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Unlocking the Healing Power of Belief

Science is showing that how you feel isn’t just about what you eat, or do, or think. It’s about what you believe.

At the University of Florida, Parkinson’s disease patient Russell Price undergoes surgery to implant a deep brain stimulation (DBS) lead that will deliver electrical impulses to motion-controlling parts of his brain, treatment which has been shown to provide substantial relief from symptoms in appropriately selected patients. Additional improvement in some patients may also derive from the mere expectation that the procedure will help—the so-called placebo effect. “It’s not a magical thing,” says neurologist Michael Okun.

The pilgrim wasn’t sure he’d make it to the Chapel of Grace. It was agony to walk at all, let alone endure the 70 miles that thousands of believers trek each year to behold an enshrined wood statue: the Black Madonna of Altötting.

Richard Mödl had recently broken his heel, but in 2003 he was determined to complete his first pilgrimage from Regensburg to Altötting, Germany. He figured if the pain got too bad he could always hitch a ride. But he had a deep faith in the Virgin Mary’s ability to deliver him. So he walked. And walked.

Today, at 74, Mödl has a warm smile and a wiry frame that looks as if it could survive a charging rhinoceros. Since the healing of his foot, he’s made the pilgrimage 12 more times, and he’s a passionate believer in its transformative power.

Mödl is not alone in his belief. Whether it takes the form of a touch of the Holy Spirit at a Florida revival meeting or a dip in the water of the Ganges, the healing power of belief is all around us. Studies suggest that regular religious services may improve the immune system, decrease blood pressure, add years to our lives.

Religious faith is hardly the only kind of belief that has the ability to make us feel inexplicably better. Six thousand miles from Altötting, another man experienced what seemed to be a medical miracle.

Mike Pauletich first noticed he had a problem in 2004. His aim with a baseball was off, and his arm hurt. His hand shook a little, and, strangest of all, his wife noticed he never smiled anymore.

Figuring he had carpal tunnel syndrome, he went to the doctor. But his bad aim wasn’t because of his arm, and the reason he wasn’t smiling wasn’t because his arm hurt. At 42 years old, Pauletich had early onset Parkinson’s disease. His doctor told him that within a decade he wouldn’t be able to walk, stand, or feed himself.

Pauletich didn’t deteriorate as much as his doctor predicted, but for years he struggled with the disease and with depression, as talking and writing became ever harder. Then, in 2011, he turned to Ceregene, a company that was testing a new gene therapy. Parkinson’s is the result of a chronic loss of the neurotransmitter dopamine. It had been shown in monkeys that injections of a protein called neurturin could halt the progress of the disease by protecting and possibly repairing damaged dopamine-secreting neurons. Ceregene’s experimental treatment was to cut two holes, one in each hemisphere of the brain, through a patient’s skull and inject the drug directly into the target regions.

Pauletich’s improvement after the surgery was impressive. Before the trial he had struggled to move around. He had to constantly explain to clients of his technology development company that his slurred speech wasn’t caused by drinking. After the procedure his shaking disappeared, his mobility improved, and his speech became markedly clearer. (Today you can hardly tell he has the disease at all.) His doctor on the study, Kathleen Poston, was astonished. Strictly speaking, Parkinson’s had never been reversed in humans; the best one could hope for was a slowdown in the progression of the disease, and even that was extremely rare.

In April 2013, Ceregene announced the results of the trial: Neurturin had failed. Patients who had been treated with the drug did not improve any more significantly than those in a control group who had received a placebo treatment—a sham surgery in which a doctor drilled “divots” into the patient’s skull so that it would feel as if there had been an operation. Ceregene was bought by another company in 2013, and its work on neurturin for Parkinson’s has not been continued.

Poston was crushed. But then she looked at the data and noticed something that stopped her cold. Mike Pauletich hadn’t gotten the real surgery. He had gotten the placebo.

In a sense both Pauletich and Mödl participated in a performance, one that we humans have been engaging in for thousands of years, every time we go to healers with the hope that they can make us feel better. And just as a good performance in a theater can draw us in until we feel we’re watching something real, the theater of healing is designed to draw us in by creating powerful expectations in our brains. These expectations drive the so-called placebo effect, which can affect what happens in our bodies as well. Scientists have known about the placebo effect for decades and have used it as a control in drug trials. Now they are seeing placebos as a window into the neurochemical mechanisms that connect the mind with the body, belief with experience.

