Chaos, Cosmos, and Chaosmos – 2 Cosmos.

Robert Fludd, The Great Chain of Being from God to Nature and from Nature to Man, from Utriusque cosmi maioris scilicet et minoris metaphysica, physica atque technica historia 1617-1618. Wellcome Library, London. Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons.”

Robert Fludd, The Great Chain of Being from God to Nature and from Nature to Man, from Utriusque cosmi maioris scilicet et minoris metaphysica, physica atque technica historia 1617-1618. Wellcome Library, London. Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons.


For the Pythagoreans kósmos expressed a sense that the world as a whole was pervaded by intelligent order, beauty, and structural perfection.  Robert Fludd’s seventeenth century illustration of the Great Chain of Being (above, and discussed here) in which a prominent female figure representing Nature wears a small Sun and Moon on her breasts, is held on a chain by a celestial God, and holds an ape representing ‘art’, or perhaps the alchemist, on a chain below her, should suffice to remind us that images of totality emanate from a particular perspective.  The power dynamics inherent in such unifying visions have been much discussed, of course.

In Cosmos and Psyche (2006) Richard Tarnas responded to postmodern sensibilities by envisioning ‘a cosmic ordering principle whose combination of participatory co-creativity, multivalent complexity, and dynamic indeterminacy’ would not have been comprehensible to Plato.  Because the world now appears more responsive to human intention and consciousness our conception of cosmos needs to incorporate a correspondingly fluid, complex, and unpredictable relationship with ‘a dynamic archetypal order’.(1)  We might wonder whether postmodernity renders the term cosmos redundant, but my own experience of astrology inclines me to agree that the sense of pattern, order, and structure implied by the term is at least as fundamental to the unfolding of lives (the microcosm) within the matrix of chaosmic Nature (the macrocosm), as contingency, complexity, sponteneity, humour, randomness, and surprise.

Tarnas argued for a post-Jungian archetypal astrology by amassing evidence in the form of correlations between planetary cycles and cultural and historical developments in the history of the West.  Despite his description of archetypes as multidimensional (having a formal coherence and consistency that can give rise to many manifestations and meanings) and multivalent (we may relate to them actively or passively) I’m still not comfortable with an essentialising and universalising impetus, and depersonalising tone (c.f. powers or deities) inherent in the concept however.*

Tarnas’ discussion of the cultural importance of the Copernican revolution illuminates the genealogy of how ‘we’ in the late modern West have come to think about cosmos: ‘To have it suddenly dawn on one that the great Earth itself, the most obviously stationary and immovable entity in the cosmos, upon which one had lived in changeless solidity all one’s life, was in fact at that moment moving freely through space […] no longer the absolute fixed centre […] but rather a planet, a wanderer, an exalted celestial body in a new cosmos whose dimensions and structure and meaning were now utterly transfigured; such a revelation must have filled the mind and spirit with an awe seldom known in human history’.(p5)

This most radical of discoveries ’emancipated the modern self from a cosmos of pregiven meanings’ and affirmed confidence in human rationality whilst simultaneously disrupting a longstanding illusion that the cosmos revolved around the earth, and the needs of humankind in particular.  The subsequent Cartesian revolution that radically separated soul from body, and subject from object, and the ‘Copernican revolutions’ of Kant, who attributed the apparent temporal, spatial, and causal order of the world to the interpretive structure of the perceiving mind, and Darwin, who located humans within an evolutionary framework, along with Freud’s diminishment of the rational ego, further decentred the human in a cosmic context.  Western modernity responded by relocating intelligence, soul, spirit, meaning, and purpose, exclusively in the human self, thereby progressively disenchanting the world.(2)

While reading this it occured to me that Freud wasn’t the first to link Copernicus with transformations in the ‘inner cosmos’.(p44)  Nietzsche, whose writings prefigured depth psychology, dramatised the significance of the new cosmology in the voice of a madman confronting the death of God and the onset of nihilism, and in his Genealogy of Morals wrote: “Ever since Copernicus man has been rolling down an incline, faster and faster, away from the centre-whither?  Into the void? Into the ‘piercing sense of his emptiness’?(3).

