Lunatics, Idiots, and Charlatans: Bridging the Secular and the Spiritual

I was raised in a secular-intellectual environment firmly grounded in materialist reductionism: there is no world but the physical world and that which can be verified through research science. Religion had no part in my upbringing, and spirituality even less. Spirituality was the realm of lunatics, idiots, and charlatans: people who were either too crazy or stupid to be rational, or people who were intentionally trying to con the naive and gullible.

Imagine, then, what it was like as an adult to find myself going from the field of neuroscience into traditional Chinese medicine and then into spirit work. Frankly, as a life choice it wasn’t hard. The experiences that led me there, and keep me there, are clear and compelling. What was challenging was that now I was in a field that is discredited by a large portion of the population including the people and places that had up until that point been the foundation of my life.

It was not an absolute distinction. I remember having a conversation with one of my neurobiology professors about the brain and consciousness. At that point in my life I was not spiritual, but I still had the idea that maybe consciousness was not created by the brain but instead perceived by the brain. I asked my professor what he thought of that idea. To my surprise he had not only thought about it but also found it likely. But hypotheses based on non-materialist assumptions are not generally welcome in the overt conversations of the scientific communities, as those hypotheses challenge well-ingrained materialist dogma, the breaking of which is seen as a threat. As Mary Oliver notes in her poem “Maybe”:

“… you know how it is when something different crosses the threshold — the uncles mutter together, the women walk away, the young brother begins to sharpen his knife.”

New paradigms have historically been initially met with derision and resistance before eventually being accepted and incorporated into the status quo. Things we take for granted as facts now were contested theories of the past. And theories should be contested; that is what science is about. But they should not be dismissed off-hand when they do not conform to the current theoretical bias of the scientific community. There are limits to science; it should be used as only one source of information, not as the purveyor of absolute truth. For a great discussion on this topic I recommend the book Science Set Free by Rupert Sheldrake, a scientist who supports the inclusion of non-materialist theories in research.

Outside the scientific community, spiritualism does not get much better treatment. There are many examples of a stereotypical spiritual person being a source of mockery in the media. One example is the Netflix show Frankie and Johnny.  Frankie is “woo-woo” and is often portrayed waving smudge sticks around, sitting as if she’s meditating, and saying “woo-woo” things in ways that make her look ridiculous. Early in the show, the two title characters embark on a “vision quest” while taking peyote. This is portrayed as the two of them going to the beach for a night and acting drunk. It’s clear that the characters, and perhaps the show’s writers, know little to nothing of the actual ceremony.

Another stereotype that is frequently used as a way to mock spirituality in media is that of the psychic mind-reader: the person who makes random stuff up, or interprets coincidental circumstances as meaningful, and thinks they are getting psychic input. These characters are also concurrently portrayed as being either a little crazy, a little dumb, or both. Believing in ghosts, as another example, is synonymous with being stupid, superstitious, and gullible. Then there is the fortune-teller-as-charlatan stereotype that fills out the trio of characteristics I am highlighting here as the ways in which our culture denies and degrades mystical-spiritual experience.

These stereotypes illustrate how poorly psychic phenomena are understood. This is to some extent understandable as few of us in this culture are raised with the teachings that would make it possible to have an informed view on the subject. And that’s really the issue here: the cultural knee-jerk opposition to this subject is based on uninformed bias and not on actual experience or sincere inquiry. I am not proposing that anyone “believe” in spiritual phenomena without experience: I didn’t. However in the absence of actual proof to the contrary the rational position is one of not knowing, not one of negative bias.

