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Homeopaths threaten journalist with bodily harm (diluted by a squillion)

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Ben Goldacre.

Ben Goldacre is the Lord Flashheart of science journalism, lancing the boil of pseudoscience and fashioning meaningless hyperbole into a frilly bonnet.

As a bona fide doctor he’s got a bone to pick with anyone passing themselves off as having a medical background in their effort to hawk holistic wares and sell the spiel to lazy journalists. His most bloody battle is with homeopaths (followed closely by ‘Doctor’ Gillian McKeith). Homeopaths have, in fact, threatened him with bodily harm; presumably at only one part to a squillion.

Known for his exposé column in The Guardian, his website and a book, Bad Science, he uses terms like “bollocks du jour” and concocts ways for you to try your own experiments at home to see if various holistic health breakthroughs really work. (No.)

Your average 30C homeopathic preparation, he points out, is a dilution of (according to the Society of Homeopaths) “one part per million million million million million million million million million million”. Homeopaths claim (as do David Icke and Masaru Emoto) that this dilution won’t affect treatment, as water has memory and will have taken and retained an impression of the original molecules.

“If water has a memory,” brays Goldacre, “then by now all water must surely be a health-giving homeopathic dilution of all the molecules in the world. Water has been sloshing around the globe for a very long time, and the water in my very body as I sit typing away in London has already been through plenty of other people’s bodies before mine. Maybe some of the water molecules sitting in my fingers as I type this sentence are currently in your eyeball.

“How does a water molecule know to forget every other molecule it’s seen before? How does it know to treat my bruise with its memory of arnica, rather than a memory of Isaac Asimov’s faeces?

“I wrote this in the newspaper once and a homeopath complained to the Press Complaints Commission. It’s not about the dilution, he said: it’s the ‘succussion’. You have to bang a flask of water briskly ten times on a leather and horsehair surface, and that’s what makes the water remember a molecule. Because I did not mention this, he explained, I had deliberately made homeopaths sound stupid.”

My question: Why don’t homeopaths just up the ratio of herb to brandy and dispel the ‘there’s nothing in it’ argument? Or is it the brandy alone that gives you that warm glow inside?

Vision boards: a slippery slope

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Don't worry - this isn't my vision board.

Vision boards have been used as a tool to focus one’s goals for decades, but ever since self-help sages like Oprah have been peddling that nebulous “law of attraction” (probably the most bankable esoteric phenomenon for centuries), the art of pasting pictures of things you aspire to own and achieve to a bit of board has really catapulted into the zone of Things Winners Do. In fact, it’s just one component in that curious crossover between New Agery and creepy corporate personal development, along with neurolinguistic programming, self-help books and slogan-slinging gurus.

Making a vision board is “ground-breaking cognitive neuroscience”, according to one dedicated website – oh, guffaw – and there’s even a Vision Board Institute, at which you can study to be a Certified Vision Board Coach, thus helping other people to upgrade their life visioning processes.

So here’s my vision board.

Ute upgrade. NB: ute must work.

A chap on hand to prune my trees. That's all.

One of these.

Carpet and curtains in my house. (That’s not me in the picture, incidentally. That’s 200 per cent more winsome LA music journo Kim Morgan. I thought it couldn’t hurt to include her on this vision board too.)

Optus reception outside of CBDs.

The ability to talk to people without stabbing my lemon violently with my straw.

I’ll let you know how I fare.

WARNING: From making vision boards it is only a short, slippery slide into leaving Post-It notes on your mirrors saying “I am a lovable person”.

Admittedly, I am not a fount of esoteric knowledge

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Some anonymous type left the comment “Another attempt to explain something you know nothing about” on a website that this blog is syndicated on.

To which I retort: “Exactly! You have hit the nail on the head there, sir/madam.”

The very joy of this mission is derived from making forays into the unknown* and jumping to my own conclusions, based on my own experience – the journo as human guinea pig.

(*Unknown to me, that is. Others may claim to know exactly how DNA healing, EFT tapping and the placebo effect work, even as they laugh in the face of inconclusive scientific evidence.)

