Does everyone have a ghost story?

For a period growing up to get to my (older) brother's bedroom, you had to pass through mine. One evening lying in bed (and before my brother had gone to bed), I lay awake and found myself listening to the drawers of my brother's chest of drawers open and shut, open and shut, in sequence, and with each drawer opening more than once. I was frozen in fear, jolted with excitement. Either there was a burglar with an unhealthy fascination for the contents of a teenager's cabinet or an unknown agency that was for unknown reasons opening and shutting the drawers. The problem with the first explanation was that he would have had to climb through a window suspended over a shared passageway at an hour unlikely to be undisturbed (and, in any case, it was winter, the window was shut and had as distinctive a sound as the drawers did).

A minor mystery that, though it remains wholly memorable, casts the kind of doubt that our cognitive conservatism sponsors. Draws do not open and shut by themselves (or by ghostly agency), so I must have misheard or be dreaming (or simply be fabricating this story) excepting, of course, that ghostly agencies are well attested - and presumably mine can be attributed to a poltergeist phenomena.

But apart from their shock value to our complacent materialist paradigm (not in itself unimportant) how might they feature in one's spiritual life?

A traditional religious viewpoint might be to acknowledge yet exclude them from consideration. Unusual experiences may be real but are distractions from treading the spiritual path, possibly simply distracting or indeed opportunities for subtle (or not so subtle) egotism. Look at me - I can see or manifest unique experiences! This is often the counsel over the siddhis - the powers purported to be manifested by practitioners of varied forms of yoga discipline, fascinating, maybe possibly useful, but tangential to the transformation of consciousness towards enlightenment (and St Theresa of Avila found her tendency to levitate wholly inconveniencing).

However, Michael Grosso, an American philosopher and artist, thinks otherwise. In his 'Soulmaking: Uncommon Paths to Self-Understanding', he explores ways that such uncanny experiences may help us to a better understanding of ourselves and our possibilities in the world. He invites us to pay attention to the marvellous (as well as the marvellous in the everyday). Many of the experiences that Grosso explores are his own or those that were directly brought to him when his interest and obvious sympathy became known. It is a sympathy that carries credence but never credulity and his 'explanations' are always explorative and open.

The story that moved me most was of one of his students who repeatedly dreamt of a young boy at a sea shore, with haunting eyes and a white cape. Everyone in the dream warned the dreamer not to touch him, a warning she ignored. The first time she did so, she woke to find her hand coated in a black substance of unknown origin, a manifestation that was to recur. What was most striking, however, was every time she refused to follow the young boy's promptings in her waking life, her life began to fall apart, accidents would strike, misunderstandings abound. Every time she followed the promptings, most deeply relating to the expression of her own gifts, her life returned to an even keel and a sense of accompanying wonder. Following her gifts, however, required her to swim against the tide of her immediate families resistance to her following her 'weird' (as the Anglo-Saxons would have called it), a destiny with which her dream child appeared to be intimately related. One of her family that belittled her was an aunt who, sadly, lived a life of quiet desperation having failed to live out her own aspirations; and, in a striking moment, Grosso dreams of this aunt in minute detail, even though at this stage, he did not know of her existence (and certainly not what she looked like).

You are left not only deeply pondering the relationship between inner and outer worlds (at multiple levels) and how subtly connected we may be, but cast back into thinking of vocation. Do we all carry within a 'puer aeternus' - an immortal child - that holds a key to how we may most fruitful be and serve the world?

There is, also, his story of how he dreamt (three times) of the assassination of President Reagan and how (given his interests), he had already communicated the details to a friend who could then confirm their accuracy. As he says, precognition truly does test our understanding of the world but the alternatives are equally disconcerting and all imply action between minds at a distance (unless one simply assumes one is mistaken or the world is improbably coincidental). You could wonder why Grosso did not try and warn the President (after all this was not his first precognitive dream) until, of course, you realise how it would appear (and the sheer difficulty of any public figure telling a true insight from multiple offerings given their capacity to generate all kinds of projection - as indeed Reagan was sinisterly from Hinckley, the man who shot him)!

Grosso at the opening quotes Heraclitus reminding us that we are unfathomed, that the scope of our possibilities are not known, and each of Grosso's stories and their accompanying meditation opens, rather than closes, future enquiry.

So what of the opening and shutting of drawers? How would they carry meaning? One they do carry is to remind me every time that, even in more mundane realms of life, I think I have it all sewn up and explained maybe my certainty is premature. Every system of explanation is an experiment after truth rather than its foreclosure.  It, also, reminds me that in listening to others, the first default should be honouring their experience (as a conversation only this weekend demonstrated). As I discovered when working with people in prison, people have extraordinarily rich, including uncanny, lives and we live in a culture that so often defaults to belittling them rather opening them out to wonder. The traditional teachers of religion rightly counsel caution, but caution should never be an excuse for closure.


  1. This is my first encounter with Nicholas Colloff's blog with the most unusual title, Golgonooza, a term from the writings of William Blake. The topic of this post is a question about ghosts. The author describes an experience, inexplicable on the face of it, but happily doesn't ask, "Do you believe in ghosts?" I've been asked the question, and my response is, that's the wrong question. No doubt that people experience these things, everywhere and throughout history: The real question is, What do they mean? From what Nicholas Colloff says in this post, he is open to human experience as always suggestive of something more, as worthy of curiosity and further inquiry. An attitude rare and commendable in our increasingly scientistic society.

    Michael Grosso, a brother in curiosity.

    1. Happy to agree - the question of 'belief' is misplaced, a kind of diversion from patiently attending to the contours of experience and, as you say, asking what they might mean? I am reminded of Jung saying that a dream can either be something that happens or a living experience depending on the curiosity and vulnerability (or lack thereof) through which it is approached.


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