(A Skeptical view)
BY PATRICK O'REILLY
Channeling is the act of a person being a
conduit for messages from a spiritual entity. This entity can be a deity, angel,
saint, deceased holy person, someone famous or someone unknown. The person who
acts as this conduit, the channel, supposedly enters a trance or altered state
of consciousness prior to receiving these otherworldly communications.
Historically, channeling derives from shamanistic practices whereby the shaman,
often as a result of intense fasting, chanting, hardship, isolation, and/or the
ingestion of hallucinogenic plants, makes pronouncements of a spiritual or
healing nature which the people of his or her community believe to be divine.
Most channels say that they have no memory of
what occurred while they were in the channeling state and that during that time
their persons are taken over by the entity speaking. Many contemporary channels
claim that they prepare for the channeling experience by prayer, meditation,
sleep deprivation, chanting, or dancing. During the channeling experience, the
channel's personality purportedly becomes displaced and a new personality takes
over. This new personality uses gestures and facial expressions different from
the channel's and nearly always uses a different inflection and/or accent while
speaking. Significantly, despite the number of channeled voices from different
cultures, no channel has been known to speak in that channeled entity's language
unless the channel previously had already spoken the language. The channeled
voice of Jesus has yet to be heard in Aramaic.
Channeling became popular in western cultures
in the nineteenth century, usually among the well-to-do. "The Shawnee
Prophet", the brother of Chief Tecumseh, regularly was said to receive
messages from the spirit world and would offer wisdom and advice while in a
trance state (Somerlot, 78). Channeling was also frequently included as part of
mediumistic practices. The Fox sisters regularly channeled "Mr. Splitfoot,"
who they claimed alternately to be the devil and the spirit of a man murdered in
their home. Mrs. Piper, a popular medium of the late nineteenth century,
occasionally spoke in a different voice which she claimed was the voice of
Chlorine, a woman of Indian ancestry.
Channeling grew in popularity as the
spiritualist movement peaked. New religious groups would often form around the
collected sayings of channeled spirits. The Faithist Church was based on The New
Age Bible, the channeled pronouncements of John Ballou Newbrough. Books of
collected channeled sayings, such as The Aquarian Gospel of Jesus Christ, by
Levi Dowling, and James Padgett's True Gospel Revealed Anew by Jesus achieved
great popularity in late nineteenth and early twentieth spiritualist circles.
Undoubtedly the biggest boost to channeling came from the founder of Theosophy,
Madame Blavatsky, a woman who professed to have many paranormal powers. She
claimed that she had spent years studying with Tibetan masters and had traveled
around the globe learning from other secret masters of spirituality. Through
Theosophy, Blavatsky spread the word that humanity was passing through seven
different races, which included the Astral (spirit) race and that spiritual
entities could be communicated with if a person had the spiritual purpose,
discipline, and right spiritual mentor. Although she was exposed as a fraud for
her performances as a medium in 1884 (Somerlot, 132), Blavatsky nonetheless
acquired a large following.
She did much better as a channel than as a
medium, claiming to channel a large assortment of spirits, including her uncle,
a Kurdish warrior and a Persian merchant. Particularly, she regularly received
channeled messages from two entities, Koot Hoomi and Moorya, who, she said, were
responsible for written messages that dropped from the ceiling during her
channeling sessions (Randi, 1995, 34).
Blavatsky, unlike other channels, insisted
that, in addition to channeling entities, she could control and direct the
entities which spoke through her (Washington, 1993, 41). In claiming mastery of
the channeled entities, she effectively separated herself from the other
channels of her time, who, she hinted, were usually weak and little more than
vulnerable vessels. By claiming to control the spirits she supposedly channeled
she established herself as a power in her own right.
The basic tenets of Theosophy are that
"matter, spirit, and consciousness are the basis for the universe and the
individual" (Randi, 232). Blavatsky wrote that the tenets of Theosophy had
been dictated by worldly masters and supernatural spirit guides. Among the
stated purposes of Theosophy was the "the investigation of unexplained laws
of nature and the powers latent in man" (Washington, 69). In The Secret
Doctrine, probably her most well known work (which she said was originally
written in the unknown "Senzar" language), she wrote that humanity is
descended from a spiritual race originally from the moon.
Blavatsky died in 1891 but her Theosophical
Society survived. It split into several quarreling factions but still exists
worldwide, and has a small but dedicated following. The segue from Theosophy to
modern day channeling was the growing western interest in reincarnation.
