Article

Slaying the Supernatural Imagination

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The imagination is the mind’s active scratch pad–our source of daydreams. Here we try out new ideas, we work out conflicts, literal and metaphorical. This is not to be confused with the unconscious–which we could call our passive scratch pad, operating below our awareness. Sometimes we get spillover from the unconscious into nocturnal dreams or other forms we can remember. If we pay proper attention to these spontaneous eruptions, we can gain powerful insights into our motivations, solve thorny problems, or perhaps compose a hit song. Writing down our dreams can also provide raw material for Jungian analysis.

Without our capacity for abstract thought and free-association, there would be far fewer inventions. Without the ability to run scenarios, create internal characters and empathize with them, we’d have a much harder time appreciating myth or story. Without our ability to create an inner map of the outer world, life would be bereft of a great deal of its meaning.

I’m going to discuss how subjective experience and imagination, while incredibly versatile tools, can also be a primary source of self-deception when they are used to espouse the supernatural.

Like a heads-up display projected onto their retinas, the imagination indelibly colors the believers’ view. They fail to differentiate between inner and outer perceptions–between wishful thinking and observation. In the most extreme cases, elaborate stories of the imaginal underlie their entire perception of reality. I discussed the example of Alex Reichardt’s story (previous article), which only made sense in his revisionist supernatural context. Otherwise it became a tawdry tale of abuse and blurred boundaries.

This believer milieu supports a gamut of supernatural ideologies. It colors both history (purported past lives, fictional tales of human development) and present-day experiences. These imaginings can precipitate a form of intense paranoia causing a person to feel beset by external forces beyond their control. They may feel they are both the target of hordes of demons and the beneficiary of legions of angels, “heavenly hosts” they imagine respond to their spoken commands. Sadly, this epic mock battle they engage stems from delusions of grandeur and the archetypal notions of Good vs. Evil which are a time-worn oversimplification of the complexity of real human events.

Unwilling to confine these imaginal projections of good and evil to describing their own behavior, the supernaturalist also uses them to form their theory of mind–the set of beliefs about the mental states and motivations of others. In so doing they tend to demean and insult those whose behavior violates their scriptural criteria. By defining common human dysfunctions, vices, or shadow expressions in supernatural terms, they attempt to set up a social imperative for their preferred solution: prayers of exorcism.

Let’s take a vignette: a person lights up a cigarette. A naturalist will immediately infer that the person is a habitual smoker, who is experiencing nicotine withdrawal symptoms. Not a lot to grasp. We can learn about how the nicotine molecule fits into acetylcholine receptors in the brain, and we understand the person’s cravings, even as we understand the insidious nature of the practice. We also know both humans and animals have sought out ways to alter body and brain chemistry since the beginning of mammalian life. Sometimes a cigarette is just a cigarette.

To the supernaturalist, this explanation is far from sufficient. They project agency and personality onto the chemical. On the one hand, it gets the person off the hook: they’re a victim of the “demon.” A hapless child of God in the grips of an agent of the Devil. It’s a dual-pronged attack on individualism. First, the supernaturalist attacks a person’s free will, as if they can be effortlessly manipulated by invisible forces. Second, they perpetuate a fear of these invisible “agents.” Sinister spirits who conspire to get that person to inhale nicotine, and thereby feed on their life-force. Of course this demands protection–commanding the hosts of the Lord to cast out and slay the demon. The action is “called forth” by the rituals of the chosen religion. This belief in demon-possession brings to mind the “pod people” from Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Except they don’t come from space, they come from the astral plane and they don’t steal your body, they steal your autonomy and turn you into their pawn.

It doesn’t seem to matter which religion we’re talking about. The Bible is full of stories about demons and demonic possession. My favorite is the one where Jesus casts the demons into 2,000 swine, who promptly run down a hill and commit suicide. But–not to be outdone–tribal lore from ultra-superstitious Africa spins tall-tales of Iwa, who take over a person’s body and drain immense amounts of energy–leaving the person with no memory of the experience (and perhaps no responsibility for their actions). Sumerians were the first to document their belief in possession by “gidim,” as they sought an explanation for disease. And of course, in medieval Europe and even Puritan America, witches used to be blamed for invoking “evil spirits” and curses. They were held responsible for just about any misfortune, and were routinely burned alive. Christians in Africa have recently revived this practice. Thousands of children have been branded “witches,” and suffered horrific torture, neglect, or both, often leading to their death.

With the prevalence of vices in the world, believers in demon “possession” (which include many Catholics) imagine what must be billions of spirits of the dead hovering near humanity, just waiting to tempt them into “misqualifying” God’s energy in a myriad of ways. They hold that the only defense is prayer–decrees in the case of CUT–or as I’ve previously discussed, a stainless steel sword. Scientologists fret about “body thetans.” They’ll “clear” them for you–for a price.

