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In this book I will be discussing the experience of life before birth, and the experience of life after death of the physical body. Doing so transcends the assumed boundaries of the Western worldview of scientific materialism. Mainstream medicine and psychology do not believe there is any prenatal experience to talk about - and the mainstream agnostic worldview assumes that we can say nothing about life after death. Nevertheless, in the last fifty years in the West, there have been a number of new pioneering approaches for accessing these realms of consciousness that are at some remove from the presumed ordinary time-space reality.
As a radical empiricist in the tradition of William James, I do not exclude any experiences or observations from consideration, just because we can't account for them within the existing paradigms of reality. I prefer the approach of suspending my commitment to a particular paradigm, in order to consider the observations presented, my own and those of others, with impartiality. Inevitably, our reports and interpretations of subjective experience are bound up with our pre-existing worldviews and models of reality. Even in our ordinary, functional waking state it is not always a simple matter to distinguish what I am seeing (observation) from what I think about what I am seeing (interpretation).
This approach is what the Dalai Lama has called "first-person empiricism," an empiricism that is inclusive of the subjective realm of personal experience. In such an approach, reports of first-person subjective experience are objectively studied in relation and comparison to the reported experience of one or more other observers. In Mind Space and Time Stream I wrote that "a subjective experience communicated and recognized by at least one other person starts to become an objective observation. Hence: subjective + 1 = objective" (p. 22). We base our interpretations (as well as on-going re-interpretations) of reality on our own subjective experience, comparing and correlating them with what others have said or written about their own experience. In accord with the paradigms of empirical science, the accumulation of identical or similar observations from the same or additional observers increases the reliability of our findings and descriptions.
To even consider experience reports from pre-natal or post-mortem life as potential sources of new knowledge and understanding, requires a suspension of the prejudices of the generally accepted worldview of our culture and community. In ancient times in Western culture, and to this day in most Asian societies, concepts of the soul and of reincarnation have had a much deeper level of understanding, and were reflected in numerous myths and spiritual writings. For this reason, I will be including consideration of some classic texts of spiritual literature and mythology, including ancient Egyptian, Greek and Tibetan Buddhist, for insights into the pre-birth and after-death realms.
There are five main sources from which modern consciousness researchers have gathered observations and experiences beyond the thresholds of birth and death: psychedelic states; meditation and yoga; shamanic journeys; deep altered state hypnotherapy; states induced by non-ordinary breathing practices. I will discuss each of these methodologies in turn.
The use of psychedelics to explore non-ordinary realms of consciousness is the way I personally first became acquainted with these areas: through my participation in the studies of psychedelic drugs at Harvard University in the early 1960s, with Tim Leary and Richard Alpert (later Ram Dass). We had followed a suggestion of Aldous Huxley and adapted the teachings of the Tibetan Book of the Dead as the basis for our guidebook on psychedelic states, The Psychedelic Experience, first published in 1964. In the years since its publication, I have received many letters and comments to the effect that while most actual psychedelic experiences did not follow the idealized sequence of three stages laid out in the Bardo Thödol, what people appreciated about our manual were the recommendations to think of psychedelic experiences as an opportunity for psycho-spiritual practice and learning.
It is clear that the drugs per se do not produce or cause those experiences, rather they function as amplifiers of perception. The experiences and observations are a function of the intention or set of the individual, and the setting or context, as well as the preparation beforehand and interpretation afterwards. Because such drugs and related plants and fungi amplify and vivify perception, they have functioned for many people, including myself, as a first mind-opening foray into the realms of pre-birth, after-death and other-world experience. I will be drawing here on my own experiences with these substances, as well as reports of individuals with whom I have worked in guided divinations, both group and individual - where this was possible within the given legal-social framework of the time and place.
Meditation and yoga, especially the Tantric and Taoist forms, are the most wide-spread methods of accessing the non-ordinary realms of consciousness beyond time-space. Concentrative and mindfulness types of meditation are the experiential foundation of spiritual practice in the Asian religious traditions - and to a lesser extent also in the Western religions, although there the forms of faith and devotion generally predominate over psycho-spiritual practices. My experience with yogic practices was shaped by the ten years of full-time study in the Light-Fire (Agni) Yoga methods taught by Russell Schofield and associates in the School of Actualism. I came to recognize these methods, which I still practice and use in my healing and teaching work, to be similar in many ways to those described in Vajrayana Buddhism, Tantra and Taoism, as well as European alchemy, as interpreted by C.G.Jung and his followers.
