Survivors of near-death experiences attest to a mysterious helping presence. Is it mysticism or science?
by Geoff Olson
IN THE LATE seventh century BC, the Greek poet Hesiod was tending his flock of sheep on the slopes of Helicon, a mountain in central Greece when the Muses came upon him. They “breathed into me a divine voice,” he wrote in his Theogony, and taught him a glorious song. “They have made Helicon, the great, God-haunted mountain, their domain.”
To some classicists, Hesiod’s words were more than stylistic devices – he was describing what, to him, was a real experience. The Muses, the Greek gods of arts and literature, were said to have the power to “inspire” – a word meaning, literally, “a God within.”
In today’s world, the Muses have been downsized to “the muse,” a wan, poetic expression for creative inspiration. It’s now just a turn of phrase, a cliché, although some artists and writers have confessed to having the spooky feeling that they are the vessels, rather than the executors, of their best work.
However, there is another muse-like phenomenon that persists into the modern age, although it’s connected more to issues of survival than self-expression. Pilots, mountaineers and “extreme athletes” are said to have encountered this mysterious presence in moments of great danger or at the brink of death. The presence, often perceived of as a voice, offers assurance and also counsels persistence in the face of overwhelming odds.
In her 2008 book Explorers of the Infinite, British Columbian author Maria Coffey investigated what she refers to as “the secret spiritual lives” of extreme athletes and adventurers. “All the extreme adventurers in my book spoke of a ‘sixth sense’ that comes from being keenly attuned to the environment they are moving through,” she writes.
A legendary account of spectral guidance was supplied by Ernest Shackleton, after his 1914-1917 Endurance Expedition across Antarctica to the South Pole. The problems began when Shackleton’s ship became trapped in pack ice, only a few days after the first sighting of the continent of Antarctica. The ship drifted with the floe for several days and then sat frozen in place throughout the dark Antarctic winter. Shackleton ordered his men to abandon the ship. A harrowing encounter with the elements ended with a 36-hour trek, with only a stretch of rope and ice axe to assist them. It was an incredible feat of endurance, one that amazes mountaineers to this day, Coffey notes.
“I know that during that long and racking march,” Shackleton wrote, “it seemed to me often that we were four, not three.” Shackleton had the unmistakable sense of being guided by an unseen presence. His story supplied the inspiration for a passage from T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land:
Who is the third who walks always beside you?
When I count, there are only you and I together
But when I look ahead up the white road
There is always another one walking beside you
Gliding wrapt in a brown mantle,
hooded I do not know whether a man or a woman –
But who is that on the other side of you?
Hence the term, the “Third Man factor,” after Eliot’s poem. In his 2009 book of the same name, author John Geiger says he’s tracked down 110 stories of people in states of extreme danger, or near death, who felt they received guidance from a sensed presence, including a survivor of the World Trade Centre collapse, who received instruction from a spectral voice on how to escape with his life intact.
Geiger writes of climber James Sevigny, who experienced the phenomenon after an avalanche swept him a distance of 600 feet and left him with a broken back, scapula and arm and shattered facial bones. He awoke to find his climbing companion dead beside him, at which point he lost hope and decided to join him. But a presence encouraged him to persevere and offered him help. Whatever it was, this presence accompanied him all the way to the base camp, where he received medical attention.
While researching her book, Coffey uncovered a similar pattern of stories. She learned that many extreme athletes have experienced life-changing spiritual experiences along with the difficulty of sharing them with friends and family. Yet surprisingly, a few of the people profiled in her book welcomed these extreme states of mind and have even since put themselves in mortal danger to access them again.
In her book, Coffey tells of an experienced ice climber, Clay Hunting, whose climbing companion fell 150 feet, along with tons of ice. With his companion seriously injured, Hunting had to hike many miles through a canyon for help. “The strangest thing was when I was hiking out I had a small, blue light in front of me the whole time. It wasn’t my headlamp. It was a blue light. It led me out. I don’t know what it was but there was no way I could have got out as fast as I did without its help. Every so often, I would stop and turn off my headlight and look for that blue light. It might be a bit higher up or lower, or to the left or right and I would follow it.” Without the blue light to guide him, Hunting is sure his friend would have died.
