This is a tribute to John E. Mack, MD, who has transitioned from his physical body to the next plane of consciousness. He was a colleague and explorer of the human experience who modeled insight, humor, and courage.
Grieving John’s Bodily Transition
When someone you love suddenly passes, a series of shocks ripple through the system: waves of grief, tenderness, memories, combined with a sense of your own finitude, and at the same time, this paradoxical analytical process of combing through the associations and trying to understand the enormity of what this person meant in your life.
When I learned from a friend last night that John Mack had suddenly died, I found these waves of emotions rising and subsiding. I felt deeply connected to John, though I knew him professionally only in passing, and personally hardly at all. I realized that we had connected beyond time and space, through a shared bond, a passion for truth; I admired John, and felt that I was able to travel further simply knowing he was there.
The details of John Mack’s legacy are now coming to light in tributes from around the world, both from academics and institutions of great learning–including Harvard, which once put him through what might have seemed an inquisition–and the many individuals whose lives he touched. John was a pioneer, a Pulitzer-prize winning author, a dedicated psychiatrist and a humanitarian deeply committed to improving his community. John was committed to his local community in Cambridge, the community of mental healthcare, and the larger community of all beings everywhere. Whether specifically a Buddhist or maybe a bit of everything, he seemed to me to embody the Buddhist ideal of aspiring to help uplift the entire creation. John held the space for many to open up to their felt experiences, not judging them but allowing, and in our time together, I experienced his wisdom, his compassion, and his humanness. Both in his intellectual triumphs and in the stillness we shared–the contact in-between the words–I felt his essence as a marvel.
John Mack: A Freedom-Fighter for Consciousness
John was a freedom-fighter, working toward liberation of human consciousness. That meant a lot to many people–particularly those “experiencers,” people who had experienced extraordinary planes of consciousness, tried to express their inner (and sometimes tormenting) adventures, and found only scorn and (further abuse) on most other doorsteps within the scientific and mental health “care” communities. Many of these individually finally found a measure of acceptance (and self-acceptance) through John’s work, a way to reflect on and integrate their intense experiences. And John’s openness to spiritual experience, combined with his prominence in academe, meant a lot personally and professionally to me.
John Opened the Way for People to Trust their Inner Experience
I first had heard of John Mack while I was a sophomore at the Barbara Brennan School of Healing. The year was 1994; I was a new law professor teaching in the Midwest; “alternative medicine” was just barely on the map. Professionally, I was teaching a seminar on the emerging legal framework surrounding alternative medicine, using whatever crumbs of medical literature were available to validate my interest in the field and counter any possible objections within the law school that my interests might be on the lunatic fringe.
Personally, I was learning about energy healing–skeptical and distant at first, but increasingly releasing a hard-edged denial of my own gifts in this arena. While at the Brennan school, we were studying the “astral levels of the [human energy] field,” the places where, according to Brennan’s energy healing theory and practice, our consciousness could encounter beings from other planes, past-life memories, traumas and triumphs from other dimensions of existence, and other things seemingly out of fantasy or science fiction, and certainly not supported by any prevailing scientific theory other than, perhaps, notions of the “holographic universe” developed by physicist David Bohm. All these things were real to me–or became real, not by virtue of any indoctrination by Brennan, but because of my own research–I call it that–an experiential dive into planes of consciousness that increasingly opened as I let my heart and spirit soften.
Having traversed mystical experience in a variety of ways prior to enrolling in the school–some through Judaism, others through Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism, and various forms of meditation–I had moved beyond a rigid intellectualization to a place of increasing receptivity. But still, it was difficult to reconcile the professional identities of lawyer and healer. Simply learning about John Mack and his work, even from afar, opened me to trust my inner experience.
A friend from Brennan’s school had happened to meet John while traveling to receive ‘darshan’ with Mother Meera, a purported Indian avatar, in Germany. Just knowing about that encounter with John helped further heal the split between the ‘scientific’ (or ‘legal’) and the inner, mystical that my personal and professional path seemed to be increasingly embodying.
