Dr Andrew Powell, F.R.C.Psych., qualified in medicine from Cambridge.
After postgraduate studies in general medicine and psychiatry, he specialized in psychotherapy at the Maudsley Hospital, London.
Trainings in group and individual psychoanalytic therapies were later followed by psychodrama, which opened the way to psycho-spiritual approaches, including past life regression, soul retrieval and spirit release. He worked and taught at St George’s Hospital, London as consultant and senior lecturer until 1989, when he moved to the Warneford Hospital, Oxford, where he held a consultant and honorary senior lecturer post until 2000. He has a deep interest in the influence of spiritual dynamics on physical and psychological wellbeing and in the study of eastern approaches to consciousness. He has served as a member of council of the Scientific and Medical Network from 1993 to 2000, chairs the Spirituality and Psychiatry Special Interest Group in the Royal College of Psychiatrists and is an Associate of the College of Healing.
A good many years back, I was taking part in a group meditation, which began with a guided fantasy. We were asked to imagine ourselves walking in a field in the countryside on a summer day, with birds singing, bees humming and the smell of grass and flowers. Then we were instructed to look around until we saw something of special interest, to go towards it and let the experience take us where it will.
This is where it took me:
“I am standing before a majestic and mysterious tree. It has the appearance of a sequoia or giant redwood and soars up into the sky. As soon as I come close to the trunk I begin ascending rapidly, as if I am going up in a fast lift. I shoot past the top of the tree and suddenly find myself scrambling up a rocky outcrop. At once I know exactly what is going on. This is Arizona, the year is eighteen forty-eight, my name is Tom McCann and I am being hunted down by a raiding party of Apache Indians. I heave myself up onto the flat top of the rock.
I can hear the Indian braves a short way below and I know they will get to me in a couple of minutes and have my scalp. I pull out of my pocket a worn leather wallet and gaze for the last time with sadness and longing on the picture of my wife and two young daughters. Then I take out my gun, put the muzzle to my head and pull the trigger. There is no sound and no impact. I simply find myself floating peacefully up and away from the body lying on the top of the rock.”
At just this moment the person leading the group exercise said it was now time we came back to our bodies. I burst out laughing, for the remark could not have been more apt! The memory of that experience is etched as sharply in my mind now as the day it happened. It was my first taste of what popularly are called past lives.
Consciously, I had known nothing about this period of American history but while preparing this paper, I looked up a few facts.
Eighteen forty-eight is the year the war ended between the USA and Mexico with the USA seizing control of what are now the states of New Mexico and Arizona. American Indians were given the right to vote but most remained at war with the white man for another twenty years. I also found that the name of the sequoia tree comes from a Cherokee Indian, Sequoya, who pioneered the first written language for North American Indians. Yet at this same time the Cherokee were being driven west of the Mississippi by the federal troops of the US army, a shameful chapter of history known as the ‘trail of tears’ during which more than four thousand Cherokee died of starvation and disease.
Sceptics consider past lives to be nothing but instances of cryptomnesia, the historical facts having been once known and then stored away in the unconscious until they happen to surface in vivid phantasies.
I would concur but with the proviso that the ‘facts’ emerge not from the personal unconscious but from the collective unconscious as described by Carl Jung. In my case, the guided fantasy had set in motion what Jung called ‘active imagination’ (Chodorow 1997). The alchemical tree, an archetype of transformation, had transported me to the realm of the archetypes of death and rebirth in which a stream of images welled up in the psyche over which I had no control Jung wrote: ‘... the Collective Unconscious is anything but an encapsulated personal system: it is sheer objectivity, as wide as the world and open to the entire world. There I am the object of every subject, in complete reversal of my ordinary consciousness, where I am always the subject that has an object’ (Jung 1954.22). This fits perfectly with what is found in past lives; the drama takes a course that the ego has no power to change, for things are as they are and the entire script is set out from start to finish. There is no sense of one doing the thinking. Rather, ‘it thinks me,’ through to the end, when death supervenes and consciousness invariably separates from the body.
