COSMIC COWBOY: ‘Passport to the Cosmos’, Dr. John E. Mack M.D. on Messengers from the Unseen

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“…If someone out there is trying to warn us, shouldn’t we make an attempt to listen?

Messengers from the Unseen – By Dr. John E. Mack M.D.

If it ever had been possible to head off trouble, it was now too late. The dean of the Harvard Medical School wanted to investigate “concerns that had been raised in the press and elsewhere” about my work on the phenomenon of alien abductions.


It was June 1, 1994, shortly after the publication of my book, Abduction: Human Encounters with Aliens, when I arranged a meeting with James Adelstein, executive dean for academic programs of the Harvard Medical School faculty. Because of the controversial nature of the subject and my high profile in the media (articles about the book and me had appeared in national newspapers and magazines, and my publishers had scheduled television appearances on shows like “Larry King Live,” “Dateline,” and “Oprah”), I thought I should discuss the situation with colleagues in the medical school’s administration.

But Adelstein had instead appointed a committee to look into the matter, and thus began a 15-month ordeal involving lawyers, appearances before the group by myself and my patients, faculty witnesses, the submission of massive briefs, reports from the committee and my response, documents concerned with standards and ethics, letters of support, and sworn affidavits by 30 patients with whom I had worked. A year later, I received a letter from the dean; he had reviewed the committee’s report and urged me not to “violate the high standards of clinical practice and clinical investigation” of the medical school. He left it up to me to determine what these were.

So what exactly was the controversy that had led leaders of the medical school to take an unprecedented action of investigating one of its own faculty members in this manner?


Adelstein, in the beginning, had offered a clue as to what was at stake. I would not have gotten into trouble, he said, if I had not said in my book that my findings required us to look at reality differently. Instead, I should have written that I had come upon a new psychiatric syndrome of unknown etiology.

I have since concluded that it was the challenge to our society’s dominant worldview contained in my work that created such alarm. The idea that people are being visited by some sort of unknown life forms was (and remains) so far outside mainstream Western boundaries of reality that an exceptional response was required. The lawyer of Harvard’s president remarked to one of my lawyers, “Well, what do you think it’s like for the dean of the Harvard Medical School to see one of his professors on ‘The Oprah Winfrey Show’ saying that little green men are taking women and children into spaceships?”

True, I had appeared on “Oprah,” but I doubt that the dean had watched the show, and I had said nothing about little green men. But the nature of the administration’s anxiety was apparent.


Breaking with Tradition

My devoutly secular upbringing in an intellectually skeptical New York, German-Jewish family had hardly prepared me for my future career course, although curiosity and exploration were encouraged. My parents were academicians. My father, a professor of English literature at New York’s City College, read the Bible to my sister and me not as the word of God, but as a document of great literary importance for our culture and personal education.

I became a physician in order to be a psychiatrist, and my orthodox Freudian psychoanalytic training in Boston contained no critique of the culture of mechanism and scientific materialism that prevails in the American medical community. In this worldview, in the words of intellectual historian Richard Tarnas, “the soul of the world was voided from the entire universe and was appropriated essentially by the human being.” Furthermore, realities that cannot be proven by established methods of science were considered of lesser significance.

In my Oberlin education, however, was something that encouraged openness and a willingness to consider distinctly unorthodox possibilities. The history and culture of the College is filled with challenges to the social, political, and intellectual status quo. It is more than mere coincidence that the true pioneer in exploring the alien abduction phenomenon is Budd Hopkins ’53, who first introduced me to the abductee population.

The traditional worldview of my upbringing began to erode when I undertook three years of training in the Grof holotropic breathwork method, a therapeutic form that brings about a non-ordinary state of consciousness through deep breathing and powerful, evocative music. In this altered state, an expanded reality may open up for the breather. Universes of possibility open up, and the breather can identify with virtually any time, being, or place in the cosmos. He or she has access to the experience of intrauterine and birth-related events, and consciousness seems to separate from the physical body. The pantheons of mythic beings become possible objects of such identification.

This work softened me up for what was to follow. Without it I would have rejected the idea that many people of sound mind (more than one million in the U.S. alone, according to various polls, have conscious recollection of alien visitations) were encountering entities, although their characteristics may seem bizarre and the technologies involved poorly understood. Nevertheless, it was a huge stretch for me to take seriously the possibility that what the “abductees,” or “experiencers” as I prefer to call them, were reporting was in some way real, not simply a product of their minds or imaginations.

