Friday, 26 September 2014

Mediumship & Folk Models of Mind and Matter

By Jack Hunter, Reality Sandwich    Blog Ref
The following is excerpted from Talking with the Spirits: Ethnographies from between the Worlds, edited by Jack Hunter and David Luke, published by Daily Grail Publishing.
This chapter explores the role of experiences with trance and physical mediumship in the development of folk models of mind and matter, at a non-denominational spiritualist home-circle called the Bristol Spirit Lodge. Mediums and sitters often claim that mediumship has led them to understand the world differently, and to appreciate that the standard materialistic view of science is inadequate as an all encompassing model of reality. Certain key themes and concepts have emerged from my informants’ experiences with mediumship that hint at alternative models of understanding the relationship between mind and matter, including the idea that bodies are permeable, that matter is essentially non-physical, that consciousness is far more expansive than our normal waking state would lead us to believe, and that persons are multiple, can survive death, and may be influenced by external spiritual entities.
To begin, we will briefly examine the anthropological debate over spirit possession,  taking a quick tour through the various theoretical models developed to account for the existence of this human phenomenon. This will be followed by an introduction to the history of Spiritualism, and in particular to physical mediumship, in order to give an idea of the kind of spirit mediumship that forms the basis for discussion in this chapter. The chapter will conclude with an analysis of extracts from ethnographic interviews with members of the Bristol Spirit Lodge.
Ethnographic Parallels
Ethnographic parallels of spiritualist mediumship can be found in the many varieties of what are loosely labelled ‘spirit possession’ traditions (Schmidt & Huskinson, 2010; Dawson, 2011), and what I.M. Lewis refers to as ‘ecstatic religions’ (Lewis, 1971), which occur, in one form or another, in almost all human societies. Spirit possession can be broadly defined in Janice Boddy’s terms as:
…the hold over a human being by external forces or entities more powerful than she. These forces may be ancestors or divinities, ghosts of foreign origin, or entities both ontologically and ethnically alien… (Boddy, 1994, p. 407)
The term ‘spirit possession’ is used quite broadly to refer to a set of related, though not  necessarily identical, phenomena (Lewis, 1988, p. 24), including both the belief that spirits can involuntarily occupy the body of an individual, causing illness, and the voluntary incorporation of spirits, ancestors and deities for social and ritual reasons. This voluntary incorporation is usually referred to as ‘mediumship.’ The discussions that follow in this chapter are primarily concerned with the voluntary incorporation of spirits.
The belief that the body can be temporarily inhabited by non-physical beings is particularly widespread. Erika Bourguignon (1973), in a cross-cultural study of 488 widely distributed societies selected from a compendium of ‘adequately described cultures’ (1973, p. 11), determined that ninety percent of her sample societies utilised some form of institutionalised altered state of consciousness, and that seventy percent of the sampled societies associated such states with the notion of spirit possession (Bourguignon, 1973, pp. 9-11; 2007, p. 375). Of course, there are important differences between the world’s various spirit possession traditions, which, like all human practices, differ in their cultural expression, but all share the common theme of utilising altered states of consciousness, of one form or another, as a means to interact with the ‘spirit world’ and the divine (Dawson, 2011, p. 9).
The Euro-American Spiritualist movement was, and is, therefore, part of a much wider human phenomenon, but while anthropology has been predominantly concerned with investigating spirit possession practices in Non-Western societies, there has been a distinct lack of research into contemporary Euro-American spirit mediumship (see Gilbert and Meintel in this volume, Nelson, 1969; Skultans, 1974 and Emmons, 2008 for notable exceptions), and even less on contemporary trance and physical mediumship. The research presented here, and elsewhere (Hunter, 2011; 2012a; 2012b; 2013) is intended to help fill this gap in the ethnographic record.
Theories of Spirit Possession
Anthropological investigations of spirit possession practices have usually tended towards the dominant explanatory frameworks of functionalism, pathology (psychological and medical), performance studies, and, more recently, cognitive science and neurophysiology. (Stoller, 1994, p. 637; Dawson 2011). We will now briefly examine some of these approaches, before outlining the methodological approach employed in this chapter.
Functionalist interpretations generally hold that spirit possession performs an essential function for the social group within which it is practiced. Lewis (1971), for example, has argued that spirit possession rituals often serve as ‘thinly disguised protest movements directed against the dominant sex’ (or, indeed, any other dominant group), because during the period of possession the possessed is ‘totally blameless’ for their actions; ‘responsibility lies not with them, but with the spirits’ (1971, pp. 31-32), allowing the socially repressed to vent their frustrations publicly. Functionalist analyses of spirit possession in this vein have been very popular amongst anthropologists and have been applied to numerous societies worldwide (Giles, 1987, p. 235). These include accounts of the Zar possession cult of Northern Sudan (Boddy, 1988), spirit possession amongst the Digo in Southern Kenya (Gomm, 1975), amongst Brazilian mediums (Fry, 1986), in the case of spontaneous epidemics of spirit possession in Malaysian factories (Ong, 1988), and even in a Spiritualist home-circle in 1960s Wales (Skultans, 1974).
