How are we to think of communication with the dead in a weird naturalist light? That’s the question guiding this piece. In that regard, this piece is one in a series applying a weird naturalist lens to various highly strange encounters—I’ve written on looking at past life regression work, as well as a number of pieces exploring the UFO/Contact phenomenon in the context of weird naturalism. In each of those previous cases I explored how weird naturalism allows for the “data” or experience of these phenomena to be real (enough) but often the interpretive framework that is typically assumed to automatically go with “believing” in these phenomena gets questioned. In the case of past life regressions that had to do with questioning whether the memories brought forward through a regression where in fact past lives, while still maintaining the actual psychic content of those experiences could be deeply meaningful. In the UFO example, particularly as it relates to the abduction phenomena, it allowed for a potential critique of the framework of aliens and extra-terrestrial biological entities while again maintaining something very deep and valid (and highly strange) is in fact occurring. Just perhaps not what we assume it to be.
That same basic insight applies when discussing another highly strange topic: communication and interactions with the dead. Namely a weird naturalist lens offers the possibility of taking these experiences as real (enough) and yet to be open to alternative views of how and in what what it might be, not necessarily having to agree with the conventional interpretive context concerning them.
In the past life regression piece I mentioned the influence of the 19th century movement of Spiritualism and it’s influence over the entire field of past life regression work. Spiritualism imparted a specific model of understanding these phenomena which includes things like souls reincarnating having to learn lessons, agreeing to experiences and making predetermined soul contacts before birth, etc. In that piece I questioned many of these theological presuppositions and the automaticity with which they are reflexively held within various metaphysical circles.
Spiritualism lies at the root of the modern interpretation of channeling and communication with the dead as well. Spiritualism, as mentioned, taught that life on Earth was a “school of learning”. Growth was seen according to the then popular philosophical model of gradualism—itself very influential incidentally on one Charles Darwin in his interpretation of evolution—whereby things happen slowly, gradually, and uniformly over time. In the Spiritualist metaphysical camp this meant souls had to step by step work through lifetimes and lifetimes of karma through slow, gradual, patient progress in a very linear rhythm. If souls didn’t consciously undergo such progress they would have to “repeat” the lessons, like repeating third grade, which in this case meant returning to earth (reincarnation) and/or having to work out “unfinished business” from the Other Side.
Additionally, Spiritualism viewed souls as independent whole units, not unlike spiritualized atoms, with each one having it’s own independent and self-contained ontological status. Spiritualism borrowed this theological concept from the then dominant physics model of the day (Newtonian). Later scientific investigations—think Quantum Mechanics for example—sees light as existing in both wave and particle form simultaneously, raising significant questions about Spiritualism's more "Newtonian" atomized vision of the soul, as well as it’s potential after death continued existence.
When we get to mediumship and channeling and contact with the dead we inevitably face this interpretative context of Spiritualism that is framing the entire process. Namely the medium of connection across the veils—whether that is an actual human acting as a medium or a dream encounter or a divinatory card reading or some other means of communication—is there to ask questions of the deceased, to be given messages for “learning” (there's the school metaphor again), or to complete unfinished lessons for the dead so they can be at rest.
It is assumed, in other words, that in the moment of mediumship, one is contacting the actual soul (as a self-contained, self-same existing entity that has carried through lifetimes). This may well be true. Or perhaps the experience is real (enough). As Charles Fort would say, it is of an intermediate quality in that it’s both real and partially unreal simultaneously. Perhaps however we should at least be open to the possibility that our frame of connecting directly with the “soul of the deceased” full stop is open to some questions. Principally because the vision of the soul in this framework is probably way too simplistic. It’s the same kind of simplistic perspective that lies at the roots of my (partial) critiques around the interpretation or framework of past life regressions. Which once more, to be ultra clear,is not a debunking of the underlying experiences claimed, rather only some questions about the context and frame of interpretation.
To wit, I contend that in the Spiritualist outlook, souls are seen as far too transparently and uncomplicated. They travel from lifetime to lifetime, they carry all the memories of our lives at this deeper than conscious level, and once connected to—either through regression work or mediumship—then these souls can directly and transparently share their insights and memories “objectively.”
As I’ve mentioned throughout this series exploring weird naturalism and highly strange encounters, the problem here is not the various methods of connection—regressions, journeys, mediumship, initiated contact, dreamwork, etc. The problem also isn’t that such experiences are false or don’t occur. They do occur. They are weirdly natural or real. The problem, I argue, comes from the unquestioned modernist epistemology and metaphysics. Remember Spiritualism arose in the West in the 19th century, during the height of modernism.
