Articles By Nevill Drury From The Visionary Human
Mystical Consciousness and Paranormal Perspectives
The word 'visionary' means different things to different people. For some it has the connotation of one who is a dreamer, who is out of touch with reality, or who spends time speculating on essentially impractical ideas or schemes. However a visionary may also be a person who sees more clearly, who can anticipate possibilities and who can look beyond appearances. This is the emphasis I am dropping here, for I am concerned primarily with the visionary as a person who has greater access to states of reality than is normally the case. Note that I used the word 'states' in the plural: much of this book will deal with the concept that there are many planes of reality available to human perception and that our normal consciousness restricts us to but a small range within the spectrum of experiential possibilities.
An interesting example of what I am referring to here is provided by an artist I know who suffered both a near-death experience and a stroke that left him partially paralysed. However, as a result of these experiences he had a highly developed 'psychic' awareness: he was able to project his consciousness beyond his body, see through physical walls and observe discarnate human forms in the street outside his outside. These forms would come and go and seemed to co-exist quite happily with physical reality. This particular artist is quite a down-to-earth person and had no belief in 'ghosts' prior to his stroke. However, he became curious about these spectral beings were. When he described their appearances to his neighbours he discovered that he was actually able to identify some of them as deceased former residents of the streets where he lived.
Examples of this sort are a challenge to our familiar concepts of 'reality'. I am taking the position here unashamedly, but supported, I believe, by a large body of evidence that mystics, artists and visionaries who explore transpersonal and paranormal realms of consciousness have access to a broader terrain of sensory and inspirational information.
There is no doubting that the area of mysticism, visionary consciousness and the paranormal will, to some, seem very suspect indeed. However, I hope that even sceptics will find some encouragement here at least to raise questions about what we regard as 'normal reality'. After all, our scientifically developed world-view in modern western society is itself an intellectual construct and, while it has served us well, there are clear signs that our paradigms of reality are in need of some revision or at least expansion. Such concepts as mystical enlightenment and visionary consciousness are, for some most people, at the edge of normal human experience. Events of this sort do not happen very often and are certainly not mainstream in terms of the everyday reality most of us are familiar with. But then our particular society, which emphasises a pragmatic materialist approach to reality, does not like to dwell overmuch on areas of human experience which are difficult to quantify, measure or anticipate. Our scientific method, which demands replication, insists that new hypotheses be tested against what has been systematically established already. This is all well and good, but it means that our world- view is necessarily and inherently reductionist. When new types of data comes along that impinge on our dominant paradigms, our first instinct is to ignore them or sweep them under the carpet.
I believe that much of the emerging paranormal data falls into this 'too hard' category. As readers will see later in this book, there are profound implications for philosophy, science, psychology and religion in the now extensive evidence relating to out-of-the-body consciousness and the near-death experience. It also seems to me that we need to devote more particular attention to the study of altered states of consciousness in general, for such states are an intrinsic part of the human condition.
The eminent American psychologist Dr Charles Tart has proposed the idea of 'state-specific science' science where the mode of investigation is specifically adapted to the area it is investigating. Tart has emphasized that it is rather difficult for a scientist used to exploring physical processes to be equally adept at evaluating such inner workings of the psyche as mystical consciousness or out-of-the-body perception especially if he has had no personal experience of states like these. And it is worth emphasizing that our modern western science, for all its achievements, has its greatest expertise in dealing with and exploring external reality. It is much less at home accounting for the events which arise in the inner world of the mind and spirit.
Nevertheless, as human beings, we all recognise that we live both in the outer and the inner worlds of experience. Our brains and nervous systems receive stimuli from the external world and, through complex processes of sensory coding, establish an operative perceptual realty in which we can function. Understandably, most of us assume that 'reality is out there' but in fact the world we perceive is only a construction. The human brain is the end-product of some 3000 million years of biological evolution and the reason we see the way we do, and agree substantially on a 'consensus reality', is because as human beings we have all evolved with comparable facilities. The psychologist Dr Robert Ornstein expresses this very succinctly as follows:
Personal consciousness is outward orientated [and] seems to have evolved for the primary purpose of ensuring individual biological survival We first select the sensory modalities of personal consciousness from the mass of information reaching us. This is done by a multi-level process of filtration, for the most part sorting out survival-related stimuli. We are then able to construct a stable consciousness from the filtered input.
