Yours truly attended the Parapsychological Conference in Leiden, on 15 September 2012, organized by Prof. Hans Gerding and his colleagues at the Parapsychologisch Instituut of the Netherlands.
Prof. David Lukoff spoke of the understanding of religion and spirituality by psychologists and psychiatrists in their bible, the DSM-4 and -5. After an introduction to his youthful experiences as a hippie, when he took LSD and briefly saw himself as a religious prophet, the professor came to the point. It took a long time, but now the mental-healthcare professionals are increasingly taking religious/spirituality seriously. Especially military psychologists use the DSM category of religious or spiritual problem in their diagnosis. Many people think that their mental disorders are the result of sins they have committed. Conversion of oneself or on a family member is another frequent cause of mental problems.
This is by no means self-evident. Because of their training, clinicians are programmed to be wary of this. From the 1930 till the 1970s, psychologists used the term “catatonia” frequently when describing meditation. Indeed, meditators are inward-looking and therefore insensitive to outside stimuli, a feature they share with catatonia patients. But meditators choose to turn inwards, while catatonic patients have no choice in the matter, their behavior is compulsive. Today, this crucial distinction between normal and sick human beings is widely recognized. Indeed, psychologists now devote serious research to near-death and mystical experiences.
Prof. Liane Hofmann of the Institute for Frontier Areas of Psychology and Mental Health in Freiburg, Germany, spoke of the relevance of religion and spirituality to psychotherapy. She had a high focus on the therapeutic context, and typically she started out by asking the psychotherapists among the audience to identify themselves. There were many.
What struck me is the conventionality of the goals set by therapists, the total absence of the need and search for enlightenment (or its religious equivalent, salvation). The theologian Hans Küng once said it during an invited speech before the American Psychiatric Association: religion is absent in psychotherapy, it is the big taboo of the profession. Even our professor only spoke of religion and spirituality, but never of their natural goals. These are still treated by psychologists as private pet issues, not taken seriously. Nevertheless, from her European angle, she confirmed what the American professor had observed: that psychotherapists increasingly value religion and spirituality and are gaining expertise in this field. But it should be noted that, while this time she spoke before a friendly audience, she clearly was used toskeptical or hostile audiences, which is why she took cover behind otherwise unnecessary statistics and investigation reports.
Prof. Hein van Dongen from the host university spoke of “energy”. It has a vague meaning, like Chinese “qi”, for an atmosphere is a room or a circle of people, but otherwise we use it in its literal meaning. Aristotle already used it, Paul used it for God’s working, and there is already a difference, for to Aristotle, energy was inherent in things, whereas to Saint Paul, it was inherent in one Supreme Being. Paul influenced the use of the term in a religious sense till the 18th century. It also meant “spiritual force”. Poets used it for landscapes, which also have an energy, and its organ was called “imagination”. According to William Blake, reason is sublimated energy, while pure energy is vitality emanating from the body, including eroticism. He also mentioned Herbert Spencer, John Ruskin, to whom qi also the basis of an esthetic (call it “energy stream”) and the Dutch Sinologist Bourel who said some hundred years ago that the origin of all qi is the sun.
Prof. A. van der Braak (from the Calvinist Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam) read a paper on the Christian mystic Meister Eckhart and the Zen master Dōgen. It is now common to give a Zen interpretation of Meister Eckhart. Schopenhauer already used Eckhart to understand Zen. Daisetz Suzuki introduced Zen to Westerners beginning with Eckhart. His interpretation follows the common one: a rebellious mystic who goes against established religion. Suzuki only sees differences between Christianity and Buddhism as a waste of time. The rebellious and mystical image of Zen was counterfeited in Tang China and sold to the West by 20th century Japanese scholars.
“There is nothing mystical about Zen.” Here I am not sure the speaker was quoting someone or speaking for himself. I do know, however, that this viewpoint of denying a mystical dimension to Zen is quite popular among Christian missionaries. They may even be right, depending on how “mysticism” is defined. If mysticism is defined theistically, then of course, Zen is not mystical while Christian mysticism is. But in speaking of “mysticism”, most people think of meditation, emptying the mind, and in that sense Zen is mystical par excellence. Anyway, the speaker explained himself: “Zen is a body practice, to embody the Buddha nature, not to understand it.“ Oh, well. But I agree with him when he laughs at the New Age simpletons who say: “Zen’s emptiness = Eckhart’s nothingness.”