Though a relic of the 20th century C.E. rather than the middle ages, The Summit Lighthouse/CUT teachings established–without a trace of irony–its own elaborate demonology of evil spirits (called “discarnate entities”) associated with human vices. The “entities” associated with smoking are called, predictably, “Nicola,” “Nicolus,” and “Inhala.” Hmm, how original.

The “who’s who” of CUT entities can be seen in the 7.11E entity decree from the Summit Lighthouse decree and song book. (Official Title: Prayers Meditations Dynamic Decress for the Coming Revolution in Higher Consciousness III) Members read the names of the entities aloud, swinging their swords to “cut themselves free” from the “evil spirits.” This follows a teaching from Helena Petrovna Blavatsky’s Isis Unveiled where she claimed stainless steel could “pierce through the veil” and destroy the discarnates.

But I ask, in all seriousness, what would be the point? No matter how many demons believers slay with their sword, more rise up to take their place. In the paranoid world of the supernaturalist, no human behavior could be considered autonomous. Everyone is perceived to walk around under the control of essentially limitless evil forces. Legions of angels provide the only hope of stopping “bad” behavior and coming into alignment with the “Will of God.” This debilitating belief steals people’s ability to exercise their own self-restraint and keeps them powerless. It’s one sense of what Carl Sagan was referring to when he described the Demon Haunted World.

This mental trap is not limited to “entities” involving substance abuse. The faithful have long attempted to avoid acknowledging their unconscious rage, lust, greed, aggression, jealousy, and other shadow qualities. They do this by creating a deliberate split in their personalities.  The device of personifying and removing the shadow to a realm of invisible “entities” is an essential component in their idealistic yet futile drives for purity and human perfection. They’ll claim it’s “divine perfection” they’re after, but it’s actually a smokescreen to justify their rules and regimentation.

By attempting to “cast out” demons, the “dweller on the threshhold,” “black magicians,” “astral hordes,” etc., they try to remain above the fray of dealing with their human foibles, challenges and darkness. But all they accomplish is to split off a part of themselves with which they will later have to deal.

Remember, the shadow is a part of the unconscious. By its very definition, we are unaware of it. Once something is exposed and enters our awareness, it is no longer shadow. And that’s the work. Excavation, a little at a time. Instead of projecting these undesirable qualities on to either supernatural “bogey men” or onto “other” people, we can actively explore ourselves. Accepting the shadow self is difficult for many, since they’ve been raised with the flawed idea that acknowledging human darkness involves moral compromise or hinders their “spiritual” progress.

A person is actually far more dangerous when their shadow goes unnoticed. They’ve focused all their attention on living in “love” and “light” and don’t readily admit the mayhem of which they’re capable. It’s not just the person’s own defenses which have been lowered, but the defenses of their entire social circle. At the moment when shadow bursts on the scene, it’s often able to do severe damage.

That’s the real possession–when the unacknowledged shadow strikes without warning. It comes from within, not without, and it’s motivated by our primal brain.

But a person is still fully responsible for their behavior. Because of their split, they often can’t reconcile it. So they hide behind a virtuous mask while continuing to express the pathology of the unchecked shadow–often for years. This can be seen in the Catholic and Jehovah’s Witness sex scandals. Or the vile financial predations of Bernie Madoff. No doubt, as he recruited additional monies needed to keep his Ponzi scheme afloat, Madoff considered himself on some level a “good man.” But his shadow was fully in control.

As a counter example, let’s imagine what it might be like for a person who has integrated their shadow to handle their temptation to engage in an inappropriate sexual relationship. They might say: “I know this is a temptation for me and I don’t trust myself. So I need to either appropriately fulfill my sexual needs elsewhere, or remove myself from a position of authority over young people.” That’s what should’ve happened in the Catholic Church. But they’ve institutionalized shadow repression (of which celibacy is but one form), and they reaped the inevitable results. Unless the institution renounces repression, the problem will certainly recur.

For a further discussion of the reality-distorting potential of repression, and the clarifying process of shadow-integration, see Morgaine’s 2007 article How Personal Shadow Work is Integral to Perceiving Reality. It’s seriously worth a read.

There’s one more tactic in the arsenal of the shadow-repressor we must discuss: stifling debate. When faced with evidence or critical thought, they mount ad hominem attacks on their opponent. They accuse them of being under the control of a “demon” or “black magician.” I know–because I’ve been a target:

…to the extent that he would allow himself to be used as a sword in the hand of the very Black Magician that controls Sean Prophet to cut and slash away at the character of Elizabeth Clare Prophet.

