What is the relationship between UFOs (or what many would now like to re-christen as the more technically sanitized term “UAPs”), or what Whitley Strieber calls “the Visitors,” and death? Or, to be more precise, is there a connection between the UFO phenomenon and the survival of human consciousness of bodily death?
This purported linkage has recently become a “hot” topic—which is not necessarily a bad thing. Sometimes fashion statements do have more than a superficial meaning. Many current researchers are now following (consciously or not) in the footsteps of one of my great mentors, the late parapsychologist Rhea White, in trying to discern the underlying connecting links between all non-ordinary and anomalous phenomena: all types of parapsychological, paranormal, transcendent, mystical, religious, spiritual, and peak experiences.
Rhea began her career in parapsychology as a research fellow in Dr. J.B. Rhine’s Duke University parapsychology lab, and served there for four years, back in the 1950s. Among her other numerous subsequent accomplishments was her longtime editorship of JASPR, the Journal of the American Society for Psychical Research; her founding of the Parapsychology Sources of Information Center; and her charter membership in the in the justly esteemed Parapsychological Association, which in 1969 (after a heated debate in which the renowned anthropologist, Dr. Margaret Mead, made an impassioned and successful argument in favor of parapsychology) was accepted as an affiliated organization of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
(A very personal aside: Speaking from my own experience, Rhea was the toughest, most demanding, most careful and precise editor I have ever had the privilege of working with.)
By the early 1990s, however (just around the time I came to make her acquaintance), Rhea had grown frustrated and impatient with the experimentalist paradigm of parapsychology. She had tired of the whole project of trying to “prove the reality” of psi phenomena to the satisfaction of conventional mainstream science; because she knew from direct personal experience that the standard tinker-toy, Newtonian-Cartesian worldview was utterly inadequate.
That experience was a close brush with death.
Riding in a car with a friend on their way to a dance at a nearby college, they encountered a sudden snowstorm. There was a horrible accident with an oncoming truck that lost control. Her friend, who was driving, was killed instantly. Rhea was thrown through the windshield, onto the hood of the car. Or, at least her body was. Here is her account of what she experienced:
“My junior year in college I had a near-death experience associated with an automobile accident that changed my life. I devoted my life to trying to understand ‘where’ I was when I found myself seemingly above the earth bathed in a sense of unity and singing peace and incredible aliveness, enveloped in felt meaning while my body lay unconscious on the hood of my car. I thought I had died–and it was wonderful. I was ‘told’ that ‘nothing that ever lived could possibly die.’ I felt the ‘everlasting arms’ behind me to the ends of the universe. Then I awakened out on the hood of my car, unable to move, and in great pain.”
Since Dr. Raymond Moody would not coin the term “near-death experience” (NDE) until decades later, in the mid-1970s, with the publication of his groundbreaking study, Life After Life (1975), Rhea did not even have a name to give to her experience. But, as she said, it nevertheless changed her life. Her desire to become a professional athlete (golfer) receded, and what took its place was a voracious desire to learn everything possible about “mystical” experiences such as her own. That’s what eventually led her to Rhine and Duke.
Death, you might say, initiated her.
But ultimately she did not find what she was looking for in parapsychology, because its model of knowledge—the mainstream scientific model as it then existed—aspired to discount the personal, the subjective, and the idiosyncratic in an attempt to arrive at a purely “objective” truth essentially “uncontaminated” or “untainted” by human consciousness. This, of course, was an absurd aim, even from the standpoint of quantum physics. But the good, old mechanistic Newtonian paradigm was still the only respectable position of mainstream researchers. The only epistemological game in town, as it were.
When she decided to live out of her NDE, rather than ignore it or marginalize it as something “merely anecdotal,” or as a kind of biographical asterisk, Rhea shifted her entire focus. While parapsychology wanted to see the phenomena of psi, its subject-matter, as a separate and autonomous field of research—Rhine had even shied away from dealing with questions about survival of death, which had been the mainstay of the Psychical Research of the 19th Century—she saw all non-ordinary phenomena as a single class of experience with a common function: to bring us into the experience of a connected consciousness as the primary reality, to initiate us into what she called “the experiential paradigm.”
Instead of trying to avoid the personal, the subjective, the idiosyncratic, or discount for its influence, Rhea’s idea was that the only way to get to Reality was to go down the subjective rabbit hole. We must go down and through the dark tunnel in order to arrive at the Light. To pay attention to those “exceptional” episodes in our lives and engage with them—write about them, struggle to plumb the depths of their meaning in order to get to the underlying web of connections that links all consciousness—is our calling as humans. As Heraclitus said, “You will not find the limits of the soul, even if you travel along every path, so deep a measure (Greek: bathun) does it have.” The string of Reality goes through the center of the pearl of each and every soul. It’s an idea that she identified with William James and his concept of the More.
So it was that Rhea went on to found the Exceptional Human Experience Network (EHEN), and its primary journal, Exceptional Human Experience, on which I served as an editorial advisor, and to which I was a contributing author. What she understood was, that as different from each other as they were, in terms of their surface appearance, all varieties of “exceptional” experiences—that is, experiences that stood out in an individual’s life because (a) they violated the “rules” of “common sense” (i.e., internalized metaphysical materialism), and (b) they therefore had great, if only unconscious, emotional impact—had a common function. And that function was—potentially, at least, if we brought our focused attention to them, thus “humanizing” them in the process—to guide our souls to the greater reality.