sound benefits as well, in terms of a community of like-minded individuals with a shared interest, and the opportunity to engage in ceremonial rites as a proper ritual drama. When things went well they were rewarding and enjoyable, but in the long term the innate limitations imposed by the necessarily diverse membership and reliance on a traditional teaching mode that emphasised acceptance of givens over inquiry rendered such affiliations finallyunsatisfying.
With the advantage of hindsight, these groups were strongly hierarchical and were limited by the depth of knowledge and style of those who headed them. As learning experiences they did not cater to individual needs of students, but demanded compliance with a structure and style of learning that had been handed down, without much amendment, from the late 19th century.
In seeking to answer the questions that were plaguing me I needed to be able to use reference points that lay within the ‘normal’ ontological frame. The solution of stepping outside one’s culture in order to answer questions had a certain appeal, but it also struck me as a capitulation to the perceived tyranny of science, atheistic scepticism and religious dogma. The option of adopting Buddhism, Taoism, Zen or other ‘alien’ knowledge system, or becoming an adherent of the Western Mystery tradition or Wicca did not ‘solve’ the problem. Rather it provided a refuge from the storm of intellectual contention that had been, and remains, the hallmark of Western culture.
Such self-limiting knowledge systems were, to me, anachronistic, since the traditions upon which they rely were more integrated into the collective ontology than they are in the contemporary West. The Greek mystery tradition or the European ‘pagan’ roots to Wicca participated in the ontology of their parent cultures and times in ways that contemporary adherents to these systems do not. While there may well be merit in these systems, this isolation, and especially the intentional perpetuation of it, makes testing the validity of the ontological precepts, and any eventual integration into Western narrative difficult.
The proposition that there are three valid ontological positions that are equally valid, yet mutually exclusive and contradictory seemed reasonable only at the extremes of metaphysical argument. Ordinarily, it seemed, we might think that human experience draws from a common well. The alternative that one position is valid and the other two are not presents opportunity for insoluble conflict, especially where the asserted knowledge is beyond the capacity of inquiry to test its validity. The proposition that all three are potential contributors to a shared ontology, but with fundamentally differing assertions as to what is true, was difficult for me to engage with at the time.
My personal challenge had become how to frame my experiences within the ground rules of Western culture, and not presume some implicit intellectual and moral superiority that is the unfortunate consequence of adopting another intellectual and philosophical tradition. It was a challenge I failed on many occasions, as I became ‘seduced’ by the conceits of membership of groups and in the desire to ‘belong’ to a community of shared experience and knowledge. But the appeal always faded as the limits to tolerance of inquiry became evident.
Subsequent engagement with science
Science remained a touchstone for me, and it was to it that I constantly returned, but there was a persistent disappointment for a number of years. Laszlo (2004) summed up what he discerned as a fundamental split in scientific thought, arguing that “it has deep cultural roots. The historian of civilization Richard Tarnus pointed out that since the dawn of the modern age, the civilization of the Western world has had two faces. One face is that of progress , the other, of fall.” (p.13) Laszlo’s point is that while there has been some progression, it has come at the cost of a previous deep connection with nature. He goes on to argue that:
Contemporary Western civilization displays both positive and negative faces. Its duality is reflected in the attitude scientists adopt toward the question of meaning. Some, like Weinberg, express the negative face of Western civilization. For them meaning resides in the human mind alone: the world itself is impersonal, without purpose or intention. Others, like Peat, align themselves with the positive face. They insist that though the universe has been disenchanted by modern science, it is re-enchanted in the light of latest findings. (2004 p. 14)
Peat & Briggs (1999) argue that science, at various stages in history, becomes a metaphor for larger paradigms, and for value sets and beliefs, that are not, themselves scientific. They say that Darwinism, for example, came to be seen as a struggle of the fittest, but not fit in the sense of meaning apt, rather fitness in the sense of vigour. Hence evolution is seen in the sense of “what goes under must have been in some way flawed while what survives must be “better”. (1999 p. 6). They share the sense of a dark or negative side to a certain type of science thinking, observing that, at the end of the twentieth century “we have also encountered the dark side of that path we began to lead 800 years ago where we separated ourselves from nature.” (1999 p. 152)
Gray (2003) cites Feyerabend’s (1999) observation that “science contains so many different and yet empirically acceptable worldviews, each containing its own metaphysical background.” (p. 109), in observing that within this diversity the beliefs in an eventual single theory of science is, itself an act of metaphysical faith.
I am not sure whether science informs value systems or the value systems inform science, but within the diversity of science worldviews that interact with culturally derived values, many metaphors for more general paradigms can be developed. In observing that in the Middle Ages “rationality meant a mind capable of seeing the spiritual connections in things, the rhythms and delicate balance or “ratio” among subjects and objects’ (1999 p.120) Briggs & Peat illustrate how the meanings of language applied to thinking has shifted with the movement away from a presumption of spiritual thought as a valid element of scientific thought. Through the study of Chaos Theory, Briggs & Peat consciously see that the ideas and perceptions drawn from Chaos Theory have the power to function as a cultural metaphor, so, for them, “rationality” can recover an older meaning.
Briggs and Peat, (1999) along with Laszlo (2004) and Zukav (1980) are among a growing number of science thinkers and writers who are establishing, with empirically acceptable worldviews, an alternative set of metaphors for describing the human condition, seeing a convergence between science and metaphysics or spiritual philosophy. Briggs & Peat see that “Paradoxically the insights of the newest science share the vision of the world presented in many of the world’s oldest indigenous and spiritual traditions.” (1999 p. 7). Zukav is bolder: “Now, after three centuries, the Scientists have returned with their discoveries. They are as perplexed as we are … “We are not sure,” they tell us, “but we have accumulated evidence which indicates that the key to understanding the universe is you.“ (1980 p. 92). Zukav expressed the extreme point at which inquiries into the deeper aspects of the material world merge with issues of perception and consciousness. The extend to which this is science and not metaphysics may be debatable but it does illustrate Brigg’s & Peat’s point about how scientific ideas can become metaphors for wider cultural concerns.
