I am currently attending a physical mediumship circle in Bristol at the Bristol Spirit Lodge, where I have come to know a spirit by the name of Charlie. Charlie makes himself known through the trance mediumship of Jon.
The question of what exactly constitutes an incorporating spirit such as Charlie is an interesting and complex one. There have been numerous propositions suggested in answer to this question over the course of humanity’s dealing with such entities; from what might be termed spiritualistic interpretations to psychological conceptions and classifications. A brief overview of some of these varying interpretations will be the subject of the following section.
Alter is the term used to refer to distinct personalities that can develop when an individual suffers from what has been termed Multiple Personality Disorder (MPD) or Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID). A person suffering from DID experiences a number of phenomenological states which appear, at least on surface value, to bare some similarity to cases of spirit incorporation and possession.
Alters are understood to be created by the individual as a coping strategy to deal with some early life traumatic experience(s). In the event of witnessing a horrific scene during childhood, for instance, the mind might protect itself through constructing a personality that is not afraid of such experiences; a personality able to cope with the trauma (Crabtree, 1988, pp.72-78). Or if an individual is particularly shy, for example, an alter personality may develop that is substantially more outgoing and more socially able. In some cases a variety of different personalities might be formed, each with their own particular area of activity or individual speciality. In the event of further traumatic experiences these alters might once again be brought to the foreground to psychologically protect the original personality from emotional harm. In most cases, although by no means all, the original personality is completely unable to recall any event their physical body was experiencing while under the control of an alter (again a similarity with mediumship). Occasionally an alter personality might come to the fore in order to replace the original personality entirely.
Alter personalities can be complete in many, if not all, respects and exhibit a surprising depth, complexity and independence; “autonomous complexes” in Jung’s (2008, p.135) terminology. Indeed occasions have been reported on which it has become difficult to tell the difference between an individual’s “real”, or original, personality and that of an alter that has assumed control over the physical body (Crabtree, 1988, pp.89-90). In this respect, there is little differentiation between the personality (as we would define it) of an alter and that of a normal human being; as a form of consciousness it can be just as valid, real and complete as your own; with life experiences, memories, feelings and beliefs.
This use of the concept of dissociative identity, or multiple personality, disorder with regards to the practices of mediumship and trance channelling naturally implies that they are the symptoms of some form of mental abnormality or illness. This notion, however, does not sit well with the findings of anthropologists in the field studying societies where mediumistic practices, and the beliefs associated with them, still maintain a central role in day-to-day living.
The anthropologist Morton Klass (2006) has suggested a new approach to assessing whether behaviours, e.g. mediumistic trances of whatever sort, are abnormal or not. He suggests that spirit incorporation states do not represent disorders because they are not understood to be so in the social groups in which they occur; they are characterised as accepted and normal and generally have a place within the culture; that is that these states and behaviours are understood as mediumship or spirit possession, there is a cultural referent and explanation available and procedures to deal with such states are in place. A disorder, on the other hand, is not incorporated into the culture in anyway, indeed a disorder most clearly disrupts the norm; it stands out, and would consequently be recognizable as an abnormality to anyone within that social group (even within a society that practices mediumship of one form or another).
Adam Crabtree has suggested that the similarity between mediumistic, and possession, trance states and multiple personality disorders is rooted in an inherent human ability to dissociate. The difference arises in the way in which dissociation occurs; if unpredictable, uncontrollable and debilitating dissociative symptoms are exhibited it would be considered abnormal; if, on the other hand, the symptoms of dissociation are desired, respected and understood as of value to the individual and community then they would not be seen as abnormal.
Jon’s mediumship is certainly understood to have a purpose within the social group in which it takes place; the Bristol Spirit Lodge. The trance and incorporation state is culturally recognised by the group, and does not, consequently, represent an abnormal behaviour. Moreover, Jon’s behaviour is perfectly normal in all respects when not engaged in the trance state. The distinct lack of negative impact of his mediumship on his everyday functioning is a clear indication of its normal, and safe, nature. In other words mediumship is not a symptom of an abnormal psychological state, even if it does bare surface resemblances in certain respects to dissociative identity, and multiple personality, disorders. It is a form of dissociation but not a disorder.