Coffey believes these bizarre experiences are often mediated through three conditions: fear, suffering and focus. Fear is something all extreme athletes must confront, at one time or another. Suffering comes with the territory. Focus means prolonged attention on a single task.
It’s no accident that desert-bound mystics, shamans in training and yuppies on vision quests have employed some or all of these factors to access obscure corners of the soul. The act of focus, which sweeps away mundane, day-to-day thoughts, seems to anchor the seeker in the present, while suffering and fear alter one’s physiological and neurochemical states. This combination of psychic conditions appears to open a window into archetypal realms of experience.
In the 22nd hour of his trans-Atlantic flight, fighting to stay awake, Charles Lindbergh suddenly perceived spectral forms in the cabin that encouraged him to stay awake, offering navigation help. They stayed with him until he reached the Irish coast, Lindbergh claimed.
He later wrote of his experience: “The fuselage behind me becomes filled with ghostly presences; vaguely outlined forms, transparent, moving, riding weightless with me in the plane. I feel no surprise at their coming. There’s no suddenness to their appearance. Without turning my head, I can see them as clearly as though in my normal vision. These visions were emanations from the experience of ages, inhabitants of a universe closed to mortal men.”
Of course, it may not be such a surprise to see strange things after 22 hours without sleep. Scientists have long known that sleep deprivation can crowbar the dreaming mind into waking consciousness.
Pilot Dick Rutan completed the first nonstop flight around the world in 1986. In 1979, during an extended flight in an experimental plane, an elf appeared on one of the wings. The elf communicated that Rutan had fallen asleep and crashed into a mountain, and could now relax. A spacecraft with “little gray men” pulled alongside, while airplanes in his wake were looping about in dogfights. All this was accompanied by “beautiful, loud organ music.”
“I don’t believe in any spiritual crap,” Rutan told Coffey. But he did note that he had been in the air for the same length of time as Charles Lindbergh on his epic voyage.
In Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, a stressed-out Ebenezer Scrooge dismisses the ghost of his former colleague, Joseph Marley, as a “piece of undigested potato.” Dickens was drawing a link between biochemistry and boundary experiences, while gently mocking his central character’s reductionism. But, of course, we’re not talking about fictional dreams; we’re talking about the experiences that happen to real people. But how “real” are their experiences, scientifically speaking?
Coffey quotes climber Carlos Carsolio, a Mexican climber who told her how he was guided through a terrible storm down K2, the world’s second highest peak, with the help of the “spirits of the mountains and the ghost of a climber who had perished on its slopes.” In seeking his “moments of extended reality,” Carsolio has scaled 14 of the world’s tallest mountains without oxygen. So are we talking about hallucinations resulting from oxygen-starved brains? Is the muse turbocharged by hypoxia?
It’s no accident that “God-haunted” mountains have been implicated so often in mystical experiences, the author learned. The leaders of the three great monotheistic religions – Moses, Jesus and Mohammed – all had revelations on mountaintops. Prolonged exposure to high altitudes is linked to prefrontal lobe dysfunctions. The author speculates that the endorphins released by strenuous climbs might lower the threshold for temporal lobe epilepsy, “which might in turn evoke such experiences.”
Above 18,000 feet, thought perception and function become increasingly impaired, and above 28,000 feet, hallucinations are common, according to tests conducted on Himalayan climbers by British doctors Michael Ward and Jim Milledge.
Canadian neuroscientist Michael Persinger is famous for his brain studies using a modified football helmet, in which electrodes stimulate the brain’s temporal lobes. When both the right and left hemispheres are stimulated, Persinger’s subjects often report an unnerving “sense of presence.” To Persinger, these reports imply that, under certain conditions of neural excitation, the dominant hemisphere – where the sense of self and language is located – can interpret activity in the normally “quiet” hemisphere as the presence of another self. (In right-handed people, the left hemisphere is dominant; the opposite is true for left-handed people.)
