The Witch’s Guide to Ghost Hunting & Paranormal Investigation

The following article is based on my experiences with various paranormal investigators, professional exorcists and spiritualists.

I chose not to include my personal beliefs on this matter, as they bear no relevance.

On that note, ghost hunters vary in their beliefs, from Catholics to atheists (I know, it seems like a contradiction—more on that later).  Many, many approaches from different belief systems, including those of non-believers, offer valid perspectives on the subject of ghosts, spirits and the strange phenomenon of haunted dwellings.

However, this article addresses broaching the subject of paranormal investigation and ghost hunting for the practicing witch.

the witch's guide to exploring haunted spaces

Step 1:  Decide if you even want to go there.

People feel drawn to the paranormal experience by an innate, powerful, totally human curiosity about that which they know not.

Sometimes, the recent loss of a loved one prompts them to search for answers about where the spirit “went.”

Sometimes, they just want to find out if making contact with an unseen spirit world is even possible.

Sometimes, they miscalculate just how possible it is and end up falling way, way over their heads down a phantasmagoric black hole that requires professional help to claw out of.

Don’t get me wrong.  Many people with paranormal experience describe a sense of wonder or peace when they connect with the spirit world—particularly those practitioners who experience it positively and feel they discovered a way to communicate with loved ones they believe continue to “live” on the other side.

But sometimes, paranormal experience broadsides the spirit, shaking the worldview in an irrevocable way.  Opening the door often proves easier than shutting it.  Many people end up wishing they never turned the knob.

As one sensitive once wisely put it to me:

“Once you know, you know.  And after you know, there’s no longer any way to not know. ”

In othet words, This isn’t a bell you can un-ring.

Whatever you decide, as a practicing witch, you will very likely, at some point, be approached for help by someone living the sometimes frightening or disturbing experience of residing within a dwelling they believe to be haunted.

So at the very least, know where you stand.

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Step #2:  Recognize that not everyone has the luxury of choosing.

While experimentation-gone-awry triggers many a haunting, much of the time, the victim simply moved into the wrong house at the wrong time and/or carries the burden of extraordinary sensitivity.

When I first began to interview people living with what they described as “spirits” or “ghosts,” I frankly expected to find a lot of folks with psychotic or delusional mental health issues.

In fact, their very “ordinariness” often makes the haunted reluctant to come forward.  They almost always know they sound crazy.  Admitting one believes one lives among entities no one else sees or hears inherently invites the suspicion that one’s cognitive abilities lack a grounded foundation.  Often, they only agree to speak with paranormal investigators on the condition of anonymity—-particularly if they work in professions that necessarily require clean psychiatric records.

Sometimes, they live in a terrifying silence for months or even years before they work up the courage to tell their stories out loud.

Unable to turn to traditional authorities (like the police) or even seek out the guidance of their own religious leaders, the sufferer very often feels desperate, confused and unsure of how to proceed.

As members of the alternative spiritual community, I believe we owe a duty to those who stand at this spiritual crossroads.

Step #3:  Assemble a team.

Depending on where you live, there may be a shortcut to this step.  Search “your area + paranormal investigators” and see if an existing group pops up.

Contact them and offer to assist them on their next paranormal investigation.

Take the time to describe your background as a witch and what you offer in terms of your abilities.

However, if your area lacks a paranormal investigative team, start one!  Facebook and Meetup.com groups provide great opportunities for those looking for others interested in ghost hunting.  This also comes in handy when the time arrives to find subjects and locations.

The more web presence you have, the better.  Once you begin a group, people often approach you before you even get a chance to approach them.

During the recruiting process, be particular.   Screen, screen, screen.  While most people interested in ghost chasing live otherwise fairly typical, mainstream lifestyles (expect “normality” to surprise you again here—-paranormal investigators come from law-enforcement backgrounds, teaching positions, hair salons, and doggie daycares) every once in a while, you run into a less than desirable character.  Do not engage.

Whether you find a ready-made group to join or start one yourself, bear in mind that very few investigators go it alone, especially in the beginning.  Most experienced ghost chasers recommend starting with a group of 3 or 4 people with various skill sets for several reasons.

