The spiritual, the occult, the paranormal – these things have never sat well with the mainstream press. If they pay attention to such things, it is usually only briefly and with an eye to ridicule. Not surprisingly, the majority of writers on these topics are arrogant ignoramuses.
This situation may be changing. A small cohort of writers has been developing who are willing to look intelligently, objectively, and engagingly at levels of reality that consensus opinion would rather ignore or condemn.
One of these writers is Ptolemy Tompkins. The son of Peter Tompkins, best-known for his 1970s bestseller The Secret Life of Plants, Ptolemy (named after an ancient Gnostic philosopher, not the proponent of the geocentric theory) grew up in a world of the marvellous in the ’60s and ’70s, the heyday of the New Age. His stepbrother, Nicholas Vreeland, is a prominent Tibetan Buddhist abbot and was the subject of the 2014 film Monk with a Camera, which also features interviews with Ptolemy.
As a writer, Ptolemy has staked out his own ground in these areas. His first book, Paradise Fever: Growing Up in the Shadow of the New Age, was a chronicle of his life and times as a child of the human potential movement. His other works include The Beaten Path: Field Notes on Getting Wise in a Wisdom-Crazy World; This Tree Grows out of Hell: Mesoamerica and the Search for the Magical Body; The Modern Book of the Dead: A Revolutionary Perspective on Death, the Soul, and What Really Happens in the Life to Come; and The Divine Life of Animals: One Man’s Quest to Discover Whether the Souls of Animals Live On.
Ptolemy has also collaborated with Eben Alexander, M.D., on his bestselling books Proof of Heaven: A Neurosurgeon’s Journey into the Afterlife and The Map of Heaven: How Science, Religion, and Ordinary People Are Proving the Afterlife. For a number of years Ptolemy worked as a staff editor for the inspirational American magazines Guideposts and Angels on Earth. His latest book Proof of Angels: The Definitive Book on the Role of Angels and the Surprising Role They Play in Our Lives was published in February 2016. No matter what subject he covers, his prose is always fresh, lively, and candid.
Ptolemy and I have been friends for several years, linked both by common interests and a number of mutual acquaintances. I conducted this e-mail interview with him in October 2015.
RICHARD SMOLEY(RS): You had quite an upbringing. Your father, Peter Tompkins, was the author of The Secret Life of Plants and a well-known explorer of the metaphysical. What was it like to grow up in that environment?
PTOLEMY TOMPKINS (PT): He was the coauthor, actually. His coauthor, Chris Bird, and his wife, Lois, were over at the Barn, the converted cow barn I grew up in, all the time. Chris was a great guy – bearish and jolly, and given to histrionics almost as much as my dad was. For the author photo for The Secret Life of Plants, it was decided that the two would look good posed among plants, so they had a shoot at the botanical gardens in DC. The two of them were arguing five minutes into the shoot.
RS: What were some of the most interesting (and/or famous) personalities that you met when you were young?
PT: I missed the night Liv Ullman came by for dinner. My dad was very taken with her. Ali McGraw was around a little bit, for reasons I don’t remember. In ’78 my father and my stepmother, Betty Vreeland, brought me along for a trip to Morocco during my spring break. I was in tenth grade at the time, and while in Tangier we went over to an old writer friend of Betty’s, a guy named Paul Bowles, who I’d never heard of. Bowles, astonishingly, had hash, and everyone had some social hits of it after dinner, as was the standard back then. I hardly ever opened my mouth at that age, or smiled either. But the hash was so strong, I’d never had anything like it. I retired to a corner of the living room and sort of dropped through a floor into a world of stoned-ness I’d not had any idea existed. My tendency at the time was to regard all the famous and fancy people my dad met with withering teenage disdain, but there was something about Bowles that I liked. He seemed oddly unphony. I rediscovered him in my early twenties as a reader. I think he’s one of the great prose stylists. As an adult, thinking back on that visit one day, I asked my dad what he’d thought of Bowles. “A bit potty,” my dad said. A typical response.
RS: Your father had an amazing life in his own right. Wasn’t he an American spy behind the lines in Rome during World War II?
