The ceramic-and-glass sculptures shown in this article are by artist Christina Bothwell, used with her kind permission.
Judging from the number of books and YouTube videos now available on the subject, out-of-body experiences (OOBEs) seem to be enjoying a contemporary revival, and there is surely no hobby more ontologically controversial. Several authors, including Robert Monroe (Journeys Out of the Body) claim to have had veridical experiences in a discarnate state (that is, experiences that correspond to reality) and thereby proven to their own satisfaction, if not the world’s, that one’s perceiving consciousness can exist apart from the physical body. Other writers understandably are skeptical of such claims, regarding the seeming realness of OOBEs as a cognitive or memory trick.
Whatever out-of-body experiences “really” are—actual journeys beyond the body or just lucid dreams that seem like it—it is increasingly clear that they were crucially important experiences in ancient mystical traditions.
Susan J. Blackmore, for example, initially believed in her own OOBEs’ realness but then retreated to a skeptical, safely materialist position; her 1982 book, Beyond the Body, is a thoughtful, comprehensive examination of the subject and its connection with psychical research. Recently, in his excellent exploration of Buddhist psychology and neuroscience, Waking, Dreaming, Being, Evan Thompson presents a similar narrative of youthful belief in the realness of his OOBEs followed by mature doubt. For these writers, OOBEs can only be a subset of lucid dreams—a state of being actively aware and conscious in a dream environment (in this case, one that just seems like one’s actual surroundings or other terrestrial locales). Lucid dreaming is itself an increasingly popular, albeit less controversial, contemporary hobby, thanks to the pioneering research and instruction of Stephen LaBerge. There are numerous guides to the practice available, mostly repackaging the ideas in LaBerge’s 1985 book Lucid Dreaming and in some cases incorporating Tibetan “dream yoga” techniques.
Whatever OOBEs “really” are—actual journeys beyond the body or just lucid dreams that seem like it—it is increasingly clear that they were crucially important experiences in ancient mystical traditions. Achieving these states may have been the aim of the ancient Greek shamanic practice of “incubation”—sensory deprivation in caves—as has been described in the writings of Peter Kingsley. And thanks to the work of Jeremy Naydler and Algis Uždavinys, we now know that descriptions of spirit travel in Egyptian sacred ‘funerary’ texts did not simply refer to the travel of the soul in the afterlife; they reflected a proactive shamanic exercise undertaken during life. Egyptian mystics actively practiced out-of-body travel, in other words, as the ultimate philosophical preparation for death.
One could imagine other, more mundane purposes too. Given the intelligence-gathering role of prophets in ancient Israel, it would not be far-fetched to guess that the Egyptian priesthood might have employed OOBEs along with other shamanic techniques in what we would nowadays call “psychic spying” on behalf of the state. OOBEs are linked to psychic abilities like clairvoyance, and some of the foremost modern remote viewers, including Joe McMoneagle, Ingo Swann, and Pat Price, have linked their abilities directly to OOBE experiences—in Price’s case, during Scientology training. One could easily imagine Egyptian priests performing a service to the kingdom much like psychics did to the U.S. and U.S.S.R. during the Cold War.
The feminine, animal-like spirit was thought capable of leaving the body when we sleep. The Egyptians called it Ka. For pagan Europeans, it was our spirit double or feminine spirit guide.
The Middle Eastern and European traditions of alchemy that evolved out of the Egyptian mystical tradition would have carried on these practices, albeit disguised under layers of “materialistic” symbolism. Carl Jung famously illuminated the inner aspect of alchemy, arguing that the Great Work consisted of projecting unconscious mental stuff into material transformations, using laboratory processes and procedures as a symbolic control panel in personal journeys of individuation. Yet even though he described “active imagination” as a method of self-exploration, Jung to my knowledge was not aware of what we now call lucid dreaming, and even though he experienced his own OOBE, or what the spiritualists and occultists of his day called “astral projection,” after a heart attack in 1944 (what we would now call a near-death experience or NDE), I am not aware that he ever linked such experiences to what alchemists were trying to achieve.
But given what we now know of the ancient shamanic practices of Egypt that gave rise to alchemy, European alchemy’s Eastern analogues in Tantra and Yoga, and the pagan shamanic traditions that persisted on the margins of mainstream Christian culture in Europe, it becomes ever clearer that alchemical explorations would have gone, and indeed must have gone, much beyond active imagination and the projective processes Jung described. The real philosophic gold for some (or many) alchemists may have been fearlessness in the face of death—figurative “immortality”—achieved by self-induced veridical or veridical-seeming OOBEs.
Spirit and Soul
Crucially, and perhaps counterintuitively, the prerequisite for developing one’s astral capacity, in various ancient as well as modern traditions, was to cultivate not simply a Cartesian dualistic conception of psyche and soma, mind and body, but also to further subdivide the subtle psychic part of our nature into at least two distinct components of its own. Pagan and folk traditions all described a spirit with a dim animal-like awareness that was distinct from our more rarified and active, wilful, conscious component, equivalent to what in Christian tradition came to be called the soul. These were separate entities, not synonyms as they are for most people today.
In general, the feminine, animal-like spirit was thought responsible for phenomena belonging to what Freud and Jung later called the Unconscious, and was thought capable of leaving the body when we sleep. The Egyptians called it Ka. For pagan Europeans, it was our spirit double or feminine spirit guide. Claude Lecoutoux, in a fascinating study of European pagan/shamanic traditions about spirit doubles, shows that this component not only took nightly trips remembered as dreams but also was responsible for ghost and poltergeist phenomena as well as animal familiars. As an enlivening force, the spirit was closely allied to our breath (whence the name, spiritus); linked to our physical body, it was also connected to our bones in some intimate way. Much later, in the Theosophical tradition, it came to be known as the “etheric body”; modern New Age writers write of an “energy body” that is more or less equivalent (see below).
This feminine, energetic spiritual component was in contrast to the more rarified, conscious, aware component allied to masculine, rational, awake thought. Although this “soul” component was capable of heavenly ascent after death or during ecstatic states, in daily life it was more imprisoned in the body than the spirit component. Indeed the two parts of the subtle self tended to resist being in direct contact when not together animating the awake physical body. This soul component was the Ba of the Egyptians (capable of ascending and uniting with the transcendent Akh) and corresponds to the Theosophists’ “astral” components of the self. If you take away its ancient connotation of existing beyond death, it is more or less equivalent to what we nowadays call consciousness: the center of awake, aware subjectivity.
Such a tripartite division of our earthly existence into body, soul, and spirit seems remarkably universal across non-Judeo-Christian cultures. Whatever you call these subtle psychic components, shamans throughout the world, including in Medieval and Dark Age Europe, claimed the ability, through meditative practice and sometimes use of drugs, to yoke them together and thereby achieve the feat of leaving their bodies consciously. And, some of the most mysterious texts of 16th and 17th century alchemy show indirect or direct evidence that, whatever else they were up to, alchemical adepts were also attempting precisely these difficult “journeys beyond the body.”
The clearest example is The Book of Lambspring, an alchemical poem that first circulated as a manuscript in the late 16th century and was later published with a series of beautiful illustrative engravings. It asserts that the key to riches, long life, and kinglike sovereignty over one’s existence is a process of taking the separate subtle components, soul and spirit, consciously uniting them, and leading them out of the body and back again. Among the various symbolic expressions of this are the imagery of a deer and unicorn living in a forest…
The sages say truly
That two animals are in this forest:
One glorious, beautiful, and swift,
A great and strong deer;
The other a unicorn.
They are concealed in the forest,
But happy shall that man be called
Who shall snare and capture them. …
If we apply the parable to our Art,
We shall call the forest the Body.
That will be rightly and truly said.
The unicorn will be the Spirit at all times.
The deer desires no other name
But that of the Soul; …
He that knows how to tame and master them by Art,
To couple them together,
And to lead them in and out of the forest,
May justly be called a Master.
For we rightly judge
That he has attained the golden flesh,
And may triumph everywhere;
Nay, he may bear rule over great Augustus.
Lambspring gives us further explicit indication of his belief/assertion that the soul and spirit actually leave the body during the alchemical work in the second half of his book, where he replaces the symbolism of forest, unicorn, and deer, with the more humanized symbolism of Father (body), Son (spirit), and an angelic Guide (soul). The Guide leads the Son out of the body of the Father, brings him up to the top of a “mountain in India” and carefully leads him back. This process of separating and reuniting—Separatio and Conjunctio—is one of the most central and universal motifs in European alchemy, but it is nowhere more explicitly identified as a process of leading the consciousness and spirit out of the body as it is in this book. The alchemical motto solve et coagula—”separate and reunite”—can refer on one level to this process.
On its own, Lambspring’s book would be pretty unhelpful to a modern person attempting to actually achieve an OOBE, but the author’s symbolism resonates strongly with the methods emphasized by some more modern teachers of the subject. The Theosophical tradition, which placed great emphasis on astral projection as a means of accessing cosmic consciousness (the Akashic Records, etc.) and communicating with ascended and alien intelligences, carefully emphasized the crucial role of the lower, denser “etheric body”—the subtle, energetic envelope or spiritual vehicle that could detach from the physical body on its own (dreaming) or which could, through effort, be yoked to the astral component (conscious awareness or soul) to achieve a conscious astral flight. The key to leaving the body consciously, in other words, was uniting the astral and etheric components, which, as I mentioned earlier, ordinarily don’t mix well together. (The resistance of the unconscious and conscious minds to commingle is of course a theme in Freudian and Jungian psychoanalysis, and may be seen as a kind of parallel here.)
One of the many modern teachers of astral projection, an Australian energy worker named Robert Bruce, has (in his book Astral Dynamics) essentially repackaged the Theosophical theory and its Eastern Tantric equivalents in modern, Western terms. Bruce teaches meditative exercises and a rather unique method of “tactile imaging” to cultivate a finer-tuned awareness of the physical body and its subtle energetic aspect (equivalent to the energy body with its nadis, chakras, etc. described in Asian systems) as a prerequisite to developing proficiency with astral travel. The separation experience at the outset of an OOBE is universally described as a vividly energetic sensation that may also resemble sensations familiar to those who have “raised their kundalini.” There is no indication in Bruce’s writing of familiarity with pagan folk traditions about the detachable spirit double, but clearly, despite using a modern computer idiom of “downloading” astral memories etc., his metaphysics are basically the same.
To my mind, the strongest evidence that Lambspring was referring to the refined, dreamlike but compellingly real-seeming state we would now call the OOBE comes from the testimony of modern astral travelers like Bruce that the key to decoupling alert awareness from the sleeping physical body is actually to be found, counterintuitively, in the reentry—the Conjunctio part rather than the Separatio. Lambspring places special emphasis on this: The Guide says to the son, “I will not let thee go alone; From thy father’s bosom I brought thee forth, I will also take thee back again.”
If you can’t recall it when you return, it’s like you never went. Developing a habit and a practice of recording dreams in the morning is a crucial preparatory step toward having a remembered astral journey.
Special care in rejoining chemical substances in physical alchemy could of course also be indicated here, but I think it signals a special concern with the process of reuniting the soul/spirit with the body as intrinsic to the success of the astral venture. The purpose of “careful reuniting” is not safety, as one might naturally suppose: Despite instinctive fears of permanent separation, there are no known cases when an astral traveler has failed to awaken safe and sound. Rather it is because the conscious portion of the self (i.e., soul or astral body) must remain in contact with the spiritual/etheric body, lest all recollection of the experience be lost. If you can’t recall it when you awaken/return, it’s like you never went. Consequently a crucial part of some modern training in OOBEs focuses on developing the capacity to remember it after the fact, because an unremembered OOBE is no OOBE at all.
This is the most crucial piece of advice given by Bruce: He even suggests that we are astrally projecting all the time but lack memory of it; thus his method focuses on initially keeping flights brief and then celebrating and recording one’s small successes. Developing a habit and a practice of recording dreams in the morning is a crucial preparatory step toward having a remembered astral journey.
The relationship between OOBEs and lucid dreams is widely disputed, but the same “induction” methods work for both, not to mention the necessity of keeping records afterward. This is true of any dream-work, as I’ve argued previously in the context of precognitive dreaming. Anyone who knows the extraordinary value of attention to dreams (even in a simply psychoanalytic vein) knows you will have a hard time remembering a dream or its crucial innocuous-seeming details if you don’t write it down right away, or at least jot down a few words to jog the memory when you have time to record it more fully later in the day.
My favorite 17th-century alchemical text, Atalanta Fugiens by Michael Maier, contains among many other things a coded recommendation about keeping a dream diary, likely as preparation for more advanced Tantric or OOBE exercises.
It’s a very special quality of dreams that they evaporate very quickly and must be seized immediately after they occur or they are lost forever. Quick note-taking is required to fix this volatile substance.
The title of this lovely collection of engravings and accompanying poems and fugues, literally “Atalanta Fleeing,” refers to Ovid’s story about the race between the beautiful fleet-footed virgin Atalanta and her would-be suitor Hippomenes. The central secrets of alchemical books are sometimes hidden in plain sight right in their title pages, like Poe’s “purloined letter,” and this is true of Atalanta Fugiens, whose frontispiece depicts various scenes from the Atalanta legend. The 50 emblems and commentaries in the book supposedly relate in various ways to the Hermetic themes of that ancient myth.
Atalanta was the fastest in the land—so fast she couldn’t be caught—and would only marry a suitor who could beat her in a race. Hippomenes wins the race (and her hand in marriage) by availing himself of three gold apples given to him by Venus; during the race, he throws the apples on the ground, one by one, each time catching Atalanta’s attention and slowing her down (you know, the way even tomboy girls are easily distracted by pretty, shiny things). After winning the race, Hippomenes steals a kiss from his new bride in Aphrodite’s temple and the couple (as punishment from that goddess) are turned into lions. The conflict of two lions (and/or dragons) resulting in their ultimate union—again, soul and spirit which do not initially get along but which, with difficulty, can be forced into a productive merger—is a near-universal alchemical motif.
We are meant to ask, what is it that flees and how can you stop it from fleeing? The name Atalanta, “not held,” does not really give a clue to the nature of the volatile substance. But Hippomenes himself can tell us a lot. The name can be parsed firstly as hippo-menes or “horse mind,” which by itself signals that we may apply the wild-etymological method that the great 20th-century adept Fulcanelli called cabala (from caballus, horse), and redivide the word however we see fit. The most obvious re-parsing is hip-pommes, or “dropped apples,” which doesn’t tell us anything we didn’t already know. But there is a very similar Greek word, hypomnema, which meant a reminder, a note jotted down. It happens that Emblem VI depicts this process explicitly: A farmer tosses gold coins onto furrowed ground (a gesture similar to Hippomenes tossing golden apples), accompanied by the motto: “Sow your gold in the white foliate earth.” Hippomenes thus seems to be a pun for the very thing indicated by “white foliate earth” with its “sown gold”—that is, hypomnema, precious reminders of something fleeting, jotted down (sown) in the white pages (folia or leaves) of a notebook.
Keeping records of laboratory procedures and results and the visible changes occurring in the retort would be an obvious interpretation here, not to mention the ultimate creation of a book that will serve to guide others: the alchemical text itself as philosopher’s stone. But are consciously observed chemical reactions, however fleeting, so ephemeral (or volatile) that they are completely forgotten unless fixed in the very moment they occur? No—it’s a very special quality of dreams and related phenomena like hypnagogic/hypnopompic images that they evaporate very quickly and must be seized immediately after they occur or they are really lost forever. Quick note-taking is required to fix this volatile substance.
There is way, way more that could be said about Atalanta Fugiens, which contains enough fascinating “Tantric” imagery to reward years of perusal and study. But let me move on to a third book that most explicitly addresses the link between dream life and OOBEs and also uses its own brilliant symbolism for dream recording.
Mutus Liber (Enlightenment by Means of Dew)
The 1677 alchemical masterpiece Mutus Liber (or “Silent Book”) is a series of mostly wordless alchemical ‘cartoons’ by a writer with the pseudonym “Altus,” depicting a complicated esoteric process undertaken by a pair of adepts, one male, one female. (Sometimes it is described as a male alchemist and “his” female assistant, wife, Tantric soror mystica, or Jungian Anima, but the book gives no cause to privilege the male figure over the female—they both seem to play equally important roles.) This book is another example of an alchemical text that hides its cipher in plain sight, right on its title page.
The frontispiece depicts Jacob’s famous dream in Genesis 28, of angels ascending and descending a ladder to heaven. Any reader would know that, in that story, right after he awakens, Jacob anoints the stone he has used for a pillow beth-el, “House of the Lord”; until the arrival of Christ himself in the Old Testament’s sequel, this stony pillow is perhaps the clearest and most literal expression of the Philosopher’s Stone in the Bible. But more crucially for the book we are concerned with here, the Jacob frontispiece includes three backwards chapter/verse numbers in Hebrew, each referring to Biblical passages about heavenly “dew.” The centrality of dew in this book is also signaled cleverly by the roses framing the scene: Rose is a pun on the Latin word for dew, ros (which should also give you a clue to the ‘true’ meaning of the rose in other esoteric contexts, such as Rosicrucianism).
The stuff of dreams is the materia prima, the murky raw material that must be taken, analyzed, worked with, to create true philosophic gold.
In subsequent panels, the alchemists are depicted engaging in various laboratory operations utilizing dew that has been initially collected in an array of sheets during spring mornings, the season being symbolized by a ram and bull, Aries and Taurus, rampant in the background (although the animals could have other connotations—see below). As a means of collecting literal nocturnal moisture, wringing out sheets one has suspended on posts in a field seems that it might be highly impractical. But “dew” is not meant to be taken literally here.
Adam McLean’s diagram of the process, provided in his Magnum Opus Hermetic Sourceworks Commentary, is invaluable for keeping track of the operations and the dense symbolism in Mutus Liber. For another modern interpreter writing under the name Eli Luminosus Aequalis, these sheets represent the five senses, and his subsequent analysis depicts a noetic, epistemic, and Tantric process. I agree with many of Eli’s interpretations, but I think he is wrong about the ingenious symbolism of dew itself and its collection on bedsheets: What else is it that appears in the early morning hours and evaporates quickly with the dawn, and that one might carefully and quickly collect ideally while still lying in bed? The same thing Maier represents by the fleeing Atalanta, and the same thing Jacob is shown in the process of doing right on this book’s title page.
Mutus Liber is actually pretty explicit about what we are supposed to do with this figuratively dew-like substance collected over a series of spring mornings. Subsequent panels depict an elaborate process of distilling and then mixing the dew’s various components in different combinations. Assuming I am right about the identity of “dew,” the process begins with what I believe to be isolating repeated dream motifs from other symbolic stuff and Freudian day residues and then using these recurring motifs as mnemonic triggers to wake up inside the dream (lucidity). This is the mnemonic-induced lucid dreaming (MILD) method recommended by LaBerge, and it may be taken as the equivalent of yoking soul and spirit and exiting the sleeping body consciously, as in Lambspring. Eli Luminosus Aequalus likewise argues that this part is about lucid dreaming. I imagine though that, at the time Altus was writing, there would have been no distinction between such ‘mere’ dream experiences and what we would now call OOBEs or astral travel.
Developing lucid dreaming capacity is useful for achieving a full-on OOBE and lucid dreams are the more common experience when the latter fails. Also, it is only in preparing for and interpreting an OOBE as such that one needs to first understand (or, be persuaded) that the spiritual component is distinct from consciousness imprisoned in the body (i.e., the first phase of the Mutus Liber process), which then enables one to learn to unite the consciousness with the spirit while leaving the body behind (the second phase), and lastly bring them together, followed by repetition of the process over time such that it becomes easier (lather, rinse, repeat).
The key to riches, long life, and kinglike sovereignty over one’s existence is taking the soul and spirit, consciously uniting them, and leading them out of the body and back again.
So I think that the Mutus Liber is basically a Baroque astral projection manual disguised as chemistry: The stuff of dreams is the materia prima, the murky raw material that must be taken, analyzed, worked with, to create true philosophic gold: a special “blended” state in which the soul (alert consciousness) fully joins with the spirit double/”energy body” on its nightly travels. Successive separations and conjunctions (returns) exalt the self and lead to enlightenment. Over the course of the book, the curtains behind the alchemists progressively open, letting more and more light into their workshop.
Why All the Secrecy?
Beliefs in the separability of consciousness from the body prior to death were antithetical to Christian theology: Humans possessed just a single “subtle” principle, the soul, which departed the body only in death. Jesus was the singular exception, the only person possessing a divine spirit as well as a soul. As a result, all ordinary human phenomena hinting at spirit—from dreams and visions and mystical and other altered states of consciousness to manifestations of what we would now call “the paranormal,” like ghosts or psychic phenomena—were at least distrusted and were often relegated wholly to the category of the demonic. You could say, Christianity successfully robbed religion of spirit, replacing it with faith.
Whether or not we nowadays accept that each person possesses both detachable components, the work of Lecoutoux (for Europe), Naydler (for Egypt), and other scholars makes clear that it was firmly a part of pre- and para-Christian folk psychology, supported by infrequent but remarkable experiences like spontaneous OOBEs, lucid dreams, sleep paralysis episodes, near-death experiences, drug experiences, etc. The continuity of shamanic practices under various alternative labels (black magic, sorcery, witchcraft, etc.) in Christian Europe was certainly genuine, even if their prevalence and power was exaggerated by Church authorities. Alchemical explorers of consciousness would have pursued these techniques, marvelously and densely disguising their efforts under their chemical symbology.
Thus in their writings alchemists perpetually did a subtle dance around this issue of our subtle self: Is it one thing or two? When they wrote explicitly about soul and spirit as distinct, it was important to emphasize either that they were referring to physical chemistry—in which “spirits” are light volatile distillates (like alcohol) and the “soul” of a substance could stand for its oily and more distinct extracts—or alternatively, to insist that “the two are really one.” We see this evasiveness clearly in Lambspring’s opening verse. The author says “the sages will tell you” that the body contains a soul and a spirit and that “nevertheless they are one.” Lambspring himself, weighing in on this, is more equivocal: “Now I tell you most truly, cook these three together … and hold your tongue about it.” He seems to be saying that body, soul, and spirit really are in some sense three things, but if you are smart, you won’t admit to holding such a belief.
The extent to which this Christian duality of the person influenced subsequent rationalist, materialist tradition have been less acknowledged. Enlightenment science and the rationalist tradition carried forward the Christian presumption of a singular mental principle that might somehow be distinct from the body, as in Descartes, and required no third intermediary, no third term mediating them or yoking them together, other than God himself. The result has been an almost complete erasure of the ancient and pagan traditions about spirit doubles, as well as lingering confusion about what spirit and soul mean. Most people now use the terms interchangeably, unaware that there was once a meaningful distinction.
