How to hold a séance

While I'm sitting at Border's reading "The Idiot's Guide to Being Psychic," the guy who brings me an order of hummus says: "Don't read this, just eat a lot of acid." Although this isn't exactly what I had in mind as far as discovering the ins and outs of channeling (communicating with spirits), it does illustrate something of the new theory behind speaking with the dead and other beings in the spirit world. If seances and channeling conjure up images of floating apparitions, aristocrats sitting pensively around a crystal ball in a dark circus tent, or the next stop for Nancy Reagan after the astrologer, you're in for a surprise. The new emphasis has more in common with yoga and tai chi than with any Victorian group clustered around an old fortune-teller. The modern goal of seances and channeling is to form a connection between the self and the spirit world. Many books wrestle with the ways to achieve this goal, and most of them focus largely on the internal self, ignoring any proposed need for a professional psychic. So, if you're looking to speak to your dead grandmother, the spirit of Jim Morrison, or even your cat that "ran away" when you were eight, there are myriads of options. Read on in the first of our new how-to guides to learn everything you need to throw a modern-day séance.

  Exorcising your spirits
Seances are not solely for contacting and having a nice chat with the dead; they can also be used to exorcise unwanted spirits. Cowan stresses that most haunting spirits are more scared than malicious and prescribes the same basic setup that is utilized in regular seances. Once the spirit is contacted, the medium can attempt to discern what is plaguing the spirit, often it is an unfinished task, and then alleviate the spirit of that burden. Hopefully, the removal of that weight from the haunt's spiritual shoulders will be sufficient to encourage it to get on with its afterlife. But for those of us more used to the whole head spinning, soup spitting, dubiously utilized crucifix bit, you can always count on the Catholic Church. The Vatican recently reevaluated its rules of exorcism and released an 84-page book detailing the changes. Those changes basically consist of an acknowledgment of the existence of mental illness and the need for consultation with a physician to ensure that something like schizophrenia isn't mistaken for demonic possession; the rest of the ritual remains largely intact. In brief, an exorcism must be performed by an ordained priest who has been granted permission to perform the exorcism by his Bishop. The first step is to implore the demon to leave the possessed. The next step is to order the demon to leave, the whole time interspersing Gospel readings: John 1:1-12, Mark 16:15-18 and Luke 10:17-20, and psalms: numbers 3, 12, and 91, while yelling assorted mantras and throwing holy water. The method employed in "The Exorcist" really isn't that far off. Eventually the spirit leaves. Or the studly young priest jumps out the window. Or both.

Obviously, the desire of Cowan, Northrop, and Edwards to achieve a sense of understanding with the spirit is pretty much nonexistent in the Catholic Church's rites of exorcism. An exorcism more in line with the psychic's trains of thought is described by Drew Stinton, owner of Melbourne, Australia's The Haunted Bookshop and generally considered an expert in these things. In the spirit of the individual as emphasized by the modern psychics, Stinton proclaims that an individual can conduct an exorcism without the help of a priest. He offers a Prayer of Progression that will help lost or troubled ghosts "progress" to the next life. Basically, you kick them out without worrying about solving their problems.

So it comes down to whether or not you want to help the invading spirit or just send him back to wherever he came from. Catholicism pretty much keeps its view of exorcism narrow and concise: it's a demon or the devil, send him back to hell and praise God. Modern psychics, who see the spirits as mutated forms of human beings, treat the exorcism like a therapy or intervention session, attempting to help out the disturbed bundle of energy. Though most major dioceses have an exorcist on hand, it's probably a better bet to call Donna Edwards and ask her to come over; it'll undoubtedly be quicker and probably less messy.

Spirits in the Material World

Baltimore-based therapist Donna Edwards, who specializes in 'intuitive counseling,' maintains that "we are all, first and foremost, spirits." With that in mind, it shouldn't be too hard to speak to other spirits who no longer have the luxury of an outer shell. Like members of organized religions, believers in the powers of channeling feel there is a higher power, referred to by any number of monikers like god, deity or goddess. The difference is that they bring a unique scientific basis into the mix, believing that we are not only a definitive part of that higher power, but that we are actually spirits emitting a detectable frequency. It's as if we're all small parts of one overarching consciousness.

It is through channeling that we attempt to raise that frequency to the same level as that of the disembodied spirits for communication purposes. Professional instruction generally focuses on the individual, though the issue of group channeling, or séances is almost always tackled. While the specifics of this instruction sometimes vary slightly, the general outline is the same.

The power of one

For channeling as an individual, most sources start off emphasizing the setting. Suzane Northrop, professional trance medium (someone who channels) and author of "The Seance: Healing Messages From Beyond," goes so far as to recommend making an appointment with the spirits. The idea is that you are making a commitment to yourself and the spirits, who hear you make that commitment. A comfortable setting with low or natural light sources and free from distractions is recommended.

Yoga-style breathing and drama-class theatrics ensue, with the idea of calming yourself and centering your spirit with the physical self. Tony Neate, author of "Channeling for Everyone," recommends meditating to a point where you can feel roots growing from your feet. Northrop warns that random thoughts will keep interfering, but that a simple acknowledgment of those thoughts will allow you to let them go and return to focusing on being mentally quiet. In effect, any sort of medium that can calm you and clear your brain -- such as music, incense and repetitive prayer -- is fine.

