The Nightshirt Sightings, Portents, Forebodings, Suspicions

Psi of Regret: Pitfalls of Prophecy from Patanjali to Paul Muad’Dib

It’s been over twenty years since I last read Dune, but inspired partly by the phenomenal documentary Jodorowsky’s Dune, I recently re-read Frank Herbert’s masterpiece and a few of the sequels. Although the latter are uneven, I need hardly say that Dune itself holds up magnificently. It is still the one novel I would put in the hands of a teenager—even more than anything by Tolkien (even though Tolkien’s “literary worth” is probably greater)—because of the priceless seeds the book planted in me when I was the age of its main character, Paul. (For instance, “the first lesson of all was the basic trust that he could learn. It’s shocking to find how many people do not believe they can learn …”—that’s a powerful message every adolescent needs to hear and I am ever thankful I paid attention; and the “litany against fear” was incalculably important to me.)

Although the Dune books are about many things, it is sometimes forgotten (amid praise for Herbert’s world-building and his anticipation of American-Mid-East relations in the 70s and beyond) that they are significantly about seeing the future; the sequels, particularly, are basically an extended thought experiment about the siddhi of precognition and the pitfalls of prophecy. Thus I couldn’t help read them now in the light of my interest in psi research and the nexus of science fiction and the human potential movement being newly examined by writers and scholars like Jeffrey Kripal (whose Mutants and Mystics and Authors of the Impossible I can’t recommend highly enough).

According to Kripal, the notion that humans are on the threshold of the next phase in our evolution and that psychic abilities will be a big part of it is an idea that goes back to Frederic Myers in the late 19th century. Myers likened our nascent psychic powers to the “imaginal characters” or structures present in a caterpillar that hint at its future transformation into an aerial being. This imminent metamorphosis has remained a dominant meme pervading comic books, of course, most famously in the X-men, not to mention sci-fi visionaries from Alfred Bester to Herbert to Philip K. Dick.

But despite the democratizing impulse in modern writers on psi, like Russell Targ and Dean Radin, who emphasize that we all have latent psi abilities that we can develop if we choose, it is important to bear in mind some important social and maybe even evolutionary reasons why certain forms of psi—especially precognition—are not already more widespread than they are, why they may actually not be part of our species’ birthright, and why they may even not be such a great idea in the larger scheme of things. Herbert keyed in on some of these reasons in his novels; the ancient yogis like Patanjali keyed in on others.

Muddying the Waters

A rarely considered pitfall of prescience that Herbert used brilliantly as a plot device in Dune Messiah is that if more than one individual can see the future, it tends to negate both of their abilities. In a conspiracy to assassinate Paul Muad’Dib, the plotters involve in their plans a Guild Steersman, whose spice-induced oracular vision effectively cloaks the whole affair from Paul’s mental futurescape.

The reason for this effect is simple when you think about it: If precognition is not seeing the future as such but seeing some vague and shifting topography of possibilities in a butterfly-effect universe (as Herbert sort of characterizes it), then the possibility and usefulness of foresight become radically limited once it becomes shared by others. A glimpse of the landscape of future possibilities by one freely willed being capable of altering that future must inevitably muddy the temporal waters for other precogs/prophets.

When you start to multiply the number of people with oracular vision (and thus freedom to alter what they see through even minor actions), then the seen, malleable future breaks down rather quickly. Even a few rival seers would tend to negate each others’ powers; if a whole species could exercise prescient abilities, the time stream would become a hopelessly opaque and deceptive mush. In such a state of affairs, there would clearly be diminishing utility in being able to see the future at all. You would be better off blind to all but the present and past, so as not to be distracted by prophetic information that was probably wrong.