The term egrigore has traditionally been utilised by occult practitioners to refer to a conscious “thought-form”. A thought-form is an entity, conscious or otherwise, made manifest through the application of focussed imaginative thinking and intent by a group or individual. Such an entity may also be referred to as an imaginal being.
A Canadian psychical investigation group conducted an experiment, which they called “the Philip Experiment” (as cited by Klimo, 1987, pp.249-250), in the 1970s whereby they collaborated on the concoction of an imaginary character by the name of Philip; going so far as to write a detailed but fictional background history for him, and even creating a likeness of his face on which to focus attention. Under séance conditions the group attempted to contact this imaginary creation and, after several failed attempts, eventually succeeded in doing so. The Philip they had created was complete, and to some extent exhibited a degree of independent thought when probed with questions. Séances during which Philip was contacted also featured a number of physical phenomena including rappings and table tipping; phenomena identical to physical mediumship séances.
Such entities might be thought of in terms of a group mind; a collective expression of intent made manifest. The notion bares similarities with occult ideas of conjuring spirits through the use of symbols and chants as foci of intentionality. A thought-form is believed, once manifest, to exist as an independent external entity within the mental realm.
These thought creations clearly posses the ability to have a tangible, and indeed physical, effect on the world around us, and in consequence, once created, are as real as any other intelligence.
Christine recalls an occasion with one of her foster children; a young girl of about 3 years of age who developed an imaginary friend. In Christine’s experience many children in similar situations have developed such imaginary friends. On one occasion it was only a matter of weeks before other children in her care began to 'join in' with this particular imaginary friend. All three children in her care at the time (aged 3-7 years) described him identically, perhaps indicative of a group manifested entity. There came a time when, one evening, another child reported that this imaginary friend was upset, because he didn’t feel loved anymore. It was exactly as if the children's acceptance of this imaginary child had 'caused' him to become real; he felt emotions in much the same way as a normal child would.
It is possible that Charlie represents the manifestation of a collective thought form communicating through Jon as a vessel. There is certainly an intention set during séances to communicate with Charlie; his conversations are enjoyable, and to this end the sitters are engaged in an intentional willing for Charlie to make himself known. There is, however, a significant point to be made here; Charlie is not the only communicator received through Jon’s mediumship; there are in actuality several others who regularly make themselves audible and on occasion entirely unknown communicators are brought forward. Consequently sitters are never sure which of Jon’s spirit team will present themselves during the séances.
An intention is set to communicate with any spirit person, and not Charlie in particular.
The subconscious mind...
The notion of a hidden aspect of the human mind has likely been perceived since the earliest days of human sentience. It wasn’t until the 19th century, however, with the work of pioneering psychologists such as Carl Jung and Sigmund Freud, that the idea became firmly established in the scientific literature as an active factor in the cognitive processes of the human mind.
Utilising this conceptual framework, it has been suggested that trance communications do not necessarily represent a form of contact with independent discarnate entities, but are, in fact, a means of receiving information stored deep within the subconscious mind of the medium him/her self.
This position holds that any information received during trance sessions was already unconsciously known by the medium. This unconscious information, when it comes forward, appears to derive from a consciousness other than that of the medium. In order to better comprehend the source of this information, the mind personifies the source thus creating the illusion of a separate intelligence; again what would be termed dissociation.
The 19th and early 20th century occultist Aleister Crowley (1875-1947) conceived of the spirits described in the Goetia, or the Lesser Key of Solomon, as “portions of the human brain” (1997, p.17). The symbolic seals presented in the book “represent… methods of stimulating or regulating those particular spots” (ibid.). From this perspective it may be suggested that spirits represent subconscious aspects of the mediums (or conjuror’s) own mind brought forward through the apprehension of subconsciously stimulating cues in the external world.
It would be possible to argue that a similar process is in operation at the Spirit Lodge. Symbols can take many forms and can have a profound effect on the consciousness of their observers. While the séances conducted at the Lodge do not use symbols like those represented in the Goetia to bring spirits forward, it might be argued that the building itself, along with other ritualised behaviours when inside it (e.g. sitting in a circle, dimming the lights, prayers etc) serve as symbolic cues which suggest that an entity will become available to communicate with. These cues may activate elements of the subconscious mind of both the medium and sitters with the effect of manifesting a personified intelligence by the name of Charlie.
