What might psychic experiences tell us about reality?

    Woman connecting with NaturePsychic experiences suggest that reality is more vast, wondrous, and connected to our minds than most of us have been taught.

    Many people who have had psychic experiences are reluctant to share them for fear of being treated as though we are a flaky, delusional, mentally ill, or under some negative spiritual influence. I have been one of these people. Since my girlhood, I have had many psychic experiences that all but the most leading-edge Western scientists would consider to be impossible–such as

    • Seeing and hearing “ghosts;
    • Feeling others’ thoughts and feelings;
    • Telepathic dreams;
    • Leaving my physical body and traveling in what appeared to be the world of my sensory experiences as well as other worlds; and
    • Memories of past lives and recognizing others from past lives.

    However, I only discussed these experiences with people close to me, who would understand.

    Taking Psychic Experiences Seriously

    When I began my doctoral studies in philosophy and religion, specializing in women’s spirituality, I found that some of my courses of study, though strongly intellectually grounded, also acted as a kind of portal to some profound spiritual experiences—including visions—that I later learned were similar to those experienced by others. I wished to write some some academic papers that also drew upon these experiences. However, when I first began to discuss my intention with others, a colleague asked me why he should consider my experience anything other than the product of my personal imagination. He asked what would become a key question in my research and work, “What is your theory of the nature of reality and of knowledge in which these events could take place?”

    It was a great question. As I considered it, I quickly realized that psychic phenomena contradicted some of my most fundamental assumptions about reality, which I had been taught since early childhood. These included the assumptions that the world is purely material and outside of myself, and that the mind is in the brain and limited to humans or perhaps of “higher-order” animals. Like many people, I had not questioned these assumptions, but had accepted them as being obvious and universal. However, I recognized that I also carried with me an alternate worldview, which I learned from mainstream spiritual traditions, in which there is a spiritual reality, but it is wholly separate from “physical” reality. Yet, even this worldview, which included worlds of experience beyond the world of our bodily senses, did not explain many exceptional spiritual experiences of Nature. (I will write more about these experiences in other posts.)

    I had never before reconciled my beliefs with each other and with my experiences. As a consequence, I had been “double minded” about these events. On one hand–because many of these experiences were exceptionally vivid and because I was many times able to validate them in ordinary consensus reality, I was convinced that some of these psychic experiences were real. On the other hand, because I was raised in a culture that considers them impossible or unlikely and believes that people who claim to have them are delusional or worse, part of me also doubted myself.

    For the first time, it occurred to me that some of my most fundamental, taken-for-granted assumptions about reality might not be true. Not only do psychic experiences challenge these assumptions, but the outcomes of some experiments in quantum physics and in leading-edge biology, physiology, and Earth science similarly challenge some of these fundamental assumptions. Further, other cultures throughout history have held and still do hold some very different ideas of reality than we do in the West. I began to wonder, “What would reality be like if both ordinary sensory experiences and psychic experiences told us something about the nature of reality? And what are the implications of this for spirituality?” These question became the focus of my thinking and research for the next 7 years and the subject of my doctoral dissertation.

    Beginning in a State of Unknowing, Finding a New Way of Thinking

    To approach this question, I sought to put my preconceived ideas about the nature of self and world to the side as much as possible, and to hold all these different kinds of experiences together until I experienced some kind of internal shift of my way of feeling and being in the world, in which they all might be reconciled. In addition to ordinary sensory experiences, I considered varieties of psychic experiences—such as of telepathy, of visions, of deceased loved ones, of spirits of nature, of being apart from our physical body, of the presence of deity or deities associated with different religious traditions, of divination, of spirit possession, of experiences of identification with other entities in nature, death-related experiences, and experiences of mystical experiences of oneness. After several months of remaining immersed in this question about the the nature of reality, I experienced a glimmer of a new way of thinking about the world in which a wide variety of psychic experiences as well as our sensory experiences make sense. In this way of thinking, our awareness is not limited to the brain but permeates and transcends the world of our sensory experiences, which is consistent with Eastern and Indigenous thought, as well the leading edge of the new studies in science.

    I was excited to discover that the view I had come to in this way was consistent with a clear and self-consistent way of understanding the world developed by the 20th century mathematician and philosopher Alfred North Whitehead. Whitehead sought to describe a reality in which the results of experiments in quantum physics–which had baffled and frustrated the renowned physicist Albert Einstein–could make sense. Further, Whitehead wished to reconcile the reality of quantum physics with religious experiences and with telepathy. While Whitehead did not consider many of the kinds of experiences I had contemplated, I found that I could explain these experiences within the worldview described by Whitehead.

    Implications of Radical Connectedness

    This holistic way of thinking about the world, in which we are psychically as well as physically connected to others, has implications for how we navigate and live in the world. The modern Western theory that everything is separate and the mind is located only in the brain, has led those of us who have inherited it to feel alienated from the cosmos and to think of the rest of the natural world as an object, with increasingly obvious, disastrous social and environmental consequences. Perhaps a more deeply connected way of understanding the world might lead us to treat others, including our environment, with greater care and respect–to live in Partnership with others. It can inform our personal spirituality.

    Implications of Connectedness

    This blog will explore

    • Many ways of knowing;
    • A wide variety of psychic experiences and their implications for the nature of reality;
    • Support for a radically connected cosmos, physically and psychically, from the new studies in science and parapsychology;
    • Our vast, sacred, and enchanted cosmos;
    • Psycho-spiritual practices; and
    • Implications of this more connected worldview for an ecological spirituality.

    I’d love to hear from you about your experiences and thoughts. Have you experienced psychic events? What do you make of them? What topics do you most want to see covered in this blog?

    August 7, 2017

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