by Michael Rossman
I think of my dear friend Molly, a modest therapist, who found herself a witch, the vehicle of strange power, one afternoon on a platform in Illinois. Professor L., the popular and unorthodox teacher who helped arrange the training workshop that brought her to campus, had asked her to address his class. Hundreds of students packed the room, the air was electric -- not only because her topic was sex therapy, but because during that very hour the Academic Senate was meeting to decide L.'s fate, after weeks of a vigorous student campaign to save him from summary dismissal, and half the activists on campus were there to wait with him for the news.
But where was the professor? As the tension grew, an aide brought Molly the word: stricken with gallstones, L. had been rushed to the hospital, and was being prepared for surgery. Stunned, Molly told the class simply that L. could not be there; and then spoke her piece about sexual dysfunction, gave her trouper's round of advice about why and what to do, and invited questions, which followed aplenty despite the distractions. With ten minutes left in the hour, she stopped them. Invested by this prelude with the keys of matriarchal mystery, she told everyone what was happening to L., and asked them to spend a short time in silence with her, trying to share some good energy with him, in whatever way had meaning for them.
Molly closed her eyes in a daze, in live certainty, and sought to open herself to images of L.'s condition. Images of cells, of tubules, precise diagrams of blockage flooded her mind; she could not stop to wonder whether they were remembered or imagined or yet something else. A silent tension gathered in the room, luminous and palpable in its intensity; she felt her body grow electric, then numb, as she spoke a simple incantation, leading them all to focus on their own images of constriction and unblocking, much as she had led clients' reveries before in smaller, more orthodox therapy groups.
The constriction shook but did not open. Molly felt it locked as if within L.'s body; felt the pressure grow in the room as the energy they were conjuring pressed against some vast blockage; felt her vision waver; cried out softly to them please to keep holding their focus. There was a snap, a rush, a tumbling flood of images of release, boulders swept before the current; and the strange energy ebbed from the room so swiftly that they all found themselves stranded on the customary beach, drained and wondering what had happened. Molly summoned her wits to thank them, and escaped; for hours afterward, small knots of people were still drifting around, stunned or chattering wildly.
At the precise moment of that snap -- as nearly as could be determined by comparing notes afterward -- Professor L. felt an astounding flash of pain, and then its abrupt cessation; stopped screaming; felt himself gingerly, swung himself off the table, and insisted that another x-ray be taken before he was given the anesthetic. The two-inch bone-dense sphere in his midriff, revealed by the first x-ray, was gone; a few small fragments were coursing down the drain. He got back to campus in time to greet his friends and learn that he had won a brief academic reprieve.
(Purists will note that this story might be explained away as "spontaneous remission" plus "mass hallucination or hypnosis;" or as a passive collective reception of what was happening in L 's body, rather than as an example of collective influence. Such reductionism is, as I argue elsewhere, not always possible, and quite misses the point of this story.)
As for Molly, she has not led another such seance in the five years since -- except for the time her dog was poisoned, when twenty people around town tried to send him energy as he struggled in convulsions twice as long as the vet had ever seen a dog manage before, and actually pulled through. Yet even this case was not quite the same. For while the dog was loved as widely and well in Berkeley as L. was in Illinois, Molly didn't really direct the process. Many of the friends she called had already lost their disbelief through their own experiences, and knew what to do on their own. Mostly they just called her to ask whether the images they were getting corresponded to what was actually happening at the vet’s, which they generally did.
From such inquiries as I have made, I would guess that an actual majority of people may have experienced, howsoever less dramatically than Molly, such sudden openings of strange power, camouflaged as instants of insight, peak experiences of sex and sport, knowing where or when or what not by accident, but in complete transcendent control. Most, like Molly, seemingly do little with whatever form of power they glimpse. Many -- as one finds when one arranges circumstances to support their remembering -- go further, and quite deliberately forget having glimpsed it.
