Diana The Hunter, Precognitive Ability, and Disgusting Cups of Coffee

 

 I’ve been thinking about last month’s guest blog post by Kate Leary, how letting the subconscious mind wander when you’re working out a problem can often lead to strange parallels and patterns that seem destined for you. Like answers to a silent question, or at least breadcrumbs along an important path. Before I started looking into the science of the mind, interconnectedness was the essence of The Extraordinary Project. I had wanted to look at the common denominator of our interactions with synchronistic timing, the seeing of signs, meaningful coincidences and how they pushed our behavior in one direction or another. One part of me wanted to know if these moments were evidence of an invisible map, appearing at salient moments, as Jung’s theory of the collective unconscious maintains, to override our ordinary lives.  Another part of me simply wanted proof that they were more than aberrations, as many material scientists maintain, more than mathematical probabilities that deserve no weight. The good news is, so much of today’s science supports the notion that these extraordinary moments are evidence of a physical ability or sense or causal response we don’t yet understand, but can develop with practice. One phenomenon in particular, precognition, has almost 50 years of study supporting it, including two decades worth in the US Army: more on that very soon.

 

Meanwhile, on the individual level, my quest has changed. I’ve gone from asking “is interconnectedness true” to asking “how is interconnectedness true”, and while keeping on with ordinary life, raising a daughter for almost nine years, maintaining a marriage for almost ten, weathering health problems and career slumps and relocation plans, I’ve gotten good at breaking down self-reported moments of interconnectedness like this one.

 

After school drop off, I’ve been walking in the mornings in order to stir and then settle the creative projects I plan to work on that day. During these walks my mind is all over the place, in past events, in future conversations, in tasks and scheduling and phrases used by an old employer or chai-making tips I picked up from a café owner in Tucson. My concentrations is nowhere near my book, but roaming at large, like it’s hunting for the thread—an image or a sound—something I can follow for the rest of the work day. I’ve been revising a novel about a young woman who is looking for change in her life. I’m in a messy part of the book right now, and she needs to move forward more fiercely than she is currently capable. She needs the audacity of a warrior. I also know I’ve been holding back on making her forthright, due to a need, and one I’m not particularly proud of, to make her ‘likeable’. Everyone knows likeability is the curse of good character if there ever was one.

 

 So I walked to the post office.

 

On the way back from the post office, I kicked over a full cup of cold coffee sitting on the curb, left by someone too lazy to reach up to the garbage can two feet away. I kept walking without missing a beat, although the nasty liquid spilled into my shoes (I had no socks on. Ew.). I dashed across the street with wet ankles, intent on getting on with the walk. It was over as soon as it happened, forgotten. I’m only remembering it now that I’m telling a story about the next, more arresting event, because for some reason our minds recall an ordinary and annoying nuisance that precedes a more fascinating, important event. I turned into my alley to the back gate door, and noticed among the many collections of fallen spring sticks an arrangement that stopped me. The shape of a stag elegantly emerged from the curve of the sticks. The antlers, arrow nose, and soft deer-like body bore an undeniable likeness to the stag that symbolizes Diana the Hunter. I’ve been interested in Diana’s symbolism lately, as focus, victory, and the drive that comes from chastity all fall into her hands as the queen of the hunt. Instantly I thought of my book. My character needs to forge a new path, and I just need to suck it up and go there.  Fix my sights, hunt and go get it.

 

Was it a sign from the universe? Well I don’t think the trees dropped those sticks just for me. I also don’t think this was an instance of that insufferable Law of Attraction that so many spiritually-minded people swear by—that I “manifested” it, or somehow made the trees drop their sticks in a pattern that would be meaningful to me. (As author Mitch Horowitz writes in a recent essay of his, there are other laws governing the universe besides one uber Law of Attraction: there’s the law of accidents, the law of grace, the law of abundance.) I don’t think see this moment as the result of any particular law. But I do think the walk melded my creative and psychological state into a place of receptivity. That perhaps ten seconds before I looked down, I knew to look down. Much of today’s science, among both materialist researchers and non-material (or non local) researchers, supports this notion. That the mind unconsciously locates the symbol or person or situation or outrageous coincidence it seeks for problem solving.