So is the world of physical reality the only reality? The data on parapsychology, mysticism and visionary consciousness, as well as information provided by the study of cognitive anthropology, mythology and comparative religion, suggests it is not. It is through the inner world of the psyche that fluid domain of inspirational images, dreams, fantasies and sacred archetypes that human cultures have derived their mythologies, cosmologies, religious beliefs, art, music and literature. The psyche, after all, is the wellspring of creativity and it is through imagery that the inner realm are revealed to us.
As Mike and Nancy Samuels note in their exemplary book Seeing With The Mind's Eye: 'An image held in the mind is a direct experience of the inner world. In the outer world we limited by the laws of matter in what we can experience. In the inner world there is no limit to what we can experience.'
If this is so, why do so many members of our philosophical and scientific community play down its significance? Freud regarded mystical consciousness not as an experiential breakthrough but as a regression to a primitive, infantile state of human development. Professor Richard Gregory, a former Director of the Brain and Perception Laboratory at the University of Bristol, has been similarly disparaging:
To the mystic, dreams and hallucinations are insights into another world of reality and truth. To these thinkers the brain is a hindrance to understanding a filter between us and a supraphysical reality Thee down-to-earth, however, including the empiricist philosophers the brain is to be trusted only in health, and hallucinations, although interesting and perhaps suggestive, are no more than aberrant outputs of the brain, to be mistrusted and feared To physiologists hallucinations and dreams are due to spontaneous activity of the brain, unchecked by sensory data.
Dr Steven Rose, Professor of Biology at Britain's Open University, has similarly written in his book The Conscious Brain: 'It is highly probably that in due course it will be possible to explain the "mystic experience" in terms of neurobiology.' Like Professor Gregory, Rose's view of mystical and visionary experience is that essentially it is a pathological condition.
The techniques of obtaining a mystic experience are all, whether quick and chemical or long and physical, those of diminishing the effectiveness of the cortex, of temporarily blasting some of its circuits, by means of food or sleep deprivation, or by excessive sensory input, or by thrusting a biochemical spanner into the cerebral worksIn so far as the function of the brain is to enable the organism to exist in harmony with, survive in, operate upon, and understand the environment of its owner, the non-mystic brain manifestly functions better than the mystic one. The survival value of the mystic experience is low, and in evolutionary terms its potential or desirability is clearly equally low. Like poetry, music or art, its effects may be a moving and significant part of the experience of being human. But so, for some, may be the artificial induction of an epileptic fit by stroboscopic flashes.
However, such perspectives are really predicated on a conventional assumption of what it means to be 'normal'. Orthodox Western psychology and biology tend to regard human consciousness simply as a by- product of the electrochemical functioning of the brain and nervous system. Human beings consists at a fundamental level of a cluster of physical parts a skeleton, muscles, tendons, a system of veins and arteries, internal organs, sense receptors and a nervous system and when these parts function efficiently together, such humans are able to operate and perceive the real world. As Dr Gunther Stent, Professor of Molecular Biology at the University of California, Berkley, has put it:
Most biologists arenaïve realists, just as are most practising scientists. Like people-in-the-street, they believe that there exists a real world of things external to them and independent of their experience of it and that this real world actually is as they see, hear, feel and smell it.
So any departure from normal brain functions is by definition abnormal, any venture into altered states of consciousness necessarily 'pathological'. After all, as Dr Gregory has noted, our normal perceptual filter processes restrict such psychic imagery from waking consciousness and thereby keep us 'sane'.
However, the situation may not be as clear-cut or as selfevident as these as these conventional perspectives suggest. One can pose the question: What if we were able to integrate such visionary impressions into our consciousness without having them disrupt our external reality? What if we could integrate these psychic events in such a way that they could enrich our lives rather than unleash a state of confusion or disorder? This, I would suggest, is the crux of the issue: it is not the visionary images themselves which are the problem; it is how we assimilate and apply such perceptions in our lives. A misguided teenager who takes LSD and then drives a car off a cliff-edge while under the illusion that he can fly like an eagle has clearly failed to integrate the visionary impressions he has received in his altered state. But an artist or musician whose creative vision enables him to communicate more sensitively, or with greater insight and expression, has certainly used his intuitive faculties to great benefit. So it is more a matter of how we engage ourselves in the visionary encounter with the mind than whether the information reaching our brains derives from a 'real' or an 'imaginary' source.