By the time Abduction was published, I had been working closely for several years with more than 50 of these individuals in my psychiatry practice. I was convinced that there was no psychiatric explanation for what my patients were encountering. This I based on several factors: their fundamental soundness of mind, including appropriate skepticism; the close similarity of experiences among individuals who had not had contact with each other; the association with UFOs in the vicinity; physical elements; the absence of anything to gain by reporting these experiences (on the contrary, the experiencers must be very careful to whom they tell their stories lest they face doubt, ridicule, and isolation); and, finally, reports of experiences by children as young as 2 years old.

Once word got around that I would not immediately treat experiencers as though they were mentally ill, people of all ages, ethnic backgrounds, and socioeconomic statuses who thought they might have had alien encounters sought me out. Before writing anything publicly on this subject, I had spent hundreds of hours listening with wonderment to tales that were sometimes so similar to one another as to be virtually interchangeable. Sometimes the experiencers were astounded (I call this response “ontological shock”) to discover that other people had had similar experiences, as they had hoped I could “cure” them of the problem or make it disappear with a pill or a trenchant psychiatric interpretation.

By now the basic outline of the abduction phenomenon is familiar to most people who read magazines or watch television, but this was not the case when I began this work in 1990. Even now the authentic details are rarely depicted accurately in the mass media. Essentially a person may be “visited” at night or during the day by humanoid beings of varying description, but most commonly they are portrayed as three-and-a-half to four feet tall with large heads and eyes and rather slight bodies. Reptilian, insect-like, light/luminous, or even actual humans have been described in conjunction with abduction experiences. Sometimes the individual describes being moved through space into a craft where various procedures occur. Often these involve a human/alien reproductive process, which leads in the creation of one or more hybrid beings with whom the experiencer is likely to feel a powerful emotional connection.

In addition to these physical elements, the experiencers receive information telepathically from the beings, either through their large black eyes or from images shown on television-like monitors. Most significantly this is concerned with the destruction of Earth’s living systems, and, vistas of destruction, often of apocalyptic proportions, are forced upon the experiencers. One abductee has called this ecological education “alien boot camp.”

Frequently, the experiencers, who may have had little awareness of the perilous state of the earth’s environment, become passionately committed to the preservation of our planet. These experiences can be highly traumatic because they are so shattering of the person’s reality. But if the experiencers are enabled to work through their terror, powerful spiritual awakenings and growth may occur.


The Quest for Proof

During the early years of my work, I tried to establish that “abductions” really were taking place in a literal, physical sense. Sometimes there were reports of missing people, or of physical lesions or marks left on experiencers’ bodies after an encounter, or evidence that a type of “implant” was left under the skin, presumably so the beings can monitor their whereabouts.

This physical literalness was certainly what most interested the Harvard Medical School committee. But over the years my own emphasis has shifted. I have become convinced that something mysterious and real, not merely the product of the experiencer’s mind or psychosocial influences, has been occurring. But larger questions arise as to how we define reality, which is intimately tied to the methodology or way of knowing that is being pursued.

In the case of the abduction phenomenon, the physical findings, when present, are quite subtle. They are insufficiently robust to stand on their own or to measure up to mainstream science. The larger question for me has become how we are to consider reports of powerful experiences for which the physical evidence is meager and runs counter to the consensus view of what is possible. Forcing these accounts into a psychiatric box, or dismissing them out of hand, may lead to the loss of information that is immensely important for understanding ourselves and our universe.

Ordinarily, a psychiatrist is not primarily concerned with whether what patients are telling him about their lives is factual or true. Useful work can be done by exploring the meaning of what is reported without knowing how much of it should be taken literally. Methodology is a matter of concern within the mental health professions and is sometimes synonymous with good technique or being helpful to a patient or client. There is little at stake theoretically or philosophically.

But in the case of the alien abduction phenomenon, which challenges the fundamental ontological paradigm of our society, the stakes are much higher. If these experiences are true, then even my severest critics will acknowledge that we exist in a different cosmos than the one in which most of us, including myself, thought we were living. The consequences are not only scientific, but also affect every institution of our culture.

I have come to disagree with the medical school’s investigation committee about the methods used to establish or refute the reality of the abduction phenomenon. The committee members emphasized the need for more psychological tests to see what might be wrong with these individuals. They suggested that patients consult with mainstream psychiatrists unfamiliar with the phenomenon and that we explore other explanations, like sleep paralysis (experiencers are often unable to move during encounters, but are usually not asleep). Finally, the committee wanted a further quest for physical proof. Nevertheless, when the implications are so great, how we assess the reality of what a person reports in the absence of compelling physical evidence becomes a matter of immense importance.