Psychoanalytic approaches to spirit possession are less widespread, but are perhaps best represented by Gannanath Obeyesekere’s (1984) seminal study of spirit possession in Sri Lanka. Obeyesekere interpreted possession as a symptom, along with other symbolic bodily expressions (for example the matted hair of priestesses), as outward symbols of repressed negative life experiences. Psychoanalytic interpretations of spirit possession emphasize ‘past traumatic and distressful experiences’ in the lives of the possessed (Budden, 2003, p. 28), and suggest that the behaviours and psychological sensations associated with the possession state are symbolic symptoms of the unconscious repression of such negative life experiences.
The association of spirit possession with pathology has been a persistent and widespread theme in anthropological and other social-scientific analyses (Csordas 1987; Zingrone, 1994, pp. 102-103; Emmons, 2008, p. 72). Specifically, spirit possession has been associated with epilepsy (Carrazana et al., 1999; Jilek-Aall, 1999), nutrient deficiency (Kehoe & Giletti, 1981; Bourguignon et al., 1983, p. 414), psychosis (Goff et al., 1991), and dissociative identity disorder (Braude, 1988; Taves, 2006, p. 123). From this perspective, then, spirit possession is understood as a symptom of underlying pathology, indeed spirit possession has even been controversially classified as a culture-bound syndrome in the DSM-IV (Lewis-Fernandez, 1992; Cardena et al. 2009).
Cognitive approaches to spirit possession have been gaining increasing traction within anthropology, primarily following the lead of pioneering work by Stewart Guthrie (1980; 1993) and Pascal Boyer (2001) on cognitive approaches to supernatural belief. Specifically, the work of Emma Cohen (2008) has been particularly influential. Cohen discerns two primary forms of spirit possession: pathogenic possession, in which possession by spiritual beings is understood to be the underlying cause of illness, and executive possession, being the deliberate, and desired, incorporation of spirits, often called spirit mediumship. Cohen suggests that the cognitive processes underlying pathogenic possession are the same as those normally involved with the ‘representation of contamination,’ while the cognitive faculties involved in executive possession usually deal with ‘the world of intentional agents.’ From this perspective, then, spirit possession is nothing more than the misinterpretation of otherwise normal cognitive schema.
While it is undoubtedly true that each of the approaches outlined above provides insight into the sociological functions and psychological underpinnings of spirit possession experiences and practices, it is also fair to say that none of them is able to provide a complete explanatory model of spirit possession. Functionalist models frequently fail to take into account the experiences and understandings of the possessed themselves (Bowker, 1973; Boddy, 1988, p. 4), and do not always correspond with the ethnographic facts (Wilson, 1967; Rasmussen, 1994, p. 76). Similarly, cognitive approaches have been criticised for their reduction of particularly complex social and experiential phenomena to highly specific, not to mention speculative, cognitive processes (Halloy, 2010). Pathological interpretations also fall short of the ethnographic reality, with mediums often displaying fewer signs of mental illness than non-mediums in a variety of different cultural contexts (Moreira-Almeida et al., 2008, p. 420; Roxburgh & Roe, 2011, p. 294), and preliminary neurophysiological research suggests that there are significant neurophysiological differences between possession states and pathological states, such as epilepsy (Oohashi et al., 2002; Hageman et al., 2010).
Methodological Orientation: An Experiential Approach
The approach employed here, then, will not begin from the assumption that spirit possession is a pathological condition, and nor will it assume that mediumship is a purely social-functional phenomenon (though it undoubtedly does perform social functions). Furthermore, rather than attempting to reduce the complexity of spirit possession to specific cognitive and neurophysiological processes, the research presented here seeks to take the first-hand experiences of fieldwork informants seriously, at face-value, in order to explore what such experiences might tell us about their world-view, and the development of specific folk models of mind and matter. I use the term ‘folk’ here to refer to models of understanding the mind and matter built upon personal experience, inference and intuition, that is how models of mind are formed from personal experience (Berlotti & Magnani, 2010, p. 252). This emphasis on experience falls neatly in line with what folklorist David J. Hufford has called the experience-centred approach. Hufford argues in favour of the ‘experiential source hypothesis’ (ESH) as a tool for investigating ‘supernatural’ beliefs and experiences. The ESH breaks away from the more widely accepted cultural source hypothesis, which holds that paranormal experiences and beliefs arise from the diffusion of specific cultural ideas, in favour of the notion that supernatural beliefs might have their origins in real-life experiences, regardless of whether such experiences are genuinely ‘paranormal’ or not. Hufford writes:
The primary theoretical statement of the [experience-centred] approach might be roughly summed up as follows: some significant portion of traditional supernatural belief is associated with accurate observations interpreted rationally. This does not suggest that all such belief has this association. Nor is this association taken as proof that the beliefs are true [...] (Hufford, 1982, p. xviii)
So the idea here, in the context of the Bristol Spirit Lodge, is that their ‘ethno-metaphysics’ (Hallowell, 2002, p. 20), comprising their folk-models of consciousness, is founded upon rational interpretations of experiences had during séances and in the process of mediumship development. That is not, as Hufford states, to say that such experiences are genuinely of a paranormal nature (though they could be), but just to suggest that their experiences have validity in themselves, and that such beliefs are not to be lightly brushed aside as necessarily irrational or unfounded (Turner, 1993, p. 11; Bowie, 2013), indeed they may be able to tell us something of interest about the nature and phenomenology of human consciousness, and about the relationship between consciousness and the physical body (Peres et al., 2012; Hunter, 2013a).
