By John Mack
This article is an excerpt from Andrew Beath’s book Consciousness
In Action: the Power of Beauty, Love and Courage in a Violent Time
(Lantern Press, 2005)
Introduction by Andrew Beath
Most of us are not comfortable with phenomena that can’t
be readily explained according to prevailing beliefs. We know that
extraordinary events are happening that we are not able to comprehend.
For example, crop circles are a phenomenon that has been well documented
but poorly explained. And the fact that the media attributes them
to hoaxers, which is highly unlikely for the most intricate ones,
has meant that they receive little news coverage—so they don’t
have the opportunity to work their potentially transformative magic
on the minds of the world culture. The vast majority of people dismiss
the inexplicable when it falls outside their perceptual filters
Believing in a particular explanation of such things as crop circles
and other spirit-matter mysteries is often confining because it
eliminates other possibilities. However, it seems important to recognize
the dramatic impact on our consensual view of reality that opening
to all possible explanations, and fully examining such baffling
phenomena, could have. To the extent that we expand our public discourse
and our understanding of these anomalies, they could help to catalyze
the shift in cultural consciousness that is needed to change public
behavior toward greater protection of the environment and kindness
to each other.
Alien abduction experiences are an even more controversial subject
than crop circles, but one that has received extensive attention
from Harvard professor and psychiatrist Dr. John Mack. From my perspective
they can be interpreted in a variety of ways—aliens could
be seen as extraterrestrial entities, or an inter-dimensional phenomenon.
The latter might result in interpretations of inexplicable events
in familiar terms, like spaceships. But the occurrences may also
be beyond our capacity to explain. At this early stage of human
development we are perceptually limited in attempting to elucidate
the meaning of most mystical phenomena.
Once someone is sure of a particular answer, then the remaining
hundreds of possibilities disappear for that person, and some of
the magic too. Consider the level of understanding of physical sciences
five hundred years ago in the time of Columbus’s flat world.
Also think of the increased knowledge we’ll have 500 years
in the future, if we become sensible enough to survive. If we don’t,
then perhaps it will be some other species that will have the chance
to contemplate the awe of creation with the gift of reflective consciousness.
Or maybe the Earth—like Mars—will become arid and unable
to provide that opportunity again.
Dr. John Mack founded the psychiatry department at Cambridge Hospital.
A Pulitzer Prize-winning author, he is also a founder of the Center
for Psychology and Social Change, a psychological / scientific research
group that specializes in studying transpersonal experiences and
other anomalous phenomena.
Until his recent death John was a cutting-edge intellectual and
a prominent psychiatrist who, as a member of Physicians For Social
Responsibility, was a joint recipient of the 1985 Nobel Peace Prize.
His recent focus has been on human perception, with an overarching
concern for healing planetary ills.
Dr. Mack’s intellectual curiosity has involved him with
numerous clients who perceive themselves to have been abducted by
aliens. He refers to them as “experiencers,” and his
work with this group has, among other benefits, provided valuable
material with which to study the mechanisms of consensual reality.
In one of his books on the subject of alien abductions, Passport
to the Cosmos, there remains an open question of whether or not
the spaceships and alien beings exist in the normal physical sense.
At the same time it’s clear that there is an unexplainable
phenomenon going on that is important for our understanding of the
universe. Maintaining a “don’t know mind” is an
ally in this work. No matter what the results, John’s on-the-edge
research and thinking is of utmost importance in pushing the envelope
of human consciousness.
Dr. Mack has been involved in activism and social change for 30
years. He was arrested at the Nevada nuclear test site in 1986,
1988 and 1989. In 1986 his whole family got arrested, including
his children and wife, Sally, along with 149 other people. Shortly
after that time Gorbachev unilaterally broke the cycle of nuclear
weapons buildup. I asked John to talk about this period and about
the potential role of anomalous experiences in creating social change.
In our conversations he told me:
"Gorbachev’s decision exposed the incredible stupidity
of the arms race. I think we need a way of using the word stupid
in a non-judgmental sense. I’m using it as a technical term
here. A better word might be senseless. Stupid means you have the
facts and should know what you’re doing but are acting without
judgment or wisdom. You’re so driven by your anger, your hatred
or nationalist fervor that you act in a way that is destructive
to the planet. That is stupid.
I’ve also used the term malignant professionalism to denote
narrowly focused expertise divorced from a larger responsible perspective.
The pollution of the oceans is a perfect example of this kind of
confusion. It’s the most fundamental ecological issue we have,
and it comes from our having lost touch with the fact that life
came from the ocean. By polluting it we’re actually poisoning
The difference now from even a few decades ago is that the problems
are global. So activism now needs to be global. Consider the international
waters. The ocean connects us. It’s a no-brainer to know that
the ocean goes the world over, so if you pollute it here, you pollute
it everywhere. That’s an example of a global project. You
need a global awareness to fit that kind of a project. Here we get
into a tricky but fundamentally important relationship. First we
need methods for evolving consensual reality. Then we need strategies
to apply that expanded awareness and implement change.
