They arrive bearing forks and spoons -- a retired secretary, management consultant, supermarket cashier, Foreign Service employe, a public relations executive -- intent not on a feast but a feat. Twenty men and women, seated in folding chairs in the Arlington YMCA, have paid $50 each to learn how to bend silverware with their minds.

Meditative music of Brother Charles emanates from a tape deck. An assistant rechecks the registrant list and positions a stool on the small stage.

"It's wake-up time folks," declares Diana Gazes, leaving no doubt about who is in charge. "And that's what bending is all about . . . What the human mind can conceive, we can achieve."

The former CBS advertising executive traded in her blue pinstripes eight years ago for the baggy white-cotton pants and running shoes she wears for her seminars. As a cheerleader of the new age, she energizes crowds to a full 10 on the Retton Scale, hosts her own cable TV show ("Gazes Into the Future") and has been known, she says, to even get people to bend spoons on radio programs.

She says her New York firm, Gazes Productions, consults corporations on future trends. And for the past 10 months, she has toted hundreds of eating utensils around the country, all to be abused by participants in three-hour personal-development, pep rally workshops she calls "The Metal-Bending Experience."

Four people raise their hands when Gazes asks if anyone can see auras. Using metal dowsing rods, she demonstrates the electromagnetic energy fields of two volunteers. A series of deep-breathing techniques leads to a guided visualization exercise borrowed from yoga meditation: "See the white light shower . . . The golden light of spiritual peace comes into your head, to your heart . . ."

Gazes talks the intensifying energy through participants' shoulders and down their arms . . . fingers turn white, tightening with anticipation on a single spot of a spoon or fork held forehead high by both hands. She inches the power to the fingertips . . . and then shouts, "Everybody now, bend! Bend! Bend!"

A moment of collective uncertainty is interrupted by giggles of astonishment, a yelp of excitement across the room. A woman stands up looking awed by what she has done to the tines of a fork. Others are twisting spoons and forks as if they were fresh licorice.

"The human species is making an evolutionary jump . . ." Gazes tells the group. "What this is about is Godship training. We are becoming masters of the physical plane."

Paranormal power or sleight of mind?

On the heels of the firewalking phenomenon that a year ago heated debate over psychic and extrasensory powers of the mind, metalbending has reemerged as a popular parlor sport of parapsychology.

A Miami newspaper recently showed a picture of a blissful woman cupping deformed forks and spoons in her hands with the headline, "Minds Take a New Bent." A Manhattan corporate president erected a statue of mangled stainless utensils outside his office to inspire his staff "to see how possible the impossible is." A tape of a Tokyo metalbending seminar is said to have been banned from TV to protect Japan's fork and spoon supply.

What happens when someone bends a spoon with the mind, explains Gazes, is that mental focusing opens a "window of time" for a few seconds, making the metal warm and soft. It bends with little effort -- until the window slams shut again.

Eighty-five percent of her workshop participants bend, she says, adding that about one person in every five "experiences spontaneous bending" -- when the utensil held in one hand seemingly doubles over by itself.

Skeptics denounce this as bunk.

Only two types of pressure are exerted, they argue, at metalbending workshops: physical pressure and peer pressure.

"These people want to believe they can bend metal," says Ray Hyman, a University of Oregon psychologist specializing in the psychology of belief.

He labels metalbending a disassociative experience in which participants are distracted from reality. "Someone who is sort of dynamic or charismatic gets them into the mood. The people are doing the bending, but they feel it is an outside force. The same happens with Ouija boards, divining rods, magic pendulums and firewalking."

The professional magician-turned psychologist, who was sent by the Pentagon in 1972 to investigate the key-bending and watch-stopping Uri Geller ("a wonderful con artist"), stops short of applying the same label to today's psychic practitioners. He and other skeptics generally claim that those teaching extrasensory, paranormal and fringe science techniques labeled "psi" are themselves True Believers and not conscious deceivers, victims also of illusion. But their beliefs, argues Hyman, have no scientific footing.

"Show me a man with both feet on the ground," counters Gazes, "and I'll show you a man who can't get his pants off."

The battle between Skeptics and True Believers is pitched and passionate. True Believers argue that they explore the potential of humankind, unrestricted by close-minded concepts and physical laws that quantum physics is proving to be flawed.

"This is 21st-century training," pronounces Gazes, "teaching the art as well as the mechanics of accessing untapped intuitive skills, improving our decision-making abilities to master these challenging times."

Skeptics declare paranormal claims as hocus-pocus, irrational imaginings.

Both sides point to a 1984 Gallup poll of 506 American teens aged 13 to 18, asked what items on a list of paranormal phenomena they believed in. The results: Angels, 69 percent; ESP, 59 percent; astrology, 55 percent; clairvoyance, 28 percent; Bigfoot, 24 percent; witchcraft, 22 percent; ghosts, 20 percent; Loch Ness monster, 18 percent.

True believers argue the proof is in numbers. Skeptics concede widespread acceptance of paranormal claims by the public, but point to rational reasons.

"In the late 20th century, there is a lot of nonscientific and antiscientific belief -- these self-help, self-realization, get-in-tune-with-your-inner-self things are epidemic in America now," says Kendrick Frazier, editor of The Skeptical Inquiry, a quarterly publication of the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP).

