Thursday, December 18, 2008

Here We Go Again

I highly respect Dr. Ian Stevenson. Of all the authors I have read, some truly execrable, some quite respectable, Dr. Stevenson is the one person who has formed and shaped my beliefs about life and death, and the very purpose of existence. I believe that no one makes a stronger case than he does for the continuing existence of consciousness.

It doesn't matter what I think, really, since I am not a scientist but a PhD. in Hispanic literature and language. I have read a tremendous amount on the subject of existence (in some form) after physical death, and I have conducted some of my own investigations. I have had numerous personal experiences that defy a materialist mindset, but none of that makes me an expert or someone whose opinion on this weighty matter should be accepted as a matter of fact. So many of these questions must be answered on a personal level, for it is a matter of personal transformation in the end. I appreciate, however, those who dedicated their lives to amassing evidence so that people like me can feel reasonably justified for their belief in post-mortem existence. The hard, painstaking work of investigators like Dr. Stevenson allows me to draw my conclusions based on their evidence, and for that I am eternally (literally!) grateful.

There may be some interest for anyone reading this in what I have concluded, after reading over one hundred books on the subject, ranging from the purely scientific (SPR and ASPR papers) to the popular (John Edwards' and Van Praugh's accounts of the afterlife). I do have training in critical thinking and evaluation of evidence-- no one receives any kind of degree at Yale without rigorous training in both--and 22 years as a teacher and director of various academic and administrative programs certainly trains one to organize one's thought process towards results, not fantasies. After wading through so much information and history, after thinking about this issue endlessly and pondering all possible explanations, I find that the theory of reincarnation is what makes the most sense and has the strongest evidence to back it. It also, on a personal note, is what explains my experiences as a child and best fits my memories (the few that remain) of a previous existence.

All of the other information--gleaned from mediums, channelers, psychics, near-death experiencers and adults who claim to remember past lives (as opposed to children between 3 and 5 years of age) tends to suffer from wish fulfillment fantasies and self-delusion; yet even as I write that, I am quite sure that there are several authentic "experiencers" of the afterlife that I hesitate to criticize or invalidate. The problem is the mixture of real and imagined, of authentic with trickery, of pure motivations with motivation tainted by greed for money and fame. Eusapia Palladino is a good example of what I mean by that. Much of her physical mediumship was authenticated by scientists from various disciplines who set up conditions that would make fraud impossible; yet, even though she could produce amazing results ranging from apports to full materializations, she was caught cheating openly on several occasions. When she couldn't produce good material from the spirit world, she took matters into her own hands. This is the issue, then, that plagues people like John Edwards. He may be 99% authentic, but there's that nagging issue of the 1% that tarnishes his reputation. You could look at it the other way, too: he may be 99% fake and 1% authentic; in the end, you have to have some control over what you do, some method that keeps you above board and "investigatable" by objective observers with no interest in the outcomes. This is what Dr. Stevenson does, and his work taken as a whole is overwhelmingly convincing. As far as I am concerned, Dr. Stevenson has proven that reincarnation happens. He does not claim that it exists for everyone at all times; yet the fact that it exists at all blows the top off the universe and everything we think we know about human consciousness and survival of death.

When asked about the "larger purpose" behind reincarnation and current theories of the mind, here are his words:

"Do you see in reincarnation a glimpse of a larger purpose?"

Stevenson: Well, yes, I do. My idea of God is that He is evolving. I don't believe in the watchmaker God, the original creator who built the watch and then lets it tick. I believe in a "Self-maker God" who is evolving and experimenting; so are we as parts of Him. Bodies wear out; souls may need periods for rest and reflection. Afterward one may start again with a new body.

Omni: Do you disagree with most bioscientists, who hold that what we call mind or soul is actually a part of brain activity?