John: A Pioneering Advocate for a Broader Worldview
Our work on the “astral planes” in the Brennan school opened me to the possibility that “ET” (extraterrestrial encounters) were real: not fictive, delusional, or otherwise phantasmagorical imagining. Nor were these products of distorted, deceptive or false memories by a self-perceived victim. For me, the notion of ET’s pointed toward transcendence, not only and always abuse recapitulated. Since in healing school we were having regular experiences of spirit guides, angels (as well as demons), and spiritual forces both benevolent and sinister, extending that experience to ‘brothers and sisters’ from other planets–whose bodies did not necessarily have to be physical, like ours, but rather could exist solely on other levels of the energy field–seemed reasonable.
Of course, one has to take the leap and actually experience one’s self as inhabiting more than what current biology takes as real; it helps to experience one’s self on the higher levels of the human energy field, rather than as a “just” a body and a mind. That leap is impossible if one uses skepticism, an otherwise valuable tool, to intellectualize away or otherwise distance one’s self from inner experience. It takes a rare soul who can not only include critical intellectual faculties in the quest for clarity but also lead other critical thinkers past limited conceptualizations to new paradigmatic possibilities.
Indeed, continuing his pioneering efforts along these lines, and combining his skills as a psychiatrist and biographer, John was working on a new manuscript about communications from a healer after her death. He was exploring how a field of love can literally create a bridge between worlds: reiterating the perennial wisdom in the psychologically rich, biographical vein that had won him the Pulitzer.
John’s exploration, while controversial to some, has resonances in epistemology and other branches of philosophy, and may inspire colleagues in other fields, including a new scientific discipline known as astrobiology. I believe his work will stand the test of time and be recognized as a great contribution to human knowledge. But I want to turn more specifically to John’s influence and how that filtered into my own life through the world-wide web of auspicious connections that ultimately brought me zero degrees of separation from him.
One of my teachers at Barbara Brennan’s school was Peter Faust, an “experiencer” (the preferred term to “abductee”) who had explored his memories of the ET experience through hypnosis with John, and served as subject for a main chapter in John’s book, Abduction: Human Encounters with Aliens. Peter described his experiences to a group at the school; that same year he appeared, with John and others, on Oprah.
Peter’s experiences frightened even many of my classmates at Barbara Brennan’s school, perhaps because they suggested a loss of control or invasion. I felt safe in the ET territory, perhaps because I conceptualized ETs as dwelling on a continuum of consciousness, together with many other mystical and “extraordinary experiences,” as John would come to denote these inner adventures. But for many the ET experience, particularly its “abduction” aspects, connoted trauma; abuse; being out-of-control. To help dispel the fears (and hostility) that seemed to permeate response to descriptions from experiencers, Peter explained that there were several distinct races of ETs that others had identified, and only one–the so-called Grays–were involved in the abduction phenomena.
According to Peter, the abduction phenomenon, the defining modus operandi of the Grays, reified the classic mind-body split that arguably has been responsible for so much evil in human history: a runaway intellect divorced from the heart, technology gone wild. This, indeed, was a theme in John’s work–to quote the John E. Mack Institute‘s tribute to John, “Mack advocated that Western culture requires a shift away from a purely materialist worldview (which he feels is responsible for the Cold War, the global ecological crisis, ethnonationalism and regional conflict) towards a transpersonal worldview which embraces certain elements of Eastern spiritual and philosophical traditions.” Whether one took the Grays as metaphysics or metaphor, the archetype of gray consciousness had power: head separated from heart, a mutant Cartesian dualism massively distorting the connectivity of love, resulting in sick and sense-less experimentation.
