Spiritism in Brazil: A Vision of Change for the New Medical Paradigm

By HUW GRIFFITHS

There was an article in a New Dawn Special Issue No. 5 (published in June 2008) which happened to mention the word ‘Spiritism’. I was unfamiliar with the term except that I’d heard it before in the context of a character called John of God, a spiritual therapist who lives in a remote part of central Brazil. He’s extremely well known in his home country for the fact that he performs operations on up to one thousand patients a day, sometimes using nothing more than an unsterilised blunt kitchen knife. It’s said that he can heal everything from the common cold to cancer and apparently often does. Thinking I was going to learn more about John of God, or someone like him, I read on, little realising that I was embarking on a much bigger adventure.

The article in question, entitled ‘Allan Kardec and the Way of the Spirit’, was about the French educator and intellectual Hippolyte Rivail (who wrote under the pseudonym Allen Kardec). Kardec, around the mid-1800’s, decided to make a sceptical but rational investigation of communication with spirits, the latest craze of the moment in Europe and North America. Despite his disciplined and dispassionate approach to the subject, Kardec – far from ending up critical of the phenomenon – instead was swept up by it, even to the point of putting his own stamp on how it developed.

If the literature of the time is anything to go by, Spiritualism was as much a novelty as it was a serious attempt to communicate with the world of spirits. It was characterised by séances, mediums and swathes of people who made things go bump in the dark. Though often depicted as being of primarily upper middle class appeal, it in fact had a broad following from the working classes right through to the upper echelons of society.

Despite my having a genuine interest, even belief, in the existence of intelligent life on higher vibrational levels than our own, images of levitating tables and shimmering clouds of ectoplasm issuing from some etched Edwardian’s flared nostril never really gripped me. However, the article was about Kardec not spiritualism per se, and besides, as well as being well written, there was something compelling about the story behind the man.

Not a medium himself, Kardec’s early encounter with the spirit world through attending séances proved to be seminal, even cathartic, for the experience both changed his life and gave it new purpose. Evidently convinced that he was witnessing communications with superior intelligent beings, he began to capture, compile, edit and finally publish the information imparted by these beings. His key role was that of a kind of spiritual go-between, a human transponder between the physical and the spirit world. Indeed, it was on the instructions of one of these same spirits that he assumed the pseudonym Allan Kardec, under which name all his books were to be published.

These books, being only a part of his total writings, included such titles as, The Spirits Book, The Gospel Explained by the Spiritist Doctrine, The Medium’s Book, Genesis and Heaven and Hell, and they collectively formed the academic foundation stone of what became known as the Spiritist Movement. It was a body of literature made up of an enormous compilation covering definitive teachings on diverse subjects. These range from mankind, the meaning of life, religion, God, Eternity and just about every aspect of the secrets of the universe that you might care to think of.

Allan Kardec died in 1869 having devoted much of his life to Spiritism and with him, more or less, went most active interest in the movement throughout Europe. Interest in Spiritism however had been sparked in a small number of individuals who exported Spiritism to their home countries, by far the most fertile destination of which turned out to be Brazil.

There are number of academics who have written quite a lot of books and articles about Spiritism. These are not, as one might expect, just about faith healers like John of God, but are instead about how Spiritism operates as a system in contemporary Brazil. Surprisingly, some of them show how Brazilian Spiritism might serve as a model for similar organisations in the developed world, especially the United States.

Spiritism in Practice

At first glance there are some incongruent even bizarre concepts coming together here. How could a 19th century movement based on teachings from the spirit world possibly have the remotest relevance to 21st century Western society anywhere, let alone the United States? The notion initially strikes one as ridiculous. Yet, as one gets more exposed to the material the more one can appreciate the basis on which ‘Kardecist Spiritism’, as it has been dubbed in Brazil, really does present potentially credible solutions to a whole raft of current, even urgent, issues currently facing Western society.

Far from having finally exited the world stage a hundred and forty years ago, Spiritism (or at least the form into which it has now evolved in Brazil) does indeed seem to provide some intriguing insights and remedies to some of the issues currently facing the developed world. Perhaps Spiritism hasn’t done its dash after all.

Almost thirty years ago the visionary physicist and social writer Fritjof Capra asserted the need for new social paradigms. Without such changes he was pessimistic of the chances of mankind’s survival into the 21st century. Now, decades later, nothing has really improved and for the most part things are a lot worse. More than ever we need positive change and Spiritism, if taken as a model of how big change can be managed in small but effective bites, demonstrates that reversing old social paradigms and introducing new ones need not be defined by massive, revolutionary change. It can, in fact, be better achieved by individually supported, community based and organically developed networks of people who quite simply get on and do it.

