Jane Hanson interviews John E. Mack, M.D.

An unreleased interview conducted by Jane Hanson for Today in NY, a morning television program that aired before The Today Show. Recorded at the New York Academy of Medicine on November 17, 1999 near the auditorium which had been the venue (the night before) for the launch of Mack’s new book, Passport to the Cosmos (see News story).

Although this interview was not aired, the documentary film “Touched” recorded moments of the interview, from which this transcript was sourced. It is therefore incomplete, but it also includes some candid moments of informal conversation.

John Mack: If you look through the history of spiritual writings of all kinds, there is a common theme – it is in Huxley, it is in almost every one – that the human enterprise, the longing, is to return to God, to what is called the “ground of being” in Huxley, or “Source” as the experiencers call it. In almost every religious tradition that goes back thousands of years, that fundamental longing of the human is to return to the source, whatever it is. I think what is happening in the Western tradition is we have voided the cosmos of all spiritual reality, in that literal concrete sense.

Jane Hanson: You mean because we are so analytical, because we’re so scientific? Whereas if you go into the Eastern religions…

John Mack: Exactly. It is as if, if you cannot touch it, experiment, make it happen again, then it does not exist. So what that causes, if this is your consciousness [holding hands together narrowly], then that consciousness can only embrace this much.

Jane Hanson: What you are hearing about – the encounters – from these people must lead one to believe that something is going on. Is that the bottom line in your view?

John Mack: That is one of the bottom lines. As a clinician or psychiatrist, the way one decides what you are dealing with – whether you are dealing with something that happened to people, or a dream, or a fantasy, or some kind of mental illness – is that when you are dealing with experiences among people who have not been in touch with each other, if there is a consistent story and if they talk about it with feeling that is appropriate to that story, then that is the way that people talk when something has happened to them.

Now, in this particular situation, the problem is that what has “happened” to them is not considered possible in our worldview. So that is the dilemma I have faced in trying to do this work.

Jane Hanson: By “our worldview,” meaning because of the way that we in this country and Western civilization are so analytical and scientific, and we have to have to have absolute proof of things? So therefore, since we do not, it could not have happened?

John Mack: Exactly. If you require that you can prove it with a physical object, with numbers, with measurements, then you are operating within a consciousness about that wide [holding hands close together] but if you open consciousness to, as you as you were referring to, say, Eastern religion, you have a consciousness like this [holding hands wide apart]. So you can’t understand this from this consciousness. There has to be some crediting of experience that cannot be proven with the physical object.

Jane Hanson: You believe you have credited that experience?

John Mack: To a certain degree. We don’t really have a “science of experience” or a “science of subjectivity”. But, as a clinician, when you hear people say with very powerful feelings something like that every cell in their body is vibrating as they relive or recall these experiences, and it seems from a clinician’s point of view that it cannot simply be something that they’re making up or fantasizing about, then you begin to realize that something has happened here. You don’t know what it is exactly, but there is a story that goes with that. Then, when the stories are consistent among thousands if not hundreds of thousands of people, reported from other countries as well as this country, then you’ve got something that has some substance to it – whether or not you can say it is physically absolutely true and that space ships are made of metal and all of that.

Jane Hanson: You yourself have never had one of these experiences?

John Mack: No.

Jane Hanson: I guess what I am wondering is, did it take you a long time to get to a place where you actually felt comfortable even discussing this as a possible reality?

John Mack: Yeah, well, well said. I went through a sequence. The first time I heard about this from my friend Budd Hopkins, I thought this is madness. This must be some kind of delusion, and he must be crazy to believe this.

I met him, and I heard the stories. They did not sound like delusions or mass hysteria or anything like that. And so I thought something may be going on here but I did not know what.

And then I began to see people myself, and I was absolutely astounded to have no place to put this in my worldview.

So my dilemma became, what do I do with that? And so what happened was, since I could not dismiss it, and I could not find another place to put it, there was no choice but to shift and expand my worldview, to that some things were possible that I did not believe were possible.