PT: Yes, my dad was behind the lines. He wrote a book on it, A Spy in Rome. He posed as a Roman Fascist, and once had the SS officer in charge of finding him (they knew there was a spy somewhere about) over for dinner. He made him an omelette, an obvious luxury at the time, and the officer detailed the tortures they had in store for the American spy once they found him. Of course the rest of life pales a bit after something like that.
RS: Your father at one point was vigorously engaged in the search for Atlantis. Could you talk a little about what it was like to take part in it?
PT: “Taking part” is probably an exaggeration. I was around. My dad was convinced that the Edgar Cayce readings about the rising of Atlantis were correct. He spent thousands and thousands of dollars photographing the limestone formations off Bimini – the so-called “Bimini Road.” My father loved the idea of Atlantis returning because he wanted the world to become a kind of new Eden. He was a true father of the New Age in this sense – he had the core New Age belief that the world once was, and would be again, a better place. But not better in some mundane sense, but in the sense of being elevated back into a spiritualised condition that it had fallen away from. That’s what the Bimini stuff was all about. Generally speaking, one had to be naked during the filming. There were often times when I was the only one aboard the various boats he hired with a bathing suit on. It drove my dad nuts.
RS: With all of your exposure to the New Age counterculture, what things would you say are the most valuable that you learned?
PT: My father taught me the fathomlessly valuable lesson that the mundane world we see around us isn’t all there is, and that if we’re impatient with the limitations of existence as it presents itself now, we are so with good reason. Deep within, we know there’s more. My dad was a pain in the neck to a lot of people. He was far from a perfect person, and he was, I’d say, genuinely a touch mad. But he had a certain nobility of character. He was, in his misguided and often destructive way, truly a great man. Many people think that about their fathers, of course. I think one of the reasons I’ve always been comfortable criticising and making fun of him is because I’m so convinced he had that core of greatness.
RS: You’ve worked intensively with Eben Alexander in writing his two books, Proof of Heaven and Map of Heaven. Eben is best known for a long and powerful near-death experience he had when he was in a coma in 2008. Could you say a little bit about how you see his experience and how you regard him personally?
PT: One belief about the world I hold very strongly is that, as the New Age adage has it, everything is significant. The problem, or rather the challenge, it seems to me, lies in celebrating that fact even when the significance one encounters is problematic. It’s great when you find a parking space just when you need one, but that doesn’t mean the world is some giant pinball machine rigged in your favour. Sometimes the odd synchronicities and resonances of life are much more challenging. In the case of Eben, my biggest struggle was just how similar my relationship to him was to my relationship to my dad. I was eleven when The Secret Life of Plants transformed my life overnight, and I got to see the effects of that kind of instant celebrity very close up. Yet at the same time I myself was completely invisible.
The same thing happened with Proof of Heaven. I worked like a demon to get that book in shape for publication. It took me about four months, and by the time it was done, it was, experientially speaking, my book, not Eben’s. A great portion of the writing in it is by me, not Eben. At the same time, the book describes Eben’s life and his experience. I did not make anything up, and I had full faith in Eben’s honesty. When the book came out and went right to the top of the bestseller lists, and Eben was praised for his fine writing style, etc., I found myself in a situation that really did feel somewhat choreographed. Another person was being praised through the roof beams for a book that I had in large part written. I had, I realised, a couple of options, the only sensible one of which was to be completely unfazed by it. Who wants to be the kind of person who raises their hand at the back of class and says, “Hey, that was my idea, not his!” It began to seem quite clear to me, as the success of the book continued, that I should view the whole thing as a kind of lesson in humility. T.S. Eliot, in the Quartets, says that humility is endless. If T.S. Eliot says that, who am I to argue? So I just made a point of trying to celebrate the success of the book, the good that it was doing, and not get caught up in picayune gripes about not getting the attention myself.
It worked pretty well until that article came out in Esquire magazine which purported to rip the veil away and expose Eben as the calculating phony he really was. The article was full of errors, and made a very brief mention of me, three or four lines, most of them incorrect. I thought: Jesus, here this guy wants to discredit Eben, and he won’t even do me the service of using me as a tool to do so? Somehow I found this really irritating. Eben – again, like my dad – is a great guy, but he’s also frustrating.
