Frank Visser, CLIMBING THE STAIRWAY TO HEAVEN: Reflections on Ken Wilber's “The Religion of Tomorrow”
INTEGRAL WORLD: EXPLORING THEORIES OF EVERYTHING
An independent forum for a critical discussion of the integral philosophy of Ken Wilber
Publication dates of essays (month/year) can be found under "Essays".
David Christopher Lane, Ph.D. Professor of Philosophy, Mt. San Antonio College Lecturer in Religious Studies, California State University, Long Beach Author of Exposing Cults: When the Skeptical Mind Confronts the Mystical (New York and London: Garland Publishers, 1994) and The Radhasoami Tradition: A Critical History of Guru Succession (New York and London: Garland Publishers, 1992).
Faqir Chand and the Quest for Hidden Variables in Paranormal Experiences
Psychic stories usually sound more “psychic” when we have less information about the event.
Faqir Chand was a remarkable sage who practiced surat shabd yoga for over 75 years and who became an acknowledged master within the tradition. He was, however, considered to be a renegade by other gurus because he believed that religious visions, miracles, and other supernatural phenomena were, in truth, projections of one's own mind. As Faqir himself clearly explained,
“Now, you see no Jesus Christ comes from without in anybody's visions. No Rama, no Krishna, no Buddha, and no Baba Faqir comes from without to anybody. The visions are only because of the impressions and suggestions that a disciple has already accepted in his mind. These impressions and suggestions appear to him like a dream. No body comes from without. This is the plain truth."
Faqir first came to this realization in Iraq at the end of World War I after being told by his fellow satsangis that he had appeared to them in a vision and saved their lives during a heated battle. Faqir was himself under duress at that time and had never even thought of his comrades and was completely unaware of his miraculous appearance to them. Later when Faqir was appointed to be a guru in his own right by Maharishi Shiv Brat Lal, he started to receive hundreds, nay thousands, of reports from India, Europe, and America about wondrous visions and occurrences concerning him and his spiritual powers. Yet, Faqir remained completely unaware of such happenings and was stupefied by such accounts.
This prompted him to question and doubt the visions he had of his own guru and the like. Faqir became convinced that all such phenomena were self-generated projections, but that naïve devotees worldwide were mistakenly attributing them to their respective spiritual leaders and teachings. Because of this psychological transference, unscrupulous gurus, masters, and mystics were deriving untold status and power, since they never revealed their own ignorance in such proceedings.
Analogously, this was akin to what the Wizard of Oz was doing to Dorothy and her friends by not telling them the truth that he was only a balloonist from Kansas who actually had no magic power whatsoever.
Faqir Chand then started to unlock the modus operandi behind why certain visions occurred to him. He also became skeptical of psychic phenomena, even questioning the most treasured experiences of his early life which he had always believed were divinely orchestrated. Faqir suspected that there were alternative explanations for why he had such experiences, but he was blinded from exploring them because of his deeply religious nature.
In this pursuit, Faqir focused on looking for “hidden” variables behind why he had such strange visions and synchronicities. Faqir recalls having remarkable visions of Lord Krishna almost daily until a startling incident occurred which made him doubt the verdicality of his numinous encounters. As Faqir explained to Professor Mark Juergensmeyer back in the summer of 1978,
“Once I was going and Lord Krishna was going ahead of me. There was some cow dung lying on the ground. That image of Lord Krishna asked me to eat that cow dung. I took a morsel of cow dung and ate it. When I reached home I thought that in no religious book is it written that an image of Lord Krishna or Rama has ever directed any disciple to eat cow dung. So I thought that it was not the real Krishna who had asked me to eat the cow dung.”
A similar thing transpired when Faqir found himself completely distraught in his longing for God. He prayed and wept continuously for 24 hours and then had a lucid vision of his future guru, Shiv Brat Lal, which included his exact address in Lahore. Faqir then wrote to this mysterious guru at the address he saw in his vision. After ten months of writing a letter a month, he finally received a reply from the guru who did, in fact, reside at that exact place. This convinced Faqir that his was a genuinely psychic intuition.
It was only years later, after Faqir had realized his own unknowingness with regard to miracles and bilocations attributed to him, that he pondered over whether there were hidden variables that would better explain such transmundane events. Because his guru, Shiv Brat Lal, was a prolific writer and widely published throughout the Punjab, Faqir Chand confessed that it was very likely that he may have actually seen one of his guru's magazines (with his ashram address) several months or weeks before he had his nocturnal vision. Faqir was so awestruck at the time of his psychic experience that he had not taken to the time to consider the very obvious possibility that he had already seen the guru and his whereabouts in a publication but had simply forgotten the details.
D. Scott Rogo, the famous paranormal investigator (who was unfortunately murdered at the young age of 40), also concluded that most, if not all metaphysical episodes were “really psychic projections that are produced by the minds of the observers themselves.”
