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Mentalist Keith Barry on new age cons

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I interviewed Irish mentalist Keith Barry for Time Out last week. I notice he always gets referred to as “Irish mentalist Keith Barry”, which feels a bit like saying “black singer Donna Summer”, but Keith’s main point of difference as a mentalist/magician/illusionist/brainhacker is that he’s not some skulking creep trying to psyche you out in too much eyeliner… and journalists using the label “Irish” is shorthand for letting you know you’re in for a no-bullshit approach. Yep, Keith’s the no-bullshit bullshit artist.

In this interview he takes pops at personal development gurus, psychics and the pseudoscientific claims of cosmetic companies. And yep, he read my mind at the end and guessed which number I’d thrown on a dice, which irritatingly meant I lost his $10,000 bet. He’d happily refer you to The Full Facts of Cold Reading by Ian Rowland though, to let you know exactly how he did that.

Keith, you’ve been embraced by the Hollywood celebrity circuit and frequently mind-melt the stars. Are actors particularly easy to read?

Yeah, absolutely. Athletes are the other ones, because athletes are very good at visualisation techniques. I just like to turn the tables on them and take away their control mechanisms for a moment, because they’re such control freaks at that level. They’re surrounded by so many people, and they have their managers and their agents always around them, yet for one moment in time they go back to that childlike sense of wonder again. When they’re with me, it’s not about them, it’s about: “How the fuck are you doing this stuff?”

You did a talk for a few years back, and the analogy used to describe you was that you’re a computer programmer who can hack into the brain. Was that your own description?

I can’t remember if I came up with that analogy, but it is true. I see the brain exactly like a computer. You’ve got a hard drive, you’ve got software that goes in there, sometimes you’ve got viruses that go in – and I can send viruses into people’s brains. Just as some computers with their security systems can be very difficult to hack into, some brains are really difficult to hack into. There are obviously hundreds of thousands of pieces of information in a computer, but it’s the same in our brains – there are hundreds of thousands of pieces of information we’re not even aware, because they’re stored subconsciously rather than consciously. I also compare brains to safes. In other words, some safes, believe it or not, only have two-digit combination, so hacking is very easy. Other safes have like a ten-digit combination, and they’re nearly impossible to hack into.

You don’t have the creepy illusionist thing going on, though.

Those people are creepy, but it’s also boring. There are a lot of guys very well known in the mentalism community, that personally when I see their shows I fall asleep, because it’s all that Svengali, scary, “I’m gonna hypnotise you” thing going on, and it’s almost like being a bully. For me, it’s all about the entertainment factor. The live show is raw, uncensored, and designed to make people laugh until their faces hurt, and then hopefully be fooled as well. I couldn’t care less really, whether people can figure things out or not. I want them just to have a good night out, over the period of two hours. I wanna be the ordinary guy that can do some pretty weird shit that you’re slightly nervous of, but you wanna have a pint with at the same time. I don’t want to be creepy.

What do you make of mentalist-cum-pickup artists like Mystery – the subject of Neil Strauss’s book, The Game?

I’ve examined The Game and the whole pickup artist area and I just think they’re a bunch of sad bastards. They’re hiding the fact that they’ve no personalities beneath it all. I know pickup artists in Ireland that get together once a month in a bar, and the whole thing is to pick up as many phone numbers as they can. It’s a learned art.

And thanks to The Game, women recognise all the neurolinguistic programming techniques now.

But as well as that, if a woman – for whatever reason – actually enjoys the company of a pickup artist and then starts dating him, after a couple of months she’ll find out it was all an act and the whole thing will crumble. Mystery was teaching bunch of nerdy guys how to be a pickup artist, so in my mind that’s what he himself is, a nerdy guy. I saw him doing some really bad magic one time, trying to teach guys to do magic tricks to pick up chicks. I was like, jeez, really? They’re preying on women and their vulnerabilities, so yeah, it’s not for me. I’m happily married anyway, to the same girl for 18 years.

I did wonder how any girl would be able to trust you…

We’ve been together since our teens and she started studying psychology. That’s when I became interested in mixing psychology and magic, because I was only a magician then. We both went to college together and I was studying chemistry of all things, but I started reading her psychology books and learning hypnosis. To an extent she can hack into people’s brains and hypnotise them herself.

You could be master criminals!

Yeah, I’m telling you! At dinner parties we sit there and say, will we fucking rob a bank? Just imagine, no one would ever suspect me, let alone my wife, or this guy over here, a quality insurance guy for cosmetic firms… who’s going to suspect any of us? And we’d be really good at it! I always wonder about that.

You’ve appeared in CSI Miami. That can’t have been something you anticipated, starting out in Ireland as a magician. What ambitions do you have left?

