A message to followers of my earlier work

Hello and welcome!

In this blog, I’m focusing on a sea change I made in my work. In 2003, I ended my psychic healing career so that I could return to college and study the social sciences. At that time, I pulled all of the books I controlled out of print (and the wonderful people at Sounds True allowed me to take all of my titles with them out of print too, the excellent humanitarian sweeties).

photo of Your Aura and Your Chakras bookHowever, one book remained. It’s called Your Aura & Your Chakras: The Owner’s Manual, and the publisher of that book didn’t want to let it go.

In July 2010, I added this introductory note to that book:

A note from the author: This book, written in 1997, represents an early version of my work with empathic ability, trauma healing, and the channeling of emotions. I have since moved completely away from metaphysical concepts, and I now understand that my empathic ability is neither psychic nor paranormal. Empathic skills like mine are considered unusual because people are very confused about emotions; strong empathy can look exactly like a psychic skill. However, empathy is a normal attribute present in all humans and many animals.

After a seven-year sabbatical that included extensive research and a degree in the social sciences, I resumed my public career in 2010. My work is now focused on teaching empathic mindfulness skills that help people interpret the messages and gifts inside their emotions so that they can increase their empathy and emotional awareness. While the particulars of my work have changed considerably, the essence is identical now to what it was then: I want all of us to live as intelligently, as compassionately, and as deeply as we can.

I send you many blessings,
Karla McLaren

Okay. I no longer include metaphysical or paranormal concepts in my work, so let’s look at that.

A caveat before you begin

If you’re very invested in paranormal and metaphysical explanations of the world, you get to keep them. I’m not here to change your mind or suggest that you’re not thinking clearly if you believe different things than I do. For me, after more than thirty years in the New Age, I needed to look at alternative explanations for things that have been attributed to paranormal or mystical causes, and this is what my thinking is now. Salud!

It’s been a long and intense decade, and after studying the strong proponents (of paranormalism) and the strong naysayers, I’ve turned away from both positions because I find them to be insufficient. I don’t like polarization in any case, but for a topic as vast and important as this one, I require a more nuanced middle path.

What I’ve found is that focusing on what IS happening during seemingly paranormal experiences is thousands of times more interesting than either believing in them without question or negating them without consideration. If you look at these phenomena with serious, empathic, open-minded, scholarly intent, you find out so much about the brain, the social world, socialization, perception, and human nature itself.

The old paradigms of psychic-vs-fraud, or mystical experience-vs-hallucination are completely unhelpful — because as so many of us know, our seemingly extrasensory perceptions are often amazingly intense, insightful, unusual, wise, funny, and meaningful! These experiences need to be approached phenomenologically, sociologically, anthropologically, empathically, ethnographically, and seriously — but since these two polarized conflict cultures cannot or will not take these approaches, I’ll work on my own!

My approach is not to simply naysay mystical or paranormal experiences or ideas; rather, it is to try to understand what these experiences mean to people emotionally, culturally, and so forth. Also, what do these experiences mean neurologically? What is occurring?

Here’s what I’m thinking now about chakras, the aura, empathic ability, and the meditative skills I developed:

THE CHAKRAS

As I studied the lived experience (mine and others) of the chakras and the aura, I worked to understand and articulate what it is that people sense. I found no authoritative scientific evidence in support of the chakras, but I find it fascinating that the chakras are located at the sites of many of the endocrine glands. How cool it is that ancient peoples discovered something about the endocrine system (centuries before the endocrine glands were identified) and created a framework to understand their bodies and themselves?

I enjoyed working with the chakra framework because it gave people an instant way to begin to tune into themselves on many different levels. By working with the idea of the chakras, people could access information about their emotions, their intellect, their capacity to love and be loved, their communication skills, and so forth. It’s a wonderful way to tune into the knowledge we all have about ourselves, and I found that it could help people become clearer about their inner lives.

Chakra work also helped me to reassociate a psyche (mine) that had been torn apart by early childhood sexual assaults. My early work with other abuse survivors relied heavily on the construct of the chakras as we pulled our fractured and dissociated selves back together. Conventional psychotherapy has nothing similar to this process, and because my work with chakras was essentially somatic (body-based and integrative), it really helped people reintegrate and heal. That’s wonderful.