 

I happen to buy this idea. It’s not as sexy as the law of attraction, but it’s verifiable in the lab, and I need long lasting evidence in order to continue this quest. Wishes only get you so far. 

Rey's Journey in The Force Awakens

Ever since I saw The Force Awakens, I can’t stop thinking about, well, the Force. I’ve seen the movie twice, once for the dose of nostalgia, and once to see exactly how the use of the Force evolved for the new humble and talented heroine, Rey. I recall, from both viewings, a trauma mashup when it comes to the Force; a strapped-down heroine subjected to violent telepathy, assaulting voices calling to her from the hidden, enchanted light saber, and a climactic use of psychokinesis that brings her light saber to her hand, mid battle, right on time.

 

I don’t remember a link between trauma and the Force in earlier films. That the Force only rises when the hero is being violated.

 

I was little, seven, when the Star Wars franchise began. The idea of accepting the Force as a possibility, along with light sabers and Jedis, was not difficult for children like me. It was easy. At seven I had no concept of personal power in the world, of how our consciousness actually affects things. Children have no limit to thoughts about what might be possible.  Yes, tone of voice and suggestion can change the mind of a Storm Trooper. Yes, Jedi mentorship and respect for the Force is how battles are won. And I wasn’t even a Star Wars geek. 

 

If the Force felt more real in 1978, both on screen and in our collective psyche, it was because the power of the mind had recently become a cultural conversation. The 1970s and early 80s marked the heyday of positive thinking, the merging of Eastern philosophy with Western introspection, and the US fascination with self-improvement. Several decades later, self-help and personal growth are enormous industries. But something has changed. 

 

Here I am, 30 something years later, watching carefully constructed scenes with our heroine grappling with the Force, and something about it doesn’t feel right. Whereas the Force was once fluid and organic for Luke Skywalker, it now appears to Rey as sudden and unsolicited. The Force is evoked only when she is under assault, threatened, and once even literally bound. I am watching, but I don’t want this viewing experience, either time. I want the Force to feel special and significant. I want it to feel mysterious, to stop time with its presence as it once did when the Star Wars universe began. The Force did not attack Luke Skywalker in the earliest film, a New Hope. He was allowed to cultivate it, privately, profoundly. The Force allowed him to reflect; to grow. The Force allowed Obi Wan Kenobe to die with grace. In this film, the Force merely allows Rey to fight back.

 

I want Rey to feel the Force, to wonder, to be given a voice to ask questions. I want the Force to fit her like a glove, but there is no time. The universe is under siege. There is no time for reverence, for any understanding of it whatsoever. 

 

There’s a moment when Finn says to Han Solo something like, “We can do it, we’ll use the Force!” and Han Solo rolls his eyes, saying, “That’s not how the Force works!” Big laughs followed in the theater, and then the silent truth: no one else in the film seemed to know how the Force worked, either and there was no time to learn.

 

Our culture has changed since 1978 when consciousness was a ubiquitous idea in popular dialogue. As general understanding of science has increased throughout the public, thanks to technological advances, we as a culture have become fixated on measuring brain waves, on discovering how the amygdala works, on saying yes only to machine-measurable truths. We are almost exclusively gear-focused, skeptical all over again about unorthodox mind-body connections unless we can find it in an ECG or an MRI. 

 

The Star Wars cosmology seems to know this; that the Force will seem hokey and hard to believe unless reframed in a new context, as a result of certain behaviors or situations. This reminds me of the Western praise of yoga as a tool to keep us off blood thinners. Or a company’s push for employees to meditate to increase productivity. Higher consciousness cannot just exist in our day and age: it does not look good on a spreadsheet. It must be quantified.

 

It is why I think we are asked to identify with Rey’s understanding of the Force through her trauma. Trauma is a condition we all feel. We don’t wonder if it changes us, our behavior, our thoughts. We know. We have all kinds of science proving the effects of trauma. It hurts, destroys, and lingers, often through generations. There is no question that trauma prompts physiological reactions.

