Tuesday, June 15, 2010

On the Psychic

Turbulent Terminology

Humanity’s many experiences of the “psychic” are undoubtedly based on the same fundamental experience. Terminology obscures this fact. Let me give some examples. We almost never think that “psychics” and “saints” belong to the same category. Nor do we view insanity as a “species of psychism.” People we call “mystics” (Jacob Boehme comes to mind) are rarely designated psychics. We refer to Swedenborg as a philosopher or seer, never as a “medium”—although he also communicated with the dead, as mediums are supposed to do. In some circles a designation like “shaman” is more acceptable than a designation like “sensitive.” Healing phenomena occur but are explained in different ways all based on context. If the healer comes from what is viewed as a “backward” culture, he or she is practicing witch-craft, if from a religious, he or she manifests miraculous power, if from a secular modern, the healing comes from a “healing stream”; an example is the German healer, Bruno Gröning. Santaria is an interesting hybrid in which pagan and Christian derivations are synthesized.

Terminology obscures the underlying elements—because the “psychic,” generally speaking, lies below the salt and no theory to explain it dominates. But that the phenomena observed are closely related should be obvious to any alert observer. Sainthood is associated with the “miraculous,” hence processes of sanctification involve the documentation of such events. These phenomena occur in and around the holy. Padre Pio and Solanus Casey are figures in my own time—so is Therese Neumann, who, however, has not advanced as far as Casey in the process. But we discover precisely the same kinds of phenomena associated with figures outside religious cultures too—or in cultures where no institution designates such people “saints.”

Terminology is also confusing because some designations in common use are drawn from specific effects rather than from a structured explanation of what gives rise to the effect. “Psychic” and “sensitive” are generic labels applied to people with obvious gifts (or are these misfortunes?) manifesting at mild levels: they can see the future vaguely, hear people’s thoughts, discover the hidden, find the murdered, help the police, etc. Their gifts are assigned to paranormal “powers”; I take “paranormal” to be a secular concept. But note that when these phenomena manifest in people with religious vocations, at least believers view these gifts as divine interventions, thus as “supernormal.” Mediums are named after a single skill to communicate with the dead in passive trance states—hence that designation. They are not agents, they are media of communications. Some mediums have other powers as well, but these tend to be ignored. When psychics manifest multiple powers and at higher levels, more potent words are joined to the “psychic” designation. An example in my time was Edgar Cayce, “the sleeping prophet.” Cayce brought healing messages after periods of sleep; he was also labeled a “medical clairvoyant.”

Where the religious element is to the fore, the operant assumption is that the miraculous results are in the nature of a reward for superior virtue. Observers rarely contemplate an inverse process of causation, thus that the person is religious in the first place because he or she was first a psychic and, in dealing with that experience, found religion an appropriate outlet and expression of it and virtuous behavior a suitable adaptation for managing the strains and stresses of that experience. That last explanation, I think, is often the best.

Further problems also arise because the psychic phenomenon, as such, may not actually be present in people carrying certain labels. Some saints are psychic, but by no means all saints are. Pope John Paul II, advancing toward sainthood now, was certainly not a psychic, although a splendid human being. Some mediums are psychics—others are frauds or, to put it more mildly, clever entertainers. Some magicians cultivate the label to give their high gifts of trickery and bold illusion additional attractions. And so on. The consequence in all such cases is that the absence of a good theory produces gullibility on one side and acidy skepticism on the other, with the consequence that a long-known body of phenomena do not produce genuine knowledge, and therefore insight, into the human condition.

The above, I think, might be sufficient to present the problem by way of introducing some speculation about the underlying commonality between all of these experiences—ranging from insanity on up to the highest levels of psychic functioning at the level of the great saint or seer. My own working hypothesis follows.

A Hypothesis

As I hope I've demonstrated above, various kinds of phenomena, with all kinds of different labels, are all based on the same fundamental situation, thus that insanity, miraculous events, prophecies, sainthood, healings, mediumship, shamanism, paranormal powers, and much else all have their roots in a single phenomenon. My linking of insanity, say, and sainthood, my strike some reader as highly provocative, perhaps as incendiary—while striking others as so true. In what follows I hope to disappoint people who hold either view.

My working theory on his very difficult and elusive subject may best be presented by using a hypothesis—a description. I start with the notion that the human body is adapted to life in a material dimension and, to make it work effectively, it has a very effective filtering system, built up over uncountable eons precisely to aid us—meaning life—to operate efficiently in a lower dimension and thus to shield us from interference. But interference from what? From an equally complex psychic world. Why we may be in the material sphere rather than in that other one, I will leave untouched for the moment. It might be in order to develop—in order, therefore, to rise to a higher level than the one in which we naturally originate. That hypothetical explanation will serve my purpose here; humanity has suggested other reasons and I’ve mentioned them elsewhere, most recently here. The basics of this hypothesis are simply three. One is that we are here, for whatever reason. Another is that continuous awareness of the other world would interfere with our mission here—development, let us say. And third, that our brains act as selective filtering mechanisms. They keep out the noise of the psychic world, which, at it lowest levels, may be chaotic— while permitting beneficial higher energies to reach us, energies that are helpful in our task, thus grace or baraka. That is the hypothesis.

