Exploring the Afterlife

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Research Affiliate, School of Anthropology and Museum Ethnography, Oxford University. Member of Wolfson College, Oxford

Saturday, 18 February 2023

Working with Angels: Energy Healing and Spiritual Pathways | Fiona Bowie

Working with Angels  You Tube video of powerpoint with audio.

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Saturday, 31 October 2020

Living Mountains: Gunzburg and Brady Book Launch 30 Oct 2020

 Gunzburg and Brady Book Launch 30 Oct 2020 Space, Place and Religious Landscapes: Living Mountains. I have a chapter on ‘Mountains as sources of power in seen and unseen worlds’ and give a short presentation of it on the video. I focus on the contribution of the channeled mediumship of Lady Cynthia Sandys and the communications from her brother Joe and daughter Pat on the power of mountains as see from the Afterlife, focusing on the mountain Joe refers to by its English name, Everest, and Mount Fuji in Japan.

Darrelyn Gunzburg wrote: For those who could not be with us and would like to hear short introductions to the works contained within this volume, here is the recording from last night's launch with Bernadette Brady, Frank Prendergast, Anna Estaroth, Jon Cannon, Fiona Bowie and Alan Ereira.

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Tuesday, 26 November 2019

Making Space for Psi

Making Space for Psi
Society for Psychical Research Study Day no.78
London 16.11.2019
Review by Fiona Bowie (SAME, Oxford University)

Bernard Carr introduced the Study Day on ‘Making Space for Psi’ with a tribute to John Raymond Smithies (1922-2019), a neuropsychiatrist, neuroscientist and neurophilospher who pioneered the scientific study of psychedelics and their effects on the brain, who also looked at psychic phenomena. His first book in 1956, The Analysis of Perception (London: RKP) tackled the mind-brain problem and proposed a theory of  ‘extended materialism’. In 1967 he edited a volume on Science and ESP (London: RKP, republished 2008), which included contributions from some of the most respected philosophers and scientists of the day. In his introductory chapter, ‘Is ESP Possible?’ Smithies wrote:

It is the province of natural science to investigate all phenomena in nature impartially and without prejudice…. During the last eighty years there has been a good deal of research into these so-called ‘paranormal’ events. Many spontaneous cases have been studied and scientists have developed experimental methods of investigation… The results of all this work, it is generally agreed by even the severest critics, have led us in 1966 to the following position. We must either accept the validity of these phenomena or hold that all the workers reporting positive results (in experiments that stand up to the severest procedural analysis) are guilty of deliberate and often extremely ingenious and collective fraud (1967:1-2). 

He goes on to ask why, if this is the case, many scientists continue to reject even the possibility of ESP, without bothering to investigate the facts. The problem, he concludes, is the lack of conventional scientific hypotheses to explain ESP – it poses a challenge to materialist science and it would require a paradigm shift to accommodate the evidence. He proposes several possible hypotheses to account for ESP that require investigation. If the materialist conception of human personality cannot be made to fit the empirical evidence available, he argues, ‘we shall have to conclude that Psychical Research is one of the most important branches of investigation which the human mind  has ever undertaken’ (45).
            That a new paradigm is necessary and long overdue can be seen from the fact that over fifty years after the publication of Science and ESP one of the UK’s leading popular science journals, New Scientist, faced with the ubiquity of afterlife beliefs, rehearses some theories of innate evolved cognition and the failure to imagine non-existence, but offers no discussion of evidence for non-local consciousness. The idea that people might believe in an afterlife because they have experienced it (perhaps many times) and can access it an altered state of consciousness, whether through the use of psychedelics, in mystical or out-of-body states, through mediumship or hypnosis, is still an anathema. The only explanation proffered in relation to near-death experience is oxygen starvation – a theory that does not begin to stand up scrutiny and which can be easily dismissed. No scholars working on these areas from a non-materialist or open-minded perspective are cited (Graham Lawton, ‘Lure of the afterlife’, NS 23 Nov 2019:40-41). This is typical of virtually all mainstream science publications, which remain determinedly and reductively materialist. It seems that ESP or Psi has yet to carve out a space in contemporary science. The aim of this study day was to review of the progress, or lack of progress, for psi in various scientific disciplines.

David Luke, a senior lecturer in psychology at Greenwich University in London, gave the opening talk on ‘Space for psi from neuroscience’. The good news is that after a hiatus of nearly half a century in research on the effects of psychedelics in human subjects, there is a project underway involving UCL, Cardiff and Bristol universities on clinical and neurological aspects of psychedelic drugs. One interesting result with psilocybin (magic mushrooms) is that it causes a decrease in activity in the ego-related brain centres but increased connectivity between brain regions. Another unexpected result concerns the effects of DMT with people who are congenitally blind, some of whom report visual experiences and an enhanced ability to navigate their surroundings. This might have parallels in the ways in which hypnosis or mediumship can mask or enhance physical symptoms or characteristics. One of the most striking examples of the latter is the mediumistic healer Raymond Brown, who channels Paul of Tarsus. Raymond has very poor eye sight and wears thick glasses, but when channelling Paul, he has excellent sight and no need of glasses. The results so far of the work on psychedelics suggests that rather than producing consciousness the brain acts as a receiver. Normal conscious brain states act as a filtering mechanism or reducing valve. ASCs have the effect of removing or decreasing this filtering mechanism, giving access to a much broader range of experience.

Chris Roe, a professor of psychology at Northampton University and current President of the SCR, spoke on the ‘Space for psi from psychology’. Chris presented a survey of current psychic research, some of which points to a ‘noise-reduction’ model – psi is everywhere with the brain acting as a filter. Meditation before taking part in psi experiments has been shown to improve results. One of the more bizarre (from a standard scientific perspective) but widely observed and commonplace psychic faculties is pre-cognition. This facility would have clear evolutionary advantages, but demonstrating it requires some ingenious experimental designs. Dean Radin, for example, has tested autonomic pre-cognitive reactions in laboratory tests, and Daryl Bem designed an experiment in which people were more likely to choose a favourable future image. Chris Roe also cited W.E. Cox’s seminal (1956) article on subliminal precognition, published in the Journal of the American Society for Psychical Research  (‘Precognition: An Analysis’, 50:3, 99-109). Cox correlated data on train accidents and carriage occupation, and argued that there was a small but measurable correlation between lower occupancy rates and rail accidents, suggesting that some people had a subliminal foreknowledge of disaster and avoided travelling on specific trains or days. While not without criticism (see, for example, Adrian David Nelson’s review of this and other more recent studies), it remains a rare example of a naturalistic as opposed to laboratory account of precognition. After reviewing current work on psi, Chris turned his attention to explanatory paradigms, mentioning in particular Jim Carpenter’s First Sight, which argues that far from being ‘para’, faculties such as telepathy, clairvoyance and other psychic phenomena are normal, natural and part of the human endowment. 

First Sight offers a new understanding of what psi is. It proposes that psi is a primary aspect of an organism’s engagement with an extended universe of meaning that is carried out perpetually and almost entirely unconsciously. In the most basic terms, psi is the direct, unconscious expression of unconscious intention as it is engaged with things that are outside the sensory boundaries of the organism. If the expression is an effect upon the organism’s own experience and behavior, and parts of reality distant from the organism are consulted in the process, we speak of this as extrasensory perception: the receptive or afferent side of psi. If the expression is an effect upon parts of reality outside the ordinary sensory boundaries of the organism, and no ordinary physical action upon those things is involved, we call it psychokinesis, the active or efferent psi domain. 

The First Sight model is based upon a pair of related analogies. They can be expressed in the form of questions. What if ESP is like subliminal perception? What if psychokinesis is like unconsciously but psychologically meaningful expressive behaviors? These two things can be seen to imply each other. Subliminal perception (and ESP) can only be discerned by the inadvertent but meaningful behavior that it evokes. Inadvertent behavior can only be seen to be psychologically meaningful by virtue of the unconscious events (subliminal or extrasensory) that have evoked them. 

Carpenter sees the Ego-Self – consciousness, as the centre of an increasingly non-local field of information. As the quotation above suggests, Carpenter argues that much of what we think of as ESP works at an unconscious, subliminal level. Personality and experience can act to block or enhance our capacity to see, which could explain some of the positive and statistically significant but negative results of some psi experiments with gifted psychics on the one hand and arch sceptics on the other. Another suggestion is that the direction of attention can have a future weighting (which begins to sound much like the popular and ancient teachings of the Law of Attraction). So we are left with two models of psi, one conscious and one unconscious, which are not necessarily alternatives, both of which require further research.

