Seeing What We Want To See – or is it Seeing What They Want Us To See? Card Tricks and Spiritual Teachers

At the Institute of Transpersonal Psychology (ITP), where I teach, we usually open our faculty meetings with some sort of brief experiential exercise, designed to, to put it in simple terms, put us in a good and harmonious place or, to put it in fancier terms, remind us of our transpersonal/spiritual nature to smooth our teamwork.  Its’ an amazing contrast with typical university faculty meetings where the minutes of the last meeting are read, intellectual knives are sometimes sharpened as we prepare for combat, and we are there as Professors, not as human beings on a spiritual path, hoping to help others along on whatever their path is.

I was scheduled to lead the opening this morning and had planned to either use a slide show I had made a few years before about the history of ITP or to use a beautiful slide show my wife Judy had made, Natural Great Peace, featuring wondrous scenic landscapes we’ve seen in our camping trips, interleaved with photos of various spiritual teachers and the reading of a poem of that title by Lama Sogyal Rinpoche.  At the last minute, though, I was unable to drive down to ITP and decided that I could do the Opening remotely by having a most interesting YouTube video shown, the Colour Changing Card Trick (it’s British, that’s correct spelling for color over there).  You can see it at

The video is a delightful, brief demonstration of how so much of what we perceive is controlled by our beliefs, either beliefs we already have relatively voluntarily, or beliefs which culture has inculcated into us.  It seems like a straightforward card trick that any magician would do, but……I won’t spoil the “plot” for you, but urge you to watch it.

I strongly suggest you go on the web and watch this before you read on.

It was a delightful and instructive Opening, and I and perhaps some others hope to use this in ITP classes to remind our students that we are not simple, Objective Observers of reality as we would like to think we are.

Later today I was asked if I would be attending a Friday night public talk of one of my spiritual teachers, Lama Sogyal Rinpoche, in San Francisco.  I’m both too busy and too tired to go then, but it got me thinking about my perceptions of spiritual teachers in light of the Colour Changing Car Trick.  I would like to think that after a lifetime of psychological training and a lot of experience with various spiritual systems, I am a discriminating and accurate judge of spiritual teachers.  I certainly have made judgments at times in my life, ranging from “This one’s deluded and full of himself” at one extreme to “This one is very wise, I should try to learn” at the other extreme.  I often wish my “extremes” went further, that I would meet some spiritual teacher that I instantly fell in love with and knew beyond any possible doubt was a totally enlightened, compassionate, loving being and just the one for me!  That I could be totally devoted to and become enlightened for sure by working with!

Fortunately or unfortunately, that’s not me.  My personality type?  My fears?  My social conditioning?  Bad karma?  Good karma?  Who knows.  All I know is that if I find a teacher inspiring I try to listen carefully to what she or he teaches and see how I can apply that in my life and work, usually with a prayer to Whatever/Whoever the Highest is that whatever I do I won’t hurt anyone and hopefully it will be helpful to some.

So that’s my ideals, and I would certainly like to think I’m pretty discriminating, but the Colour Changing Card Trick is a nice reminder that I can be quite off in what I perceive.  I do think that if I identify too strongly with the idea that I’m discriminating and objective, then I’ll be a total slave of my conditioning and biases.  On the other hand, if I remind myself occasionally and try to understand more deeply when I can that I probably am biased in most situations, then I have a possibility of noticing biases and perhaps compensating for them, enabling me to get a little closer to whatever truth is.  I’ve applied this attitude as much as I can in my scientific work, e.g., I admit to being a biased experimenter, I prefer that things come out in a certain way, but I also do have a strong desire for truth, so I pray that I’ll see my biases and control for them.  Sadly most scientists, especially in the social sciences, seem to have little or no understanding of the bias problem, so may be doing quite biased work which, hopefully, will be corrected in the long term as science moves on.  The “long term” can be pretty long, though.

I’ll share the most dramatic instance in my life of bias concerning a teacher – at least that I’m aware of!  Who knows what has been way more biased and I haven’t had the slightest idea it was?

Back in the 1970s my wife and I belonged to a spiritual growth group led by Chilean psychiatrist Claudio Naranjo.  The group eventually broke up, but I learned a lot and Naranjo is a genius in these matters.  One of the psychotherapy processes he got our group involved in was what was later called the Fisher-Hoffman process.  Naranjo had met Bob Hoffman, a man from Oakland, California who was a spiritualist medium.  One of the spirits Hoffman believed he regularly channeled was that of a deceased psychoanalyst, a Dr. Fisher.  Dr. Fisher, looking back on his earthly life as a therapist, was quite dissatisfied, classical psychoanalytic therapy took forever and too often didn’t work very well.  From his post-mortem state, he supposedly figured out how to make therapy work much better, and Hoffman, working under the ostensible direction of Dr. Fisher, had taken a variety of his clients through this therapy with excellent results.

Sound fantastic?  Of course!  But Naranjo was impressed by what Hoffman did and worked out a group version of the therapy, applied rigorously and intensively over several months.  He brought Bob Hoffman to one of our Thursday night group meetings to introduce him and to start us on the therapy.

Because I had immense respect for Naranjo and thought him a genius who was operating from deep spiritual inspiration, I decided I would give it a try.  Of course, as noted above, I may only have been seeing the cards whose backs apparently changed colour….

Hoffman came in and started speaking to us, and within half a minute it was obvious to me that he was a phony.  Medium, schmedium, he looked phony, he sounded phony, he was deluded himself and/or deluding us.  I had known one of the world’s greatest mediums, Eileen Garrett, I had extensive knowledge of parapsychology, I was a PhD in psychology, I knew what I was seeing!

And yet I had such confidence in Naranjo’s judgment (and/or such a need to straighten out my own twisted psyche) that I went through the process.

The whole process was done with instructions from Claudio, Bob Hoffman was never around.  Until the final group therapy session.

Bob Hoffman walked in the room, looking like he had months before – and I saw immediately that he looked a lot like my deceased father, he talked like my deceased father – and he was a perfect projection object for all my unresolved problems with my father!

From my previous contact, where he was obviously a phony, I had not seen Bob Hoffman at all, I had seen my unresolved problems with my father projected on to him.  Because I had successfully worked through a lot of my major problems with my father and mother in this unconventional therapy, this fact now leaped out at me!  I had believed I was seeing the world: all I was seeing was my projections, my attention driven to the things that would match what my projections needed to maintain themselves.  All those things in the background were affecting me and I had no idea….

It was very humbling.  And very educational!

So what went on when you watched the Colour Changing Card Trick?

What’s going on when you watch your world?

Not to mention what I think is going on when I write this……

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *