I’m sure this reveals something about my personality type, but I like to think of Helen Palmer as The Psychic Who Made Mother Jones Nervous. In an April 1979 feature entitled “Reading Helen Palmer . . . and the politics behind the Psychics’ Gauze Curtain,” Mother Jones editor Jeffrey Klein attempted to debunk — along with the growing psychic movement in general — the woman he called “the most intriguing psychic in the San Francisco Bay Area.” After three months of intensive investigation, Klein revealed the incompetence or outright fraudulence of a number of psychic practitioners — but Helen Palmer was something else again.
During his research, Klein procured Palmer’s permission to scour her appointment book in a search for disgruntled clients. Palmer told me that she soon began to receive calls from worried friends asking, “Who is this guy who’s going after you?” But Klein failed to turn up enough muck to rake: a few people were unimpressed by Palmer, Klein reported, but “no one I contacted felt ripped off. An overwhelming percentage were grateful for Palmer’s insights, which they felt were stunning.”
Klein’s rational skepticism was further threatened when he himself sat down for some Palmer readings. Not only did she characterize his parents with unnerving accuracy, but she went on, at Klein’s challenge, to describe the other five members of the Mother Jones editorial board at the time. Even though she never met with them, Palmer’s clairvoyance pinned down all the editor’s working styles, and also yielded accurate physical descriptions of some of them. Klein later played the tape of the reading for his colleagues, an apparently unsettling event which, according to Palmer, “got the other editors off his back. They’d been giving him a hard time about doing the article.”
Despite these firsthand, undebunkable experiences, Klein remained steadfast in his rationalism. “My general conclusions differ little from my initial prejudices,” he wrote at the outset of his article. “Basically, I think the so-called psychic renaissance is a symptom of this nation’s decline.” But near the end of his lengthy report, Klein revealed an attitude that many journalists seem to share: a reluctance to turn his investigative fervor inward and probe the nature of his own consciousness. “I would prefer not to countenance Helen Palmer fully,” he confessed. “Because I don’t know the workings of the universe she glimpses, she makes me anxious about who I really am, what I’m ‘in touch’ with, and how I should try to behave.”
Since then, Palmer has continued to offer private readings from her home in Berkeley; she also teaches and organizes panel discussions of the Enneagram, an ancient Sufi system of personality typology that has only recently been translated into modern psychological terms. This month, Harper & Row releases Palmer’s book, The Enneagram: Understanding Yourself And The Others In Your Life, a comprehensive and accessible documentation of the system.
In the following interview, Helen Palmer tells the remarkable story of her evolution from a Sixties anti-war radical to an Eighties activist of consciousness — an evolution she feels was not only natural but necessary for developing fundamental solutions to the problems of our society.
While preparing this interview, I got in touch with Jeffrey Klein, who is editor of West, the Sunday magazine of the San Jose Mercury News. I was curious to learn whether his opinions had shifted in the last nine years, given the increasing numbers of alleged psychics in our midst. “My basic prejudices haven’t changed,” Klein reported. “I still think most people claiming psychic powers are frauds, though often well-meaning frauds.” He also expressed a great affection and respect for Helen Palmer, admitting that her talents have him mystified to this day. “It’s as if she can see through the crack of light under the door,” he mused. Perhaps because he had made me more conscious of checking out my projections, I asked Klein how he would feel about my characterization of Helen Palmer as The Psychic Who Made Mother Jones Nervous. “I can live with that,” replied the skeptical journalist.
THE SUN: What was your progression from political activism to intuitive counseling?
PALMER: I see it as the same work. I was a doctoral student in psychology at the New School for Social Research when resistance to the Vietnam war peaked in New York City. East Coast politics were aflame with this issue, and students were aware that higher institutions of learning were systematically withholding information to keep them uninformed about the universities’ collusion with the government in the war effort. The work to get more information was centered around Students for a Democratic Society and Student Mobilization, organizations known for resisting the war and the draft. I joined this cause with great force.
