Book: Psychic Literacy

Cover of book “psychic literacy” by Ingo Swann

Gordon White over at Rune Soup interviewed Brian Lord a few months ago, about finding this book in the Ingo Swann archives at the University of West Georgia, US, and arranging it to be published. It was a fascinating interview, so I went off and ordered the book. I’ve just finished reading it. And I’m a little on edge as a result, a little less stable, a little less orderly in my thinking. Or perhaps it’s better to say, I’m a little more reliably less-committed to the traditional views of scientism and materialist perspectives on reality.

First off, I’m not sure that this book matches at all what I expected from the Rune Soup interview. It’s very good, nonetheless, and I’m really glad I read it. But even after a fantastic interview, it’s not what I expected. I’m not sure I know what I expected, but this was not it. It’s better than that.

In the first part of the book, Swann begins by laying out a history that I hadn’t really known — the USSR’s early forays into psychical research, beginning in the 1920s and 1930s almost as soon as the Russian Revolution and subsequent civil war were over; the slow effort in the US to follow what the Russians were doing, and the bewildering dead ends that the US explored, and the numerous examples of private individuals east and west who used psychical capacities to make great fortunes or achieve long-term goals. Some of this is about secret CIA projects, I suspect, but Swann was too deep in the spy game to tell us much about that; instead, he puts the financial backing on unknown clients and bureaucrats, and leaves it at that.

Then, he goes into some of the things that psychics have apparently been able to do: look into the future and see actual events, months and even years ahead of time. He begins to explore the difference between psychic factors and psychic abilities — and noting the differences between our direct sensory systems, and our more indirect sensory systems, which culturally we’re taught to deny or defer. Swann touches on some of the apparent psychic capacities of people before our own era, in what we now think of as ancient history. It’s a full of some sweeping generalities, but he hints at knowing more than he lets on in this relatively small book — and he’s fully prepared to notice that big events in world history are often preceded by psychic alerts that warn folks to get out of Dodge City, as it were. There are some few profiles of incredibly successful modern psychics, and unusual examples of unusual healing factors, to close out this first section of the book.

But then, Swann goes on to try to identify what’s really going on. What is psychism? What’s the difference between psychic energies and psychic forces? What’s the difference between visible and invisible? How do we learn to observe the invisible? What’s fated, what’s destined, and is there a difference? Are there psychic crafts? What’s the relationship between electromagnetism and psychism? Are humans (and by extension, almost any organism) bioelectric in some way? What’s coming in the way of psychic astrology?

For me, there’s a few essential components of this book that bear repeating and publicizing. The first is a warning about the nature of the visible and invisible energies and forces. Swann points out that Jewish Kabbalah, esoteric Christianity, Taoist esoteric traditions, Native American and Aboriginal Australian traditions, western magical traditions, and Islamic occult traditions… and yes, just about any magical or spiritual tradition in the world so wide… provides a particular cultural framework for understanding invisible energies and forces. However, just because there’s a cultural framework for understanding the invisible energies and forces, doesn’t mean that other cultures’ framework is less valid — the energies and forces themselves remain the same regardless of the human who works with them. The framework is for the human to learn to see and work with invisible forces and energies and understand them from a particular cultural perspective — but those energies and forces are not changed by the framework or lens through which we endeavor to see them. They remain as they are, and our lens or filter is just that: a perspective or point of view or framework, but not a perfect capture of what is actually going on. We see something, perhaps, but the view of that something is culturally-dependent — and that culturally-relevant viewpoint, based on the opinions and mindsets of the dominant culture, may be quite dangerously wrong.

The second piece of this is the contrast between invisible energies and forces themselves. Today we use these terms in parallel or as synonyms, but Swann argues (argued? — he wrote this in 1988 or 1989, even though it only got published last year) for a distinction which I think merits attention. Invisible energies are certainly common, and these are life-bringing powers. However, invisible forces are locked up, bound, or directed in some fashion — and these forces can kill you. The real question is can these forces be unbound or diffused or redirected in ways that don’t rebound on you and harm you?

The third piece of this essential wisdom is the notion, first encountered in Soviet science and supported (albeit reluctantly) by later US research and inquiry, that psychic powers are not in fact powers of our minds — that is, psychokinesis or ESP don’t seem to be functions of having certain kinds of brain cells or neural networks arranged in the correct order. Some people are good at these factors or skills or abilities, and some people are bad at them… but it’s not likely to be a function of superior genetics, at least not in the way that we currently understand genetics. Rather, “psychic powers” may a function of physics and of geomagnetic forces — that just as certain birds and plants are aware of lines of geomagnetic force, humans also may exhibit “psychic abilities” based on subtle powers of perception that are connected back to physical properties of the universe that are outside of our own heads. In other words, foresight and soothsaying and remote viewing and ESP and telepathy and clairvoyance and so on — those may not be powers confined to some particularly-unusual brains, but rather properties of biology learning to read patterns of matter and energy in the larger world around us. Swann’s proof of this is the degree to which psychic capacities seem to be dependent either on disruptions in the solar energetic currents, or placidity in the terrestrial energetic currents — sunspots, and patterns/tides of geomagnetic energy that are at least in part affected by the position of the Moon. Days when the Sun is turbulent, for example, are often days that police and hospitals are overwhelmed by unusual human behavior around the globe; and also days on which psychic experiments often failed: the condition of the Sun, and thereby of the Earth, may be the thing that psychic capacities are tuning into — in much the same way that an orchestra attunes their instruments to the sustained note of the first violinist before a concert begins.

This has far-reaching implications, really. If psychic powers are not themselves a function of my own brain, but rather a function of consciousness-in-matter, then it is less the case that I am training my brain to develop specific powers. Instead, I am opening to capacities that I already have, but that I was consciously or unconsciously taught to ignore at an early age. That’s a huge deal — and it aligns with my lived experience of feeling like magical training and practice has done relatively little to improve my abilities, so much as break me of bad habits.