My position on my parents is clear, compassionate, and well documented. I’ve never said anything untrue about them. The quote above was referring to the recent comments of Harry S. about ECP, which are also 100% true. And I’ve supported my sister Erin in publishing her story, which aroused believers’ ire.

For the ‘crime’ of standing up for the truth in an uncompromising manner, I’ve been accused of being under the spell of a “Black Magician.” It’s patently absurd. It’s not something that’s falsifiable or even observable. If I suddenly changed and told believers what they wanted to hear, they would change their tune and declare that I had now cast off the “Black Magician” and was now speaking as my “true self.” You can’t win. “Possession” is an intellectually dishonest rhetorical trick believers use to block out any sources of inconvenient information. It’s par for the course, which is why it’s time for them to change their course.

Demons and dragons may spin a good yarn for top-grossing fantasy movies. But if we want to avoid self-delusion and make moral progress, a quixotic fight against “demons” is exactly the wrong move. We must instead slay our pretenses toward the supernatural itself: by keeping the angel and devil archetypes in our imagination where they belong. We must accept agency and responsibility for all of our actions–and hold others to the same standard.

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Comments (24 comments)

amina / January 3rd, 2009, 7:14 am / #1

very interesting article, Sean , thank you for posting this
it reminds me of all the work done by Hal and Sidra STONE about sub-personalities and "voice dialogue", whih is a method to explore our own light lght and dark sides, to grow and be more at peace with ourselves
do you know this method?
it works really well to integrate and understand the shadow parts that are disowned (or ignored)
to add to what you are saying, another danger that comes from denying the shadow parts of oneself is to PROJECT them unto others and onto the "outside world", which can lead to conflict and paranoia

BlackSun / January 3rd, 2009, 7:42 am / #2

Buzz, even though it's outlandish, at least it's visionary architecture and some of the buildings are being built. I thought it was going to be some Creationist site.

BlackSun / January 3rd, 2009, 7:44 am / #3

Amina, I wasn't familiar with the Stone's work. But they seem like solid Jungians. To me, any method which facilitates the identification and dialog with sub-personalities can only create greater self-awareness.

Buzz / January 3rd, 2009, 8:07 am / #4

Imagination…

*silence*

Do a Google search on "Creagination".

Amaterasu / January 7th, 2009, 9:41 am / #5

I am interested in the reference to the primal brain. According to what I've been reading in "Emotional Intelligence", by Daniel Goleman, the human brain evolved somewhat like this: There's the primitive root, the brain stem surrounding the top of the spinal cord, and from this emerged the most ancient root of our emotional life in the form of olfactory lobe, cells which take in and analyze smell. From the olfactory lobe evolved the limbic system and as it evolved it refined things such as learning and memory. Responses where fine tuned to ensure survival. The gradual evolution of the neocortex enhanced ability to plan, predict, strategise.
But the part of the brain I find most fascinating is known as the "amygdala", found each side of the brain and developed at the time of the primitive "nose brain". The amygdala "is the specialist for emotional matters". Incoming experiences are scanned by the amygdala before these experiences get through to the rational part of the brain, and can actually bypass the neocortex.. If there is enough stimulus for fear or danger, the the amygdala can cause a hasty reaction that appears to be irrational, essentially commandeering the rational brain. This has evolved for a reason ~ survival.
People with the amygdala removed are emotionally nutured. Animals that have had the amygdala removed lose their drive to survive, are bereft of competitiveness, anger, and sense of social order.
How this relates to this post, I would suggest that we can all think of an example where our responses may have seemingly been way out of proportion to the stimulating event, for example, road rage. Certain amygdala prompted reactions could be viewed as shadow behavior.

When I was at a Summit Lighthouse gathering, a young woman was describing how her usually gentle and calm brother, flew into a rage when she was talking about "the light". Apparently, after listening to her new age waffle, he bust out in a scream, "You don't really believe all that shit, do you!!!!!!???" And there followed a very uncomfortable silence.
The woman recounted to us how she could see that here there was clearly the evidence of the "rage entity" around her brother.
Maybe it was a brain hijack by that fascinating "amygdala" or maybe it's just simply total fed-upedness.
But it weren't no ghosts.

And this sort of gossip about other people having "entities" also has an evolutionary basis. When groups gossip, it serves to knit them closer together, which enhances their chances for survival. I heard this recently ~ if relevant to the post perhaps someone would like to expand on that idea.

Where the unconscious fits into all this amazing, complex, delicate, arduously evolved brain circuitry, I'm still trying to understand.