The third speaker, Rupert Sheldrake, made the case for the ‘Space for psi from biology’. The starting point was the many unsolved problems in biology that require some kind of psychic explanation, such as the coordination of social groups, whether it be a school of fish, a flock of birds, or a termite mound. The processes involved in communication and coordination in ‘superorganisms’ are still not known (pheromones cannot explain the role of a queen bee or ant, for example). Sheldrake argued that some form of telepathy or similar psi explanation is necessary to make sense of many common but poorly understood biological phenomena. As Frederick W.H. Myers understood when he coined the term ‘telepathy’, it is not thought but feeling that appears to communicate most clearly across space and time. In experiments with lactating mothers, for example, they began to express milk when at work at a time when their child at home was crying or distressed. This was a physiological and not a conscious response. They would then think of the infant, and perhaps ring or travel home, but the conscious reaction was secondary to the unconscious physical one – suggestive of Carpenter’s theory of First Sight (above). Another series of well-known experiments conducted by Rupert Sheldrake involved the sense of being stared at. This ability to know when one is the subject of attention, even over a CCTV camera, is common and innate, much as prey animals sense when they are being stalked. Another set of experiments involved homing pigeons. Existing theories suggest that they use the earth’s magnetic field and physical landmarks to find their pigeon loft. This may well be the case but is not the whole story. Rupert Sheldrake found that even when the loft was situated on a moving target such as a boat, the pigeons were still able to find it. The conclusion must be that there is some other, additional force at work to help them locate ‘home’. Perhaps this force or connection is what is at play when animals such as dogs and cats follow their owners to a new home that they have never visited? 

The Scottish medium Gordon Smith tells the story of a friend who had a strong telepathic bond with his dogs. On one occasion he lost one of his collies when walking in a forest. The trees were so dense that sound didn’t travel more than a few yards. After several hours of fruitless driving around looking for and calling the dog he returned to the area in which she had disappeared. He turned off the engine of his car and stood in the dark sending out thoughts to Bess, the missing collie, telling her that he was there and would wait for her. At a certain point he knew that the dog had got his message and that he needed to wait a bit longer. After 15 minutes an exhausted, bedraggled Bess appeared. The dog told him telepathically that she had quickly realised she was lost. She had picked up his thoughts earlier in the day but by the time she reached the spot he had driven off. Eventually she had picked up his thought signal again and had managed to make her way to him. Gordon Smith adds that it was the owner’s fear that she was probably picking up (Gordon Smith, The Amazing Power of Animals, Hay House, 2015, pp.147-151).

Although Rupert Sheldrake didn’t mentioned it, I was reminded of Cleve Backster’s experiments with plants and telepathic communication. If plants wired up to sensors respond to an ‘owner’s’ thoughts or to a forester entering the room, then we should not be surprised that animals can similarly react, even if we don’t know the mechanisms for this communication. I used to observe with cockroaches and ants who ran across my house (in West Africa and the UK respectively) that it was enough to think about killing them for them to scatter. The cockroaches would stop waving their antennae at me and scuttle for cover, and ants would break their busy disciplined two-way line from outside the house to a kitchen cupboard and spread out across the floor. It was so consistent and repeatable – their actions responding to my intention and not to my picking up a broom or brush and pan.  I could only surmise that these creatures possessed some primitive but effective means of reading my mind.

When it comes to making space for psi, Sheldrake’s contribution to communicating his ideas and devising experiments involving the general public has been exemplary. He has also been at the receiving end of more criticism than most scientists, whether die-hard sceptics who refuse to examine the evidence, or the scientific  and general media who find it easier to ridicule what they find threatening or don’t understand. There may be a paradigm shift underway but there is still some distance to travel before Sheldrake’s ideas, however much they correspond to phenomenological experience of the world,  find general acceptance within academia. 

Bernard Carr, Emeritus Professor of Mathematics and Astronomy at Queen Mary College, University of London, updated the audience on the ‘Space for psi from physics’. Carr talked about the need to go beyond standard quantum theory and develop a new paradigm. We were introduced to the long and impressive list of respected scientific forebears who had made notable contributions to the study of psychic phenomena, including men such as Balfour Stewart (1828-1887) the Scottish meteorologist and geophysicist, noted for his studies of terrestrial magnetism, Lord Rayleigh (John William Strutt, 1842-1919), who won the Nobel Prize in physics in 1904, and Frederick Stratton (1881-1960), a Cambridge astrophysicist who made a study of hauntings. It would seem that the space for psi has diminished rather than expanded in many ways, certainly if attacks such as those by Arthur Reber and James Alcock are anything to go by. In a recent review of Etzel Cardeña’s article in American Psychologist (July-August 2018, ‘The Experimental Evidence for Parapsychological Phenomena: A Review), Reber and Alcock argue not on the facts of the case, the scientific evidence, but from the presupposition that parapsychological claims cannot  be true as accepting them would involve a departure from the standard science model. The oft repeated claim that scientists follow the evidence and build their theories accordingly, changing them when new data contradicts the standard paradigm, clearly has its limits. Indeed, Thomas Kuhn showed how hard it is to change a standard paradigm and the degree inertia that a model and its supporters represent. 

While the paper bothered us on several levels, our primary concern was that it was symptomatic of a larger, more important issue that was being missed. It is not a matter of reviewing the existing database, scratching at the marginal and highly suspect findings of meta-analyses for something that passes the “< .05” cutoff point. It is not a matter of rummaging around in arcane domains of theoretical physics for plausible models. It is more basic than that: parapsychology’s claims cannot be true. The entire field is bankrupt—and has been from the beginning. Each and every claim made by psi researchers violates fundamental principles of science and, hence, can have no ontological status.
We did not examine the data for psi, to the consternation of the parapsychologist who was one of the reviewers. Our reason was simple: the data are irrelevant. We used a classic rhetorical device, adynaton, a form of hyperbole so extreme that it is, in effect, impossible. Ours was “pigs cannot fly”—hence data that show they can are the result of flawed methodology, weak controls, inappropriate data analysis, or fraud. Examining the data may be useful if the goal is to challenge the veracity of the findings but has no role in the kinds of criticism we were mounting. We focused not on Cardeña specifically but on parapsychology broadly. We identified four fundamental principles of science that psi effects, were they true, would violate: causality, time’s arrow, thermodynamics, and the inverse square law.  
Arthur S. Reber, James E. Alcock, ‘Why Parapsychological Claims Cannot Be True’, Skeptical Inquirer, 43:4, July/August 2019.

Cosmic urobos
After some fascinating exploration of the cosmic urobos, in which life increases by a factor of ten in twelve steps, and Einstein on a fourth dimension, via Daniel Dennett’s insistence that ‘We are all zombies, nobody is conscious’, the audience was treated to possible explanations of psi from the perspective of physics. These included transmission models of telepathy, which still beg the question as to what or where is the transmitter or receptor area in the brain; biophysical models, which tend to be too subtle to be measured directly; and quantum theory, which suffers from an explanatory gap between the molecular scale and people. Despite this problem many scientists are convinced that there is ‘something’ that links QT and psi, and Bernard Carr surveyed some of the work on non-locality of consciousness, the interconnectedness of everything, one-mind, and filter theories, by scholars and writers such as Dean Radin, Henry Stapp, William Braud, Thomas Edison, Margaret Mahler, Ervin Lazlo, Aldous Huxley, Larry Dossey, Johann Zöllner, Russell Targ, Harold Puthoff, and Burkhard Heim, with his 12 Dimensional universe. One of Bernard Carr’s conclusions was that neither perception nor memory are located in the brain, and that the filter theory of the brain makes more sense than the view that conscious processes are generated and stored there. The fascinating speculations on the nature of space and time, their location and intersections with our world and other dimensions, were themes pursued in different ways by our last two speakers.

