One place I spent some time in on my recent visit to Arizona doesn't seem to be obsessing about the Mexican reconquista. Maybe Sedona doesn't much identify itself with Arizona, or the United States. In some cases, it doesn't identify itself with this world.
Sedona -- about an hour and a half's drive northwest of Phoenix -- has two claims to fame. The first is its visual richness: fantastically shaped, huge cliffs and buttes in layered colors, from brick red to somber gray to luminous. Throw in Oak Creek and you've got cracking scenery almost everywhere you look.
Unsurprisingly, Sedona first attracted visual artists as residents. Max Ernst, one of the two or three greatest surrealist painters, made the town his home in the 1940s.
The second wave of migrants to Sedona, as residents and visitors, came with "New Age" believers. It was discovered that, they say, the area has a half-dozen or so "vortexes" where lines of spiritual energy coalesce and create particularly strong psychic and healing powers. And that's the aspect of Sedona that's most evident nowadays.
Like most towns that have a special attraction for people, Sedona has been developed into a kind of theme park. Vortex World. While the area's natural beauty is certainly part of its allure and helps keep motels and resorts afloat, it's the psychic business that forms the town's economic backbone.
On the two main commercial highway strips, the standard T-shirt and souvenir shops are almost outnumbered by outlets for psychic reading and healing, crystals, massage, vortex tours in jeeps, yoga centers, a few New Age bookstores, rounded out with tattoo parlors. Other psychics work from their homes. The sheer proliferation of these businesses must make for some jolly intense competition. How do they all pay the rent? Does everyone who lives or passes through Sedona receive wisdom from Illuminated Masters, get healed, get a massage, and add a tattoo daily?
The psychic chamber of commerce distributes maps showing the location of the vortexes. My wife and I drove up Airport Road to find one of them, but oddly, no sign that we could find marked the exact location. I believe that is national forest land, and the government can't quite bring itself to acknowledge the Vortexas Rangers.
For someone -- such as your blogger -- who accepts the reality of psychic phenomena, including clairvoyance, mediumship, and psychic healing the spectacle presented by the psychic industry in Sedona gives rise to mixed feelings.
While earnest merchandising of "spiritual" goods and services can seem a little crass, there is no reason why crystals with various declared benefits or, for that matter, healing shouldn't cost. Spirituality + capitalism = New Age. Or perhaps, spirituality + New Age = capitalism.
A more serious concern, in my view, is the trendiness of the psychic trade. How many providers are just trying to cash in on the boom? If we limit the discussion to people who claim psychic powers, my experience in Sedona and elsewhere tells me that almost all are sincere in believing that their unusual talents are for real.
It also tells me that some are fooling themselves, and that most find that their mediumship and healing abilities come and go unpredictably. When they're hot, they're hot; not, not. Gamblers and baseball players know when they're on and when they're in a slump. But a baseball player who scores a hit one out of three times is considered an excellent team member. No one accuses him of being a fraud for striking out on two-thirds of his visits to the plate.
And when the mental gateways to the higher spiritual planes steadfastly refuse to open, does a psychic hand the client back the money and say, "Sorry, my guides have taken the day off"? If any ever did, it would be nearly unique. No, they just wing it.
Ever since the fad for spiritualism in the 19th century, there has been heated debate about whether psychics are for real or faking it. But most are both.
Arthur Koestler, the novelist who devoted the latter part of his life to psychical research, wrote:
When I was hunting gurus in India, I came back enriched with one insight. It was: "Never ask whether 'that holy man' is a charlatan or really holy. Just ask to what extent he is a charlatan and to what extent holy. Never apply an all-or-nothing criterion."When consulting psychic workers in Sedona or anywhere, it is wise to keep in mind that:
Showmanship comes in the moment you get into the eye of the public. Exposed to the public eye of unlimited numbers of followers, you have to apply some showmanship. On bad days, when nothing works, you would be superhuman if your would not resort to 'corriger la fortune' by a few tricks. (Parapsychology Review, May-June 1973.)
1. Some are more talented than others. There is no foolproof way to determine which is which in advance.
2. Even the best are inconsistent.
3. Keep an open mind. Record the session if you can. Sometimes information you receive via a medium that seems to make no sense or be wrong will be valuable later. My experience with healing is limited -- I did have one session in Sedona -- but I'd say remember this: the healing takes place with subtle energies and works on the non-physical or "etheric" body that your physical body manifests on the material plane. The results might not be dramatic or immediate.