Comments on Norbu Chen and Uri Geller
from The Way of the Explorer by Dr Edgar D. Mitchell, Apollo Astronaut
Late in 1972 I began taking such thoughts more seriously when a strange series of events occurred in rapid succession. Oddly enough, all this happened just as I was preparing to leave NASA and about to open the doors to the institute. These were not events that l would consider mere serendipity nut rather occurrences governed by the mysterious cadence of synchronicity.
In the fall of that year I traveled to Little Rock, Arkansas, to speak to a group at a convention - one of my first engagements of the sort. It promised to be a special occasion, as my mother was going to drive from her residence in Oklahoma to meet me. At the time she was having severe difficulty with her eyesight as a result of glaucoma and, without her glasses, was in fact legally blind. Through the years her glasses had gradually grown thicker as she considered corrective surgery too risky. And now she really could not see at all without them.
During the conference I met several remarkable men and women, one of whom was a man by the name of Norbu Chen. Norbu was an American who had studied the earliest form of Tibetan Buddhism, a form that was liberally infused with ancient Tibetan shamanistic practice. He was a small man of quick movements, graying prematurely, inscrutable, and always in the midst of controversy. He also purported to be a healer. One evening after an entire day of speech making I introduced Norbu to my mother, who was at the time in her early sixties.
My interest was twofold. I wanted to find out whether Norbu Chen was real or just talk and, of course, to help my mother if that were possible, though I was essentially skeptical. My mother, a fundamentalist Christian all her life, had definite and traditional ideas about how the mind was capable of influencing matter through healing - either by the hand of God, or by that of Satan. There was no middle ground. Norbu, of course, did not think of himself as either but was quite convinced he could help. Making no promises, he merely suggested that we try and see what would happen. I was intensely curious, and my mother was at least a good sport about the whole thing. She, too, agreed that something good might come of it.
The following day Norbu and I met my mother in the seclusion of my suite where he asked her to sit in a chair, remove her thick glasses, and relax. I watched from across the room as this strange Asian-trained man did what he had claimed to do for so many years. Then I witnessed my mother settle deeply into a relaxed state. After placing himself in a meditative trance (he claimed) through singing his strange mantra, his hands floated over my mother's head, pausing over the eyes. There seemed to be an unspoken acceptance on her part, a silent trust in this man she had never met until this weekend.
After a few minutes of this, Norbu gently announced that he was finished and suggested she go to bed, sleep well, and treat herself kindly as though she had been through major surgery. His prescription for nourishment was grape juice and broth. As I sat there in the chair observing, there was the hope that I'd just witnessed the extraordinary. I wanted something to have happened, but at the same time I tried to be the detached, clinical observer and not let my expectations soar. In any case, I didn't have to wait long for the results. At six o'clock the following morning, my mother came rushing to my room exclaiming "Son, I can see, I can see!"
Without pausing to let me come to my senses, she proceeded to demonstrate her claim by reading from her thumb-worn Bible with glasses in hand. Then once again she said more quietly, "I can see. Praise the Lord, I can see!" Dropping her glasses to the floor, she ground the thick lenses into shards under the heel of her shoe. Needless to say, I was impressed.
I am not by this account, or with any other anecdotal story, attempting to convince the doubtful. That can only happen when the "open-minded" skeptic sets out for himself or herself to view such peculiar phenomena (at least peculiar to the Western mind) and conducts a careful investigation, unbiased by traditional interpretations. This wasn't science, but as far as I was concerned it indicated where I personally needed to probe more thoroughly. All I can say is that it absolutely did happen in just this way.
Afterward I experienced the deep-down astonishment that arises from witnessing the extraordinary. This was an event I couldn't explain; but I couldn't deny it either. I knew my mother's reaction was authentic and she hadn't been duped about her own sight. She proceeded to drive home alone several hundred miles, without her glasses.
After this episode I was sufficiently impressed that I invited Chen to Houston for a visit so that I might learn a few things from him myself. He arrived a few weeks later to stay many months, during which time I came to know not only Norbu the healer but also Norbu the man. What I learned was notably unremarkable. He wasn't especially complex, just a fellow with a peculiar capacity to heal which he couldn't adequately explain.
A few days after returning home, I learned another lesson that I wouldn't soon forget. After going about her routine for a several days with nearly perfect vision, unassisted by contact lenses or eyeglasses, my mother called one day to ask whether or not Norbu was a Christian. His name was clearly derived from an Asian culture, which she suspected in all likelihood didn't coincide with her beloved faith. Though I didn't want to tell her, she was adamant. She absolutely wanted to know the faith of the man who'd allowed her to see again. Reluctantly, and perhaps ominously, I told her Norbu was in fact not a Christian, and the moment I did so the deep pain of regret was clear m her voice.
Her new sight was not the work of the Lord, she insisted, but that of the darker forces of this world. She was absolutely certain that Norbu, being of another faith, must be an instrument of evil. No matter what I said to her, no matter how I explained my own secular understanding of such phenomena, she would not be convinced. Her vastly improved eyesight was the work of Satan. Hours later, the gift slipped away and thick new glasses were required. (Curiously enough, my mother never underwent corrective surgery, although over the years her eyesight did slowly improve so that she was wearing glasses with less correction just prior to her death than before she met Norbu.)