Maybe I should slap upon the blog a loud disclaimer: The findings herein are wholly based upon opinion. But I reckon if we’re dealing with new age activity – an entirely ungoverned industry – that goes without saying.

Alcoholic blackouts: the cheat’s guide to LIVING IN THE NOW

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Just being in the moment – like, being in the moment – without your critical mind wittering on about future or past concerns (or providing a running commentary of the moment: “this is nice, isn’t it?”), is a simple concept that’s the bedrock of much new agery and ancient philosophy… but it’s fiendishly hard to achieve.

Unless you’re one of those drinkers to whom blackouts come naturally.

Here we have a state of mind that perfectly encapsulates living in the now. The word ‘blackout’ is misleading. It suggests a limbic paintbrush obliterating your night’s doings, a blight that could be reversed with time and patience, but in actual fact it refers to something more phenomenal.

According to The Alcoholic Blackout: Walking, Talking, Unconscious and Lethal, by Donal F Sweeney, when in a blackout you cannot form even short-term memories, due to a neuroreceptor in your hippocampus being rendered useless by sheer volume of grog and failing to pass on information. Drink too fast, too hard, too soon, on too little, and you’re trying to spark a Zippo with no gas. Connections are not made; you are literally living in the now. A person in a blackout could be wandering along train tracks and notice a train is coming, but lack the subsequent thought processes needed to put two and two together. Like a goldfish, you’d notice again two seconds later, then forget.

No amount of brow furrowing, piecing together of likelihoods, second-person accounts, injured silences from loved ones, or cops standing with folded arms is going to miraculously summon forth memories you never made in the first place. But at least – for one inglorious night – true enlightenment has been yours. Take that, Tolle!

ROLL UP, ROLL UP: REALLY VAGUE SPIRITUAL AWAKENINGS ON STAGE!

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I go for a wander through Byron Bay, past teenagers loitering in the street. These are no normal teenagers. Instead of drinking UDLs and cultivating windswept fringes they’re strumming acoustic guitars, playing drums in bare feet and singing about shared consciousness.

At a pub I bump into Scott from The Living End, who has moved to the town with his family. “You can be having a perfectly normal conversation with someone at your son’s school, and then it’s like… ‘Oh! I can see your aura’,” he complains. He likes the place well enough, though.

I wander on to a bookshop where two psychics are discussing how to break it to someone that they’re dying, and I have a riffle through the flyers. Here’s one for Eli & Gangaji – a husband and wife spiritual teacher team from the States, here on an Australian tour. All capped teeth and white linen, they look like they’re being used to sell funeral plans. Gangaji is speaking tonight at Temple Byron, and – positively unheard of for a new age event – it’s a mere twenty bucks to get in. Sold!

Formerly known as Toni, Gangaji set off on a spiritual path after her first marriage floundered, winding up with a meeting in India with HWL Poonja, a disciple of Hindu spiritual master Ramana Maharishi. Poonja renamed Toni, and tutored her and Eli Jaxon-Bear (not his real name either) in the art of just being. The couple went on to establish the ‘non-profit’ Leela Foundation, offering outreach programs dedicated to world peace and freedom through universal self-realisation.

Just as Eckhart Tolle does a nice line in pop Buddhism, one critic complains of Eli & Gangaji: “What they are teaching is a super-watered down version of what Ramana Maharsi lived, which was at least a little close to the Advaita teachings which originated with Sankaracara about 1300 years ago.” Tonight though, people are dropping the word ‘satsang’, which means we’re in the company of a true spiritual leader.


As we wait for Gangaji to take the stage, I feel like I’m in Invasion of the Body Snatchers. All around me there’s the guttural sound of deep breathing (some of which is a tape loop), and scoping the room I realise the vast majority of the audience have their eyes closed and are off on some other plane already. Fifteen minutes later, Gangaji materialises on stage, and silently leads us through a further 15 minutes of meditation – I presume. Ramana Maharishi, I learn later, taught disciples via a powerful silence, and only gave verbal lectures when a disciple couldn’t comprehend the silent lesson.

Turns out I can’t comprehend Gangaji’s verbal lesson either. Slowly – ever so slowly – she ponders the concept of being “here”, “just here” for 20 minutes. “Whether it is you, I, he or she that is here is immaterial,” she beams, Tolle-style. “We are … here. You are that.”