Now the filtering mechanism has evolved naturally; it is excellent but not fault-free. It manifests at all sorts of levels. If it is too effective, it blocks out not only the noise but also most of the helpful energies of inspiration and therefore renders us excessively insensitive. If it is weak, it might have mixed consequences ranging from favorable to deplorable. Favorable consequences may be high levels of inspiration beneficial to personal and social life; unfavorable might be situations that make people into nervous wrecks. When the filter is too weak, it may cause definite hardship and, at the extreme, insanity. The filtering powers of the brain don’t necessarily affect intelligence or will—nor the other way around. Thus we have an enormous gradient of possible reactions. Some people can deal effectively with a great deal of psychic noise and hardship because of the kind of people they are. Others are not so inclined and will take undesirable paths in consequence, either because they hear too much or too little. Similarly, the most insensitive people can be and often are very straight and virtuous—while others act in a contrary way. The moral power is no more affected by the behavior of the filtering system than it is by other bodily endowments. Some people can deal with beauty—or it may be their downfall; they may deal with handicaps or fail to do so.

Now it seems to me that psychic gifts, considered generically, are all of them instances of relatively weak filtering mechanism. When they fail, insanity is the consequence, and that’s simply a misfortune. Short of that unfortunate result, the kind of “openness” I have in mind may range from what we properly call “gifts” all the way to “challenges.” They are gifts if the openness enhances favorable inflow of higher energies like inspiration or grace. They are challenges when they open people to interference that adds nothing to knowledge and diverts from life’s tasks. Based on my studies, the majority of psychics experience their gifts as burdens. They tend to experience the lower regions of the psychic reality, not the highest. They hear “voices”; some of them call these voices “guides.” Swedenborg’s spiritual diaries contain many accounts of such voices; most of them are marked by a high level of stupidity. Swedenborg also spoke with angels, but most of his exchanges were with very low kinds of entities—not evil, but dumb. Similarly—at least based on my readings—most psychic messages from the beyond are on the same level of mediocrity. Reading them I’ve time and again remarked to myself: “If that’s the stuff that’s coming from the beyond, why bother listening?” But some people have no choice in the matter. For this reason I wonder above, parenthetically, whether some of these gifts are really gifts; they might be more accurately described as misfortunes.

Healing powers are one kind of energy that flows in strongly, in some people, when the filtering is weak. Bruno Gröning is a good example. These power brought him mostly conflict and grief and, it seems, eventually killed him when he could not put it to use. A post on that subject may be found here.

All of the above suggests that a combination of factors inherent in the hypothesis—of filtering, openness due to weak filtering, the variability of the weakness, and the exercise of moral powers by the agents who experience these phenomena—can adequately explain based on a single relationship phenomena as widely differing as mediumship, insanity, and miraculous phenomena surrounding sainthood. Worth some thought.

What the available materials suggest to me is that the psychic world has a certain hierarchical structure and that its coarsest energies (and agencies) are closest to us, its highest more removed. The higher the development of the individual who experiences the “opening” the more likely it is that he or she will become aware of the heavenly ranges. This suggests that development of psychic “organs” is part of our mission here. When these are still primitive, we will still communicate with the beyond when the filtering fails, but with rather slummy regions of it. And this may also be true after we die. If we’ve developed our inner organs, we shall have sight, orientation, and upward mobility; if not, we may remain below.

It occurs to me here worth mentioning chemical mysticism, as it were, and chemical ways of enhancing the filtering. The first had a run, for a while, some decades back when “dropping acid” was a fad, thus the ingestion of LSD. The drug evidently (under my theory) temporarily weakened the filtering system and made the psychic world partially visible to people. Their own developmental level seems to have had an influence on the quality of their experiences, hence the frequent references to “bad trips.” Drug use in religious practices long predates the twentieth century. Similarly, drugs used to treat mental diseases, like schizophrenia, probably in part restore the filtering functions of the brain.

All of this, of course, however long (especially for a blog entry), fails to exhaust the subject. Far from it. It may well be that a certain opening or, negatively put, a “weakening of the filters,” may be a natural consequence of normal development. And this may explain the higher ranges of psychic perception. Whereas organic kinds of weakening, be it as a consequence of genetic causes, disease, or drug use account for the more troublesome aspects of psychic experience. And I, for one, know of at least one case where schizophrenia, followed by grandiose, quasi-religious, but definitely mad visions, was caused by drug abuse.

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