 

Rey, as an abandoned girl, copes with her previous trauma as most survivors do: by becoming strong, self-sufficient and invulnerable. But when under duress and strain and danger at present, which happens a lot in this film, the Force awakens in her in the form of telepathy (mind reading) clairaudience (hearing voices), and psychokinesis (moving and influencing objects with her mind). This, too, is true about trauma: psychic experiences often result from the threat of physical and psychological danger. Telepathy, hearing voices, and even psychokinesis can develop when one must anticipate the behavior of a predator, respond to imminent danger, or influence the chances of survival for a loved one. Of scientist and consciousness expert Rupert Sheldrake’s sampling, some 70% of psychic experiences involve warnings of imminent harm.

 

Skeptics will agree the evidence for telepathy and other psychic phenomena meet normal scientific standards; that the data proves the existence of extended consciousness, and that our current logic in the field of mental capacity is not the whole story. But the idea remains radical, too hard for many to grasp in these days of routine brain imaging and CT scans.

 

Trauma is not the only condition of psychic experience, but culturally, it is where we are in terms of acceptance.  

 

The creators of the Star Wars cosmology seem to know this, too. Am I glad that Rey gets to use the Force, that she can call a light saber with her mind and wield it successfully in battle? Heck yes.  Perhaps by the next franchised film release, the public will have taken another step towards understanding how the Force –consciousness--actually awakens in our world, and not only when we’re in danger.

 

 

 

 

 

The Passing of Craven, Dyer and Sacks: More Than Three Crystals Make a Chandelier

 

On the night I learned Wes Craven, Wayne Dyer and Oliver Sacks died within 24 hours of each other, I stopped the bedtime ritual of notebook writing and peppermint tea, delayed counting the minutes before I shut down electronics, and dwelled in the coincidence. Full moon hovered out my window, end of summer crickets chirped. That’s strange, I thought, and didn’t quite know why. Three high profile men, in different fields, gave three quarters of a century each to questioning the edges, tricks and depths of the mind. They exited the earth on the same day, an ordinary day, along with many other, beloved people who also did wonderful things. Still, I had to ask, does this signify something? If not to the world, then to me?

It has become a habit to notice when I notice patterns; recurring numbers, recurring people, recurring ideas. It’s a particular way of seeing the world, a choice, a decision, a preference to reflect on observations that seem otherwise unrelated, unimportant. The process doesn’t always lead to an explosive revelation, like many assume, or wish. The circumstances don’t always mean something in and of themselves, and the insights aren’t always signs, indicators of the right or wrong path, or answers.  But they do emerge like this, sometimes, at the end of the day, after a brief mention or a pattern in the news, in the neighborhood, in the next room. They prompt my attention, even though our culture tells us to trust the facts and ignore the stuff that doesn’t add up. Sometimes symmetry pops up in places least expected, and it’s useful.

Here was a perfect example.  Sacks, Dyer and Craven couldn’t have had more distant disciplines. Of the Neurologist, Inspirational teacher, and Horror Movie maker, it’s easy to say who has earned the most cultural clout (Sacks) although each achieved similar levels of praise and admiration. It’s probable that Oliver Sacks never saw a Wes Craven film or attended a Wayne Dyer seminar. Similarly, Dyer and Craven may never have considered each other as colleagues. But they had things in common. Each was a white man born in the 1930s within eight years of each other. Each achieved worldwide audiences. Each claimed professional territory over human mind states in previously unfounded ways: Craven worked with the horror mind state, Dyer worked with the spiritual mind state, and Sacks worked with the neurologically mechanical mind state. They put down their flags in these worlds by first studying and then telling stories about them, shaped them by creating, producing, then mass-producing narratives through film, inspirational courses, and books. They inserted their personal experiences, blending themselves with the subject matter until, to the rest of us, they almost became one in the same.

Until they died, I hadn’t looked at how easily I absorbed their work, like Vitamin D from the sun. Without effort, I accepted their offerings as structure, as truth. How the real Nightmare on Elm Street was the depth of the unconscious mind, the fear of where it roamed while sleeping. How a positive thinking habit was a well-worn trail worth walking and how the brain, once explored, system by system, function by function, was more mysterious, not less. From dominant and seductive platforms, these three men peddled their encounters with the human mind. They shaped the culture’s understanding of horror, empowerment, and the brain to mirror their own. Kings of cultural empires.