Thanks for bringing forward this interesting topic.

bipolar2 / January 8th, 2009, 7:07 am / #6

** Nostalgia for the supernatural? **

The power of myth — myths embody ideals — is emotive and non-rationally motivating. What “understanding” comes from mythological interpretations of nature, of human nature, or human action?

Mythological explanations explain nothing. They may be psychologically satisfying, but such satisfaction has nothing to do with truth. Truth, contrary to the lying line of xian thinking, need be neither beautiful, nor good, nor emotively satisfying.

Who is an anti-supernaturalist? One who opposes any doctrine of any otherworldly realm, whether of Platonic ideas, Aristotelian entelechies, gods, demons, spirits, minds, karma, reincarnation.

Western thinkers began their long trek from mythological pseudo-explanation to conceptual explanation — beginning with the skepticism of Xenophanes in 600 BCE, Other early Greek radicals — Democritus 500 BCE, the Sophists and Thucydides 400 BCE, Epicurus 300 BCE.

The dominant source of “ideals” in the West for 2,000 years, xianity has from its inception hated empirical knowledge and rationality. (See 1 Corinthians1:1-30) It has attacked, demeaned, and destroyed works of rational skepticism since 200 CE.

Xianity’s faith in the ideal — a supernaturally ordered hierarchy intended to be imitated on Earth — is dead, just as Nietzsche announced.

Xianity’s vast metaphysical bulk slowly recycles into nescience through exposure to healthy derision and rational methodology.

bipolar2 © 2009

BlackSun / January 8th, 2009, 11:44 am / #7

According to Marvin Minsky in The Emotion Machine

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Emotion_Machine

emotions are shorthand for aggregating great bundles of information relevant to the survival of the organism. Without self-preservation instincts, it would be impossible to feel emotions. The brain might process information, but wouldn't really have any reason to feel strongly one way or the other. It is the desire for survival and dominance that generates the strength of our emotions. Understanding these instincts in others and being able to respond appropriately is what to me makes up Emotional Intelligence. (But I have not read the book.)

Accordingly, as you said, the amygdala can cause immediate responses to danger before the conscious mind is even aware of it. This conveyed a survival advantage over those who had to think and decide about a threat before taking action.

I think the purpose of gossip is to convey information about people's actions which raise or lower their social standing and reputation in the group. It's part of jockeying for position–keeping track of the pecking order. So it does have a useful function. But it's also open to abuse and manipulation, where cheaters and slackers spread lies and rumors about others to deflect attention from their own shenanigans.

Accusing someone of harboring "entities" might be a way of casting aspersions on their reputation, or as a prelude to killing–such as this incident which just happened in New Guinea where a woman was burned alive after being accused of "witchcraft."

http://www.cnn.com/2009/WORLD/asiapcf/01/08/png.w...

Accusations of witchcraft and demon (entity) possession are leftovers from humanity's really really dark tribal past. There's utterly no excuse for that kind of bullshit being propagated in the modern world.

People who accuse others of being possessed should be flat-out ashamed of themselves.

Steve / January 12th, 2009, 2:19 am / #8

Sean,

I thought that you might find this interesting:

http://www.religioustolerance.org/chr_prac2.htm

Best Regards,

Steve

harry s. / January 14th, 2009, 2:10 am / #9

Super Imagination

Interesting post, Sean, and excellent comments.

I would like to share one of the more grandiose imaginings which was created within the mythos-history of the Summit Lighthouse, as a reference for just how exaggerated imagination can get with the mixture of exalted person and supplicant devotee. This thread is about imagination. See what can emerge when an overdevoted chela leaps beyond his rational mind and personal observation, and science, to behold a metaphysical power that never really existed, but which became part of the larger than life persona of the messenger Mark Prophet.

In many ways i admired Mark but this is part of how he let the myth grow out of proportion. This comes directly from Reichardt's book about Mark, paraphrased:

Alex and Mark were setting out in a vehicle, traveling to a place in Detroit where Mark was to give a lecture. Alex was assigned to get directions, and did so with a road map. As they drove they realized they were on a dirt road, not necessarily the perfect fastest route to the destination. Mark castigated Alex for his dumb error in getting directions which meant he might not make it in time, but they proceeded along the route, and behold, they managed to arrive at the site in time for Mark to give his lecture.

Alex's explanation was that he later came to learn (apparently from Mark) that Mark had "transcended space and time" in order to get to his appointed place. Sort of like Superman flying backwards around the earth, to spin time in reverse. To my knowledge,other than Superman in the movie, in all the annals of masters, magicians, the Brotherhood, the Adepts, and Yogis, none of them have ever claimed to actually transcend time and space, shrink time, in the physical world, to get somewhere quicker, by bridging over the normal flow of time.