That there is a monolithic and homogenous thing called ‘science’ with values and beliefs in common is more myth than fact. Feyerabend’s observation (in Gray 2003) poses a multivocal response as the complexity of science throws up multiple valid interpretations. What is shared is the set of rules for inquiry called ‘scientific method’. What is not shared is the complexity of human experience, beliefs and values that inhabit those who practice science. The scientific and rational ontological framework seems to be porous, heterogeneous and complex. Belief and knowledge systems intermingle to produce a vibrant cultural discourse that is subject to constant evolution, and passionate defence. Over decades of reading, the illusion of scientific homogeneity progressively evaporated for me, revealing a dynamic and exciting realm of investigation.
For nearly a century the ontological implications of Quantum theory have been disturbing the old verities. Zukav argues that the Copenhagen Interpretation of Quantum Mechanics, arising out the 5th Solvay Congress in Brussels in 1927 “began a monumental reunion that was all but unnoticed at the time. The rational part of our psyche, typified by science, began to merge again with that other part of us which we had ignored since the 1700s, our irrational side.” (1980 p. 37). The further implications of Chaos, Complexity and Systems theories, along with advances in methodologies afforded by the evolution in computing technologies, have provided new ways of interrogating human experience.
Zukav (1980) observes that although Newtonian physics has been superseded by Quantum physics as the prime explanatory system at the leading edge of inquiry, the rules of Newtonian physics still hold true for the bulk of human experience. While Quantum physics and the subsequent developments in theory and technology confer important benefits to our culture, the interface is at a substratum level, beneath mundane awareness – in communication and computing systems and the numerous now familiar devices, in the operation of complex market behaviour, in weather forecasting. For the most part neither the theories nor the ontological implications they generate penetrate and significantly influence the collective cultural narrative, at least not yet. We benefit from, and are increasingly dependent upon, a knowledge system whose potential implications upon our sense of meaning are largely unknown.
This largely unknown knowledge system has shattered the old ontological verities that once underpinned the knowledge system of the West. Zukav says that:
the philosophical implications of quantum mechanics is that all of the things in our universe (including us) that appear to exist independently are actually part of one all-encompassing organic pattern, and that not parts of that pattern are ever really separate from it or from each other.” (1980 pp. 47,48)
Such implications, on a philosophical level, are yet to be explored, accepted or incorporated into a shared world-view.
De Quincy (2002) is more specific about the need for a broadening of the Western ontological frame, saying:
A major – perhaps the major – element in the conceptual and perceptual matrix that shapes our worldview is our scientific attitude to consciousness and its relationship to the world of matter. For, from this view, we look out on a world devoid of any real intrinsic value, of any inherent purpose, meaning orfeeling.
Science has exorcised the ghost from the machine and left us with a desacralized and dispirited world. And it has done this because the fundamental beliefs about the world (its ontology), and what we can know about the world (its epistemology), and how we can know the world (its methodology) are based upon a set of assumptions grounded in the metaphysics of matter-in-blind-motion, of reductionist mechanism and materialism. This is what must change. Without such a profound metaphysical shift, all the good works in the world will never amount to anything more than well-intentioned Band-Aids. (p. 4)
Broomfield (1997), critical of the Western way of knowing, argues that there is fundamental weakness in the Western way of knowing, that “we have made a serious error of equating our way of knowing, which we variously call science and history, with all knowledge.” (p.1) Broomfield argues that there are other ways of knowing, beyond the Western dominant ontological constructs. De Quincey agrees, arguing that:
It is critical, it seems to me, that scientific knowledge that shapes and limits the contours of our social reality – our communal “paradigm” should be expanded to include and honour non-measurable phenomena such as values, meanings, purposes, and feelings. For modern science to do this will require a radical reorientation of its basic metaphysical assumptions about the nature of reality. It will require a thorough reassessment of the epistemology underlying science – of how we know anything about the world, particularly consciousness itself. (2002 pp. 2-3)
De Quincey, as a philosopher, is primarily interested in consciousness research, so his critique does not specifically embrace other cultural perspectives. What arises from philosophical inquiry into what scientific theories is the proposition that, on an epistemological and ontological level, it is necessary to integrate cultural and even metaphysical narratives into the [rational] evidence of science. De Quincey’s position is that cultural narrative is necessarily metaphysical at base, because it frames a perception of what is real and, by implication what is not real, or valid. At this level of analysis, the illusion of the rule of science and reasoned inquiry breaks down. What emerges is the possibility of a synthesis between the ‘rational’ disciplines and what we now might see as ‘irrational’ ones – but both are, essentially ‘rational’. Such integration is a future potential rather than a present, broadly accepted endeavour, though movement toward it is underway.
In stark contrast to the perception that advances in science are leading to a closer union with ancient and traditional spiritual thought, Kurzweil (1999) illustrates the other side, arguing that in the twenty first century “The human species, along with the computational technology it has created, will be able to solve the age-old problems of need, if not desire, and will be in a position to change the nature of mortality in a postbiological future.” (p.2) Kurzweil’s passion is artificial intelligence, so his metaphor for his projected cultural values rests on computational technology. He sees the prospect of a future human state that, with the aid of technology, has rendered pure biological existence redundant. To Gray (2004) this is an instance of science giving rise to a secular religion, driven by metaphysical faiths and belief in a noble human future in which scourge of biological mortality, and other limitations and ills, is defeated. Gray does not dispute progress in science but challenges that this constitutes progress in the human condition. Science may be able to meet the needs and desires of a human population, and may defeat the otherwise inevitable death of the biological vehicle, but to Gray this is not progress. He argues that “Whatever role it may have had in the past, belief in progress has become a mechanism of self-deception that serves only to block perception of the evils that come with the growth of knowledge. In contrast, the myths of religion are ciphers containing the truth of the human condition.” (2004 p. 5)
Gray’s position draws a distinction between the kind of science that advances knowledge as if it constitutes the foundation of human knowing, and hence setting afuture that is genuinely unique, and the kind of knowledge that is complementary with past knowledge. Here we might discern a Darwinian ‘error’ which assumes that past knowledge is surrendered because it is defective and that all new knowledge is ‘better’. Gray’s chief objection is:
The error is not in thinking that human life can improve. Rather, it is in imagining that improvement can ever be cumulative. Unlike science, ethics and politics are not activities in which what is learnt in one generation can be passed on to an indefinite number of future generations. Like the arts, they are practical skills and they are easily lost.” (2004 pp. 3-4)
What Gray is arguing is that meaning itself, whether the meaning of existence, or the meaning of life, is experiential rather than the consequence of inheriting and adding to a body of knowledge. If we go back to the idea of the negative face of science in which meaning is held to exist only within the human mind, and if we take the extreme view, only within the human brain, then the endeavour of science may be seen as lacking heart. Briggs & Peat, Zukav and others propose that rather than science projecting along an evolutionary vector into unique territory, it seems to be curling back on a vector that is leading it towards a confluence with metaphysical thought, and to questions of meaning well beyond the confines of the human mind or brain, towards a cosmological sense of meaning.
