In a Greek Orthodox Church annex in suburban New Jersey, I’m about to start my first morning of a four-week mind control summer camp. It is 1980. I am 9 years old. The classroom resembles an industrial park conference room, not the cavernous place of worship or brain reprogramming lab I had been expecting.
The dozen other kids, aged 9-12, show the lack of interest reserved for Sunday school or detention. Doodling on their notepads. Staring into space. Except for me. I’m tapping my foot, both nervous and excited, because when you’re 9 and a little daydreamy and accustomed to following directions, controlling other people’s minds sounds like the chance of a lifetime.
If you don’t already know, the Silva Mind Control Methodwas founded in the 1950s, but taught in the 1960s around the same time as the Human Potential Movement. The HPM was an American subculture that yielded “The Inner Peace Movement,” thinkers like Alan Watts and Jean Houston, and the Esalen Institute.
Even among such radical minds, Jose Silva’s research stands out as unconventional and exemplary. The self-educated American parapsychologist trained his own children in deep relaxation, visualization and ESP techniques in effort to help them in school, and noticed remarkable improvement. In a 1953 letter to Dr. J.B. Rhine, renowned parapsychologist of Duke University, Silva claimed his methods led to his children’s improved mental acuity and test scores, and suggested he had found a possible key to human psychic performance.
Rhine’s response, that humans don’t learn ESP but rather are born with it, prompted Silva to perform more research based on the result he had seen in his own children. Thirteen years later, the Silva Mind Control Method was founded. It traveled an earnest journey through several decades of weekend workshops and night classes like the one my mother took in Northern New Jersey. My mother is no fool; she wasn’t a hippie or a ne’er-do-well. And yet, despite the strong work ethic of her blue-collar upbringing, she found the Silva classes persuasive and valuable enough to enroll me in the kiddie version even before I could braid my own hair.
I’d like to be able to blame my immersion in today’s personal growth landscape, as a writer and as an intelligent individual, on this choice of hers. But I can’t. The desire to feel exceptionally well, healthy and happy doesn’t get passed down, like old money, from one generation to the next. But it does shape-shift through American culture into provocative and profitable fads, as that populist magical thinking tome “The Secret” has proven. New Thought, New Age, Self-Help, Self-Improvement, Personal Transformation, Personal Growth; the list, and the marketplace, has only grown in the last 100 years. My question is, why?
A recent New York magazine article chronicled this genre’s journey from the margins to the mainstream of publishing with sharp insight. Once the New York publishing world merged self-help with journalism and science writing, the “worried well” became a legitimate readership to target, the article states. In short order, self-help stopped being a joke. To me, marketing strategy doesn’t tell the whole story. I can’t credit my mother’s interest, or my adult interest, or the millions of people who have taken on various Personal Growth systems, whether mindful meditation, positive psychology, even yoga, to the publishing industry’s ability to hook bigger readerships. The truth about why it’s so popular through the ages lies in my mind control summer camp memories. In particular, the direct experience that Silva facilitated for even its youngest participants: the experience of affecting reality. Quite plainly, it is thrilling.
Like many other aspects of my 9-year-old life, I followed my mother’s plans for me — dance classes, Italian lessons, usually without too many questions. When, on a highway drive past shoe outlets and White Castles, she told me I would have the same instructor as she had in her Wednesday night Silva class, a woman named Mimi, I let her enthusiasm carry me through my trepidation. “You’ll play mind-strengthening games,” she said, “and positive thinking exercises. It’s fun. Mimi is just fun.”
I was familiar with “positive thinking.” It had descended on our home a few months earlier. My mother had adopted Mimi’s signature expression for blocking out negative thoughts: Cancel, cancel. It quickly became a mantra she uttered after any casual insult I slung.
“That’s stupid,” I might say.
“Cancel, cancel,” my mother would say.
“The dance studio smells like feet; I don’t care for the meatloaf.”
“Cancel, cancel. Cancel, cancel.”
Clearly, my mother found the Silva class fun. She felt similarly about the Physiological Foundations of Health and Consciousness and Moving Away From Learned Helplessness classes she took at the politically progressive New School for Social Research. But while both styles of education enriched her and applied to her current phase of reinvention, Silva provided the perfect narrative structure for that reinvention: to be better and better, as the mantra went.
Silva’s more practical, do-it-yourself narrative suited not only my mother, who was exiting the heavy lifting years of motherhood and entering the workforce, but much of New York City. Case in point: The New York Times on April 16, 1972, ran a story, “Can Man Control his Mind” on the Silva Method, the first paragraph of which provoked students to at least attempt mind control for years after:
“A visit to a Mind Control class in New York discloses more stockbrokers than bearded way outs and the dress style is closer to Brooks Brothers than to the East Village. A major New York company has sent all its top executives through the course and its president, a hard-headed businessman is seriously thinking of instituting an in-house training program for all employees. He refused to speak for the record, saying, We think there is something there, but I don’t want to alarm our stockbrokers at the moment.”
Silva’s popularity that had begun during my mother’s early parenting years only grew by the time she was ready to re-spin who she was in the world — a woman of the 80s, in the prime of her life. At 9, I was poised to spin a narrative, too — my first one since reaching the age of social awareness, puberty and interest in getting a clue. Girls my age already shifted from telling the truth to telling secrets. Their dorky laughs became the giggles of their older sisters. I felt like I needed a manual for change. It may have been a coincidence, but every exercise of the Silva Method Youth Lecture Series tapped into my human impulse, and maybe that inherently American impulse, to author the exact life I wanted to lead. Very quickly, mind control camp seemed like the only manual I would need.
