Introduction and Methodology
This research applies an autoethnographic method to explore of the consequences of a series of personal radical non-ordinary experiences that commenced in the early 1970s. The initial effects of these experiences were profoundly disruptive to my sense of self, and my sense of sanity. They eventually precipitated a deep ontological crisis as I attempted to discover their meaning within the dominant cultural narrative that did not appear to accommodate them.
The crisis led from unintentional to intentional non-ordinary experiences as the struggle to make sense evolved, over time, from the urgent and immediate personal drama to a more measured inquiry that sought to answer the questions posed by the experiences and their possible meaning in a progressively widening frame of thought.
The meaning we draw from experience is the substance of our sense of reality, and the narrative we create shapes that sense of reality into a shared, and bonding, or an isolating thing. So when my experiences reached a pitch of intensity, and a degree of strangeness, that went beyond my capacity to construct meaning I had to confront the prospect that I was going mad. What was happening was of vital, urgent, importance to me, but it was incomprehensible to others. I could see the risk of ostracism, and it was not what I wanted. But what was happening was part of my reality, and I was not prepared to surrender it for acceptance. The struggle to make ‘good’ meaning has preoccupied my attention for many years. Many times this preoccupation has deeply disrupted my desire for a ‘normal’ life. Answers I hoped to be substantial have morphed into chimerical creatures of the mind.
This thesis carries on the process of inquiry, but within the rules of a formal research project. I have chosen an autoethnographic approach because the inquiry is rooted is personal experiences, and these experiences remain as a constant reference and a spur. To do otherwise would sever the inquiry from the energy that feeds it, and hence offer an artificial, and possibly misleading, context to the reader. I recount a few of the more radical experiences; ones seminal to my own reflections. I also give account, drawing on personal journals, of the personal journey of response and reflection as I struggle to discover the bedrock of meaning I believe to be somewhere beneath the forest of unsatisfactory and unsatisfying explanations.
The first profoundly disrupting encounter
The experiences commenced from about age four but reached a crescendo of destabilising intensity in my early 20s. Until that dangerous period of early adulthood what I experienced tended only to bemuse me, aside from some truly terrifying childhood experiences. Most of what I encountered seem to be useful; what one might call ‘psychic gifts’ that helped me find things. One of the early profoundly challenging experiences occurred in the middle of 1972. I was living in a house occupied by students from the University of Melbourne. I was the only non-student. I had become friendly with ML, who had the front upstairs bedroom and we spent many hours in conversation when she should have been attending to her studies. On a particular evening she retreated to her room early to meet a looming deadline.
The next morning I encountered her in the kitchen. She did not look well rested and my immediate assumption was that she had stayed up late at her studies. The instant she saw me she launched into verbal attack. “I had been ignoring my friends.” “Why should they have to wake me up at two in the morning to ask me to get you to talk to them?” Words to this effect sprinkled liberally with expletives left me stunned. I had no idea what she was talking about. What few friends I had left in Melbourne I had seen recently and regularly. She was plainly distressed and when she calmed down enough I asked her to explain her conduct. This is what she told me.
She had studied until close on midnight and had then gone to bed and fallen asleep quickly. About two o’clock she was woken up by three people (two men and a woman) in her room. She was initially alarmed, thinking it might have been a police raid searching for drugs, but they quickly assured her that they were on a different mission. For some time, she thought perhaps about twenty minutes, she sat up in bed while they sat on chairs they had moved and placed closer to the bed. The gist of their conversation, at least the only part she conveyed to me, was that they had been trying to talk to me and I had been ignoring them. Would she kindly speak to me and ask me to be more responsive to them. They then left and she went back to sleep more or less convinced that the incident had been a dream.
When she woke she was startled to notice that the chairs had been left as she presumed she had dreamed them. ML is a tidy person. She had placed the chairs against the wall and had neatly placed clothing on several of them. It was then that she became alarmed. Who were these people? How had they entered her room through a locked door? And why in hell did they not simply talk to me, who was asleep downstairs? She was also annoyed that they had not returned the chairs to their position.
I listened to ML’s story in utter astonishment. What she did not know and could not know was that for the past near eighteen months three invisible presences, two men and a woman, who were trying to engage me in conversation, had bedevilled me. My experience of them was one of intrusive thoughts accompanied by mental images that were not sharply defined, but clear enough to get the impression of three people aged maybe in their late thirties or early forties. I was sufficiently concerned to have sought psychiatric care, fearing I was going mad. I had told ML none of this, but now I had to confess, to offer some kind of explanation for her bizarre encounter. Our relationship rapidly deteriorated thereafter. She felt violated by the extreme and frightening nature of the event and did not want to be exposed to any repeat. I left the house soon after.
This was an early instance in a series of profoundly disruptive non-ordinary experiences that forced me to question the nature of the world I lived in, and the nature of experience within it. Not only did it force confrontation with conventional narrative assumptions of the Western cultural discourse (de Quincey 2002), but also, like other and similar experiences (further explored in Chapter Two), it had a devastating effect upon my sense of personal identity, my relationships and my ability to function in the world. What was going on? How could I find out?