Tarnas identified the modernist assumption that any ‘apparent’ meaning or purpose in the universe must have been constructed and projected on to it by the human mind as ‘hubris of cosmic proportions’.  In an epilogue, however, he ventured the hardly less anthropocentric suggestion that the creative, unpredictable, and fallible ‘self-reflective human being’ may be ‘a unique vessel and embodiment of the cosmos’.(p492)

Although Cosmos and Psyche was the fruit of extensive collaboration Tarnas has been taken to task for making only a brief passing reference to the work of other astrologers.  Having defended astrology against the prejudice of modernity he no doubt felt that citing actual astrological texts would jeapordise the chance of his work being taken seriously by the mainstream.  He also, perhaps again understandably, overlooked scholars who have taken ‘cosmos’ in a naturalistic direction -notably Alexander von Humboldt, who is widely acknowledged as having bought the term into the modern world- and Carl Sagan, both of whom also attempted the kind of comprehensive and integrative account that a cosmic perspective has long seemed to demand.

And therein lies a familiar problem, namely the privileging of a lone commentator’s apparently impartial panoramic viewpoint.  My feeling is that Tarnas could have said a bit more about the difficulties associated with the uses and misuses of astrology, and about the situated, partial, provisional, and contestable, nature of astrological interpretations.

Tabula Smaragdina, Macrocosm and microcosm. Engraving attached to Basilica Philosophica, 3rd vol of Johann Daniel Mylius, Opus Medico-Chymicum. 1618. Matthaus Merian.

Tabula Smaragdina, Macrocosm and microcosm. Engraving attached to Basilica Philosophica, 3rd vol of Johann Daniel Mylius, Opus Medico-Chymicum. 1618. Matthaus Merian.

Towards the end of his life Alexander von Humboldt wrote Cosmos, A Sketch of a Physical Description of the Universe, a five volume account of Nature encompassing phenomena from aurorae, through climatic and vegetation zones on earth, to algae, landscape painting, and poetry, whose index alone makes Richard Tarnas’s 569 page opus look like a slim pamphlet.  In October 1834 he declared “the mad frenzy has seized me of representing in a single work the whole material world.”  The result was a massive collaborative synthesising project.

Though Humboldt made no mention of God or spirituality, his sense of wonder, and the importance of aesthetic and emotional engagement, meant that he was taken up by the American transcendalists and English romantics as well as by scientists such as Darwin.  Interestingly, his faith in the stability of nature was shaken by an earthquake in South America.  No longer could he assume that water rather than earth was the element of motion.  Unlike most scientists of his time who focussed on taxonomic classification, Humboldt sought to integrate detailed empirical measurement with a holistic vision of nature as an interconnected web and global force.  As well as undertaking meticulous surveys, he acknowledged that ‘what speaks to the soul escapes our measurement’ and found that ‘nature everywhere speaks to man in a voice familiar to his soul’.(4)

Not least because Humboldt wrote prescient accounts of the effects of deforestation and human induced climate change in South America two hundred years ago, he is now celebrated as a proto-ecologist.  His sense of reciprocity between the human mind and nature informs contemporary definitions of cosmos and cosmopolitics that emphasise communal, participatory, and collective aspects, and relations between human communities and an agentic nonhuman world.  In a move that would no doubt surprise some of Plato’s feminist critics Laura Dassow Walls has reclaimed cosmos as ‘humanity’s oldest ecological vision of our planet’.(5)  Whereas Plato’s cosmos privileged God and Reason and signified an over-arching ordering vision inspired by a Divine Intellect, recent understandings interpret cosmology from a human perspective in terms of stories about our individual and collective place in the universe.

