Why ask a fellow human for advice when you can turn to your ancestors or even an archangel? That's the option channellers offer, and while the skeptical believe you're better off with conventional therapists when it comes to mental health, many people have had worthy experiences with folk claiming to be gifted at communing with disembodied spirits. In order to evaluate the potential of this kind of psychic guidance, I made appointments with three channellers who run ads in holistic mags.
I first visit Sandra Wagman, who leads me into a room where a pleasant incense scent lingers. Candles burn on a crystal-strewn table. After a little introductory chit-chat, Wagman -- who charges $1.60 a minute -- states her intention that all information received be for the highest good of everyone concerned. Then she relaxes into her chair, asks for my first question and begins waiting for inspiration -- waiting, in fact, goes on quite a lot in these kinds of sessions. When she connects to her "guides," her vocabulary suddenly becomes more formal and phrases emerge in little bursts. The answer to a question about how to forestall difficulties with my boyfriend is not exactly thunder from heaven: she advises guarding my self-esteem and working on communication skills. To her credit, Wagman describes the nature of my relationship's contours very accurately without being cued.
Next, I visit Jeffrey Round, who charges $60 an hour. Round uses tarot cards to spark his intuition, and as he waits for info, leans forward and furrows his brow. There is one uncomfortable moment when he tells me he's receiving a communication from my dead grandfather -- I should think of him whenever I look at a piece of jewellery my father gave me. Indeed, I do own such a ring. But I'm mystified by the request.
When I ask how to up my income, Round offers simple common-sense self-promotion. Much more intriguing are unsolicited comments that provide extremely helpful insight into the dynamics of my family of origin.
My last interview with Sophia Trettin ($65/half-hour) is very disappointing. When I'm finally ushered into her workspace (she's running late), she decides this is the time to wipe her glass-topped table with a stinky chemical cleaner. Then she leaves, ostensibly to make tea, but without explanation vanishes for almost 15 minutes, leaving me sitting alone.
The upshot of all this? Beware of who you commune with. Channellers aren't required to have psychological training and have no professional organization overseeing them. And our current cultural context gives clients few guidelines for discerning who's competent.
The potential for abuse is ever-present. So be discriminating.
WHAT THE EXPERTS SAY
"When a person channels, are they communicating with beings outside of themselves or are they producing messages from their own unconscious mind? That kind of clairvoyant ability is extraordinary, but it doesn't prove it's a spirit. If a channeller gives details that are correct, for most people this is evidence that they're dealing with spirits. Not for me."
ADAM CRABTREE, psychotherapist, faculty member at the Centre for Training in Psychotherapy, former priest and Benedictine monk
"If the channeller brings a lot of ignorance, prejudice and psychological baggage, it will affect the message. Entities who communicate through the channeller aren't always motivated by higher purposes, but may be deceptive and malicious. The challenge is to establish relevant criteria to evaluate channelled information. What the channeller tells you should never be considered 100- per-cent accurate, and if the channeller tells you it is, you've got the wrong one."
SALAKO KALFOU, director, Occult Research Bureau
"Just because (channelled entities are) discarnate doesn't mean they're smart or benevolent. Often, the people who are most open to these spiritual energies have very porous boundaries, due to the fact that their boundaries have been damaged in some way. It's a dangerous mix of having a psyche that's not healed of its own wounds suddenly infused with a lot of spiritual energy. There's a pattern of destructive outcomes for people who get involved in these energies. It's not the rule, but it happens often enough."
BRENT MITTON, co-director, Transpersonal Therapy Centre
"Generally, channelling is something I've never seen discussed in any professional setting. But if people doing this have no psychological training, they may be tampering with things beyond their depth. And this is a concern."
TED LO,psychiatrist and professor of psychiatry, University of Toronto