The Buffalo, N.Y., committee celebrates 10 years next month of encouraging a scientific approach, applying what Frazier calls a healthy skepticism and critical thinking, not "hopes and wishful thinking."

True Believers view CSICOP as driven by the credo: "If you can't measure it, it doesn't exist."

* "People seem to need a feeling that there are forces of mysterious powers that guide their lives," says Frazier, 43, comparing that tendency to ascribe occult, hidden or unknown causes of modern events to the primitives who believed prayer and sacrifice would pacify the volcano diety.

Metalbending, he says, "reminds me of the fad in the 19th century called 'table tipping' or 'table turning.' They'd put their hands on a table and lo and behold, the tables would start turning, and they were all astonished. They thought it was being done by psychic power. Experiments showed the table was being turned by the muscular force of their hands."

Paul Kurtz, 60, professor of philosophy at the State University of New York, Buffalo, and founder and chairman of CSICOP, compares the self-deception he says fuels paranormal belief to professional wrestling. "People get taken up as part of the drama. When you go to a wrestling match, people know it is fake, but they get caught up in it anyway."

Yale University emeritus psychology Prof. Irvin Child -- who seemingly straddles both sides of the debate -- questions the legitimacy of some psi experiences, but defends parapsychology, the study of psychic phenomena.

"It is a branch of scientific endeavor and not a question of believing or unbelieving," says the former president of the Parapsychology Association, an international organization of psychologists, physicists and other scientists. "There is a lot of sober research being done . . . There's enough evidence that there is something going on here. But some people are so convinced that there is nothing happening that they can't be sympathetic to anybody trying to research these phenomena."

"I bent a spoon all right," he says about attending a metalbending workshop, "and it was interesting enough that I'd like to bend some more. But my feeling was that possibly I was coming to disregard normal experience and I didn't realize I was pressuring that spoon as hard as I actually was."

"Closed scientific minds," says Pete Sanders, is why he turned down an invitation to attend Harvard Medical School 14 years ago after graduating summa cum laude in "biomedical chemistry and brain science" at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Instead, he returned to his native West Coast to establish a psi educational foundation.

"People who want to explore this area should be able to do it practically, safely and without worry about fraud," says Sanders, 34, of Free Soul, the nonprofit organization based in Sedona, Ariz., through which he attempts "to teach the public ($5 a workshop) to teach itself about these things." enon is growing -- and so is the evidence.

"When I was at MIT, biofeedback and acupuncture was a big 'Huh? Naw, there's nothing to it.' We didn't know anything about endorphines, a chemical the brain produces that have been proven to be a natural painkiller.

"And if doctors had said in public, 'I'm telling terminally ill cancer children to imagine little bugs in their body eating up those cancer cells,' they would have been kicked out of the profession. But they're doing all of that now. Do they know why it works? No. But it works.

"I could be wrong, but I don't think you could get any responsible scientist to say that we know everything there is to know about the brain and about human potential. We're learning how unlimited the human mind is."

While Sanders admits all psi phenomena is not equally valid, the Skeptics, he says, make a critical error in demanding replication of psi experiments in the scientific laboratory.

"The lab is a lousy environment compared to life. What we're saying is we know this is a totally unexplored field. So explore it. Be your own pioneer in this field -- without getting ripped off at $500 for a course, or selling your soul to some cult. But don't wait l0 years from now when a report comes out and says, 'It's for real.' "

Recent research on belief in astrology at Lawrence University, Appleton, Wis., suggests it could take a miracle to heal the rift between Skeptics and True Believers.

"The nature of believers," says Lawrence University psychologist Peter Glick, "is that their belief is motivated by the desire to control the world and to predict the world . . . People who crave that sort of simplification can't tolerate ambiguity. They want things in black and white. When you have something that people would really want to believe, you have to be that much more careful in investigating it.

"One thing we concluded is that it is very difficult to argue with a Believer because they see things in ways to fit their own theory. Skeptics are data-driven and slightly more likely to change their minds . . . although I wouldn't say they always perceive things totally accurately."

In the upcoming (Spring 1986) edition of The Skeptical Inquirer, science-fiction writer Isaac Asimov makes an impassioned call to "fight to the death" extreme "fringers."

"I am quite commonly asked a question like this: 'Dr. Asimov, you are a scientist. Tell me what you think of the transmigration of souls? Or life after death, or of UFOs, or of astrology . . .'

"The temptation is great to say that, as a scientist, I am of the belief that what they are asking is a crock of unmitigated nonsense -- but that is just a matter of supplying them with another kind of authoritative statement . . . they will just grow hostile.

"Instead, I invariably say, 'I'm afraid that I don't know of a single scrap of scientific evidence that supports the notion . . .

"Inspect every piece of pseudoscience," says Asimov, "and you will find a security blanket, a thumb to suck, a skirt to hold . . ."

Says Hyman: "It is very hard to find people on either side that I would consider rational. Just bring up the subject and they suddenly behave like babbling idiots." ESP lecture and training methods demonstration with Pete Sanders, March 27, Tysons Corner Marriott, 7:30 p.m., $5 admission. For information on Diane Gazes' Metalbending Workshops in Washington: (703) 528-5740. For information or subscription to The Skeptical Inquiry: Central Park Station, Box 229, Buffalo, N.Y. 14215-0229.