In modernist thought there is only subjectivity and objectivity. Modernist Western philosophy was basically split between two camps: the Realists/Idealists and the Empiricists. The former represented the position of subjectivity, the latter objectivity. The empiricists (e.g Hume) thought they could simply gaze upon the world and neutrally and without bias, with perfect transparency, see and observe what was occurring. The Realist school (e.g. Descartes, Leibniz, Berkeley) saw the inner self (ego) as the key element where one investigated into one’s self in which there would be clear, transparent knowing. So while officially these two camps vociferously disagreed with other each about whether truth was objectively or subjectively rooted, in a deeper sense they shared the uncritical assumption of whatever evidence was coming forward through their investigations—whether of the internal world of subjectivity or the external world of objectivity—that the information was transparent and perfectly simply what it was.
Freud began to undermine that view with his realization of the slippery and often distorted lens of memory. Though he unfortunately didn’t really follow the brilliance of his insight deeply enough by too quickly creating yet another architecture of thought that too easily fit everything together into neat packaged constructions (e.g. ego, id, superego). He too quickly and easily interpreted any and all anomalous or highly strange encounters as proof of childhood repression and the return of the human subconscious. His erstwhile pupil Jung made the same basic mistake, though in a different way, as I discussed in this piece on Jung & UFOs. Jung too quickly and uncritically tried to fit all the anomalous memory and experienced into a notion of a collective unconscious and his meta-theory of symbols. Freud and Jung’s journals however all full of incredible numbers of visitations from the dead, precognitive dreams, and what Jung called synchronicities.
Weird naturalism would argue that was because they were sourced in some processes that brought forward some highly strange data and experience—namely through the therapeutic process itself, including techniques like hypnosis, free association, active imagination and the like—but that they too quickly sought to impose the form of interpretation and thereby control these experiences. Weird naturalism seeks to take the more difficult but potentially more fruitful, if at times ambiguous and complex road, of leaving open the interpretation.
Weird naturalism also has to take into account the deep and sustained criticisms of modernist philosophy (especially epistemology and metaphysics) by postmodern thought. This is not to say that weird naturalism is nothing other than a postmodern philosophical turn—it isn’t. In fact, it’s quite opposed to many aspects of postmodernity. But weird naturalism does incorporate valid criticisms of modernism by postmodern thought, especially the way in which postmodernism realized that language is always central to any experience. Interpretation is always central and interpretation is also complex, if not quite mixed. Hermeneutics, the art of interpretation, gets it’s name after all from Hermes the messenger god, whose also a trickster god. Riddles, enigmas, parables, koans, “Freudian” slips of truth, that is the realm of meaning and communication. The realm of language is not the transparent, fully rational, perfectly understandable self-contained atoms of modernity, whether we’re talking actual atoms or souls in the Spiritualist sense.
So where does this philosophical country road leave us in relation to mediumship and contact with the dead and how does weird naturalism fit in?
Far too much of mediumship and contact with the dead takes place under the interpretive aegis of Spiritualism: karmic lessons, “messages” for learning, etc. There’s not enough appreciation (often) of the linguistic and intersubjective co-construction of those encounters. The way in which a medium of communication or relational occurs shapes deeply the manner by which the connection will occur.
In other words, if we approach “the dead” under the guise of asking questions to learn lessons then that is what we will receive in return.
That may be a helpful approach in certain instances. In others it may foreclose possibilities of interaction.
There also the philosophical overhang of the notion of souls as atom-like self-encased full transparent subjects, most especially the souls of the “excarnate." What if the souls of the deceased are both waves and particles simultaneously? What if they both are and aren’t at the same time? Or as Fort would say intermediate, partly real and party not real?
In other words Spiritualism with its notion of self-encased entity-souls that are contacted directly via mediumship strikes me as a “particle” version of events. Again some anomalous encounter can (and does) occur in many people’s lives—whether intentionally sought or unintentionally experienced.
Then we have this Spiritualist metaphysical outlook which I’m calling a more “particle” version of events.
If so, what would be the wave-like interpretive version of mediumship and highly strange, weird naturalist encounters?
What if the reality contacted in mediumship is in fact information or energy left by a person? What if it is kind of subtle patterning or information? Not necessarily seen as “them” but something of their disposition or deeper conditioning? (This view would be very close to a Buddhist metaphysics and epistemology by the way).
In an earlier piece exploring failed social human initiations movements I mentioned the work of social traumatologist Anngwyn St. Just. This was in the context of her articulation of the difference between victims and victim consciousness, which I argued was playing out in the #metoo movement (I also covered the reverse tendency in the Men’s Rights Activist movement).
