Scientific materialism—in vogue these days—says that consciousness, like all things, is a product of the physical world. When we die, our spirit blinks out with our neurons.
But what if consciousness resides both in and outside of our bodies? Are we part of some larger non-physical reality that can be accessed with the right type of practice?
Oliver certainly thinks so. As a teen growing up in the mountains of Central Virginia he began holding weekly trance sessions for a gathering group of researchers and psychics. Notable locals like Elisabeth Kubler-Ross came to hear Jerhoam speak, he said. At 16, Oliver began to work with police departments as a psychic detective, making his way onto reality TV shows like Haunting Evidence and teaching short courses in psychic development through UVA’s University Union.
In fact, he told us, Charlottesville and its environs have been home to major players in the field of higher consciousness, ones who gave us terms like tunnel of light and near-death and out-of-body experiences.
Dr. George G. Ritchie, who spent his residency in the UVA School of Medicine’s psychiatry program and opened a private practice in Charlottesville, described dying in an Army hospital and, nine minutes later, being brought back to life. In those nine minutes, he claimed to have roamed the country, met Jesus Christ, and saw souls engaged in various afterlife activities. In 1975, a UVA Ph.D. graduate named Raymond Moody published the bestseller Life After Life, a report of a qualitative study of 150 interview subjects, including Ritchie, who had near-death experiences.
Joseph McMoneagle, a psychic known as Remote Viewer No. 1 in the top secret Army program Stargate, helped locate everything from downed missiles to prisoners of war during his employment by the twenty-year-long intelligence program. He still lives in Nelson County.
At the end of his talk, Oliver pulled out plastic baggies of pendulums, devices, he said, for divining our higher consciousness.
“Come get one if you’d like,” he offered.
We stood up to mingle, and I felt like a sore thumb, but the Society members welcomed me. A young man with stuffed cat ears protruding from his blonde curls asked me for my birth date. When I told him, he grinned and said one of his spiritual teachers was born on the same day. Oliver stood near the podium where students were chatting, opening pendulums and asking them to show signs for yes and no. When one tiny pendant—a small metal cone on a chain—began to swing back and forth, a young girl squealed with delight.
I asked Oliver how to develop intuition, the tool of psychic work.
“You need to practice meditation or something that can bring you relaxation,” he said. “You need focus and concentration so you can listen and observe the spontaneous revelations that come between ordinary thoughts—the worrying, the rehashing of pros and cons. You just kind of get quiet and let that greater self that you are be revealed through a thought, a word, or a synchronicity.”
When Oliver offered me the last pendulum, I took it. Next to me, a pretty girl with brown hair and luminous eyes was studying hers intensely.
“Is it working?” I asked.
She looked up and smiled. “Yes!”
I watched it swing in circles above her palm.
Amalia Harte took a gap year between high school and college. During a solo journey through Central America, she was struck by synchronicity.
“I manifested some pretty incredible things,” she told me. “One story that I like to tell is when I saw a copy of The Alchemist at a hostel. I knew I had to read it, but I couldn’t just take it, so I put out this intention: at the next place I volunteer I’m going to go into this library and find it. Turns out the library had five adventure books, you know, not the kind of place you’d find a spiritual book. Then, on my last day, randomly on a table where we would all eat, The Alchemist was just lying there. Nobody knew where it came from.”
Harte had already been accepted to UVA when she returned to the U.S., but she didn’t want to let go of the energy her travels had generated.
“I came back from my travels and felt very strongly that something existed beyond our material perception,” she explained. “And I wanted to focus on that.”
A bit of digging led her to UVA’s Division of Perceptual Studies, where she now volunteers. DOPS consists of a small group of researchers within the Psychiatry and Neurobehavorial Sciences Department of the University of Virginia’s Health System. They conduct careful, systematic examinations of unexplained phenomena including near-death experiences, out-of-body experiences, apparitions and after-death communications, deathbed visions, psychophysiological studies of altered states of consciousness, and children who claim to remember past lives.
DOPS is one of a handful of such academic divisions at universities around the world. Established in 1967 by Dr. Ian Stevenson and funded by private donations, the Division has reviewed thousands of cases and published copious publications. I hoped some of the team members would be willing to share some scientific perspective on the pseudo-scientific realm I was exploring, but a researcher declined my interview request, noting that my last C-VILLE cover story (a whimsical profile of local ghost hunters) was an example of the sensational coverage they try to avoid. DOPS, I was told, does not submit to interviews in publications whose purpose is entertainment, only to those committed to a serious academic treatment of its work.
In Dr. Jim B. Tucker’s new book, Return to Life: Extraordinary Cases of Children Who Remember Past Lives, the DOPS associate professor details the accounts of children who appear to remember stories from past lives, often with matching birthmarks or gestures to the person they claim to be. Seventy percent of cases are considered “solved,” insofar as “a deceased individual has been found whose life matches the details the child has given.” His work was the subject of The University of Virginia Magazine’s winter issue cover story “The Science of Reincarnation,” which set off a searing debate in an online comment stream about the scientific merit of DOPS’ research.
In the final chapters of Tucker’s book, he explores recent breakthroughs in quantum physics, including superposition and quantum entanglement, which he says indicate a major shift in our understanding of reality.
“Consciousness,” Tucker writes, “is outside the quantum system, interacting with the physical universe but also existing beyond it, as it registers and creates that universe.” And, he goes on to say, “a portion of it is in each of us.”
Return to Life concludes with a theory: “that the physical grows out of the mental, meaning that the physical world is created out of something you can think of as Mind or consciousness or the spiritual.”
It’s the closest I’ve come to a rational explanation for the stories Oliver, Lasky, and Harte related to me. I watched the pendulum circle over Harte’s palm and realized how little I really knew my own mind.
“Once I came here, I wanted to find more people my age who were spiritually journeying and curious,” Harte said. “Miraculously, this year, the Society for Awakening Souls formed.”
Lasky had told me he felt compelled to start the Society as part of his own journey.
As I left Newcomb Hall (with eau de dining hall perfuming my clothing), I thought about what Lasky had told me during our first meeting: “Being on a spiritual path has to do with realizing that everybody has a purpose, and trying to figure out your purpose with other people. You meditate and realize there is more to the world than what you’ve been taught, what’s on TV, what you grew up thinking, even what your parents or their parents taught you.”
I asked Harte if she thought this was a trend unique to the group or something of a broader pattern.
“Just look at the intense popularity of the Contemplative Sciences Center. You can barely get into the yoga or meditation classes,” she said. “There was a class I wanted to join called “Spiritual but Not Religious.” That class filled up, like, instantly. I’m 70th on the waiting list, and there are only 70 people in the class. These are things that people are really interested in.”
One of the things I learned in my interviews is that the people most interested in this subject matter weren’t concerned about dividing lines between sources of information. Harte connected DOPS, UVA’s CSC, and the Society for Awakening Souls. But while DOPS is dedicated to the scientific evaluation of extraordinary claims, the CSC is focused on how religion and science intersect, basically on the meditative horizon that delineates the body/mind continuum.
“People love extremes and extravagant claims, so we like to say things like ordinary consciousness versus higher consciousness. But I see it as a spectrum of possibilities,” said David Germano, Director of the Contemplative Sciences Center and Associate Professor of Tibetan and Buddhist Studies at UVA. “On a spectrum, we can see how people who throw themselves into a practice, or have an aptitude for something, can experience things that are hard to understand.”