Humboldt’s encounter with indigenous people’s cosmovisions is said to have shaped anthropology, ethnography, and environmentalism (not least through the cosmography of Franz Boas).  For Bruno Latour cosmos is synonymous with “the common good world” -a world in which ‘cosmopolitics’ brings together a pluriverse of peoples and natures living in ‘a commons resilient enough to embrace the future.’  Cosmopolitics of this kind is exemplified by the World People’s Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth, held in Bolivia in 2010, where representatives from the Global South and many Indigenous groups presented a Universal Declaration on the Rights of Mother Earth (UDRME, 2010).  Their decalaration stated that “indigenous peoples, nations, and organizations ancestral ‘cosmovisions’—thousands of years in the making […] conceive of Earth as a ‘person’ or ‘living being with whom [all persons] have an indivisible and interdependent relationship”.  A working Group on Indigenous Peoples identifiedaggression toward Mother Earthas ‘an assault on us’ -meaning all human groups and all other ‘persons,’ including the ‘soils, air, forests, rivers, [and] lakes’ (‘Final Conclusions’ 2010, parag. 2).(Monani and Adamson, 2016:4, citing Latour 2014).

Megalithic astronomy confirms that the human impulse to orient ourselves in relation to cosmic nature is both ancient and widespread.  Across the over developed world this powerful impulse lives on in folk dance, communal rites, and the quiet alchemy of contemplative practice, that may honour the cardinal directions, visible stars, or phases of the Moon, and affirm our interdependence with the living land and a teeming diversity of other-than human life.  Ronald Grimes writes that ‘ritual is the predication of identities and differences (metaphors) so profoundly enacted that they suffuse bone and blood, thereby generating a cosmos (an oriented habitat).  In rites we enact a momentary cosmos of metaphor”.(6).

B.T. 10th January 2017.


*ref ‘archetype’, I prefer to think in terms of story and relationship, but if an astrological equivalent were needed planetary principle should suffice (see Mike Harding, Hymns to the Ancient Gods).


(1) Richard Tarnas, Cosmos and Psyche, Intimations of a New World View, Plume, 2007 pp73 and 489.

(2) Richard Tarnas, A New Synthesis, Resurgence, 199 March-April 2000, and see here.

(3) Frederick Nietzsche The Genealogy of Morals, Anchor/Doubleday, 1887/1956:291-2.  See also Frederick Nietzsche The Gay Science, New York, Vintage Books 1882/1974:181-2

(4) Andrea Wulf, The Invention of Nature, the Adventures of Alexander von Humboldt the Lost Hero of Science, John Murray, 2015 pp54,72,235.

(5) Laura Dassow Walls, The Passage to Cosmos; Alexander von Humbolt and the Shaping of America, University of Chicago Press 2009.

(6) Ronald Grimes, Performance is Currency in the Deep World’s Gift Economy, in Graham Harvey ed.  The Handbook of Contemporary Animism, Acumen, 2013.

Bruno Latour, 2004. “Whose Cosmos, Which Cosmopolitics? Comments on the Peace Terms of Ulrich Beck.” Common Knowledge 10 (3): 450–62.

Salma Monani and Joni Adamson, Ecocriticism and Indigenous Studies, Conversations from Earth to Cosmos, Routledge, 2016.

Laura Dassow Walls. (2009) The Passage to Cosmos: Alexander von Humboldt and
the Shaping of America, Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Laura Dassow Walls. (2015) “Cosmos.” In Keywords for Environmental Studies, eds. Joni Adamson,
William A. Gleason, and David N. Pellow, 47–50. New York: New York University Press.

Photographing the Underworld? A Note on NASA’s Pluto Fly-by.

Pluto's Surface Mountains, NASA July 2015, Creative Commons.

Pluto’s Surface Mountains, NASA July 2015, Creative Commons.

For Plutophiles everywhere this has been a remarkable week.  I began writing about Pluto in 1986 in the aftermath of the Chernobyl disaster, and eventually finished a 25,000 word essay on the cultural context, cosmography, and astrological symbolism in 1995*.  I’m not going to write about astrological particulars here, but in that essay I wrote that “astrology occasionally seems to afford us a privileged glimpse into the subtle infrastructure of a living solar system. The fascination, and difficulty, of the discipline, lies in the way in which these glimpses of an apparent cosmic ‘fabric’ are located in relation to the subjectivities of human experience. Whereas astronomy finds the raw material of both curiosity and wonder out there, towards the perimeter of the universe, astrology can work to dissolve the dualism which has, for so long, been part of our Western world view.

