A field trip to Edgar Cayce’s Association for Research and Enlightenment
By Tammy Buchli, Science & Reason in Hampton Roads
Article ID: 1238
When my local skeptic’s organization (Science & Reason in Hampton Roads) announced a field trip to Edgar Cayce’s Association for Research and Enlightenment in Virginia Beach, I was eager to attend. We planned a full afternoon at the A.R.E. First, an ESP demonstration, and then an educational film about Mr. Cayce, ending with a tour of the Association building. I knew very little about Mr. Cayce before our field trip, and I opted not to do any preparatory research, deciding instead to let the A.R.E. itself serve as Mr. Cayce’s monument.
I arrived at the Association for Research and Enlightenment before the rest of my group and decided to wait in the bookstore. Unsurprisingly, there were a lot of books for sale – turns out there are hundreds of books by or about Mr. Cayce, and most of them are available for sale at the A.R.E. In addition to the books, there was a large display of alternative medicine supplies. There were ear candles, homeopathic remedies and – rather perplexingly – bottles of castor oil in several convenient sizes. Also for sale was an assortment of New Age tchotchkes – suncatchers, dreamcatchers, windchimes, mad varieties of religious statuary, and crystals, crystals, crystals. A pretty pair of crystal earrings caught my eye. But my group had arrived, so I made a mental note to stop in at the bookstore after the tour and buy them.
The ESP demonstration
The ESP demonstration took place in one of the classrooms near the bookstore. As we filed into the classroom, a cheerful and attractive docent handed each of us a sealed manila envelope, a pencil and a form for the ESP test. There was a large dry-erase board at the front of the room covered with handwritten information about ESP. I was surprised to see that Mr. Cayce’s name was misspelled. This did not make me feel optimistic about our docent’s fact-checking abilities. Sure enough, her ESP presentation was characterized by credulity of the most extreme kind. She explained to us that we actually have six senses, not five, and that ESP is our sixth sense. ESP can take several forms, she explained: telepathy (mind reading), precognition (seeing the future), retrocognition (seeing into past lives), and clairvoyance (gaining information without using any of the standard five senses). Edgar Cayce, she told us earnestly, was gifted in all four forms of ESP. This was presented as absolute fact, with no question of controversy: ESP is a sixth sense, it does take these four forms, and Edgar Cayce was gifted in all of them. Period.
Her ‘proofs’ of ESP were also very credulously presented. For instance, when explaining retrocognition, she told us about a trip to Rome which she had taken with her husband. They had visited the Coliseum and, while there, she had been swept by a wave of sadness and despair. To our docent, this was proof of a past life. No other possibility was presented. It is not unusual that a person should feel sad when visiting a place where she knew sad events took place. But no – to our docent, the fact that she was sad at the Coliseum was proof that – in a past life – she had been a lion’s lunch.
Having explained ESP to her satisfaction, our docent moved on to the demonstration. She called our attention to the forms which she had passed out. Each form had several columns with 25 blank spaces. Across the top, there was a row of 5 symbols; a circle, a plus sign, three wavy lines, a square and a star. Then she showed us a deck of large cards, each of which had one of these symbols on it. She explained that she would hold the cards with their backs to us, and look at each symbol for a moment. We were to try to retrieve that symbol from her mind and write it down on our forms. An exact match would count as a ‘hit’ for telepathy; a diagonal match to the previous card would count as a ‘hit’ for retrocognition; and a diagonal match to the next card would count as a ‘hit’ for precognition. The docent was enthusiastic about our scores, announcing that some of us ‘probably’ had telepathic gifts. However, when asked, she did not know what the level of pure chance was given the number of possible hits or misses.
[Below is a scan of the results from Ms. Buchli's test. Click the image to view a larger size.]
On to the clairvoyance test. For this test we got out the sealed manila envelopes which we had been given when we entered the room. The docent told us that each envelope contained a magazine page with a large picture on one side. It was that picture we were supposed to try to ‘read.’ She instructed us to concentrate on our envelopes for a moment, then write the results onto the outside of the envelope before opening it. I grabbed at a random thought and wrote that down. I wrote ‘Sicily,’ probably because the earlier discussion about the Coliseum had reminded me of my own visit to Rome, which took place while I was stationed in Sicily with the Navy. When I opened the envelope, though, my picture was revealed to be one of a group of Fiji islanders rowing a canoe. The docent suggested that this was a partial hit – after all, Sicily and Fiji are both islands!
The film about Edgar Cayce
I was eager to see the film about Edgar Cayce’s life. As I said before, I knew very little about him and had done no preliminary research. According to the film, our docent was correct – Mr. Cayce was gifted in all forms of ESP. In addition to his ESP powers, he was also a healer. He healed himself after a bout of muteness, and he healed his wife of tuberculosis. He would put himself into a trance, and then answer questions put to him in person, or read from letters which people sent to him. These trances gained him his nickname as “the Sleeping Prophet.” More than 14,000 of these readings have been recorded and saved at the A.R.E., and they form the core of his body of work, which includes prophecies, medical advice, dream interpretations and past life readings.