So this feat would either be a siddha, a yogic power, of such a magnitude as to never have been achieved or even mentioned as a possibility. If you believe in time travel, i would guess it is not by jumping ahead in the physical world to beat the manmade clock in order to shrink the fabric of time itself, along with a car, luggage, another lower-level person, and probably a bucket of food and ice. There are accounts of yogis bi-locating two bodies in two places at the same time. There are stories of angels and adepts appearing somewhere instantly when needed, jumping from location to location without the passage of time, and for those who believe these are real occurences, the mechanism is assumed to be functioning in a plane above the physical in which time does not exist as we know it on earth.

But in the history written by Alex, and part of the mythos, Mark could transport the car and everything in it. That takes quite an imagination. Please, correct me if i am wrong.

BlackSun / January 14th, 2009, 2:34 am / #10

harry s.

Great points. This is typical of how believers made statements about the messengers they'd never really thought through. Many of these types of myths would literally require the complete rewrite of the laws of physics. They also assume a level of perfection that is scary. Imagine anyone in the world having that kind of power. It would quickly turn nightmarish for everyone else. Of course this also ignores the reality of both my parents untimely demise. Dad through brain stroke, mom from Alzheimers.' If you can stop time, teleport objects, etc. you'd think dealing with high blood pressure or amyloid plaque would be a walk in the park.

To which believers respond: "It was all a part of God's plan."

In other words, there's absolutely nothing that would not be according to "God's plan." It's the same twisted logic as in Christian apologetics, except instead of being applied to Christ's ability to work miracles vs. him "allowing himself" to be crucified–applied to a modern so-called prophet.

I just don't get what makes Alex think he's so special as to have been accorded the privilege of serving as "slave" to the one and only modern "man of miracles" appointed directly by God himself.

And for that matter, what about all the other deserving people who work hard, sacrifice, and end up being late to their meetings because they can't stop time? It would be laughable if the premise wasn't so sinister and hostile to ordinary "unenlightened" mortals. We're just prisoners of physics. Poor us.

I say it's a lot of hubris and hot air and, sorry to say, the product of a sick mind.

DavidVaughn / January 14th, 2009, 9:34 am / #11

__the supernatural is axiomatically what we do not presently understand. This falls within the actual province of science - to study it so that we can come to understand. ____To believe in the supernatural as equally or more real than the natural order is to place belief before understanding, to invade its province, as it were, and to make the understanding subject to the meaningless authority of belief. This demonstrates a will to believe that takes precedence in the mind over the will to understand. ____Invariably when understanding is compromised, the mind reshapes its understanding to fit its beliefs and gradually reduces its ability to understand to only those things which confirm its belief. This may provide fertile ground for the imagination to fill in the many gaps of absurdity that lie between its posited belief and its former understanding, but it is also the mechanism by which delusion takes hold of a formerly sane mind. ____I____

DavidVaughn / January 14th, 2009, 11:19 am / #12

I once saw a lady on a Christian tv station talk for two hours correlating the Harry Potter books with satanism. I was impressed with the inventiveness of her imagination, but, to my mind, she never really "read" the books; the correlation was already there, so that is what she read out of the books. To me what she did was tantamount to witchcraft, she cast a spell over the minds of her listeners so that all they would ever see in Harry Potter was the work of the devil.
Supernaturalists infect each other with the energy of despair- they are teetering on the abyss of meaninglessness because they secretly fear that what they believe is actually meaningless. Mix denial with despair and what you get is fanaticism. Understanding is the antidote to fanaticism and despair. Commit yourself to the will to understand and what you end up believing will always be meaningful.

BlackSun / January 15th, 2009, 12:01 pm / #13

David,

I would distinguish between something we don't understand (undiscovered) from the theoretically impossible (square circles) or unknowable (origins or "creator" of the universe, purpose or intent of existence, if any).

People use the will to believe to project into all three of those areas. The first, science can penetrate. The other two we have to live with. People don't like unknowns. Which is a good thing for science. But when those who haven't accepted scientific discipline get into the act, watch out.

amina / January 17th, 2009, 12:42 pm / #14

I am realizing the correlation between what we are saying about imaginary beliefs about the "messengers" in CUT and what ils teached by the catholic church about jesus being the son of god, walkin on water and ressucitating,etc
as a child I was fed with this information "raw" with no explanation about the symblolic aspects of it, which I later found in CUT , by the way
is is one of the reasons I was always interested in esoteric thinking, to make sense of all these bizarre and supernatural information received in the catholic church
recently I went to a guest house/convent held by catholic nons
this place is a place for groups or indivuduals who come there for rest, vacation or seminars
the nons are only two or three for 100 rooms or so, they work all day long to clean , cook, serve, etc the people who come there
they are old and sometimes Ican tell they get tired and even exhausted of this work
but they never complain and always put up a "happy' face
just like people on staff in CUT ("we are gratefull of being slaves")
Isaw all the simlilarities with a cult, it was interesting to observe

Steve / January 17th, 2009, 6:15 pm / #15

Sean,

Although this is a bit off topic, I couldn't resist. This is one of the funniest, best blog posts that I've ever read!

http://generalsystemsvehicle.blogspot.com/2008/12...