Joseph Needham (1900-1995), whose extensive studies into early Chinese science and technology demonstrated the extend to which Western technological progress owed a profound debt, observed that:
… the sciences of China and Islam never dreamed of divorcing science from ethics, but when at the Scientific Revolution the final cause of Aristotle was done away with, and ethics chased out of science, things became very different, and more menacing … Science needs to be lived alongside religion, philosophy, history and aesthetic experience; alone it can lead to great harm. (in Temple 2007 p. 11).
Here Needham argues for a holistic foundation to human knowing, one in which no particular knowledge system is privileged above the others.
The objections that one should not make metaphysical projections out of science, and still call the activity science may be legitimate if scientific method is to remain at the core of scientific endeavour. But the distinction between science as a ‘pure’ pursuit given only to untainted questioning is challenged by Quantum science. The science – metaphysics nexus or science as a cultural metaphor, in which science and culture exist in mutual dependency, would seem to be inescapable realities. The religious, philosophic, historical and aesthetic elements of human thought and experience, along with science, constitute a whole. And it is this whole thought, a holistic way of knowing that seems to be increasing demanded of Western culture.
There is sufficient diversity in science, with the many worldviews arising out of perfectly sound inquiry, to enable a diverse array of reasonable positions to be derived as guides or metaphors for thinking about the human condition. This includes the development of personal positions that reflect individual orientations or biases.
My orientation toward the more metaphysical metaphors and interpretations is a step away from the deterministic perspective with which I was imbued as a child, and later encountered in psychiatry. In so far as I have sought in science answers to questions I have become progressively aware that where answers may not be available, the changes in science do provide permission to inquire within the scope of alternative paradigms, without violating the essential spirit of scientific inquiry. This is, to me, a vital contemporary development that moves science back into the community of its brother and sister modes of thought as a co-participant rather than a demagogue ortyrant.
The mystical and magical knowledge systems that lay excluded from the Western frame propose ideas and interpretations that might be embraced within a collective ontology under the umbrella of a reinterpretation of the wider cultural narrative as a metaphysical discourse. We cannot now excuse them from serious consideration as either unscientific or inconsistent with the tight frames of dogmatic religiosity. The science thinking that flows from Quantum physics, when encountered as a metaphor, virtually forces thought into metaphysical pathways. Uncertainty has dethroned certainty, and the result is elegant chaos.
If we accept as valid the scientific passion for a theory of everything (which Gray says is a metaphysical faith), then a shared ontology must also be on the table, but such must be articulated outside the constraints of cultural pragmatism and utility, at the level of metaphysical thought. Western ontology is woven into the whole of the social fabric, effecting political, economic, scientific and cultural discourse. The consequence of destabilising this complex interplay through direct metaphysical or political engagement of either a moral or intellectual character, is most likely to meet determined resistance. Nevertheless the necessary discourse, as a creative endeavour, must be undertaken. As science asks increasingly metaphysical questions to address the conundrums that arise concerning perception of, and participation in, events, the brackets that once firmly held the metaphysical at bay cease to be relevant.
This is not, however, to suggest that the whole panoply of metaphysical ideas merits immediate embrace, rather, because we are now metaphysically impoverished, we can begin to revisit ideas once cast into the outer darkness of ‘civilised’ thought. Little of what was once asserted as unvarying verity remains inviolate or sacrosanct, save, perhaps fidelity to integrity of method.
Shifting ground in psychiatry
My early experience with psychiatry had an indelible impact on me. Because I had to struggle, at a deep and urgent personal level, with notions of madness, I had had an ongoing interest in psychiatry, though it developed some years later. The question as to whether one is drifting off the path of rational thought into self-delusion also became a recurrent one as my involvement in occult groups progressed. While engagement with the occult has its particular fascinations and consolations, it is also an opportunity to permit one to be seduced into belief, and be caught up in the momentum of groupthink.
The diagnosis of paranoid schizophrenia was incomprehensible to me at the time. The standard definition provides that it is a psychotic condition, which can exhibit paranoid symptoms such as “delusion of persecution” and “hallucinatory voices”, and schizophrenic symptoms include “bizarre delusions” and “hallucinations”. The essential difference I see between contemporary material on paranoid schizophrenia and what was offered to me is that “The course of paranoid schizophrenia may be episodic, with partial or complete remissions, or chronic.” (from www.schizophrenia.com) I was offered no such prospect of remission.
The idea that this illness is based upon the diagnostic perception of delusions and hallucinations is an idea about what is or is not real. A hallucination is the sense of something that does not exist and a delusion is a belief not based upon reality. In this respect psychiatry sees itself as the arbiter and expert of the real, and hence what is or is not meaningful. A diagnosis of paranoid schizophrenia suggests that what is experienced by the individual is neither real nor meaningful.
I see psychiatry as essentially a medicalised construction of an ontological frame created at the level of a small but dominant element within our culture, and it reveals an arrogant hubris to set itself up as the arbiter of reality and meaning. But at a time when a culture does not have wide access to alternative perspective, such apparent expertise can rest substantially unchallenged. However, things are changing.