Within this framework it is Pluto, as ruler of occultation, and protector of the integrity of mystery, who guards the well-spring of experience and memory against casual intrusion, by insisting that knowledge is personally earned …”.  So I’ve long felt ambivalent about NASA’s New Horizon’s mission to Pluto.

Has it been a casual intrusion?  It would be ungenerous not to acknowledge that New Horizons has been a breathtaking technological feat.  When our trains struggle to run on time they’ve managed to send a small spacecraft on a nine year, three billion mile, journey, and arrive in the right place, just 12,472 kilometers from the surface of Pluto, on schedule.  The anatomy of the recently demoted ‘minor planet’ (not all astronomers agreed with Pluto’s 2006 demotion, so one outcome of this mission is likely to be a bid to re-instate Pluto as a full blown planet) -recently described by a B.B.C. reporter as ‘an inscrutable blob in our telescopes’- is in the process of being filmed, photographed, weighed, measured, probed, and ‘explained’.

Frozen Carbon Monoxide in Pluto's 'Heart'.  Data acquired 14-7-15 and transmitted 16-7-15.  NASA, C.C.

Frozen Carbon Monoxide in Pluto’s ‘Heart’. Data acquired 14-7-15 and transmitted 16-7-15. NASA, Creative Commons.

The resulting astronomical reports might mention the mythology of Pluto for decorative purposes, but astronomy, shorn of astrology, exemplifies Blake’s ‘single vision’ -one dimensionally objective, blind to metaphor, connection, correspondence, and similarity.  NASA’s scientists have apparently seen no connection between the domain of Ploutos, Hades, Persephone, Hekate, Ereshkigal, and all the other underworld deities, and the great cosmic drama of death and rebirth, endlessly enacted, which consititutes the core and heart of their domain, and the extraordinary offering they have just unwittingly made to those gods and goddesses.  Perhaps the fact that their plutonium powered spacecraft carried the ashes of Clyde Tombaugh, ‘discoverer’ of Pluto, across the vastness of the outer solar system to the perimeter of their planet, is what saves this project from being just another act of casual intrusion?

In that astrological essay I traced the exteriorisation of Pluto in the history of the nuclear era, and found the planet’s signature etched into the geography of the discovery region, most notably in an extraordinary spatial co-incidence.  Pluto was discovered in 1930 at the Percevall Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff Arizona.  Ten years later Plutonium was manufactured at the Lawrence Livermore Laboratory in California, and five years after that the first atomic bomb was detonated at the Trinity Test Site north of Alamagordo in New Mexico.  Curiously these three sites fall in an almost perfect straight line, about a thousand miles long, that maps the connection between the planet and the nuclear project on to the land in the most unexpectedly graphic way.

The terrible wartime story of the nuclear scientists’ ‘mathematical transubstation’, and its apocalyptic outcome, contrasts starkly with the knowledge of indigenous peoples such as the Hopi, Zuni, and Navaho, who have long constructed their cosmology and sacred geography around creation stories in which humanity emerges from an underworld regarded as the body of Mother Earth.  These cosmologies have been described as ‘the way of the seeded earth’, and their portrayal of the earth has been compared, for example, with the Roman Tellus Mater, who, like Demeter, watched over the sowing and fruition of seed.

The discovery of Pluto teemed with many other synchronous events and ‘co-incidences’, so it was fitting that the New Horizons spacecraft made its closest contact with Pluto on a dark Moon**.  I had expected to see events in the world that reflected the well established concerns and manifestations of astrological Pluto.  Over those few days we saw the culmination of negotiations between Western powers and Iran over the latter’s nuclear programme -much of which had been developed in concealed subterranean facilities.  We also saw the lengths to which the neoliberal ‘plutocrats’ of the European Union would go to humiliate Greece, surely in order to destroy the elected democratic socialist Syriza government, as a third ‘bail out’ was acrimoniously accepted.

