Edgar Cayce (1877-1945) was a southern Christian who became a widely known trance channel whose teachings helped birth the alternative spirituality movement. New Thought historian Mitch Horowitz’s recent book Mind As Builder explores the relationship between Cayce and New Thought teachings. I recently caught up with Mitch to ask about Cayce and New Thought. Following our Q and A is an exclusive excerpt from Mind As Builder: The Positive Mind Metaphysics of Edgar Cayce.
What accounts for Edgar Cayce’s timeless appeal?
MH: It is something about his personal goodness, and I use that term with care. Many well-known figures on the metaphysical scene, from psychics to teachers of various stripes, just seem so ordinary today. They seem, at times, more eager to build their “platform” than to really engage in a search. Cayce, by contrast, always struggled with the teachings coming through him. As a Christian, he often felt conflicted about some of the ideas in his own readings, such as astrology and reincarnation. He also struggled to live within the ethical framework of his channeled teachings, not always successfully. The very realness of Cayce’s search, and his wrestling with religious ideas, brought a gravity to his character that I think makes him a figure of enduring appeal.
You write that channels are a mixture of insight and of their cultural times, which is reflected in Edgar’s inclusion of mind-power metaphysics. What do you see as a few similarities and differences between Edgar Cayce and New Thought teachings?
MH: Cayce believed very strongly that thought is the precursor to events and circumstance. Through his channeled readings, he taught that mind is the medium between the individual and the Higher–something I personally believe, and that I think is intrinsic to New Thought. But Cayce also cautioned not to make an idol of individual aims; not to picture something so fully for yourself that you assume a perspective on what is best for all concerned. Cayce believed that such a perspective belonged only to God. This is an area in which Cayce breaks from Neville, and others in the New Thought tradition. Neville saw desires as God-given and intrinsically valid; whereas Cayce believed that God, as an entity distinct from man, knows what is needed and desired, and has a perspective that the individual cannot. Cayce encouraged directing your thought toward personal aims, but not toward specific, material manifestations. I don’t necessarily share this outlook, but I am very challenged by it—and I try to remember the limits of my own perspective.
What can contemporary the New Thought movement learn from Edgar Cayce?
MH: The individual seeker in New Thought can find in Cayce’s life an example of always working to expand your personal understanding. Cayce was not a passive recipient of his channeled readings: he questioned them, struggled with them, and sought to contextualize them. As a mystic, he was in step with the prophets and patriarchs of the Hebraic tradition who challenged God, and argued with God. This was true of Jonah, Job, Adam, and Cain. (This may seem like an odd aside, but it was also true of the evangelist Oral Roberts, who I think deserves more serious consideration than he has received in our culture.) Cayce read through all of Scripture once a year, every year of his adult life. He was determined to square his channeled readings with Gospel values—and he had a very interesting interpretation of some aspects of Scripture, which you can learn about in his biography, There Is a River. I think we in New Thought can learn from Cayce’s discipline and ethical strivings.
Channelers are much more prevalent today and many people regard these channeled messages as omniscient. What is your personal approach for critically evaluating the legitimacy of a channel?
MH: I think there are channelers on the metaphysical scene today who are receiving information from an extrasensory perspective; but that doesn’t always make them right in what they say or in what they counsel. A psychic or channeler, assuming they are operating from a place of authenticity, will often reflect back to you exactly what you’re thinking, or what you want. It requires great care to vet and handle this information. When you hear someone sympathetically recounting back to you what you’re already thinking, or what you already believe, such communication, by its nature, can seem intimate, accurate, compelling, and trustworthy. But that is exactly where we must be careful. The channeler may have a developed capacity for ESP or clairvoyant perception, a topic that I take seriously, and write about in Mind As Builder and elsewhere; the channeler may also experience this sensibility as belonging to another entity or source. And while clairvoyant perception is a formidable aptitude, and while it can be revealing or helpful, it is not the same thing as wisdom or omniscience. Very often the channeler’s advisement will be colored by his or her own values and ethics, which may not be well developed; you as the questioner might be more finely developed than the channeler. That’s why I find Cayce so exceptional—he prepared himself to dispatch this information. We tend to ascribe a degree of perspective and wisdom to a channeler that he or she may not really possess. The channeler may be like a passenger looking at images from the window of a moving train–things speed past, but it takes a lot of understanding to put those things together. If you receive channeled information—and I say this very seriously—you should corroborate it with other sources, including from classical religious or ethical works; you should, I believe, use it as one component of your judgment, and not place more weight on the material than is warranted. When divided between insight and ethics—choose ethics. Sometimes the two will unite. But vet carefully what any channeler tells you, just as you would any other kind of information.
