Accountability and the human experience: spirit, consciousness and being (or not being) in bodies…

It's what's inside that counts...

It’s what’s inside that counts…

In ‘The Man With Two Brains’ brain surgeon Dr Michael Hfuhruhurr (Steve Martin) falls in love with a brain in a glass jar. Of course, what he’s actually fallen in love with is the spirit of the person once attached to a body in which that brain was living. Without giving away any spoilers, it’s safe to say the film is a sweet parody reminding us that beauty is on the inside rather than the outside. True love, so the story goes, occurs between unaccountably attracted soulmates not just from the magnetism of physical bodies. It’s about a spiritual connection our physical selves do not necessarily have total control over.

Embodying disembodied spirits

A spirit having a human experience or a human having a spiritual experience?

A spirit having a human experience or a human having a spiritual experience?

To be spiritual is to be aware of what lies beyond the physical world we can touch, see, hear, smell and taste. For many, spirituality is particularly about recognising and acknowledging the ‘spirit’ or ‘soul’ that lives temporarily within the physical body and physical world, but has no permanent reliance on either. This is understood as a spirit that will go on to live in other forms when that body can no longer serve it; and had a presence even before that body came into existence.

People with this outlook on spirituality and life often say ‘I am a spirit having a human experience’.

But why would a spirit want a human experience?

What is it about the human experience that the spirit is trying to learn from?

Human accountability to the spirit?

Caring for the future: embodied logic or spiritual imperative?

Caring for the future: embodied logic or spiritual imperative?

Spiritually minded people are often very sensitive to their responsibility to others in their actions. They endeavour to create relationships which nurture rather than undermine other people. They might have a particular interest in caring for the future of the planet, recognising that their spirit in this particular body will one day no longer need that physical environment, but believing nonetheless that they have a responsibility to leave the world in the best shape possible for future generations.

But I read an article today which got me thinking about what is probably actually the most unique thing about having a human experience (‘Embodied Spirituality’ by Cat Chapin-Bishop). It’s not necessarily our relationships with others, for those are understood to continue far beyond our earthbound existence. It probably isn’t even the experience of living in a physical world, because any living being can experience that, not just humans. For me, I think the most profound thing about being human is that – whether we do it as embodied spirits or as a random collection of cells governed partly by something we don’t really understand called consciousness – we do it from ‘inside’ or ‘as’ a body.

Human accountability to the body?

Many people have reported out-of-body experiences when their physical body has temporarily died but they experience consciousness as continuing. Whilst others deliberately pursue such an experience through meditation and astral projection. Increasingly scientific observations are also suggesting that consciousness can in fact be disembodied.

We often feel let down by our bodies

We often feel let down by our bodies

So the unique thing about being human is that we inhabit a physical body…

which we are consciously aware of…

BUT

That consciousness can also exist – at least in part and in some way – outside that body.

At times we are made consciously aware of our body. It may be during periods of physical illness or injury, or when our body’s limitations frustrate us. Or it might be when others judge us by our physical appearance, or by what we do or don’t do with our bodies. At times like that some people have an overwhelming urge to disown their body or to try and change it. From cosmetic surgery and dieting, to self-harm and suicide, us humans have developed a huge range of ways in which to articulate our frustration with our embodied existence.

So Cat Chapin-Bishop’s article made me think about the relationship between the spiritual and embodiment.

What does it feel like to be a spirit having a human experience in a body?

What does it feel like to be a human in a body who occasionally has out-of-body spiritual experiences?

What does it feel like to simply be a collection of cells with an unruly consciousness which sometimes ignores the known physical limits of existence and takes it upon itself to step outside the confines of the body it’s meant to be housed within?

Being without ‘Being’…?

Whatever our take on the human experience is, we often forget how essential our bodies really are to that experience. Not only as something which helps us do the things we want to do in the world – or tries to prevent us from achieving those things – but quite simply as the home to the spirit or consciousness which is leading us towards those things in the first place. That spirit or consciousness might exist independently in other ways we are yet to fully understand, but without the body the human experience of simply ‘being’ is lost.

We also often forget to just be in that body.

So I agree with Chaplin-Bishop. Remember how to be a body and how to live in that body, as fully and completely as you can. Because it won’t always be at your disposal; regardless of what you believe happens once it has gone.

Never forget to BE in your body!

Never forget to BE in your body!