Spiritism in Brazil is not some anachronistic relic of the 19th century that is managing to sneak under the radar of the modern world. It is a movement that has very much kept pace with the times, so much so that around 10% of the population, or 20 million people, visit Spiritist centres and hospitals on a regular basis. Despite some prominent members referring to it as a religion, Spiritism is essentially a philosophical movement which by all accounts maintains a peaceful co-existence with orthodox religion.

Spiritist adherents agree on the principle of karma, reincarnation, the purpose of life and death, the cause of ill-health, communication with the departed, the existence of the spiritual body, healing through spiritual energies and the gradual purification of the soul via successive lifetimes and different incarnations. Beyond these and other similar beliefs there is a broad degree of differentiation between the ways the several thousand Spiritist centres around Brazil operate.

There is a vast raft of universal truths and principles underpinning Spiritism. They concern the individual, the community and one’s conduct and place in the world. These are principles that assume that every person is endowed with multifaceted, multidimensional attributes, some undeveloped, some capable of development and some already gifted. Spiritists have defined over 120 paranormal powers, each when harnessed properly, takes the individual into ‘closer relationship with God’.

Importance is placed on group functions. Each person has their unique role to play, yet each is part of a coherent working group. Sessions that take place in a Spiritist centre on any given day might include interviews for those in specific need, meditation, prayer, laying on of hands or energy passes (performed by mediums), dis-obsession sessions involving a kind of disengagement of an individual from a negatively motivated spirit, personal consultations with medical intuitives, automatic writing (messages from loved ones who have passed on), and blessings. There are also courses ranging from handicraft to developing personal mediumship skills, or doing charitable work such as working in the kitchens, running op-shops or volunteering free time as a health carer, legal advisor or art teacher.

There are also a small number of Spiritist centres involved with new energy medicine technology using light, heat, magnetism and electricity to stimulate healing. This is an alternative to ‘passing’ or the ‘laying on of hands’ which is the more widely used and preferred method of the majority of centres.

Spiritists maintain anyone can become a medium, but it takes training and much practice with even the gifted taking up to seven years before a satisfactory degree of competence is attained. Mediums, once qualified, will normally work in groups and go about their business by what is called ‘passing’ their hands over the subject. The physical movement of the hands manipulate the energy physically whilst ‘thought’ moves the energy spiritually and imbues it with love. ‘Love’ it is said is the element helpful in every phase of an illness or debility and feelings of it must permeate every aspect of the medium’s energy being donated.

Watching a film of a ‘passing’ would probably be meaningless to the uninitiated newcomer without a running commentary on what is going on. Mediums say they are connecting to the higher planes of life (each may have a different slant on what that might be). They then channel the bio-magnetic energy between the higher spirits and the patient (or it may be transferred to water to be defused throughout the group). Whatever they are doing, they are most certainly directing energy at and raising the vibrational level of some sort of etheric body and thereby making the body less compatible with the pathology troubling the subject.

Ask mediums what this energy is targeting and most will say that it targets the negative emotions: jealousy, hatred, envy, anger or depression, all underlying emotional indicators for many of the ills of the modern age. Often they will add that these negative emotions are the result of an obsession by a malevolent spirit.

If all this falls into the unbelievable basket for you, then consider that when subjected to reputable medical testing, Spiritist centres claim up to 70% success rates with cancer patients, 90% with drug and alcohol addictions and 90% with depression. Whilst no one doubts that more studies and verification work needs to be done, the results to date have high levels of integrity and the indicators are strong and extremely positive.

Sceptics of course will continue to dismiss these practices as charlatanism and wishful thinking, but witnessed demonstrations have shown significant lesions to noticeably improve within thirty minutes of using energy channelled by mediums. There are many writings available detailing one controlled study after another in which the ‘passing’ of energy resulted in verified healing. Medically impossible perhaps, unexplained certainly, but nevertheless working.

Some healers say that they’re using spiritual energy to heal; some say that it’s the spirits or guides intervening, and some say that it’s both. Whilst we in the West are content to be blinkered by an arrogant need for scientific proof, we’re presented with one new cultural concept at least, in Spiritism, where these concepts are not only accepted, but alive and well. Elsewhere and within many other cultures and countries around the globe, the spirit world is something that sits comfortably alongside human existence from birth to death. We forget that even Einstein implied, when he declared E=MC squared, that energy and matter are essentially two sides of the same coin, thus suggesting the human body can be addressed as either energy or matter.