Now, I got to that point after a couple of years, but I still was not so confident that if I said this publicly I would not get my head chopped off or something equivalent to that in reputation terms. So I did not say anything publicly for a couple of years. Then, after four years, I published a book about this. At that point I thought that well, the findings are sufficiently strong, it seems clear there are enough cases here, and other people’s cases, around the world it was beginning to be known, that this might be considered acceptable.

But there was a storm around it of, “You must be wrong, there must be some medical condition here,” there must be some explanation. “It must be from the media, it must be something that is going on in this society that we are wishing for,” or UFOs represent something from the collective unconscious. Anything but that people were really being visited by some kind of intelligence or other that was not simply coming out of themselves.

Jane Hanson: You talk about something called “ontological shock” in the book… People go through this?

John Mack: Yeah, including me. I went through it. Everyone that is fully exposed to this who comes from the Western worldview goes through something like that. You have a worldview. Ontology means your idea of what is, what exists, what is possible. So if this does not fit what is possible, and yet you get hit with overwhelming information that it is there, then that’s a shock to your worldview.

[We are a people who tend to think in straight lines.] And that means it has got to be logical, it has to follow a time sequence, it has to exist in a certain spacial structure. But you’re dealing with something that does not fit that. Experiencers will often say, “I know you’re not going to understand this, but there is no time during these experiences. All time collapses,” or “I can be more than one place at the same time”. That does not fit at all our idea of linear time, and yet, there is that kind of experience reported.

What this requires, again, is to deal with the paradox that there may be profound realities in universe that do not obey the space/time laws.

Jane Hanson: The people that I have spoken with so far today, the “experiencers”, some of those in your book, what strikes me is that having this experience profoundly changes their lives. And it almost seems, to a person, they believe it changes them for the better. Is that a fair assessment?

John Mack: It is certainly is true of the people you have talked with today, and many, many other people. We certainly see that a lot with the people we work with. But it is not so straightforward; people originally may be very traumatized by this. It is terrifying in many ways to suddenly be paralyzed and have strange lights and beings taking you, poking you, shocking your mind in this way. And you can’t talk about this, you don’t know what is going on with your kids, it is a terrifying, traumatic kind of experience.

But what happens in the way we work with people, is we hold the terror with them. We enter it, in a sense, the mystery of it, the terror of it.

What often happens then is that something shifts.

There is a kind of transformation that occurs, a passing through the “dark night of the soul” that occurs. And then people discover that they’re part of some life-creating process or they are brought closer to god, and they developed the sacred relationship to the Earth. They become more impatient with the way we live in society, the indifference we have about God or about the Earth or about one another. So there are these kind of incredible shifts.

There are many other experiences that we have known throughout history that can create that sort of transformative result – but they’re slower. This is kind of like, as Karin said, this is the fast-track, sort of like “instant transformation”, or “quick transformation”. It is such a shock, it opens people so rapidly in a sense that they move more quickly, if you stay with them through it, rather than say going and doing Zen meditation for several years.

Jane Hanson: They talk about this “Source” of being, there seems to be a lot of religious overtones in a certain sense. It’s almost as if this is a God kind of thing. What role does religion play in all this, or does it?

John Mack: Organized religion as we know it plays very little role because often people have not had that kind of experience in connection with their original churches.

Jane Hanson: But if you pray every day and believe you’re praying to some being up there, then isn’t there a profound relationship?

John Mack: There’s a kind of joke about this where it is OK if you reach out to god, but if God reaches you, then you’re crazy. If the divine shows up in some palpable, concrete, intense form…

Now I want to say something about religion here because you are right, in this sense. If you crack that linear mind, you open to what some native people call being people of the circle, and what tends to happen is you open to the divine, to the sacred, to a whole other reality.

What religion does, it knows of that reality, the great spiritual leaders have known of it, and then they try to decide for the group how that is going to be preached or how that is going to be valued, or how that is going to be organized. Because they recognize the power of those experiences.

I have a kind of confidence that if you open or widen to a larger reality, or people awaken, then they will open to the sacred, they will open to a kind of a deeper sense of the interconnected web of life, they will become committed to stewardship of the Earth, that kind of thing.

