“Till immersed in that mighty ocean”: Perils of Awakening in a Universe of Hungry Ghosts

Down, down, I sank, till immersed in that mighty ocean where conflicting elements were swallowed by a mountain wave of darkness, which grasped me within its mighty folds and I sank to the lowest depths of forgetfulness.

— Andrew Jackson Davis, quoted by James Webb in The Occult Underground

It is not possible for anyone to see anything of the things that actually exist unless he becomes like them. This is not the way with man in the world: he sees the sun without being a sun; and he sees the heaven and the earth and all other things, but he is not these things. This is quite in keeping with the truth. But you saw something of that place, and you became those things. You saw the Spirit, you became spirit. You saw Christ, you became Christ. You saw the Father, you shall become Father. So in this place you see everything and do not see yourself, but in that place you do see yourself – and what you see you shall become.

— From The Gospel of Philip, Trans. Wesley W. Isenberg

A cold fire calling from beyond time or space, its light refracted in the prism of apparent materiality, who can stand the sight of themselves stripped of skin and bone, who can listen with ease to that haunting song sung without a mouth or breath? Who can kiss Diana’s lips and still stand in the material realm unchanged?

We live in a world between mirrors, beneath us the ground, above us the sky, and beyond each an infinite space filled with potential. Immersed in our own being, everywhere we look we see reflections of our nature.  Perhaps, as the Gospel of Philip states, we see the sun without becoming it, but its fiery nature awakens in us a recognition of our own being, and we are able to make some symbolic connection that goes beyond mere allusion. This tendency regulates our daily lives, allowing day-to-day experiences to anchor themselves in previous expectations. Mirrored wherever we look, our future emerges from the shadows of past evidence.  From this security we can drop a line into the depths of our senses, fishing out insights and answers. Sometimes, however, what we catch pulls us under, leaving us lost in the swirling currents of our self, and if our identity fractures on the hidden rocks reaching up from beneath the surface, we run the risk of drowning.

“The Death of Actaeon” (circa 1559-75) by Titian

Writers such as James Webb, who wrote a series of books looking at the historic influence of occult “irrationalism,” or Joe Fisher, whose work on mediumship explores what psychical researchers have often termed “spirit obsession,” provide us with very human portraits highlighting the perilous nature of our quest for the source of consciousness.  If you are not aware of these two authors, whose struggle to understand the human condition led them both down very dark roads, Gary Lachman, writing for Fortean Times, provides an excellent overview of James Webb, and Loren Coleman, writing for The Anomalist, provides a very nice overview of Joe Fisher.

Lachman, in discussing Webb’s descent from objective skepticism into suicidal subjectivity, says that “In his last days, Webb was convinced that the nervous breakdown that cast him into suicidal madness had also revealed dimensions of reality that could only be called ‘supernatural.’ He found himself ‘catapulted into a larger universe’ filled with altered states of consciousness and profound visions of ‘cyclical time.'” Perhaps Webb’s role as a historian, or,, more to the point, the innate tendencies that led to him becoming a historian, were an encouraging factor in his attempts to try and codify these experiences in some material way.

Joe Fisher, in his own way, faced a similar struggle with his experiences. In his studies of mediumship he found himself entangled in a web of personalities, both seen and unseen. He became fascinated with the timeless dimension of spirit reduced to channeled discarnate personalities, momentarily clothed in the illusion of temporal identity, and set in the seductive matrix of very human relationships.

When one reads the writing of both Webb and Fisher, the clarity of their ideas and the solidity of their worldview is evident. I would posit that it is this unfortunate fact that led to their inability to properly integrate their experiences. What allowed them to write coherently about what they discovered, and in a way that can be read and understood by the average reader, did not allow them to properly place themselves in the hands of that great devouring truth which lies at the end of their quest.

In the closing passages of his book The Siren Call of Hungry Ghosts, Fisher writes:

True spiritual development is achieved neither by dependency nor by lapsing into unconsciousness. True spiritual development rises to the challenge of consciousness by demanding self-discipline, effort of the will, and as much awareness as possible. When all is said and done, there is no shortcut to Nirvana. But in this narcissistic age of instant gratification and swift solutions, the great deception of channeling is that we may glide effortlessly to the Godhead. All we have to do is pay our money, take our seats and dream on as loving discarnates lead us to enlightenment. Why, the Big E is just around the corner and anyway — didn’t you know? – we are God.

