Currently I'm reading a 1969 book by Jane Sherwood, titled The Country Beyond: The Doctrine of Re-Birth, which I saw mentioned in a recent post on Robert McLuhan's excellent blog Paranormalia. (McLuhan, by the way, is the author of the outstanding book Randi's Prize, reviewed here.)
The Country Beyond consists of Sherwood's automatic writings, which are said to convey messages from several spirit advisers. As with any “channeled” material of this type, there is no way to verify the claims independently. It is always possible that the ideas are coming from the writer's subconscious mind. This is especially true in the case of somebody like Sherwood who, by her own account, spent a good deal of time investigating Spiritualism, visiting mediums, and reading esoteric literature. In the end, all you can do is read the messages and see if they make sense to you and conform with other, similar communications.
Without attempting to summarize the book–or even the first half of it, which is all I've read so far–I'd like to present a few excerpts that particularly interested me. In the quotes that follow, I've Americanized the spelling and punctuation.
A frequent objection raised against some mediums, especially mediums of the past, is that they describe their spirit guides as rather exotic figures–often Native American chieftains or ancient Egyptian priests. Jane Sherwood encountered a number of such mediums in her early exploration of Spiritualism and was highly skeptical of the idea that such colorful characters would predominate in the spirit world. Later, after developing a facility for automatic writing, she obtained an explanation for this, purportedly from a deceased person who had tried to contact her at one of those séances and who had been described as an Egyptian in a white robe. The communication was as follows:
With all my might I willed myself into her [i.e. the medium's] mind, tried hard to give her a mental picture of myself and implored her to speak of me. Can you place all this? Do you remember the “Egyptian” who offered to guide and help you? This was the fantastic guise in which the medium dressed me and not my doing at all though, funnily enough, there was a foundation in my past history for the thought of the white robe. Her description of my face amused me as she told you, but the whole thing was distorted by her notion of Egyptian local coloring. Hieroglyphics, indeed! [P. 37]
We might dismiss this material as the product of Sherwood's own mind, since she was already skeptical of Egyptian (and other) spirit figures. Still, it's intriguing to consider the possibility that mediums in contact with legitimate but rather “ordinary”spirit guides have interpreted them in a somewhat fantastic light, perhaps in conformity with the popular thinking of the day.
The book also contains an interesting snippet of psychological analysis on the part of a deceased communicator.
“I wonder why some people are so anxious to prove that death is the end?” I [Sherwood] said. “They will go to any lengths to show that survival is impossible and faith in it simply wishful thinking.”
“I also have sinned, don't forget,” said Scott [a communicator]. “Perhaps psychology can help us to understand this tendency. It is surely a kind of masochism, a stoic resolve to punish the wishful thinking one suspects is behind any belief in immortality. It feels very stern, strong and noble to deny the thing one secretly longs for, and so to prove that one is quite able to do without it. It is easy to find arguments to support this denial and see how superior it makes one feel to say “I, at least, do not need to believe in such things”.” [Pp. 48, 49]
Again, it is entirely possible that this message originated in Sherwood's own subconscious, but wherever it came from, it's very neatly stated.
Another book I'm currently reading is Dancing Past the Dark by Nancy Evans Bush, a treatment of negative or “hellish” near-death experiences (this book has also been discussed in Paranormalia, and I plan to review it in an upcoming post). Some of the material in The Country Beyond casts an interesting light on the whole issue of negative afterlife accounts. One of Sherwood's communicators, who died in a car crash and had an initially unpleasant postmortem experience, explains:
I think the experience of death must vary considerably because it is governed by the state of mind in which one passes over. Also, there is a vast difference between a sudden passing and a quiet and prepared one. The shock of an unnatural death sets the invisible being in a mad turmoil and makes adjustment to a new environment impossible for a while. One finds oneself in a fantastic dream world with no continuity of experience. Flashes of vivid awareness burn themselves out into unconsciousness and the chaos of unconnected states of mind have [sic] no proper framework of space and time.
Out of the sleep of death there comes first the mere sense of identity, a point of self-awareness growing out of nothingness. From this I judge that the higher activity of the ego-being is the first to assert itself. One wakes next to a tumult of emotions and hurried, anxious thought. Somewhere in this part of the experience comes the unrolling of memories. Your mind helps me to find a simile; it is like a speeded-up run through of a film shown backwards, a swiftly moving vision of life from end to beginning, flickering rapidly past the mind's eye until it ends in the unconsciousness of one's beginning. More unconsciousness follows and in my case the rest was a phantasmagoria. Glimpses of the world seen, clutched at and blotted out, dreamlike awareness of people and events on earth at which one grasped because of their dear familiarity only to realize that one could not make one's presence known. In the effort to do so the scene would melt and change into another. Then the final fading of earth and a long sojourn in what I think of as Hades, the place of the shade, a dim and formless world which I believe is peopled by the miasma of earth emotions and the unconscious projections of its inhabitants. Finally comes the stabilization of the new body and a growing awareness of the real world again; light, clear outlines and real people moving about in a glorious world.
