Experience of the subtle realms: Contents page
Chapter 14. Postscript – refraction between the worlds
By way of variety, my final chapter offers a different model to that of the Janus-brain with its inner and outer codes, and its possible ambiguities. So I present another way of thinking about communication between this world and the subtle world. I don’t know whether the model is correct or not, but it does seem quite promising. I use the simple phenomenon of refraction in physics as a metaphor for what may go on when persons in this world communicate with those in the other.
Refraction in physics is about the bending of a ray of light as it passes obliquely from one medium, such as air, into another medium of different optical density, such as water.
If you are submerged in a dense medium such as water, and look up to a source of light above you in the more rarefied medium of air, then if the light rays strike the surface of the water at an oblique angle their source will appear to be higher than it really is. The rays are bent down, more towards the vertical as they enter the water. So you seem to be looking more steeply up than is actually the case.
Or, to make the same point in another way, if you are submerged in water and shine a ray of light from a torch upwards at an oblique angle to the surface of the water, the ray will incline back toward the horizontal when it enters the air, so what the ray illuminates in the air will seem to be higher than it actually is. Your apparent line of sight is not the real line of sight.
Similarly, if you are in the air and look obliquely into water at a source of light below the surface, it will appear to be higher than it really is.
There is an important corollary to this simple law of the refraction of light. It is to do with the notion of the critical angle. If a ray of light, shining obliquely upwards through water, has an angle of more than 48.5 degrees with the vertical, then it won’t enter the air, but will be reflected back into the water as it strikes the surface. So the critical angle (for water 48.5 degrees) is the limiting angle – between the vertical and a ray in a dense medium – beyond which the ray won’t pass out of that medium.
Generally, if you are in a dense medium and shine a light obliquely upwards to a boundary with a more rarefied medium, then if your light ray exceeds the critical angle, it will simply be reflected back into the medium you are in. In optics, this is referred to as the principle of total reflection.
There is one other principle drawn from physics which is also of interest: the principle of diffusion of light. When light falls on a rough, irregular surface, it will be scattered or diffused, that is, reflected in many different directions. Thus the sun’s rays are scattered by dust particles in the atmosphere – otherwise there would be near total darkness in the shade and dazzling glare in the light.
Diffusion can be increased by transmitting light through semi-transparent substances such as frosted glass, semi-transparent paper, glass blocks, and so on. This prevents glare.
Now I propose that these simple physical phenomena can be developed as metaphors for what perhaps goes on in communication between the worlds.
Let us suppose that the other world is a more rarefied medium than this world – which is the more dense medium. And let us suppose, too, that communications from persons in the other world, directed at human beings, are like rays of illumination proceeding from their subtle world into our dense world. And this whether the communication is by direct thought transmissionand creative inspiration, or transmitted through trance mediumship or by materialisation, or received by some person in this world who claims to be clairaudient or clairvoyant.
Then the law of refraction, metaphorically applied, will suggest that these rays of illumination coming from the subtle world will be experienced by human beings receiving them as having a higher source than in fact is the case. This supposes, of course, that the rays enter the ‘surface’ between the worlds ‘obliquely’. I will deal in a later section with the metaphorical implications of this notion of obliquity; and also of the notion of the critical angle.
Let me now develop the metaphor of a ‘higher source than in fact is the case’. The human recipients of illumination from the beyond will, unless they make allowance for refraction between the worlds, falsely elevate the source of that illumination in one or more interrelated ways.
They may believe that it comes from a higher, more exalted domain in the other world than it really does; or from beings who have more knowledge, arcane power, moral integrity and spiritual status than in fact they do.
The receivers may ascribe to the content of the illumination such remoteness from earthly experience that they exempt it from discriminating analysis, from appropriate canons of credibility, reliability or validity. They may inflate its content with more significance than it actually merits. And so they may embrace it with such an attitude of psychological conviction and intuitive certitude, that they are lost in illusions of insight.
Now there appears to be some evidence of this false elevation by human beings of the source and content of illumination from the beyond. Many psychics, sensitives and seers do seem to be too identified, too impressed, too convinced by their visions, messages and visitations from the other world. Their followers and believers, who are not overt psychics, show the same tendencies. Those who believe anything in this field are inclined to believe too much, to invest it with too much authority and status, and to abandon critical rigour and discrimination.