Of course, this doesn't in itself categorically dismiss the entire field of parapsychology, but only sends a very necessary warning shot to anyone interested in this area to be extraordinarily cautious when postulating something as inexplicable when, given enough time and attention to detail, it may be likely that hitherto hidden variables may better explain the mystery at hand. Faqir Chand repeatedly pointed this out to his spiritual colleagues and followers who seemed overly eager to accept any revelation as divine.
To support Faqir Chand's acute observations, I remember an unusual story that happened to me back in the mid-1980s. Fate magazine, a widely circulated magazine devoted to “true and strange reports of the strange and unknown.” As I retold it in the article, The Guru Has No Turban,
“I recall getting a phone call from a Catholic woman in Oklahoma, I believe, who got my number from the editors of FATE magazine. Apparently, she had been praying/meditating one day and she had a vision of a guru with a long white beard and turban who informed her that she would learn more about him that day. Later she happened to pick up a copy of FATE magazine which contained an article I wrote entitled The Enchanted Land: A Journey with the Saints of India which described my visits with various shabd yoga gurus in India. When she saw the picture of Charan Singh that accompanied the article she was thrilled, sinceas she allegesit was this same Charan Singh who had appeared to her during her prayer/meditation. She was so enthralled in fact that she tracked me down and asked for more information. Being somewhat skeptical by nature of transpersonal or paranormal happenings (even when connected with my path), I advised her to write a letter to Charan Singh about it and ask his opinion. She did and a few weeks later he wrote her a long reply in which he stated that the vision was, more or less, a projection of her own mind and that he had nothing to do with it.”
Yes, it is certainly true that humans experience all sorts of weird coincidences from time to time and that on occasion mysterious events arise, but even here one has to be doubly cautious not to prematurely rush to explain them as beyond physics. Perhaps a bit more patience, a bit more skepticism, and a lot more analysis is necessary. Otherwise, a simpler or more mundane explanation will be overlooked. A pregnant example of this comes from Dr. Ronald Siegel and his book, Fire in the Brain.
During an exceptional experiment with psychedelics, a group of volunteers (whom he termed “psychonauts”) had all witnessed the same transfixing and demonic eyeballs, which haunted them and couldn't be rationally explained away. Why did everyone have the same vision? Ronald Siegel spent weeks trying to unlock the enigma, but to his utter surprise he discovered that just prior to their drug experiments each student in preparation for their journeys had been required to watch the same slideshow presentation. What Siegel hadn't immediately realized was that one of the slides (which he accidently included in the presentation) was an artistic depiction of demonic eyes—the very same eyes that all the psychonauts had reported seeing while under a hallucinogenic. As Siegel pointed out,
“The Demon was nothing more than the surprise of a disturbing image spontaneously retrieved from memory. Rather than feeling disappointed that a 'real' Demon did not exist, I was surprised and humbled to discover that internal images can be powerful enough to be mistaken for external ones. Disturbing images have a way of burrowing their way into our memories, even after a single exposure.”
This is an important lesson here, since the variable in this case (a forgotten slide) was so obvious that, ironically, it was for all intents and purposes hidden. If Ronald Siegel hadn't investigated further, he and his associates may have elevated the strange vision from its pedestrian origins to cosmic dimensions. So it is the case, I suspect, with many so-called psychic encounters of the first kind.
For instance, ever since I read Autobiography of a Yogi when I was eleven years old I was mesmerized with Self-Realization Fellowship's claim that Yogananda's body after death didn't decay as one might suspect. SRF has long championed this remarkable feature as suggestive of something divine. Yet, Geoffrey Falk, a onetime follower of SRF's kriya yoga path, demonstrates that there was nothing unique or even special about what happened to Yogananda's body after death:
Yogananda “shuffled off the mortal coil” for the final time—i.e., entered mahasamadhi—in 1952. Immediately thereafter, SRF has since widely claimed, his untenanted body began manifesting a “divine incorruptibility.”
While there may indeed be a psychic realm, it behooves us to look first for ordinary explanations of the supernatural since it is far too easy to neglect those physical elements which may explain that which we too often take to be inexplicable. I appreciate that it is very difficult to doubt our own experiences in this regard (since they tend to impart so much meaning and magic to our day to day lives), but if we fail to do so we run the very real risk of mistaking a mirage for reality.
Psychic stories usually sound more “psychic” when we have less information about the event.