On a more modest scale, I noticed a sequence of radio programmes on the morning of the fly-by, focussing on Plutonic/Dark Moon themes.  ‘The Life Scientific’ interviewed Carlos Frank, an astronomer who was instrumental in establishing the existence of dark matter.  This was followed by ‘Natural Histories’ on the Nightshade family, including deadly nightshade, and ‘the most magical of plants’, Mandrake.  Then, in ‘One to One’, a British Muslim spiritual healer discussed her experience of Jinns, and allegations of physical and sexual abuse by male religious figures in her community.

I still feel profoundly uncomfortable about the dissonance between the technical exuberance of the scientists, and what I know, from observation and hard won personal experience, about the domain of the underworld, and the negotiation of considerable anguish that seems to be entailed as the cost of meaningful admission to that realm.  As an astrologer I’ve seen several accounts of life changing encounters with underworld deities, from very different and otherwise unrelated traditions, that occured during major transits of Pluto.  As well as posing an interesting question for polytheists -what, or who, then, is ‘Pluto’?- such experiences cast a very different light on events this week, and suggest that a quite different perspective (and tone) might not only be more appropriate to the proceedings, but more fruitful in terms of generating understanding.

For example, there’s been much light-hearted celebration of the discovery of a large pale heart-shaped region on the surface of Pluto, now named ‘Tombaugh Regio’.  But would it not be worth considering whether that huge frozen heart might be an an apt symbol for the pandemic of emotional paralysis -of the kind that undermines compassionate and respectful relationship with anyone (or any being) perceived as ‘other’- that both propells, and is generated by, the absurd but all-too-real terrors of patriarchal/capitalist/monotheist ‘civilization’?  Just a thought.

B.T 18-7-15 (updated 19-7-15)

Notes and Sources:

* My rather over long essay from 1995 can be found in Suzi Harvey, ed Orpheus, Voices in Contemporary Astrology, Consider, 2000.

** The astrology of closest contact made my astrological hair stand on end, for example, the New Moon, two days later, fell one minute of arc square the midheaven of the horoscope for the recorded moment of Pluto’s discovery in 1930.  Extremely close aspects such as this, when they occur, are taken as confirmation of the ‘radicality’ of a chart.

Klara Bonsack Kelly and Harris Francis, Navaho Sacred Places, Indiana University Press, 1994.

A Crescent Sun, Time for Some Citizen Astrology?

Partial Solar Eclipse, Spring Equinox 2015.

Partial Solar Eclipse, Spring Equinox 2015.

Yesterday’s partial solar eclipse felt powerful.  After a night of vivid dreams I came downstairs feeling bleary, and under-prepared.  My other half was already busy with an impressive array of pinholes, and our trusty colander, last pressed into astronomical service for the memorable eclipse of 1999.  I felt a bit like the boy at the back of the class who hadn’t done his homework properly.  I did have a piece of cardboard with a hole in it though, and guess whose pinole worked best!

We had some Moony fun comparing results and got quite excited as Luna’s round form appeared, gradually protruding across more and more of our small solar images.  The first appearance of ‘her’ shadow brought a slight shudder of realisation -that these are physical bodies, moving round, out there in space.

Then I realised I could get a better picture on the LCD screen of my camera (by manually focussing and being careful not to look up!).

\pinhole images of partial solar eclipse

Pinhole images of partial solar eclipse.

Most people had wanted a clear sky, but I was glad when a continuous veil of cloud covered the spectacle sufficiently for us to be able to watch the shimmering molten crescent directly -that was the best bit- and take photos without a special filter.  I’ve never seen a total eclipse, but this was extremely beautiful.

So, of course, is the astronomical ‘co-incidence’ that the respective difference in size, and distance from earth, of the Sun and Moon (x400 in each case), means that their discs appear exactly the same size when viewed from earth (at least until some point in the inconceivably distant future).

For me, though, the real work of the eclipse was going on already.  In a piece of writing I’ve been busy with (its personal and deals with bereavement and end-of-life experiences), in bodily phenomena (some more comfortable than others), feelings, and dreams.