Spiritualists may accord too much status and significance to unseen guides, teachers and healers; and may be over-impressed by an inspirational rhetoric whose actual substance is very slight, confused or contradictory.
Beings in the other world who understand the refraction effect could readily exploit human beings who are ignorant of it. They know humans will falsely elevate both them and their doctrines; and so they can set about to exploit such credulity for their own purposes – perhaps to build up zones of influence on the earth and in their own domain.
All the following may well have had communications from beings in the other world, while at the same time falling foul of the refraction effect, and the sort of exploitation I have just referred to.
Swedenborg (1688 – 1772) and his followers regarded his illumination as proceeding from the central heaven presided over by ‘the Lord’, ‘the God-man’. The doctrines he claimed to receive, and may well have received, from the other world, were a strange mixture of some interesting and plausible occultism with a very dogmatic, limited and highly implausible version of esoteric Christianity. He was surely duped.
Joseph Smith (1805 – 1844), the Mormon prophet, and his followers regarded his visionary guidance and the doctrines he received as imparted by exalted and unimpeachable angel authority. Imparted they may have been, but only by one or more power-hungry beings in the other world, who put forward a bizarre version of Christ’s ministry in the new world.
Madame Blavatsky (1831 – 1891), the founder of Theosophy, claimed that her elaborate occult teachings were received by her from ‘masters of wisdom’ in the other world – of great attainment and moral stature. Did she herself elaborate theosophical doctrines from her own extensive studies and travels? Or were they imparted to her from the beyond? If the latter is true, then she certainly fell foul of the refraction effect. So too, I imagine, did Rudolf Steiner, who put forward yet another odd and improbable account of esoteric Christianity – among other occult doctrines, some plausible, some less so.
Of course, the refraction effect between the worlds and the various distortions of belief that stem from it, will be exacerbated by emotional pain, anxiety and insecurity at the human level. So false elevation will not only be a product of the different densities of the two worlds, but also because people try unconsciously to compensate for feelings of inadequacy in this world, by inflated ideas of their association with the other world.
If anything like this is correct, then the message is clear. If you want to get in touch with beings in subtle domains, allow for the refraction effect, and do some emotional housecleaning to make sure your distress does not make you collude with those in the beyond who have a vested interest in deluding you.
And even if they have no interest at all in duping you, and are genuinely committed to your welfare, make sure you don’t invest them with such superior status that you abandon all critical discrimination and human autonomy – and thus become dependent upon them in ways that they do not wish.
The false elevation which I have just considered occurs, I have supposed, when illumination from the other world is received by people in this world. I now suggest that the opposite effect – false reduction – happens when human beings try to shine the light of their understanding from their world into the other.
For in terms of the refraction metaphor, human understanding passing from the density of the physical realm into the more rarefied universe beyond will incline back toward this world. So it will tend to construe other world realities too much in terms of material phenomena.
The states and processes of subtle domains will be understood inappropriately in terms of patterns of thought belonging to the visible universe and earthly life. Occult doctrines may include a lot of false reduction – explanation that inclines back to the material. There are several possible candidates that may be examples of this refraction effect.
Thus astrology may be a system that takes the valid idea of influences streaming into the earth from the subtle universe, and materialises it into the idea of planetary and zodiacal influences construed entirely as simple astronomical patterns in physical space. It is not difficult to expose the inconsistencies and geocentric preoccupations of astrology. But it may be the false reduction of a deeper truth.
The theory of reincarnation may be another example. Suppose that there are deep links of destiny between beings in the other world and people in this world, in the sense that those living now resonate to the history of those living in earlier epochs who are now in the beyond. Suppose too that those in the other universe undergo a series of transitions or ’embodiments’ in different subtle domains as part of their overall development. Then reincarnation theory simply reduces all this very comprehensive eschatology into the materialistic doctrine of the development of the same soul by successive incarnations in the physical world. Again it is not difficult to show that reincarnation is a relatively crude, inefficient and uneconomic concept of soul-learning.