Jan Pilotti, who joined us from Stockholm in Sweden, is also a mathematician and theoretical physicist as well as a medical doctor and psychiatrist. Pilotti spoke on the ‘Space for perception, memory and psi’,  pointing out that the brain is not  the most complex thing in the universe, as is often stated. The most complex thing is a group of brains. We were introduced to scholars working on the metaphysics of the brain, starting with Gustaf Stromberg’s The Soul of the Universe from the 1930s, and Australian philosopher David Chalmers influential inaugural lecture at the Toward a Science of Consciousness conference in 2013. Chalmers favours a panpsychist model of consciousness – there is a little bit of consciousness everywhere. Swedish professor of cognitive neuroscience and psychologist Antti Revonsuo, in Foundations of Consciousness (2017) attempts to explain phenomena such as dreams, out-of-body and mystical experiences from a biological and neuroscientific perspective. At the other end of the spectrum Pilotti recommended Anita Moorjani’s very personal account of a near-death experience and subsequent miraculous healing and life reorientation in her book Dying to be Me  (2012), in which she wrote that during her NDE she felt all moments at once, past present and future, simultaneously. This led onto a discussion of future possible worlds, precognition and the ontological status (or lack of it) for the future, psychometry as a coupling through space and time and notions of an information universe. The role of NDEs and what they can tell us about space and time was the subject of our last talk of the day.

Jean-Pierre Jourdan is a medical doctor and director of IANDS- France (the International Association for Near-Death Studies), and was given the topic ‘Space for psi from near-death experiences’. He too is interested in space and the need for an ‘extra dimension’ to make sense of the out-of-body descriptions of the time during clinical death of those reporting NDEs. Based on numerous interviews and case studies, Jourdan argues that the point of perception in these cases makes most sense if we posit a fifth dimension. In one case, for example, someone described seeing and being able to read a plaque with an inscription that was under the table, covered by a sheet, on which their body lay. This was subsequently verified. The relationships between objects in a room are maintained in relation to one another but the NDEer in their out-of-body state can see them all at once, from different angles, inside and outside, simultaneously. Many of the examples used, and the arguments for an extra dimension, can be found in Jean-Pierre Jourdan’s article in the Journal of Cosmology ‘Near Death Experiences and the 5th Dimensional Spatio-Temporal Perspective’ (2011:14, 4734-4762).  Some NDEers report exploring their surroundings by turning their attention to an object or place and find that they can zoom in on it. There is no real sense of displacement, more a redirection of attention that is sufficient to bring something into closer view. Those who choose to explore further afield describe the sensation of passing through closed doors, ceilings or walls. Others find that a slight shift of perspective is sufficient to ‘see everything from all sides simultaneously’ without any real movement. Normally solid objects seem to become transparent and can be seen from all sides at once, inside and out. Also common is an experience of timelessness, ‘no body, no time’. 

To summarize, the particularities that we have reviewed could lead one to suppose that consciousness could be the result of some interactions between 4D and 5D phenomena and/or universes, an hypothesis we cannot simply dismiss and that is considered very seriously by some neuroscientists (Smythies 1994, 2003) and cosmologists (Carr 2008) as well as philosophers (Droulez 2010). (Jourdan, 2011)

This conclusion to Jourdin’s article above, with its tribute to John Smythies, brings us nicely back to where we started. If nothing else, the wealth of experience and scholarship that has accrued since Smythies’ pioneering work attests that many people within academia do make space for psi and that different disciplines appear to be coming closer in their observations, even if we do not, as yet, have a single, convincing answer to the challenges posed by psychic phenomena.

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Saturday, 23 November 2019

The Awakening Letters

I was looking through old data sticks and came across this presentation from 2010 on the mediumship of Lady Cynthia Sandys, a remarkable non-professional English medium. Her published work is still available second hand, and I hope will one day be republished.
Click on the link to access the file on Scribd.

The Awakening Letters: The Mediumship of Cynthia Sandys

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Thursday, 1 February 2018

Skill and Scale in Transnational Mediumship

Skill and Scale in Transnational Mediumship
Conference at the a.r.t.e.s. Graduate School, University of Cologne, Germany, 25-26 September 2017.

Abstract of my presentation

Fiona Bowie
Spirit Release Therapies: Healing Networks and Mediumistic Practices in Contemporary Britain
The term ‘spirit release therapy’ and presence of individuals who advertise their skills as ‘spirit release therapists’ are relatively recent – gaining ground in the last couple of decades in the UK. The idea that spirits can cause problems to the living, can attach themselves to someone, attack them psychically, and even take over their minds and bodies to ‘possess’ them, is certainly not new. Spirits, usually but not only of the deceased, who continue to trouble the living and who may need help to ‘move on’ appear in one form or another in all cultures and geographical locations. As far as we can tell they also have an ancient pedigree and human societies have evolved various means of dealing with spirits, honing specialised skills of exorcism, ‘de-obsession’, soul retrieval, healing and spirit communication. Anthropologists have been interested in documenting such beliefs and practices since the inception of the discipline in the Nineteenth Century. Spirit practices and the unseen world of psychic forces, be they in the form of witchcraft in Africa, spirit possession in Brazil, shamanistic practices in Northern Europe or Australia, or the so-called folk beliefs of Europe that stubbornly resurface whenever presumed to be on the verge of extinction, remain ubiquitous. What is new is a particular configuration of ideas concerning spirit release as a therapeutic tool in the United States and the United Kingdom (and no doubt elsewhere) that currently finds expression in a range of publications, web sites, conferences, group and individual healing practices. It is this loose-knit community of healers and clients, very much dependent on modern means of communication and technology, and the ideas and practices that are in circulation within it, that I wish to discuss in this presentation.
     Theoretically a priori as mistaken or inferior (Henare, Holbraad and Wastell, 2007), are all part of this wider engagement with interconnectivity and process. Whether we use terms such as ‘new materialism’ or ‘the anthropology of ontology’, similar ideas recur. For my purposes these trends sit comfortably with the views of contemporary spirit release practitioners and their clients. We live as modern, rational, scientifically educated individuals in a world that is constantly interacting with and open to the influences of external forces - spirits and it is assumed in most instances that the processes involved can be explained in physical terms and studied scientifically by those who are sufficiently open-minded. It is a world of vibration, energy, frequencies, intention, experience and matter, constantly interacting with one another in ways that can be documented and described. There is an element of predictability, sufficient for the development of expertise and for healing practices to be tested and honed, and unpredictability, as life and experience are never wholly replicable, and each new event affects the composition of the whole.
      In this talk I will give an overview of some of the key texts and ideas current among spirit release practitioners and their clients, and describe the ways these circulate and serve to build up overlapping networks than encompass both academic university departments and individual practitioners operating well outside the mainstream. Using case studies and illustrations of mediumistic readings and therapeutic encounters, we can approach more general questions concerning the ontological status of these practices an area that has for long been taboo among social scientists - as well as giving a phenomenological account of contemporary spirit release therapies. In doing so I am indebted to the pioneering work of Edith Turner (1993). In opening-up the question of the ‘reality of spirits’, she enabled the sorts of discussions that take place in Young and Goulet (1994) and Goulet and Miller (2006), which acknowledge the extraordinary and transformative encounters that take place through an engagement with alternative world views. Like David Hufford (1982, 1995) and Gregory Shushan (2013, 2014) I find both the similarities and differences involved in comparative studies of anomalous phenomena (for want of a better term), including mediumship and spirit release, suggestive of a core of experiential data that is, as Jack Hunter remarks (2013, 2015) innately human, whatever its source.