Also, for you and your readers who may not know about this already, I'd like to point out a very useful website: http://www.gigapedia.com.There are dozens of thousands of book links here, many of them academic. Just sign up for a free account and go. For example, you can find Michael Gazzaniga's "Human: The Science Behind What Makes Us Unique" here. Once you have an account, do a search on "Gazzaniga" and scroll through the list of matches. Click on the relevant link, and you'll see a few tabs at the top of the resulting page. Select the "links" tab, and you'll see a couple of servers that you can download the PDF file from. Most of the PDF's are "rar'd," which means that you'll need WinRAR to unrar them before you'll be able to read them.

Rapidshare.com lets you download a few files for free each day, but you can also pay around $60 for full access for six months. Since no one can actually read as much as they can download in a day, even for those who can't afford the money, this shouldn't be a problem.

This is the most important website that I've ever found since the beginning of the web! I was stunned to find most of the books that I've been lusting over for months. The philosophy and history (and many other) sections are priceless. I'm a firm believer in education and the power of knowledge to slowly liberate us from superstition, dogmatism, and fear, and to promote human flourishing. I hope that you find this as useful as I have.

Happy Reading!

Steve

BlackSun / January 17th, 2009, 8:45 pm / #16

Steve, good stuff. I commented over there. I really appreciate good writing, and even more when pressed into the service of truth-telling. I'm also reading the Gazzaniga book now.

BlackSun / January 18th, 2009, 1:04 am / #17

amina,

Often times you hear the pious criticizing atheists by saying "they can't imagine being a part of anything larger than themselves." What they really mean is "they can't imagine being subservient to and fearful of something larger than themselves."

They make it seem as if self-motivation and independence always devolve toward a destructive narcissism, and is something to be avoided.

But in reality, they have bought into the most brutal master-slave relationship imaginable. The one that dominates people from inside.

Steve / January 18th, 2009, 3:07 am / #18

Sean,

I hope you'll forgive me for posting yet another off topic comment. It's an excerpt from a slightly longer post to exmormon.org, which itself is a redaction of a message to my friend Aaron on his "Duplicitous Primates" blog. I don't know what the truth (if that word even means anything definite) is, but I think that there's so much suffering and horror in the world that an occasional digression into hopeful Romanticism can encourage us to keep our minds and hearts open to the possibility of finding joy. Without hope, we are lost.

Here's the excerpt:

(Part 1 of 3)

No one is afraid of death. We are afraid of the bodily sensations that we experience and the thoughts that we think when we imagine our bodies succumbing to disease and impairment, causing ever greater pain, to the point of death. We are afraid of pain (naturally), but even contemplating pain creates echos of the real thing within us. Through imagination, we can create an echo of reality–either as it is or as we imagine that it might be. Our cognitive biases virtually ensure that we get it wrong most of the time.

However, we're not blind. We read tales of people in their death throes. We know what it's like to have water go down "the wrong way," and be unable to breathe. We immediately experience panic, our faces might turn read, we begin to wheeze, our heart rate quickly accelerates, we look around us for help. We experience fear and sometimes pain, but the bodily sensations of fear, which precipitate thoughts of our own demise, trigger a positive feedback loop of escalating sympathetic nervous system activation until either we recover or die.

Again, I say that fear of death is the experience of certain highly unpleasant and incapacitating physical sensations in the body as we contemplate the dying process, as we imagine it to be. When we have a long time to contemplate the dying process–such as in the tragic case of long-term cancer–I would expect that our anxiety would be all the greater. We would imagine all the more scenarios–virtually an infinite number.

Therefore, what we call the fear of death is really aversive sensations arising from certain bodily experiences rooted in life: specifically, anxiety, sympathetic nervous system arousal, and anticipation of physical and psychic pain. The capacity to feel such fear is literally wired deeply into our brain.

The idea of death is a concept, and when we write about the fear of death, what we're really doing is telling a story. It's a narrative with a beginning, a middle, and an ending. This story correlates in greater or lesser degree with what's happening to us on the bodily level, namely disease, organ failure, and the entire process through which an individual organism goes until conscious life as a human person can no longer be sustained and ceases.