However, I’ve found that I don’t need the construct of the chakras in order to tune into my inner life now. I can just ask myself about my emotions, my physical health, my intellectual life, my sensual life, my capacity to focus and ground myself … it’s kinda like cutting out the middle man. I question, though, if I could have developed this highly articulated sense of self-awareness without the construct of the chakras? What other construct works this way?

I also found that working with my chakras helped me develop a very strong interoceptive capacity — which is the ability to feel, sense, and be aware of the processes of my body (including hunger, thirst, emotions, pain, thoughts, bodily temperature, etc,). In my April, 2012 issue of Scientific American Mind, I just took a test of interoceptive ability, where you count your own heartbeats simply by feeling and listening (you don’t put your finger on your pulse, you just sit and count), and I found that I was right on the number. I can’t help but think that all of the time I spent meditating on and listening to my body and my chakras helped me develop an excellent sense of my internal milieu.

So although I have left the idea of the chakras behind, there’s a blessing that needs to be given to the idea of the chakras. It was a wonderful idea, and there are huge parts of it that are completely useful!

THE AURA

Fascinatingly, the aura actually does exist, but instead of being a paranormal or energetic concept, it is actually a neurological, sensory, and muscular construct. Your body, your brain, and your musculature create a sense of personal space around you in your every waking and sleeping moment.

There is a wonderful book by science writers Sandra and Matthew Blakeslee called The Body has a Mind of Its Own. It’s about the proprioceptive system that maps our bodies in space and creates our external “peripersonal” space (your proprioceptive system is connected to your interoceptive system; proprioception helps you map and become aware of your peripersonal space, while interoception helps you map and become aware of your interior space).

And as psychologists noted long before body mapping was understood, the peripersonal space we have around us is exactly the size of a healthy aura (18 to 30 inches from the body in all directions). So, like the chakra construct that predated the understanding of the endocrine and interoceptive systems, the aura construct predated the understanding of the peripersonal and proprioceptive systems.

What I’ve noticed in people who work with the construct of the aura is that they often become very body- and space-aware — more graceful, focused, and nimble. This makes sense, since they’re focusing on the system that helps them map their bodies in space. In general, they also become more interpersonally and interactionally aware, because as their sense of self “expands” to that 18- to 30-inch area around themselves (and they learn where they begin and end), they tend to become more sensitive about and responsive to the people in their lives.

Working with the aura has very real positive effects — even though the aura as we once represented it (as a colored energy field that was metaphysical in origin) is not real. What fascinates me is how much truly important psychological healing I and others were able to do with the metaphysical is construct of the aura.

How cool are humans? We have an intelligence that is imaginal in origin (I use the word imaginal rather than imaginary, because clearly, the constructs underlying the aura and the chakras are very real), and imaginal concepts can be mind-blowingly more valid and truthful than merely factual information is.

For instance, if you’ve ever found a perfect analogy or image that represents a difficult-to-explain situation, you’ve accessed your imaginal intelligence. And it is this imaginal intelligence that helped people create the construct of the aura before the peripersonal space was identified. It also helped people create the construct of the chakras before the endocrine system was identified. The imaginal capacity of humans is astounding.

So the skills that I developed worked very much within the imaginal realm that we all utilize and understand intuitively. Meditation and prayer rely upon imaginal  intelligence, as do art, music, dance, drama, fiction, architecture, philosophy, and any sort of visionary work people do.

I’m still using those imaginal skills, especially in the work I do with the emotions. Our emotions respond strongly to nuance, subtext, undercurrent, intention, and the kind of imaginal, underground knowledge we all have about the social world but cannot easily articulate.

EMPATHIC SKILLS

I once thought of empathic skills as psychic or paranormal, because honestly, they can seem nearly magical. Today, I understand empathic skills differently. This definition of empathy is from my new book The Art of Empathy:

Empathy is a social and emotional skill that helps us feel and understand the emotions, circumstances, intentions, thoughts, and needs of others, such that we can offer sensitive, perceptive, and appropriate communication and support.

An empath is someone who is aware that he or she reads emotions, nuance, subtext, undercurrent, intentions, thoughts, social space, interactions, relational behaviors, body language, and gestural language, while a hyper-empath is someone who reads these things to a greater degree than is deemed normal.

