Mystical Encounters in Aotearoa New Zealand

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The Lantern In The Skull

Consciousness and marginal zones of the extraordinary

by Hugh Major

2020 Next Generation Indie Book Awards, Finalist
2020 Ashton Wylie Book Awards, Best Book Finalist
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Or buy direct from Attar Books
The Lantern In The Skull offers an engaging meditation on consciousness, that clear light that seemingly lives inside your head, stubbornly resisting materialistic explanations. Author Hugh Major provides a clearly written and well-informed study of the increasingly critical need to see beyond a simple clockwork model of reality.”
— Dean Radin PhD, chief scientist at the Institute of Noetic Sciences, author of Entangled Minds and The Noetic Universe

Each of us is a conscious individual living in the world. Very occasionally we have experiences so bizarre we have difficulty understanding what occurred.
The Lantern In The Skull explores a selection of these unsettling yet intriguing experiences.

A camera previously in perfect working order, which inexplicably won’t photograph a fetish in an African village chief’s basement, provides the first stop on Hugh Major’s engaging survey. Using his own experiences as a springboard, he considers telepathy, psychic perceptions, psychedelic insights, artistic transports, near death experiences, and much else.

Human consciousness is sufficiently elastic to accommodate all these experiences. Yet the nature of consciousness itself is a conundrum, and the evidence for marginal experiences remains contentious.
Hugh Major provides a timely snapshot of current research into “marginal zones of the extraordinary”. In precise, jargon-free language, he indicates the territory being explored and outlines major directions researchers are travelling. There are numerous captivating, and surprising, discoveries along the way.
132 pages, 6 x 9 inches / 129 x 152 mm
ISBN Paperback: 780995120310. Hard cover: 9780995120303. Ebook: 9780995120327.

Hugh Major
studied English and Philosophy at Auckland University. In his writing, Hugh explores new thinking in the fields of consciousness, science, spirituality and culture. Five times he has been a finalist in New Zealand’s premiere Ashton Wylie Award for writing in the mind, body, spirit genre. His published books include Notes on the Mysterium Tremendum (2010) and From Monkey to Moth (2015).
Of Hugh Major’s previous book, From Monkey to Moth: An Imaginal Evolution

“Very readable, eclectic, full of wisdom drawn from experience. The ineffable is given shape with allegory, parable and metaphor. I so enjoyed it I went back several times to the sections that aroused a wealth of feeling.”

— Joy Cowley ONZ, DCNZN, OBE, author of
Veil Over The Light: Selected Spiritual Writings and Navigation, A Memoir

THE WAY DIALLO GRIPPED the steering wheel I could tell something wasn’t right. His tension spread through the car. It was 1997. I was in Burkina Faso with my partner, Kirsty, touring the southwest of the country with two Malians: Diallo, the driver, and Sori, an English-speaking guide. Our objective that day was the settlement of Gaoua, located one hundred kilometres from the mining town of Banfora, down a long, dusty red road. As we neared Gaoua, Diallo made his misgivings clear, suggesting we turn back. But Sori was sanguine, saying he didn’t want a wasted trip.

Our first stop was an empty, rather sinister hotel on the outskirts of town. Locals watched us suspiciously as we parked; we weren’t welcome. The hotel owner was a portly, dishevelled Lebanese man. He had a bored, young wife who spent the entire evening grazing between three television channels—the first with wailing music and sensuously-dancing Middle-Eastern women, then CNN, then a local station showing a steamy soap opera in French featuring a submissive female and a serious-looking macho man with bulging pectorals and a grunty voice.

Was it this strange town, so far off the beaten track, that was making Diallo nervous? Or had he sensed the power of spirits peculiar to the area? Whichever, Diallo’s unease was contagious. Sori had planned our route, and Kirsty and I had only the vaguest idea of where we were. We didn’t know if Sori was following the tour company’s directions in bringing us here, or if this detour resulted from him acting on a whim.

The next day Sori guided us to the outskirts of town. Clouds of dust billowed through the car, coating seats, bags, clothes and hair. We arrived at a large mud building standing in fields of tall and dying sorghum. Rounded, sculpted of the same earth it rose from, this was the home of Lobi chief Daprrr and his three wives. The living quarters were above ground. We were taken underneath, into a smoke-blackened basement with low beams, an oven, and a goat lurking in the gloom. The only illumination came from the far corner of a long gallery, a powerful cone of sunlight that poured through a hole cut in the ceiling, its edges defined by tumbling dust motes. Adding to the eerie setting, bats occasionally flitted through the light, then disappeared into holes hidden in the walls.

There was just enough light to view the fetishes. Composed of wood, iron, stones and cowrie shells, there was something humble and unpretentious about them. Shouldn’t a fetish be an imposing sculptural creation with the power to impress and intimidate? These were only unobtrusive little mounds, like something that hadn’t been tidied away, barely visible in the gloom.

As was later explained to us, fetishes were traditionally assembled by a girl’s father before she was married to guard her against evil. Other fetishes were comprised of objects mutually significant to the chief and his wives. A protector or overseer, a fetish could be used when a wife wanted to go out—before leaving she would pour water into the bowls incorporated into the assemblage and wash herself.