It helped that the classroom was pristine and corporate, that Mimi looked like she could be my neighbor. I took a seat in the second row and watched her scurry from desk to desk to introduce herself to the reluctant kids. Her speaking voice captured me; she was intense and joyful. I followed her strange directions without hesitation. Close my eyes, imagine the number “3” three times, and then watch it disappear. Then do the same with “2.” Then do the same with “1.”
“Next begin counting backwards from 10. Every time you say a number, see it in your mind. Then see two red lines crossing it out. When you see that red’x,’ say to yourself, ‘Cancel cancel.'”
The room felt quiet and focused, no longer uncertain and adolescent. She guided us back from 10 to one, and the images were easy to imagine. I simply thought of old movie reels where the numbers flickered in black-and-white before the feature. That familiar countdown became my own that day, and when I reached 0, Mimi said, “see yourself in’Your Favorite Place.'” My mother was right. This was fun.
Our favorite place was wherever we felt most at peace, most happy, most alive. I scanned my mind for the right setting — my bedroom, my backyard — but neither location felt right. Home had become a bit of a train station since my mother started working part-time. Laundry was no longer put in my drawers but lay in a pile on the couch for me to fold. Dinner was casseroles, pre-made and ready to heat. Playtime was at other people’s houses. I needed a new environment to be my “happiest, strongest and smartest,” as Mimi cooed. Before I had time to worry about betraying my family, I found a green, expansive and completely private park in which to relax.
“This is your alpha state,” said Mimi, her voice a careful balance between monotonous and strong. “You can do anything here, you can be your best, most powerful, loving self. Choose your guardians now: Two people you trust will help you be your best self.”
My parents, too busy with life, didn’t immediately spring to mind as guardians. Subconsciously I sought to differentiate, so chose an aunt and uncle who recently began selling goods for Amway. They were kind with no children of their own yet, and had showed me plenty of attention. Once, they had taken me aside in my grandparents’ music room to say, with genuine love and care, that I too could “be whatever I wanted to be in this life.” Even at 9, believing such big truths about myself felt a little hokey but, more deeply, it had a transforming effect. A new part of me hatched open and, as if with another set of eyes, I saw my own behavior, my own choices, as a force. It was my first taste of self- empowerment, and I liked it.
There were other empowering choices Mimi asked us to make while in the relaxed alpha state — which is an actual brain state dominated by hypnotic alpha waves. First, it was visualizing our own and other people’s good health. Visualizing auras around my own body; around my parents’ and grandparents’ heads. Visualizing auras around my guardians’ heads.
While in this relaxed, meditative state, I grew skilled at seeing auras light up around the heads of kids and neighbors I knew. I knew an aura was the glowing healing energy common to all living things. I had seen them in religious art, but also live each day when Mimi revealed to us her own.
She was seated at the front of the room, eyes closed after counting herself backward to the alpha state. I stared at her sweet face, lowered eyes, plump cheeks, lips parted. Then, very suddenly, a white circle appeared. It glowed, just like in the DaVinci paintings, around her head’s perimeter. I saw it brighten and then soften depending on where my eyes landed, on her black hair or the green chalkboard behind her. It looked like a faint, gaseous hat.
Her eyes popped open. “Did you see it?”
“I did,” I blurted. “It’s white.”
“You mean blue-ish white,” she corrected.
“No, I think just white.”
“Probably you couldn’t see the blue because of the green chalkboard,” she said.
“I didn’t see it,” chirped someone from the back.
“I saw light purple.”
People were saying conflicting things. Everyone was confused.
“Yes, yes.” Mimi clapped her hands. “It’s often a pale lavender or pale blue. Let’s move on. We’ll try it again tomorrow.”
Our lessons often ended like this.
We learned concentration exercises, some for memory, some for intuition, some for projecting our thoughts. These exercises required us to put three fingers together in what’s known as the Three Fingers Technique — the thumb, index and middle fingers press together to better facilitate or anchor our memory. We were to concentrate on sounds, feelings and, later, when we opened our eyes, vision. We learned to see all details in the room with only our peripheral vision. We practiced transmitting messages to other people while in this concentrated state. We practiced listening to other people’s silent thoughts and feelings. We practiced directing our energy towards good outcomes and towards what we wanted. We practiced rigorously, with the intent to feel better. Often I did—sort of. The elevated, dreamy sensations I carried around after class sometimes confused me. Why didn’t I feel this clear-headed all the time?
As it turns out, there were real chemical reactions and even medicine going on here. Meditation has since been linked to the Relaxation Response — a state that soothes neural structures involved in attention and control of the autonomic nervous system. Distance Healing (which includes seeing auras around loved ones) is a complimentary therapy often used in cardiac and terminally ill patients. As for sending our thoughts out telepathically, doctors on the cutting edge of alternative medicine frequently talk about non-local consciousness (mental activity outside the confines of the brain) as the gap to bridge in healing. I didn’t know it, but many of the Silva exercises of 1980 would become the basis for complimentary medicine 30 years later.
Less medical but no less memorable was the prayer-like saying we were asked to repeat three times at the end of class:
Please read the next post for the rest of this powerful message.
By Suzanne Clores / Source: Salon