POSTCARD #115: Chiang Mai: Out of the car and into the shopping mall, colour, lights, people – I feel M’s hand slip into mine, holding on to the ends of my fingers like they were tree branches. That familiar use of my hand as a stabilizing device, an anchor she needs in order to do her little dance (it seems impossible to just walk normally), a few skips to build up the momentum, then a larger hop, reduced to a smaller hop and back to her normal walking pace. The child and the old man; this is how it was for me, long ago and far away. She’s spinning her head around, taking in the surroundings of where we are… always in the here-and-now. The event is forever in present time. A question comes: Toong Ting? (I don’t know why she calls me that) Today is Friday 13th, yes? I stop and look at her small face; Taiwanese Thai with Japanese grandfather – I’m thinking, what day is it today?
We look for a place to sit down, tired of all this walking round to get the escalators one after another up to the movie theatre on the 5th floor. Just at that moment a public seating area appears in the form of different kinds of fruit – I wouldn’t have noticed, except that M asks me if I sit on ‘the tomato’, she will sit on ‘the watermelon’ okay? Yeh.. okay (a seat is a seat) and I lower my weight on to the surface of the tomato – it’s bright red, wobbles a bit, I ask M to sit beside me. She skips over with a hop and a jump, sits down and her weight tips the balance. We take a look at the date on my phone; her view of it is better than mine… See? Toong Ting, it’s Friday thirteenth! Ghost comes, pee, number thirteen sideways, same as Thai word ‘p’. I find a piece of paper in my bag and a pen; can you write it for me? She flops down on her knees puts the paper on the seat and takes up the position of formal writing.
Focused attention, she writes it a couple of times, then scribbles it out after she’s explained to me – because ‘p’ might come if it’s still written. The Thai alphabet p, when turned sideways, becomes the numeral 13. I ask her if she believes in ghosts, and she just looks at me, like… are you kidding? Nearly every people in my class believe ghost is real! So there’s no way I can convince her it must be something to do with holding on too much to identity with body/mind. Okay, let’s go, and we make our way up to the fifth floor, get the tickets for the movie, buy the popcorn and the Coke, sit in our seats.
The movie was “Cinderella” and when it was finished I thought it was the best movie I’d ever seen. Before that, though, I was aware of M looking around in the darkness, attention having shifted away from the huge screen. It’s then I realize; yes I could be aware of ‘p’… what’s happening here? What’s happening behind me, at either side?
‘For life in the present there is no death. Death is not an event in life. It is not a fact in the world.’ [Wittgenstein]
I am very fond of that Wittgenstein citation which as been influential on the way i think; and reminds me of Thich Naht Hanh “no coming, no going’.
Yes, there’s this extraorinary release about it… everything is occupied in thought mostly
Have you never encountered phi am then?
I’ve been woken by them in Australia and India. Never in Thailand as I remember.
I haven’t, thinking that if I were to go in that direction there’d be no end to possible scenarios. I’ve seen the popular movie images of creatures with black teeth and scraggly hair – is that the kind of thing we’re talking about here? What’s your experience, tell us more…
I’m talking about the phenomena science refers to as sleep paralysis but which is referred to all over Asia as ‘sitting ghosts’. In Thailand they’re phi am. I’ve had the experience maybe a dozen times in my life. It’s hard to judge their duration subjectively but I’d be surprised if any of them lasted more than a few minutes.
My earliest memory of such an experience wasn’t strictly speaking a sitting ghost. It was being paralysed in my bed while a strange figure stood by in the semi-darkness staring down at me. It was accompanied by profound terror. I was maybe 9 or 10.
I’ve had several more experiences since then, mostly of the sitting ghost kind, with one happening on an Indian train (where it’s not so unlikely a strange person might sit on your chest while you’re sleeping).
Because they’re more familiar now they’ve become a kind of lucid dreaming. I still get the terror initially but am aware there’s nothing to be scared of (I think) and can usually make it subside by focusing on it. It can feel like a kind of mental ‘wrestling’ with the ‘ghost’ in which the presence seems to be trying to force the terror upon me while I actively resist the ‘reality’ of it.
Thanks for these accounts. Interesting to read the Wikipedia entry about sleep paralysis, and I didn’t know about phi am. Pretty scary… I recognise this kind of mental wrestling with the fear and actively resisting the ‘reality’ of it. There’s a feeling of being held down by the weight of bedsheets somehow… the panic is tremendous and it feels like a huge effort is needed to emerge from the trauma of the moment. That’s how it’s been for me, that breaking-through action, like swimming to the surface from very deep down and taking a huge breath of air.
Why call it a ghost? There’s a scientific reason for it, and I can think of better situations where I might choose to refute science 🙂 but I sympathise with the difficulty. The Thais, of course, go right into it; there’s this whole culture of auspicious and inauspicious superstition here, I don’t even try to discuss it with anybody – sensitive area, totally convinced, as M said to me in the Mall. M told me there are a few ‘special’ monks who can exorcise spirits and I understood from what she said that the reason there are only a few monks who can do this, is that people are so totally and profoundly convinced it’s not possible to follow the ordinary rationality and thus Right Understanding. All the monks can do is bring them back to that space, by whatever means, skills or tricks they have.