In the interest of providing information about the alternatives to the stereotypes, here are some brief corrections of common cultural misconceptions about the psychic-spiritual world:

Psychic perception is not a gift that some are born with; it is a characteristic of consciousness. Psychic perception is consciousness communicating with other consciousness. Some people may be more aware of it, and some develop it as a skill; just like we all have muscles but athletes develop those muscles in ways that confer more skill in their use. As a characteristic of consciousness, psychic perception is available to everyone. Why then don’t more people  have psychic experiences? Well, we do, just not in the stereotypical psychic-reader format. Intuition and creativity are forms of psychic perception, as is any detection of “vibes” in our environments. Ever feel bad in a house or other place for no apparent reason? That could be psychic perception. It comes through our normal sense faculties in addition to our cognitive faculties. It can be perceived as a feeling, a knowing, a seeing, a hearing, or a smelling. Intuitive training is mostly a matter of teaching people not to dismiss what they are sensing, and learning how to practice discernment with intuitive input as it’s not just about believing without scrutiny anything you perceive.

I remember one of my clients who had come for a reading toward the start of my practice. It was a difficult session for me because she wasn’t very open to being read and openly doubted whether it was real. But she was there at the session despite all of this, which indicated to me that there was something in it for her. So I sat with her to see if there would be an opening at some point. Finally, after about forty minutes of the session going almost nowhere, I asked her if she had experiences she considered psychic or spiritual. To my great surprise given the conversation so far, she not only said yes but also gave me several minutes of examples. She had clearly touched on that world herself and was just having trouble accepting it. I have found that many people have experiences they would describe as mystical, spiritual, or supernatural, but they are afraid of being though of as crazy or stupid.

Another way that psychic ability is misunderstood is that it is conflated with omniscience. “If you’re psychic why don’t you win the lottery?” is a question intended to prove that psychics are charlatans. But that presupposes that psychic ability is omniscience, which it is not. All information is not available all of the time. There are limits to the range and type of information that can be perceived. What a reader does is access what information is available in the moment, nothing more. Developing your psychic abilities does not give you answers-on-demand.

A common fear is that if you accept that spiritual and psychic phenomena are real, you must give up your rational intellect. I’m not sure why this polarization happens but I have encountered it frequently in people who start a spiritual path as adults. It is a false dichotomy. Intuition is not the opposite of rationality. Both intuition and cognitive-based thought can be either rational or irrational. Intuition and intellect are two forms of knowing that provide a fuller picture of life situations when used together. It is important to use those faculties and sources of input together because intuitive information can come from a variety of sources and requires discernment, and intellect without intuition can be uninspired and lacking in creativity.

The last misconception about psychic ability is that it predicts an absolute future; this is the “fortune telling” aspect. There are ways to look at trends and possibilities for the future, but the details of the future are not set in stone. What we do today may change what happens tomorrow. For this reason, future prediction tends to be the least accurate aspect of psychic readings and should not be the basis on which the skill of a reader is judged.

As my life path bridged the gap between our materialist-oriented culture and a spiritual life I had to contend with these misconceptions and biases, both externally and as internalized beliefs. Even though it would be irrational after all of my spiritual experiences to deny the existence of spiritual phenomena, I felt some fear around being labeled irrational for “believing” in that kind of thing. Being visible and forthcoming about what I do for a living felt like coming out. I didn’t know who I would alienate as a result, or whether it would impact my acceptance within my family. It wasn’t easy that associating with one of the things I love most in the world, and the medicine that made my life worth living, could also make me a lunatic, idiot, or charlatan in the eyes of another.

That said, the cultural climate around spirituality seems to be changing toward acceptance of a broader range of possibility. When I was growing up there were no acupuncturists, Reiki practitioners, spirit healers, or even chiropractors in my area. Now these practices are becoming much more widely known and in some areas even commonplace.

I write this article out of a desire to name some of the undercurrents that can be present for modern spiritual seekers, not to dissuade anyone from going in that direction. I recently read a saying that is attributed to the Sufi tradition: it said there are two things that must be done to be on a spiritual path, begin and continue. That is my recommendation for any level of seeker, new or experienced. Don’t stop until you find the thing that makes you come alive, that inspires you, that moves you to your equivalent of greatness. The spiritual path has nothing to do with activities like meditation or belief in any doctrine; it is about living life in the way that is true to your soul. If being true to your soul means exploring spiritual paths, try different things, experiment. Find what is right for you.  Don’t worry about being a lunatic, idiot, or charlatan. Don’t stop until you love your life.