Fuentes, A. 2017. The Creative Spark: How Imagination Made Humans Exceptional. Dutton: New York.
Goulet, J-G. & Miller, B.G. (eds.) 2006. Extraordinary Anthropology: Transformations in the Field. Lincoln & London: University of Nebraska Press.
Henare, A, Holbraad, M. & Wastrell, S. (eds.) 2007. Thinking Through Things: Theorising Artefacts Ethnographically. Abingdon & New York: Routledge.
Hodder I. (ed.) 2013: Humans and landscapes of Catalhoyuk: reports from the 2000-2008 seasons. Catalhoyuk Reseach Project Series Volume 8. British Institute at Ankara Monograph No. 47 / Monumenta Archaeologica 30. Los Angeles: Cotsen Institute of Archaeology Press.
Hodder, I. 2014. The Entanglements of Humans and Things: A Long-Term View. New Literary History 45(1): 19-36.
Hufford, D. 1982. The Terror that Comes in the Night: An Experience-Centered Study of Supernatural Assault Traditions. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.
Hufford, D. 1995. Beings Without Bodies: An Experience-Centered Theory of Belief in Spirits. In Walker, B. (ed.) Out of the Ordinary: Folklore and the Supernatural. Logan: Utah State University Press.
Hunter, J. 2013. Numinous Conversations: Performance and Manifestation of Spirits in Spirit Possession Practices. In A. Voss & W. Rowlandson (eds.) Daimonic Imagination: Uncanny Intelligence. Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Press.
Hunter, J. 2015. ‘Between Realness and Unrealness’: Anthropology, Parapsychology and the Ontology of Non-Ordinary Realities. Diskus: Journal of the British Association for the Study of Religion. 17(2):4-20.
Ingold, T. 2011. Being Alive: Essays on movement, Knowledge and Description. Routledge: London & New York.
Ingman, P., Utriainen, T., Hovi, T. & Broo, M. (eds.) 2016. The Relational Dynamics of Enchantment and Sacralization: Changing the Terms of the Religion Versus Secularity Debate. Sheffield: Equinox.
Latour, B. 1993. We Have Never Been Modern. Translated by C. Porter. Cambridge, MA.: Harvard University Press.
Latour, B. 2010. On the Modern Cult of the Factish Gods. Translated by H. MacLean and C. Porter. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
Latour, B. 2017. Facing Gaia: Eight Lectures on the New Climatic Regime. Translated by Catherine Porter. Cambridge: Polity Press.
Pina-Cabral, J.d. 2017. World: An Anthropological Examination. Chicago: Hau Books. Shushan, G. 2013. Rehabilitating the neglected ‘similar’: Confronting the issue of cross- cultural similarities in the study of religions. Paranthropology: Journal of Anthropological
Approaches to the Paranormal. 4(2):48-53.

Shushan, G. 2014. Extraordinary experiences and religious beliefs: deconstructing some contemporary philosophical axioms. Method and Theory in the Study of Religion. 26:384- 416.
Young, D.E. & Goulet, J.-G. 1994. Being Changed by Cross-Cultural Encounters: The Anthropology of Extraordinary Experience. Peterborough, Ontario: Broadview Press.
Turner, E. 1993. The Reality of Spirits: A Tabooed or Permitted Field of Study? Anthropology of Consciousness. 4(1):9-12. 

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Thursday, 11 January 2018

The Imagined Sky. Book Review

Darrelyn Gunzburg, editor, The Imagined Sky: Cultural Perspectives.
Equinox Publishing Limited: Sheffield, 2016. Hardback pp.286 including 97 b/w figures.
ISBN: 9781781791677. £75. Paperback ISBN: 9781781791684. £30.

Fiona Bowie
King's College London 
University of Wales Trinity Saint David

This is a rich and varied collection of eleven essays dealing with the role of the sky in human
imagination and culture. The disciplinary mix is wide, including history and history of art,
classics, cartography, and social anthropology. Collectively the authors make a compelling
case for the importance of the sky and its interpretation in human cultures from the
beginning of recorded history, and almost certainly well before that, to the present. In her
“Introduction”, Gunzburg gives a précis of each chapter, which gives a taste of the range of
themes and approaches under the general rubric of cultural astronomy. Ronald Hutton’s
contribution “The Strange History of British Archaeoastronomy” provides a fascinating
account of the academic politics involved in the rise and to some extent fall of attempts to
understand ancient monuments and their relationship to the sky, particularly the prehistoric
circle at Stonehenge in Wiltshire, England. For those who look to scholarship to provide
accurate and scientific data, this is a timely reminder that cultural movements (Paganism)
and fashions (Earth Energies); academic assassinations and subsequent self-censorship; the
dissemination of ideas through popular books and the role of individual personalities; loom
large in attempts to understand and communicate the significance and purpose of ancient
monuments such as Stonehenge. An interesting observation at the end of Hutton’s essay
relates to the difference between archaeoastronomy in the Americas, where it can draw on
historical and ethnographic data and Europe, where in the absence of such data there is
much greater emphasis on mathematical and statistical analysis. The data can be slanted to
suit almost any theory, it seems. Numbers are not necessarily more “objective” than
Although not placed next to it in this collection, John Goldsmith’s description of the
“Cosmos, Culture and Landscape” project in Western Australia provides an excellent
example of the combination of ethnography and science; in this case of what can be
achieved when observations using radio telescopes are brought together with indigenous
knowledge of the sky. As with most of the chapters in the book, Goldsmith’s essay has some
wonderful illustrations, although sadly all in black and white. The Aboriginal “Emu in the
Sky”, a black space visible within a skyscape of stars, is reminiscent of Tim Ingold’s
ruminations on Vincent Van Gogh’s painting, the “ Starry Night”, which Ingold uses to
anchor the idea that we are part of what we see and it is part of us. In his chapter “Reach for
the Stars! Light, Vision and the Atmosphere”, Ingold is sympathetic to Merleau-Ponty’s
phenomenological view that “to be sentient is to open up to a world, to yield to its embrace,
and to resonate in one’s inner being to its illuminations and reverberations” (p. 225). In
some ways Ingold’s chapter is the most abstract, certainly a long way from his earlier
ethnographic work, but it also encapsulates a view that other contributors illustrate in a
number of detailed and scholarly ways, affirming that the sky is never marginal to our being
on this planet.
Historians, classicists and art historians will enjoy the central chapters in which we
are introduced to the Farnese Atlas (Kristen Lippincott, “Reflections of the Farnese Atlas”),
Giotto’s sky in an Italian palazzo (Darrelyn Gunzburg, “Giotto’s Sky”), medieval and early
modern European understandings of the “Children of the Planets” (Geoffrey Shamos,
“Astrology as a Social Framework”), and depictions of the heavens on the ceiling of the Sala
Bologna in the Vatican Palace (Emily Urban, “Mapping the Heavens”). The other main theme
running through several chapters is the cultural history of horoscopes. Roger Beck, in
“Imagery and Narrative in an Ancient Horoscope”, introduces us to an ancient Greek
horoscope, and Bernadette Brady ends the volume with “Images in the Heavens”; a broad,
comprehensive view of the role of images in the heavens across many cultures, times and
places. As a reminder that stars are not the only celestial figures with a cultural impact,
Patrick McCafferty, in “Comets and Meteors”, explores comets and meteors in myth and
apocalyptic literature. On a rather different note Tylor Nordgren discusses the Dark Sky
movement in “At Night’s End” and its attempts to preserve places on earth in which people
can continue to view the night sky without the effects of light pollution. Despite being such
a mixed interdisciplinary collection of essays The Imagined Sky achieves coherence through
its assertion of the cultural importance of the sky, making a very strong case that no
discipline can afford to ignore such a central feature of the human imaginal and natural


Thursday, 9 February 2017

Spirit Influence on Mental Health

Spirit Influence on Mental Health:
Is ‘spirit’ intrusion an important overlooked factor in hallucinatory disorders?

Conference Report by Dr Fiona Bowie (King’s College London)

 “Your vision will become clear only when you can look into your own heart. Who looks outside dreams; who looks inside awakes.” Carl Jung

Conference Theme:
In past times mental illness was considered to be caused by spirit entanglement or possession and treated as such. In rejecting the possibility of the continuation of consciousness beyond death modern science, in its outreach through psychiatry, has denied the possibility of spirit influence in mental health conditions including schizophrenia, auditory and perceptual hallucinations, and identity disorders. Has science thrown the baby out with the bath water by rigidly affirming this stance and thereby creating barriers to dealing holistically with a wide range of mental health conditions? This conference, bringing together a number of experts, will consider the impact of spirit influence in mental health, suggesting alternative yet complementary ways to heal the mind. It will be of value to all those dealing with mental health issues, including psychiatrists, GPs, therapists, mental health nurses as well as those who feel that they are, or might be, suffering from some form of spirit interference.

Dr Erlendur Haraldsson, professor emeritus of psychology at the University of Iceland and author of The Departed Among the Living; Dr David McDonald, consultant psychiatrist and advisor to the Churches Ministry on ‘Deliverance’, Dr Terence Palmer, author of The Science of Spirit Possession, Denise Clark, an NHS mental health assessor, who has direct experience in dealing with her own possession states, Mike Williamson, practising medium and author of Schizophrenia or Spirit Possession and Dr David Furlong, Transpersonal Counsellor, Director of Spirit Release Forum and author of Illuminating the Shadow.