Much of this earlier nightmare could have been avoided if I had known how to avail myself of the help that is freely offered. But I suppose the adjustment could not have been easy for me. I took over a very difficult make-up full of powerful repressions and tangled complexes all of which caused me much suffering before they were straightened out. My own obstinacy and pride were largely to blame for my plight. This was purgatory, if you like, but unavoidable unless one has done the job beforehand. I think I really had the maximum difficulties: an attitude of blank unbelief in any future life, a repressed and powerful emotional state, and the shock of a violent death. So this was not the normal passing but just a difficult and painful personal experience. I am satisfied that it was a just necessity and that I had made it inevitable by my willful ignorance and skepticism. “Whatsoever a man sows” you know. [Pp. 58, 59]
One of the most famous nightmarish near-death experiences, discussed in Bush's book and many other places, is the one recounted by Howard Storm. What struck me about Storm's account is how completely secular his outlook on life must have been at the time. Finding himself at the mercy of demonic beings that tormented him in a dark hellish place, and believing himself to be dead, he desperately tried to summon up a prayer, but initially had no idea how to do it. He writes,
From inside of me I felt a voice, my voice, say: "Pray to God." My mind responded to that: "I don’t pray. I don’t know how to pray." This is a guy lying on the ground in the darkness surrounded by what appeared to be dozens if not hundreds and hundreds of vicious creatures who had just torn him up. The situation seemed utterly hopeless, and I seemed beyond any possible help whether I believed in God or not. The voice again told me to pray to God. It was a dilemma since I didn’t know how. The voice told me a third time to pray to God.
I started saying things like: "The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want ... God bless America ..." and anything else that seemed to have a religious connotation.
Clearly, Storm was innocent of any religious background or training and had spent no time whatsoever pondering the possibility of a spiritual dimension or an afterlife. He says so himself: "I had absolute certainty that there was nothing beyond this life – because that was how really smart people understood it.... While I was undergoing this stress [of dying], prayer or anything like that never occurred to me. I never once thought about it. If I mentioned God’s name at all it was only as a profanity."
His lack of preparedness, coupled with his own mental state (fear and confusion) and his unexpected and agonizing medical crisis, may account for the “hellish” aspects of his experience, just as Sherwood's communicator suggests.
Incidentally, it's also interesting to notice how reliably the idea of a past-life review comes up in Sherwood's accounts and in many other accounts channeled through mediums. Of course, it's an old cliché that one's life flashes before one's eyes at the moment of death, but I'm not sure the cliché ever involved a life review after one has actually died. It's thought provoking at the very least to notice how one of the key aspects of near-death experiences–a subject not popularized until 1975, six years after Sherwood's book was published–is reflected in these earlier channeled communications.
Another of Sherwood's communicators, who died peacefully and had a much more pleasant passing, discusses his transition:
Where death comes gradually and naturally like this one wakes quietly in the new conditions after an interval of a few days. One is fully through, as we say, and although the newcomer has to be cared for and kept quiet until the new rhythms of his body are fully established, he soon becomes strong and vigorous and ready to begin his new life. The transition, like all natural processes, should not be interfered with by violence or haste. Death is a kind of birth and it should proceed with a quiet inevitableness and not be accompanied by pain or distress. Much of the apparent suffering of a death-bed is not consciously felt by the sufferer. His real life is already half retired from the mortal body and neither experiences nor records its pangs. Shakespeare is very near the literal facts when he speaks of “shuffling off this mortal coil”. Comparison of various accounts of the death-change make it clear that there are at least two stages, separated by intervals of unconsciousness. Actual death is followed by a period of unconsciousness which lasts for some time; this gives way to a kind of awareness but not a consciousness of one's environment. The new senses have not yet begun to function so there is nothing, or at best a misty, unreal setting, fantastic and dreamlike. During this interval, the memory appears to be stimulated so that one lives through a resume of a lifetime just past. Then one sinks into a second period of unconsciousness which should give place to a full awakening in the new world. We might with justice speak of a first and second death because not only the physical body has to be shared but the next body also. [P. 61]
The reference to the line from Hamlet's soliloquy is interesting. The metaphor is frequently misunderstood; modern readers picture somebody shuffling–dragging his feet–as he walks off stage. The actual image is of a snake shedding its skin. To "shuffle off this mortal coil” is to slough off the coil of snakeskin that the snake leaves behind. Sherwood's communicator is saying that Shakespeare is “very near the literal facts” in describing death as sloughing off an unneeded part of the body, with the body understood as a compound entity of physical, etheric, astral, and spiritual forms.