Read, Mosher & Bentall (2004) offers a contemporary perspective on psychiatry that vastly contrasts with my encounter. Their perspective is separated from my experience by a good 30 years and what is evident is the embrace of more contemporary philosophical models, rather than the dominant positivist model of my experience. I want to explore this text at some depth because the contrast between my experience with psychiatry and the ideas and values expressed appear to demonstrate a significant advance, but nevertheless still present unresolved problems. In the essays we see the incorporation of values that honour personal experience, indicating a fundamental shift from the substantially quantitative medical model to a more client orientated qualitative approach that gives the client’s voice a role to play. The new andemergent models of analysis and therapy “suggest that it is the way that peopleinterpret psychotic phenomena that accounts for distress and disability, rather than the psychotic experiences themselves”. (Morrison, A.P. in Read, Mosher & Bentall p. 291) Morrison adds, “It is also worth considering that people with psychosis frequently develop post-traumatic stress disorder in response to their treatment experiences or the psychotic symptoms themselves.” (2004 p. 302) This is certainly a view with which I have strong sympathy and accord.
Mosher (2004) expresses a view that significantly shifts psychiatry toward the established principles of psychotherapy:
Within this defined and predictable social environment, interpersonal phenomenology was practised. Its most basic tenet is ‘being with’ – an attentive but non-intrusive, gradual way of getting oneself ‘into the other person’s shoes’ so that a shared meaningfulness of the subjective aspects of the psychotic experience can be established within a confiding relationship. This requires unconditional acceptance of the experiences of others as valid and understandable within the historical context of each person’s life. (2004 pp. 351-352)
However, this sentiment is still constrained by the key assumptions of psychiatry, seeing validity in a narrow personal and historical context, rather than potentially on an ontological level.
Geekie understands that “a psychotic episode can sometimes be an overwhelming experience, it is not surprising that clients are eager to make sense of it.” and “clients want to be active participants in this process rather than passive recipients of the clinicians model.” But the “client’s explanatory models may not always correspond to professional understandings of psychosis, and it may, therefore, be necessary for some form of discussion and negotiation to take place if a shared understanding between clinician and client is to be established.” (2004 p. 158) I agree with Geekie that a radical non-ordinary experience can be overwhelming and there is an urgent need to make sense of it. And he is right is saying that there can be a desire to be an active participant in meaning-making process. But I found none of his willingness to see that there is some discussion and negotiation – not that I had any explanatory model to offer at the time.
Read (2004) observes; “Any behaviour can be transformed into a symptom of mental illness simply by an expert decreeing it so. It helps, however, if the behaviour is portrayed as meaningless or bizarre. An effective way to do this is to ignore the social context.” (2004 p. 29) Read naturally does not extend his observations to include ignoring the ontological context at the metaphysical level, but here we may, at a lower scale, take “social context” to mean a relative ontological context. Here Read displays a sensitivity that at least suggests the possibility of a conversation about what is or is not madness. In my case there was an automatic presumption that my experience was meaningless and bizarre, as the diagnosis supposed the absence of foundation inreality and a violation of the ontological norm. Although I did not have a metaphysical context to offer at the time (if I had then I would not have sought psychiatric care), alternative discourses were known, or possible to be known. The psychiatric presumption of illness indicated that alternative explanations had been discounted, with or without any exploration.
Finally, Davis and Burdett’s (2004) assertion that “meaning is not discovered. It is not something lying around on life’s road waiting to be tripped over. Rather one makes meaning and fully honours the individual struggle to make meaning out of strange and disruptive events. They argue that “Prevention of mental illness is about creating the preconditions necessary for a life worth living: the essential one being having sufficient autonomy to determine one’s own life.” (2004 p. 272) But the extent to which that autonomy embraces the freedom to elect and function within an alternative ontological frame has to be part of an ongoing dialogue between those who have experiences and those who function is to provide care when those experiences become catastrophic, and conduct, subsequently, becomes dysfunctional.
How would I have progressed to find meaning for my experiences had I had available psychiatric services operating with the values and ideas that are now possible, but by no means always or yet widely, present? I think the outcome would have been substantially the same, because despite the evident advance, psychiatry is still, in my assessment, rooted to the proposition that there is not a wider sphere of the potentially real. While there is a shift towards honouring the personal, it does not appear to go so far as to admit that disturbing and disruptive experiences may actually come from bona fide intrusions whose source and nature are outside the orthodox ontological constructs. In other words, it is not such a huge leap to imagine the existence of other planes of consciousness. The sensitivity and accommodation is almost at the point of considering utility and functionality as the critical considerations for intervention, but not yet there.
An alternative view on hearing voices
Hearing voices is one of the key diagnostic elements of schizophrenia, and certainly was so in my case. Because it was hearing voices that precipitated my crisis it is useful to consider the marked changes in the way this phenomenon is considered outside the more conventional psychiatric perception, and within a self-help context of a community of ‘sufferers’.
A review of current websites indicates a shift from the classical psychiatric position. The Mental Health Foundation, a UK charity founded in 1949, reflects a significantly more open view:
Some people define hearing voices as a symptom of mental illness, where as some voice hearers are able to live with their voices and consider them a positive part of their lives.
Indeed research shows that especially for people recently bereaved, it is not an uncommon experience to hear the voice of the recently deceased person.
As well as hearing voices through the ears people also hear voices as if they are thoughts entering the mind from somewhere outside themselves … the thoughts are not their own and would seem to come from outside their own consciousness like telepathy (http://mentalhealth.org.uk/information/mental-health-a-z/health)
A similar, more open perspective is reflected in the website, healthline.com, which says “Auditory hallucinations are more common in psychotic conditions such as schizophrenia … In some case hallucinations may be normal. For example, hearing the voice, or briefly seeing, a loved one who has recently died can be part of the grieving process. “
The acceptance of hearing voices as a feature of the grieving process probably makes the diagnosis of a schizophrenic condition less acceptable, creating the problem of pathologising grief as a mental illness. The website, Intervoice.org, an information and support service for people who hear voices and those who provide care and support to them, provides research resources, including:
Rees (1971) conducted a study of 293 widowed people living in a particular area of mid- Wales. He found that 14% of those interviewed reported having had a visual hallucination of their deceased spouse, 13.3% an auditory one and 2.7% a tactile one. These categories overlapped to some extent as some people reported a hallucinatory experience in more than one modality. Of interest in light of the previous heading was the fact that 46.7% of the sample reported experiencing the presence of the deceased spouse.