The archetypes of the collective unconscious can never be apprehended directly. They are the primordial potentia, which give structure and meaning to consciousness through the formation of symbols and images. Symbols and images fall within space-time but the archetypal realm itself does not, for it functions as though time and space as we know them do not exist. Yet we certainly experience archetypal images in an entirely personal way since they are constellated according to the psychic reality of the individual. An example would be the poignant theme of loss in the past life fragment I have just given. The scene affected me deeply, for I too had a ‘trail of tears’ to contend with in my life at that time.
The breakthrough of archetypal material has a profound and often disturbing impact. Take Jung’s account of the events, which occurred in 1916 immediately prior to his writing the Gnostic text ‘Seven Sermons to the Dead’ under the mysterious inspiration of Basilides of Alexandria. Jung records: ‘There was an ominous atmosphere around me. I had the strange feeling the air was filled with ghostly entities.’ He goes on to relate how his children also saw and felt these entities:
Then the doorbell began ringing frantically ... it was a bright summer day ... there was no one in sight ... I not only heard it but saw it moving ... then I knew that something had to happen.
The whole house was filled as if there were a crowd present, crammed full of spirits. They were packed deep right up to the door, and the air was so thick it was scarcely possible to breathe. As for myself, I was all a-quiver with the question, ‘For God’s sake, what in the world is this?’ Then they cried out in chorus, ‘We have come back from Jerusalem where we found not what we sought.’ Then it began to flow out of me and in the course of three evenings the whole thing was written. As soon as I took up the pen, the whole ghostly assemblage evaporated.
The room quieted and the atmosphere cleared. The haunting was over. (Jung 1961.215)
Accessing the collective unconscious also gives rise to uncanny coincidences to which Jung gave the term ‘synchronicity,’ when two or more causally unrelated events turn out to have the same or similar meaning. Jung describes three kinds synchronistic phenomena (Main 1997). The first is when a psychic event and an apparently unrelated physical event occur in the same place and at the same time. Jung tells of a patient who had just been recounting a dream of a scarab beetle when a scarabaeid beetle tried to fly in through the window of the consulting room (1952.439). Such strange coincidences are not rare, though we tend to brush them aside. Here is one I remember well from my own life:
I was feeling both apprehensive and excited because it was the start of my first day as a hospital consultant. I searched the building looking for my room but when I did find it, the door was locked. I tracked down the professor’s secretary who took the Yale key off a large ring, gave it to me and I put it in my jacket pocket. It was a big moment for me, for I was now about to take possession of my room. I went back down the corridor and pulled the key out of my pocket. To my astonishment, the shank of the key had bent on itself through ninety degrees. I could not enter my sanctum until I had clamped the key in a doorframe and straightened it out with brute force.
The episode of the key can be interpreted symbolically as reflecting my heightened anxiety on my first day as a young consultant that I would not be able to live up to what was expected of me. We no longer have the benefit of rites of phallic initiation to prepare us for manhood, as did our tribal forefathers. But the classical laws of physics cannot account for the bent key I stood staring at in amazement, the more so since Uri Geller was not yet a household name.
The large body of evidence for psychokinesis that has accumulated since is still ignored by most scientists, who prefer the comfort of the familiar. Jung showed astonishing prescience when in 1954 he wrote:
“Despite the materialist tendency to understand the psyche as a mere reflection or imprint of physical and chemical processes, there is not a single proof of this hypothesis ... There is thus no ground at all for regarding the psyche as something secondary or as an epiphenomenon ...”
“Sooner or later nuclear physics and the psychology of the unconscious will draw closer together as both of them, independently of one another and from opposite directions, push forward into transcendental territory, the one with the concept of the atom, the other with that of the archetype. (Jung 1954.58).”
Jung’s second variety of synchronicity deals with non-local phenomena.
Here is an example from clinical practice:
“I had been supervising a trainee psychiatrist with her first psychotherapy patient, a young woman named Gillian. Gillian longed for closeness but was deeply mistrustful of intimacy.