I’ve fulfilled all the ambitions I had, so I’ve set new ones now. I said last year that I’d really like to work in movies and then all of a sudden I got hired for a massive movie project. It’s coming out in January next year and it’s called Now You See Me. It’s a magic/mentalist/hypnotism/heist movie, starring Woody Harrelson. I was involved in the rewrite of the screenplay and then they hired me as the chief mentalism consultant. I was teaching Woody how to be a mentalist and then they gave me my own role, which I’m assured isn’t on the cutting-room floor. I know Irish people are going to completely take the piss out of me because I play a French tourist and I’ve never spoken a word of French in my life.

If I got serious about it, I’d go to the Gaiety School of Acting, where Colin Farrell and Stuart Townshend went, really because I’m interested in the power of the mind. I give motivational speeches back home in Ireland and help people get over their phobias. I do it to promote gigs, if I’m honest. I want to start doing seminars on reprogramming the subconscious mind, giving people the tools to do it themselves. And everything I do is about permanent solutions – you don’t have to keep coming back and paying me!

Reading any good books at the moment?

I’m reading one called Hitler’s Jewish Clairvoyant by Erik Jan Hanussen, who came up with the idea of using the swastika and taught Hitler all these brainwashing techniques. I talk about psychics quite a bit in the live show and why I don’t believe in what they do. Stalin had a psychic advisor too – Wolf Messing. So if you think psychics don’t do any harm, you should investigate those guys, you know?

A friend of mine, her and all her friends gather and go and see a psychic, who gives them career advice, health advice, love advice – and they all take it. It’s crazy stuff. They’re living their life by what someone else says. I said to her, “Just do me a favour – read this book. It’s called The Full Facts of Cold Reading, by Ian Rowland. I gave her the book, and she had it for a year but never opened a page of it, because people just want to believe. I think it’s quite damaging. If you want to go to a psychic act for fun then that’s OK, but if you’re living your life by what the psychic says then there’s a lot going on that’s wrong there, you know?

I go to them all the time, because I’m ready to be converted. But with the knowledge that I have you better be damn fucking good. I went to one in LA and I gave off the subliminal body cues that confirmed she was getting things right – because that’s what they do, they’re reading your body language, your pupil dilation, even. If I was a normal person I might have convinced myself she was very accurate. If you don’t investigate this stuff and you don’t know how it works, then it appears that they’re really reading minds or contacting the dead.

Professor Richard Wiseman writes some great books on the subject of mind tricks, mediums and clairvoyants.

Yeah, I’ve read Quirkology, and another one, and I follow him on Twitter.

Did you ever have a boring day job?

I am a cosmetic scientist by trade. I used to invent women’s makeup. I went to college for four years and then I worked for a Swedish cosmetics company for two-and-a-half years. Actually it was a real con, cause I was the guy standing over a three-ton batch of cream with a pipette, and dropping four drops of aloe vera in, so that marketing could get the claim “aloe vera”. It’s like your blog again. It’s fascinating when you see the marking labels and I’m sending four drops into a three-ton batch. I became bored, so I was like, OK, I’m gonna take the risk. I’m gonna become a full-time entertainer and that’s it. No one could talk me out of it.

Are you a believer of the law of attraction, or are you are ‘working hard gets you places’ kind of person?

I don’t believe in the ethereal, weird version of it, but I do believe that if you want something you have to think about it obsessively. It’s like the movie I’m involved in. I attracted that, but I didn’t just think about it, I went out and made it happen. Rather than believe in the law of attraction to the extent that the books [like Rhonda Byrne’s best-seller The Secret] say, you need to give yourself a realistic timescale and work towards something.

Would you write a book yourself?

I’ve got a book deal at home in Ireland. A publisher’s taken me on board, so the book will be about three probes in the subconscious mind and teach people how to do it. I see a lot of people being ripped off around the world at motivational seminars – it’s big money at the moment. You could be paying $10-$15,000 for a two-day seminar, where you have to fly to Hawaii and that kind of stuff, and I just think they’re taking it too far now. People just get greedy too fast, and a lot of the public end up very disappointed.

Oprah keeps endorsing them, that’s why.

Well that’s it, you know. I mean, I know Tony Robbins, he does get results, but if you pay a lot of money to go to his seminar, you don’t get him for two days – he’ll do a few hours. I do admire people like him, I just think it ends up too costly for people. [Robbins’ six-day ‘Date With Destiny’ course in Australia this August costs a minimum of $4995].

How to train your dragon, geomancy style

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Back in the 1950s, psychologist Solomon Asch found that if a group of participants – all but one of whom were plants in the experiment – decided that one straight line was longer than another, when it clearly was not, around 75% of the time the non-plant would defy reason and side with the majority.

I’m fully aware of this experiment as I stand here on Diana’s farm, swinging my rose quartz pendulum, but I’m not going to be the girl who couldn’t feel the vortex dragon. No way.

Today I am practicing the ancient art of geomancy. I’m out on a vast, beautiful property carved out of the countryside by volcanic action 470,000 years ago. Lately it’s been festooned with “power towers” and Blair Witch-style mounds of granite and quartz. The six of us gathered here today are under the guidance of Diana, a striking woman with a wily way with a pendulum.