From Olson , Suddeth , Peterson & Egelhoff (1985)
Widowed residents of two nursing homes who were oriented to person, time, and place were interviewed to determine the extent to which they had hallucinatory experiences of their deceased spouse. Fifty-two interviews were completed with 46 widows and six widowers. Results are reported for the widows. Twenty-eight (61%) of the widows reported hallucinatory experiences of their deceased spouse. Twenty-four (86%) of the widows described the experiences as good or helpful. Thirteen (46%) reported that the experiences continue to happen. Nineteen (54%) of the widows had never discussed the experiences with anyone before this study. These results are surprisingly similar to previously published findings by Rees in Wales and suggest that these experiences are more common in the United States than has beenrecognized.
What these two excerpts pose is the problem of turning grieving into an illness if the classical criteria for psychotic illness is employed. And even so, assuming that the experiences arise from part of the grief process can lock the experience of voice hearing and other non-ordinary phenomena into a period of life experience that appears to be dysfunctional, because it violates the norms of perception and experience, or so it is thought. The relationship between voice hearing and trauma is, below, asserted, and while this is a shift from such experiences as symptomatic of psychotic illness, it is nevertheless still firmly rooted in the assumption of a nexus between voice hearing and some kind of traumatic experience that, even temporarily, the norms of perception.
Intervoice has 170 groups in the England and there are affiliated groups in 18 other countries, including Australia, where the Richmond Fellowship WA has established the Hearing Voices Network Australia.
Intervoice evolved out of the growth of The Hearing Voices Movement, which was established in 1987 by Prof Marius Romme, Professor of Social Psychiatry at the University of Limburg, Maastricht, the Netherlands, and Sandra Escher, a science journalist. The movement opposes the standard psychiatric interpretation of auditory hallucinations as being indicative of schizophrenic disorder. Romme and Baker (2007) argue; “Schizophrenia is not a valid concept because it completely fails scientific tests” and that “schizophrenia is not and never has been proven to be a brain disease”. They go on to assert that, “In our research concerning people who hear voices we found that in 77% of the people diagnoses with schizophrenia the hearing of voices was related to traumatic experiences.” and “In our experience many people start to hear voices and only afterwards develop other experiences. These arise as a reaction to hearing the voices and because people cannot cope with their voices.” (p. 1 Intervoice online Hearing Voices and Schizophrenia – updated 11/6/07)
Romme and Baker go on to say that “there are quite a large number of people (about 4%) in the general population who hear voices and even more (about 8%) have peculiar personal convictions, that we call delusions, without being ill (and this) compels us to realize that that the experience of hearing voices or having ‘delusions’ are not in themselves a sign of mental illness.” (2007 p. 2)
The position taken is still fundamentally psychiatric, arguing for recognition of “Trauma Induced Psychosis”, possibly as an alternative to schizophrenia, and asserting “recovery” from the phenomena of hearing voices is possible. Romme and Baker say that the objective of therapeutic intervention is to “help the person to learn to accept and cope with his voices and or delusions and with the problems that led to them.” (2007 p. 2)
In contrast to the clearly psychiatric perspective adopted by Romme and others the Intervoice website carries stories, feedback and comments from who accept that hearing voices can belong to valid spiritual traditions that accept such voices as not necessarily the product of trauma or necessarily undesirable phenomena. The Intervoice site, under the heading Alternative Perspectives says that Intervoice “has always considered the importance of accepting peoples’ own explanations for their voice experiences as paramount. Many people believe their voices to have spiritual or other significance.” In an unattributed short article entitled Voice hearing in history and religion the author observes that:
Throughout human history there have been descriptions of the ‘voice within’ in religion, in the occult, magical and mystical descriptions, historical, psychological, fictional and mythical. The psychological literature on these experiences has largely focused on individuals considered to be “mad”, while the religious literature concentrates on those thought to be divinely or demonically inspired or possessed. Unsurprisingly perhaps, little attention has been given to the inner voice experience of people who fall into neither of these groups.
It might be observed that those who fall into neither the mad nor religious have not existed as a category until fairly recent times, at least within psychiatry, which would also embrace the religious and demonic communications within the orbit of psychotic symptoms. In this instance psychiatry and religion have known ontological paradigms that are generally admitted within Western culture, whereas such paradigms as may exist for those in neither category are less known, and less amenable to acceptance or validation, especially if they violate the precepts of the more hegemonic ontology.
Thomas, Bracken & Leudar (2004), whose article is posted on the Intervoice site, take a phenomenological-hermeneutic perspective on the subject of hearing voices, arguing that:
It is only when we consider the totality of human experience that we can understand its meaning. This has two main benefits. First it legitimates the claims made by those can hear voices that their experiences are intrinsically meaningful. Second it can provide a framework for those who with voice hearers and who are interested in understanding these experiences.” (p. 13)
Thomas et al propose an alternative to the enduring influence of Cartesianism in psychiatry and the proposition that the mental life can be explained in neurological terms. They say:
We have argued that although cognitive science and neuroscience claim to move us beyond ontological dualism, they perpetuate the essential features of Descartes’ philosophy. In particular they uphold the epistemological separation of inner mind from outer world. They fail to acknowledge the problems that arise if we regard the mind as a “thing”… We have also argued that psychiatry (and medicine) need a different philosophical framework if we are to move beyond the limitations of Cartesianism. The question of meaning lies at the heart of this framework. (2002 p. 14)
The problem with applying the cognitive model to the interpretation of auditory hallucinations is that it proposes only dysfunction, and explains them only in “terms ofdisordered inner mental processes” (2002 p. 15) Considering the classic story of Socrates and his daemon, Thomas et al observe that were Socrates forced to accept the proposition that his experience were hallucinatory “He would be forced to accept that there were no such things as Gods and daemons, because these beliefs were an integral aspect of his culture.” (2002 p. 15). Observing that “reality is not determined universally in terms of distinctions between inner and external worlds, but is influenced by cultural factors that make it possible for us to understand and make sense of ourexperiences in certain ways.” (2002 p. 16) Thomas et al propose that “Ontological phenomenology situates the human experience in personal, historical and cultural contexts, and through these contexts that experience can be understood as meaningful.” (2002 p. 16)
The problem here with such an endeavour to locate experience within an experiential context, rather than in a clinical interpretative one, is that in a culture where hearing voices is not ‘normalised’ by reference to current beliefs that give validation, the capacity to construct meaning is problematic. What is ‘meaningful’ can become uncertain as well as contentious. While a phenomenological perspective shifts the interpretive narrative from the ontological presumptions of the observer to those of the experiencer, outside a culture whose ontological frames accommodate hearing voices as a valid element of personal or social experience, the experiencer is little benefited unless they are able to construct a useful theory. But on what basis is such a theoryconstructed?
