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Experience of the subtle realms: Contents page

Chapter 1.  Heron's beard

1. The other world

This book is an exploration of my personal belief that we live in two worlds at once, the physical world and the other world. By the physical world I mean the world of nature and human society.  By the other world I mean non-physical, non-subjective subtle realms of places, powers and presences; realms that have their own distinctive spatial, temporal and energetic properties; that are in some respects independent of the physical world and in other respects in continuous interaction with it.

As well as 'subtle realms' many terms can be used to refer to these domains:  the psi world,  the matrix world, the inner world, the tacit universe, the unseen universe, the occult world, the beyond.  The word 'psi' has been extensively used in parapsychology to refer to extrasensory faculties. Thus the psi world is a zone of being beyond the reach of the physical senses. Then there are terms drawn from other cultures and traditions.

There is the ka world - adapted from the ancient Egyptian concept of the ka soul, set free from the human body at death to enter the future world.  I used the term 'ka' a great deal in the first edition of this book, as a generic word for the other world and our experience of it.  It has simplicity, clarity and resonance, and echoes a  great esoteric tradition of the ancient world.  However, I have dropped the use of it in this second edition because of its unfamiliarity, and have replaced it for the most part with the term 'subtle', which is more relevant and in accord with current usage (Grof, 1988: 39).

Late Egyptian definitions of 'ka' - as an indwelling divine principle whose presence saves the soul - had a strong influence on the development of the doctrine of the Logos in Hellenistic and early Christian thought, and run deep into the foundations of western culture.  Thus St. Justin (c.100-163 AD), the most important of the apologists of the second century, propounded his theory of the 'seminal Logos': the transcendent Word of God implants fragments of the truth in the minds of all persons of good-will. 

'Ka' was written, in the ancient Egypt of 3000 BC, by a hieroglyph of uplifted arms, and the letter K by the hieroglyph of a slightly cupped hand.    Among the Semites of 1500 BC, the letter K was 'kaph' - also the word for the palm of the hand.  Via the Phoenicians, the letter passed into the Greek, then the Roman alphabets. And it was originally written with its angled arms open to the left, not the right. 'Ka', with is initial letter K, combines incisiveness of sound with the symbolism of receptive gesture. This is relevant to the practice of bodily alignment as a mode of access to the other world - which I describe in Chapter 7, section 5. It also relates to the notion of angles as powers - section 3 in Chapter 7.

There is the akashic realm - from the Samkhya system of ancient India in which akasha is subtle matter, vibratory, radiant, full of energy and out of which gross physical matter evolves. Then there is the chhi universe - from the Neo-Confucian thinker Chu  Hsi for whom chhi is tenuous non-perceptible matter or aethereal waves, out of which chi or solid, perceptible physical matter is formed.  Actually, Aikido people today simply use the word 'chi', rather than 'chhi', to refer to subtle energy.

The concept of the etheric world originates in Aristotle's notion of aether: celestial matter, the fifth element, translucent, bright and incorruptible, out of which is made the celesial spheres that carry the sun, moon, planets and stars. The term 'etheric' has been a strong favourite to describe the other world in nineteenth and twentieth century occult literature  and also in the story of spiritualism since 1848 (Conan Doyle, 1972), now vigorously revived in the form of modern channelling (Klimo, 1987). 

The notion of the ether also played a dominant role in the development of modern science, from the time of Descartes, Boyle, Gilbert and Newton onwards. It was interred in Einstein's special theory of relativity in 1905. Its replacement, in the new physics, is in the guise of the implicate order, the tacit universe (Bohm, 1980, Weber, 1981).

There are links, too, with the mana of the kahunas of Polynesia, a potent supernatural fluid which can be charged into objects and is an anchor or foothold for presences in the other world; with the orenda of the Iroquois, manitou of the Algonquins, wakanda of the Sioux; with the original meaning of kami in Japan; and with shamanism (Eliade, 1972).  I find important echoes of my experience in these traditions. But the touchstone of what I write is felt upon my pulse, encountered by my being, lived through today.

2. Belief and ambiguity

 I don't know that we live in two worlds at once because my evidence is not sufficient to warrant a claim to knowledge.  But it is sufficient to warrant a claim to belief. The evidence which I recount here is personal experience, most of it mine, some of it recounted to me directly by others with the ring of authenticity.

The content of the experience is often ambiguous. It is suspended between what merely seems to be the case, and what really is the case; between an illusory and a veridical perception.  It is 'as if' I am in two worlds at once, but the other world component could be something else - a sensation or misperception at the physical level, or a bit of purely imaginary content.

Now it is my belief that this ambiguity occurs precisely because there are two worlds interacting in my consciousness.  Several interrelated effects can occur. I can mistake  this world experiences for  other world experiences, and vice versa.  In  zones where the two kinds of perception overlap I may not be clear which is which. I may ignore one kind totally in favour of the other.  What starts out as an ordinary state of consciousness of this world, may end up as an altered state disclosing the other world.  And what starts out as an altered state may collapse into an ordinary state.

3.  Heron's beard and Occam's razor

Because of all this, I hold to one cardinal principle: if you are aware of an ambiguous experience in which it is as if there are other world components, then it is a good thing to foster and elaborate the ambiguity, rather than try to reduce it and eliminate it sceptically. Apply first of all a principle opposite to that of Occam's razor.