Anyone who in their own spiritual explorations has realized the importance of figuring out just what (the hell) out-of-body experiences really are knows how difficult it can be, and also how worthwhile the pursuit as revealed by even the first glimmers of success.
To this day, we have difficulty conceptualizing a consciousness that is not somehow unified, yet we also perpetually have trouble conceptualizing how these two radically different things, consciousness and the physical body, could be linked together. They seem to need a mediator that our metaphysics completely lacks. Descartes’ famous search for the seat of consciousness in the pineal gland is emblematic of the felt need for some mysterious mediating principle to yoke the soul to the living body.
It was of course the genius of Freud and his followers like Jung to renew our sense of the psyche’s plurality, resolving it into the conscious and unconscious components as well as parsing psychological functions in various other ways. But even Jung and the analytical psychology he inspired continue to implicitly see the psyche as one thing, even if the person has delusionally lost sight of this unity through a refusal to recognize rejected components of self; spirit and soul are merely aspects of the same underlying consciousness that would realize its unity through individuation. For instance, the Jung-inspired writer James Hillman described the soul as the humid enclosed “valleys” where we live surrounded by the familiar local particulars of our lives, and the “spirit” as the mountain peaks to which we may at times loftily ascend, attaining a clearer, more objective, more far-seeing view. They are places our singular consciousness moves between, not actual separable components of our being. Lambspring’s “mountain in India” where the soul and spirit ascend in tandem, would make no sense in Hillman’s framework.
Laughing at Death
Anyone who in their own spiritual explorations has realized the importance of figuring out just what (the hell) OOBEs really are knows how difficult it can be—with months or years of setbacks, disappointment, and discouragement—and also how worthwhile the pursuit as revealed by even the first glimmers of success. Ordinary lucid dreaming, the continuity of consciousness in a typical dream environment and at least a related phenomenon (if not the same), is supremely exhilarating and empowering—famously a route to gaining control over one’s fears and nightmares, much the way virtual reality is used to desensitize people from phobias or train extraordinary and dangerous skills. Actual OOBEs in “Reality I” (Monroe) or the “real time zone” (Bruce)—that is, experiences in which the immediate physical environment and even one’s own sleeping body seem to be perceived and interacted with—certainly would provide the experiencer with an even greater validation of the separability of one’s consciousness from material existence and, as an inevitable corollary, its possible survival of bodily death.
Such experiential verification of the indestructibility of consciousness would be priceless to humans living in the constant terror of mortality, so it is no wonder that, in the centuries before we could automatically blame such experiences on the material brain, such experiences constituted an “elixir of immortality” (i.e. as proof of immortality), as well as a talisman of power and health and courage. Once the son and father are reunited in Lambspring’s final verse, “they produce untold precious fruit. They perish never more, and laugh at death.” Assurance of the independence of consciousness from the body would indeed tend to make one brave in life, and this courage would tend to produce power and success. Once you’ve glimpsed it or been convinced there could be something to it, it really is something worth devoting energy and time to exploring.
Assurance of the independence of consciousness from the body would indeed tend to make one brave in life, and this courage would tend to produce power and success.
The methods are, and were, various. In the excellent recent collection of essays, Alchemical Traditions (edited by Aaron Cheak), Hereward Tilton examines the writings of the 16th Century alchemist Heinrich Khunrath and his contemporaries, and concludes that Khunrath’s work described (and concealed) processes that resulted in the creation of diethyl ether—a potent anaesthetic. Ether may have been literally the philosopher’s stone for Khunrath, which supports the idea that European alchemists were indeed engaged in a project of exploring and using altered states of consciousness. Anesthetics particularly are notable for producing profound dissociative or out-of-body experiences.
But what the user gains in facility of entering an altered state using drugs may be canceled by the difficulty of controlling the experience and, in the modern world at least, easy dismissal of the experience’s validity. Thus while entheogens may provide an important taste of out-of-body or lucid-dream-type experiences, the holy grail really seems to be the production of these experiences solely through meditation and other non-chemical techniques. The original alchemical text, the Tabula Smaragdina or Emerald Tablet, tells us that “the wind carried it in its belly,” which points directly to meditation as the method of the Great Work. The link between breath (the original meaning of “spirit”) and thought is well-known in many traditions, and so it was surely central to ancient contemplative practices and trance.
There are plenty of guides out there now to enable one to learn to have OOBEs and ascertain for yourself whether they are merely a subset of lucid dreams—obviously the only scientifically and socially acceptable materialist interpretation—or something more. I’ve mentioned a couple of them, but the very best books on the subject are from early in the last century. My favorite, and the most interesting, is the 1929 book The Projection of the Astral Body, a collaboration between an articulate lifetime ‘projector’ Sylvan Muldoon and psychical researcher Hereward Carrington. It includes thorough discussion of the means of inducing these experiences as well as interesting suggestions of their link to other phenomena like sleep paralysis (“astral catalepsy”) and hypnic jerks (“repercussion”). Those authors mention a 1920 series of articles by projector Oliver Fox, subsequently published as Astral Projection, which I also really like—it is less comprehensive, but more personal, and also more frank about the difficulties and disappointments inherent in the practice, such as the increased difficulty of having such experiences with age.
Depending on how old you are, having OOBEs may prove much more difficult than most enthusiasts like to claim. Despite a few spontaneous OOBEs when I was a young adult and another about 18 years ago, deliberately bringing one on in my late forties has proven extraordinarily difficult—only one full-on success thus far, as well as many attempts resulting in lucid dreams or other precursor phenomena like sleep paralysis and strong energy- or Kundalini-like sensations like those described in the manuals.
It is plenty to satisfy me that the ancient and modern authors are not simply lying about the experience. Whatever is really happening in OOBEs, they do feel distinctly real/veridical in a way that lucid dreams do not, even though the surest method of induction—basically, sensation-focused meditation while lying in bed—is the same, as are the unusual, initially alarming energetic sensations frequently preceding or accompanying them. Meditative work with hypnagogia during the day or evening can also bring on remarkably real-seeming “remote viewing”-like experiences without the ability to actually move around in the seen environment; but “real seeming” isn’t necessarily the same as real. I’m still on the fence about the nature of all these phenomena and how they relate to each other. That they are indeed related seems undeniable, however.
Postcript: What Are Sheep?
Rams and sheep appear throughout alchemy, and they also have a little-noticed symbolic connection to sleep going back hundreds or, I suspect, thousands of years.
Sheep, which must be closely watched at night, are like dreams, and shepherds are watchers of dreams.
First, the alchemical Great Work is always said to originate under the sign of Aries, the ram—ordinarily taken to mean the season of spring, which is what seems to be shown in Mutus Liber. Aries is symbolically associated with Mars (Ares) and the metal iron, which Fulcanelli emphasizes throughout his fascinating writings (for a tantalizing invitation down the rabbit hole of alchemy, the best place to start is Fulcanelli’s Mystery of the Cathedrals). Like many alchemical writers, Fulcanelli also draws our attention to Jason and the Argonauts’ quest for the Golden Fleece, which has long served as an allegorical representation of the Great Work. Fulcanelli helpfully points out that the mysterious object of that quest, the fleece of the self-sacrificing golden ram Chrysomallus—was guarded by a dragon, etymologically from derkesthai, “ever vigilant” or “awake while sleeping.”
Sheep, which must be closely watched at night, are like dreams, and shepherds are watchers of dreams—like dragons, they are “awake while sleeping.” The motif of the shepherd as dreamer, having fallen asleep on the job, appears throughout European art and literature, and it has ancient roots with the mythical Endymion, the handsome shepherd placed in a perpetual sleep to be adored in slumber by the moon goddess Selene.
Then of course there is “counting sheep” as a supposed cure for insomnia. It was recorded first in the 12th century but could be far older: There is a possible folk etymology linking the Latin imperative sopor sond (“sleep soundly”) to the Hebrew sopwor tsoan (“count sheep”), and whether or not this is really the origin of the idea of counting sheep in connection to sleep, the linkage of sheep/shepherds and dreams is clearly ancient. I think it is possible that, as a focus of conscious awareness, counting sheep might originally have been intended, not to induce sleep, but as a meditative bridge to lucid dreaming using the wake-induced lucid dream—WILD—method described by LaBerge. In my experience, maintaining fixed meditative awareness across the sleep threshold is, although challenging, far more reliable than attempting to wake up in a dream once it has begun using a lucidity trigger, per the MILD method.
If sheep are an ancient symbol for dreams, then the ram, a male sheep, may also be specifically symbolic of dream lucidity. Ra, the nocturnal incarnation of Osiris, is depicted with a ram’s head in his nightly voyage through the Duat or Underworld. The name of the Egyptian soul, Ba, also the word for ram, may have been an onomatopoeia, from the sound sheep make (i.e., “baa”).
In light of this, the many other sheep and shepherding references in the Genesis story of Jacob signaled by Altus at the start of his “Mute Book,” become suggestive. After his dream, Jacob goes on to visit the land of his cousin Laban, where shepherds gathered at a watering hole cannot refresh their flocks alone but must wait for all of them to gather so they can roll away a large stone that blocks the spring. When Laban’s daughter Rachel, a shepherdess, arrives, Jacob is smitten and singlehandedly rolls away the rock so he can water her sheep. The power to bring on dream experience during daylight perhaps depends on an erotic power either sublimated or channeled in actual Tantric work with a partner—suggested perhaps by the partnership of male and female alchemists in Altus’s book. There are other suggestions in Jacob’s narrative that he was actually some kind of shaman and/or trickster, including his fooling of his blind father by donning the skin of a goat.
If I am right about the ancient esoteric symbolism of sheep, then we ought also to read Luke’s gospel in the New Testament as an alchemical text, because it encodes the same esoteric awareness. Christ was born at night, and in Luke alone among the Gospels the first people to be made aware of his birth were the shepherds in the fields. The esoteric significance of the adoration of the shepherds would have been apparent to Luke’s intended audience: Christ appeared first to the shamans and dreamers. (In Matthew of course, his first visitors were instead the Magi from the East—possibly signaling a Vedic, Buddhist, or Tantric commitment on the part of that author.)
Christ was the Lamb of God, sacrificed in the cruciform manner of the Paschal Lamb, bringing full circle the sacrificial substitution of a ram for Abraham’s only son in Genesis. In earliest Christian iconography, Christ was depicted not crucified but bearing a sheep over his shoulders (the “Good Shepherd,” per one apocryphal text). The pseudonym “Lambspring” of course would have been a Christian allusion, and also, I suggest, another veiled reference to the subject of his book: the ability of the soul and spirit to “spring” (project) out of the body.
The secret subject of these ancient esoteric traditions, of course, is consciousness. Christ is awake, aware consciousness, the union of Soul and Spirit, martyred on the ancient symbol of matter, the Cross, which means both the body and light (because the Latin letters in “LVX” can be formed from +), but capable of transcending the dream of ordinary existence through realization of immortal life. His resurrection is enlightenment, which we all have in our power to achieve through meditation, particularly meditation on, with, and in our nightly dreams.
I’ve mentioned several times the debt I owe to J.W. Dunne and his 1927 book An Experiment with Time. Dunne was not a scientific researcher or a parapsychologist by training, but a military man and aeronautical engineer who became interested in questions of time and its structure after becoming aware of uncanny examples of apparent precognitive dreams he had had. His “experiment” was systematically recording his dreams and then comparing them in the days, weeks, and months afterward to events that occurred in his life. His book is filled with numerous apparent matches, although spread over the course of years. Precognitive dreams, he felt, happened at a relatively low frequency.
Because of our natural ‘temporal bias,’ we seldom consider the possibility that our dreams (let alone our waking thoughts) refer to future events, and Dunne notes this is the main reason precognitive dreams are so seldom reported. We simply don’t notice them. His theory, based on the precognitive dreams his self-experimentation revealed, was that the apparent flow of time was an effect of consciousness moving like a searchlight through a past, present, and future that already exist, rather like Einstein’s teacher Minkowski’s solid four-dimensional spacetime block. Dunne thought that dreams sometimes picked up this ‘already existing’ future information.
Dreams are a royal road to discovering the bizarre Moebius structure of time and mind; if you are not already keeping a dream diary, what are you waiting for?
Interestingly, although Dunne was writing at a time when the study of dreams was popular due to the influence of Freud, he ignores the then-mainstream psychoanalytic school of thought that dreams’ surface content consisted mainly of symbols standing in for hidden or latent ideas, concealing wishes repressed or buried in the unconscious mind. For Freud, dreams relate to events in daily life in a very nonliteral and usually non-obvious way. His method of dream interpretation required free associating on each remembered dream element to arrive at the latent dream thought. When done honestly and thoroughly, free association readily reveals real-life current preoccupations, worries, fears, and wishes, as well as powerful symbols from childhood. It also reveals that most dreams bear some connection to recent events in the dreamer’s life. Many dreams contain a scattering of elements that are immediately recognizable from recent experience—what Freud called “day residues”—but unpacking a dream through free association reveals many, many more such connections.
Dunne, instead, focused only on the surface content of his dreams and thus on obvious future things “seen” in his dreams. But given the way dreams mostly distort material, we might expect free association on dreams’ surface content to reveal much more future information thinly concealed in them, and this has been precisely my own experience since following Dunne’s method. To create a truly powerful method and theory of precognitive dream analysis, we need to combine Dunne’s hypothesis with Freud’s method of free-associative interpretation. To show how this works, I will discuss two vivid examples from my own limited experience with precognitive dreaming.
The first example I mentioned briefly in an earlier post: Before arising from bed on the morning of September 11, 2001, I briefly noted dreaming about seeing a pair of identical “mosques” on a street near my childhood home; they were low, perfectly square, 1-story buildings with drab corduroy-like facades, on the site where, in real life, my father had had his clinical psychology practice for a short time when I was a kid. No immediate association came to mind for the “mosques” element, but both the height and location of the buildings pointed in different ways to a standard Freudian “castration” symbolism—that is, symbols of vulnerability, emasculation, and threat.
It is common for men to have dreams reflecting various long-term or immediate insecurities about their manhood. In my life I have occasionally dreamed of low buildings and ruined towers that seem, by being the distinct opposite of tall buildings, to have a “castration” symbolism (any noticed dream element will often, like a linguistic phoneme, derive its meaning from an alternative possibility it points to via opposition). In the case of this particular dream, that symbolism was what Freud called “overdetermined”—multiple symbolic elements pointed to the same meaning by different routes. The second route was really my sole association with the actual real-life building that these “mosques” replaced in my dream scenario.
For any odd distortion of reality in a dream, you must first ask: What is this replacing or substituting for, and what significance does that substituted object—in this case, my father’s real-life office, replaced in the dream by “mosques”—have for me? This was easy: It was during the brief time my father had had his private practice in that specific location that I remember him being called one evening to meet a desperate male transgender client of his who was having some kind of suicidal crisis. So I associated the building, the place of the dream image, with a kind of emasculation—in other words, “castration” again. I also associated it vaguely with ’suicide’—also relevant to the themes of the eventful day that followed this dream.
It must have been much later that evening, or possibly the next morning, that I noticed my dream notes and recalled the weird fact that the dream had contained two identical square “mosques” with facades that were just like the distinctive corrugated facades of the twin towers that had been destroyed in the suicide attack in New York. I was not yet accustomed to looking for precognitive material in my dreams—I had not yet read Dunne—but this seemed more than coincidental.
The distortion of daily events to create the bizarre tableaux in dreams is not, as Freud thought, a ruse to disguise shameful wishes from a ‘censor’ in the mind, but rather a natural aspect of the associative way that experiences and knowledge are remembered. Dreams obey a logic exactly like the classical “arts of memory” used by orators (and really, everyone) in pre-Gutenberg and especially pre-literate times. Essentially, the function of dreaming is the formation of long-term memories through playful associations, the art of memory operating automatically while we sleep. (I outlined this theory in 2010, and in late 2013, I was vindicated by a Manchester psychologist named Sue Llewellyn, who advanced exactly this notion in the journal Behavioral and Brain Sciences, along with a sophisticated hypothesis of how it may actually work in the brain.) Freud was mistaken in his theory of dreams’ function, but he was absolutely correct in his method of dream interpretation—free-association—because association is exactly how memory itself works.
Even though some events seen in dreams or visions are traumatic, the emotion that carries the psi signal may really be a kind of excitement.
I have found in my own case (and I’d bet it’s generally the case) that a given dream will pertain to a confined period of time or a distinct emotionally salient episode. I think this may have to do with how dreams not only encode memories but also preserve a rudimentary sense of chronology in our lives. Chronology can only come from a sense of events occurring together and thus remaining associated closely with each other in our long-term-memory store. There is no fixed objective temporal yardstick in our minds (or anywhere) but only a cross-correlation of events, rather like the way tree-rings corroborate and calibrate Carbon-14 data and vice versa. Chronology, ultimately, is an echo-chamber of self-reference, in our individual biographies as much as in the study of human and geologic history.
Most dreams relate to past events, incorporating them into long-term-memory in their surreal, associative, rebus-like manner. Notably, if my 9/11 dream really was “of” a future event, it nevertheless dealt with its salient details in the same scrambled ‘art of memory’ fashion: Islam was ‘illogically’ conflated with the ruined towers, and in a completely different setting than Manhattan, a setting that I specifically associated with emasculation and suicide. (For a brief introduction on the Art of Memory and how to apply it in waking life, see this article.)
Every noticed element or detail in a dream is a relevant term in the memory hieroglyph being formed (and it’s a very rare dream when we can remember all or even most of the details). It is common in dreams for attributes of one thing to be given to another and for subject and object to be reversed or conflated (for instance my dream’s squashing together “Islam” and the towers). Often highly complex puns are also involved (although I could not detect any in this case). The real-life experiences being encoded are usually very recognizable after even brief free association on those elements. In this case, however, I didn’t seem to be dreaming about any personal sense of vulnerability in the day or two leading up to the dream, but about a literal traumatic “castration” of our country that happened just a couple hours after it, the suicide attack on the towers. The symbolism of Al-Qaeda’s bold gesture was deliberate and unmistakeable, and thousands of people reported vivid dreams, visions, and premonitions of those attacks.
One of Dunne’s most important observations was that in cases of remote historical events being dreamed about, such as volcanic eruptions, it was not the actual event he was picking up on but the occasion of his own learning of the event in the news. This is a crucial point. It has been suggested that even in cases of apparent clairvoyance or “remote viewing,” the information being received could actually be precognitive information of the future feedback session verifying the RV session’s accuracy—what we might call the “scene of confirmation”—and not the distant event per se. It is at least worth considering whether all psi may involve precognition and, more specifically, precognition of one’s own future emotional reactions to events.
It is at least worth considering whether all psi may involve precognition and, more specifically, precognition of one’s own future emotional reactions to events.
Even though some events seen in dreams or visions are traumatic, the emotion that carries the psi signal may really, I suggest, be a kind of excitement. As I argued in my “Trauma Displaced in Time” post, I suspect the energy or current that carried information about the attacks back in time to dreamers, artists, etc. was precisely the conflicting giddy/horrified “enjoyment” that 9/11 sparked in a nation of TV viewers over the course of that day: excitement at the thrilling cinematic spectacle, which on an unconscious level seemed unreal, as well as even a basic amoral sense of ‘survivor’s relief’ (“thank god it didn’t happen to me,” “thank god I and my loved ones weren’t in those towers,” etc.).
The genius of the attacks was not simply that the terrorists managed to symbolically “castrate” our country but that they got a whole nation to enjoy the spectacle and its aftermath in an unbearable, unspeakable, unacknowledgeable way. Enjoyment in this equivocal sense is, I am increasingly persuaded, a core element of some psi phenomena. My second, very recent example will illustrate this same principle, albeit in a much more personal and non-traumatic context.
Pushing the Envelope
I must first explain that this precognitive dream experience arose as an unintended side-effect of my hitherto disappointing efforts at remote viewing (RV). Like I am sure many who get interested in psi research, I have eagerly read guides by the pioneers and masters such as Russell Targ, Joe McMoneagle, and Ingo Swann; I’ve even read books by earlier authors on clairvoyance like Upton Sinclair, whose book Mental Radio contains a chapter by his clairvoyant wife Mary Craig Sinclair giving very clear instructions to her method, and Harold Sherman, the clairvoyant who accurately remote-viewed aviator Hubert Wilkins’ arctic journey (recorded in the classic Thoughts Through Space) and who later wrote popular guides to ESP. As the easiest “protocol” I can think of, I simply ask my wife to print out some random picture from the internet while she’s at work during the day, seal it in a brown envelope, and set it on the table next to my bed in the evening. Since it is late at night that I feel most “receptive” and it is easiest to attain a relaxed or hypnagogic state, it is before sleep that I attempt to sketch my impressions of what is in the envelope.
Despite my efforts, I am the world’s worst remote viewer. With only occasional unexciting exceptions, I have had very few “hits” doing this. Recently, however, I modified the protocol to allow my dreams to maybe lend a hand. Instead of going ahead and opening the envelope after attempting to RV its contents, I wait until the next morning to open the envelope. In trying to view the picture inside the envelope the night before, I even imagine the scene of pulling it out of the envelope at the breakfast table; and prior to falling asleep, I silently request my unconscious to deliver information about the picture in the envelope. This has produced interesting and, in a couple cases, actually stunning results. But the results are indirect and symbolic, precisely in dreams’ usual evasive manner, and in one case my dream showed me specifically the “scene of confirmation” rather than the picture I was trying to RV.
Let me explain: Late on a Friday evening two weeks ago, I did my usual, meditating in bed and then sketching images and impressions that flashed before my mind’s eye while imagining the scene of opening the brown envelope over breakfast. Then in the morning, I arose and groggily jotted a few notes on the main dream I could recall from the night before: something about a lush, green, idyllic pastoral landscape that was somehow maintained by an advanced futuristic technology.
Although there is nothing more boring than someone else’s dream, I must give a few details because they are significant: In this dream landscape was a group of people of uncertain ethnicity—it seemed significant that they were “dark skinned but not black/African”—who were reluctant to leave their Eden, despite the urging of an affable, white, heroic military man. That man was communicating by phone to some ship that was under attack—I pictured a sea-vessel on fire some distance away at an ocean port or harbor. There was also a scene of two of the “dark skinned” people, a man and a woman, facing each other at close distance, gazing into each others’ eyes almost theatrically, as if they were about to sing a duet to each other.
