One of the largest surprises of almost 20 years at this magazine was reading a draft of Beverly Donofrio’s “Making Belief in Mary” and realizing that Clark Strand has become a channel. While I don’t really know Clark, I’ve edited his writing over the years and feel I have some idea how his mind works. He seems clear-headed (a longtime Zen monk) and open-minded (he created a unique Bible study group for nonbelievers.) But his Mary apparition really startled me. That he was channeling her words also made me sad.
Rereading the draft I realized that what made me sad were Bev’s initial examples of the miracles that came to pass. Thanks to Mary, Bev had found a new house cheap and another rosary group member got out of paying his back taxes. In other words, this apparition seemed another one of the multitude of personal angels and best-selling authors who claim that God or the universe wants us to move closer to the 1 percent. Divine or not, this Mary seemed a far cry from the angelic voices that have stuck through time—like Allah in the cave preaching to Mohammad against greed or the stories of the selfless Mary that I grew up with.
So I explained my concerns to Bev and—to my relief—she came back with more about the nature of her rosary group and a sense of Mary that I think a spiritually minded person might choose to create a belief in.
But here’s what remains startling: If you join or create such a group and open your mind and say your rosaries, Mary may appear to you in a way that will make you believe in her—and that belief could be extremely powerful and affirming.
But what does it mean if Mary shows up after you purposely set the conditions to make it happen? Are such apparitions real? Are they more valid than the much more frequent apparitions caused by peyote, ayahuaska, or LSD? Who really knows? But here are some not quite random thoughts on psychic powers and the purpose of revelation.
Years ago I lived for several months with a professional psychic both because I fell in love with her and because I was really curious about channeling. Looking back, I can say that she believed in her ability to connect with beings and knowledge outside herself—and that her belief was sometimes empowering to her. It was also sometimes empowering to those who phoned or came to call. That said, it seemed clear to me that her power came from her remarkable sensitivity and empathy—while her readings and intuitions were often shockingly inaccurate. No paranormal explanation required. Another thing I noticed—which we joked about—is that all of her clients were “higher beings!” As in, she would tell clients, “I sense that you are a higher being!” For some reason, “lower beings” never called.
Years before that, when I was a teenager living near Stanford, the CIA was funding psychic research at the Stanford Research Institute. The leaders of the research team happened to be family friends who used to meet in our living room, so I got to play with ESP machines, meet famous psychics like the spoon-bending Uri Geller, and overhear bits about research that was then top secret. Looking back, what strikes me is that the researchers firmly believed in their own psychic abilities. They were higher beings! Whenever a skeptical colonel (a lower being) came to take away their government funding, the skeptic would be convinced of his own psychic ability. He too would become a higher being! And thus the funding would continue.
But I think it’s fair to say that the heyday of psychic research never really produced much hay, and in the decades since, research to prove the existence of psychic phenomena has withered completely. Pretty much the end of the line was Herbert Benson, MD’s, multimillion-dollar prayer study at Harvard some 10 years ago. As you may recall, Dr. Benson first became famous in the seventies by documenting the health benefits of the “relaxation response” from meditation and later showed the health benefits of choosing a personally meaningful prayer as a mantra. But his attempts to prove that praying for others improved their health didn’t work. If anything, the research suggested that praying for people could backfire. (Think about it: If lots of people are praying for you, you must be in serious trouble!)