Here I am not decrying the movement towards honouring the experience of the patient (in the case of diagnosed mental illness) so much as arguing that the context of the experience may not be sufficiently rich to enable a useful theory that confers meaning to be developed. Whereas Romme (2007) moves thinking about hearing voices away from an illness model, his alternative of an experiential crisis still is seen in the context of recovery from an adverse situation. It is not an ontological crisis from which one recovers through adaptation of a previously limiting ontology to one with wider or more porous boundaries. There is a distinction between the perceived need for, and benefit from, validation of personal experience as meaningful, and the development of an intellectually rigorous theory that ‘explains’ the hearing voices phenomenon, but within a preordained ontological field.
My experience not only involved the problem I had with voices I had not invited and had not agreed to have present, but also one of not being able to locate the phenomenon of hearing voices within any knowledge available to me. At a stretch the closest thing to hearing voices I knew of were the prophets of the Old Testament, but what I experienced mercifully did not present itself as God, neither was I inclined to interpret any religious significance in the experiences. The fact of the voices is one thing, but where they come from and what is their nature is another.
In the absence of validating knowledge within one’s native cultural context, the honouring of experience as being one’s own and meaningful at a personal level is potentially hollow. Although the movement away from imposed and dominant ontological frames towards the accommodation of the personal experience as potentially meaningful within a particular context is a welcome development, it is not the whole picture.
Thomas et al do propose the need for an alternative philosophical perspective and suggest that meaning is the key. What does an experience mean? If we consider the Socrates example, he has two alternatives – to accept the hallucination hypothesis or to reject it. Because he believes in gods and daemons he has an alternative ontological frame within which to locate his experience, and the hallucination proposition can be accommodated within it. Alternatively, if hallucination is the only available explanation then gods and daemons have no reality, save as symbolic interpretive images that give ‘flesh’ to an entirely subjective experience.
Thomas et al fail, I think, to properly account for the ontological implications. Considering their Socratic illustration, they propose that a diagnosis of ‘hallucination’ must invalidate the belief in gods and daemons. But Socrates may have been mistaken. He may have hallucinated, but he has the option of an alternative explanation. Gods and daemons are part of his culture, but did that infer that every instance of hearing voices was not a hallucination? Socrates may have had the means for testing whether his experiences were hallucinations or bona fide communications with his daemon. The argument that Socrates’ cultural context enables a validation of the experience of communication with one’s daemon needs to account for the distinction between the articulation or description of an experience and the proposition that the experience is ‘real’, that the daemon exists as an entity distinct from Socrates. There is the risk of intellectual sleight of hand, in which the cultural context is used as an element of validation and the claimed reality of gods and daemons side-stepped.
As Romme and others move the possible explanations for hearing voices out of the illness model of psychiatry, they reflect a wider movement away from absolute and given ontological frames, towards the possibility of individually determined meaning arising from personal context – individual, cultural, historical. In this alternative model a dysfunction is accorded meaning. It is an aberration rather than an illness. Its roots are experiential rather than physiological, and the phenomenon is interpretive rather than absolute. In effect this is a strained accommodation of personal experience. The phenomenon of hearing voices is an artefact of interpretation that has meaning that can be discerned through investigation of elements of personal experience in context.
There is no suggestion that the source of the voices have a reality outside the subjective experience of the hearer. While Romme does not say as much, there is a gentle suggestion that such a belief might constitute a delusion – of the kind that it is possible to live with, so long as the conduct that results is merely aberrant rather than dysfunctional.
Even with reference to old cultural traditions, to other cultures, where hearing voices is accepted as part of the real, the hearer of voices is extending their context, casting a wider contextual net in order to snare an anchor upon which validation of meaningfulness can be established – meaningfulness that asserts the voices have an independent existence beyond the subjective and personal experience of the hearer. The grieving widow hearing her spouse may not be necessarily inclined to accept that the spouse and his words are an artefact of her consciousness – a comforting construct of memory serving some mechanism of grieving.
This is not a phenomenological analysis. Old cultures and other cultures alien to the hearer at the time of the experience, regardless of their capacity to validate and elucidate the phenomenon of hearing voices, cannot be part of the phenomenological context of the experience itself. As Romme and others suggest, the response to the voices may generate distress that leads dysfunction and efforts to make meaning of the experience. This meaning making is a different phase of the experience. The fact that hearing voices is a long-established historical phenomenon, validated within certain cultures as part of one’s spiritual life, does not drive a wedge between the interpretive experience (a phenomenon is interpreted as hearing voices) and the proposition of the independent reality of agencies that do speak to human via the phenomenon of hearing voices.
My experiences moved from being private and potentially only an issue of interpretation – that is, I was experiencing something that I experienced, or interpreted as, hearing voices – to encounters involving other persons. The purely personal and private explanations, as interpretations of personal reality, cease to be valid. More complex issues of aberrant or delusional conduct among several people arise, but, as with any shared experience, the possibility of an ‘objective’ reality becomes, at least, worthy of consideration, even when it seems like a sharp pin inside an ontologicalballoon.
If such phenomena constitute separate and distinct agencies having their own valid and independent existence, then a radically new philosophical perspective, offering quite different potential meanings becomes necessary. This was the proposition that I had put to myself. The crisis of the experiences of hearing voices was minor compared to the ontological crisis that they precipitated. The subsequent experiences in which others saw, spoke with or had thoughts (as with ML and WM) that were related to my experiences, but did not directly involve me at the point of experience as a participant, even more forcefully posed the question of separate and independent entities.