As an astrologer I’ve once again felt frustrated by the domination of mainstream coverage by scientists.  The Guardian, for example, did a predictable ‘science v superstition’ piece.  The front page of our local paper, which publishes a sarcastic ‘horoscope’ column every week, had a banner headline that read: ‘Town in Shock Pays Tribute …’.   A well loved local butcher had been run over by two vehicles on the previous Sunday night.  Although serious astrologers are careful to distance themselves from fearful beliefs about eclipses, the symbolism of a great light being extinguished does quite often seem to co-incide with the death of a popular figure around the time of a solar eclipse.  The link wasn’t considered in this case, of course.

Strangely, perhaps, the symbolism can refer to events either before, or five or six (or more) months after a solar eclipse.  In either case the timing would be indicated when a point in the horoscope ‘sensitised’ by an eclipse is transited by other planets.  There are various interpretive schema, but for instance, R.C. Davidson, in his 1950’s manual The Technique of Prediction writes: “lunations and eclipses falling on sensitive points of the horoscope are nothing more than a double transit of the Sun and Moon”.  Just as an alignment of these bodies causes higher tides, “their influence is simlarly potent when applied to the sea of human experience”.

Helianthus annuus, the garden Sunflower.

Helianthus annuus, the garden Sunflower.

Nowadays we tend to emphasise that astrology is about signs, symbols, and metaphors; about discerning a good course of action, rather than predicting deterministic effects.  In the case of solar eclipses the symbolism is about the lunar principle -emotion, intuition, imagination, embodiment, dreams, unconscious processes, flow, memory, childhood, ‘mothering’- temporarily occluding the solar -rationality, purposiveness, clarity, individuality, conscious awareness, leadership, mentoring, ‘heroism’, and so forth.

Events associated with an eclipse can, of course, be positive.  Before the 1999 solar eclipse, which was total, though as it turned out invisible, in Cornwall, I was (despite the above caveats) concerned about what it might signify for a friend who was living there at the time.  The eclipse was due to fall within a degree and a half of her natal Sun in Leo.  In Western astrological tradition the Sun rules the heart, and she’d been having palpitations, intermittently, for some time.

She tells me that she’d felt quite positive about the eclipse on a personal level, seeing it as an opportunity for change.  When I wrote to her after the event she replied (at the end of September 1999) saying that she’d felt very emotional for quite a long time afterwards, that this may have been an unblocking, and that ‘things were flowing well now’.

If we had approached that eclipse looking for celestial causes of earthly events we might have concluded that astrology didn’t work because nothing had happened, or that even if something had happened there would be nothing we could have done about it.  Approaching astrology as a way of working with natural/cosmic symbolism and timing, on the other hand, we might argue that a temporary occlusion of a person’s solar nature by an upwelling of emotion is just what the symbolism suggested, and would seem to have recommended.  For astrologers, meaning is written into the fabric of nature.

B.T 21/3/15.


Telepathy (feeling at a distance): Animism, Healing, and Science.

Dew Pond, Derbyshire c1980.

Dew Pond, Derbyshire c1980.

I can’t remember ever doubting telepathy.  This would be an unremarkable statement in many non-Western cultures, but in the wrong company might prove risky here, mainly because modernist psychiatry has linked experiences of telepathy, and other supposedly paranormal phenomena, with ‘mental illness’.*

An internet trawl quickly netted an account written by someone who had been labelled paranoid schizophrenic by a psychiatrist because of his telepathic experiences.  The author, an unorthodox psychotherapist, goes on to describe an occasion when he was overcome by an inexplicable feeling of profound depression involving suicidal thoughts.  After several hours it occured to him that the depression might not be his.  Despite the intensity of the experience, it felt alien to him.  At this point a female client’s name occured to him.

Overcoming some initial scepticism he decided to reassure her telepathically by saying, in his head, the kinds of things he would have said to her face to face.  “You can get through this without killing yourself; I value you; no matter how bad things seem at the moment, its worth going on; you can solve your problems”.  At first the depression deepened, but he redoubled his efforts.  Then, over the next couple of hours, the mood gradually lifted.  It emerged that the woman had parked her car on a railway line and had been sitting there, waiting for a train, but had then, quite unexpectedly, begun to feel hopeful, and had driven away.(1)

British Journal of Psychical Research Vol1, No1, 1926.  Source Harry Price website, C.C.