In a larger context, though, the flipside of the abduction encounter was the possibility for transcendence and a heart encounter with all-that-is. That was the theme of John’s second book, Passport to the Cosmos. Some parts of the alien encounter experience included the alienness (from the perspective of mundane human emotions) of exalted states, feelings of cosmic unity, an end to the separation that Alan Watts had characterized as leaving us “an ego encased in a bag of skin.” Following this line of inquiry, John advocated a broader worldview than the species-centric, human-dominated view of the cosmos. John’s spacious mind allowed a broader conceptualization of our place in the omni-verse, a place in which we humans might coexist with other species and, indeed, intelligently converse with them. But to do so, if one followed the line of John’s work, required more than radio signals and scientific intelligence–it required emotional and spiritual intelligence, including a capacity to deepen our opening to inner experience.
In this way, John was a pioneering advocate for a broader view of consciousness, and of our relatedness to the entire creation. John moved us past the marriage to our own intellectual constructs, and into an awareness of our soul bond with something more unrestricted.
In a sense, I had ‘met’ John Mack in 1994, through Peter, the Barbara Brennan School, and my own unfolding spiritual life. John’s presence on this Earth, and his contribution to human awareness, scholarly discourse, and “the literature,” was as much a part of my spiritual opening as my encounter with different religions.
I had linked my consciousness with John’s in 1994, but it took until 2003 to meet him in person. Oddly, it happened at a men’s group organized by a physician friend and held at the New England School for Acupuncture. Around the circle, John introduced himself to the group casually, humbly, without any pretense or ego. There, he was another man, like each of us: gifted, charged with desire for contribution, and also riddled with the complexities of modern life. I recognized him and went up and introduced myself after the meeting, mentioning briefly my friendship with the Peter and the fact that I, too, had had experiences, though not of the abduction kind. John peered down his half-glasses and warmly asked: “Spiritual experiences?” I nodded, and we arranged to meet.
In truth, my ET experience had occurred (back in 1994) in what seemed an unlikely–though in one sense, deeply spiritual–space: at the Cleveland Clinic. I was at the Medical Institute for Law Faculty, visiting the Clinic with about a dozen law professors in a scholarly exchange between the professions of law and medicine. Our visit included the operating rooms during surgery and the intensive care unit. One evening while drifting off in my hotel room, I experienced a being in my room. She–for femaleness described her–wore a headpiece, had intelligent eyes, and communicated telepathically. I felt a great kinship with her. I had a sense of her compassionate awareness and presence during the states of nonverbal connection I had experienced with anesthetized patients, with individuals on life support, and with others in the twilight zone of life and death. She might have been Mary, or Kwan Yin, or some other being identified from any religious tradition, but I identified her as ET because of an otherness about her that cannot be described–a sense of different kind of intelligence, with its own world, customs, cultures, languages, even energetic (nonphysical) bodies and modes of transportation.
For I was experiencing a dual reality during the Medical Institute–the world of the doctors, the nurses, the bleeping machines, the families laboring under grief and stress; and the inner world, a silent one in which all sorts of–for lack of a better word–energies were exchanged, at different levels, some psychic and others spiritual.
Yet who, in my academic community, could validate or even sanction such an experience. I could be ridiculed for claiming to speak with an ET in my hotel room at the Cleveland Clinic. Yet, paradoxically, the same community that might launch a witch hunt for an admission of ‘ET contact’ could laud an admission of conversing privately with Jesus, Allah, Yahweh, or any recognized figure from a mainstream religion. Beliefs are strange creatures, some accepted, others scandalized. It would be perfectly acceptable for me to believe that Mary physically ascended to heaven or that Moses parted the Red Sea or that Arjuna had entered a chariot driven by Krishna, but ludicrous, in the minds of many, to believe that a being from another planet could speak to me telepathically in a hotel room. The former likely would be called, religious impulse; the second labeled fantasy or delusion. My ET experience was spiritual, not the abduction experience–but even if were in that other category, the shaming aspects of contemporary judgment might make it feel unsafe to describe. Yet I was having experiences as real to me–perhaps more–than discussions with peer attorneys and doctors; indeed, many of those conversations were intellectualized abstractions, coated with thick denial of the palpable suffering around us, while my inner experiences allowed no room to deflect from genuine, authentic emotions. And yet to keep myself professionally safe, I wrote about the experience in a scholarly journal, but from a detached perspective–hinting but ultimately concealing the fact that it was my experience.