It’s so vague, yet received so ardently, that I’m convinced I’m missing some vital words, or that someone’s forgotten to hand me a worksheet. Although, I suppose there are only so many ways you can relay the message “stop trying to fill the void with physical, emotional and mental attachments and just exist in the moment” before you have to rely on nodding and long pauses to fill the gaps.

Looking around the room at people nodding sagely, there comes the deafening thought: “I don’t like the idea of being shared consciousness with any of this lot.” But that, of course, is my ego mind talking.

Woman #1, in a drifting frock, joins Gangaji on stage and they sit and beam at each other for eons, eyes shining. Eventually conversation wafts back and forth … “Yeah,” says one. “Yes,” confirms the other. Nod, smile.

“She’s got it,” Gangaji guffaws of woman #1, and everyone guffaws on cue, like they’re on Oprah. Oprah, incidentally, voted Gangaji one of the seven most important women transforming the world.

As ever in situations where things are going over my head, my attention wanders and I start thinking about sex. (Attachment. Ego mind. I’m getting the hang of this.) I feel like I’ve stumbled across an alien transmission and any minute now everyone will start glowing and floating upwards, so I’ll just go into my own reverie. One thing’s for sure, though: people are hungry for an awakening tonight, so the pressure’s on for woman #2.

And she delivers! As soon as she takes a seat and gazes at Gangaji, woman #2 forgets what she has to say and goes into a trance. “I don’t need to say anything any more,” she observes, to great approval. Clearly, woman #2 has suddenly tapped into what Gangaji calls “nectar of pure beingness”. Her features are beatific and dopey. She does some Tantric head wobbles, blinking and looking around like she’s just been born. Everyone laughs encouragingly.

(“There’s a fair chance she was going through a hormonal related instant climax,” interrupts skepto Esther when I tell her later. “How old is she? There you are. Thirties is the exact right age for that sort of thing.”)

Eventually even Gangaji has had enough and gently waves woman #2 back to her seat. While there are plenty of men here, tonight it’s only women (yes, largely in their thirties) raising their hands to join Gangaji on stage. Woman #3 complains of unbearably loud birds outside her bedroom window, driving her to distraction. I’d be stumped at what to say to this, but Gangaji smiles serenely and says, “You’re aging.” She laughs. The shared consciousness laughs in turn.

Woman #4 cries and says she is so “fucking angry”. Gangaji bids her to picture her rage as a fire, burning in a furnace. “It’s your aggressive life-force,” Gangaji says. “Don’t try and manage it; just watch it burn – and have compassion for yourself.”

After an hour, we wrap up with more silence. Many people will be coming back tomorrow, for an audience with both Gangaji and Eli. Eli sounds interesting. He was a passionate student activist, then ran a clinical hypnosis and neurolinguistics certification program throughout the 80s (so that’s “interesting” in the same way Landmark and the men’s pickup movement, which also utilise conditioning like NLP, are interesting), and finally made his name identifying the traps of the ego and coaching people in the theory of enneagram personalities. More on these another day. Eli has now stepped down from teaching after a “sex scandal” – a three-year affair with an adult student. He’s had to publicly repent, Jimmy Swaggart-style, and he and Gangaji were then moved to “heal” the Leela community. No wonder he’s always pictured with a twinkle in his eye.

This is Swaggart's sex confession. And his sex face.

“Eli knows the code to the safe,” confirms a brisk woman called Carmen, who is giving me a ride back to town. Whether she’s referring to his way with an enneagram or his way with women, who can say.

“I hate woman #1,” Carmen continues, triggering my insufferably pious gland with her unspiritual outburst. “She was definitely faking it. What do you think? There’s no way. And what was that dress all about?”

I dunno. But a quick note here. If it seems like I’ve been snarky with this post, it’s not that I didn’t like Gangaji; it’s just that I’d have to agree with Carmen about the tendency of some new agers to fake enlightenment with a sense of desperation. (Only, I’d shove Carmen in that box, too.)