Nevertheless, such states are not always easy to describe and this is possibly a reason for their lack of scientific recognition. Mystics have often referred to transcendental experiences as 'awesome' or 'ineffable', but terms like these do little to convey the transformational qualities of such experiences.
Fortunately, while researching this book, I was able to discuss this issue with the well-known consciousness researcher, Dr Timothy Leary. His response was very much to the point:
The brain processes 125 million signals per second, so there's a lot of show-biz going on inside the brain. In the psychedelic or visionary experience the brain operates using algorithms which are much more complex, bur essentially similar to those used by a computer. All through history, mystics and visionaries have come back from their experiences saying 'Wow, it's ineffable you can't put it into words.' Words are just lumbering along at two or three a second and your brain is pouring out at 125 million signals a second. Great artists occasionally have come back from their voyages within with 'still shots' or 'snap shots', as it were. Hieronymus Bosch is one who comes to mind. The great visionary musicians and film-makers all have the ability to make explicit some of the wonder and complexity of the inner panoramaAll matter and energy in the universe is just frozen information.
At this stage we should also distinguish between the words 'mystical' and 'visionary' since for many people they do not mean the same thing. The great Swiss psychologist, Carl Jung, believed that mysticism was a fundamental category of human experience and that it was grounded in the encounter between the ego and the 'numinous' such psychospiritual events taking place deep in the collective unconscious, or the mythic levels of the mind. However, other commentators have distinguished between western mysticism, which places more emphasis on visions and revelations, and eastern mysticism, which regards visionary imagery as essentially illusory. As Dr Arthur Deikman explains, mysticism takes us finally beyond form and appearance: 'Repeatedly the mystical literature stresses that sensate experiences are not the goal of mysticism; rather it is only when these are transcended that one attains the aim of a direct (intuitive) knowledge of fundamental reality.'
Visionaries, on the other hand, are evoking images through their various approaches to the inner world: they can manifest them in their art, literature or religious belief systems. Some of these images may derive from relatively accessible regions of the psyche while more archetypal content comes from deeper and more profound levels. Some images, too, are metaphors pointing beyond form to the transcendent mystical reality Deikman is referring to.
So while visionary consciousness is a less transcendent realm of perception than the mystical experience of Unity Consciousness, any substantial expansion of our perceptual horizons beyond the purely physical is impressive enough. Even such transitional 'visionary' stages of consciousness demand new psychological refinements and revised frameworks of scientific evaluation. Out-of-the-body and near-death experiences are difficult to explain in terms of materialist reductionism and it would seem that, form a paranormal viewpoint, a return to some sort of variation on Descartes' mind/body dualism is called for. In operative waking consciousness, mind and body clearly function in tandem, but states of dissociate visionary consciousness require a very different model of causality. And while orthodox neurobiologists may be quite convinced that the physical brain is the source of consciousness, as the noted Philosopher and psychologist William James observed, it is by no means obvious, in terms of scientific observations, whether consciousness is generated by the brain or transmitted through it. As we will see, the paranormal evidence suggests strongly that the latter is the case.
My own belief is that the projection of consciousness beyond the normal frame of reference lies at the very heart of visionary illumination. A visionary, in these terms, in one who can transcend his familiar environs and enter the inner world of imaginal reality. Sometimes this inner journey may head off on a kind of psychic meandering but at other times it undoubtedly leads to experiential breakthroughs and even towards the mystical attainment of Unity Consciousness itself.
The visionary process can be disarmingly simple, as the following description of inspirational Taoist artists indicates.
Chinese painters are said to have lived for weeks on end in the mountains and forests, among animals, or even in the water, in order to lose themselves completely in nature. Mi Fei called an oddly shaped rock his brother; Fan K'uan (circa 1000 AD) lived in the mountains and forests, often spending the whole day upon a crag and gazing about him, just to drink the beauty of the countryside. Even when there was snow on the ground, he would wander to and fro by moon light, staring determinedly ahead, to achieve inspiration. Kao K'o-ming (tenth century AD) loved darkness and silence; he used to roam about in the wild and spend days on end contemplating the beauty of peaks and woods, oblivious of himself. When he reached home again he retired to a room where he would not be disturbed and allowed his soul to pass beyond the bounds of this world. In this condition he produced his pictures.
Keywords: Beyond Appearance, Visionary Human, Mystical Consciousness, Paranormal Perspectives, Nevill Drury, Intuition, Intuitive, Articles, UK, South Africa, Cape Town