Wednesday, July 23, 2014

A Victim of Drunken Channeling

Channeling as a form of alleged spiritual communication is one of the foundational practices of many New Age religious movements. One of the most successful of these channelers is J. Z. Knight, who claims to channel a spirit who calls himself Ramtha. Knight's group was behind the New Age film What the Bleep Do We Know?, which did quite well in theaters for an independent documentary even though most of the scientists who appeared in it stated that their comments had been taken out of context.

Years ago the joke in the occult community was that Ramtha was pretty much a "master of the obvious" who somehow managed to collect huge speaking fees. I never could understand the appeal of paying thousands of dollars to hear anyone, spirit or not, deliver insightful life lessons like "Love one another!" Clearly, though, I just don't get it, because Ramtha books outsell mine and Knight's organization is both large and wealthy.

At any rate, the latest controversy surrounding Knight/Ramtha clearly demonstrates why channeling is best done sober. Back 2011 Knight took a shot at it while drinking, and the "Ramtha" she contacted let loose a tirade of racist and homophobic declarations. Sometimes contacting spirits does go disastrously wrong, but Knight's problem now is not only that this incident occurred, but that it was posted online.

These are not the kind of cosmic revelations that have drawn students to Knight for 38 years. For the most part, RSE students are thoughtful and well-educated, not apt to embrace a bigoted guru. For decades, the message had been more about finding the god within than disparaging minorities, and the blend of science and New Age Gnosticism made J.Z. Knight millions well before the drunken homophobic, anti-Catholic, anti-Semitic racist rants began to make their way into her preachings.

What happened at RSE would have stayed at RSE had it not been for the Internet. In 2012, livestreamed videos of Ramtha’s hate speech were posted to the Web, first by ex-students Virginia Coverdale and David McCarthy, then by a libertarian-leaning think tank called the Freedom Foundation that is based in Olympia. The excerpts from that wine ceremony left Thurston County residents shocked and wondering if there was a more sinister side to their kooky neighborhood cult.

My understanding is that Ramtha has not uttered these sorts of comments in the past, so as I see it there are two possibile explanations here. The first and simplest is that Knight may be a complete fraud who simply lost control of her emotions due to heavy drinking. That's where the skeptics are going with this incident, and also the main allegation that Knight is trying to fight off in the courts. However, as a ritual magician there's a second possibility to consider that's far more interesting.

Aleister Crowley criticized spiritism as "a sort of indiscriminate necromancy" because of a complete lack of formal magical procedures and protections, in which many mediums simply opened themselves up to whatever spiritual force happened to be present. Modern channelers such as Knight still employ essentially the same methods that Crowley was talking about. As such, there's a real possibility that any channeling attempt could reach just about any spirit, like some sort of metaphysical Chatroulette.

Knight doesn't appear to have trouble channeling the same spirit over and over again when sober, but since she doesn't use any sort of ceremonial forms she must be employing little besides her own willpower and discrimination to do it. Neither of those faculties fare very well with heavy drinking. As such, some other spirit might have simply popped in, pretended to be Ramtha, and let loose. Having worked with garden-variety earthbound spirits, this is exactly the sort of thing one of them might do. They seem to value attention above all else, and this incident has certainly attracted a lot of it.

This possibility brings up a related question. Why is it that so many people in the New Age movement assume spirits are smarter or wiser than they are? In my experience, spirits are individuals and just like human beings they have their own strengths and weaknesses. Systems like Enochian or those found in the traditional grimoires are veritable catalogs of the areas in which each individual spirit is most powerful and competent. It may be that Ramtha is indeed some sort of incredibly wise spiritual teacher, but it would be a mistake to ascribe such ability to him simply because he happens to be disembodied. Spirits can be just as wrong as any human.

This second explanation assumes that Knight does actually contact spirits, of course, but it's not like confidence artists do very well when they're drunk either. Whether her channeling is phony or not, the prescription remains the same - she needs to do it sober to avoid incidents like this one.

UPDATE: This is a bit of an aside, but I happened to catch a comment over on Facebook criticizing Crowley for being down on "spiritism/spiritualism" because of the quote I mentioned above, when there was in fact a fair amount of overlap at the time between occultists and spirit mediums. However, in Magick Without Tears, Crowley clarifies his comments thus:

So also we are most fortunate in possessing the account almost beyond Heart's desire of Spiritism, in Robert Browning's Mr. Sludge the Medium. You see that I write "Spiritism" not "Spiritualism." To use the latter word in this connection is vulgar ignorance; it denotes a system of philosophy which flourished (more or less) in the Middle Ages — read your Erdmann if you want the gruesome details.

So Crowley did distinguish between the two, and used "spiritism" as a pejorative for the sort of unfocused spirit work he found distasteful, whereas he considered more disciplined work "spiritualism." I mention this because a lot of modern detractors of mediums like to pull up that Crowley quote about "spiritism" without reading further to see what he actually meant.

For example, among other techniques more closely associated with mediums, Crowley wrote up instructions for his students on the proper use of Ouija boards. He wasn't hostile to mediumistic work, he just thought that anyone undertaking it should have some training in occultism and approach it in a serious manner.

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