This article is written from the perspective of people who randomly experience things like “sensing presences” and some types of out-of-body experiences, in addition to intuitive coincidences and sometimes the whole range of depersonalisation phenomena – explicitly not from the perspective of people who actively seek this kind of thing and/or project hopes of awesome powers and salvation (enlightenment) on it.
This comes back to mind as a friend started suddenly having OBEs, preceded by “presences”, in a stressful setting where she’s alone (and under the virus lockdown). I haven’t thought about this stuff for a while, as I’ve virtually stopped having it over the years – it’s become more and more rare. When it happens, it doesn’t scare me or impress me that much. I haven’t “mastered” any kind of conscious control over OBE and lucid-dream kind of stuff or over when presences deign to appear – frankly, what I’ve been doing in the last years has been gaining some mastery over my emotional life (mastery as in understanding living through things, rather than overlooking and burying my head in the sand). I strongly suspect that’s why it’s largely gone away. But there are so many ways to interpret all of this – I was really wondering what to tell my friend concerning “what it is” (a question I don’t have a good answer to), “what it is from a neuroscience perspective” (since I’ve studied neuroscience), or specifically how to best handle it. I also, to my own surprise, couldn’t really respond to questions on why it went away in my case, what reduced it, and whether I noticed changes in any other areas of my life while working with (through) this.
That’s why now I’m in the mood for reflecting on it in a blog post, I suppose. Trying to find some belated answers to all the stuff she asked.
If anyone reads this who actually has these experiences and feels like talking, please feel free to leave comments or e-mail me privately if you find this useful, or to the contrary, if your experiences are really different. Even though it’s in the background for me now, I would still like to deepen my understanding.
Here’s a list of stuff I told my friend plus other stuff as it occurs to me now (in free-associations-reign order).
- In my experience, it is not necessary to freak out if something like this happens to you once, or a couple of times, or even if it’s a kind of constant feature of your life. On its own, it doesn’t “mean” anything – doesn’t mean you’re crazy and must be locked away and drugged (unless there are other indications, but even with those that wouldn’t be my favourite regime :); and it doesn’t mean you must be the next Prophet, or start a career as a psychic now, or start a sect because you have access to infallible secret knowledge, etc.
- Since I grew up having a lot of those experiences, but I personally don’t think I’m crazy (if you don’t believe me, several shrinks certified :D), I’ve been in a decades-long struggle to find a place for that stuff in the modern semi-Western world I live in (between Poland and Germany and a bunch of other remote places and unusual people). My conclusion has been that there’s basically no place for these kinds of experiences outside either madhouses or dubious new-age cults. And this, I believe, creates problems for the sensitive people who happen to be prone to these kinds of experiences – whatever you want to call them. There isn’t even a neutral name for it that isn’t either psychopathology or esotericism.
- Also note, while I had loads of them, I didn’t realise they are unusual until I read “The Varieties of Religious Experience” by William James in my early 20s and figured that there’s a special book about it because these experiences are somehow regarded as unusual or special, but on the other hand there’s quite a number of people who has them (perhaps a higher number than expected, since it’s pretty stigmatised to talk about it in non-esoteric circles). What confused me was that while these were apparently classified as “mystical” experiences, various Catholic saints etc. had had them, as well as the saints of pretty much all other religious and spiritual traditions that I read about (at a time when I still used libraries, not the internet), and I could frankly “tick off” the vast majority of their types, I clearly wasn’t capable of feats of saintly behaviour or other miracles – no (overly) magical powers.
- But on the other hand, despite wondering about it for a while, I wasn’t crazy either (which, as I said, seems to be the only mainstream alternative). I’m actually fairly comparatively sane. Hence, over time, the conclusion that these things are just part of the ordinary range of human experience – perhaps not as common as the cold, but still, can those people who happen to have more of them just live with them without being either tossed down into the underworlds of madness, or put up on the pedestal of “you have this extraordinary gift and that’s why you can do anything“?
What I mean to say is, there doesn’t seem to be much space for everyday mysticism in the modern world. Not much space for a sane, neutral, grounded, and curious approach to experiences common among people who seem to have an intuitive-imaginative-sensitive knack.
So what is this thing, say the typical “I feel there’s something/someone in the room, even though there isn’t” feeling, followed by the “omg something’s pulling me out of my body and I travel!!!” phenomenon?
Is it a neurological malfunction based on stress, a side-effect of insomnia and exhaustion? Is it “just” the kinaesthetic (sensing how your body is moving) part of the brain de-coupled from the sense apparatus and hallucinating movement while your body is inert? Basically a kinaesthetic dream? (Just like visual dreams involve the visual areas of the brain without involving the eyes?) Or some other “merely” material, un-spiritual phenomenon? (Which of course happens because you “have some disorder” or other.)
