When The Impossible Happens

When I entered graduate school back in 1961, I signed up for the doctorate in clinical psychology track.  I figured with my oddball interests in psychic phenomena, altered states of consciousness, spirituality, and the like, conflicting with the physicalism and conservatism in mainstream psychology, it might be hard for me to get a regular teaching or research job at a university after graduation.  On the other hand, mental illness and psychopathology was, sadly, a growth industry.  More and more ways were being discovered that people used their minds in fashions that created lots of unnecessary suffering, so psychologists who could diagnose what such maladaptive mental and emotional patterns were, and/or act as a psychotherapist to help people straighten them out, would have no trouble finding jobs.  As much as I wanted to be a researcher and teacher, supporting my family came first.

I did the first two years of the PhD clinical track, and reached the point where I was doing diagnostic psychological tests on real patients, and writing up assessments of them that went on to their psychiatric doctors.  These reports, to various degrees, would affect how they were treated.  Yet I grew increasingly uncomfortable with this.

Fluorescent Waterfall

Photo by John Forrest Bamberger

Flourescent Waterfall

On the one hand, I knew that while the tests I had learned to give were useful in discriminating groups of people, they weren’t very accurate in many cases when applied to individuals.  On the other hand, I realize that good diagnosticians and therapists possessed a talent, a knack, that guided them in their work, and test results were secondary to that.  Nowadays I would say that good diagnosticians and therapists had a high degree of emotional intelligence, although we didn’t really have that concept very clearly in mainstream psychology back then.  I understood myself enough, though, to realize that while I was very bright intellectually, I did not have much emotional intelligence.  Half a century later, when I’ve done a lot of work on trying to increase my emotional intelligence, I’m quite amazed at how emotionally dumb I was back then.  At any rate, I knew I didn’t belong in the clinical psychology program, and switched to a new track the Psychology Department had started on personality psychology, which would primarily lead to a career of research and teaching.

Funny thing, though, I’ve actually given hundreds, if not thousands of people some psychotherapeutic type of support over the years by helping them understand that their unusual experiences did not mean that they were “crazy” or “bad.”

A colleague from a special Esalen Center for Theory and Research group I’ve had the privilege of belonging to for more than a decade, Greg Shaw, recently shared his similar experience, and he expressed the importance of this so well that I want to share his note with others.  Greg Shaw, Ph.D., is a Professor of Religious Studies at Stonehill College in Massachusetts.

I recently visited my mom in Santa Barbara where she lives in a retirement home… Always the promoter, my mom asked if I could give a presentation to her community and I agreed.  I titled it “Extraordinary Knowing: Exploring Impossible and Paranormal Experiences.”  My plan was to tell them two stories: Jeff’s story about Mark Twain and his brother  and Elizabeth Mayer’s story* about the harp, just to put the bait in the water and then invite them to address these stories or to share something similar.  Slowly, at first, and then for one hour, this group of 55, aged from 85 to 105, told riveting tales.  A couple of them spoke of being in a car and demanding the driver stop because they saw a close relative standing in the middle of the road. After stopping and the driver seeing nothing, the individual discovered that their relative had died at precisely that time.  There were several stories just like this.

One dear old woman said that in her 30’s she began to see different colored lights around men, each having a slightly different hue. She was told to dismiss it as it wasn’t real, yet she still feels it was.  One man had been a college physics professor and was, he says, a complete materialist/physicalist but is no more.  I was happy to be able to share with them both books we have produced, Irreducible Mind: Toward a Psychology for the 21st Century and Beyond Physicalism: Toward Reconciliation of Science and Spirituality, and encouraged the physicist to read Ed’s introductory and summary essays. I also encouraged them to read Mayer’s book.  At the end of the lecture-which I ended after an hour but they could have kept going–I realized how deeply an entire generation of intelligent and well-educated people have been deprived of a framework that could give these experiences value and meaning. One woman, after relating a tale of seeing a recently deceased relative, thought it meant she was a “witch.”  The only frames of reference available have been those rejected by our “high” culture and they carry their experiences in isolation.  Enough said.   The audience in Santa Barbara was genuinely appreciative to hear that these kinds of experiences were finally being respected and taken seriously. 

* From the Amazon description of Mayer’s bookExtraordinary Knowing: Science, Skepticism, and the Inexplicable Powers of the Human Mind:  In 1991, when her daughter’s rare, hand-carved harp was stolen, Lisby Mayer’s familiar world of science and rational thinking turned upside down. After the police failed to turn up any leads, a friend suggested she call a dowser—a man who specialized in finding lost objects. With nothing to lose—and almost as a joke—Dr. Mayer agreed. Within two days, and without leaving his Arkansas home, the dowser located the exact California street coordinates where the harp was found.

Deeply shaken, yet driven to understand what had happened, Mayer began the fourteen-year journey of discovery that she recounts in this mind-opening, brilliantly readable book. Her first surprise: the dozens of colleagues who’d been keeping similar experiences secret for years, fearful of being labeled credulous or crazy.

It’s been very gratifying that my articles and lectures about my and others’ research over the years have been able to both ease the minds and educate the minds of so many people who have had unusual experiences, but no framework other than “crazy” or “work of the devil” to deal with them.  My own The End of Materialism: How Evidence of the Paranormal is Bringing Science and Spirit Together in 2009 was, at one level, a scientific survey, but at an important level, my main attempt to let a wide public know that it’s not true that science has somehow shown all spirituality and religion to be false.  Of course there’s superstition and nonsense mixed in with spirituality and religion, so discrimination is needed.  But when you look at properly conducted science, there’s lots of evidence to show that it’s reasonable to be both scientific and spiritual in one’s approach to life.

It’s not that my emotional intelligence has gotten so high that I could help people, but just by presenting solid intellectual and scientific evidence that these things happen to normal people, they are not inherently crazy, that’s enough to relieve so many.  A few who’ve been in touch with me, of course, did seem to have major psychological and psychiatric problems, of which the apparent psychic or spiritual experiences were just a manifestation, not the cause.  I could try suggesting they get some counseling, but, sadly, too often they resisted this.  And our knowledge is still way too incomplete.  Lots of times it’s not clear whether a person should be have counseling recommended to them or spiritual growth work.  I’m hoping that transpersonal psychology and parapsychology will, over time as they develop, make us much wiser here!




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