A more gross example is the doctrine of eternal recurrence – the idea that every physical event will be repeated in exactly the same form and an infinite number of times. This has been advanced in modern times by the Gurdjieff-Ouspensky school. It overcame Nietzsche with the force of an obsessive revelation. And of course it dates back to the doctrine of apokatastasis of the Stoics in the third century BC. This too may be the false reduction of the notion of the grand simultaneity of transcendental time into an eternally repetitive seriality in physical time.
Yet another example may be the doctrine of planetary rounds in theosopy and anthroposophy. And in the field of spiritualism there is the well-known tendency of believers and followers to seek an unwarranted personal reference in intimations from the beyond: here the false reduction operates as a delusion of reference. And so on and so forth.
Continuing the refraction metaphor, now consider the case of beings in the other world who are looking down at a person on earth who is directing the light of his or her attention up at them. Unless they allow for the refraction effect, they will construe the human being concerned as more elevated and as less physically embedded than is appropriate.
So they may regard the one on earth as having greater spiritual and psychic capacity than is the case. Or they may overestimate the person’s motivation, intelligence, commitment. They may fail to appreciate the peculiar practical, psychological and social problems of physical existence. And they may make inadequate allowance for human autonomy, trial and error. They may overlook, too, the value of the most earthly kinds of human experience and action. In short, they may tend to see human beings too much as potential discarnates and so fail to accord physical experience its proper worth.
Of course this tendency to false elevation of the human condition should be reduced if the beings beyond were once themselves in earthly life. Yet it is notorious how parents can forget their own past childhood status and have unrealistic expectations of the capabilities of their children. And how those who have risen in social status occlude their own difficult past, and tend to see the disadvantaged in unrealistc terms. Something of the same may happen to those who pass from this world into the next.
There is nowadays a very considerable body of writing that claims to have been ‘channeled’ through some human intermediary from beings in the other world (Klimo, 1987). There is even a ‘Journal of Discarnate Intelligence’. And very frequently when this writing from the beyond is about earthly life, it seems to me to show a rather sententious lack of grasp of the realities of the human condition. I think this may be due to the sort of refraction effect I have outlined in this section.
Paradoxically, there is also the opposite effect. For when persons in the other world, unaware of the refraction effect, cast the light of their understanding into this world, it will bend more steeply down into this world than they realise. In terms of our metaphor, there are two possible results.
Firstly, they may over-dramatise the restrictions, limitations and materiality of physical existence. This complements the false elevation: it is a negative version of not having a realistic understanding of the human condition. Secondly, their teachings about their own reality may get unwittingly distorted into patterns of thought more appropriate to this world than their own. And this, of course, dovetails precisely with what happens to human understanding looking upwards – with false reduction from below.
Traditional Christianity, if we regard it as an inspiration from the other world, is a good example of these two effects. On the one hand, it tends to exaggerate human limitation in terms of sin theory – the inherent corruptibility of the human will, forever doomed without divine sacrifice. And on the other hand, it distorts the notion of the ongoing regenerative and redemptive influence of presences in the other world, into the doctrine of the divine incarnation and atonement at one particular point in physical space and time.
Now let us consider these four refraction effects interacting together: the false elevaton from below, the false elevation from above, the false reduction from below, and the false reduction from above. The literal, physical eqivalent is that of a being in water and a being in air looking at each other.
The water being will have a line of sight which as it enters the air inclines back to the water. But it will think its line of sight is straight, and so will see the air being higher than it really is. And the air being will have a line of sight which as it enters the water will dip more steeply into it. It too will think its line of sight is straight, and will also see the water being higher than it really is.
The metaphorical equivalent is that of a person in this world engaging in some kind of communication with a being in the other world. If both of them make no kind of allowance for refraction between the worlds, then we would get the following interacting effects.
They would both see each other with an elevated status which neither properly merited. They would thus unawarely collude in mutual perceptions of grandeur, which would get in the way of any realistic or practically effective communication between them.
The human being would tend uncritically to attach far too much significance and import to the transactions between them. And the discarnate would show a tendency not to have an adequate grasp of the realities of the human condition. I think this happens a lot in spiritualistic and mediumistic contact between the worlds.