Geomancy dates back to African-Arabian traders using the Silk Road – who would use markings on the ground and complex charts for divination – but it morphed into different forms in European and Asian cultures. It enjoyed a comeback in 17th century Europe as a Renaissance art, before being stamped out by the Age of Reason – then rearing up again during the rise of interest in the occult in the 19th century.

A British lady dousing a mango.

Seeing talk of “dowsing” on Diana’s flyers, I’d thought we’d just be finding water with forked sticks or – better still – animal shoulder blades, but the method we’re practicing today is more closely aligned to feng shui – in that we’ll be communicating with the spirits of the land, or the “devas”, to use Diana’s Sanskrit term. Diana uses pendulums to eke out energy obstructions and water sources, complementing her love of permaculture. Is your telly playing up due to an abundance of positive ions in the earth? Does your baby refuse to settle in its bedroom thanks to some invisible water source? Diana’s your woman. She’s even been called upon to remove negative spirits from a grungy Melbourne rock pub.

Dowsers in olden times.

We begin by holding out our pendulums and trying to gauge the outer reaches of each other’s aura. Diana demonstrates on Craig and starts feeling his vibes from a good few metres away. I hope to blazes my aura – which, to be clear, I don’t believe in – isn’t blinking lamely around my body like a dud battery.

Craig pads towards me slowly in his five-toed imitation-leather shoes, one palm held out towards me, the other hand holding his gently rotating pendulum. He stops a couple of metres away and frowns. “My hand’s tingling,” he murmurs. “I can definitely feel your aura here.” I have a go on him and report the same.

Next, we go for a yomp around the land, and Diana bids us tell her where we think the two yin and yang dragon vortexes crisscrossing the property are.

“I can feel it,” one half of an earnest couple from Northcote tells me, mapping out a dragon’s serpentine girth with his hands.

Can you see the vortex dragon?

Now, some would say that it’s the ‘ideomotor effect’ that has his pendulum all a-whirl; that is, the subconscious mind minutely influencing his muscles. It’s how Victorian-era mediums convinced the public that tables and ouija board glasses were being moved by spirits. Personally, I’m happy to accept that there are grids of meridian and ley lines of energy running through the Earth – enthusiasts have been building monuments on them since the beginning of time – but I baulk at being asked to hold a conversation with a dragon vortex.

How about now?

Actually, that’s not true. I do hold a conversation with a dragon vortex, since the peer pressure is immense. These kinds of new age workshops are like a war of attrition against your rational mind. As the hours and explanations wear on, peppered with semi-scientific sounding guff, you feel your boundaries slide sludgily down the mountainside of common sense.

Diana suggests we ask the dragon for permission to cross its path. As this property is inhabited by actual llamas as well as dragons, I ask the vortex if it likes the furry beasts. The pendulum rotates backwards. No.

We conclude by splitting into gender groups, with the women walking anti-clockwise around a sacred stone circle and the men exploring a “labyrinth” off somewhere I can’t spy on. Finally there’s a power tower ceremony, in which we drum up some sacred noise in thanks. I play the singing bowl.

As a mental exercise in connecting with the land, I enjoyed dowsing well enough, but I reckon I’ll leave the gentle art of geomancy to the experts.

John Carpenter’s They Live

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I was watching John Carpenter’s 1988 flick They Live and thinking, jeez, it’s like this informed all David Icke’s ideas about a reptilian master-race and subliminal messages. (David Icke being a new age conspiracy theorist whose mission is to “exposing the dreamworld that we believe to be real”, for anyone who hasn’t already enjoyed my perverse obsession with him.)

Then I found this interview with Icke… if you can get past the “moonstrel cycle” stuff. Or just skip to 6.15. Indeed, he gives Carpenter’s ‘theory’ his full support.

Incidentally, the flick stars WWF wrestler Rowdy Roddy Piper, as a drifter who delivers the immortal line: “I have come here to chew bubble-gum and kick ass. And I’m all out of bubble-gum.” That makes it worth hiring, doesn’t it?

Spirituality and the brain

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You loved the God Gene… now here’s the God Chemical!

Sending a Scientology stress-o-meter into the red

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I receive a tip-off that at Southbank – amongst the human statues, shirtless parkour boys, atheists trundling off to the Global Atheist Convention and God botherers chalking retaliations on the pavement – a couple of plucky Scientologists have gathered with some stress monitors.

These ‘E-Meters’ claim to read your stress levels as you focus on different areas of your life. Once you’re diagnosed as a neurotic ball of angst, you’re referred to a counsellor for a lifelong personality audit.

This stand at Southbank doesn’t mention the word ‘Scientology’ anywhere, although the Dianetics DVDs and books for sale would alarm and alert any but the most sheltered passer-by. I take a seat opposite Gavin, who immediately looks a bit alarmed himself. He regains his composure. I place him at somewhere between 16 and 20 years old.