While I had an interest in spiritual and philosophical matters, my orientation through my childhood had been scientific. I had commenced studying geology in grade five and had a passion for physics. My teachers and family expected I would go to university to study geology. This orientation placed me in an awkward position. I wanted to understand what was going on consistent with my customary sense of rational inquiry. What were the voices, why were they there, what did they mean? Acceptance of them as a spiritual or psychic phenomenon was not enough because all that did was clothe existing incomprehension in new language, without furthering understanding.
Non-ordinary experiences of a gentle kind were not unfamiliar to me. They did not challenge my capacity to dwell within the dominant cultural ontological frame because they did not radically disrupt my sense of belonging to, and participating in, ‘normal life.’I had intuitions and an uncanny ability to find things, aided by sudden flashes insight. I had spent most of my youth in the bush in southern Tasmania with a profound sensitivity to place and atmosphere that sometimes created problems with my walking companions who found my refusal to sit or camp in a particular place a bit strange. But the ML experience, the first of a series of profoundly disruptive events, was of a very different order. It had involved another person and gave unexpected apparent verification to something that was, until then, entirely subjective and personal. It moved experience from that personal and subjective sphere into the objective – it made it ‘real’. At least it made it real in the sense that there were two participants, a shared experience. It was not verifiable and not repeatable. ML wanted no exposure to the risk of recurrence. I was left with a problem.
These intrusive experiences left me stranded in the shadowy realms of doubts about perception and sanity. Could I trust my own perceptions? I did not know. To have done so, I would have had to dared to go beyond what reason and courage I had at the time. But I was equally unable or unwilling to accept what seemed to be a simple and disengaged rejection of them. I felt I had entered a kind of limbo state in which I could trust neither external nor internal sources of knowledge. I had no ground upon which to stand and draw any sense of what was real, or what offered explanation and meaning.
ML’s bewildered and outraged report conveyed her sense of violation; not that being asked to pass on a message was offensive, but that the manner and nature of the intrusive participants in the experience constituted a shattering of her sense of the normal. She could have dismissed the encounter as a very strange dream, but she was confronted with the evidence of disarranged chairs. Not only was her ontological domain invaded, but also her personal space of material order had been offended against. Tidiness was a valued personal discipline and the ontological invaders had also been poor guests.
I compounded ML’s distress by telling her something that forcibly altered the options she had open to her. Denial that it was real was suddenly not an option. But she could contain the damage by rejection. If she stopped interacting with me, she could minimise the risk of repetition and recover some sense of order, some return to safety. I never met ML again after I left the house, so I have no idea if or how she subsequently thought about what had happened.
The prospect of order and safety were not open to me. I had tried denial and rejection of the voices to no avail. And rather than being left in the unfortunate limbo between the prospect of madness and the discomfort of unwanted intrusion into consciousness the source of the voices had upped the ante by staging a dramatic demonstration that they were not delusions or misperceptions. So what were they? Where did they come from?And why were they intruding into my consciousness? This ‘why’ question had its own urgency to it, but I could not construct an answer at the time. I desperately wanted to know “Why is this happening to me?” But I also knew I needed to answer the ‘what’ and ‘where’ questions before the ‘why’ would make sense.
It seemed to me that when one’s delusions become disruptively proactive in asserting possession of a nature beyond being mere cerebral artefacts, a certain crisis is precipitated. The normal becomes an insufficient container of experience, which now extends into a domain that cannot be mere imagination or misperception. The voices became more than agents of personal misery. They became agents of disruptive change and challenge. If I were to accommodate their vandalism against the boundaries of my sense of reality, then I needed to admit that they existed in some state of being as active and intelligent entities. This was not part of the map of the real in which I had been educated. The map of the real had four dimensions, three of which accommodated the spatial and the fourth that accommodated the experiential. The experiential had levels of sensory, emotional, and intellectual awareness and a dimly defined something called the religious or spiritual, whose validity as an experiential domain was subjected to doubt. To the extent that I had understanding of that doubtful domain it did not accommodate the disrupters. And they had no place in any other experiential domain either. In as much as I accepted their presence, they occupied a domain unknown. How could I make sense of this unknown world from my position of ignorance and deep uncertainty?
It was becoming clearer that I needed to go beyond the boundaries of the Western cultural discourse to find any answers. Strangely, because I had been brought up on a diet of Western science and the naïve idealism about the truth-seeking character of science, I was reluctant to seek answers in other cultural traditions. With the present advantage of hindsight, I am now struck by the degree to which this reluctance influenced my subsequent course of inquiry. How could I make sense of what was happening to me and remain within my culture’s ontological domain?
The kind of radical and disruptive non-ordinary experiences I had, by their very nature, made it very difficult for me to think about them in conventional scientific terms. They came, had effect and departed. They were not available to repetition in any controlled way, or for verification. They seemed to be unreliable, save that they left a cumulative psychological impact upon me. This impact accumulated undischarged content that needed to be discharged in some manner. I was at real risk of becoming obsessed, not only with the intellectual problem presented but also with the personal sense of crisis of meaning and validity.
