• This is the only story of mine whose moral I know. I don’t think it’s a marvelous moral; I simply happen to know what it is: We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be. Kurt Vonnegut
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Evaluating Mystical Experiences and Messages from Beyond

(This is a heavily revised and expanded rewrite of a checklist originally written in a forum discussion.)

Any practice that includes the concept of communication with the Powers and the pursuit of personal mystical insight has to include a toolset for figuring out what communications are legitimate, what communications are important, what communications are personal vs. broad, and what communications are worth actually following. This is the case regardless of whether the information is received directly or passed through a medium of some sort (an oracle, a diviner, etc.).

Here is a place to start. Many of these are questions that will allow someone to build up context around a particular experience and judge the value of the information they are receiving. Some of them are questions that may raise red flags about reliability of the message or the medium through which the message is passed. (And questions about mediums apply when the medium is oneself.) Some of them are questions that will guide towards evaluation of whether or not a message is worth obeying or considering relevant to one’s practice. It is actively difficult to tease out which questions are which of those categories, so I have categorised them somewhat differently than that.

First, what is the condition of the message recipient?

  • Is the recipient working within a religious system or paradigm in which messages from noncorporeal entities are considered possible? Is this a routine occurrence, a common one, an extraordinary one, a miraculous one?
  • Does the recipient have their poop in a group? The more unstable someone’s life is, the more complicated it is to evaluate messages from Powers. In the case where the messages are not being passed through a medium of some sort, the more unstable a person is, the more likely those messages are going to be from internal complexes and unresolved issues than external entities. Basic managing one’s life is a core skill that applies to dealing with communication with noncorporeal entities. It is easy to exploit the unstable.

If dealing with a particular medium, what is that medium like?

  • Does the medium have a regular spiritual protection, cleansing, and purification process to keep their channels clear? Do they have the skills to recognise when their personal baggage, experiences, or other issues may be interfering with their communications, and do they communicate those times clearly?
  • Does the medium have training in any particular tradition or lineage, or are they running on instinct/native skill? If they have training, are they willing to give out information that would enable others to verify that they have received it? If they do not, have they sought out training? Have they been guided by spirit mentors or other noncorporeal guides?
  • What sort of experience does the medium claim to be having? Do they do full-amnesiac full-possession trance? Do they use the car metaphor to describe the nature of their experience (“in the driver’s seat”, “riding shotgun”, “in the back seat”, “in the trunk”) or have similar metaphors to try to explain what their level of involvement with the message-passing is as an individual? Do they get messages that they pass on word-for-word, that they put their own words to, that come in a form that needs to be translated in some way to be passed on to someone else? Do they fail to offer any explanation at all?
  • Are there any specific terminologies used to describe what is happening? Is it Drawing Down, is it trancework, is it journeywork, is it seidh, is it channeling, is it a seance, is it something else? If there is a specific term being used, is the experience consistent with other practitioners of the same style of thing?
  • Does the medium claim to do this sort of thing regularly? Does that mean in a ritual format, or does it mean approaching people with “I have a message for you”?
  • Does the medium have any sort of record of their trance and channeling-related experiences that can be perused? What does that record indicate about the consistency of their contacts, the reliability of their interactions, and their ability to separate message from their own personal agenda?
  • Does the medium pass on messages with many pauses to observe reactions, followed by corrections and refinements of the content, which would potentially indicate cold reading?

For messages that are coming through a particular medium, what interest does the medium have in the message?