Now, I don’t have any idea of what the result might be. But at least it would open us to a very interesting universe, if we could accept that this is a universe that is filled with intelligence, life, and beings – these are one kind of beings. It would not be the sort of dead, cold universe that we’ve been taught we are in, in which when this body dies that is the end of it. It would be a much more interconnected kind of cosmos.

Jane Hanson: Another thing that struck me is that both [of the experiencers] shared how difficult it is to live with this at times. So in a certain sense these people who have been chosen – if that is the correct word – and have these experiences, life for them is not so easy.

John Mack: Yes, I guess that is another thing that I do hope for. As a physician my first responsibility is to help them with the pain and suffering that goes with the non-acceptance of this in this society.

There are sort of two levels in that sense, of trying to help them with the energies and the pain and the trauma as individuals, but there is also to try to create a more hospitable cultural environment that they can live in and try to do something about the kinds of destructive processes that we’re working on.

So there’s a political/social dimension to this as well as the individual clinical part.

Jane Hanson: Is there any doubt in your mind that they have had these experiences?

John Mack: I like the question because that’s all I know, really; is how to work as a clinician, how to assess what people are saying, their honesty, their sincerity. My whole career is based on being able to try to assess whether people are telling the truth. Has anyone ever fooled me? Possibly. But overall my sense is that they are being as truthful as they possibly can, and that they’ve had experiences that are of great profundity for them. Now, what the source of those experiences is, what this is at its root, is a mystery.

Jane Hanson: [I don’t believe the idea that] the universe is a cold, hard place is still the one that is being taught.

John Mack: That was the universe I was brought up to believe in, that my very rational, left-brain, intellectual academic upbringing presented me. And I was not looking for another kind of universe, it sort of came to me. I was just looking to learn about these individuals.

[break in interview; conversation with people standing nearby]

Will (from Passport to the Cosmos, not PEER’s Will Bueché): John, I have a request. The next time someone says, “do you have any doubt in your mind?” you say, “No!”. Please, I was on the edge of my seat.

John Mack: Yeah, but no. See, if I do that, you know… There is a certain level of inquiry that I think is required, and which I really feel. I can’t just say “no”.

Will: I know. But it is funny, I was like, what is he going to say? Do you really have any doubt that people are having these experiences?

John Mack: I don’t know why I don’t just say “no”, but, maybe I have a tendency now to over-qualify everything that I say.

Jane Hanson: Well, given the reaction…

Karin (from Passport to the Cosmos): You don’t have any doubt that this is happening?

John Mack: No, I don’t. But the way I talk about that is not just by saying a simple “no”. There are other ways of saying no that are heavier.

Karin: Softer.

John Mack: Heavier and softer.

Karin: At the same time!

John Mack: Soft and heavy!


[recording resumes; Hanson’s question was about the reception of the first book versus the new book]

John Mack: [There’s] a story there. I subsequently learned, because this new book is not going to have the same kind of dramatic original firestorm around it, that the big story there was the fact that somebody in my position in the academic world would credit this matter. That was a big story, so the publishers were very excited that that. I had written a book before, I had written a prize-winning book…

Jane Hanson: But you had never written about this subject?

John Mack: Yeah, I don’t know why but 20 publishers jumped in and bid for the first book.

Jane Hanson: So there was a bidding war? Cool.

John Mack: I think it had to do with the fact that, you know, to watch a Harvard professor go so far out on a limb is sort of entertaining or something. I don’t know, but that is what happened. But now it is, “oh yeah, alien abduction, we know about that. There he goes again.” But I think this is in a way a better book because it goes deeper into the kinds of questions that you were asking.

Listen to 7m of interview (mp3)

  • Jane Hanson has won nine Emmy Awards, having begun as an anchor and correspondent for WNBC New York in 1979. In 1988, Jane became co-anchor of Today in New York, a position she held until 2003 when she became the station’s primary anchor for local programming and the host of Jane’s New York. Hanson is a former president of the New York chapter of the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences.

© 1999 Jane Hanson
Recorded November 17, 1999
New York Academy of Medicine, New York City