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PICTURE THIS: A 43-year-old lady is being treated for temporal lobe epilepsy in a Swiss clinic. In order to pinpoint the aberrant electrical focus in her brain, electrodes have been implanted under the dura - the membrane covering the brain. When she is wakened, the doctors stimulate different areas and watch the results.
When they activate an area called the angular gyrus on the right side, she reports a feeling of "sinking into the bed". This progresses to "falling from a height". With stronger currents she reports she is "floating two metres above the bed" and actually able to see her own body parts lying below her.
She is having an "Out of Body Experience" (OBE), and hers is a classical description.
Some 10 per cent of the population endure these sensations at some time. These can be terrifying, though mostly brief. Associated with epilepsy and migraine, they also occur in normal people, often in states of altered consciousness. They seem to be closely linked to "Near Death Experiences" (NDEs), which take place in extremis, due to an interruption in the supply of oxygen to the brain: or occur when under the influence of drugs - opiates, ketamine, LSD and other hallucinogens - or of sensory deprivation, or brain stimulation of the right angular gyrus as described above.
One of the most celebrated cases was that of the psychologist, Carl Jung. After a heart attack, heavily doped and unconscious, he saw a huge dark stone in space, a meteorite with an entrance into a chamber, where he met a Hindu. Thinking he was about to be inducted into life’s mysteries, his hopes were dashed by his doctor appearing in the guise of a Greek healer, telling him he was not destined to die yet. Jung survived, much impressed with himself, and his visionary life flowered. His major works were then written and he was hailed and worshipped as a guru, much revered by New Agers in the 1960s and by mainstream thinkers.
Jung was neither the first nor the most fascinating case of OBE or NDE. He followed a long line of forceful personalities who used trance-states to mesmerise ordinary folk into thinking they were spiritually special.
Hallucinations and illusions have fascinated humankind from the dawn of our being: that is to say, from the time when our neurological networks had sufficiently evolved to experience and describe them - about 50,000 years ago, give or take. We know this from the evidence of cave art from prehistoric and more modern sites from several continents.
The famous cave paintings of South Africa, for instance, were inspired by memories of images from a state of altered consciousness - induced by plant chemicals, by sleep and sensory deprivation, by isolation, by rhythmic music and dance - by shamans in connection with rituals and religion.
Those paintings have astonishing parallels with rock art from the American continent and from the pre-historic rock art of caves in France and Spain. Many are extraordinarily inaccessible, reached by crawling along narrow, dark, wet passages, through lakes and pot-holes. It was believed that caves were anterooms to a world of spirits - and the cave wall whereon the paintings were made was a thin membrane between the two worlds.
Shamans used their inner revelations to act as intermediaries between the spirits and the people, much as priests do today. They thereby achieved power and status.
The depictions on the cave walls and the content of modern human trance-like states are strikingly similar and reproducible. Vision-questers, by whatever route, feel they leave their bodies, pass through a hole or aperture and along a tunnel or vortex. Early on, they see geometric shapes, lines and zig-zags. Later they encounter scary animals which must be overcome before meeting a spiritual supreme being. Other features common to multiple cultures are emerging from water; flight; a bright and blinding light; and, curiously, bleeding from the nose or mouth. In some cultures, aspiring shamans were obliged to go through painful and dangerous ordeals which really did bring them to the brink of death.
How many parables and allegories have these components? Pilgrim’s Progress, Lord of the Rings, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and many biblical tales all do.
Scientists believe that only humans have "higher consciousness" - which is difficult to define, but consists of a greater understanding of our place in time and space; our temporal nature; communication of abstract concepts through language and so on.
This cerebral conscious level conflicts with primary consciousness - which we share with animals - which has evolved multiple survival techniques, many of which are nothing whatever to do with sophisticated, scientific truth. However, our higher consciousness can go awry - very awry if we help it along by trying to escape its stern logic through vision-questing.
So now we know how, in theory, to tickle our brains into priestly status. It’s a bit of a cultural and sacred climb-down. It could be good for migraine and epilepsy sufferers, though. And it casts a little more light on that mysterious entity, consciousness. But the fundamental question remains: What - and where - is it?
-------------------- Your vision will become clear only when you look into your heart... Who looks outside, dreams. Who looks inside, awakens. - Carl Jung