EXPLORING THE OUTER EDGES OF SOCIETY AND MIND

Seeds Sprout in Darkness – Mail Order Magick, Death Row and the Initiation of Damien Echols

Posted in > ANALYSIS by David on November 20, 2018

“The shattering of expectation that accompanies trauma doesn’t just cause transference, it opens a door.”

– Whitley Strieber, Solving the Communion Enigma – What is to Come (Tarcher/Penguin, 2011)

 

MYSTERIES AD (1)Always eager for a good mail-order magic anecdote it was great to read in a recent Rolling Stone article from Ilana Kaplan that Damien Echols’ first experience with magic(k) was of the tabloid advertisement variety:

“Damien Echols’ interest in magick can be traced back to when he was seven years old. While reading one of his grandmother’s tabloids in his family’s Mississippi trailer, he saw an ad for a book: ‘Wanna learn magick? Send $5.95 to this address, and we’ll send you this book,’ he remembers. This ad didn’t focus on the idea of magic, as in entertainers performing illusions like David Blaine or Criss Angel, but rather ‘magick,’ a path of evolution or transformation stemming from its own set of practices. Echols thought nothing else would matter if he could practice magick, but growing up in poverty, he couldn’t afford the book. But magick would become an integral part of his life.”(1)

Echols is an extreme example of just how powerful these mediated encounters can be – crediting his personal practice of magick, whose seed was laid by a tabloid ad, with focusing him during an experience on death row that few could fathom enduring:

“It wasn’t until he was put on death row that he began practicing high magick. ‘When I was in prison, I had nothing but time, so that’s when I dedicated every single minute of every single day to learning everything I could from classic sources,’ “

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Although Echols is careful to state that he is drawing on ‘classic sources’ for the practices he outlines in his new book, High Magic – A Guide to the Spiritual Practices That Saved My Life on Death Row (Sounds True, 2018), he needn’t be a purist to find everything he would need for occult realization. If he’d had that $5.95 as a kid he might have gotten material that brought him every bit as close to true practice as the classic sources he references. His summation of the goal of the Art can even be found in L.W. De Laurence’s notorious mail-order magic manual, The Great Book of Magical Art, Hindu Magic and East Indian Occultism, which begins with a preface that states:

” Wishing thee every success imaginable in thy studies and experiments, hoping that thou wilt use the benefits that thou mayest receive to the honor of thy Creator and my Brother Adepts both in Spirit and Earth Life who have so ably assisted me in placing this knowledge before thee my friend and for the benefit of thy neighbor, in which exercise thou shalt ever experience the satisfaction of doing thy duty…”

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The Book of Sacred Magic of Abra Melin the Mage – de Laurence Company, 1948.

Beyond common metaphysical goals and altruistic advice, Echols book also includes the kind of psycho-physiological development material that is a mainstay of mail-order magic manuals and popular practical occultism. As Kaplan points out in the article, “the practice, which Echols focuses on in his book, refers to energetic practices, spiritual growth, ceremonies and rituals.” Why is it then that so many would see a tabloid ad and pass it up – while some see it and seek deeper initiations into their innate potential? Potential, that in Echols case, allowed him to carry a light through hell during his imprisonment.

When we look at mass market material or mail-order magic manuals it can be easy to dismiss them off hand, but the importance is in their application in a person’s life – and when a person pursues the application of the basic steps that many of them outline they find an entrance into a very deep world of experience that goes beyond expectations.

In this instance the basic step started by a mail-order magic ad was simply the question of magic itself which primed Echols to develop his practice more fully during his excruciating time on Death Row:

“This is something that I put to use in the darkest, hardest, most brutal times, more so than most people in modern-day America will go through. So, if it works during that, then surely it will help other people who may be dealing with other situations that are difficult to get through.”

9780143109501Like so many seekers, Echols found that the seeds of his potential awakening lay in darkness. This is something that religious scholar Jeffrey Kripal, J. Newton Razor Chair in Philosophy and Religious Thought at Rice University, has been exploring in his work on exceptional human experiences. By looking at the very personal and traumatic experiences of novelist Whitley Strieber, among other experiencers, Kripal has developed a contemporary framework through which to study traumatic initiation patterns.

This framework sheds light on one of the key reasons why Echols may have found success where others find merely idle occult speculation. Speaking of Whitley Strieber’s experiences in their collaborative book, The Super Natural, Kripal says:

“Out of existential necessity and the transcendent traumas of his own immediate experience, he was implicitly and intuitively practicing the comparative study of religion.”(3)

De Laurence continues to be apt for comparison here in that his outwardly absurd mail-order catalog played a strong role in developing counter-traditions within the Americas and in west Africa at a time of existential crisis, when nationalist interests were working feverishly to destroy indigenous, folk and popular traditions and solidify mainline belief systems that integrated safely with the governing culture. In these situations the hyped up rhetoric of mail-order mysticism becomes a powerful alternative for self development and an aid in keeping transmissions intact from more developed lines of practice. It also helped that De Laurence was selling some of the same source materials based on the Golden Dawn system that Echols would draw on during his time in prison.*

Encountering the advertisement in his grandmother’s tabloid magazine, in an environment of poverty and need paralleling those who found occult truths in the De Laurence Catalog, the desire for more helped to sink the anchor deep in Echols mind and, regardless of any lack of legitimacy in the ad, that desire was enough to form the core of his practice when the need for that hope was more dire.