Bringing people with you helps with verification (“Did you hear that?”  “Chill out, man.  That was me.  I farted.”)

Just as importantly, choosing members for their individual abilities makes for a more organized and insightful experience.

For example, an energy healer, a photographer, a “tech guy” and a tarot reader all bring different things to the table.

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Step # 3  Make sure you can deal.

If you have little tolerance for Christianity, monotheism, atheism or other belief systems, find another way to spend your time.  Paranormal investigation requires that you feel comfortable around people who don’t think like you do spiritually.  Not everyone who investigates a haunting believes in witchcraft.

In fact, they don’t all even believe in ghosts.

A word on atheist and “scientific” investigators:  yeah, they exist.  Some atheists believe “hauntings” are simply a natural phenomena not yet pinpointed or understood by the scientific method.  They usually acknowledge that ghost hunting isn’t a true science.  They’re right—it’s not.  But they also realize that science is still in its infancy, and there are many phenomena we can’t yet explain with it.  Personally, I think this perspective is very interesting.

Bottom line: make sure you can respectfully function as a practitioner around people who don’t believe what you do.

I work with another witch as part of a local paranormal team.  We always, always ask if it’s okay before we perform any ritual, including cleansing and healing rituals.  She comes from a Catholic background, so if the person in question happens to be Christian in faith, I let her conduct the prayer and blessing.

Step #4:   Find a location

Perhaps you arrived on this page because you already know someone who believes he/she lives with what they describe as paranormal activity.

But if not, there are lots of places to look for it.

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Believe it or not, your kids or your friends’ kids may surprise you with what they know about the local folklore.  Teenagers in particular feel drawn to places with a history of disturbed or unsettled entities (perhaps because their own lives feel so unsettled). You probably remember knowing of such a place as a teenager yourself.

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Often, abandoned houses seem to carry the spiritual “fingerprints” of the lives lived there.

Don’t trespass.  It’s usually completely unnecessary, anyway.  Many owners will be happy to oblige you if you just ask.  They sometimes even delight in a request from a paranormal investigator and want to tell stories about the history of the place.

They can also provide very useful information.

Like “Just so you know, the center beam upstairs is about to collapse, so . . . you probably shouldn’t walk on it.  Yeah.”

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Step #5 Set boundaries.

Some people refuse to use Ouiji boards (but oddly, see nothing wrong with Tarot.)

Spiritualists, on other hand, used Ouiji boards to communicate with the other side all the way back in the 1800s.  They continue to use them today without thinking anything about it.

But if Ouiji boards bother you, make sure everyone knows that ahead of time.

Or, if you feel compelled to cast a circle, smudge or otherwise preform any kind of protection ritual, make sure everyone knows you plan to.

Basically, let everyone decide what their personal limitations are before one of them shows up and starts chanting scripture backwards in Latin or spraying holy water all over creation.

Step #6 Gather evidence

Many approaches to evidence gathering may be taken.

Photographs:  In a pinch, even a smartphone will do.  But someone with a background in photography and a quality camera obviously makes the best option; particularly, a photographer skilled in advanced techniques for challenging, low light settings.  Not only will this make gathering quality photographs easier, a person with such experience also quickly spots common tricks of light (like lens flare or optical dust) that a less experienced photographer might mistake for orbs or other phenomena.

EVP (Electronic Voice Phenomena):  Again, people definitely sometimes use smartphones to gather audio recordings.  But analogue still offers the best option.  If you look into how exactly analogue recording works, it makes sense that this older technology actually responds more directly to vibrations in the air than digital.

Video.  Obviously, video recordings gather both audio and optical evidence.  But they also take a considerable amount of time to evaluate.

Sensitives, Psychics & Tarot Readers.  Hold them to a high standard.  Tell them nothing about the history of the place or what happened there.  Assume they know anyway if that information exists somewhere on the internet.  Take seriously only impressions that can be verified later by an independent, non-public source.  The most compelling impressions match up to verifiable events that the sensitive could not possibly have known during the reading.

Electromagnetic Field (EMF) Detectors:  I personally don’t really get into these.  Lots of people use them.  By all means, try it if that’s your thing.

Step #7:  Analyze the evidence.

