OBE expert Graham Nicholls explains how his out of body experiences have led him to an understanding of the spiritual.
Join Skeptiko host Alex Tsakiris for an interview with Graham Nicholls author of, Avenues of the Human Spirit. During the interview Nicholls discusses why his OBEs have not led him to a belief in God:
Alex Tsakiris: On one hand you’re saying being good is the ultimate truth, on the other hand you’re saying being good doesn’t matter.
Graham Nicholls: But if we’re talking about this spiritual awareness that I’ve been talking about, then there isn’t a separation. There would be no selfish statement that you’re making. There would be no, “ this is to my benefit.”
Alex Tsakiris: Then there’d be no compassionate statement either. That’s the problem with words like “selflessness”, the can only take us so far in these kinds of discussions. Should we be good? Is there a moral imperative to be good? This is what the near-death experience research tells us. NDErs say there is this moral directive. You can deny that, and you can say that’s not your reality, but that’s what you’re debating against.
Graham Nicholls: I am saying that’s my reality. I’m saying for me compassion and those things have fallen out of this interconnectedness, this sense of oneness, which is exactly what you’re describing. This sense of love and all those things. But like I said, “good” is not really a word that I’m comfortable with. I’m talking more about this sense of growth, nurturing, of why would we do something to harm the ultimate progression of ourselves? Or, of our reality? That is more where I’m coming from. There doesn’t need to be a higher God.
Alex Tsakiris: Today we welcome Graham Nicholls to Skeptiko. Graham is the author of Avenues of the Human Spirit. He’s an accomplished OBE experiencer. He’s had many out-of-body experiences that he talks about in the book. I’ve known Graham for quite some time and was introduced to him by Rupert Sheldrake. Then about a year ago, I wound up taking an online course on out-of-body experiences from Graham. So it’s a great pleasure to welcome you on Skeptiko, Graham.
Graham Nicholls: Thanks, Alex, it’s great to be here.
Alex Tsakiris: So this book that you’ve written, Avenues of the Human Spirit, that has been a while in the making but is now out and available on Amazon, is a very personal book about your journey spiritually and how OBEs play into that.
I think this is going to be a great topic to really pull apart from those two dimensions—both from the personal spiritual transformation dimension and just from the ‘here’s a human phenomenon that at this point is pretty undeniable,’ and that’s that in some way we don’t understand, our consciousness seems to have the ability to separate from our body. So to kick things off, do you want to tell us a little bit about the book? A brief synopsis of what it’s all about?
Graham Nicholls: Well, basically it’s a journey I went on to try and understand what exactly these out-of-body experiences were. I mean, I had some early ones that were spontaneous. Then I learned to develop them and learned to put myself in the state of mind that would allow me to have them. So it was a mixture of spontaneous experiences and intentional experiences.
So with the intentional ones, I wanted to understand. I wanted to say, “Well, can I take this somewhere? Can I see whether there’s any objectivity in these experiences?” And the more I did that, the more it seemed like there was. And so the more I wanted to look into science and see if anyone else has been looking at these things. It took me into contact with the classical skeptical community; it took me into contact with parapsychologists like Rupert Sheldrake and it also took me into areas like religion and trying to look at whether there was any truth to areas or ideas that were being proposed there.
So really the book is my whole process of trying to understand what was going on with me and also how those experiences opened me up and changed me as a person over time. So that’s the kind of spiritual dimension. But I think I see the spiritual dimension as a knock-on effect to this understanding of the interconnectedness of everything around us that we get through an out-of-body experience or another psychic or mystical experience. So that’s kind of where the book’s coming from.
Alex Tsakiris: Right, right. That’s just fascinating. Let’s start from the beginning. So many times on Skeptiko we wind up—there’s no other way to say it—we wind up bashing skeptics. But I think there’s another level to the skeptical discourse that really needs to be addressed.
Take OBE, for example. The first skeptical assault on it would be, “Hey, I’ll put a six-digit number on your forehead and come jump out of your body and read it for me. This is real easy to prove.” You know, the kind of debunker kind of thing. But in that, I think is really a very fair question. How do we wrestle to the ground and how do you explore the scientific understanding we can have of OBE? And how we test it?
And maybe we can start with just that question. Why can’t I do a really simple test with people that claim that they’re outside of their body and give them a direct target and over and over ask them to find that target and tell me what’s on it?
Graham Nicholls: Well, I think to some degree that has been done, especially remote viewing experiments. But as we know with all areas of psychical testing there, it’s like I watched the lecture with Michael Persinger recently where he talked about it like a signal–that psychical abilities are like–at the moment our present level of understanding is quite like a weak signal, like a weak radio signal. Therefore, we can pick up a certain degree of information but the whole body of information is very hard to get to grips with.
