An artist's impression of the author flirting with a psychic hippie girl. Illustrations by Will Laren
"Whenever I do psychic readings for someone, it's always bad news," says Bill with a heavy sigh. Bill is a 60-something electrician and, like me and nine others, a student for the day at the College of Psychic Studies in Kensington, London. "But then I think, 'Well, they've gotta hear it, ain't they?'" he continues. "They're meant to."
Without warning, our teacher, Avril Price sweeps into the scented basement studio. After this class, presumably, we'll know when people are about to enter rooms. We will begin this Sacred Arts of Divination workshop with a group meditation session, she tells the group. We all close our eyes.
The College of Psychic Studies was founded in 1884 by a group of academics and scientists—scholarly individuals who wanted to formally investigate the psychic phenomena that had taken Victorian-era London by storm. Now, 130 years later, the school still works toward furthering the understanding of psychic abilities, using new scientific techniques to work out whether stuff like astral projection and dowsing have any kind of rational explanation, are truly supernatural, or are just persistent examples of New Age bullshit. It also hosts classes for anyone who wants to enhance their psychic abilities, employing healers, "sensitivesm," and counselors to prise open that third eye—people like Avril.
"Cords of light pour forth from your lungs with every breath," she assures her class of other meditators. "A lotus flower slowly blossoms from the top of your head—your crown chakra."
This sort of thing goes on for a fair bit, so it's a relief when Avril deposits us in a field: "It’s nighttime; the stars fill the sky. In the distance you see a stone circle. You approach it, and, from the shadows, a figure emerges—your spirit guide. They lead you to a stone table in the midst of the stone circle. You look down into the palm of your hand, your palm chakra, and see an object there—a gift from your spirit guide. What is it?"
I look down and see a stone. I then immediately chastise my stunted imagination, which has clearly just copy-and-pasted from the surrounding stone circle/table setup. Eventually, after some bargaining with my spirit guide, the stone turns into a flecked gray, brown, and white feather. Avril asks us to open our eyes and share our "gift" with the group.
A tiny blond cancer surgeon named Agnes gets a little blue ball. A nervy-looking Essex housewife gets a "white golden pyramid." A stunning hippie girl named Aïsha gets exactly the same thing as me: a flecked grey, brown and white feather. (We exchange smiles; the first bit of astral flirting I've ever taken part in.)
Bill the electrician gets a dagger.
This imaginary weapon sends a nervous ripple of unease through the group, but Avril expertly smoothes it away by explaining that the blade represents Bill's "previous life as a Celt," as opposed to, say, his passion for shanking people he meets in amateur psychic workshops.
Armed with the gifts from our spirit guides, the group is now ready to tackle aura reading. It's an interesting proposition: How can you teach someone to see auras? Isn't that a gift you're born with, like a nice smile or two penises?
I would learn during my day at psychic school that some people are terrified of second-hand clothes.
Avril begins by dashing through the aural equivalent of the periodic table, a bewildering array of corresponding chakras, colors, and abstract nouns that have been compiled into an Excel handout. We're then partnered off and told to get on with it. Which leaves me wondering if I might have missed something this spreadsheet is trying to teach me—after all, it's not like I've gone through life seeing everyone I meet bathed in tinted hues of radiant light and just chosen to ignore it.
Anyway, here I am sitting opposite Agnes, who is patiently waiting for me to tell her something profound. Feeling strangely guilty about my substandard aura-reading game, I choose to go with the first color that pops into my head: orange.
We consult the Excel handout, which says "creativity" or "health" or something. Avril approaches, making her workshop rounds.
"I guessed orange," I tell her, sheepishly.
"We don’t use that word here, Thomas!" Avril booms.
We switch partners and keep on at it until lunch, but auras remains stubbornly imperceptible, at least to me.
After some sandwiches, Avril tells us we’re going to be hitting the pendulum—a crystal on the end of a chain. Following the disappointing aura stuff, my expectations are pretty low. Avril drapes a pendulum over her forefinger and asks it to give her a "yes," then a "no." As it spins one way and then the other, I try to stop myself from laughing—there's nothing particularly miraculous about subtly swinging a crystal around without anyone noticing that you're moving your wrist.