‘Mind is the Builder, the Physical is the Result’
BY MITCH HOROWITZ
The following piece is adapted from Mitch’s recent book, Mind As Builder: The Positive Mind Metaphysics of Edgar Cayce (A.R.E Press).
“ . . . the spiritual is the life; the mental is the builder; the physical is the result.” —Edgar Cayce reading 254-42, July 15, 1928
The history of mind metaphysics is more than just history. It is a body of living ideas that has affected people in this country for generations. The mental metaphysics of New Thought and Edgar Cayce have opened new possibilities and ways of life. That’s been true for me, as I write about in my book One Simple Idea; that continues to be true for many people today.
Once you hear Edgar’s phrase, “mind is builder,” you never forget it. There’s a certain solidity to it. It summarizes both a universal truth and the new metaphysics that were sweeping the Western world when Edgar first uttered it. Edgar followed it by saying “the physical is the result.” Occult healer Franz Anton Mesmer and New Thought pioneer Phineas Quimby drew a direct connection between the faculties of thought and physical wellness. Mary Baker Eddy, the founder of Christian Science, by contrast, believed that physical health resulted from the individual becoming a cleansed door of perception. Mrs. Eddy would have agreed with the makers of The Matrix. She shared their conception of humanity trapped in an illusory world, where no tactile experience is real. Hence, she would have disputed Edgar’s contention that we exist in both spiritual and material realms and are governed by the laws of both. My own sympathies are with Edgar, and I’ll try to explain why.
When Edgar said, “the physical is the result,” his statement, first of all, must be interpreted broadly. He’s talking about health—but not health alone. Edgar clarified in various readings that ideas do, in fact, translate to physical forces. So, I ask myself, and each of you: How do we relate to the physical? This is an area ripe for experiment within New Thought philosophy. It’s the most important question for me right now. I’m struggling with it, and I invite you to struggle with me. For me, the most brilliant teacher in the New Thought tradition is Neville Goddard, a British Barbadian born in 1905. He taught in America for most of his life and died in 1972. Neville maintained that not only is mind the builder, but the mind conceals an ultimate truth whose dimensions we do not grasp. Neville taught that the human imagination is the God of Scripture, and that Scripture is not a work of history but rather a parabolic reenactment or allegory of man’s inner development. Inner development, in Neville’s view, involves awakening to the idea that thought is the creator of all, is God. Scripture is a symbolic retelling of the truth that you are God clothed in human flesh.
Neville meant this in the most literal sense. Hence, he would say that these words you’re hearing or reading do not belong to me—they are yours. They are a product of your readiness to hear them, as everything is a product, ultimately, of your emotive and mental states. When I read Neville, it’s like I get drunk on “spiritual wine.” The Shakers once used that expression to describe “spiritual gifts” that gave them pleasures, they said, that went beyond anything physically conceived. Neville argued for his thesis with exquisite persuasiveness and simplicity. You can read my essay “Neville Goddard: A Cosmic Philosopher,” in which I talk further about his ideas and how they relate to quantum theory.
So, if I love Neville, and if I’m so persuaded by his convictions, why then do I also agree with Edgar that we necessarily experience physical limitations? This is the core challenge that we face today in the New Thought movement, a movement of which I consider myself a part. Some of us believe, as Neville does, that all of life results from one great mental super law. Some people call it the Law of Attraction, but whatever term you use, some seekers consider this ever-operative, overarching mental super law as the ultimate truth of life.
I think—and I am really struggling with this—that that is possibly true, that we do live under one ultimate mental law. We receive hints of that possibility in certain quantum physics experiments, where objects are affected by the decisions of the researcher to measure or not measure something. Quantum experiments have now been going on for about eighty years, and anybody who thinks that he understands, or can proscribe, the implications of those experiments, understands nothing. Now, I said that I think it’s possible that we do live under the ultimate law of mind. But I also think that we are not necessarily able to experience that truth in the manner of existence that we occupy.
You could talk about the law of gravity, for example, as being an ultimate truth, and so it is. For a law to be a law, it must be consistent; it must be ever-operative. But the way that you experience gravity on earth differs from how you would experience gravity on the moon or in the vacuum of space or on Jupiter. The same law is always going on, it’s real, and it’s there. But I’m incapable of experiencing this law on earth in the way that an astronaut experiences it on the moon. And that begs the question of whether we live under multiple laws and forces, rather than a law of mentality. My answer is, yes, of course we live under multiple forces. Gravity is always going on, nobody questions that. But mass is also going on, so if you are on Jupiter, which is far more massive than earth, you experience a much greater pull of gravity. If you were physically on Jupiter, the gravity would crush you; you would be unable to move. The same law occurs on the moon, where you would be much lighter. You could jump ten feet in the air and hit a golf ball more than two miles, because the moon has less mass and, hence, less gravitational pull. The point is: I don’t have to argue whether gravity is there; it evidently is there. But it operates differently in different realms of existence and circumstance. We may be experiencing something similar with the creative law of the mind.