Alex Tsakiris: Right, but the problem I think that we have in squaring that with the out-of-body experience is that the out-of-body experience is so, I don’t know, so visually accurate. I mean, some of your experiences that you recount in your book, you can go into great detail in terms of describing where you are and the ledge that you’re on and the color of the desk and the kind of wood that’s there. I mean, how do we sort that out that you’re able to provide that kind of detail there but you’re not able to direct this consciousness, if you will, totally to your own free will in other places that you want?
Graham Nicholls: Again, I think it’s because we’re talking about weak experience. If you use a sporting analogy, we’re talking about like not every time you go out onto the sports field you do your personal best. And as well, things like numbers are well-known to be very difficult targets. Other things, for example, can be better targets.
So to me, if I was dealing with a scientist and I was trying to work out a really efficient, really likely-to-succeed experiment, I wouldn’t choose numbers as a target. So this is where you have to also think about the phenomenon and what people have actually described that they can do with the phenomenon rather than just saying, “Oh, you should be able to do anything.” That’s ignoring the actual phenomenon itself and what people do experience.
Alex Tsakiris: That’s a great point. I think we’ve run into that over and over again, which is to presuppose that since we have some layperson understanding of what the phenomena is that then we want to layer on top of it. “Then you should be able to do this.” Of course, that’s not the way it works but embedded in there are some really interesting and first-step questions that a lot of people have and I’ve got to admit that I still have and I’d like you to maybe cover for us.
What are the distinctions you make between the OBE experience and other kinds of similar experiences? A couple of times you referenced remote viewing. I think we could also throw in there a wide range of telepathic experiences. You also mentioned lucid dreaming and precognitive dreaming, which is a whole other category. Do you want to maybe lay out the field there in how you think OBEs fit in?
Graham Nicholls: I think that what we’re dealing with is a kind of continuum of different experiences. I think all of the things that we’ve mentioned are, if you like, on the same line of experiences. The OBE is a whole full-sensory experience involving often nearly all of the senses or most of the senses, whereas something like remote viewing is generally more visual and maybe has some spatial awareness and covenants like that.
Whereas the out-of-body experience has—I don’t know whether it actually is a total separation from the body. I’m still on the fence and still exploring the idea of whether we’re dealing with some kind of field or body that separates or whether we’re dealing with more of an extended consciousness. I’m tending to lean towards that we’re dealing with an extended consciousness, but a kind of extended consciousness that you’ve immersed yourself in, that’s gone so far that you’ve separated yourself from your physical body. It’s a total separation or as close to total as I am aware of.
So that would be what I’m talking about, these obviously peculiar identifiers, like when people talk about lucid dreams. Well, I try to break it down in this way. An OBE is different because an OBE doesn’t always take place during sleep, for example. It can do, but it doesn’t always. It tends to follow a particular structure. So for example, there will be a sense of exiting the body. Even if you don’t experience the literal exit, there will be a sense of being present in other locations so there’s this sense of separation which is not necessarily in a dream state.
There’s also REM. In my own experiments I have found rapid eye movement, which is a signifier that dreaming is taking place, I haven’t found that to be present in my own OBE experiences. It seems from some research I’ve looked at that that’s also the case in other research. So if you start to break it down in that way, you can see that there are some clear differences for when the experience takes place.
But in terms of the actual reality of what the experience is, the key difference would be this sense of separation and this sense of it being as real as physical reality, although it might not necessarily look the same. In my book I describe how in some experiences things almost look like energy fields or things like that. It doesn’t always look how you would expect it to look in physical reality.
Alex Tsakiris: To what extent do you think you’re in control of the out-of-body experience or that your consciousness is in control? That raises a whole bunch of questions in terms of where is the “you” that’s controlling? And if there is some aspect that you can’t control, if there are other entities, if there are beings that you encounter that you’re not controlling, then what does that mean, both in terms of what it means for this being an experience in some other dimension or some other level? And it kind of blows out the theory that it’s all an invention of your mind. So do you want to talk about the issue of control?
Graham Nicholls: Well, I think that the idea of control—I think it’s best when you guide the experience, is what I would probably say. It’s like I’m steering the experience. I think the more you try to really force an experience in a particular direction, you probably cancel the experience out or at least that’s my experience. I mean, obviously with this we’re talking about something that is quite subjective and people do experience things differently, so some people in their out-of-body experiences have a different kind of experience than that. They will find that they have to control it or they have to push it in a particular way.