I can see, though, how someone could fall into that deep level of delusion and simply go deeper and deeper into it, until it becomes a self-propelled, out-of-control thing and be at the mercy of it… there have been a few times in my life when I’ve been close to the edge.
Or why call it science if there’s a cultural explanation?
I wouldn’t think multiple explanations are necessarily exclusive.
I’d imagine that even psychology and neurology would offer different paradigms for understanding it.
I didn’t see a presence every time but I always strongly sensed one. The Wikipedia entry contains scientifically plausible explanations of the presence and the terror but there are others that seem just as plausible within the framework of their belief systems.
I’m not saying the scientific explanation is the most plausible one, it’s just that you have the reference here and at a glance, I use it as a rational explanation (for the most part). For me, the (Theravada) Noble 8 Path: Right Understanding (Right View, Right Outlook) is the way to go. Hard to see how the phi am explanation for phenomena could be included here. But even if it were to be considered (not wishing to completely disregard it), the application of Right Understanding and all other factors of the Noble 8 Path leads to an explanation that brings ‘the end of suffering’. Not a denial of the presence of any kind of phi; it must be a result (for whatever reason) of individuals’ compulsive holding on to the body/mind organism, etc. I leave it at that point, knowing that if I engage with it further, there’s attachment.
Aside from phi am, the sense of a presence is something I’ve noticed from time to time, not fearful so much, there’s enough scope to see it or them (for me, usually in plural form) as benign. They’re simply there, along with all other phenomena…
My view is that I don’t really know what constitutes ‘being’ but that ‘identity’ seems to be primarily a social construct. It could be a neurological glitch or an anthropomorphic projection on the part of me and/or the society I exist in. That applies to my identity too.
So whether it’s hearing voices or feeling there’s a sentience in the landscape or perceiving a Goddess immanent in everything or trying to get rid of a ghost while paralysed, if it seems like a being I’ll generally treat it like one.
Of course I’m prone to seeing beings in two dots and a curved line so there’s probably a few false positives happening.
Maybe all of them.
It’s good to be reminded of this, the engagement with the two dots and curved line and the magical being arises. A child’s doll, totem poles, the mysterious Sphinx. The metaphor; if it quacks like a duck… a figure of speech in which one thing is said to be another – there’s that action of making it ‘happen’… going along with it. The image triggers something, but there’s a moment when I can choose whether to go along with the idea of this or not (Ajahn Buddhadasa’s interpretation of paticcasamuppada, link 7); to fall into the dream, or have awareness of it to a greater/ lesser degree, depending on how much I want it to be so (also in adversity). Sometimes it’s too much, more than I can take, but I like to think that if I’m blown away by it, I am blown away knowingly…
“We have been taught that we need our body to exist, but it is just the other way around. When who we really are departs from who we thought we were, the body collapses and instantly becomes a disposal problem.” Stephen Levine, from A Year to Live.
I’ve been reading this book recently, and the end of your post, ” holding on too much to identity with body/mind” reminded me of this particular Levine quote. If you’ve never read it, give it a look, and if you have… well, give it another look. I’ve found it quite helpful. Jeff
I’ve read ‘Who Dies?” and some parts of “Healing Into Life and Death”. Another one, “Meetings at the Edge” seems familiar, it was a long time ago. These books may have been the general source of the idea of ‘holding on too much to identity with body/mind’. I’d like to take a look at “A Year to Live”. There’s a lot been said in thanatology in the general direction of attachment to body/mind. Quite often it’s the shock and trauma of this kind of holding that causes the sudden breakthrough, and things are never quite the same after that…
Always enjoy reading about M and your relationship. Thought Cinderellas looked good myself. May have to check it out!
Thanks for liking my latest post. Please check out my changes and leave me a comment letting me know what you think. New title is Non-identification.
Hi Suzanne, the Cinderella movie is good because it’s understated – maybe because the Disney productions in the past have been completely over the top, and that’s what we’re used to. I’m glad to have M around for many reasons, one is that I’m required to do things like go and see movies like this.
I’ll be over soon to check out your changes in Non-identification…
Such a beautiful relationship between you and M! I love her name for you, Toong Ting! It reminds me of my days spent with my Sicilian grandfather. Loving feelings like that stay with you for life and you both are very lucky to have each other.
Yes, so fortunate that things have turned out like this. M is aware that I’m communicatively on the edge – being the only foreigner in the family, and speaks English with me more fluently than most adults; quite often searching for words and using a kind of telepathy in the dialogue. This is how it is, and in a way I can imagine you as a child with your Sicilian grandfather, someone from another world…
Definitely from another world– a peasant village in Sicily. I went to visit many years ago. And had my own spirit visitation on the way. These type of relationships are win/win situations and luckily I was sent to Grandma and Grandpa’s house a lot. My brother and sister were too young. I feel bad they did not get the gift I was given. So special. We shared Silence together after dinner at the window as evening fell.
Here we are right now
Thank you for inviting me
And being here too
You’re always welcome dear Ben, this is our shared world. Each is part of the other, gratitude for the foreverness…