Molly's experience is more interesting than the general run because it illustrates more fully the social character of such experiences, and the full stakes involved -- as well, perhaps, as why we find it hard to move on them in ways less limited than we do. It is also more interesting, although less readily reproducible, than the usual healing phenomena studied in parapsychological research. For to observe that some high-powered healers working solo can sometimes do similar tricks misses the point. L.'s healing and Molly's role were not simply their private experiences and transaction. They were configured as the focus and product of a fully public ritual, in which a political community, joined by common concern and aching for potency in the face of institutional disenfranchisement, worked together to bless and heal a key figure, their friend, themselves.
To treat such phenomena as technologies, as techniques of consciousness which can be wired up in the lab and measured, is a wonderfully useful game. But it's not enough, for no microelectronics can gauge the intensity of the healing field of culture generated by the participants in the field. Welded for seven minutes, two hundred altogether, into an experience too public to deny -- which most would promptly encapsulate in their consciousness, place on the growing shelf of anomalies remembered with awe -- they were at a sudden point of fusion, of re-creation in and as the whole.
This making-whole, this healing, was present not only in the literal union of energy fields that they experienced, but also on a different plane, in the way the bodily healing was set integrally in its social and political circumstance. This last bears description beyond the dry summary above, for the consonances of the healing act were subtle and deep. Molly found herself an agent of the gathered power of a particular community, brought together specifically in pursuit of action-oriented free inquiry, by an appropriate leader, a teacher exemplifying the same. From this angle, her crazy experience was not at all the anomaly it seemed, but rather a quite natural (albeit dramatic) continuation of their chosen curriculum, improvised in the moment: a piece of free inquiry, action-oriented, in a charged moment of shared suspension of disbelief.
(Such experiences are most likely to happen, or to happen in their full power, when political or other stresses loosen the customary constraints of institutional behavior. Whenever they happen, they seem more to find or create their agents than to be created by them. Though Molly, typically, had her own story of why she came to play her role as she did, someone else in that fairly new-culture crowd might well have led some equivalent process had she simply passed on the bad news; and her sense of having been seized by the energy is not to be dismissed as "merely subjective.")
Thus a higher spirit of education was incarnated in their act together, as well as a spirit of healing, and a political spirit harder to name but having to do with self-determination. These spirits guided them in the subtlest task, the deepest one on the agenda today: to recreate not simply community but culture itself, the intimate glue binding together our perceptions, our actions. In the literal and intimate extension of themselves for a public good, in the coherence of the various dimensions of flesh, metaphysics, learning, myth, etc. involved in the act, knowing what they were doing, some deep fragmentation and alienation -- so endemic to our condition as to have been the sour talk of the town since Kierkegaard -- were for an instant quite thoroughly undone, with a force that, as usual, proved impossible to sustain.
I speak here of spirits in an attempt to be precise about matters for which I have no language. Overwhelmingly, the metaphysical religions speak with caution or contempt of the siddhis, the domain of mundane psychic powers, teaching one to go beyond them, as beyond other such matters of earthly consequence, in the course of striving for Spirit. But I find a deeper purpose in our fleshly play. Precisely because it encompasses and manifests in all, I see Spirit as incarnate here, presented in these various forms ("the healing spirit," etc.) by which the human generations have named its play. From this humble angle, the question of "psychic powers" cannot be set clearly apart from the spiritual quest, just as it cannot be enclosed by technological inquiry. Instead, as Molly's experience illustrates quite compactly, the exercise of psychic powers is inseparably involved with every particular way we make Spirit manifest in our lives.
As for Molly herself, one well might ask why she is still just another late-blooming therapist in Berkeley, taking workshops and studying for the licensing exam, learning to practice a modest no-nonsense blend of insight and behavioral therapies -- leaning upon her intuition at times, but little more surely than you or I. Why isn't she out shining it on with the masses in charismatic healing, like Katherine Kuhlman; why isn't she organizing a quiet local network of healers, to help keep the neighborhood healthy?
