Tuesday, 19 May 2009

Cultural vs. Pre-Cultural Sources...

When I intially started working towards my dissertation I was unsure as to where I was going to focus my investigations. I knew that I wanted to explore people's experiences of the "supernatural" or "paranormal", and that I was particularly interested in the experiences of those who claimed to have communicated with discarnate entities, but I wasn't entirely sure where I could find people who had had such experiences to study.

Before discovering the Bristol Spirit Lodge, therefore, I was on the lookout for individuals who had experienced near-death experiences (NDE), out-of-body experiences (OOBE), ghost sightings, abduction experiences and so on. To this end I put up a notice on a paranormal forum asking for people who had had such experiences to get in touch with me. Only one person did, an individual by the name of Rudy.

Rudy had experienced an NDE in his 20's as his car rolled during a flash-flood. Reading through Rudy's statement it became apparent to me that there were certain elements of his experience that correlated with traditionally conceived notions of what happens during a near death experience (e.g. life-review, out-of-body experience, moving towards the light and through a tunnel, loving being of light, etc.(Siegel, 1980, pp. 920-921)), while there were other aspects that didn't seem to fit so neatly into the traditional model, aspects which at the time of the experience even Rudy was shocked by because they didn't fit with his expectations for such an occurrence. The following are extracts from his account of the experience that most surprised him:

"I did not know that heaven in scripture was squarish shaped before my NDE. I tend to think of it now as some type of spaceship."

"The orbs of light were particularly different from my expectations of heaven... On my return to my body I saw some of the orbs or souls peel off and going to places other than the earth. This was certainly a surprise to me and conunter to my religious notions that we humans are alone in the universe with souls."

"I could not return to the church of my youth as its message contradicts the loving God I met in heaven... Any time a preacher puts others down it offends my absolute knowledge that God loves everyone regardless of their religious views/addiction/homelessness/wealth/political affiliation/sexual orientation..."

There must be more to such experiences than simply creating an anomalous experience based upon cultural constructs. While it is undoubtedly true that we do utilise models from our own private experience and learning to interpret phenomena that we have not experienced before, it is also evident, particularly in Rudy's case, that there were elements that exceeded his expectations of what he would experience in such a situation.

The transformational capacity of such experiences is interesting, particularly, as in Rudy's case, when the experience causes a reinterpretation of previously held conceptions about the nature of what might be termed God and heaven. If these experiences were entirely rooted in cultural notions and expectations, we would not expect to see facets which exceeded these occuring during the experience.

To what extent, then, are we dealing with a cultural or pre-cultural phenomenon?

David Hufford's (1987) book "The Terror that Comes in the Night" suggests that the Old Hag tradition of Newfoundland is a cultural interpretation of a pre-cultural experience (sleep paralysis), which also occurs in other parts of the world but under a different name. The use of the term pre-cultural here refers to sources of experience that are not determined by culture, for example innate biological processes (e.g. the experience is nothing more than an hallucination triggered by the release of certain chemicals in the brain when the body is in serious danger of death), or some other element external to the body of the individual undergoing the experience (e.g. actually visiting "heaven" and meeting discarnate beings).

This is a subject that will be brought up again....

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