Gavin gives me some copper tubes to hold, through which a minimal electrical current is said to pass. It passes through me and then onto the E-Meter, which has the pseudoscientificfantastic word ‘Quantum’ on it.

“Think about people that are stressing you out,” Gavin instructs vaguely.

“What, all of them?”

“Just one at a time. What’s coming up for you?”

I focus on stroking Mr Thumpy, my relaxed, furry rabbit. The stress-o-meter goes through the roof.

“What were you thinking of?” Gavin says in excitement.

“My mother,” I say obediently.

“Ah,” he says, and asks me a host of probing questions that I sidestep. He gives the meter a flick and it moves.

“What’s that?” he says. “Something came up there.”

“I was just thinking the sun felt nice,” I admit. We’re on a lovely spot by the river.

“What about work?” he says. “What do you do for a living?”

“I’m a journalist,” I say, and he leans back off his arms and shifts in his chair. When will I learn to lie?

“Oh right,” he says, stalling. “Yes, I can imagine that would be a stressful job.” Suddenly the dial swings again, apropos of nothing, and he points it out in great triumph.

“Does the dial tend to swing whatever subject somebody focuses on?” I ask.

“It depends on the person,” he says. “We just had a man come through who – every single question; family, work, health – the dial stayed completely dead. So he was obviously completely stress free.”

“Well,” I say. “I’m not going to buy anything here, but what would the next step be?”

“That’s absolutely fine,” he says, and hands me a DVD. “You can read the back of this. That basically explains everything.”

“All it explains is that there’s something called an ‘audit’.”

“Yes,” he says, and hands me a book. “If you read that it tells you all about that.”

I flick through the contents page, with pseudo-gump words littered throughout it, as well as a chapter on ‘prenatal’.

“So Scientologists believe stress goes back to being an embryo?”


“Or before that?”

“No, just to being an embryo.”

Well, that’s something.

I think Gavin’s patter needs work, but they’ve got him while he’s young (taking pops seems cheap, but it’s certainly true…), so I’m sure that will improve.

I had psychic surgery to remove my alien implant

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Oh no.

I always come to see Mark when I visit this most mystical outreach of Australia’s coastline. I’m a skeptic, sure, but Mark’s my healer. He’s my wild card; the aberration of science that I’ve described as being the real deal in the same way that racists will have their one black mate who’s “all right”. It makes no sense, but we’ll happily let it through to the keeper.

Mark was the knife-edge on which my skepticism swayed. I’ve told so many fellow naysayers: “but there’s this one guy…” I’ve accredited him with dispensing of my circular thoughts, a broken heart and my smoking habit. Or at least, I’ve thought of it as a dual effort between us – one with immediate results I couldn’t have achieved on my own. Accordingly, I’ve lisped away to people: I could feel energy pulsing down my body and streaming out of my feet.

I think. Couldn’t I? I remember telling Mark I could.

Mark is placid as a panda bear; as warm as a roaring hearth. As benevolent and wise as Yoda. He’s the sort of person you can make prolonged and meaningful eye contact with without wanting to stab out the jelly in your vitreous with pencils. Last time I saw him he diagnosed an energy block in my abdomen.

“That’s funny,” I piped up. “I’ve always had a huge phobia about being touched around there. I’ve had nightmares since I was a kid about being rigged up and prodded in my hips by disembodied fingers.”

Mark suddenly saw arrows. “I’m being shown arrows,” he said. “You were shot in a past life by a jealous lover.” He gave a warm chuckle as I pictured my punctured ovaries. One healing later, I left: a big ball of loved-up expanded consciousness, floating off down the street to the sea.

Now, past lives are about as high on my ‘Maybe Believe This’ list as DNA ThetaHealing ™, but in the name of consistency, I decided to return to this subject with Mark on my next visit. I.e., would he stick to the arrows story?

“Last time I came here you said we should investigate an energy block,” I said.

Mark gazed at my energy for a bit. “I often baulk at saying things like this, because most people don’t react well,” he said, at which point my hips tightened a few notches. “But it’s an implant.”

“An implant?”

“Yes. I’m seeing reptilian ETs – Zeta Reticulans. They used to rule the Earth and would quite frequently study humans by using implants, but these days we thankfully attract more benevolent beings of a higher frequency. The Zetas put an implant in you at birth to study your reproductive system. I can probably get it out.”

I rolled with this. Mark’s not alone in thinking reptilian aliens are all around us; it’s a theory David Icke made popular, and I love hearing David Icke’s theories. Love it.

“I’m not going to use the spirit guides in this operation, I’m going to use the friendly ETs,” Mark said, as I removed my shoes.

I climbed aboard the table for 40 minutes. I usually love this bit, but I wasn’t feeling it as much this time, due to the inconvenient truth of Mark talking about aliens. I was mourning the Mark gone by; the one who told me not to intellectualise spirituality, the one who said he had no interest in studying things like chakras and what have you.