Restraining Bolts

There is a paranoid belief that someone or some force is keeping us down psychically, keeping us unaware of our true natures and working to thwart the development of our true ESP capabilities. Remote-viewing inventor Ingo Swann confided to Jacques Vallee in 1979 that “There’s a non-human system that keeps the human race under observation to make sure it doesn’t develop psychically … You become aware of the barriers erected by this system as soon as you try to develop your psychic abilities.” This seems to be a standard Gnostic suspicion, echoed in comic book mythologies: Extraterrestrials or Archons fear our psychic potential and have thus installed some kind of restraining bolt in our minds. The sense of some ancient psychic lock being blown off or removed, opening floodgates of forbidden information, seems like a common sentiment among the psychically awakened—for instance Philip K Dick in his 2-3-74 experience, or the Scientology-steeped remote viewers at SRI (it’s all about “clearing blockages”).

But evolution itself (social if not biological) provides ample reason why such mutations or experiences may not herald some new evolutionary phase in human development and why the forces of psychic inhibition may be far more mundane (and even beneficial) than Swann suspected. Because of the Dune Messiah logic I mentioned, there may be completely natural, homeostatic mechanisms working to limit our cognitive receptivity to future events or possibilities, causing such a sensitivity to atrophy and be selected against in the population. There would be social pressures not to be precognitive, and we might even evolve some kind of biological blinder mechanism to block it out, on the model of Bergson’s reducing valve.

I don’t have any insight into what the biological/genetic basis for precognition or its inhibition might be, but the social mechanisms inhibiting foresight and prophecy are plain enough. Ostracism, persecution, and violence against people accused of witchcraft and sorcery are still endemic in many societies and surely go back to the dawn of history. Witch-killings are still rampant in many parts of the world. A leader of a Papua New Guinea village I visited in the early 1990s had spent time in jail for disemboweling a suspected sorcerer with a machete; it still happens all the time in that country. It doesn’t matter that in most such cases—as in Europe in the Middle Ages or in early America—“witchcraft” was a broad brush with which to tar all kinds of personal enemies and social outcasts, such as the old, the poor, and women. The point was, it was a serious deterrent to deviance of all kinds, including psychic deviance.

Societies provide strict, narrow social channels to a career in prophecy, such as the accepted shamanic paths that exist in traditional cultures, and it’s a dangerous career: You better be damn sure you are perceived as using your powers for healing, not harming. The threat of ostracism and violence must act as a powerful check on “developing your ESP abilities” (i.e., having truck with the spirit world) if you live in a traditional community.

In our enlightened society, psi-inhibition takes less disturbing forms, namely rabid skepticism and materialism and ridicule of the paranormal. But even if it is less violent than traditional social controls, such ridicule is still a very powerful deterrent. Writers encouraging people to develop their remote viewing abilities, like Targ, emphasize that simple “permission” to remote view is a crucial first step. Even those intellectually persuaded of the possibility and eager to learn often have massive unconscious inhibitions that get in the way.

Thus, there is no need to invoke non-human, extraterrestrial, or Archonic interference to explain lack of widespread psi ability: Social expectations that psi not only does not exist but that it is actually ridiculous do a fine job of keeping people from peering into the future.

Prophet Motives

There’s an interesting kicker of course: The more “beyond the pale” psi and prophecy become, the more effective they would be for those able and brave enough to exercise these abilities. Even if the barriers against psi were rooted in our genes, chance and mutation would dictate that enhanced precognitive ability would arise from time to time; although there could be no group, society, let alone species of prescients, there might be a rare individual, a mutant who saw the future and capitalized on it. A prevailing present- and past-mindedness in the masses would create a relatively unmuddied futurescape navigable by a gifted individual able to capitalize on the herd’s future-blindness. Indeed, through this evolutionary logic, those who benefit the most from the social suppression of prophecy would be the prophets themselves.

There are good analogies to this in evolutionary biology, one of them being sociopathy. Because we are socially dependent animals and society is built on trust, humans have evolved to essentially trust each other. It’s a very sound long-term evolutionary strategy, but it also makes us vulnerable to occasional manipulators who are able to cynically capitalize on that trust. Such individuals only arise at relatively low levels in the population, because when there are too many untrustworthy people in a community, people stop trusting, and the community breaks down. But when they arise, they tend to rise to the top. (Research shows many CEOs and politicians are sociopaths, for example.)