I was blundering about, making what I consciously thought were ethical decisions. Underneath it all, another kind of perception was emerging that, twenty years later, has become a mainstay of my life. However, at that time there was no recognition or support for this capacity — no way I could even identify it. I had to find a context in which this perception could emerge, to be tested and recognized.
I became attracted to front-line activism — helping war resisters and, occasionally, deserters, to leave the country. My husband at the time was a student minister, and we were involved in a church safehouse and underground railroad. To my eyes, this was very dangerous work. I was young, and felt a real excitement in the cause and in the solidarity of radical pacifists. We believed that by putting our bodies on the line and flooding the jails, we could make Vietnam a war nobody would go to. We were naive, but of very good heart.
Helping resisters escape was just hot enough that you could go down for a lot of years if you were caught. I felt that I was responsible for the security of myself, my family, and my friends who were also involved in radical activities. When planning our strategies — which had to be well thought out — I discovered that an odd ability came to me under pressure. When I absolutely had to focus on decisions of considerable consequence, I became extremely precognitive.
For instance, I might have several men available on a particular night, one of whom was to be responsible for getting somebody across the border with the right papers. I had no factual way of knowing if someone was a plant, a real resister, or simply attracted to the excitement but completely undependable. With little information, I’d be facing very loaded moments of decision. While I was staring at those faces in front of me, one would somehow shine forth in a way that let me know this person could carry through. The other faces would go gray, or even disappear. There was some kind of third-eye extension that altered my perceptual field.
I began to make decisions based on this capacity, although it came forth only in focused moments — when I was scared and an immediate decision was absolutely necessary.
THE SUN: Would you say your rational processes were under siege in such moments?
PALMER: That’s an interesting question. I was often aware of double messages from other people, in that their minds were convinced of something, but I neither saw nor felt any back-up, no willingness to follow through. Someone would make an emotional statement, but his or her face would act out the antithesis of the claim. This was alarming to me, on a personal level, although it could be very functional in front-line activism.
THE SUN: Did you always know which perception to follow?
PALMER: No. Particularly in my emotional life, I got caught between wanting to believe what was on the surface and experiencing a secondary perception, but wondering if I was projecting it, making the whole thing up. It was even more difficult when I could clearly read a message on someone’s face at one moment, then saw nothing in the next. Also, I didn’t know if anyone else ever saw these things. Was I alone in this? It can be tremendously conflicting when these inner perceptions arrive without a context; you can only refer to yourself and your own insecurities.
I knew from the beginning that the question of projection was my path, and whatever I’ve done since has rested on trying to distinguish between fantasy and true intuition.
THE SUN: So you had no emotional support for figuring out what was developing.
PALMER: I didn’t know what to ask for, and there were no role models, no examples. But the secondary perception — which must have been fairly close to the surface since childhood — continued to manifest during moments of need.
I had to build a basis for distinguishing between my own projections and an authentic perception that was struggling to emerge. For example, many of my friends were getting involved in the militant Weather Underground, which advocated the use of weapons, while I maintained the radical pacifist stance that we should put our bodies on the line but refuse armed conflict. Within a two-month period I lost almost every friendship I had over this issue.
I felt that the militants would come to no good, because they displayed too much unresolved psychological tension. Yet I couldn’t be sure of my inner perception — was I just hallucinating, seeing craziness in other people because of my own inner weakness?
There is a certain purity in that insecurity, in exerting the effort to tell whether you’re making up what you see. It’s better than suddenly assuming you’re a true channel for the voice of God.
I knew from the beginning that the question of projection was my path, and whatever I’ve done since has rested on trying to distinguish between fantasy and true intuition. After everything broke up in New York, I came to California, following a conscious decision to reorient my personal life as well as the political movement. The energy of things seemed to move to the West Coast. But when I arrived here, I was shocked at the slowness of things — I could read a book between people’s sentences! I thought, these guys call themselves activists? Everyone seemed passive, or wrapped up in the drug experience, with no political commitment.