Analysis requires patience.  It can take hours of focused concentration to pick up anything in a video recording, even if you watch the same clip 10 times—-and you must do it knowing you very well may have nothing.

But the pay-off returns 10-fold.  Even a 2-second EVP will rock your world if you’ve never heard one before.

In addition to examining your physical evidence, talk to your sensitives, psychics or tarot readers.  Make them write down their impressions and send it to you in an email so it’s time-stamped before you tell them anything about what you know for sure regarding the history of the place you investigated.

Step #8  Skip the conclusion drawing.

Statements like “There’s definitely paranormal activity here!”  and “There’s definitely not paranormal activity here!” rarely actually furthers the discussion.

Very few rational people dispute that photographic anomalies occur or that sometimes,  recording devices document things no one can explain.  Reputable, mainstream scientists acknowledge this.

We know there’s something. 

But beyond that, it’s anyone’s guess.

For some, it’s a matter of faith.

For others, there is a logical explanation that falls within the parameters of traditional scientific observation techniques, we just haven’t yet discovered it.

Personally, I think the best gift the paranormal experience offers is a more open mind about the world that exists beyond our five senses.

 

 

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Cult Hysteria: The Irrational Fear of Religious Minorities

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When I turned 30, I spent a week at an ashram.

After considering my options, retreating to an emerald-green island of lush palms to reflect on my life and the decade that stretched out before me seemed like the ideal transition to a new chapter.

The weekend before my trip, I met a friend for lunch and told her about my plans.  She regaled me with descriptions of oily purple sunsets and fresh, exotic fish meat from her own experiences in the same country.

But when I told her where I planned to stay, her smile instantly dropped.  “Isn’t that a . . . a cult?”

Her question totally blindsided me.

It’s worth noting my friend isn’t especially skittish, sheltered or without exposure to other cultures.  Worldly and well-traveled, she appreciates the pull to international adventure.  She volunteered in disaster relief efforts and her travel experiences included at least two war zones.

Yet the idea of me staying with this small group of (admittedly conservative, very devoted) religious people made even her uncomfortable.

Why?

For starters, no evidence existed to support her leap to conclusion.  The group I planned to stay with appeared on none of the lists compiled by human rights watchdog groups that routinely monitor suspicious religious organizations for abusive practices.  Established decades ago, they boasted a long history of humanitarian efforts and contributed generously to internationally recognized charities.

But many people, without realizing it, view religious minorities with suspicion—–even if they themselves subscribe to a minority religious tradition.  It seems the very idea of an esoteric-but-organized religious group inherently calls to mind a charismatic, super megalomaniac leading poor, disenfranchised souls through a monotonous life of all-encompassing personal slavery to his ego.

In other words, in the minds of many people, any spiritual tradition outside those with official ties to one of the major world religions falls squarely under their definition of “cult.”

Let’s talk about that word for a moment:  cult.

Without Googling it, or looking it up in Wikipedia, what defines that word for you?

Okay.  Go ahead.  Google it.

You’ll discover quickly that that word, and its definition, remain a subject of contention among scholars, law enforcement and in popular culture.  In short:  there is no agreed upon definition at all.

The Oxford Dictionary offers two vague, but telling, entries for the word cult

1. “A system of religious veneration and devotion directed toward a particular figure or object.”

2. “A relatively small group of people having religious beliefs or practices regarded by others as strange or sinister.”

Under the first definition, Christianity, Buddhism & Islam all technically fit neatly.

Under the second definition, Christianity, Buddhism & Islam all technically fit at one time.

But when most people use the word cult, they mean a group that:

*Is centered around a deified leader who claims exclusive knowledge of the divine
*Abuses its members sexually, physically and/or psychologically
*Discourages dissent or healthy theological and spiritual debates among members
*Uses progressive techniques to systemically isolate members from their friends and family outside of the cult
*Harshly punishes rebellious acts among members

You notice anything about that list?  The first thing that leapt to my mind:  not one of the world’s major religions has escaped the same accusations.

Yet we assume most Christian churches are not cults.

No well-meaning friend or family member ever pulled me aside before a meditation at a Buddhist temple, solemnly warning me in hushed tones to “watch out for brainwashing!”