As we imagine dying, the content of our cognitions that accompanies the visceral physiological sensations that constitute fear's affective aspect are such that they prime the organism to try to fight or escape, which is usually impossible, or it involves ideas about loss and sensory deactivation (darkness in place of sight, deafness in place of hearing, and so on, as if we were losing parts of ourselves until only a disembodied mind, unable to perceive or communicate, exists in an imagined pitch-dark vortex). The latter form of thought content only serves to create a positive feedback loop that intensifies the fear response, causing misery. Add to this the physical pain associated with dying, and the conditions are ripe for enormous suffering. It's no wonder that most of us are terrified of the dying process (which is what we really mean when we say that we're afraid of death).

Fear of death (again, more accurately, the imagined process of dying, with its affective, physiological sensations, namely anxiety and pain) is interesting, in that death, or dying, are ideas; they're narratives. That we can be afraid of ideas that occur to us while we're in robust health at, say, the age of twenty-five, sitting in front of a roaring fireplace in a luxurious cabin in Flagstaff, Arizona, next to our terrier wagging his tail delightfully on one side of us and our adoring, bombshell girlfriend, whom we deeply love, on the other, sipping egg nog, is rather amazing.

(Continued in part 2 of 3, below.)

Steve / January 18th, 2009, 3:09 am / #19

(Part 2 of 3)

But we are, indeed, afraid of ideas–some more so than others. Some seek out risk, whereas others do everything in their power to avert it. This has much to do with genes and early learning history in life. Then, there are the truly fortunate individuals, who score very low on the neuroticism dimension of various psychological instruments (tests), who don't seem to experience much anxiety over anything. In my mind, these individuals are greatly blessed, if that's the right word to use.

Of course, being afraid of dying is a proactive, biological mechanism to avoid risk. It can keep us out of trouble (safe, alive), but as the body gets older, our behavior has less and less effect on longevity. One's age is the best predictor of the probability of dying.

It's not death, or even the dying process, that seems to me to be the problem that causes us so much misery as we contemplate our own finitude. Instead, it's the cascade of chemical reactions that occur within our brains and nervous systems, in general, that bring about unpleasant physiological sensations that make us feel miserable. When chronic, these impair the strength of our immune system, making us more susceptible to disease and leading us precisely in the direction that we want to forestall: disease and, ultimately, death.

It is not death, but the fear of death, that contributes to incalculable suffering and misery, not only for those who are dying (or anxious about dying decades hence), but for those around them–friends, loved ones, family members. If only we could find a way to turn (way) down our chronically activated sympathetic nervous systems, I'm supremely confident that we would all live much, much better, happier lives and accomplish a great deal, having shed the brake of fear.

So what is the antidote to this debilitating fear (which we can legitimately generalize not only regarding death, but fear about our children's safety and well-being, about paying bills, about being seen positively by others as valuable and capable individuals, etc.)?

In a word, love.

I'm going to make some generalizations that will necessarily have possibly many exceptions, but I present my thoughts here as a point of departure for further discussion rather than as a definitive statement of my beliefs, which are constantly evolving as I acquire new information.

I believe that, as a woman wrote in the most recent issue of _Psychology Today_, love is the continual pursuit of a secure relationship with someone else who provides us with safety and emotional nourishment. When we feel loved, such as when our beloved spouse (if we're fortunate enough to have one) is present in a room full of strangers, it allows us an almost miraculous psychic liberation that allows us to act confidently toward others and go out and shake hands with strangers, comfortably look them in the eye, and enjoy their company. But without knowing that that magical being, one's spouse, is near at hand, or even far away in a hotel room but still present, you're just as likely to clam up, feel anxiety and diffidence, and stare at your feet or mill about without having anywhere to go, all the while wishing that you could escape because you feel completely socially incompetent and don't want to make a complete fool of yourself. How amazing that just the thought of having someone who unconditionally loves and believes in you can completely transform your experience of reality. What greater gift than this can there be?

Yes, drugs help. Benzodiazepines are a godsend for me, and numerous other sufferers of anxiety. But I feel certain that if I had the boyfriend–the husband–of my dreams, my Luke, such drugs would be utterly unnecessary. No drug can cuddle up against you, put its arms around you, tell you a joke, ruffle your hair, and tell you how much it loves, and adores, you, or, on a whim, drag you into a car, drive to a carnival, ride Ferris wheels and eat cotton candy with you, and spend the night laughing, soaking up novel sights and sounds, and kissing under starlight, oblivious of the rest of the world.