While I’m completely guilty of over-intellectualising spirituality by writing a whole goddamn blog about it, so surely are the people who have flown here tonight from all over Australia to hear the word and buy the book when, paradoxically, the message this guru is selling is simply: “stop searching for truth – you are here already”.

But not in so many words.

Psychic slayer James Randi takes down a kung fu psychokinesiologist

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Fancy watching some painful telly? Oh goody.

James Hydrick was a former juvenile delinquent from New Jersey for whom magic and deception became something of a survival technique. He claimed to have learned psychokinesis from “an old Chinese master” (actual answer is “in jail, for kidnap and robbery”) and his technique of secretly blowing pockets of air at pencils and phone directory pages to make them move mustered him more and more air time on 60s telly.

Here, on That’s My Line, Hydrick presents himself as a disciple of Shaolin kung fu who would use the powers of his mind to reach the “fourth level of consciousness” and cause things to move. He certainly looks the part, doesn’t he?

Unfortunately for Hydrick, famed psychic slayer James Randi was also called on to the show, to set up some controlled variables and offer his customary cheque to the young man if he could perform under these conditions.

Watch Hydrick look increasingly concerned…

…Don’t feel too sorry for him, though – he got done a few years later for molesting young boys and is serving 17 years in jail.

A Short Interlude from Esther

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2012 Olympic Stadium or Close Encounter of the Third Kind?

On past life regression: “Given that there are seven billion people on Earth; more than there have ever been in the history of time,” says Esther en route to having her aura photographed, “we can’t possibly all have been human beings in our past life; it’s mathematically impossible. So why do people never remember being a tree?”

On the Mayans’ prediction that the world will end in 2012: “That would be really irritating if you’ve been working on the Olympic Stadium.”

Tim Minchin puts me straight

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David Glück (aka ‘the Evil Skeptic’) of Skeptic Friends pointed me towards this nine-minute animated opus by comedian Tim Minchin about a New Age chick he meets at a dinner party. On a separate note, Glück has offered to be the voice of reason whenever I find myself wavering. Which is this week, if you read on.

SOME OTHER TAKES ON ThetaHealing™

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Having not even heard of Vianna Stibel’s ThetaHealing™ till two days ago, I now discover it’s as entertainingly reviled as Scientology.

Rational Wiki (a familiar looking online encyclopedia dedicated to “analyzing and refuting pseudoscience”) says: “It was developed by Vianna Stibal, a naturopath who claims to have healed herself of cancer instantly in 1995. Not that IT CURES CANCER!!! or anything, except her followers think it does.”

Here’s a blog from Vianna’s ex-daughter-in-law, called ThetaHealing Revealed: The Fraud – The Cult – The Truth: To Protect Those Who Innocently Investigate ThetaHealing, which seems to have been created just for me.

Stump up the $550 and I’ll take the Basic DNA ThetaHealing course in January. That way we can speed up the process of finding out whether I will remain your sturdy-ish skeptic, or will insist on being addressed thenceforth as ‘Bindi’.

HAVING MY DNA RESTRANDED WITH THETAHEALING

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It started innocently enough

“Write about my story and you will become famous,” beams Maria. I meet this soft little babushka in a Byron Bay backstreet, where she beckons frantically when I threaten to walk past her fragrant shop front.

As she administers a vigorous back massage, Maria tells me the condensed story of her life: she grew up in Russia, became very sick with radiation poisoning after the Chernobyl disaster, but completely healed herself. “My blood – all clear.”

When she learns I want to stop smoking, she becomes gleeful. “Oh! Then we’ll use ThetaHealing™,” she enthuses. “More expensive but you have already paid now. Lucky. Turn over!”

“I’ve got a live one here,” I chuckle to myself, rolling onto my back. I mentally kiss goodbye to eighty bucks worth of relaxation and prep my mind to simultaneously take notes and be in the moment.

