A woman sits at a table covered in purple cloth, wearing a gypsy scarf on her head, and large hoop earrings. Before her is a large crystal ball and ageing tarot cards, creased and brown around the edges.
This is the enduring, classic image of the ‘psychic/medium’.
Tarot cards and crystal balls are amongst some of the most popular approaches to soothsaying, in addition to reading coffee grains, tea leaves or runes. It can be cultural: this writer’s Arab heritage means reading coffee cups has often been a “game” at women’s gatherings (and admittedly, often done with spooky accuracy). It can be tea party entertainment, or something that is part of your daily ritual.
The popular belief that divination is ‘fortune telling’, the work of charlatans or simply tea parlour entertainment lingers despite the fact that we publicly embrace divination tools, and examine witchcraft in a new, modern light.
But today, anyone can own an oracle deck and peer into the possibilities of their lives. And it’s not what you read but how you read that offers insight into your life, say the people who make a living out of divining guidance – many of whom do not call themselves psychics.
“I've used sugar sticks at a cafe and let them drop onto the table,” says Kerstin Fehn, who calls herself an insight facilitator. “You can use a kaleidoscope. Watch clouds form. You can use anything as a reflective device.”
Fehn has used Lenormand and tarot cards, and runes, but her primary method involves the use of pictorial cards that comprise of a set of widely varying archetypes, called ‘Sync Within Images’. She has even published some of these images as her own deck, which she uses to help clients consult their own intuition. It’s about sensing what future they want, and what's blocking the way, Fehn says.
“Or sometimes, we just shuffle and see what pops up as inspiration. Of course, I also add my intuition to the mix.”
Energy intuitive Denise Jarvie agrees that the possibilities for reading tools are limitless: “You can read anything if you want to, from the clouds to the spoon you stir your cup of coffee or tea with.”
Jarvie’s intuitive guidance extends to a ‘Flower of Life’ card deck that incorporates reflective meditative work, as well as guided meditation CDs. But she says intuitive reading tools aren’t equipped with “special powers”; rather, they’re a “mirror” to assist in self-development. “If you are relying on something or someone to tell you what will happen in your life or what you next steps are, this will tell you that you don’t know yourself.”
A weather forecast
Of course, the issue is that many do exactly that: enlist the services of a ‘psychic’ to divine the future. In the US, Doreen Virtue, author of numerous books and card decks that offer intuitive guidance, has a Facebook following of more than 1.3 million people, who tune in for daily – free – readings, and weekly forecasts. While hers is a world of archangel messages and divine love, oracle deck author Colette Baron-Reid dispenses similar daily and weekly “weather forecasts”, with a slightly darker, tough-love edge. Baron-Reid is also a business coach to top executives, consulted in the same way an athlete might call on life coach Tony Robbins for a pep talk before a big game.
The popularity of both women points to a type of modern divination that focuses on the “energy” of the day and how an individual can make personal change rather than definitive predictions. Psychic readings these days are more like weather forecasts – they may predict a storm but stress that conditions can improve.
Lindel Barker-Revell, clairvoyant, astrologer, tea-leaf reader and founder of Tea-wise, argues that divination can “tell” the future, but it will be only one of many possible futures.
“When people come for a reading, they do want to know about the future, but they also should be given free will within that, because we’re all offered many options every day; in tiny little ways, we make choices,” she says.
Jarvie says her work is focused on empowering individuals with their own unique truth.
“Divination of old implies that you have no choice, that things will just arrive in your life and this is your lot. We are left pondering what we did wrong or right to have this thing arrive in our life.”
Fehn adds that divination is information from a ‘higher’ source, even if that's your subconscious self. “It can show you where you're headed to, but isn't really telling you what must happen.”
An industry of charlatans?
However, the desire for affirmative, future-focused readings remains strong, as the ubiquitousness of psychic hotlines can attest. It’s an industry worth $2 billion, and despite the numerous exposes, even by people who admit to a fascination with the supernatural, it continues to thrive, particularly amid economic uncertainty. That much of the criticism is coming from people who admit to once defrauding people doesn’t help the case of people who offer services that seem genuinely to offer methods to self-improvement.
For Barker-Revell, the openness of divination in the modern world hasn’t softened the ridicule levelled against readers, and she admits to herself once being a complete sceptic. “A lot of our modern learning crushes intuition. There’s too much emphasis on the logical, and not enough emphasis on the mystery.”
Fehn responds by dipping into the mindset of the critic. “People claim all sorts of fantastical abilities. Having said that, you can't throw the baby out with the bathwater. Intuition is highly valuable. Your doctor is using intuition.”
Readers, Fehn adds, use gut instinct to decipher which meanings are appropriate and useful. “The word psychic, to me, means having a finely-tuned nervous system. Your gut is your second brain. Your heart is your emotional centre. It means you can pick up nuances others dismiss by over-thinking.”
“Will he come back?”
The lasting fascination with divination hints at a dissatisfaction with life that can be given a quick fix by consulting a psychic – the first stop for the heartbroken and fearful.
‘Often people ask: ‘Am I going to be happy?’, ‘When will I feel better?’, ‘When will I meet the person of my dreams?’,” says Jarvie. “These are specific questions, which all humans experience at one time or another. For me, a reading is an opportunity for the spiritual self to talk to the physical being, allowing us to expand our ideas and thoughts about these questions.”
It’s a similar case in tea-leaf reading and astrology, says Barker-Revell. “People come with questions – work, the boyfriend, losing weight, will I be able to afford a house? Men come more with business questions. They’re [generally] easier to read for than women.”
However, Fehn says that, in asking these common questions, expectations of clients often differ from what she offers.
“The common idea that I can see the future as a set path of events, like houses in a street, and can therefore tell you what's happening step by step is really tough to deal with. The reality, for me, is that the future depends on decisions, and the influences on those decisions produce more like a city of streets or a tapestry. Some avenues are closer, some are being built. Some have stop signs. And if you haven't made a decision, there is open sea. Therefore readings are better used to check in with yourself: am I making the right decisions? What's the quickest path? The most fun?”