A Brief History of Spiritualist Mediumship
The Spiritualist movement has many historical predecessors in the form of, amongst other historical seers and prophets, the Eighteenth Century Swedish mystic and scientist Emmanuel Swedenborg, whose journey’s through the spirit world while in a trance state seemed to pre-empt the Spiritualist movement by almost a century (Van Dusen, 1994). The craze for animal magnetism, also known as mesmerism, in the early Nineteenth Century also pre-empted, and was eventually subsumed by, the Spiritualist movement. Patients undergoing mesmeric treatments often seemed to exhibit extrasensory powers while in the mesmeric trance (Inglis, 1989, pp. 46-60), and some even claimed to be in contact with spiritual beings.
The Spiritualist movement, as a distinct phenomenon, however, didn’t officially take shape until March 31st 1848 when, in the small town of Hydesville in New York State, the home of the Fox family became the locus of some unusual psychokinetic activity (Doyle, 2006; Pearsall, 2004, pp. 29-33; Melechi, 2008, p. 161; Byrne, 2010, p.18). The Fox’s were plagued by perplexing anomalous bangs and knocks on the walls and ceiling of their modest wooden house. In an effort to make sense of what was going on the two youngest sisters of the family, Kate and Margaret, began to address the knocks as though they were being produced by an invisible intelligence. The sisters soon realised that they could communicate with this apparently invisible agent through a simple code of knocks, one for ‘Yes’ and two for ‘No,’ and in this way discovered that the mysterious knocker was the spirit of a pedlar by the name of Charles Rosma, who had been murdered in the house some years before the Fox family moved in (Bednarowski, 1980, p. 213; Gauld, 1982, p. 3; Taves, 1999, p. 166; Pearsall, 2004; Stemman, 2005, p. V; Blum, 2007; Warner, 2008, p. 221; Byrne, 2010; Moreman, 2010, p. 161). This would come to be known as the ‘spiritual telegraph.’
News of the Fox sisters and their apparent ability to communicate with invisible spirits spread rapidly across the United States and Europe leaving a trail of individuals discovering their own ability to communicate with the dead (Nelson, 1969, p. 5). By 1853, only five years after the movement’s birth in New York State, Spiritualism had become a religion, and spread across the Atlantic to secure a firm foothold in Britain with the establishment of the first Spiritualist Church in the small town of Keighley in Yorkshire (Doyle, 2006, p. 84; Nelson, 1969, p. 91). Before long the manifestations of spirit communication began to diversify, evolving from simple question and answer sessions with knocks, through experiments with Ouija boards and automatic writing to full trance communications utilising deep altered states of consciousness, and eventually to the alleged materialisation of spirits from the mysterious semi-physical substance known as ‘ectoplasm’ (Moreman, 2010, p. 161).
The earliest form of Spiritualist mediumship, comprising raps and knocks, evolved into what would later be called ‘physical mediumship,’ defined by Jon Klimo as the purported ability of certain mediums to ‘channel unknown energies that affect the physical environment in ways that can be directly experienced by persons other than the channel’ (Klimo, 1987, p. 200). Perhaps the most influential innovator in early physical mediumship was the Scottish-born American medium Daniel Dunglas Home (1833-1886). After an early life allegedly filled with spiritual visions and premonitions, Home conducted his first séance at the age of eighteen and swiftly gained a reputation as a powerful medium. By 1856 Home was conducting séances in Britain. Séances with Home were said to feature a wide range of inexplicable phenomena, from communications with spirits while the medium was in a deep trance state, to the materialisation of hands and heads, and the levitation and apportation (spontaneous appearance) of objects. In 1868 he performed his most famous paranormal feat – the levitation of his body horizontally out through a third-story window at Ashley House in London. (Doyle, 2006, p. 99; Lamont, 2006, pp. 185-187).