Over breakfast, I opened the envelope to reveal the accompanying picture of hands in an upright-open gesture. It bore zero resemblance or connection to my several pages of before-bed scribbled impressions, even by a remote stretch of the imagination. I put it down as another RV failure. However, a little while after breakfast I picked up the picture again and free-associated on it. The first thing that came to mind was the nearly identical gesture of greeting used by the primitive, deeply-tanned Polynesian-style villagers in the original Star Trek Season Two episode “The Apple”—a typical ‘Gnostic’ Trek episode about an ancient planetary computer named Vaal that keeps the planet’s inhabitants in an innocent and ignorant (but idyllic) state of nature.
The entire original Star Trek series is burned deeply into my neural wiring as a result of a childhood spent watching reruns of the series every afternoon. Although I have not seen “The Apple” in well over three decades, many elements, including the natives’ palms-up greeting, have always stuck with me, and my mild disappointment over a failed RV attempt turned quickly to delight: The picture in the envelope had clearly triggered an association to that episode. (In selecting the picture, my wife could not have anticipated this association because she’s a ST:TNG gal and had never seen “The Apple.”)
Because it was Saturday, I immediately re-watched “The Apple” on Amazon, to refresh my memory about the episode as well as revel in what seemed like a real psi “hit.” It was even campier than I remember, but it clearly matched closely, or exactly, all the elements I remembered from my dream. But as I reveled in this success, I realized that the dream had not been “about” the image in the envelope at all; it was precisely about what I was right then doing: re-watching a particular old Star Trek episode in a state of eager excitement. My dreaming mind hadn’t peered into the shut envelope, in other words; instead it picked up on the most emotionally salient event in the landscape of my near future. That event bore a chicken-and-egg relationship to the dream that precognized it. It was truly ‘acausal’ or even Moebius-like in precisely the way we should predict could occasionally happen in a science-fictional world where information can travel backward in time.
If anyone’s innocence is lost here, it should be yours: Time is not what you were raised to think it is. Neither is your own mind.
That sounds preposterous, of course. A skeptic would say, reasonably, that watching the episode was obviously only an effect of my dream and not its cause; however, they would then have to explain the uncanny connection to the hand gesture in the photograph, which was actually the crucial mediating link or “short circuit” in the motivational chain that led to my watching the episode in the first place. In other words, without admitting the precognitive dreaming effect, you would then be forced to posit a “synchronicity” just like the scarab innocently arriving at the window of Carl Jung’s Zurich office at the precise moment his patient was telling him a dream about a man offering her a scarab: You would be forced to say that it was an uncanny meaningful coincidence stage-managed by the universe, or by God, or somehow orchestrated by an “archetype of the collective unconscious.”
I have argued over several posts why it makes no sense that a symbolic formation, by itself, could exert a shaping force on events. Granting “archetypes” this kind of stage-managing power in our lives is truly magical thinking, in a negative sense. We shape our universe to be meaningful, but often unconsciously or unknowingly, through precognitively informed actions that orient toward fulfillment of personal symbolic motifs. “Archetypes” are a perfectly fine concept so long as we take them in this latter, reduced sense. As impossible or even preposterous as it sounds, the simplest explanation for my “Apple” experience is, I believe, exactly what I think really happened in the scarab episode too: a simple case of precognitive dreaming, in which a future signal was amplified because post-hoc actions enhanced particular experienced emotions (namely excitement) during the “scene of confirmation.”
A Jungian Star Trek fan would, of course, point out some obvious archetypal aspects of “The Apple”: the “dark-skinned” villagers or Vaal himself as the shadow, for example, and Kirk as the “serpent” leading to a loss of innocence. But everything has an archetype in it, if you want to look for one. My narrative doesn’t seem to be about lost innocence. My innocence was lost ages ago. If anyone’s innocence is lost here, it should be yours: Time is not what you were raised to think it is. Neither is your own mind. Dreams are a royal road to discovering the bizarre Moebius structure of time and mind; if you are not already keeping a dream diary, what are you waiting for?
Vaal and Redemption
I have argued that psi events build around trivial unremarkable coincidences that we feed and fatten by an imagination and a mentality that is open to magic or psi—“feed,” you might say, rather the same way the inhabitants of Gamma Trianguli VI ritualistically feed their computer god Vaal by pouring offerings of food into its big reptilian stone head.
The minor objective coincidence between the significance for me of an old Star Trek episode and a picture my wife randomly chose off the Internet by itself was not enough to “power” any uncanny event. What amplified the signal was my (a) interest in psi, expressed through an RV attempt (a kind of ritual), coupled with (b) interest in coincidences (after all, I’ve been writing about them for several weeks on this blog—another kind of ritual), coupled with (c) a habit of delving into and ‘commemorating’ personal symbols that emerge in this path. This combined to produce a recursive spiral of enjoyment that, I argue, generated a precognitive dream.
The ritual aspect here is crucial I think. I have found that the ritual of re-watching, re-reading, or purchasing books or TV shows or other things from my formative years that emerge in my psi attempts and synchronicities actually contributes to generating the excitement and epiphanies that precognitive phenomena like dreams and RV attempts pick up on. In other words, honoring and commemorating psi successes and synchronicities actually contributes to creating them, in a kind of feedback effect, and an established habit or ritual of doing so is a crucial “feed-forward” component necessary to actually manifest these psi effects with any regularity. My psi god, if you will, or my personal Vaal-like unconscious self (Vaal=VALIS? … hmmm) responds to my offerings by producing affirmatory anomalies, encouraging this particular path.
Now, if I can just get my inner-child-psi-mind to predict the stock market and not just personal associations to pictures in envelopes, I’ll have achieved something…
Like many people, I am fascinated by synchronicities that occur in my life, and I even see them as signposts on my life’s path. Yet the “nuts and bolts” side of me agrees with Arthur Koestler in his wonderful 1972 survey of ESP research, The Roots of Coincidence: Carl Jung’s theory of synchronicity is a muddle, little more than a label slapped onto a mystery without really offering any illumination. In this, it is a bit like the 17th-Century concept of “phlogiston,” the postulated fire-like element that was proposed to cause substances to combust before scientists discovered oxidation reactions. Synchronicity seems like a placeholder concept, awaiting a better, more coherent story.
We have the power to create or nurture optimal conditions of our personal unfoldment and realization of our intentions; we simply need to take seriously the power of coincidence in our lives.
Several of my recent posts have attempted to offer a relatively simple mechanism for synchronicity, via psi. In a universe where information from the future can influence us, even just on an unconscious level, it must produce the kinds of complex impossible scenarios familiar from time-travel stories in science fiction, including both “grandfather paradoxes” and, occasionally, self-amplifying or self-confirmatory feedback loops resulting in truly uncanny-seeming coincidences. I’ve also suggested that the Lacanian concept of jouissance or “enjoyment” may be a kind of carrier of psi information through time—or at least may somehow mediate psi—and thus may provide a better language for talking about psi’s science-fictional effects than the Jungian language of synchronicity and archetypes.
Still, there is an unmistakeable suggestiveness to the word “synchronicity” that is undoubtedly part of its appeal and staying power: Seemingly modeled on the word “electricity,” synchronicity implies a dynamism and some sort of energetic current. Jung clearly intuited that this thing, this acausal connecting principle, was less like the static sticky “cords” and other subtle connections described in the Theosophical and spiritualist literature of his day and more like a dynamic energy that moved and flowed among material configurations and mental forms, ideas, and symbols. It’s a thing in motion that, when touched, might shock you, and may be capable of short-circuiting; it may be capable of destroying you if you’re not careful. An archetype, as Jung described it, is like a battery for storing and releasing this energy.
Whatever terminology we choose to adopt, the question that must ultimately motivate any research into the actual functioning of psi and coincidences would have to be: Can we weave it into our theories of how things happen enough that it could be predictive of events outside the laboratory? If treated in the right way, is it also capable of powering something? Can we harness this substance or this energy?
A Duh Experience
As I was finishing my recent post about my “eureka” that synchronicities are illusions created when personally significant but minor coincidences are unconsciously amplified through atemporal feedback loops, my eureka quickly degraded (as eurekas often do) to more of a “duh.” My basic idea was nothing that many practitioners of ritual or chaos magic, or for that matter many adherents of various positive-thinking philosophies, would disagree with, even if I was drawing on different metaphors. Essentially, we have the power to create or nurture optimal conditions of our personal unfoldment and realization of our intentions; we simply need to take seriously, if not fervently believe in, the power of coincidence (and, by extension, magic and meaning—or psi, as I prefer to call it) in our lives. It is exactly this orientation to coincidence that helps us boostrap our condition in a favorable direction.
Enjoyment is the most basic, amoral, childlike power of “yes,” which can even be thought of as extending both forward and backward through time like an atemporal power current in our lives, linking past and future into a timeless electric present.
A characteristic of synchronicity is that people often interpret it as a confirmation of being on the right track, following the right path, doing what they’re supposed to be doing—”God winking” is how one person put it to me recently. Even if synchronicities are really illusions based on failure to see that we live in a Phil-Dickian universe and that we ourselves are unconsciously creating these self-confirmatory circumstances, they’re nevertheless an indicator of a productive habit with high payoff: noticing, paying attention, being alert to the mysterious. One reason to shift from the vague and neutral language of “synchronicity” to terms of Lacanian psychoanalysis is that the latter idiom indicates just what it is we are really detecting when we notice a coincidence: We are detecting our enjoyment. Orienting to psi and coincidence is really an indirect but potentially powerful way of making enjoyment our life compass.
This is because it is precisely the giddy enjoyment of confirmation that is the “energy” at the heart of coincidences. The gratification that ensues when the objective world confirms our innermost beliefs, expectations, and wishes—even when there is a bad or even calamitous implication to the confirming event itself—can be picked up on in advance of the stimulating event. In the context of suffering-causing neuroses, Freud called these “secondary benefits,” but even though it is a kind of pretentious foreign word, I kind of like “jouissance” because it connotes an enjoyment that could be either euphoric or harmful, even deadly, depending on our attitude. Prophetic jouissance is our enjoyment at the uncanny, including our own seeming uncanny powers, even when they have directed our attention toward or anticipated something terrible.
Enjoyment in this sense is the most basic, amoral, childlike power of “yes,” which can even be thought of as extending both forward and backward through time like an atemporal power current in our lives, linking past and future into a timeless electric present.
“Follow your bliss” was how the Jungian mythologist Joseph Campbell famously phrased his prescription for the good life, and as a philosophy of life or life principle there is probably none better or more universal. “Bliss” is just the ancient Anglo-Saxon word for enjoyment (bliðs); Campbell’s recommendation could be understood as an ironclad law if we understand enjoyment in its psychoanalytic meaning, as something we are always following but that actually causes us pain when we are living in a state of ignorance about what it is we truly enjoy and how we are getting our enjoyment secretly.
Thus Campbell could really have said: Know what your bliss is, because you can’t help but follow it. And there, he’d be right in line with any psychoanalyst, Freudian or Lacanian, not to mention the Buddha (overcome ignorance), or pretty much any philosopher in the West (know thyself). Knowledge over ignorance is hard to question as a recipe for health and happiness. Because it is really unavoidable, bliss has a circular quality, and when we try to translate it into linear and logical terms, it produces the tricksterish and sci-fi effects that arise in a world that resolutely only believes in linear causality.
Turtles All the Way Down
I have often dimly noticed that the truest statements seem to have a fractal, recursive, self-similar quality: They are like the Indian story of the world resting on the back of the turtle, which rests on the back of another turtle, and it is turtles all the way down. Logicians and psychologists hate such things: Infinite regress and its variant, circular reasoning—that is, self-confirmation—are the very definition of error and fallacy. But self-confirmation is really the scandalous secret at the heart of language. Linguistic meaning can only ever rest, ultimately, on empty, circular, self-reference.
Bliss has a circular quality, so when we try to translate it into linear and logical terms, it produces the tricksterish and sci-fi effects that arise in a world that resolutely only believes in linear causality.
This was Lacan’s great insight about the Symbolic register which entraps us as humans and causes all our neurotic suffering: The only thing that pins arbitrary symbols in place is the gaping holes in that structure, the empty signifiers like proper names (e.g., “the Name of the Father”) and empty ideological constructs (e.g., “freedom”). These holes structure the slippery maze of more mundane signs, the same way supermassive black holes provide the structure to a galaxy: Without these empty or self-circular terms, language would be a slippy-slidey indeterminate nonsense soup. The only “really real” is outside of symbols and language altogether. For this reason, the truest statements—really, the only true statements—are those that are circular or otherwise nonsensical, that have no traction within the symbolic but eject us out of the symbolic into the Real, which is the domain of enjoyment/bliss.
Paranormal phenomena including psi and precognition have precisely this symbolically traction-less, illogical, circular—and I would argue, covertly blissful—quality. If and when we acknowledge their reality (despite their resolute illogic), then it gives circularity a new kind of force and truth. It is precisely our own entrainment to psi-confirmatory events (coincidences) through making a habit of noticing and perhaps commemorating them which causes our actions and our lives to assume a more meaningful, archetypal shape—a sort of positive version of what Lacanian psychoanalysis (which generally deals with dysfunction) calls a “symptom.” In other words, through a circular and self-fulfilling logic, not only belief in but also enjoyment of coincidence enables us to harness, or is a prerequisite for harnessing, our unconscious psi capacities for our benefit.
As some kind of atemporal, nonlocal constant in our lives, I’m almost tempted to call this self-confirmatory power of agreement the “enjoyment body” or sambhogakaya described in Buddhist philosophy (part of the trinity that includes the dharmakaya or “essence body” and the nirmankaya or physical form-body). It is like our atemporal being, our “long body,” like the world-line of Minkowskian physics except the continuity is not that of the particles of our physical form but of the nonlocal and unchanging substanceless substance of our bliss, a sort of resonating string extending across our lifespan (and beyond?). It is something we may be only dimly conscious of, and there is always some level of it that remains hidden from view and monstrous, because it is partly beyond morality and takes pleasure even in horror.
I remember watching an interview years ago with a sufferer of temporal lobe epilepsy, which gave me some insight into the potential negative dimension of mysticism and why bliss in the face of tragedy is experienced as pain. Temporal lobe seizures sound appealing at first blush, because they effectively are ‘religious’ experiences in which everything is suffused with bliss and an overwhelming sense of rightness—an ecstatic agreement with the universe. But such a feeling can quickly become excessive and oppressive: The patient noted that even horrific events like the Holocaust had that same feeling of ‘blissful rightness’ when he was in the throes of a seizure. If the deeper foundation of the universe is a kind of nondual bliss-rightness, and this is the current that psi taps into, then it is easy to see why normal human cortical functioning may act as a powerful reducing valve on this kind experience. For social creatures, an amoral sense of rightness even in extreme human suffering just cannot be workable; this may account for why psi sometimes feels like playing with dangerous cosmic forces.
9/11, for instance, fulfilled unconscious calamitous wishes even as it horrified us, and consequently it set the bliss current, the enjoyment-body, vibrating in a very particular way, stimulating premonitory dreams beforehand and even, perhaps, inspiring many of the artworks that uncannily ‘foretold’ the event. If it takes deaths and tragedies to make us aware of our larger nonlocal self, do we really want that? Well, some amoral unconscious part of us would say “yes.” That’s the problem, and fascination, of psi.
Tricksters and Meaning
The healthy middle ground, of course, is neither pathological immersion in bliss nor complete ignorance or separation from it, but knowing where it is and being able to draw from it intermittently, as needed. Such is the aim of mystical schools like Zen and other schools of Buddhism (the “middle way”), which aim to put one firmly in contact with the ground of bliss-awareness without being swamped by it.
If it takes deaths and tragedies to make us aware of our larger nonlocal self, do we really want that? Well, some amoral unconscious part of us would say “yes.” That’s the problem, and fascination, of psi.
In its own way, the ideal of health formulated by the later Lacan was not unlike this; he said we need to learn to “enjoy our symptom,” our furtive secret system through which we extract a forbidden extra something that gives meaning to our lives. Because of its dark dimensions, that extra something, that enjoyment, is always somewhat alien, somewhat beyond both pleasure and understanding … but there are different degrees of unknowing. Those who really suffer are those who are in total ignorance about the nature of their bliss, and thus it destroys them. At the very least it may be experienced as a tricksterish fate that constantly reaches in and mocks and parodies their aspirations, undercuts and sabotages their plans, thwarts them in their lives and hopes.
This seems to be the experience of therapists when confronted with some patients who seem to have devious and completely unconscious ways of eliciting punishment and suffering from their universe. For example, the neurotic trapped in a repetitive or obsessive symptom is deriving enjoyment but in a way that is hidden even from him/herself, and thus life for that person may seem like a constant car wreck. Enjoyment isn’t the same as pleasure; we can go without mere pleasure, and many cultures and religions (such as the Calvinism of my own Pennsylvania Dutch ancestors) make a big deal of draining life of as much hedonic gratification as possible, but that’s not the same thing as enjoyment. Even within the denial of the body and its pleasures, enjoyment can be extracted, a kind of furtive Promethean theft of what is truly the fire of life. Without that—without the ability to enjoy in some furtive secret way—then life is not worth living. Enjoyment is another way of saying “the meaning of life,” and people who commit suicide are those who cannot find a way of enjoying, which is another way of saying their life has lost its meaning.
So, precisely here, the Lacanian notion of enjoyment touches this fundamental thing that is at the core of synchronicity: meaning. When we say a coincidence is meaningful, we don’t mean that in the workaday sense that a word or a symbol has meaning, that it has a dictionary definition or that it can be decoded or put into words at all; we mean it in a larger, existential way—it connects with the secret sustaining substance of our life, our bliss, our atemporal “enjoyment body.” The best synchronicities often read like a confirmation that we are following our bliss in an awake, aware, healthy way. The worst ones—and there seem to be plenty of those—seem like wake-up calls that we are not facing some dark dimension of our enjoyment.
Ac-centuate the Positive
Because our tacit precognitive capacity entrains our attention (our noticing) to random coincidences that happen to confirm our desires, expectations, and beliefs, we unknowingly participate in cultivating a universe that conforms to our intentions, and thus the world assumes an increasingly uncannily (or, gratifyingly) familiar and even magical quality—it becomes a more enclosed and secure universe, in some ways similar to the universe of childhood. This of course is one of the criticisms leveled by skeptics: that belief in the paranormal is a reversion to childishness. Because there is no living, respectable contemplative tradition in the rationalist West, mysticism is viewed similarly, even by psychoanalysts, who have seldom been able to see mystical experience other than as infantile regression.
We unknowingly participate in cultivating a universe that conforms to our intentions, and thus the world assumes an increasingly uncannily (or, gratifyingly) familiar and even magical quality.
In his monumental book, First Sight, James Carpenter quotes Jung: “How does it come that even inanimate objects are capable of behaving as if they were acquainted with my thoughts?” Psi, Carpenter argues, arises in that unconscious (you might also say child-like) domain where there is no separation between self and other or between self and objects, and where perception and action merge. I would add that it is the world of what child psychoanalyst D.W. Winnicott called “transitional phenomena,” similar to the “liminal” phenomena described by George Hansen in his also monumental book The Trickster and the Paranormal. You could say that psi is a natural entailment of the underlying nondual nature of things that mystics have always asserted but that we are unable to consciously experience except in moments of grace or ego-less, wordless rapture, because of the “reducing valve” function of the cortex. This would fit well with the writings of Patanjali on the siddhis, for example, as well as the modern ‘tradition’ of linking ESP to mystical practices like yoga or Tantra (see below). When mystics dive down in meditation, a pure ocean of undifferentiated bliss-awareness is what they often describe.
If our enjoyment is indeed a kind of atemporal acausal connecting principle acting as a magnetic field polarizing our actions and thoughts at all times, then in trying to gain some greater insight into when and how synchronous (and, I’d wager, other paranormal) events happen in our lives, we should pay attention specifically to our enjoyment, not merely our thoughts. Indeed our thoughts, which yogis and Buddhists have always likened to waves in the sea of mind, seem like transient effects or epiphenomena on the surface of enjoyment, formations built out of that more basic and oceanic raw material like the fleeting architectural and mimetic forms generated on the sea of Solaris.
I think enjoyment may be a truer label for the nonlocal substrate of existence—even material existence—that many antimaterialists nowadays seek using the idiom of “consciousness.” If we adopted the idiom of “jouissance” or “enjoyment” or “bliss” it might open up new ways of thinking about matter in relation to mind, as well as clarifying seemingly unrelated problems like those of artificial intelligence and the nature of sentience. For instance, people talk about computers becoming conscious, but this seems like a canard; the real question is, could they enjoy? (I strongly think, no.)
I also think it is directly relevant that there is a long tradition—what could be called a kind of alt-spiritual or New Age consensus—that positive thinking has a magnetic power or force over health, wealth, etc. This is of course the famous “secret” or “law of attraction” that has been popularized in countless self-help books and that is one of the core ideas examined in Mitch Horowitz’s excellent history, One Simple Idea. Positive thinking is not exactly or necessarily the same thing as enjoyment, but knowing enjoyment—the blissful as opposed to the ignorant, neurotic, resistant, painful kind—seems closely allied to positive thinking. If positive thinking really has some kind of attractive force in the world, some influence that spills over from mind to matter, you might say, then being in touch with our enjoyment would account for it, maybe precisely via the ‘science-fictional’ effects (e.g., atemporal feedback loops or “attractors”) I described.
Shifting from Jung’s language of synchronicity to Lacan’s language of enjoyment enables us to formulate other interesting hypotheses about psi and coincidence that could potentially be tested. For example, it would be an empirical question: Are positive synchronous or paranormal events experienced more by mentally healthy, relatively less neurotic people who are more in touch with their enjoyment? Are tricksterish ones experienced more by neurotics? I don’t know if synchronicity per se has been studied experimentally or how you would go about doing that, but Carpenter cites evidence that the traits of extroversion and optimism are strongly associated with high performance on tests of psi. This makes sense of why gregarious, confident, attention-seeking personalities—for instance folks like Uri Geller or, according to remote-viewing pioneer Russell Targ, Italian women—tend to do well at psi tasks.
Synchronicity and Kundalini
Another reason why rephrasing the concept of synchronicity in Lacanian terms might be an advance is that notions like “bliss” and “enjoyment” are closer to the literally or metaphorically sexualized energies that have in one way or another been linked, both in the West and East, to paranormal experiences and, more broadly, to human potentiality.
Jouissance in French connotes an orgasm so extreme it is actually agonizing. The maverick Freudian psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich famously theorized the orgasmic nature of the chi-like energy linking us to the universe and called it “orgone.” Reich’s orgone theory closely resembles other ideas that have emerged again and again in spiritualism and occultism, such as the “odic force,” Mesmer’s “animal magnetism,” Bergson’s “elan vital,” the “mana” of pseudo-Hawaiian shamanism, and in Russia, Nikolai Kozyrev’s “torsional energy field.”