Early on, my experiences were more like that because when I came out of my body I was in my bedroom, for example, and for a period of time early on I found it very hard to move out of my bedroom. It was almost like there was this psychological block or some kind of block on leaving the room, probably to do with my own fears and apprehensions of leaving the space. For a long time I had to really build up my willpower to move out of the room. When I eventually did that, I had to then train myself to get further and further away from the places that I was familiar with.
But after a while, I started to have experiences that seemed to almost be on auto-pilot, where I was just drifting or being taken somewhere. I found that those experiences were often the more powerful ones and the more poignant ones. So I would often just go with those experiences. So the whole idea of controlling the experience is one of how much you want to control it. I think the best situations are often when you don’t do that.
Alex Tsakiris: That, of course, raises the question if you’re not in control, who is in control?
Graham Nicholls: Well, yes. [Laughs] I’ve tended to think it’s some kind of level of yourself is still guiding the experience. But your particular point of awareness in that moment in time is focused on witnessing what’s taking place, but it is like there is some underlying part of yourself that’s aware of what’s going on and where you’re going. Then maybe it’s just some kind of collective unconscious and things seem to be leading in that direction.
Alex Tsakiris: Right, but aren’t there some examples that seem to contradict that idea, both in the lucid dreaming literature and of course, in the psychic and medium research where people are encountering—there’s no other way to call it—deceased spirits?
But that also comes up in the lucid dreaming literature where people are being visited by beings that seem to be not in their control and are telling them things. Of course, we can explain that, that that’s another part of consciousness. It just doesn’t seem to be the most parsimonious explanation for it. Then particularly when you get into deceased spirits, I think it’s why not just cross over and say there’s some kind of ability for these other spirits to come into contact with you in that realm?
Graham Nicholls: Oh, sure. I’m not discounting that at all. I was talking more specifically there about when you’re going to a particular location or you’re being drawn in a particular direction. But I do think that we can come into contact with what appear to be deceased relatives or entities from other levels of reality or whatever. I mean, I try not to say categorically that that’s what it is because I have no way to prove or to know that for sure. But it seems that’s the kind of area we’re dealing with.
Alex Tsakiris: Graham, give us a sense for how big this community is, if you will. Maybe that’s not the right term, but it seems like there is and has been for a while, this growing community of folks who are interested in intentionally creating an out-of-body experience for themselves. Do you have any sense for how big of a community that is? What kind of group of people that is? Who’s doing it and where are they doing it and how are they doing it?
Graham Nicholls: Well, when I first started having these experiences 20-something years ago, there was very little in the way of literature and people really looking at these areas. I mean, I remember being very inspired by Robert Monroe’s work because he was one of the few writers on the subject who was actually engaging in some scientific sense with what was going on and trying to find ways of people accessing these experiences.
Robert Monroe would be one of the early people who really pushed things forward. The Monroe Institute, since he died, continued a lot of that work. So they would be one organization. There’s a lot more individuals now. It seems that there has been a real growth in people having these experiences and people looking into these areas, which is really great. I think it is one of the most direct experiences we can have that really opens us up to the idea of an interconnected consciousness or an extended consciousness or there’s more going on than we originally once imagined.
There’s also a new center in the U.K., Parsonage Side Retreat. I’ve done a workshop there. They run workshops in this area and they’re one of the first organizations in the U.K. to start to experiment and research these areas. So there’s a real growth in this area, for sure.
Alex Tsakiris: You know, Graham, most people who encounter out-of-body experience information/science do so through the near-death experience because the out-of-body experience is such a core part of what’s come to be known as the near-death experience. How do you think they relate, the near-death experience and OBEs? Are they the same? In what way are they different? Any thoughts on that?
Graham Nicholls: I think that they are—I mean, the near-death experience is kind of a collection of experiences, I would say. I would definitely say that the NDE, the out-of-body part seems very in-line with my own experiences. I’ve had experiences that were very similar to the near-death experience. For example, a dark tunnel with sparks and energy. It looked very much like if you were using a welding torch or something and you would see the sparks going off against the black sky, very similar to that. But in a large, darkened tunnel as I was moving up through it.
So that reminds me of the kinds of things described in the literature of near-death. I would definitely say that they’re very related. Experiences I’ve also had where people have been hit by cars or they’ve had episodes where they’ve died momentarily or for a short period they’ve been close to death, they’ve come out of their body and been looking at the scene from a distance. So it’s even had the element of looking back at themselves, which is common is my own experiences, as well. There seems to be a real relationship there, for sure.
I do think that we can work with the out-of-body experience to try and explore these near-death type levels and try to get closer to these afterlife levels and try to question what’s going on there. There does seem to be some kind of division between the two levels. It seems like when you’re alive, getting to those levels isn’t a natural process. It seems that there is a line between the two levels. At least in my experience that seems to be the case.