When evaluating experiencers, I begin with the same clinical assessment I would undertake with any other patient. In particular, I assess if there is anything in the person’s background or mental condition that could shed light on what has been reported. Hypnotic relaxation enables memories to come forth or helps the experiencer get in touch with emotions, but is not of much value in establishing what is factually true. I try and determine if a person has anything to gain by inventing such a story, or if he or she has been influenced by other individuals or the media.

Finally, I ask, are these patients persons of integrity who are not given generally to fantasy or distortion of reality? Talking with close friends and relatives is helpful in this regard. Is the feeling expressed by the experiencer appropriate to what is being reported? The sheer intensity of terror or other emotion that comes forth when encounter experiences are recalled can help determine if something momentous has in fact occurred.


Redefining Reality

So once it is established that an experiencer is of sound mind, has been functioning appropriately, and has coped with something so powerful, what then? We are now in misty territory. Standard psychological testing has shown little more than that the person has undergone some sort of disturbing experience. As a culture we have not progressed far in establishing what might be called a science of human experience. If we concede that experiencers have taken part in a real event, one that enters our three dimensional reality without becoming entirely part of it, questions arise such as: What kind of reality is this? Where do the beings come from? What is their relationship to the divine or the demonic? Are there entities or energy forms that manifest in our world but emanate from another dimension or universe?

If scientific and philosophical questions are put aside, attention then shifts from the messenger to the message, from the experiencers’ mental status to what they can teach us about ourselves and the world. The experiencers then become special witnesses, journeyers into mysterious realms, much like mythic heroes who venture into new lands and return to report what they have seen. And I become a witness to the witnesses, seeking when appropriate to give legitimacy to their accounts, much as religious officials do when they assess the truthfulness of those who report the occurrence of miracles.

Behind the nervous efforts to discredit the encounter reality lies a deeper concern. This phenomenon does not stand alone, but is one anomaly among many. Others include near-death experiences, spirit manifestations, shamanic journeys, crop circles, unexplained animal mutilations, and apparitions of the Virgin Mary seen by tens of thousands of people. All of these challenge the limits of our understanding of reality and suggest the presence in the universe of other intelligences that may reach into our world under particular conditions.

Furthermore, there are a host of research findings from carefully conducted studies that further stretch our understanding of reality. These include evidence for clairvoyance, telepathic communication, remote viewing, psychokinesis, non-locality, the demonstrated efficacy of prayer and other examples of healing at a distance, and the participatory and cocreative nature of knowledge itself.

Taken together, these phenomena tell us many things about ourselves and the universe that challenge the dominant materialist paradigm. They reveal that our understanding of reality is extremely limited, the cosmos is more mysterious than we have imagined, there are other intelligences all about (some of which seem to be able to reach us), consciousness itself may be the primary creative force in the universe, and our knowledge of the properties of the physical world is far from complete. The emerging picture is a cosmos that is an interconnected harmonic web, vibrating with creativity and intelligence, in which separateness is an illusion.

The inadequacy of scientific materialism in guiding our understanding and lives has prompted Kyriacos Markides, a distinguished professor of sociology at the University of Maine, to state bluntly that “the secular assumptions about reality, dominant during my university training [and, I suspect, of most of us], were in fact a grand illusion, a materialist superstition that had kept Western thought stranded and imprisoned for the last 300 years.”

And how do the keepers of the dying, yet more traditional paradigm respond to these phenomena? Many raise the cry of “pseudoscience.”

“The odds are stacked against science,” laments Lawrence Kraus, an internationally known theoretical physicist at Case Western Reserve University, who seems to attribute all interest in the above phenomena to the susceptibility of Americans to be “regaled by stories about the limitless possibilities open to those with…a spirit of enterprise.”

This is not just silly, but reflects a fundamental epistemological misunderstanding. The methods of science — hypothesis, testing, rigor, experimentation, control — are valuable and essential for studying phenomena that reside primarily in the material world. But they may be inadequate for exploring matters that straddle the visible and the unseen realms. They surely are insufficient for learning about realities beyond the manifest. Here we must rely more upon experience, intuition, non-ordinary states of consciousness, and holistic or heart knowing, thoughtfully and rigorously applied.

The failure of the human species, especially in the West and in other parts of the world influenced by Western science and technology, to appreciate the delicate, interconnected nature of all being, is at the root of the havoc we are wreaking upon ourselves and most of the earth’s life forms. As Oberlin Board of Trustees Chair Thomas Klutznick wrote in OAM last year, we are witnessing “the first mass dying that is being driven by human activity.” It should not be surprising that alien beings and the Blessed Virgin have taken on the role of messengers from the unseen.