This was the subject and line up of the Spirit Release Forum Day Conference held at Regent’s University in London on Saturday 4th February 2017. It attracted around ninety participants, many of whom identified themselves as practising healers. While a few were working within the National Health Service, the majority seemed to be in private practice where they are able to offer a wider range of complementary therapies, including those based on theories of spirt attachment.  A few participants were there because family members with mental health issues are being treated by one or more of the speakers. It is possible that others came because they are seeking help and have found conventional therapies wanting, or simply because they are on the Spirit Release Forum (SRF) mailing list. The atmosphere throughout the day was remarkably collegial. Speakers were un-defensive, and questions open, curious and questioning – which was appropriate given the controversial nature of some of the ideas, case studies, experiences and practices under discussion.  It appeared to be a safe space in which notions of spirit influence and possession could be explored, as well as being a fascinating insight into an area of human experience familiar to anthropologists working cross-culturally, but generally concealed within Western cultures. A sub-theme running through the day was the hostility encountered by those with mental health problems and their families, and by holistic healers, within the NHS. It was apparent listening to people’s stories that conventional medicine remains hostile to the notion of ‘spirit’ or spirituality (even prayer) and continues to operate within a reductive materialist paradigm in thrall to ‘big pharma’. The holistic healers wanted to see themselves as complementary partners of orthodox medicine rather than a radical alternative, but in practice they are obliged to operate in a parallel world that remains largely invisible.[1]

Professor Erlendur Haraldsson, Professsor Emeritus of Psychology at the University of Iceland, opened the conference with a talk entitled Departed among the living: evidence for the continuation of consciousness after death.

Erlendur Haraldsson is a highly respected scholar of the paranormal who has  conducted research into children’s accounts of past lives, mediumship (Indridi Indrdason), miracles (Sai Baba), death-bed visions, and encounters with the dead. The talk was largely based on data from his recent book The Departed Among the Living, although also drew on his earlier work.  Haraldsson was the only speaker who is primarily an academic rather than a practitioner, but in providing a solid body of evidence highly suggestive of the continuation of consciousness beyond physical death, set the stage nicely for the presentations that followed. His approach is cautious, statistical and measured, necessary perhaps when dealing with phenomena that are dismissed out of hand by many academic psychologists.
            The European Human Values Survey (1980-83) asked people “Have you ever felt you were really in touch with someone who died?’ The affirmative responses varied from a high point of up to forty four percent of Icelanders to a low of nine percent in Norway. Italy had a high response rate with thirty four percent of those questioned believing that they had really been contacted by a deceased person. The UK was somewhere in the middle with twenty six percent. The question has been repeated in various surveys with very similar results. I suspect that the experience of encountering someone who has died, whether visually, hearing a voice, sensing a presence, or by some other means (dreams were excluded) occurs with a similar frequency everywhere and it is the interpretation of the experience that varies. Some cultures are more open to the reality of spirits or the continuation of life after the death than others. The key part of the question may be the word ‘really’ as there is plenty of evidence that experiences that don’t fit into our understanding of what is possible are likely to be dismissed, forgotten, or regarded as a product of the imagination (See, for example, Bowie (2014), ‘Believing Impossible Things: Scepticism and Ethnographic Enquiry’).
It is perhaps not surprising that the majority of those who claim to have encountered someone who has died are female, given that emotional bonds are often a key factor in such encounters and women live longer. A widow is more likely to have contact with her departed husband than vice versa. What is perhaps more surprising is the number of people who reported contact with strangers (109 or 26% in Haraldsson’s study of around 450 Icelanders). In some cases the dead returned to familiar surroundings such as their former home, or became ‘lost’ when they left their physical bodies and tried to communicate with whoever was around them. As in children’s spontaneous reincarnation memories, younger people who suffered a sudden or violent death feature in a much higher proportion than one would expect from the general population. In Haraldsson’s words, these spirits often ‘thrust themselves’ on strangers, a phrase that resonates when we look at spirit attachments. The first-hand accounts of these encounters recorded by Haraldsson and his co-workers were checked with witnesses where possible, and with death registers, enabling most of the deceased who reportedly contacted the living to be identified and the manner of their death verified.
In the question and answer session following this talk one participant pointed out that both Iceland and Italy with high levels of apparent after death contact were also affected by volcanic activity. While the relationship between physical phenomena and psychic awareness was not something that Haraldsson’s study addressed, it is certainly an area worthy of consideration. Folk traditions consistently talk of certain places being ‘thin’ or portals to other worlds, and in his study of Brazilian medium Amyr Amiden, psychologist Stanley Krippner did find correlations between atmospheric conditions and Amiden’s psychic and mediumistic abilities (particularly when it came to producing apports, objects that appear out of nowhere in the physical world).
The relevance of Haraldsson’s study for the presentations that followed is that it provided a comprehensive body of evidence that some spirits appear to remain in or close to the material earth after death and intentionally or unintentionally seek out or otherwise make themselves known to the living. We can begin to imagine a plane of existence at the limits of our perception - and at the boundaries of our energy fields – inhabited by conscious entities. It is this realm that the speakers with mediumistic abilities begin to explore and seek to understand when dealing with spirit intrusions that manifest as hallucinatory disorders. As Haraldsson put it, there are ‘indications’ that death may be a gate to another form of existence and that we live in a multiversum as opposed to a universum.

Dr David Furlong, a transpersonal counsellor, writer and director of the Spirit Release Forum, gave the second talk, entitled, A psycho-spiritual blueprint for mental health: case studies involving spirit attachments and their release.

The view of the Self and psyche that comes out of Furlong’s work, illustrated by his case studies, is of a complex, fascinating and sometimes baffling inner world. With humorous and simple illustrations, Furlong explained that his work with clients involves first of all helping them to connect to their ‘higher self’ – envisaged as an overarching Self that is present in a non-material domain, but which is aware of and can act as a source of light for the incarnated soul or self. The embodied self has free will and may be more or less aware of its higher self (HS), as well as of disembodied guides and helpers. In Western psychology we tend to think of the self, ideally at least, as a unified discrete entity. Where it ‘splits’ through trauma or dissociation this is regarded as pathological and the goal of therapy, particularly from a psychoanalytic perspective, lies in reintegrating the split or lost parts of the psyche. In extreme cases the self seems to take on different personae, as in classic cases of multiple personality disorder, more commonly referred to as dissociative identity disorder or, in less severe cases, borderline personality disorder. Whatever the labels, the individual concerned appears to have different identities and can switch between them. They may or may not be aware of each other and the central self or ego may be amnesic concerning the activities of the sub personae.
Furlong asserted that we all have a number of different identities. We will present ourselves differently in a professional situation, at home with our families, out with friends, and so on. In a balanced healthy individual the ego is in control of these personae and can be self-reflexive concerning them. In cases of trauma or shock a portion of the personality or soul energy can become split off and will attempt to contain the trauma in order to protect the self from its effects. This can happen a number of times and a sub-personality can potentially split into further parts. Furlong likened these sub-personalities to children in relation to the central self or ego, depicted as an adult householder, These ‘children’ may be aware of each other or may remain isolated or even in hiding (‘in an under-stairs cupboard’). They may attract possessing spirits, either earthbound souls – people who died and got lost on their way to the light, or more negative entities. To complicate the picture even further some sub-personalities from past lives, also with their nested possessing entities, might reincarnate with an individual, perhaps still looking for healing and understanding carried over from unresolved historical traumas. Each of these parts has its own consciousness and free will, and in a therapeutic situation needs to be identified and released, either into the light of the higher self or into a safe space where it can reintegrate or at least become more aware of the central ego self.
            This complex notion of the self and its constituent parts is similar to that described by the American psychologist Thomas Zinser, who describes his explorations of the inner mind stemming from his own clinical practice, as described in his book Soul-Centered Healing (2010) and in subsequent works. There are some minor differences between Zinser’s model and Furlong’s. Where Zinser talks of the soul as the over-arching self, Furlong prefers to use the term spirit and Higher Self. Zinser uses hypnosis and idiomatic finger signals to communicate with clients, whereas Furlong asks direct questions of a client, whether in hypnosis so as to communicate with their Higher Self, using spirit guides for direction.  This is partly due to the fact that Furlong is himself mediumistic whereas Zinser is not, and relied for some years on a spirit healer identified as Gerod, channelled by a colleague, to whom he could bring his hard cases and discuss notions of the soul and psyche.

