here are some interesting ideas about UFO sightings and abductions being not about aliens but about spirits from another dimension (shamanic spirits, plant teachers etc.)
To begin, we need a template of sorts for shamanic initiations in order to appreciate the extent to which such a template might indeed overlap with the underlying form of NDEs and UFOEs. Needless to say, given the enormous wealth of anthropological literature on shamanic initiation, any one model will be a patent oversimplification.
Nevertheless, even a crude and over-generalized outline of some of the main features of this kind of initiation will prove workable for our purposes. In any case, the following account is based chiefly on Eliade (1958, 1964), Nicholson (1987), and Kalweit (1988).
Typically, an individual who may be somewhat unusual because of his (or her) sensitivities or exceptional giftedness — or because he has survived a serious illness, accident, or other ordeal — is selected for shamanic training. He is then separated from his community and put into the hands of his shamanic trainer. The apprentice is required to undergo various ordeals, both physical and psychological, as his training progresses. Often, as is well known, these rites involve powerful dismemberment (and reconstitutive) motifs as the candidate undergoes a death-and-rebirth ordeal — a necessary component for all true initiations, of course, as well as the experiential foundations for a new sense of identity as a shaman. Sacred mysteries are disclosed to the individual as he learns to enter into otherworldly realms and acquires his particular shamanic skills, his power animals, sacred songs, secret language, and so forth. After his initiation is complete, he returns to his community as a healer, a psychopomp, a master of ecstasy, a mystic and visionary — as a man (or woman), in short, who now knows how to live in two worlds: the world of the soul as well as that of the body. And though indispensable to the welfare of his community, he often remains somewhat apart from it precisely because of his special knowledge and his unusual and sometimes disturbing presence.
Turning now to UFO encounters, we need to discover how well our model fits the case of the typical abductee.
Let's review, then, in somewhat greater detail than before the usual progression of events in these experiences in an attempt to test the utility of this model here.
In UFO abductions, the individual is “taken” (and I don't mean this in a physical sense, though abductees themselves sometimes do) when he is usually in some kind of an altered state of consciousness — asleep, in a state of helpless paralysis, or otherwise somehow entranced. Here, however, the figure of the cosmic shaman — this time in the form of a space-age E.T., as it were, but playing the selfsame role albeit in new garb — may make his appearance early on, or the abductee may be brought into his presence by a set of clone-like assistants. The next stage of the journey is “the examination” in which the individual, already usually highly uneasy if not frightened to the core, is forced to endure a variety of intrusive procedures — apparently the UFO equivalent of the initiatory ordeal or dismemberment ceremony. It's noteworthy, by the way, how often the abductee will say that this examination took place in a round or curved chamber. We know of course that a round hut or circular enclosure of some kind is a staple in traditional initiations, as Kannenberg (1986), herself a UFO abductee, has pointed out.
Rotunda-like structures can be taken to symbolize a womb or a place of new beginnings. In any event, following this ordeal, certain specific — I suppose one might say “classified” — information may be imparted telepathically as part of another act in the initiatory drama. Eventually, however, the abductee is somehow returned to his ordinary space/time world, though, as I have said, he may not have any immediate conscious recall of his traumatic adventure.
Yet he, too, like the NDEr, may come back shaken from his experience but with the seeds of transformation already sown in his psyche. While there are, to my knowledge, no careful long-term studies of the aftereffects of these UFO encounters, preliminary work by Sprinkle (1981, 1983), Davis (1985), and others (e.g., Decker 1986) suggests that despite the grueling nature of these experiences, the after-effects, though variable, often show striking resemblances to the characteristics of NDEs.
And once more in common with NDErs, the UFO abductee may learn that his experience, though it has conferred upon him certain new skills, insights, and understandings, has also served to isolate him somewhat from his community. Like the NDEr, he, too, has had his passport stamped with an extramundane imprint and returns from his strange sojourn with divided and complicated allegiances to that world. As a result, he may find that he is inwardly conflicted and frequently estranged from his family and fellows, something of an alien himself.
Given that NDEs and UFOEs may be forms of shamanic initiation, we must now take this inquiry one step further and ask: What is it that those who have these experiences are being initiated into when they pass through these otherworldly domains?
In my view, whenever an individual undergoes a shamanic journey — whether through nearly dying, UFO abduction, or by other means — he is vaulted into the world of the imagination or, to use Henri Corbin's (1976) equivalent phrase, a mundus imaginalis. Let me be clear at the outset what I understand by this expression, whether it be the English or the Latin. James Hillman (1975) has insisted, and NDErs and shamans everywhere would quickly concur, that in the world of imagination, persons and places are fully real; they are as real in that domain as our physical world is to our senses. So in using this expression, I am not implying that such experiences are imaginary, but rather that they are imaginal (again to use Corbin's helpful term). Imagination in this sense is, as Coleridge argued, a creative power, and the world that it reveals is, as Blake knew, a supersensible reality that can be directly apprehended.
Shamans, who see with the eyes of their soul, have also penetrated into this world and have given us peerless descriptions of its fabulous and infinitely varied regions and denizens. Indeed, the idea that shamanic experiences thrust individuals into this realm has lately started to serve as a unifying formulation for a number of writers. For instance, in Shirley Nicholson's excellent anthology on shamanism (1987), there are quite a few articles that articulate this notion admirably (see, for example, the pieces by Harner, Houston, Achterberg, and Noll). Likewise, in Carol Zaleski's brilliant book, Otherworld Journey (1987), she follows a similar interpretative line for NDEs.
Finally, Terrence McKenna (1982, 1984), another student of shamanism, has also argued for the primacy of the imagination in understanding UFO phenomena. These collective efforts, centered on the imaginal world and the power of the imagination to shape human experience, may eventually spawn a conceptual net of sufficient breadth to capture and order meaningfully the variety of non-ordinary experiences we considered at the beginning of this paper.
At any rate, this approach appears to be a most promising direction for conceptual work in this area, and deserves even more attention.
All this notwithstanding, what is important for us at this point in our inquiry is not just the recent popularity of this kind of formulation but rather the fact that through it we are led all the way back to Heraclitus — the father of psychology — and the seeming priority of the soul. From this perspective, of course, NDEs, UFOEs, and shamanic journeys in general are all explorations in the domain of soul, which, as Heraclitus seems to have been the first to assert, is infinite. And, as Roberts Avens (1980) has pointed out, soul is not only inseparable from imagination, “soul is imagination” (p. 103).
Therefore, if shamanic experiences are to educate the soul, as I have claimed, they must necessarily do this by propelling us into the infinitude of the human imagination. The mundus imaginalis is our true home, which we are once more beginning to see and to experience directly. Again, as Avens has said: “Only soul (the imaginal realm) is not reducible to anything else and so constitutes our true, ontological reality” (p. 102).