For the month of October, Bustle's #blessed series will explore how young women are searching for meaning, finding connections to a higher power and navigating spirituality in 2017.
Did you wait until you were sure no one was looking over your shoulder before you clicked on this article? Are you reading this with one eye on the door, lest a partner, parent, or coworker come in, look over at your screen, raise an eyebrow, and chide, " Developing your psychic abilities, huh?" How did I know? Call it intuition.
Just kidding! I knew, because in the U.S., admitting that you think psychic phenomena might be real — or even that you've had moments of inexplicable intuition — is about as taboo as admitting you think Bigfoot looks pretty sexy. This is true despite the fact that more than half of Americans believe in psychic phenomena and abilities, according to a 2002 CBS poll (we have to assume that that's greater than the amount of Americans who are horny for Bigfoot, though CBS did forget to ask about that in their poll). I also knew from my own life. I've been curious about the idea of psychic phenomena, intuition, and knowing the unknowable since I was a kid — which means I've spent almost three decades having people tell me, "Psychics? You believe in psychics? Wow, I thought you were way smarter than that."
And as I sit in my room, practicing exercises that are supposed to help me increase my intuition and tap into my psychic abilities, I'm also practicing my poker face, so I can look calm and collected when my loved ones discover me and begin rolling their eyes once more.
I want access to my intuition so I can better pursue my riskiest creative dreams, not so I can decide whether to take the express or local bus.
Why is belief in any sort of psychic phenomena so taboo? Over the past half-decade, the topic has surged in popularity: countless websites focused on young women have added coverage of tarot card readings and hip psychic mediums; aura photography has become popular with celebrities like Gwyneth Paltrow, and an increasing number of smart, accomplished young women I know consider their annual consultation with their psychic as crucial an appointment as their Well Woman exam.
But you wouldn't guess this from reading coverage of the subject in major publications like the New York Times, which typically focuses on criminals who defrauded customers while posing as psychics, or how police departments should stop talking to psychics in missing person cases. Even positive takes, like Claire Bidwell Smith’s 2015 piece for the New York Times about the potential value that psychic mediums who can “speak” to the dead have for the grieving, need to end with the author firmly declaring themselves still a skeptic. The fact that smart, caring, responsible people believe in "this stuff" (as your dad probably calls it) and remain smart, caring, and responsible, is one that we, as a society, have a tough time reconciling with.
But what do we even mean when we say "psychic," anyway? Though the word might summon cartoonish images of someone with the ability to ascertain winning lottery numbers, today's modern psychics (some of whom call themselves "intuitives," or use both terms) focus on the more subtle concept of intuition — the experience of knowing something without "knowing" why (say, that a certain route home might be dangerous, or that you shouldn't go into business with a person who sounds totally great on paper).
And they want us to know that they're not special recipients of a mystical gift — they believe that psychic abilities, in the form of intuition, are an inherent human ability and a muscle anyone can develop. As intuitive, psychic medium and transformation coach Betsy LeFae tells Bustle, “Everybody is intuitive. You know you're intuitive if you have a body.”
Of course, intuition is not a concept that exists only within the spiritual world: in recent years, scientific researchers have conducted numerous studies on the subject, including a 2016 study out of Australia’s University of New South Wales, which was publicized as the first to specifically measure a subject's intuition. Business blogs, mainstream religious writers, and women’s interest sites all run articles on the topic of developing your intuition, and offer fairly similar tips on what to expect and how to cultivate it: Chicken Soup for the Soul author Jack Canfield’s blog states that “You may receive visual messages, such as images that appear in quick flashes or visions that unfold slowly, like a movie,” while business site Inc. suggests a daily three-minute meditation to get in better touch, and Oprah.com advises setting aside “quiet time to connect with your inner self.” Almost all of them suggest that you take the term "gut feeling" literally and examine how your stomach feels in various situations.
Are psychics and scientific researchers just talking about the same experience in different ways? Perhaps. But when it comes to explaining what exactly you’re doing when you quiet your mind and look inward, the groups break pretty sharply. Scientific researchers tend to believe that intuition is simply a mental process — as Joel Petersen, associate professor of psychology at the University of New South Wales and one of the lead authors of the 2016 study, wrote, intuition is "all about learning to use unconscious information in your brain." This perspective can lead scientific researchers to frame intuition as a good tool, but one of limited usefulness; Ben Newell, a associate professor of cognitive psychology who also works at University of New South Wales, wrote in 2013 that intuition can be "a good guide" in familiar situations, but that we should probably steer clear of trusting our guts when we're doing something brand new.
This, of course, flies in the face of what most of us are looking to our intuition for — I mean, I want access to my intuition so I can better pursue my riskiest creative dreams, not so I can decide whether to take the express or local bus. And according to University of Arizona psychologist and Deep Creativity: Inside the Creative Mystery author Victor Shamas, Ph.D., looking at intuition this way can stand in the way of truly understanding it: "How we choose to explain intuition matters. Those who claim that intuition is nothing but unconscious cognition are underestimating and even misrepresenting this capacity." Shamas (who only spoke with me about intuition, not psychic abilities) tells Bustle that, in his experiences as a creativity researcher, "Intuitive knowledge is not generated through our five senses, our memories of the past, or our ability to think and reason. There seems to be another source at play."
The psychics I spoke with also conceived of intuition as a spiritual experience, one that was applicable to all of life's arenas, which didn't shock me; but I was surprised to find that, more than anything, their ideas about intuition framed it as a feminist undertaking of radical self-care, acceptance, and trust.
