Exploring the Edge Realms of Consciousness: Liminal Zones, Psychic Science, and the Hidden Dimensions of the Mind

By Daniel Pinchbeck and Ken Jordan

From the publisher:  There is a rising interest in regions of the mind often traveled solely by shamans, mystics, and visionary artists. In a recent survey by the National Science Foundation, a startling 60% of respondents agreed that “some people possess psychic powers or ESP.” People want to know—what exactly is at the farthest fringes of human consciousness? In the new anthology Exploring the Edge Realms of Consciousness a diverse group of authors set out to answer that question.

This collection of mind-bending essays from the online magazine Reality Sandwich draws readers deep into regions of the mind. In this extraordinary anthology, a wide range of both well established and emerging writers speak out about their encounters with the fringes of the conscious mind, from demons in sleep paralysis visions to psychic research conducted by the CIA.  Contributors include notable ESP researcher Russell Targ, parapsychologist Dean Radin, and anthropologist Alberto Villoldo.

Organized into sections covering psychic phenomena, synchronicity, lucid dreaming, shamanism, and near death experiences, Exploring the Edge Realms of Consciousness is more than a series of snapshots of psychic experiences. It ties together its disparate topics to form a larger picture of what these non-ordinary states of consciousness might have to tell us about the nature of reality itself.

DANIEL PINCHBECK is the editorial director of Reality Sandwich and cofounder of Evolver.net.  He is the author of Breaking Open the Head: A Psychedelic Journey into the Heart of Contemporary Shamanism, among other works.  KEN JORDAN is the publisher and executive producer of Reality Sandwich and Evolver.net and has written for Wired, Index, and The Paris Review.  Pinchbeck and Jordan have coedited two other anthologies, Toward 2012 and What Comes After Money? Both live in New York City. For more information, please visit www.realitysandwich.com and www.evolver.net.

EVOLVER EDITIONS is a collaboration between North Atlantic Books and Evolver, LLC.

EVOLVER EDITIONS presents leading voices of the transformational movement, the new spiritual counterculture that explores humanity's most visionary potential and the tangible, pragmatic steps we can take to access it.

Exploring the Edge Realms of Consciousness. Evolver Editions, September 2012. ISBN 978 1 58394 488 2

Reviewed for the SPR by: Graham Kidd

An interesting and exciting title – it is in those ill defined states of mind that many paranormal phenomena are to be sought.  Perhaps the book will define that arena – define consciousness even; perhaps the latest research in consciousness, trance states, Ganzfeld experiments and hard facts concerning (sub?) liminal perception will be presented.  However, it is not possible to check quickly as there is no index, and on scanning the book it is quickly apparent that much of it is pervaded by New Ageism.  Nothing wrong with that particularly, one might say.  The aims of New Age thinkers are laudable – mother’s milk in fact.  It would be churlish not to admit wanting to save the planet and expand one’s consciousness.  Indeed, it turns out that the editors, Daniel Pinchbeck and Ken Jordan, are writers and spokesmen for what might be termed serious New Ageism, both being founders of the Reality Sandwich web magazine which in Pinchbeck’s words, “explores alternatives to mainstream system of thought and values.”  The site, which has many contributors, covers not just spiritual topics but also psychology, parapsychology and technology and art.

The book itself contains 27 essays which were first published on Reality Sandwich, and is divided into seven Parts with exciting titles such as ‘Visions in Night and Darkness’ and ‘Adventures into the Psyche’.  It begins with an introduction by Pinchbeck, and, as may be expected, this largely sets the tone.  Pinchbeck states,

As essays in this collection explore, drastic thresholds such as near death experience or sleep paralysis or certain forms of blindness appear to have a similar effect to psychedelics: they open up the usually sealed container of consciousness to access other bandwidths or frequencies ...  At such initiatory junctures, we find that our intention is like a magnet that creates a force field around us, pulling manifestations into being that are never what we envisioned, but are far more poetically accurate than we can expect.