Stevenson: The assumption that our minds are nothing but our brains appears to receive support when you consider the effect of injury, surgery, a high fever, or one or two drinks of whiskey on our mental processes. Some neuroscientists ac knowledge that they have only just begun to show how brain processes account for mental ones. But they claim to know that they or their successors will work it all out. They are sure there can be no other explanation, therefore they consider no other. We are not pledged to follow all the received opinions of neuroscientists, however. Recently, a small number of psychologists and philosophers have begun to ask whether mind can ever be fully explained in terms of brain functioning.

The mind, apparently, is not bound by this one existence. As for the implications of this, that I leave to a later post. In the meantime, anyone with any interest in the question of survival of consciousness should read Old Souls, written by a journalist who traveled with Stevenson to India and documented the journey. It's a fascinating introduction to an amazing man and an even more amazing life's work.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008


My sister is in a hospital bed in San Francisco, battling through her 20th hour of labor. She is with her husband and a midwife, and long ago gave up her oath to not receive an epidural. She's had two, as of last count. I can't, of course, imagine what her pain is like. I know what everyone says, you forget it, it's all worth it in the end, etc., but at the moment, I doubt my sister cares what the common wisdom has to say on this subject.

I'm scared, because I don't understand what is happening to her. My mother tells me that "everyone does this," but not everyone does. I didn't, and I won't. There are complicated emotions surrounding this birth for me. I can't stop thinking about Mease, but I also think about myself: the cold fact that my window of opportunity for pregnancy and birth has shut. I will never experience what she is now, which on the face of it is just grand--who wants such misery, such animal torture?--on the other hand, I will never hold my baby, my flesh and blood, and know that mysterious bond that new mothers feel with their infant. Mease and I will be separated by experience: I will never know or understand what she is going through, what she will experience over the next several months. I fear that this will separate us a little, as my divorce placed a barrier of (bitter) experience between us. She couldn't fathom what it felt like to watch a marriage dissolve, and nothing I tried to explain to her really made sense. Of course, her new life will be mostly a positive. Perhaps what will link us is this one commonality: she will know in a few short weeks what it feels like to have absolutely no control over any aspect of her life.

When her child reaches the age of six, THEN she and I will have a lot to talk about. That's when my kid came along. I missed Mosca's babyhood, and landed right in the middle of her Pokemon obsession. Since then, it's been six years of parenthood, and learning how to share her with many other interested parties, not the least of whom is her biological mother. I have learned over these six years that giving birth does not make one a parent; even missing the first six years has not mattered all that much to my relationship with Mosca. I've listened to endless stories spanning the first to the seventh grade; I've been patient when I wanted to explode; I've coaxed her to eat a million times; I've held her when she's hurt herself on the monkey bars; I've hung out with her in the mountains and cracked open hundred of acorns for no particular reason; I've had many, many, many heartfelt discussions with my husband about the best way to impose discipline when the need arises; I've anguished about how to best guide her to become a responsible, loving, compassionate and kind adult. She is well on her way. It has not been easy.

Mease and I will, shortly, have a new bond: that intense feeling of loving someone so much that you can't bear to even begin to express it, because it runs so deep that it changes your DNA. No matter how much pain she is in now, the cliche will prove its grounding in truth:

It will all be worth it in the end.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Too Close

Around a week or so ago, the usual group was wandering Camarillo. In addition to the thrill of knowing that we could be arrested for our exploratory activities, there was a new twist on the evening: Unit 44, along with others whose numbers escape me, was wide open: the Children's Ward.
It was terribly creepy. The murals were garish, out of place, oddly bright and happy for such a sad and frightening place. Marylin Monroe poses for all eternity next to Michael Jackson, the (alleged) pedophile; monkeys swing from cartoon trees above Ricardo Montalban and the the little guy that used to say, "The plane, Boss, the plane!"; then, of course, there was Satchmo, Diana Ross, Alfred Hitchcock, staggered down the hallway in out of proportion oddness, inviting visitors and inmates to endless contemplation of a popular culture that some of us recognize, and others have no reference for at all. How many children have seen an episode of "Fantasy Island"? Is that what Ward 44 pretends to be, a fantasy for sick and incarcerated children? There is no relation among the bizarre murals adorning the long, sterile hallway. These are just random images signifying nothing to no one: an apt metaphor for madness and illness. Mental illness is something like memories out of context; it's all there, the pictures of one's life that are inextricably linked to television and movies, so much so that one bleeds into the other, yet there is no narrative, no story, no language to organize or connect them.

