from The Theosophist Feb 1977

Assessing Psychism

Hugh Shearman

Around psychism and the various forms of extra-sensory perception there has gathered a variety of established and conventional attitudes. One finds approval, disapproval, various degrees of belief and scepticism, eager hunger for revelations and bored indifference to them. But all these attitudes tend to be in basic agreement about what is involved. They are the attitudes of people who assume that we are concerned with the real or imagined capacity of individuals to cognise more than the majority of us can know from our ordinary sense data. Clairvoyance, clairaudience, precognition and so forth are all considered as forms of perception. When laboratory test are devised for the purpose of examining any claimed capacity for any form of extra-sensory perception, the tests are in general such as might properly be applied to the testing of the objective accuracy of any normal form of sensory perception.

Actual experience, however, leads one to question whether this general assumption is satisfactory or adequate and, hence, to question the utility and the justice of certain tests based upon it. There is nowadays a very widespread incidence of minor psychic experience, and it is possible for many variously circumstanced people to examine such experiences and to question the nature of them and watch the conditions under which they occur. What I believe they will finds is that psychic experience is not merely perceptual and that it comes as secondary effect of some degree of merging of the individual consciousness in something larger than its separate selfhood, in some collectivity of related consciousnesses.

The most commonly available collectivity in which people have an opportunity to examine their psychic experiences is the family. To the intuition of many married couples it becomes apparent that theirs is not just a relationship between two separate individuals, for they become aware that there has come into being a third factor, in which they both have deep unconscious roots, and from which most of the stability or purpose of their shared life takes its rise. Through this third factor, if that is the right way to describe it, they can often know things about one another, pick up impressions of events that occur in one another's absence and have a mutual psychic access to one another which tends to be eroded by rational thinking.

Some of the most striking instances of psychic phenomena in families are between parent and child. The child is at first very much a part and extension of the parent and can, as we know, exhibit psychosomatic symptoms of the parents's psychological condition. One day a member of the Theosophical Society came to a meeting but told me that he was unhappy about having come there, as his little boy was much distressed with asthma at the time when he left home. I listened to him sympathetically and said that I believed that he was right to have come and that he would probably find that things had improved when he returned home, and we talked about other less personal matters. Some days later he told me that, when he had arrived back home, he had found that the little boy's asthmatic trouble had ceased at the very moment of that conversation. It seemed obvious that the child's affliction had reflected a psychological uneasiness in the father and that, when the father was steadied and reassured by the conversation and by his integration into the spirit and atmosphere of the Society, the symptoms ceased in the child.

Manifestations of a family collective psyche can extend to knowledge of something that is going to happen in the future. One day, as I sat eating my midday meal, there came to me for no obvious reason a conviction that I ought to go to my son who was then a small child and was playing alone in another part of the house. I laid down my knife and fork and proceeded upstairs, without any undue haste, and arrived at exactly the right moment to catch the little boy just as he fell backwards down an upper flight of stairs into my hands, neatly forestalling what could have been a nasty accident.

These small incidents are not quoted because they are in any way evidential but because they are so typical of a large class of experiences which occur often in people's lives. When they happen, it is well not to jump too quickly to some stock explanation of them. One can examine aesthetically rather than analytically the background out of which they arise. Is there not more behind them than the perceptual experience of separate individuals?

The same questions arise about any psychic experience that happens in connection with any group of people. Once, after the close of a lodge meeting at the Theosophical Society, some of us rather light-heartedly tried experiments with a pendulum held by one of our most psychic colleagues, asking questions to which the pendulum gave negative or affirmative replies. We found that we got correct answers about subjects with which some members of the group had some personal link. We got what proved to be sound prognostication about the immediate prospects of certain personalities in local politics, and we received good forecasts about English first division foot-ball matches. But we could not a get a correct answer abut the purely objective question of whether or not it was raining outside the building in which we met.

Moving out still further into a larger collectivity, the traffic of a city, many people have found that they can foretell how the traffic is going to favour or frustrate them. In one of the Bendits' books on psychism there is an account of an individual who found that he could foretell at a place where the road forked, which route to take in order to be in the stream of traffic that would not be held up by a policeman who as directing the traffic at a junction still further ahead.

What actually happens when we receive "guidance" of this kind? I drove into the city one day to do business at several places close to its centre. I wondered where to park my car, always a problem in a crowded city at a busy time. So I resolves not to decide the matter by any exercise of intellect but to open myself to guidance or psychic prompting. At once the answer came, as if in words, "Beside the City Hall". This was a place over half a mile ahead, to be reached through dense traffic, where parking space was rarely available. I drove there without hesitation, and , just as I arrived, a car vacated a parking meter space and I drove into it. So I asked myself what the nature of this guidance had been, what it was like. The image that came to me was of the whole moving traffic systems of the city forming one great collective living entity, or rather forming the expression or the "body" of one great entity, like a deva. And when I had placed myself unreservedly at the disposal of that entity, I was told what to do. I knew, also, that, if I had exercised thought, opinion, analysis or any other capacity of the discursive mind, there would not have been a successful outcome. The "rapport" would have been spoilt, and I should have become merely a harassed individual looking for a parking space.

A rather similar interpretation seemed also to fit the fact that I often found that when bombs went off in my district at night I was not wakened by the bomb but came awake just before it exploded. This seemed to arise, not form any perceptual foreknowledge, but from a unity with the collective life of the whole district.

These simple examples are given only because they represent a type of experience open to very many people. When such an experience arises, one can ask oneself what it was really like, whether it was just an extension of objective perception, or something else.