Psychical researchers have always noticed a connection between psychic and paranormal phenomena and sexual development and arousal, frustration of sexual expression, etc. Poltergeists are associated with puberty, for example; remote viewing has been associated with sexual desire by some writers, such as Ingo Swann. The Western sex magic tradition links psychic effects to sex (e.g., chaos magicians often use the orgasm as a portal to the unconscious for the purpose of controlling fate through sigils; the “kalas” in the Typhonian tradition of ritual magic developed by Kenneth Grant are essences of female sexual lubricants produced through arousal; and so on). And most centrally, some Tantric traditions see the fundamental organizing energy of the universe as related to the body and its pleasures, in the form of Kundalini.
The Freudian-sexual framework with its concepts of “libido” and “sublimation” is in some sense just a clunky and very partial theory of this sexual psychic-cosmic energy: Kundalini is the libido extended to the full bodymind, a framework enabling us to see the value of this energy beyond mere reproduction and social dominance concerns (and art) and see how the mystical and even the psychic may draw from the same spring. (According to Jeffrey Kripal, the Bhagwan Rashneesh once quipped that “Freud only got to the third chakra.”) Kundalini might even be thought of as another term for jouissance, although one with its own particular cultural baggage and symbolism and its own particular blind spots. That this energy is believed to ordinarily slumber at the base of the spine could be in part a figurative understanding of the fact that most people are mainly conscious of their survival and sexual concerns and remain relatively ignorant of their “higher” priorities and the more obscure (and sublime) ways they derive enjoyment.
What we can usefully take from the vertical Tantric schema of Kundalini as a spectrum related to or at least symbolized by the hierarchy of chakras is (at the very least) that there’s a continuum structuring the relationship between the various aspects of the human bodymind and the broader acausal context, and thus that this substance-energy, whatever we choose to call it, might be converted or transmuted or changed in wavelength—all the way from the organismic and the orgasmic “up” to the creative, intellectual, and spiritual. This “transmutation” is intrinsic to the definition of Tantra, as well as to the “inner” traditions of alchemy both in Asia and Europe.
Other mystical models start instead from the top and work down, privileging cosmic or heavenly energies or awareness or gnosis and deriving “lower” forms from them. One could include the Western Hermetic tradition here, as well as the “higher Tantras” of Asia, including Dzogchen, which privileges an oceanic Void of pure bliss-awareness and is, according to Targ, the royal road to developing ESP abilities. (If that’s the case, Zen, which is nearly identical to Dzogchen in its privileging of the unborn Void, bypassing ’transmutation’ of baser energies in favor of self-extinction of ignorance and desire, should be equally useful.)
Inner Conspiracies and Paranormal Enjoyment
In any case, and through whatever symbolic language or practice we adopt, the theory I’m putting forward suggests the way to move forward in a science fictional universe is to get clear about our enjoyment: What are we enjoying, and how?
Include the knower in the known by including the enjoyer in the enjoyed: What secret benefit or bliss do you get from your particular surreptitious bargain with reality?
Note, this is a very different question from that of desire—i.e. what do you want, which tends to be the focus of most therapy and even of much magical practice in the form of intention-setting. Desire and want point to lack, which is the underpinning of our insecurity and the motor of our forward motion in life. But even in our lack, even in the midst of our deprivation, we are enjoying. We enjoy our desires and our states of lack in very obscure ways, and thus cutting through desire to enjoyment is the key. In other words, include the knower in the known by including the enjoyer in the enjoyed: What secret benefit or bliss do you get from your particular surreptitious bargain with reality? What in you does your symptom serve, and why? Examine your secret sources of enjoyment, and then come clean about it, if only to yourself.
This kind of enjoyment-examination is perilous. Psychoanalysis lasts so long because the analyst is perceived as trying to steal away the patient’s secret enjoyment, so years and years of resistance have to be overcome through attrition and trickery, like a shamanic cure but in slow expensive motion. It seems to me that private self-examination in meditation should be a much more direct and fruitful approach than this kind of frontal assault, because all it requires is self-honesty: You can keep your enjoyment a secret, in the end.
Enjoyment-examination (or perhaps, bliss-analysis) has direct and special relevance to those of us with an interest in psi and other liminal, paranormal topics, and who ‘want to believe.’ If you are honest with yourself, you may find you are in a very weird and precarious position with your enjoyment of this subject matter. What do you enjoy believing, and why do you enjoy believing it? Why do you enjoy believing in ESP, and what would happen if suddenly everybody else believed in it too? What secret benefit to you get from your time spent reading or discussing the topic of UFOs? What would happen if tomorrow there was some public and unmistakeable confirmation of their reality, and a confirmation that they were _______ (fill in the blank: ETs, tulpas, interdimensional beings, or whatever turns your crank)? Would that change how you relate to the subject?
Our enjoyments in this sense are what in a psychoanalytic idiom are called our “unconscious investments.” As in the study of political-economic formations and conspiracies like Watergate, where you “follow the money,” in understanding ourselves—and the nature of psi, and UFOs, and consciousness, and all the rest—we need to follow the bliss. The quagmire of complex unconscious investments in the paranormal fields may account for many of the tricksterish effects described by Hansen … but this is the subject for a later post.
“At present, utilizing the principal of parsimony, my ‘investigative assumption’ is … that we are dealing with extraterrestrial visitations as the central core of the problem.” Jim Lorenzen
“The evidence is overwhelming that the Earth is being visited by intelligently controlled vehicles from off the Earth.” Stanton Friedman
“I believe that these extra-terrestrial vehicles and their crews are visiting this planet from other planets.” Gordon Cooper
The extraterrestrial hypothesis or ETH was a natural deduction for mid-20th-century observers of the UFO phenomenon, including respectable military folks and astronauts like Gordon Cooper who, in the same breath as acknowledging flying saucers’ reality, stated confidently that these were ships crewed by beings from other planets. The science and science-fiction of that era made such a hypothesis inevitable. But while science has moved on, that retro sci-fi vision has proven maddeningly durable; to this day, the public hears “UFO” and still sees in their mind’s eye a spaceship with an extraterrestrial pilot behind the wheel … possibly crashing and dying in the American desert. Over time, the sensible enough ETH became the ETA, the extraterrestrial assumption, which is, unfortunately, no longer quite so sensible.
The ETA has harmed ufology not only by limiting people’s imaginations but also by making it easy for skeptics to parody the whole UFO topic or reduce it to a facile either/or: Either they are little green (or gray) men from other planets flying thousands of light years to get here in little rickety ships or they are just a figment of overactive imaginations. The absurdity of the former picture has driven many smart people into the latter position by default, not realizing there is actually a large and interesting gray area (get it?—gray area?) filled with a veritable zoo of different scientifically plausible possibilities, which writers from John Keel and Jacques Vallee to Mac Tonnies and lots of lesser-known folks have explored in a vast and often thoughtful literature.
To this day, the public hears “UFO” and still sees in their mind’s eye a spaceship with an extraterrestrial pilot behind the wheel … possibly crashing and dying in the American desert.
Embedded within the simplistic ETA is a corollary that acts as an equally strong fetter on the imagination and is equally powerful ammo in the skeptic’s arsenal: the assumption that UFO encounters (if real) would represent some sort of visitation. That imaginary spaceship with the ET pilot at the steering wheel only makes sense within the context of beings who actually live somewhere else, take long treacherous journeys to our world to spy on us or study us, and intend to go home afterward. Over on UFO Conjecture(s), Rich Reynolds recently put the silliness of that idea in perspective by pointing out the spec-like insignificance of Earth in the galactic scheme of things and the true vastness of cosmic distances. We’re a backwater, he says, and for this reason, any notion of our planet and its dominant civilization being the object of active, interested, ET visitation is ludicrous.
It was partly this assumption—that ETs would be here in order to ‘visit’ us—that steered Jacques Vallee away from the extraterrestrial hypothesis back in the late 1960s: The sheer number of recorded (let alone estimated) encounters is way too many, and goes back way too long in history, to represent some Apollo-style space program of ET space missions to fly here, collect a few soil samples and rocks, get some sperm and egg cells from hapless earthlings, and then return home. It’s also worth noting that while Carl Sagan always pitched for the skeptical team, his imagination, fully on board with the existence of ETs “out there,” followed a similar logic when it came to the question of visitation: They would stop by for visit to check things out, but only every few thousand years or so. That would somehow be enough to gather the information necessary.
It’s hard not to agree with Reynolds: ET visitation is ludicrous. But I also think the ET hypothesis (not assumption) has a great deal of residual merit so long as we discard the whole notion of “visitation,” radically revise our notion of what we mean by “ET,” and bring our picture of possible ET motives and methods more in line with our current understanding of science, space exploration, and our own future evolution.
Flesh and blood beings piloting spaceships across vast light years to visit us is indeed silly—and we’d be doing ourselves a favor if we educated the wider public that that’s not what we mean by “UFOs.” On the other hand, permanently entrenched local machine proxies—drones—conducting long-term dispassionate surveillance on behalf of one or more advanced (probably very ancient) ET civilizations for both science and security purposes—or what I have called “deep anthropology”—is not nearly as silly a hypothesis. To see why, we simply need to think realistically about our own future presence in space while bearing in mind the mathematical models showing that the galaxy’s earliest civilizations should already have a presence, of some sort, throughout it.
The Real Fermi Paradox
Enrico Fermi famously asked his Los Alamos colleagues over lunch in 1950, “Where are they?” This question presupposes two things: that “they” (ETs) will have some motive to come here, and that “they” aren’t here already. It was a sensible question at the time: Mathematical sophisticates like Fermi knew that we were unlikely to be alone; and they also calculated that, even given the enormous distances that would be involved in interstellar travel and colonization, in a universe “of a certain age” (as we might say politely), we ought to be newcomers in an already loud, bustling cosmic metropolis. The various mathematical models showing that our galaxy, including our backwater, should already be colonized by the civilizations that first emerged has been taken by some as evidence that there may be something wrong with our assumptions. Indeed. I would restate the Fermi paradox as the following hypothesis: They’re here already and (paradoxically) they never left home.
The problem is the assumption of outward travel and expansion as an inevitable or even likely path for an advanced technological species. Fragile, mortal beings have an impulse to have big families, grow, and spread, colonizing new real estate in the name of Lebensraum, “living room.” Most of recorded human history fits into such a picture, and so it was natural to project such an assumption onto our own future and, by extension, onto ET. But as countless more recent futurians and SF writers have promised, we are approaching some kind of cusp—a technological and social perfect storm that, even in its most conservative versions, will change the game in all kinds of ways that just couldn’t be envisioned or imagined 65 years ago. When you recognize that a society must evolve in tandem with its technology, that assumption of outward spread “in the flesh” looks less and less plausible.
Spaceflight capacity will only emerge alongside commensurate leaps in computing and robotics, and along with those, massive advances in energy production, matter manipulation (e.g., 3D printing and nanotech), and most importantly, biotechnology advances like genetic engineering and all the “-omics” of today’s cutting-edge health and medical science (e.g., genomics, proteomics, transcriptomics, etc.). Together, these bundled developments will not only tend to automate the business of space exploration but will also radically extend our lives, which will disincentivize the kinds of interstellar migration and colonization (and empire building) that Fermi’s generation had no reason to doubt and that generations of SF writers dramatized in their space operas. They made great stories, but those futures are wildly unrealistic from the standpoint of “existential futurology.”
Immortality will radically reduce, among other things, the family and reproduction, and thus ultimately eliminate the need to spread beyond one’s safe cozy planet or, at least, one’s radically terraformed (or Dyson-sphered) solar system.
We can already see that as longevity increases, family size dwindles. Today’s humans fortunate to live in advanced prosperous societies and to expect 80+ year lifespans don’t have as many kids as their shorter-lived ancestors did. Follow the curve: The standard old notion of human family groups spreading out across the galaxy in vast waves of colonization represents a failure to imagine the most radical (and probably, realistic) promise of the Singularity: near or total immortality via some combination of bioengineering and machine augmentation. It won’t necessarily happen by the middle of this century, as the most rapturous of the nerd rapturologists promise, but it will probably happen at least in the next. Immortality negates any vision of the future resembling our present society; it will radically reduce, among other things, the family and reproduction, and thus ultimately eliminate the need to spread beyond one’s safe cozy planet or, at least, one’s radically terraformed (or Dyson-sphered) solar system.
Consider the most sociologically rich and coherent literary vision of a far future interstellar society, Frank Herbert’s Dune series. It is highly significant that Herbert’s sprawling galactic empire required an ingenious literary contrivance—an ancient, strict prohibition on computers—to make its far-future vision plausible. Without the Butlerian Jihad, all of the dramatic and exciting aspects of the Dune universe—mortal humans traveling across space, engaging in deadly feudal politics involving matters of resource scarcity, protecting and nurturing genetic bloodlines through sex, waging bloody interplanetary war, and all the rest—would actually make no sense whatsoever. A technologically advanced far future will not look like the Dune universe, or the galactic empire of Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy, or the Star Wars universe, or the Star Trek universe. It is liable to look much more like the most ‘advanced’ (and outwardly kind of boring) cultures in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. This is because, besldes eliminating any need or motive for interstellar travel ‘in the flesh,’ immortality will also eliminate or redefine that prized redeeming feature of ‘mortal men doomed to die,’ namely courage.
The Future of Bravery
One of the first principles of existential futurology is that, counterintuitively, the preciousness of life increases with its length. A nasty, brutish, and short existence encourages not only having lots of babies but also risking life and limb for a better tomorrow for those babies, including sometimes getting in creaky vessels and emigrating to alien shores and uncertain futures, with the understanding that this life is just a brief painful travail on the way to an afterlife. In contrast, our very-long-lived descendents are likely to be stay-at-home types, materialist in their outlook, and extremely jealous of their safety and health, not unlike Tolkien’s elven races (or, less appealingly, Howard Hughes). Like the elves, they’ll be generally content to let lesser beings do the dirty work of exploration and adventuring on their behalf. For us, those ‘lesser beings’ will be our machines.
Space travel, no matter how advanced, is bound to be a dangerous, boring pain in the ass. It’s hard to imagine future Galadriels and Elronds being interested in risky journeys across interstellar space in the flesh. They would really have little motive, because they could explore and interact with the cosmos, and even in a sense ‘inhabit’ it, by proxy via machine extensions of themselves—the other realistic promise of nerd rapturology. Scattering self-replicating drones (Von Neumann probes) to blanket the universe and all its worlds, future humans will bring the universe to them and never have to leave the comfort and safety of their Lothloriens and Rivendells. By “machines” and “drones” I of course don’t mean anything we might now recognize as such—these remote sensors and effectors could look organic, or luminous, or be microscopic, or invisible. Who knows. Remember Clarke’s famous technology indistinguishable from magic? That’s what I’m talking about. (And it’s also why we should really be reading Tolkien’s books as science fiction, not fantasy … but I digress.)
Even just with today’s iPhone-controlled quadcopters, we are already well on the way to this kind of cyborg expansion of the self. In a century or two, swift, sensitive, powerful drones that are in some sense extensions of our bodies and minds will be exploring and touching and interacting with the wider world for us, being our roving eyes and ears and hands and feet. When we, now, via the Internet, enjoy the latest pictures and feeds from Mars rovers and deep-sea robots, we are getting only the tiniest taste of what that extended sensorium will one day entail as a way of “inhabiting” other environments. With the kinds of robotic technology the next century will offer us, why would we shlep us and our families and our stuff to a shitty, crampted, uncomfortable colony on Titan, or even Mars or the Moon, when we can go all those places, virtually, even all at once (the future of multitasking)? The body and its organic needs, including its location in space, will less and less define and constrain the quality and range of our experience.
The Fermi paradox should be restated: They’re here already and (paradoxically) they never left home.
Lightspeed of course will limit the ‘immediacy’ of our connection to our remoter proxies over planetary and (especially) interstellar distances, and thus our drone eyes and hands will need to be fully autonomous AIs, making decisions for themselves, repairing and replicating themselves, and engaging not only in passive observation but also active knowledge-gathering and even experimentation. In other words, the drones we send far and wide out into the galaxy will actually be fully self-guided science platforms, patiently and relentlessly gathering data to generate rich similations back on the homeworld. These proxies will be the sleek smart descendents of Voyager or the Curiosity rover, but able to make their own decisions, although (and this is an argument too big for this article) not themselves sentient (see here for why). We will experience and inhabit the universe through that technology—no ‘visitation’ needed.
It’s a reasonable hypothesis that the same basic technological/social trajectory will apply to any technological civilization that has emerged “out there,” and thus any ET presence here will be an automated, machine-mediated presence. There would be no “visits,” because dangerous visitation across vast light years by creatures who place a great value on their lives simply makes no sense. Our advanced older relatives, cosmic patriarchs and matriarchs, won’t shlep to see us backward nobodies out here in our backwater; they’ll stay at home, like Grandma and Grandpa, preferring (if there is to be any visiting) that the youngsters come to them—perhaps through some exotic technology like wormholes … which indeed could be what some UFOs are. Apparent “visits” by such beings would, at most, be simulations or avatars, not “real presence” in the sense we-the-still-meat-bound understand it.
If we imagine post-scarcity ET civilizations able to send out self-replicating science machines that multiply and propogate to every corner of the home galaxy, copying themselves and digging in for the long haul wherever they find interesting things happening, and we also imagine (as the mathematics dictates) that the first such civilizations will have arisen billions of years ago, then the two-plus-two-equals-four of the matter is this: ET science platforms are probably already here, and probably were here even back before we were tree shrews … maybe before we were even algae. These machines would be so advanced, we’d likely not even know they were here … except, that is, when the purpose of a specific experiment or intervention required it.
It is crucial, in this picture, to remember that an advanced spacefaring race, including ourselves in the coming centuries, will not be limited to the kinds of sparse data collection allowed by the Apollo missions or even the Curiosity rover. Computing and robotics enable exponential increases in the amount of data a space program can collect, transmit , store, and analyze, all with a minimum of direct human involvement. And the fundamental principle of basic science—learn all you can, whether or not it has foreseeable real-world payoff—dictates that there are no desirable limits to such learning. Learning isn’t just observing, it’s conducting controlled experiments with large samples and then repeating them many times to achieve a high level of prediction and control. When resources permit and it can be totally automated, any scientific space program will attempt to “know all that is knowable,” like V’ger in Star Trek: The Motion Picture, ignoring the question of application. This generates what is nowadays being called “big data.”
If we imagine post-scarcity ET civilizations able to send out self-replicating science machines to every corner of the home galaxy, then those machines are probably already here, and probably were here even back before we were tree shrews … maybe before we were even algae.
I argued a couple years ago on this blog that the “thin-slicing” notion of science implicit in Vallee’s important 1989 paper arguing against the ETH is not only rendered obsolete by the leaps in computing and robotics of the two and a half decades since then but also rendered unrealistic by the ways actual social science and psychology are conducted. To produce valid and useful results, any study of us by an extraterrestrial entity (machine or otherwise) would have to be an active, open-ended, longitudinal experimentation project not unlike the scenarios that unfold in psychology laboratories on any university campus, although on an immeasurably vaster scale: bizarre interactions designed to test oddball hypotheses, conducted with large enough samples of people to yield statistically significant results (along with equally large control groups for comparison), and then repeated with other pristine samples to replicate the findings, and then followed up with different permutations of the experiment (and new control groups) to test different hypotheses that emerge, and so on, ad infinitum.
When you revise your picture of ‘ET Earthology’ as a massive, mostly stealthy, and truly neverending psychology project conducted by artificially intelligent but unsentient science machines, who never get bored and are programmed to know all that is knowable—including achieving a high degree of predictive power over the collective and individual behavior of an unpredictable and continually evolving intelligent species—then the millions of “landings” in history start to look less and less excessive. Indeed, it all starts to look very much like the “control system” Vallee himself postulated. Without meaning to, I think it is Vallee, with his most nuanced understanding of the UFO phenomenon, who gives the most support to the basic hypothesis he saw his own work as challenging: a plausible ET origin for at least a portion of the millions of UFO encounters down through the ages.
In the Noöverse, No One Gives a S***
Via Von Neumann machines, an automated and autonomous program of “knowing all that is knowable” can scour the star systems and planets of the universe without the expenditure of any of Lothlorien’s or Rivendell’s resources and without any mental effort or care on the part of its inhabitants (if they are even still alive after all this time). Thus, we shouldn’t feel special: Even if Earth is under a microscope (or a million microscopes), so is every other planet out there, probably even the ones with nothing more interesting going on than tree shrews and algae. Maybe even all the asteroid belts and Oort clouds have probes patiently scouring and mapping every slowly tumbling chunk of dust and ice.
Our advanced older relatives won’t shlep to see us out here in our backwater; they’ll stay at home, like Grandma and Grandpa, preferring (if there is to be any visiting) that the youngsters come to them.
Such a picture gives a new meaning to “known universe.” Just based on the mathematics of the matter, the universe should be fully known, multiply known, by ancient and very advanced technologies if not by the sentient beings that originally created them. We might even call it a noöverse, for this reason. (A couple of years ago I wondered if the mountains of data this would generate could be so huge that information could account for the missing mass of today’s cosmological models, somehow sequestered into the very fabric of spacetime by ancient V’gers scouring the galaxies. A reader versed in quantum computing helpfully corrected me: Information storage tends toward the miniscule; thus, whatever dark matter is, it ain’t vast and ancient servers and hard drives.)
This is hardly the only or best answer to the UFO problem, but I do think it is a more mature (and interesting) version of the ETH that is at least plausible both exo-technologically and exo-sociologically and thus worthy of putting forward for consideration and debate alongside the various contending (and equally meritorious) anti-ETH contenders, including the interdimensional (Vallee), cryptoterrestrial (Tonnies), ultraterrestrial (Keel), and various other psychological or esoteric hypotheses. It just needs to replace the easily trivialized “visiting UFO pilot” narrative that popular culture and the media (and unfortunately also some in the ufology community) still can’t seem to get past. (And no, I don’t expect the much-anticipated “Roswell Slides” are going to change my assessment; whatever is in those pictures, I doubt it is ETs.)
