Feature Stories

Compassion, Science and Consciousness Survival
Dr. Charles T. Tart

[A shortened version of this article appeared in the Spring 1994 issue of the Noetic Sciences Review, pp. 9-15.]



A friend of mine died recently, and being with him during his last few months taught me a lot about care for the dying, and how I might integrate my scientific work on survival of consciousness with a compassionately human perspective. It is all too easy to use the abstractions and intellectual creations of science as a means of distracting ourselves from the fact of death. It confronts us all, and we all have a natural fear of annihilation and of the unknown. Yet by avoiding the actuality of death, taking ourselves away from the presence of mortality, we also shut out an opportunity for a profound and valuable experience - an experience that may transform the quality of our living.

Before turning to a scientific perspective, therefore, I want to begin with the story of my recent experience with my friend Ken. I first met him a couple of years ago through our common interest in Buddhism. Although we were both members of Sogyal Rinpoche's Rigpa Fellowship, he was not someone I knew intimately. Last year he fell ill with AIDS-related symptoms. When he could not take care of himself anymore, I, along with a number of others, volunteered to come to his home occasionally and do what we could to offer practical help and spiritual support.

The Honesty Of Death

I've had very little experience in caring for the dying - even though intellectually I know quite a lot about the process. My first reaction was "What am I going to say to someone who is dying?" All my conceptual knowledge about the biology and psychology of death and dying seemed so inappropriate when confronted with the real thing. The first evening I went over to see Ken, however, the confusion I had about what to do vanished because of something very simple. He immediately asked me to help him with his will - he was having trouble seeing clearly and he couldn't read the document. He wanted me to read it to him, take notes and make corrections as he dictated. Somehow, his matter-of-fact acceptance of his fate, the imminence of his death, dissolved my awkwardness. I found I could unselfconsciously talk to him about the fact that he was dying. It wasn't a big deal anymore. That initial moment of honesty simply cleared the air. The experience, however, also sensitized me to how dishonest we are about death in our culture, about how much we tend to avoid and suppress it.
I would visit Ken about one evening a week, first at his home and then in hospice. My interactions with him there led me to an even deeper appreciation of and insight into the power and possibilities available if we open up to the process of dying. Ken had not been a student of Buddhism very long, perhaps three or four years, but he had become very serious about it. He intended to die in a Tibetan Buddhist way: Taking death as an opportunity for spiritual growth; as a way to dedicate his suffering to relieve the suffering of others; to develop compassion and to use the process of dying to gain greater liberation.

His room was arranged to evoke this atmosphere. He had pictures on the wall of Buddhist teachers he had known and a little shrine at the foot of his bed where he could see it easily. People would come in from the Rigpa Fellowship and they would help him chant mantras or go through some prayers, meditate with him, or talk about spiritual matters. When he began slipping into what the medical staff called AIDS "dementia", where his mind would wander, the focused chanting, praying and meditation were very helpful in keeping him communicative and coherent. Of course, people could not be with him all the time, so I helped out by recording on tape some of the chants and practices he was familiar with from Tibetan Buddhism, including simultaneous English translations, which he could play over and over. He found that very helpful, and I realized then how important audio tapes could be in assisting people through the dying process.

Dying As An Altered State

I learned a great deal from being with Ken. For one thing, I learned that what the doctors were calling "dementia", implying some form of stupidity or loss of coherent consciousness, could be something altogether different. From my perspective of years of studying spiritual practices and transpersonal psychologies, it was clear that he was going in and out of altered states of consciousness. By "altered state" I mean different, not necessarily better or worse. Sometimes he was right here in his ordinary state; he was sharp and had a great sense of humor. And sometimes he was way "out there"; to us, he was sleeping or unconscious, but when talking to him afterwards he would report that he had been aware and experiencing some very extraordinary conscious states. Sometimes he was kind of here and kind of there, in an altered state, and it was difficult to communicate with him unless we were careful about how we phrased things. I realized that this was like talking to someone undergoing a psychedelic experience or who is delirious from a fever: We can communicate a lot, both ways, if we allow for the characteristics of the altered state and we know something about doing that.

As I said, Ken was highly motivated to take his dying as an opportunity for practicing his spiritual path more and more deeply. For instance, he repeatedly asked the hospice staff to turn off the television set in his room, although their habit was to turn it on. In fact, he wanted them to take the television out of the room altogether, but the staff could not understand his desire to be without it. At one point, they were so bemused by his requests they sent up an engineer to fix the set, when all he wanted was to be rid of the thing! They couldn't understand that he wanted it gone, that he wasn't interested in losing himself in television.