My experiences on that level have been quite fleeting. And like I described at the scene of the plane crash, there’s a sense of distance. There’s a sense that I couldn’t quite reach them. So although I was aware of them, I couldn’t communicate with them or reach out to them. But then, of course, mediums and others who work specifically with that level seem to be more attuned there. I think it also depends on where your own consciousness is attuned and aligned.
Alex Tsakiris: See, now there you’ve gone into a narrative that really intrigues me. A couple of times you alluded to the spiritual experience and the spiritual knowledge that you’ve gleaned from all this has come indirectly through an understanding that we’re all interconnected, interdependent, and all that kind of feel-good stuff. Not to put it down, because I’m right there with you.
But now you’re also going into another area and you’re saying that maybe we can directly encounter, directly know more about the spiritual truths, the spiritual dimensions. The spiritual truths that are out there by directly experiencing them through this OBE. Do you want to sort that out for me a little bit?
Graham Nicholls: Maybe it’s to do with the word “spiritual,” because I actually call it the “transphysical level” where we’ve actually died and our consciousness or whatever has moved on to that particular level. The way I look at it is again, this kind of continuum idea. I don’t necessarily see it in terms of like an ultimate spiritual truth or anything like that. I see it almost like an evolution of consciousness, an evolution of awareness. Maybe these other levels are just this process of awareness and consciousness continuing on along that continuum.
Alex Tsakiris: Okay, but maybe. Don’t we need to step back a little bit and say that in the culture that we’re embedded in, certainly we can’t even get to step one of approaching your book because it just challenges fundamentally some of the assumptions that we have. But if we take that step and if we say, “Okay, consciousness does exist beyond our brain in some way that we don’t fully understand. Maybe there’s some dependent relationship there, whatever, but it seems we can have this conscious experience without the brain so therefore, all bets are off.”
Then once we step over that, it does seem to me that we can’t necessarily pull back in the way that you are and say that we can’t maybe understand this spiritual realm as being truly spiritual. Maybe it’s just these other levels of other dimensions of our consciousness. Well, maybe. But maybe it also connects at what we’ve learned from the other wisdom traditions through thousands of years.
Maybe Jesus is up there waiting for us. Maybe He is, you know? I mean, maybe Buddha is, too. Or maybe nothing is, as some of the Buddhists’ literature says. Don’t we really need to sort that out in a more direct way where that stuff is really on the table and we’re really asking those questions? Is Jesus really up on that cloud? Don’t we need to get there and ask that question?
Graham Nicholls: Well, maybe, but I suppose for me Jesus isn’t a particularly important cultural figure. I grew up in an Atheist family so it wasn’t particularly relevant to me. But if we ask those kinds of questions, I suppose I would start from more of a historical, more of an earth-bound idea and try to look at the notion of Jesus or something of that nature from this angle. Even if you take the Biblical stories of Jesus, there’s not necessarily anything in there that cries out that this is complete fact and all the rest of it.
So if we just start from a physical level, I think there are a lot of questions over whether He ever existed, over whether even some of the places He was associated with even existed. We’re on very shaky ground when we start talking about Jesus, I think, because we just don’t know whether this figure even existed.
Alex Tsakiris: That would be something we could delve into. I think that historical evidence suggests that Jesus was a real person and did live, no matter what you want to make of the miracles of the Resurrection or any of the rest of that stuff. And the reason I am not a Christian, although that was certainly my upbringing and I’m very welcoming to much in the Christian tradition, but what I guess I’m really getting at is that I feel like…
Graham Nicholls: Let me put it this way. I think I don’t see that there’s an inherent contradiction with the idea of like a Jesus or a Buddha being up there from what I was describing with this sense of—especially with a figure like Buddha because I think what Buddha was really doing or describing is very similar to what I’m saying. It’s this idea of trying to perceive things as they really are; trying to strip away the illusions that lead to suffering, that lead to all these kinds of things because they give us this notion of separation. They give us this notion that we are not a part of everything.
For me, the idea of compassion is the resulting state of being aware that we are interconnected with everything. Once we realize there’s no separation or we realize that we are a part of everything else, or our consciousness is connected with everyone and everything else, then compassion just falls out of that. You don’t need any big search or philosophy. You just look at this state of awareness and compassion is obvious.
Alex Tsakiris: I’m totally with you. I’m totally with you and I totally agree with you on a very deep spiritual, if you will, word and personal level. But what I’m really driving at, and I think this is the topic that is interesting to me as Skeptiko host, the role I’m sitting in right here, and that’s that what you just said is great. It’s relating your subjective experience and you’re quite open that you’re layering that on top of what was a real experience for you. Then you’re reinterpreting it in some kind of philosophical way, which is great.