In 1874 Home’s mediumship received further support with the publication of a positive report by physicist Sir William Crookes. Using specially designed laboratory equipment Crookes tested Home’s ability to change the weight of physical objects and to play tunes on an accordion suspended out of reach in a cage (Lamont, 2005, pp. 204-207; Alvarado, 2006, p. 142; Melechi, 2008, pp. 198-200). Arthur Conan Doyle considered Home to be something of a virtuoso in that he was proficient in four different forms of mediumship: the direct voice (whereby spirits communicate verbally independent of the medium), trance mediumship (whereby spirits communicate verbally through the body of the medium), clairvoyance (the ability to see visions of the spirit world, the future and distant locations) and physical mediumship (the ability to psychically manipulate physical objects) (Doyle, 2006, p. 106). Home’s abilities form the core phenomena of physical mediumship, even today.
Owing to numerous exposures of fraudulence, especially after the foundation of the Society for Psychical Research in 1882, physical mediumship slowly declined in popularity to be replaced with somewhat more refined forms of clairvoyant and trance mediumship, which came to be known as ‘mental mediumship’ (Neher, 1990, p. 207). Three of the most influential and rigorously investigated mental mediums, Leonora Piper (1857–1950), Gladys Osborne Leonard (1882-1968) and Eileen J. Garrett (1893-1970), would enter into a deep trance state during which ostensible spirits would communicate through their inert bodies giving apparently veridical information under controlled conditions to sitters and psychical researchers alike. This is referred to as ‘trance mediumship.’ Today, Euro-American society is perhaps most familiar with ‘platform mediumship.’ This is the kind of mediumship that you will find in the Spiritualist churches, as well as on television programmes and theatre stages, and is often referred to as psychic or clairvoyant (or clairaudient, clairsentient, etc.) mediumship. Platform mediums do not usually enter into a trance state (at least not a particularly deep one), and the spirit communications they receive are often highly symbolic, requiring interpretation by both the medium and the person to whom the message is directed.
By the late 1950s physical mediumship was virtually extinct in the United Kingdom, though there were several exceptions including the physical mediumship of Helen Duncan (1897-1956) and Minnie Harrison (1895-1958), amongst a few others. It wasn’t until the 1990s that an interest in physical mediumship returned to the popular consciousness (Foy, 2007).
A reinvigorated interest in physical mediumship developed after the publication of Montague Keen and David Fontana’s The Scole Report by the Society for Psychical Research in 1999, and the popularised version The Scole Experiment, also published in the same year. Montague Keen, one of the parapsychologists who investigated the group on behalf of the Society for Psychical Research, outlines the basic claims made about the Scole experiments, he writes:
Based on two years of regular séances, the Group’s chief claims were that they had established contact with a ‘team’ of spirit communicators [...] These had been accessed through [...] a husband and wife team, both of whom entered swiftly into deep trance, remaining thus throughout the proceedings, of which they retained no conscious recollection. The purported discarnate contacts had facilitated the manifestation of spirit lights, moved furniture, created apports (objects appearing from no known source and by no known means), displayed shadowy figures described as angelic forms, and produced films, allegedly employing a novel form of energy not involving the traditional ectoplasmic extrusions [...] (Keen, 2001, pp. 167-168)
Regardless of whether or not the phenomena witnessed at Scole were genuinely paranormal, the popularisation of the case led to the emergence of new experimental home-circles devoted to the development of physical mediumship, with circles often employing séance procedures influenced by the Scole group’s set-up (Hunter, 2012). It was at one of these new private home-circles that my main fieldwork informant, Christine, first became acquainted with mediumship.
Into the Field: Contemporary Trance & Physical Mediumship in Bristol
The Bristol Spirit Lodge was established in 2005 as a centre for the development of trance and physical mediumship when Christine, who describes herself as a mother and housewife in her mid-sixties, became convinced of the reality of spirit mediumship following a physical mediumship séance at Jenny’s Sanctuary, a well known Spiritualist circle in Banbury. She had been invited to the séance by a friend and, not knowing what a physical mediumship séance was, decided to go along to find out. During the séance, conducted in a plain room with about 30 sitters, Christine saw bright lights floating and flashing around the séance room, heard numerous disembodied voices, whistles and loud bangs coming from all corners, witnessed a ‘partly materialised something,’ and, to cap it all off, heard a voice that she recognised as belonging to her deceased father. In a short self-published autobiography Christine describes the profound effect of this séance experience on her worldview:
I now had no option but to believe that something very serious was happening. I felt sick with the sudden shock [...] I knew I couldn’t ignore reality [...] There are no boundaries. We simply cannot see all that exists. I needed to somehow persuade my mind to accept this fact completely; otherwise I would close my mind, whilst at the same time knowing that my previous belief was incorrect. I had believed that when we died we were dead. I needed to get a grip if I was to learn from the experience that had been offered to me [in] the séance [...] at Banbury (Di Nucci, 2009, pp. 23-25)
Prior to her life-changing séance experience, Christine claims that she was uninterested in religious and spiritual matters, jokingly describing herself as a ‘devout atheist.’ She claims no psychic abilities and recalls only two possible paranormal experiences from her youth. She does recall an invisible friend she had during a period of family disruption, but interprets this as nothing more than a ‘psychological crutch,’ seeing no reason to consider it a hint at her future interest in spirit mediumship. She was, however, particularly interested in the developments of modern science, having read Stephen Hawking’s popular A Brief History of Time (1988), and journalist Lynn McTaggart’s pop-science (some might say pseudoscientific) book on quantum physics and consciousness, The Field (2001). Her autobiography describes how she attempted to interpret the experiences she had while in the séance room through the lens of her interest in science, which she has characterised as a ‘DIY house-wifey awareness of science’ (Interview with Christine, 25/02/2013). She now has a great enthusiasm for mediumship, a fact alluded to by the sheer amount of time she spends in her Lodge with developing mediums – by now she has taken part in over one thousand séances.