In an age in which validation of individual experience is achieving increasing acceptance over the universal declarations of how things are (the ontologically dominating powers based upon authority and persuasion), such validation is a tempting compromise. But the proposition that there are things that are objectively real outside the act of interpretation, and beyond the ontological norms, while constantly offered as a possibility, is often lost in the illusion of accommodation and acceptance. That is to say that the honouring of personal experience, the accommodating of a personal ‘reality’ that is meaningful, can also be seen to serve the purpose of avoiding the more contentious ontological problem of whether the source of the experience has an independent existence beyond the subjective experience of the subject.
There is, then, an imperative that arises in the mind of the experiencer, where the evidence exceeds the safer proposition of interpretation of an entirely personal ‘reality’, to make meaning by asking the question whether the causes of an initially aberrant experience have independent existence, and if they do, what does that mean? Whatdoes it mean as an individual for an individual to have such encounters with nocontrol and no knowledge of the fuller potential context? What does it mean for the ontology of a culture that has long dismissed such a prospect as preposterous and only the stuff of madness?
I would like to propose a three-phase scale, using the phenomenon of hearing voices as a touchstone:
- The classical psychiatric model that proposes that it is an illness arising from disturbance within cerebral functioning. It can’t happen in reality because there is no aspect of reality that accommodates it. Thus, when it does happen it is the consequence of cerebral dysfunction.
- The mind responds to trauma or grief by constructing illusory vignettes in which the subject experiences auditory hallucinations as part of a meaningful mechanism, as part of a meaning making, or coping strategy. This appears to be a ‘normal’ thing, especially for those grieving the death of someone close to them. Because this is not an illness, rather an induced aberration, it is okay to live with the experience and okay to have the ‘harmless’ delusion that it is ‘real’.
- For reasons not well understood, but which may include trauma or grief, and also an absence of any evident environmental or contextual trigger, some people experience communication from, or influence by, entities who are separate and distinct from them. The consequences may be adverse or beneficial. They may accept or reject such encounters, and may suffer distress or trauma as aconsequence.
Each of the three stages has distinct responses. The first denies any possibility or reality or validity, the second asserts validity, but only subjective reality, and the third proposes validity and objective reality. The first is the dominant position of ‘modern’ Western culture. The second is a relatively recent interpretation, which might loosely be called postmodern. The third is the oldest interpretation, predating the ‘modern’.
At the time I was undergoing my experiences the second stage was either not yet developed or unavailable to me. My position was essentially black or white. It was either stage one or stage three. While many favour stage two, presently it is an alien set of ideas to me. I moved from rejecting stage one to considering stage three without considering that it might be a possible intermediate stage. At the time I lacked the intellectual sophistication to even consider stage two as feasible, and the early participation of other persons in my experiences also urged me closer to stage three.
Stage two appears to reflect much of the thinking explored in the discussion on methodology, in that it accommodates individual experience, seeking to honour it as valid and meaningful in itself, subject to reflection and articulation within the philosophic tradition, and so long as one does not appear to make declarative ontological statements that represent an exclusion of a position that might seem to be contrary. While this approach is accommodating and inclusive, and constitutes a significant advance on past philosophic or ontological positions that present definitive and exclusive assertions of factuality, it commits a similar ‘offence’. By confining ‘reality’ within the bounds of subjective construction born out of personal and collective contexts, it makes assertion of non-conforming objective realities both contentious and objectionable. Hence the proposition that there might be independent ‘real’ entities participating in communication with humans, becomes both contentious and political.
I have thought a great deal about my position in relation to this. Do I want to appear to the reader to be non-conforming in relation to the prevailing philosophic orthodoxy? Do I want to appear to be churlish, prepared to grasp the apparent tolerance proffered by clear advances in thinking – the willingness to accommodate my experiences as meaningful – and then say that this is not enough?
I want to take some thoughts from my readings in methodology to locate my own position. Guba & Lincoln observe that “new-paradigm inquirers are, however, increasingly concerned with the single experience, the individual crisis, the epiphany or moment of discovery, with that most powerful of all threats to conventional objectivity, feeling and emotion.” (2005 p. 205). Validation of individual experience radicalises philosophic thought, because what is true for an individual is potentially true for everybody, so the potential template for universal human experience is a mosaic of individual experiences, and the extreme or radical personal experience disrupts generalisation. If it can be demonstrated that hearing voices involves intercourse with separate, independently extant entities on an individual level, then the whole ontological picture must adjust to accommodate it. The particular then becomes the universal.
Guba & Lincoln go on to assert that: “the assumption that there is no single “truth” – that all truths are but partial truths … leads us ineluctably toward the insight that there will be no single “conventional” paradigm to which all … might ascribe in some common terms and mutual understanding. Rather we stand at the threshold of a history marked by multivocality, contested meanings, paradigmatic controversies, and new textual forms.” (2005 p. 212) What is under-estimated here is that common human experience shares a common ground of base realities that are substantially uncontested, and which from our sense of ‘reality’ is collectively developed. What is real may blur at the margins and controversies may rage over interpretations and meanings, but what is real has been fleshed out as philosophic, ethical and scientific positions have evolved. The distinction between the classical psychiatric perception that hearing voices is symptomatic of illness and the evolving sense that it reflects meaningful experience, albeit, maybe as the product of trauma, or an aberration, is clear. It reflects an evolution in thought through the contesting of paradigmatic boundaries, and the weakening of a particular ontological construction against the incursions of new paradigm thinking. But it does not end there.