I noticed that every room of the hospice had a television, and it seemed the set was always on. The basic policy seemed to be drug people up and distract them with an unending round of sit-coms and re-runs. The hospice was giving good medical care but, with the exception of Ken's room, there seemed to be no recognition of the spiritual possibilities connected with death.

Soon enough, however, the hospice staff began to notice what was going on, and they began dropping into Ken's room whenever they had a break, because of the calm and the spiritual, loving atmosphere there. They noticed there was a meaningful process going on in his room, a different response to dying than the usual attitude "all we can do is make the patients comfortable".

I wasn't there at the very end. Ken wanted to share his last moments just with his family and Sydney, a remarkable lady from the Rigpa Fellowship who had been Ken's most devoted helper. But I was told the inspiring story of how he left. He knew his time was close, and he chose to listen to a tape of a Tibetan Buddhist practice called "powa", a meditation designed to eject consciousness from the body in a way that is favorable to liberation or at least to the probability of a good incarnation. Powa usually involves internally reciting mantras and visualizing energy flows, in a meditative frame of mind. Whether or not you happen to believe this particular spiritual doctrine, it is certainly more interesting to devote your mental energies to this kind of practice than wallowing in self-pity, distracting yourself with old re-runs on television, or being with people who deny that you are dying.

Ken died while listening to the powa practice, breathing shallower and shallower, until at the last round of the visualization he breathed out and didn't breathe in again. He died with a smile on his face, and people said that his body was radiant for hours afterwards. It was like a mystical experience. Yet this wasn't somebody who had been an advanced spiritual master; it wasn't as though he had been raised somewhere like Tibet and had lived his life immersed in exotic spiritual practices. He was an ordinary modern American, sharp and computer-literate, an analytical kind of guy. He had just opened himself up to Buddhist practices for a few years, and at the end had committed himself wholly to the spiritual possibilities of dying.

Improving How We Can Die

The experience of being with Ken inspired me to want to be more helpful to the dying. At first I thought - and often still do - "Who am I to think I can help the dying? What nerve!" I'm not somebody with extensive hospice training and I don't have much practical experience. On the other hand, I started thinking, it doesn't take much at all to make a big improvement on the mainstream practice of "drug 'em and distract 'em with old re-runs"! I feel ignorant about so much; but I do know something about altered states, which people are going to experience as they die; and I do know something about spiritual practices concerned with dying and death.

Sogyal Rinpoche's best selling book, The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, has alerted many people to the need for a more spiritual death, and, as one way of trying to help, I hope to be of some help with his plans to form a hospice designed to offer more comprehensive spiritual care for the dying. Although it will be organized within a Buddhist context, he will attempt to generalize it so that people unfamiliar with Buddhism will still feel welcomed, without having to adopt a different spiritual philosophy. However, there are other ways I can be of help. As it happened, while taking care of Ken I heard from an old friend, Robert Monroe - founder of the Monroe Institute and author of Journeys Out Of The Body - and he, "coincidentally," had been thinking of developing techniques to help the dying, with no specific religious framework at all.

I've been working for some time now with Bob and Elizabeth Kubler-Ross to develop a series of training tapes for people who are dying. This series of cassettes uses Monroe's "HemiSync" (TM) process of driving brainwaves via special sounds to help induce states of consciousness that will assist in making the suggestions and ideas on the tapes more effective. The sequence starts with instructions designed to help people relax, to sleep better, and to have clearer inner experiences which remind them that we are more than our physical bodies - that there is a life of the mind, an inner life, that's very important and that doesn't seem particularly connected to the body. Eventually, some of these exercises are designed to produce what we may call "out-of-the-body" experiences or "inner journeys". The altered states induced by listening to these tapes are intended as a preparation for death by giving the person a sense of what it would be like to be a consciousness that is not confined to the body. Finally, when the person feels that he or she is ready to go, there will be one tape which takes the listener through the now familiar methods of "leaving", but this time with no return instructions on the tape. (They can always change their mind, of course, and come back on their own.)

In focusing here on the purpose of this "Going Home" series, [Note 1] I am deliberately emphasizing the human side of dying, rather than the science. Quite aside from the intellectual work I've done on altered states and research into the possibilities of survival of consciousness beyond biological death, my experience with Ken has awakened me to a deep desire to want to help people through the process of dying. The tapes will be an experiment in improving the quality of the way a person can die. At the very least, they will give people something far more interesting to occupy the final stages of a terminal illness than watching television. And at their best, they will ???????

