My journalistic investigation of the way scientists attempt to investigate the phenomenon of ghosts led me nowhere. My article became a cover story and even inspired an episode or two of the television series “Unsolved Mysteries.” But the mystery of my own experience remained untouched by the whole adventure, like a stone glinting up from the bottom of stream. The researchers I asked told me what I already knew—that it was most unusual to be addressed in such a way by a ghost. To be seen.
One day, there came a hint. I visited Karlis Osis at the American Society for Psychical Research, in an old brownstone on the Upper West Side of Manhattan (where Dan Ackroyd did much of his research for the movie “Ghost Busters.”) Born in Riga, Latvia in 1917, Osis is one of the first psychologists to receive a doctorate degree with a thesis that dealt with ESP, from the University of Munich, in 1950. Tall and ascetic looking, with a soft voice and a Latvian accent that made his words sound like spooky echoes rolling out of a cave, Osis told me that spending his youth surrounded by the devastation of World War I helped him develop “a taste of the mysterious and sublime.”
And there was this: As an adolescent lying in bed with tuberculosis, Osis suddenly saw his room fill with a “joyful white light.” He later learned that at precisely that moment, his aunt had died. Osis went on to conduct ESP research at the parapsychology laboratory at Duke University, as a colleague of one of the famous figures of parapsychology, Dr. J. B. Rhine. But Osis never forgot that experience and he began to feel sure that the great discoveries were to be found in the experiences themselves, not merely by research in the lab.
Osis left the lab to conduct a major survey of the deathbed observations of physicians and nurses in India and the United States, which resulted in a book he co-authored, At the Hour of Death. It also turned up a smattering of evidence for the reality of ghosts. Osis called them “transit disasters,” Near Death Experiences in which there is no joyous burst of light that seem bound for somewhere, but “exceedingly self-centered individuals cruise in a void with no one to meet, instruct, or rescue them.”
This was not my Elizabeth. I was certain of the reality of my experience—and yet I also came away siding with the skeptics. As Ray Hyman, professor of psychology at the University of Oregon explained to me, even the most rigorous of these investigations “are historical investigations, not true scientific investigations at all.” It all comes down to testimony, stories. No researcher has ever been able to capture a ghost by way of an experiment that could be repeated in a lab. I came away from my ghost investigation knowing that I was on my own—left to discover the meaning of what to others could only be a story.
“Not till we are lost, in other words, not till we have lost the world, do we begin to find ourselves, and realize where we are and the infinite extent of our relations,” wrote Henry David Thoreau in Walden.
There are times in life, usually after a significant ending–college or a job or a marriage or the life of a loved one, when we really realize where we are—when we shocked into realizing the depth and mystery of our experience. This often comes at the moment when we feel lost in a dark wood, off the path, our connection to the divine cut off. When all of the exits are blocked, you have no choice but to go inward, to leave your head entirely and sink down into your own experience, into the body. There we may discover our roots–“the infinite extent of our relations,” the depth and fineness of our capacity to just be here, alive on the earth.
In the end, spiritual work is about being willing to be naked and vulnerable, about letting go of the armor of answers to live to be open and defenseless (I once heard that the word “lost” came from a Norse word that means to disband an army). Real spiritual work depends on an awareness that can embrace contradiction and brokenness—that can bear not knowing, being in between.
The Buddha called the path he found the middle way (majjhima patipada) because it steers clear of two extremes. One extreme is totally going for it, totally indulging every sense pleasures. The other way is total denial, painful self-mortification. The usual explanation of this way between extremes is that body needs to be healthy and in balance to undertake the cultivation of awareness. But it can also be taken to mean being willing to be in the space between certainties.
“We are not ‘everything,’ but neither are we ‘nothing,’” write Ernest Kurtz and Katherine Ketcham in The Spirituality of Imperfection. “Spirituality is discovered in that space between paradox’s extremes, for there we confront our helplessness and powerlessness, our woundedness. In seeking to understand our limitations, we seek not only an easing of our pain but an understanding of what it means to hurt and what it means to be healed. Spirituality begins with the acceptance that our fractured being, our imperfection, simply is: There is no one to ‘blame’ for our errors — neither ourselves nor anyone nor anything else. Spirituality helps us first to see, and then to understand, and eventually to accept the imperfection that lies at the very core of our human be-ing. Spirituality accepts that ‘If a thing is worth doing, it is worth doing badly.’
Very slowly, it dawned on me that I could learn to be with my experience just as it is, in all its weirdness and imperfection. If I could learn to be in my experience—to really inhabit the experience of being in this body– its meaning might slowly open over time like a story or a myth.
“Read the myths,” said Joseph Campbell once said in an interview with Bill Moyers. “They teach you that you can turn inward, and you begin to get the message of the symbols. Read other people’s myths, not those of your own religion, because you tend to interpret your own religion in terms of facts – but if you read the other ones, you begin to get the message. Myth helps you to put your mind in touch with this experience of being alive. It tells you what it is. “