Wednesday, 25 February 2015

A peek into the Afterlife

A quote misattributed to the atheist philosopher Bertrand Russell has the distinguished gent saying that he no more believes in life after death than life before birth.

Well - and here I intend to get controversial - I do have some reason to believe in life before birth. I have written snippets on this before on this blog; just snippets. Now I'd like to develop the theme further as part of this year's Lenten series of posts.

Strangely familiar, familiarly strange, well-known memories not attached to anything I've lived through... I've had these all my life, as early as I can remember, they are a part of me. What they are, I know not. How to categorise them - a scientific or spiritual phenomena, is still beyond me.

Imagine a childhood summer's day on the beach, the sun glinting off the waves; or a walk in a pine forest with your parents, or staring at a toyshop window just before Christmas, snow falling gently on the rushing shoppers. Can you feel those memories strongly? Can you conjure up your precise awareness of that moment?

Sometimes, for no reason, a memory appears spontaneously within my consciousness. I've not been thinking about anything related to it; the memory may relate to something that happened a year ago, three years ago, ten years ago or in early childhood - but I've trained myself over the course of my life to identify them. Elthorne Park, Hanwell. The AA building, Teddington. Chiswick open-air swimming pool. The Thames at Sunbury. Gibbet Hill Road, Warwickshire. Denham, Buckinghamshire. PAFF! All of a sudden, for the briefest of moments, I am back there, my consciousness feeling exactly what it felt back there, back then - a strong surge of memory. I savour the moment; it evaporates quickly, leaving a vague but pleasant aftertaste.

But it was there, clear - and mine. Spirit of place and me.

Here's one: PAFF! A flashback, unbidden. The Bath Road, near Turnham Green, West London. I am with my father, we are on our way to the Polish church on Leysfield Road it is the mid-l960s - we pass a set of level crossing gates. (I google this, and indeed, between Abinger Road and Emlyn Road there were level crossing gates back then.)

Happens to you too? It's like a 'memory hiccup'. Unbidden, spontaneous; real. Train yourself, and you can put your finger precisely on where and when it was. Driving out of Harrow towards the M1. Yes, the leafless trees, hedges, wet fields...

Now it's going to get strange. I also get, though less frequently, the same phenomenon, except it's clearly not from my life's experiences. Mine; familiar; repeated; but where is it from and what does it mean? Most often these anomalous memory flashbacks correspond to America in the 1930s, 40s and 50s. I've had these all my life, since early childhood (four, five years old). My friends from university will vouch for the fact that I'd be reporting the same experiences 35 years ago. Since then, I've been able to bring greater definition to what I feel, yet the experiences remain a mystery, a phenomenon beyond the comprehension of science today.

They are fragile yet intense - when they happen, I try to catch that moment of anomalous consciousness, dwell upon it before it evaporates; but it is ephemeral, fleeting.

Let me whittle it down some more. Thee anomalous flashbacks don't feel like the Far East or Africa. They are not of deserts or rainforests. They don't feel ancient or mediaeval. They feel mid-20th Century, USA or Scandinavia. A land of four separate seasons; single-storey houses with car ports surrounded by groves of tall pines and birch trees, modern office developments amid snowy forests. Railway lines running through the plains, big, open, blue skies.

Memories that feel as real as anything that resonates with my 1960s British childhood, yet are not of it. There are other ones; Edwardian England, fin-de-siecle France, the Pripyat marshes, Merrie England, 17th C. Less strong, less frequent, yet also present in unbidden memories; pleasant memories, and ones I can reach for and experience should I wish to.

As it fades, I feel a certain frustration; something beautiful in my grasp has slipped away. I want to know more; I want to discover what this is.

And then there are dreams too; and that precious time between sleep and wakefulness when the consciousness is running free. Most dreams are a concoction of half-completed daytime thoughts, but I have rare ones that relate to another time and place; these follow the classic Greek unities of time, place and action. WWII, but America. One I had the other night; it is the late-1930s, early '40s, USA; at the State Fair, there is a beauty pageant at the US Department of Agriculture stand. Detail and accuracy are the key features of this type of dream. The most amazing one I ever had related to a hotel called Zig Zag in an American town of Zig Zag. The hotel, built of wood, was located on a main road running through a wooded valley. Thanks to Google, I located it the following morning - exactly as I dreamt it. The Zig Zag Inn, Zig Zag, Oregon (below). To preclude any chance of deja vu, I looked through all my parents' old National Geographic magazines with articles about Oregon - no sign of Zig Zag!

What this is all about is still life's greatest mystery for me. Is this a common phenomenon, that many people experience yet fail to identify, brushing to one side as being too marginal or strange to contemplate? Or am I alone on this one?

There are religions based on the concept of reincarnation, but I eschew a religious (as opposed to spiritual) explanation. Religions are based on dogma; I seek an answer based on something more rational. I may be way ahead of the science, but still I seek.

I cannot will such a memory into being. Seeking them for their own end is futile and disappointing. There are places where they are more likely to happen (in the kitchen, in the chilled-food section at Auchan, on Dolina Służewiecka between ul. Nowoursynowska and Rodowicza), on ul.Puławska at the junction with Idzikowskiego, the footpath in Las Kabacki alongside the Metro depot; and, most often, when there are changes in the weather (the onset of spring, for example).