It is apparent that what we are doing to the earth is a crime of cosmic proportions. No one or nothing intervenes or stops us directly, for that does not seem to be spirit’s way. But perhaps we are being helped to wake up and to remember what some native and traditional peoples have never forgotten: that life is fragile and sacred and that we must learn to live in harmony with all the other species of the earth.

So, for me, a journey that began with the investigation of a strange anomaly has led to a greater appreciation of the gift of being and a deeper commitment to helping to preserve the life of the planet and its infinite possibilities.

  • A Pulitzer Prize-winning author and professor of psychiatry at the Harvard Medical School, John E. Mack, M.D., ’51, has spent the past 40 years exploring the question of how our perception of ourselves shapes our perception of the world around us.The author or co-author of 10 books and over 150 scholarly articles, Mack’s 1977 biography of T.E. Lawrence, A Prince of Our Disorder, won him the Pulitzer. His unconventional ideas about the existence and purpose of visitations from unknown life forms, brought him criticism and notoriety upon publication in 1994 of Abduction: Human Encounters with Aliens – a title which has since gone out of print. His most recent book, Passport to the Cosmos: Human Transformation and Alien Encounters, was published in 1999.

    Earlier in his career, in 1969 Mack founded the Department of Psychiatry at Cambridge Hospital and in 1983 he co-founded the Center for Psychology and Social Change with Robert Jay Lifton, M.D., and colleagues. In 1992, Mack was co-chair of the Abduction Study Conference, a landmark gathering of scientists at MIT to discuss alien encounters and in 1993, he founded the Program for Extraordinary Experience Research (PEER) to explore varieties of anomalous experience.

    Mack is a graduate of the Boston Psychoanalytic Society and Institute and is board certified in child and adult psychoanalysis with over 40 years of clinical psychiatric education and experience. He continues to teach.

John Mack ’51 spoke at Oberlin College in 2001 on the event of his 50th class reunion. This article expands upon his presentation. (Photo courtesy of the Center for Psychology and Social Change.)












A response by Dr. Mack to a critical Letter to the Editor of the Oberlin Alumni magazine, written by fellow Oberlin graduate Robert Naeye (’85), a science writer and evident devotee of the scientific materialist paradigm.

The letter (OAM Winter 2002-2003) from Robert Naeye ’85 about my article on the alien encounter phenomenon contains several distortions and inaccuracies. In the spirit of Voltaire, Naeye welcomes the openness of the magazine to such an article, but then misrepresents what I have said in order to present the arguments that reflect his worldview.

According to Naeye I “claim” that “aliens are abducting human beings,” and that I have not provided the physical evidence to prove this. But my expressed concern is not primarily with whether “’abductions’ have been taking place in a literal, physical sense.” Rather, the article focuses on “the larger question” of “how we are to consider reports of powerful experiences for which the physical evidence is meager and run counter to the consensus view of what is possible.” I do “claim” that “how we assess the reality of what a person reports in the absence of compelling physical evidence” is important. Naeye rejects intuition and experience as paths to “truth and knowledge,” leaving us with the impression he believes all human reports must be accompanied by physical evidence in order to be worthy of scientific consideration.

Naeye suggests that the encounter phenomenon is related to false memories, fantasy proneness or ideas implanted by people like myself or Budd Hopkins (’53). But there is no evidence for any of that. The experiences are “mysterious and real,” and tens of thousands of hours of careful clinical work by many investigators have failed to discover a conventional explanation for them.

Naeye relies on the authority of the majority (“only a miniscule fraction of the scientific community” share my views) to bolster his argument. But surely he knows how often in history established authority has been wrong when faced with anomalies that do not fit into an established paradigm. Finally, Naeye offers as evidence the fact that a psychiatrist friend of his has seen “thousands of patients,” and none has ever told him an abduction story. But surely he knows that patients will only share matters to which they feel a therapist is open, especially when these challenge profoundly consensus reality.

—John E. Mack, M.D.

Note from the editor of Dr. Mack’s website, Naeye’s suggestion that therapists (by implication, therapists such as Dr. Mack) may be “implanting [experiences] into people’s minds” is not persuasive in light of the ten thousand or more letters that this organization has received from people who have never met Dr. Mack, yet wrote to affirm to him that their experiences are similar to those that he heard from the experiencers with whom he personally worked.






The John E. Mack Institute

The mission of the John E. Mack Institute is to explore the frontiers of human experience, to serve the transformation of individual consciousness, and to further the evolution of the paradigms by which we understand human identity.

JEMI is named in recognition of John E. Mack, M.D. (1929-2004), Pulitzer Prize-winning author and Professor of Psychiatry at the Harvard Medical School, to honor his courageous examination of human experience and the ways in which perceptions and beliefs about reality shape the global condition.

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