Scientific Research On Survival

Switching now from my heart to my head, I'd like to summarize my scientific perspective on the question of the survival of consciousness. For most of my career as a scientist, it has been obvious to me that the dominant materialistic view of consciousness as being nothing but the electrochemical operation of the brain is grossly inadequate - not just on theoretical or philosophical grounds, but in light of the solid, factual evidence. There are two bodies of data that support this position: (1) the data on psi phenomena - extrasensory perception (ESP) and psychokinesis (PK); and (2) careful research with mediums.

The evidence from laboratory parapsychology shows that you can put human beings in situations where, according to the dominant materialist view of the world, no communication can possibly happen and they cannot affect external physical processes. Nevertheless, it has been repeatedly shown that people sometimes do communicate with each other when all known sensory channels have been excluded (ESP), and sometimes can influence the behavior of physical systems without any physical contact (PK). For example, scientists have put people in isolated rooms, separated even by thousands of miles, have tested to see if they could send telepathic messages, and have found that sometimes a message gets through.

In other experiments, researchers tested to see if people could affect an electronic device simply by using their minds, and discovered that the behavior of the machine correlated with the intention of the subject significantly above the statistical laws of chance. In one type of experiment, for example, the subjects were asked to influence a sequence of randomly flashing red and green lights, and demonstrated an ability to produce a statistical bias in favor of one of the colors. In other words, we have here an instance of mind directly affecting matter. (Now, of course, this happens every time you or I exercise our volition - for example, deciding to turn a page or switch off a light. But that is mind affecting the matter of its own brain, nervous system and muscles which are in physical contact with the page or switch. In the situation just referred to, however, we have an instance of someone's mind directly affecting matter beyond that person's brain and body. Both of these situations - mind affecting its own brain, and mind affecting matter at a distance - remain completely inexplicable within the parameters of modern science.) Although such phenomena are typically dismissed as "trivial" or "inconsequential anomalies" by the scientific orthodoxy, the evidence for both telepathy and psychokinesis explodes the myth of reductionistic-physicalistic science that mind or consciousness is "nothing but" an epiphenomenon of the brain.

These results present a far greater challenge to current scientific paradigms than anything that has come out of relativity theory or quantum physics. In short, they effectively demonstrate the non-physical nature of consciousness. Mind does not equal brain. Even if we don't have a coherent theoretical framework for explaining this, the empirical evidence removes previous objections based solely on theoretical physicalist grounds. Given this, the exploration of survival of consciousness after biological death becomes a viable scientific venture.

None of the evidence for the phenomena reported in the more than thirteen hundred articles on psi effects can be explained in terms of what a human brain and nervous system can do. You don't have to be a physicist to see that the energies are not there to communicate the ESP information or PK effects over distances. If you believe you fully understand what a human being is, and it's all a function of material factors we know about, you are ignoring the very reliable data that tells us the mind can do things that the brain can't do. The empirical facts are that the mind can reach out and gather information and affect things when there is no way to explain this according to our current understanding of physics or any reasonably straightforward extension of it. Diehard materialists object that someday scientists may be able to explain mind in physical terms; but that is simply a case of what philosophers call "promissory materialism". Such a position is completely unscientific; there is no way ever to falsify a statement of promissory materialism. It is a statement of faith, on a par with saying that someday we'll be able to explain everything in terms of what God or the angels do.

Based on the evidence from parapsychology, we can make a strong case, then, for believing that the human mind is something more than the body. In principle, therefore, the idea that consciousness could survive death is not so outrageous, and should not be beyond scientific exploration. Nevertheless, we may ask: "What, specifically, can science do in this area?"

Research With Mediums

To begin with, scientists could take note of reports of anomalous phenomena involving purported extra-corporeal consciousness. For instance, many people have reported seeing apparitions of the dead, or believe they have had psychic contact with deceased relatives. Such spontaneous experiences, however, provide inadequate data on which to build a science. They may suggest directions to explore, but science deals with an experimental method and requires stronger evidence than anecdotes.