But what I’m saying is the scientist in me wants to say, “Can’t we get at a little bit more of an objective reality?” And wouldn’t it be a tremendous gift to the society, the culture that we’re in which seems to be so bound up in these wisdom traditions? If there’s any chance that we can use what you’re exploring as a tool to really come to some more objective proof of to what extent Christianity is true? To what extent is Confucianism true? Or whatever other wisdom tradition we want to look at. To me it seems like we can get there but we too often shy away from going there.
Graham Nicholls: I agree. I don’t think we need to start with the religions, though. I tend to lean towards that we should observe the phenomena and if one of those religions that you’re talking about is true, then in the same way I was talking about compassion, the religion will fall out. The religious ideologies and the religious belief systems will be obvious because they will match what people are experiencing.
On the show in the past I’ve heard you talking to Christians about the near-death experience and how it doesn’t really match with some of their belief systems about the afterlife or whatever and therefore they deny the experience. Well, for me, I agree with you. It’s the long way around. We should be looking at the experience and then saying, “Well, does this match anything else?” And if it doesn’t match anything else then also have the strength to say, “We don’t need those traditions, as well.” A spirituality that’s founded in the scientific methodology would be the greatest achievement in my view.
Alex Tsakiris: Right, right.
Graham Nicholls: And that’s where I see things heading.
Alex Tsakiris: And I think we’re really maybe saying the same thing, so I don’t want to draw too big of a controversy there that doesn’t exist. I’d also say that I ran into the same thing with the prayer research, which I think is really fascinating.
There’s a lot of Christian folks, and we just interviewed one a little while ago, who want to latch onto prayer and co-opt it for the Christian tradition, which is understandable because if you get a bunch of Catholic nuns here and they pray for somebody and they show it to be efficacious and it’s statistically significant, one could easily say that, “Ah, Christian prayer works.”
But when we look at what would be the logical hypothesis we would have to make from that as a scientist is that Christian prayer is more effective, more efficacious than Buddhist prayer. Or Agnostic prayer. Or something else. And in that respect, the literature really doesn’t support that idea at all.
So then it would cause me to go back and re-examine some of the tenants of Christianity that it being superior, which is really implicit in the Christian tradition, that it is The Way, The Path. And that isn’t supported. That’s just one of the things I think is interesting. I guess I hear you going there. I just want to nudge you there even further.
As far as why start with religion, it’s because that’s where we find ourselves. We find ourselves in a culture that is completely bound up in religion. And even in Europe and in the U.K. where they are so staunchly Atheistic, Agnostic, whatever, there is still such an underpinning that is really all about religion. We don’t even have to say “religion.” It’s really all about Christianity and then Islam plays kind of a second role because it’s recently been in the news. I think it’s front-and-center.
I think what’s central to really launching these issues forward is to really hit religion head-on and really deal with it in a way that’s welcoming to the expanded consciousness that you’re talking about but is willing to critically examine the underlying tenants and belief systems that have been piled into these religious traditions.
Graham Nicholls: Maybe. I’m not totally convinced that we have to focus so much on the religious traditions, to be honest. I think they are a part of the parcel but the areas that are really fascinating me are coming more from the science and in what you were talking about with the prayer intention.
I think it’s interesting that, for example, with Dean Radin’s work he’s found that people who are teachers of meditators, the really advanced meditators, they’re the ones who seem to be most effective in his experiments. So that tends to suggest to me that we’re dealing with a level of immersion and a level of focus when we’re talking about what is more effective in causing some kind of effect or psychically influencing things.
But I’m very interested in looking at Brian Josephson’s ideas about quantum nonlocality. I’m interested in Dean Radin and Rupert Sheldrake, as you mentioned, who have both worked with animals. I’m interested in Michael Persinger and his idea that what we’re dealing with is a kind of field. It’s to do with the physics of our reality; it’s not necessarily to do with anything supernatural.
I don’t tend to lean towards anything supernatural. I tend to see it more—I think I’m more of a ground-up kind of way of looking at things. That’s how I tend to perceive things. So far, in all the different areas I’ve looked at, and I have looked at different areas of Buddhism, Christianity, and whatever. I’m very respectful of areas like the Quakers, for example. I’m very respectful of traditions that focus on peace and non-violence, and Leo Tolstoy, people like that.
Alex Tsakiris: Why?
Graham Nicholls: Because it seems to be, to me, that someone who’s more in connection with that kind of level I’ve been describing.
