My First Experiences with the Paranormal

I can't recall even a hint of anything unusual or otherworldly happening to me before I turned 18. My childhood, as far as I can recall, was a case study in naturalistic normalcy. My father, despite his fundamentalist Christian upbringing, was a Ph.D. physicist and professional engineer. My mother, despite her Roman Catholic background and penchant for art and philosophy, took her B.S. degree in biology. I devoured eagerly the books on mathematics and science in our library, and when I wrote my first autobiography in the sixth grade I declared my career goal was to become a naturalist.

It is true that I also loved tales of fantasy and magic. I read every one of Baum's Oz books in the third grade, followed by Bullfinch's mythology in the fifth grade, C.S. Lewis's Narnia series in the eighth grade, and Tolkein's Lord of the Rings trilogy my senior year in high school. But I never confused either these mythologies or the science fiction I read with accounts of reality.

That began to change during the winter of 1972-73, when I was 19. Without any apparent precipitating cause, I suddenly began wondering how we human beings can know what things-in-themselves are really like, independently of our way of thinking about them. I fussed and obsessed about this problem, and I recall annoying my classmates in my college speech class by refusing to talk about anything except ontology and epistemology. This episode might have remained a schoolboy's harmless rediscovery of Kant's thoughts on phenomena and noumena, if not for additional accidents that followed during the course of the next year.

The first accident, which triggered my plunge into the paranormal, happened during a trip to Pattee library to conduct research for a class on science and human values. I can't remember now what I was looking for as I thumbed through the old-fashioned index-card catalog, but was struck by the title of the card to which the drawer fell open: The Psychology of Man's Possible Evolution. The title attracted my attention because I had declared a major in psychology, with an intent to study the subject from the perspective of human paleontology and evolution. Little did I know that this book had nothing to do with either psychology or human evolution as scientists normally use these terms.

This slim book, it turned out, was written by an esoteric philosopher, P. D. Ouspensky, who had studied under another mystic and philosopher, Georg Gurdjieff. The "psychological evolution" discussed by Ouspensky was an inner evolution of consciousness to be obtained through various types of mental practices. I became fascinated by the ideas in the book, partly because it seemed to me to suggest that a state of consciousness could be attained wherein one could objectively see reality-as-it-really-is. As I considered Ouspensky's writings, it occurred to me that I had already encountered some of his ideas years ago. Sure enough, when I flipped through a volume in my parents' library, J.B. Priestly's The Nature of Time, there was a section on Ouspensky's theory of eternal recurrence. Eternal recurrence--the notion that we keep living the same life over and over--was an idea that for some reason I often felt might be true. Rediscovering Ouspensky's validation of my earlier intuitions about time was somehow both exhilarating and chilling. What a strange coincidence, I thought.

Stranger coincidences followed. Within weeks of discovering Ouspensky's book in the card catalog, I was scanning the Centre Daily Times when my eyes locked onto a paragraph announcing a Gurdjieff study group. Amazed by this coincidence, I had to call the number. I was even more amazed by who answered: Marge Manning, a next-door neighbor and an active member of my parents' church.

The details of precisely what happened after that are, unfortunately, lost in history. This is what I do remember. This initial string of coincidences inspired me to begin logging them in a diary. But what I found is that within two weeks, odd coincidences were happening closer and closer together. I felt like I was moving on a spiral ride, with each revolution moving faster and more tightly than the previous, accelerating quickly to infinity. In terror, I shredded the pages of my coincidence diary, hoping that this act would stop the ever-increasing flow of strange events. Apparently, this worked, and I resolved to stop poking around into esoteric ideas. By the end of the spring term 1973 I officially declared biology as a second major to psychology, and scheduled a full slate of normal science classes for the following fall term.

The universe would not let up on me, however. Consciousness-raising may not have been quite so hot a topic as it was in the late '60s, but still appeared occasionally in the popular media. The July 1973 issue of Psychology Today included a conversation between Sam Keen and Arica Institute leader Oscar Ichazo that left a lasting impression on me. Awareness is a self- fueling process: once you become more aware you can't help noticing things that might have escaped your attention earlier. Tearing up my list of coincidences did not erase my awareness of teachings about preternatural realities.