Asked to elaborate, the communicator begins with the first stage of awareness he described, the one in which there is “a kind of awareness but not a consciousness of one's environment.”
I found myself awake in the transition state of which we have spoken. I thought myself still weak and ill, but I rose from my rest feeling marvelously refreshed and happy and I wandered for a while in the something-nothing surroundings of this queer world and was unable to make any sense of it. The brooding silence drug me into unconsciousness for a long time, because when next I woke my body felt quite different, no longer frail and weak as I had supposed, but vigorous and ready for anything as though I had suddenly stepped back into youth. This delighted me although I was daunted by my condition. There was a feeling of expectation, of waiting for something to happen. I was wide awake, quietly comprehending my state and content to sink into myself. Thought turned inward and it moved at a surprising rate. It raced over the record of a long lifetime which it lit up with a searchlight that spared no blunders, sins or weaknesses, but impartially illumined it all, as one holds up an old, finished garment to the light and notes with dismay its rents and stains. This clear blaze of recollection showed me the honest shape and cut of the thing too. I reviewed it as though I had no longer a special responsibility for it but had to understand clearly in what it had failed and in what succeed. I was saddened enough and humbled by what I saw, and then, with a sigh of acceptance I was able to turn to other thoughts.
My whole religious outlook had to be rethought in the light of this unexpected experience. [Pp. 62, 63]
Later, there is a rather technical discussion of differences between earthly and heavenly perceptions of time and space, which may or may not have any mathematical validity; I have no idea. One thing that interested me was a little digression on human nature, as expressed by one communicator:
You have, of course, to take another dimension into account and it is probably the coefficient of the new dimension which is upsetting your time comparisons. The fourth dimension, i.e. time, has been modified for us by a fifth dimension, that of degree of being. This last must vary as the measurement of frequency alters. It applies to organisms and is the scale by which their development is measured. Its sign is a differing quality of consciousness which runs up the scale from the lowest organism to man. In man each one of the degrees of being is represented because of his possession of all the grades of being from the etheric, which we agreed was the first remove from the physical, to the astral, up to the ego-being which is at present his highest element. But in man on earth, the consciousness that belongs by right to this highest degree cannot function fully because all the higher degrees have to be timed down to the physical and cannot free themselves to work independently until the physical body is shed. That accounts for the perplexing difference in your mode of consciousness and ours, and is one of the clues to this troublesome contradiction between your time and ours. [P. 94]
Leaving aside the issue of extra dimensions or the subjective nature of space-time, I was interested in the idea that a human being's higher consciousness rarely functions on earth because “all the higher degrees have to be timed down to the physical and cannot free themselves to work independently.” This is somewhat consistent with the so-called filter theory, which claims that the brain serves as a filtering mechanism to screen out most input from higher consciousness, allowing us to focus on our “lower” physical needs.
Despite inevitable discrepancies and dissonances, there is an interesting continuity in much of the channeled material from various mediums. This might be explained in terms of all the mediums dipping into the same esoteric sourcebooks or acquiring the same trendy ideas from mentors or clients. On the other hand, one could also see it as evidence of a degree of objectivity in the mediums' messages. This was the approach taken by British researcher Robert Crookall.
A point in favor of the latter interpretation is that similar ideas crop up across the globe, even in remote societies whose traditions are unlikely to have been influenced by Western spiritualist trends. Almost everywhere, it seems, we find shamans going on vision quests and reporting experiences and observations very much like those described by Jane Sherwood's communicators. It's enough to make some of us think that these messages really do come from a country beyond.
Clarification, May 22: Looking more closely at the copyright page, I now see that The Country Beyond is an older book than I'd realized. The edition I'm reading was printed in 1991, but is a reissue of an earlier, 1969 edition. I assumed 1969 was the original publication date. However, I missed some text lower down on the page: "'The Country Beyond' was first published in 1944. The present edition contains the original work together with additional material from an earlier book, 'The Psychic Bridge'."
So the material in the book cannot be later than 1944, which is 31 years before the publication of Raymond Moody's Life After Life.
Incidentally, all page numbers cited in this post refer to the 1991 edition put out by The C.W. Daniel Company Limited, a British publisher.