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Altered Consciousness Conference 1918-1980 (November 2013)

Last weekend was the Altered Consciousness conference at Queen Mary, University of London, and was beautifully organised by Dr. Katy Price and her team. For me, the prospect of Academic Conferences always has a dual sense of anticipation and terror. I always look forward to the range and breadth of the talks, but I consider myself a bit inept when it comes to small talk, so the whole 'networking' aspect brings angst. However, from the moment of arrival, this conference was a little bit special, and didn’t follow the patterns I was expecting. The conference was nice and intimate, with people there from a range of backgrounds. Some were academic, and some were scholars from outside of academia. This gave the conference a relaxed air, and the two areas interacted pretty well, for the most part. The setting was also very impressive.

Queen Mary’s Mile End campus is pretty spectacular and the Arts 2 venue sits alongside the last remnants of the Jewish Graveyard that has been preserved in the grounds.

There are currently only four or so Universities across the Western World that have programs that look at more esoteric subjects from an academic standpoint. (Exeter, Rice, the Sorbonne and Amsterdam). The conference was a good opportunity for other researchers to emerge that are also touching on more esoteric subjects from all disciplines. This meant there was a wide range of talks.

It is impossible, within the confines of a blog, to really give each talk justice, so this will really only be a brief rundown of the talks I found the most inspiring, and why, and is for the purposes of my own recollection as much as for review. Post conference I am going through a process of assimilating the ideas I learned there, so blogging can be a useful tool for this. I am also aware the conference was sold out quite early, so for anyone who wanted to go (but was unable) hopefully this will gave a little flavour of some of the talks. As with most conferences there were split panels for some of the talks, which means I didn't get to hear all of them, but the organisers filmed them all, and so they will be available online sometime in the new year.

The highlights of the conference for me were (in order of presentation):

Jenny Chapman (Lecturer, University of Hull) – ‘American Literature of the Afterlife: Fiction That Tells the Truth’.

Jenny Chapman was speaking about Richard Matheson’s book, What Dreams May Come, and the avalanche of other Near Death Experience books of the 1970s. As an opening talk, this set a nice tone for the rest of the conference. It also piqued my interest, as I can remember reading the book in the eighties, soon aft my Mum and her friends discovered it. Academia doesn’t often validate concepts like notions of the afterlife, and they are often labeled ‘New Age’ in a derisory sense. The novel follows the story of a man who crosses over into the undiscovered country of death, but the difference with Matheson’s novel, is that he states very clearly from the offset that the characters alone are fictional, and ‘every other detail is derived exclusively from research’. Matheson is perhaps better known for his other works, I am Legend, and The Incredible Shrinking Man but thus far, he has attracted very little academic attention. As Matheson rarely gave interviews, his own spiritual belief system is not clear, but we do know that he believed in auras, reincarnation and that the body is just a vehicle that the ‘essence’ of a person disconnects from at death, as they travel on to another level. What is perhaps more unusual, is that his claims of research are backed up with a bibliography, an uncommon step for a work of fiction.

Chapman outlined the stages that Near Death Experiences (or NDEs) have in common with each other, which was compiled by Raymond Moody. The problem of NDEs and other ineffable experiences in that (by their very nature) they are very difficult to articulate. A framework or model can therefore be a useful way of giving structure to something that defies attempts to explain it. However, the difficulty comes when the model starts to take over from the possibilities of experiences. What is not always clear is the difference between the model and the experience, in that it can be a bit like a chicken and egg. Is it the experience that informs the model, or vice versa?

The key conclusion presented by Chapman is that we will never really know if What Dreams May Come presents the truth about the death experience. One key factor with NDEs is that they don’t reveal this, as death (in a clinical sense) is not something that people come back from. We do know that people who experience NDEs are experiencing Altered Consciousness, but Matheson’s novel steps beyond this into an area where the NDE cannot go.

Jamie Callison (PhD Candidate, University of Bergen and University of Northampton) ‘Psychical Training: Interwar Theorists of Mysticism and Popular Literature’

Jamie Callison’s talk was really interesting for me as his research touches on some similar areas to my own, namely the work of Evelyn Underhill, a female scholar in the early twentieth century who published a study on mysticism. What differentiated Underhill’s book from other works on mysticism, such as William James' work, was that it reads like a manual of 'how to' access the mystical state, something which had really not been done before. Also, a female scholar in any field in the early Twentieth Century is notable.

Jamie Callison’s research differs from mine in that he is examining Christian Mysticism, and it is interesting seeing where there are obvious parallels (and also, by implication, how there are differences).

John-Francis Kinsler (PhD Candidate, University of London, Royal Holloway) ‘Kim Tong-ni’s “Picture of a Shaman Sorceress’: National Identity in Flux’.

