James O'Dea seems a man of many faiths—a saner sort of mystic who tends to pass off the elusiveness of his beliefs as evidence of his openmindedness.

He's landing in Portland this week in his role as director of the Institute of Noetic Sciences to speak at a conference. Since 2003, the 56-year-old O'Dea has run the institute, an organization founded in the Bay Area in 1973 by astronaut Edgar Mitchell.

Frustrated by many scientists' refusal to take seriously spiritual phenomena and wanting to study links between science and spirituality, Mitchell formed IONS two years after returning from the moon.

O'Dea's path to IONS was more gradual than Mitchell's. Born in Ireland in 1951, he was vice principal in the 1970s of a Turkish school during intense fighting in that country. His understanding of violence grew when he was in Beirut working with the Middle East Council of Churches during Israel's 1982 invasion of Lebanon.

After working as the director of Amnesty International's Washington office in the 1990s, O'Dea finally found his niche at IONS, an organization that aims "to advance the science of consciousness and human experience to serve individual and collective transformation." He will be the featured guest at a five-day conference in Portland starting Wednesday, Jan. 30, titled: "Conscious Universe: Science, Faith and Activism for a New Cosmology."

WW : What is IONS?
James O'Dea: IONS is an organization about worldview shift. The word "noetic" means to know directly. There's the rational [way of knowing]. But philosophers and thinkers know that framing is artificial. We can know in an intuitive or spiritual or telepathic way. We also know there are shamanic ways of knowing. And there's the way of knowing, as Einstein said, through the power of imagination. By respecting [all these ways of knowing] and trying to have dialogue with each other we can advance towards a higher evolutionary civilization.

That sounds more philosophical than scientific. Why is it called the Institute of Noetic Sciences ?
Western science is deeply embedded in scientific materialism. But the quantum physicists have dug a hole into that and inside that hole is the knowledge that our own subjective consciousness is affecting what we see at the quantum level. There's a whole paradigm revolution going on.

Are you a scientist?

What are some examples of scientific research IONS has done?
We have the world's largest library on the spontaneous remission of diseases. And [research has shown] clearly, that in some cases a tremendous affirmative belief structure seems to be able to help arrest disease. We also have the world's largest bibliography of scientific research on meditation and its effects. We can talk about longevity. You will live longer, you will be happier, you will be less stressed, your heart will be in better shape. When you forgive, when you relax, when you are grateful, when you are loving, all of the health indicators of the body increase.

How do you respond to criticisms by mainstream scientists who accuse you of submitting to the same temptation toward superstition and pseudoscience that underlies religion?
To go toward this secular reductionism that simply says, well, an apple is the following cluster of chemicals and cellular activity, is to miss the point that an apple is also a part of our story-world—the apple that falls from the tree and whosever head it was that it hit [laughs]. We're embedded in meaning systems. And our cultures reflect those meaning systems, and they cannot be reduced to tangible visible right-in-front-of-my-eyeballs evidence. Extraordinary numbers of people have experiences that tell them about the nature of reality. They have deep spiritual or mystical or psychological insights that are often not supported by the dominant paradigm. Because the dominant paradigm that we got ourselves stuck in was "gas-guzzle, build more arms, fight your way out of it, and who cares what ultimately happens to the planet because we're invincible." And now we're beginning to see the limitations of this materialist paradigm.

Maybe I'm just talking from the dominant paradigm, but are you saying there's a way to change policies outside of politics?
We're not an organization that is about electing different candidates and going down to that level. We're saying that a shift in consciousness is required that has a new evolutionary impulse to it that synthesizes the best of the past, that brings together science and spirituality.

So you think politics is a superstructure and consciousness determines what the political situation looks like?
Right. The politics of the day reflect the dominant consciousness of the day.

Do you vote?
No, I'm actually a resident alien.

Who do you see as your philosophical and scientific predecessors?
If you were to look at two figures who if you put them together would really express what this institute is about, one is Albert Einstein and the other is Mahatma Gandhi. Einstein contributed so much to humanity. He was definitely a new paradigm scientist. And he said imagination is greater than knowledge. Mahatma Gandhi was a spiritual being who recognized that when applied, spirituality can transform the social order and it can do so peacefully…we know from historians that there are cycles of history. In the late '80s and '90s—that was the third cycle of history called the unraveling—Catholic priests, sexual abuse—main institutions that are relied on in the former period begin to unravel because something is going deeper, truth is needed more deeply. And then the fourth cycle is the collapse, it's the breakdown, and the breakdown is necessary for the breakthrough. Now what we see in 2008 is significant breakdown in many areas, some are even talking about further deep financial breakdown coming in the financial system. And you could say from a consciousness perspective that is a precursor to the breakthrough.

Are you religious?
I will tell you this: I was born a Catholic, I was connected with the United Church of Christ which is a Congregationalist church, I then had deep teachings in Sufism, I'm on the board of a Hindu Ashram, and so yes, I would say I have had many experiences that remind me of the depth of the spiritual world. I was with the Kogi people in Colombia last year, and they are often referred to as the Buddhist people of the indigenous people because they are very telepathic, they meditate a lot. One of the women of the Kogi stood up when we were in conversation and she said, "I would like you to give a message to the West that they understand things too quickly. Ask your political and your religious leaders to seek understanding, and once you do that you know that you will have to keep circling through the great mystery." I deeply affirm her sense of seeking understanding.

The reason I ask is that this cycles-of-history thing and the way you're talking about now, 2008, as a crucial moment—it seems there's a strong parallel between that and messianic beliefs. Maybe you're not describing the "event" in apocalyptic terms, but there's definitely a resemblance.
I would say that it's an interesting time when a great deal seems to be up. There are various mythological traditions that talk about the Mayan calendar, and there is the return of the hidden Imam, there is the return of Jesus Christ, there is the return of the messiah. So what do all of these myths and beliefs have in common? Why do so many people—statistically, 80 percent—say they have experienced psi-phenomenon, telepathy—why is material science so reluctant to look at and explore those areas? This is an institute that says, from a basic statistical scientific point of view, there has to be something going on here. We don't have the truth, we have an exploration of different ways of knowing and its by respecting those different ways of knowing, even if they're deeply immersed in myth, there is something to be learned.

I saw that you'd written a chapter for a recent book called "The Mystery of 2012." What's it about?
[The chapter is] called "You were born for such a time as this." What it tries to do is precisely say you don't have to believe in any of the prophecies, you just have to look around at the challenge and the complexity that you live in and ask yourself: Why in the face of all this do I have a capacity to wake up and feel that I a can have an impact? The book ends with my saying that it is my belief that we will not only rise to this challenge but that from 2012 to 2020 we will begin to see the greatest levels of healing that this planet has ever seen, that I think the evidence is really there that we're beginning to discover our capacities, not only to heal ourselves, but to heal each other, and we have some very strong science to support us.


The conference is sponsored by the Institute of Noetic Sciences, Portland Unity, Interfaith Council of Greater Portland, Northwest Interfaith Community Outreach, IONS Northwest, and Portland IONS Community. The kickoff event takes place at Unity Church of Portland on Jan. 30 from 7-9:30 pm. Tickets are $10, $15 at the door.

In 1998, Mitchell claimed that 90 percent of UFO sightings since the 1940s were attributable to actual instances of aliens flying about. He also believes in the possibility of spontaneous remission of disease. In fact, he says, he himself was spontaneously cured of prostate cancer.