The Spiritist notion that disease, especially mental illness, is strongly connected with the spirit world, can be a difficult one for us to wrap our minds around. Perhaps then, while we try to apply balanced judgement to what we are witnessing when we see Spiritist mediums at work, it’s better we suspend disbelief and try to understand it momentarily from the Spiritist viewpoint.

They believe that spirits are all around us, we can communicate with them, but not all are good-natured. Some in fact are evil and will actively interfere with vulnerable individuals. Some simply have mal-intent while others try to express their negative purpose by living through another person. So it is in the case of a drug addict or someone with mental illness, though not all such cases are necessarily the result of spirit obsession. This is the connection between Spiritism and mental hospitals and the reason why, in Brazil at least, they are closely connected.

Spiritist doctors (regular qualified doctors who just happen to be Spiritists) treat these obsessions not so much as disease but more as if they are a constraint on both the living patient as well as the obsessing spirit. Hence, the doctors and mediums who take part in ‘dis-obsession’ sessions will counsel the spirit and assist it in obtaining release from the physical host as well as liberating the latter from the spirit. In effect they treat the process as if they are dealing with two patients, one spiritual and one physical.

With our limited view of the world, perhaps this looks unacceptably stranger than fiction. It’s neither provable nor monitorable, yet for those involved on both ends of the treatment protocol it is evidently working. Spiritist doctors claim success with 60% of schizophrenics and 80% of bi-polars; dis-obsession also works with dozens of other mental and physical pathologies. How very confronting this must be to anyone working in specialised professional medical fields in the West, where everything, in addition to being hideously expensive, is treated strictly along pathologically aligned protocols and is characterised by failure or dangerous side-effects.

There is no doubt about it – if a fraction of what we are hearing from Brazil is correct, psychiatry in the West is under threat from Spiritism. Spiritism’s success rate in other fields of therapeutic treatments is also encouraging.

At a philosophical level Spiritism offers an opportunity for the individual to take control of their own life, to encourage them to be personally accountable and to live a more harmonious existence. It teaches that actions have consequences and in being so it provides a moral anchor for a life of spiritual learning and self-development. All good ground rules for social, emotional and spiritual living. Truly a pathway of light and love some might say and a million miles from the way things are done in the United States, Australia and other Western nations.

Spiritism and the New Age

Much less is known about Spiritist centres in the United States because nobody has written about them to the same extent they have about the Brazilian ones. The mere fact that they are there at all offers a glimmer of hope, not just for the US, but for the rest of the developed world as well.

To many the US epitomises an image of consummate social and spiritual bankruptcy. This isn’t a personal slur, merely the way that most compassionate and thinking people would interpret what they see of the way the US currently imposes itself upon the world in line with its concept of the ‘New American Century’. The resultant inertia or total vacuum of basic human values is also reflected in several social developments one of which is the emergence of the New Age movement.

New Agers come in all shapes and sizes, but at one level they all seem to engender a confirmed scepticism towards science and technology as well as to official religion, economics and medicine. The list can go on and become rather loose, but at a general level, despite many among its ranks being dependant on the very institutions they philosophically question, New Agers tend to be much more accepting of empirical evidence. If it works, if it makes them feel better, if it makes them more centred, if it seems to benefit the greater good, then why not? Whilst it might have the tag of being too gullible and slightly irrational, there is little doubt the New Age has at least managed to hit the mainstream and if you don’t believe me go and take a look at your local bookstore.

Some subjects that have now become the substance of the New Age movement include parapsychology, Eastern mysticism, colour therapy, the human aura, quantum physics, and crystal healing. These are a few of many fields of interest that reside well outside the accepted boundaries of social and scientific convention. Many of these unproven fields of investigation have been widely applied as therapies and practices for years. Collectively New Agers represent a large soft underbelly of potential change, a popular phenomenon, if you like, of the baby boomer culture. It’s flexible, vibrant, growing, cashed up and it’s chipping away at the edges of the old order at a rate that should have it quivering in its boots. Perhaps all it needs is a bit of focus and discipline. Spiritism and the New Age movement may make good bedfellows in a new society and the United States seems to be the most natural and easiest place for it to migrate.