Shamanic journey methods are practiced worldwide in indigenous societies for purposes of healing and divination. Such a "journey" involves what in modern terms would be called an altered or non-ordinary state of consciousness, which the shamanic practitioner undertakes on behalf of the sick individual or community. The shamanic journey, like any healing procedure, begins with a formulating of questions and intentions, followed by the practitioner going into a trance, communicating with her or her spirit allies, and then returning with information or feedback for the client. The two main methods for inducing the shamanic journey trance are hallucinogenic plants or fungi, more commonly used in the tropical and sub-tropical regions; and rhythmic drumming or rattling, more often used in the Northern Hemisphere regions of Asia, Europe and America. It has been theorized that the rhythmic pulsing induces synchronized entrainment of brain-waves, as well as heart-beat and breath-rate, and that this makes the individual more receptive to sense-impressions and intuitions from non-ordinary dimensions of reality.
I have myself participated in and learned from working with the classic shamanic drumming journey method as taught by my esteemed friends and colleagues Michael Harner and Sandra Ingerman. Many shamanic journey experiences described in classic accounts, as well as in contemporary practice, deal with the after-death realms, and with relations with deceased relatives or spirits of the dead. Although shamanic journey descriptions don't seem to explicitly refer to birth experience, we can observe that the classic shamanic lower-world journey - moving downward through a narrow, sometimes hazardous tunnel and emerging into a brighter, more open landscape - is experientially resonant with the fetal journey through the birth canal.
In hypnotic trance states, a dissociative disconnect from awareness of ordinary time-space reality is brought about by direct or indirect suggestion of the hypnotist. The degree of absorption or immersion in interior experience can be so profound that hypnosis has been used for anesthesia in surgery and for the recovery of repressed or dissociated memories in cases of childhood abuse and other traumatic amnesias. The verbalizations of the hypnotist function as the guiding thread that leads the person into deeper degrees of absorptive trance.
With this method also, inner experiences and observations are largely shaped or framed by the pre-existing worldview, the set and the setting. For example, it is noteworthy that Milton Erickson, the American master-hypnotherapist, who performed extraordinary healings of early childhood traumas, never ventured into the realms of prenatal experience. On the other hand, in the second half of the 20th century, a number of physicians and therapists, whose work will be discussed in Chapters One and Two, began to use hypnotic regression to access birth memories as well as prenatal experience. My own understanding of this area and this methodology has been greatly deepened also through personal participation in workshops conducted by the pioneering therapists William Emerson and Ray Castellino.
Other practitioners, working with hypnotic trance methods to track the origins of present life problems, have found themselves discovering apparent memories of past lives in different times and places, as well as experiences of the discarnate life of the soul after death. Therapists working with past-life and inter-life memories in their clients, have made these discoveries in the course of their healing work, which has often lead them to a much deeper appreciation for the mysteries of death, re-birth and karma. From the point of view of the healing practitioner the purpose of such work is to find resolution to painful problems or conflicts - not to prove the validity of any particular doctrines or beliefs.
I should point out however that an acceptance of the actuality of reincarnation is a near-universal in the world's religions and spiritual teachings outside of the West. It was part of Christ's teaching as well, before being expunged from Church doctrine in the early centuries of the Christian era. It was declared incompatible with the Christian core doctrine of salvation of the faithful after death - an ideological maneuver that vastly increased the Church's power and wealth, by emphasizing faith over individual choice.
In my own work I have found that getting in touch with soul memories of prenatal, past-life or inter-life experience can bring about deeply healing changes in a person's psyche. This is a form of validation that is in accord with the basic principle of empirical medicine - that the proof of the diagnosis and the correctness of the remedy lies in the cure. Winafred Lucas, Ph.D (1911-2006) a wise psychologist who compiled a useful compendium of hypnotic regression methods, was an invaluable mentor for me in exploring these methods and areas.
Breathing practices provide another method of inducing profoundly altered states of consciousness in which pre-natal, post-mortem and transpersonal experiences of various kinds may be accessed. Controlled breathing methods known as pranayama are an essential part of the disciplines of yoga, functioning to coordinate and harmonize the relations between body and mind. Andrew Weil, MD, in his expositions of integrative medicine, has called breath "the master key to healing." In Buddhist mindfulness meditation (vipassana), the non-analytical, non-judgmental observing of the currents of breath is a basic practice, preparatory to the more difficult mindfulness in relation to feelings, sensations and the stream of thoughts. Therapists working to heal imprints from birth and pre-birth experience, both on dry land and in water, have developed a variety of breathing practices that facilitate conscious regression. I have myself participated in a number of such birth-related breathwork sessions with several different practicioners, gaining valuable insights.