Let me be clear, I am not knocking the world’s major religions.  In fact, I personally benefited from all of them in unique, life-changing, powerful ways.  Buddhism, Christianity, Islam, Judiasm & Hinduism all color my life experience richly.  I admire the charity, patience, love and tolerance promoted by the vast majority of peace-loving religious people around the globe.

I only mean to illustrate the point that minority religions are not afforded the same benefit of doubt.  But they deserve it, or at least they deserve it as much as any other religious tradition.  Thousands of minority religious groups around the world manage to live peaceful, relatively decent lives without ever harming a child or holding their wives in slavery.

Certainly, abusive groups exist among all of them.

In fact, all relationships, including marriages and family relationships, employee/employer relationships, and yes, relationships with religious communities, carry the potential to become abusive.

But most don’t, and that is no less true for smaller religious groups than larger.

I went to the ashram, by the way.  And inevitably, I turned 30.  And it was fine.  More than fine.  The powerful healing I experienced continues to carry me in subtle ways throughout my spiritual life even years later.

But the most important lesson I brought back with me: when it comes to experimenting with new spiritual practices, trust yourself.  Ultimately, seekers take grave risks in search of the truth—but the most of the time, the darkest perils in spiritual life lie within us.

Know yourself.  Know your heart.  Know your mind.  They are yours.  No one owns them but you.

Do not fear people who think and live differently than you; fear people who believe theirs is the only way to think and live.

That’s really scary.

How to Make Florida Water

how to make florida water

Wait.  What’s Florida Water?

Florida water is a traditional American cologne water recipe adopted by southern practitioners of the hoodoo and voodoo tradition to cleanse the home and use in ritual.

You can put it in a spray bottle as a spiritual “disinfectant,” anoint doors and windows with it, use it in place of holy water or pour it into a bowl and place it on the altar for offering.

There are dozens, maybe hundreds of recipes for florida water.

Rather than give you a straight up recipe, I’ll show you how to customize it according to what you have on hand.

Despite the name, it is not a water-based potion.

Most people use vodka to steep the herbs and flowers.

I recommend the cheap stuff.  As cheap as you can get.  Bottom shelf.  I’ve tried top-shelf vodka to make this, and it’s just a waste of top-shelf vodka.  In my opinion, it really doesn’t make much difference in the final result.

Choose at least two items from each group:

Aromatic greens:
4 parts fresh mint
4 parts fresh basil
4 parts fresh rosemary

Florals:
3 parts rose petals (fresh)
3 parts jasmine (dried or fresh)
3 parts lavender (dried)

Citrus:
2 parts lemon peel
2 parts orange peel
2 parts lime peel

Spice:
1 part allspice berries
1 part cinnamon sticks
1 part cloves

Put the vodka on low heat.  Add the dry ingredients and allow them to simmer for 5-10 minutes.  Add the remaining ingredients.  Simmer on low for an addition 40 minutes.

And there you have it!  Blessed be!

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An Interfaith Baby Blessing

We had a beautiful baby blessing.

I didn’t get any pictures of the actual ceremony because I wanted to focus on the moment, but I got some of the details, so I’ll share those with you.

I’m used to doing indoor rituals on the floor.  I don’t know why.  I guess because I was solitary for so many years, and I did outdoor rituals sitting on the ground.  So I wanted to create this Moroccan-inspired vibe, with the pillows and the lanterns on the floor.

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I gave away blessing salts as favors, which were really easy but they smell amazing and people are always happy to get them.

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I want you all to know that I DID try to bake for this event.  It . . . did not work out.  So.  Store bought cupcakes for Cakes and Ale.

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But!  I did add this charming little touch with the birth date on it.

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I usually substitute for the “ale” part of cakes and ale.  Champagne, wine, mead, sparkling cider.  I don’t think I’ve ever actually served real ale, but this time, I wanted the authentic deal.

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So there you have it.  Blessed be!

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Lupercalia

Shakespeare himself opens his much-loved tragedy, Julius Caesar, amidst the colorful spectacle of Lupercalia, though (not surprisingly) he only refers to it in the vaguest poetic terms.

Among the most ancient and mysterious Roman holidays, the veil of distant history cloaks this rather boisterous pagan festival.