It's time for me to have a go. My neighbor lends me her, and I ask aloud for a "yes." To my surprise, the pendulum obediently twirls off in a big clockwise swoop. I ask it to stop. It does so. Dead. I request a "no," and the pendulum shoots off counterclockwise, without any kind of conscious motor control on my part.
Avril interjects to tell us that, despite this tantalizing decision-making function, you should never consult your pendulum concerning matters of the future. Instead, she says, these bizarre para-psychological devices should apparently be used for slightly more practical purposes.
"My friend uses hers to pick out the freshest fruit and veg," offers the white golden pyramid lady.
Avril nods sagely, before telling us that we’re going to be using our newfound pendulum powers to give one another’s chakras a check-up. I then experience a moment of lucid clairvoyance, certain I'm about to be partnered, for this intimate procedure, with Aïsha. And I am. The course is working.
Aïsha approaches, her pendulum ready. We're told good, healthy chakras should set a pendulum (held sort of near you by someone else) twirling in alternate directions as it's lowered from the crown of your head downwards. Aïsha raises her pendulum and everything, initially, goes smoothly enough, the pendulum going one way then the other—although one or two of my chakras are apparently a bit weak (embarrassing!)—then we get to the last, lowest chakra, which makes the pendulum swing the same way it did the last time. I'm not really certain what a chakra is, exactly, but it's still pretty worrying to learn that one of mine is out of whack.
Avril appears and invites Aïsha, who is peering at me with concern, to apply some ad hoc treatment with her third eye. So she holds her pendulum near my waist and really scrutinizes the problem area: my crotch. It comes as no surprise when the pendulum promptly shifts direction and starts spinning like a greyhound chasing its own tail. It's then my turn to do Aïsha; her chakras are in almost obnoxiously perfect working order.
The pendulum stuff is fun, but it's soon time to move onto psychometry. This is where a psychic holds on to an object and deduces its history through touch alone. Psychometry makes aura reading look like an exact science. There isn't even a handout.
Turns out my shitty old phone is a good vibes kinda guy.
Avril pairs us off again and I get white golden pyramid lady. We sit rubbing our palms together for a while ("chakra stimulation") before exchanging possessions. As I have nothing more suitable, I hand over my Nokia, a century-old piece of shit with Snake, squishy buttons, and an ink-stained ear piece.
White golden pyramid lady meditatively fondles my crappy phone—searching for its meaning with her eyes shut. It's one of the dumbest things I've ever seen. It also distracts me somewhat from the silver snake ring she's handed me, which is predictably proving to be one of those very strong, silent types of inanimate object.
Yet again, I feel strangely guilty about not being Rasputin and am obliged to bullshit.
"Does this ring," I ask, raising it between my thumb and forefinger, "have some kind of story behind it?"
"Sort of," says white Golden pyramid lady, encouragingly. "I bought it in a Native American shop in Brighton. Everything they sell there is actually made by Native Americans."
"OK—so it’s well-travelled, then."
We turn our attention to my Nokia.
"Now, I dunno if this is exactly a psychic thing," she ventures, "but I just felt that this was, like, a really happy little phone."
I am pleased to hear this, and concur that, yes, "he" has had a pretty good time of it—after all, he's still out and about while most of his kin have gone on to the phone equivalent of the afterlife.
Finally it's time for Avril's concluding question and answer session, which opens a floodgate of severe neuroses from some of the students, who by the sounds of it live in perpetual terror of the bad vibes potentially infecting second-hand stuff.
"What about second-hand clothes?" stammers one, as if that Oxfam cardigan could prove to be a ticking Indian burial ground of hand-me-down disaster.
"I usually wash them," says Avril, doing her best to chill everyone the fuck out.
"Is washing enough?"
"Yep. Washing’ll do it."
"What about second-hand jewellery?" worries another student.
"Well, you can use bells, tuning forks, or smudge sticks," sighs Avril. "You can also, with second-hand jewellery, use your third eye and imagine yourself washing it."
Follow Thomas on Twitter: @ThomasHeadpress
Illustrations by Will Laren