How does a belief become so potent it can heal? Back to the theater: A crucial part of an inspiring performance is sets and costumes. When Pauletich experienced improvement in his symptoms, it wasn’t just because of the divots he could feel in his head or what the doctors told him about surgery. It was the whole scene he’d experienced: the doctors in their white coats, stethoscopes around their necks; the nurses, checkups, tests, maybe even the bad music in the hospital waiting room. Physicians sometimes call these trappings around hospitals the theater of medicine.

jones navajo shaman

Jones Benally, a healer on the Navajo Reservation in Arizona for more than 75 years, treats the body and the mind of his patient to relieve her pain and stress. He works in a hogan (here)—and also in hospitals and elder-care centers. His daughter and his sons are learning his skills in order to carry on the tradition.

This stagecraft extends to many aspects of treatment and can operate on a subconscious level. Expensive placebos work better than cheap ones. Placebos in brand-name containers work better than those labeled generics. Placebo suppositories work better in France, while the English prefer to swallow their placebos. Often fake injections work better than fake pills. But fake surgeries seem to be the most powerful of all.

Most astonishingly, placebos can work even when the person taking them knows they are placebos. This was reported in a now classic 2010 paper published by Ted Kaptchuk, a researcher at Harvard Medical School, and his team. After 21 days of taking a placebo, people with irritable bowel syndrome felt markedly better when compared with people who received nothing, even though those who reported feeling relief were told beforehand (and reminded afterward) that they were receiving placebos.

The experiment showed that a supportive patient-practitioner relationship was key in creating belief in a successful outcome. Patients were educated about the power of placebos and positive attitude. They were told that the placebo pills had been shown, in rigorous clinical testing, to induce meaningful self-healing processes. They were instructed to take the pills faithfully, missing no doses.

“Dealing with expectation is very tricky,” says Kaptchuk, who has spent his life studying placebo effects. “We’re dealing with very imprecise measuring of a very imprecise phenomenon. And a lot of it’s nonconscious.”

Karin Jensen, one of Kaptchuk’s former colleagues who now runs her own lab at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, Sweden, designed an experiment to determine whether it was possible to use subliminal cues to condition subjects to experience a placebo effect.

During the conditioning phase of the experiment, subjects viewed alternating faces on a screen. Jensen used faces in her experiment because our brains are particularly adept at quickly recognizing them. Half the subjects received subliminal cues: The faces appeared for just a fraction of a second—not long enough to consciously tell them apart. For the other subjects, the facial cues appeared long enough for them to be consciously recognized.

During this first phase, varying heat stimuli were delivered to the subjects’ arms along with the facial cues: more heat with the first face, less heat with the second. In the testing phase that followed, the subjects, including those who saw only the quick-flash subliminal cues, reported feeling more pain when they saw the first face, although the heat stimuli remained moderate and identical for both faces. The subjects had thus developed an unconscious link between greater pain and the first face.

The experiment showed that a placebo response can be conditioned subliminally. Jensen points out that tiny cues as you walk into a hospital—many of which are experienced unconsciously—trigger responses in our bodies in a similar way.

“Part of healing is nonconscious—something that happens instinctually,” she says.

Neuroradiologist

At the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, neuroradiologist David Kallmes injects medical bone cement into a patient’s spine to stabilize a painful vertebral compression fracture. A study directed by Kallmes at the clinic showed pain relief was almost the same one month later in a control group that received sham procedures. “Shocking to most people,” Kallmes said of the results. “Surprising to me.”

Hospitals are just one common venue for the theater of belief. There are hundreds of alternative medical treatments that harness our expectations—homeopathy, acupuncture, traditional Chinese medicines, urine therapy, cow dung tablets, human blood facials, vitamin infusions, sound healing, to name a few—all with varying levels of proven efficacy.