  • Does the medium have special status within their community because of their ability to pass on communication with noncorporeal entities? Is that status dependent upon their continuing to do so? Is one expected to give special deference to a person with this particular role or skillset, and does that deference come at the expense of those who provide other, less flashy services to the community?
  • Good, clean noncorporeal communication practices place the emphasis not on the medium, but on the Power and the person or community the Power is attempting to connect with. Messages to others about the medium, how the medium should be treated, what role and place the medium should have in the community, and the like, are suspect. (Messages about abasement of the medium, their unworthiness to serve, or other such things are just as much about the medium as messages about their importance and centrality.)
  • Similarly, if all of the messages that come through the medium, regardless of Power being channelled or person being addressed, have the same content, at best, the medium’s personal agendas are likely heavily influencing what they are passing on. If the content is associated with the medium’s known interests, personal hobbyhorses, or causes, that goes double. (If, on the other hand, what comes through is something that the medium would, in other circumstances, be vehemently opposed to, that also says something interesting. Not necessarily something indicating reliability, but interesting.)
  • Does the message suggest the importance of an ongoing relationship with the medium? Does it include things like, “I found a curse on you, but I can do another session to see how it could be lifted” or “I have good news, but you’ll have to get me these things for us to make sure it happens” or similar obvious self-interest on the part of the medium?

For messages that are reported to come from a specific Power, does the communication come with the appropriate hallmarks of authenticity?

  • In religions such as Vodou, with established traditions of possessory work and direct communication with Powers, there are known behaviours and signs associated with each of the lwa. Thus, the presence of each one in a ritual is knowable, known, and recognisable.
  • Even in religions and events where that sort of established knowledge is less universal, repeated interactions with the same Powers lead to individuals and organisations learning traits that come up when they visit. This will be most pronounced in cases of long-term working relationships, but it is entirely possible for people to have consistent experiences brushing up against Powers they do not personally work with, especially when those are Powers that are often invited to public pagan gatherings.
  • If there are not known hallmarks from tradition or experience, do the traits that come through appear to be consistent with the known information about the Power in question? So whatever mannerisms, turns of phrase, or approaches make sense with the proposed source of the message?
  • Is the message itself consistent with the realms of interest of the Power communicating? If it is outside of the realms of interest, is it framed in a way that makes it possible to imagine how this Power would want to say something on the topic in the first place? Alternately, does the message conflict with the known interests and duties of the Power?
  • Does the message contain content which the recipient later learns is consistent with the lore or known behaviours of the Power in question? Does the message surprise people into insights or explorations that reveal themselves to be consistent in this manner? Is that consistency based in academic knowledge, shared experiences with others dealing with that entity, both, something else?

In the case of a message through a medium, what is the message-recipient’s relationship to the medium, to the Power spoken for, and the community in which the message is being passed through?

  • Is the message solicited or sought, or is it being offered unexpectedly?
  • Is the message coming from a medium which the recipient has an ongoing relationship with in a mediumistic role? Does the recipient have an established respect for the authority and reliability of the medium? (Beware of mediums who claim authority solely on the basis of their channeling skills.)
  • Is the recipient a part of the community that the medium serves or interacts with, or an outsider? Note: “we are both pagans” or “we are both polytheists” does not mean that there is any shared community present.
  • Does the recipient have other means of communication with the relevant Power that they consider reliable, whether personal divination, personal mediumistic skills, a medium within their own community, or some other thing? (If a person has other, routinely accessed routes of communication, the intervention of someone outside their community to pass on a message becomes notably more suspect.)
  • Is the message from a Power with whom the recipient has an established relationship? If yes, is it consistent with the content of that established relationship, does it make reference to things that are not common knowledge about that relationship? If no, does it come with a reason that the recipient should care about receiving a message from that Power?

What is the basic content of the message like?

  • Does the message obviously feed the recipient’s ego? Is it about being specially chosen, particularly important, unlike others? Is it inviting the recipient to become a part of an elite secret group upon which the fate of the world depends? Is the message recipient more central and critical to reality than those who do not receive the message?
  • Does the message look like a wish-fulfilment fantasy? Is it from a Power that the recipient has desperately wanted to make contact with? Does it promise results that the recipient wants but is unlikely to attain without extremely unlikely circumstances coming into play – winning the lottery, getting back with that ex, etc.?
  • Is the message basically substanceless positivity?
  • Does the message have clear relevance to the recipient’s life, spiritual practice, relationships, etc.?
  • Is the message consistent with other messages that the person has received about how they should be conducting their lives, or is it an entirely off-the-wall new occurrence with unfamiliar content? It is reasonably common for people who have gotten communication in the past to get more communication building upon an established foundation.
  • Is the message internally consistent and consistent with other knowledge that the recipient has?