Republishing the work of some of the best popular occultists from his time period, the material that the De Laurence Catalog provided formed a correspondence course focusing on the kind of applied comparative religion that Kripal discusses – including the esoteric domains of physical practices and energy work – encouraging experimentation with his ad-hoc inclusion of folk magic, spiritualism, Theosophy, ceremonial magic, yoga, mesmerism, hypnotism, self-help and everything in-between and on the side.

With its wide distribution and integration into pre-existing magico-religious and cultural traditions his catalog had a hand in fomenting the development of folk magic in the southern United States, urban folk magic across the U.S., popular Theosophy, New Age metaphysics, Pan-African mysticism, Black Nationalism, Afro-Caribbean traditions and changing the way traditional practices were performed in Nigeria and Ghana.(2) In the same way, Echols personal study framed as it was by false accusations from religious fundamentalists was open ended and allowed him to access whatever worked as opposed to what was dogmatically correct.

This is similar to what we see with the growth of Santa Muerte’s popular devotional tradition in the Americas, where those who have found faith in the Beautiful Girl are often at odds with mainstream religious organizations and have sought solace in alternative spiritual focal points. When their search for spiritual empowerment intermixes with a crisis moment they often begin a new life as an ardent devotee.(4)

For those who would scoff at contemporary mass market occultism, Damien Echols offers another reminder that these ideas can lay seeds that have a widespread and often unnoticed effect on our contemporary culture and individual lives. Encountered in the most mundane, everyday situations – when their potentials are realized in the right set and setting – when one walks through the gate of trauma – the outcomes can go well beyond cultural curiosity.

They can even become the blossoming root of High Magick.

(1) https://www.rollingstone.com/culture/culture-news/damein-echols-west-memphis-three-high-magick-758311/
(2) https://www.dailygrail.com/2012/12/the-mysterious-influence-of-one-human-mind/
(3) http://cosmologicsmagazine.com/jeffrey-j-kripal-the-super-natural/
(4) https://skeletonsaint.com

*Special thanks to Michael M. Hughes for pointing out that Echols work was larger based within the Golden Dawn system! 

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Taking the UFO Phenomenon Seriously — Religion, Narrative, Media and the Flying Saucer

Posted in > ANALYSIS by David on May 5, 2018

It’s been a strange opening to the Spring season spent thinking about questions that Diana Pasulka (UNC Wilmington) and Jeffrey Kripal (Rice University) will tackle today at the Ohio State University Center for the Study of Religion’s 4th Symposium on Religion, Narrative, and Media — Taking the UFO Phenomenon Seriously, that is, Religiously

According to the synopsis of Pasulka’s upcoming book, American Cosmic: UFOs, Religion, Technology — more than half of adults and more than 75% of young Americans believe in intelligent extraterrestrial life — a level rivaling belief in God!

What happens (is happening) to world religions and deeply embedded social infrastructures as they face increasing pressure to adapt to new scientific understanding of consciousness and intelligence — understandings forced through technological innovation in areas of machine learning and artificial intelligence, advances in neuroscience, increased integration of psychical research and practical occultism in mainstream discourse, and most recently by the mainstream media’s heightened focus on the physical aspects of the UFO phenomenon…

These are complicated questions that kind of hurt the brain — for myself I simplified it down to thinking about the rural area that I live in and wondering:

What do local Christian congregations do with flying saucers on Sunday morning?

“Hasn’t the Catholic Church taken a noncommittal position on UFOs? That seems to me a healthy response.” – Mitch Horowitz, author of Occult America: The Secret History of How Mysticism Shaped Our Nation (Bantam Books, 2009) and One Simple Idea: How Positive Thinking Reshaped Modern Life (Crown, 2014)

One of the things that struck me when I started considering these areas is the level to which the hard questions about the UFO phenomenon are so easily side stepped until the UFO object is brought to the forefront of the conversation.

This is brought out in Pasulka’s presentation for the symposium, The Incarnational Technological Self: The Case of the Crashed UFO Artifact, where she discusses how the presence of a ‘UFO artifact’ during her research for American Cosmic drastically changed the ways in which she considers not only the UFO question, but also the very development and integration of technology within society — the UFO object is a powerful game changer when it comes to thinking about this question.

As the presentation’s abstract explains,

“Over the course of a six-year ethnographic study, Dr. Pasulka interviewed successful and influential scientists in Silicon Valley, professionals, and entrepreneurs who believe in extraterrestrial intelligence, thereby disproving the common misconception that only fringe members of society believe in UFOs. She argues that widespread belief in aliens is due to a number of factors including their ubiquity in modern media like The X-Files, which can influence memory, and the realist effect produced by the search for planets that might support life, as well as alleged alien artifacts that have recently made news in outlets such as the New York Times. This discussion explores the intriguing question of how people interpret unexplainable experiences, and argues that the media technologies have helped create new religious forms, among which the belief in non-human intelligent life is one example”

So what do we mean by UFO object?

UFO for most is merely a vague term associated with a vague set of phenomenon with unverifiable objective existence — the “UFO” for many is nothing more than a word read in a book or an image given to them through whatever other media they are exposed to, a purely psychologized symbolic object. The ‘flying saucer’ is a mediated object, a pop-culture trope that rarely represents eye witness or experiencer accounts.

The process of psychologizing these phenomenon is given free reign by their subjective status in the cultural narrative. As long as we talk about “belief in UFOs” we are left with the ability to take a ‘noncommittal position’ — however the really interesting questions come up when we face the objective reality associated with some of the phenomenon.

So far religious organizations can fit any number of narratives or avoidance mechanisms within the culture’s subjective status for the UFO — but a UFO object or contact with NHI changes that. It has to be faced directly, it completely alters the conversation.