The Lodge itself is a wooden shed in Christine’s back garden. Originally, while still based in Bristol, the Lodge was constructed, using £2,000 of her savings, according to simple rules recommended by Ron, the circle leader at Jenny’s Sanctuary. It was important to Christine that the Lodge be built with love, and that it be imbued with positive emotions. To this end all the materials used to construct it were blessed, kissed and treated with great respect. It was important to Christine that the Lodge only be associated with ‘positive energies,’ so as to avoid the risk of attracting negative entities during séances. The Lodge was aligned so that the séance cabinet, a curtained off corner of the room in which the medium sits while in trance (a direct descendant of the spirit cabinets used by physical mediums in the late Nineteenth and early Twentieth centuries), was located in the North corner, a position deemed conducive to the flow of vital ‘energies’ necessary for the successful development of physical mediumship.
All mediums at the Lodge are working towards the manifestation of various physical phenomena including levitation, transfiguration (the appearance of spirit faces over the face of the entranced medium), ectoplasmic materialisation, dematerialisation of the body and psychic surgery, and all of this under the direction of their discarnate spirit teams. However, due to the difficulties associated with the production of such seemingly outlandish phenomena (which only highly developed mediums are allegedly able to produce), the majority of séances held in the Lodge are trance sessions, during which the medium enters into a trance state and allows members of their spirit team to communicate with the sitters (Gauld 1982:29). Spirit teams at the Lodge generally consist of between six and sixteen individual spirits with distinctive and consistent characters, ranging from children who died in the Nineteenth century, Victorian undertakers, through Native American chiefs and Chinese philosophers. Individual members of each medium’s spirit team are usually differentiated through the use of distinctive bodily postures and exaggerated vocalisations that allow them to be recognised as distinct personalities (Hunter, 2013b), and each spirit usually works towards the production of a specific physical phenomenon, depending upon their own interests. This emphasis on trance mediumship, or channeling (Klimo, 1987; Brown, 1997), locates the practices of the Bristol Spirit Lodge firmly within the remit of the anthropological debate over spirit possession (Lewis, 1988, p. 24).
Mediumship and the Development of Folk Models of Mind & Matter
As we have already seen, the Lodge was established specifically so that Christine could apply her ‘house-wifey DIY knowledge of science’ to understand the experiences she had during the séance in Banbury. Mediumship development at the Lodge can, therefore, be thought of as an on-going experiment in which both mediums and sitters construct their own understandings of the nature of consciousness and reality. The following extract from an interview with Christine demonstrates how belief at the Lodge is not a fixed position, but rather represents an ongoing process of learning, interpretation and re-interpretation. Indeed, in a recent interview Christine explained how she has a problem with the word ‘belief’ being applied to her, explaining how she thinks she is ‘generally mistrusting’ and that without evidence she has ‘difficulty believing in anything.’ Her conclusions about the nature of mind and matter, therefore, are founded upon her own experiences with mediumship. She says:
[Mediumship] expands the thinking. It certainly expands the possibilities. I wasn’t thinking any of this when I started six years ago. You learn all the time, I mean I’m doing three, four, Séances a week and have over a thousand Séances with all different people, all different mediums and all different situations. I am fascinated by it still. I am not one least bit satisfied that I’ve learned anything. I want more! Yeah, I want more and more and more. Because it’s just a bigger subject than any other I’ve hit on (Interview with Christine 16/06/2012).
A few of the key ideas that, according to my interview data, have arisen from this experimental process of experiential learning include the idea that consciousness can survive the death of the physical body, that personhood is partible, that the body is permeable, that reality is non-physical, and that consciousness is a fundamental property of the universe. We will now explore these themes through extracts from interviews with members of the Bristol Spirit Lodge.
Interview Extracts and Commentary
The following extracts are taken from interviews with mediums and sitters at the Bristol Spirit Lodge between 2011-2013, and have been transcribed directly from audio recordings. Through looking at some of the ideas concerning the nature of consciousness and the body, as well as descriptions of interactions with spiritual beings, it is hoped that we will begin to see the emergence of key features of the ethno-metaphysical system of the Bristol Spirit Lodge.
1)    Survival of Consciousness after Death.