When you can read nuance, undercurrent, unsaid words, body language, emotions, context, subtext, and the interactional calculus that exists within and between people, you can seem to be channeling information from some secret realm. In fact, you are — but the secret isn’t mystical or paranormal. Instead, it’s a function of our woefully inadequate emotional and empathic education (if you can even call it that; miseducation or non-education might be better words).

People’s emotions and motivations can be absolutely hidden from them, and people can easily grow up learning about everything BUT their emotions, as the presence of the Wonder Weasels and Lesser Weasels illustrates.

People who are skilled with emotions are very valuable in a culture that is deeply, deeply ambivalent about and confused by emotions. In fact, we pay people to help us understand emotions — not just therapists, counselors, and psychiatrists. We also pay people who can emote skillfully, like actors, writers, musicians, dancers, and artists.

Emotive and empathic skills are very special; they’re just not paranormal — and my work today is about helping people connect to their innate (though usually hidden) emotional and empathic intelligence so that they can share in the secret world of emotional and empathic awareness. It’s fun!

THE MEDITATIVE SKILLS

Cover of The Language of EmotionsAs I returned to my career in 2009 to update my 2001 book Emotional Genius, (this book is now called The Language of Emotions: What Your Feelings Are Trying to Tell You, 2010) I looked very critically at the meditative skills I’ve relied upon throughout my career. These are the focusing, grounding, boundary-creation, self-soothing, emotional-awareness, behavioral-change, and self-replenishing skills that are honestly crucial to well-being.

I didn’t want to approach a topic as potentially difficult as the emotions without a strong set of skills at the ready, so I researched each of my skills in terms of what was actually being accomplished through their use. Luckily, I found that most of them were valid, and that none required metaphysical or paranormal constructs. Yay! I now call them the empathic mindfulness skills.

The grounding and focusing skills I teach are very useful ways to access your interoceptive abilities, as are my skills burning contracts, channeling your emotions, and rejuvenating yourself with peaceful and revitalizing sensations. Self-calming and self-awareness skills are vital to your health and your relationships.

And the work I now do with the proprioceptive territory (which I once thought of as the aura) is fundamental to helping people become self- and other-aware. These skills help people become capable of working imaginatively and truly empathically with their emotions, thoughts, ideas, and behaviors. Excellent!

So I’ve refocused my work and removed the paranormal and metaphysical aspects, because they’re not necessary.

More importantly, I don’t want people to have to set aside their logical and scientific capacities so that they can access my work on emotions and empathy. I’d rather they were thinking with all parts of themselves. It’s more fun anyway!

So that’s the story in 2012, and I’m continuing my research into emotions, empathy, education, communication, autism and neurodiversity, micro-sociology, linguistic anthropology, disability studies, and the “hidden curriculum” of social expectations we all have for each other but can’t quite articulate.

For me, leaving behind my metaphysical and paranormal beliefs was quite a shock at first. But now that I have a framework for understanding those beliefs, I’m having a great deal of excellent fun studying them, thinking about them, and reframing them. Yeeha!

I send you non-binding and non-denominational blessings of every kind.

Cheers,

Karla

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21 Comments

Filed under Empathy, Metaphysics, New Age

21 responses to “A message to followers of my earlier work

  1. Phoenix Amrita

    I respect your work and your current path. I do wish that all of your older books were as readily available as the newer one. Rebuilding the Garden for one, is something I’m having to pay an arm and a leg for to order out of print. And I know I need that book. All of your work is valuable and deeply healing.

    • Thank you Phoenix. I may have to look at that book again in terms of rewriting it to reflect my current understanding. The work was valid, even if my framework was shaky. And I have to say, the people who are charging a lot of money for the book are creepy. Just so you know, none of that money gets to me.

      Hmmm, I wonder if I want to maybe turn it into an e-book and thereby cut out the pirates? Invisible hand of the market might need to get slapped by me!!

  2. Gordon

    This promises to be an important and fruitful avenue of pursuit! Integration between science and spirituality is what is needed now to create a unified humanistic vision of our identity.