This brings us to the work of the Center for Psychology and Social
Change. We seek to better understand anomalous experiences that
can shift the sense of isolation and subject/object separation that
are characteristic of the Western mind. There are a variety of extraordinary
experiences that can break through cultural conditioning and confer
a greater sense of connectedness with life: psychedelics have the
potential to create a lasting shift of this type, as do shamanic
ceremonies. Many people who have had a near-death experience return
with a heightened sense of compassion and the desire to make a difference.
The least understood of these types of experiences is the alien
abduction phenomenon. What such encounters with the unknown have
in common is that they can dissolve our anxieties about the superficial
differences between people and bring forth a felt sense of our common
humanity, our interdependence with all of creation and our place
as an integral part of an all-encompassing whole.
Atypical experiences tend to crack us open and break down ethno-national
stereotypes. Solving our collective problems then becomes a shared
responsibility that we accept as global citizens. We no longer make
someone else responsible because we recognize the whole represented
in us and act for the benefit of this integrity. This paradigm shift
is the one from which major social change can happen. When we recognize
that we live from the ocean, and that the earth is a living organism
of which we are each an integral part, then large-scale destructive
behaviors become intolerable.
Anomalous Experiences and Social Activism
It’s interesting the way things come along and you don’t
see how they are going to be part of your pathway, yet they turn
out to be precisely that. More and more I see now how this work
with anomalous experiences fits into the social activism arena that
was my primary focus. If you or someone you know has an intense
experience, the truth of which is undeniable, and it challenges
consensual reality, then it causes you to undergo an expansion of
consciousness. And this contributes to the expansion of the collective
perception of reality.
So for me, working with experiencers of the abduction phenomenon
was a huge opening around consensual reality. This work began after
my holotropic breath-work and other transformative experiences.
It showed me a universe that was completely different from the one
I had been used to. Either the people reporting the abductions were
psychiatric cases, which they clearly were not, or the prevailing
worldview was inadequate.
Since I trusted my clinical judgment more than the prevailing worldview,
it opened me to the awareness that the universe has many forms of
intelligent beings besides us. We are one of these beings, and we
are connected with all kinds of creatures and intelligence, and
spirits, animate as well as inanimate.
It’s the old hero’s journey in the sense that the traveler
in these transpersonal realms of expanded consciousness goes out
and then comes back and says, “You know, we’ve seen
another universe,” or “We’ve seen the universe
is far more vast in terms of its dimensionality. There are not only
lots of galaxies but there are many dimensions. It’s alive!
It’s sacred!” When they return from their journey, they
bring that awareness to lecture audiences and films, or whatever
they do, and it enters the popular culture and expands awareness
In his Letters to a Young Poet there’s a passage where Rilke
is speaking about the relationship between poetry and spirituality.
This was written in the early years of the twentieth century, when
the rational faculties had become dominant and were being used to
intellectualize about God and spirit, as they still are. Rilke put
it this way: “…the experiences that are called ‘visions,’
the whole so-called ‘spirit-world,’ death, all those
things that are so closely akin to us, have by daily parrying been
so crowded out of life that the senses by which we could have grasped
them are atrophied. To say nothing of God.”
One of the benefits of working with anomalous experiences is that
it reverses this atrophy and reanimates the senses so that they
can directly experience transcendent reality. For me, that’s
the most critical cutting edge. I began to think about what a science
of knowing the sacred would be like. Since we cannot replicate people’s
experiences of abductions or of luminous, transpersonal realms,
we must use our professional understanding and intuition to assess
the reliability of one who reports such an experience. The objective
is to be as rigorous, precise and reliable as possible in understanding
So, for instance, listen to someone like Dr. Veronica Goodchild,
who has had several anomalous experiences involving strange luminosity,
loss of memory and loss of blocks of time. She teaches graduate
psychology courses to Ph.D. candidates and authored the book Eros
and Chaos. If you are skilled at really hearing people, you will
have an immediate sense that this is someone whose words you can
trust. But what is that trust-inducing quality? What are the essential
elements that make a believable witness?
I’m trying to develop a set of principles to help to determine
who can be trusted as an authentic witness. When one meets someone
like Veronica, one can say, “This person can’t be lying.
This person appears to me to be normal, healthy, wise, and spiritually
advanced. She has witnessed something that attests to a reality
beyond what we normally allow could be true.”