But on another level I was forced to slow down, immediately started practicing meditation and self-hypnosis. Here, everyone in my group was involved in some kind of inner work. Within six months I was working consciously and imagistically with the inner perception that had externalized under pressure in New York. I began to learn the difference between projection and real intuitive impressions. It took two and a half years of an enormous amount of solitary work, but I was driven to perform the practices that would allow me to discriminate between fantasy and intuition. I worked without teachers or any guide other than my own instinctive memory.
In some ways I’m a testimony to deep, resurgent memory. Independently, I recollected a lot of the techniques of shifting attention — generating, organizing, and stabilizing an image, bringing my inner observer into the image and withdrawing it. I learned to empty my mind, focus it, and immerse myself in an image. This is the touchstone of my teaching. I learned how to do all this just by looking at a blank wall for hours on end. That’s why I believe in the activation of very old memory, although I’m not at all interested in past lives.
In the meantime, I completely lost interest in the academic life. The need to undertake spiritual practices replaced everything. I worked minimally, raising my son on income from a part-time job in a bookstore. At every free moment, I hit the wall. It was a kind of madness — but joining the movement had been madness, too, from the career point of view.
Teachers began arriving from the East, introducing spiritual practices. But they gave the impression that the practices were above us — we could aspire to them, but we didn’t have the ability to achieve the effects they described. I couldn’t accept that. I’m too anti-authoritarian. My own inner directive led me to become monastic for a long period. By 1972, after my basic work was established, I began to work in traditional spiritual settings, where I found a one-to-one correlation with what I had developed alone. What I came to independently was exactly what was being taught as inner practices.
I believe that we learn to focus our attention in a way that supports our neurotic concerns, making us extremely sensitive to the very issues that cause us a lot of suffering.
THE SUN: Would you agree that our generally extroverted society tends to suspect serious introspective work as a kind of madness?
PALMER: Yes. When you achieve a truly intuitive state of mind, you have more access to the objective truth than you do from a linear, logical state. A great range of information becomes available that’s very difficult to accept and integrate. What we perceive in the intuitive state is psychologically unacceptable — that’s why we close it down. It’s much easier to stay in the linear, divisive mind than to stay connected to the intuitive mind, in which you are another person. The linear mind makes it much easier to think about maximizing your own gain over someone else; the intuitive mind says you simply can’t do that, because you are the other during the time that you are connected. The other person’s loss is experienced as your own. That statement will sound bizarre to anyone who hasn’t experienced its truth directly.
Eventually, my introspective work helped me develop the capacity to merge my inner observer with an object of attention or vision that was not known to my thinking self. Then I would be able to focus on that unknown situation sufficiently to inspire a reverie — that is, to dream in a conscious way with the inner observer watching a stream of unpredictable events. That’s clairvoyance: the ability to merge your attention with a progression of unpremeditated visual images. You also need enough of a metaphoric mind to decode your own visions, although receiving an image and understanding its meaning usually happen simultaneously.
THE SUN: How do you distinguish clairvoyance from the creative process?
PALMER: In the creative state, you have a hypothesis about what you want to happen, a conclusion that you want to move toward. You allow figures in your inner mind to enter a dialogue, for instance. You don’t know exactly what they’ll say, but your inner observer is essentially in a controlling position, with enough lapses in that control to allow some inspiration to come through. You’re staging a scene, and filling it in with a little imagination.
Clairvoyance is a different level of mastery that involves the same inner observer. Let’s say a client comes in for a reading, and she asks questions about her three children, whom I’ve never met. I produce a vision about the woman and her children, but the integrity of the practice demands that my inner observer merge so completely with the vision that I have no idea what the interactions between my client and her children will be. This vision is about real people, and it can later be verified in the real world.
THE SUN: Where did the Enneagram come from?