Over many years, I've trained myself to identify the time and the place that the flashback is linked to. But what causes these flashbacks that tug my awareness back to recall some distant moment with such precision, creating such a sense of pleasant familiarity of Past? Was there a trigger? Smell is a most potent memory trigger, and easy to identify. The smell of summer rain on dusty ground. Taste also - a childhood ice cream (such as a Lyon's Maid Raspberry Mivvy). Other triggers are harder to pinpoint. It maybe a combination of light and colour on the retina, a particular word, spoken or read; the feeling of frost on the face as I walk out of the office on a winter's night; a splash of water on the neck – and BAM! suddenly that memory bursts into the mind, for a split second crowding out other mundane trains of thought and bringing that exact flavour of that moment in the past. The strangest are the flashbacks that are not only unbidden, but untriggered - totally spontaneous.

Like an archeologist, I find myself analysing these fragments of memory as if they were shards of ancient pottery. No, a better metaphor. It is more like analysing a snowflake before it melts.

The flashbacks that seem untriggered or unbidden are indeed puzzling. Do they happen for a reason? (I will be writing about chance, coincidence and meaning in a later post.)

The human brain is the most complex structure known to man. We have scarcely begun to unravel its secrets. Is this a brain thing or something else? My brain tuning into thought waves once projected from human brains once alive? Atoms within me that were once within some other human being, some while back? Tosh! you may say. Would that I could do so with any degree of certainty. All I know is that this phenomenon is very real, has always been with me, continues to feel familiar, and continues to intrigue me and pique my curiosity.

A few years ago, while out walking, I coined the phrase 'congruent consciousness' for this phenomenon of the consciousness. Just as triangles of a different size but with exactly the same angles can be defined as congruent, so these flashbacks are a identical short-lived replica of my consciousness at another time and place. They vary in strength (vividness) and duration, and when they happen, I've taught myself to catch them and reflect upon them. Projected for an instant into my consciousness, before fizzling away, they leave a summonable aftertaste, like the memory of a vivid dream. These anomalous memory events leave me grasping for metaphors - 'echo' is one; I am picking up an echo of consciousness, a feeling that once was, a perfect replica of a state of mind, that has returned for a brief instant from... the past? Is there such as thing as the past in the mind?

The river of consciousness (there's a neat metaphor) means that you can track back to the thoughts you've just had, but running your mind in reverse, although possible, is as difficult as swimming upstream. When your mind is freewheeling, try going back through the chain of thoughts you've just had - it's not easy! Similarly, when a *paff!* moment occurs, before the smoke's blown away, I analyse it on the spot, so as not to lose that feeling. Once gone, it's difficult to get back. How does it feel? What's it associated with? What might have triggered it?

My search for a better understanding of this phenomenon will take many years, and though I'm sure I'll get closer, I doubt if I, or indeed neuroscience, will get anywhere near it.

Sceptics say that it's misfiring neurons in my brain. Prove it. Science has yet to even work out where the seat of consciousness resides within us humans, so I dismiss this. I challenge any neuroscientist to convince me that this is nothing but a random firing of synapses in the hippocampus, or a flow of dopamine through the brain. It's too regular, too familiar; there's a pattern here that's clearly not random, a phenomenon that's above chance.

Over the years, those *PAFF* moments multiply - I've been here before, yet not in this lifetime. I savour them as they happen, like holding my breath, keeping that feeling like the waking aftertaste of a dream. Days like this I never experienced in childhood, and yet they feel like they were experienced in childhood - yet as an adult. These experiences are regular, commonplace and familiar - and yet entirely inexplicable.

Does this prove that our souls live on after the deaths of our bodies in new bodies, acquiring consciousness with each successive incarnation? Is this my consciousness picking up signals from some other consciousness from another time and another place? Or from different universes, realities concurrent? Another question is whether these anomalous flashbacks are also "I", "me", the same individual. Is there a succession of lives behind and ahead of us, a continuity of our own personality -- or is each one different; destined to merge into one consciousness?

Maybe. Don't know. But I do want to get a little bit closer to the truth.

The wind's blowing the snow in my face, such a pleasant sensation coming out of the warm office. I'm getting those old familiar flashbacks to somewhere other than my childhood, Minnesota in the 1950s? Scandinavia in the 1950s?  Consciousness. Patient, expanding consciousness, growing in awareness from day to day. Sometimes growing slower, sometimes faster - when a sudden event or inspiration generates a qualitative jump in one's understanding, bringing about a quantum leap to another meta-level. Whatever the pace, the direction is always the same; from Zero towards One. Should I seek answers, or just let things lie? I'm for seeking answers. It's a life's task.

I think this phenomenon is more common among mankind than is generally accepted. We ignore, deny, explain away. If we were all more open to it, maybe we could move ahead out of the straightjacket rationalist-reductionist worldview to a more spiritually open-minded one. Dozens (but not hundreds or thousands) of people I've talked to have admitted to such possibilities. Deeply held interest in Ancient Greece or 17th Century Sweden; a fondness for India 'long ago'; China in the 1920s; colonial East Africa; post-war USSR. We need to be open to the possibility that we are in tune with a continuum of consciousness spanning human lives.

Hang on a bit - the title of this post is A peek into the Afterlife...? Indeed. I would argue that sometime after my physical demise, a child will be born with strange flashbacks to the second half of the 20th Century in Britain, and to the first half of the 21st Century in Poland. Maybe more frequently than I get my "past-life" flashbacks, maybe learning more from them; these flashes could be what's commonly referred to as an afterlife? Certainly not an eternity of sitting on clouds with harps. A final thought - maybe I am currently living an afterlife - though not my own.

Next: more about our path from Zero to One.

This time last year:
The new dupes of Moscow

This time two years ago:
Late-winter commuting, Jeziorki

This time six years ago:
Lent and Recession - a nice parallel

This time seven years ago:
Early intimations of spring

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