But such research doesn’t change much in human behavior—or at least not very fast. The sense of higher being-ness is so powerful, so highly contagious, and often so profitable that it won’t go away—even if the world might be better without it. (See the next story, suggesting that nonbelievers are kinder than believers.) Personally, I think one of the hardest lessons is learning to disbelieve one’s own psychic or divine experiences, but I think it is worth doing because there is something more interesting going on. I’m running out of space (and perhaps rope with which to hang myself) but let me try to explain…
Readers of this magazine will recognize Peggy La Cerra, PhD, the neuroscientist who postulates that our behavioral intelligence system (consciousness) is ultimately about energy management. Because all life requires energy, the basic question of life is simply this: “How do I acquire the energy to stay alive?” Plants don’t need a behavioral intelligence system because they don’t behave. Plants just turn toward the sun. The simplest one-celled animals are much like plants, but instead of turning toward the sun, these animals tumble around until they find food and then go forward into it. Now here’s what’s important. Our own brains are almost infinitely more complex than those one-celled creatures, but La Cerra points out that we’re making essentially the same energetic calculations—just in infinitely more interesting ways. Stop and listen to your monkey mind and you’ll likely hear an ongoing tally of the ups and downs of various forms of energy: IRAs, mpgs, RAM, marriage, divorce, renting, buying, global warming. To believe that consciousness is so different from plant intelligence is to miss the profound lesson of the lowly sea squirt: an animal that swims around until it attaches to a rock, consumes its own brain, and becomes a plant.
In short, consciousness isn’t what’s special. It’s our own personal—and hopefully grand—illusion. Life is what’s special. And our body/minds have come up with some really cool tricks to keep us from dying: both as individuals and as a species. (Many years ago I wrote a cover blurb for Deepak Chopra, MD’s, first book. He’s much smarter than me and his arguments for a conscious universe and disembodied and immortal intelligence are really cool but, in hindsight, really wrong and profoundly unhelpful.)
So what does any of this have to do with Mary showing up? Well, it seems to me, everything. But I’m not quite there yet.
Instead, consider an extreme energy management situation like shivering. As your core temperature drops, your body responds with extreme tension, burning energy as fast as possible to generate heat. But as one’s energy runs out, tension gives way to total relaxation and a profound feeling of peace as your body attempts to hang on with what little energy is left. Supposedly, your life flashes before your eyes. A similar thing happens when one is being eaten by a predator. Shock and pain is suddenly replaced by peace and calm. That’s what I’ve read, anyway. But I’ve had what seemed a similar experience in a kayak underneath a waterfall. My attempts to roll upright failed until I was both panicked and exhausted. It occurred to me that I was going to die, and suddenly I was completely blissed out and detached, hanging upside down, happily watching vivid scenes from my life: It felt like slow motion but there were a lot of scenes, so they must have been very fast. Not a bad life, I remember thinking. And I suppose I could have contentedly drowned there but then came the image of my young daughter and son. Oh! The next instant, bliss was replaced by resolve and I bailed out of the kayak, swam downward in the vortex, and eventually popped up.
That blissed-out slideshow, it seems to me, is a last-ditch survival mechanism. When it really seems the gig is up, the brain floods with a massive endorphin high to overcome any pain or distraction while it scans your memories for something, anything, that might somehow save your life.
And this has what to do with Mary? You may ask. Well, we’re almost there! Just one final example of a sudden shift in energy management.
Since you are reading this magazine, you are more likely than most to have had an experience of what psychologist William Miller, PhD, calls Quantum Change, which for men goes something like this: One day a man values wealth, adventure, and achievement; the next day he values spirituality, personal peace, and family. What differentiates these Quantum Change experiences from other moving moments is a felt sense of being acted upon by something greater, something outside us. According to Miller, these experiences are surprisingly common, but most people are reluctant to share them.
So here (at last!) is my point. The most powerful parts of our survival mechanism are so powerful because they feel outside us: the detachment of watching your life pass before your eyes; the felt sense of an outside force changing your value from competition to cooperation; and finally, when things get really dire for everyone—either from income inequality or global warming or both—it’s not really Allah and Mary who appear. (Marys who show up today are often blue-eyed blondes!) Instead, I think it’s an archetypical Mom or Dad saying essentially, “Stop! Get a grip! You kids have lost your minds.” Something like that. These voices come from inside us, but that doesn’t mean they’re not worth listening to. It may be the only way we will listen.