PALMER: The Enneagram refers to the diagram of a nine-pointed star that recurs in Sufi mysticism. The origins are obscure, but the Enneagram was passed on orally for countless years, as part of a sacred and secret teaching within the traditional Sufi master-and-student relationship. More recently, George Ivanovich Gurdjieff, a spiritual teacher of enormous personal magnetism, spoke of the idea of nine chief preoccupations around which human attention habitually operates.
The power of the system lies in the fact that our ordinary patterns of personality — those same habits of thought and emotion that we tend to dismiss as merely neurotic — are viewed as potential access points to aspects of higher consciousness.
The nine types were said to depend upon a chief feature, or characteristic, that colors all of our responses. One way to understand the feature would be to see it as a defensive system that developed during childhood because of the need to form an identity and to find a compromise between the child’s needs and the stress of early family life.
From a mystic’s point of view, these emotional habits developed during the fall from grace into the material world. They could also be called the passions of the emotional shadow that stem from the need to cope with early family life.
If a child develops well, then the passions are worn lightly, presenting themselves as mere tendencies. But if the psychological situation is severe, then one of the shadow issues become an obsessional preoccupation. We lose the ability to observe our own behavior, and we cannot shift attention in order to move on.
The Enneagram has also been kept alive in the Jesuit community. Jesuits often live and work together under arduous circumstances, sometimes making decisions that affect each other at great distances. Knowing how another person thinks can be enormously helpful in eradicating or preventing a lot of problems or misunderstandings. Unfortunately, the Jesuits have also bent the system into a narrow, doctrinal perspective. To justify a Sufi teaching in their order, they had to make quite a twist in it. They view the nine types as deviations, or sins — rather than potentials, as the Sufis see them. This change is alarming, but I think the intention was good. To their credit, the Jesuits have really lived with the Enneagram, and have taken it into their hearts.
THE SUN: At what point did the Enneagram enter your psychic work?
PALMER: I became a psychic practitioner in 1971, as I was stabilizing and testing my clairvoyant capacities. Immediately my professional interest shifted from facilitating other people’s insights, as a therapist would do, to fielding information on request. I’ve done that on a full-time basis ever since, doing as many as twenty reading sessions weekly.
In working to open my intuitive state of mind, I realized how much of that ability had existed within my own neurotic point of view, ever since I was very young. There was a pattern: getting myself into pressured situations; having a secondary capacity open under pressure; focusing on dangerous situations in order to ward off harm. This was indicative of a neurotic style of paranoia. My capacities precisely addressed my perceived needs: being able to see the future and to ward off harm. I was also very drawn to age-old meditative practices that teach how to achieve the goals that paranoid types seek: namely, to see the future and to understand the intentions of other people.
I believe that we learn to focus our attention in a way that supports our neurotic concerns, making us extremely sensitive to the very issues that cause us a lot of suffering. That’s a basis of my teaching.
The Enneagram was the answer to a prayer. I prayed for some kind of teaching that would make this point of view accessible to other people. I was amazed that an ancient system of typology could so coincide with contemporary observations of how the human mind works. I immediately saw the potential for helping people to recognize and understand the preoccupations of their own type, as well as the eight other types — some of whom they’re living or working closely with.
Then I could teach them how they become exquisitely sensitive experts in their own fraction of reality. They would see how burdensome their habitual perceptions can be, and the potential that lies in learning other fundamental styles of perception. Selective reception often seems to be neurosis, but it’s actually a gold mine. You can unearth a tremendous wealth of hidden talent — which is definitely what happened to me.
We need to see others as they really are. Are we facing real enemies — or is it our own inner disturbance we see? Are we making true friends, or just being self-serving?
THE SUN: I’ve noticed that the Enneagram typology is stated in essentially negative terms.
PALMER: In the Sufi tradition, a neurosis is not seen as an enemy, as something merely to be overcome. Instead, the neurotic stance is an indicator of a higher ability. Those who habitually defend themselves, for instance, are defending an aspect of their essence that was once damaged. Defending it actually expresses a desire to recapture that lost essence, an untapped potential.