What is the scale of the message?

  • Is the message specifically for the recipient, with information tailored to the recipient as an individual? Is it broader but still specific, tailored to a particular group that contains the recipient? Or is it effectively generic, for anyone who hears it?
  • Is the message intimate – something clearly for the recipient and their personal practice – or does it purport to suggest things that the recipient should be doing in a broader community?
  • Does the message come with the expectation that if only everyone were to follow the message some desired goal would come to pass?
  • How relevant is it on a real scale of meaning? Is it a visual impression of a Power, or information about that Power’s preferences in offerings, or some other trivial and largely unimportant bit of data?

How verifiable is the message?

  • Is the message in plain, clear language with obvious meanings, or is it couched in a form that can be interpreted and reinterpreted to fit later facts?
  • Is it consistent with other messages received, divinations, and knowledge?
  • If the message is transcribed and reviewed later, how much of it is obviously nonsense? A day later? Six months later? A year later? Does something that seemed obviously nonsense at one point lose its aura of bullshit later?
  • If the message suggests certain things will come to pass in certain ways, do they? If it suggests that action or inaction in certain directions will have certain consequences, does that turn out to be true?

How does the recipient feel about the message?

  • Does the message have immediate clear relevance to the recipient’s current life, struggles, interests, or pursuits?
  • Does the message appear to provide an easy way out of some problem the recipient is having? (Potential wish-fulfillment fantasy, in other words.)
  • What portion of the response to the message is “Awesome!” and what portion is, “Well, that’s going to be a lot of work to pull off….” (While “that’s going to take a lot of effort on my part” is not a guarantee of credibility, it is much more plausible than “play these numbers to win Powerball”.)
  • If the recipient is rejecting part of the message outright, is that because the message is wrong or because it is a message the recipient does not want to hear? (Not a simple question.)

What are the likely effects of the message if it is taken seriously?

  • Does the message suggest actions for the recipient to take? Who would benefit from those actions? Do the rewards suggested for taking those actions appear to be consistent with the actions themselves? Are those actions things that the recipient has felt that they ought to be doing but has been reluctant to begin?
  • What are the likely consequences – personal, social, professional, health-wise, mental-health-wise, in all relevant communities – of following through on the suggested actions in this message? Who benefits from those actions? Who would be harmed?
  • What are the costs to the recipient in implementing these actions? Are those costs bearable if the promised results do not appear?
  • What are the costs to the recipient in not implementing these actions? Are those costs bearable?
  • Do whatever Powers have passed on the message have the demonstrated ability to follow up on their end of whatever bargains are being offered? What are the consequences of them not doing so? Does the recipient have any recourse in the event of a broken commitment on their part?
  • Is acting on the message going to be dangerous to the recipient or to others? What is the justification for that potential for harm? If it is dangerous or potentially harmful, what are the supposed benefits for going through with it? Are they commensurate with the ordinary risks of life (driving), the exotic risks of some people’s lives (skydiving), or some other scale? (Remember that risks include more than risks of physical harm; they include social, financial, emotional, and spiritual consequences.)

The sanity check question: what are the consequences if the message is wrong?

  • Are the actions encouraged by the message things which promote the well-being of the recipient and others regardless of the authenticity of the message, such as improved self-care, getting through therapy, volunteering and community service in reasonable and sustainable levels, and such things? In other words, even if this is all rooted in something illusory, are the results good?
  • Would the actions encouraged by the message be a hardship for the recipient, but not a massive danger to their life and stability, such as large expenses that can be worked into their means, or leaving a bad relationship or employment situation in the hopes of finding something better?
  • Would following through on those actions lead to neglecting responsibilities to family, community, and others, self-harm, risky and unrewarding behaviour, violence towards others, or other obviously negative results?
  • If the actions suggested are, basically, “Blow up your life and start over”, was that life a happy and sustaining one?