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The Fool’s journey? Opening up academia to otherworldly travels…

Playing the fool or expanding horizons?

Playing the fool or expanding horizons?

‘Any fool can criticize, condemn and complain – and most fools do’.
(Benjamin Franklin)

Fools rush in…

Getting the SpELS Project (Spiritualism in the Everyday Life of Stoke-on-Trent) off the ground wasn’t easy. Academia tends to shy away from what it doesn’t understand; and Spiritualism is something academia on the whole fails to understand.

When I first started to conduct research into the lives of people who lived in a world where death doesn’t mark the end, but just the beginning of the next chapter, colleagues and publishers were reluctant to take me seriously. There is a long history of researchers (across both the social and natural sciences) who have developed an interest in the ‘otherworldly’ only to have it quashed by an establishment that ridicules them as fools. Professor Charles Emmons wrote about this very experience on the blog back in 2013.

Several years ago when I told a colleague I was studying angel healing, she laughed at me and said, ‘that’s ridiculous, angels don’t exist!’ Like a fool, however, I stuck my ground, found some likeminded curious ‘fools’, and began to develop a research career in this fascinating area. Because whether or not angels ‘exist’ in the way we currently understand ‘reality’ to exist, a belief in angels and other otherworldly beings is growing in modern British society. And as I’ve discovered from previous research, such beliefs have a big impact on people’s lives in all sorts of ways.

Seeing the light…

A perfect venue...

A perfect venue…

So SpELS has emerged as a result of a small group of (possibly foolish) academics persevering with our journey, and the project is now well and truly launched. On Tuesday evening we invited all our participants from Gladstone Pottery Museum, the three Spiritualist Churches at Fenton, Burslem and Longton, together with the advisory board members along to a celebration of the project at The Church Bar and Restaurant in Hanley. We chose this particular venue because it was home to Hanley Spiritualist Church for the best part of a century.

When she took it over the new owner, Diane McDaid, was keen to renovate the property in a way which was sensitive to its former use. The result is an impressive restaurant and bar with lovely food, some interesting ghostly stories and the added attraction of Tuesday Tarot nights!

Diane explains the journey from church to restaurant

Diane explains the journey from church to restaurant

Tarot is a very popular tool used by spiritually curious people for self-development. But it’s also popular more generally among people who – like the Church Bar and Restaurant’s Tuesday night diners – just want some insight into what’s going on in their life. Many Spiritualists also use Tarot cards as one way to open a channel to Spirit and receive their mediumship messages.

Play your cards right…

Coincidentally (although as Spiritualists might tell you, there’s no such thing as coincidence!) the Tarot deck is based around ‘the Fool’s journey’. The Fool is a simple soul open to embracing whatever comes his way as he embarks on his journey through life. He is unaware of the hardships he will inevitably face, so he steps out with confidence and an innocent faith that something good will come of it.

The Fool begins his journey

The Fool begins his journey

Adopting the childlike innocence of the Fool takes nerve, but it can also help to advance our understanding of what it means to be human; shedding light on areas where others might fear to tread. Outside the circles of those who practice it, little is known about the role of Spiritualism in modern Britain, yet it is the fastest growing religion according to census data. We would be fools to pretend it doesn’t have a place in our disenchanted world.

And this is why I continue on this particular journey, however foolish some academics may think me to be, because it helps to broaden our understanding of the world, and challenge preconceived ignorance and misconceptions about other people’s journeys.

‘People do not wish to appear foolish;
to avoid the appearance of foolishness, they are willing to remain actually fools’.
(Alice Walker)

 

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Pots, Principles and Rainbows: SpELS on the road in Longton…

@SpELS has been on the road in Longton, Stoke-on-Trent, collecting information and materials for our forthcoming exhibition at Gladstone Pottery Museum

Longton Spiritualist Church

Longton Spiritualist Church

Longton has a rich history with the Spiritualist movement. Gordon Higginson, the longest serving President of the Spiritualists National Union, was born in Longton in 1918. His mother Fanny, also a Spiritualist medium, was already a member of Longton Church and he went on to serve there for most of his life. Today Longton Church continues as one of the leading centres for Spiritualism and is rightly proud of its heritage.

You may be more familiar with another aspect of Stoke-on-Trent’s heritage – its pottery industry. Longton Spiritualist Church is actually right next door to the Gladstone Pottery Museum where you can learn all about this aspect of Stoke’s history; and we’re delighted to say the two went hand-in-hand yesterday as we were presented by Longton Church President with one of the first objects that will feature in our exhibition at Gladstone.