This is what is so important when considering the current mainstream media interest in the UFO topic within the United States. Regardless of the factual nature of the videos themselves or their particular level of detail, where they came from, and so on — it changes the way that these topics are weighted — moving the dial from subjective “belief” to objective phenomenon — again regardless of the nature of the object in question.

What we are talking about is the way that the media acts as a measure of consensus reality — an authorized voice that speaks to a baseline of shared experience from which the culture can adapt and grow. When we start to address the “UFO object” something surprising happens, suddenly a lot of questions start to come up that unmoor standard positions across the spectrum of human experience.

Even if this object remains in the Mystery Box — its presence changes the way that we think about ourselves and our position in the world — as Remote Viewing pioneer, Ingo Swann said in his book The Super Powers of the Human Biomind:

“If one begins to hypothesize the possibility of ET intelligences, one necessarily sets into motion, without realizing it, subtle changes having to do with how we think of ourselves. We will ultimately have to wonder if and how the formats of our own Earth-based intelligence stack up against ET formats which might be encountered elsewhere, or FROM elsewhere.

A number of unfamiliar, and rather complicated, problem-like situations would download from this kind of hypothetical inquiry.

Among the first of these is that our own Earth-based ideas and/or knowledge regarding MIND and INTELLIGENCE would have to be studied more objectively, and examined in the larger contexts of our species as a whole.”

The demonological status of the UFO in fundamentalist discourse is framed by its subjective status in the wider cultural discourse. It can be psychologized and therefore is easily inserted as a placeholder for similarly psychologized frameworks that have already developed as Christianity has mutated under secular and alternative spiritual influences. Exorcism’s marginalization comes in part from the inability of institutionalized Christian culture to integrate some of the more extreme implications of a demonic physical manifestation.

Anecdotal accounts of believers seeking the services of an exorcist often begin with their failure to find an adequate solution in their own church/denomination. This is true in all religious traditions where there are enough adherents and devotees to allow for a spectrum of beliefs and spiritual service offerings. One of the driving forces behind the Vatican’s current push to train/promote exorcists is due to the services popularity and the market share being taken by alternative (ie. non-Catholic) service providers.

Once the demonic is given an objective status things change drastically in how a religious institution needs to frame it. With the UFO there is a very real question as to how religious institutions would be able to adapt to an objective confirmation of non-human intelligence.

“It’s hard to tell whether most people will accept the new ideas, or they will cause suspicion because they don’t conform with the experience of our normal waking consciousness.” — Greg Bishop, host of Radio Misterioso

The beginning of this process of integration starts with the narrative of the UFO object gaining more credibility in the culture through changes in the media’s framing of the topic — and it will be interesting to see how this plays out when/if this re-position of the media continues.

As writer and illustrator Miguel Romero pointed out on Twitter — the Mexican media hasn’t had the same fervor for the topic — and I’m sure folks in other countries may be seeing something similar.

In terms of the U.S. media there are a number of parallel narratives that the UFO topic can be aligned with — giving it a weighty bit of secondary use potential and driving some of the enthusiasm. Fitting into the wider narrative of political instability the UFO has become a complex signifier for everything from government over-reach, government under development, government hyper-sophistication, government’s total lack of sophistication — as in the religious domain its status as an unknown acts as a wild card whose malleable narrative elements can be fit to provide support for a wide range of innuendo, accusation and insinuation.

“For the first time in my life I dreamt of a flying saucer. The feeling was exactly the same as a demonic attack in the dream but oddly I felt the sense that I had been teleported to the flying saucer and sent back in a flash with only the slightest millisecond of a sense that something had happened…and without being able to do anything else I just blurted: “Thank you…” – Gabriel Dean Roberts, founder of Eris Films

 

While certain segments of the religious landscape label the UFO phenomenon as the ‘Ultimate End Times Deception’ — the concept of any long term interaction with non-human intelligence challenges doctrinal, dogmantic and underlying mythological structures in the world’s faith traditions. Apocalyptic frenzy can only last so long before the less reactionary elements of tradition reformulate around the new environmental realities.

Considering the implications of Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning alone , beyond the additional question raised by research still in the margins, we must take seriously the question that Jacques Vallee asks in his introductory blurb for American Cosmic:

“How will religious traditions be reframed when they collide with the long-suppressed evidence of non-human consciousness in our environment?”

Over the past week of engaging with these topics on social media I’ve realized that the state of fragmentation within the religious landscape is such that the concrete nature of the question can be obscured by the central role of identity politics in the current discourse. The integral nature of religious life for many of the world’s people is overshadowed by the vocal concerns of an educated few whose understanding of spirituality is strongly affected by their exposure to the massive interconnected dialogue happening through global digital communications.

This is an area that Jeffrey Kripal addresses in his symposium presentation, Biological Gods: Science (Fiction) and Some Emergent Mythologies, which focuses on,

“ three texts: Philip K. Dick’s VALIS (1981), Whitley Strieber’s COMMUNION (1987) and Barbara Ehrenreich’s LIVING WITH A WILD GOD (2014). In each case, we will see how the author describes a deeply personal, life-changing encounter with what any earlier culture would have recognized as a deity or demon. Each author engages these earlier religious interpretations but finally moves outside of them to posit actual invisible species in the environment that interact with human beings at their own whims and for their own interests, perhaps, the authors speculate, to “feed off” of human emotion or to tame, domesticate or evolve us via sexual communion and interspecies symbiosis. The result is a new set of evolutionary panpsychisms, erotic vitalisms and biological polytheisms that pose a challenge to the reigning materialisms and projection theories of conventional science and the humanities.”