Part of the answer is that she got scared. In this case, it was not simply the usual existential fright, of seeing herself suddenly in ways which challenged deep beliefs and faced her with the absolute abyss of the unknown. Indeed, this kind of fright was somewhat undercut, as she had had a good share of strange experiences before and, rather gingerly, welcomed them. Moreover, this one happened in plenty of company, reinforcing the net of consensual alternative belief. So I imagine that Molly's fright came also at accepting, rather than refusing, the experience's full and positive implications and demands.
For what, after all, does a relatively ordinary person do with such an experience, if she is not so precariously fixed in the orbits of her life as to be blown away by it? Molly had no need to run to a guru to interpret the matter. She had a reasonable framework already, grown familiar during the decade since her first acid trips had taught her to recognize the occasional telepathic experiences that many of her friends also shared. We are energy, the universe is energy, at some meaningful times our energies flow together. Her phrasing of the matter was not, perhaps, precise enough to satisfy the theoretical physicists, whose dimly grasped pronouncements seemed comfortingly similar to her; but common folk are less troubled by quantum paradox, and Molly had been well prepared to accept with delighted awe the night when her breasts started flowing wildly ten minutes before her husband, off at the drive-in movies with their weaning son, phoned to say he'd forgotten the bottle and the kid wouldn't stop wailing. Nor do ordinary believers in such experiences strive to distinguish between their subtler varieties. If breasts, why not gallstones? If professors, why not dogs? And wasn't everyone's energy up for the occasions? The whole Illinois episode was perfectly credible to Molly; the only immediate question was not of belief, but why me? And she knew why: because she had chosen to do her part in the whole.
Nor was Molly in any danger of making the usual basic mistakes: to think that the power is simply one's own, or that access to it depends on some special person or group or brand-name perspective. Instead, because she had wit enough not to take herself as special, the contrary lessons were clear: the power was at hand and in heart, lurking under the surface of ordinary life; it was fully hers, as she had committed herself to evoke it, yet was fully shared, in social circumstances that made perfect sense. Had Molly known such power simply in private ecstasy or at some guru's touch, she might have been more tempted to the sort of solitary or guided disciplines that traditionally develop one as a spiritual healer. But she experienced instead quite a greater power than any such discipline claimed to develop, besides the bare power of union with the underlying Spirit of All, which she had long since known directly as the basic state of being, however dim her awareness of it on usual days. For even if one chose to imagine this power lost and to be regained, there is still the human question, spirit incarnate, of how we live during its pursuit. And the answer, the power known to Molly during that instant, was as integral as the spirit it embodied. It was the power to create the human whole -- not an isolated "psychic healing," but a state of collective being extending from the roots of the private self through idea, community, society, culture, and employed in the instants, the continuum, of human history.
All this was modestly predicated in Molly's experience: not as some specially sought transcendental glory, but as natural action, the transsubstantiating bread of life, baked in the oven of ordinary days. The experience was all the more organic and whole-grain because it was even less isolated in her own life than the anecdote's drama makes it seem -- not only in terms of her prior "private" psychic experience, but because of her place and stake in the community and history it extended.
For Molly had been to that campus before, playing a bit part in the ferment of educational reform during the wild late 1960s, just as she had helped host L.'s friends in turn when they came to Berkeley on their own quests of work and maturation. She was linked with L. in delicate webs of community, continuity, and commitment -- spanning a continent and a decade -- which had formed during the years of the New Left and the Movement, when they sought in political terms the same holy power to determine their lives, to create the human whole from the depth of the self and spirit to the dynamic of history; which had given them such support as they'd had while they sought into the mysteries first opened to them in psychedelic experience; and which had survived the Movement's apparent death, to form the unnamed textures of their lives as they and their friends struggled on with the inner and outer agendas begun in those years. In this context, L.'s fight for tenure was just another minor episode in the slow struggle for institutional reform, just as Molly's leading the class in seance was just another little try at making the mystery meaningful, just another brief time when she was privileged to lend what she could to the common good.