The Seven Principles

The Seven Principles

This decorative plate, produced for the Church by Longton-based ‘Edwardian China’, lists the seven principles of Spiritualism. The ‘Seven Principles’ – familiar to all Spiritualists today – developed from the work of Emma Hardinge Britten, a medium, Spiritualist and inspirational public speaker who played a pivotal part in bringing Spiritualists together across the country in an organised movement.

When in 1899 Emma herself ‘passed to Spirit’, Spiritualists across the UK and America felt they had lost one of their most eloquent advocates. Nonetheless, the Spiritualist belief that the soul lives on beyond death meant mourners at her grave did not feel entirely bereft. As reflected in these words by a Mr Walter Howell in attendance that day:

“…tears will come and the darkness of earthly sorrow will hide the light, yet we know that behind the cloud the sunlight of the world of spirit shines, and that she whom we loved is there in that glory, glimpses of which pierce through the rifts and cause the rainbow of promise to shine in the mist of our tears…”

As we left Longton Church clutching our plate, the rain was pouring down over Stoke-on-Trent. But then a beautiful rainbow appeared, stretching right over the Gladstone Pottery Museum next door. Perhaps it was Emma’s rainbow of promise, shining down on her continued legacy..!

Gladstone Pottery Museum under a 'rainbow of promise'..?

Gladstone Pottery Museum under a ‘rainbow of promise’..?

Don’t forget you can follow @SpELSProject on Facebook too!

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Under the spell of Stoke-on-Trent? Potbanks, Spiritualism, and the hidden history of a city…

What's your image of Stoke-on-Trent?

What’s your image of Stoke-on-Trent?

What (if anything) do you associate with the city of Stoke-on-Trent?

Robbie Williams?

Sir Stanley Matthews?

‘The Potters’ and their Britannia Stadium?

Josiah Wedgewood, ceramics and the industrial decline of the potbanks?

Perhaps it’s the delicious Staffordshire oatcake and the fact that it was once the centre of the Northern Soul scene…

But would you associate it with one of the fastest growing religions in the UK? For this unique conglomeration of industrial towns is also home to a flourishing Spiritualist movement.

Is there anybody there?

Seances and Spiritualism in the popular imagination

Seances and Spiritualism in the popular imagination (source: The Pennington Edition)

It’s often assumed that Spiritualism is a religion of the past, enjoying its heyday in the first half of the twentieth-century and since fading into the margins of cultural obscurity. However the number of people describing themselves as ‘Spiritualist’ in the 2011 Census showed an increase of about 21% from 2001 (during the same period there was a decline of about 11 per cent in the number of people describing themselves as ‘Christian’).

Although overall numbers of Spiritualists remain small, there is no doubt that Spiritualism is alive and well. And in Stoke-on-Trent there are still three very active Spiritualist churches enjoying healthy congregations and playing an important role in their local communities.

Spiritualism is a philosophy and religion based on the belief that the soul continues to live following the death of the physical body and that communication with spirit is possible through the channel of trained spirit mediums. In the popular imagination Spiritualism is dominated by images of fakery in Victorian séances and Derek Acorah being possessed on ‘Most Haunted’. But the everyday reality is much more mundane. People do very ordinary things in Spiritualist churches, like get married or conduct funerals. They attend Sunday divine services and hold fundraising events just like many other church congregations. And in a very similar way to many other religions, Spiritualists will light candles or offer prayers in memory of loved ones who have died…

Candles lit in memory of loved ones in a Christian church.

Candles lit in memory of loved ones in a Christian church.

A 'Memory Tree' in a Spiritualist church with messages for loved ones.

A ‘Memory Tree’ in a Spiritualist church with messages for loved ones.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

…but here lies the crucial difference, they might also get a direct message from that loved one in the Spirit world.

But why Stoke-on-Trent?

Longton Spiritualist Church

Longton Spiritualist Church, home of Gordon Higginson.

Stoke-on-Trent, famous for its Victorian pottery industry, and making the world’s finest bone china, lives in the shadow of its past glories. Affectionately nicknamed ‘The Potteries’, this area is now probably most famous for its post-Pottery decline and for being the birthplace of Robbie Williams. But it was also birthplace and home to the longest serving President of the Spiritualists National Union – Gordon Higginson – who was born in Longton, Stoke-on-Trent in 1918. His mother, Fanny, was already an established medium at Longton Spiritualist Church and, like her, he went on to serve there until his death.