THE SUN: Now that the Enneagram has become public knowledge, how can we avoid misusing the information, and determine our own type definitively?
PALMER: Be concerned with your own type, rather than trying to type others. There are a lot of obvious problems with typing, and I think that’s why the Enneagram was a secret system for so long. The first problem is that everyone tends to read the material and pick up the type he or she likes. But very often an outsider will see your type more clearly. The second problem is that we’re addicted to wanting to type everyone else — either for the positive purpose of understanding, or for the darker purpose of manipulating.
The best use of any spiritual or psychological system is to know yourself better. And the goal is not to overcome your neurosis so you can live a happier life; happiness is a side effect of opening up your inner abilities.
Someone who is preoccupied with over-giving — which often includes the expectation of getting certain things in return — does not necessarily have a negative problem. I would ask, what is this habit of over-giving designed to protect? What unusual perception might support that ability to give, and what is the person’s potential for merging with the needs of another? That’s a superior aspect of the need to give, which is being used in the service of neurotic needs. Over-givers could learn to discriminate between projecting that someone needs them, and intuitively and empathetically merging with the needs of other people.
From that perspective, the happiness that might result from overcoming a neurotic style of over-giving is not really the point. The point is learning how to discriminate your need to give from the real needs of others, and to learn to merge intuitively at will.
THE SUN: Do you think the Enneagram may eventually suffer from the kind of popularized distortions that have occurred in, say, astrology?
PALMER: There’s that potential with any great system of knowledge that comes into the public venue. In the last fifteen years, the storehouse of secret teachings has been opened. The fact is that we desperately need the information. We’re divided and polarized on a global scale. It’s not just a matter of small tribes going to war and destroying each other with no effect on the world at large. We need to see others as they really are. Are we facing real enemies — or is it our own inner disturbance we see? Are we making true friends, or just being self-serving?
If we can see what’s objectively true, then life becomes less threatening. Whatever we can do to see the point of view of others as they see it themselves is absolutely necessary. I’m doing the best I can to be true to this opened treasure of knowledge.
THE SUN: I assume that means the avoidance of moralizing about any particular type of neurotic stance, or viewing your own type as a lifelong trap.
PALMER: Absolutely. In my own case, I wouldn’t trade my lifelong paranoia for anything. It transformed me into a mystic, and it gave me an extension of my abilities. Not a bad deal! You just have to know how to work from a transpersonal stance, seeing your negatives as transformers.
The whole point is to learn not just what you tend to focus on, but how you do it. Then you can learn, through basic meditative techniques, how to shift your focus and enter another kind of perception. This goal is different from wanting to achieve a better mood, a better sex life, a higher-paying job. If I thought those were the ultimate goals, I’d pack it in right now. I’m interested in transcendent states — and I think it’s in our nature to achieve them.
THE SUN: Does that mean an individual could permanently transcend his or her type, so that the Enneagram would no longer apply?
PALMER: I don’t think so. I’ve known some very high-functioning people with noticeable psychic and spiritual capacities, and found that they still have personalities. I think that people always have a certain touchstone, a particular quality of attention. You may transcend your fear, but still focus as if afraid. I don’t want to give up my personality. But I sure don’t want it to run my life.
We usually think of a transformed person as being without personality — or neurosis, at least. We may also think such a person excels in one capacity. But I think of a transformed person as having access to all the higher human abilities. I don’t want to miss out on bliss, but I also want to know the void, the psychic realm, the intuitive realm, and the transcendent realms wherein I can embody different aspects of the divine. I think that the capacity for all states makes a human being whole.
What a gift to realize that you really can learn to see through another’s eyes. Believe me, you’ll see some pretty bad stuff that way, but at least it’s more complete than what you’ll see strictly through your own ego.
THE SUN: How do you think the development of greater intuitive and spiritual capacities will change our political process?
