Thoughts on Mediums
Stage Magic and Real Magic
I've been thinking a lot about mediums lately, I suppose because I've also been thinking about trying one out. I figure, worse comes to worst, I can always blog about the experience, but if it goes as well as it seems to go on TV, maybe I will learn something.
Another reason I've been thinking about mediums, is that I seem to have a small amount of ability in this area. Things come to me when they do, not on command, and I've never tried to make so much as fifty cents off it, so there's no pressure really. But of course I'm curious as to what it is all about.
Last but not least, I've been thinking about mediums lately because I am more than passing familiar with magic--both the staged kind (rabbits in hats, sawing people in half and so forth), and the more personal psychological kind (rituals, spells, divination, etc), and I've noticed that some mediums in particular look (to me) more like stage magicians than the other kind.
If some of the more high profile mediums are fakes, does that mean that everything about mediumistic ability is fake? Some people would say yes, of course.
I'm not so sure that's the correct conclusion.
Still, I admit to having squeamish feelings about much of it.
So I thought I'd lay them out here.
Stage Magic and Mentalism
Most people are familiar with stage magicians and how they work. Basically, stage magicians are able to amaze and amuse us by controlling the audience's attention and making sure it does not go to the secret at the heart of the trick.
We know stage magic is an illusion, but we don't care, because we are having fun. This consensual setting aside of our knowledge that we are being tricked is called "suspension of disbelief."
We suspend our disbelief to enjoy other forms of entertainment as well, such as horror and fantasy fiction and special effects cinema.
Whether a magic technique is as simple as learning to 'palm' an object or something more intricate, stage magic relies on certain hardwired glitches in human perception that are universal. Some tricks are so tied into these hard-wired illusions that the magician himself will not be able to see the trick if watching it as an observer, even though he knows how it is done.
So don't beat yourself up if you can't see where that ball went. Neither can the guy who hid it. The only difference between you and him is that he KNOWS where it went and you don't.
Mentalism is a form of stage magic in which the performer claims the ability to perform psychic feats such as telepathy, mind control, precognition, psychokinesis, and mediumship. Some mentalists also incorporate hypnotism into their acts.
Most mentalists do not incorporate traditional magic tricks into their acts, but some stage magicians, like David Blaine and David Copperfield, do incorporate aspects of mentalism into their carefully staged illusions.
Stage magicians always pretend to be performing 'real' magic but understand that this is an act and the people they are amazing understand that too. They may profess great powers but they make these claims as part of the entertainment.
Some mentalists have the same attitude. They profess great powers but in private will tell you that everything they do has a perfectly rational explanation, even if it takes great skill to learn how to exploit the techniques used.
Other mentalists claim that what they do onstage is the result of real psychic gifts.
To my somewhat trained eye, mediums like James Van Praagh, John Edwards, and Sylvia Browne seem to fall into this second category. They seem to me to be mentalists who are pretending to be real psychics because it is damned lucrative.
This is the area that, for me, gets queasy and even kind of slimy. Do these folks really believe their own schtick? Or are they exploiting grieving people to make boatloads of money?
I'd be more inclined to cut them some slack IF they weren't indeed making boatloads of money.
But they are making boatloads of money.
My Own Experience as a Reader
I used to read Tarot cards for other people, not for money, but just because I love Tarot cards and I think that reading them can be helpful psychologically.
However, because personal integrity is important to me, I would always explain how Tarot works before starting a reading.
I had a little 'spiel'. It went like this:
"Tarot cards are not magic. A reading can feel magical and amazing, but that is because the symbolic imagery used in the reading connects with unconscious psychological processes of which most people are unaware. When you see these images and I tell you about them, you are simultaneously connecting these images in your own mind to things that are very personal and unique to you, things you might not have put together in that way before. That's why it feels like magic, but it isn't magic . Do you understand?
I never read one single person who gave two hoots about this explanation. Clients tolerated it. Even skeptics, who felt like the whole thing was bunk going in, would sit there drumming their fingers with a big "Whatever" on their snarky faces until I finished.
Then we would do the reading and they'd freak out. Every single one of them.
"How could you know these things? How did you do that?"
"I told you up front how it works. I'm not doing it, you are, remember?"