I felt tainted by a contamination that made me an outsider to the normal world in which I desired to dwell. The experiences were unsought and unwelcome, but they came in a manner that forced me to consider that they may possess some kind of validity. This question became the central preoccupation of my life. Clendennin (1999) captures something of drama of experiential contamination in her account of an Aboriginal woman who had had an encounter with French explorers on the Western Australian coast. She asks the reader to reflect on how the woman was received by her people afterwards: “Was she received at all? Was she shunned? Was she killed?” (p.4) In this case the woman’s sense of normality was invaded by pale ghosts from a strange birdlike vessel, but we can understand and accommodate their identity. They were from our world after all
Like Clendennin’s Aboriginal woman, I had been struck by a strange phenomenon, and as I sought to integrate the experience I encountered reactions that sought to quarantine me, as the experiencer, as if I had been tainted. And I was not clear on whether I had been so, or not. I was dealing with my sense of identity, a precious thing to me, so whether it was now somehow tainted, whether I had become ‘mad’, seemed vitally important.
This work takes advantage of the opportunity, afforded by formal inquiry to bring discipline and structure to bear upon the questions of what had happened and whether it was real. It not only brings into the frame a later and more mature investigation but some novel and innovative ideas that arose out of the research are viewed in the context of the initial motive for inquiry. The opportunity to engage in research in a formal manner opened hitherto unexpected avenues of thought.
Key Research Questions
How do I make sense of my experience of the non-ordinary?
An imperative, on a personal level, was to satisfy the necessity of deriving meaning from the experiences. The questions were simple: “What is going on?” “What is happening to me?” “Why is this happening to me?” These were, at the time, pressing personal concerns that needed to be addressed. They have continued to shape my inquiry as I have sought answers, and as further questions have arisen.
Since the initial drama much of the angst associated with the disruption has been resolved. Nevertheless, these experiences and their early impact constitute a vital and persisting energy that drives ongoing inquiry. The shift out of a sense of personal urgency into a more measured inquiry occurred as knowledge and experience progressively provided me with the content to frame my questioning in a wider context than the purely personal.
Could I find a way of fitting my experiences within my culture’s ontological narrative?
My initial experience of finding that what had happened to me was not validated within the cultural and ontological discourses of my culture precipitated a crisis. What was considered real, what was considered valid and valuable was framed by the beliefs and assumptions (scientific and religious) that dominated the cultural discourse, or at least that to which I had access, and my experiences did not fit within the boundaries of the real or the good. I discuss the issues of ontology and ontological crisis more deeply below.
As I inquired, I found possible and plausible explanations and answers in the religious and spiritual traditions of other cultures. I could have adopted a number of faith and philosophic traditions whose ontologies accommodated my experiences, but to have done so seemed to me to an abdication of my own heritage, as well as necessitating adherence to traditions and practices with which I felt no innate affinity.
I was imbued with, and fascinated by, Western culture. Perhaps, initially, I possessed a naïve and idealistic sense of scientific truth seeking, but the notion that the drama had to be worked out within my culture’s traditions and elements sat strongly with me, if not well articulated for quite some time. While I had dismissed Christianity as a faith tradition, I had not wholly abandoned the prospect of a spirituality arising from within my culture. I had no reason to reject science.
The problem of fitting my experiences within my culture’s narrative as a valid expression of human experience was both a personal determination and an intellectual challenge. In neither respect did I have any idea what this may entail in terms of difficulty or complexity.
In the following chapters I have sought set forth a process of inquiry that constitutes my responses to the key questions of this thesis. This process of inquiry is not presented as a ‘solution’ in any universal sense, rather charts my own efforts to find a ‘reasonable’explanation for what I had experienced.
Chapter Two – Mounting evidence of something incomprehensible and how the dominant discourses of my culture’s ontology failed to offer explanation.
In this chapter I recount several other profoundly disruptive experiences and look at how I engaged with, or rejected, the available explanatory systems in an effort to find meaning. I review past and current reflections on possible explanatory systems, with a particular emphasis on scientific and psychiatric thought, and how that has evolved, and may yet evolve, towards more accommodating knowledge systems.
Chapter Three – What is Animism and why has it apparently re-emerged as a knowledge system?
In this chapter I describe how I discover that the essential ideas of animism are surprisingly present in my experiences, my involvement with esoteric groups and in my secular life, and how animism becomes focus of interest. I also inquire into the nature of animism and consider how the term is presently thought about and employed.
Chapter Four – An exploration of animistic ideas in the contemporary Western world
In this chapter I look at apparent evidence that the essential ideas of animism appear to be present in the contemporary Western world and seem to permeate it. Whether an idea, of a way of thinking, has been eradicated or subsumed is important because elimination supposes total absence, whereas ‘rebadging’ or absorbing into discourses and narratives as an unconscious component represents a difference degree of disappearance. The implications for how we might think about Animism are different, depending on how we perceive what has happened to it.