Reincarnation is "the idea that the spirit
of a person leaves the body at death and is reborn into another" (Randi,
200). Reincarnation can be found in cultures as diverse as the Haida Indians of
Alaska and the Druses of Lebanon. Most commonly, though, it is an integral part
of the spiritual belief of Hinduism (Wilson, 28). Edgar Cayce, who died in 1945,
was the first twentieth century American to popularize reincarnation in this
country. He apparently believed that he had been through many incarnations,
including that of Jesus Christ. While in his trance states, he made
pronouncements about topics as diverse as medical advice, dire world prophesy,
and spirituality (Randi, 42-43). Following Cayce, who still retains great
popularity, it was through works like The Search for Bridey Murphy by Morey
Bernstein that the ideas of reincarnation became known and accepted in western
The validity of channeling got another boost
from the popularity of the written work of Jane Roberts. Although Roberts also
claimed to channel Jung and William James, it was her channeled spirit Seth that
brought her fame and followers. Before her death in 1984, Roberts published over
twenty volumes of Seth material. Since her death, new Seth manuscripts have been
edited by Roberts' husband, and the original Seth materials still remain in
print. Still other channels, who were in no way connected to Roberts, also claim
to channel Seth. One such channel claimed the right to channel Seth by saying
that Seth was "composite energy" (Brown, 1997,157). Much of the
popularity of the Seth material, aside from its simplicity, is due to the fact
that it offers a coherent philosophy that includes levels of reality, lessons in
psychology and an overview of a spiritual universe. There is an amazingly large
market for channeling and the profusion of related books, tapes, and seminars.
Channels and their adherents believe that channeling can reveal the wisdom of
other planets, dimensions and historical periods. "They apply their
insights to financial affairs, career issues, relationships, and the resolution
of their emotional problems." (Brown, 6). A Gallup poll in 1995 revealed
that 25% of American adults believe in reincarnation and spiritualism.
Following Roberts, a profusion of channels
appeared in the 1970s and 1980s, most notably J. Z. Knight. Knight channels
Ramtha, a warrior and deity from Atlantis. Ramtha, through Knight, preaches a
strange amalgam of New Age "we are all God" philosophy and apocalyptic
vision. In her Ramtha guise, Knight has predicted coming earthquakes, volcanoes
and floods, to be followed by a sacred era in which we can all reach our true
potential. Another channel who has achieved fame and riches is Kevin Ryerson,
who was brought to the public's attention through the books of Shirley McLaine.
Ryerson's message is less doom oriented than Knight's. He preaches that we are
all divine and Ryerson has created a strange cosmology that includes, among many
other aspects, chakras, intuition and ecology. Like Knight, Ryerson has
frequently been on television talk shows, has written popular books about his
channeled messages, and holds workshops at which he channels his particular
entities. Ryerson has preached that channeling defies rational explanation and
scientific analysis. According to him, Our society is devoid of healing psychic
imagery, so we allow ourselves to be overwhelmed by technology. We have a heroic
course: to step out of our world into the sacred wheel of this building, a
sacred mandala. (Brown, 26-32).
One other specific member of the channeling
pantheon bears mentioning and that is the channeled entity "Michael."
"The Michael Teachings" are done under the direction of the Michael
Educational Foundation in Orinda, California, which offers classes that teach
and certify the Foundation students as official Michael channels (Brown, 158).
This is the only example I found of channel franchises. According to Michael,
everything is classified into groups of seven; seven ages of the cosmos, seven
personality roles, seven body types, seven attitudes, etc. "The Michael
Teachings", like the great majority of all channeled wisdom, teach the
principles of self validation and self-actualization (Hoodwin, 1995, 15). In
reviewing the pronouncements allegedly made by channeled entities, the
overriding message is "take care of yourself." Although there is a
master plan for all of us, the great majority of channeled entities say that
this plan is subject to revision, and the channels urge their followers to use
the channeled teachings to improve themselves in just about any way the
believers choose. Channeled spirits are supposedly outside of space and time and
can see the past, present and future as one.
Many believers think that these spirits can act
as guides to prosperity. Social responsibility has little meaning for most
channels and their followers. Channels frequently teach that poverty, for
instance, is an illusion because poor people think poverty thoughts (Brown, 65).
Those who suffer from illness, injury or tragedy are responsible for what
befalls them. Channeled teachings continue to preach that the human mind has the
ability to transform failure into prosperity, ill health into wellness, and
sadness into joy. These teachings emphasize that personal misfortune is part of
the larger universal plan but can be changed by the affected person taking
personal spiritual control (Bill, 1986, 141).
To counter inevitable criticism from skeptics,
channels usually acknowledge that there is a legitimate use for the scientific
method but that this method has destructively overshadowed other ways of knowing
(Walters, 1994, 65-62). Channels urge people to suspend conventional judgement
and instead make judgements based on the heart and the body, which they claim
will never lie. They suggest that people tune into their own energy to determine
if channeled wisdom speaks to them personally and not rely on the preconceived
ideas or the opinions of others. In other words, channels disdain scientific
analysis in favor of what intuitively feels right. There are thousands of
channels, channeling classes, and channeling books and tapes advertised on the
Internet. Channeling is big business. To reconcile the potential financial
rewards of coarse commerce with spirituality, channels teach that money is
neutral and in itself carries no energy. Rather, it is what one does with money
that determines its power. Everything, even spending money, is potentially
spiritual (Hoodwin, 13). What one pays for when one gives money to a channel is
not the channel's service but the channel's energy.
Channeling has also been a key component of
cult formation. It is, almost by necessity, an aspect of most flying saucer
cults and was first noted in 1956 by Leon Festinger. Festinger studied in great
detail the interpersonal dynamics of a small cult in the Midwest that had as its
leader a woman who apparently believed that she received channeled messages from
an alien from another planet(Festinger et al., 1956). As with the group
Festinger studied, most such cults prepare for geologic or nuclear destruction
of this planet, prior to which, members believe that they will be rescued by
wiser beings from different worlds.