Alex Tsakiris: Right. But Graham, now we’re going to get into the really, really big questions, which is great. That’s where we ought to go. I mean, why be good? Why be compassionate? Why? Because you had some experience where you saw everyone being connected. Okay. But at some physics level? That physically people are connected? Why? It does come down to these fundamental issues that are central to the cultural debates. It’s about God; it’s about free will; it’s about all these things. Why be good?
Graham Nicholls: Because I think that what we’re dealing with is basically that is our nature. This is essentially the state of our consciousness. I think we are essentially—it’s not “good.” I think good makes it sound like some kind of written statement, and that’s not what I’m talking about.
Alex Tsakiris: It’s some kind of moral directive. But when we say…
Graham Nicholls: But that’s what I’m saying. I’m not talking about a moral directive. Like I said earlier, I think that compassion falls out once we have this awareness that we’re interconnected, that we’re one essentially. Therefore, if we harm someone else or something else, we are essentially harming ourselves. But on an ultimate level, I think yes, you could say that there is no ultimate moral sense in that it could all be that we could just destroy ourselves. It wouldn’t, in my view, matter in the scheme of things.
Alex Tsakiris: But it seems like you’ve come around to a contradiction. On one hand you’re saying being good is the ultimate truth and on the other hand you’re saying no, it really doesn’t matter to be good. I’m with you on one level to say that…
Graham Nicholls: No, I didn’t. I didn’t. I said…
Alex Tsakiris: You can clarify in a minute. Let me tell you how it hits me. If you say that compassion and being good naturally falls out of realizing that we’re all interconnected, which is a truth that I feel on a personal level but I’d have a hard time supporting from a purely physics or from a purely philosophical level.
I think you run into that problem, too, because I can take what you’re saying as being a truth at a physical level. I can say, “Great. Well, then it really doesn’t matter. I might as well do things that are to my benefit and only my benefit because you know what? It really doesn’t matter. There is no “my benefit.” If it just feels good to me and I get more out of it, well then, that’s great. In the end it doesn’t really matter.”
Graham Nicholls: But you’re starting again from—if we’re talking about this spiritual awareness that I’ve been talking about, that there isn’t a separation, then there would be no selfish statement that you’re making. There would be no “Well, this is in my benefit,” because you would see a great…
Alex Tsakiris: But then there’d be no compassionate statement, either. That’s the problem with the selflessness and the trap that I think people get into with Buddhism. I don’t think that’s what it means because otherwise none of this makes any sense and we shouldn’t even be having this conversation. Selflessness can only go so far in terms of this form that we’re in. Otherwise, we would wind up with this kind of sematic mumbo-jumbo kind of debate.
Should we be good? Is being good part of what our directive is when we have—and it is. I mean, come on Graham. That’s what the near-death experience people come back and say. They say, “I felt love. I felt good. I felt a desire to do good things.” Not because the physics of Persinger’s ions spinning around the globe, but because there was a higher power. There was a directive. There was a moral directive that they were heading for. I mean, you can deny that and you can say that’s not your reality. That’s fine, but that’s what you really are debating against, I think.
Graham Nicholls: Well, yeah, I am saying that’s my reality. I’m saying for me compassion and those things have fallen out of this interconnectedness, this sense of oneness, which is exactly what you’re describing. This sense of love, this sense of all those things. But like I said, good is not really a word that I’m comfortable with. I’m talking more about this sense of growth, nurturing, of why would we do something to harm the ultimate progression of ourselves? Or of our reality? And that is more where I’m coming from. There doesn’t need to be a higher God, if you like…
Alex Tsakiris: But progression towards what?
Graham Nicholls: There doesn’t need to be a towards what.
Alex Tsakiris: If there’s…
Graham Nicholls: Towards being better than what we are now, if you like.
Alex Tsakiris: Better in what way?
Graham Nicholls: It doesn’t need to have that.
Alex Tsakiris: [Laughs] That’s a contradiction.
Graham Nicholls: No, it’s not. It’s the same question with evolution. There doesn’t need to be an end result. Us human beings right now, we’re not the end result of evolution. We’re a point in evolution. And I see spirituality in the same context. So there doesn’t need to be an end result.
Alex Tsakiris: “Better” suggests good. “Better” suggests…
Graham Nicholls: It doesn’t. It suggests more function or that it works better with our environment. You know, if you say “better” in terms of evolution you’re talking about that creature functions better in that environment. If you took a lion and put it into the ocean it would drown, but in its own environment, within its own context, it functions to the best of its evolutionary development.
Alex Tsakiris: Yeah, but come on Graham, you don’t really believe all that Neo-Darwinism bullcrap because it doesn’t make any sense in the same way that if you look at that lion and you’re looking at it as some entity, well, it’s not because as soon as you start going into cell biology—not even cell biology.