Is it, as the friend’s friend says, the ultimate key to the power of astral travel, of going (at night) wherever you want and seeing whether your friends far away are sleeping well? Is it proof you’re a shaman and can soon cure the sick?
Is there an alternative to these two views?
I think after years, my alternative is chiefly phenomenological … meaning, at first sight, the experience is just the experience. The brain probably does something different from what it does normally during a waking or dreaming state, but the presence of a corresponding brain process (which afaik nobody knows of so far as this is super-hard to research) still wouldn’t necessarily tell us the reason for the thing occurring, its (potential) uses and abuses, or (especially) what it means to the life of someone experiencing it.
I guess the main thing I was able to tell my friend was, it doesn’t mean you’re dying, crazy, or that there definitely are literal, real spirits around talking to you – it’s not such an uncommon experience, and at least in my case, it doesn’t really have to do anything bad (or good) to you. Sit with it, soak it in, but have a tea, wait, let time pass and digest it slowly. Feel what meaning it might have for you.
Is it parts of our own psyche that we’ve split off and repressed, “materialising” before our eyes, wanting to be seen and heard and felt so badly that they put up this whole spirit-theatre before our eyes? This psychoanalytic-style explanations was one that I’ve found reasonable for some periods, but can neither prove nor disprove it. But if you ask yourself inwardly, or stay with the question for a while, it might certainly be that in many cases.
If the presences are distinct in character, personality, age, atmosphere, and tied to a location, does that mean you’re seeing souls of someone who lived (or worst case, died violently, or whatever) there? Not sure. I personally haven’t had cases of that which I could be sure of, even though a few times the impression was so vivid that I tried to do background research, but never found decisive information. Couple of times I had fairly good guesses based on what the bricks felt like.
I think the main thing I would say (with some confidence) is that this sort of thing is the soul talking in its native language – in images and sensations. Sometimes – on some occasions, or for some very sensitive people – it does that extra forcefully, producing flourishes here and there. Those may be visual, or kinaesthetic (feelings, of being outside the body, or of being someone or something else; my own “thing” in some phases was my face transforming frequently in its felt sense as if it had changed shape).
One thing that I personally haven’t experienced is that the flourishes can probably also be auditory, as when “hearing voices” – like in the visual and the kinaesthetic, also here there’s probably a gradient between clearly imagining, forcefully getting an impression (kind of between imagining and hallucinating, or between sleeping and waking, in an unusual mode) and really hallucinating the thing. I know less about this, as I had perhaps only one time in my life when a strong intuitive impression came in words. They’re usually images or feelings.
Point is, the soul speaking its native language loudly suddenly (or constantly, for some) doesn’t tell you or me why it’s doing that, and what it has to say. It might just be kind of “dreaming awake”, pushing me to “see” something that I’m ignoring not only in daily life, but even in night dreams. This might simply be an emotional truth (for example animals appeared for me as symbols of emotional forces that stopped appearing once I knew how to work with those emotions directly). It might be something you’re observed, but not let into consciousness yet – but the soul somehow things it’s important (again, to you individually, for your individual reasons), so it’s pushing it in front of your “eyes” again so you “get it” and pay attention to essential information that has been noticed.
What this information is, I do not know. It could be things you noticed with your standard senses, your emotions, your people sense, or perhaps even things your intellect knows but you refuse to face, which your psyche for some reason obsesses about or considers newsworthy that it repeats the information to you (in its language, again, in images – it’s super useful to understand that language and some credit goes to CG Jung for my own understanding of it). If you really have prescient dreams that can’t be explained any other way, might be that your soul got the information in some unknown way and is presenting it in this form.
I don’t have super clear cases of this in my own life – I had 2 cases of visions before sudden deaths, but the deaths were not that sudden and I might have had enough cues (visual, olfactory – it’s a factor for me) about the persons being secretly severely sick. Point is, I couldn’t consciously tell where the information came from and in any case did not notice it consciously, but apparently my soul considered it important enough to express itself in images and sensations to clarify things to me.
I think what I’m getting at is that, as I see it, “dreams and visions” – whether it’s images, kinaesthetic impressions, or voices – are just a mode of cognition, a way of knowing the world. A way of perceiving and thinking, so to speak. The format something comes in doesn’t tell you whether it comes from the depths or from the shallows, from heavens or hells or from your own observational acuity, or perhaps from your insomnia and stress – it’s just a channel of perception like others.