The crucial event leading me further down the path of strangeness, however, was a perfectly normal, typical happening for a young man. When I returned to campus I found that Amy, my first significant love, no longer wanted to be my lover. I was devastated. I found myself completely unable to concentrate in my physics and chemistry classes, which seemed totally insignificant to a meaningful life. I considered dropping out of school. I thought about attending classes at the Esalen Institute or transferring to a program in philosophy at the University of Edinburgh. Eventually I opted to drop all of my sciences courses to take Oriental philosophy and do an independent study on evolution and ethics.

Then I noticed in the Free University catalog a course on reading Tarot cards. Curious, I attended the first class and became a true believer that very night. Our teacher, Charlie Tillman, was a soft-spoken, intense Anthropology major with mesmerizing, shining brown eyes and an air of mystery about him. He explained very calmly and without hyperbole that the Tarot cards represent a spiritual philosophy handed down from the Manicheans through the Cathari to modern day gypsies. The images on the cards represent archetypes of psychospiritual evolution, and that this evolution is far more important than trivial fortune telling. I was hooked.

Charlie's classes always began with lessons about the nature of the universe as not understood by modern science. He taught the basics of esoteric philosophy such as the unity of opposites, the difference between synchronic and diachronic time, and the relationship between the macrocosm and microcosm. He also occasionally threw in material from scholars such as Carl Jung and Claude Levi-Strauss. He would end the class by explaining how he interpreted a Tarot spread from a previous reading or by conducting an actual, live reading in class. His thoughts and actions reflected a genuine reverence for the wisdom in the cards. Before readings he silently asked for blessings from his ancestors and for guidance from the "spirits of the Tarot." And his readings always seemed insightful and appropriate to me.

To this day I believe Charlie was sincere in his beliefs, although just recently (1993) I heard the other side of a fantastic story he related to 20 years earlier. One evening he told us how he challenged world-famous anthropologist, Napoleon Chagnon, about the validity of fortune telling in preliterate societies. Charlie told us that, to prove his point, he offered to read Chagnon's cards in front of his anthropology class. Chagnon accepted. Charlie told us that his reading shocked Chagnon because it revealed several intimate facts that no one could have known about his life, that it threw the class into turmoil, and Chagnon stomped out. The story I got from Chagnon at a scientific convention is that the fortune telling had been a flop, a joke, and that he had to throw the troublemaking Tillman out of class. Who knows what really happened?

As far as my own fortune-telling abilities were concerned, I was not so hot. After a number of classes, each of us did a reading for someone else in the class under Charlie's watchful eye, and Charlie told us his sense of whether we could truly read or not. When it came my turn he said I didn't seem to be able to read. But he added, as he always did, that my own judgment of my reading ability was more important than his. I wanted to believe I could read, so I did, despite lack of enthusiastic feedback from persons for whom I read.

Reality's evidence mattered far less to me than how I felt about reality. I felt connected to unseen, mysterious forces in nature. I felt I possessed a deeper understanding of the ways of nature than ordinary college students. Whereas others watched the television show Kung Fu for the fight scenes, I alone grasped the philosophical significance of Kwai Chang Caine's actions. I felt special, secure, powerful--something I really needed to feel in the wake of my romantic tragedy. I completely embraced the thesis of Joseph Chilton Pearce's The Crack in the Cosmic Egg: That we literally influence reality with our imagination. Never mind that my therapist told me he could no longer work with me if I insisted on such magical thinking. I simply stopped therapy.

My experience in the Free University Tarot course was so satisfying that I looked for other, similar offerings, and located a course on Jewish mysticism. I thought this would be a good opportunity to learn more about correspondences between the Tarot and Qabalah. As it turned out, I was the only student who showed up the first evening the class met. So I began talking with the course instructor about the book of Genesis. As we talked, it suddenly dawned on me that Genesis was an allegory about the creation--not of the planet Earth--but of consciousness within the human species. Furthermore, the allegory paralleled the Tarot version of that story. The teacher became entranced and awe-struck by my interpretations and began to simply listen. As I shared my insights with the teacher, my own state of consciousness began to change. I felt incredibly peaceful, certain, at one with the universe. I'm sure that gnostics would call the experience gnosis.