And there it is, the UFO just sitting there, hanging out in all its strange and ubiquitous glory at the center of concerns over globalization, cultural integration, and the long term stability of our shared cultural systems —and the long term stability of our shared concept of self identity — as the old religious infrastructure transitions further into the decentralized and destabilized environment of the future.

In the end we come back to the important question — how can these traditions that provide a center point in our culture compete or integrate with the very visible, tangible and operative miracles of applied science — and what happens when the day comes that contact with a non-human intelligence, whether it’s from the stars or from some sub-net AI, supersedes what we know of science itself…


Note: This article was originally published on Medium.com 

Encountering the Super Natural — An experiential review

Posted in > BLACK CADILLAC REVIEW by David on February 19, 2018

“The correspondences started with a painting and a book cover. Like so many of the hundreds of thousands of readers Whitley and Anne (Strieber) heard from after Communion hit the bookstores, I recognized the face on the cover. It was those eyes, I had seen them before.”

— Jeffrey Kripal in The Super Natural: A New Vision of the Unexplained(Tarcher/Penguin, 2016)

When I was seven years old my father was transferred to a job in Arizona. Our move from Chicago coincided with the 1987 release of Whitley Strieber’s Communion: A True Story and the subsequent promotional campaign — in airports, on hotel televisions, in grocery store book racks and in each book store we visited — at every turn we were faced with displays, posters and references to the book’s iconic cover. What I did not appreciate until nearly three decades later was the extent to which this saturation had affected me.

The Key

“…the human Hermes encounters a code and reads it out with the ‘clicks’ of a particular key. Unsurprisingly, but importantly, one of Whitley’s most beautiful books is called The Key.”

— Jeffrey Kripal in The Supernatural: A New View of the Unexplained, p. 113

Around 2012 I was at a book store and saw Whitley Strieber’s book The Key: A True Encounter — noticing that it was published by Tarcher/Penguin set me wondering if Mitch Horowitz, author of Occult America: The Secret History of How Mysticism Shaped Our Nation and at the time lead editor-in-chief for Tarcher/Penguin, had been a part of its publication. Curious as to the possibility I picked it up to see what it was about. Although I’d briefly skimmed Communion, I wasn’t very familiar with Strieber’s work beyond the popular media narrative of his experiences so it came as a shock to see a foreword written by Jeffrey Kripal, an innovative scholar in the field of religious studies!

Kripal’s research has given a fresh and exciting depth to the interdisciplinary study of anomalous experience. In 2011 I wrote a blog post about a few key figures that were helping to solidify a more mature voice for this area of research in the popular domain — Mitch Horowitz with his work Occult America, Joanna Ebenstein through her development of Morbid Anatomy Library, Erik Davis with his work exploring the interstice of technology and mysticism, and Jeffery Kripal. In mentioning Kripal I noted that not only did his work offer a poignant rethinking of this area — but his role in facilitating conferences and seminars with select scholars and researchers has been a powerful driver in bringing cohesion to a truly interdisciplinary focus.

To see that he was interested in Strieber, who I only knew as a well publicized abductee, didn’t fit with my preconceived ideas of his work. I knew that Kripal had included him in some of his recent scholarship, but I had yet to read those particular books and this was my first introduction to any kind of thoughtful look at Strieber’s experiences.

Of course, I immediately bought the book and went home to figure out what the hell a serious scholar was doing with a popular author that talked about abductions. Reading the introduction I was even more confused — the Strieber that Kripal was describing was not the Strieber of my assumed familiarity, the two were in stark contrast. And the book itself was more like what I was used to reading in 19th or early 20th century trance channeled texts, not at all what I’d expected from an author I only knew in relation to his popular novels and the media’s coverage of his reported experiences with abduction phenomena.

The Trickster and the Paranormal

When struck with this kind of contradiction I often call George Hansen, author of Trickster and the Paranormal, to reset the contextual framework and deconstruct whatever illusory mental structures have emerged around a topic. This time around our conversation added to my surprise — George didn’t dismiss Strieber — in fact he confirmed Strieber as an experiencer and mentioned that most researchers had long kept their distance, almost out of a fear for the reality of what he was recounting in his work — he also reminded me that Strieber was a perfect example of the marginalization and liminality that is explored in Trickster and the Paranormal.

This didn’t help my confusion. Aware that I was completely wrong in my assumptions I picked up a copy of Communion and dove in. More surprises — what came from the reading was not the same book that existed in my memory.

Without having fully read it and having only seen it in the context of the media’s coverage of it, the Communion that was a part of my life up to that point was not the same Communion that I was now reading. This wasn’t a book about alien abductions — this was a book about an ineffable experience and an attempt to understand it in light of a complex comparative methodology that blends scholarship, experiment and experience into a seamless whole.

Strieber was now even more confounding and without enough information to usefully think through my questions I decided to put it down and forget about it until something new came to light. 2012 was also the year that Dr. Andrew Chesnut published his book on Santa Muerte, which lead to a panel presentation at the Morbid Anatomy Library and our collaboration on a long term digital research project to track the development of Santa Muerte’s devotional tradition. This collaboration determined the main focus of my research for the next few years and assured that my questions about Strieber would remain unanswered for the time being.

Owls

“In that night, the owl, bringer of death and wisdom, will potentially reign as silent mistress of our souls. Like the old song, but perhaps with a somewhat different tone, she will have the whole world in her hands…so the owl, flying through the mystery of the experience, brings with the danger of her talons and her tearing beak also the revelatory reflection in her fearsome eyes…If this owl should ever take flight in our general night, we will find ourselves face-to-face with a truly remarkable predator, who will educate us if we face her, but steal us away if we run.”