In fact, I think readings are helpful BECAUSE they enable people to see what is really on their minds and connect it together in ways they can't seem to do consciously. This is a very powerful process and not a fraudulent one. But magic it isn't.
Still, every person I read wanted to insist that it was.
So I quit reading other people, even though I never charged money for it.
It might surprise you to know that my experience is more typical than even I knew at the time. I recall a graduate psychology class I took years later, in which the professor gave us a generic newspaper horoscope and instructed us each to read six different people's palms and give this phrase as the result.
You probably already know the results.
About 8 out of 10 people were impressed by the reading and attributed psychic skills to the 'reader', and what's more, they held onto this view even after being told about the experiment.
It turns out that we human beings really, really, really like to be told stories about ourselves and how we each, personally, fit into the cosmos. We especially like it when others tell us these stories about ourselves, and we don't care how they do it. In fact, I would go so far as to say our liking for this is deep enough to qualify as a real human need.
Which begs the question:
How ethical is it to get rich by fraudulently exploiting this psychological fact?
Shamanism and Real Magic
I'd like to focus in a little bit now on that one part of readings and mediums that I believe is undisputedly real:
Our real human desire to be told meaningful stories about how each of us, individually, fits into this life and this world.
Religion provides one solution.
Religion starts with a meta-story (as in, here's why we are all here and what that's about), a set of rules (here's what you should do and not do while you are here), and some promises (follow these rules and stick with our story and you will get fill-in-the-blank).
Religion rarely gives us the personal version of this meta-story, and if it does, it's a meme--a kind of 'one size fits all' like the newspaper horoscope my professor gave us.
Religion can tell us that good people go to heaven so be good, but it can't say whether Aunt Doris is there and whether she still has bad breath and still holds a grudge about that time you re-gifted her a lime green sweater three sizes too small that she once gave to you.
Before there was religion there was shamanism.
Shamans were usually people in any given tribe who had been to some kind of beyond place and returned with skills to share. Sometimes they went crazy and came back functional. Sometimes they nearly died and came back with an understanding of death and the spirit world.
Often it was some combination of both.
Instead of locking such persons up and medicating them, as we do in our modern world, earlier cultures took these survivors and trained them as shamans--the healers and spirit workers of the tribe, the people here on earth who could tell you not just what WE (the tribe) are doing here, but what YOU the individual are doing here, and what it all means---for you, personally.
Including what's up since Aunt Doris passed over.
We don't really have anything like that in modern culture.
We don't even officially believe anything like that is necessary and desirable, and our mainstream institutions (science, religion, government) spend a good deal of energy explaining why this specific dynamic is unnecessary, undesirable, and fraudulent, even when it is NOT. (As in, for example, my earlier explanation of the very real and non fraudulent use of Tarot readings to midwife a new meaning or direction for the individual being read.)
The champions of reason still insist that since most high-profile mediums are fraudulent, all mediumship is fraudulent and no spirit world exists. That's a logical fallacy, but it seems that it is fine to bend the logic one worships in this particular circumstance.
Just because (in my opinion) James Van Praagh isn't in touch with the spirit world, that doesn't make the spirit world imaginary, and it doesn't negate the very real human need for each individual to find his or her place in a complex life through story and Spirit.
As a result, in our modern world we have a tremendous unmediated gulf between the individual and the social structure. That gulf allows us to put the individual ego in charge (which is a terrible burden for the ego--think Mickey in the Sorcerer's Apprentice), and ends up saying that anything knowable worth being known, and anything doable is worth doing.
When we have no tether that ties our individual actions, through meaning and story, to this material world and the people we live with on it, we get the kind of runaway technology that we have now-- a technology that constantly promises to save us from the last mess it created even as it creates the next bigger one.
I don't believe in spirits so much as I know they are there. But mediating spirit should not be left to hucksters, con artists, ego maniacs, and mental patients. Mediating spirit is a complex, highly trained profession, more of a calling than a job, and few are called.
I have no idea how to fix any of this, but I can see and state the problem straight up.
A real medium or healer will never dun you for $400 or more for an hour reading or claim special powers. Are there any real mediums out there? Yes. I'm sure of it.
But there are way more dragons.
And you know how dragons are.