  3. Hi Karla,

    Just came here from your very welcome comment on Romer’s post about leaving skepticism. I agreed so much with it, although I have never considered myself a member of either of the communities from which, I now see, you have walked away to your new viewpoint!

    And a very interesting viewpoint it is, productive too. You can continue practicing, helping something like the same audience, and shutting out the unnecessary namecalling. Your right brain work gives the “other half” of the materialist paradigm, or could be looked at that way — and as you point out, those who do still take what you call the “metaphysical” seriously could still find your work beneficial. You’ve got some very neat dovetails with modern research that I hadn’t seen, and I think few have. So thanks!

    I also went throught a long period of questioning. But mine centred on modern spirituality in general, as a social phenomenon (not just new age) — I’d found it as falsehood-prone and gullible as you had.

    But I had always been rather outside it, and had known many people who were both scientific and spiritually experienced, so had never seen a line between spiritual and physical. As a result of this, and my social-history viewpoint, our experiences of researching New Age academically were very different! I found many academic books that were indeed very far from either/or-ish — and I saw lots of very careful academic work on the nature of New Age for example, some if interested are in this post — there are others.

    Looking at your earlier series on the interactions with Carroll and so forth, I do find there’s a lot of distance between us. Skepdic is very far from being reliable — the viewpoint is far too skewed. A person can give references for their viewpoint without their viewpoint being trustworthy as a position! (Selective citation.) The “New Age Energy” question, for instance, is scientifically very far from where Carroll would see it — and yes, I can counter-cite! :) I’ve never had much problem finding some evidence and I hope you’ve had a chance to look at citations from both sides… the evidence=materialist, metaphysical=non-evidential dualism can be a bit of a black hole.

    Skepticism and post-1980s popular New Age are indeed “oil and water” in one sense, but in another they’re joined at the hip by their enmity — just as mediumism and psychical debunking were from the start. There never was any chance of peace or real dialogue between them, but also, each is as potentially unreliable and distorted as the other.

    One mustn’t forget that some people’s transpersonal experiences do seem to go beyond the material, conclusively to them, whether provably as yet or not. This doesn’t make your work on the materialist end of the psychic any less valuable! It’s just that your own experiences aren’t the only experiences.

    I have a large series beginning on my blog soon, about the past/present/future of the “Spiritual But Not Religious” concept. I think you may be featuring in it somewhere! Thanks for the stimulating thoughts.

    • Thanks Jason, yes, I agree with your concerns about the skeptical culture. I find the output of the cultural skeptics to be often broad but not deep, and though a few social scientists are gaining some ascendancy with in the culture, there is a reactive avoidance of the social sciences that absolutely impedes fuller understanding and the capacity to do serious internal cultural critique. I’ve seen a number of histories of the culture, and due to the outsider and conflict-culture stance, it is understandable yet frustrating to see that these tend to veer toward unselfaware hagiographies rather than truly critical documents. Of course, the same is true in the metaphysical culture, because as dueling conflict cultures, they tend to mirror one another and hold each other’s shadows.

      I inferred or leaned a bit toward this in the piece Why I am not a psychic — or a skeptic. But I haven’t yet felt comfortable with complete truth telling about either culture.

      My thinking continues to evolve, but I’m not ready to move forward to the next public stage yet, because I have a lot more research to do. I’m in grad school right now, focusing on education, empathy, autism, and neurological diversity, but I’m also looking at an anthropologist at Stanford who just did a big study on people who learn how to speak directly to god — and her approach is magnificent. The ethnographic approach with a full understanding (or as full as we are currently capable) of the social and neurological constructs underlying the intense experiences and unusual skills in (for instance) visions is, to my eyes, the best way to truly explore what’s happening. As a person with extremely strong visionary capacity and supersense, as Bruce Hood terms it, I’m very interested in taking a sober and very deep look at what’s occurring.

      I’m also doing a lot of background work in the new age, helping people who have been injured by some of the frankly ungrounded practices – so there is definitely more to say. However, the approach on both sides, and even the approaches that try to bridge them, are insufficient in my eyes. So the work moves ever onward.

      Thanks for the link to your work. I’ll take a look when I have a break from research and writing!