— Whitley Strieber in The Super Natural: A New Vision of the Unexplained

Move forward to 2016 — I’m living in rural Georgia, it’s a windy night and I’m sitting in a 200-year-old barn doing some research on the computer.

Since moving to this area access to the web has been a constant challenge, for awhile leading me to become disconnected with much of what I had been doing before arriving on the property. Even brief opportunities to access the web were a precious gift.

The exact sequence of events eludes my memory, but within a matter of minutes I encountered an article from Mike Clelland about his new book The Messengers, detailing owl synchronicities; I emailed a colleague of mine about the book; a banner ad pops up for The Super Natural, an upcoming collaboration between Whitley Strieber and Jeffrey Kripal which features an owl eye on the cover; and the forest outside erupts with a loud chorus of screech owls calling to each other in the darkness.

Laughter and chills wash over me — that was a good one! The atmospherics of that eerie coincidental series couldn’t have been better suited to the subject matter and I was delighted sitting there in the matrix of these experiential elements while considering Clelland’s work. What better tool for accessing the subject matter than an experience which mirrors it?

Working in digital communications I’ve grown used to targeted banner ads and the odd chains of coincidence that can accumulate around our digital selves as we’re presented with algorithmically enhanced marketing and as our search habits begin to formulate associations that build conceptual connections which can seem like synchronicities. What was so wonderful in this situation was the added atmosphere of the owls outside connecting with the potential artificial elements of the experience and bringing in that slight moment of doubt as to the reason for the coinciding events.

Shortly after this I posted something about the upcoming publication of The Super Natural, tagging Mitch Horowitz with appreciation for his role in facilitating the book’s release — leaving unrecognized that by doing so, like any hypnotic subject that acquiesces to the hypnotist’s first request, I’d placed myself squarely within the book’s circle of enchantment.

In the weeks that followed I found myself wondering what this collaboration was going to be about. What topics will they cover? What pathways of inquiry are going to be opened? Why am I again faced with a desire to reassess my assumptions about Whitley Strieber? And what’s the deal with the owls?

Critical Mass

“Once the thread is in hand, our own mythology will tell us where it leads, for it will be the same thread that the maiden Ariadne handed to Theseus when he stood before the maze of the Minotaur, young and strong and mad with courage.

And we will all go down the labyrinth, to meet whatever awaits us there.”

— Whitley Strieber, Communion: A True Story (Avon Books, 1987)

With the book still in pre-publication I went about reading whatever I could in preparation for its release — grabbing thrift store copies of Strieber’s work as I found them, watching interviews, revisiting Kripal’s work, and listening to podcasts. Normally this would be overkill, however Kripal’s methodology in these areas offers surprising results and it was expedient to have some background in order to fully follow where this was all going to lead. When I saw that there was a recent episode of Strieber’s Dreamland podcast featuring Mike Clelland I was thrilled to have an opportunity to follow up on the previous evening’s coincidental experience — and then things got stranger.

Once I was able to download the podcast I put it on in the background and settled in for an evening of listening and painting. I don’t remember what lead to me getting up, but I was walking through the room to refill my coffee or something when Clelland started discussing the anomaly researcher Mac Tonnies and Tonnies’ influence on his own research. Suddenly an odd feeling came over me, the room began to feel less solid as I became more focused on the podcast and the voices seemed to surround my mind. Clelland and Strieber began talking about Tonnies early death in 2009 and how Clelland had started his blog in 2009, suddenly…I don’t even know how to describe what happened in my awareness, but it was as if time folded in on itself.

2009 was when I also started a blog, called The Eyeless Owl. Mac Tonnies was one of my inspirations for this through a few conversations that we had via Twitter over our mutual love of asemic scripts. His multifaceted interests and careful approach to high strangeness lead me to feel more comfortable in dealing with these topics publicly and our brief conversations introduced me to some resources I’d missed. After his passing I contributed a short essay and a few drawings to a memorial blog site for him, and the drawings were later incorporated by documentary film maker Siok Siok Tan in her crowd-sourced film, Twittamentary, which was an early look at the impact Twitter was having on our concept of friendship and interaction.

Suddenly as I stood there in 2016 listening to Clelland and Strieber’s conversation strings of memory started to become entangled, coalescing into a mass with its own ideational gravity — the beginning of my public writing/researching/multi-media’ing, this new strange obsession with Strieber’s work, the odd coincidence from days before with Clelland’s book, the banner ad for The Super Natural, incidents and encounters throughout my life, and of course…the owls — all of it aligned and opened to further revelation — suddenly I was in a book store in Arizona in 1987 staring at a display for Communion — I was sitting on the couch watching television and Strieber was on a talk show — I was out in the desert as a kid collecting bones from owl pellets — a string of associations stretching from the present moment through all of these past memories and it was threaded through this book and this author who I had never had any interest in!

A Mental Gateway

“Look in into my eyes,” says the hypnotist. One of the most obvious features of Communion is its astonishing cover, carefully designed by Whitley himself with the artist Ted Jacobs. The central features of that original painted cover, of course a, are the alien beings immense black eyes, at once subtly mirroring the viewer and pulling him or her in, like a two-way mirror. No iconic feature of the book played a more important role int is reception history and in the hundreds of thousands of letter that the Striebers received. Readers were hypnotized. Entranced.”