Historically, attempts to establish experimental evidence for disembodied consciousness began in the last century with the rise of modern spiritualism. In the late 1800s, in Hydesville, New York, the Fox sisters generated a lot of attention internationally with claims and alleged demonstrations of communications with spirits of the dead. After a time, numerous other people were claiming they could go into some kind of altered state, usually called "mediumistic trance," could contact spirits of the deceased and get messages from them. The early Spiritualists emphasized that it wasn't necessary to believe in survival in order to investigate the apparitions. In fact, they discouraged unquestioning belief, inviting serious-minded folk to "Test it for yourself." In principle, that sentiment reflects the essence of the scientific attitude. Of course, in attempting to actually apply this approach, investigators encountered many difficult procedural complications - such as how to rule out trickery, collusion, and self-delusion. Nevertheless, the experiments were done in a true spirit of scientific research.

Spiritualism was popular with a great number of Americans and Britons during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and attracted leading figures in the scientific community, such as psychologist William James in the United States and physicist William Crookes in England. As in any field of life, the problem of fraudulent reports can never be overlooked and, indeed, cases of charlatanism were uncovered in spiritualistic seances. But by no means should we decide, therefore, that all claims for spirit communications are false. However, even in cases where fraud was not an issue, the quality of the evidence was often weak scientifically. To explain why, let me give a hypothetical example: You go to a medium in the hope of contacting your dead uncle Ferdinand. Bear in mind that, like most people who go to mediums, you are there because you have recently lost a loved one. You are looking for comfort, even though you may insist you are looking for proof. There is a very strong emotional desire to believe, and that is not the best way to collect evidence. Furthermore, if an outsider listens to the so-called evidence, in many cases it would not be very impressive. You may protest "But I know it was Uncle Ferdinand because he said he loved me, and it sounded like him." You may be totally convinced, but evidentially that is extremely vague and weak data on which to base a scientific case.

Although your visit to a medium may serve an important psychological function, helping you cope with bereavement, if you are interested in strong scientific evidence a different approach is needed. Scientific investigation of good mediums has involved, ideally, sending a proxy, not someone emotionally attached to the departed soul or, indeed, even someone who knows the deceased. The proxy could thus not ask leading questions that imply the correct answer, and could not inadvertently give away part of the information being sought. This is important: even if the medium were honest but in an altered state, she may not even know she got the information through you and replayed it as part of an unconscious impersonation of Uncle Ferdinand. To be good science, of course, the entire interaction should be recorded - nowadays, on video tape if possible. Other clues, such as body language, for instance, may give the game away. A well recorded session could help eliminate this artifact.

A fair amount of good quality research was done in this manner in the past - but before videotapes. Some years ago I looked at the data in great detail, and my main impression was that in some cases there is extremely good evidence for the survival of a particular personality. The alleged deceased communicator gave correct names, dates, and specific personality characteristics which created a distinct impression of the deceased's identity. To give a sense of the standards of investigation used in much of this research, I sometimes use an analogy of a favorite cousin who disappeared a few years ago. Suddenly you get a long-distance phone call for help. The connection is very bad, it's hard to make out voice tone or complete sentences, and the caller, claiming to be your cousin, says he was hit on the head so he has a hard time remembering, and he needs urgent financial help. Naturally, you would want to be sure who the person is before you sent any money. The kinds of rational criteria which would need to be applied in this scenario, have been applied in the cases of good mediumship that have been investigated in the past.

Spiritual Implications of Conscious Dying

At this point, I'd like to bring this article to a focus by integrating the opening section illustrating a human perspective on death with the scientific discussion above. Together, they may help shed some light on the spiritual implications inherent in the altered states experienced during the process of dying.

The central question of many spiritual traditions is "Who am I? What is my identity?" All my studies, and my knowledge of other people's studies, have made me think that a major component of one's identity is the physical body. Our awareness is dominated for the most part by the physical representations of who we are physically. There is a constant pattern of sensations from our body that we are not even conscious of for the most part, but which nevertheless molds our consciousness, which in turn reinforces habits of thinking, feeling, perceiving and acting. Unfortunately, from a spiritual, or psychology of liberation perspective, this is a problem.

More and more it becomes apparent to me as a psychologist and student of the spiritual that each of us has vast potentials. Quite apart from questions of survival, we have enormous potential to create our identity, our experience of self. But because we are socialized, enculturated into a particular set of beliefs and behaviors, each one of us has been squeezed down to a tiny fraction of that potential. The great tragedy is that we have been conditioned to believe that this tiny fraction is all we are. We live, therefore, in a cramped psychological space, in what Gurdjieff called a "false personality". We think that is who we are, we think that is our personality; but it is false in the sense that it ignores so much of the reality of what could be.