I tried though. It could be true, was my mantra. You don’t know for sure; you only know your version of reality. And besides, it’s worth the $90 for a good blog post.

I saw my individual cells, golden, spinning, shimmering and spitting like Coke bubbles. I felt myself opened up flat as a pancake on the table – although Mark later told me the operation was multidimensional.

“I’ve never seen one as big as this before,” he said when he was done, talking down at me as I lay on the table with my arms behind my head. “It was like the Tardis. There was a whole universe inside.”

“Really?” I said, unable to not be impressed.

“But then there’s a whole universe inside every cell,” Mark pointed out.

“A universe in my pelvic bowl,” I marvel, and we chortle.

“The Zeta aliens actually came in at the beginning,” he said. “It got a bit nasty, but they were asked to leave. Could you feel it being removed from your brain? There were strands leading all the way up your spine, meshed into every cell, and up into your brain. It was a very tricky procedure – I only facilitated it.”

Mark didn’t seem too rattled after facilitating major surgery on the biggest alien implant he’d ever seen. He explained that I’d attracted bad sexual experiences to myself because of the implant. “Your critical mind will explain this away over the next few days,” he continued, “but you know it was special. There was a lot of love in the room. Don’t forget this experience you’ve had.”

“So,” I offered hopefully, as I swung my legs off the table. “Do you see this as a visualisation technique to hypnotise me into freeing myself from some emotional blockage?”

There came a pause.

“Or are you describing things in real terms?”

“In real terms,” he said. His eyes shone softly, as though he were just giving me a lovely recipe for parsnip soup.


As I walked out, something in me pouted. I love the thought of two shimmering entities walking down the high street with me; why can’t I just go with it? I greatly enjoyed, as a child, believing the spirit of God was channeled through me and that I could bless people just by doing an internal yawn; even if it constantly irritated the family. Where’s the harm?

But Mark had pushed me past my limit of making allowances and moving the goal posts. I hate it when men do that. And so, with reluctance, I write up my findings.

– But Mark will see this and he’s a lovely guy.

– He WON’T see this – he’s not psychic!

In conclusion, in conclusion… I’ve come to the conclusion that I’m quite good at lying on a table and turning it on. Getting the love flowing. Could it be I already found the greatest love of all, inside of me? Possibly. I’ll report back.

A brief interlude from Bill Hicks

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“Today, a young man on acid realised that…”

Bill on tripping, spirituality and unconditional love.

Hey, physicists: do chakras really exist?

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This is very enjoyable: Big Bang Theory types at Physics Forums mull over the possibility of chakras existing. Metaphysical violence ensues.


“Most of us can admit that without mythology or placebo effect that some sort of ‘energy’ builds up in the groin.”

“This is a Physics forum. Energy is the capability to do work. Are you saying that the ‘energy’ from your genitals can lift a rock?”

“Chakras are special points on the body through which money can be extracted from Californians.”

“Yoga can supposedly increase what new agers call ‘energy’, a transcendental entity not known by physics.”

“Acupuncture meridians and ‘chi’ have been identified as very real DC currents that naturally occur in the body (and help direct healing through normal physiological processes, for example). Chakras may correspond to similar sorts of cellular activity.”

“The stumbling block is language… metaphorical language that is interpreted as being the objective truth. What is described as a colored wheel of spritual energy is a metaphorical way of describing the hormonal electro-chemical reactions of nervous tissue.”

“I decided one day to experiment with ‘awakening the chakras’ in a secluded field next to a church. Whatever I did (can’t fully remember) caused a dramatic sensation within my naval area. What I do remember is that the sensation kept growing and eventually felt so powerful that I got scared and stopped, even though I would describe it as ‘pleasant’ … My ‘gut’ feeling is that I am simply somehow activating either my nervous system, a hormone dump, or both. As opposed to some actual paranormal phenomenon.”

“At the very least, this will get you arrested. More likely, you will go blind. But doing it near a church is a free ticket to hell.”

“I’m amazed that whoever invented these chakras forgot about the asshole. I mean really, you lose about an atomic bomb worth of energy through there, every day.”

“In traditional Chinese medicine they believe while exercising you must keep the rectum contracted to prevent the leakage of vital force.”

Blubbing in a towelly nook

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‘Pranic healing and massage’ may sound as though it involves a forefinger and the perineum, but in actual fact it’s about removing energy blockages in the whole body and resolving deep-rooted emotional issues.

Regular readers will be aware of my pathological fear of New Age men, but Greg (name changed!) comes recommended by my two work chums, Sheridan and Gemima (real names!), who always come into the office next day looking flushed and fanning themselves. I can see why when Greg opens the door; he’s like Hollywood’s idea of a New Age man, if the New Age man was in Oceans 11.

We have a bit of a chat about what to expect. When a practitioner says: “You might find you cry, but that’s okay,” which they invariably do, I take it with a pinch of salt. It always reminds me of my first boyfriend waggling two fingers at me and announcing his unfailing ability to satisfy a woman thusly. If you don’t cry or orgasm gratefully, are you the failure?