British Journal of Psychical Research Vol1, No1, 1926. Source Harry Price website, C.C.

The terms telepathy (from the Greek, tele distant, and patheia feeling, suffering, or being touched), and telesthesia (distant ideas), were coined in 1882 by Frederick W. H. Myers, founder of the society for psychical research, who said “we venture to introduce the words telesthesia and telepathy to cover all cases of impression received at a distance without the normal operation of the recognised sense organs”.  Freud defined telepathy as the transfer of ideas, emotional states, and conative impulses […] through empty space without employing familiar methods of communication, and argued that it was effectively the same as thought transference.

You don’t have to be Jaques Derrida to spot the importance of notions of normality and familiarity in these formulations.(2)  The suggestion of abnormality opened the way for a plethora of psychodyamic explanations that reduced telepathy to ‘defective reality testing’, introjection of others’ thoughts and projection of one’s own, and ‘regression to infantile developmental stages’ associated either with feelings of omnipotence, or symbiotic fusion between the self and external objects.(3)

Since the term ‘telepathy’ was minted in the same era as ‘animism’ I was not surprised to find the following in the literature review section of a 1977 psychiatric journal article: “The incomplete psychological development of primitive culture, often characterised by belief in paranormal processes, has suggested that societies which accept telepathic claims may suffer from regression to primitive states”.  Thought insertion, thought broadcasting, and ‘auditory hallucination’ (a.k.a. ‘hearing voices’) are still regarded as first rank symptoms of ‘schizophrenia’ of course, and much has been written about the racist assumptions underpinning the global application of that widely contested diagnostic category.  Greyson’s 1977 experiment with psychiatric inpatients (using randomly chosen images sent by people who had no emotional connection with the subjects) unsurprisingly linked ‘telepathic claims’ with schizophrenia, and found women and younger men to be more susceptible to telepathy, linking this to a tendency for men to react against ‘intrusions’.

“3D Slicer” from Kubicki M, et al, Review of Diffusion tensor Imaging Studies in Schizophrenia, J Psych Res, 2007, 41.

The recent redefinition of animism in terms of relationship (as a relational ontology and epistemology) offers a fruitful way of reframing questions about telepathy in such a way that quality of relationship appears more significant than causal mechanisms, whilst telepathic experience puts in question assumptions about selfhood, subjectivity, relationship, and the nature and origin of feelings and thoughts.

Derrida argued that telepathy ‘hyperbolised an extreme limit of sympathy’ whilst at the same time ‘breaching the discreteness and unity of the subject, as well as the systems of thought derived from it’. (quoted in Royle, 1995).  I take this to refer to a sense, that I recognise, and that the therapist’s testimony above epitomises, that telepathy -I would add sometimes– appears to combine complete empathy and communion -“I feel what you feel”- with complete alterity -“this feeling, this thought, is (nonetheless) not mine”.

It should come as no surprise that the argument about pathologising telepathy is far from resolved in the 21st century.  Mark Beddow from the U.K. Hearing Voices movement writes: “I wonder why the science of psychiatry is not being more powerfully challenged by the science of parapsychology? If telepathy has been proven to exist, how can another science be allowed to continue to ignore the evidence? The cost to the individual due to such ignorance is vast.  Suicide, stigma, discrimination, loss of family, friends and lovers, career and social death are real outcomes for those that are labelled with a psychiatric diagnosis. Faculties engaged in the study of parapsychology would glean immense insights by conducting field-based research programmes that included the so-called psychotic.”(4)

Given the hostile response from self-appointed guardians of (orthodox) science to Rupert Sheldrake’s work on telepathy, I hope Mark is not holding his breath. In a book on quantum biology, for example, Jim Alkhalili and Johnjoe McFadden refer to Sheldrake as a parapsychologist (he’s actually a Cambridge biologist) and mention ‘bogus claims of telepathy’ without feeling any need to cite evidence, whilst Richard Dawkins refused to look at Sheldrake’s evidence for telepathy when filming one of his debunking documentaries.  For these people telepathy is a pseudoscientific subject that must not be studied.