In this extract from Sandy, a nutritional therapist in her late forties and medium at the Lodge, describes how her experiences developing mediumship over the past four years, have led her to a firmer understanding that personal consciousness survives the physical death of the body:
Um, I’m much more relaxed [...] I’ve been able to think about what I believe in. It never occurred to me before, I just didn’t think about it. And, uh, it’s changed the pace of my life. It’s changed, um, my knowledge of continuation, after we’ve died, and it’s given me comfort in that way. The funny thing was before it ever happened, um, I knew my brother and my grandmother still existed, but it never occurred to me that anybody else did either. Because they were the only two people I knew who’d died, then I knew they were still about, but that’s as far as I’d ever thought it, I’d never looked into any of it ever, I’d just never considered any of it ever (Interview with Sandy 23/03/2011).
It was only after being introduced to mediumship by Christine, and subsequently developing trance mediumship herself, that Sandy came to realise that consciousness survives after the death of the body. Similarly, in this quotation from Emily, a 33 year old mother of two and office worker who has recently begun to develop physical mediumship, explains how her experiences with mediumship have led to a reassurance of her own belief in survival:
I think it has proven that there is more to ‘life’ and I guess I’m not worried about death [...] I also feel like I am contributing to getting the message and something evidential ‘out there’ to help people believe in the reality of continuing life, as I believe this to be, and come closer to understanding what exists around them. I feel that it’s amazing and it should be shared! (Interview with Emily 12/02/2013).
Emily first became seriously interested in mediumship following a health scare that prompted her to question the possibility of life after death. Her experiences with mediumship development have helped to diminish her concerns about dying.
2)    Spiritual Augmentation
One of the most interesting ideas that has emerged, in my opinion, is that spiritual beings can be useful, that they can actually help in everyday life in a variety of ways. I refer to this as an augmentation. In her study of Afro-Cuban Spiritism, for example, Diana Espirito Santo argues that mediumship is a ‘type of partnership between a person and a series of spirits’ and that the ‘person’ of the medium is a ‘meeting-ground for the unique abilities of each of the spirits belonging to her spiritual cordon’ (Espirito Santo, 2011, p. 102). Spirit mediumship can be thought of, therefore, as a process whereby the medium’s person is expanded through the incorporation of other spiritual beings, thus creating what could be considered a composite, or multiple, personhood. Here Sandy explains how the spirits help her to keep a clear mind, assisting in the recall and implementation of knowledge and information:
[The spirits] help me keep a clearer mind, and therefore I am able to make better decisions. I can utilise information that I’ve got [...] I did a degree in nutritional medicine, years ago I was a nurse and a mid-wife, and there’s a lot of information in my head somewhere, but I can actually tap in on information that I’ve not used in years and years and years [...] the knowledge is mine but it can be used more efficiently (Interview with Sandy 23/03/2011).
Simlarly Christine explains how she interacts with her spirit guide Fuzzy Critter (also known as FC). Fuzzy Critter plays an important role in the organisation of the Séances at the Lodge, and directs Christine on occasion in order to get the ‘energies right.’ She explains:
As time when on in trusting Fuzzy Critter, and these telepathic voices, I did get to a point where I knew it was separate from me [...] It was a separate personality. The words he uses are better than mine [...] his language is different to mine [...] His general way of working, it’s not me, in fact sometimes I’ll argue with him [...] I have a sense, he seems to approach me from this side of my shoulder, this side of my head [left]. I, in my own mind, feel that he’s a bit like a fluffy owl siting on my shoulder [...] Sometimes it’s annoying if I’m doing housework and he wants to communicate with me, and I get this feeling. It’s a bit like having something playing with your hair, or whispering in your ear when you’re trying to do something (Interview with Christine 18/11/2009).
For Sandy and Christine, then, spiritual beings provide a practical service through giving advice and helping to focus lines of thought and inspiration, perhaps echoing the classical notion of the daemonic muse. Transpersonal psychologist Alex Rachel has even gone so far as to speculate on the possibility that human consciousness has evolved along side, and under the symbiotic influence of, non-physical entities (Rachel, 2013). Christine recently explained the importance and practicality of this symbiotic relationship between spirits and the living, and how the modern world has forgotten something fundamental:
Mankind [is] missing something that is their natural right [...] The world is crap and we are missing a link that we are entitled to [...] Ancestors can offer their advice, their support, for real (Interview with Christine 25/02/2013).
3)  Porous Bodies and Field-like Selves
These kinds of experience appear to hint at a model of personhood that is somewhat different to the usually assumed ‘Western’ model of the person, which Clifford Geertz defines as:
[...] a bounded, unique, more or less integrated motivational and cognitive universe, a dynamic center of awareness, emotion, judgment and action organized into a distinctive whole and set contrastively against other such wholes and against its social and natural background (Geertz, 1974, p. 31)
Experiences with mediumship would appear, therefore, to lead towards a different perspective on the nature of the person, one that has classically been labelled a ‘Non-Western’ model of personhood, which is contrasted with the Western model, as outlined above, in that the person is conceived as porous and susceptible to the influence of external agents (Steffen, 2011; Smith, 2012, p. 53). This conception of the person as porous comes across most strongly in Lodge members’ descriptions of the body. Christine says:
I think we just flow through each other. Or, we’ve got very blurred edges, we appear to be solid, but only our eyes are seeing this solid, this light reflection which causes us to appear solid. We’re not. So, our boundaries aren’t where we think they are. We are here to experience whatever this is, this life-form, this stage of life is. We are here [...] to experience, or to perceive things as solid and individual and it’s a very little tiny part of a very big life. I think. Possibly (Interview with Christine 16/06/2012).