With all due respect to the ET visitation proponents of the past century, another part of what makes the old “UFO pilot” scenario increasingly hard to fathom today is precisely, as Reynolds said in his blog, our own smallness in our ever-widening cosmic picture: In a galaxy of 400 billion suns that probably has harbored, at times, many advanced civilizations and must be constantly teeming with astonishingly diverse flora and fauna, not to mention cool geology and exotic stellar and planetary objects of all types, it’s terribly anthropocentric to imagine that ancient eminences or their machine successors care all that much about us and our little blue planet, however Edenic we like to imagine it. Coming here is ridiculous—why bother even sending drones here? In a huge and fascinating universe, doesn’t that level of attention presume a level of giving a shit that is neurotic to say the least, or even insane?
Actually, it doesn’t. With Von Neumann machines, giving a shit can be automated and outsourced to nonsentient (read: not-actually-giving-a-shit) technology that multiplies like rabbits and does science on its own initiative. And there’s another very good reason, quite apart from the basic science imperative (i.e., knowing all that is knowable), for keeping a constant machine eye on what is happening around every single one of those 400 billion suns, and that is security. That same first principle of existential futurology already mentioned—the preciousness of long lives—also predicts that immortal ETs would put in place a vast, ultimately galaxy-wide network of machine surveillance purely as a security measure. The gaze is, surely, quite dispassionate, but to be effective, it would also have to be very comprehensive and far-reaching.
In other words, for the exact same reason nobody is “visiting” us in the flesh, it is also a realistic hypothesis that there is no backwater planet too podunk and no semi-intelligent tool-using species too lame that it will not be home to swarms of unobtrusive CCTV cameras (I like to imagine them as small, softly glowing orbs, but that’s just me) keeping a close eye on how that species is developing and what its likely future actions are. All that obsessive psych-experimentation has the same long-term security payoff: total prediction and control should we or our machines ever pose a threat at some point thousands or millions of years down the long road.
In a subsequent post, I’ll develop this second part of the argument: the long-term security issue as it applies to immortal ETs, why we needn’t fear ET invasion, but also why, in a noöverse, we can have no expectation of privacy.
If precognition is real, then we have to take account of the range of sci-fi effects it would produce, effects that go beyond the strictly ‘prophetic.’ Because we fail to see how our consciousness is receptive to the future and how our actions contribute to, and only in a minority of cases confirm, that future, we fail to recognize the range of effects that Chaos Theory would predict should occur.
The most common kind of effect would be negation of precognitive information because our freely willed actions cancelled the validity of that information and turned it into noise. In such cases, we would never even know the precognitive information was information, so it can be ignored. This first possibility I already dealt with in my “Psi of Regret” post a few months ago: There are all kinds of reasons why, in a universe full of conscious, freely willed actors, precognition would tend to negate itself.
The downside of taking responsibility as a freely willed being in the universe is being unable to ever say for certain whether prophecies are genuine.
Less commonly, though, feedback effects would result in an intensified significance to coincidental events, or what people often call a “synchronicity”; our failure to believe in psi or to acknowledge our own (unconscious) role in this feedback loop produces the illusion that some meta-symbols have a cosmically ordering power in these events (i.e., Jung’s concept of archetypes). This more interesting and rarer fork in the bifurcation predicted by Chaos Theory, the intensifed phenomenon of the synchronicity as a kind of ‘attractor,’ is interestingly explored in the film Don’t Look Now, the subject of my last post: Misrecognizing a precognitive vision as present reality produces a synchronistic perfect storm that ends up claiming the life of a hardened materialist skeptic.
In Don’t Look Now, the events set in motion by the protagonist’s failure to include the knower in the known are precisely what enable the future to control his fate: Our fate is only predetermined when we do not recognize our own free will, and fail to see that our awareness encompasses our life and death—that it exists to some degree outside of time and can see into the future and the past.
Chris Marker’s wonderful 1963 short film La Jetée, composed almost entirely of still images, is another beautiful expression of this idea.
Misrecognition and Time Loops
In La Jetée, desperate subterranean survivors of a nuclear holocaust in post-nuclear-war Paris have developed the technology of time travel—in the form of a psychoactive drug—as a means to summon aid and resources from the past and future. To test it out, they select a war prisoner as a guinea pig, based on his strong fixation on an image from his childhood: a beautiful woman watching a man shot to death on the observation platform (“jetty”) at Orly Airport. Holding a powerful image in mind is necessary to stabilize the time traveler’s presence in the destination time.
After initial abortive attempts, the test subject is able to maintain himself in the past, and finds the woman of his childhood image. They wander together around prewar Paris, visiting museums and parks, falling in love—at one point, standing before a cut tree trunk with dates assigned to the different rings, he points to a spot in the air outside the tree’s circumference and says “This is where I come from.” But he is not allowed to stay in this idyllic past; his jailers retrieve him and send him to the future to retrieve needed technology to help the human race survive—the mission he was always intended for. Having accomplished this, his jailers return him to his cell, his role in their plans now complete. However, he is mentally contacted by beings from the future who are able to grant his wish to return to his lover in prewar Paris. When he goes back in time—he hopes permanently—he sees her at Orly jetty and runs toward her, but is shot by one of his prison guards, who has followed him back in time. He finally realizes that it was his own death he had seen as a child.
The time loop is broken through the final “interpretation” or moment of insight: ‘It was me all along enjoying this dark, perplexing story (the story of my life).’
The narrator says, as the man from the future steps out onto Orly Jetty the last time, that “confusedly, he expected to see a small boy, his younger self.” Yet there is no such boy there to witness this event, leaving us with the conclusion that his “memory from childhood” was really a precognitive dream or vision of his own death—in other words, exactly the fatal misrecognition that destroys John Baxter in Don’t Look Now. Thus La Jetee, which was the original inspiration for Terry Gilliam’s 12 Monkeys, beautifully illustrates the Lacanian notion of a symptom as a kind of time-loop sustained by misrecognition of trauma, failure to include the knower in the known. The loop is broken through the final “interpretation” or moment of insight: ‘It was me all along enjoying this dark, perplexing story (the story of my life).’
The sustaining ‘enjoyment’ in this fable is explicit in the way that time travel is conflated with a drug experience—a syringe calls to mind a drug addiction, perhaps the purest form of pleasurable-painful-destructive jouissance. When the man is returned to his cell after his “trial runs” in the past, it is as an addict taken away from the source of his enjoyment. We could perhaps also see his need as the thing that opens a door to communication with the future beings who are able to grant his wish for a final, fatal return to the past.
Every film is a Rashomon, though, and there are other ways of interpreting what “really happens” in La Jetée. The entire story of the film could be a fantasy produced in this war prisoner’s dying moments, for example, as in Ambrose Bierce’s “Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge”: A confederate sympathizer and saboteur is being executed by hanging, from a bridge during the Civil War; the rope breaks, allowing him to escape into the water and flee through the forest to his plantation and the arms of his waiting wife. As he approaches her, he feels the noose tighten around his neck and he “awakens” to the reality of his death.
But there is also a further possibility, that the real subject of the film is the woman, and that the whole story is her lonely fantasy or dream of a love affair with a man with no past, projected onto the fantasized gaze of a young boy who could be their fantasy child. The fact that the only actual motion in the film is a few seconds of the woman opening her eyes in bed hints at this possibility.
2 x Double = Toil + Trouble
What happens in a sci-fi universe where time loops and precognition are real and we do include the knower in the known? Here’s where we are caught in a paradox. Negative precognitions or premonitions (John Baxter seeing his own funeral procession, the man from the future seeing his own death) could only be verified if we do not act upon them to change our destiny—and thus, presumably, would only be apparent after the fact, if we consciously fail to recognize their true nature.
On first glance, Don’t Look Now and La Jetée might thus seem like the opposite of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, where a prophecy destroys because it is obeyed to the letter rather than skeptically questioned or mistaken as involving someone else. But really the effect of willed disbelief or misrecognition is the same as the effect of insecure belief—hastening to fulfill the prophecy lest it not come true, as it were, “on its own.” It is MacBeth’s anxious efforts to fulfill the prophecy that catch him in the witches’ fatal logic and destroy him just as surely as rigid disbelief in the paranormal destroys John Baxter or misrecognition of his ’symptom’ draws the protagonist of La Jetée to his doom.
True freedom from prophecy seemingly is obtained by believing in the prophesied possibility as a virtual outcome but knowing we have some say in the matter. But the downside of taking responsibility as a freely willed being in the universe is being unable to ever say for certain whether prophecies (our own or those of seers we have faith in) are/were genuine. In a sense, the result is the sketch-like world described by Milan Kundera in The Unbearable Lightness of Being, in which nonrepetition—transience, Heraclitus’s inability to set foot twice in the same river—results in an “unbearably light” insubstantiality to things.
Yet, as I’ve argued before, this suspended belief in prophecy’s ‘hardness’ is the truly healthy stance. We must assume a skeptical distance both from reductive linear materialist causality (“there are no messages from the future”) and from “synchromystic” determinism in which the Big Other somehow perfectly knows us and controls our fate.
What Happens in a Sci-Fi Universe Stays in the Sci-Fi Universe
This middle attitude produces a third, purely theoretically but exotic possibility: that precognitive information will at times produce alternative ‘bubble histories’ that are isolated from the stream of causality through the conscious willed action of the recipient of future information. In a sense, this non-possibility is a theoretical ghost that hovers over all of reality when we acknowledge the existence of information reaching into and affecting the past in a universe that also includes free will.
How could we ever know whether a person’s psychotic or obsessive behavior is not, really, a sacrifice being made to forestall some personal or cosmic tragedy by isolating it in a bubble universe? Are some madmen really martyrs?
A few excellent films have explored this idea in different, creative ways. Donnie Darko is the most obvious: At the end of the film, we realize that the disastrous events leading up to the protagonist’s death are a bubble reality isolated from the time stream by his heroic sacrifice, creating what in theoretical physics has been called a “closed timelike curve.” In many ways, the film is a retelling or permutation of It’s a Wonderful Life, except in that case the negative/feared historical outcome is neutralized/negated by the protagonist not allowing himself to die.
But my favorite exploration of the possibility of a heroic sacrifice saving the protagonist’s universe is Andrei Tarkovsky’s beautiful final film, The Sacrifice. Despite appearances of being a slow (at times, paint-dryingly slow) Bergman-esque chamber drama about an aging artist’s birthday gathering, it is really a science fiction film, and one that all true Forteans owe it to themselves to see.
Alexander, a former actor now enjoying his retirement with his wife and young son at a beautiful country house in rural Sweden, meets the local postman, Otto, who turns out to be a “collector” of uncanny paranormal occurrences—essentially, a Swedish Charles Fort. Beyond merely collecting and cataloging such incidents, Otto actually goes to great lengths (he says) to verify them.
Otto visits Alexander’s country house to give him a rather excessive birthday gift—a precious antique map (he explains that “all gifts require a sacrifice”)—and while he is there, a TV alert somberly announces that a nuclear war has broken out; citizens are urged to stay calm, but the mood is gloomy, and Alexander’s family are able to hear the rockets flying overhead, launched from nearby missile silos. In solitary terror and desperation, Alex prays: He will give up speech and even give up his family and his house to end the war.
Otto then privately confides in him that there is one chance to save everything—save the world—and that is that Alexander must go to the home of his own servant, Maria—who is actually (Otto says) a witch—and sleep with her. Alex hesitates, but then gets on his bicycle, rides to her house, and fulfills this act. He returns home, falls asleep, and then wakes to find that there is no nuclear war—things are normal, no one is panicked. Was it all a dream? We don’t know. But keeping his promise, Alex falls silent, methodically sets fire to his home while his family is out for a walk, and finally, running around the burning house like an ecstatic (and silent) madman, is taken off by an ambulance.
Through his sacrificial act, we are led to believe, Alex has not “ended the war” but rather prevented it from ever happening. If only he remembers it, we can ask if he really is a madman, or if he really changed the future through a strange ritual recommended by his Fortean friend. There is no way to know what is “really real,” whether any of it was a dream, and whether his sacrifice (giving up speech and his house and family) is actually a significant history-altering pact with the silent universe … or whether it is just a psychotic break.
Lacan noted that neurotic rituals are often undertaken to cover over an emptiness, the lack in (or nonexistence of) the Big Other. But if time is multidimensional and looping, and if synchronicities emerge from misrecognized precognition or from double causation (Vallee’s phrase), it raises the possibility of encapsulated bubble histories, like growths or polyps sprouted by the stream of time and severed through some “mad” (or merely neurotic) act—some sacrifice—which may even save the world.
So The Sacrifice raises a disturbing question not only about the shape of time but also about mental illness: How could we ever know whether a person’s psychotic or obsessive behavior is not, really, a sacrifice being made to forestall some personal or cosmic tragedy by isolating it, encapsulating it, in a kind of self-cancelling bubble universe where it can no longer harm anyone? Are some madmen really martyrs who have sacrificed their sanity to save the world?
Nicolas Roeg’s 1973 paranormal thriller Don’t Look Now, based on a Daphne du Maurier short story (and now finally released on the Criterion Collection), is one of my desert-island top 10 (probably top 5) favorite films, and it is hands down the greatest Fortean film ever made. Short of UFOs, it has everything you could ever want: premonition, synchronicity, spirit mediums, a murderous dwarf, and the hottest sex scene ever shown on film. It also makes a very interesting argument about the fatal mistake of materialist skepticism, and why it may involve a particularly male fear of female enjoyment.
Donald Sutherland plays John Baxter, a Canadian architect working on a church restoration in Venice with his wife Laura (Julie Christie) following the death of their daughter in England some months previous. John is an adoring husband but also a hardheaded skeptic who fails to notice or acknowledge his own psychic abilities, despite having an unmistakeable premonition of his daughter’s drowning at the beginning of the movie. In Venice, a blind psychic Laura meets in a restaurant informs her that their dead daughter’s spirit is present and trying to warn John of danger. Knowing their daughter’s spirit is with them breaks Laura’s depression, but John is arrogantly dismissive and refuses to take any of it seriously.
[Spoiler alert: If you haven’t seen the movie, don’t read this paragraph and rent the film first; I need to discuss the twist ending because it is key to my argument.] Laura leaves Venice to visit their son in England, who has had a minor accident, but after her flight John thinks he sees her on a canal, dressed in black, accompanied by the creepy psychic and the psychic’s sister. Thinking his wife has been abducted by these strange women, he enlists the police to track the women down, even though the police are preoccupied with a much more important case: solving a series of murders that has been occurring in Venice’s maze of canals. When Laura calls him from England before returning to Venice, he is bewildered and confused. On his way to meet her when she returns to Venice that evening, he winds up chasing down a child who is wearing a red mackintosh coat like his daughter’s; this “child” turns out to be a crazy old woman, the serial killer, who fatally slashes his throat with a knife. The last scene of the film is Laura (in mourning) and the strange sisters on a boat heading to John’s funeral—the very thing John had seen earlier that day and mistaken for (present) reality.
Female enjoyment is something that men really, deep down, suspect doesn’t involve or require men at all.
I have been writing lately about how apparent synchronicities may arise from our ‘temporal bias,’ and failure to acknowledge the (scientifically supported, if you believe the science) presence of future traumatic information in our unconscious. No film could better illustrate this: John clearly is ‘gifted’ psychically, but he resolutely refuses to interpret his experience in anything other than straightforward temporal-causal terms, and this blindness to his own abilities (i.e., looking only in the now) has tragic results.
What is even more interesting to me about Don’t Look Now, though, is its suggestion—never explicit but ingeniously hinted at in Nic Roeg’s inimitable way—that John’s distrust of the “weird sisters” goes beyond his rational distaste for the woo they spout and involves a kind of vague sexual/homophobic paranoia. He never says it, but he clearly fears that Laura’s fascination with these menopausal mystics goes beyond them enabling her to make peace with the loss of their daughter—dimly, even unconsciously, he fears these women (are they really sisters?) have drawn his wife into some kind of lesbian coven.
Historically and cross-culturally, spirit mediumship is often associated with females. Anthropologists have frequently focused on how channeling spirits may serve as a mode of political, sexual, and economic assertion in male-dominated worlds: A woman wants a pretty necklace, so through her an Ancestor spirit warns her husband that he better get it for her; or a woman in a traditional polygamous society is jealous of her husband’s other wife, so a possessing spirit reveals bad things about her rival; and so on. In other words, it is typically seen anthropologically as a performance through which the disempowered sex reclaims some real-world influence and asserts herself.
But we must not miss the sexual symbolism of receiving, being possessed—that is, entered—by a (often but not always male) spirit. Even in 19th- and 20th-century Western spiritualism and psychic research and practice, we see this: Helena Blavatsky and her female followers in the Theosophy movement channeled Ascended Masters (what a euphemism!) as well as ancient alien entities (although so did the famously bisexual Aleister Crowley). By the same token, male shamans often go forth from their bodies and enter other worlds, other minds, and so on. Many of the male leading lights in remote viewing connected their ability to gain information psychically with the ability to leave their bodies; the master teacher and pioneer of the method, Ingo Swann, wrote a bizarre, probably fictitious memoir called Penetration for example; and true to the gender dichotomy, one of the first women in the Star Gate remote viewing program scandalized her doubtful male colleagues by using channeling instead of the more orthodox approach.
When Laura joins the spinsters in their hotel room and the psychic channels the dead daughter, there is something unmistakeably erotic about the scene, and it reveals just what it is that has always invited the (male) hatred and fear of witches. The heresy of witchcraft isn’t any more about truck with the devil than “riding broomsticks” is about transportation; it’s really about female sexuality and female enjoyment (both sexual and nonsexual), the most fearsome (and fascinating) thing imaginable in the eyes of men.
Danish director Benjamin Christensen veered close to the sexual dimensions of witchcraft-fear in his wonderful 1922 documentary Haxan: Witchcraft through the Ages (which I first saw at a 1999 Edinburgh horror film festival in a sublime double bill with another of my desert island top 5 films, The Wicker Man). Drawing on the then-current theories of Freud, Christensen linked witchcraft to hysteria and the libidinal dysfunctions and misdirections that beset females in repressive European society, as well as to the ignorant credulity of elderly widows and spinsters. A masterful early documentary that incorporates entertaining reenactments, Haxan manages to treat the subject intelligently and seriously but also have a sense of humor about it. The director himself appears as the devil, flicking his tongue seductively at his victims, including a troubled sleepwalking nun; the frenzied madness that takes over a convent after the nun defiles the chapel is alone worth the price of admission.
The theme of nuns driven to sexual madness is of course a titillating theme explored in countless nunsploitation (and, I’m sure, porn) films since then. Female enjoyment is something that men really, deep down, suspect doesn’t involve or require men at all and may not even require sex. It is somehow huger and deeper than anything men can fathom or experience, which is both exciting and terrifying. It was intense male fear of (and inability to countenance their own titillation at) women’s solitary and collective sexual enjoyment that got wayward nuns, lonely spinsters, and lesbians burned at the stake during the Middle Ages; their theological transgressions were smokescreen for what was really an issue of sexual fear.
A basic theme of Lacanian psychoanalysis is that we go through our adult lives unconsciously haunted by a bliss/enjoyment that we dimly remember and feel we lost or had stolen from us when we entered the Symbolic and Imaginary dimensions of civilized life as toddlers—the loss symbolized as “castration.” The notion that that bliss-enjoyment exists out there in the external world, in the possession of some other, is the principle fantasy underlying all forms of sexism, racism, and homophobia: The sexual or ethnic other always somehow enjoys more than we do, and we hate it.
John’s confusion, as he rushes through the maze-like alleys of Venice in search of his ‘abducted’ wife, is a perfect metaphor for the materialist’s confused disavowal of cosmic meaning and psychical bliss.
In actual fact, though, we are the ones suppressing this primordial bliss in ourselves by misattributing it to others. This confusion, or what Žižek would call “perspective mistake”—mistaking our own enjoyment as the property of the other—causes enjoyment to have an anamorphic quality: The farther away we localize it, the huger it seems to be, just like in the “dolly zoom” special effect first used in Vertigo, although in reverse: By shortening the depth of field (zooming in) during a reverse tracking shot, an object appears to terrifyingly grow in size as it becomes more distant, because it fills the same area in the frame but flattens out against its background like things seen through a telescope.
According to this logic, bliss assumes an enormity in the other to the degree we disavow it in ourselves, and this enormity causes us anguish and pain in equal proportion. Thus the French term “jouissance”—connoting pleasure in pain or painful pleasure—has a deeply ambivalent or equivocal meaning in the writings of Lacanians like Žižek. For Žižek, jouissance, usually translated as enjoyment, more often means horror and disgust than it does anything actually enjoyable or pleasurable. But this really represents the fundamental pathology that materialists, who are stereotypically male, suffer from. Historically, men’s distrust of female enjoyment is really an alienated reaction to their own disavowed bliss-enjoyment, and this manifests as a distrust of that enjoyment’s alternative channels, such as the mystical and paranormal. It is (stereotypically) women who have always been more open to that stuff.
John is an architect who can only see the old church he is restoring in physical terms. While focusing on the material minutiae—matching tiny tiles to a mosaic on a high wall—he is nearly killed when the platform he is standing on collapses. In another church, he impatiently expresses scorn when Laura lights candles and prays. Later his confusion, as he rushes through the maze-like alleys of Venice in search of his ‘abducted’ wife, is a perfect metaphor for the materialist’s confused disavowal of cosmic meaning, so long as we recognize that ‘meaning’ always really boils down to the bliss that is the secret substance of the universe that is already our own possession if we only acknowledge it.
Unable to even imagine that he himself is a carrier of that mystical/psychical bliss, the only place John can localize it is in the menopausal mystics he suspects of abducting his wife. This mistake costs him his life.
You don’t have to be a hardheaded materialist skeptic or an atheist to be troubled by the idea of synchronicity. The fundamental mystery—or really, outrage—of synchronicities is they seem arranged, stage managed, in a way that is impossible without imagining an active higher intelligence taking interest in guiding us and arranging the events of the wider world to produce unmistakeably uncanny outcomes. Even if we believe in God, many people aren’t comfortable living in a world of miracles and signs.
This was the problem faced by Philip K. Dick, whose Christianity couldn’t countenance fully divine meddling in his psyche and life. The story had to be more complex and also more rational. Hence, he tended to think that the synchronicities he experienced in 1974 reflected his own enlarged self haunting him from an orthogonal dimension of time, perpendicular to the four spacetime dimensions we ordinarily experience.
Consciously being open to coincidence but failing to recognize our own role in creating significant moments, we inevitably imagine a Higher Knower. But this is a mistake.
My last post sparked an interesting discussion in the comments about the apparent role of coincidence in synchronicities if they are really, as I argued, cases of misrecognized precognition or premonition. For instance, even if Jung’s famous scarab arriving at the window of his office was a purely random event that his patient had dreamed about the night before, there is still a coincidental element to it: Why a scarab, which has an archetypal meaning connected to the patient’s therapeutic situation, as opposed to some other insect?