Persinger’s studies give some indirect support to the ideas of Princeton psychologist Julian Jaynes. In 1977, Jaynes made a splash with his book The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind. The unwieldy tome belied a revolutionary thesis: that our modern form of consciousness is only a few thousand years old. In prehistoric times, people perceived the voices generated by the non-dominant hemisphere as the voices of the gods, Jaynes insisted. They were often directed by this “inner voice” to go about their daily tasks.
Is the Third Man factor the evolutionary hangover of this bicameral mind – a sort of vermiform appendix of consciousness? Is this the source of the muse of Hesiod, whose voice had faded even by the Greek poet’s time?
Yet vocal hallucinations aren’t all that uncommon in the modern age: A whopping 10 percent of people claim to hear voices in their lifetime and most of these experiences aren’t psychotic. Nor should we forget the common phenomenon of “imaginary friends” of young children, and, of course, the mocking voices of paranoid schizophrenics. The muse may not be as far away in time or space as we think.
The ideas of Persinger and Jaynes also link to the mysterious phenomenon of what Stanford psychologist Ernest Hilgard called “the hidden observer.” In his experiments with hypnotized subjects, Hilgard determined there was some aspect of the self that remained independent of the hypnotic state. It seemed to have a greater level of awareness than normal waking consciousness. Is the muse no further than our non-dominant cerebral hemisphere, or some other part of the brain?
Coffey herself remains agnostic about the scientific versus spiritual interpretation of such altered states of consciousness, or even if the two are mutually exclusive. She cites British scientist Rupert Sheldrake and his suggestion that memories can exist outside the nervous system in a “morphic field” of extended consciousness. In this view, the brain is the hardware that accesses a non-local software within the morphic field, and would account for psychic experiences in which people access information they couldn’t otherwise know.
During a recent appearance in North Vancouver, I asked Coffey if the people profiled in her book could make a distinction between a straightforward hallucination and visionary experiences of greater spiritual authority. “A lot of scientists I talked to argued it’s all hypoxia, and maybe it is,” she responded, adding that we should pay attention to what the experiencers themselves think. For example, Carsolio knew the exact moment that his climbing partner had died on another part of the mountain and felt her spirit guide him to safety. “For him, it’s not just about lack of oxygen, it’s that zone between life and death, when you’re very, very close to death; the magical moment when he could break through into something else, where he felt he could access some other level of consciousness and speak with the dead,” Coffee writes.
Coffey has very good reason to doubt materialistic explanations for all such experiences; she has had her own tragic encounter with the unexplained. In fact, it became the inspiration for her book. Twenty years ago while her husband was away on his last expedition, attempting Everest’s then unclimbed Northeast Ridge, Coffey took a rock-climbing course with some of their friends. While sharing a room in a hostel one night, as she dreamed she was “running down a village street, wailing and distraught,” her friends recalled her sitting upright in bed and crying out, “Joe’s dead!” She later learned that her dream had occurred only hours after her husband was last seen on Everest.
There was also the moment, days after his death, when she sensed her husband’s presence during a car trip with a friend. While she said nothing about it when it happened, the friend later told her she had experienced the uncanny feeling of Joe’s presence at the exact same time.
The common stories of premonitions of death in the mountaineering community, and the sudden awareness of the loss of a friend or relative, supply some of the most striking anecdotes in Coffey’s book. The skeptical appeal to “coincidence” or “subconscious cuing” seems laughably insufficient in these instances.
For some, stories about the “Third Man” or the “muse” will forever remain superstitious mumbo-jumbo, or at best, REM sleep gone wild. For others, these experiences are part of some spiritual commonwealth, in which the veil between the living and dead momentarily lifts.
Those seeking a rapprochement between science and spirituality believe there may be an explanation in “morphic fields,” in which observer and observed are joined in a vast ontological drama, which science has yet to decode. For others, like this writer, it all makes for a fascinating mystery.