This correlates with the experience of a friend of mine who’s engaged in neuroscience research. He and his colleagues have designed a ‘video game’ for lack of a better word, that instead of hooking up to a controller with buttons, is wired through a set of sensors that are attached to the scalp of your head, and read brain waves. The device treats the brainwaves as the control inputs, that make your spacecraft or racecar or duck in an inner tube on a river (don’t ask) move left or right, go faster or slower, emit clouds of rainbow-hued exhaust (no, I don’t know why a duck needs to exhale rainbow-colored clouds), or fly directly on-course as the path or river bounces up and down (no, I don’t know why the river has to flow up and down).

Here’s the thing about this silly little video game — concentrating on driving makes you go slower. Trying to control moving left or right causes you to steer largely, bouncing off the walls and losing points. Frowning at the screen, trying to intentionally move your vehicle faster, causes the duck to wobble side to side and stop in the middle of the stopped river (no, I don’t know why the river stops flowing).

The inputs from your brainwaves to these little video games also have little divots in them, hiccups in ‘optimum brain function’. The less you try to monitor your own brainwave activity, the faster your duck goes, the brighter the hues of the farts coming out of that little spaceship. The less you try to control or manage these divots or hiccups, the less you try to ‘force’ your little avatar to obey your thought-patterns… the faster it goes.

And the more orderly and relaxed and nuanced your own brain function becomes. Neuroses vanish. Perceptive capacities expand. Habits and nervous tics even out, sometimes even vanish.

Ingo Swann appears to be right, in other words. Psychic powers are not in fact rooted in the mind, and they cannot be improved through concentration and focus, at least not the way that we’ve been conditioned to think of them — as gritted teeth and intense thousand-years stares and rigid and disciplined self-training through rigorous psychic training programs. The programs need to be rigorous, of course — yet the focus needs to be on calming and relaxing the mind, and releasing preconceptions about what will turn on one’s psychic capacities: the source of your psychic capacities is not internal to you, in other words — it belongs to the world around you, and you have to change your point of view from cultivating some inner strength, or power-training some “mental muscle” in a gym, to releasing certain anxieties and neuroses in favor of a more open and receptive view of the world. The very opposite of strength training a mental muscle — not getting ‘mentally ripped’ or ‘psychically shredded’ so your psyche practically bulges with astral and etheric muscles, but the breaking down of the armor and accepting a certain spiritual flabbiness.

What an odd way to think about it — and not Swann’s conception of it at all, I might add, but kind of what I’m feeling as I read.

My final thought as I read Psychic Literacy‘s last chapters, on the psychic arts and crafts like ceremonial magic, astrology, tarot, and the like — is how much Swann is crediting the past with the development of tools of insight and mental relaxation and ‘spiritual flabbiness’ — sortilege techniques like Tarot, i Ching, geomancy, and so on; pattern recognition in astrology and various cyclical time-keeping schemes; de-focusing techniques like crystal gazing, image scrying, and mandala meditation; energy manipulation techniques; and psychic powers… These are “jaws of life” tools meant to pry you free of the kind of consciousness you establish and accept to live in the social milieu you live in, as though we were trapped in a wrecked vehicle at the scene of an accident — not mental strength-training meant to “pump you up!” like a mental Arnold Schwartznegger flaunting his chest and abs in a Conan the Barbarian movie.

For Swann, as for me, the lucidity and perspicuity of psychic powers seems not to come from rigorous training to build up weak psychic skills…. but instead, the rigorous training that effectively break down the tension and neuroses that prevent our strong psychic perceptions from operating at full effectiveness. Our literacy of psychic matters, in other words, requires us to accept that sometimes we will know without knowing why we know, that a certain course of action should be taken, or a certain course of action must be avoided, and trusting completely in that knowledge.

The stories that Swann tells us — as well as my own lived experience — tell me that learning to accept those truths is literally a life-or-death commitment: to go against what society and life and culture and community and parents tell us is normal, in favor of our own foresight and gut instinct that to stay in this house even another hour is to burn alive. Maybe it’s less that we need to bulk up our psychic senses through training; instead, it’s to pull the scales from our third eyes.


  1. I’m just at the point in the book where the US is figuring out something’s up in the early 1970’s.

    It’s distressing that you can literally put this book at the half-way point between Vallee’s _Invisible College_ and Pasulka’s _American Cosmic_…
    …and realize nothing has changed in the Western scientific establishment. Even the timid inroads made by Mindfulness-related consciousness research are facing tremendous pushback.

    The Psychic Renaissance, much like the original one, will be grounded in geopolitics and not scholarship.

  2. I’ve just finished reading 2 Ingo Swann books and have purchased two more – but not this one. I think I will, now. I suspect that much of what we define as divination or psychic skills occurs through the non-local mind. It will be interesting to see if that is what Ingo thought. I appreciate the review; I had put off buying this book because it looked too basic. Now, I think that the second half will be interesting.

  3. However, invisible forces are locked up, bound, or directed in some fashion — and these forces can kill you. The real question is can these forces be unbound or diffused or redirected in ways that don’t rebound on you and harm you?

    Magically, this sounds like the Goetic concept of demonic forces powering creation being controlled, or at least directed, by angelic ones. So until mentalism develops the equivalent of Planetary Intelligences, psychic forces should be assumed to be bad juju.

  4. I had never come across the idea that psychic “powers” happen outside the mind, but it definitely makes sense. There’s a lot to unpack just in your review. I think I’ll get this book! Thanks.

Leave a Reply to Y. Madariaga Cancel reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.