Are Psychic Abilities Real?

 A Course in Miracles claims that the mind has abilities far beyond what our modern worldview deems possible. Stories of things like extrasensory perception (the ability to mentally receive information without the use of conventional channels), precognition (the ability to see the future), and psychokinesis (the ability to move physical things with the mind) have been reported from ancient times. Many people claim to be psychic, we’ve all heard amazing stories, and most of us have had “woo woo” experiences at one time or another. But given the human propensity for wishful thinking, self-deception, and (sadly) the perpetration of outright fraud, how can we really know for sure whether “psi phenomena” are real?

The science of parapsychology arose to answer this question, and I’ve just read an excellent overview of this fascinating field: Parapsychology: The Controversial Science, by Richard S. Broughton, Ph.D. (Alas, the book is out of print; the author says he is working on an updated edition.) What answer has this science come up with? After years of careful case studies and experiments testing such abilities under rigorously controlled conditions, parapsychologists have good news for those of us who hope psi phenomena are real: In Broughton’s words, “I believe the evidence is now quite clear” that “psi effects are truly there” (p. 366).

There are important qualifiers to this answer: Psi effects demonstrated in parapsychological experiments are usually very weak, and such abilities are often erratic and difficult to place under conscious control. Yet Broughton does describe individual cases that are quite spectacular. One example is a man named Malcolm Bessent, who participated in a series of experiments on precognitive dreaming. He would attempt to dream about an event that would occur the next morning: a picture randomly selected by one of the experimenters, followed by a multi-sensory dramatization based on that picture. In one trial, he described dreams about “a large concrete building…a patient upstairs escaping…had a white coat on, like a doctor’s coat…a feeling of hostility toward me by people in a group I was in daily contact with…My impression was that there were doctors and medical people.” This description was recorded before the target was selected, and locked away so the experimenter selecting the target had no knowledge of what Bessent described.

The next day, the target picture was randomly selected: Vincent Van Gogh’s Hospital Corridor at St. Remy, a painting of the insane asylum where Van Gogh once stayed. The multi-sensory dramatization of that painting immediately followed: Bessent was escorted down a dark corridor filled with hysterical laughter. He was exposed to staff in white coats greeting him as “Mr. Van Gogh,” giving him medication and “disinfecting” him, and showing him paintings done by mental patients. An independent panel of judges who had no idea what target had been selected easily matched Bessent’s dream descriptions with the correct target. Bessent did eight sessions of this nature, and got seven direct hits. This showed that he apparently had the ability to incorporate an event from the future into his dreams.

It should come as no surprise that A Course in Miracles affirms the existence of such phenomena, since the Course itself came through the unusual psychic abilities of Helen Schucman. In a Manual section entitled “Are ‘Psychic’ Powers Desirable?” (M-25), we are told, “Certainly there are many ‘psychic’ powers that are clearly in line with this course. Communication is not limited to the small range of channels the world recognizes” (M-25.2:1-2). It goes on to tell us that the only reason these abilities seem weak is that we are limiting them out of fear of laying down the barriers that keep the separation in place. And it stresses that these abilities are not magical powers available only to a special few, but available to all; they are the natural inheritance of our limitless minds. Thus, “Who transcends these limits in any way is merely becoming more natural” (M-25.2:7).

The emphasis of this section, however, isn’t on the mere existence of these abilities, but on what it regards as a far more crucial question: What are they used for? We’re all familiar with psychics (whether genuine or fraudulent) using their apparent gifts for self-aggrandizement: stage performers charging admission to see them bend silverware, hucksters on television inviting us to call for our lucky Lotto numbers, Eastern gurus showing off their spectacular siddhis. The section speaks of people using such abilities to prove “achievements from the past, unusual attunement with the ‘unseen,’ or ‘special’ favors from God” (3:6). The ego sees in these abilities “an opportunity to glorify itself” (4:7), a means of keeping our allegiance even after material goodies have lost their appeal. Unfortunately, we are told, when we use such an ability for the ego, it “is no longer a genuine ability, and cannot be used dependably” (5:6). We are even told that at this point, a person will almost inevitably “bolster his ‘power’s’ uncertainties with increasing deception” (5:7)—an apparent reference to fraud. One wonders if the erratic nature of the abilities discovered in parapsychological research is due to using them for egoic purposes.

Broughton tells us that one of the burning questions in parapsychology today is the question of applied psi: How can we harness and strengthen these abilities so they can be used effectively? The Course section we’re discussing here suggests that such abilities will emerge as we walk the Course’s path. And when they do, it gives us a critical injunction for their use: Instead of using them to glorify the ego, give them to the Holy Spirit for His use. Under His guidance, we will use the abilities to actually help and heal people, rather than putting on a display that merely proves that we possess special powers. Not only will this bring us peace and happiness, but it will probably enhance these abilities as well: If using them for the ego makes them weak and undependable, then presumably giving them to the Holy Spirit will make them strong and dependable.

If we do this, the remarkable phenomena being discovered by the science of parapsychology have the potential to be far more than wayward talents used to perform parlor tricks in the name of self-glorification. In His hands, they can become mighty forces for awakening to the glory of who we really are:

Any ability that anyone develops has the potentiality for good. To this there is no exception. And the more unusual and unexpected the power, the greater its potential usefulness. Salvation has need of all abilities, for what the world would destroy the Holy Spirit would restore….Here is also a great channel of hope and healing in the Holy Spirit’s service. Those who have developed ‘psychic’ powers have simply let some of the limitations they laid upon their minds be lifted….The Holy Spirit needs these gifts, and those who offer them to Him and Him alone go with Christ’s gratitude upon their hearts, and His holy sight not far behind. (M-25.6:1-4, 6-7, 9)

Source of material commented on: Parapsychology: The Controversial Science, by Richard S. Broughton, Ph.D. (New York: Ballantine, 1991)
[Please note: ACIM passages quoted in this article reference the Foundation for Inner Peace (FIP) Edition.]
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