      • The research sounds very intriguing! I don’t suppose you’d consider posting a little more about it at intervals here? :) I’d be very interested in the insufficiencies you see and what you’re doing about them. I’d also be interested in anyone else’s work you think is worthwhile in some similar area. Perhaps a list of links to papers from time to time?

        When it comes to histories of New Age my point (and link) was not to show my own work, but to give some other careful and balanced approaches to the culture of spirituality, including critiques, that I found on my search — they might interest you. Some very literate things (culturally and scientifically) from within the milieu, eg:

        Reimagination of the World: A Critique of the New Age, Science, and Popular Culture — Spangler/Thompson
        .
        … and some from academia:

        Spiritualities of Life: New Age Romanticism and Consumptive Capitalism — Heelas

        I think the contributions of William Irwin Thompson (who of course is a distinguished academic himself) to the first book are particularly interesting. The talks date back to the 80s and foresee a lot of the problems “New Age” has now, which shows there have been people awake all through it.

        More at the link if it is helpful, if not, no worries! Best wishes for your research, which I will be very interested to see… J

      • Thanks Jason. Things that have been useful, insightful, and fascinating: Bruce Hood’s Supersense, which explores the neurological underpinnings of many paranormal experiences, wonderful.

        Paranormal Beliefs: A Sociological Introduction by Erick Goode (love sociology!).

        Religion Explained by Pascal Boyer (a nice cross-cultural and anthropological survey of religious, metaphysical, and paranormal beliefs).

        After God by Don Cupitt (a lovely book).

        And of course, Phantoms in the Brain by V.I. Ramachandran, a classic.

        For me, the direction is to look at these experiences through anthropological, sociological, neurological, and social psychological lenses and then observe discrete cultural explanations in terms of how the ideas arose, how they changed over time, and how other cultures explain the same phenomenon. It’s such a mind-expanding journey — and it’s not quick!

        Oh, the woman at Stanford is Tanya Luhrmann, and I just ordered her book When God Talks Back. I’m really excited to read it!

  4. Good stuff Karla, will check it out! Thanks.

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  6. Jo

    I want to say thank you. I am glad you are continuing to allow yourself to grow and flourish. I just listened to your audiobook on energetic boundaries. As a person growing towards metaphysical explanations, in my career as an empathic massage therapist, from a very science and psychology background, I find it lovely that you are growing the other direction. Blessings.

  7. Rick Belden

    Hi Karla,
    Back in 2004, I suffered a ruptured appendix that nearly killed me and resulted in a financial crisis that ultimately led to bankruptcy. At the same time, I was also beset with both internal conditioning and external messages from friends (all of it courtesy of New Age thinking) that I had somehow “created” or “manifested” the entire situation. My unwillingness to accept what I found to be an extremely unhealthy and downright harmful (not to mention illogical) explanation for my ordeal led me to break with the New Age and also led me to your blog post about your own break with the New Age back in 2003. I saved that post, still have it, and have referred back to it many times since.

    I pulled your 2003 post up again this morning because I’m dealing with a pretty bad back injury and once again find myself getting messages from well-meaning friends and healers to the effect that my injury was an act of “self-sabotage” and “success avoidance” which is apparently the current version of the “you created it” line of thinking.

    As before, I do not find this sort of “caring” assignment of blame at all helpful when I’m suffering, injured, struggling, and vulnerable. What I can wholeheartedly accept is that I injured myself because I made a bad decision in the moment and got hurt. That bad decision was driven by a complex of unhealthy conditioning I received growing up, conditioning that I’m still in the process of identifying, unraveling, unlearning, and repatterning. Hearing that my problem is “self-sabotage” and “success avoidance” doesn’t help me a bit in my physical healing and recovery, nor does it make me feel at all understood, encouraged, or supported in the very real ongoing work I need to do to make better, healthier decisions for myself in the future.

    In any case, apologies for the very long comment. It is intended as a thank-you for your post from 2003, which I am still finding helpful today. I decided to look you up today and: wow! This is my first exposure to how your work has evolved since I ran across your post in 2004, and it’s so amazing to see what you’ve created. It is needed. I am looking to move my own work into the area of helping other men develop and maintain healthy connection with their emotional energy and look forward to exploring the material you’ve made available on that subject.

    Again, thank you and congratulations on all your great work since I first saw your “extended sabbatical” blog post in 2003.