In the end, I came away feeling that his experience was true. There was something about the way he described it in our phone interviews that just made something in me click. It resonated. More than anything else, it reminded me of the visionary journeys made by a number of Persian mystics. One of my favourite books is Spiritual Body and Celestial Earth, an anthology of these experiences compiled and edited by the great French scholar of Islam, Henry Corbin. There were details in Eben’s narrative that brought that book to mind in a truly extraordinary way. Every detail of his journey, from his beginning in the subterranean murk to his meeting with the sister/angel figure to his journey beyond that meeting into the “dazzling darkness” where he encounters God… All of this was just so wildly resonant, and I somehow just knew he couldn’t have been making it up.
RS: Could you talk about your own beliefs on the afterlife, for example as you discuss them in The Modern Book of the Dead?
PT: For most of my adult and semiadult life, I have been obsessed with the idea of personal survival. That the you that is really you, and the me that is really me, does not fade away or fall apart with the death of the body, but continues on. Most importantly, I have been taken up with the idea that survival is above all else personal and individual. Nicholas Berdyaev, the Russian writer and philosopher, wrote a three-word sentence that sums all this up: “Personality is indestructible.”
I was around in the ’70s when my stepbrother Nicholas Vreeland, the Buddhist abbot, first became interested in Buddhism. I looked up to Nicky a great deal, and as he wandered into Buddhist practice, I wandered into one Buddhist book after another. At first I was hugely taken with what I read. But gradually, something began to bother me. I realised the Buddhist focus on the unreality of self at all levels was something I could not accept. The key feature of life, for me, was that it was personal. People are personal, but so are animals and, for that matter trees and plants, just like my father said. Corbin said that in the world above this one, the primary question we ask about what we see there is not “what” but “who,” because up there, everything is a “who.” This is the root of why children love cartoons and fairy tales where everything is personalised, animated – that is, given an anima. The Buddhist suggestion that the self is actually not individual and eternal but aggregate and passing… well, by the time I was in my early twenties I found myself in open rebellion against this idea. I didn’t dislike Buddhism, and I continued to read Buddhist books. At the highest level, I do believe all faiths converge. But I believe that the level where this happens is, quite simply, so high that talking about it from our present vantage point is essentially impossible. I’ll tell you this: if there’s one belief I know I will absolutely never abandon, it is the value of personality – of the individual being. The fact that we, each of us, are both eternal and personal strikes me as the most interesting fact there is.
RS: Another book of yours is The Divine Life of Animals. Many people are convinced that animals (especially their pets) do have a kind of afterlife. What did you discover in looking into this topic, and what do you think the truth is?
PT: The Divine Life of Animals arose out of an article I wrote for a magazine called Guideposts where I worked for many years. The article was called “Will My Pet Go to Heaven?”, and it is not exactly a masterpiece of metaphysical speculation. What I discovered working at Guideposts is that there are a lot of wonderful people out there in America, and the world at large, who love their pets deeply and suffer intensely when they lose them. Imagine a woman living in, say, Iowa. Her husband served in World War II, and they live a long, happy, and traditional American middle-class life. Then, as so often happens, the husband dies first, and the wife, alone and heartbroken, begins to rely more and more on the company of her pet – a dog, let’s say. Then the dog dies. Suffering deeply, this woman turns to her clergyperson for reassurance that, just as her husband did not simply blip into nonexistence but exists still, in a world beyond this one, so too does her pet. Alas, her clergyperson, following a long (but far from unanimous) tradition among Christians, tells her that no, there are no dogs in heaven. This has the predictable result of devastating the woman. After all, she relies on her clergyperson for answers to the big questions, and what he or she says, she believes.
I determined to marshal some evidence that the Christian faith (the faith of the vast majority of Guideposts readers) is far from unanimous on this point. The article received a mind-boggling number of letters in response. Some of these were from cranky by-the-book types assuring me I was wrong, but the vast majority were from people who had suffered the loss of a pet and were vastly grateful to hear, from a source they trusted, that there was more to the picture – that the essence of their pets had indeed survived. There’s a very popular poem called “The Rainbow Bridge” that describes how when a person dies, they will cross the Rainbow Bridge and be greeted by all the animals they have ever loved. This poem is saccharine to the point where it actually does hurt my teeth to read it. And yet, hidden beneath all the maple syrup, there is a core truth: there is a bridge between this world and the worlds above this one, and when we depart from this world, we do not vanish into an impersonal mush, but into a world that is specific and personal just as this world is, only more so. So that’s what I ended up enlarging into The Divine Life of Animals.