To many people, including the majority of clinical mental health professionals, any talk of spirits and possession will be an anathema. Furlong was less concerned with justifying his model of the self  than with the effectiveness of treatments based on these theories. Some case studies were used to illustrate what does and does not work. At its simplest, a single short session with a client can clear a number of sometimes long-standing and apparently intractable problems (a spirit release therapist is generally a last resort for desperate people). In other instances the complexity and number of sub-personalities and attached entities, all of whom need to be identified and persuaded to release any negative energies through the exercise of  their free will, can take many sessions and perhaps several years. A long-standing persistent problem may require in addition much conventional work concerned with stabilising the client’s life-style, strengthening their will power and creating new habits of thought if the problems are not to return. The New Testament parable of the house (self) swept clean (of unclean spirits), only to find that seven more come to occupy it, was a concept very familiar to all those who engage with this kind of work (see Luke 11:16-36, Matthew 12:38-45).
It is not possible to do justice to Furlong’s presentation and discussions here, but there were many themes that echo throughout Western literature and popular culture, as well in ethnographic accounts, such as ‘contracts’ between dark force entities and parts of the self, and how to disentangle and release the soul or ego parts from these contracts. Throughout the day I, as an anthropologist, was struck by the sense that here one did indeed find the ‘familiar made strange’ – we were entering a world of spirits and forces that one might expect to encounter while undertaking fieldwork in sub-Saharan Africa or the forests of Papua New Guinea, but not among seemingly ordinary, educated men and women in suits in central London. Furlong summarised his talk in four points, that I will quote here (taken from his last slide, copyright David Furlong 2017):

·      It is clear from my work with many clients that forms of ‘spirit’ entanglement can give rise to forms of mental, psychological and hallucinatory disturbance
·      If ‘spirits’ are just ‘lost’ they can easily be removed but if ‘malign’ or ‘dark’ they can be much more difficult to extract
·      Our ‘inner world’ is a complex place and the ‘sub-personality’ parts of us also need a lot of healing and balancing
·      Our ‘H-S’ [Higher Self] is the single most important part of this process

Mike Williamson, the third speaker, is a Spiritualist and practising medium, who addressed the theme of Schizophrenia or spirit possession: a medium’s perspective, drawing on case studies of spirit release.  The talk drew on material in his recent book Schizophrenia or Spirit Possession?

 Williamson spoke simply and effectively, using his own extensive experience of working in the world of spirits and healing. He explained that he started the work in his thirties after finding that his house was haunted, and looking for help. In the process he discovered his own mediumistic abilities, and for some time specialised in house clearing for people troubled by unwanted spirit occupants. As far as the theme of this conference goes, Williamson started by making the point that schizophrenia, unlike progressive conditions such as Parkinson’s disease, multiple sclerosis or Alzheimer’s, has no identified pathology or location in the brain. In fact the DSM 5[2] gives such a wide range of diagnostic symptoms and possible causes that schizophrenia appears as something of a ‘catch all’ term for a range of conditions characterised by hearing voices and paranoia. Unlike the degenerative diseases mentioned above, people can and do recover spontaneously from schizophrenia with or without the help of drugs. For Williamson this indicates that treating schizophrenia with drugs is at best looking at the symptoms but not the cause, treating the brain when the problem is in the mind. Having made the case for looking for alternative causes for schizophrenia, Williamson gave examples of his work with clients who were, or thought that they were, troubled by spirits. Williamson sounded a cautionary note, that not every unexplained event is the result of sprit intrusion. In one instance a client was losing his hair and felt that his eyebrows were being plucked out. The source of his ills turned out to be spores from a fish tank with a splashy overactive pump. Where spirits do attach themselves to someone and cause problems for them, Williamson emphasised the importance of gaining discipline over the mind, and of learning to distinguish one’s own thoughts from those of spirits who might be intruding. When someone has had attached or possessing spirits removed they can feel the difference and learn to identify spirit intrusion if it recurs. Williamson generally works together with another medium, and like Furlong tries to identify and speak to any attached spirits and to take, rather than send them to the light. Where the free will of the client conflicts with the free will of an attached spirit who doesn’t want to leave the free will of the client asking for help always takes priority. An unwilling spirit can be removed with the help of the client’s guides, and can be contained if he or she does not wish to go to the light. Unlike Furlong (and Zinser), Williamson’s view of the interior life is more conventionally Spiritualist. He sees the soul as a unity and does not work with the notion of sub-personalities, or with past lives as claimed not to have encountered them in his practice. 
            During the questions that followed his talk the importance of treating the dead as well as the living client was raised – unlike conventional Christian exorcism that is more concerned with expelling or banishing ‘demons’ than with healing the dead.  As Williamson put it, if the dead are not also treated and you can’t resolve their problems they won’t move on. The reasons for becoming attached to someone in the first place are varied. Some spirits do not realise that they have died, or fear that they will be banished to hell if they go towards the light. Several of the spirit release therapists who spoke had come across people who had been killed in a blast and when they passed over saw the light, but were unable to distinguish it from the explosion that killed them. In each instance resolving the issue that his keeping a spirit earthbound is necessary if they are not to continue to plague others. It is not uncommon for spirits to apologise for the harm they have caused when they realise that the person suffering from hearing voices is being harmed by their intrusions.
            These and other first-hand examples of spirit release are remarkably consistent with those recorded by Western psychiatrists and healers who have delved into the world of spirts when confronted by patients diagnosed with certain forms of mental illness characterised by hearing voices, sudden changes of personality and hallucinations. From the examples recorded by Dr Carl Wickland in his classic 30 Years Among the Dead (1924) at the beginning of the Twentieth Century to the present, the techniques of engaging the spirits in conversation, persuading them to leave the patient and to move to where they are supposed to go remains the same. Some of these continuities are discussed in my paper ‘Self, Personhood and Possession’ (Bowie, 2013). In a question and answer panel session the question of contracts between spirits and those with mental health problems arose again. Dark beings, sometimes referred to as dark force entities (DFEs), who may or may not have lived a human life, can work by making contracts with a soul (or a sub-personality). This may be unconscious on the part of the soul or ego fragment, and the conscious self remains unaware that a part of them accepted an offer of protection, for example, in return for an element of control by a DFE over their lives. The DFEs often work in groups as they are generally not powerful enough to control someone’s will on their own, and will use coercion and threats to convince the host that something terrible will befall them if they break the contract. Furlong emphasised that these contracts are a lie, and that the only valid contract is to the higher self, to the truth and light within us. All such contracts can be dissolved. A member of the audience contributed that these dark spirits also work within a hierarchy, with some spirits working for others. The lower level spirits may also believe that they are forced to honour contracts with those higher up the hierarchy and to do their bidding. The work of these dark force entities can be identified, according to Furlong, by their trademarks of fear, the inhibition of someone’s free will and inflation of their ego.

The theme of dark forces that can attack a person was encapsulated in a very personal testimony in the fourth session. Denise Clark, who works for the National Health Service in the UK. Clark shared her story of being tormented by a particular individual over many lives, and of her struggle to free herself from his curses, in a talk entitled, Facing my own personal demons whilst working as a mental health assessor. The demons may have been personal, but they were certainly not regarded as metaphorical. This was no figure of speech.