In the dark light of Fisher’s ultimate disintegration into fears of malevolent discarnate entities, the confusion in this passage is almost painful.  All of the world’s great traditions speak of abandonment, not struggle. Certainly there is work to be done, but Fisher’s understanding of this work is incomplete.

For instance, what sort of holy union was he seeking while being enticed by the notion of a romantic relationship with a discarnate personality? We have other examples, such as the esoteric philosopher Ida Craddock, where this kind of relationship points to a greater understanding of metaphysical relationships.  But Craddock was grounded in an outlook that did not encourage close identification with the more temporal aspects of the self.

Fisher mentions Nirvana, and yet in his final statement he rejects the notion of a holistic unity. Within these gaps the hungry ghosts emerge, and they feed on those things which will have to be abandoned in order to take the next transcendent step into the awakened consciousness that Fisher implies he is seeking. It’s important to realize that even the peace implied in Nirvana is still a Bardo, and not the final end of the Buddhist’s practice.

“Those who walk unwary, who come without having been called, cannot place blame on others when they find themselves ‘immersed in that mighty ocean,’ face to face with a terrifying truth that they did not know they were seeking.”

This notion of malevolent discarnates has fascinated me for some time, and on every opportunity that I’ve had to speak with someone who practices either out-of-body projection or discarnate communication, I’ve asked them about these fears. Carol de la Harran, President of the Monroe Institute, which specializes in these techniques, put it very clearly: your experience is predicated on your own expectations, and you will encounter those things which you have yet to overcome in yourself as malevolent if you are not ready to overcome them.

If we are to treat psychical science as something more than an investigation of phenomena, if we are to venture into these areas of experience with an idea that they might get us to the source of truth itself, we must be honest about what this means. As the Kabbalist David Chaim Smith mentioned in discussing his work The Sacrificial Universe, “The ultimate sacrifice is the offering of appearance itself.”

Or, to go father back in time:

This truth is sought as a thing inaccessible, as an object not to be objectized, incomprehensible. But yet, to no one does it seem possible to see the sun, the universal Apollo, the absolute light through supreme and most excellent species; but only its shadow, its Diana, the world, the universe, nature, which is in things, light which is in the opacity of matter, that is to say, so far as it shines in darkness.

Many then wander amongst the aforesaid paths of this deserted wood, very few are those who find the fountain of Diana. Many are content to hunt for wild beasts and things less elevated, and the greater number do not understand why, having spread their nets to the wind, they find their hands full of flies. Rare, I say, are the Actaeons to whom fate has granted the power of contemplating the nude Diana.

— From Giordano Bruno, Gli Eroici Furori (The Heroic Furies), Trans. L. Williams

Here we have the nature of our quest, a hint at the beginning step, but it is a hard truth to accept. Actaeon, our hero, our guide, does not find his lover’s embrace, the sweet touch of immortal Diana, until stripped of flesh by his own devouring dogs, until he no longer exists except in spirit. For it is in spirit that one sees spirit, and to see a truth greater than our self, we must overcome our self, or have our self be overcome.

Fisher was right, I suppose: there is a struggle here, the struggle of a corpse that does not realize it is already dead.  So when you hit the rocks, my friends, shatter, drown, fall into forgetfulness of what you were, and seek that cold fire of Diana’s kiss, or heed the warning that marks the door to initiation: If curiosity spurred you toward us, go away. Those who walk unwary, who come without having been called, cannot place blame on others when they find themselves “immersed in that mighty ocean,” face to face with a terrifying truth that they did not know they were seeking.

[EDITOR’S NOTE: For a recent and riveting cinematic rendering of Titian’s “Death of Actaeon,” see the short film “Metamorphosis,” which vividly and beautifully elicits the soul-danger David talks about here.]

About David Metcalfe

In addition to writing De Umbris Idearum, David Metcalfe is the Books Editor for THE REVEALER, the online journal for NYU's Center for Religion and Media. He's also an independent researcher, cultural historian, and artist. He regularly contributes articles and reviews to Modern Mythology.net, Evolutionary Landscapes, Reality Sandwich, and Alarm Magazine.

Posted on August 28, 2012, in De Umbris Idearum and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. A terrific piece, once more, by Mr. Metcalfe. And so true: indeed, curiosity will not do. Curiosity is an excellent motivator for pedestrian endeavors, but it should not overstep its bounds. For example, there is little that displeases me more than those TV shows about ghost-hunting. But those among you who are pure know that the seeker is the sought.

  2. oh look its the story of my life again.
    Being devoured in Korean Muism tradition brings gifts of reciprocity.

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