I met an amazing woman at the ex-Mormon conference that I attended. She had such a tremendous gift with making people comfortable and welcome. It came so naturally to her that her gift is on the level of pure genius. She gives great hugs, too. It just amazed me how she was able to bridge very different people together and make everyone feel valued and appreciated. I can't imagine any greater gift. She was as beautiful on the inside as she was on the outside, and that's saying a lot. We need so many more people with her gift. It would alleviate so much suffering and conflict in the world. I really admire and like her.

(Continued in part 3 of 3, below.)

Steve / January 18th, 2009, 3:10 am / #20

(Part 3 of 3)

As Frank Herbert wrote in his novel, _Dune_, "Fear is the mind-killer." Yes, and it's also the life-killer. I think that everyone who is able to diminish their level of fear about life commensurately opens up new vistas for experience. If fear leads to contraction, a mischievous confidence with a taste for adventure opens up a life to us that many of us can't even imagine exists. It's within reach, if only we can somehow find a way to cross the long and rickety bridge of our fears onto solid ground, laughter, glasses clinking in toasts celebrating life, under the beams of moonlight that remind us that romance infuses life with delight and all the meaning that one could ever dream for.

The secret to finding love is perhaps the biggest challenge that we face. Not everyone was constituted in such a way as to get along well with everyone else, but when it does happen–spontaneously–such as it did with Luke and me, the whole world becomes a numinous gift from the universe, a playground for adventure and joy.

How can we find The One, or Ones, to love, to establish secure and permanent connections with, those who inspire, invigorate, nurture, soothe, and protect us? How can we find great matches? Some of us know in our hearts that we can't compromise. We intuit that there really is a The One, and that he or she is looking just as hard for us as we are for them.

The physical sensations of joy correspond, inversely, to those of fear. Happiness is the flip-side of misery. Sometimes we forget that. Even though Joseph Smith's Myth is a fairy tale, there's one aphorism that I've always loved: "Man is, that he might have joy."

Joy comes first and foremost from relationships–not reluctant and pragmatic marriages, but love-at-first-sight passion that finds endless ways of expressing, reaffirming, and reinvigorating itself across decades. Our needs are so great. The quality of our lives depends on finding who we're looking for. And yet our time on this planet is so brief.

In my view, if only we could find a way–through the aid of science and good sense–to help all people find their The One–our world would quickly become a paradise. We would work hard for each other because we would want to make the world better for our life mates. We want them to live in a world where they neither personally suffer nor ever see misery in others: no poverty, no crime, no disease.

We're all in this together. Why do we hide behind computer screens and anonymous nicknames? It's because we're afraid of rejection, or that someone who seems amazing on the screen is, in reality, not the Romeo or Juliet that we so desperately want them to be, but quite possibly a desperate hanger-on, psychic or financial leech, and threat.

Let's break down the walls and meet each other, and talk with each other face-to-face, and not be so concerned with impression management, but authenticity.

These may seem like ideals, but without ideals, we're lost. Let's *try*! The potential rewards are inestimable and ineffable.

Life is a battle of faith opposing fear. If we can find a way to love others, to do good, and to cause others no harm, we'll have gone a long way in creating and living the meaningful life that we're forever waiting to happen *to* us.

As I've said before, the most important lesson of the near-death experience is that this life, right now, matters. Not an afterlife. Not a pre-birth life. This life. The eternity of now, and now, and now.

I hope that we can all find it within ourselves to love ourselves enough to value our lives enough to strive to live them to the fullest degree possible, and not have any regrets. Maybe, just maybe, a happy life can lead to a happy death and, best of all, the greatest surprise of a lifetime: not only more life, but eternal adventure, and never ending progress beyond our wildest hopes.

Steve

andreas mannal / June 25th, 2009, 10:23 pm / #21

I took part in the "inter galactic clesnsing session" of "astral hordes and forces". To me it seemed like 'cosmic housekeeping': "I Just did all the damned dishes a few days ago, and here they are again "demon possessed" for another cleansing action. I also have a tendency to take a shower every day. It has to do with those bacteria and viruses and some social convention, especially in the U.S., about what "stinks".

What seems to be the issue is the helpless dualism of assuming some "external forces of evil" that can do me harm. I thought Mark L.Prophet innately understood this 'dilemma of fear and paranoia'. Elizabeth Clare Prophet on the other hand seemed to be preoccupied with the paranoid dualism of some "opposing and threatening force" that needs to be nipped in the butt 24/7. It was probably her "mother instinct" for the ones entrusted to her guidance?

I rather stick with Ramana Maharshi on this issue of the mind "projecting all over time and space". Where is the cause of "evil" or "failure" to begin with? If it is somewhere else, in somebody else, I have become a victim of dualism and the illusion of materialistic substance.

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