It came as no surprise to discover that the film treated this information about Mr. Cayce as absolutely true and above reproach. Watching the film, I found myself with plenty of questions. Was his wife undergoing any conventional treatment when he healed her? Was her diagnosis firm, or was it possible she was suffering from a less serious disease that merely looked like tuberculosis? What about those trances? Was Mr. Cayce ever tested to be sure he was really unconscious? And his prophecies? Were any of them correctly interpreted before the events they foretold took place? Or were they all retrofitted after the fact? None of these questions were answered (or even raised) by the film.
The last word in the film was given to Mr. Cayce, with a quote from his autobiography: “I have nothing to sell and am seeking only to be of help.” A lovely sentiment, which was only slightly dented by the fact that our docent, as soon as the film ended, began a pitch for paid membership to the A.R.E., which is indeed for sale and costs around $50 a year.
The tour of the Association for Research and Enlightenment
Our field trip was winding down; all that remained was the tour, which began with a stop at the A.R.E. Health Center and Spa. The Health Center and Spa features such typical day-spa offerings as facials and massages, as well as more metaphysical selections such as Dream Counseling, Inner Life Coaching and Therapeutic Touch. Several of the offerings included castor oil packs. This cleared up a lingering mystery for me – earlier, at the bookstore, I had wondered what was up with the bottles of castor oil I’d seen for sale. Turns out, Mr. Cayce’s health care recommendations frequently require castor oil. As we continued the tour, our docent pointed out that A.R.E. members would receive discounts on spa services.
Our next stop was to a very special exhibit: the uncomfortable-looking daybed on which Mr. Cayce had reclined while doing his readings. We also visited several classrooms in this section of the building. Our docent was careful to tell us that a paid membership with the A.R.E. would allow us to attend classes on a variety of metaphysical subjects taught by A.R.E. experts, and would entitle us to a discount on any A.R.E. conferences we would like to attend.
Then we proceeded upstairs to the Meditation Room, a large, peaceful room with an almost aggressively ecumenical mix of god and goddess iconography, and a terrific view of Virginia Beach. Our docent remarked that paid membership would allow us unlimited use of the Meditation Room and access to the free meditation classes given there.
As we moved through the building, sampling these delights, our docent kept tossing out bits of information loaded with the sort of credulity we had come to expect from her. As we passed a series of framed pencil drawings she told us that they were drawings of Lemuria, by one of their “Lemurian experts.” She spoke of Lemuria as if it was San Francisco or Cincinnati, instead of a legendary lost continent with even less credibility than Atlantis. Later, as we passed a number of wooden desks with boxes on top, she pointed out that these were ESP testing boxes used in the “famous Duke University ESP study.” She did not mention that the A.R.E. has access to these boxes because academic interest in parapsychology has been waning since the 1980s. Duke University halted its PSI experiments in 1965. As a rider to this, she told us that the A.R.E. had found that Indigo Children were particularly gifted at ESP, speaking as if the existence of ‘Indigo children’ were a recognized psychological phenomenon instead of an unproved New Age trend with no scientific validity.
The A.R.E. library and Edgar Cayce’s readings
The last stop on our tour was the library, which features one of the largest collections of metaphysical literature in the world. The core of the collection, our docent told us, was Mr. Cayce’s personal library, augmented over the years by other collections willed or donated to the A.R.E. Our docent said that members of the A.R.E. were allowed to borrow books from the collection as from a lending library.
Finally, we approached the cherry on the A.R.E. sundae: Edgar Cayce’s actual readings. These are collected into an impressive number of loose-leaf binders, indexed and cross referenced. Along a nearby wall, our docent pointed out a large filing cabinet. In this cabinet, she told us, were copies of all of the readings which pertained to health. She showed us an index which listed, by condition or disorder, all of the health-related readings. If you wanted to find information about a particular condition, you could look it up in the index and find all of the readings about that condition collected in a single folder in the cabinet. Thinking of my daughter, who has Cerebral Palsy, I wondered aloud whether or not Mr. Cayce had done any readings on Cerebral Palsy. Someone passed me the index and I looked it up. There were, indeed, several readings under Cerebral Palsy, subcategorized under “Abnormal Children.”
It was right then that I stopped having fun.
I was not offended by the terminology – Mr. Cayce died in 1945 and I could not fault him for using language which would have been common in his day. No, the fun stopped because I suddenly realized that each of those 14,000 readings represented an actual person. This was a person with a disabled child, an illness or some type of problem. This was a person who chose to spend their money, time and resources to seek help from Edgar Cayce, the Sleeping Prophet, who was almost certainly 100% unqualified to help them. And because they spent their money, time and resources on Mr. Cayce, they would have had less money, time and resources to devote to things which might actually have been of some benefit.
It was almost as depressing as a visit to the Coliseum.
Fortunately for me, the tour was over. Our docent – still as chipper and pleasant as ever – thanked us for coming and invited us to explore the library before we left. Usually this would have been an attractive prospect to me – I’m generally happy to explore a library of any kind. But on this day, I just wanted to go home.
As I left the building, I passed the bookstore and thought briefly of the crystal earrings I had coveted.
I didn’t stop to buy them.