Joy Lin, an intuitive, healer, and medium who works with a group called Evolutionary You, also tells Bustle that “everyone’s psychic.” “I come from a practice that I believe everyone is intuitive and it's in the form of a gut feel or guardian angel, however you want to call, a higher self,” says Lin. “Whether they connect to it or not, and they listen to it, is a different story.”
But according to Lin, the most important element of connecting with your intuition isn't meditating or looking for coincidences in your day; it's making sure your life doesn't get totally out of whack:
Lin seemed to be honing in on why so many young career women I knew are obsessed with psychics and other forms of supernatural-seeming guidance: We're fried. We've overextended ourselves trying to simultaneously figure out our own lives while keeping everyone else happy, and we no longer have any idea what the hell we're doing with our lives.
I felt nothing but terror at the idea of telling a stranger my impressions of a random tarot card. I choked.
When you don't trust yourself to make decisions, Lin adds, “you go to the psychic, you go to a reader, you go to a medium, you go to your friends and say, ‘What do you think?’ But it's not their life, it's yours." But the problem isn't that you're asking for a prediction; it's that "you're not connected to yourself to know what you want and what's good for you.”
Lin’s words resonated with me, so I was very excited to take her workshop the next day, which focused on using your intuition to interpret tarot cards (so rather than memorizing meanings, you use the feelings each card stirs in you to do a tarot reading). I felt jazzed and ready to go during the first half of the class, which covered the practice and intuition in general — maybe it was the lively class discussion, maybe it was the cool yoga studio candles, who's to say. But when we broke into groups to read each other's cards, I froze up. I felt nothing but terror at the idea of telling a stranger my impressions of a random tarot card. I choked. I watched my classmates as they seemed to effortlessly do this for each other. I felt like I was watching people walk on the moon and then tell me how easy it was.
I figured I had been hit by performance anxiety in class, and I'd do better at home — after all, reading cards in a class for other people required confidence and comfort, while trying to do it alone just required that I look inside myself. Easy peasy, right?
But when I went home to try it alone, I froze up again and again. I analyzed the cards, even when I consciously tried not to — I was unable to get to any deeper insights than “Hey, that card is full of knives! That must be bad, right?”
After a few weeks of meditation yielded no greater insight than an image flash of a dog wearing a hat and a sudden (incorrect) fear that a high school classmate was dead, I decided to utilize some of LeFae’s beginner tips for connecting with intuition. A former social worker, LeFae has long championed intuition, teaching workshops, writing blogs, and recording podcasts aimed at helping everyday people connect with their guts.
LeFae developed a technique that she calls “Stop, Drop, and Roll” designed to help people differentiate genuine intuition from anxiety or ego-driven feelings — practitioners "stop” what they’re doing, “drop” into their body (feeling their physical selves), and “roll” with what they feel there. But when I attempted to "stop, drop, and roll," I didn’t feel more intuitive — I just felt acutely aware of how little I could feel inside myself, period. I had wanted to develop my intuition because I thought it would make me less scared of the future, but I was struggling to even see my present clearly. I was starting to worry that I was broken.
But, LeFae tells Bustle, you shouldn't expect yourself to have an instant, powerful connection to your intuition the first time you try intuition exercises. She adds that feeling like you just can’t do it is "a common response when anyone is trying a new skill whatsoever. Imagine trying to learn French from a book, having no one around you to speak French, you've never heard French, all you know is English." Basically, you have to cut yourself a little slack: "It's grueling, and grueling is normal for a human when they're learning a new experience or wondering if they're doing it right.”
Why did I think the problem in my life was that I didn’t have enough psychic powers, rather than that I had worked myself within an inch of my life?
LeFae also notes that inexperience isn’t the only factor that can contribute to being unable to connect with your intuition. She hones in specifically on our relationships with our physical selves: “We're disconnected from our bodies, and that is the message that I give about intuition. Everybody is intuitive, you know you're intuitive if you have a body.” But the flip side of that is, “If you don't know your body, you won't know your intuition.”
And, unfortunately for my plan to figure out the flaw in my practice and fix it, “you can't logic your way in intuition," LeFae tells me. "You have to feel you way in intuition, and we are not encouraged to feel.”
I had not thought about whether I was estranged from my body — I hadn't really thought about my body, period, which is probably a pretty big red flag. But it was true: on most days, as I struggle to work my day job, fill my evenings with personal work, and spend time with my husband and friends, I feel psychologically stretched thin beyond recognition and so disconnected from my physical self, I practically have an out-of-body experience just waiting on line at Starbucks. Why did I think the problem in my life was that I didn’t have enough psychic powers, rather than that I had worked myself within an inch of my life because I feared if I ever stopped, I’d never get back up?
I wanted to believe I was bad at being intuitive so that I could not only stop trying, but stop thinking about why it gave me so much trouble.
“Take care of yourself,” LeFae tells me. "That's where you start. When you're taking care of yourself, I'm talking about your emotion, I'm talking about putting yourself before your kids, putting yourself before your boss.” She suggests taking time for ourselves, connecting with nature, “hug[ging] a tree.” If you don’t feel comfortable hugging a tree, she tells me, lean against it, joking that “it’s the...way to hug a tree and look cool when you're doing it.”
So reader, I did it: I leaned against a tree. I spent most of my lunch hour lolling against a tree in a local park, trying to simultaneously connect with the lost parts of myself and also look cool. It didn’t make me psychic (yet). But it did remind me that I don’t need to run myself into the ground, to totally destroy myself for other people’s needs without even really understanding why I’m doing it. And frankly, that might be more magical than reading minds.