For St. Just on a soul/subtle level when there is victimization and entanglement there is a strange love underlying the dynamic. This meta-pattern reveals itself through the work of family and systems constellations that she picked up from her teacher Bert Hellinger (who himself developed the process after spending years among the Zulu peoples).
Constellations often work with the dead. They are in that sense a form of mediumship, even if they not often described as such by the practitioners. Strangers “stand in” for various ancestors of a person ad those individuals begin channeling the life experience of those ancestors. It’s highly strange and yet repeatedly occurs. It’s weirdly natural. It’s some genuine possibility within the manifold potentialities of what is mysteriously real.
In a “particle” description the individuals standing-in place are temporarily occupied, in a certain sense, by the soul of the ancestor. In a more wave-like formulation they become a conduit (medium) for the information and energetic of that individual to come through into articulation.*
In constellation work they talk of a “field of knowing” (aka the causal realm). Within that field of knowing subtle patterns and dynamics reveal themselves systematically. These can include forms of generational trauma, persecution, war, and so on. In the constellation those subtle patterns are worked through to a healed configuration which opens up new possibilities in the present for the living to go ahead with their lives in the physical world and not go on living out unconsciously the patterns of their ancestors. This causal-subtle-gross meta-context incidentally is exactly as described by ancient mystical traditions as well as alternative vision of physics from Jacques Vallee.
The subtle is classically the realm of the soul.** When looked at from a more particle-like lens, the constellation experience is one of actually invoking, directly interacting with, and channeling the souls of the dead. When looked at from a more wave-like lens, the process is one of receiving information regarding the subtle often hidden patterns, energetic tendencies, and movements of an individual, of a family, an ancestral line, even a collective group, a human system, a culture, nation, or place. They are in a very real sense "the waves" of the soul, i.e it's effects, momentum carrying into the present, and ripples across the pond of space-time.
The wave-like frame makes a great deal of sense in light of weird naturalism. Remember weird naturalism’s major premise is that we do not need to posit other higher orders of reality (“supernatural”) in order for these experiences to be real but rather simply be open to varying degrees of intensities: gross, subtle, and causal. Within a weird naturalist frame, we understand that any contact with entities of whatever varieties—be they deities, angels, “aliens”, or the dead and so on—are imaginally co-constructed. The exchanges are both real and not real simultaneously. They are both “other” or in communion with us and we with them and also in part shaped by our expectations and visions of them (as well as they shape us). The means and methods by which such contact occurs open certain possibilities of interaction and foreclose others. No form of interaction is ever the final ultimate one, though some may be deeper or more viable and meaningful than others.
The idea of a knowing field and subtle information arising in that field which we then creatively interpret and interact with in the present physicalized embodied reality does not require positing higher metaphysical planes of existence and what not. It’s a perfectly natural possibility within the wildness of nature. Weirdly real, highly strange no doubt, but also very natural and normal.
The wave-like frame also leaves open a lot of room for a multitude of interpretations and the strange, metaphoric, symbolic, enigmatic nature of language as a means of communication. This multifaceted and trickster-y nature of language is true generally in any interaction, even more so with the dead (aka those living in another form).
These are some provisional thoughts about how to re-frame mediumship and contact with the dead in light of weird naturalism. They same would go by the way for it’s cousin channeling: i.e. communication with what are understood to be angels, deities, one’s Higher Self, even hyper-dimensional intergalactic beings. In that case it would be understood in a weird naturalist light as encounters with the subtle information or tendencies or perspectives or articulations/intensities of said realities. That would be true whether these realities are contacted through journaling, divination, meditation, visionary journeys, or plant medicine. Those various means of contact would be understood to have significant impact on the form and context of those interactions. It would be understood that these entities or intelligences/intensities can be contacted and connected with, that for whatever reason we exist in a universe where such a thing is (weirdly) natural and therefore possible.
This view by the way has the added bonus of not precluding the possibility of more direct encounter (whatever that might mean) with said entities. It simply offers a complementary frame that allows for the experiences to be real (enough) and to leave a bit of differentiated space, not necessarily having to believe we are 100% contacting the final, ultimate true essence of said beings/entities. It pushes for the living to take more ownership of their participation and co-creation of these encounters.
*It’s also possible to not employ people but rather objects as stand-ins/anchors. The objects then in a way “speak” or reveal the information. This is similar to pulling cards as a way of speak with and interact with the dead in traditional mediumship.
**As opposed to the causal which is classically associated with the spirit.
Image source courtesy flickr (Creative Commons License)