Is that so? In his last paragraph, he opines:

More and more people in the postmodern world are recovering their psychic lives.  ...  This shift in attention is part of the paradigm shift; ancient prophecies fulfil themselves as we define a new level of consciousness that integrates science and spirituality, the physical and the psychic, the invisible and the known.  I hope this book contributes to the opening of our collective awareness, the rediscovery of who we always have been.

Well, in so far as I can follow what he is saying, it is a worthy aim one supposes.  Putting aside the apparent failure of the Mayan prophecy, and the contention that there is a paradigm shift – I would guess that most people that have ever lived have had a degree of existential anxiety, solved in different ways – does the book succeed, or will the drive to satisfy curiosity be held back by the childlike delight in wonderment and mystery, and the need not to have illusions shattered?

Franklin LaVoie , a “visionary artist”, who writes in the section on shamanism, states “The other  world is entered through the imaginal realm.” Yes, true in a sense one suspects, and therein lies the conundrum on display here: imagination coupled with curiosity and a strong desire to fill in the gaps, all of which have tremendous  survival value, does not necessarily lead  to models which are useful in elucidating  the objective truth  (whatever that might be).  Indeed many contributions seem unconcerned with objectivity, but on the contrary are highly subjective and imaginative, not to say poetical, interpretations of highly personal experiences that those writers no doubt are hoping will lead to some sort of personal revelation.  The book is uncertain whether it is supposed to be an inspirational religious tract (nothing wrong with that of course), or a truly scientific exploration.

The mix leaves this reviewer feeling a trifle queasy, as when waking on Boxing Day, or when watching synchronized swimming.  As may be apparent, the grumpy old man in me was rapidly and perhaps unfairly activated.  Collections of contributions by different authors will naturally vary in interest and quality.  With many of the essays, any hard facts and interesting ideas are diluted by  a possibly editorially proscribed personal style seemingly designed to appeal to those that might be threatened by any excess, if not hint, of scientific objectivity (?elitism).  Having said that, in the first section, ‘Of Minds and Molecules’, Michael Taussig, a medical doctor and academic anthropologist, starts the ball rolling with a rather convoluted essay, the conclusion of which seems in fact to warn against being too poetical in attempting to understand shamans, while being so literary as to obscure his message.

James Oroc, who writes on extreme sports, then asks the right questions provoked by his psychedelic  drug experiences, such as “How can I exist  as consciousness without ego or identity, and yet clearly still be me?”, but loses credibility for me by stating categorically that the universal acceptance of the ideas of Newton, Darwin and Descartes  “although unproven”  (!) “threatens the ecological balance of the planet itself.”  His brief survey of quantum physics does not lead to coherent conclusions.  Graham St John, a cultural anthropologist, contributes  a rambling paean to the psychedelic drug DMT which concludes that solving mysteries is the conceit of the old scientific model, and that the “gift is that recognition [of the Mystery]”, which sounds like a cop-out to me.  An architect, Timothy Wyllie, tries to analyse his near-death experience, saying “it is no more an hallucination than the moving images of a film.”  He accepts that the bullet points of advice arising from his experiences may be dismissed as New Age clichés.

Some writers seem keen to use the language of science but do so in a way that does not frankly inspire confidence.  The intermingling of valid scientific jargon (wormhole, gyrus) with flights of spiritual fancy in a spurious fashion, irritate.  For example, Valoie’s “I saw  paradise island on a shimmering sea.  This image coincided with a proprioceptive survey of the ventricles in the brain, made possible by the white flame piercing my heart” etc. etc.  I do not quite get it, to tell the truth.  However, when the same author says “myths illuminate the unconscious world” I would not disagree, but it has been said before.  Other irritations that assailed me as I ploughed diligently through the 350-odd pages were: plonking conversation stoppers, eg “Through an awareness of awareness, the truth can be found everywhere” (one is reminded of the Peter Sellars character in “Being There”).  Pretentiousness: “The purpose of prayer is to remind us of the sacredness of speech”.  Touches of grandiosity: “To integrate the extraordinary gifts of the soul, we can practice meditating, concentrating on awakening  the heart mind ... This may help humanity find many practical solutions that are simply not available to the externalized, rational mind.” (or it may not of course, though one is all for recharging one’s batteries and a bit of creative thinking.)  Another neologism! Another non sequitur!  Streams of consciousness writing – all a bit excessively subjective and  egocentric, telling us more about the states of mind and the personalities of those particular contributors than enlightening us on the state of play in the field of consciousness and parapsychological research.