This is what the coincidence came down to for me. I consumed these men’s truths, their data streams, never considering theirs might not be all the data, or that the streams would stop, and an enormous space would open up, making room for a flood of new views on the mind.

Something is ending, a wise friend of mine said about the simultaneous Craven, Dyer, Sacks passing, and I agree with her. Their voices are ending. Their story telling is ending. Their territories over the human mind are due to be reassigned, reconfigured, remade. New kingdoms, probably queendoms, are to come.

I thank them, from my heart, for the beautiful light they shined, like three finely formed crystals in a chandelier.

And then I think: so many more crystals make a chandelier. I cannot wait to see the others.

Good Morning, Horrible Voices. Now Go Away.

Every morning, I wake up at 6:30 in a panic about writing this book. I am not an early riser. I never have been, except for one short period when I lived in Ithaca, New York, and uncharacteristically decided to start jogging before my 8:00am art history class. I don’t remember any wake-up panic then, just excitement when the sun cracked through my dorm window, and within minutes I’d be headed out in my thermal body suit and oversized college hoodie, running into the hills and a sense of adulthood.

Now, twenty-five years later, I feel a different impulse to wake and run. The sun pierces my face as the first thoughts slam in, and I am double teamed by the light and discouraging voices; no one will connect with your work, your experiences will seem dumb and small, you might misremember them, you might sound crazy, people who read will think less of you, why are you choosing such an obscure topic to shine into the light? You have no scientific credibility, and your writing won’t carry you. You should hide. You should just shut it all down and hide.

It is a terrible way to wake.

I know most artists, writers, and creative people are familiar with these voices. They are the equivalent of the rocks, seaweed and sharp, breaking waves that stop us from heading out into the ocean, where softer sand and a different set of conditions await.

I have occasionally encouraged students to wade through this impasse with words I know to be true: these are voices of protection gone rogue. They want to stop you from trying anything new or unknown or passionate. They come from the part of you that knows how poorly our culture responds to vulnerable and intimate subjects. Some days they are louder than the voices of support, of desire. Some days they are so loud, they have the power to stop many, many writers.

In the mornings, I can barely remember my own advice. I turn on the kettle, and consider the yoga mat or meditation cushion, where the voices will get louder for a time before they settle, and once they settle I will be so relieved I will not always get to my desk.

It is best if I go to my desk, amid the shouting, and try to listen to the birds. 

When other writers ask, I have only a few helpful tips on how to combat the voices. Sometimes I say, “Don’t listen to them,” and other times I say, “Listen, but don’t obey” and other times I avoid prescription of all kinds and say, “You are not alone. This is a symptom of writing. This is the crummy part of the job. If you had an office job, you might be saddled with an account you dislike or travel you don’t want to do. You might have a long, boring commute or have to handle health insurance snafus for hours every Wednesday. Every job has at least one or two unpleasant aspects. Writing is no different. Instead of commuting or administrative health insurance nightmares, you hear mean voices.”

If I can get to this expanded perspective in my own head, sometimes I am at my desk by 6:45 and writing by 7:00. If not, I struggle. I try to remember their existence is temporary. I utter to myself, in the kindest possible way, move along, move along, move along. I do not check my email. Somehow, that makes them worse.

Eventually, after not much time at all, they go away.

In the medical establishment, these voices, or auditory verbal hallucinations (AVHs), are known as signs of psychosis, but that view is rapidly changing. Research suggests the experience of hearing voices exists in healthy individuals as well, which most artists already know. One expert suggests, in the Harvard Review of Psychiatry, that it may be useful to think of Auditory Hallucinations like coughs--common experiences not always symptomatic of a larger illness.

I like this mean-voices-as-cough perspective. I’ve had a pervasive bark of a cough for over a decade, with no other affiliated condition. It arises when I laugh hard, or when it’s too cold, or when the normal conditions of living and breathing change suddenly, often in the midst of fun. Sometimes people say, “That cough sounds terrible. Have you gotten it checked?”

I always say yes, thank you, but it’s nothing. While it may get triggered by the smallest shifts in environment, when I breathe in second hand smoke at a party, or walk too fast up a hill, or sniff the gorgeous end of summer tiger lilies in the field near where I live, the cough has no bearing on anything. It's very, very annoying, but i've learned to be patient and wait it out. 