The most comprehensive use of breathing as an avenue to non-ordinary states and realms of consciousness is the holotropic breathwork developed by Stanislav and Christina Grof, who are also my long-term friends and collaborators. In this form of group work, intensive hyperventilation is accompanied by dramatic music and focused bodywork. The dissociative element in such states can be quite significant. In one holotropic breathwork session, my sitting partner informed me afterwards that while I was doing the breathing, I at one point sat up and spoke words in a language she neither understood nor recognized - and I myself had absolutely zero recall of this event.
In this book I will be drawing on descriptions of experiences from all these sources, as well as my own experiences ("first-person empiricism") and those of individuals with whom I have worked in my psychotherapy and alchemical divination work, using shamanic, yogic and hypnotic regression methods, both with and without perceptual amplification through psychedelics.
I want to emphasize, as stated above, that the conscious recall of prenatal (or other-world) experiences in such states is not a pharmacological drug effect, any more than recall with hypnotic regression is an effect of hypnosis, or shamanic drumming journey visions are an effect of the drumming. Psychedelic, hypnotic, drumming or breathing techniques can facilitate dissolving the barriers of amnesia and amplify perception - but the individual's intention/question and the context provided by the guide or therapist are the key determinants of the healing process and the insights associated with it.
In Chapter One, Birth - Traumatic Realities, Ecstatic Potentials, I describe the work of Stanislav Grof and others on how the experience of traumatic birth can permanently affect the deep structure of the psyche; how adults can remember the subjective experience of being born; and how the fetus during birth is exquisitely attuned to the feelings and thoughts of their parents and the social environment of their family. I suggest a simple and revealing divination to your first response on being born. I describe the work of the psychohistory researchers, which has revealed disturbing but important correlations between traumatic birth and the collective pathologies of violence and war; and the work of water birth pioneers in the US and in Russia, who have demonstrated that spiritually-based birthing practices, may replace the usually anticipated anxiety and pain of birthing with ecstatic, even orgasmic experiences.
In Chapter Two, Prenatal Imprints and Ancestral Connections, I relate how hypnotic regressions of adults to their pre-natal experience demonstrate deep and perceptive awareness of family life events and subjective states. Through intentional empathic connection adults can tune in to their mother's and father's states of mind during the prenatal period and this can have profoundly healing effects. This chapter includes a divination to the parental imprints at conception. In dreams, visions and divinations, adults and children may relate impressions and messages from souls choosing to incarnate into their family - clearly beyond any possible memory from biological life. I relate findings from the divinations to connect and reconcile with one's ancestors - and the deep peace of mind and sense of purpose that can result from such connections.
In Chapter Three, Death and the Hereafter, I consider the paradoxical analogy between the experience of dying and the experience of being born: both are expansions of consciousness into unknown realms of being. I discuss the cross-cultural tradition of a three-day transition period or wake, in which the soul orients itself to its new out-of-body existence; the distinction between near-death and ego-death experiences; and new and ancient ways of preparing for dying, including those involving psychedelics. I describe some ancient myths of guides and guardians of the land of the dead, and the Tibetan Buddhist teachings on dying and the initial bardo states. This chapter includes a divination to your dying day - as a demonstration of how such a meditative practice can significantly decrease our usual anxiety about death.
In Chapter Four, Life Between Lives, I discuss the revelations from NDEs (near-death experiences), which have afforded unparalleled access to the after-life realms; as well as from communications between the living and the spirits of the dead, both direct and those mediated by others. I discuss the after-death teachings of ancient Egypt, particularly in relation to the notion of the life-review; and the Tibetan Buddhist teachings of heavenly and hellish bardo visions. And I describe divination journeys to the council of ancestral souls, and some of the remarkable teachings and findings from these journeys.
In Chapter Five, From Incarnation to Conception and Rebirth, I chart the journeys of the soul through the after-death realms on the pathways to a new life, drawing on the Tibetan Buddhist bardo of rebirth teachings and our divinations to the council of guiding spirits, which stands behind or mingled with the ancestral council. I also relate the beautiful stories from the Jewish midrashim of the Angel Lailah, known as the "midwife of souls," who escorts and guides the incarnating souls into their new conception and rebirth.
In presenting this work for publication, I want to express my gratitude and appreciation to the students, colleagues and friends with whom I have had the privilege of exploring the realms beyond birth and death; to the pioneering doctors, healers and scientists whose work has expanded and deepened our understanding of these realms; and, above all, to the spiritual teachers and ascended masters who painstakingly and tirelessly guide our spiritual evolution on this troubled Earth.