Scholars argue about even the most fundamental elements, including which god(s) are honored, what rites are traditional (or have evolved from tradition) and whether or not it predates even Roman times.

So what do we know about it?

The ancient festivities began and ended between February 13th-15th.

Reputed as “The Original Valentine’s Day,” Lupercalia celebrates fertility, love, and sexuality, and sets the stage for springtime cleansing rites.

Although various gods have been suggested as central to the event, many believe this lively winter holiday traditionally honors the playful, lusty god, Lupercus.

Is there a myth associated with Lupercalia?

Well, of course!  This is, after all, Greco-Roman tradition we’re talking about.

Two brothers, Romulus and Remus, were abandoned to die near the  Tiber river.  Fortunately, the river carried them to safety.  But they endured several other perilous trials before becoming the mythological founders of Rome.  Along the way, a she-wolf named Lupa found them and suckled them for nourishment.  Many believe this is where the name “Lupercalia” originates.

This is interesting!  I want to play.

If you want to celebrate Lupercalia with a modern take, decorate your altar with symbols of love, fertility and romance.  Hearts, phallic symbols, the color red, and rose petals all make nice inclusions.

Many of the common Valentine’s traditions correspond nicely with Lupercalia, which makes decorating for this pagan holiday “incognito” pretty easy.

Try writing a long, sappy love letter to your significant other, or planning a romantic evening at home.

For a more ritualistic approach, make an offering of ground red meat.  I recommend burying it as opposed to the traditional burnt offering, which is . . . frankly kind of stinky.

If you would like to have some fun with the kids, visit a local farm to pick up some fresh milk and plan a morning meal around it.

Lupercalia is also one of the key times on the Wheel of the Year for early spring fertility rites.  Both Lupercalia and Ostara make nice dates for fertility casting.

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Chang’e: Chinese Goddess of the Moon

Being the last full moon of the harvest season, I thought this would be a great time to talk about Chang’e, an important Chinese moon goddess.  Chang’e is the focus of the Chinese Mid-Autumn Moon festival, which just passed in late September.  Participating in the festival is fun alternative to a typical Sabbat celebration, but just learning about different moon goddesses from around the world can be a nice way to enrich your own practice.

The Legend of Chang’e

There are many versions of the following folktale.  Below is my retelling of the most common translation, but if you know another version, by all means, share it!

Long before the oldest memory of the oldest man on earth, ten suns burned in the sky.  But the light of heaven was too powerful for life on earth, causing the plants and people to whither and die.

A masterful archer named Hou Yi was sent down to save humanity.  He heroically shot down nine of the suns, leaving one to light the world and bring the heat of life.

In reward for his courageous deed, Jade the Emperor, ruler of the sky, bestowed upon the hero an elixir of everlasting immortality.  But the archer Hou Yi loved his beautiful wife, Chang’e, too deeply to bear eternity without her.

As Yi’s fame grew like the only remaining sun that shined down, he was sought as a teacher for his wisdom and skill.

Little did he suspect that one of his students, Fengmeng, concealed a cold jealously  in his heart for Yi.

One day, Yi left his wife, Chang’e, at home while he went hunting.

His treacherous and poisoned drove Fengmeng into a rage.  He stormed into the house of Yi and demanded that his wife give up the elixir.  But in her loyalty, she refused.  Knowing she could never overpower Fengmeng, who was of strong mind and body, she knew realized that drinking the precious potion herself was the only way not to relinquish it to her kind husband’s enemy.

Rising up, up, up into the eternal sky, she finally settled on the moon, where she still looks over the Earth.

In his devastated grief at the loss of his beloved wife, Yi spent his life honoring her altar with flowers and cake.

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Moon Magic

I love the beautiful world of Chinese pagan folklore, and I am especially fond of the legend of Chang’e, who holds a special place in my heart as a moon goddess.

Chang’e is said to bestow her worshipers with charm and beauty.

Since this is “her” time of year, I thought I’d share with you an adapted beauty spell that honors this goddess.