I’m also interested in how we determine the reliability of
a witness who does not already have an established reputation for
credibility. I think that we’re talking about a mixture of
qualities in these people that we can intuit, as well as applying
professional criteria. One quality is a sense that the person has
been touched by the divine or by something beyond what we know to
be our normal reality. Then there is the objective assessment that
professionals can make by observing an individual’s behavior
to determine the soundness of their mind and the purity of their
motives in order to be able to tell that they are not self-serving.
Witnesses who meet these standards become powerful agents for the
expansion of other people’s sense of reality. When you present
them appropriately to various audiences, and then bring up relevant
social issues in the new context that their experiences create,
the listeners may be deeply moved and inspired to create social
Because the spokesperson is a reliable Witness, what he or she
has to say becomes a sacred communication that others can take seriously.
For example, I made a film of the children in Africa who have been
recorded talking about their UFO encounter. Those children would
say that the beings communicated to them through their eyes or from
mind to mind that “We are not taking proper care of the planet.”
That was the communication and virtually everyone who hears it is
affected by it. Nobody seems to question that those children are
trustworthy, reliable Witnesses.
Whether or not there were UFOs is actually secondary in my mind
to what the perceived aliens are telling the children. It’s
not the aliens per se that counts; it’s the message that these
children have taken in and brought to others. But how do we legitimize
aliens as authorities? It can only be through the reliability of
the people who experience them and the value of the message they
My role in a sense has been to legitimize the Witnesses –
to be a witness to the Witnesses. I describe myself as a secondary
witness. Then there are the people in the audience who come to the
lecture to hear both the direct Witness and the secondary witness.
They are the third-level witnesses. The fourth-level witness is
the society at large. It’s this fourth level that we’re
trying to reach. Each level has an important role to play. The primary
witness has the actual direct experience of the divine, or some
other type of anomalous event, and then comes back with a new truth.
Secondary witnesses are, like you and me, the vehicles for bringing
them forth. The third level is the people who come to hear us, and
the fourth is the whole culture. That’s a possible structure.
Even some kinds of psychotherapy can give us this expansion of
understanding and compassion. It depends on the type of therapy
and the consciousness of the therapist. Some can create a kind of
transformative field in which an altered state may occur.
What do we mean by reality, anyway? How do we define it? Are we
content to have reality be only that which we can prove physically?
Or are there realities beyond our personal experiences that have
been perceived by credible Witnesses and are therefore likely to
have validity? In my research, we are interested in the epistemological
elements of the question and are also interested in the expanded
notions of reality. This exploration itself helps to expand consensual
There are a lot of people interested in the physical hardware of
UFO spacecraft, in proving their physical existence with photos
and other literal evidence. This group wanted me to legitimize aliens
as a three-dimensional, scientific reality, and I wasn’t focused
on that. I was interested in developing a methodology and an epistemology
that would apply both to understanding inter-dimensional experiences
and expanding our perception of reality. That’s a different
way of knowing than they’re interested in. So it disappointed
the UFO nuts-and-bolts people that I didn’t give legitimacy
to their hunger for scientific acceptance.
Chaos, Categories and Vibrational Multiplicity
The main thing that the human mind, or brain, does is to make categories.
We navigate through the chaos of vibrational multiplicity by creating
categories so we can find our way. And one of those dominant types
of categorization is “dualistic dichotomies”: yes /no,
opposites, real or unreal. It’s physical or it’s not
physical. It’s objective or it’s subjective.
We have a predilection for creating either/or categorizations.
But there is no reason why something couldn’t go from gray
to black or gray to white. By the same token, in terms of being
physically real or not, it could be partly physical and then fade,
or transform, into being non-physical. It could be ethereal. And
I think that probably Sanskrit, Tibetan, and other languages do
a better job with that than English, which insists on opposites
without words for in-between states.
Yet, when you’re in a transcendent state the difference between
outside and inside dissolves. In other words the barriers that separate
categories tend to fall apart because these categories are simply
conveniences that the mind has created for navigation. So when you’re
in a holistic or holotropic state, they don’t hold up. The
dichotomy we’re concerned about here is whether something
is objectively, physically real, or not, and that distinction breaks
We’re only 200 years since they couldn’t believe that
meteorites came from the sky. It was thought to be physically impossible
that there could be pieces of metal coming from the heavens. So
when a meteorite would hit the earth, somebody would try to prove
that it was a piece that broke off of a mountain.
I have no question that this expanded reality, insofar as it is
able to impact the culture, would positively affect the problems.
The social implications of this are easy to see. What’s not
easy is how to take that into the social activist world. It’s
a no-brainer to know that if you break down the barriers and thereby
crack open our Western mind, as I call it, then you open to the
awareness that we humans, the sea, and the trees are all one sacred
unit. Knowing this, you can’t pollute the ocean.
The challenge is to take that expanded awareness and bring about
a larger social impact, over and above the people to whom the experiences
have occurred. Our problems have come from the misperception that
we are separate. You can only destroy something that is separate