From the perspective of an individual who has undergone a powerful crisis of experience and thought, I argue that that the transition from denial to partial and conditional acceptance of individual and non- conforming experiences may be a stepping-stone on a more radical pathway of profound ontological transformation. I cannot say that it is definitely so. The nature of individual experience is such that one cannot safely advance from the particular to the universal, even when the philosophic environment is favourable. Guba & Lincoln, despite their enthusiasm for the importance of the individual experience are alive to the problem of interpretation. They ask “Are we interpretatively rigorous? Can our co-created constructions be trusted to provide some purchase on some important human phenomenon? (2005 p. 205) It is a vital question. I would add that there are times when an issue that is an ‘important human phenomenon” plays havoc with the intellectual comfort zones, and that subtle forces of control, even among the most ardent idealists, conspire to corrupt interpretive rigour. The question as to whether there might be independent agencies involved in communicating with humans threatens the tolerance of the tolerant. It can appear as an ontological rupture that can unravel much that has been safely contained, either disposed of or considered ‘unreal’ in an absolute sense.
The expression ‘paradigmatic controversies’ masks existential passions that accompany the polite practice of philosophic discourse. As a thinker who largely by-passed a good deal of postmodern thought in favour of esoteric thought I can celebrate the developments that open a door once closed in terms of toleration of non-conventional thinking. When Guba & Lincoln observe; “We may be entering an age of greater spirituality within research efforts” that “may yet integrate the sacred with the secular in ways freedom and self-determination” (2005 p. 212) they are articulating not an ontological evaluation, but an ethical one. There is an apparent assumption that the ontological issues will not become contentious because they have been accommodated within the relativistic sense of partial truths. But here that sense of partial truth relates to experience, rather than a sense of what constitutes the ground of the ‘real’. Like the famous tale of the blind men describing an elephant from touch, each articulating the partial truth of his limited sensory contact, nobody disputes the elephant’s existence. The experiential ground is common, only the experience and response varies, and the varieties constitute the whole, or contribute toward it.
There is a fundamental difference between stages one and three. They have differing common ground. Stage two progresses from stage one. It is an advance toward the ideals of shared experience constituting a collective sense of the real. But where acceptance of the validity of hearing voices is an advance over denial of such, it constitutes a lesser degree of acceptance than the proposition that such voices have independent existence. In the classic development of human consciousness as accepted in modern and post modern Western thought, stage three comes before stage one, and then stage two signifies the most advanced thought, moving toward the ideal of commonality. But its advance is predicated on the invalidation of stage three, or its relegation to a primary stage. If stage three were accepted as valid then not only would stage one be redundant, but stage two would have to be significantly, but not wholly redeveloped.
The crisis the stage three thinking precipitated was precisely that it was utterly alien to stage one and the ontological environment in which it flourished. It permeated my culture, such as I knew it. A combination of immaturity and a lack of learning proposed an awful wrenching sense of disjuncture between what was happening to me and the ‘normal’ world. It is not my objective to assert that stage three is a definite alternative that rules out stages one and two. Rather that stage three is where I ended up having to go in order make sense of my experiences. It dwells at the very contentious edge of conversations involving problematic paradigms. It is an exciting place.
From destructive doubt to a sense of possibility
Just as there are limitations to memory, we need to not overlook the fact that there are limitations to our capacity to analyse and interpret information, of which an extraordinary volume is available to us. We have to, in effect, ignore or forget much and focus upon that which is significant. But electing to privilege some information as significant, and other as not, is a matter of choice, and such choice is made on the basis of what is important. Selectivity and choice making, deciding what is important to self, is a complex business. So de Quincey’s (2002) proposition that Self exists only as choice covers the spectrum from the secular and political to the deep metaphysical. We are what we chose to be, or how we chose to respond to what happens to us, indeed if we have the capacity for choice in such all matters. In a sense our social self, which responds to and is shaped by others, is a product of their choice, as much as it is our own.
For me, self questioning about one’s sanity was a profoundly urgent and demanding experience and when utility and ontology become blended at the level of cultural determination as to what is or is not acceptable, the problem was magnified. Importantly, I found that when the cultural ontological frame is comprised of both conscious and unconscious elements and the business of boundary keeping is privileged as being rational, the individual experience of meaning-making become a powerful struggle.
Wilson (1956) sums up the problem: “If a solution exists, it must be sought not in reasoning, but in examination of experience. We must keep in mind the logical possibility that a solution may not exist. In any case, it is the empirical approach that must be examined now.” (p. 27).
Wilson proposes that a solution may not exist as a consequence of the examination of experience, but I disagree. That is to propose that there is the possibility of an insoluble ontological dilemma, that what experience might tell us, through its examination is something that may be beyond accommodation. The fundamental difficulty in arguing from reasoning is that reasoning itself is not evidentiary and may be contaminated by ontological presumption. As Guba & Lincoln observe, considering the now willingnessto consider axiological perspectives: “Arguably axiology has been “defined out of” scientific inquiry for no larger reason that it also concerns “religion”. (2005 p. 200) Wecan reasonably exclude that which we presume to be unreasonable on the basis of ‘reasoned’ assessment – and others, with equal reason can find our reasoning completely unreasonable.
But at the same time how one examines experience has to be considered. It can be examined within or outside of a prevailing dominant ontological frame. As we saw with the classical psychiatric interpretation of hearing voices, the presumption that it is not possible for voice sources to exist outside the brain, requires either a presumption of dysfunction, or, more generously, adaptive response. If we allow the possibility of a source outside the brain then the experience is open to potentially unexpected and disruptive interpretations. This might push the boundaries of ‘new paradigm’ research beyond the meaning intended by Guba & Lincoln, but well within their sense of “paradigmatic controversies”.
It is one of those paradoxes of life that Wilson’s remarkable ‘The Outsider’ had eluded me until October 2007, 51 years after it had been written and 37 years after I needed to read it. Wilson’s ‘outsider’ sees the world, and experiences it differently, and hence develops another view of what is real and meaningful. If we are to embrace the individual experience as a valid contributor the collective construction of what is real, then we have to consider to what degree an ‘outsider’ view might also be an ‘insider’ one. If we are to accommodate unique individual experience at the point of crisis or epiphany, as Guba & Lincoln suggest, as a means of opening up the depth and complexity of human experience, we have to be prepared to enter a realm of inquiry that “may give rise to more dynamic, problematic, open-ended and complex forms of writing and representation”. (2005 p. 210)
That realm of inquiry includes asking whether the structures that underpin our collective sense of ‘reality’ permit the proposition that there may be domains beyond those presently embraced and validated.