In this sense, what Molly experienced was a moment of Heaven on Earth, full-fledged even in its transience, the integral fruit of her dreams in life. What then could Scientology, the Berkeley Psychic Institute, Muktananda, or the Bible offer her but a weaker vision, more specialized and rhetorical and distant, of what she had known; and its pursuit within a narrower community with narrower purposes? What Molly herself could imagine might be made of life, extending that moment of private and public grace and power, was grander than anything promised.
And that was precisely the problem, the positive root of her fear, which was of nothing mysterious but clean and realistic. For what do you do when you can't deny your own vision, when you can't give it away, when you'd sure like to believe that someone else knows what to do with the whole ball of wax but you can't, and you're left to face the logics of your own small understandings? Molly knew quite well how to get from here to there, or at least how to proceed until a shortcut appears: continue. Continue to explore the processes of meditation, therapy, politics, culture, the purposes of care and of community, the needs of survival, which had led to that moment of power and her part in it, and which led beyond, toward its fuller and enduring realization.
And she knew quite well how long this would take and how far she might get. Ten years had flown by while she watched, around and within her, the slow accumulation of experiences, the slow contagions and transformations of attitudes, which now moved a few students at times to act as if they should and could control their education, which now moved her at times to act in public as if what she sensed were real, which enabled them together to achieve for this one moment the integral fusion -- of the "irrational" with the rational-academic, of the spiritual with the political, and so much more -- that this moment represented and illuminated. Nothing was mysterious in this process of change, least of all why it had been so slow and partial, or why it would continue to be so.
In this light, Molly's fear was simple and clear. It was the fear that comes when you know what is to be done and how important it is, know that you are fully responsible, and realize that you will never be able to do more than begin. As she flew home from that instant of absolute power in Illinois, numbly writing postcards, the feeling of absolute helplessness swept her; and she laid the cards aside and wept in her impotence, for her fear was equally grief.
For the next week, Molly was confused and at times depressed, much as she had been after her first transcendental acid trips, and for much the same reasons. What she had experienced was, despite her partial preparation for it, totally extraordinary; and yet it was simultaneously so ordinary, the casual stuff of natural life. How could one reconcile the contradiction, how could one act responsibly in the experience's light? To grasp at least one fragment of the whole, Molly thought of seeking training as a psychic healer, though her professional psychic friends soon confirmed her suspicion that no one knew how to teach much more about the basic action of healing than she had experienced already, however interesting the frameworks that were offered to explain it. The local psychic schools offered courses to teach her to call on discarnate "healing guides;" the Tibetan Buddhist academy provided a much richer curriculum of practices and belief; the nameless healing group her lover was in, which just got together and did it, had invited her to join its weekly sessions long before, knowing her for a natural. Each promised her, within its fellowship of support, an initial entry point into some process of focused discipline, ultimately only her own, which she might develop through the patient years while she learned to manage herself and to conjure the connections and life circumstances which could provide her with people to heal and people to share the task.
Such were the obvious paths open to Molly. Had she been still twenty-one, or been someone still seeking a form to her seeking, she might well have taken her Illinois triumph seriously as a pivot in her life's course, and chosen one path in a radical turn to engage the mysteries. But she was thirty-three, and pleasantly invested in her life's momentums, which scarcely left her even a free evening once a week to engage such intense new complications. Instead, she settled back into the vital routines of her therapy work and learning, her family, their community; and as their demands postponed from week to week her conflicted impulse to undertake psychic training, she felt it ebb and pass, as if something torn were healing, and wondered why she felt no regret.
Perhaps Molly's choice was dictated by fear after all, of the ordinary sort; for most people do find these matters too terrifying at heart to take seriously. Perhaps it represented some more complex failure of her will; perhaps the peace she came to feel about it was only the numbness of repression. But I think something more was involved, as Molly in time came to agree, though she still has not words to phrase the whole of it. For what was the work which had brought her to Illinois and back about, but the same whole from a different angle? Though she did not write her own book about it, she was herself involved in developing a psychic technology of considerable subtle power -- and one, moreover, more directly connected with its social employment, which too she was helping to invent. Half the women in the training workshop she conducted on that campus were activists in the local women's movement, and no wonder. For while feminists had taken little notice of sex therapy in the couple-oriented form which Masters and Johnson developed, the women's "preorgasmic" groups which Molly helped pioneer had much in common with the more familiar "consciousness-raising groups" of the women's movement, as well as with the professor's ad hoc psychic healing.