Christine conceives of the boundaries of the person as extending beyond the confines of the physical body, which itself only appears to be solid. According to this perspective the  ‘solid’ and the ‘individual’ are, to a certain extent, illusionary. With a porous body, then, it is possible for things to flow in and out of the person. Anthropologist Fiona Bowie has characterised this through describing the body, in the context of Spiritualist trance séances, as a ‘shared territory, holding the physical life-force of the medium and the conscious intelligence of visiting spirits’ (Bowie, In Press, p. 14). In further discussions, Christine has described her model of consciousness as being somewhat ‘like an onion,’ that is ‘a whole split into millions and trillions of consciousnesses that can act together’ (Interview with Christine 25/02/2013). This kind of pluralistic understanding of consciousness and the person recurs throughout the ethnographic literature (see, as one such example, Roseman on the structure of the self among Senoi Temiar, which is described as consisting of ‘a number of potentially detachable selves’ 1990, p. 227).
Here, as another example of understanding the body as permeable, Emily describes the sensation of spirit beings moving into her ‘personal space’ as she waits to go out into the Lodge to practice her mediumship:
Then usually around the table while we are waiting for the start I will feel a presence around me kind of like an enveloping feeling, the first thing I feel is as if a friend is standing unseen nearby. I have an awareness of there being someone there, near me, that is a friend. I then feel them come closer into my personal ‘space’ in some quiet gentle way (Interview with Emily 13/02/2013).
Emily’s description of a sense of presence, unseen but felt, suggests a model of the self as a non-physical field expanding outwards, into which other entities can pass. In this extract from an interview with another medium, Rachael, who has been attending the Lodge for just over one year, she explains how before developing mediumship she would frequently experience unusual, and often unpleasant, sensations of spirits moving through her body. She explains:
When they actually make a personal entrance into your body, that’s pretty bizarre. It would normally happen, um, in the middle of the night I’d wake up and there was something, it’s a sort of odd feeling, it’s like, um, if you can imagine taking off a polo necked jumper, but from inside yourself. It’s like something’s pulling, it’s kind of gone in, and then it’s kind of pulling out, and it’s, oh, I can’t explain it, but it’s the weirdest, weirdest feeling. But it’s quite horrible [...] It happened, um, on about three occasions through my thirties, and in the end I got talking to a medium and she said it sounds like a spirit entity in you, or something passing through you, and she said to contact the local Spiritualist church, but, I did that, but nobody there seemed to feel the same kind of thing: with mental mediumship it all seems to be outside of the person coming in through the mind and talking, it wasn’t, with me it’s a very physical thing [...] (Interview with Rachael 16/06/2012).
For Rachael the process of developing mediumship allowed her to come to terms with experiences that had previously been disturbing. Where once the experience of spirits moving through her body had been unpleasant and spontaneous, it is now both deliberately induced and enjoyable. She explains how mediumship development has made her ‘soft and squidgy’ and ‘more open to other people’ (Interview with Rachael, 25/02/2013).
There is also a belief amongst Lodge members that the physical body itself can, on occasion, dematerialise completely. This extract from a report by Jerry (a regular sitter and developing medium at the Lodge), on witnessing a physical mediumship demonstration, describes his difficulty in coming to terms with the apparent dematerialisation of the medium’s physical body:
I’ve been trying to think of words to adequately describe what I felt and saw, but it’s impossible really. I was sitting next to the cabinet, so when I was asked by Yellow Feather to move in front of the cabinet I was able to do this quite easily, despite it being in blackout conditions at the time. When Yellow Feather asked me to feel the chair, where [the medium] had been sitting, he wasn’t there! His chair was empty! The spirit team had, they said, dematerialised him. I found this hard to believe. But [the medium] is a big lad and I was sitting right beside the cabinet, and no-one walked past me. So where was he? (Jerry, October 2011)
All of this seems to suggest that the classical anthropological distinction between Western and Non-Western personhood conceptions is incorrect, and that there are huge variations in the way that consciousness and the body are understood and experienced even within a single ‘dominant’ culture. This is not the same as saying that the members of the Bristol Spirit Lodge necessarily partake of a socio-centric conception of the self, as perhaps exemplified by the frequently cited example of Japanese notions of an ‘interdependent’ self ‘as part of an encompassing social relationship [in which] one’s behavior is determined, contingent on, and, to a large extent organized by what the actor perceives to be the thoughts, feelings, and actions of others in the relationship’ (Markus & Kitayama, 1991, p. 227). It is not this kind of social-self concept that I am referring to, because in most cases the members of the Lodge appear to possess what might be considered a normal ‘Western’ notion of the self in terms of kinship relationships and everyday social interactions. Where they differ is in the porosity of the self: the belief that the self can be influenced by non-physical entities, that the physical body is not permanently bounded and may be entered by non-physical beings as well as, on occasion, dematerialising completely, and that the self can leave the physical body during altered states of consciousness. What we seem to be dealing with, then, is a greater degree of intra-cultural variation in experiences and concepualisations of self and body than the standard Western/Non-Western dichotomy seems to allow for (Spiro 1993, pp. 144-145), and this calls for further investigation (Lillard, 1998).
