Saturday, October 31, 2020

The Real Meaning of Halloween




Happy Halloween!   What follows are a few remarks about the remnants of a mysterious holiday. What Halloween has come to mean today is remote from its very old, original meanings.   The core idea was that Halloween was a time when the boundary between the living and the souls of the dead grows thin.  The spirits of the dead are more apt to pay us a visit.   And they are more likely to respond to us if we call on them.   That’s a little more daunting than playing trick or treat.


The idea of a thinning boundary between us and the spirits needs to be reframed.  More accurate, and more interesting, is to say this: there are times when the boundary between our brain and the part of our mental life linked to souls of the dead thins. What “thins” the boundary is anything that disrupts normal brain function.    When the brain is prevented from doing its job, which is to adapt us to the environment, contact with supernormal powers becomes possible.  The necessary mental space becomes available


The near-death experience is a perfect example.  Assume it is induced by cardiac arrest, which cuts off oxygen to the brain, and should blot out consciousness.  In fact, the opposite occurs; people have memorable, transformative experiences, and come away convinced of the reality of another world.  The link between brain function and external world is disrupted.


It’s not just the near-death experience that fits the “thinning” metaphor.  There are other circumstances where the process is evident, for example, with saints and shamans, yogis and mystics.  These we might call specialists in shunting  consciousness away from the plane of life.  


Combined with the mental shift are physical changes, like fasting, breathing and posture exercises, and the sublimation of sexuality.  These are the people who tend to have supernormal and mystical experiences, the result of deliberate “thinning” of the boundaries that separate them from the greater reality.    


Another field of human experience testifies to the phenomenon.  People who suffer from autism, unable to tie their own shoelaces or use a grocery list in a supermarket, may display what Dr. Darold Treffert calls “Islands of Genius.”   In that book, he describes the mathematical, mnemonic, musical, and artistic feats of otherwise neuro-compromised individuals.  Treffert also covers cases of suddenly acquired talents after suffering brain traumas, for example, Derek Amato who cracked his head diving into a swimming pool.  After taking some months to recover, Amato discovered he could play the piano, which totally changed his life. (He had no knowledge of the instrument.)


Anything that inspires us has the effect of detaching us from the world as it is.  The Muses inspire musicians, dancers, actors, poets, painters.  The key function of the Muses is to induce ecstasy—ek-stasis—“standing outside yourself.”  The point is to be taken out of your self; outside the familiar way your brain works.   


Another method of exploring our greater consciousness: psychedelics are an age-old method of altering the brain-consciousness equation in favor of the expansion of consciousness.  And of course all this fit the model of what Halloween is supposed to do, thin the veil that separates us from the world of spirits. 


So the forgotten significance of Halloween leaves us with an impression that we are surrounded by invisible helping powers.  At any moment of our existence we might discover there’s a world beyond our brain-mediated consciousness.




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