Our bodies physically decay; mortality is a fact. There’s been no exception to that, ever, including in the lives of saints and Christ himself. New Thought teacher Joseph Murphy, who died in 1981, would sometimes attempt to explain the mind’s inability to affect mortality by saying that life is necessarily educative, and it must end so that other cycles may begin; and, in any case, he said, life would grow unbearably stagnant if immortality existed. That’s true enough, but it’s also a way of changing the subject. Physical decay is a fact, all lived experience dictates as much. That doesn’t mean that Neville is necessarily wrong in his statement that mind is God, and that thought rules the universe. But I do think that even if the mind is a creative force, even perhaps the ultimate force, there coexist circumstances and matters of reality with which we must live, at least from our vantage point. We aren’t God. Neville often quotes Jesus saying, “I and my Father are one, but my Father is greater than I.” If Neville were here, and I wish he were, and maybe in some way he is, he would probably agree that the branch and the tree are the same thing, but they experience different circumstances, and the wind can blow down a branch but cannot blow down the tree. We aren’t God.
I believe that Edgar was expressing something similar when he said it’s insufficient to conclude that we live under the one-and-only influence of mind. We do have physical lives. But the extraordinary thing is that we’ve been granted the ability to question and to experiment with how, whether, or to what degree the mind serves as a medium of influence over the physical. That is the challenge of our generation. And we are living through an extraordinary period of revelations pertaining to that challenge. Everything that I have noted about Edgar Cayce’s views of the mind would come across as alien to most physicians and scientists who are working with placebo studies, or in quantum physics, or in a new field like neuroplasticity—yet these same researchers are simultaneously affirming them. In the field of neuroplasticity, researchers have demonstrated through brain scans that thoughts actually alter the neural pathways of the brain. Researchers are finding that holding a sustained thought eventually alters brain chemistry. For fifteen to twenty years, brain scans have shown that a program of successfully redirected thoughts change the actual pathways through which electrical impulses travel in your brain; the cellular gray matter itself is altered. This is as provable through brain scans as any other aspect of physical experience. It cuts against everything we heard growing up—it is literally mind over matter.
Edgar said, “the mind is the builder, the physical is the result”—that is the philosophical underpinning of the field of neuroplasticity. One of the most dynamic researchers in the field is clinical psychiatrist Jeffrey M. Schwartz, who works at UCLA with sufferers of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD). Schwartz describes the mind as possessing a “directed mental force,” with measurable physical effects. He found that if people with OCD followed a protocol of consistently redirecting their intrusive thoughts, not only would they experience relief from some of the ritualistic impulses of OCD, but physical changes would occur in the gray matter of their brains. The mind, he noted, wields a “physical force”—the emphasis is his. This runs contrary to what he learned coming up in his career as an M.D., and a research psychiatrist, but there it is.
Now, some scientists reject any kind of conversation along these lines. If I approach most medical researchers and ask, “Have you heard of Edgar Cayce?”—well, you can imagine the answer. But this isn’t true of everyone. A scientist named Ted Kaptchuk heads up the program in placebo studies at Harvard Medical School. I try to be careful when I make references to Harvard and not to quote from any study or finding without having read the primary sources.
Kaptchuk is an intrepid thinker, and we’re fortunate to have someone like him running a major center for placebo studies. In December of 2010, he and his colleagues published a study that you may have heard about: it’s colloquially called the “honest placebo” study. They took a group of patients suffering from Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) and gave them a sugar pill and told them, in effect: “You know what’s in here? Nothing!” The researchers were entirely transparent, letting the subjects know that they were receiving an inert substance. This is the first time this was done in a placebo study. And even though the patients understood the facts, a significant number still reported substantial and sustained relief from this so-called honest placebo.
Consider that you are told that you are being given nothing—but still feel better. Everyone has his own pet theories as to why the study produced those kinds of results. But the Harvard researchers, to their credit, chose not to interpret their results. They said that what they were seeing was remarkable and warrants further research. We need more positions like that in public life. We need more questions and fewer certainties. The Harvard team was willing to hold a question, and I thought that was beautiful.
Many physicians are understandably wary of triggering the placebo response. Because by their nature, placebos require misleading the patient, however good the intent. But if we can find a way to transparently stimulate the same kind of hopeful expectancy that patients experience in placebo trials— and hopeful expectancy is presumably what triggers the placebo response, if there’s any at all—it opens a whole new set of possibilities in mind-body medicine, and the therapeutic harnessing of mind and mood.