Monday, 12 December 2011
A Christmas Ghost Story
It's traditional to tell stories about ghosts and spirits at Christmas. Let's imagine it's a still, icy, night. Small things die silently in the dark and the light of the full moon glints on sharp, merciless teeth.
In 1990, consultant psychiatrist and hypnotherapist Dr Alan Sanderson M.B., B.S. (London), M.R.C.P., D.P.M., M.R.C. Psych. returned to clinical practice after years of 'personality research'. He found psychiatry 'still stuck in the pharmacological morass' so he came up with the Spirit Release Foundation (SRF) 'to train medical practitioners and others to help people who are troubled by spirit attachment'. The SRF's members 'share a belief in the primacy of spirit and the soul’s development through reincarnation' (although they claim not to be religious).
What might spirit attachment be? According to the website:
'A minority of those who die fail to make their transition from this physical world successfully. They become what is known as ‘earthbound’, because they remain mentally attached to the earth plane and so cannot progress. Reasons for this include a traumatic death, concern over some unfinished business or anxiety for a loved one on Earth. Attached spirits may manifest in a variety of ways. They may attach to a person, or to a place with which they were associated in life, that place becoming haunted'.
Basically, it's ghosts haunting buildings and possessing the living. Even though the therapy is aimed at medical practitioners (among others), there is no attempt at scientific evidence on the website. One practitioner does explain the mechanism on their own website: 'Everything in the universe is made up of energy, spirit release simply deals with energies most of us cannot see and for the most part are unaware of... Spirit Release is really all about how external energies can, on occasion, affect our energy system in detrimental ways'.
'Energy' is the alternative medicine practitioner's friend, an undefined, unscientific term to explain pretty much anything. It is not the capacity of a physical system to perform work. This 'energy' is not measured in joules, kilowatt-hours or kilocalories.
Diagnosis is hardly more scientific:
'Some of the more common symptoms of spirit attachment can be: lack of energy, memory disturbance, behavioural change, mood change, addictive behaviour, relationship problems and hearing disturbing voices. There may be bodily pain and other physical symptoms. The degree of attachment also varies. Some individuals are scarcely affected, while in rare cases the individual's body and mind have been taken over completely. There may, of course, be other reasons for the presence of these symptoms, which a practitioner should investigate'.
The range of symptoms is so vague and general that almost any condition can be ascribed to attachment. The caveat that there may be other reasons for symptoms has the appearance of responsibility but how many practitioners are qualified to diagnose symptoms - and then hand the patient over to medical care (thereby losing their fee)?
Why aren't doctors spotting that their patients are troubled by earthbound spirits?
'Spirit attachment is not uncommon and is often misdiagnosed because many practitioners are not aware of it and because the symptoms might fit a number of possible diagnoses. In some instances attachments exacerbate an existing complaint with similar symptoms. They may be the reason that recovery from a complaint is very slow.'
The implication is that trained doctors are getting it wrong with their insistence on using their medical training. Even if a patient has been diagnosed with a genuine medical condition, it could be made worse by spirit attachment. They really have covered all the bases.
How do they cure this terrible problem that no-one had heard of until the SRF came along?
'Spirit Release is a two fold process. Firstly it involves releasing earthbound spirits from their condition of attachment in a compassionate, non-confrontational way, by contacting the spirits and communicating with them. Spirit helpers are then called upon to move the spirit on to its rightful place in the universe. The person who has been affected by the attachment is also offered healing, counselling or other therapeutic help, including advice about psychic protection'.
So basically, they give the spirit a hug and call it a taxi? Once they've dealt with the dead, they help the living too -possibly because the dead don't have credit cards.
Pretty much anyone can be affected:
Spirit Release is also about 'freeing the ‘stuck’ aspects within ourselves that invite spirit attachment, which may involve looking at past-life patterns, ancestral karma and any difficult influences that stem from childhood or later life'.
This is their version of preventive medicine (or maximizing your market share).
Therapy takes two forms. 'The Interactive Approach involves putting a client into an altered state of consciousness, through a form of hypnosis, in order to allow any attached spirit to communicate safely through them. A dialogue ensues, in which the spirit is induced to leave'.
Hypnosis is a tricky process, it's very easy for an inexperienced or unethical therapist to plant ideas, deliberately or otherwise. There can also be issues with False Memory Syndrome. There is a huge amount of trust required - a patient is hypnotised and when they come round they're told that the spirit possessing them has been persuaded to move on. This treatment is open to considerable abuse, aided in part by the placebo effect.
Alternatively, the 'Intuitive Approach is made through the psychic awareness of the therapist who learns how to communicate directly with a spirit. This does not necessarily require the active involvement of the client. It may be practised directly or at a distance'.
There's no indication of what happens if the spirit doesn't want to leave. The process as described is very benign, very low-key and reassuring as if it's no more than having your ears syringed.
If you feel there's a spirit inside you, there's a list of practitioners in your area.
The SRF may be a small group but they shouldn't be too readily dismissed. For example, the SRF website also suggests that gender dysphoria could be caused by spirit attachment and that Spirit Release is an alternative treatment to gender realignment surgery. They are part of a larger movement ascribing a whole range of problems to spirit possession. The Christian Medical Fellowship (CMF) who are mostly GPs believe that mental illness among other problems can be caused by possession. There have been exorcists working with the NHS for forty years, as I wrote about here and you can read another piece I wrote on exorcism here.
The main problem with both the apparently cuddly SRF and the much less fluffy CMF is that practitioners' world view is predicated on unseen entities, some malevolent, some misguided. They are creating a problem and offering a solution to people who could well be in a vulnerable state and in need of proper medical attention. Even if the SRF are just treating people with more money than sense, they are dealing with people's mental and possibly physical well-being. Although the SRF claim that they are not a religious organisation, theirs is the same mentality as the churches that use violent - and sometimes fatal - methods to exorcise people, whether these are African evangelical churches or both the Catholic Church and the Church of England with their trained exorcists.
It would be interesting to know what church exorcists make of these rivals. As with religions, they can't all be right with their competing world-views of demons versus disincarnate humans.
Another problem is that anyone with a few hundred quid to spare can become a spirit release therapist. It costs £30 a year to be a member of the SRF and the Foundation Course costs £210. There's a leaflet about the upcoming London one here.
This way of thinking also leads people to blame outside agencies for problems in their lives rather than either taking responsibility or getting medical help. It can create a dependency on therapists. There's a kind of contamination theory at the root of the SRF; they are making people believe they have been 'infected' and need to be 'cured' except that they're not talking about bacteria or viruses, but the dead- truly alternative medicine.
This is a Christmas ghost story with no Tiny Tim happy ending.