Certainly much of J. Z. Knight's activities can
be considered cultish. In addition to her preaching that all humans are godlike,
she has warned her followers that terrible worldly destruction is soon
approaching and that they can find safe haven living near her in rural
Washington state. Many of her followers have done just that and have become
emotionally reliant on her leadership. Elisabeth Clare Prophet, leader of the
Church Universal and Triumphant, claims to channel Saint Germain and other
spiritual masters. The revelations of these channeled spirits are an integral
part of the church's theology and the messages Prophet receives are largely
authoritarian and puritanical (Brown, 127). Her church community lives in
relative isolation on 12,000 acres in Montana. In preparation for the nuclear
holocaust Prophet predicts, her community of approximately 2000 members
stockpiled weapons and built vast underground bunkers.
Immediately prior to her channeling sessions,
which are nearly always done in front of her followers, her audience
participates in hours of group chanting that she preaches will change the world.
Only after these long chanting sessions, which she calls "decreeing,"
does Prophet appear and begin her channeling session. Prophet also has been
reported to arbitrarily reprimand and praise her individual followers,
explaining this contrariness by insisting that these actions are spirit directed
"alignments" (Brown, 128). Segments of the psychology field have also
found channeling lucrative, if not useful, in their work. Two reasons for this
are poor policing by licensing agencies and too little emphasis on teaching
critical thinking skills at the graduate school level.
Additionally, Transpersonal Psychology has
become much more acceptable in some academic settings and is frequently taught
in conjunction with science based psychology. (Locally, JFK University,
Rosebridge Graduate School of Integrative Psychology, Western Institute for
Social Research, and California Institute of Integrative Studies accept
Transpersonal Psychology as a legitimate academic discipline).
In Transpersonal Psychology there is a
devaluation of science and a readier acceptance of intuition and spiritual
interpretations of phenomena. Psychotherapists who are accepting of the
legitimacy of channeling in their professional practices tend to also rely on
such techniques as hypnosis and guided imagery (Brown, 168). Those using such
practices often call their unconventional techniques "energy work," as
much as to avoid the word "channeling" as to indicate that they are
not bound by western methodology. As one such psychotherapist said (Brown, 171):
"People get better a lot faster. I can teach them to read their own energy
field...They feel better. They have more joy in their lives."
So, after all of this, how do channels do it?
Many undoubtedly are frauds. It is worth pointing out that when a channel speaks
in an accent foreign to him or her, the accent can be examined by linguists to
ascertain its legitimacy. Analyses of the speech of several famous channels has
shown that the accents are false (Baker, 244). Also no doubt much of
channeling's popularity lies in the adherent's willingness to suspend doubt and
in his or her will to believe in some sort of recognizable transcendence.
Besides those two examples, which are outside of the scope of this paper, there
are explanations for the belief and practice of channeling that I will mention
Many channeling performances are done as
quasi-religious exercises in front of a large group of sympathetic people. In
these and other situations where one is around those thought of as peers, there
is the subtle but pervasive pressure to conform to the thinking of the group.
This concept is called "social proof". Social proof is often a
valuable survival tool in normal life situations but it is potentially quite
damaging when manipulated by someone advocating false or inaccurate doctrine or
information (Cialdini, 1993, 127). In such situations, the urge to conform and
to believe often takes precedence over reason.
Channeling performances are frequently preceded
by lengthy prayer, meditation, and/or chanting exercises that often make the
observers emotionally drained and certainly more susceptible to new and strange
information. Relaxation, caused by the meditation oriented exercises prior to
the channeling performance, and suggestion (the actually channeling) can also
release "hundreds of buried memories that are connected in complex
associative chains, and that once revived appear to come from 'out of the blue'
since the original stimulus and storage has long since been forgotten"
(Baker, 235). Unfortunately, most people do not understand these principles, and
as a consequence, are capable of believing that the channeling experience that
they have witnessed or performed is truly legitimate proof of communication with
a spiritual entity.
Channeling as it is practiced today in western
countries is a strange and disturbing hybrid of shamanism, enterprise, and self
imposed ignorance. The message that is almost constantly preached by channels
and their followers is that humans are dieties, that the afterworld is not a
scary place, and that individuals can use the channeled wisdom to better their
individual lot while still living. Science and reason are viewed as narrow and
dogmatic and decidedly unspiritual. The channeling experience can be all
encompassing because many channels dissuade believers from any social
interaction that is contrary to channeled philosophy. It is almost entirely self
directed and self serving.
In a world such as ours, that is complex and
specialized, channeling offers comprehension without the need for education or
knowledge. Channeling offers an understanding of the world that does not require
study, debate, analysis or education. If one is able to accept its legitimacy,
the channeled universe is remarkably easy to grasp. Because past and future are
one, and everything that happens has been preordained, channeled philosophy
presents no incentive to view society as something that is in flux and capable
of change. The only improvements channels promote are improvements of individual
status, wealth, and peace of mind.
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