I hop up onto a massage table in Greg’s house in just my undies and lie on my back under a towel. He walks me through some guided meditation that’s by the book, but still, I feel a bit like I’m being hypnotised. Thoughts start getting surreal and I keep morphing into Sheridan and then Gemima, who’ve both lain in this very spot. Maybe their psychic shadows are imprinting on me. It’s really off-putting. (“Maybe something awful happened on that table and you were disassociating,” James at the train station coffee cart says later.)

The pranic healing itself is done hands-off, other than occasional light touches on my head, but when Greg lubes up to segue into the massage, I freak out a bit. When a woman’s massaged my head or hands in a spa treatment I’ve enjoyed it, but having a man do something so intimate without getting me shitfaced first is incredibly confronting. And this goes on for three hours. Have you any idea how massaged you can become in three hours? There are 206 bones in the human body, and Greg swizzle-sticks them all, with no earlobe or toe left unturned. In fact, I can confidently say he now knows my body more intimately than any man I’ve ever slept with, with the exception of my sexual organs – although I’m sure he gave them a sly massage through some meridian point. Sometimes his hands tremble with the force of whatever’s coming out of them. I amuse myself by trying to zap him back with some piping hot lifeforce of my own.

My critical mind keeps piping up to mock my attempts at being pure consciousness. What if he’s rubbing himself right in front of your face? … Shut up, he can hear you, you know … He must be so bored, you should apologise and leave… This is rubbish; nothing’s happening … What’s that? Is that his leg?

Then, of course, something strange happens. It’s when Greg works from my lower back, up my arms and to my hands that I start crying, facedown in that towelly nook. I’ve barely got time for a We’re not really going to do this, are we? when I feel a bottomless well of grief and loneliness; not just the pinpricks of self-pity that can be willed out when one is laid horizontal and feeling a bit vulnerable, but grief bleeding out of my eyeballs and filling my mouth. Quietly. My fingers curl softly around his arm. He’s gentle, respectful and non-intrusive. I want him to stop touching me and not leave me at the same time.

Through the hole in the table I discover there’s a flower to look at, which my tears are plopping into. There’s some kind of card with writing on it as well, but my eyes are too blurry. Thankfully, when Greg moves onto my legs the feeling goes and I’m lulled into a vegetative state.

Afterwards, after I’ve got dressed, Greg pulls out a chart and shows me where the energy blockages were. He doesn’t need to tell me; I could feel which bits were stiff as a board and resisting arrest. But he tells me what that’s likely to mean, depending on which meridian lines and chakras are affected. He correctly identifies what memories came up for me, and reports on images he saw, which I was seeing, too.

The more time that goes by as I journey home and go about my business the next day, the more I’m able to rationalise the experience as coincidence, general knowledge and the law of probability… but it should be noted that at the time, I was buying it. Or if not entirely buying it, definitely putting it on lay-by. And as Greg says, “Our critical mind doesn’t want us freeing ourselves of the traps we’ve made.”

As a side note:
Greg gives an explanation of how we recreate our past experiences over and over as our lives spiral through time. Our DNA’s a spiral, he says, and so is the universe. The planets rotate around the sun, but beyond that the universe is spiraling, and so history keeps on repeating itself until we can gain some perspective by ascending up the six spheres of consciousness. It’s a theory favoured by David Icke.

Also, says Greg, our DNA carries the imprints of our parents, grandparents and ancestors, whose experiences become our own. It’s an idea I first heard from strange Theta-Healer and DNA restrander Maria. It’s not dissimilar to the idea that DNA replicates at a distance, which has been posited by Nobel Prize winner Luc Montagnier (argh! Nobel Prize science and pseudoscience collide. Now I feel even more wobbly), recently backed up by Professor Jeff Reimer at the University of Sydney. Psychic slayer James Randi disagrees with the idea of DNA teleportation, needless to say, drawing comparisons with homeopaths’ claims that water has memory.

Interview with a dyed-in-the-wool skeptic

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Friendly Skeptic David Glück with a Quantum Wave Laser.

I consider myself to be a wide-eyed pilgrim on a journey of New Age discovery that has so far mainly led into swamps of disappointment and peaks of high dubiousness, due to my failure to be persuaded by over-priced pseudoscientific practices and – as one friend put it – middle-aged women on disability benefits. But I remain eager to experience that awesome, earth-spasming epiphany that can only come to the esoterically inclined.

David Glück, on the other hand, founder of the cuddly sounding Skeptic Friends Network, is unlikely to be converted to the cause. But is he just infected with “paradigm paralysis”? And should he really admit to enjoying his New Age ceramic garlic mincer? What if it starts emitting healing violet light?

What was your motivation to set up a website for skeptics, rather than quietly holding your beliefs? Is it a public service? For the satisfaction of pouring cold water on other people’s stupidity? Something else?