    • Oy, my eyes are bleeding reading all of the nonsense your “caring” friends subjected you to, Rick! Bravo for finding and relating to something far more grounded.

    • Hello Rick, and welcome! I empathize with your experience, man! It’s everywhere here in Northern California; I think that blaming people for their physical condition is a feature of citizenship. I think there’s a test!

      Something I remembered as I read your piece: Back when I was fully immersed in the alternative medicine ideology, there was a lot of nonsense about emotions causing every disease. In the Chinese medicine tradition I was a part of, each emotion had its own meridian or organ, so if you were angry, you were a “liver person,” or something like that.

      You couldn’t just be angry because you were angry; it had to be pathologized and tied into some aspect of your poor self care, your messed-up meridians, or your imperfect diet. Lots of blaming you, especially if your ailment didn’t get fixed after whatever treatment was in vogue at the time.

      Blaming the patient is one of the ways I now know I’m in the territory of quackery (not to mention abuse) and charlatanry.

      I was in a biology course back in the 1990s, and we were reading about tree galls and burls — which are basically tree tumors. Some can be caused by fungi, injury, freezing, or insects, but some are just uncontrolled growth areas in a tree — and in some species, if a tree forms enough of them, it will die. I almost stood up in class and yelled “I call bullshit!” because the belief system in my community was that tumors and cancers were caused by your emotions. Which, of course, are your fault. But trees don’t have resentments or emotions or karma or any of that. It was one of the many pieces of real science that helped me wake up and start challenging the damaging information I was being fed.

      I’m sorry that the people in your life have been fed such unsupportive beliefs and ideas. It’s painful to be in pain, and then to have people not only not empathize, but blame and shame you. However, if you read my Missing The Solstice series, it may bring you relief to know that, at the very least, you don’t imagine that your back pain was caused by an angry invisible alien from the nonexistent city of Atlantis. Because who would believe that??? ;)

  8. Rick Belden

    Thanks, Karla. Those trees need to get it together and stop sabotaging themselves! They are clearly afraid of success.

    I think “damaging information” as you put it, rather than ill intent, is at the heart of what I’ve experienced. It’s the folks I know who consider themselves highly empathic who’ve laid the New Age “caring blame” on me. The problem isn’t that they aren’t empathic. The problem is that, in the course of trying to make sense of their own empathic natures, they’ve been fed the kind of damaging information you mentioned and that’s what comes back out.

    This is why I’m so happy to see the direction your work has taken. Hopefully it can help to counter some of the bad conditioning people have received that blocks them from responding in a truly helpful manner.

    • I think there might be some money in us getting together to do Tree Success Seminars! We could charge the Forest Service scads of money!

      oof, the New Age explanations of empathy were, sadly, partly my doing. It’s why I left. I was horrified to realize that my ideas about empathy being a psychic skill were so wrong. I’ve been working for years to reframe empathy, but the magical psychic descriptions are still very much in vogue.

      I understand why; it’s mysterious; it makes people feel special; and it helps people explain away rather than face their sensitivities and lack of boundaries. I also saw in the alternative medicine and New Age community that a great number of the behaviors and ideas existed primarily to protect people from feeling the pain of others, and from feeling the pain of cognitive dissonance.

      With all that repression going on inside them, it’s hard for people to be truly available to anyone. It’s so sad! These are in general a loving, well-meaning, and visionary group of people who want the world to be a better place. I look upon them with love and grief now, though I was angry and offended for quite a few years. In the immortal words of the Firesign Theater, “I think we’re all just bozos on this bus.”

      • Darn all that damaging information. It’s a pet peeve of mine. I had to end a dinner recently when someone started spouting that stuff and couldn’t stop. They were literally stuck.

        I so understand the love and grief you mention. It’s how I felt when I reached out to a woman I considered a kindred soul when a mutual friend of ours tried to take his life as a cry for help. When she said, “Just breathe, all is well” I declared, “um, no, it’s not.” I’ve chosen a completely different type of intimate circle of friends every since.

      • Rick Belden

        Definitely agree with this: “a great number of the behaviors and ideas existed primarily to protect people from feeling the pain of others, and from feeling the pain of cognitive dissonance.” Well said.

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