Naturally, such a fact would be impossible to verify, but it is interesting food for thought.
Spirit of the dead...
The suggestion that the entities communicated with during séances are the spirits of the dead (that is disincarnate human beings), derives directly from the communications that are received. Simply put, the majority of entities communicated with during séances declare themselves to be the spirits of the deceased. This is their own understanding of their existence; that is how they perceive themselves.
Charlie has indicated that he once lived upon the earth as a monk by the name of Dao Lin. What reason do we have to disregard this claim? In truth it is an impossible fact to verify, but this claim is the most positive evidence available as to the nature of the intelligence we call Charlie. He himself has told us what and who he is.
If we are willing to consider Charlie as a manifestation of consciousness then we must also treat him with the respect we ourselves would expect of an interlocutor. We would not like to have our own understanding of what we are questioned by a stranger. We should allow for a degree of trust in our dealings with these entities. Although trickery is a possibility, it must also be considered that anyone we meet on the street may also deceive us on first meeting them, but we would not dare to question them (unless their claims were extraordinary) out of politeness and respect, although we might later on, as we got to know them a little better.
Treating apparent spirit people with respect and courtesy is one of the best means to understand more about them.
Jon has described the confusion arising from trying to determine what exactly it is that he channels at the Spirit Lodge. On certain occasions, even from his own perspective, it is difficult to distinguish where he ends and the spirits begin, while on other occasions the distinction appears fairly clear cut:
“I do sometimes wonder if it's not really my subconscious just raking up all these thoughts and regurgitating them out under the pretext of an alter ego. Although, last week, when [a spirit] came through I felt a very definite 'feeling' of a personality that wasn't mine. Hard to explain, but I know how "I" feel, and this wasn't how "I" feel at all.”
Indeed, it is true to say that any number of the explanations given for the existence of these other personalities (whether alters, thought-forms, the subconscious or spirits) does not rule out any of the others as equally valid possibilities. It is entirely possible that all processes could co-exist; an individual may divide his/her consciousness into multiple personalities to escape traumatic experiences, but this does not mean that thought-forms and spirits do not exist.
Indeed, Charlie, intriguingly and with humour, has provided a number of possible explanations for what he is:
Charlie: Ah, what could we be? I could be a thought, soaring on the wind…I could be a collective consciousness, perhaps from the physical world, or maybe even another. I might be a mischievous demon capturing your attention, slowly sucking you in... I think, I feel.
As usual, Charlie leaves us to make up our own mind; to find our own truth. He does not give us the answers, but provides food for thought.
(A collection of Charlie's teachings is currently being compiled with the aim of publishing within the coming months)
 Dissociative disorders are a classification of mental illness in the Diagnostic & Statistical Manual of Mental Health Disorders vol. 4 (DSM-IV). According to the DSM-IV “The essential feature of the dissociative disorders is a disruption in the usually integrated functions of consciousness, memory, identity, or perception. The disturbance may be sudden or gradual, transient or chronic”. There are a variety of different manifestations of dissociative disorder. DID, or multiple personality disorder, is just one.
 The term dissociation refers to a change in the functioning of consciousness “such that part of oneself appears to be split off and operating independently” (Klimo, 1987, p.346). Klass (2006, pp.115-116) suggests that this is a natural capacity of the human mind.
 The Goetia, also known as “The Lesser Key of Solomon” is an almanac of magical symbols used for the invocation of certain specific spiritual entities that originally appeared in 16th century AD Europe. Each entity described (of which there are 72) in the book is associated with a particular seal that can be utilised as a focus of attention and intention during conjuring rituals. These beings could be contacted to carry out specific actions on behalf of the conjuror, provided that he performed the relevant rituals and possessed the necessary protective seals and amulets.
 The above quotation from Jon includes the terms “subconscious”, “alter ego” and “definite…personality” to describe his experience, clearly indicating the potential action of all processes simultaneously during the channelling experience. The influence of the subconscious, for instance, is constant throughout even our waking lives, why should it not also be active during the trance channelling state? Indeed Charlie has referred to the central role of the subconscious in the trance channelling procedure.