Industrial decline in Stoke-on-Trent.

Industrial decline in Stoke-on-Trent.

Today Stoke is a city dominated by its intractable struggle to reverse industrial and economic decline and Stoke City Council has tried to reinvigorate the region by drawing on the city’s industrial heritage. But the emphasis on its pot-based past overlooks another important and continuing aspect of its cultural heritage. In the 1960s whilst the number of potbanks was declining daily, there were twelve very active Spiritualist churches in the city. This, together with it being the home of Fanny and Gordon Higginson, made Stoke-on-Trent the national hub of a thriving Spiritualist movement.

This legacy, together with the active life of the city’s remaining Spiritualist churches today, represents a hidden heritage for Stoke that’s worth discovering more about. With this as its starting point, the SpELS project seeks to unearth the Spiritualist past and present of Stoke-on-Trent by bringing together the city’s people, museums and Spiritualist churches in conversation.

You can follow the SpELS Project on Twitter and Facebook.

SpELS is funded by the AHRC and based at The Open University.

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Making a place your own…

Do you create your own world?

Do you create your own world?

I’ve always done a lot of yoga. But I’ve never been a huge fan of the growing number of glossy yoga magazines which are hitting the shelves – because quite simply they make my yoga practice feel a bit inadequate! Flick through the pages of any yoga magazine and you will find them full of idyllic images of exotic ashrams, adverts for holistic retreats and features on the latest studios opening up in some fashionable district of London. But the reality for me is that yoga practice takes places in decidedly less tranquil surroundings. Occasionally I’m lucky and the local gym has a class I can get to, or I end up having to carve out moments of time in a corner of the living room, in between getting home from work and cooking the kids’ tea.

But just because my lifestyle, location and budget don’t stretch to the perfect yogic experience, it doesn’t mean those moments of practice should be any less powerful. A class in a noisy gym pumping out dance music in the next room, or half an hour at home with the kids jumping all around me as I float off in the ‘corpse’ pose can be just as magical as a weekend retreat. It all depends on how I relate to the place I happen to be in!

Your place or mine?

‘Place’ is about something much more than its physical location. You’ve probably experienced one of those moments where you’ve been struck by the power of a particular place. It might have been the grandeur of a cathedral, the electric atmosphere of a football stadium, or the romance of a country hotel decked out for a wedding. But in such moments it isn’t the physical bricks and mortar of the places which stop us in our stride – it’s everything else that’s bound up in them and the meanings we attach to that. It’s the spiritual history of a cathedral, the expectation and hope of victory in the stadium, and the deep emotion that pulls at the heartstrings when we think of a couple sharing their commitment to each other with friends and family.

The same can be said of the place where you practice yoga. Is it a community hall, the local gym or your front room? Is it a place of peace and tranquility you look forward to visiting? Or do you worry every time you enter it whether you will live up to other people’s expectations, or even your own? For each person in a class, chances are they’ll be experiencing a very different place to the person sat on the mat next to them. Place isn’t just a physical entity, it has personal, social and even spiritual dimensions, and being aware of that can help us to understand our place in the world better.

The breath of life

Some people live their lives almost completely in the ‘physical’ world – they’re controlled by the physical symptoms displayed by their bodies, and enslaved to the physical world around them, to such an extent that blood pressure can soar the instant a traffic jam appears up ahead. For others they’re bound by social rules, conventions and expectations, and they’ll worry about what will happen if the traffic chaos makes them late for their appointment with an important client. Others will be much more swayed by their personal experience of the world, and the traffic jam can become for them either a one-way street to hell on earth as they beat themselves up with the implications of the delay, or a welcome chance to get lost in a day-dream. For those who like to tap into a spiritual world, this offers up another dimension for them to experience the traffic jam. They may decide the universe has a reason for the delay and will relax behind the wheel safe in the knowledge that this was meant to happen.

The word ‘spiritual’ is derived from the Latin ‘spiritus’, meaning breath, air, life. Whatever our religious beliefs, our innate ‘spirituality’ is what animates us, gives us passion and a sense of connection with everything around us. It doesn’t matter if we have no religion, for there are numerous other ways to get in touch with this passion and connectivity – music, dance, poetry, art, are all inherently spiritual things because the act of creation and sharing unites us with something beyond ourselves.

