Professor recounts clients’ perspectives on spirit world in new book

Mark F. Yama holds a copy of his book, "The Spirit of Transcendent: Exploring the Extraordinary in Human Experience" Dec. 29, 2020 at his home in Troy. - PHOTO DENE HARE
Photo Dene Hare
Mark F. Yama holds a copy of his book, "The Spirit of Transcendent: Exploring the Extraordinary in Human Experience" Dec. 29, 2020 at his home in Troy.

Psychologist Mark Yama’s education in the spirit world began the day he met the witch of Orofino. 

Nine years ago, Betty walked into an Orofino pain clinic where Yama worked as a consultant, alongside his career as a professor at the University of Idaho. She was battling cancer, and it had spread to her bones. They talked about ways she dealt with pain, an ordinary discussion but for an odd turn; she said that the people of Orofino considered her to be a witch.

She looks like a witch, Yama thought. Her clothes were threadbare, her hands gnarled. She could only use one eye; the other had been closed since birth. Her teeth were gone. She used a crooked tree branch as a cane. To top it off, she wore a wide-brimmed, black felt hat.

It would have been easy for Yama to dismiss Betty as a crazy old woman, but for some reason he felt a connection to her. He began meeting with her privately, recording her stories of strange miracles and conversations with God. She recounted seeing Mount St. Helens erupt, five years before it happened. She’d frantically called NASA 15 minutes before the space shuttle Challenger exploded. She foresaw the assassination of President Kennedy, 9-11 and much more.

Yama, of Moscow, describes himself as, “a reluctant convert.” Before meeting Betty, “there was no way I would even look at this stuff. I would just assume it couldn’t be true,” he said.

Betty (whose name Yama changed for privacy) was the first of many clients to share personal experiences that shook his belief system to its core. He details them in his new book, “The Spirit Transcendent: Exploring the Extraordinary in Human Experience,” recently published by Toplight Books.

“My problem with my book is no one would believe it, but I’m not lying,” said Yama. “Here’s these people telling me these incredible things, and I just wanted to be true to their experience, to be accurate and tell the stories they’re telling me, and that I think deserve to be told.”

People told him about visits from dead loved ones and flashes of intuition that saved their lives or the life of someone else. One chapter of the book is devoted to accounts of near-death experiences. Yama introduces readers to a brilliant Washington State University doctoral student who nearly died after skiing off a cliff. After recovering, she devotes her free time to playing the harp for the dying because she can feel their spirits.

Patients he encounters are often tremendously moved by a near death experience but grapple with understanding it. At one point in the book, Yama introduces two individuals, a woman from a Christian belief system and a man from the Native American tradition, who share remarkably similar experiences.

As a psychologist, he’s trained to label something like a near-death experience or premonition a “delusion” or “hallucination” but he no longer believes science’s “limited vocabulary” applies to all situations. 

“In order to treat the data seriously, you have to be able to let go of some traditional scientific assumptions, and they all come under the heading of materialism,” he said. “You have to treat the materialist assumption as a hypothesis.”

Yama is sure there will be people as dismissive of his book as he once would have been.

Betty, who has since died, would understand. 

“Betty had a deep wish to get people to know that spirit is real and needs to be cultivated,” Yama said. But she’d also say that, “telling people about the spirit was like digging in concrete with a plastic spoon.”


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