If you look at the different systems—the endocrine system, the bone structure—all these different cells and all these different systems that are competing but have somehow found some equilibrium inside. And a lot of those are foreign to that species, right? They’ve come in and some kind of virus is formed but they’ve learned to cooperatively live inside. The same with our body, right? So this whole simplistic idea of Neo-Darwinism doesn’t make any sense.
Graham Nicholls: Possibly. You may well be right. But I don’t need a God in that context to explain it, and that makes a lot less sense to me.
Alex Tsakiris: I’m not saying that I need a God. I’m just saying that I’m really, really resistant to taking God off the table because He seems to be—and there I say He. Of course it’s just a figure of speech. But He seems to be central to the debate. It peeves me when we want to push it to the side and say, “No, we can just keep moving forward using these tools of materialistic science and using these pillars of materialism that have grown up in the parapsychology community and look to them to answer this.”
I just think they’re spinning their wheels. What I’d rather see is to get a group of people like you and 100 other folks who can extend their consciousness in ways that we can’t even begin to fully understand and start looking at the content of that. And start analyzing it and start looking at what is the content of your experience compared to the content of these other experiences.
One of the frustrations I have, and you’ve heard in on this show, is interviewing folks who are going way over on the other extreme, which in some ways, Graham, is very comforting and it’s very good to encounter someone who is so cautious like you said, and so scientific in how far you’ll go with these experiences.
I’ve encountered a bunch of folks, and Hazel Courteney was the one most recently, who have these transformative spiritual experiences and then totally go off the deep end and just lose any kind of ability to be critically astute about where they can really go with these things. So I guess that’s what I’m pushing for.
Graham Nicholls: Well, I agree with you. I don’t take anything off the table, either. I don’t discount the notion of God but if we do what you just described, for example, and take what I’ve experienced, what other people have experienced, what NDE people have experienced, and we say, “Okay, what is it that they actually describe?” Like you said yourself, often it’s a sense of white light, love and absolute lack of judgment and all of those kinds of things. A complete state of oneness, really.
I don’t see—it just confirms really where I tend to lean towards. It doesn’t contradict that. It doesn’t seem to be any real notion of God. It’s just that people put that word on it because it’s so ultimate and so beyond anything they can describe that they’ll use the word “God.”
Alex Tsakiris: I know what you mean but I don’t think you’re really being fair in your characterization of the near-death experience accounts. I think they’re very, very profound and very important just to look at objectively. I’m not trying to layer any kind of subjective lens on them, but if you go read the accounts—for example, I always like to go to the nderf.org website because there are so many accounts. Dr. Jeff Long has done such a great job of compiling all of those.
But you have people who have directly experienced that higher power. Their experience with it is that there is a directive. There is a moral directive. There is a goodness. There is a higher power. There is an order for things.
I’m not saying that’s true. I’m saying that is their experience. I think that to deny that and to try and reframe that is to deny part of their experience. So that’s why I think this whole thing starts getting really interesting to me, is sorting that out and trying to juxtapose those different experiences and find out what they really are all about.
Graham Nicholls: Don’t you think in some ways though that it’s just an open question? I’m not sure we can really pin that down at this point in time. What you’re talking about is some people will describe some ultimate God or this sense of the moral directive and others won’t. Others will see Jesus; others will see someone else. It’s not very easy to go from a description like that and really try to work out what’s going on. All we can do is say, “What are the consistent characteristics across lots of experiences?”
Alex Tsakiris: I always have to chuckle when folks like you say, “Gosh, can we really do it? Is it easy?” Graham, what you’ve done already isn’t easy. Is it easy for you to go talk to mainstream scientists and tell them that your consciousness leaves your body and that this is what you experience? I mean, let’s get people over that hump. That’s the big chasm to jump over. Then, I think—I’m just amazed that once we jump over that chasm we don’t seriously look at sorting these things out. So is it easy? No. It’s not. And of course it’s…
Graham Nicholls: Well, when we get there, yes. But the point is we haven’t got there yet. I feel like getting into these questions of God and the ultimate reality and all of this, I don’t feel that even after hundreds and hundreds of these experiences that I can really come close to answering that. We’re dealing with something that’s so beyond the nature of who we are that in terms of our everyday experience, how can we even begin? We have to start at the absolute bottom, the absolute real basics and say, “Well, maybe at some point we can think about God or an ultimate reality.”
Alex Tsakiris: Well, I think you’re just saying that you need more time and that you need more books, which is good, because you have another book coming out early next year, don’t you?
Graham Nicholls: [Laughs] I do, yes, which is a practical guide on how to have out-of-body experiences, on navigating the out-of-body experience.