John Mack offered a gift to all with extraordinary experiences who might otherwise have felt shamed by the judgment of many segments within contemporary society, who may have hesitated coming open with the truth of their psychic receptivity to other parts of the cosmos than those accepted in what psychologist Charles Tart has called “consensus trance.” John’s gift was unconditional acceptance of the possibility for transcendence. It was a gift to meet John personally and say to him that I, too, had had close encounters of a kind not usually admitted in academic–or any professional–circles. These encounters were held with care and recognition in the heart and mind of a great being like John.
Being able to acknowledge my ET connection and locate its reality within the context of John Mack’s work made it somehow safer to be fully myself. Meeting John in person at the men’s group brought yet another level of solidity to imbibing his life’s work. My verbal interaction with John there lasted only a few minutes, but being with him, knowing he was there, making that heart and mind and soul connection, in an instant made a shift.
John Mack himself was a passport to the cosmos.
An Interview with John Mack
My next physical encounter with John was professional. He was building an institute at the intersection of psychology and spirituality, a subject of deep interest given my involvement in complementary medicine law and policy, and we were looking for ways to form a professional bridge. But, while much of complementary medicine at least could be scientifically validated (or, alternatively, debunked) through conventional scientific process, the objective reality of subjective mystical experience could not. On one level, John’s professional inquiry seemed more radical than mine, because he delved into realms of the mind that lacked tangible expression, capable of receiving objective consensus. Yet we were both spiritual warriors, trying to give expression to our interest in the sublime through our mundane (in the world) positions as academics.
In a sense, we were coming at the same problem–tackling a lot of fear and limitation of consciousness–from opposite directions: complementary medicine had gained a foothold in academic circles. But John had been excoriated by some within his academic community, even if ultimately vindicated. And I was coming from law, John from psychiatry.
The John E. Mack Institute’s website summarizes John’s Harvard trials as follows: “In 1994 the Dean of Harvard Medical School appointed a committee of peers to review Mack’s clinical care and clinical investigation of the people who had shared their alien encounters with him (some of their cases were written of in Mack’s 1994 book Abduction). After fourteen months of inquiry and amid growing questions from the academic community (including Harvard Professor of Law Alan Dershowitz) regarding the validity of Harvard’s investigation of a tenured professor, Harvard issued a statement stating that the Dean had ‘reaffirmed Dr. Mack’s academic freedom to study what he wishes and to state his opinions without impediment,’ concluding ‘Dr. Mack remains a member in good standing of the Harvard Faculty of Medicine.'”
It seemed to me that John had come through the experience with wisdom and even humor. But we also discussed our dislike for the bias, bigotry, hostility, and rigid ideological stance that some–not all–within our community could hold against openness to inner experience.
In many ways I, too, had experienced the sting of enemy fire against freedom of consciousness in various academic affiliations. Noting this fact is not a tirade against Harvard–as indeed in many ways it has been a welcome academic home–but rather a memoir of the deep connection I felt with John in our brief association. We were both faculty members at the same institution–he far more senior and deeply rooted, and having withstood an assault on his scholarly reputation and line of inquiry, but both sharing a maverick’s eye from within the citadel of science. Knowing he was there; that he had faced challenge, defended himself, and come through; that he, too, respected mystical experience yet could stand, shoulder-to-shoulder, with colleagues committed to compassionate clinical care and dispassionate scientific inquiry; all this gave me a warm feeling of fellowship unavailable in many quarters.
In fact, simply having a kind of job interview with John freed me from the shackles–the “mind-forg’d manacles,” as Blake would call them–of fear-based thinking, keeping who I was under wraps. I had been admonished by some–not all–peers to avoid being “perceived as an advocate” for therapies that could be considered ‘unproven.’ To be so perceived could, according to some, mean falling from professional grace, perhaps even being run out of the institution. John Mack served as the ‘bad boy’ example of what might happen were I to be truly myself–as he courageously was. Because of this professional pressure to avoid anything that might possibly be perceived as ‘advocacy’ (and hence ‘unscientific’), and also to dissociate myself from John, I joked with John that I could not be seen with him in the parking lot. We appreciated the old joke that ‘just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you.’ Several times he picked up on and repeated the joke about having to disguise our appearing together–we spoke of institutional spies; this was a kind of humorous, self-referential way to reflect our shared distaste for the abundance of judgment that some quarters heaped upon our shared interest in psychology and spirituality.
