Thursday, August 03, 2006

"I see...I see...I see you paying for lots of half-assed advice you don't need..."

Comes an interesting piece today from one of our friends across the pond, writer Stephen Armstrong, about how growing numbers of us apparently are going to Psychic School. One would think being psychic is much like being pregnant--you either are or you aren't. Of course, where money's involved--which is to say, when some savvy entrepreneur can fill a need that consumers seem to think they have (in this case, to "develop" their paranormal abilities)... Well, we know what P.T. Barnum supposedly said about suckers and how often they're born.*

According to Armstrong, the College of Psychic Studies, founded in 1884 by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (of Sherlock Holmes fame), now offers more than 50 SRO courses, including the likes of "Heart Centered Soul Healing" and "First Steps as a Psychic and Medium."

The most relevant part (to me) is that the writer sees today's become-a-psychic movement as the New New Thing in self-help, another sign of the Me Generation's** laughably egocentric tendency to obsess over (and therefore, they hope, have an increasing "say" in) every last aspect of life--even if they have to go to The Other Side to get the feedback, counsel, and affirmation they crave. (We touched on this briefly in SHAM, notably a Sylvia Browne appearance on Larry King.) I'm struck in particular by a quote from Professor Chris French, who heads the Anomalist Psychology Research Unit at the University of London's innovative Goldsmiths College: "I've been a believer in psychic phenomena for over half my life," French told Armstrong. "But the more I learn about psychology, the less I believe." Personally, I've always found it amusing that the very same folks who blindly buy into psychic phenomena will dispute so many other things for which volumes of bona fide evidence exist. But I guess it goes hand in hand: If you're looking to avoid having to deal with the "real reality," what better way than to find a psychic to tell you what you want to hear? It's the ultimate self-indulgence--denying what you can plainly see and instead going to Madame Zamba for permission to take the Burger King approach to life, i.e., "have it your way."

Armstrong's bottom line? "Psychics are the new rock 'n' roll..."

* The writer, in fact, invokes Barnum at one point in the article--though historians disagree about whether he ever actually uttered the famously cynical line.
** and its generational offspring, which I suppose we could call the "mini-Me's."


RevRon's Rants said...

Beyond a desire for a sense of control, I think a significant element in the march toward the commercialization of psychic abilities is a deep need to appear more clever than one actually feels. While it can be a pretty daunting task to appear clever and insightful in a crowd of intelligent peers, one can project an air of intelligence by relating concepts for which no concrete antitheses can be presented. If I "see" an event that is not universally observed, then those who are denied my "vision" are obviously not as psychically attuned as I. Bingo! I become superior by default. And the emperor gets to add ever more outfits to his imaginary wardrobe.

Skepticism aside, I believe we all posess an intuitive nature which, when listened to and acknowledged, can be very helpful to us. That nature, however, is innate, and requires only that we observe it. No special dances, correspondence courses, seminars, mantras, or artifacts required. Of course, such a notion must be blasphemous to those hustledorks (see Wikipedia definition) whose fortunes are made upon the gullibility of others.

BTW Steve - The term hustledork was inspired in great part by an individual whose book you panned on Amazon. I won't mention any names, because as we know, hustledorks always have lawyers (and for good reason!).

Cosmic Connie said...

For anyone who does not believe that the psychic stuff has become more mainstream, let us turn once again to the mighty Amazon, where we can, if we wish, purchase "The Complete Idiot's Guide to Being Psychic" (Paperback)by LaVonne Carlson-Finnerty

We are also informed that customers who bought this book also bought:
"The Complete Idiot's Guide to Communicating with Spirits" by Rita Berkowitz
"The Complete Idiot's Guide to Psychic Awareness," Second Edition by Lynn A. Robinson

This just goes to show that you can just never have too much Idiot's advice about psychic stuff.

Don't get me wrong. I kind of like the Idiot's Guides, esp. since the Rev and I worked on an Idiot's guide to seduction a few years ago. But all of the stuff in that book had to do with being yourself, not pretending, as Ron said, that you're more clever than you are.

RevRon's Rants said...

CosCon -
If all we were doing were *pretending* to be more clever, it wouldn't be so bad. After all, we pretend in numerous ways every day. The real problem (as I see it) is that we somehow convince ourselves that our connived cleverness is genuine. Far more insidious than pretense, by doing so, we immerse ourselves in our own delusions, which effectively prevents us from evolving emotionally, intellectually, and (if you're so inclined) spiritually. And as we all know, the emperor's new clothes wouldn't keep him warm in winter!

Steve Salerno said...

