Wednesday, December 18, 2019

Mind Over Matter and Life After Death

The ultimate triumph of mind over matter would be to survive bodily death. The argument, roughly put: the greater the power of mind over physical reality, the greater the plausibility of survival.  In contrast, if our mental states are just byproducts of physical causes, they aren’t likely to survive physical death.  But if our minds cannot be reduced to, or explained by, physical states, surviving death becomes more credible.  Mind may be married to body; but divorce need not mean the death of mind. Sometimes divorce is not just the end but a new and even more exciting beginning.  

There are all kinds of mind-body interactions (MBIs) in which some aspect of our mental life appears to act upon—and in some sense transcend—physical reality.  To make the case in detail is a long story. For the moment a rough sketch will have to do.  

Roughly, we can classify MBIs as normal, abnormal, and supernormal, ranging from the familiar to the rare and extraordinary.  Ordinary walking is a good familiar place to begin.  We use our legs and arms to carry out our intentions in daily life.  Using our body intentionally is already a sign of the power of mind over matter. 

Beyond daily work and chores,  there is dancing, art, sport and sometimes daring or heroic action where we use our bodies in increasingly expressive and possibly dangerous ways.  For example, Tibetan monks said to run vast distances at incredible speeds and of Buddhist and Catholic levitators and bilocators.  Along with these are out-of-body experiences, which some see as a proof of the mind’s  independence of the body, and even as a preview of life after death.    

Or take the family of so-called poltergeists that seem to perform all manner of tricks on familiar physics. These are spiced by the mystery of not knowing the nature of the intelligence behind the anomalies, whether from the mind of a disturbed adolescent or from spirits having some fun with, or venting some spleen on, the living.  

There is the “direct voice” phenomenon, articulate communications heard but not seen. The auditory spectrum of queer phenomena is wide: raps, bangs, thuds, knocks, footsteps, voices, moans, laughter, all reported in hauntings; also, on a higher plane, transcendental music, sometimes heard as part of near-death or other ecstatic types of experience. 

Each sense seems to have its supernormal analogue.  Annekatrin Puhle’s study, Light Changes (2013) describes a variety of unexplained, transformative light experiences. Also, in all faiths, we find accounts of preternatural odors of sancity; Joseph of Copertino’s case is well documented (see my Wings of Ecstasy). Breathing in this special class of supernormal fragrances was said to be therapeutic.  Among Catholic mystics like the 20th century Austrian stigmatist, Theresa Neumann, the taste of the communion wafer was conducive to ecstasy and at the same time served all her nutritional needs for decades of her very public life. 

Perhaps the most practically important MBIs, whether in religious faith or medical settings, involve bodily healing.  The so-called “placebo” effect is so commonplace, we can forget how puzzling, how sometimes baffling, its ability to create a wide range of healing effects. Documentation of seemingly miraculous healings must be added to our list.  The French physician Alexis Carrel, starting out as a skeptic in his Voyage to Lourdes, describes witnessing a young woman on the brink of death, brought back to life, physically transformed before his eyes, after she is bathed in the spring water that Bernadette Soubirous dug up out of the rocky terrain.  

Sometimes the MBI is damaging: Related to this is the phenomenon of false pregnancy: women who produce and exhibit the physical symptoms of pregnancy—without actually being pregnant—what does this tell us?  Another sad psychic phenomenon comes under the rubric of “maternal impressions,” cases of women who while pregnant witness a traumatic sight such as a child with a missing limb and who then give birth to an infant with a similar missing limb. This happens despite there being no nerve connections between mother and fetus. 

With some evolved saints, yogis, and mediums, we confront a more surprising group of MBIs, for example, materialization: reports of mediums that materialize hands you can grasp, faces or full bodies of people known to be deceased that may physically embrace you and be photographed.  (See the cases of Eusapia Palladino, Martha Beraud (aka Eva C.), and D.D. Home for this.) Even in historical times, we find reports of food unnaturally appearing and apparently “multiplied.” 

Extreme MBIs occur in the context of religious symbolism. It seems that in some  reported cases the Eucharistic host has been seen to jump from the priest’s hand onto the tongue of impatient communicants. Respect for matters of fact, no matter how strange, requires that I include on my list of metaphysical outlaws statues and paintings that weep and bleed. These phenomena are ongoing, but I’ll just mention A. R. Bandini’s The Miracle at Syracuse, an account of a statue of the Madonna that wept ample, real tears for four days, beginning on August 29, 1953, an event witnessed by scientists and thousands of eyewitnesses that was headlined around the world.

Strange phenomena are reported about the bodies of holy men and women. We have stories of their luminous haloes, otherworldly fragrances, and of levitation, bilocation, dematerialization, and materialization.  We should of course mention MBIs associated with the corpses of the super-holy.   It seems that the bodies of dead yogis and saints refuse to behave like conventional corpses.  Often for months, even years, they just look asleep, physically incorrupt, and remain so for decades and even centuries. Reportedly, these holy corpses frozen in time, may exude oils, retain flexibility, and behave in other undead ways.   

In some Buddhist traditions, saints’ bodies after death have been observed to become vanishingly small, to emit colored lights, and then for a climax, to completely vanish.  And finally on death-related MBIs, in reincarnation cases there is evidence that the body of the reincarnated person carries over marks of wounds incurred in a previous life, thus making visible the continuity of two different embodied life experiences. 

Many examples prove that mind can directly influence matter, for good or ill, for example, placebo and nocebo effects, which repeatedly prove how belief, imagination, and expectation can help or harm health.  Statistically, placebos (imaginative fictions) are about as effective as chemical anti-depressants. My belief that I will get well is sometimes the critical variable what makes me well. Thoughts can affect distant events, in other minds and other places; the facts of paranormality suggest that we inhabit an extended mental mind. 

So what can we conclude about mind over matter and life after death? From experience we know of the many ways that our minds affect physical reality.  First off, thoughts, desires, emotions shape our own bodies and lives, for good or for ill.  That’s a big step and already speaks to the reality of our agency--our affinity for mind-body transcendence. In spite of genetics and external material circumstances, we retain the ability to transform our own lives. 

And as a bonus I hesitantly add: In light of the sprawling mass of diverse and increasingly remarkable evidence, the culmination of mind over matter would clearly be the triumph of consciousness over bodily death.  That would be the ultimate proof of power of the human spirit, a secret, as Heraclitus said, that nature loves to hide. But what nature loves to hide we need to make manifest.  The more we understand our extraordinary potentials, the more likely we may learn to tap into them. 



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