Even the transcendent serpent of Kundalini, which links the self with the cosmos in the peak energies of orgasm, was involved in their nominal quest. Each teaching that the women brought home from the group to explore between sessions -- the attention to sensation; the permission to give oneself pleasure, to receive it openly, without expectation, following wherever the path led; the very giving of positive strokes to the body; the strategies against frustration -- was in itself a healing meditation, as surely as the one Molly led in the classroom; nor was it accidental that each had its parallel in that grand event.
In the groups themselves, ten times in two intense months, the women met who had never known orgasm, five or six in a group with two Mollies to help them share their learning and to lead them through its phases. As they shared for the first time their fears, frustrations, and discoveries, a complex spirit was conjured among them -- again, at once intensely private and social -- in candid joy. It was a spirit of power: of power within the self, climactic; of power shared, healing themselves together; in both ways reflecting the time's currents of self-determination. The power was also ancient, matriarchal, of a sisterhood grounding itself in the female mysteries. And the spirit of these powers can again be recognized, like the spirit conjured in L.'s class, as a spirit of healing, of learning, of culture's regeneration; each working on many levels, and all so compactly and naturally pregnant in the experience of the groups as hardly to bear description.
Best of all, the groups worked, like a charm. Fully five-sixths of the women learned how to climax, not by magic but by dependable processes which many people could learn to lead. By the time Molly tired of running the kind of training workshop that had brought her to Illinois, she and her friends had trained so many group leaders near home that their share of the basic business dropped dramatically. It was just as well, for her own interests in therapy had grown broader and deeper, leading her into the intricate mysteries of family relationships and of the generation and regeneration of the self, and to new teachers, colleagues, and clients to explore these with.
Something certainly was going on in those altered states of consciousness which Molly slowly came to identify at the heart of therapeutic transaction, for client and practitioner alike, in the quiet rooms where she practiced. As with psychic healing, no one seemed to understand fully what it was, beyond some ideas about mild hypnagogia, cognitive paradox, and other hypotheses, which though quite useful in practice were also quite inadequate to encompass the full human energies involved. Yet the books and workshops she sought out and the people who practiced in her clinic's collective were rich with interesting ideas about what therapy was and how to do it better. To take the craft seriously meant indeed to become a journeywoman, and she was set out on this journey of her journey, through the degree and licensing exam that would cover her practice -- in time perhaps to lead others into the archetypal wells of dream, into the psychic core, as her Jungian teacher had led her toward healing so long ago.
So now Molly continues to practice in Berkeley -- nothing fancy, just the bread-and-butter of human pain, twenty caseload hours a week, plus staff conference and whatnot, patching up the casualties of industrial civilization while its social mechanisms keep grinding them out, and wondering what to do about it all. Her diagnostic intuitions and her sense of therapeutic timing are growing sharper and more reliable; she does not quite know whence they arise within herself or how, but she takes as much care to open herself to them and honor them as she does to learn the ideas that will both rationalize and guide them, shaping her own way from this interplay.
Sometimes she thinks of that afternoon in L.'s class. She herself has not led a psychic-healing session since her dog was poisoned. But every now and then someone in her broader family is in trouble, and the word comes round to send some good energy at the time of an operation or whatever; and Molly frees up fifteen minutes between clients, settles down in her pretty office, gets centered, and tries to open herself to the flow. It does feel so good, so clear, when you connect! Perhaps she should have taken that Illinois experience more seriously after all, instead of just accepting it among life's marvels? At times she wonders what became of it, besides compost for her soul, and whether she should have sought training in that power; at times she knows, and knows she did.