Kirsty started taking photos of the basement and fetishes with her SLR camera, but to her frustration the flash wouldn’t work. She went outside to see what was wrong. The camera now worked perfectly, the flash popping up and firing as it was meant to. But back in the basement, as she attempted to continue photographing, it again shut down. To get any shots at all, Kirsty had to set the camera on long exposure. Weeks later, when the negatives were developed, we discovered all her photos of the fetishes were blank. This was despite the camera and flash working perfectly during the previous four months of travel, and for the three months after.

What might account for the camera’s mechanism failing in the dim basement? Could it somehow have been interfered with? A Malian friend who helped organise our trip gave another instance of a European tourist visiting Mali and taking photos of a ritual procession. An elderly onlooker told the tourist it was no use taking pictures of the procession because none would come out. This blanking of the film indeed happened. So our experience wasn’t unique.

It was through this and other similarly strange experiences, some stretching back to childhood, that I encountered an alternative facet of reality—what we call the otherworldly, the mystical. Most people can likely recount their own strange psychic experiences or paranormal phenomena. My next example involves an unexpectedly predictive experience.

* * * *

One summer, before heading to Piha Beach to spend the day at a friend’s house, I felt an intuitive impulse that I should take a name card with my phone number on it. Not possessing one, and despite having no idea why I would need it, I cut a piece of veneer to business card size and wrote my ID details in ballpoint.

That day in Piha was when I first met Kirsty, my partner-to-be. She was part of a large party of Palm Society members who traipsed in to inspect my friend’s garden. She had an unmistakable effect on me, making the chattering crowd and the sound of the waves recede into the background. After the group had emptied their cups of tea they prepared to move on. Not so fast! Out came my card and, as the cliché goes, the rest is history. How did I know I was about to meet my future partner? An interesting question, but it hardly mattered to me. The important thing was that somehow I did know.

It makes sense that such psychic experiences occur in the context of close relationships, because these relationships form over long periods, building a strong binding power. The difference in this case was that a psychic bond occurred in a close relationship that was yet to be.

Another example of this type involved my father. His house had recently been burgled. A few days afterwards I needed to visit him, and as I drove into his street I had a flash that the burglar was back. Rationality immediately stepped in, dismissing the idea. As I drew up to the house, I noticed my father was out. I retrieved the key from its usual hiding place and opened the back door. I then heard a clatter at the far end of the house. It was the sound of the burglar as he made his escape through a window close to the road. I knew this because, when I went to check, the window was wide open. In my father’s study computer discs were strewn over the floor and various items missing. Intuition involves understanding immediately, without needing any proof from observation. In this case I had a strong connection with the family home.

The following example involves a special kind of dramatist, a “projector” of deep personal imagery. In 1991 I was in Tokyo where I saw a solo performance by Kazuo Ohno, nonagenarian and co-founder of butoh dance in post-war Japan. It was a short but highly focused performance, set to evocative ambient music. As the dance proceeded a tension developed, a feeling faraway and immediate, epic and sad—though words fall short of capturing the intensity of what I felt. I wondered if I was the only one caught in a rising well of emotion, and glanced down my row of the audience. Everyone was transfixed by the performer, holding their breath, some already in tears.

What was this collective emotion if not a subtle force field transmitted via the body and mind of the performer, in collaboration with the music, which held us all in one shared psychic space? It is in times of togetherness, when we share laughter or intense empathic contact, that we bridge the gap between self and other. So why couldn’t psychic connection also be stimulated by powerful aesthetic experiences?

My last example is exceptional in that it concerns human-animal interaction. Millicent, one of our four chickens, was ten years old and dying. We brought her inside, to a confined area in the garage, where we set up straw and water. The day came when it was clear she would last no longer than a few hours. We made regular checks on her condition. At some stage in the afternoon, about ten minutes after visiting her, I had a subtle, naturally-fragrant olfactory sensation, lasting no longer than one in-breath. I went straight to the garage. Millicent had died. Were my perceptions an illusion? Or merely a coincidence? Yet why shouldn’t there be such an indicator of her departure, after having spent a decade with her? She was far more than anonymous poultry. We had a special connection.

Telepathic connection is common in the animal world. Large schools of sardines or murmurations of starlings move in coordinated waves, the changes too fast for any individual fish or bird to be able to follow. The simplest, sensible explanation is that they are connected via a collective, psychic link. What the examples recounted here suggest to me is that psychic connections are far more common in both the human and animal worlds than we ordinarily think.

* * * *

I don’t claim any special capability. Rather, I consider our psychic faculties to be natural, but underrated and underdeveloped. Some readers might suspect an unreasonable credulity on my part in ascribing the above incidents to psychic and paranormal phenomena—although paranormal is misleading; a better label would be “normal but rare”. In fact, I consider scepticism valuable when reviewing or judging these types of experiences. Yet there is healthy scepticism and unhealthy scepticism. Healthy scepticism keeps us questioning and helps prevent self-delusion. Unhealthy scepticism takes the form of a blanket dismissal of any and all such cases, viewing them as irrational superstition, dishonesty, occult nonsense, or self-deception that discloses some psychological problem such as suggestibility or the need for security.