ThetaHealing™ cures cancer, etc

So far as smoking goes, it turns out I couldn’t be in better hands, because ThetaHealing™ purports to both rewire genetic behaviour and cure cancer. Head to the official website, set up by ThetaHealing™ inventor Vianna Stibal, and you’ll find explanations like:

We believe by changing your brain wave cycle to include the ‘Theta’ state, you can actually watch the Creator Of All That Is create instantaneous physical and emotional healing

and

ThetaHealing™ can be most easily described as an attainable miracle for your life. ThetaHealing™ is also best known for the 7 Planes of Existence; a concept to connect to the Highest Level of Love and Energy of All That Is

Under Vianna’s guidance, a newb practitioner can expect to work with guides and guardian angels, balance seratonin and noradrenaline levels, and pull heavy metals and radiation out of the cells.

That’s Vianna.

I don’t know any of this yet though, as I’ve just come in for a gloopy massage, which is now off the cards. But I like Maria, and I’m happy to see what she pulls out of the hat.

With warm hands, Maria cups my heels and tugs gently on them every few minutes. This is nice enough, and it’s raining, so I’ve got nothing better to do.

“Now I’m going to look at your DNA,” she says, or something. I’m confused – particularly as Maria has a lovely thick purr of an accent – but some Googling later totally clears things up. Maria is “activating the 12 strands of DNA. The chronos, or youth and vitality chromosome is activated, the telomeres are strengthened to reverse the aging process, and students experience an opening to the Unconditional Love of the Creator.”

Back to me on the table

Maria pulls up a stool so she can peer into my face. She explains that a person absorbs their parents’ fears and neuroses while still amoebic, and thus needs to be genetically separated from them.

While asking me questions about my family, she applies her fingers to acupressure points on my feet. At first it hurts, but after a series of stroking of the side of my hands and feet, and some inaudible incantations intended to fill me with unconditional love (ending in “it is done, it is done, it is done”), the discomfort wears off.

Maria questions what I most dislike about each parent; information I feel funny about giving up, lying here on my back with a stranger poised to perform a genetic separation manoeuvre. She tells me I mustn’t take responsibility for them, nor anybody else, nor judge them, nor believe their behaviour will determine mine. It’s fairly standard therapy speak; only therapists don’t stimulate your pineal gland at the same time.

“It is your life’s mission to be happy,” she says. “No, it’s not selfish – you need to give yourself unconditional love, or nobody else will be happy.”

I’m asked to make a ring shape with my forefinger and thumb. Then she loops her own finger and thumb through it, makes a statement, and tries to break my grip: “I am worthless” (you’ll always get this; it’s any therapist’s favourite), “I am special” “I am just like my father” “I cannot give up cigarettes” she intones, and asks me to repeat each one. If her fingers easily break through mine, I apparently believe this statement to be true. If I hold the circle, bully for me.

“It’s not hypnosis,” she corrects me as I offer my opinion, “it’s kinesiology.”

Oh bugger. The first and last time I had kinesiology, the therapist took to my childhood with a pickaxe while waving crystals and sloshing Bach Flower Remedies around, made me converse with my 10-year-old self, and plunged me into such lethargic depression that I went home and split up with my husband. But I digress.

Now, the funny business

You’ll scoff in disgust at this point, but it has to be said. Our session ends without fanfare, as Maria takes a call on her mobile and I wander out having a bit of a private titter. But as I walk away, towards the sea, I feel insanely, incredibly good. I feel like a mass of buzzing energy that’s greater than my physical form. If you’ve ever accidentally partaken in a snifter of ketamine, you’ll be familiar with that fuzzy sense of expansion. I’m smiling like a loon and there’s a tremendous sense of well-being. You can’t buy good feeling like that any more; not in Australia anyway.

It’s incredible, but short-lived. My phone beeps. Don’t look at your phone, don’t look at your phone, I think. But I do, and I immediately zero into its little world, to its mewling demand for attachment and its drip-feed of stimulation. The expansive feeling wears off, and with that, drug injustice™ sweeps in. (Drug injustice: the keening, self-pitying sense of being ripped off when something isn’t quite enough any more. Sounds like a silent, anguished howl.)

I don’t know how that shimmering loveliness happened, if it was me or Maria, or a form of meditation, or a sudden warm front blowing in. The conclusion I’m heading towards is: I don’t care, as long as it feels good. Which funnily enough has always been my philosophy in life anyway.

File under: I don’t know what you did, but just keep doing it.

Or: If this is the placebo effect, sign me up for more placebos forthwith.