Tanya Luhrmann, an anthropologist at Stanford University who has dedicated much of her professional life to understanding people’s interactions with God, says:

“Belief is natural. It comes partly from the way our minds are hardwired”

She says that belief-based healing requires not only a good story but also the effort of an active listener—one with the ability to make what is imagined feel real. When story and imagination sync, the results can be astounding.

“Humans have the capacity to change their experience,” she says. “These are skills, and we can learn them.”

I’d heard of the belief-based healing of the brujos, or witch doctors, of Catemaco, in the state of Veracruz on the eastern coast of Mexico. They are particularly theatrical healers, blending shamanistic traditions with Roman Catholicism much as Christians did a thousand years ago. I’d heard stories of massive, pentagram-shaped bonfires and dancing madmen who spit all over you as a blessing. Certainly worth a visit.

But when I arrived in Catemaco and made my way to a modern brujo’s office, I found no fires or whooping shamans. Far from the dark, bat-infested cave I’d expected, the waiting area turned out to be a tidy little living room that smelled of disinfectant. Plastic amulets and glass crystals lined the shelves. About 10 people sat in chairs, reading magazines or watching soccer on TV. As witch doctors go, the brujo who greeted me looked more doctor than witch. Dressed all in white, he sported a neat mustache and short, heavily gelled hair. Half his office was taken up by an altar packed with crucifixes, statues of saints, flowers, and hundreds of blinking, colored lights.

I’d come for a simple limpia—a cleansing of my spirit. The brujo grabbed an egg, a few sprigs of basil, and a couple of plastic squirt bottles filled with what he said were envy blockers, bad-energy protection, and a liquid that makes wealth. Everything was orderly and sanitized. After a short interview, he got down to the business of my spirit, squirting me liberally with pungent oils and rubbing an egg over my body before cracking it open into a glass of water and examining the contents.

I was familiar with this routine—it’s common among brujos in Mexico. What surprised me was the lack of pomp or mumbo jumbo. It was more clinical than ceremonial. The brujo asked about my knees and lower back (both fine) and informed me that the egg indicated I might be in for some pain in the future. Like a radiologist explaining features on an x-ray, he noted several bubbles around the egg white in the glass: a sign that someone close to me was jealous and wished me ill. Then he offered, for an extra fee, to protect me from future harm. I declined; we shook hands. I left feeling a sense of anticlimax, as if I had somehow missed something. Where was the theater?

It was only when I was back on the street that I began to understand. Twenty years ago you could still find “authentic” dancing, spitting witch doctors in Catemaco (and they still show up for tourists and festivals). But expectation is a moving target. Over the past generation, conventional medicine has become the norm in Catemaco. Spitting and waving chicken feathers inspired confidence before, but most brujos today have adapted to the times, mixing white lab coats and antiseptic spray with their mysticism to tap into their modern patients’ expectations: the theater of medicine. My brujo made eye contact and smiled warmly, like a skillful, caring medical doctor.

And I have to say, I did feel a little better.

JASON TREAT, NGM STAFF; KELSEY NOWAKOWSKI ART: STUDIO MUTI. SOURCES: IRENE TRACEY, UNIVERSITY OF OXFORD; FABRIZIO BENEDETTI, UNIVERSITY OF TURIN

JASON TREAT, NGM STAFF; KELSEY NOWAKOWSKI
ART: STUDIO MUTI. SOURCES: IRENE TRACEY, UNIVERSITY
OF OXFORD; FABRIZIO BENEDETTI, UNIVERSITY OF TURIN

So how does the theater of medicine actually work? How does a belief literally heal?

One part of the puzzle involves conditioning, as Jensen has shown. Recall Pavlov’s dog, which drooled every time it heard a bell. That happened because Pavlov conditioned the animal to connect food with the sound. Scientists have been able to train the immune systems of rats by pairing sweet liquids with cyclosporine A, a drug that blocks the function of immune cells to keep patients from rejecting transplanted organs. Every time the rat has a sweet drink, it also gets the drug. But after enough trials, the drug is unnecessary: The sweet drink alone is enough to shut down the rat’s immune response.

The placebo effect’s conditioned response in reaction to pain is to release brain chemicals—endorphins, or opium-like painkillers—synthesized in the body. In the 1970s two San Francisco neuroscientists interested in how those internal opioids control pain made a discovery during an experiment with patients who had just had their wisdom teeth pulled.