Unfortunately – or perhaps just unavoidably – once I secured a contract for the book, I made it the kind of book I like. That is to say, a more complex one than most of those nice ladies who read Guideposts wanted. This has always been my problem as a writer. I’m too fancy for the people who like simple books, and too simple for the people who like fancy ones. So it goes!
RS: Your latest book is called Proof of Angels, and you’ve spent a lot of time thinking and writing about people’s encounters with angels. What do you think about angels?
PT: I think angels are real, and I wish I knew more about them. During my decade at Guideposts, I wrote regularly for Guideposts’ sister magazine, Angels on Earth. Once again, it has a readership largely composed of what you might call conventional, old-fashioned Christians. The original meaning of “angel” is, of course, “messenger,” and what chiefly interests me about angels is the way in which the appearance of one can instantly transform a person’s view of reality. You can’t really use the word “angel” anymore and have it convey any kind of genuine charge. It’s been too much doused in the maple syrup of market-driven spiritual writing (a problem that I know I myself contributed to). But originally, angels were beings characterised by their numinousness, their power, and what you might call their awfulness, taking the root of that word in its original sense, as something inducing awe.
A crucial key to believing in angels today is to believe in demons too. This is much easier to do, or at least much easier for me to do, because while I bog down when I try to read Augustine or Aquinas on angels, I am riveted when a contemporary writer like Louis Proud or Joe Fisher describe their interactions with demonic beings. The whole succubus/incubus business, with people engaging in what, to hear them talk, is entirely satisfactory sexual congress with nonphysical beings, I find fascinating. There is much literature on this subject, and so much is just so believable. So belief in demons is a great sort of gateway drug to belief in angels.
One of the single most momentous events in my adult life came when a friend demonstrated to me beyond all doubt that Ouija boards work. With patience and the right circumstances, the planchette really does move, and decidedly individual personalities, or subpersonalities, come through. Who or what are these entities? I don’t know. Is it a good idea to get involved with such entities? I would say no. But is there something real going on here? Absolutely. I’ve had it proved to me, and no one could de-convince me of what I experienced. So I’m very grateful to the demonic world. It had a hand in breaking down my culturally engrained positivist/materialist tendencies that were hardwired into me as a member of modern culture. I see a little more of the real world – the world that is partially material but in much larger part spiritual – as a result of that brief flirtation with the murkier levels of the spiritual world.
RS: In this whole field, how do you personally separate fact from imagination?
PT: I think one of the absolutely central keys to accepting the reality of the spiritual world is understanding that all perception is a collaborative event. We are co-builders of everything we see and experience. Ordinary, mundane reality is a creation that takes a fantastically complex amount of work on the part of our brains and unconscious minds to put together. The notion that anything we encounter in our world is just “there” and that we are seeing it objectively, with no help from our imaginative faculty, is, as Coleridge tried so hard to tell us, absurd. The world is a labyrinth, and separating the real from the unreal is a task that greets us anew each day when we wake up (and, if we listen to the traditions, one which will continue to challenge us after we die, only more intensely).
What to hang on to in this carnival of mirrors? I think the Hungarian Anthroposophist Georg Kühlewind was on to something very important when he said that if we experienced the reality of ourselves – the inner “I” that is our true identity – with the concreteness that we experience an object that we can touch and feel in the material world, most of our problems would vanish. In line with that, I think I’d say that the first thing to do to stay oriented in the maze of existence – both incarnate and disincarnate – is to come to an unshakable belief in the reality of ourselves. Before we can believe anything “out there” can be real, we have to believe – to know – that we ourselves are real. The whole initiatory tradition, from Greece on back to Egypt and who knows where, seems to have that as its primary argument. I’d say that’s what my dad believed, so in that and many another respect, I’m very much his son.
Ptolemy’s books – including his latest Proof of Angels – are available from all good bookstores and online retailers. His website is www.ptolemytompkins.com.
Photos of Peter Tompkins/Ptolemy Tompkins courtesy of Ptolemy Tompkins.
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