You will need:
*1 white candle
*small bundle of flowers (any will do)
*carving knife
*lighter or matches
*a bottle of perfume (something with floral or oriental overtones is especially nice)
*print out of the traditional Chinese symbol of Chang’e, the moon or beauty (see Google Translate)
*a small cupcake (or if you really want to go all out, make a traditional moon cake)
*a lantern or tea candles for light.

1.  On the night of the full moon, go outside in the fresh air.

2.  Carve the Chinese character of your choice into the candle.  Use a lantern for practical light if you need it.

3.  Place the candle on the altar (or rock, or tree stump, or whatever).

4.  Surround the candle with the flowers and light it.

5.  Place the bottle of perfume in front of the altar.

6.  Raise power any way you feel like it, but focus on the energy of feminine beauty descending from the moon and into your bottle of perfume.

7.  Extinguish the candles and leave the cake as an offering to Chang’e.

8.  Whenever you want to enhance your feminine allure, spritz yourself with the charged perfume.  If you feel it needs a boost, light the candle and place the perfume in front for a little while.

Sources:
Encyclopedia Britanica
Travel China Guide
China Highlights
Shen Yun Performing Arts

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Spiritualism, Samhain & the Other Side

If you are an interfaith pagan interested in exploring Spiritualism, the season of Samhain and its association with the dead makes this a unique time to begin your journey.

First things first.

What is Spiritualism?

Spiritualism may be described most simply as the belief that spirits or ghosts of people who have “passed on” exist on a plane that is accessible to the living through certain methods of communication, including altered states of consciousness, spirit mediums and divination tools like the Ouiji board.

The religion centered around these beliefs gained momentum in the 1840s and is still active today.

Far from existing exclusively on the fringes of society, Spiritualism has had some high-profile believers, including Abraham Lincoln, whose wife held seances in the White House!

Although spiritualists share things in common with the modern practice of ghost hunting, spiritualists are not to be confused with paranormal investigators, who sometimes, but not necessarily, identify as spiritualists.


Is Spiritualism witchcraft?

No,  And though I certainly don’t take offense to the term “witch,” a spiritualist might.  Most spiritualist do not consider communicating with the dead witchcraft, and they certainly don’t regard it is as evil or wrong, but a natural part of life experience.

What is your experience with Spiritualism?

My first experience at a spiritualist church was at the The Center for Spiritual Enlightenment in Falls Church, Virginia.  I was curious at that time in my life about the afterlife and the possibility of communicating with the departed.

Since then, Spiritualism has always been a peripheral spiritual interest of mine.

Do you “buy it”?  I mean really, do you?

As with any religion or philosophy, I believe I approached Spiritualism with a healthy sense of skepticism.

There is no way for me to know what another person’s spiritual experience is like.  I don’t know if spiritualists are able to communicate with the dead or not.  That’s the truth.

But I do believe that they believe it.  Contrary to the stereotype of fraudulent mediums prancing about in turbans, maliciously deceiving lost souls desperate to connect with their deceased loved ones, I’ve found most spiritualists to be honest people who earnestly insist they receive messages from the dead.

Why are you always writing about religions you don’t practice?!  What do you know about them?

Well, not much.

In my early 20s, I began to explore different walks of faith ranging from Buddhism to Haitian Voodoo to Hinduism to Christianity and Islam.  Any one of these religions takes a lifetime of exploration and study to fully appreciate.  I would not, nor have I ever, claimed to be an authority on anyone’s faith.

What I can tell you is that I’ve never been turned away by any religious person I’ve expressed interest in learning from, I’ve never explored a faith that hasn’t taught me something, and I always encourage others to be open to wherever their spiritual path takes them.

This sounds super interesting!  What’s the best way to explore Spiritualism?

Spiritualist churches exist all over the United States.  To find one closest to you, check out this directory.

This totally freaks me out!  I don’t want anything to do with it!

That’s fine, too.  Communication with the dead is a sensitive subject for many people—although this sensitivity is a fairly recent Western aversion.  Indigenous societies throughout the world have, and still continue, to believe in direct communication with the spirit world.

Even if participating in seance is not your deal, I still encourage you to be open and tolerant of other religious views, especially  if they are in conflict with your own.  Your measure of tolerance is not about how you regard the people you agree with, it’s about how you regard the people you don’t agree with.

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