Ashinaka

The Ashaninka people of Peru use vapor from boiled herbs in their healing rituals. This ceremony is performed by Mircyla Prado Pintallo; at 11 years old she’s learning the art of the vaporadora. Once the patient inhales the vapor, Mircyla will read the leaves to determine whether the healing has succeeded and possibly prescribe other herbs to help the patient regain good health.

The researchers first compared the response of a placebo group to the response of another group that received naloxone, a drug that cancels out the ameliorating effect of opioids. None of the subjects received or expected to receive morphine—and all of them felt miserable. Then the scientists redesigned the experiment, telling the patients that some of them would receive morphine, some a placebo, and some naloxone. No one, including the researchers, knew who would receive what. This time, some of the patients felt better, even though they didn’t receive morphine. Their expectation of potential relief triggered the release of endorphins in their bodies, and those endorphins reduced the pain. But as soon as they got naloxone, they were in pain again. The drug wiped out the action of the endorphins that the placebo response had released.

Howard Fields, an emeritus professor at the University of California, San Francisco and one of the authors of the study, says:

“Without the expectation of pain relief, you can’t have a placebo effect”

Since that experiment, conditioning has been used to study the effects of belief on the release of other drugs produced by the body, including serotonin, dopamine, and some cannabinoids, which can work in a way similar to the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana. But it wasn’t until the early 2000s that scientists could watch how these effects play out in the brain. Tor Wager, then a Ph.D. student at the University of Michigan, put subjects in a brain scanner. He applied cream to both of each subject’s wrists, then strapped on electrodes that could deliver painful shocks or heat. He told the subjects that one of the creams could ameliorate pain, but the creams, in fact, were the same, and neither had any inherent pain-reducing qualities. After several rounds of conditioning, the subjects learned to feel less pain on the wrist coated with the “pain relieving” cream; on the last run, strong shocks felt no worse than a light pinch. A typical conditioned placebo response.

The most interesting part was what the brain scans showed. Normal pain sensations begin at an injury and travel in a split second up through the spine to a network of brain areas that recognize the sensation as pain. A placebo response travels in the opposite direction, beginning in the brain. An expectation of healing in the prefrontal cortex sends signals to parts of the brain stem, which creates opioids and releases them down to the spinal cord. We don’t imagine we’re not in pain. We self-medicate, literally, by expecting the relief we’ve been conditioned to receive.

“The right belief and the right experience work together,” says Wager, now a professor at the University of Colorado Boulder and director of a neuroscience lab there. “And that’s the recipe.”

The recipe of belief and experience is finding its way out of the lab and into clinical practice as well. Christopher Spevak is a pain and addiction doctor at the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland. Every day he sees active service members and veterans with severe injuries, sometimes just days or weeks after they have left the battlefield. This offers him an opportunity to use expectation and conditioning to tap into internal opioids to stave off, or at least mitigate, long-term pain.

When Spevak first meets patients, he doesn’t ask about their injuries or their medical histories—he has all that on file. Instead he asks them about themselves. He might learn that in childhood a person had a favorite eucalyptus tree outside his house or loved peppermint candies. Eventually, if Spevak prescribes opioid painkillers, every time the patient takes one, he also has eucalyptus oil to smell or a peppermint to eat—whatever stimulus Spevak knows will resonate. Over time, just as with Jensen’s quick-flash faces or Wager’s skin cream (or for that matter, Pavlov’s bell), patients start linking the sensory experience to the drugs. After a while, Spevak cuts down on the drug and just provides the sounds or smells. The patient’s brain can go to an internal pharmacy for the needed drugs.

Ritual and Belief

bad energy cleansing

Chasing away bad energy and spirits with fire, Hmong shaman Ploua Her leads an annual curing ceremony to protect the home of Wang Lue Her. A goat, pigs, and chickens will then be sacrificed, and later eaten by gathered family members.

“We have triple amputees, quadruple amputees, who are on no opioids,” Spevak says of his Iraq and Afghanistan veteran patients. “Yet we have older Vietnam vets who’ve been on high doses of morphine for low back pain for the past 30 years.”