Getting back to my yoga, this is also one way some people bring more of that spirit, that life, that connection and meaning into their lives. Sometimes that ‘breath of life’ is lost as we get caught up in the demands of daily life, but by being mindful, and by developing an awareness of these four overlapping worlds of experience (physical, social, personal, spiritual), it is possible to shape the world a little more towards where and what we want it to be.

Four worlds of experience

Four worlds of experience

What’s in a mat?

What's in a mat?

What's in a mat?

Let’s stick with the yoga for a bit. Yoga is often practiced on a mat – for some this will just be a random mat selected from a pile at the front of the class, a physical prop to help make the session more comfortable, a cushion between the soft body and the hard floor. Others will have a very close relationship with a particular mat – when they roll it out on the floor it transforms that space into a very personal and private retreat. Perhaps they might have been given the mat from someone special, and using it forms a bond with that person, or perhaps they might have a designer label mat because how others perceive them seems important. Someone else may have brought a special mat back from a yoga holiday and each time they connect with it they are transported instantly back to that time and place. So the humble yoga mat exists physically, personally, socially and spiritually – and how someone perceives it can have a profound effect on how they experience their yoga practice.

Make the most of every space

So if you practice yoga, or maybe even next time you’re stuck in a traffic jam, and you’re wondering why someone next to you seems able to switch off and you can’t, perhaps it’s time to focus on what you can change about your relationship with the space around you, to make it work better for you.

Think about the effect a traffic jam has on you. Do you instantly tense up and start panicking about the delay? What are you worried about? Is it that you may lose your parking space when you reach your destination? Is it because first impressions count and you’re going to be late for an important meeting? Or is it simply because you don’t have personal control over what’s going on and that annoys you?

And if you practice yoga, or take part in any other form of exercise which is meant to be enhancing your wellbeing, are you getting the most out of that time and place? Are you constantly distracted by noises, by the temperature of the room or by the over-powering smell of someone else’s perfume? Do you find your focus drifting, and instead of focusing on your technique you find yourself secretly envious of the person next to you, who seems to drift effortlessly through the session without breaking into a sweat? And at the end of class, do you feel good about yourself and able to fully enjoy the relaxation and stretches, or is your mind working against you, turning over that heated conversation you had with your boss or the hurt you still feel from an argument with a loved one?

If you catch yourself doing any of these things, remind yourself that you can have a powerful effect on creating the space around you – and that space doesn’t have to be dominated by physical distractions, social expectations or your own personal worries. Refocus on the spirit at the heart of what you are doing – and transform your space into what you want it to be. Think about the world you are creating around yourself, and make the most of every layer of that world, to make the most of every experience.

…And if you’re wondering what Russell Brand is doing in this post – well, he loves yoga too. But watch this space for a fuller explanation coming soon…!

(developed from an article I had published in Om Yoga Magazine, December 2011. pp. 66-67).

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Unveiling the artist within…

Sacral Passion

This summer I held my first exhibition as an artist. Art is something which has always been bubbling away for me, ever since I had my first cartoon commissions for a Welsh learners’ magazine while I was studying for my A levels. But as often happens, ‘real life’ got in the way and the art took a back seat.

…Until this summer.

I was invited by the owner of a local café bar to hold an exhibition of my work there. Initially I was a bit reluctant, I didn’t consider myself a ‘proper’ artist and the whole idea quite frankly terrified me. But then I thought of what my friends would say if I turned the opportunity down, and I remembered my daughter’s favourite saying:

‘Every day you should do something that scares you.’

So I did something that scared me – I said yes!

It was this Orange Man that had kicked the whole thing off – he had sparked a lot of interest on Facebook when I shared him there, and people seemed to like him. I’ve always enjoyed life drawing but what I’d tried to capture with my Orange Man was not the precise recording of the human figure in all its glory, but an imagined world going on inside and around that figure – the ‘spirit’ that resides within and spills beyond the boundary of every human body.

In my academic research I encounter people who live with and embody an ‘otherworldly’ spirit in every moment of their lives, and this seemed like a perfect opportunity to bring together my research interests with my creative ones. So in my impressions of the human body I’ve become interested in trying to capture not anatomically perfect bodies but impressions of the spirit within (and spiritual connections beyond) which emerge from that body.