I know this from my own personal experience because I once witnessed what I thought at the time was an airtight case of clairvoyance. I remember the exact date and place it occurred. It was December 5, 1986, and I was in Bombay (now Mumbai), India, attending a private dinner with my late guru, Charan Singh, of Radhasoami Satsang Beas. He had invited a select group of about 15 individuals from around the world to attend a tightknit affair and I felt extremely fortunate to have been chosen. Yet, just as the evening was to begin and after pleasantries had been exchanged, Charan noticed that one of his guests had not yet arrived. He then asked one of his sevadars for an explanation and the driver (who was designated to pick up the elderly woman at the entrance of the Holiday Inn) related that the woman was nowhere to be found. At this point, Charan closed his eyes and told his driver in no uncertain terms precisely where she could be found. The driver looked exasperated and mentioned that it seemed very unlikely that given her advanced age she would actually be in another side of town walking around at a park. But Charan was insistent and the driver went off as directed. Barely twenty minutes later, the driver and the lady showed up for dinner. The sevadar appeared completely baffled by the whole interlude and was duly impressed by Charan Singh's apparent clairvoyance. I too was wonderstruck by the episode.
Now on the surface of it, this little story may seem indicative of something psychic, particularly given the speed at which it was resolved. There is no doubt that the driver felt that Charan Singh had supernatural powers and those in attendance and who witnessed the event thought so too. But perhaps we need to throw a wet blanket on the proceedings and look at this incident with a more objective eye.
Is it really out of the realm of probability that Charan Singh, knowing Bombay fairly well (he had traveled there yearly for over four decades), that he might have rightly surmised where the old woman may have mistakenly ended up? I think not, particularly when one stops to consider that the park where the driver found her was the very same park Charan had given satsang earlier that week.
Psychic stories usually sound more “psychic” when we have less information about the event. Arguably, the more details we get about a supernatural circumstance the more ordinary it turns out to be. This might not always be the case, but it is highly suspicious that the deeper we dig the less miraculous the event turns out to be. Maybe we should heed this warning and instead of prematurely rushing in where angels fear to tread we can take the long view and let our critical investigations season and ripen. In this light, it is not a situation of denying a priori the metaphysical but rather that we should take supernatural claims seriously enough not to let imposters compromise their value. Perhaps a skeptical psychic isn't merely an odd oxymoron but a necessary imperative.
POSTSCRIPT: John Wheeler on Quantum Theory and Parapsychology
A Decade of Permissiveness
“I find honest work almost overwhelmed by the buzz of absolutely crazy ideas put forth with the aim of establishing a link between quantum mechanics and parapsychology.”
John A. Wheeler
Dr. William D. Carey
American Association for the Advancement of Science
1776 Massachusetts Avenue, NW
Washington, D.C. 20036
Quite innocently I found myself drawn into a controversy at the session on Science and Consciousness at the meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Houston Monday morning, January 8. I had been asked to talk on the relation between quantum mechanics and consciousness. I discovered to my dismay after the program had been cast in concrete that Eugene Wigner and I, two people from the world of physics, were being put together on a panel with several parapsychologists. What is more, one of them and many of the audience were ready to call on the most extreme ideas out of physics. I am writing as a concerned member of the AAAS and as a former member of the board of directors and as a former president of the American Physical Society to ask that a five man committee of review be appointed by the board of directors and the council jointly to review the work of the section of parapsychology of the AAAS to determine:
(a) Whether this field of investigation by now has produced any “battle tested result”;
(b) To report on the advantage gained in fund raising by workers in the field of parapsychology by their association with the AAAS;
(c) To report on the effect of this association on the public image of the AAAS;
(d) To advise whether this section should be left “as is,” suspended until the field has produced some “battle tested” results or deleted outright from the AAAS.
I know that the views of our late and beloved Margaret Mead were strong in getting parapsychology admitted to the AAAS. I was present at the meeting where it happened. The opinion that I had and many others had was overridden by the permissiveness of the time. The words might not have been used, but the idea was there of that old phrase, “Marry him to reform him.” Now the decade of permissiveness has passed.
Moreover, in the quantum theory of observation, my own present field of endeavor, I find honest work almost overwhelmed by the buzz of absolutely crazy ideas put forth with the aim of establishing a link between quantum mechanics and parapsychology—as if there were any such thing as “parapsychology.” A young person who wants to work in this field does so at his risk. He runs the danger of earning, not reputation, but snickers. In this sense the association of “parapsychology” with the AAAS puts a strain on the progress of an important field of investigation. That is the origin of my concern and the reason I appeal to you for your good offices in setting up the “Committee for the Review of Parapsychology in the AAAS.”
More background for this letter will be found in Appendices A and B of the attached paper, “Not consciousness, but the distinction between the probe and the probed, as central to the elemental quantum act of observation.”
“We have enough charlatanism in this country today without needing a scientific organization to prostitute itself to it. The AAAS has to make up its mind whether it is seeking popularity or whether it is strictly a scientific organization.” Admiral Hyman G. Rickover has just this minute telephoned to back my position on making a clean break between the AAAS and parapsychology and authorizes me to quote him so.
Many thanks for your consideration.
John Archibald Wheeler
Center for Theoretical Physics
The University of Texas at Austin
Source: 'A Decade of Permissiveness', New York Review of Books, May 17, 1979.