Here’s where I think we really need to take seriously the revised picture of time that Dick grappled with through his 8-year frenetic journaling in his Exegesis: What is the connection between the archetypal world and the multidimensional nature of time? In a Eureka moment (not unlike the hundreds recorded by the manic Dick), I think I figured it out: Archetypes are an illusory effect produced by our failure to recognize self-confirmatory actions (feedback loops) made possible by the looping nature of time. Temporal feedback loops amplify the personal significance of symbolic formations, which (because we fail to recognize psi) appear as somehow objective or external to us.
For reasons I discussed in my Psi of Regret post, most information from the future should be negated by one’s own and others’ willed actions; but in a minority of cases, a self-confirming feedback effect could arise which would actually intensify or amplify the significance of the stimulating event in the future. This would happen specifically when that event involves a minor random coincidence (which are myriad) and/or fulfills some kind of unconscious thought or desire we had harbored.
Through this time-loop mechanism, minor coincidences, when they resonate with our own personal meanings and priorities, can be the nuclei of major significant moments (synchronicities) as well as meta-symbols (archetypes). Small coincidences, in other words, may be like grains of sand around which time’s oyster builds Platonic-Jungian pearls.
Bootstrapping Ourselves Toward Meaning
The idea of information from the future reaching us in the present should be unproblematic to parapsychologists and Forteans, yet we still tend to think of it somehow as a very special case. But if we grant the experimental results of Daryl Bem and Dean Radin and the observations of J.W. Dunne and others, then information must indeed be constantly rippling backwards in the time stream; this would have to produce all the paradoxical effects familiar from time travel stories in science fiction: doubling or multiplication or intensification of information (not unlike what happens in the interesting 2004 sci-fi film Primer), as well as self-cancelling effects such as I discussed in the context of Dune Messiah, and perhaps even wholesale self-negation (the famous grandfather paradox). If I am right about the future not being etched in stone (or glass, as in the Minkowski glass football)—that is, as subject to free will—then precognitive material cannot be about what is definitely going to happen but about what is probabilistic, and much of that information will be rendered inaccurate by our willed actions, and thus we would have no way of knowing it (i.e., because it didn’t come true or wasn’t close enough to how events unfolded to be discernible). It wouldn’t even be information, just noise.
Instead of our future selves meddling in the past, our unconscious minds are constantly receiving and reacting to future information without knowing it comes from the future.
However, in special circumstances, for instance when there is a slight perceived (and random) coincidence, such as between a specific genus of insect and the theme of therapeutic rebirth, it could instead have the effect of entraining our actions to the signal, in turn amplifying the felt significance of the signal into the past, generating a precognitive or premonitory experience which in turn feeds forward to intensify the uncanniness of the stimulating event, in turn boosting the signal into the past, and so on … The result would be an informatic/emotional time-loop feedback effect centered on what emerges as a truly uncanny, meaningful, and even decisive coincidence (the ’synchronicity’) that could even alter the course of a person’s life in a significant fashion going forward.
Within Jung’s larger and less radical paradigm of “individuation,” the unconscious is ever seeking out opportunities to progress and develop and change toward wholeness, and its capitalization on significant coincidences provides a way for the individual to bootstrap him/herself toward integration. The unconscious has no sense of time, so it doesn’t recognize this operation of atemporal time-looping—that is, the artificiality of the apparent coincidence (i.e., the fact that the person him/herself created the apparent coincidence through his/her actions and attributed it to objective external reality). The tendency of ‘synchronistic’ events to have a recursive, fractal, or self-similar quality, in some way being ‘about’ the whole notion of synchronicity or coincidence, reflects the tendency of the coincidence-receptive person to be attuned to coincidences in the first place. It is, quite literally, self-fulfilling prophecy.
Jung and Plato Must Die (that Psi May Live)
Thus the kinds of events that spark an emotional ripple into the past will be ones that support the ‘prophetic enjoyment’ I mentioned in the last post: Synchronicities are self-confirming effects produced by misrecognized precognition within an overall attitude of receptivity to mystery, magic, and meaningful coincidence. Belief in synchronicity produces synchronicity, which further reinforces the belief. In a larger sense, this mechanism may underlie the “law of attraction” in all its forms. It really is just like the “strange attractor” in Chaos Theory (and which is also identical to what Lacan and Žižek call the “symptom”).
What this suggests—and this is my Eureka—is that “archetypes” as such—as well as the Platonic world of “forms” that Dick suggested was the “fifth dimension” (printing out archetypes on the paper of history as on an IBM Selectric typewriter)—are really an illusory or anamorphic effect produced by not seeing or recognizing these self-confirmatory time loops, these informational/emotional eddies in the spacetime continuum, and failing to see our own role in feeding them through our perceptions and actions. We ourselves make meaning, including the intensified meaningful nuclei in the collective unconscious that so fascinated Jung and that formed the centerpiece of Platonic metaphysics.
At times, Dick came close to saying this: He suggested that synchronicities occur because we in the future are time traveling, cultivating our own development; that our own enlarged consciousess has the power to “stage manage” not because it is a white-bearded deity sitting up in a cloud reaching down and playing with us like chess pieces, but because of the nature of time itself. Coincidences may be the product of time tampering, our own time tampering in the future.
Where I’m departing from this notion is in emphasizing misrecognition and the role of the unconscious: Instead of our future (conscious) selves meddling in the past, our unconscious minds are constantly receiving and reacting to future information without knowing it comes from the future; through our actions, we thus sometimes confirm this information, particularly when it resonates with our priorities and unconscious beliefs about meaning or our own significance in the bigger cosmic picture. That sort of information will act as an ‘attractor’ in the Chaos Theory sense and give rise to the illusion of BIG coincidences and the meta-symbols that are necessary (in Jungian thinking) to make sense of them.
We live in a world that curves and bifurcates and loops back on itself, and these loopings and crossings and doublings and cancellations exert a shaping force on our lives and larger events via what we call psi, but we (a) think linearly and do not believe in time travel, (b) generally disbelieve in psi, and (c) fail to include the knower in the known even when we do believe in those possibilities. Consciously being open to coincidence and ‘larger meaning’ but failing to recognize our own role in creating significant moments, we inevitably imagine a Higher Knower who recognizes and certifies these eternal forms or archetypes, stage-managing these amazing occurrences as signals or signposts for us. But this is a mistake.
I’m suggesting we kill both Jung and Plato here in one stroke … maybe even God. Not only synchronicities but also archetypes and Ideal Forms are illusions caused by our failure to recognize the truly science-fictional way that informational-emotional time loops may intensify the potency of confluent events and symbols in our lives, and the role we ourselves play in the process.
We live in a science-fictional universe. To move forward, we need to recognize that fact.
During the weeks I was researching my previous post on 9/11 and premonitions of trauma, I had a very powerful, uncanny experience that contained, in miniature, all of that post’s themes. It began with an unusually bad day at work, where I’d felt extremely guilty over a group email I had sent to coworkers that, because of poor word choice, could have been construed as insulting to one of the people cc-ed on it. After I hit “Send,” I started to stew about it, feeling embarrassed and angry at myself for my lack of tact. This was near the end of the workday, and I felt bad about it all the way home on the metro.
Awaiting me on the doorstep was a brown paper package containing a book I’d ordered more than a week earlier and forgotten about. I order lots of used and out-of-print books on Amazon and eBay, which often take weeks to arrive, so I’ve usually forgotten them by the time I get them. This one happened to be by a former professor of mine in graduate school, on the subject of paradoxes. What stunned me was the return address on the package was a woman with the same very unusual surname as my professor, who (I assumed) could only be his wife—her Amazon Seller name was different so I’d had no idea it was her. This was obviously a remaindered copy of her husband’s long-forgotten book.
The cosmos seemed to be serving up my guilt to me on a platter. But in fact, it was just serving me an emotional time loop I didn’t immediately fathom until I delved into the matter.
This by itself would not be so amazing, but what was stunning was that I had for 25 years harbored regret over a group bulletin-board message I had sent to fellow students and faculty in my graduate department, in which, through tactlessness and poor word choice, I feared I inadvertently hurt the feelings of this woman, my professor’s wife. In other words, my current emotional situation about a work email a couple of hours earlier that day was a precise mirror image of a situation two and a half decades ago involving precisely the person who had mailed me this book on paradox.
Tactlessly hurting people in emails or bulletin board messages is not the sort of thing I do commonly—in fact, I couldn’t think of another instance in those 25 years in which quite this same thing had occurred. This book of my old professor, arriving on my doorstep, was like a bizarre short circuit between two highly unusual events a quarter century removed in time.
… Or at least, that’s how it seemed, until I took a closer look.
Temporal Bias and Beetlemania
The book on my doorstep was very much like the most famous object in the annals of meaningful coincidence, the scarab beetle that tapped on the window of Carl Jung’s Zurich office, described in his book Synchronicity:
A young woman I was treating had, at a critical moment, a dream in which she was given a golden scarab. While she was telling me this dream, I sat with my back to the closed window. Suddenly I heard a noise behind me, like a gentle tapping. I turned round and saw a flying insect knocking against the window-pane from the outside. I opened the window and caught the creature in the air as it flew in. It was the nearest analogy to a golden scarab one finds in our latitudes, a scarabaeid beetle, the common rose-chafer (Cetonia aurata), which, contrary to its usual habits had evidently felt the urge to get into a dark room at this particular moment. I must admit that nothing like it ever happened to me before or since.
We tend to think, when these things happen, that some higher organizing principle or intelligence has prearranged these coincidences in our life to act as a kind of sign. That is precisely how I felt as I opened the package from my professor’s wife. I could imagine her putting the book in the brown envelope, penning my address on the side, and muttering “Here you go, asshole” … and that this was part of a larger cosmic design to serve my own tactless or thoughtless behavior up to me on a platter. Frequently of course, synchronicities have a positive feeling, like God winking or giving us the thumbs up—or in Jung’s case, providing confirming evidence of a deeper mystery about the mind and cosmos.
But as I argued in my last post, there’s a much simpler explanation for many (albeit not all) such occurrences, so long as we grant that some kinds of information—namely, our own complex emotional reactions to future traumatic situations—can travel backward in time and influence us in the present, if only on an unconscious level.
Our own complex emotional reactions to future traumatic situations can travel backward in time and influence us in the present, if only on an unconscious level.
Much laboratory evidence has been gathered, particularly by Daryl Bem and Dean Radin, for emotional responses to imminent events. This could well explain the most common type of “synchronicity”: thinking of a certain person and then receiving a call or email from them, or thinking of an unusual object and then seeing one. We naturally interpret the present as caused by the past, because the bulk of causality seems to flow in a forward direction, and this is also how we naturally interpret the flow of our own thoughts. Thus, a causal heuristic, or temporal bias, causes us to habitually overlook natural forms of precognition and presentiment and thus misconstrue their effects as uncanny coincidences: Having a thought about our old friend X, which we naturally assume arose from our ordinary, forward train of thought, may actually have been stimulated by a presentiment or premonition of their imminent call.
J.W. Dunne noted in An Experiment with Time that this bias to interpret the present in terms of the past causes us to miss the precognitive elements in our dreams as well. Even people who assiduously record and interpret their dreams (like me, for decades, until reading Dunne’s book) rarely go back to those records in the future, in any systematic fashion, to identify possible precognitive material. Yet when you do—specifically over the next 1-2 days—a certain amount of precognitive stuff becomes quite evident. (When you take the further step of free-associative interpretation on bizarre symbols, even more “future” material turns up.)
It turned out that this principle is actually the only possible explanation for my own ‘synchronistic’ experience … and I argue it even explains Jung’s scarab much better than Jung’s own theory.
An Ass Out of You and Me
Late on the evening I received the book in the mail, I rose from bed—I was unable to sleep in my weird excitement over the coincidence—and I used my most powerful Google-fu to verify that the woman who had sent my package was indeed my old professor’s wife. Lo and behold, I discovered she was not. She was, probably, an in-law, married to another man with the same last name—a man not too far in age from my old professor, and thus likely his brother or cousin (not a son). (They had to be related, as there is no conceivable other reason why they would have possessed an unread copy of this very specific academic text other than that they had been given a copy by the author—like I said, the author’s surname is very unusual and the topic is abstruse).
In other words, my recollection of my 25-year-old blunder was triggered by a false assumption that the person who packaged up this book was the person I’d slighted all those years ago—and we all know what happens when we assume. But here’s the clincher: At work the following day, I re-read the email I had sent to my coworker, the one I had stewed over. On rereading, I realized that my words were not actually as tactless as I’d thought, and that I’d really had little cause to get as worked up as I had. The person in question harbored no ill will toward me. Why then had I emotionally overreacted?
Indeed, my anguish over that email was one of the weirdest parts about the whole experience—I’m ordinarily a pretty calm, Zen guy, but I was in a very strange emotional state by the time I arrived home, and the name on the package made my hair stand on end from the seeming coincidence … yet there was, in fact, as my late-night googling later revealed, objectively no coincidence. I had jumped to a wrong conclusion, but it had triggered a very real emotional response.
The simplest explanation for this apparent synchronicity is thus the “retrocausal” one I outlined in my last post as operating in the case of 9/11, the Titanic, Mark Twain’s dream, and the career of Elizabeth Fraser of Cocteau Twins. My awakened anguish over a reminder of my 25-year-old regret over a social blunder echoed backward a few hours to a structurally similar situation, the email at work, and caused an exaggerated emotional reaction that I naturally and logically misattributed to that email. When I got home and found the book and saw who (I mistakenly assumed) it was from, I was blown away by the coincidence: The cosmos seemed to be serving up my guilt to me on a platter. But in fact, it was just serving me an emotional time loop I didn’t immediately fathom until I delved into the matter.
In other words, there was no coincidence, no synchronicity. There was however an “acausal connecting principle” in the form of my powerful and conflicted emotional response: reawakened pain and regret coupled with a kind of excitement—a powerful emotional melange I have called, using Lacan’s term, jouissance.
Synchrosplaining and Psi-sploitation
The exact same process explains Jung’s scarab story. To see why, we need to return the scarab to its proper owner.
It is sort of natural to read the uncanny account as centering on Jung himself—it is implicitly “his” synchronicity because, well, he wrote about it, and it involves simultaneously hearing his patient’s dream story about a scarab and responding to the tapping of an actual scarab at his office window and catching it. Even though it is outside his direct control, Jung thus manages to claim and capitalize on the moment, offering the beetle to his patient (just as she had dreamed) at the precise moment she needs this gesture to break her from her rigid causal modes of thinking. Claiming this moment as a therapeutic intervention, Jung thereby presents himself as a kind of heroic modern shaman or psychomagician.
Looking at it this way, as centered on Jung, the event truly would have to be “acausal,” as there is no way to causally explain the coincidence of hearing someone else’s story about a scarab and a real scarab happening to appear at that precise moment. But the simplest explanation is really that it’s not about Jung or his experience at all: His female patient had precognitively dreamed about the scarab, associating it with her impending therapeutic epiphany. Instead of being “Jung’s synchronicity,” a far simpler explanation is that it was his patient’s precognitive dream, and he played merely a supporting, not starring, role in it.
Jung’s spinning of this event, which is dare I say ‘archetypal’ in the lore of the paranormal, as “synchronicity” (as opposed to merely an interesting case of ESP) reflects typical male egotism on his part—appropriating his female patient’s remarkable psi experience and turning it into something much bigger and more profound, something flattering to his (male) genius, because only he is able to grasp and explain it. Jung exploited his patient’s psi, in other words, to support his own nascent theory about how the the inner and outer worlds are linked via his pet concept of archetypes.
Jung’s overreach here may reflect a larger blindness that we all share—not only a temporal bias but also an egotistic bias: our natural habit of interpreting coincidence as the big universe harmonizing with our own little life story. The cosmos winking at us, giving us the thumbs up (or thumbs down, in my case), or at least taking an active interest in us, is a much more ego-gratifying interpretation than the notion that psi is just a natural function that operates all the time in our lives and that produces weird effects because we don’t recognize it. It would be like not believing in farts and instead concocting an elaborate theory to explain those funny smells that every so often waft through the room.
Paradoxically, it is often our ego that prevents us from including the knower in the known … although in the case of the synchronistic scarab, the knower was Jung’s patient, not Jung.
There is a recursive, self-similar or self-referential quality about many meaningful coincidences and premonitory or precognitive dreams. In Jung’s case, the scarab happened to be a symbol of rebirth and awakening, so within his (or really, his patient’s) archetypal encounter was an archetype about awakening to archetypes. In my case, the book on my doorstep happened to be about insoluble paradox and contradiction as a creative force, and this fractally rhymed with the very idea that I had been writing about and that I am further developing here: the seemingly paradoxical or self-contradictory notion of time loops as an unconscious factor in thought, emotion, and dreams.
While I think Jung’s theory—that meaningful coincidences reflect an archetypal harmonization of objective events with our unconscious minds—could be an overreach, I do think perceived coincidence does play a crucial role. Because life is a “blooming buzzing confusion” of events and information, coincidences happen all the time and we only notice a fraction of them. Noticing coincidences is facilitated by believing they are significant. On an unconscious level, we probably all believe that; even Richard Dawkins must possess a superstitious unconscious. When we notice objective events that seem to reflect some inner thought, however trivial, this may amplify our reaction to whatever precipitated that thought, doubly so if we happen to derive intellectual or egotistical enjoyment from things paranormal and psychic and synchronistic. The ultimate effect of this enhanced enjoyment of coincidence may be a kind of feedback loop, in which the intensity of our emotional reaction quickly escalates, like a microphone placed too close to a speaker.
This is what I meant in my previous post when I suggested that not only was Elizabeth Fraser channeling a presentiment of Jeff Buckley’s drowning death, but that the eventual recognition of the coincidence between her “siren” personal myth and that tragic event actually amplified its traumatic signal into the past, increasing its ‘gain.’ Fraser’s unconscious mind would have enjoyed the (consciously unspeakable, not to mention unrealistic) idea that her siren powers had actually been potent enough to lure an ex-lover to a watery grave, and this amplified the trauma’s uncanny shock, creating a very loud signal that she channeled into exquisitely beautiful music for two decades … in turn boosting the volume of the coincidence on learning of Buckley’s death, in turn intensifying the whole siren thing, and so on… This amplification of jouissance through the paradoxical effect of the time loop is what Lacanians call a “symptom.”
The same thing would have happened with Jung’s patient. Her therapeutic epiphany was a powerful, dreamworthy moment, but its dreamworthiness was boosted by the appearance of the scarab, which became the nucleus of her dream, and thus created the uncanniness when she related the dream to her doctor. The moment in Jung’s office was overdetermined because its signal had been amplified into the past. (Indeed there is maybe no better example of a Lacanian ‘symptom caused by its cure’ than this Jungian incident.) This shows clearly that a time loop may not only be self-canceling, as in the famous grandfather paradox … it could also be self-amplifying.
A time loop may not only be self-canceling, as in the famous grandfather paradox … it could also be self-amplifying.
In my Psi of Regret post I touched on some of the existential and moral ambivalence that prophecy automatically awakens and that acts as a mitigating force on our psychic potential. I think the prophetic jouissance I am describing here is possibly the most powerful and decisive factor—one that paradoxically amplifies precognitive effects at the same time as it pushes them outside of our purview, into the ego-saving and ego-gratifying realm of the “synchronistic,” where they are simultaneously more sublime and less practically useful. Synchronicity may thus be a concept that actually neutralizes our psi by keeping us from too closely examining its disavowed libidinal logic. Jung may have broken from Freud too soon.
In his TED talk, Jacques Vallee invokes Philippe Guillemant’s theory of “double causality” to explain synchronicities: Our intentions cause effects in the future that become the future causes of present effects. I am suggesting the operative term may not be intentions but enjoyment. The time-loop character may be precisely an amplifier of the enjoyment component in trauma that echoes backward in time (or that is simply non-obedient to time), as in disasters and deaths. Some part of us derives a benefit, experiences bliss, at whatever happens—even awful things. A wicked, suppressed, repressed part of us likes to think of ourselves as witches and shamans controlling larger cosmic and magical forces; this disavowed magical-thinking inner savage might actually be a synchromystic trickster in our lives, but perhaps also (if properly propitiated) an ally.
The concept of synchronicity, in other words, may be precisely a conceptual box to defend ourselves from the truth of our precognitive functioning, and thus it may be time to replace it with a better theoretical framework. The concept of jouissance as an atemporal and nonlocal phenomenon could not only help us understand precognitive and other psi effects better, it could also reveal new ways of capitalizing on forces that, for now, for most of us, remain very much in the dark or (apparently) outside our control.
I’ll develop this idea further in future posts.
On the morning of September 11, 2001, my alarm awoke me around 6:30AM and I did what I always try to do before dragging myself from bed: I rolled over, grabbed my notebook and pen, and jotted notes on whatever dream images I could recall from the night before. That morning I noted dreaming about driving past a pair of identical “mosques”—distinctly low, 1-story buildings, perfectly square in plan, with drab corduroy-like facades—on a street near where I grew up in Lakewood, Colorado. They were in exactly the site of an office building where, in real life (and about 30 years earlier) my father had briefly had his psychology practice, before moving his office to a nearby bank building.
I had never dreamed of “mosques” before, nor anything with Islamic overtones that I could recall. Islam was not on my radar. The only detail whose meaning I grasped at the time was the one-story-ness of the buildings (i.e., the opposite of tall buildings); my dreams have periodically featured “low buildings” as well as ruined towers that, I had figured out from a decade or more of psychoanalytic dream interpretation, mainly had a standard “castration” symbolism—stereotypical Freudian stuff, and not very remarkable. It was only in hindsight that I realized how the corduroy appearance of my dream “mosques” matched the distinctive corrugated facade of the towers that came crashing down that day.
I’m hardly the only person to have dreamed of something plausibly connected to 9/11 in the days before the event. A quick internet search turns up numerous pages of more remarkable stories of vivid dreams and visions. Bonnie McEneaney, who lost her husband in the attack, recalls in her book Messages that her husband had been gripped for months by a certainty that an attack was imminent and that he was soon to die. And 9/11 ‘prophecies’ go well beyond such narratives that are necessarily biased by hindsight (and thus fail all scientific standards of reliability). The number of ominous-seeming prophetic artworks, images, etc. unmistakeably produced prior to the 9/11 attacks but seeming to depict them is rather staggering, as a quick Internet search also reveals.