There are artists in the spiritual community who take this to a much higher level. A range of techniques are employed in psychic or channelled art, where the artist allows something other than their conscious mind to guide what they produce. Such techniques are used to open up links to otherworlds and entities, including spirit guides or deceased souls, and can aid the development of a wider awareness for both the artist and the person viewing the art.

I’m not claiming to be doing anything quite so profound, but my Orange Man certainly opened up a new world for me. Through the act of trying to capture his hidden world, I’ve released the creative spirit that was still smouldering away inside me, dormant for over twenty years. And I have to say on this occasion I agree wholeheartedly with my daughter – doing something that scared me really did pay off!

You can see more from the exhibition here SaraArt or visit my Facebook page.

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Unveiling uncanny encounters…

The Fool steps out with gay abandon...

Tomorrow I am presenting at the Encounters Conference at the Morgan Centre, University of Manchester. This conference seeks to open up interdisciplinary dialogue around the theme of ‘encounters’: Personal encounters, Sensory encounters, Intimate encounters, Material encounters, Imaginary encounters, Fleeting encounters, Spatial encounters, Unexpected encounters, Revelatory encounters, Serendipitous encounters, Dreadful encounters…  the list goes on.

In my paper I will be exploring otherworldly encounters, because in my fieldwork I find my encounters often involve discarnate entities – spirits, spirit guides, angels, that sort of thing – and I wanted to use the conference as an opportunity to try and reflect on how we can account for such unaccountable encounters in the research process.

I’ve written before on this blog and in academic papers about the difficulty I sometimes have in convincing other academics that it doesn’t matter whether these encounters are ‘real’ or not. What matters is the impact that experiencing such encounters  – ‘real’ or otherwise – has on those people who experience them. Yet my colleagues are often too busy trying to ridicule or laugh off the very notion of such otherworldly encounters to stop and acknowledge that even things we might consider ‘not real’ can have very real impacts.

In my fieldwork I participate fully in the activities I research – so I’m not just being told about these encounters and I find I am frequently encountering the unexpected myself as a result.  Tomorrow I’m going to be talking about my experiences of being a tarot student as part of my research, and it will be interesting to see what feedback I get as I haven’t shared this with an academic audience before! Yet the fact that I am sharing it shows that I’m gradually learning to become more fearless in the way I talk about these encounters with fellow academics – because they are encounters which I believe can tell us a lot about what it means to live in a modern world which, for growing numbers of people, is actually far more enchanted and mysterious than we might at first imagine. The sociological imagination needs a way to see that and capture it, and as academics we need to find a way to be able to write about it and represent it which is sensitive to the experiences we uncover, yet at the same time remains academically credible. And that is what I would like to explore.

I just hope sharing my otherworldly encounters with this particular audience doesn’t prove to be a regrettable encounter for me..!

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‘You Study What?!’: guest blog by Professor Charles F. Emmons

Professor Charles Emmons: at work and play

Professor Charles Emmons: at work and play

This is a special guest blog posting by Professor Charles Emmons of Gettysburg College, USA. Charles is a sociologist and has published widely from his research on the sociology of science and spirit, and appeared on numerous TV and radio shows in the US and Hong Kong.

Together with his wife, Penelope – an ordained Spiritualist Minister and healer – Charles wrote Science and Spirit: exploring the limits of consciousness as part of a wider ‘where science meets spirit’ project.

I first met Charles at the Exploring the Extraordinary Conference in York in 2011, where he stuck in my mind as being the first – and only – senior academic I have ever hugged a tree with! In this blog posting Charles reflects on his experiences as an academic and sometimes traveler to worlds beyond the habitual academic gaze. As you will see, it is not always in easy ride, but Charles has stuck with it and I look forward to many more exciting insights in the future from this very special member of our academic community.

Over to you, Charles:

As a sociologist I have studied “normal” topics like politics in Hong Kong, but I especially like to study science, alternate spirituality, and the paranormal.  Some of my books are about Chinese ghosts, UFO researchers, and spirit mediums.  People sometimes ask me what my academic colleagues think of this.

Usually I can’t tell, because the main way people deal with deviance is to ignore it.  Also, I’m not sure I want to know in a lot of cases.  As some wise person said, “What you think of me is none of my business.”  Gradually over the years I have come to appreciate the fact that if I am committed to an open investigation of “extraordinary” things considered taboo subjects in normal, mainstream science, I need to be willing to take the consequences.  Once I was sorely tempted to include the following in my application for a National Science Foundation Grant: “If this application were to receive funding, it would be contrary to my hypothesis.”