4)    Panpsychism
The final aspect of this ethno-metaphysical system that I want to touch upon is the notion of ‘panpsychism,’ broadly defined as the idea that consciousness is inherent in all matter (Velmans 2007:279). Here Christine explains her understanding that even seemingly inert tables possess an element of consciousness:
It’s funny because [...] I think that table has an element of consciousness in it. I think it belongs to something. I think it’s part of something. I think it’s got vibrations. It’s got a something. I don’t know how aware it is, but people, or certain psychics, can pick up the memory of that table – the history of that table, the tree it belonged to. You know, if you get sensitive enough you can do all that stuff. I can’t, but it has a being, a something. That table does! If that’s got consciousness, that’s it, it’s beyond me, it really is beyond me where it starts, where does it come from? I don’t know where it comes from, I haven’t a clue, and it gets more and more complicated as you look into it and wonder about it [...] I don’t know what consciousness is and I’ve got no idea. I don’t know where it comes from. I definitely, I think it’s everywhere, but, everything is conscious to different degrees [...] maybe it collects together and becomes stronger. I don’t know (Interview with Christine 16/06/2012).
Christine’s experiences assisting the development of mediums at the Bristol Spirit Lodge have ultimately led her to an understanding of consciousness as a fundamental property of reality, and as ubiquitous throughout matter. This understanding has emerged from a combination of anomalous experiences in the séance room, and the metaphysical teachings of the spirits she converses with through entranced mediums. For Christine, séance phenomena are an expression of the fact that matter and energy are the same thing. Consciousness, as an aspect of physical existence, therefore, must also be energy, and so consciousness must be present in everything to a greater or lesser extent. She explains how mediumship is simply the ‘energy of people that have died interacting with the energy of people who are alive’ (Interview with Christine 25/02/2013).
Preliminary Conclusions
The often cited distinction between so-called ‘Western’ and ‘Non-Western’ models of the self and person appears to represent a dichotomy that does not fit with the ethnographic data (La Fontaine, 1985; Spiro, 1993). To assume that there is a neat divide between ‘bounded’ and ‘porous’ models of the person, and to suggest that these represent discrete ‘Western’ and ‘Non-Western’ categories, is an oversimplification of something that is far more fluid and varied. Experiences with mediumship development in sub-urban Bristol, for example, have led my fieldwork informants to develop models of personhood that would classically have been defined as ‘Non-Western.’ What we appear to be dealing with, therefore, is a much greater degree of intra-cultural variation in understandings about the nature of consciousness and its relation to the body than the standard dichotomy seems to allow for, and this variation derives, to a large extent, from personal experience (Luhrmann, 2012, xxii).
In the context of the Bristol Spirit Lodge, mind and matter are causally interconnected and frequently overlapping. Discarnate, non-physical, spirits can interact with physical bodies, and the material world can be influenced by conscious intention, for example in the practice of psychic surgery. Ectoplasm represents a half-way substance between the physical and the non-physical: it is believed to be extruded from the physical body so that it can be manipulated by non-physical spirits. The human body can, on occasion, even be dematerialised completely under the influence of spiritual entities, and consciousness can exist beyond the confines of the physical brain. All of this suggests a hugely different conception of the nature of the ‘self’ to the often assumed ‘bounded, unique…distinctive whole’ (Geertz, 1974) of the Western notion of the self. 
To conclude, it is clearly important to take experience seriously in the study of folk-psychology, ethno-metaphysics and supernatural belief. Through attempting to understand the experiential foundations of belief in, for example, survival of consciousness after death, the permeability of the body and pluralistic models of the self, we can move towards a more nuanced understanding of different cultural and sub-cultural systems. Ideas that might, at first glance, appear outlandish need not necessarily be classified as irrational or unscientific, but can be understood as logical conclusions drawn from first-hand personal experiences interpreted rationally (Hufford, 1982; Turner, 1993; Bowie, 2013). Once we are able to move beyond the hegemonic dismissal of alternative modes of understanding the relationship between the mind and the body, we open ourselves up to a much wider range of possibilities regarding the nature of consciousness (Cohen & Rapport, 1995, p. 13; Samuel & Johnston, 2013).
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