John-Francis Kinsler’s talk was particularly interesting as it brought in perspectives from a non-Western viewpoint. Kinsler teaches English at Seoul Women’s University in Korea, and is undertaking his PhD in London, so he has the benefit of cross-cultural perspectives. Kim Tong-ni was a modernist Korean writer, writing poetry and fiction during the Japanese colonial period. Korea was annexed by Japan in 1910, and much of the education was then carried out in Japanese, as the colonial power actively sought to stop the local population from speaking Korean. Kim Tong-ni bucked the colonial trends in every way. He rejected the organised religions introduced by the colonial power, and looked to the past for an answer, seeking the divine in nature, much in the same way that modern paganism has in the West.

In the 4th Century, Buddhism was introduced to Korea, and the indigenous shamanic belief systems declined, however, there was a gender bias in Korea. While the male population turned to the newer organised religions, women tended to retain shamanic indigenous shamanic religious belief systems, which were often handed down from mother to daughter. Like other forms of shamanism, Korean shamanism often practiced altered consciousness through dancing and regular rhythmic sounds, such as drumming or chanting. According to Kim Tong-ni, some of the traditional shamans saw Christian converts as being ‘possessed by the western Jesus-demon’. They believed the shaman played a sacred role, in that ‘She sees the divine in all she sees, and is the weaver of myths’.

I always find it fascinating how different cultural belief systems often have, at their intrinsic core, similarities that cross cultural, temporal and geographic divides.

Keynote: Jeffrey Kripal (Professor, Rice University, Houston, TX) The Perfect Insect of the Imaginal: Frederick Myers and the Evolution of the Human Imagination’.

Jeffrey Kripal was one of the star speakers at the conference, and it was easy to see why. He had flown in from Texas especially to give his paper, and he speaks with an ease and confidence that only comes from years of experience. Kripal’s talk outlined the developments in psychical research over the years, and how this relates to theories of the imagination. His premise is that although the language of the esoteric was coined by academics, over time this language has fallen away, and this has become one of the roadblocks in developing an adequate theory of the imagination.

The New Age movement has won the day in American popular culture, but the New Age did not coin the terminology (or the concepts) it employs. Most of this language seems to have been coined by Frederick Myers in the late nineteenth century, which was then passed through a direct generational link through Flournoy, to Jung, to Corbin. However, some of the meanings got lost along the way, and this loss of language and it's correct meaning has hindered our critical understanding of those concepts. My husband, who speaks Arabic and English, often tells me that Arabic is better suited to expressing emotions, while English is better at expressing ideas, therefore it makes sense that a limitation may develop in a language, instead of a concept. For instance, ‘Telepathy’ is formed from the Greek ‘Tele’ (from a distance) and ‘Pathos’ (great angst). Its literal meaning was to see events from a long distance under great emotional stress. 'Telepathic' visionary and auditory events were frequently ‘crisis apparitions’, and often occurred on the death of a loved one. In literal terms, according to Kripal, trauma is the technology for telepathy, and the energy driving it is the emotion. What most skeptics don’t get when they try and disprove telepathic instances in the lab is that no one there is dying, and no one feels the pathos. The lab is reproducing conditions that are not consistent with the original meaning of the word. Kripal eloquently likens this to studying the stars at midday and then claiming they do not exist because you can't see them.

Kripal stated that most alien abduction stories largely relate to science fiction, and in order to get better abduction stories, we need to write better science fiction. This is not meant as a comment on the validity of those stories, just that there is an inexplicable link between what we write and what we experience. We are (literally) writing ourselves over the generations. Cultural or religious narratives write us all, and Kripal believes that academia needs to change its perspective. As a whole, we need to stop moralising, stop trying to fit things into our limited worldview, and be more open to ontological questions. Perhaps then we can offer something more positive instead of just deconstructing everything into an unrecognisable mush.

Mark Pilkington (Strange Attractor Press) ‘Abductee Zero’.

Mark Pilkington openly (and refreshingly) spoke from the perspective of one who believes the crackpot conspiracy theories of alien abduction. He gave a fascinating account of the experiences of Antonio Vilas Boas, a 23-year-old Brazilian man who gave an account of alien abduction in the 1950s. While working in the fields, he was taken by force into an alien spaceship, where we was subjected to a sexual experience, and had various blood samples and other samples taken from him. What is notable about this account is that it was one of the first recorded alien abduction stories to emerge, but it did not come to the attention of the English-speaking world until much later. Both this experience (and those later ones in the English-speaking world) all followed a very similar pattern, even though temporal and geographic barriers separated them. Some believe that Vilas Boas’ story was a hoax, while others believed it was part of a CIA psychedelic research experiment. Pilkington looked at the evidence for all of these theories in his talk, and provided an account of how Vilas Boas both reflected and shaped other 'exotic kidnap narratives'. Whatever the meaning behind his alleged experiences, Vilas Boas was not an uneducated man – he went on to have a long and successful career as a lawyer, and never recanted his experiences.