Sometimes I do get feedback from colleagues.  A subtle one happened when they had a reception for me at Gettysburg College to celebrate the publication of Chinese Ghosts and ESP: a Study of Paranormal Beliefs and Experiences in 1982.  One professor (from another department) said, “Oh, I’m surprised it’s a hardback! You’d think with a subject like that it would be a paperback.”

Less subtly, a few days before I was to appear in the TV show “Ghosts of Gettysburg” in the 1990s, a faculty member in the natural sciences sent an e-mail to the entire faculty urging them not to watch the show on the grounds that it was going to be a lot of nonsense.  This was an interesting statement considering that nobody could have seen any part of the broadcast ahead of time.  Perhaps he had strong precognitive abilities.  I thought that the true spirit of science was to consider all questions and to keep an open mind before examining the data.

Perhaps the most negative reaction I ever received happened at a sociology conference in the late 1990s at which I gave a talk about UFO researchers from a sociology of science perspective.  One man in the audience complained bitterly that I had labeled his fellow professor at Harvard, John Mack, a “ufologist.”  Perhaps I was embarrassing Harvard, but in fact John Mack had written a book about UFO abductees and had participated in many UFO conferences, thus fitting my operational definition of a ufologist.  Shortly thereafter Harvard University established an ad hoc committee to investigate Mack’s work with abductees, whom he claimed were not crazy but were in fact having some kind of experience worth examining.  His attorney asked me to write a statement to the committee about Mack’s work and the issue of academic freedom.  He had to spend at least $130,000 in legal fees defending himself (successfully).

In 2003 my wife Penelope and I published a book about spirit mediums (Guided by Spirit: A Journey into the Mind of the Medium).  I sent a copy of it to the famous sociologist of religion (and the paranormal etc.), Andrew M. Greeley, who had been on my dissertation committee in 1971.  After reading it he replied that he wanted to thank us for writing such an interesting book.  “I’m glad,” he added, “that you got tenure before you wrote it.”  Greeley wrote the oft-quoted piece, “The Paranormal Is Normal,” meaning that most people have such experiences, even though mainstream science denies the value of studying them.

I really must say, however, that I am fortunate to have gotten tenure (before Chinese Ghosts actually) and to have received financial support for my research (although not as much as I received when studying Hong Kong politics, a “normal” topic).  I am also grateful for the positive reviews and supportive comments I have received from people I respect (like Scott Rogo who called Chinese Ghosts “a refreshing change from the nonsense”).

I’ve come to feel sorry for people who are narrow minded in their view of what science is.  They’re missing out.  As J. Allen Hynek, the founder of modern ufology said, “Science isn’t always what scientists do.”  And I am delighted to see the growing interest in serious study of the paranormal and alternate spirituality, especially in the UK, and especially among many young scholars.

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A host of heavenly angels… in Nottingham?

Angels around us?

Angels around us?

Yesterday we did ‘research speed dating’ at work. It could have been history’s dullest and shortest lived affair, but actually it was fascinating. We each had 5 minutes, strictly timed, to talk about our research passions.

What I am passionate about as a researcher is exploring the worlds of people who live with spirit in their everyday lives. And I mean literally with spirit, not just with pictures of angels or statues of deities, but with spirit itself, in the form of angels, spirit guides, nature elementals crowding into every nook and cranny of their everyday experiences.

So I talked about this, about how people take spirit guides to work with them, have angels they talk to on a regular basis and communicate with the departed by talking to spirit. Most of my colleagues in this research-speed-dating-challenge talked about sensible, tangible research interests, like poverty, care of the elderly, the built environment.

But I chose to speak about angels and spirit guides.

I wouldn’t have done this 12 months ago through fear of ridicule, but I’ve become more confident in speaking openly about my research interests, and about the methods I use to explore these worlds. I find I’m still met with incredulity though. And someone said afterwards to me, ‘You know, I actually know someone who actually believes in all this stuff!’ And he looked at me as if I was meant to say, ‘Yes, crazy isn’t it!?’

But it isn’t crazy – because these angels and spirit guides make a real difference in the lives of people who live with them. They help them cope better with those material and tangible problems of everyday life, like poverty, getting old or a poor built environment. So should they not also be considered a legitimate part of what we explore as social scientists in order to better understand the modern world?