The therapy went well and after a few months, Gillian decided to track down her mother, whom she had never known. She followed up various leads only to discover that her mother had died a year or two earlier. This was a bitter blow but she took it well.
A couple of weeks later, my trainee attended for supervision. She seemed flustered and somewhat embarrassed.
She said, ‘I want to tell you something, you’ll probably think it’s stupid of me.’ She went on to say that on the previous Sunday, which she had been spending at home with her family, she had suddenly experienced a terrible sadness. It came on inexplicably at three in the afternoon and she could not shake it off. Then at about six o’clock the feeling vanished as quickly as it had come.
On Monday, she saw her patient Gillian who told her that since the last session, she had found out that her mother had been buried in a London cemetery and that on Sunday she had gone there to try to find her. For hours she had searched in vain but at three pm. she found the grave. She spent the next three hours there, crying for the mother she had never known.”
According to Newtonian physics, this exact coincidence of emotions at a distance can only be due to chance. Yet we know that when two people who share an empathic rapport are separated and electromagnetically shielded from each other, an evoked electrical potential stimulated in the brain of one by a flashing light is instantaneously mirrored in the brain of the second subject by a transferred potential. This correlation of brain waves is independent of the distance between subjects.
Nor can it be accounted for on the basis of information passing from one subject to the other through physical space because it occurs simultaneously (Grinberg-Zylberbaum et al. 1992).
This takes us to Quantum Theory and the famous EPR thought experiment of 1935. Albert Einstein argued that two electrons, which first interacted and were then separated in space, would, in theory at least, still be related even if light years apart by virtue of the common wave form they had once shared. Einstein thought this must be patently untrue but in due course he was proved to be wrong. In nineteen seventy-two, John Clauser experimentally showed that reversing the spin of one particle instantly reversed the spin of the other and then in 1982 Alain Aspect demonstrated that this synchronicity, which transcends the speed of light, holds true even when the electrons are widely separated in space.
There is a lively debate going on about how non-local correlations can take place with large structures like brains but there is strong empirical evidence that psi occurs, as shown in a host of Ganzfeld experiments (Radin 1997). In one such experiment, the subject is required to describe a target picture or location which has been selected, and which may be in a remote place, hundreds of miles away.
Honorton (1989) has extensively researched this phenomenon and the findings of his meta-analysis of the research evidence are compelling.
Even more extraordinary is the work of Helmut Schmidt demonstrating that subjects show precognition of the target before the target itself has been selected (Schmidt 1986). The conventional rules of not only space but also time are violated.
Jung would have applauded these findings. He was intrigued by instances of synchronicity in which a psychic event relates to a physical event that takes place in the future. Nor are they so uncommon. I vividly recall one instance, which happened to me twenty years ago:
“My wife and I were due to drive down from the North of Scotland. During the small hours of the night before the journey, my wife had a fearful dream. In it, we were overtaking on a country road when suddenly a car came speeding head on towards us. She could see clearly that it was a green Austin A40. She awoke just before the impact. My wife was not given to superstition but so powerful was the dream that she was very reluctant to travel. I promised her I would drive extra carefully and assured her I would keep a close look out for any green Austins that might be around! Half way across Sutherland, on an empty country road, I was held back by an ancient tractor.
As I swung out to overtake, I remembered the dream and pulled back. The next instant a green Austin, the first car for many miles, hurtled round the bend and past us.” …
The above is an extract from “Beyond Space and Time: The Unbounded Psyche” by Andrew Powell” a chapter from Thinking Beyond the Brain: A Wider Science of Consciousness, edited by David Lorimer, which includes contributions by Willis Harman, Peter Fenwick, Brian D. Josephson, Kenneth Ring , David Fontana, Erlendur Haraldsson, John Beloff, Michael Grosso, Charles Tart, Stanislav Grof, Roger J. Woolger, Marilyn Schlitz, Mark Woodhouse, Ravi Ravindra and Anne Baring.
More about the book and the Thinking Beyond the Brain Conference here.