New Internationalist

Journey’s End

Issue 237

new internationalist
issue 237 - November 1992

Illustration by JIM NEEDLE
Journey's end
Chris Brazier tries to make sense of the senseless -
and has a strange experience along the way.

I found Nina Silver's Radical Mediumship article a breath of fresh air after my other encounters with mediums. Here was someone who claimed to talk to spirits but who didn't claim to have a hotline to God. She was also clearly on the same political wavelength as the NI.

I was intrigued enough by what she said to seek further contact with her. She has, she told me, a pretty good success rate with hitherto non-psychic people 'breaking through' to channel for spirits themselves. Open mind at the ready, I simply had to give this a go. At the very least, I thought, this should be a novel enough conclusion to my personal journey through paranormal territory - even if it ends up in anti-climax.

So I met Nina in an apartment on the Upper East Side of New York City ready for anything. The session started with a mixture of therapy and laying on of hands - she held her hands above my chakras (the Hindu system of seven energy points around the body) while we talked about any fears or blockages I might have that might stop me channeling for myself. There were frankly quite a few. The most sceptical and hard-headedly rational of people might well admit to a smidgen of worry about the idea of allowing a spirit to enter their own body.

Eventually Nina started to channel for Ia, the 'point of light' or spirit she describes in her article: she went into a light trance and started speaking fluently in another tone of voice. [In what follows I will just describe what happened, and refer to the spirits as people, without using quote marks or qualifications like 'Nina claimed that...' We'll try and disentangle it all afterwards.]

After a while I asked Ia if there were any entities attached to me in the same way as she was attached to Nina. She said there were two: Henry' and 'Marie', and eventually she made way for them.

Nina shifted uncomfortably in her chair as Henry arrived inside her. He didn't find it very comfortable either: his first words were 'It feels like a musty closet in here but it'll do'. He spoke in gruff tones and had a pretty abrasive manner: when I said nothing, not sure of the etiquette involved in talking to spirits directly, he exploded 'don't I even get a hello?!' I ventured a meek 'hello' and asked why he was specially interested in me. 'Good question! No accounting for taste, is there?!' Charming. For all that, Henry said that he'd been fond of me (or my spirit) throughout many centuries.

It gets weirder. When Marie came through she was infinitely gentler in tone. She started: 'I don't suppose I can expect you to know this but we have had a very long and quite loving relationship'. She said we had been incarnated together many times, almost always as brother and sister. Once, she said, she was the brother and I the sister, but she felt more comfortable with female incarnations. The last time we were incarnated together was in sixteenth-century Germany when my family took her in as an orphan. But we remain close even when we are not 'in body' and since I was born this time around she has stayed close to my 'energy field'. She said she was very pleased to get in touch and would like to try to contact me directly.

So now we'd reached the point of the whole session, where I was supposed to try and become a medium myself. How did I feel at this point? Well, intrigued mainly. I didn't really expect anything to happen but on the other hand I've always rather rued the fact that I don't have a sister, so the idea of a long-lost soul sister with whom I've shared many lifetimes was rather appealing.

I closed my eyes and tried to relax. Marie said she was about to leave Nina's field and that I should 'keep a lookout' for her. And this is the strange part. All of a sudden I started to feel the most overwhelming sensation coming down through my head and reaching down to the level of my stomach. The sensation is difficult to describe but it was like I was being bombarded with light and colour. I've since described it to friends as being like an orgasm taking place in the top half of the body but that's only because I can think of no other sensation strong enough to sweep rational thought away. Really all I can say is that it was a sensation unlike any other that I have ever experienced.

Shell-shocked
After 10 seconds or so this surge of energy eased off to a level where I started to wonder if I was still experiencing anything or not. The idea now was that Marie was to try and talk using my vocal cords. This got nowhere. I opened my mouth to see if anything would happen and started looking around inside my mind for any 'thoughts' that didn't seem like mine. But anything from now on could have been my own imagination. And to be honest all I wanted to do was clear out and try to make some sense of what had happened.