Two years ago Leonie Koban, a member of Tor Wager’s lab, spearheaded a novel placebo study. The scientists were well aware of the roles of conditioning and theater in channeling expectations. They wanted to test the effect of a third element influencing experiences of pain: other believers.

As in many previous tests of the placebo effect, the researchers delivered a burning sensation to their subjects’ arms and asked the subjects to rate how strong it was. But this time they introduced an extra variable. The volunteers looked at a screen and saw a series of hash marks representing how previous participants had rated their pain. For the same stimulus, the subjects reported feeling higher or lower levels of pain based on what they were told previous participants had felt.

The result was not surprising. In the 1950s, a series of tests called the Asch experiments showed that subjects can give answers they know to be wrong in order to conform with the group. What shocked Koban and Wager was the sheer strength of the social influence: The effect was larger than might be expected after conditioning. Tests of the subjects’ skin conductance responses—involuntary changes in how the body is conducting electricity, often used in lie detection—showed that they were not just reporting what they thought the researchers wanted to hear; they were actually responding less to pain. Studies with fMRI machines implicated a separate, complementary network of brain activity that kicks in when conventional placebos are enhanced by peer pressure. Koban goes so far as to say that social information might be more powerful in altering the experience of pain than both conditioning and subconscious cues.

“Information we take from our social relationships has really profound influences, [not only] on emotional experiences but also on health-related outcomes such as pain and healing,” Koban says.

“And we are only beginning to understand these influences and how we can harness them.”

placebo MRI

Placebo expert Luana Colloca at the University of Maryland, Baltimore and others have uncovered another trigger of the mysterious effect: how we think others experience pain. In this experiment, subjects were conditioned to perceive a heat stimulus as stronger when it was paired with an image of a face showing distress, even when the stimulus was moderate. An MRI machine captures how the brain responds to the coupled stimuli.

The impact of the social group could help explain why religion might in a very literal sense be what Karl Marx defined as “the opium of the people”: It can tap into the ability to access our own store of beliefs and expectations, especially when we’re surrounded by other believers who are doing the same.

Nowhere is the power of group belief more evident than in religious pilgrimages—whether it’s the annual Catholic trek to Lourdes, in France, the annual hajj pilgrimage of Muslims to Mecca, in Saudi Arabia, or, largest of all, the Maha Kumbh Mela, occurring every 12 years. The latest Kumbh Mela, in February 2013, drew an estimated 70 million Hindus to the Indian city of Allahabad.

Or the pilgrimage to Altötting where I met Richard Mödl. The first documented healing in Altötting was in 1489, when a drowned boy was said to have been miraculously brought back to life. Today the Black Madonna there attracts about a million visitors a year.

The pilgrims I joined on a cold Bavarian morning in 2016 had already been walking since 3 a.m. After pausing for breakfast, everyone was chatting happily, waiting for the signal to begin walking again, in the rain. I had been nervous about the trip because of ankle surgery I’d had three months before. But in that merry throng of believers, my pain faded away.

“Everyone is here for their own reasons, but they are all here for each other just as much,” said Marcus Brunner, a cheery priest and 27-year veteran of the walk. “The group carries you, and you carry the group all together.”

When we arrived in the Chapel of Grace, we found it covered inside and out with ex-votos—pictures representing miracles spanning hundreds of years and showing every imaginable ailment. Propped against the walls were crutches and canes left behind through the ages by parishioners and pilgrims whose suffering was relieved by the Black Madonna. The expectation of healing continues unabated.

“There is a different way of thinking here,” said Thomas Zauner, a psychotherapist and deacon who had moved to Altötting in order to seek a supportive community for his developmentally disabled child. “Prayer seems to actually work.”

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Spirituality

The Ley Lines: could they influence the Earth in any physical way?

Credit: lifecoachcode.com.

The Ley lines would be “subtle” magnetic energy flows that would be found throughout the Earth. They would physically influence the places they travel.

The Ley Lines are hypothetical energy routes that run throughout the Earth. According to experts on this subject, many ancient megalithic monuments were built in vortices or intersection points of these lines (like Stonehenge or the Pyramids of Egypt). These routes would establish a planetary harmonical energy and it is thought that would influence the ecology of the planet, since the energy would be perceived concentrated in fertile natural places such as mountains, lakes and forests. They would also affect the human beings!