Pilkington’s talk was one of the most interesting ‘non-academic scholar’ talks as he managed to walk the fine line between a ‘practitioner based’ paths and academia. It is not always easy to keep a foot in both paths without alienating one or the other (or both). Mark Pilkington managed to hold this tension well, and brought humour to a very fascinating story.

Steven Earnshaw (Professor, Sheffield Hallam University) ‘Damned Voice in My Head: Jean Rhys and Alcoholic Consciousness

Most renowned for The Wide Sargasso Sea, Jean Rhys also wrote a series of pre-War novels that centred on female protagonists who are all kept women or mistresses, and are frequently heavy users of alcohol. The altered consciousness in this context, therefore, is the alcoholic sensibility, and show the intersection of self and consciousness, as the women are forced to live differently in a patriarchal world.

Earnshaw’s talk concerned itself with three main questions:

At what point in the narrative is consciousness altered, and from whose point of view? What is the relationship between this and self? What is the relationship between altered consciousness and an altered world?

Narratives of alcohol changed in the twentieth century. Previously, alcoholics were seen as economic wasters, but what emerged in the twentieth century was the development of narratives that looked at the alcoholic from the inside – and in their own words. This ‘Existential Alcoholic’ believed that alcohol would reveal the truth – they don’t drink because they are unhappy, but to reveal the truth about life and death, but very often this led to a split in the self. They are abandoned, and facing their own fate alone.

What makes Rhys’ novels noteworthy is that they are written in the first person, so the reader sees the world through the eyes of the protagonist, and you never quite know where you are (in terms of which consciousness you are in). The premise is that the modern world requires altered consciousness in order to make sense, but there is a mismatch between the inside and outside.

I found that this was one of the talks that gave me a very distinct ‘light bulb’ moment. Even though alcohol is not something that relates to my own research, the Professor Earnshaw’s ideas regarding the first person narrative were really pertinent. When I managed to talk to Professor Earnshaw in the lunch break, the discussion was so interesting, that I ended up stashing my lunch in my handbag, like some crazed cat-lady. Anyone who knows me well will understand that I don’t give up my lunch lightly!

Keynote: Christina Harrington (Treadwell’s Bookshop and Cultural Centre) ‘I Saw Nude Priestesses Go Wild: Wicca in the Mid Twentieth Century’.

As with the first keynote speaker, Christina Harrington’s talk was really fascinating. She gave an introduction to concepts of altered consciousness as practiced in twentieth century Wicca. While academia has more recently paid attention to Wicca (such as the work of Ronald Hutton) it has tended to focus on the origins of modern Wicca, and not on the actual practice itself. Christina Harrington gave an overview of the development of Wicca, from the publication of Gerald Gardner’s Witchcraft Today in 1954 to the present day, and the various influences on the movement, in order to give some context. She also looked at the various ways in which states of altered consciousness have been an intrinsic part of Wiccan practices from the beginning.

Although mescaline experiments were carried out by one coven that Gardner established, these experiments were never carried out as part of work in the circle, as this is a sacred place that requires the practitioners full attention in order to experience the transition of altered consciousness ‘between the worlds’. Mescaline would have made this journeying impossible to maintain. Instead. Practitioners of Wicca tend to experience altered consciousness in ‘natural ways’, i.e. without the aid of substances. The success or failure of a ritual is always based on one question alone, ‘did it work?’ I.e., did the desired shift of consciousness occur?

One of the key rituals performed in Wicca is the initiation ceremony, where the postulant experiences a change of consciousness for the first time in this setting – they do not know what will happen or when, so there is an added layer of the unknown to the experience, which aids the shift. Wiccan’s believe that the postulant passes through a gateway between life and death, from the objective reality to the realm of the gods. This ceremony irrevocably binds the postulant to other initiates, and also gives them a shift of ontological status, as well as a change in self-perception.

The world of the circle, however, is a non-discursive reality, and one of the barriers in enabling the ‘outside world’ to understand it, is its veil of secrecy. As it is a mystery tradition, it will inevitably face certain barriers in enabling others to understand the variety of experiences its followers undergo. Christina Harrington gave a really fascinating overview of a tradition that continues to fascinate many, and managed to navigate the pitfalls of openly discussing a mystery tradition in a public setting in a very agile and engaging way.

For any of you who would like to know more, the site for the conference is here: and a list of abstracts for the speakers is also available from the site. Most of the talks were filmed, and there are plans to put the films online sometime in the New Year. I will post a link when I have one.

With any luck, this conference will hopefully become a regular feature on the academic map.

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