My mentor in what I’ve come to think of as ‘post-spiritualist’ matters was an older woman who had been a nurse in the days before effective analgesics eased the process of dying. When I met Mavis we were community work colleagues in the year of the miners’ strike (1984). Invitations to her H.Q. -a small terraced house in the middle of Burnley- usually involved cheese and onion pie and intense heartfelt conversation. I’d been engrossed in inner work and had been opening up psychically, so was struggling to adjust to working amongst the harsh realities of social deprivation. She was an experienced spiritual healer and gifted psychic, working mainly with homeless and unemployed people, so those visits amounted to informal supervision sessions.
Picking up the office phone one day, and hearing Mavis’s powerful voice utter the words “keyword cosmos’, I realised I had an ally. A diary entry from May of that year reminds me that she could be unnervingly direct at times. On that occasion she said she’d been worried about me and, as I put it at the time, “suddenly told me, quite menacingly, to BE CAREFUL”. She then asked me “in a point blank way” what I wanted to do with my life. Given that I was quite naïve and somewhat directionless at the time, this was helpful. What impressed me most about her, though, was the pragmatic way in which she helped someone close to me who was in crisis. She was warm and loving, but when necessary, could also be impressively leonine.
We became close friends, and I learned a lot from her. I’m not spectacularly psychic in the way she was, but during that period I seemed to be being ‘shown’ things, not least when in her company. For instance, some years later, when recovering from a complicated bereavement that left me with health difficulties, I was seeing a cranial osteopath. One day, en route to the osteopath, I had to change buses in Burnley, and found myself at a loose end. Strolling out of the bus station, I became aware of a voice in my head -a fully present, and fully ‘other’, but not unfriendly man’s voice- saying, over and over again- ‘the Mechanics’, ‘the Mechanics’, the Mechanics’. The Mechanics Institute is a theatre/arts centre in the town, but I had no idea why I should be hearing its name, least of all spoken in this rather disconcerting manner. The voice continued and seemed quite insistent, so, since I had time to spare, I decided to walk over there. As I approached the Mechanics a bus came down the hill and pulled up at the stop by the theatre. Mavis stepped out and greeted me with a big grin. When I told her why I was there she commented that this wasn’t her usual stop, so I’d done quite well.
Because Mavis was fairly isolated in her work, she would sometimes say she appreciated talking to me because so few people knew what she was talking about. Even she sometimes wondered whether she was going mad. Hearing voices has, of course, long been regarded as a symptom of ‘mental illness’. I was soon to meet Professor Marius Romme and Sandra Escher who were instrumental in establishing the Hearing Voices Movement in the U.K. Their seminal work demonstrated that there are many reasons why people hear voices. For some people voices are not a problem, but even for those whose voices are profoundly distressing, a supportive self-help environment or appropriate counselling can often be much more effective than medication.(1) Walking through Burnley that day I felt no sense of panic, or that anything was wrong. I had had far more scary moments.
A lifetime’s exposure to the conventions of Cartesian-Newtonian rationality can leave us vulnerable to moments of self-doubt around extra-ordinary or magical experience. One such moment occured last week. The story, involving a group of fly agaric mushrooms whose habitat appeared to be under imminent threat, is too fresh to share here unfortunately. Suffice it to say for now, that the way in which things fell into place during that walk, enabling to me have a conversation with the landowner, left me with the distinct, and -even after all these years communing with birds, mammals, trees, rocks, and so forth- slightly un-nerving impression that I’d been ‘spoken to’ by a species of fungi. Now, hearing human voices is one thing! 🙂 Why, on earth, though, should it be any more surprising that a concerned upperworld stranger might connect with the psychic mycelium* of a wood when there’s some pressing concern afoot?
Prof. Marius Romme and Sandra Escher, Accepting Voices, MIND, 1993 and the Hearing Voices Network
*thanks to Matt for this useful term.