This kind of Energy has been referred to as “subtle” or “etheric”, since it is different from the types of magnetic energy that science knows. Different ancient cultures would also have called them: dragon trails, dragon currents or snake paths.

The Law Lines: could they influence the Earth in any physical way?
The so-called San Miguel Law Line, with several sacred places lined up by Europe (Public domain).

The term was coined in 1921 by amateur archaeologist Alfred Watkins, who observed a alignment of several megalithic monuments and ancient places from Great Britain. First it was considered that the Ley Lines were only alignments, but then they were given an esoteric character, with the rectilinear flow of that subtle energy of the Earth.

The Ley Lines influence the ecology of the Earth

Theorists of this esoteric phenomenon say that the lines intersect in several places, forming power points or vortex points around the planet. These vortex points would influence the ecology and life of each place. This is also related to the so-called geomancy.

In fact, this concept has bases in the ancient Chinese religious philosophy of feng shui. Feng shui speaks of chi, or “vital breath” that moves in currents and is affected by the shapes, space and direction of the cardinal points. The art of feng shui seeks to perceive the flow of lung-mei or dragon currents and accommodate space and objects to benefit that flow.

The Law Lines: could they influence the Earth in any physical way?
Another illustration of the lines, look at the vortex of Giza, Egypt (Public domain).

The Ley lines, and especially the vortex points, would be places of concentration of positive chi (energy). A great natural example where this occurs is a valley surrounded by hills: the mountainous circle would create a vortex point of etheric energy, forming a kind of shield and fortress. The green valley with the help of that vortex, attracts water currents and creates fertile soils.

In druid belief, the energy of the Earth was called wyvern, and it slid across the ground. The wyvern lines transmitted life (or vitality) and fertilized the land.

Magnetism affects water and earth

You have to keep in mind that magnetism affects water (can purify it). According to researcher Rene Noorbergen, the ancient civilizations knew about Earth’s magnetism (or of one type of energy, at least) and that would have been used to fertilize the earth (Modern horticulturists know about the fertilizing properties of magnetic fields).

The Law Lines: could they influence the Earth in any physical way?
Malvern hills in England. Alfred Watkins thought that a LeyLine passed along its mountainous ridge. Credit: Daderot / Wikimedia commons.

In the vortex points too, observable energy phenomena would be generated, like strange lights that have been reported near a Dolmen monument  in Loon and near a monastery in Aduard, both in the Netherlands.

Will the existence of these Ley lines be possible? Scientists have not really investigated this, but it is known that the Earth has enough movement of magnetic energy which, in addition to the known electromagnetic spectrum, is very wide, with different wavelengths (such as visible light and X-rays).

References: EarthGeomancy / Ancient-Wisdom / LeyLijnen / IntuitiveDoc.

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Spirituality

The secret séance rituals of America’s largest Spiritualist community

Eric Spitznagel
NY Post

Medium Annette Rodgers leads a séance, allegedly with the help of her deceased daughter, Lauren.

Shannon Taggart was never a big believer in ghosts. But that changed in 2001, during one of her first visits to Lily Dale — a hamlet in southwestern New York state that’s home to the world’s largest spiritualist community.

The Brooklyn photojournalist was taken by surprise while watching a private reading with Gretchen Clark, a fifth-generation medium.

“All of a sudden, she started laughing at nothing,” Taggart tells The Post. “Apparently the spirit of her brother was in the room and told her a joke.”

“I told him not to interrupt me while I’m working,” Clark explained to her client and then turned to an empty spot and yelled, “Chapman, we’ve talked about this!”

She composed herself and returned to the reading and then just as quickly turned back to Taggart.

“Margaret’s here,” Clark announced.

“Margaret? I don’t know any Margaret,” Taggart insisted.

Clark closed her eyes and listened. “She says ‘Texas.’ What does ‘Texas’ mean?”

Taggart instantly knew. “My great aunt Margaret lived in Texas and she’d died a few months earlier,” Taggart says. “I’d totally forgotten. My whole body just tensed up. It was truly spooky.”