— Jeffrey Kripal, The Super Natural: A New Vision of the Unexplained, p. 222 (Tarcher/Penguin, 2016)

And that cover! It was like a gateway in my mind that I could step through and re-experience a forgotten stream of influence in my life. A perfect symbol to apply Salvador Dali’s paranoid critical methods to gain a more holistic vision of myself and the areas of research I’m involved in. Dali recommended that the artist embrace these moments without critical thought, if only for a moment, long enough to provide an opportunity to embrace a misperception in such a way that it becomes a creative inspiration or experiential landscape.

However, this was a very odd misperception — I was left reeling and unable to speak. Nothing in my description captures the feeling and mental state associated with this encounter. Up to this point I had credited my interest in the stranger areas of culture to receiving those Time Life Mysteries of the Unknown books as a kid and having been saturated with Discovery Channel documentaries and Sci-Fi/Fantasy movies in the 80’s. At no point did Communion ever come into my mind as an influence. The sudden connection of disparate memories with this book seemed to offer a key that I didn’t realize I’d been searching for — but the door it opened only offered entrance to more questions.

Owls (Redux)

“When we look at the owl through the medium of the close encounter experience, it turns out that something is being explained to us. Like the owl, our mysterious visitors come by night. Like the owl, they silent and all-seeing. And like the owl, they can reach right into our little burrows and carry us off into a transformative experience. For the awful ecstasy that the predator delivers to its prey, causing it to die to this world and be freed into the next, is very much like what the visitor does to her captive, leaving him devastated, at once killed inside and renewed inside, and living in two worlds at the same time, that of physical reality and that of a new kind of reality, the living reality of the soul, not quite physical, but also no longer theoretical.”

— Whitley Strieber, in the foreword to Mike Clelland’s Stories from the Messengers: Owls, UFOs and a Deeper Reality (Richard Dolan Press, 2018)

While the extremity of that mental flash was an isolated incident in relation to the book, the coincidences surrounding my anticipation of its publication continued. The strength of the coincidental themes were such that they stood out against a backdrop of regular coincidences. Which is to say my natural synchronistic themes, the ones that I’ve grown used to as part of my identity.

As if to match in the outer world the inner intensity of having my memories suddenly spinning into orbit around the publication of Communion, one day I walked out to my car to find a very large owl sitting in the middle of the dirt road blocking my exit.

I got into the car and waited for a bit to see if it would move on its own. It didn’t. So I got out of the car and walked up to it, figuring an owl wasn’t going to let me get too close. It didn’t move.

As I got closer I started to map the trajectory of flight it would need to launch from the ground to my face and I began to wonder if letting it sit there and foregoing my journey wasn’t the best plan. Before I could decide it flew up into a tree nearby and turned to watch me.

A few days later the radiator on my car blew out for the final time, leaving me stranded until another series of coincidences lead to me getting another car. In a life already filled with strange alignments, this was starting to seem over the top.

Entranced

One of the concepts explored in The Super Natural is the central role of trance states in the process of reading and writing. As Kripal says,

“…the reading self is also a trance-induced story. If you are absorbed in this book at this moment, you are in a mild trance state answering to the trance states that Whitley Strieber and Jeff Kripal entered in order to write these pages. You are a slightly different person reading this book, just as we were slightly different people writing it.” — p. 221

And true to that observation when I finally received the book the coincidences did not stop. I read that paragraph while sitting in a fancy waiting room next to an owl statue encased in glass. The strange thing is — in my case the trance induction started with my preparatory reading — it began with my reading the pop up ad for the publication of the book!

In an experience akin to mental hypertext the trance state encompassed the very moment I set eyes on that provocative Visitor adorning the cover of Communion — the subsequent inspirations and coincidences were merely reinforcement of that trance. Yet this trance state is no sinister mental manipulation — it is an experiential tool that provides additional access to the text itself.

Triangulations

As I was thinking through these experiences prior to writing this piece I drew a simple diagram — a dotted line, representing a certain expression of time; a dot above the line, representing the Dreamland episode with Mike Clelland in conversation with Whitley Strieber; and a two dots on the line representing when I saw the cover of Communion in my childhood and the present moment in time. These three dots form a triangle — the necessary geometry for positioning something in space.

This triangulation helped me conceptualize the strange memory cascade and its effects with some distance from my own experience. It also formed the basis for yet another coincidence as I write this piece. Revisiting The Super Natural as I write, I read:

“What set’s Whitley’s model apart is how interactive it is, how it relies on us to manifest the other species. This interactive model is advanced through multiple frames, including that of the triad or triangle in the history of mythology and the bizarre implications of quantum physics…Whitley takes this interactive model very far, suggesting, in effect, that the visitors may rely on our beliefs to appear: “Thus the corridor into our world could in a very true sense be through our own minds.” — p. 94

Add to this the moment when I was doing my preparatory reading and opened Strieber’s book The Secret School: Preparation for Contact (Walker & Collier, 1997) at random to:

“A time machine would not be a mechanism of gears and wheels, nor even one of circuits and processors. In a sense, it might be easier to create one than we realized.

Could the mind somehow enable time travel? If it is nonlocal in nature — that is to say, not confined to ordinary space-time — there might be a way as yet not understood for it to address time through the medium of faster-than-light energies.” — p. 52

And lest we loose our tripartite theme — I see that Mike Clelland has posted on Facebook while I am composing this piece, he’ll be on Coast to Coast tonight for an episode hosted by George Knapp. The topic will be the companion book to The Messengers, titled Stories From The Messengers: Accounts of Owls, UFOs and a Deeper Reality — with an introduction by…Whitley Strieber.