I was both distressed and intrigued by this incident - distressed that such an incredible healing would be dismissed, and by my mother's agony in making this personal decision; but the intrigue, the fact that the sequence of events could occur at all, left an overriding impression. How could I have been so ignorant of something so important? It set me on the search for other persons like Norbu and gave me a clear indication that I needed to learn something more about the role and power of belief in our lives. Whatever the clinical implications, it was clear to me that one's internal life, the subjective life, had fundamental importance. This was something science didn't address; I had paid little attention myself.
But, at the same time, I recognized a need for caution. Although I subsequently encountered many healers with similar capabilities, I also encountered many frauds. I've learned through years of experience that health and well-being are products of a total lifestyle. There is no panacea for illness in healers, allopathic medicine, naturopathic medicine, chiropractic, nutrition, and the like, although all can help. (I've come to the realization that one must first cultivate a composed and serene internal state and take responsibility for one's own well-being. Only then can such external assistance be very effective.)
Looking back on these times, I see how naive I was. For several years I would continue to underestimate the power of belief in our lives because of the pervasiveness of my classical scientific training. It still puzzled me that belief could affect anything at all. But I suppose naivete was also in large measure the impetus behind my founding an institute where research that I thought was important could be carried out. I believed that if other scientists witnessed such legitimate phenomena in controlled environments, they would see that it was at least worthy of further study and become excited by the prospects. But there were invisible veils that such unbridled idealism could not see. As it turned out, disbelief was one of them.
A few pages worth of text have been omitted because just the quotes on Norbu Chen were of interest.
AMONG THE VERY strange things that happened in this period involving Uri Geller and Norbu Chen were some personal events that made the greatest contribution to my own understanding.
Norbu Chen was still in Houston when I returned from California. When he asked me where I'd been, I told him I'd been with Uri at SRI. He seemed a little put off. Norbu, like all of us, had an ego that did not like to be outdone, so he told me that if I really wanted to see psychokinesis I should take off the heavy gold ring I was wearing and hold it loosely in my hand. When I did so, Norbu appeared to concentrate and passed his hand above my closed fist several times. Then he asked me to look at my ring.
What had been a fine piece of gold jewelry with my birthstone as a setting ten seconds earlier was now bent, twisted, and impossible to wear. He hadn't touched it, and I had only held it loosely; but now it appeared as though it had been crushed in a vise. Norbu Chen was clearly a very powerful man.
I would have taken Norbu on my next trip to SRI, but funds were short for one set of experiments, not to mention a second, and the tightness of the controls necessary to get publishable results were downright oppressive. This frustrated Geller just as it would have Chen. Moreover, whenever we got good, solid results scientists would not believe them anyway, so taking him to California seemed like a bad idea in any event.
Six paragraphs about Uri Geller omitted.
DURING MY FINAL days in Houston I invited a number of physicians to observe Norbu as he worked his "magic." Dr. Ed Maxey from Florida and a number of NASA flight surgeons helped with checking records and observing events. One event in particular was especially poignant because it involved Anita Rettig and stimulated her interest in helping me organize the Institute of Noetic Sciences. A few months later we began a marriage that would last for ten wonderfully hectic years, but at the time she was ill with a kidney disease that threatened to require a lengthy series of dialysis treatments. As a last-ditch effort before admitting herself to the hospital, she agreed to have Dr. Maxey fly her to Houston for a session with Norbu.
She was frightened, pale, and very uncomfortable when she arrived but gamely went on Norbu's diet regimen of grape juice while the doctors assembled, checked her records, and watched Norbu initiate his treatment. He knew nothing of her disease and had no access to her or her medical records, yet after a few moments he gave a correct diagnosis, which the physicians confirmed. He then proceeded to relate to her privately how and when the problem first came about. Only Anita knew the history of her illness, but she later confirmed that the events had in fact taken place as he suggested. After about twenty minutes in his meditative trance, Norbu ordered her to sleep for the night. Tomorrow, he said, she could fly home, but she was to treat herself kindly for a few days and drink more grape juice. Her problem appeared to clear up immediately, and dialysis was never required. Almost two years later she had a thorough checkup by an eminent internist in San Francisco who found no trace of the kidney disease.
Uri Geller and Norbu Chen were the most accomplished psychics I have ever met, but they were only the first to demonstrate for me such powerful effects. In my mind, the evidence of their strength lay in the wide range of strange capabilities they could display upon request with quite consistent results in spite of constraints, sometimes unreasonable ones, that we imposed on them in the name of science. By being in close quarters with both Chen and Geller for weeks at a time, I gained insight into how they functioned as human beings.
What I discovered was that they were neither satanic nor divine, just two regular men with impressive talents that science claimed they could not possess. Each was pleased with his prowess and frustrated by the doubts and public controversy. Yet they helped me reveal what I needed to know and provided a rigorous standard against which to measure these capabilities in humans.
For many years after these initial experiences with Chen and Geller, I continued to find, or to be found by, hundreds of people around the globe who could utiise their strange abilities in powerful ways. And their explanations for the source of their talent generally conformed to their cultural beliefs. Some were in religious orders, some in remote locations, others in more "primitive" cultures. Some were ordinary Western folk previously afraid to talk openly of their experiences for fear of ridicule - or more important, fear of losing their livelihoods. We've stopped burning witches, but we haven't stopped punishing them.
I soon lost all interest in accumulating additional data of this sort, preferring to work in splendid isolation at piecing together some structure for how the mind could produce these effects and still be compatible with the detailed picture of physical reality that science was continuing to unfold. At the same time, I couldn't ignore the insights of centuries of holy men who had explored the realms of consciousness but without benefit of the marvels of modern science.