If beings in the other world are fully aware of the refraction effect, but human beings are not, then attempts by those beyond to make realistic communication would be subverted by the distorted perceptions and attitudes of the humans. This is rather like a good psychotherapist, who has dealt with his own projections onto his client, but cannot get an authentic relationship going with the client because of the projections which the client puts on him.
Again, if both parties are unaware of the refraction effect, then the human being will construe the ideas of the discarnate being, who will reciprocally project them, too much in earthly terms. They will unawarely collude in giving an account of occult teachings that are distorted by categories of thought that belong too much to this world. And if the discarnate is free of this, what is imparted may still be subject to materialistic distortion by the unaware receiving human.
Finally, the unaware discarnate, while falsely elevating the human communicator will at the same time give an excessively severe account of the human condition which is the negative aspect of not having a realistic grasp of it. The credulous human is thus given a debilitating double message, which, somewhat caricatured, reads ‘You are remarkable, but you are caught up in an impossible morass’. One version of this is in terms of reincarnation: ‘You are an advanced soul with important and prestigious incarnations behind you. But you just have another million lives on earth to go.’
A clear distinction must be made between a naive being in the other world who falls foul of the refraction effect through ignorance; an unscrupulous being who knowingly uses it to exploit and manipulate humans; and a decent being who knows about the effect and yet has difficulty because humans have not been able to grasp it.
The various refraction effects bewteen the worlds are illustrated in Figure 14.1.
Figure 14.1 Refraction effects between the worlds
In the literal, physical case, refraction only occurs when a ray of light strikes the surface between water and air at an oblique angle. And if the angle between the ray and the vertical is greater than the critical angle (see section 1 above), then the light won’t pass into the other medium and will simply be reflected back into the medium in which it originates.
The notions of obliquity and of the critical angle can be used as fruitful metaphors. If a person in this world tries to understand or look into the other world in terms of concepts that are too earthly, then their vision will just be reflected back into the physical world – and will not enter the other world at all. The principle of total visionary reflection is at work. The ray of insight directed upward is too shallow, it has ‘too great an angle with the vertical’.
Such a person will have to lift their imagination out of its preoccupation with physical categories – and project it more steeply up, well within the ‘critical angle’. And even when they do this, and penetrate the other world with their understanding, they still have to allow for the various refraction effects.
For many people in our culture the capacity for upward vision is set at an angle of incidence well beyond the critical angle. As they look up mentally, their understanding is reflected back to earth: they see, feel and hear nothing of a subtle kind. For others their upward vision is orientated so that it is refracted at the critical angle: it skims, as it were, along the boundary between the worlds, gleaning intimations of the other world in experiences of this world – to do with music, art, nature, human encounter, and so on.
Then there are those whose understanding is well within the critical angle, their vision cast steeply upwards so that it is refracted into the other world. But it is not clear to me how many of these people make allowance for the possible refraction effects I have outlined. There is the ever-present hazard of falling foul of illusions of insight.
There may be some people whose line of upward vision is not oblique at all. They see and understand the other world without refraction effects and illusions of insight. They look, as it were, straight up and get a clear view.
This range of individual differences is presumably to do with the interaction of many factors: some kind of psychic resonance with beings in the other world; relative density of physical embodiment; early socialisation and education; cultural influences; the prevailing world-view and belief-systems that dominate perception; imaginative capacity; and so on. However, it seems reasonable to suppose that whatever a person’s current visionary angle of incidence, it can be altered by application and practice. To go back to my original model, all human brains, in my view, are inherently Janus-brains: the codes of both universes are enfolded in them.
A final metaphor is based on the physical principle of diffusion of light. Light is scattered or diffused – reflected in many different directions – when it falls on an irregular surface. Illumination proceeding from the subtle world into this world may likewise be diffused when it enters the human brain.
This may prevent uncomfortable occult glare, yet too much scattering of thought at the receiving end in this world may lead to all-over-the-place presentation, with incoherence, confusion and ambiguity – a chaotic profusion of concepts.
To prevent this you need a certain degree of conceptual coherence. But if the conceptual framework is too rigid, the mesh of ideas too tight, the illumination will be occluded. The ideal is for some kind of controlled diffusion by means of appropriate canons of judgment and criteria of discrimination, and by organic, open mesh conceptual systems.
Experience of the subtle realms: Contents page