A practical guide to starting a spiritual journey, like reiki and ayahuasca

There’s not a right way to seek enlightenment—but there are plenty of dubious paths.
There’s not a right way to seek enlightenment—but there are plenty of dubious paths.
Image: AP Photo/Amit Bhargava
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

So, you’ve decided that this is the year you’re going to get mystical. But so you don’t lose your cool and run shirtless through the streets of suburbia, claiming you’re a golden god, you should probably find an urban medicine man or woman to help guide you through these higher planes.

Reiki, ayahuasca journeys, craniosacral therapy, soul retrievals, past life regressionspirit mediums, chakra clearings, psychic readings, tarot spreads… the options for self-exploration abound. With so many healers selling transformation these days, how do you go shopping for transformation? (And be reverent to the cultures and expertise that made these experiences possible in the first place?)

Here’s your 2019 buyer’s guide to responsibly rocking your mysticore—and still landing back in reality.

Know why you’re interested in the first place

Modern pragmatism can shut out the role of wonder in our lives. Corporate mass-media inventions can leave us without a sturdy cultural bedrock to stand on.

It’s easy to feel a spiritual void. But no void that big can be filled quickly or easily.

Adept healers work hard to develop their skills. Those who seek out mystical healing arts without reverence for the expertise, cultural wealth, and raw skills needed to do the work are most susceptible to going a little mad in the process. “Tantric traditions can and do migrate from culture to culture,” says Jeffrey Kripal, professor of philosophy and religious thought at Rice University in Texas in his book Esalen: America and the Religion of No Religion. “Everywhere they go, they find the same psychosomatic base.”

You may need to go a bit mad to get where you’re going, but no need to do it recklessly or disrespectfully. Get clear on your intentions before you set out on the journey.

Get good recommendations

Mystical arts abide by the golden rule of the 21st century: Never trust the internet alone. Make your decision on more than a practitioner’s self-promotion (or this article’s advice, for that matter). Ask around your network and find out who is going to people they trust.

Don’t think you know people who partake in these services? You might be surprised. Just because someone doesn’t seem like “the type” or you’ve never heard them gush about their “natural medicine” explorations over wine doesn’t mean they aren’t dabbling.

When you find someone who has a practitioner they love and trust, get them to describe what compelled them to seek such guidance in the first place. Personal transformation can initially leave some at a loss for words, but once they have integrated the experience into their lives, they should be able to describe the net effects. An inability to use sane, colloquial language to convey their experience is a sign that they haven’t come back fully to reality, which is a hazard you might not want to face. If they use fuzzy code speak and trail off as they look into the distance, keep searching for another practitioner or modality.

When you’ve honed in on a practitioner, verify their lineage and teachers. You should be able to track where their skills come from. Find out who they learned from and what schools they have studied through. If they are using rarified language and fail to credit their sources, beware.

If you can’t find recommendations through personal connections, yoga studios are a good place to ask around. Go to a yoga studio you regard as a business that stakes their reputation on the skills and professionalism of their teachers. Chances are that someone there can help guide the way.

Figure out what you’re being sold

Just as the person recommending the service should be able to describe the benefits, the practitioner themselves should be able to describe them clearly, too. What results can you expect in what kind of time frame? Many mystical healers claim that their method is profoundly faster than psychotherapy. If they make this claim, ask them to be specific about what they’re faster at, and why.

Make sure you clarify what you’re signing up for, and don’t fall prey to buzzwords. Even if you recognize the name of a technique, do you really understand what is going on? Some practitioners use terms like “meditation” as shorthand so that their technique is more palatable to a curious audience—even though it’s not actually the core of their practice.

This can border on active misrepresentation of what a practice is in order to attract clients. For example, some practitioners will say they are doing “reiki,” as there is a market for reiki, when in fact they are using a completely different method—you might be getting vortex healing or past-life-regression therapy instead. When you ask, get specifics.

Learn the signs of a spiritual emergency

We seek out transformative spiritual experiences because we want to change something in our lives, but uncorking that bottle might serve up more than you can handle. Mystical exploration and transformative healing can invoke a spiritual emergency. According to Christina and Stanislav Grof, authors of two books on the topic, spiritual emergencies involve emotional, perceptual, and psychosomatic shifts indicative of a personal evolutionary crisis rather than a mental illness.

A classic example is an episode of being flooded with uncomfortably euphoric energy, lacking a need for sleep, and intense creative bursts and inhibitions. This could be a kundalini awakening—or it could be bipolar disorder. You’ll want to be working with a practitioner who can tell the difference. In cultures where spiritual work is an embedded part of life, there is a shared understanding of how to help someone through a spiritual emergency. Our rational, modern culture has lost this know-how.

You should therefore get acquainted with the signs of a spiritual emergency so you can seek out support if you go through one. It’s important that the practitioner you are working with is equipped to support you through such an emergency. Ask them if they have seen this happen in any of their clients and what they did about it. They should also be conversant enough in modern psychology to differentiate a spiritual emergency from psychological issues, and handle each accordingly.

Beware of cultish groups and scam artists

Mystical healers should be able to offer you the benefits of their services without asking you to join their belief system. If you have to progress through convoluted levels of training, question your intimate relationships, or surrender sensitive personal documents in order to get the benefits of a practice, you may be dealing with a cult-like organization.

Granted, a healer should believe in the power of their chosen method, which may mean being a bit catty or dismissive of other methods. There’s nothing wrong with a little professional rivalry and pride, but insistence that there is only one way, especially if that insistence is coupled with fearmongering and hefty price tags, amounts to a predatory scam and should be avoided. Storefront fortunetellers have a few well documented scams on the books, and the “orgasmic meditation” group OneTouch had a classic life-destroying operation going for a while.

Healers should not claim that their way is the only way. Paths to transformation and healing abound—there is no one way.

A few sunrays to chase

If you’re curious but really don’t know where to start, here are some very broad suggestions to help you sort options:

  • You want answers? Try mediums, tarot, astrology or other forms of divination.
  • You want to broaden your range of experience and access to other realms? Try ayahuasca or learning shamanic techniques yourself.
  • You want to integrate the various parts of yourself and feel whole? Try past life regression, chakra clearing, or soul retrieval.
  • You want to feel alive in your own skin? Try cranial sacral, reiki, or other energetic practices.

No path without hazards is a path worth walking. Armed with clarity of intention and insight about the standard perils, you have a worthy adventure ahead of you as a spiritual juggernaut.