That encounter was just the beginning of a spiritual awakening for Taggart, who would spend the next 18 years documenting mediums in New York as well as Essex, England, and Antequera, Spain. More than 150 of her photographs, many never before seen, are published in her new book Séance (Fulgur Press).

Taggart didn’t set out to prove or disprove spiritualism. Rather, she says, she was driven by “a sinking feeling that these mediums knew something about life that I didn’t.”

When she first traveled to Lily Dale, it was out of curiosity.

Years earlier, her cousin had learned from a medium that their grandfather hadn’t died from heart disease — as Taggart had always believed — but by asphyxiation. She laughed off the story, until her parents confirmed it.

“Someone at the hospital put food into his mouth and left him alone,” her father had said, “and he choked.”

This story stayed with Taggart over the years, and she became consumed with “how a total stranger could have known the details of this tragedy.”

In 2001, at age 26, she decided to visit Lily Dale despite knowing nothing about the place except that it was a short drive from Buffalo, where she grew up, and the medium who revealed her grandfather’s secret had lived there.

The town was founded as a gated spiritualist summer retreat in 1879, and not much has changed since then. With a population of some 275 residents — many of whom are practicing mediums — it looks like a town frozen in the mid-19th century. Narrow roads are lined with old-fashioned houses, many adorned with signs announcing “the medium is in.” A rickety wooden auditorium in the center of town is typically “papered with flyers advertising trumpet séances, past-life regressions, astral-travel workshops, spoon-bending classes and circles to develop mediumship,” Taggart writes.

She arrived with no plan and was initially too nervous to do anything but drive around.

But Taggart eventually wrote a letter to the Lily Dale Assembly’s board of directors asking permission to take photos during what she first thought would be “one summer making a photo essay about this quirky little town.”

“I would just wander around and literally knock on people’s doors and say, ‘Would you talk to me? Would you teach me about spiritualism?’ ” she recalled. “And they very graciously did.”

medium letters

A medium claims to have received letters under her pillow from a man who lived in the 1800s after meeting him through a Ouija board.

What she learned from them wasn’t necessarily how to communicate with ghosts. It was a peek into a shadowy subculture that “was once a seminal force in Western culture,” Taggart writes. “A legacy that was absent from every textbook I had ever studied, including my histories of photography.”

Spiritualism — a belief system based not just on the existence of spirits, but the idea that they want to stay in contact with the living — was once part of the mainstream. It was embraced by public figures like psychoanalyst Carl Jung, evolutionary biologist Alfred Russel Wallace, poet William Butler Yeats and even Abraham Lincoln. But today, it’s almost entirely hidden.

“It flourishes in fiction and entertainment but is marginalized by academia and the media,” Taggart writes. The contemporary Western worldview is that spiritualism is the stuff of fiction. But after what Taggart witnessed, and photographed, she wasn’t so sure.

As her exploration took her overseas, she learned that not all mediums started out wanting to be mediums.

Reverend Jane from Erie, Pa., found the calling at age 6, when “she saw a spirit standing inside her grandmother’s closet,” Taggart writes, and discovered she could make supermarket cans fly across shelves and candles do somersaults in the air.

Others came to it after being triggered by the grief of losing a loved one.

British medium Simone Key, a lifelong atheist, was drawn to spiritualism after her mother passed and she began getting messages, on her long-broken word processor, that read: “We must communicate.”

Annette Rodgers of Essex, England, felt the calling after her 16-year-old daughter, Lauren, died from a heroin overdose. Two years later, still deep in depression, Rodgers attended a spiritualist church “on a whim and immediately felt ‘Yes, this is what I need,’ ” she told Taggart.

She now runs a spiritualist center in Spain and says her dead daughter visits regularly.

Lily dale museum

Dorothy Pries works at the Lily Dale Museum

“I once saw Lauren turn Annette’s iPhone around on a table,” a fellow medium recounted to Taggart. “Her connection to her mother is that strong.”

But mediumship isn’t limited to communication with dead loved ones. Sometimes things get awkward.

Lily Dale medium Betty Schultz recalled a reading she had with a Catholic priest who was a regular client. “The spirits showed Betty a baby who had died and told her the priest was its father,” Taggart writes. Betty silently insisted to the spirits that there was no way she’d be sharing this information.