Prophecy might work the same way, as a “frequency dependent, socially parasitic strategy” (to quote George Dvorsky in an article on sociopaths). Despite the “democratizing” impulse of contemporary psi teachers and enthusiasts, some of these talents may only work if they are rare and most people don’t practice them or don’t believe in them. There are various ways in which the paranormal erects a barrier between the herd and an elect, and this is one of them—another variant of what I call the “anamorphic wedge” that seems to operate in other domains like UFOs.

I’ve argued previously that there’s a dark elitist undercurrent to sci-fi Gnosticism that can be seen plainly in its most famous manifestation, Scientology: L. Ron Hubbard was the Ayn Rand of psychic human potential, preaching pure selfishness with a sci-fi twist. From what it is possible to glean of its methods, I don’t doubt their efficacy. It was in an out-of-body experience during early Scientology training that Pat Price’s formidable psychic abilities, dormant for a half century of life, awakened: “I was asked to sit down and look at some other guy for period of time and do nothing. After about three minutes I found myself outside of my body, looking at him looking at me. It was very interesting.” (John L. Wilhelm’s excellent 1976 book The Search for Superman is a great resource on Price, Swann, and the SRI work with Uri Geller.)

The superpower benefits that arise through Scientology training may not be accidentally related to the clear and obvious drawbacks of that lifestyle: Namely, intellectual isolation and social ostracism as a result of being, lets face it, kind of an asshole. Scientology training includes exercises (like the one Price mentioned) designed specifically to break down or cleanse the participant of social anxieties and emotions that we possess for a reason, thus turning the “operating Thetan” into an intense, intimidating, “aggressive” savant who may not thrive outside the company of other Scientologists. Real X-men could potentially look a lot like them: out of touch and megalomaniacal, but with some authentic supernormal abilities as a kind of grim consolation prize.

Fear is the mind-killer…

Despite lifelong skepticism, I have become persuaded of the reality of psi in general and of precognition in particular. Once you take even the slightest interest in the subject, fate provides ample confirmation in the form of uncanny premonitions and synchronicities. Having followed J.W. Dunne’s protocol in An Experiment with Time, I have confirmed to my own satisfaction (which seems all anyone can ever hope for in parapsychology) that his thesis is correct: In any given week of faithfully recorded dreams, a consistent minority of dream elements encode future experiences, usually of the subsequent day but occasionally farther out, exactly the same way the majority of dream elements encode recent past experiences—and through exactly the same “art of memory” logic I have described elsewhere. In dreams we are remembering the future as well as the past. Hypnagogic imagery and voices are also a rich source of precognitive material, and plain-old remote viewing of tomorrow’s New York Times can also produce interesting results.

Invariably in my case, these bits of future information are fragmentary and useless from the standpoint of planning or guidance. I’m no prophet—and I’m not sure I’d really want to be. Another “inhibitory” function I’ve discovered in my venturing imperfectly down the psi path is simple existential fear. While omnisicence and expanded consciousness sound totally awesome to my inner 10-year-old, I’ve discovered that my outer 47-year-old is deeply fearful of learning too much about the future. There are too many dark terrors that objectively lie in wait for us all—illness and death of self and loved ones are biggies—and the temptation to dwell unproductively on ominous signs (like a strange cough or unfamiliar pain) is great enough at times without the added burden of trying to decipher scary symbols and portents gained through psi channels. Among the siddhis described by Patanjali is the yogi’s ability to see his/her own death. No thanks.

Because the energy of psychic phenomena is trauma (as Frederic Myers discerned in the 19th century), it makes sense that death and destruction would be dominant themes in our prophecies. And sure enough, the bulk of my precognitive dream material does concern something at least slightly negative, usually just uncomfortable or unpleasant social experiences but also news of crimes, disasters, or death. This focus on the negative gives rise to an ironic and unwholesome logic: The eagerness for psi to work or to confirm your own powers causes one not only to focus on negatives but even at times to hope for them—for example, having a strange dream about a certain celebrity and then eagerly checking some news site to see if they died or have been involved in some scandal. Obviously, “eagerness to find out someone died” is not at all a congenial frame of mind to be in if you aspire to be a spiritual or positive person.

