Not being psychic at all, to me mediums seem like a different species. Many of them say they've always had the gift, that as children they saw dead people, and assumed everyone did, and so on. They're so much part of the whole psychic spiritualism thing, with its jargon of 'energy' and 'vibrations', that it takes an effort of will to enter into their world. Some small part of me still thinks it's all made up.
But what if someone who is very much part of the real world - if there is such a thing - were to cross over? Doctors, for instance. I've always considered them to be a highly sceptical bunch, having been trained in the rationalist, problem-solving scientific tradition.
Years ago I recall visiting my local GP about a minor complaint carrying with me a book about psi research. He commented on this, having just read somewhere that ESP had been definitively debunked. (I believe it was an article by Susan Blackmore, who was pretty much everywhere at the time.) He wasn't hostile, but I got the sense that it would be pointless trying to convince him otherwise.
So I was glad when I was recently given an excellent book about a London GP who works as a spirit medium. It's called Consulting Spirit: A Doctor's Experience with Practical Mediumship, by Ian D. Rubenstein. (I thought at first he must be an American, since the book uses American terms like 'primary care physician' but it turns out this is only because the book is published in the US.)
Rubenstein's experience started in his surgery one day when a patient having his blood pressure checked suddenly said he had a man with him, and he wanted to have a word. The doctor had previously had no idea that this patient, a public relations whizz in the entertainment world, had anything to do with spirits. But went along with it, and to his complete astonishment the man then channelled his grandfather with a 20-minute discussion about Rubenstein's personal life.
Rubenstein subsequently learned this was something that he should be doing too, and started having powerful and accurate intuitions. He talks about receiving what feels like a 'tug' or even a 'slap' on the back of the head. This happened once when he chucked his car keys on the table just as he was going out, knowing he wouldn't need them; he felt a slap and a verbal warning to take them or they would get stolen. He ignored it, the keys were stolen, and all kinds of problems ensued.
In one particularly striking incident he hears from an acquaintance at the gym that her grand daughter has swallowed the plastic cap from a pen. It's assumed to be in her digestive system, but Rubenstein has the strong impression that it has lodged in one of her bronchial tubes, which would be much more serious. He convinces the woman and her daughter to have the child tested, but x-rays show nothing wrong. Having spooked them completely they insist on further tests in a major hospital. Still nothing seems amiss.
Finally, to calm the frantic women, a doctor suggests pushing a bronchoscope tube down the girl's windpipe.
That afternoon, the doctor looking after Kirsty extracted the chewed cap of a red plastic ballpoint pen from her right main bronchus. Because she'd chewed it, the plastic cap had frayed into little barbs so that it had begun to embed itself into the wall of the bronchus. It was unlikely she would have been able to cough it up. The consequences of it being left in her lung for any length of time would have been disastrous for Kirsty's health. She would have developed pneumonia or possibly even a serious chronic lung condition called bronchiectasis.
A useful come-back to the 'what good does it do?' complaint that sceptics always make about psychics, methinks.
Encouraged to go into it more deeply, Rubenstein joined a training circle at a spiritualist church. His first experience at the circle involved sitting in a circle and trying to focus on the first image that came into his head - as he says, the complete opposite of what they teach you at medical school. But he quickly discovered that the images were meaningful to other people. The figures he saw, and the situations they described, were understood and accepted by them, with a level of detail that makes any kind of chance or Barnum effect implausible.
Here's an example:
In my mind's eye, I could still clearly see Jane, standing behind Hayley. But behind her I became aware of an altogether more shadowy presence. This was a woman, older than Jane, with gray hair and wearing a floral dress. She was smiling and had her hands on Jane's shoulders. Then the image changed and became more vivid. I experienced the startlingly clear vision of a crystal chandelier, which took up my entire inner field of view. It radiated a powerful light and I could clearly see rainbow colors refracted from the cut crystal.
With that, I felt I'd suddenly been handed a vast amount of information about this woman; as if she'd somehow dropped it into my head, all at once.
I heard myself saying, very quickly, "I can see a crystal chandelier. There wasn't just one - she had lots of them. Her house was full of crystal chandeliers. She was very proud of her house. It was always neat. She was very close to you. I think she was your grandmother or maybe your grandmother's sister. She had a stroke and was incapacitated towards the end of her life... Then I started to splutter... I felt an intense happiness welling up in my chest. It became impossible to contain it and I burst into tears. Everyone in the room was looking at me. I couldn't help it. I was overcome with emotion. Then I lost the connection. It just went. I could remember what I'd seen but the vividness of the information was not longer so apparent. The emotions I'd been feeling had suddenly disappeared, as if someone had thrown a switch. However, the image of the crystal chandelier remained very clear - I can still recall it.
Hayley was looking at me intensely. "That was my aunt. My great aunt. You got her exactly right. And she loved crystal chandeliers. But the best bit is the fact that you're crying." "Why?" I asked. I felt extremely foolish. I hadn't cried in public since I was a child. "Because nine years or so before she died she'd had a stroke, like you said. It affected her brain. She became much more emotional. She used to cry whenever she was happy." I was pleased but I felt as if I'd been put through the wringer. My headache was back and I was completely drained of energy.
I found these sorts of detailed descriptions of the inner process quite useful. I also resonated with the way the author dealt with his new experiences. The tone is well judged: he is properly sceptical, in the sense of examining and questioning them, but he doesn't let this get in the way of his curiosity. He doesn't panic or try to suppress his intuitions. Nor does he agonise about what people might think when he develops his mediumship. He just gets on with it. In fact it surprised me how enthusiastically he embraced his new calling, while continuing his professional work. (It helps that he has a supportive wife, and nobody at his work appeared to seriously stand in his way.)
The book is breezy like a novel, written largely in dialogue, which makes it an easy and entertaining read. As I say, it's informative about the process of becoming a medium, and I really recommend it.
But more than that, it's also an important book. Rubenstein has shown how it is possible for an ordinary non-psychic member of society, someone who in his professional work is embedded in rationalist thinking, not merely to adjust to psychic intuition when it arrives unbidden, but to learn how to use it for the benefit of others.
(Since posting this, Ian Rubenstein has been in touch, and is happy to answer any questions readers may have in the comments thread below.)