Without explaining why, she sent him to another medium — who later scolded Schultz: “Why didn’t you give that man the message from his baby?”

Taggart developed close friendships with some of her photo subjects, like Lauren Thibodeau, a longtime Lily Dale resident who found her way to spiritualism without any warning. She explained how she first went into a trance on New Year’s Eve 1989 in front of her husband and his friend, the best man from their wedding, “who never came to their home again,” writes Taggart.

Thibodeau shared one of the biggest headaches of spiritualism: uninvited famous people. Most mediums want nothing to do with celebrity ghosts — there’s no faster way to drive away an on-the-fence skeptic than “I have a message from Albert Einstein” — but Thibodeau says it’s sometimes unavoidable.

She remembers a session in which Elvis Presley’s ghost showed up unannounced.

“No!” Thibodeau shouted at the ghost. “I’m not doing this, get out of here!”

When the spirit refused to leave, Thibodeau apologized to her clients. “I’m sorry, I have Elvis here and I don’t know why,” she said. She then learned that the mother of the woman she was doing a reading for had been a housekeeper at Graceland.

For Thibodeau, it was a lesson in not being too quick to cast judgment. “Now, any time a spirit comes, regardless of who they are, I’ll give a message,” she told Taggart. “I don’t shoo them away. We communicate with dead people, and a dead celebrity is still dead.”

Even after almost two decades following mediums, Taggart isn’t sure she’d call herself a believer just yet. “I no longer subscribe to the popular belief that spiritualists are charlatans just trying to make money off of people,” Taggart says. “For the most part, I found them to be very sincere.”

But as for whether she believes in ghosts and life after death, the now 44-year-old is still on the fence. The closest she comes to sounding like a convert is when discussing an unsettling experience from 2013. It happened while she was visiting Sylvia and Chris Howarth, a married medium couple in England.

The morning after watching Sylvia do a séance in the dark — something the experienced spiritualist rarely did because “sometimes the phenomena continued into the next day” — Taggart was making tea in their kitchen and reached to open a cupboard.

“The ceramic knob exploded in my hands,” Taggart remembers. “Half of it shot into the air and crashed to the floor. The other half became razor-sharp and cut into my hand, and it started gushing blood.” Chris ran into the room, reached for the broken knob, and soon he was bleeding too.

“Just telling that story again, it gives me chills,” Taggart says.

So was it a paranormal encounter? She isn’t sure.

“All I know is, I still have a scar because of what happened that day,” she says. “And I still think about it all the time. So who knows?”

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Spirituality

Miracle in Colombia – A saint statue rescues city dwellers from landslide

Residents of the city of Jericó, in the Colombian department of Antioquia, are sure that it is the statue of St. Montoya which rescued them from a heavy landslide a week ago because of heavy rains.

The altar with the statue was located on the slope of the mountain from which the landslide descended. Muddy streams flooded the streets and destroyed more than 10 houses. However, none of the locals died or even seriously injured, and the statue itself was not damaged at all.

However, more than a thousand people lost access to their homes and were evacuated.

Local priest Jesus Herrera told reporters:

“We consider it a true sacred miracle that nobody was killed, and Los Aguacates did not collapse.”

Only two people were slightly injured – an elderly woman and a small child. This muddy landslide floods the entire surrounding area, including the city streets.

According to locals, at such a level of disaster, there would have been many more casualties had it not been for the protection of St. Montoya.

The statue of the patron saint of the city of St. Laura Montoya (Saint Laura Montoya), was installed here in 1919, in honor of a true Catholic nun.

She was Colombia’s first saint. Immediately after the statue was erected, worshipers began to visit it, finding it miraculous.

One of the locals says:

“Apart from material damage, we have no reason to cry. I’m sure we were all saved from the miracle the saint gave us. “

Mariana Garces, another resident says:

“Just look at all this horror that is now on our streets. No one can help us, but I think, nevertheless, someone or something intervenes. I already believe that there are spiritual powers in these places, and I am not the most religious person. “

In addition to Heriko, heavy rainfall caused flooding and landslides in six other Antioquia regions, but there the effects were smaller and only 3 houses were completely destroyed.

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