Another colleague came up at the end and told me about an article she had read about angels, and she sent me the link. It’s by Tim Adams in the Observer, and is based on an interview with Lorna Byrne who has seen angels since she was a young child. Tim Adams points out that 31% of British people believe in angels, and 5% of people claim to have actually seen or spoken to an angel. Except in Nottingham. In Nottingham 17% of people have seen or spoken to an angel. So whatever is going on in Nottingham, it’s clearly the place I should go to next on my research quest to understand the real place of angels in modern society!

Of course we’re not alone, people live with spirit around the world, and that leads me neatly to the announcement that the next posting on this blog will be a guest spot by the wonderful Professor Charles Emmons of Gettysburg College, USA. Charles will be writing about his experiences as an academic researching otherworlds… It’s good stuff, don’t miss it!

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Small Kindnesses

St Theresa

St Theresa

Today hundreds of people around the world are blogging about a small kindness they have received and what it meant to them. I am joining in this Small Kindnesses Blogsplash!

I thought long and hard about what small kindness I should share, and as often happens I started thinking about it in research terms as well, and I thought about all the people who I have spoken to as part of my research and the small kindnesses they share as a result of their spirituality. And this brought me to a small kindness which I received a couple of years ago, when I was working on the book and also suffering poor health as a result of the ulcerative colitis which had just decided to invite itself into my life. It is a small kindness that meant so much to me, and resonated with something a lot of my research participants talk about…

The small kindness I am going to share arrived through the post one morning, totally unexpected, and it was a letter from a very dear friend, containing a prayer card. My friend is a Catholic and presumably is surrounded by prayer cards, but it was something new to me. I had vague recollections of seeing similar things in my grandmother’s house as a child, but I had never held or read one. With the prayer card my friend had put a note saying the thing about St Theresa is that you don’t have to be Catholic to ask for her strength.

The fact that my friend had given up one of her dearly-held prayer cards to send it to me with a message she felt I needed to hear meant the world to me, and I still have St Teresa by my desk every day. I’m not a Catholic, but in receiving that small kindness, and in taking the time to sit and mindfully read the message it contained, it had a powerful calming effect on a mind and body which at the time were struggling to live in the moment.

So this small kindness sticks in my mind, and that is why I am sharing it with you in this blogging-event. But I also said it linked to my research. That is because one of the common things which participants told me about was the practice of sending ‘bubbles of protection’ to people. If they knew someone was feeling down or were unwell, or if they saw somebody obviously in pain or distress, they would mentally – and spiritually – send them some ‘healing energy’ or a ‘bubble of protection’.

I used a quote from one of my participants saying exactly this at a conference recently and I received a really surprising response during questions afterwards from someone sitting in the audience. She said she felt what they were doing was incredibly unethical. The person in receipt of this bubble, she argued, may not want that bubble, they weren’t asked if they wanted it and so it was unethical of the person to have sent it in the first place. I was totally confused by this response, as were most of the rest of the audience. Surely anybody who shared the beliefs of the person sending the bubble would see it in the spirit it was meant – as a gift of healing energy that could do no hard. And anybody who didn’t share the same beliefs could presumably just laugh it off – not that they would even know that it had been sent in the first place, because in their worldview there is no such thing as ‘healing energy’, and this wasn’t being forced on them in an aggressive sales pitch but simply sent silently, invisibly and without a word.

It still troubles me, I want to acknowledge that audience member’s concerns, but equally I don’t quite see it as an ethical issue. It is an act of kindness which can do no harm. If you are a believer, it sends good, if you are a non-believer it doesn’t exist, so it doesn’t matter.

When my friend put her prayer card in the post to me I’m glad she didn’t question whether she was doing the ‘right’ or ‘ethical’ thing by sending a non-religious person a Catholic prayer card, because I really benefitted from that small kindness. Whether I benefitted simply by knowing she cared and having that moment of stillness as I read the card, or whether I benefitted because St Teresa heard my ‘prayer’ as I read her message, I will never know. But I don’t think it is ethically problematic, because the intention was harmless, the impact was beneficial and nobody was hurt. If anybody ever gets hurt by having a healing bubble of protection sent to them, perhaps I will change my view. But I think it’s highly unlikely. So for me, these are small kindnesses which, although they might very often go unnoticed by the recipient, spread a little kindness in ways which make sense for those who send them.

And don’t they always say giving is even better than receiving?

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