I wandered back along Broadway rather shell-shocked. Okay, I'd gone into this with an open mind. But after all the other dismal visits to mediums I hadn't really expected anything out of the ordinary to happen. That surge of energy, though, was real - I felt it as surely as I feel this computer keyboard right now. The only rational explanation I could come up with was that I might have induced the sensation myself by a form of self-suggestion after three hours in an intense situation: it's well known that people can emerge from a therapy session quite 'high'.

I made up my mind to go back to see Nina the next day with a different hat on, as a tough-minded journalist rather than as someone prepared to give anything a go once. If Marie has always been looking out for me, I reasoned, she surely ought to know the names of my children and what my front room at home looks like.

This test didn't work out. Marie told me the next day that spirits are unable to experience physical reality unless they have been invited into a body to see through its eyes. All she could do was to pick up the changes in my 'vibrations', getting some sense of when I was feeling elated or crushed by something.

I was in an entirely different mood, my scepticism aroused as if in reaction to giving so much play to the spirit hypothesis the day before. And I certainly wasn't planning to try channeling again. But before I left to catch my plane Nina persuaded me to give it another go to see if it clarified anything. And, remarkably, the same thing happened again. At the point where Marie was supposed to be 'entering' me I had the same overwhelming and uncanny sensation - and if anything this time it was stronger. Again, after the initial burst any effects became questionable and inconclusive but in trying to explain the 'surge' I didn't have the 'intensity of therapy' argument to fall back on any more.

Seeking in desperation for some way of testing this experience against 'reality' I asked Marie to give me an undertaking that she would be there ready to talk to me next time I went to consult a genuine trance medium. She said she'd do her best though sometimes you got pushed out of the way; she said she'd always be there if I tried to get in touch with her and asked me to practise channeling on my own.

Back in England I tried a few times but never experienced anything like I had in New York. I visited two more trance mediums of high repute. I gave them no clues but simply said that I'd been in touch with two spirits who were closely attached to me and that I wanted to talk to them again.

There was no trace of Marie. In both cases I ended up having a chat to one of the medium's regulars: in the first a Chinese sage offered me some pretty sound advice deriving from Buddhism or Taoism; in the second I had a long chat with - wait for it - Winston Churchill. The bigger the name that comes through from the spirit world, the more sceptical I inevitably become. But since I mention him you might be interested to know that 'Churchill' is now gravely concerned about the environment and wishes that the world's leaders attempting to deal with the problem had more 'backbone'.

Illustration by JIM NEEDLE Disentangling
So what do I make of all this? I've met fraudulent mediums and I don't believe that Nina Silver is one of them. I feel she genuinely believes what she has told me: I trust her. Which leaves only two possibilities: that what she says is true, and somewhere out on another plane I do have a long-lost soul sister; or that all of these alternative personalities she conjures up are simply emerging from a deeper part of herself.

I'm quite persuaded by this 'super-ESP' explanation of spirit communication. It would explain why I've never got the same information from a medium twice. It would also explain why the kind of spirits that attach themselves to mediums tend to reflect their own personality and values, as Nina points out in her own article. Thus Nina gets a comradely, feminist particle of light while a traditional spiritual seeker gets the Angel Gabriel.

This theory is supported by two independent experiments conducted into the mysterious communication that can emerge when people sit round a table for an informal séance. In the first a researcher in Dublin shuffled alphabet cards into a strange order and then placed them out of view of the people round the table. Messages were still spelled out by a glass sliding around the table, which ruled out any possibility of cheating. In the second, much more recent experiment, a group of people in Toronto decided to make up a fictional spirit entity called 'Philip', creating a detailed biography for him. And after a while this 'Philip' started communicating with them via 'tableraps' - giving yes/no answers that accorded with the biography they had given him.

This strongly suggests that the paranormal element at work here is a kind of pooled psychokinetic force which emerges from the participants' unconscious minds. But of course it does presuppose that you accept psychokinesis itself to be possible, which defies normal scientific logic. After all the research I've done into this issue I have emerged feeling convinced that humans do have some latent ability for ESP and psychokinesis. I've been persuaded partly by the sheer weight of the anecdotal testimony, but more by the experiments in parapsychology labs described in the Future article. On the evidence of their performance in laboratories, even humans with pronounced psychic ability simply see a bit more than the rest of us rather than the whole picture. But the lab results do seem to indicate that there is a 'psi' effect.