PALMER: When I was interviewed by Mother Jones, I felt that the reporter came with a chip on his shoulder — he seemed to have concluded that psychism in general was drawing off political energy, and weakening the progressive movement. I’ve always felt that this work is political. I know now that when I was an activist, I projected a great deal of my unresolved psychological material into the war movement. I still believe that my politics were correct and ethical; I took a difficult stand under pressure and stuck to it. I also know that the position I took expressed a lot of my own unresolved anti-authoritarianism.
How is a poor activist to know when she’s of good heart, and when she’s projecting unresolved issues about her parents by fighting the government? Do people even ask themselves such questions as: am I making up the enemy? Am I not seeing potential points of agreement because of my attentional stance? Can I shift that attentional stance to see how others see me? Can I actually see others’ projections as well as my own — how they are falsely afraid because of their own psychological turmoil?
These are big problems, and they can be addressed by spiritual attention practices. I don’t think we’re even close to hitting our stride with these disciplines yet. What a gift to realize that you really can learn to see through another’s eyes. Believe me, you’ll see some pretty bad stuff that way, but at least it’s more complete than what you’ll see strictly through your own ego.
THE SUN: With President Reagan’s obsession about Nicaragua, it’s easy to see how one person’s paranoid projection can influence the course of history.
PALMER: Well, real leftists won’t like that interpretation. They’ll say, “What makes you think it’s just one man? He’s only carrying out the orders of a consortium of businessmen.”
THE SUN: Which is just a different level of projection. . . .
PALMER: Yes, but that’s not where you begin work on the problem. You begin by watching a wall: is this image directed by my own thought, or did the image appear spontaneously on the wall before I knew what I would see? You start at that level. Then you can work up to looking at your spouse’s face, and saying, “Did I really just see a shadow or a secret smile, or am I making it up?” Then you’ve worked up to discriminating the reality of one other person. By now, most political activists will have thrown up their hands. How can this tiny transformative work on yourself possibly add up to a movement? They’ll say, “There’s a war on, folks — no time for this stuff.”
THE SUN: So a sense of political urgency tends to discourage the work of personal transformation.
PALMER: I feel very urgent. I need to get clearer and clearer with my clients, and train as many people as I can to look at their projections and eliminate them. All I can really do is keep my corner of the world clean, and teach others. Good political work is not concerned with the consequence or the outcome; you pay attention to the process, to the quality of your work at every step of the way. That’s very different from trying to take out the top man by assassination. The problem is that a new top man will always succeed the one you get rid of, if the root psychological problems of the society remain unchanged.
What you can do is to create a counterforce by being willing to work on your own projections. I think I’ve accomplished most of my political work through the last twenty years by working with individuals, giving thousands of readings, and disseminating the Enneagram.
Good political work is not concerned with the consequence or the outcome; you pay attention to the process, to the quality of your work at every step of the way.
THE SUN: How do you hope that people will use your book on the Enneagram?
PALMER: I hope it helps people to know their point of view, and understand what they’re likely to project — how their projections may affect their family and friends, and limit their view of the world. They need to see more clearly the interrelationships with people close to them, and learn how to see another’s point of view as clearly as their own. I don’t want readers to use the Enneagram in a manipulative way, by mistyping themselves or trying to type everyone but themselves.
To establish your own type from reading this book, you’ll need simple self-observation. In a new situation, for instance, you ask yourself, “What is attracting my attention? What am I afraid of? What do I feel secure about? Am I looking for approval, or a safe exit?” The way to any transcendent state is through such self-observation.
My book represents a political decision: should I disseminate this information in the hope that people can help themselves with it, or do I withhold it because some people won’t understand it, or may misuse it? I think the times are desperate. My own personality type is reactive — I’m usually not the first to do something. But now I must move. I can’t worry about the channeler down the block giving bad information. The Enneagram came to me, and I think it’s very powerful information we can all use. I’m just keeping my corner clean.