RevRon/CosCon, to me this is the crux of it--RevRon's comments about the self-deceiving aspects of all this: "immers[ing] ourselves in our own delusions." There is no better way to say it, I think. To put it more colloquially, if we don't like the reality that confronts us, we simply buy or invent an alternate one (in this case by paying people to tell us that [a] we are the emperor and [b] not only are we wearing clothes, but they're beautiful clothes at that!). Such is, in fact, one of the most dangerous aspects of self-help generally--the implication that you can "deal with" a problem by denying it or wishing it away.

Anonymous said...

You are too hard on the paranormal and spiritualty. There are many things in life we don't understand, and you have admitted that much of what we do believe and think we have evidence for is wrong. Tell me how believing in this kind of spirituality is really that different from religion. From which billions draw comfort? It's just a different angle on it. You shouldn't judge what you don't know.

Anonymous said...

People tend to believe that because something offers comfort, it must be innocuous, at worst. But when that involves deluding those who are on the receiving end of that comfort, it's doing more harm than good--specifically in regards to avoiding reality, which Steve and the others who have posted here have already articulated.

RevRon's Rants said...

Millions of people draw "comfort" from heroin, yet I would certainly not advocate its use as a means toward spiritual growth. And while I do not believe that genuine spirituality is the "opiate of the masses," I would certainly classify an activity which diminishes personal responsibility as such. Unfortunately, the value of religion - as well as a significant portion of what is commonly referred to as Metaphysics - in our lives has been diminished by a desire to simplify one's path toward spiritual evolution. This has been caused (IMHO) by an increasing sense of entitlement to instant gratification, as well as the widespread growth of a lucrative industry. P.T. Barnum would be proud.

When we quit looking for an easy, trendy path to our unique concept of heaven/nirvana/satori/bliss, and willingly accept that learning takes real work, we may well find what we are looking for. But so long as we spend our energy and dollars on shortcuts, it is inevitable that we fail the real "tests" which life affords us. I feel that, in many cases, the short-term "comfort" anonymous describes is, in and of itself, an obstacle on a spiritual path.

As to the admonition not to judge what we don't know, we are blessed with a nature that is both intuitive and analytical. Is it not in our best interests to apply both aspects, and to formulate our own "righteous discernment" when confronted with concepts that simply do not ring true for us? Or should we blindly accept whatever we are offered as being true (or at least probable), so long as the messenger or the vehicle is to our liking?

Rodger Johnson said...

Reality for the psychic and wonna-be clairvoyant, compared to the reality of everyday life, is a finite province of meaning that the ‘real’ world has failed to provide. They seek comfort in the paranormal. Which, incidentally, brings me to our current reality in the blogosphere comment zone.

They’re diametrically the same – virtual.

As little as 10 years ago, this conversation could never take place with people scattered as we are. But the reality that presents itself to us is much like the reality people find in psychics. Although both are manufactured, one (ours) is based on idea and grounded in intellectual searching. We in our discussion, I think it’s safe to say, have created a reality in which we communicate about the reality of the absurd.

On the other hand, the reality of the absurd, the psychic in touch with the paranormal creates a metaphysical reality. One in which rules are relative and shifting. They make it up on the fly, while we react to that which already exists – we are only discovering it through our community.

This immersion we talk about – this captivation that some have with inventing the alternative and delude themselves in the absurd still creates a reality for them that they can understand. They are, in fact, reacting to the real-world reality, which they find uncomfortable.

The self-help implication go further than what Steve has purported. It creates a whole community of people that rely on nothing for something.

Steve Salerno said...

So Rodg, are you basically saying that what we've created here is just another talky diversion? Shame, shame.... But yeah, I know what you mean. In a sense. I'll have more of a rebuttal tomorrow. Been a long, long, looooong day....

Rodger Johnson said...

Diversion, yes. More importantly, its a reality we've created that couldn't have been 10 years ago.

It's virtual, but it's fueled by the and investigation of a phenomenon that's very real and present. So, it's a ligit thing.

On the other hand, psychics and those dealing in (para)normal -- emphasis on para -- seek to build a reality that is based on something other than fact -- parafact maybe.

They seek to know (para)isness while we in SHAMblog seek to know why the isness of such absurdity is so darn appealing.

Steve Salerno said...