For example, issue #596 of The Adventures of Superman, released on September 12, 2001 (but obviously drawn and written sometime in the weeks immediately preceding the disaster), shows the towers smoldering after being attacked in a superhero conflict. The issue was promptly recalled by the publisher, DC Comics, making it now something of a collectors item. Even more uncanny is the bronze 1999 sculpture Tar Baby vs St. Sebastian by Michael Richards (below), in which the artist depicts himself as one of the Tuskegee Airmen, standing very erect (and building-like), being pierced by numerous planes. Could it have been inspired by a premonitory dream or vision of his own death in his studio on the 92nd floor of Tower One on 9/11?
Any man who was a kid in the 1970s may also have been reminded, as the disaster unfolded that morning, of Dino DeLaurentis’s 1976 remake of King Kong, in which the giant ape scaled the then-new twin towers (instead of the Empire State Building) because they reminded him of a pair of rocks he had loved to climb back home on Skull Island. Sci-fi artist John Berkey’s publicity poster for that movie (bottom of this post), with its exploding planes, is eerie in hindsight—as are countless other images in ads, cartoons, or films showing the towers being attacked by or simply standing in ominous juxtaposition to aircraft, and these have of course fueled conspiracy theories about US government foreknowledge of (or involvement in) the attacks.
Perhaps the most amazing portent of the attacks, though—for me anyway—was Phillipe Petit’s tightrope walk between the still unfinished towers in 1974, as depicted in the documentary Man on Wire. As when the towers fell 27 years later, witnesses on the ground were shocked, awed, thrilled, and terrified, watching this French daredevil blithely balance on a cable 1,350 feet in the air that he had strung between the towers with the help of a bow-and-arrow and a couple accomplices. It is amazing to me, because it is as if the 27-year lifespan of the World Trade Center, that audacious symbol of American power and capitalism, was book-ended or framed by two highly symmetrical events: audacious aerial conquests, both pulled off with great stealth and ingenuity by foreigners who had trained extensively and in secret, for months, astonishing and frightening the crowds below who couldn’t believe their eyes.
A Night to Misremember
Skeptic Martin Gardner would probably have called any attempt to sift the “impossible” from the merely slightly improbable in the long list of “9/11 prophecies” misguided. In a book on the similarly uncanny predictions of the Titanic disaster, he writes that such problems are “not well formed”: “There is no way to estimate, even crudely, the relevant probabilities.” With the Titanic, as with 9/11, there were dreams and premonitions—or at least ones recollected after the fact. For example, in an excellent 1982 In Search Of episode, an elderly survivor, Eva Hart, who had been seven at the time, recalled that her mother had had a terrible premonition that their voyage would be fatal. Hart’s father indeed was lost with most of the other men aboard the ship, although she and her mother made it into to the lifeboats. Gardner lists other similar examples in his book.
But the most famous prophecy of the Titanic’s sinking—and Gardner’s main focus—is Morgan Robertson’s 1898 novel Futility, or The Wreck of the Titan, which appears to have foretold the disaster down to myriad “impossible” details, including not only the ship’s name (Titan), its tonnage and size, its passenger capacity, its insufficient lifeboats, the iceberg that hit it and where on the ship it struck, the exact location in the Atlantic where it sank, and even the month (April). These details seem amazing when presented in isolation, but Gardner shows that when you put them in context, some of the uncanniness dwindles. For example, the White Star Line had actually published its intentions to build a ship of the Titanic’s scale before Robertson wrote his novel, and in fact even its name could have even been pretty accurately predicted based on the names of the company’s other ships. Also, fear of fatally hitting icebergs in the North Atlantic was a very real one at the time, and this would have been natural fodder for a writer of modern sea yarns.
In his book The Sublime Object of Ideology, Lacanian philosopher Slavoj Žižek takes this argument one step further. He notes that the disaster corresponded closely to the political-economic-cultural unconscious of the time, and for this reason took on an a weight of symbolic overdetermination that caused it to appear synchronistic in hindsight. Not only was the ship itself easy to predict in its dimensions and even its name, but some disaster or comeuppance befalling the blithe elite was also easy to anticipate. Žižek writes, “even before it actually happened, there was already a place opened, reserved for it in fantasy space. It had such a terrific impact on the ’social imaginary’ by virtue of the fact that it was expected.” In other words, if it hadn’t been the Titanic sinking, it could easily have been something else. And if Robertson’s novel hadn’t predicted it, it could have been some other novel.
Žižek is suggesting that we would not have been nearly as obsessed with “the Titanic” now or even, arguably, right afterward, had it not been for how uncomfortably closely it happened to match a zeitgeist, the mood of the ending of an era of peaceful progress and stable class distinctions that preceded it. Indeed it was this coincidence—not just with Robertson’s novel but with the whole mood of the times—that actually made it such a trauma, not the other way around, and this is why so much ink has been spilled to interpret and find meaning in it. People incessantly examined the disaster to explain how the “unthinkable” could have happened, and in the process, inevitably turned up a coincidence that looks truly uncanny in in hindsight. Žižek would say the “coincidence” is really a kind of perspective mistake: allowing the retroactive rearranging of symbolic meanings to influence how we perceive the ordinary march of causality.
When we place 9/11 in context, too, some of its coincidences seem less uncanny. The size, stature, and indeed audacity of the towers invited fantasies of audacious conquest, which could readily be expected to be expressed not only in actual real-life terror attacks but also in comic books, disaster movies, and acrobatic stunts. Indeed, terrorists had already attempted to destroy them, which surely planted the seeds of the idea in the collective unconscious as well as in the minds of those who worked in the towers.
But at a certain point—although admittedly that point is fuzzy—the parsimony of the skeptical explanations dwindles relative to the “paranormal” explanation. No amount of evidence for this will sway a hardened skeptic, but abundant evidence for precognition, premonition, and precognitive dreaming exists in parapsychology research. If we are willing to accept any of it as valid, then it means any explanation or account of 9/11 that fails to take into account how such a monumentally traumatic event may have been at least unconsciously foreseen—not by “the government” but by ordinary people, and expressed in their dreams and creative artworks—would actually be inadequate and distorted.
The great dream interpreter of the 20th century was of course Freud. His legacy, psychoanalysis, is often thought of as the rule of the present by the past (or as director P.T. Anderson puts it in his Fortean film Magnolia: “We might be through with the past, but the past ain’t through with us”). But that’s not completely true in Freud and even less true in some of his followers. The past is always given its meaning in the present, and so the influence of the past always changes. As events inscribe themselves in our ongoing refashioning of memory, we constantly rearrange the past and give it new symbolic shape. Memory readily selects from its infinite storehouse of associations those that match true events, and produce what can look in retrospect like “impossible” coincidences or the inexorable workings of fate. Since we tend to remember events that are significant to us, it produces what might be called a synchronistic bias to our perception.
If we are going to defend a truly synchronistic or paranormal argument for prophetic dreams, visions, and artworks, we need to confront this psychoanalytic argument: that the associative architecture of memory itself is an “acausal connecting principle,” and that what we live as open-ended in the present can in hindsight look deterministic—even uncannily so—when it is not.
An example of this could be Mark Twain’s precognitive dream about his brother Henry’s death, which Jeffrey Kripal describes in his recent book Comparing Religions. Twain reported that in 1858 he had a dream of his brother lying in a metal casket in a suit of his own clothes and with a bouquet on his chest; a few weeks after this dream, Twain wrote, he received news that Henry had been injured in a boiler explosion aboard the steamboat they were both working on; Henry later died of an overdose of morphine given to kill his pain. In the morgue, Twain beheld the exact scene from his dream, including the clothes and the exact bouquet. It sounds uncanny, but in a series of posts on his very interesting blog, Journal of a UFO Investigator, religion scholar David Halperin does some keen Freudian literary forensics to reexamine the story, putting it back in context and bringing in some very telling clues from Twain’s fictional works about the conflicted feelings the writer held for his more upstanding, “goody-goody” brother.
Halperin deduces from evidence of intense brotherly resentment in Twain’s fiction that he would have had a lifelong unconscious death wish for Henry, and thus would probably have had many dreams, over the years, about him dying. It thus (according to Halperin’s reasoning) might not actually be too strange a coincidence for Twain, upon seeing his brother in a coffin after an unfortunate boiler accident on a Mississippi River steamboat, to recall having dreamed approximately the same thing and formed the notion that he had had a premonitory dream about it. It is significant, Halperin suggests, that Twain never wrote his dream down and never told anybody about it until 1884, and only wrote about it in 1906, giving his memory ample time—almost half a century—to sort and rearrange events into a more seamless narrative of psychic connection … and brotherly love. Halperin might have added that Twain’s retrospective interpretation at that late date would have fit well with the then-recent theories of psychical research pioneer Frederic W.H. Myers, that trauma is the energy fueling psychic phenomena like telepathy and, perhaps, premonitory dreams.
Psychoanalysis has always provided a halfway house for people who on one hand share Hamlet’s humanistic sense that there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in reductive materialistic philosophy but who are nevertheless a bit afraid of the truly supernatural—or what we would now call paranormal—alternative: a universe in which things like ESP and ghosts really exist, and in which the mind can know the future or interact with matter in some mysteriously occult fashion. It’s a halfway house I myself have lived in most of my adult life. Halperin himself admits to precisely this ambivalence in another blog post on Robertson’s novelistic ‘prediction’ of the Titanic disaster: “I don’t want to believe in precognition,” he writes; “The philosophical implications are too daunting.”
But being biased against belief makes us no more clear-headed about the issues involved than wanting to believe. At what point does resolute skepticism force us to accept explanations that are actually more convoluted than what really appears to be going on, however “impossible”—that information, or emotion, is just ‘simply’ traveling backward in time from a monumentally upsetting/traumatic event? Even Twain’s dream, which is easily given a more or less mundane psychoanalytic explanation when taken in isolation, appears far more plausibly premonitory when placed alongside the countless similar examples through the history of dream recording and psychical research—mountains and mountains of cases, all fitting a fairly specific pattern of traumatic events sending shock waves through space and time via some sort of psychic ether.
We Are All Murderers
In his Freudian flight from precognition, Halperin hits on something crucial, I think, about the case of Twain’s dream, which I think applies to the dreams and prophecies of the Titanic and 9/11 too, and which also points to an interesting new way of thinking about the intersection of psychoanalysis and parapsychology and the paranormal dimensions of trauma.
He points out that, far from welcoming the reality of Henry’s accidental death on the Mississippi, Twain would have reacted with guilt. That’s the normal reaction when a person finds that dark wishes they had casually or unconsciously harbored have (impossibly) come true. This is because in our irrational, superstitious unconscious minds, we feel responsible for actually causing the calamities we’ve dimly thought of or wished for.
Žižek could have keyed in on the role played by guilt in the Titanic story too: The trauma of the Titanic was not merely the fact that everyone had been expecting some spectacular disaster to befall the rich and then were shocked when it happened; the trauma was that they had actually been wishing for such a disaster—in exactly the same way Twain may have vaguely or unconsciously wished for his brother’s death. Indeed many who saw the front page of The New York Times on April 15, 1912 must have felt on some very dim unconscious nonrational level that their wishes/desires had actually somehow caused the iceberg to sink the ship—it’s just the way the unconscious mind (which is itself like the huge dangerous submerged portion of an iceberg) works.
It is a psychoanalytic commonplace that, in our unconscious, we are all murderers. When real events accidentally fulfill our unconscious wishes—serve them up to us on a platter—people react with weird conflicting emotions they can’t fully acknowledge or process. News of the Titanic’s sinking would have produced in people not directly touched by the tragedy an unbearable and even unspeakable mix of contradictory emotions that included shock, horror, and sympathy, but also fascination and excitement, as well as a vague guilt for (unconsciously at least) having harbored murderous class resentments focused on the cosmopolitan elite they read about in The New York Times’ society pages. They would have thus “enjoyed” the news—eagerly read the story and talked about it, feeling a complex mix of weird fascination and excitement and guilt as well as horror.
What we particularly fear to see is a “body” that reminds us of our guilty enjoyment. Thus when the Titanic’s remains were finally discovered by Robert Ballard’s undersea cameras in the early 1980s, National Geographic readers gazed on the shadowy photos with a spooked fascination or even a kind of vertigo. Žižek wrote that, “By looking at the [Titanic] wreck we gain an insight into the forbidden domain, into a space that should be left unseen: visible fragments are a kind of coagulated remnant of the liquid flux of jouissance, a kind of petrified forest of enjoyment.”
9/11 reflects this same phenomenon, of course. For Americans who did not live in Manhattan or work at the Pentagon and who didn’t actually lose loved ones or friends in the attacks, the objective horror of the deaths and destruction and the feeling of national vulnerability were not the sole source of the trauma; the trauma included an added, unspeakable dimension: the contradiction between these aversive facts and our own guilty enjoyment of the cinematic spectacle, our awe at its audacity, and the incredibly warm, positive collective emotions we all shared in days following. This unspeakable enjoyment, not “the thing itself,” explains our collective obsession, re-watching the planes crashing into the towers again and again and again, dwelling endlessly on images of the towers’ wreckage in the poisonous haze, re-living and commemorating that day in our imaginations and our words.
Just as the Titanic fell conveniently into a fantasy space that history had prepared for it, 9/11 fell into a fantasy space that had been prepared for it by decades of disaster cinema and growing social antagonisms. No matter what side of the political fence you were on, it gave everyone mission and meaning—either to go and teach the Muslim world a lesson or to stand up for human rights and intercultural tolerance in a time when our country’s core values seemed in danger of evaporating. 9/11 made us all feel important, and it temporarily gave us back our national pride and unity.
Frederic Myers thought trauma was the energy underlying psychic connections between people, an argument developed by Kripal: “strong emotion (pathos), particularly around trauma and death, is the most common catalyst of robust paranormal events. Trauma, it seems, is what ‘electrifies,’ ‘zaps,’ or ‘magnetizes,’ and hence empowers the imagination. Trauma is the technology of telepathy.” I want to suggest, though, that “trauma” doesn’t quite capture what it was that may have echoed back through time, feeding people’s dreams and premonitions and artworks in the days, months, and decades prior to 9/11/2001 (or prior to April 14, 1912); it was rather the unacceptable mix of horror, guilt, giddy excitement, and awe—the way we derive enjoyment from tragedy, which cannot be consciously acknowledged—that carried that psi signal. Lacanian psychoanalysis calls it jouissance.
No Known Outside the Known
There is no equivalent word in English that captures the pleasurable-painful horror-in-bliss (or blissful horror) of jouissance—it is usually translated simply as enjoyment—but it is one of the core concepts in Lacanian psychoanalysis. Symptoms had been understood by Freud to be a way of “working through” or exorcising the pain of traumatic events or thoughts via repetition, but Lacan reversed this conception: Symptoms are actually the way we reorganize our life in order to continue to derive a secret enjoyment from something that consciously causes us suffering, pain, or revulsion. Symptoms are repetitious, ritualistic acts that attempt to manage this contradiction. The warp of our imaginary-symbolic spacetime produced by this contradiction, and our inability to be rid of our jouissance, something that is always “glued to our heel” (as Lacan put it), is what causes the strange tail-chasing, repetitive “orbiting” behavior of all neurotic symptoms. Could it also account for the spacetime distortions seen in precognitive and premonitory phenomena?
Jouissance, the secret painful enjoyment at the dark heart of our symptoms, is the “only substance acknowledged by psychoanalysis,” according to Žižek. Because it exists beyond symbolism and imagination, this unspeakable enjoyment belongs to the domain that Lacan called the Real—basically, the unknown and unknowable. Its unknowability accounts for the way we have trouble localizing it, either in ourselves (where we don’t quite want it) or in others who are presumed to have stolen it from us (the basic fantasy at the root of racism and sexism). The farther away we imagine “our” lost enjoyment, the bigger it seems to be, almost like the “dolly zoom” special effect used in Hitchcock’s Vertigo.
The fact that enjoyment belongs to the radically unknown space of the Real contains potentially interesting implications for parapsychology. Because enjoyment exists suspended in a protected or bottled state of unknowability (the symptom that preserves our proximity and distance), it is like the wave function in Quantum physics: It cannot be subjected to measure and differentiation and localization. It is literally “nonlocal” in both time and space. The symptom is thus an atemporal, acausal construct that defies rational analysis because its meaning-cause—its reason for being, as explained in words—lies always somewhere off in the future.
Žižek has described at length in his books how jouissance plays a sort of acausal role in our symptoms; he has always invoked science fiction stories (and Wagner’s Parsifal—see my “Passion of Einstein” post) to illustrate how psychoanalytic symptoms are actually caused by a future event that also cures them, through a kind of “time-loop” logic. Careful to avoid any hint of paranormal thinking or the dreaded “New Age obscurantism,” he is cautious to specify that he is referring to the retroactive reordering of the symbolic universe discussed previously: the way meaning only exists in the present configuration of symbols and signifiers, which are constantly being reshuffled and transformed (in other words, the past that the present affects is simply the known past, the past as it appears in hindsight through the symbolically structured filters or overlay of our perception and memory).
But this strikes me as a defense mechanism of a briliiant materialist whose brilliance has led him—oops—to discover the insufficiency of material causation. Because consider: There is no known outside the known. Once you grant that enjoyment exists outside the known, in the domain of the Real, you cannot then specify that it has any knowable properties—such as only existing here and now and not anyplace else, or traveling in only one temporal direction. (You can’t even exactly say what emotion it corresponds to—it’s sort of all of them, and none.)
So, what if we take literally, rather than figuratively, the idea that enjoyment is radically outside of knowability and locality? Could enjoyment, particularly when it is bottled in a symptom, be a kind of nonlocal medium that not only connects people across space (telepathy) but also connects people to themselves through time?
Remember: As J.W. Dunne noted in his An Experiment With Time, precognitive or premonitory dreams aren’t about future events, they are about one’s own learning of those events. What I’m proposing builds on this assumption: It may not be traumatic events per se that reverberate through the psychic ether, but rather our own ‘jouissant’ reaction to learning of those events. It is this reaction, which we have no way of consciously understanding, that gets turned into premonitory dreams and art.
Eating From the Same Plate
Throughout his books, Žižek likens enjoyment (the one and only substance) to the identical green mush eaten by the separate diners at a chic restaurant in the movie Brazil, each of whom has their own unique picture of what their meal should be standing over identical formless lumps the plates. The idea is that enjoyment is all the same, there’s only one enjoyment, even though we all perceive it differently, within different symbolic and imaginary frames, and thus have a difficult or impossible time recognizing that our enjoyment is actually shared. The diners are all eating the same formless enjoyment … but to make the analogy fully correct, fully true to Žižek’s own argument, the diners should all actually be eating from the same plate—for if it is truly unknowable and unmeasurable, this substance of the Real cannot be divided or differentiated or portioned; their “separate plates” are really mirage reflection of a single plate of enjoyment, “one thing.”
More to the point, if the diners all eat from the same plate, that same plate could be eaten simultaneously by themselves in the past, and future. If we think of jouissance this way, like an ‘out of space and time’ singularity we are all in contact with, it could serve as precisely the “acausal connecting principle” that Jung was looking for in his somewhat muddled concept of synchronicity.
A dream that amazingly comes true, or a premonitory obsession that is verified, or a creative artistic inspiration that is uncannily mirrored in a real future event are all examples of “symptoms” in miniature: Irrational behaviors or thoughts or feelings that find their meaning or “answer” only in some unsettling or traumatic future occurrence. Perhaps it is even precisely our effort to “repress” the unacceptable part of our traumas—that is, to split them and bury the half we don’t want to see (our enjoyment)—that results in acausal, atemporal phenomena like precognitive dreams and premonitions.
Freud wrote of “the return of the repressed,” although it is the concept of repression that has tarnished his reputation most among scientific psychologists: While the unconscious exists, no evidence has ever been found for repression. Supposedly ‘repressed’ memories that are ‘recovered’ in hypnosis or therapy, for instance, are often false or fabulated. Real, verifiable traumas are forgotten and remain inarticulable, hard to put into words because we lacked the necessary concepts at the time they happened, but they are not actively buried by any censoring force in the psyche. A trauma victim usually awakens to the trauma spontaneously at some point, not with the ‘aid’ of discredited methods like hypnosis. But what about the unbearable contradictory feelings that might accompany a trauma? What about the unbearable dimension of enjoyment?
Perhaps repression does exist in some sense, and we have been looking for it in the wrong place. What if our symptoms are able to sequester certain thoughts or feelings, for instance guilty feelings about enjoying something objectively horrible, in a place they really can’t be found—the past? Perhaps it is precisely our repressed jouissance that “returns” in our own past, where we can have no way of understanding its meaning. If something like that is the case, then our present symptoms may contain the “repressed” of our future.
To illustrate on a small scale how temporally displaced repressed jouissance might exert a causal influence on the past via a symptom, let’s consider another uncanny case of “death on the Mississippi.” On his always interesting blog The Secret Sun, Christopher Knowles devoted a series of posts to the synchronistic perfect storm that surrounded the life, loves, and career of Scottish singer Elizabeth Fraser (right), the lead singer of Cocteau Twins (and also one of my favorite musical artists). In the mid-1990s, Fraser entered into an obsessive, intense romance with the singer Jeff Buckley (below), who had just published a wildly critically acclaimed debut album (Grace) revealing an astonishing talent that mirrored that of his father Tim Buckley. The elder Buckley had died young of a drug overdose in 1975 without really ever getting to know his son, and it was hearing Fraser’s haunting cover of his father’s 1970 “Song to the Siren” in 1994 that, according to Knowles, drove Buckley to seek out Fraser, at which point they became intensely involved for a couple of years.
Their intense/obsessive relationship was on-again/off-again, and eventually Buckley left Fraser, becoming involved with another woman. It was around this time that he sequestered himself in a rented house in Memphis to write songs for his second album. Just as his musicians were on their way to Memphis to begin recording—literally, while they were in the air—Buckley took an impromptu swim in a tributary of the Mississippi and got caught in the undertow generated by a passing boat. His body was found a couple days later.
The coincidences and premonitions are too numerous to summarize (you should just read Knowles’ posts), but at their core are the fact that Fraser’s entire career seems in hindsight like a protracted achingly beautiful omen of Buckley’s death. She wrote and sang again and again about water, drowning, and sirens luring people to a watery grave (“Lorelei,” “Sea, Swallow Me,” etc.). Indeed her cover of Jeff’s father’s “Song to the Siren” (about being drawn to a siren who rejects her, and whom she then pleads to come be enfolded in her watery arms), for the supergroup This Mortal Coil’s album It’ll End in Tears, is one of her best-known performances. That was indeed a “siren song” in the sense that it summoned Jeff Buckley to her, and in hindsight was just one of many songs (you should also look at Cocteau Twins’ videos and album covers) whose imagery of water and loss seemed to foretell to the disaster to come. Fraser received news of Buckley’s death when in a studio in England recording the song “Teardrop” with the band Massive Attack for their album Mezzanine—another high point in her brilliant career, which largely faded after that point.