This is the most difficult of the talks to write about as it was deeply personal and rather harrowing, but also because I was aware that it asked the audience to enter a world very far removed from the material universe of post-Enlightenment rationality that we as Westerners have grown up in. I was sitting in the front row and could not but help being struck by Denise Clark’s extraordinary brown eyes, that seemed to reflect the years of terror and suffering that she had endured, as well has her extraordinary courage in confronting the forces she encountered. The conference talks were all recorded so will presumably be available in some form on the Spirit Release Forum website, so I won’t attempt to recount her experience in full here. Clark started by saying that she would read her presentation as ‘thought-blocking’ was one of the tools her aggressor or aggressors used.  
            The story started with Clark experiencing an earthbound spirit and kinetic poltergeist activity. A medium identified the spirit as her dead father who was trying to attract her attention. She could not think why he would continue to visit her in this manner and to  disturb her sleep, and woke up one night convinced not only that it was not her father who was visiting, but that whatever it was could only be described as evil. This realisation began a chain reaction and for some years Clark was terrorised by multiple entities at night. She understood them to be hierarchically related, their superior being an incubus who attacked her sexually and prevented from sleeping.
A discussion of succubi (female spirits) and incubi (male spirits) who have sex with their victims was the subject of a recent case recorded by Terence Palmer and Andrew Porter, and Andrew’s guide Chen, which was posted on Dr Palmer’s website. Many people no doubt think of such ideas fading during the course of the Eighteenth Century with the decline of witchcraft, or existing only in ‘primitive’ cultures or backward cultures on the fringes of modernity. It seems, however, that they never really went away, only underground. Ethnographic examples analogous to the experiences of Clark and other Westerners who seek out spirit release therapists can be found in the works of scholars like David Hufford, with his descriptions of the ‘Old Hag’ traditions in Newfoundland, described in his book The Terror that Comes in the Night: An Experience-Centered Study of Supernatural Assault Traditions (1982). Religious Studies scholar Jeffrey Kripal has also written extensively on the hidden and darker side of Western sexuality, most recently in the book he co-authored with the scholar of Western esotericism, Wouter Hanegraff, Hidden Intercourse: Eros and Sexuality in the History of Western Esotericism (2010).
As well as the sexual attack, Clark was physically beaten by the nocturnal spirits and would sometimes find herself unconscious on the floor of her bedroom with no memory of how she got there. I could not but be reminded of the nightly battles the Italian Franciscan stigmatic known as Padre Pio (1887-1968) is said to have had with the demons who visited him in his cell in San Giovanni Rotondo in Italy. Perhaps the surprise therefore is not so much that people experience such things, or think they do, but that they can affect apparently ‘ordinary’ people who are neither saints nor mentally ill. It would be very difficult to judge how common the experience of sexual and physical assault might be among the general population as we have no cultural space for such experiences and one can assume that if they occur they are seldom spoken of. Clark recounted one instance from her own professional work in which a patient being assessed complained of supernatural sexual assault, only to be met by ridicule and bawdy humour. The professionals involved simply did not have a language or a framework to deal with such claims, which was no help to the individual involved.
Denise Clark went onto describe some of her journey to recovery. She leaned to put herself into a deep trance, and to use a pendulum to ask questions regarding the issues facing her. She also had contact with David Furlong and the Spirit Release Forum and was helped to strengthen the connection with her higher self. The story that emerged was of remembered past lives in which a particularly abusive individual, with whom she had a brief relationship with in her current life, recurred and played a similarly negative role. He was possessive and jealous, putting curses on her if she tried to leave him. A deep curse put on Clark in the Sixth Century by this man was that if he couldn’t have her no one else would, and that she would remain isolated and alone, hence the incubus attacks and terrible isolation from family and friends over many lives. When in desperation Clark had on two occasions asked for help at work she had instead been disciplined and told that she must not speak about spirits. This in itself was the cause of further trauma. There followed quite a bit of discussion about the nature of curses, and how they could be broken. Clark maintained that it was necessary to identify the words used in order to break or unravel a curse. To make things more complicated, Clark identified hundreds of fragmented personality parts as a result of trauma over this life and previous lives, which needed to be individually  healed. She saw this as a work in progress rather than a completed task. The ‘gentleman’ who had tormented her had, she told us, sent more curses recently but as she was now better protected they had rebounded on him. As he could not remember the actual words used in each curse he was unable to deflect or undo them, and was suffering physically as a result.

This apotropaic form of protection is a common and possibly universal phenomenon, in which the spell or curse rebounds on the sender. The amulets of blue glass or hands with eyes in the palm found in Southern Europe and the Mediterranean, for example, are intended to ward off the Evil Eye, forming a protective barrier to deflect harm.  Those familiar with the work of French anthropologist Jeanne Favret-Saada in Normandy will also recognise the idea of spells being deflected back on the sender in such a way that the boundary between those who are victims of witchcraft and those who are witches suffering the rebounding effects of their curses or spells, or ‘de-witchers’ who have intercepted the spells, taking the hit themselves, become blurred. In the work that formed her doctoral thesis, and in many subsequent books and articles, Favret-Saada has demonstrated the tenacity of witchcraft beliefs in supposedly modern European contexts, as well as their economic and social correlates. Favret-Saada concludes that witchcraft exists but witches do not. She does not enter the realm of the paranormal in seeking explanations of witchcraft, or at least not in print. Another Western source of curses, as well as blessings, are the collected works of the Scottish tax collector Alexander Carmichael, who toured the Highlands and Hebridean Islands of Scotland in the late Nineteenth Century, collecting Gaelic oral literature. The published works, known as the Carmina Gadelica (1900) are now available online, and contain many examples of apotropaic prayers and curses. The Holy Trinity, God the Father, Christ, Mary, St Michael and Saint  Bride or Bridget, among others,  are invoked as protection from all supernatural and natural harm. Incantations are often accompanied by rituals, as with the Normandy peasant farmers described by Favret-Saada, and once again particular linguistic formulae as well as protective ritual acts are carefully prescribed. In both Scotland and Northern France it is the whole farming family unit– a man, his wife, children and livestock, that come under attack. In this example, part of a Spell for the Evil Eye (Vol.2) Mary is invoked as protection against spells, which are deflected on sender and his domain.

Extraordinary, perhaps incredible, as Denise Clark’s story may seem, its  parallels and antecedents in Western and non-Western cultures raise questions of cultural continuity and the role of individual experience in the recurrence of spirit-related phenomena. One reason that we consign stories of curses  and an emphasis on knowing the right words to other cultures, but find them difficult to relate to in the West, is that we no longer emphasise  the material nature of the sign. Within Vedic Hinduism the sacred syllable ‘OM’ when chanted links the devotee directly to the divine source of being. Tibetan Buddhists will turn prayer wheels, the physical carrier of the words itself helping to transmit the words written on it and their intentions. Sikhs make their devotions to their holy book, the Guru Granth Sahib, and Muslims regard the physical Qur’an with great respect, and  hold that the actual words in Arabic have sacred power. The practice in Christian countries of swearing on the Bible when taking an oath also points to the material nature of language and its power. Within a scientific world view, however, the power of words as words of power, and as material signs that can actually have an effect on and in the world, has largely been lost. Theosophical teachings that reached Europe and America from India in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries went some way to reintroducing the idea of words and thoughts are material and have a physical effect in the world. However widespread  such ideas are in the West they remain largely confined to religious spheres and on the fringes of public consciousness. To many people words are immaterial transient entities that have  a limited life and effect. If one holds this view a curse is only effective if it unsettles someone, not because of its intrinsic power.

Dr David McDonald, the penultimate speaker, is a consultant psychiatrist working within the NHS and an advisor to the Church of England on its healing ministry. He co-chairs the Church’s Ministry of Deliverance Study Group with Dominic Walker, former Bishop of Monmouth in South Wales.  The Group advises the Church of England on healing and trains clergy in ‘exorcism’ and ‘deliverance’. It contains both clergy and professional psychiatrists and treads a delicate line between spiritual and organic explanations of mental illness, as indicated  in its Guidelines for Good Practice (2012). McDonald’s talk also attempted to bridge these two worlds, and was entitled The psychopathology of mental illness: the interface between the psychological and spiritual. While the Church of England pays lip service to the existence of spirits and leaves open a space for their role in certain forms of mental illness, in practice there is little consensus the reality and role of spirits. Within the professional sphere of psychiatry there is even less scope for including a spiritual sphere. When an audience member asked McDonald about the possible role of past life influences on mental health, for example, he replied that as a psychiatrist ‘you couldn’t even go there’.
            McDonald traced his own career from assessing adult offenders to working with children and families, where early interventions can help prevent some of the later offending behaviours. He presented an accurate account of attachment disorders in children who have been abandoned, abused or traumatised and the ways in which dissociation (Furlong’s sub-personalities) can impact on adult behaviour. An intervention programme aimed at vulnerable mothers from pregnancy until the second year of their first child’s life proved very successful in preventing anti-social behaviours was pioneered in the USA and rolled out in the UK in 2008, but came to an end with the advent of GP led clinical commissioning groups as it was not seen as priority. As someone who spans the religious and psychiatric worlds, McDonald understands psychopathology, literally ‘soul’ + ‘disease’, as involving spiritual, biological, behavioural and psychological elements. While he presented a more conventionally psychological explanation of mental illness, particularly in attachment disorders, than the mediumistic speakers, there were many points of comparison. Children with a disordered attachment, for example, were described as possessed by diabolical thoughts and feelings. Etymologically their worlds are ‘torn apart’ (‘disordered’) rather than ‘drawn together’ or symbolic (Greek symballein, to ‘throw together’). Children (and adults) with reactive attachment disorders cannot handle symbolic thinking. The prison population is full of such people who without early interventions may need containment for life. The solutions lie in opportunities to develop healthy relationships. As McDonald put it, it is what happens between people that matters. A non-judgmental listening therapist can enable patients to exercise  free will and to make better choices in life. Helping damaged people build healthy relationships draws on spiritual as well as human resources – McDonald prefaced his talk with William Blake’s painting of ‘The Good and Evil Angels’ battling over an infant in order to illustrate the cosmic element of psychoanalysis. The death instinct was described as an absence of a life instinct. Young people who want to die often don’t know how to live and suicide can be a desire to return to a child-like innocence, a search for forgiveness. Coming to terms with what they have done or become can seem much more challenging than dying to offenders who attempt or succeed in committing suicide. It may seem impossible to contemplate forgiveness without an understanding of redemption. A religious world view of an eternally loving, accepting deity can help people come to terms with their past and to rebuild their lives.