 A New Vision of the Unexplained

Having now had a chance to explore both The Super Natural and Whitley Strieber’s wider oeuvre these experiences no longer seem so unmooring — rather they’ve become tools in themselves for exploring memory structures, identity, and perception. This thanks to the careful approach that he himself has taken with his own experiences, further enhanced by the perspectives offered by Jeff Kripal’s analysis.

What truly excites me is that these areas of exploration are still unknown — the frontier of our own experience is a vast, uncharted territory. There is a beautiful conversation happening, but it is not happening in the stultified sub-cultures spinning out of digital enhanced identity politics — it’s happening between explorers like Whitley Strieber, Mike Clelland, Jeffrey Kripal and many others who are stepping forward to offer their experience and insight and an invitation to begin our own explorations.

To do this we must all realize, as I was forced to do, that the mediated narratives we are fed will never offer us any clue into our own natures. Any trance state offered by the advertisers and marketers is a poison best left untried.

If I relied on my mediated memories, Whitley Strieber would still be rudely relegated to a cartoonish parody. Instead I’ve found a fellow traveler whose purpose and fortitude have carried him through the pain of public humiliation and into the new dimensions of experience that his contact with the unknown has opened for him.

The real question is, are you ready to take the first step on the journey?

“We so want this precious ‘us’ to be more than sparks in flesh doomed to die with the inevitable implosion of the body. I have had a lifetime of experience that suggests that we may be more — indeed, that we have hardly even begun to touch on the complexity and enormity of what it is to be human. But I cannot give you that lifetime. I cannot give the richness of my experience to others, only describe them as best I can…” — Whitley Strieber, The Super Natural: An New Vision of the Unexplained, p. 336

Special thanks to George Hansen for taking my impromptu phone calls on obscure subjects, Mitch Horowitz for arranging a review copy of The Super Natural for me and to Diana Pasulka for furthering my appreciation of Whitley Strieber’s work.

This article was originally published at Medium.com

Paranthropology and Other Narrative Approaches to the Paranormal

Posted in > BLACK CADILLAC REVIEW by David on April 20, 2011

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“In theory, science should welcome anomalies as the harbingers of new discoveries. The scientific intelligence should derive joy from being surprised by new and hitherto unexplained phenomena. After all, isn’t that what science is all about?”
–Joseph M. Felser: Outsiders, Anomalies, and the Future of “Forbidden Science.”

John Keel, one of the most well known investigators into the outer realms of fortean experience, was quite vocal on how often these experiences are attended by fraud or foul play, and yet, to his dying day, he was a believer. He knew that the narrative structure of anomalous activity is often more important than the scientific veracity of its evidence. In exploring the story of unexplained events, the interplay of coincidence and phenomenon can develop far beyond what any rational theory holds on to.

The narrative nature of unexplained phenomenon is not easily dealt with in a society seeking efficiency at all cost. Our corporations and economic entities like their schedules set and secure, our legal and judicial branches enjoy clarity (even if that clarity is linguistically profuse and nearly incomprehensible), and most of our scientists like things logically sound and reducible to results that are easily monetized to fund their future research.

This is where the scientific study of anomalous phenomenon breaks down, it’s difficult to secure funding to study something so slippery, especially when the results that do surface are not easily monetized. The new discipline of paranthropology has emerged as a way to look at these phenomena through their cultural and personal evidence, rather than seeking to secure a hard theory for their materialization. It is a specified version of what the anthropologist Charles Laughlin describes as ‘transpersonal anthropology‘, explicitly looking at events and experiences that fall under the purview of
what is commonly called paranormal.

I discovered it recently when Jack Hunter, who runs the Journal of Anthropological Approaches to the Paranormal, mentioned his graduate work on the Society for the Academic Study of Magic listserv. He did a study of Spiritualism where, rather than just look at the movement’s history, or conduct a sociological survey, he actually went in and trained with Spiritualist groups in order to enter a mediumistic trance state.

Using the methods of ethnography to explore anomalous phenomenon is not part of the regular procedures of parapsychology. Since the late 60’s and early 70’s parapsychology has sought objective verification for the phenomenon in the laboratory rather than cultivating the experience as a participant in the field.

The change in methodology presented by paranthropology mirrors approaches that have been successfully used by researchers in exploring indigenous societies, especially in the areas of ritual and magic.

Anthropology has long been the home of fringe experience. Researchers encountering other cultures are met with belief systems and experiences that run counter to their own expectations. Ethnography and immersion have proven the most successful means for overcoming this by allowing researchers to fully explore a culture from within its own understanding.

The power of this method can be seen in the resurgence of interest in the use of psychedelics for therapeutic means. What western science failed to embrace in the laboratory fifty years ago has been forced into recognition by anthropologists and researchers who have consistently shown that psychedelics play a major role in the cohesion of many indigenous societies.

Studying the contemporary history of psychedelics shows the dangers of trying to monetize something that is, by nature, destabilizing. Psychedelics tear apart a person’s set patterns; when national intelligence agencies poured funding into psychedelic research in hopes of finding the key to mind control they found instead that psychedelics break down control factors. As an initiatory element this destabilization is useful to ritual contexts where new elements are introduced to replace what has been unmoored, but without this ritual setting the results are not as predictable and can be terrifying or even damaging.

Anomalous phenomenon has a similar characteristic. As Jacques Vallee, and other scientists taking a reasoned approach to studying the unexplained, have shown, experiences with the unknown are often traumatizing and life changing. To move from the daylight world of objective experience into the twilight world of the unexplained can be deeply disturbing. It leaves one without an objective measure for reality, puts one outside the boundaries of what is easily explainable, and can make one an object of ridicule and rejection.