Once you are sufficiently free of mental noise, the next step is to visualize the connection you desire. "The Idiot's Guide" recommends an active seeking out of the spirits -- a call to communication. Northrop suggests, "picturing being surrounded by white light, feeling the oneness and protection with the universal power/god, as you "feel/see/imagine yourself in a bowl of light, gently and quietly lifting, as if you were in a balloon or spacious elevator." The desired effect is to fully recognize, with the whole self, the connection of your spirit to all others. It is this recognition that allows for communication with the spirit world. These are just a few helpful suggestions, but the method of visualization is ultimately a personal decision.

Not every person will feel the connecting trance in the same way. All the psychics stress achieving the connection in whatever way is most comfortable. Northrop personally details a long, visual scenario of looking over fields and trees to a bench, where you will sit and communicate (maybe with only one word or a slight touch) with the spirit of the deceased loved one.

When that communication is over, you will instinctively know it and should begin to visualize your balloon or elevator rising up and then settling back in the real world. Northrop encourages the new channeler to focus on the calmness for a little longer before fully awakening to the world again. She states: "You will feel relaxed, even if you are not sure of exactly what happened or if you made contact. You will be conscious of feeling love in a way you have never felt before." She also encourages free-association writing to further take in the experience.

When it comes down to it, individual channeling is a way to reach whatever transcendent place Thoreau found by sitting in the woods. Today's psychics promise a concrete realization of the energy of life, some form of contact with deceased loved ones. All of the instructions serve merely as blueprints to start the individual on a personal path toward enlightenment. The goal is directed at recognition and understanding of a universal energy. The actual spiritual contact is almost a secondary benefit.

But, there's not much fun in that. The local YMCA offers classes on mind/body/universe unity, but you can't get a seance with chanting and crystal balls and tapping table legs there. Unfortunately, you're not likely to find such a display anywhere these days -- at least not a serious one. While modern seances can involve hands clasped around a table and flickering candles, the emphasis is still on the individual's recognition of unity with the spirit world.

Strength in Numbers

The experts, in a very Lennon/Ono turn, acknowledge the potential power in group energy. Edwards even feels that a meditation group lends to a feeling of place, making the participants more comfortable and thus more likely to be satisfied with their experience. The preparation exercises are basically the same. However, it is necessary to have a ritual that works for all members of the group, as it's important for the whole group to be relaxed at the same time. Tom Cowan, author of "The Book of Seance: How to Reach Out to the Next World," specifies deep breathing as a universal and appropriate vehicle to erase mental white noise. Like Northrop, he also recognizes the importance of prayer, in whatever form the group members are comfortable with, and provides a few old standards, including: "May the Powers of the Cosmos that protect and guard us bless us and the spirits who join us tonight," and "we pray that the Universal Power and all our Spirit Companions put us in contact with good and helpful spirits and protect us from mischief and harm from troubled spirits."

While Edwards has held group seances which are informal for the sake of comfort (the group sits around a living room while she channels the desired spirit), Cowan encourages a more atmospheric approach to group channeling. He specifies that you should "sit with your hands resting lightly on the tabletop. Some groups space their hands and spread their fingers so that their little fingers touch. This reinforces the sense of oneness and creates an unbroken circle of contact and a sense of community and purpose." Unlike individual channeling, group channeling generally requires a head medium who can channel the spirits and communicate for everyone in the room. Once a trance state has been reached, the leader begins in one of two ways, depending on the purpose of the seance: to contact a specific spirit or to put out an open call for any spirit who may feel like dropping in.

If a certain spirit is desired, Cowan emphasizes being very vocally specific since "there is an infinity of spirits in the universe," stating the person's full name and even giving a sense of the reason behind the contact. If any spirit will suffice, simply voice a desire to speak to whomever. If no one comes, ask out loud if the dynamic of the room (including light level and seating arrangements) needs to be changed.

When the contact actually starts is when the real fun begins. Some spirits will channel strictly through the medium, with that medium either talking to the group or writing on sheets of paper. But other spirits who obviously have more of an appreciation for theatrics will tip the table or tap on the walls, generally one tap for 'no,' two taps for 'yes.' If the tipping table method is being used, yes or no questions are obviously preferred. In case of the necessity of more specific words, the person to the left of the medium will state 'A' out loud, the next person 'B,' and so on until the table tips twice on whatever letter is desired. This is repeated until a word is spelled out. Another séance tool that both Cowan and Northrop value -- and which may be quicker than vocally spelling out messages -- is the Ouija board. However, they encourage the use of a board that has not been tainted by less-than-serious activities, such as wondering which members of the slumber party will get kissed first.

Northrop, Neate, and company illustrate a basic truth: New Age mysticism is not really new age; it's an amalgam of Eastern spirituality with a Western slant towards the individual. As opposed to the old notions of eradicating spirits and speaking with floating apparitions, contemporary channeling focuses on the achievement of a personal spirituality. Even group seances are valued as conglomerations of individual energy for the purpose of individual satisfaction in a group setting. It isn't very Halloween, but it is the way it works at the end of the century -- a mix-n-match spirituality for an age without a spiritual bedrock.