For myself there has always been this impression about any psychic experience, however minor, that it has emerged out of an enhanced largeness of being, something collective and expansive. This remains true even of those instances by means of a specific perceptual organ, usually that "third eye" which is situated somewhere above and behind they physical eyes. It is with this organ that come into being while some ceremony is being performed or the forms created by other people's thoughts or perhaps people's auras. If one examines very honestly the background to such a lucid moment, one finds always that for that moment one had lost one's personal self in something more large and comprehensive.

Such experiences are often quite obviously evoked by some encounter or relationship. This is particularly the case when one gets a glimpse of oneself as somebody else in some other incarnation. And here again there is that sense of background, of a huge collective life made up of many lives who are yet also one.

In fact it would seem that many experiences described as psychic are by-products or secondary effects of a momentary openings of the individual to an experience that is mystical rather than objectively perceptual. Naturally we are interested when something measurably objective emerges out of the psychic level of experience, and it can be useful to measure, test and record it. But fundamentally it seems unsatisfactory to assume or require that psychic material must respond to objective criteria of testing or to use or quote it as if it was solely of that nature.

A participant in an experiment once told me how a clairvoyant was invited to describe what he saw while an electrical machine was being operated. The psychic described interesting phenomena which were visible to him. But when he was then put to the test of having to tell simply whether the current was on or off he was not able to respond. This surprised all concerned, and yet it need not have surprised them since there was quite a different factor of collective life or consciousness or shared awareness involved in the two stages of the experiment.

There certainly are people who show a much higher capacity than others for giving correct responses when confronted by the operations of a randomising machine. But this might sometimes be better understood in terms of a temperamental affinity with some collective aspect of nature than as evidence of a more extended objective type of perception.

If we make use of the pictures of our invisible anatomy which is offered in The Secret Doctrine, we could say that what is factual, objective and, as we say, "scientific", is simply what is perceived when consciousness is limited to the capacities of the manomayakosha. Objectivity is a limitation or an illusion which, we are told, consciousness in us has to outpass, along with that Cartesian dualism on which modern science tests. Patanjali refers to experience in which the knower, knowledge and the known are discovered to be one; and the "mind", in Madam Blavatsky's well known phrase, is the slayer of the Real.

Does it seem strange, then, that a clairvoyant should find it much more difficult, or quite impossible, to determine an apparently purely objective question, such as whether the current is switched on or off, than to describe the hidden effects produced by a machine which others as well as himself know to be switched on? As I have come to see it, these two tests involve two entirely different kinds or qualities of psychism. Most of us are able to have some degree of shared unity with other people, since we also are people, but a shared unity with objective nature implies a depth of mystical or occult progress which few human beings have as yet attained. I believe that that was whey the pendulum told us about politics and football matches but could not correctly tell us whether or not it was raining outside the building. Among us we had some unity with those human activities, but not with the forces that determine the weather.

This, of course, is directly contrary to what the ordinary practice of scientific method has taught us to expect. We expect to be able to test the values of any form of psychism in an easy and simple manner by enquiring whether it can give a sound answer to some purely objective question. But in fact that is a test so difficult that few will pass it, and the intrinsic value of the psychism that is being tested does not in any case consist in its capacity to respond to that sort of testing.

Consider our own experience. Many of us have some degree of intuitive psychism, a feeling for a situation, a capacity to sense what is the best course to take. But if we have that capacity, which sort of problem will be easier for us to resolve - one involving an element of subjective relationship, such as an emotional extramarital involvement, or one that is strictly and externally objective, such deciding the right position for the loading line of a ship? Clearly it is the more objective problem that is the more difficult.

Psychism as a merging of the individual into something larger has often been recognised and referred to in connection with the negative psychic experiences of primitive people. They seem to recede into some fluidic, amoeba-like condition in which there is access to the contents of a collective unconscious. But it has often then been assumed that when we proceed to the positive psychism of more developed people it becomes simply a perceptual capacity of a separate self-conscious individual. I have come to believe, however, that positive psychism also depends on our abandoning our existing mode of separateness to enter a greater unity, and that our capacity to give results that are cogently accurate must depend on the depth and direction of that unity which the psychic is attaining at the moment of his experience.

The greatest pioneer in clairvoyance and other forms of psychic perception in the Theosophical Society's first century was C.W. Leadbeater. He was quite candid about the tentative and pioneering nature of much that he attempted. If we take the whole body of his descriptions of his experiences it can be seen that they do not form one uniform texture. Where he could enter into a unity with a human factor in his subject matter, he gave results which may others have been able to confirm. Where he tried to stretch our to more remote realms, which only a very comprehensive and exceptional degree of consciously achieved unity could reach, his experiences were less complete in their expression and less capable of confirmation, sometimes indeed capable of evidential refutation. Sometimes he seemed unconsciously to clothe material from more remote fields of exploration in the subject matter or furnishings present in his own necessarily nineteenth century memory, attributing canals to the planet Mars or describing atoms which had no isotopes and indeed in almost no way corresponded to those known to science.

Fundamentally Theosophy is not a science but a love affair. It is concerned with our return to the One; and, to the Theosophist, every human capacity and attribute draws its significance from that purpose. The primary value of psychism, in a theosophical view, cannot lie in its capacity to provide information but in its capacity to convey true information of unity. In the long course of evolution these two measures of truth will no doubt come to merge into one in human experience. While we are still at an early stage on that long journey, we must not ignore the primary measure in our concern for what is only secondary.


The concept of organic unity, linking man and all living organisms with the universe, is the basis postulate of the Wisdom philosophy called Theosophy and it is the root doctrine of most of the great religions of mankind.

Corona Trew Towards a Scientific Metaphysic, THE UNIVERSAL FLAME.


More Hugh Shearman