Again, there’s no way to measure coincidence. Is this all just a reshuffling and reordering of events in hindsight to construct a “destined” meaning to Jeff Buckley’s death? We can never disprove that, but Knowles does a good job of persuading that something more had to be going on. But if so, what? The standard archetypal, “synchromystic” explanation would be that somehow the “siren” archetype imprinted itself on history via these hapless individuals, who, as Knowles suggests, “were merely acting out roles written for them long before their grandparents were born.”
A skeptic willing to minimally accept that Buckley’s drowning was more than coincidence but that there was nothing paranormal occurring could go the halfway-house psychoanalytic route, offering that Fraser’s siren obsession infected Buckley’s unconscious mind and gave specific form (drowning) to an unconscious death wish, perhaps somehow to follow his father to an early grave. Less boldly, you could also suggest her obsession with water spilled over (so to speak) onto Buckley and simply increased his statistical likelihood (a) of taking spontaneous swims and (b) of perishing in the water. Žižek, for whom the past is constantly being reshuffled and given new meaning within the present Symbolic order, would probably say Buckley’s drowning was like a final psychoanalytic interpretation that “answered” Fraser’s symptom (i.e., her career) and effectively cured her of it. Indeed, as Knowles notes, Fraser has seemed to have lost her otherworldly muse and become, perhaps for better as well as worse, just a normal human being in its aftermath. In all these variants, the apparent synchronicity only appears as such in hindsight.
But if we grant that intense/traumatic enjoyment may operate nonlocally in a person’s life, I would propose that the most parsimonious and even realistic explanation of the coincidences surrounding Fraser and Buckley would be one that takes Žižek’s cautious symptom retrocausality and literalizes it: The death of Fraser’s eventual lover and muse, Jeff Buckley, was a trauma that reverberated backward in time along the resonating string of her creative enjoyment, becoming an inchoate idee fixe that appeared again and again and again in her music. Fraser channeled or drew from this trauma as the source and inspiration for most of her career, without having any way to recognize that it was a terrible future shock that she was feeling, seeing, or channeling.
Enjoyment as a Carrier
“Ready to sing, my sixth sense peacefully placed on my breath,
and listening, my ears know that my eyes are closed”
—Elizabeth Fraser/Massive Attack, “Group Four”
According to Knowles, Fraser claimed in the early 1990s that she had been the victim of sexual abuse as a child. This is possibly significant. Creative people are often “driven” (perhaps not the right word) by a trauma in their past, and I believe it is something of a commonplace in studies of paranormal phenomena that some early trauma (like abuse, or a death of a parent or sibling, or a difficult birth) is often found in people receptive to otherworldly or paranormal events. Also, given what we know about the psychotherapeutic zeitgeist of the 1990s and the tendency to overinterpret or embellish (and in many cases invent, though I’m not suggesting that here) abuse trauma memories, she may even have misrecognized or overemphasized the pain driving her as her past abuse trauma when the trauma was “really” something ahead in the future she had no way of knowing about or believing in. Could her outrageous creative talent have been like a short circuit between the twin traumas bookending her career?
In other words, I am not trying to explain Buckley’s death here: That was, I am proposing (for the sake of argument), “just” an accident. I am trying to explain the retroactive effect his death might have had on a woman’s creativity (and heck, maybe even his own father’s creativity all the way back in 1970 when he wrote “Song to the Siren”). Buckley’s death’s appearance of meaningfulness was the illusory result of his lover’s whole lifetime oeuvre leading up to it; but (and here’s where it becomes ‘paranormal’) that body of work was indeed motivated by, inspired by, that future death and the complex unbearable feelings it would provoke in her, which reverberated into the past, along the atemporal resonating string of her creative jouissance (her “sixth sense … placed on her breath,” as she describes it in the song “Group Four”). (On his blog, Bruce Duensing speculates that fear is a “carrier wave” for paranormal phenomena; I think carrier wave is a great metaphor, so long as we replace “fear” with jouissance.)
Here’s the thing, though: The shock of Buckley’s death would have been not only the trauma of his loss (she had already lost him effectively, as he had broken up with her), but the way his drowning revealed the “true meaning” of all her songs, the way it perfectly fit or matched the space her own art had repeatedly created for it, effectively confirming, at least on an unconscious level, that she was indeed the otherworldly powerful medium and “siren” that she had always allowed herself to be perceived as. How could her unconscious mind not have felt a terrible glee and awe (as well as guilt) for precisely what Knowles even intimates her siren powers actually might have done, which was channel or focus obscure dark magical forces that perhaps drew Buckley to his doom?
I’m doubtful Fraser’s witch powers actually reached out across the ocean and drew Buckley into the Mississippi, but Fraser’s unconscious mind might have believed precisely that possibility, and this would have added to the trauma, making his death “speak louder” into the past, back along that resonating string (or carrier wave) of her creativity. Her guilty enjoyment would have been her unconscious belief in the power of her own siren song. Her symptom—her music—through its repetition of themes of sirens and drowning, could have boosted the ‘gain’ of the painful guilty enjoyment-signal she was receiving from the future, amplifying the obviousness of the coincidence (and thus the traumatic shock) when she learned that Buckley died and the way he had died.
This is all (wild) speculation, obviously. But I do think the dark complexity of our reactions to traumas, ranging from minor emotional disturbances to personal tragedies to terrorist attacks, could be the key not only to premonitory dreams and like phenomena but also to understanding many apparent synchronicities. Some synchronicities could really be misrecognized precognition of our own guilty enjoyment.
A classic motif in science fiction is that humanity ventures to the farthest reaches of space only to find, impossibly, something of our own that we had forgotten. Stanislaw Lem’s 1961 novel Solaris, about a planet covered by a viscous ocean that manufactures simulacra from its observers’ unconscious, is probably the purest expression of this idea.
The backstory of Lem’s novel is that the planet Solaris captured the interest of its discoverers because of its impossible stable orbit around its double star. Exploration revealed that its ocean somehow, perhaps sentiently, shifted the planet’s center of mass to steer it in its orbit. But even more mysteriously, it generated beautiful sculptural forms, rising high into the atmosphere and then dissolving back into it a few hours or days later. This ocean seemed dimly and inscrutably intelligent, so a station was placed in orbit to observe and study it. After several decades of study, spawning a whole library of inconclusive research and scientific controversy, some of the forms generated by the ocean started to resemble human tools and objects, as though pulled from the memories of the scientists observing it. One scientist reports seeing a giant baby rise above the waves out of the fog, but most of his colleagues think he is crazy.
When the protagonist Kris Kelvin arrives on the station to investigate a suspected breakdown among its small crew, he finds that synthetic people from the scientists’ pasts have started to appear on the station, confronting them with their own darkest desires and painful regrets, driving them to the brink of madness—and one even to suicide. Soon after his arrival, a perfect simulacrum of his ex-wife Rhea, who had committed suicide after he cruelly abandoned her years earlier, appears in his quarters, without any memory of how she got there.
Solaris has been adapted twice for the screen—by Andrei Tarkovsky in 1972 and by Steven Soderberg in 2002. Both adaptations concentrate on the ambivalent romance that develops between Kelvin and his resurrected ex, largely ignoring the planet itself and its mimetic ocean-forms. This is unfortunate (and it disappointed Lem too), because Solaris the planet is one of the most fascinating and awe-inspiring creations in science fiction.
Lem, who died in 2009, remains unsurpassed in his imagining of the possibilities of alien intelligence and human incapability to interpret or understand it. With Solaris, I have no doubt the Polish writer was inspired by the most alien form of our own human intelligence: hypnagogia, the baffling and surreal imagery generated by the unconscious that can be seen clearly on the edge of sleep and in meditative states.
Digesting the Now
Hypnagogic imagery have no doubt inspired art and religion since the dawn of humanity. It was an early scientific observer of hypnagogic phenomena, the psychoanalyst Herbert Silberer, who first noted that these images are often or perhaps always “autosymbolic”—they represent, usually in an astonishingly clever way, some immediate thought or some preoccupation right now, right at the instant they are created. Like dreams, this correspondence to real experience is not immediately obvious but reveals itself readily in free-associative interpretation. I’ve argued elsewhere that dreaming is the punny, playful-associative “art of memory” operative during sleep; hypnagogia is a waking window onto this same process.
Meditators and yogis have always compared the mind to an ocean, in which thoughts are like waves that trouble the surface. I think the playful, ingenious, autistically inscrutable Solaris ocean is an even better, more nuanced metaphor than any dumb old Earth ocean. The mind is a constant mimetic sea, perpetually generating imaginary representations of everything we encounter and think about and experience; it combines and shapes these ghosts effortlessly into brilliant symbolic tableaux and scenes that brilliantly distill the meaning of “gist” of our experience. Hypnagogia shows us this automatic process, the Solaris mind’s constant metabolism of experience.
We ordinarily don’t discern or detect this continual churning out of image-representations because it is so subtle, so in the background. It is only when the foreground stuff of conscious mental chatter and active thinking is quelled or silenced that it becomes apparent. Meditators interested in the phenomenon can learn to stabilize the edge state on the verge of sleep where these forms can be witnessed and recorded. Hypnagogia can be used to access lucid dreams (the “wake-induced lucid dream” or WILD method described by Stephen LaBerge); and many consider the hypnagogic mind to be uniquely receptive to psychic phenomena. (The most comprehensive book on the topic is the wonderful Hypnagogia, by Andreas Mavromatis—highly recommended.)
But the fact that we mainly detect our preconscious image-building on the edge of sleep should not lead us to believe that it only happens then. This function, an aspect of what Sartre and Lacan both called “the Imaginary,” is a constant process, one that is essential to thinking and the associative bundling of experience so that it can feed our memory mill.
Symbolically metabolizing experience by reducing it to cartoon-dioramas firstly creates mental objects that can be fastened with symbolic labels and manipulated in thought, like toys and action figures we move around in our mental sandbox. They are a basic requirement for thinking. And because they are minimally detailed, these cartoon replicas probably maximize the amount of experience that can be fit into the limited workspace of our working memory: We can only keep 4 or 5 discrete “items” in our heads at one time.
The dioramas of the Imaginary thus facilitate the present situation forming a “chord” with immediate past and future experiences, giving thickness and substantiality to the Now. And by reducing experience to something sketch-like, they likely enable more of that experience to get through the working-memory bottleneck to be stored and transferred to long-term memory later on. The reduced, cartoon-like symbolic representation that can be unpacked at the other end, so to speak, through webs of associative linkages, just like dreams (which, I argue, are long-term memories in the process of formation—see below).
“Every thing fits into its own shape”
The Solaris mind’s incessant brilliant mimesis, as crucial as it is for functioning in the world and enabling us to remember our experiences later, is also to blame for the foremost obstructions of spiritual vision: the arising of the idea of self, and with it the constant fading of presence (that is, “being here now”) that has been the bane of meditators and mystics for millennia.
To free us from having to give all our attention to the present moment, the imagination constantly replaces our naked awareness of the world with sketch-like scenes of “I seeing.” You can experience this yourself: Just take a deep breath, exhale, and focus visually on an object in front of you. Initially there is a silent vivid sense of full presence with the object—the object richly and brightly fills your attention—but after just a few seconds the vividness of the object fades slightly as a faint, subtle mental diorama of “me seeing this” emerges in your awareness to compete with it; you might also notice further layers of imagination, like a background meta-awareness of “being seen seeing” (the constant inner haunting presence that Lacan called “the Gaze”). Naked awareness is thus perpetually obscured in consciousness with new virtual ghost-representations—literally, every few seconds, new puppet-subjects and new gazes form, in a slow but incessant pageant of simulacra that represent the self.
By “self” I don’t just mean the ego or “I” in the diorama. Every object of perception too, by being copied in the imagination, assumes a virtual ghost presence or double. Whenever our eyes fall on an object, this interplay of the ghost-making Solaris mind and the webs of linguistic symbols we map onto those image-representations produce the sense of recognition, a sense of “what it is,” enabling a labeled image-object to be manipulated in thought. This “what it is,” or itself-ness, the fiction of self-identity, is—when we become attached to it or believe in it—the ultimate stumbling block toward spiritual liberation. Belief in the self is the basic error and even absurdity that, for Buddhists, is the fundamental reason for human suffering.
The reason an object’s self-identity is absurd was explained best, I think, by Ludwig Wittgenstein in his Philosophical Investigations:
“A thing is identical with itself.”—There is no finer example of a useless proposition, which yet is connected with a certain play of the imagination. It is as if in imagination we put a thing into its own shape and saw that it fitted. (We might also say: “Every thing fits into itself.” Or again: “Every thing fits into its own shape.” At the same time we look at a thing and imagine that there was a blank left for it, and that now it fits into it exactly.) Does this spot O “fit” into its white surrounding?—But that is just how it would look if there had been a hole in its place and it then fitted into the hole…
So, in short, the Solaris mind takes the alive Heraclitean flux of experience and constantly copies and fossilizes it in cold dead representational dioramas suitable to be thought about and metabolized in memory. The battle of meditative engagement is with this continuous force of autosymbolic imagining (not just the more obvious verbal chatter). The aim is not to obliterate our mental models of ego and self—we need these illusions to function in the world—but to shift the balance: from living completely in the empty, frustrating world of mental representations (images and words) toward abiding for greater stretches of time in the wordless, imageless, blissful Real that lies beyond and outside them.
The Solaris Mind Produces Teachers
During the day, because its imagery is so yoked to the senses, the Solaris mind generates innocuously realistic images that are hard to detect, because they so closely resemble the “shape” of our lived experience and then are immediately washed away by the thoughts that are seeded from them—like ocean waves erasing a picture drawn in the sand. When liberated from thought and sense, however, as on the edge of sleep or in meditation, these images assume their more wildly imaginative genius.
The paradoxical effect of withdrawing from the senses and temporarily quelling the flow of verbal and imaginal thought is that it enables daytime hypnagogic images to assume the vivid otherness of full-on waking dreams. These brief visions, flickering out as quickly as they appear, provide “object lessons” that can enlighten and inspire. Famously, artists like Dali have used them for inspiration. August Kekule’s famous “dream” of a snake biting its tail, which gave him the idea of the benzene ring, was actually a waking reverie, a hypnagogic image. When David Lynch writes of finding his great creative solutions in the period right after dipping into the “unified field” during Transcendental Meditation, hypnagogia is probably what he is referring to.
Buddhist orthodoxy counsels that meditators should ignore these beguiling hypnagogic images (called makyo), but here the ancient and modern masters are quite mistaken, I believe. When properly disciplined and observed with detachment, hypnagogia can be enormously helpful to a personal spiritual path.
One of my first “kenshos” as a beginning Zen meditator many years ago involved a vivid hypnagogic vision of the exact absurdity addressed by Wittgenstein with his notion of a spot fitting into its own shape. After sitting on the sofa meditating for about 15 minutes, I happened to glance down at my coffee mug, and I saw the curved handle not as something for holding the object but as a tube through which circulated the mug’s “self-ness,” flowing out and back into it, like its secret lifeblood.
In a flickering instant, I then grasped that every other object, and even me, would, if we actually had selves, need some kind of tubular circulatory system, like a coffee mug handle, to pump this linguistic fiction out and back in. (I was reminded, among other things, of the surreal scene in Terry Gilliam’s Brazil when the repairman played by Robert DeNiro opens up an apartment HVAC unit and “operates” on the bloody organs inside.) As this absurd idea of the self as an alive vitality inside inert objects vanished, it left in its wake a euphoric clear perception of what the Zen writers call “suchness”—things just as they are without any unnecessary concept like “self” added to them. My ordinary error of believing in things’ inner selfhood seemed delightfully absurd, and I think I grinned rather uncontrollably for a few hours afterward. (This experience, I should add—like countless subsequent ones—was brought on without the use of any substance … well, besides caffeine.)
Catch and Release
In his essay “Negation,” Freud wrote that absence can only reveal itself as the absence of a presence, and a thing has to be asserted before it can be denied. This is possibly one of his keenest insights, with implications well beyond psychotherapy. It is impossible for the mind to represent the non-existence of something; it can only show a thing along with some sign of erasure, such as the thing being destroyed, being taken away, or even being ridiculed or insulted.
In my “coffee mug” example, the Solaris mind was giving me a push. It could not directly represent for me the Zen truth of nothingness or Void or no-self; instead, at the precise moment I needed it, it showed me “self” as a kind of silly cartoon “bodily fluid” and invited me to laugh at the notion.
An active, philosophically engaged meditation practice produces such hypnagogic object-lessons quite frequently, often with the mild euphoria of an “aha” experience, and sometimes much more. In other words, meditation can powerfully open the doors of the brain’s endogenous ‘entheogenic’ capacities.
Because these kinds of insights produced by the Solaris mind are so profound and rewarding, the temptation is always to cling to them—and that is the basis of Buddhist teachers’ distrust. You do need to let them happen but let go of them afterward—”capture and release,” a phrase used by the Zen master Lin-Chi (Rinzai), comes to mind. I have found that hypnagogic object lessons have a brief lifespan of effectiveness anyway: They are rich and energizing and clarifying when they occur, and they can be summoned back as reminders for a day or two at most, but then they become “dead” or lose their charge, like they have only a limited battery life.
Hypnagogic object lessons accessed in meditation or our nightly twilight realm really are very much like the “mimoids” and “symmetriads” and other forms produced on Solaris: emerging out of the ocean, witty, playful, profound, mysterious, and then they break down or dissolve back into it. It is the rule of the oceanic Solaris mind as with anything else: Things arise and then they pass away. And eventually new ones appear, in a neverending cycle.
Living In Orbit
If hypnagogic images are like Solaris’s “mimoids” rising from the seething ocean, hypnagogia’s more solid cousins, dreams, are like the “visitors” that, in Lem’s novel, appear during the night while the scientists on the station are slumbering. The visitors in Solaris are simulacra of people associated with each scientist’s innermost desires or shames, whose company the scientist’s enjoy in an ambivalent, desultory, embarrassed fashion, knowing them to be unreal yet unable to destroy or be rid of them.
The unconscious depths plumbed somehow by the planet mind and then replicated are whitewashed and sanitized in both of the unfortunately boring film adaptations by otherwise great directors (Tarkovsky, Soderberg). In the novel, Kelvin’s dead wife is the least bizarre and embarrassing of the visitors. One of the scientists, Snow, appears to harbor a child in his quarters (and possibly also a monster) that he won’t let anyone else see, and suggests only that it represents some “uncontrollable thought” that he once had and that has now bound itself to him:
“What is a normal man? A man who has never committed a disgraceful act? Maybe, but has he never had uncontrollable thoughts? Perhaps he hasn’t. But perhaps something, a phantasm, rose up from somewhere within him, ten or thirty years ago, something which he suppressed and then forgot about, which he doesn’t fear since he knows he will never allow it to develop and so lead to any action on his part. And now, suddenly, in broad daylight, he comes across this thing…this thought, embodied, riveted to him, indestructible. He wonders where he is…Do you know where he is?”
“Here,” whispered Snow, “on Solaris.”
Is Snow, in his deep unconscious, a child murderer? A pedophile? Brilliantly, Lem leaves this man’s horrible materialized thought ambiguous. Snow goes on to characterize himself as “a man who at one and the same time is ashamed of the object of his desire and cherishes it above everything else, a man who is ready to sacrifice his life for his love, since the feeling he has for it is perhaps just as overwhelming as Romeo’s feeling for Juliet.”
Whatever Snow’s secret desire is, one could not ask for a better literary representation of the Real as described by Lacan: “a thought, embodied, riveted to him, indestructible.” The Real is unrepresentable and unspeakable, and it is associated with the furtive, fatal, inexplicable compulsions “beyond pleasure” that sustain us and on some deep level give meaning to our lives, even though we may have little conscious awareness of them. It is also the deepest secret buried deep in our dreams.
…Soll Ich Werden
Dreams, as I said, are elaborations of the same metabolizing imaginal-symbolic process as hypnagogia, but instead of responding to waking thoughts, they respond to inner, private realities arising in sleep: memories and desires. Psychologists now agree that REM sleep is a period of active memory consolidation, or the distillation of important daytime experiences into gists and integration of that new material into the older substrate of long-term memory.
Because each dreamer’s unique private symbolic language make studying dream content difficult in a laboratory, no scientific psychologist has yet claimed that dreams directly reflect this process. But familiarity with the classical arts of memory—which distort to-be-learned material by exactly the same processes Freud identified for dream thought—reveal that dreams must be precisely the experience of long-term memories being formed. These amazing formations (basically, multilayered polysensory puns and substitutions, organized into bizarre tableaux linked narratively and situated in a distinct spatial environment) render the “day residues” being remembered mostly unrecognizable unless subjected to free-associative unpacking.
The wit and brilliance of this process of dream distortion is so excessive, so beyond our daily experience of our mundane intelligence, that people unused to recording or observing their dreams have difficulty accepting that their own measly minds could be responsible for creating these tableaux. It may even account for why some people don’t remember them at all—they simply don’t fit into who we think we are.
To take a small, simple example, I once helped a friend make sense of a disturbing dream in which she had attended a dinner party thrown by her older sister, where she was horrified to see her sister’s head resting on a food platter, like an hors d’oeuvre. I knew that my friend felt a bit threatened by her sister’s accomplishments, such as her recent purchase of a new home, so the meaning seemed apparent: “It’s about your jealousy that your sister is ahead.” My friend’s jaw dropped, and she quickly expressed shock that her own mind, hardly a punster, would have thought of representing the idea of “ahead” with a human head … or that it would have had the bad, violent taste to create such a macabre image of her sister.
But in fact, everyone’s dreams, as well as their hypnagogic images, are packed full of these witty puns—most of them too brilliant to ever grasp (e.g., polysensory gags). It is no wonder that dreams and other visions have historically been assumed to be messages or thoughts from some other or divine source. It’s not only, as Freud thought, that we can’t believe ourselves capable of the wicked desires our dreams sometimes hint at; it’s also that we can’t believe our own minds are capable of being so astonishingly clever.
Although materialists who reduce our dreams, as well as our other profound visionary experiences, to brain effects seem to deflate our spiritual hopes, they can also be forgiven for trying to return our genius to us—that is, to de-alienate it. Hence Freud’s motto, “Wo es war, soll ich werden” or “Where It was, there I will be.” The least of us contains infinities, and genius, that are really unimaginable, if we only bother to peer into this seething Solaris-like realm and recognize it as belonging to us—or perhaps, realize us as belonging to it.