As I opened the door, Alex (Tanous) smiled and extended his hand. Suddenly I froze, remembering that this psychic was known for something else — an uncanny ability to foretell death. He once told me he got his most accurate death impressions when he shook somebody’s hand. Hey! I thought, I don’t want to shake this guy’s hand.  Instead I threw my arms around him, and we embraced. And as we embraced, I thought to myself in rapid succession — “I don’t want to believe Alex can do any of these things!” And then, “I don’t believe he can!
Nine Reasons to Fear the Paranormal, Michael Grosso.

The original methodology of the Society for Psychical Research used the tools of anthropology and philosophy more often than it did those of psychology, or the hard sciences, in its investigations. When reading over the journals from the late 19th century they are comprised mostly of recounted tales, second hand information, metaphysical speculation, and book reviews.

What hard science there is amounts to photographic evidence, and specialists in the art of illusion and sleight of hand debunking or affirming the legitimacy of mediums. The story always remained at the forefront of their investigation, because the story was the motivating factor to the phenomenon.

George Hansen, who worked with the Rhine Research Lab and Psychophysical Research Laboratories in the Forrestal Research Center located in Princeton, New Jersey, has written extensively on the consistent struggle in the parapsychology world to maintain credibility in the face of phenomenal experience. One of the unanticipated side effects of the research has been that when results are achieved, or seem close to being achieved, things start to happen that destabilize the research. Divorces, job loss, suicides, lack of funding, or blatant frauds end up ruining years of inquiry. It’s one thing to study traditional or religious groups that have some element of the paranormal in their practice; it’s a totally different thing to study it within the context of every day life where
there are no bounds to the experience, and no set structure for how it should be interpreted.

One element of this is the fringe nature of the phenomenon. Many of the people drawn to studying it, or who are themselves being studied, are already on the fringes of society. Having stepped outside of the norm they are ripe for destabilizing events, and not always ready for their consequence. Another element seems to be that those who go in to study it with solid beliefs already in place are either shaken to the point that they become ‘true believers’, dropping all scientific credibility and distancing themselves from what is considered legitimate research, or they become rigid debunkers to protect their own sanity and credibility. In many cases nothing happens at all, or the results are not repeatable, making it impossible to gather a baseline of data for reasonable comparison.

The area of fraud also provides a difficult hurdle in anomaly research. Even in cases where laboratory tests seem to indicate positive effects, at one point or another some bit of trickery or lax research controls seem to emerge in place of legitimate ability. In traditional cultures the use of sleight of hand and showmanship is well known as part of the shamanic repertoire. To the Western mind this appears as fraudulent; however traditional healers will explain the necessity of such tricks and techniques to distract and engage the spirits. Even when sleight of hand is apparent in anomalous phenomenon, the interplay of events often shows that there is something more going on, but to justify this in the laboratory, under strict scientific methodology, is impossible.

The concept of paranthropology is an attempt to approach these events from another angle where there are different measurements for credibility. This is closer to the phenomenological approach recommended by Joseph M. Felser, associate professor of philosophy at Kingsborough Community College/CUNY, in his essay Philosophical Sensitives and Sensitive Philosophers: Gazing into the Future of Parapsychology.  Felser recognizes the inherent difficulties of fitting anomalous phenomena into any set theoretical structure. Rather than trying to explain them through predetermined theories, or fit them into dogmatic belief structures, he sees a value in exploring the phenomena experientially.

This is also the approach that Jeffrey Kripal, J. Newton Rayzor Professor of Religious Studies and Chair of the Department of Religious Studies at Rice University, takes in his recent work Authors of the Impossible. As he says on the website for the documentary based on the book:

The paranormal, it turns out, is as much about meaning as matter. And we — not as surface egos, but as some still mysterious force of consciousness — are its final authors. If the paranormal, though, is as much about meaning as matter, as much about the subject as the object, then science can never truly grasp it, for science must turn everything into an object and cannot treat questions of meaning. We thus need a new way of knowing, a way that can embrace both the sciences and a new art of reading ourselves writing ourselves.

Whether or not they are provable in a laboratory setting, anomalous experiences remain a part of life for a surprising number of people. Gallup polls show that 17% of the population in the United States claim to have had a UFO experience. The Baylor Religion Survey, as detailed in NYU Press’ recent publication Paranormal America, shows that, in the United States, 45% of women and 32% of men believe in the existence of ghosts,
and 31% of women and 28% of men believe in telekinesis. Taking into account the various categories of paranormal possibilities close to half of the population believes in, or claims to have experienced, something out of the ordinary in their lives.

These statistics show that the paranormal is a significant motivating factor in how our culture develops and understands itself. The hope fostered in the formation of the SPR was that by investigating these experiences we would be lead to a deeper understanding of ourselves and our place in the world. Ultimately the secrets of anomalous experiences, whether they are purely psychosomatic or actually based in fact, go right to the heart of the secrets of human experience itself.

To quote the 17th century philosopher Thomas Vaughan, withthis considered, it cannot be thought unreasonable and certainly not unseasonable, if a Society conscious of the Truth, and skilled in the abstruse principles of Nature, shall endeavor to rectify the world: for hitherto we have been abused with Greek Fables and a pretended knowledge of Causes, but without their much desired Effects.” Although the root causes of such phenomenon may remain sub rosa, and unattainable by the prying eyes of science, those that would approach them in humility, without prejudice, and with a narrative eye for meaning, will find much to explore.