On the other hand, there are indeed some excellent poetical forays.  One is of course not against poetical interpretation, which can be creative and  emotionally cathartic, and of course  as in all artistic endeavour may also serve the purpose of  setting up templates that could be generally useful in perceiving and interpreting the world.  Given the  title of the book, however,  the descriptions of the various  writers’ revelries remind one of those devious  magicians who will not come clean as to whether the magic is due to honest  trickery or is in fact paranormal, implying the latter and thereby engaging the attention of the needy incredulous.  I am not sure of the point.  I do not doubt the sincerity of these writers.  Free association may or may not have a fruitful outcome, like improvising at the piano; it may be truly helpful in problem solving, sublimely creative, a mess, or simply hackneyed.  Introspection as an arena for gathering data has its place, but analysis must surely include an understanding of the vagaries and complexity of the brain’s workings.

The tendency to interpret an experience in a concrete way at face value, with a minimum of discussion of alternative explanations, is manifested frequently.   Tejeda describes being dissociated  by marijuana.  She admits being” fogged”, but interprets her experience through the information she ascribes to “My animal – spirits, who were not fogged –”.  She talks at length about – yes – little green men, crystals being transmitters and plants that must contain crystals as they are transmitters.  All this is revelatory, and further explained when she summoned, by using her higher self and “my Raven ally”, a representative of the little green men who “began to down load information into my third eye..”  This is followed by bizarre theories presented as facts.  Delusions, including fantastic elaborations, thought disorder, telepathy experiences, coincidences, perceptual disturbance, hallucinations, disturbances in attribution of meaning are all the stuff of brain disorder, such as confusional states and schizophrenia.  Marijuana is well known to produce both.  Tejeda ends by admitting the possibility that it might all have been a delusion, “but for the amount of detail and complexity of the world that I had no prior knowledge of.  That is, things like the Asian setting, the story of the White Bear ..” etc.  It won’t wash, I am afraid.  The brain is a more remarkable organ than one might suppose.  Excessive wishful, magical, egocentric, black and white, emotional thinking, while being very creative and albeit useful for immediate survival, I would submit is not particularly useful when it comes to establishing the facts of causation.  Speculation is useful, and necessary, as a preliminary to hypothesis formation, but excessive leaping in the dark in the hope that it will be a short cut is more likely to lead down blind alleys. 

Having got that off my chest, I can reveal that there are nuggets to be mined.  Section 7 starts with Paul Hughes writing about “Super free will: metaprogramming and the quantum Observer”.  Ah very interesting.  What are his credentials? It turns out he is an internationally recognized speaker, empowerment teacher, and firewalking instructor, not, it seems, a quantum physicist, nor a neuropsychologist.  However, he is entitled to his opinion, and in fact he writes thoughtfully and convincingly, being well read, and making his point succinctly.  In fact I wished he had written a good deal more of the book.  Russell Targ, the highly regarded doyen of remote viewing, while succumbing somewhat to the editorial imperative, restates the idea that the meaning of our lives is to become one with nonlocal consciousness.  After describing some of his experiments from a personal point of view he makes the observation that “the hindrances to spiritual awakening are similar to those that interfere with remote viewing.” One wishes that he had gone into those effects in more detail.  Jhana Buddhist meditation techniques and experiences are described in some detail by Jay Michaelson, who concludes with commendable honesty that the experience of mystical union is not enough.  “The point lies elsewhere, and yet, ironically, right here.”