Eventually, after not much time at all, it goes away.

Matilda

I don't always have personal coincidences to write about, but two weeks ago while visiting my family in New Jersey, I found myself thinking about why this topic resonates with some people, and not others; why it's exciting and interesting to some, and why it's scary and unpleasant to others. My answer came on a hot night in Times Square.


I had asked my mother to get us tickets to the award-winning Broadway show, Matilda, remembering little about the story but knowing it was very likely appropriate enough for my soon to be eight year old daughter. We had listened to some of the songs on the soundtrack in the days before, and even gotten the book out of the library. Much to my surprise, the book was by Roald Dahl, the wonderful English author of Charlie and the Chocolate FactoryJames and the Giant Peach, and number of other adult stories, many of which I had read, that bordered on fantasy and horror. I hadn't had time to flip through much of the book, but presumed the play would be appropriately entertaining and dramatic, in that harrowing way that English children's literature tends to be. The night of the show came, and we caravanned into Times Square for an early dinner at Cafe Un, Deux, Trois before showtime. The temperature was well over 80 degrees; the air thick with everything from dirt and humidity to loud voices and traffic. The streets were absolutely mobbed with crowds six rows thick, and in the excitement of it all, my daughter kept asking, "What's it about? Is it funny? Is it scary?" 

"I think it's a little of both," I said.

True to the rave reviews and Tony nominations, the show was spectacular; the stage set, the performers, and the music all top notch. In particular, the child actors, notably the seven year old girl who played Matilda, seemed to understand all the complexities of the story: that Matlida was an odd girl whose ignorant parents hated her; that she was a bookworm and an outcast in a terrifying English school with a headmistress from hell; that her despair, which was turned into songs and dances for the stage production, was so large, that she manifested the extraordinary abilities to telepathically receive information and also to move things with her mind. 

Really. Telepathy and psychokinesis. Right there on Broadway.

I had no idea upon going in, and only learned during the pivotal scenes in the play. In one, Matilda discovered her powers when she knocked over a glass of water with her mind because she was so angry. In another, she realized the strange romance story she had invented about an acrobat and an escapologist was in fact the real life story of her dear teacher, Ms. Honey, and her tragic family drama. The play spends little time on these coincidences, but implies clearly the only way Matilda could have moved the glass of water or known such a personal story was through psychokinesis and telepathic intuition, skills no one is surprised to learn she might have. The play turns on these extraordinary skills of hers, as well as her cleverness. Near the end, and the denouement, Matilda uses her mind to pick up a piece of chalk and write on the blackboard condemning messages to the headmistress under the guise of a ghost. She sends the oppressive school marm running forever, and liberates the whole class of children from her torturous approach to education. 

The takeaway: Matilda was a child with extraordinary abilities, but because her environment was so extraordinarily awful, we forgot about the weirdness of her inner world, and rooted for her to overcome her outer world hardships with whatever skills she could muster. The story, and the stage production of it, was a perfect melding of internal character and external circumstances, something most of us don't have the luxury of living in real life.

Throughout I heard my daughter gasp and laugh, shriek and shout. A few times I noticed she had ducked under her sweatshirt to hide her eyes. But by the end of the play she was on her feet with the rest of the theater's uproarious standing ovation. She said nothing about Matilda's telepathic and psychokinetic skills. Maybe they seemed normal to her, or maybe they went over her head. Most likely, the extraordinary plot points were so well woven into the context of the story,  they cast the focus on the twisted and repugnant conditions of dear Matilda's normal life. The audience accepted them as unique and truthful, just like her intelligence and imagination.

In the days after the show, my daughter remembered Matilda's strength and bravery and intelligence, not her ability to move things with her mind. It occurred to me that the story of an odd, abused outcast of a girl could only end a couple of ways. Either she is rescued by a benefactor, like Daddy Warbucks is in Annie, or she is driven to use her undeveloped wisdom to create an exit opportunity for herself, like Matilda does. 

I much prefer the latter in terms of a story for my daughter. It teaches resilience and reliance in powers we don't know we have. If those powers are too strange, too eerie, and too difficult for us to imagine having, then a story like Matilda provides an additional service. It imagines the abilities and their delightful, unexpected outcomes for us.