William of Occam was an English philosopher who died about 1349. Occam's razor is the principle that the fewest possible assumptions should be made in explaining anything (Lacey, 1986). So if you have some ambiguous  experience, you should seek to explain it in terms of this world, and not invoke the extra assumption of some other kind of world. This explanatory principle often leads to reductionism: claims to extrasensory experience are explained away in terms of, reduced to, ordinary sorts of experience.

My opposite principle is that it is wise to encourage an ambiguous experience to acquire luxurious growth in the direction of the complex and the occult, rather than rigorously cut it down to an awareness of the simple and the obvious.  I will call this new principle Heron's beard.

Now Heron's beard  is not yet an explanatory principle: it is a principle for the management of an ambiguous experience.  It commends you to give such an experience the extrasensory benefit of the doubt - to go with it as if some other worldly phenomena is afoot, to let it develop expansively and imaginatively.  Then notice what happens to it.  Does it collapse into the obvious after all?  Or does it enhance its claim to be explained in terms of wider assumptions than apply to ordinary states of mind.

Heron's beard is sometimes (but by no means always) paradoxical in its application. Consider this case. I have an ambiguous experience in which the supposed subtle world content really is nothing more than a bit of sensation, of private imagination, or a misperception. There is nothing psi about it. Yet if I apply Heron's beard to it, then it may actually develop from an ordinary to an extraordinary, from a sensory to an extrasensory, state of consciousness. 

A simple example of this is an ambiguous image before my closed eyes: is it merely a retinal image, or is it the dawning of a clairvoyant perception of the other world?  Now even if, when it first appears, it is in fact nothing other than a retinal image, if I apply Heron's beard to it and imaginatively  foster its development in my consciousness, it may turn into a clairvoyant window on the subtle world.

If you are too committed to the use of Occam's razor, you will cut an ambiguous experience short,and rush into a premature,usually reductionist, explanation.  Better to indulge the experience a bit, nurture it and foster it with your attention.  Postpone explanation until the experience declares itself more fully.  Go with what seems, let the immediate phenomena unfold. Elaborate its content, and notice carefully what is going on before explaining it.

Occam's razor goes for a more rapid and sceptical reduction of the ambiguous to the usual. Heron's beard goes for a more leisurely and imaginative elaboration of the ambiguous to the unusual. Actually, the two principles are complementary and need each other.  For sometimes the beard simply becomes a mass of illusory growth, and then you need the razor to shave it off.  But the rule is: grow the beard before you decide whether or not it is appropriate to use the razor.  Don't contract before you expand your awareness; and only contract it if the expansion results in an obvious nonsense.       

4.  A simple canon of inquiry

Let me systematize this a little bit further.  Suppose I have an ambiguous experience which has some apparent other world content.  Now this other world content may be illusory (that is, really physical world content) or it may be genuine.  So we have the following possibilities.

1.  Apply Heron's beard to what only seems to be other world content but really isn't, and as a result it actually becomes genuine other world content.  This is my example above: Heron's beard turns what at first was only a closed-eye retinal image into an authentic clairvoyant window.

2.  Apply Heron's beard to what only seems to be other world content but really isn't, and as a result it becomes quite obvious that it is nothing but an illusion. In which case apply Occam's razor and strip the illusion off the physical world content.  Thus the attempt to develop some ambiguous image before your closed eyes into clairvoyance, may show it up to be what it really is - an ordinary retinal light.

3. Apply Heron's beard to what only seems to be other world content but really isn't, and as a result it becomes more and more illusory, but you don't notice this.  You are now systematically deluded, desperately need Occam's razor but sadly don't know it. You are in trouble.  Thus you may persistently imagine that what in fact is nothing but retinal light is a clairvoyant window.

4. Apply Heron's beard to what in fact really is other world content, and as a result it becomes illusory. This is unfortunate, but it probably often happens. So you get the first glimmerings of a real clairvoyant window on the subtle world, and when you try to elaborate it you only succeed in losing it.  You then need to apply Occam's razor quickly and realize you are now seeing  nothing but retinal lights: an altered state has collapsed into an ordinary one.

5.  Apply Heron's beard to what  in fact really is other world content, and as a result it becomes more and more authentic. Thus you have the first glimmerings of a real clairvoyant window on the other world, and as you expand your awareness into it, the psi content becomes much clearer, more detailed, specific and convincing.  You really are seeing another world, and you know it. Occam's razor is unused.

6.  Apply Heron's beard to what in fact really is other world content, and as a result it becomes more and more authentic, but you can't allow yourself to believe the evidence of your psi capacity.  So you quite inappropriately slash away with Occam's razor and destroy a real growth of seership.   As a clairvoyant window opens up into more systematic and detailed 'seeing', you put a stop to it with compulsive scepticism and insist it is pure delusion.

All the six possibilities given just above can occur and have occurred in my experience of the Janus-brain state.  Understanding this sixfold repertoire provides a rudimentary canon of inquiry for getting at the truth of the matter.  Numbers 3 and 6 are the pathological parts of the repertoire to be avoided at all costs in gross form, but are probably bound to occur from time to time to a greater or lesser degree. Number 3 in gross form is the most pathological. Number 4 is often due to lack of skill: practice can make it dis­appear.  Numbers 1, 2 and 5 keep the show on the road.   

The frequent ambiguity of content keeps me on my toes, exercising vigilance and discrimination, balancing experience and explanation, expansion and contraction of consciousness, elaboration and reduction of content, the growth of Heron's beard with the use of Occam's razor.

Experience of the subtle realms: 

Contents page

Chapter 2