Every day, tucked away in his home in Bristol, 23-year-old Zaid gives remote spiritual “healings”. Fully explaining what he calls his own “esoteric method” over Skype would be too complicated, he says. To paraphrase: it involves somehow connecting with a person's energy field – or invisible aura around their body – and psychically showing them an answer to a root pain or problem. Consider it a very new age alternative to standard therapy. Zaid has a website where he offers free healing to anyone in need, but frequently will extend the invitation to various Facebook healing groups. There, on the wall, he’ll write things like “free metaphysical healing session for people suffering with serious anxiety disorders” or “healing for the throat chakra”, the energy centre referred to in many religions that governs issues like communication and self-expression. Often, one hundred or more people comment below and Zaid will work through as many pleas as is possible, commenting “done” when he’s finished.
But on a practical level, his free healing looks more down-to-earth. What he actually does sounds fairly uninvolved: he stares at each enquiring person’s Facebook photo and repeats their name like it’s his own, focussing very intently on their “energy field”. “Once I’m attached to their energy field I can go through and scan,” he says matter-of-factly about the way he senses through a body for pain. Whether you’re a believer is besides the point: Zaid is one of an increasing number of people online offering free healings and readings to people, in what critics within the spiritual community see as a growing problem.
In one Facebook group, mostly full of young British women interested in tarot and spiritual healing, these unsolicited free offerings have been banned. After fielding such a huge number from the group, Vix, the owner and admin, posted: “New rule – no unsolicited free readings on the wall. If you would like to offer free readings here, please get in touch with the admin team first to discuss. This is so we can vet you and keep the members of the group safe.” People will claim they can help fix anything from PTSD and OCD to broken limbs and cancer in Facebook groups, but mostly, as with the people I interviewed, healers will offer solutions to the garden variety miseries like depression and anxiety.
Over email, Vix told me that she started out giving free readings, as many people in the industry do (she only does paid ones now). “There are some unscrupulous people out there who prey on vulnerable people – often people who jump at a free reading are in a place where they really need some support – and give dodgy advice. Or even worse, they'll tell them a little taste of something ‘bad’ and then say they can fix it with a full reading or some spell work. I know from doing this work for so many years now, that many people who are coming for a reading, whether it's paid or free, are often in a state of confusion. They are looking for answers.”
When you’re directionless and wracked with anxiety, someone who feels like an authority or a figure in possession of a higher vision can be a lifeline. “I don’t know what to do with my life and I’ve reached a crossroads before the end of my twenties,” 29-year-old freelance graphic designer Anna* told me. She’s received multiple free healings in the Facebook groups but isn’t sure exactly which ones have helped and which have done nothing. “I want to quit my job, go travelling, but my boyfriend wants to settle down, and the pressure has been crushing. It sounds like I want someone else to make my decisions for me, and I sort of do.” She got into tarot and reiki (a type of energy healing) and soon came to Facebook groups where free healings were being offered since she couldn’t afford paid-for sessions, which can cost anything from £100 to thousands, for famous healers. After one of her free distance reiki healings, she felt lighter but admits that she wouldn’t be able to “hand on heart swear that something legitimate had been done”.
Helen, 55, went through a painful, drawn-out divorce then watched her adult sons leave home. She now spends time on most days commenting on posts that offer free healing, from her house in Bristol. “It’s taking every bit of healing I can get,” she tells me over the phone. “You know that even if it’s not working or someone’s not a proper healer, as it were, then at least some of the healings must be helping.”
Even Zaid came to his sessions through a sense of being lost, depressed – ultimately, he was looking for healing for himself. “More people are seeking spiritual community now and so when they see people asking for and receiving free healing they are jumping on the bandwagon," he says, adding that it irritates him when people who can afford it won't invest financially in healings. “A lot of people wouldn’t actively seek it for money: if they see it, they’ll say yes but won’t actively commit to a single person to receive healing.”
The healers I speak to, and others I’ve become aware of online, say they offer their services for two reasons: either a generally benevolent desire to “save” people or to expand their paid-for client base. Unemployed Zaid says he fits into both: he loves the feeling of helping people, but aims to get people to start paying him, because he says his savings – which he lives off – are dwindling. Soon, he adds, he’ll have to procure what he assumes will be poorly-paid, low-skilled work. But for those well-established in the spiritual community like Vix, a boom in so-called healers remains a worry.
“You know that even if it’s not working or someone’s not a proper healer, as it were, then at least some of the healings must be helping” – Helen, 55, a free healing customer
Multiple healers told me their concern lies in “energetic cording”: that a dodgy healer could energetically connect with someone’s energy and leave some sort of energetic link or “cord” there, making them more likely to come back as a repeat customer. One told me on the phone, “To become corded to your healer so that you feel lost without them: that’s not a good situation.” Metaphysics aside, this is an unregulated industry. Chances are, if someone feels desperate enough to be “healed”, they’d be willing to return repeatedly until it felt as though they’d made progress.
Just as in the clinical and regulated self-help world, there’s a balance. Alex March, a psychic and empathetic energy healer, told me that some healers want to feel accepted and needed, and for others “it’s pure narcissism Charles Manson shit”. To her, it’s all about intent (“as long as the intent seems good I don’t think it can do too much harm”). She is an advocate for people being responsible for their own energy. “People every day of their lives should be in charge of their energy like brushing their teeth. Waking up daily and doing grounding breaths and seeing where energy feels off.”
From an outsider’s perspective, it seems that people in these groups risk giving over personal autonomy and power to the idea of healers. These groups, like Spiritual Healers, with more than 100,000 members, are becoming so large and globalised that splinter groups – where people ask for all kinds of free healing help – may not be far behind. Worried family members in South America will post photos of a relative in hospital, saying they’re dying and imploring healers to send healing prayers. Others talk of their daughter who has gone missing in India, asking for a reading to find out why she’s gone and help to bring her home. You can find these posts unsettlingly interspersed with almost-funny ones about bad breakups, sore teeth and sprained toes. Once you’re in these spaces, there is nothing you can’t ask for help with. And there’s no shortage of people who claim to help you.
To free healer David, the rise in demand for these offerings makes perfect sense. “The people are desperate, they’re in a dark situation and they need an out. I think it gives people hope,” he says. It’s the main result he's seen in everyone he’s “healed”, from his native South Africa to London, where he currently heals from behind his laptop. “You need that hope, because if you don’t put action to your problem, you won’t move forward. Because you’re the only one who can heal yourself.”