No one is suggesting some cathartic popular change. Spiritism in Brazil has excelled in the context of a peaceful co-existence with an otherwise Western orientated society. But for the US to shift to a point at which Spiritism could be widely embraced would necessitate a major change of attitudes not just by vast swathes of the population, but by the major social institutions as well.

At a fundamental level Spiritism, if it makes a successful transition to the West, will be a way of bringing shamanic practice into the modern way of life. Eastern philosophy and metaphysical practices such as meditation and qi gong have been encroaching on the Western hemisphere for many decades and have slowly but surely found acceptance by increasing numbers of adherents.

Is it really such a leap of the imagination to envisage a new society in which the West lives in accordance with human values that are genuinely accepting of the spirit world? Such ideas are already embedded in Christian teachings, but never acted on, treated as if they were fictional platitudes.

In Asia, where the spirit world is widely accepted, shamans are common and go about their business manifesting a slightly more mystic profile; they seem to act more as conduits for the energies between heaven and earth and regularly provide access to the spiritual planes by projecting themselves into a trance. Although this can give the impression more of mysticism than straight up contact with spirits, the conceptual approach differs little from Spiritism. There are cultural differences that modify the shaman’s modus operandi in that money does change hands for consultations, mediumship tends to be treated as a gift that can be passed down by bloodline, and there is a lot more theatre, whereas in Spiritism no money changes hands for services, anyone can study to become a medium, and theatre is a complete no-no.

There are thousands of shamans, mediums and healers throughout the world who know how to access spirits through induced or modified states of consciousness. They originate from many different faiths, cultures and races and use literally hundreds of different techniques, hence there is a tradition of chanting, drumming and breathing. All would be easy to fake, but for the fact that even in Asia, with all its mystic theatre, shamans tend to get taken very seriously by the millions who use their services and so, being judged by their successes, if they are not considered to have performed, their services quickly fall into disuse.

Spiritism may well be one of the new paradigms worthy of Capra’s vision thirty years ago. Whilst many possibilities have come and gone, this one appears to hold real promise. Despite being essentially philosophical, it is still faith based and, among several other offerings, it presents a genuine and practicable working model for a multi-dimensional concept of health care. What Spiritism has achieved in Brazil is proof positive it could work in the US and elsewhere in the West. If, as some predict, the West is headed for a few hard years in the near future, then at least Spiritism is likely to find even more fertile soil for acceptance and growth.

Spiritist health care practice holds much promise not simply because it works, but it’s based on human values, personal needs, inexpensive, available for all, non-invasive, involves true healing, and is totally focussed on the patient, not profit. It is emphatically better than the current Western medical model. The results can be spectacular to those not used to its practice and are likely to have compelling impact once seen and appreciated by the Western public.

Western medicine has been good at treating the physical, the chemical and the biological dimensions of the human being, but has been pitiful treating it systemically, psychosomatically, emotionally and spiritually; it has never engaged with the holistic view of health and certainly does not heal spirits. Conventional medicine not only lacks a breadth of vision, compassion and an ability to treat at a multi-dimensional level, it is falling in a heap. It’s a danger to life and limb and its time has well and truly come and gone.

Multi-dimensional health care is long overdue in the West and at last, in the form of Spiritism, it looks as if it’s just about to arrive. The next few years should be interesting one’s to watch.

Go John of God!

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REFERENCES:

New Dawn Special Issue No. 5

Fritjof Capra, The Turning Point: Science, Society, and the Rising Culture (Simon & Schuster, 1982)

Emma Bragdon, Kardec’s Spiritism: A Home For Healing And Spiritual Evolution (Lightening Up Press, 2004)

David Hess, Samba In The Night: Spiritism in Brazil (Columbia University Press, 1994)

David Hess, Science In The New Age: The Paranormal, Its Defenders & Debunkers (University of Wisconsin Press, 1993)

Ruth-Inge Heinze, Trance and Healing in Southeast Asia Today (White Lotus Co Ltd, 1988)

Emma Bragdon, ‘Spiritism Bridging Spirituality and Health’ (DVD)

Sandy Johnson, The Brazilian Healer with the Kitchen Knife: And Other Stories of Mystics, Shamans, and Miracle Makers (Rodale Books, 2003)

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HUW GRIFFITHS is a British-born naturopath who came to Australia in the early ‘90’s. His interest and passion for natural and traditional health therapies was developed and nurtured alongside an international career in marketing and communications. He can be contacted via New Dawn magazine.

The above article appeared in New Dawn Special Issue 6.

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