GlückOur first incarnation was as a website back in 1997 to serve a “members area” AOL chat room dedicated to agnosticism and atheism. We set up a page that would serve as an extension of our chat room with the regulars providing content. I think that was something new. A website for a chat room.

Because our chat room was called “Atheists and Agnostics” that would also be the theme of the website, which we called “The Truth and Other Lies.” The site also included a rather primitive forum. Dawn, a founding member of SFN, came up with the idea of having a “skeptics’ corner”. Our skeptic page became my favourite part of the site. How much can you say about not believing in God after all? (Quite a lot actually.) We were growing bored having religion as our main focus.

Larry, Dawn and I had a meeting and decided to kill off the “truth” site and dedicate the whole site to skepticism. The Skeptic Friends Network was born. And yeah, we think of SFN as a public service to promote critical thinking, science and logic. We wanted to create an online community to do just that. And of course, as a forum, we do pour cold water on those visitors who present us with claims supported by faulty logic and bad science. One way to support the strengths of critical thinking is to contrast it with sloppy thinking. Sometimes we do that by way of direct debate with those who bring claims of a dubious nature to us. I hesitate to call those people stupid. More often we get people who are pretty smart, but too open to believing things that lack the kind of evidence that skepticism demands. We do tell them why we doubt their claims. And we debate.

For the short answer to your question, it’s a way for me to remain active in a grassroots movement that has become the skeptical community. It must be for the love of promoting critical thinking, because aside from a very few professional skeptics, there sure isn’t any money in it.

Do you get communication from crackpots of both sides?

GlückOy! You should see the kind of mail I get! But most of the crackpots are promoting the kinds of things that we want to expose. Occasionally we get an overzealous “skeptic” who wouldn’t know critical thinking if it hit ’em in the head. They are usually in a constant state of attack. I don’t think they get that skepticism is a method and not a conclusion, even though the methods that we promote often lead us to conclusions, even if they are tentative.

There’s a new breed of “cuddly atheist” emerging to counterbalance the more cynical voices. Are you a cuddly or hard-bitten skeptic?

GlückI’m not comfortable with conflating skepticism with atheism. Some atheists are not skeptics, and some skeptics are people of faith. As for what you are calling “more cynical voices” I going to assume that you’re referring to the “New Atheists”. I don’t think they are cynical so much as they believe that atheism needs to be both defended and promoted. Here in the US, polling says that atheists are the least trusted group. So the “Gnu’s” are pushing back. And I get that. I do wish there was much less bickering between the “Gnu’s” and those who feel that if the message is too harsh, it will turn off the people we would like to reach.

The “framing debate” has also spelled over into the skeptical community, which is a shame, though it was bound to happen, being that most of us are atheists. I’m not an anti-theist. But as someone who promotes “scientific skepticism” as well as being a humanist, I reserve the right to question theism. That said, I see the skeptical and the humanist community as a big tent, duelling epistemologies not withstanding. If what is brought to the table is mostly reasonable, I’m cool with whoever is at the table with the understanding that no idea gets a free pass, just because. If we threw out every skeptic who harbours some weird idea about religion or politics, economics or even science, there wouldn’t be many of us left. (Just for the record, I’m perfect and have no weird ideas.)

Do you do a lot of skeptic networking? There are a lot of sites out there, particularly in the States where – in my opinion – there’s probably more to be skeptical about.

GlückYes. I attend meetings, including The Amazing Meeting and I’m a member of a couple of skeptical organisations. I sometimes attend local events and I network on Facebook and skeptical websites. I also promote skeptic sites and blogs, by way of SFN’s weekly Skeptic Summary. I’m networking with you! And yeah, we have more than our share of whack-a-loons here in the States.

Has ANY New Age activity, from healing to yoga, meditation of some kind of device, ever elicited a “Mmm… maybe” response from you? Do you write off the entire New Age movement?

GlückThere are things that are promoted by the New Age that are probably of some value. Yoga is a good example of that. For relaxation, there is probably some value in meditation. Healing? That’s the sort of thing that worries me. Anything other than evidence-based medicine can be a very dangerous choice. (Steve Jobs is dead now, probably because he put off his doctor’s recommendations in favour of a “natural” cure. His cancer was treatable, and the success rate is good for what he had. But by the time he turned to evidence-based medicine it was too late to save him.)

Cures for cancer at the Conscious Life Expo.

Cures for cancer at the Conscious Life Expo.

The problem with the New Age isn’t that some of what it promotes might be of value. The problem is that there’s no gatekeeper. There is no way to determine, from a consumers point of view, what’s crap and what isn’t. Anything goes no matter how whacky it is. It’s also aggressively anti-science. Even as the New Age tout’s studies (that may or may not exist or have nothing to do with what’s being sold) they bash science as a giant conspiracy to keep you sick, make you ill, or keep you from product that claim will cure everything you have. The gold standard for evidence in support of what is being sold by the New Age is almost always anecdotal. And anecdotal evidence doesn’t really fly.