Perhaps that was one reason I cried when I learned he had passed. I was proud of my association with John, and longed for it to deepen. To me he was a kind, generous, thoughtful man, full of beguiling vulnerability alongside his penetrating and boundary-breaking brilliance. What we shared in our encounters was not merely kinship around interest in alien experiences–it was our humanness. There was a deep tenderness about and within him and a mutual empathy between us for our shared battle against ideological stifling and control. And, I might say, a kind of divine love passed–certainly an appreciation flowed for his contribution as well as his struggles. I miss him.
Working with John
As I grieved John’s death, I told my wife: “I had hoped to work closely with him.” My wife wisely and sweetly responded: “You still will. That work will continue.” I miss John being here physically, and continue to feel him on subtle levels. And I am sure many of us will be supporting John and feel supported by John as he continues his work alongside ours in the new dimensions of body and consciousness in which he resides.
I was gratified to read that one of John’s spiritual friends and teachers will be saying prayers at a holy place in New Mexico. I dedicate today’s yoga practice to him; may it bring blessings, peace, and wholeness in worlds to come.
I will also echo this tribute to John from songwriter Stuart Davis, as it is absolutely true: “as anyone who’s had the pleasure of meeting John knows, he was a total sweet heart of a human being, instantly lovable. each time i was with him, i was struck by his transparency, humility, and curiousity. he was 64 when i met him, he sparkled like a diamond, and he was every bit as glowing when i had dinner with him for the last time about a year ago….john, it is with much love and gratitude that i thank you for your amazing presence in our lives, for your gifts to humanity, and indeed all beings- everywhere. may your radiant soul be received by its source and continue to illuminate us from the point of all places.”
A few months ago, I ran into John on a train ride to New York. It was wonderful to be in contact with his keen mind, wry humor, and generous heart. John could be intellectually critical and skeptical–as he was when the notion of “karma” was raised–yet as a person he was simultaneously embracing, tolerant, and full of wisdom.
John Gave Permission
At the end of our interview, John stood and shared with me some very personal book projects on which he was working. After that, he stood close and softly asked: “is there anything more; is there anything more you wish to share?”
Of course there was; I could have gone on for days. There was a book, for example, I was writing on my experience in Byelorussia, in a visit that involved trying to help children radiation victims of Chernobyl through energy healing. John had been involved in the physicians’ movement for nuclear disarmament. He was a link in the legacy of psychiatrists (such as Robert Jay Lifton, MD) who had written about the mass dissociation known as ‘psychic numbing;’ who had catalogued the splits and distortions in our collective response to ‘nuclear absurdity;’ who had bared witness to the human capacity for shutting off feeling the immensity of a shared horror.
I sent my book manuscript about the children of Chernobyl to John for review. Simply knowing John was there–the enormity of his knowledge base, understanding, and interests–provided a touchstone for further creativity. The fact that he understood the issues, that he was caring, that he had a spiritual as well as a clinical and academic side, that he did not judge–gave room for exploration.
By asking “is there anything more,” John was compassionately offering to elicit anything personal I might share such as the split between the scholarly and the spiritual. But John was my senior colleague and friend. I made the decision not to go into my own experiences, as our meeting was professionally exploratory and it was important for me to stay in the role of lawyer and legal scholar. But John gave permission and took a kind interest in me as a whole being. He was neither all head nor all heart, but rather a compassionate, wise old soul who, in his crowded schedule, made room for everything.
What John did as a psychiatrist and scholar he embodied, and modeled, during our moments together: he gave permission for the full authentic expression of self to be.