A major spiritual task in life is to begin to deeply realize how artificially cramped we are, to stop identifying so closely with that limited self, and begin to discover some of our other potentials. The task is to live what I like to call a more "spacious" life. Let me personalize this to illustrate what I mean. I'm manifesting right now as "Professor Charles T. Tart, PhD, authority on altered states and psychic research." But that's only one of many possible manifestations; if I'm totally immersed in this persona, I'm trapped. If, however, I can maintain a certain kind of spaciousness, I can realize that actually another part of who I am is somebody who would like to be helpful to people, who would like to be compassionate. If I'm following a spiritual practice, I can watch the part of me that is so involved in the technical persona. I can ask myself, for example: "Am I presenting the ideas in this article in a way that is actually going to be helpful to people? Or have I become intoxicated with technical ideas and intellectual exposition?" When I open to the spaciousness, however, I can be aware of more points or aspects of who I am.[Note 3]

When it comes to death, Tibetan Buddhism is the most interesting spiritual tradition to me because the Lamas have thought a lot about it, have developed sophisticated techniques for dealing with it, and have fascinating psychological teachings about it. I don't know how much of it is literally true or false. But, whether I know that or not, what appeals strongly to me is that, according to the Tibetans, the best way to prepare for death is to become more spacious in life, now; to begin to relax, to become more natural, to get out of this artificial identification with our limited self. Becoming more spacious gives us opportunities to contact the more open, deeper, broader parts of our self. A classical Buddhist, of course, would say letting go allows you to enter a state of or contact the "no-self". The concept of "self" tends to concretize and promote too much identification with the pathological habits of what has no permanent existence anyway.

This letting go of self is, I ding rigid beliefs. They are not affected by evidence, no matter how scientifically rigorous (as a great deal of psi research necessarily is because of efforts to satisfy the critics). "Pseudo-skeptics" are fundamentalist believers in orthodox materialism, which is no less a metaphysical allegiance than any other religion's.

The real scientist's job, on the other hand, is to look at evidence without bias and to follow the theoretical leads of the data even if that means reexamining the underlying metaphysical assumptions and methodologies of current science.

[1] The Going Home tape series, designed by Robert Monroe, with assistance from Charles Tart and Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, will be available in the first quarter of 1994, through the Monroe Institute, Box 175, Faber, Virginia 22938.
[3] More discussion of and practical techniques for creating this kind of spaciousness are discussed in Charles Tart's Waking Up: Overcoming the Obstacles to Human Potential, New Science Library, Boston, 1986, and available from the IONS book service.

This article has no references.

Our thanks to Dr. Tart for allowing this article to appear on Health Webpicks.

Copyright Notice
You may forward this document to anyone you think might be interested. The only limitations are:
1. You must copy this document in its entirety, without modifications, including this copyright notice.
2. You do not have permission to change the contents or make extracts.
3. You do not have permission to copy this document for commercial purposes.
==>> The contents of this document are Copyright 1994 by the Institute for Noetic Sciences.

Charles T. Tart - Brief Biographical Data
Charles T. Tart, Ph.D., is internationally known for his psychological work on the nature of consciousness (particularly altered states of consciousness), as one of the founders of the field of transpersonal psychology, and for his research in scientific parapsychology. His two classic books, Altered States of Consciousness (1969) and Transpersonal Psychologies (1975), became widely used texts that were instrumental in allowing these areas to become part of modern psychology.

He is currently Professor Emeritus of Psychology at the University of California,at Davis, where he served for 28 years, as well as a Core Faculty Member at the Institute of Transpersonal Psychology (Palo Alto, California) and a Senior Research Fellow of the Institute of Noetic Sciences (Sausalito, California). He was the first holder of the Bigelow Chair of Consciousness Studies at the University of Nevada in Las Vegas and has served as a Visiting Professor in East-West Psychology at the California Institute of Integral Studies, as an Instructor in Psychiatry at the School of Medicine of the University of Virginia, and a consultant on government funded parapsychological research at the Stanford Research Institute (now known as SRI International).

As well as a laboratory researcher, Professor Tart has been a student of the Japanese martial art of Aikido (in which he holds a black belt), of meditation, of Gurdjieff's work, of Buddhism, and of other psychological and spiritual growth disciplines. His primary goal is to build bridges between the scientific and spiritual communities and to help bring about a refinement and integration of Western and Eastern approaches for knowing the world and for personal and social growth.

Back to Features Page