For example, because I know the “balance tricks” (applied kinesiology, which is a pseudoscience of its own), I had my roommate believing that the Power-Balance Bracelet works. Had I not told him the truth about it and how I tricked him into believing that it works, he would have been a perfect candidate for supplying a testimonial on the efficacy of something that really does nothing at all. Would it have hurt him or others to buy a useless product? Probably not. Aside from setting them back a few dollars, no harm done. But who wants to pay good money for a useless piece of plastic?

So yeah. I think the culture of the New Age and its promotion of credulous thinking is not a good thing on many levels ranging the somewhat innocuous to the downright dangerous.

Glück enjoying applied kinesiology.

Is your view that practitioners of pseudoscience are generally: a) deluded, b) professional grifters, or c) manipulating accepted wisdom a step too far?

GlückYes to a, b and c.

Who or what do you reserve the most venom for?

GlückMedical quackery. Those, who without any scientific evidence to support their claims, promise miraculous cures to people. I also have a serious disregard for those who are promoting against childhood vaccination. It’s the quacks who are actually killing people.

Admit it. You enjoyed the Conscious Life Expo.

GlückOkay. But I always leave with mixed feelings. I believe most of the people selling stuff at those expos really do believe in their products. Most of them are very friendly, well-intentioned people. Unfortunately, most of the products range from useless to dangerous. I do go to learn and I ask lots of questions. I try to be open to the answers. But I also go in with a skeptical bias. At this last one, there was a woman selling bus trips to Mexican clinics for alternative cancer treatments and books claiming natural cures for every disease known to man. I had a few words with her. Not that it did any good.

I have also bought things at the expos. Now and then I’ll come across a product that is really neat and does what it’s claimed to do. One of those things was a kind of chair that you wear, for sitting on the floor while still providing back support. Good for camping I suppose. But I’ve never used it. Another was a ceramic garlic mincer. My ex-girlfriend, who is still a partner-in-crime, can usually find some trinket, earrings or some piece of clothing she likes. I have yet to buy a pyramid hat, a tachyonic energy belt or a dowsing rod. Then again, I already own a Uri Geller crystal dowsing kit along with a lot of other very silly things I have collected over the years. Yeah. My little museum of useless stuff makes me happy.

Glück in a New Age... life preserver? Shoulder warmer? DNA re-strander?

Have you been accused of being close-minded? And to what extent will you try/investigate something before dismissing it?

GlückI doubt that any skeptic hasn’t been accused of being closed-minded. It’s routine. I explain that critical thinking and skepticism are methods used to evaluate the truth-value of a claim, and that even our conclusions are not set in stone. Sometimes I get through. I had a very long email exchange with a fellow who accused me of being infected with paradigm paralysis. I kept explaining to him that a skeptic must be open-minded. I gave him specific examples of skeptics changing their minds. I finally pointed out to him that no matter how I responded, he was still going to accuse me and all skeptics of having this horrible affliction. When I suggested that maybe he too had come down with a bad case of paradigm paralysis, he stopped writing to me.

As for investigations, I look into things to see how experts come down on whatever is being discussed. I try to not slam the door on anything without doing some research on the subject. I’m not qualified to make the call on most things. I’m not a scientist or an expert in any particular area of concern to skeptics. I’ve learned a lot because of my interested in science. I’ve learned a lot being a skeptic. So I don’t have to keep considering homeopathy or creationism every time they come up. I don’t have to start over every time someone makes a familiar claim. When something new comes along, I look to the experts for guidance. And I do what you do sometimes. I try stuff out. That’s one of the reasons I keep going back to the expos. I’m also aware that even if a psychic fails at reading me (only with psychics do I refuse to ask or answer questions) that the failed reading isn’t proof that psi doesn’t exist.

My advice to skeptics is to learn the style of those who make certain kinds of claims. It becomes not too difficult to spot an idea or a product that should be approached with doubt. When the alarms go off and it’s something new, find out what you can about it. Check with the experts. You can’t lose because you will learn something, no matter what the outcome is.

I know your thoughts on NLP. (Quackery.) But an NLP cornerstone is “the map is not the territory” – meaning our personal perception of the world is not the world. Would you agree with that? And if so, could it stand to follow that your perception on New Age activities may be incorrect?

GlückHa! I agree that my personal perception of the world is not the world. At least, it might not be. But also, I don’t live in a vacuum of me. I’m not the only person who has noticed that much of what is being pushed by the New Age is junk. I’m far from the only person who has noticed the New Age post-modernistic view that all ideas (as long as they’re warm and fuzzy) are equally valid. If we were to all think that way, it would be a disaster. It would be the end of science. We know that gravity happens and we know that those fellows bouncing up and down on mats in full lotus position are not levitating, even if they claim that they are. Might I be wrong? Sure. It could also be that I’m dreaming all of this. But if we were placing bets, which we are, where would you put the good money?

Getting biofeedback.