David Metcalf, an “independent researcher and artist”, begins the section on ‘Science and the Psyche” discussing “Paranthropology”, and says categorically that “The rejection of the ...  techniques of stage magic as legitimate tools for revelation represents a failure of the dualistic, either/or mind set embedded in our culture.” I would have thought that it is more to do with a regard for honesty and seeing the phenomena as a subject for the study of the placebo effect and manipulation of others (albeit for the good).  Incidentally, I heartily recommend Metcalf’s artistic productions on Reality Sandwich.  David Luke, a psychologist and enthusiastic investigator into the effects of psychedelics, is tasked with the unlikely topic of ‘Psiverts and psychic piracy: The future of Parapsychology’, but on the way writes well, if generally, on some of the science of parapsychology, and cites the most original papers of any of the contributors, including Dean Radin.  Radin writes a pertinent essay about the inability of the mainstream to “see the gorilla”.  One had hoped for a bit more from him.

The following section, on ‘Visions in Night and Darkness’, features discussion on lucid dreams and sleep paralysis.   Paul Devereux, not a neuroscientist, though begins with a   description of the Charles Bonnet Syndrome, and asks “If … complex scenes can be rendered in intricate detail by the brain struggling to fill in gaps in sensory data, what then is reality?”He concludes correctly that we do not see with our eyes alone, but suggests therefore that materiality is a kind of hallucination, which to me is a non sequitur.  The power of the brain both to model reality and to construct narratives that infer possible causations, unconsciously as well as consciously, should not be underestimated.  Anthony Peake suggests that OBEs are a form of lucid dreaming.  Ryan Hurd writes a patchy historical survey on sleep paralysis as a vehicle for unusual experiences, (failing to mention UFO abduction), and points out superficially the material correlates.

 The sections on synchronicity and on shamanism are missed opportunities in my mind.  Much useful science is left out in favour of New Ageism, and the same applies largely to the last section on “Thought at the Periphery.”  Chris Carter discusses at last the big question, ‘Does consciousness depend on the brain’, with a well written but brief historical survey of thoughts on the topic which stops at Bergson, ignoring all subsequent work.  He finishes with a discussion of the theory of the brain as receiver.  Following a description of William James’ views, he avers that “even though it has been more than a century since James delivered his lecture, in all that time neither psychology nor physiology has been able to produce any intelligible model of how biochemical processes could possibly be transformed into conscious experience.” This is surely out of date.  Data concerning states of consciousness are accumulating rapidly, from which a coherent generally acceptable model will undoubtedly emerge in the usual way, slowly perhaps but surely.  How long in human history did it take for the structure of the atom to be half way understood? You could of course make a similar statement about the alternative nonmaterialistic theories.  A model of what spirit matter is and how this is transformed into consciousness is  not discussed  in this book.

I conclude, therefore, that , though  many of the essays try  to be balanced and considered, the useful ones are too brief to be really useful, and the others – well, to each his own.  Beliefs are either useful or otherwise for the task of surviving.  Twaddle in general may be twaddle to you and me, but a vital strategy for personal survival to many others, and who are we to argue?  Subjective experience is of course a  subject worthy of philosophical and scientific investigation, but drug induced  altered states of mind, while  no doubt  fun,  I am not convinced  on the evidence of these essays will lead to the kind of  enlightenment that might satisfy me personally.  The useful contributors are generally appropriately cautious in their interpretations, but whether or not one would wish to read through the more fanciful contributions on the way to the nuggets of rational discussion is a moot point.  This book will probably appeal more, therefore, to a general readership with a tendency to follow New Age philosophy who are perhaps a little intimidated by hard science, the readers of Reality Sandwich in fact.  They may be seeking validation for their experiences in this survey (and they may or may not find it), but the serious student of the unconscious and parapsychology may be disappointed by the patchy somewhat superficial nature of the contributions.  Nevertheless, there are nuggets of thought-provoking ideas to be mined, and those wanting a survey of the field, or their thoughts to be provoked, may find it enjoyable.

Graham Kidd       16th January 2013