Unhealthy scepticism is the attitude that currently prevails in the secular West. Through the Western education system we are taught that the world works within the senses’ geography of truth. Whether we are conscious of it or not, the Western world is dominated by a materialist world view, the tenets of which are rarely spelled out. Materialism is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as a doctrine maintaining that nothing exists except matter and its movements and modifications. Matter being unconscious, the implication is that we live in an unconscious, purposeless universe, our sense of self is an illusion, and our mind is nothing more than activity of the brain, the result of neurones firing in concert.

The problem is that non-ordinary experiences, such as those that involve ESP, telepathy and intuition, are the imps nibbling at materialism’s fringes. Because they contradict materialism’s conclusions, a common reaction is to simply ignore the intruders, or deny their existence. Yet the question remains: psychic and paranormal experiences occur, so what are we to make of them? How can an event, such as the one my partner and I experienced in Burkina Faso, dovetail with our secular, “enlightened” viewpoint—the prevailing philosophy of a mechanical, completely desanctified world? It can’t. Consequently, sceptics dismiss psychic perceptions as mere anecdotes about vague coincidences or as supernatural mumbo-jumbo. This refusal persists despite a widening of perspective among researchers working in a number of scientific fields who question the nature and extent of human perception. The result is a growing rift in science.

On the one hand is the power of scientific and educational institutions, which teach and defend the materialist paradigm. Advocates of materialism demonise as pseudoscience any theories or practices unfaithful to its guiding assumptions. On the other are scientists who are applying the scientific method to investigate areas such as non-ordinary perceptions, while continuing to study the natural world through observation and to experiment and apply the scientific tradition of free enquiry.

In Manifesto for a Post-Materialist Science, published in 2014, eminent scientists in the fields of psychology, neuroscience, medicine, biology and psychiatry have made a direct challenge to materialism, claiming it is now an outmoded ideology. They do so while acknowledging scientific accomplishments and grounding their investigations in empirical observations. Their concern is to make use of recent discoveries to broaden knowledge of fringe experiences and the contribution our own minds make to them. One item in their manifesto states: Mind (will/intention) can influence the state of the physical world and operate in a non-local (or extended) fashion, i.e., it is not confined to specific points in time, such as the present. Also, events may be meaningfully, rather than causally, connected.

This points in the direction this book travels. In the following pages I will use my experiences as springboards to explore a range of trans-conscious, non-local and extended perceptions. I suggest these are as essential to our experience as any “rational” forms. Furthermore, they point to a new paradigm of reality.

Consider this last example. At the start of our trip to West Africa, Kirsty and I had flown into Bamako in Mali. We were supposed to meet the tour guide of a local company but had no information about where to find him. Our Malian friend in New Zealand said we should just ask someone in the street, saying that Big John had sent us—a highly tentative arrangement, to say the least.

Bamako is a big city; at that time it had a million residents. As the sun rose on our first day there, the temperature climbed quickly. Streets filled up fast. Produce was being laid out. Women swathed in beautifully-coloured fabrics, and others in rags, were feeding their babies. Men were fixing mopeds, carrying loads, sawing wood or sitting around fires. Behind them all was a jumble of tin shacks, rubbish piled beside open sewers, and close, congested traffic edging its way through the throng of merchants, mothers, barrow-boys and infants. We desperately needed to sort out our onward travel, but by mid-morning had got nowhere, just becoming hot, bewildered and lost.

Our only recourse was to try the far-fetched method suggested to us. I approached a group of teenage boys and in incompetent French said that Big John had sent us. The one I spoke to seemed to instantly comprehend. A battered taxi was summoned, instructions given to the driver, and we were taken on a labyrinthine journey down roads, where no traffic rules applied, to a hotel where the shoe-shiners had a throne for their customers and two men could be seen lounging in the sun. They were Sori and Diallo, waiting to drive us to Mopti, Bandiagara and Burkina Faso.

How did that work? Could it have been pure serendipity that those boys knew Big John and where we needed to go? There may have been only one hotel in town organising tours for foreign travellers. Or perhaps fortune favoured the questing traveller?

But there was also something about this old and entirely different culture. It was a place where the limits of the possible are established, and breached, by the ideas, beliefs and traditions of the people. Deep down, these regions of West Africa have their own anima loci, their own regard for the spirits that animate their world, and their own long-accumulated, collectively-determined perception of reality. That difference—from the secular, rational Western world view—could somehow authorise what had happened to us in Gaoua: sacrosanct fetishes that were part of a long-established animist culture, that were assembled and consecrated to protect others, also had a means for protecting themselves.

No, declaim the rationalists among us. Yet Western culture has its own marginal zones of the extraordinary. They are grounded in the sentient glow we wake to every morning. What is this lantern in our skull? What is the wider context that enables marginal experiences to occur? And what are their implications for our picture of reality?