Keywords: Zen; dependent origination; Buddha; Tapestry; Oprah Winfrey, PEARS; Dean Radin; Jeane Dixon; John Edward; Brian Josephson; parapsychology; channelling; mediums
In my bathroom I keep a huge, intellectually challenging book on Zen by a neuroscientist. I’ll never get through it all but I’ve been sampling it for over a year. It mixes high-falutin science with first-hand descriptions of kensho experiences. I don’t have the patience to meditate because I know I’m not good at it, but I have no doubt that there is something to it — something powerful enough to be worth the hard work that's involved.
Intellectually, I acknowledge that there’s also something to “Dependent Origination” — the Buddha’s way of describing the reality that everything in the universe is connected to everything else, everything is causally related to everything else. (Or something like that.) In fact, those insights, if I could attain them, are pretty damn classy kinds of awareness. So I offer no resistance to mysticism. Indeed, if I had what it takes, I’d be one myself.
Even parapsychology in the laboratory is dignified enough for me to take seriously. There was a CBC radio show on Tapestry a few weeks ago about PEARS, a lab at Princeton where some guy runs experiments showing that whenever the whole world is having a common experience (e.g. on September 11, 2001) his random number generator goes off kilter. I don’t know what it means, but it’s interesting and I am not particularly skeptical about the finding.
But today, I happened to tune into Oprah Winfrey when she was interviewing mediums who contact dead relatives and pass along messages. The TV channeller John Edward (see photo) is one of them. The other is a woman who is the real-life medium on which the TV character Medium is based. They showed clips of “readings” that both of these psychics did for bereaved persons, transmitting messages from their dead loved ones.
Everyone was convinced except one woman in the audience who was pointed out as a determined skeptic. She remained that way. Oprah asked her what she thought about God and she said she’s a Humanist. That figures. “Humanist” means atheist. In my experience, there are more atheists in this world than disbelievers in parapsychology. I don’t know why, but quite a few people who say they are atheists still believe in “some kind of energy out there,” or “a presence,” as they often put it. I myself find it far harder to question the existence of God than spooks.
But why is that? If the bereaved families are satisfied with these greetings from the “other side,” why should I question them? Because they are so banal. These are not powerful emotional experiences. The spirits do not have anything wise to say. They refer to such things as their nicknames. These are cheap picture postcards of heaven: “Having a great time, wish you were here.”
Of the two mediums (media?), John Edward seemed the more convincing. His face looked un-managed, with genuinely spontaneous feelings. The other woman, who got more air time, seemed to be a nice enough person, but with a Pan American rather than a Duchenne smile. They both came up with tidbits of information that seemed to satisfy the relatives of the dead persons. If Oprah herself had any doubts, she didn’t show them — but then I wouldn’t expect her to. She’s deeply warm and caring. My own problem is that the messages from “the other side” were so trivial. In fact, the performances seemed cheesy. We were spectators in a sideshow instead of worshipers in a temple.
And in the audience was Dean Radin, the psychologist who had done the PEARS experiments with the random number generators. Oprah called on him twice and he looked very credible — a class act — bald and intellectual-looking, with nicely-chosen rimless glasses. He convinced me to go look up his web site, and I’ve even ordered his book on-line. It’s called Entangled Minds, and his theory seems to be Dependent Origination dressed in the language of quantum theory. It was good enough to win applause from the Nobel laureate physicist Brian Josephson, so it ought to be worth the $14 Canadian.
Oprah came up with a story of her own about Jeane Dixon, the late medium who predicted (I believe) the death of John Kennedy. It seems that she, Oprah, had been doing a show for a few hundred people with Dixon and after it was over she got the word. Dixon told her that she was going to be a powerful woman, speaking to millions of people and living like a queen. So there you are. QED.
I sound more cynical here than I actually am. It’s just the camel’s head under the tent. Once you open up the possibility that anything weird is going on, then every weird thing on earth has as much right as anything else to crawl into the tent.
My way of managing this is to forget things. I’ve had a few weird things that convinced me at the time. But then I forget them and act as if I never believed any of it. And that’s what I’ll do this time too. What else is there to do — sit around all day wondering whether every stray thought that crosses your mind is a message from the other side?
Because there’s not much you can do that’s practical. Even Radin admits that the success rate is not generally a high percentage – just enough higher than statistically predicted to be way beyond chance. Say 56 percent when one would expect 50 percent. And those additional six percentage points are not packed with profound insights. Me, I want a classy kind of woo woo.