To return to my thoughts on these thoughts... I'll stipulate to the fact that we all have some degree of "women's intuition," if you will. I have no idea how that works. It's like, I'm struck by the nonstop advertising for that new TV series, "Angela's Eyes," the premise of which is that this way-cool FBI profiler has an uncanny ability to tell when you're lying. Supposedly people like that actually exist. Sure, some of it has to do with tangible "cues" they're looking for--a person who blinks at key moments (or, on the other hand, talks with a fixed, unblinking stare), a person who speaks in a robotic monotone (or, on the other hand, becomes overly demonstrative), etc. But their skill goes beyond anything you can teach people to watch for; rather, it has to do with innate instinct. Is that a form of "psychic phenomena"? Maybe, maybe not. (Each of us has some special talent or knack, after all.) Also, it seems reasonably clear that there is a SMALL handful of people (i.e. much smaller than what most of us think, or have been led to believe by the media) who, yes, are able to "see things" (in crime scenes and the like) that the rest of us cannot see, and that these people can indeed help the police find bodies, killers, missing children, etc. I have no idea how that works, either. However, it would appear that these people are, to some degree, plugged into a higher or broader level of "consciousness" than the rest of us. Though I should point out that James Randi and other top debunkers aren't buying this; Randi argues that the leading "police psychics" simply benefit from some early, random successes (i.e. "visions" that just happened to pan out), thus giving them an instant, albeit faux, credibility. For example, if a psychic says "I see a body near a river," and the police later find a body near a river, that is taken as evidence of the psychic's talents--even though lots of bodies are found near rivers, it could've just been a lucky guess, and who knows how many other guesses that same psychic took before finally getting one right. Plus, there is a tendency to try to see concrete shape in the overall outlines of what a psychic says. So, e.g., if the psychic says "I see a body near a river"--and the body is later found near a lake--we'll say, "Well, a river is kind of like a lake, so I guess that's what the psychic was seeing...." This same tendency--to find specificity in ambiguity--is what enables psychics to play to a mass audience, of course. ("Seer," to a 45-year-old client: "I'm picking up an older woman..." "That would be my mother..." "With--lighter hair...." "Yes, yes, that's her..." (How many older women do you know with jet-black hair?) "She had some sort of trauma growing up...." "Yes, her mother died when she was just 11...." (Again, how many women, or people in general, didn't have "some sort of trauma" growing up? That can mean anything. Or nothing.) I also get a kick out of people who are immediately seduced by psychics who, right off the bat, say something like "You're here because there's something going on in your life..." First of all, again, that can mean almost anything. But second, and probably more important, isn't that when most of us are inclined to seek psychic counsel (sic) in the first place? When there's "something going on in our lives"? And we're desperate for answers?

Whatever the case, I hope we all agree that: 1) The universe of individuals who can actually do this with predictable accuracy is very, very, VERY small. Chances are you're not going to find one of them working for $25-a-reading in a booth at the local farm show. 2) By their own admission, even the most well-known psychics (the ones who have newspaper columns or books out, and/or get to sit next to Larry King "for the full hour") get it wrong much of the time. So, to entrust major, life-changing decisions to psychics makes about as much sense as going away for the weekend and leaving your kids in Michael Jackson's care. 3) The public's newfound fascination with psychic phenomena is such that it has become a career op for thousands of unscrupulous wannabes who have about as much business giving readings as I have doing coronary angioplasty. (In fact, I know a fair amount about cardiac surgery and the workings of the heart, so I'd rank my odds of success against the psychic's any day.) And 4) Regardless of all the foregoing, there is absolutely no evidence that YOU, Mr. or Ms. Everyday American, can "learn" to be psychic. I will grant you, at least for the purposes of this thread, that somebody who already has The Gift can probably learn to use it in a more maximally efficient way. But the idea that any given individual can teach himself to "become psychic," in the same way that he or she can teach himself to make chicken marsala or tune the engine of a BMW 3-series roadster--folks, let's get real here.

Anonymous said...

That is really good stuff Steve, I have to give you this one! I laughed aloud.

RevRon's Rants said...

I fully agree with the notion that it is impossible to "teach" a person to be a psychic, but disagree with the contention that psychic ability is very rare. I believe that each person possesses to some degree the ability to intuit events for which no physical evidence is presented. The clarity of such vision varies from person to person, dependent not only upon the depth of their ability, but upon their conditioning. Some go through their lives being encouraged to acknowledge intuitive signals, while most of us are taught to deal only with concrete "facts."

For example, I have taught meditation classes over the years, and my first "lesson" has always been that every person is born knowing how to meditate, but most are taught that since the practice produces no measurable result, it is to be avoided in favor of more "productive" activities. My task as an instructor was not to "teach" students how to meditate, but rather to give them permission to identify and acknowledge what they already knew. No magic keys, no secret positions or incantations, and frankly, no esoteric skills on my part. I simply passed along an understanding that had been passed along to me. Maybe that's why I never hit Oprah and the lecture circuit!