Of icebergs and genius
Even the most sceptical person would accept that the human mind is a hugely complex instrument which is like an iceberg - almost all of it is hidden and unfamiliar. In order to survive day by day we have to focus in very narrowly. When we re riding a bike it doesn't pay us to notice the myriad colours, sounds and textures that make up the natural world around us; we may well sacrifice our lives if we are not concentrating hard on the road ahead and the thundering truck beside.

But even the areas of the mind that we have uncovered take us way beyond this narrow 'normal' band of consciousness. Since Freud we have been aware of the vast unexplored territory of the unconscious. We also know that the human body is operated by the mind: all its routine functions are monitored and kept up to the mark by our autonomic nervous system. Both these aspects of the mind we conceive of as being somehow 'beneath' consciousness.

But we surely also have flashes of an aspect of the mind which is 'above' consciousness: flashes of inspiration or insight. At their most extreme, in the lives of people we routinely categorize as 'supernormal' or having 'genius', these flashes become flares lighting up the path for all humanity. When Mozart heard whole symphonies in his mind and simply had to write them down he wasn't getting them from his conscious (which acted as dictation secretary) or from his unconscious in the negative, repressed sense of Freud. The same with the poetry of Coleridge - or of William Blake, who claimed no credit for his astonishing poetry himself, believing that he channeled it directly from 'the spirits'.

Who knows where these divine works of art actually came from? If we have trouble accepting Blake's own word for the spirit hypothesis, as with that of Nina Silver or any other medium, we have to come up with another explanation. And the only one I can think of at present is that there is some part of all our minds - more pronounced in some of us than in others - which is somehow able, as Jung believed, to key into a 'collective unconscious'.

One thing is clear: science can offer no explanation. Except, just possibly, where science itself becomes inspired and almost mystical. Einstein testified to moments when 'one feels free from identification with human limitation... At such moments one imagines that one stands on some spot of a small planet gazing in amazement at the cold and yet profoundly moving beauty of the eternal, the unfathomable. Life and death flow into one, and there is neither evolution nor destiny, only Being.' And Bell's theorem - that all objects and events in the cosmos are interconnected with each other - has led recent physicists to start speculating about an invisible field that holds all of reality together.

This seems a sight more 'paranormal' than some of the things this magazine has talked about. And it leaves us conveniently back where we started, amongst the discoveries of the new physics.

Having me as a guide on this magical mystery tour must have been of dubious value for you: as children of the twentieth-century West we all naturally insist on seeing things with our own eyes before we'll believe them. There's so much gullibility and woolly-mindedness at large in the fields of spiritualism and the New Age that this is a very healthy impulse.

Even I who experienced that strangest of sensations in New York am at a loss to come up with a satisfactory explanation for it. And even if I return now to the relative comfort of investigating the iniquities of the global economic system I may well take that mystery with me to the grave (or... ahem... beyond).

Something happened - I just don't know what. And I'm afraid that could serve as an adequate summary of human understanding of the paranormal.

Worth reading on... THE PARANORMAL
Richard Broughton's Parapsychology: The Controversial Science (Ballantine US, Rider UK) summarizes scientific research into the paranormal very clearly and entertainingly. The best introductions to the whole field of paranormal phenomena are Colin Wilson's Beyond the Occult (Grafton), a 20-years-on update of his bestseller The Occult; and Brian Inglis The Paranormal: An Encyclopedia of Psychic Phenomena, which is unfortunately now out of print. Another book I strongly recommend is Quantum Healing by Deepak Chopra (Bantam), which argues very convincingly for a fundamental mind-body connection, drawing on Western medicine, Eastern meditational thought and on quantum physics. For an excellent lay introduction to quantum physics and relativity turn to Gary Zukav's The Dancing Wu Li Masters (Rider).

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