What was really startling about the experience is the way it affected my outward appearance, as described to me by others who saw me that night. As I felt filled with insight I also felt radiant--as if I were emitting energy. The teacher commented, as I finished sharing my insights and prepared to return to my dorm room, that I appeared to be glowing. During the walk from the classroom to my room, I felt as if I were walking about two inches off the ground. Just outside my room in Hamilton Hall, two of my hallmates commented that I appeared to be "glowing" and "floating." Today I interpret this experience as a temporal lobe transient, but it is still difficult to explain how I appeared to others that night. Okay. Here's an interesting coincidence: Within a week after I had added this paragraph (July 3, 1996) I came across this"positive fifth brain circuit" explanation of radiance and levitation.

My openness to alternate realities brought me into contact with like- minded people the following fall at school. Larry Newman shared his books on Mark Age Metaphysics (they discussed Atlantis) and got me reading Jane Roberts's Seth books. He also brought me to an evening lecture on reincarnation, delivered by a faculty from some unlikely area (engineering or ceramic science, I think; this made reincarnation even more credible to me). I befriended Bill Eichman, a big, affable freshman who followed an eclectic blend of wicca, thelemic magick, and a few other things. He told me he discovered he could actually conjure up entities in magickal circles behind his parents' barn when he was a boy. He gave me a copy of Paul Huson's book, Mastering Witchcraft, and gave me some exercises to develop my own powers.

These exercises were followed by another set of uncanny coincidences. To develop my ability to concentrate and hold a mental image clearly, I was to stare at a common object with unwavering attention, close my eyes, and continue to see it in my mind as if I were still actually looking at it. I chose a penny for this exercise. Within two weeks, I started running across books and articles on Abraham Lincoln in the library, bookstores, and seemingly everywhere I went. Then I started finding pennies on the floors of many of my classrooms. During the winter holiday break, someone stole my jar of pennies from my dormitory room--leaving my stereo and other valuable untouched.

The oddest penny incident occurred with a peculiar penny I found after noticing a book that compared the Lincoln and Kennedy assassinations. This penny had a tiny hole drilled through Lincoln's head. I brought the penny to a party in our dorm to show people, but when I held it out I dropped it and it disappeared. Several minutes of searching turned up nothing, so I gave up. But later that night, when I undressed for bed, the penny dropped to the floor from the inside of my blue jeans. I did not know what this all meant, but was absolutely convinced it meant something.

My practices also required me to record my experiences and dreams in a journal. By this point, odd experiences were a source of delight rather than fear, so I enjoyed doing this. The following are some entries from my journal during the spring and summer of 1975.

On March 17, 1975, I had a dream about a dog attacking and devouring me. The next day I received a letter from Carolyn which contained the following lyrics from a Joni Mitchell album: "And all the dogs /Go running free /The wild and gentle dogs /Kennelled in me."

On May 30, 1975, I was mowing grass for the borough when my supervisor broke into a little nonsense ditty that ended with, "Pumpernickel bum-bum-de- bum." Just then I noticed a plastic wrapper in the path of my mower so I stopped to remove it. It was the wrapper from a loaf of pumpernickel bread.

On July 13, 1975, I dreamed that Amy appeared before me. She was very emotional and insisted that she wanted to get together to talk. She stressed that we must talk on Thursday. I awoke with the word Thursday, Thursday echoing in my ears. On July 16 I was cutting the borough's grass at the cloverleaf on the Benner Pike when I spotted Amy riding toward me on a bicycle. I had not seen her in more than a year and had forgotten about the dream. Amy pulled up, we chatted for a few minutes, and she said she would like to get together at the H.U.B. on campus that evening to talk some more. Only after she left did I recall my dream, but then realized that it was Wednesday. I shrugged and thought to myself, well, that was nearly a precognitive dream. When I got home late that afternoon, my mother told me that Amy had called to apologize that she could not get together that evening, that it would have to be tomorrow--Thursday.

This last incident was the most uncanny experience I have ever had. Although today, 20 years later, I no longer read cards or cast spells or believe in unseen powers, I cannot help wondering how such strange things happen and how much more uncanniness is lying just below the surface, waiting to play cosmic jokes on me.

Revised July 22, 1996
Links updated July 21, 2000

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