Reflections on Online Psychic Services

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I must admit being thoroughly fascinated by learning of new websites that promise psychic services. I first learned of these sites when an advertisement for one appeared on San Francisco’s premier all news radio station. Customers are provided personal descriptions of psychics offering service on a variety of topics, including love, medium, tarot, life path, clairvoyant, and career. Two levels of pricing are offered.

Upon learning of these online psychic services, I quickly ran through a series of initial reactions before pausing to look more deeply at what needs and drives are being met here. First, I felt embarrassment for the Bay area, already stereotyped as kooky. Next, I lamented the anti-intellectual and anti-science currents running through the U.S. body politic today. But then I remembered how Alan Watts and Carl Jung had looked under the hood to plumb the psychological depths that motivate behaviors that seem to make little sense on the surface.

In The Wisdom of Insecurity, Alan Watts explored the difficulty people have living with full awareness of life’s uncertainties. He saw how people’s efforts to achieve security can lead to a variety of distractions, especially materialism. Each new product purchased brings an effervescent hope of happiness and security. But no amount of wealth can conquer the core reality of living in an arbitrary and random universe. He saw most religions as more focused on comfort than on spurring deeper spiritual questioning. Watts saw that the struggle for certainty only fuels our fear of uncertainty, while also diverting us from accepting life in the present moment. In his words, “Running away from fear is fear, fighting pain is pain, trying to be brave is being scared.” [i] So it makes no sense to denigrate people’s searching for security even from the occult since they won’t find it elsewhere.

But why have people over the ages directed their energies toward the occult, this most mysterious, ineffable, and immaterial endeavor? For that answer, I turn to Carl Jung’s writing on Flying Saucers.[ii] Jung understood that people do not have to believe in deities or myths to be attracted to them. Without focusing on the reality or unreality of visitors from outer space, Jung focused on the psychological attraction people had to the possibility of connecting with life beyond Earth. He speculated the wave of dreams, fantasies, and sightings of unidentified flying objects (UFOs) during Cold War anxieties about nuclear annihilation were projections of compensatory archetypal symbols from the collective unconscious. Connectedness with something larger than ourselves was a comforting image during a time of anxiety provoked by competing hostile forces here on earth. Belief in, and visions of, UFOs stemmed from a deep well of spiritual need.

An excellent post titled “Jung, Flying Saucers, and the Anxieties of Our Time” here in Psychology Today asked the question: “What are the compensating dreams and visions pointing us beyond our current problems?”[iii] Global warming, environmental degradation, and fears of economic collapse and authoritarianism are only a few sources of cultural anxiety today. It would be a surprise if these anxieties did not stimulate the projection of compensatory archetypal symbols by the collective unconscious. It makes sense that people would be attracted to the occult’s promise of certainty about the future and direct connection with realms far beyond daily life.

When I pull back from questions of the reality or legitimacy of psychic clairvoyance, I immediately feel empathy for the needs propelling people’s attraction to the occult. While the specific direction they turn to meet these needs is not one that attracts me, I share similar deep spiritual urges. The same can be said for many religious directions people turn to. What we all share is a desire, even a need, to feel a part of something larger than ourselves. This is the archetypal spiritual need humans have experienced from the beginning. This need is also expressed In A.A.’s second step, when people in recovery from addiction come to believe in a power greater then themselves (see AA’s Step Two: Looking Beyond Your Self for Hope).

Where does all this leave me? First, I understand the desire for certainty promised by these new websites, but I realize the illusion that such certainty exists. The wisdom of accepting insecurity lies in understanding that it is also accepting reality in a way that promotes living more fully in the present, which Watts argues is the only place we can be fully alive. Seeking certainty in the future only distracts us from the reality of the moment. Second, I empathize with the spiritual need that drives some people to be attracted to the occult and want to do nothing to denigrate this need, despite my personal antipathy to the occult and traditional religious organizations. The spiritual experiences I seek do not provide answers as much as they evoke a sense of awe and stimulate deeper exploration of my connection to the whole.

My main trouble with online psychic services is the commodification, the monetization, of spiritual guidance. Like old-time patent medicines and television-based megachurches, online psychic fee-for-service is fraught with the possibility of flim-flam hucksterism. I am not saying I know this is true of online psychics, but I do not know how to tell when it is or isn’t. I am more comfortable developing an empathic understanding of the customers’ psychology than focusing on the commercial products being sold.

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