While remaining grounded in the medial language of psychiatry, McDonald had also had sufficient evidence from his practice that he was not just dealing with brain chemistry when treating patients. On a couple of occasions he met new clients who would not have known he was coming, who claimed to have been told by spirits that Dr McDonald would see them and help them. He claomed that there was not natural means by which they could have obtained that information. As someone who has supported the Spirit Release Forum for a number of years, McDonald continues to tread the difficult path of admitting to the possibility and efficacy of spirit release therapy, while maintaining a professional position within mainstream medicine.

The last speaker of the day was Dr Terence Palmer, a spirit release therapist who wrote his doctoral dissertation on one of the founders of the Society for Psychical Research, Frederic W.H. Myers (1843-1901), published as The Science of Spirit Possession.  Dr Palmer’s talk, Medical science and spirit influence: The need for research, described some current projects aimed as documenting the process of spirit release and of assessing its efficacy. Palmer also called for further controlled scientific work in on spirit release therapy. While clinical controlled trials or university-led research projects might be seen as the gold standard for evaluating SRT, it is also clear that the dominance of a materialist paradigm within the public domain presents a formidable barrier to such research.[3] It is for this reason that some new projects conducted by those already practising SRT are of particular interest.
The first project described by Palmer is termed ‘The Ross Project’, after the Herefordshire town Ross-on-Wye where it started in November 2016. A group of spirit release therapists, including some of those who were present at the conference, met together with three families who had family members suffering from schizophrenia, borderline personality disorder or hearing voices (all of whom were also present). The idea was, first of all, to bring relief through remote spirit work to the three clients, and secondly to record the interventions used and any results. These were cases involving conditions that appeared intractable and which had persisted over a number of years. SRT was seen as something that could be practiced alongside, rather than as an alternative to, drug-based and psychological therapies. Palmer has been working on a protocol that can provide some consistency for the different practitioners, and another member of the group has volunteered to coordinate any interventions and their effects. I have been involved in this project from the start and have found it fascinating as an exercise and as a method of working. The client-based focus and generous use of time and resources by the mediums and therapists involved have enabled practices to be tested and discussed in a way that is not generally possible in a field dominated by individual practitioners.
Terence Palmer often works with a medium called Andy, and Andy’s spirit guide, Chen. Through an intervention from Chen, Palmer recently started running workshops for people suffering from auditory hallucinations (Hearing Voices Research) intended to both offer practical help to sufferers and to demonstrate the methods used in SRT. Many examples of spirit release from this project and from Palmer’s private practice have been recorded and are available on his YouTube channel,  Healing the Wounded Spirit. One of the case studies Palmer recounted from a recent Hearing Voices workshop  featured an ex-soldier who said that he had been ’pestered by a gang of voices’ for twenty three years. He had tried many conventional interventions, none of which had helped. A single session of spirit release therapy identified the troubled souls who had been with him for all this time and released them to the light. For the first time in more than two decades the man was free of his troublesome voices, but was left feeling very angry towards a medical profession that had failed to help him for so long. The voices have not recurred.

It was clear that what drives most individual spirit release therapists is that it is often effective, occasionally miraculously so. Their frustration is that a therapy that is technically straightforward, inexpensive and that can bring great relief to patients, is not better known, more widely available, and  accepted by the medical profession. Anthropologists have noted the effectiveness of shamanic and other traditional forms of healing in many parts of the world – often but not always attributing their success, when writing their ethnographies, to psychological factors. For those who come to accept that there might actually be some spirit influence in healing this can come as a revelation, and may result in a transformative change of perspective. This happened to the late Edith Turner (1921-2016), an anthropologist who saw a spirit leaving a sick woman when taking part in a healing ritual in Zambia in the 1980s, an experience described in her book Experiencing  Ritual (1992). Edie Turner devoted the next couple of decades to a comparative study of healing rituals around the world and to the role of spirits in sickness and healing. Some of this work was published in Among the Healers (2005).
The reason for introducing ethnographic accounts from non-Western societies is to make the point that the healing techniques of European or American spirit release therapists sit squarely within a broader human understanding of the relationship between mind, body and spirit that appears to be both universal and ancient. For all the advances and benefits of contemporary medical practice and a post-Enlightenment world view, it is historically anomalous to view healing solely in biological or material terms. 
            The dialogue in this conference on ‘Spirit Influence on Mental Health’ was between the medical profession and spirit release practices. It also touched on more conventional religious views through the work of David McDonald. There is a somewhat parallel discussion between biblical scholars and anthropologists, with the former drawing on cross-cultural examples in order to give weight to an ontological basis to biblical examples of spirit possession and exorcism. Craig Keener (2010:235), for example, in his article Spirit Possession as a Cross-cultural Experience, concluded that; “In view of the wide range of phenomena attested, some features of early Christian accounts that have appeared suspect to modern western interpreters appear plausible as genuine descriptions of possessed behavior…. Nothing in the early Christian descriptions requires us to assume that they could not depend on genuine eyewitness material”. Within anthropology these ideas feed into discussion of the anthropology of ontology or ‘ontological turn’. There is often a tension between the Western-trained anthropologist and the views of those he or she encounters in the field. The extent to which interpretations that are dissonant with a dominant paradigm can be accommodated in their own terms, as opposed to simply described phenomenologically or explained according to established Western paradigms, remains problematic. I have attempted to find a way forward by developing a methodology that does not shy away from ontological questions (‘Towards a Methodology for the Ethnographic Study of the Afterlife’), and through the research carried out and shared by the Afterlife Research Centre. The free online journal Paranthropology is also an important resource for the discussion and the dissemination of academic studies that take the idea that we live in two, or more, dimensions, seriously. 

With thanks to all those who organised, contributed to and participated in the Spirit Influence on Mental Health Day Conference.

Fiona Bowie

The talks and discussion were recorded and will in due course be made available via the Spirit Release Forum website.

[1] The SRF is certainly not alone in identifying a frustration with conventional, reductive approaches to mental health. As I was writing this report Jungian psychologist Paul Reynolds uploaded a research paper on his Academia.edu site that argues passionately against the ‘criminalisation’ of naturally occurring forms of ‘ontological angst’ – including the visionary and mystic who hears voices, a phenomenon that has been with us as a species for millennia.   One can also point to medical anthropologist Natalie Tobert’s ground-breaking books, Spiritual Psychiatries: Mental Health Practices in India and UK (2014) and Cultural Perspectives on Mental Wellbeing (2016), and to her attempts to bridge Western and non-Western medical practices.
[2] The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (2013), published by the American Psychiatric Association, is the most widely used source of classification for clinicians diagnosing mental illnesses. That such classifications are as much cultural as biological is clear when one looks the history and descriptions of mental disorders as they change over time.
[3] Dr Alan Sanderson, founder of the Spirit Release Foundation, who was present at the conference, was forced to leave  his work as an NHS consultant psychiatrist when he started to introduce the notion of spirit influence on his patients.

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