Just like some content comes to you through books, other content on the radio, and still other in movies – the channel something came through doesn’t necessarily tell you what kind of content it is, who sent it, whether it’s trustworthy, or whether it’s true.
Some people have an open channel in this area, but that doesn’t tell me (me personally, at least) much about the quality and meaning of what they’re receiving on it. Intuitive images aren’t a priori either more or less true than stuff we come to in other ways – reasoning, reading about it, observing it with our senses.
(My impression is people who are dogmatically “scientific” automatically assume that intuitive content is always wrong, distorted, and only unserious crazy people use this channel. On the other hand, esoteric circles seem to sometimes think that if you – or their guru – “saw” something, it’s automatically true. I still wonder why a balanced position is so rare that I basically haven’t found anyone representing it.)
So, for me all these intuitive phenomena / experiences are another channel of experiencing the world, perceiving things, that is open to some people as a normal feature of being human, and at least temporarily / occasionally opens to quite many (and typically scares them to death, or in unfortunate cases makes them delusional in various ways). The specific things that come in on this channel aren’t really to be treated that differently from the things that come in via, say, the channel of TV – we still need to use all our other faculties (our normal senses, context knowledge, reason) to judge what some particular piece of content “means” – whether it’s meaningful at all; whether the meaning seems to be internal (about the soul itself) or external (more about things we observed or came to know somehow in the world); whether we want to pursue its meaning or allocate most attention elsewhere.
In other words, we still use all our other faculties – just like our reason or our normal senses can bring in various things with various levels of significance and truth, the intuitive one isn’t more nor is it less. It’s a language that comes more natural to certain people and/or at certain phases in our lives. (And personally I’d still say it would be beneficial for most people to know its basics.)
I have a lot of stories to tell about this, but one that always comes to mind is how (I think also in my early 20s) I found somewhere a print (or was it already a website?) of the progressive phases of getting better at meditation (I don’t even remember if it was Yogic or Buddhist). One of the steps said sth. like, “at this stage the meditator typically starts to see various visions”, which can be dramatic, impressive, etc., or show intuitive powers, etc. The advice, as far as I remember, was to do nothing special about this (i.e. not get hyped or scared by it) and just keep meditating. It wasn’t seen as a proof of anything, as an achievement or sth. special in terms of ethical or personal significance (most meditators were expected to hit that stuff at a point as a phase).
That’s probably the closest to a neutral, level-headed attitude to this stuff that I’ve found. Still, when I had my special-effects outburst of visions and sensations and “trips” the first time I went into a vipassana retreat, I didn’t precisely follow that advice. I still asked for the meaning. For example, “Why do I keep seeing this central Asian landscape endlessly?” “Why do I keep feeling like I’ve got scars of this specific shape on my face?” … some of the visions and sensations felt laden with emotion an personal significance.
Admittedly, defying the literal Buddhist teaching, I did work with them in some ways (by trial-and-error) – mostly by just feeling into them, which frequently led to me “seeing” whole stories or complex sensation-memories (or hallucinations, or whatever you want to call it) unfolding. I saw them, I witnessed them. I basically just gave them space and compassion. A certain softness. Whether it was memories or materialisations of unfinished things in my own psyche, or both, this usually helped – in the sense that stuff stopped pursuing me. It could feel kind of “healing”, making something whole, or sometimes, letting something go to peace finally.
My friend asked if there was some healing effect on my life with these practices of engaging. I can’t tell, apart from the vivid or repetitive images reducing over time (about which initially I wasn’t sure whether I liked it, as it was so weird not to have them – having freed up all this space in my mind, what should I put there now? And also, who am I now that I seem to have changed somehow?).
At the end heck, I still don’t know what all these things were that came to me on this channel. What their status was. Nevertheless I kind of learnt how to “talk” to them and live at peace with that “realm” (of images and sensation of unknown provenance befalling a human), I’d say. It doesn’t intrude on me in the last years. But I still call on it as one among various tools for life problem solving, for figuring out what’s going on on a soul and significance level, or for strength in crises (I guess one of the benefits of having an “open channel” is not feeling that existentially alone, at least for some).
But with the Buddhists, I’d say – don’t put it at the centre of anything. Don’t put it on a pedestal (or in a madhouse). It can add colour and depth for those who can handle it even-handedly and level-headedly, more or less. But it’s not a proof of inferiority or superiority or being evolved or “knowing” or of definitely not knowing what one is talking about … just isn’t. It’s just a way of seeing some things a bit more in colour (than most people most of the time), and both what’s noticed and the (human, ethical, sane) qualities of the person noticing a lot of stuff on this channel must be judged fully on their own merits, making well-rounded use of all our senses and mental capacities.