Which is pity, since Sheldrake has amassed a considerable body of careful experimental evidence for phenomena such as the feeling of being looked at from behind, and knowing who is about to phone or e-mail.  Others have even demonstrated changes in skin conductance (a measure of emotional arousal) when a subject is being watched on CCTV cameras.  Sheldrake understands these experiences in terms of a theory of the mind as a field that extends in every act of attention and perception to ‘touch’ things in the world.  He draws analogies with the fields that that exist within, extend around, and organise the ‘material systems’ of, magnets, mobile phones, or the earth, and with quantum entanglement.

Some of his most striking results have been with other species that live with humans.  Thus many dogs, but also cats (to a lesser extent), horses, guinea pigs, parrots, geese, and chickens, know when their human is about to return home.  In the case of dogs, he was able to show (by filming them) that some will start waiting by a window from the moment when their human decides to come home, before they get into a car or taxi.  Sheldrake suggests that this ability may have evolved in the context of predator-prey relations, and regards it as normal and natural, though from the perspective of the dominant theory of mind (as a phenomenon enclosed within the brain) it can seem paranormal or supernatural.(5)  One of the most remarkable records of telepathic healing I’ve come across is a short video showing animal communicator Anna Breytenbach working with a rescued black leopard who had been abused and was therefore extremely aggressive towards humans, initially.

I chose the photo of a dewpond in Derbyshire because, apart from seeming to symbolise a relationship between separateness and connection, it was taken on my first holiday with the woman who was to become my ‘other half’, some thirty five years ago.  In the early stages of our relationship telepathic communication happened frequently, helped no doubt by the fact that my nearest phone was in a call box ten minutes walk away (there were no mobile phones or personal computers then, of course).  We lived some thirty miles, and three long bus journeys, apart, yet often seemed to meet en route without prior arrangement.  Having noticed this phenomenon, we decided to experiment with it.  So I’d like to close with the following happy, though admittedly minor, domestic occurence, as an example of the joyful ordinariness of telepathy.

On the 31st January 1981 I arrived, unannounced, at X’s flat in Honley, only to find that the lock had been changed.  I tried phoning her work and got no reply, but was told that someone was in, so went back to the flat.  This time her friend let me in.  After making myself comfortable I ‘beamed’ a message to my partner, who might have been out for the evening, and noticed that it was about six o’clock.  A few minutes later I received a message that she would be back at eight.  I saw a visual figure eight.  Feeling confident about this, I started to make food for both of us.  At about twenty past seven a key went  into the lock.  A suprised and pleased X said immediately “you’ve been signalling, haven’t you? I got a message about six o’clock”.  She’d been working that day instead of on the Wednesday, and had signalled back that she couldn’t get back “till late”.  A glass half empty interpretation might complain that I failed to pick up her message accurately.  A glass half full interpretation would point out that my rhyming slip-up meant that our meal was well timed.


18/2/15 (with a few minor edits 21/2/15).

Note*: The psychiatric survivor and critical mental health movements have developed an informed critique of the medicalisation of distress and madness.  This generally takes the form of a diagnosis of ‘mental illness’ and often distracts from the crucial importance of practical, financial, social, emotional, spiritual, and other forms of support.


(1)Ken Mellor, Problems with Telepathic Sensitivity, Awakening Network.

(2) Nicholas Royle, After Derrida, Manchester University Press, 1995.

(3) Bruce Greyson, Telepathy and Mental Illness; Deluge or Delusion? Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease, 1977.

(4) Mark Beddow, Telepathy, Parapsychology, and Psychiatry, 2004.  Hopefully any further research with ‘so called psychotic’ people would be survivor-led, and based upon the principles of co-operative enquiry.  Just listening to and valuing such people’s experiences might be sufficient!

(5) Rupert Sheldrake has some lectures on telepathy online, e.g. here which also has details of his books.