To the skeptic who scoffs at anything "metaphysical," I would offer a very simple definition of the term: beyond the realm of that which is measurable, or lacking empirical evidence to support its existence. As such, it is not so much a definition of a phenomena as of our own limits of perception. A couple of hundred years ago, a common x-ray would have been considered metaphysical, because we had not yet found a way to qualify and quantify the technology involved. Today, we take the technology for granted, even if we have little or no understanding of its processes. And just as some individuals who espoused - and typically, sold - "metaphysical" technologies were charlatans then, so are some of them today. It is more widespread for the reasons noted previously, but also probably due to the fact that burnings at the stake have become relatively rare!

And to those caught up in the "oh wow" phase upon discovering some new potential in themselves and the world around them, I would remind them to follow that which inspires them, but to bring along their common sense. Many of the "offerings" available today resemble the Nigerian e-mail scam more than a path to enhanced perception and enlightenment. If a seeker listens to what they actually hear, instead of what they *want* to hear, they probably won't be led too far astray.

A synopsis of my perspective became the title of a book I wrote some years ago, and which has languished happily in the hard drives of several computers since. "You Can't Get There From Here (But That's Okay... You Never Really Left)." I think that sums it up pretty well. :-)

Cosmic Connie said...

I think Steve hit it on the head on many points, but I'll just address the capitalistic angle. The new age/metaphysical community has always been filled with dilettantes who are desperately seeking to make a buck any way they can. Some are sincere spiritual seekers themselves, a few may be genuinely gifted, and yes, many are merely hucksters – but almost all of them are opportunists. They live for those occasions (rare occasions, for most of them) when they are fortunate enough to encounter someone who is desperate enough for general guidance or specific answers to fork over real money for their services.

I have been on very familiar terms with this community since the early 1980s, before most of their ideas became more mainstream. I’ve hung around the people, participated in some of their workshops, been to their lectures, etc. Most of all, I have read tons of their freebie magazines and newsletters, which have always been packed with ads from “intuitive counselors,” “readers” of all stripes, “empathic listeners,” “soul retrievers” (not a breed of dog) and the like. The ads generally feature all sorts of mystical symbols, accompanied by a portrait of a starry-eyed, angelic-looking woman (or man). But my guess – based on my own informal but in-depth research – is that very, very few of these folks are actually making a real living doing this stuff they advertise. Most of them are subsidized by a working spouse, or real jobs of their own.

In any case, the “become-a-psychic” movement was really just the logical next step in the mainstreaming of the new age. The promoters of the movement are simply taking their cues from the more traditional SHAMsters (who are not to be confused with small rodents). You can win over lots of folks by showing them how gifted you are, but if you make them believe that they, too, are gifted – or can be, if they take your workshop or buy your book – you’ve really got ’em hooked.

And Rodg, I think I understand your points about this “reality” we’ve created here. I didn’t interpret your first statement about this matter as a comment that it is nothing more than another “talky diversion,” although in some ways, it is mere diversion. I don’t think any of us are actually going to solve any world problems by spouting off here. But this is a great forum for sharing ideas – ideas that I happen to believe are important. And if it helps Steve sell more copies of his book, I’m all for that too! :-)

Steve Salerno said...

CosCon, I tell you without reservation that if it can help sell more copies of my book, I'm all for it, too. We all need to try to self-promote in one way or another. It's just that some of us don't have the considerable weight of Harpo Productions or network syndication behind us.

And now, as the darkest hours descend on SHAMland, I wish you all sweet dreams, followed by a day of boundless self-actualization tomorrow....

leatherargento said...

This is interesting.... I came upon this entry because I was reading Stephen Michaud and Hugh Aynesworth's *Ted Bundy: Conversations With a Killer: The Death Row Interviews*, and Ted is describing his murder, etc, of a young ski announcer, to journalists Michaud and Aynesworth. He tells the journalists about his murders in the third person, in the form of speculative fictive depictions/explanations of kills he still wants and expects the mass of humanity to believe that he did not commit -- in other words, he's The Expert Witness in his little lying-world, and not The Serial Killer And Necrophile. He's narrating "what that kind of person would do."

He says, in the interview, "You know, I mean... we've, we've arrived at these conclusions, uh, observations, based on all kinds of things -- fact and parafact." (Michaud and Aynesworth, 2000, p 103)

I googled "parafact," and this and an art piece/whathaveyou about a mass missing-persons case and a naturally-occurring Vaseline spring were the first big entries containing the word. It's interesting how, so far, "parafact" seems to mean "stuff only a personality-disordered criminal believes" or "a fact-based story that, to any normal person with brains who isn't in serious, chronic denial of very obvious truths and facts, is blatantly fictional, in a way that might be experienced by persons not affected by the affectations of the artist who identifies with the Artist's Lifestyle and some sort of Artist's Credo as cloying or perhaps offensive in a gratuitous fashion to the intelligence of the audience."