Thus I think there really is some way in which precognition is “toying with dark forces,” although it isn’t anything as grandiose as “opening up doorways to other worlds” or awakening evil or Tricksterish energies (even if those are real too). It’s simply a matter of reinforcing unwholesome aspects of the ego—plain old negativity, which is bad karma (and unhealthy) no matter how you look at it.

I suspect all these factors may have played into ancient teachers’ disinterest in the siddhis and into modern teachers’ reluctance to discuss them. Patanjali warned not to get attached to superpowers in your meditative practice, and he’s not just talking about showing off (as Radin suggests in his book Supernormal). Attachment itself is the root of suffering; attachment to psi may bring its own unique sufferings and doubts that are simply not wholesome to harbor, such as those I’ve mentioned. So, while the 10-year-old me is incredibly glad that the paranormal and supernormal are gaining legitimacy through the work of Kripal, Targ, Radin, and others, I also would hope that we not lose sight of our basic humanity in our quest to become superhuman. Sometimes it’s also awesome to be (merely) normal.


I am a science writer and armchair Fortean based in Washington, DC. Write to me at eric.wargo [at]

6 Responses to “Psi of Regret: Pitfalls of Prophecy from Patanjali to Paul Muad’Dib”

  • Eric,

    I thoroughly enjoyed this post. I am a volunteer at the Rhine Research Center and get to work and discuss with many psychics and scientists about this very topic. Between you and me, I have come to the conclusion that natural selection has built in limitations to PSI. In evolution, too much of a good thing is a bad thing. I also have the hunch, just from casual observation, that there is a natural “doubt” or blind-spot to taking PSI seriously.
    Anyway, your article is very informative and entertaining, and I look forward to diving into your other posts, and following up on a book or two you mentioned that I have not heard of before. Again, thank-you.

  • Thanks, Benton. What an interesting volunteer gig. I totally agree with you about the natural doubt/blind spot. It’s very pervasive and powerful.

  • It seems to me that sometimes we get in a trap of the materialism paradigm when considering our future evolution. We always portray these changes as changes directly to humans and their ability to navigate and direct nature or reality. Yet if we were to consider that nature and reality themselves were just manifestations of consciousness, then it would be possible just to change the laws of nature or the possibilities humans possess within reality by changing reality itself.

    Because we consider ourselves to be linked by an objective external reality, rather than by internal subjective consciousness, then so it is, perhaps. Our collective beliefs, in my worldview, create reality. Perhaps our evolution is to gain the collective belief system which allows us to experience independent individual overlapping realities.

    We already have a great model for this, dreams. In dreams we are able to experience a far greater number of potentialities and realities than in our waking lives, because that world is subjective. And yet we can still connect with the people, places, things, experiences, etc. of our waking lives; and so much more.

    I believe the evolution of humanity is to ‘soften’ this objective reality to make it more malleable to a greater bumber of possible experiences, phenomena and knowledge. We do not need no steenkin’ superpowers where we are creating!

    But that is just one guerilla pedagogue talking.

  • Thanks for your comment, Joshua. I tend to agree. Much as part of me loves the “developing superpowers” idea, I do think that the Gnostic/sci-fi-X-men vision is latently materialistic (in a sort of neurotic, angry way) and that “softening” objective reality (beginning by altering our perceptions) seems like a better approach, or at least a better attitude or metaphor. To that end I’m a big fan of dreamwork, as well as meditation. (Magic would be another avenue, I should think, though I’ve not really explored it.) Certainly you can approach the psi stuff with such an attitude (as Russell Targ does).

  • Every method is a glimpse at a single angle of an infinitely complex shape! 🙂