Meister Eckhart wrote his mystical works in German, his serious works in Latin. Eckhart writing in Latin was just a scholastic philosopher. Both Martin Heidegger and Hans-Georg Gadamer say: our understanding of a text is based on our pre-understanding, it determines what we notice (or not) in a thinker. Givenness is never neutral or objective. Thus, the reading of Eckhart as an anti-Church mystic is determined by some people’s Romantic premises. Objectivity should be pursued, but we should remain aware of our pre-understanding and explicitate it. For Eckhart, mysticism is always tied to reading the Bible. He believed in Biblical revelation.
Dōgen Zenji was the founder of the Soto tradition of Zen (as opposed to Rinzai, from Lin Ji). Zen here is not about a mystical transcendent experience, but about permanently realizing the Buddha nature. Dogen: “Buddhism s to study the self. Studying the self is to forget the self …” Could Eckhart have said that?
Conclusion: rather than saying that mystics meet one another and transcend their own tradition, their going deeper in their own tradition seems more like it. Maybe it is time for a second wave of Zen to the west. Eckhart and Dōgen entered their own tradition more profoundly. They were not universal and didn’t think of trying.
Prof. Anna Bosman of Radboud University, Nijmegen spoke on sensitivity, a perfectly normal condition, even a component of spriirituality, that professionals have long misdiagnosed as a symptom of a disease. Included in the definition of spiritual crisis is that it “reveals itself by extraordinary experiences”. The speaker said: “I found it absurd till this morning, when my colleague [David Lukoff] told of his LSD experience. Hey, I have one of those, I thought. I had space cake and an out-of-the-body experience.”
Sensitivity has as its original meaning: to find your way. In a source of 1400, it meant “interpretation”, in 1526 the “external sense organs”, in 1816 an “extreme physical experience”. Only in 1900 did it start to mean what we understand as sensitivity.
She also protested against the tendency of professionals to treak people as statistical averages. Thus, they say: ”Autistic people have a lower memory”, and proceed to expect that of every single autistic patient. We treat people like that, projecting statistical data on averages onto individuals.
Afterwards, I heard several other therapists complain that this is what is being said for the last several decades. Nothing new, they said. It reminded me of the presence of too many therapists working on people’s normalcy and too few yogis working towards enlightenment.
Pim van Lommel spoke about “non-local consciousness”. He wrote a book about the near-death experience (NDE) and its life-changing effects. Is it possible to speak of a beginning of our consciousness and will it ever end?
He said: we were happy in 1967 for resuscitating a patient, it was new then; but he seemed disappointed at coming back to life, so good had his NDE been. NDE raised a number of questions. How does the content of an NDE come about? Why does it change life so radically?
And first of all: what is an NDE? For most physicians it is incomprehensible. During cardiac arrest, anoxia (lack of oxygen) in the brain sets in and the patient must be resuscitated within 5 minutes. During this time, some report having had an NDE. We investigated this with a control group who did not report an NDE. We found no effect from duration of cardiac arrest, of unconsciousness, the administering of drugs, gender, religion, degree of education.. The effect of an NDE was no more fear of death, compassion, acceptance, increased appreciation of life, enhanced intuitive sensibility. But an NDE is also traumatic, both at the inter- and intrapersonal level: integration of the experience, loneliness, homesickness, nostalgia after forced return to the body, and fear of rejection.
Only 18% of anoxia or cardiac arrest patients reported an NDE. Psychological, pharmacological, physiological explanations all fail. There have been four investigation, all had a similar result: 11% to 23% have an NDE. Patients also report similar sensations during an NDE. Thus, many report a holographic life review: thet had remembered every action, even every thought. They also report Importance of love, causation, etc. Many also saw their future life, e.g. someone saw his wife’s future death.
There are just too many proofs of the reality of NDE and no sussessful skeptical explanations. So, it seems functions like a TV or mobile phone: it receives and transmits information, but does not produce it.
Prof. Pim van Lommel concluded by showing us two quotations. UN general secretary and Nobel peace prize winner Dag Hammerskjöld said: “Our ideas about death define how we live our life.” And Johann Wolfgang von Goethe said in Faust 2 to a skeptic:“I see the learned man in what you say!
What you don’t touch, for you lies miles away;
What you don’t grasp, is wholly lost to you;
What you don’t reckon, you believe not true;
What you don’t weigh, that has for you no weight;
What you don’t count, you’re sure is counterfeit.”
So, between the extremes of believing anything and disbelieving anything (skepticism), there is an attitude of investigating the mysterious and sometimes upholding it when it proves to be consistent and surviving any attempts to explain it away.