I freely admit that I do not know what I am doing wandering through this history of abuse and despair, this building redolent of hot fungus and medicinal fluids seeping through filthy carpet. That one night, every door was open to us, an invitation: come in, see what you feel here. So we entered every room, every corridor, every wing, every unit. I was feeling brave, intrepid, daring; until the last room facing the north parking lot. It was dark, of course, but it was more than that: it was alive. The chief ghost hunter said it first: "There's a lot of activity in this room"; and so there was. I don't know what to call it, that feeling of dread, the state of being watched, the sense that something is happening all around you that you cannot see but only feel. All I do know is the result: I was instantly exhausted, drained of all energy, all light, all optimism. I sat on the floor with my head in my hands while the others conducted an EVP session. My legs felt weak and vertigo toyed with my head. Every instinct told me to leave that room as soon as possible. If I did not, it was only due to a super human effort to not appear the coward in front of people who never, ever ran away from ghosts . . . because we are all playing with death, if we were to be honest. We are hoping to contact someone who has "crossed over", who has seen what none of us have, what we all fear. Of course, our biggest fear is that after death there are no voices, no contact, no spirit energy, no paranormal communications, just silence. Just annihilation.

One of our ghost hunters died last Saturday. He couldn't breathe. He emptied his asthma inhaler and it didn't help. He suffocated. That is the death that most terrifies me, a fellow asthma sufferer. His death brought the possibility of my own to the forefront of my thoughts. Mostly, though, I think of his mother who lost her other son less than two years ago. Oddly, he died the same way: suffocated in his bed. All of this seems unreal, surreal, the stuff of novels and horror stories. There is no way to imagine what bizarre reality his mother is stumbling through as I write this.

He was a big kid with huge, warm hands. He loved taking pictures with odd flashes and streaks of light, thinking that he had captured evidence of the paranormal. He loved ghost hunting with all his heart. He seemed, outside of ghost hunting, lost in the world. He was happy tromping around graveyards, missions, and the Queen Mary; it gave him a mission, a purpose. I did not know him well. What I was able to see was his childlike sweetness and passion for all things paranormal. He was genuine and sincere in his enthusiasm; he made Ty and me want to take care of him, to encourage him, to nurture that innocence that he was destined to lose.

Now, of course, I have no idea where he is. His mother is probably frantic to find him, as she was with her first son. I would love to offer up some platitudes regarding his new life after death, but I have nothing to offer. There is nothing to say. In all of our many hours recording random noises that we sometimes construe to be voices of the dead, in all of our thousands of pictures that appear to show something, in our endless videos and constant attempts to reach over the edge of this life and into another one, we have no answers whatsoever.

If there is another life, we have no clue what it looks or feels like. If there is some existence after death, we are no closer now than we ever were to understanding or describing it. Anything that I said regarding the continuance of the human spirit is based on some odd audio clips, some bizarre sensations and some strange photographs. Hardly the basis to alleviate the crushing grief of losing one's son; one's last son.

There is a certain cold emptiness and weariness in the ghost hunt; we often feel that there is something there, and sometimes we can offer evidence for it, but we don't know what "it" is. We have nothing to give those who need answers. In the darkness of Camarillo, I wonder if the search might not be dangerous. If we find answers, perhaps they are not the ones his mother needs to hear. Perhaps they are not meant to be discovered at all, and every time we tempt the spirits in the corners of hospital rooms we are, in fact, giving up just a little of our souls.

I know one thing. At least that mother's kind son is not to be found in Camarillo. Wherever he is, I know there is more light for him than there was for the children staring at the lost and impossible world of Fantasy Island.