Alex Tsakiris: So, Graham, your current book is Avenues of the Human Spirit. Folks can find it on Amazon and I really hope they will. I hope you will also join me and hopefully we’ll get Graham pulled into furthering this discussion on the Skeptiko forum.
Graham, thanks so much for joining me today on Skeptiko.
Graham Nicholls: You’re welcome. Thanks for having me.
Graham Nicholls: …I just–to be honest, I just really think I don’t know the answer, you know? I don’t think there’s anything wrong with saying that. All I can say is my experiences have given me this impression.
Alex Tsakiris: Graham, you are so brave. You really are, to do the work that you’ve done and just to encounter the people that I’m sure you encounter in your day-to-day life. And you tell them what you do and to look at the expression on their faces that just kind of falls apart and you realize that you’re only going to be able to go so far with that person.
You are a brave person but I think as a brave person you have to be challenged a little bit to step out there and whatever position you take, to stake it out. If we serve any service here—and I’m not trying to do a service, but no matter what we do we serve other people. To that extent that we are serving other people, we have to get real and we have to say whatever we think we know at the time.
If it turns out to be wrong, who the hell cares? At least it helped someone else who was, at that time, wrestling with the same thing. Just these pitter-pat, back-and-forth, everything’s okay, or I’m not sure. I’m not sure doesn’t get at anyone. Each one of us, when we go to sleep at night, we’re not sure but we have to decide one way or another in order to get some good sleep.
Graham Nicholls: Well, I do tell you what basically I think. I do think it’s more of an evolutionary process. I don’t really believe in a God. I think it’s—although I remain Agnostic I don’t really believe in a God. I see it as an evolutionary process and I think there is an afterlife and an extended consciousness. That’s—that’s…
Alex Tsakiris: You’ve totally stepped out there. You’ve totally committed. I’m very, very happy that you did. I’m very, very pleased, but I’m not surprised. I thought you would. I don’t agree with your position but I’m really glad that you stated it so clearly. I think it’s fantastic.
Graham Nicholls: And I know that in a way. I mean, it’s not an easy thing to do, especially when you’re talking about books in the U.S., saying you’re basically an Atheist is not a good thing. [Laughs] So it’s like I know in some ways…
Graham Nicholls: …maybe, who knows? I don’t know. I think I do. Yeah, there is a lot of difficulty with the whole God thing. It’s so hard to even say because I’m not even sure what people mean sometimes when they say “God.”
If you’re talking about some kind of higher reality, then I probably do believe in it. But if you’re talking about like a creator God, if you’re talking about the Christian God I’m basically totally Atheistic. If you’re talking about a creator God I’m pretty Atheist. If you’re talking about some kind of consciousness that’s everything emotion, maybe. So we have to be clear what we mean when we say “God,” you know?
Alex Tsakiris: Yeah, to a certain extent. But my take on it all is that I think that this higher consciousness, whatever label you want to put on it, is perfectly capable of perfectly reflecting Christ consciousness. So I think the Christians are right. Of course they’re right. The Buddhists, they’re right. Completely right. Why couldn’t consciousness completely reflect that perfect reality for them? There’s no real contradictions between Christianity and Buddhism.
Anyway, I just don’t see that as being a problem. You know, I just had an interview with this woman who’s totally mainstream media. But check this out. She is the religion editor for Newsweek Magazine. Very mainstream science. She wrote this book, Heaven, and all this stuff. What a crock! She’s an Atheist. She’s an Atheist. She’s essentially called an Agnostic, whatever. Completely really denies the spiritual experience.
What I thought was interesting in her book, she talks about an encounter she had with her grandfather in spirit form who came to her on the day of her wedding, right? And then she turns around and denies that experience. “Well, I don’t really think it was him,” and this and that. But the point being there’s such a difference between the position that you’re at and the position that we find ourselves in.
And that’s what I was getting at in the culture. In the culture, she, Lisa Miller, is dominating the conversation with really a very cynical view of spirituality, which is like, patting me on the head and saying, “You know what? If that’s what you believe, honey, that’s fine. Now the real grownups are going to go over here and have this other discussion which is completely materialistic, completely all the rest of that.”
And you uncomfortably fit in the no-man’s zone. I was going to say in the middle, but not in the middle. In this kind of no-man’s zone. And I do, too. But we, in this no-man’s zone, who aren’t going to identify with the Christian church and are not going to identify with the ridiculous materialists, we need to create a meaningful dialogue that draws people away from those other two discussions.
Graham Nicholls: Yeah, I agree. I agree totally. And yeah, I suppose maybe the dialogue I’m generally trying to get out there is I’m trying to get people who are interested in OBEs or interested in psychical abilities, and trying to get them to engage more with the science.