Clairvoyants are having a surge in popularity, but are they for real or can anyone master the art of truth telling? We challenged Anita Bhagwandas to get in touch with her psychic side
Photography: Sarah Brown
It’s 6pm and I’ve been sat in front of a deck of tarot cards for 45 minutes. My eyes are closed – to connect to the Angels – and I really feel like they’re trying to tell me something. Although I’m not sure what exactly. And seeing as I did once come home so wasted that I was convinced our boiler was talking to me, I could quite easily be wrong.
I’ve just finished the final task in an online course which promised to teach me the finer aspects of tarot reading in a mere day. In fact, over the last month I’ve spent 124 hours trying to hone my psychic skills in a bid to discover if you’re born with the ability to ‘connect to the spirits’ or whether – as many suspect – it’s a melange of guesses, luck and deception.
Interest in psychics is at an all-time high. From embellished tarot prints on the catwalk at Dior, to the Psychic Sisters’ outrageously popular fortune-telling outpost at Selfridges (the Kardashians are fans), the practice has made its way firmly into the cultural zeitgeist. In fact, half the UK population say they believe in psychic ability, and a third of us admit we have sought advice from a psychic at some point in our lives. It’s not just the stereotypical older women with 67 cats who are fans, either. As Gordon Smith, medium and author, explains: “More and more people – especially those in their 20s and 30s – are becoming involved in spirituality [seeking the services of mediums and clairvoyants]. There’s been a huge shift in the last few years.”
Some might say it’s the life stage we’re at – society expects so much of women in their 30s (marriage, babies, suburban home, to list a few more traditional expectations) and if we don’t measure up, it’s easy to feel lacking. So perhaps it’s no surprise that we seek a little reassurance that everything will eventually come good. We do know that, statistically, people are more likely to consult horoscopes and psychics when times are tough.
“As well as personal concerns, when there is more widespread financial or political uncertainty, seeing a psychic would seem to provide us with an individual reassurance – or at the very least some insight into our future – when we have even less control of the bigger picture,” explains psychologist Jo Hemmings.
Of course, things have been consistently crap for millennials for a while. We came of age in the last recession, we’ll be renting until we’re 100 and now Brexit’s adding to the sense of unease gripping the nation – so really, we just need to find some stability somewhere.
Personally, you could say I’m used to this sort of thing. I come from a traditional Indian family and grew up with a family ‘astrologer’ who gave us guidance on everything from marriage to careers. But I became truly obsessed with the spiritual side of life after watching The Craft, aged 13. I slept with crystals under my pillow, collected twigs and feathers to make an altar, used a smudge stick to ward off spirits and bought a tiny book on ‘spells’ to help bring me luck or ‘find me love’. Unsurprisingly after weeks of trying, absolutely nothing happened.
That youthful dabbling stirred something in me though, and since then I’ve been through multiple tarot readings, palmistry sessions and lucid dreaming workshops to find out when the universe is going to give me a hot tattooed man/book deal/puppy. Like most women my age who see clairvoyants, I’ve generally sought guidance at turning points in my life – to see if I’m in the right job, or if there might be a new relationship on the horizon – and I’ve always seen it as a source of comfort. “We tend to turn to a psychic when nothing else seems to be within our control,” agrees psychologist Emma Kenny. “If we find ourselves single, we want to be told we will have a family in the end, or be informed that our career choices and aspirations will be achieved.” But the big question looms: can anyone do it? With so many psychics accused of deception and quackery, I’m keen to find out if clairvoyance is just a case of being smart (and convincing), or having a genuine gift. And after years of finding reassurance at different junctures in my life, I want to know if I can learn to help others looking for the same.
Meeting the mediums
Smith certainly believes that psychic ability is something that you either have or you don’t have. “It’s something you’re born with for the most part,” he says.
But ‘psychic’ is actually a very broad term. Being psychic or clairvoyant means you can gather information beyond the usual five senses. A medium works with spirits, empaths can feel other people’s emotions and an intuitive can tap into subconscious information to improve other people’s lives. “When I hold workshops some people do have very clear ‘gifts’, but for others there’s just as much value in learning to work with their own intuition,” says Smith.
I’d agree with this. Being able to connect with the dead is a major skill, and I’m very sure I don’t have it; many mediums take decades to hone their craft, and often speak about being able to sense spirits from childhood. Some talk about seeing flashes of light or experiencing strong feelings of déjà vu. That said, I do think I’m a natural empath. I feel what other people feel quite deeply (if someone is sad I literally want to burst into tears) and I’m hoping I’ll be able to use this, along with my intuition, to learn to read people’s energies and sense how they’re feeling.
Of course there are sceptics – especially in a world ruled by science and algorithms. Many argue that a practice called ‘cold reading’ is often used, where mediums will just throw out names to see who picks up on them, or that they use ‘Barnam’ statements – vague descriptions that can relate to anyone and yet feel personal, such as “I sense you’re confused about something”. But I’m convinced that it’s genuine, and know I’ve got plenty to learn.
I start my journey with a Skype session with celebrity medium Lee Whyberd. As we chat, he gives me an outline of how to start my ‘spiritual journey’, advising me to focus on meditation, to find a ‘circle’ (a group of people who work on their abilities together) and to go to spiritual church. Strangely, during our session, Whyberd says he can sense my grandmother and describes her appearance in great detail. He passes a message on from her. She says I’ll meet the man I’ll marry in nine months (Whyberd doesn’t know that I’m single or that this particular grandmother was obsessed with me getting married). My interest is certainly piqued.
My next step is a lesson in intuitive meditation (a practice to help you develop your intuitive skills and psychic ability) with medium Alison Wynne-Ryder. We do exercises that ‘root’ me into the ground (I put my feet on the ground and imagine a white light running through my body) followed by visualisations to focus my energy and mind – I have to imagine a candle lying on a table, and go through the process of picking it up and lighting it. “Not everyone can visualise vividly, but I can tell it was easy for you,” she explains. Apparently this is a good indicator that I’ve got some degree of spiritual awareness – so I make it my mission to practice these drills each morning.
Joining the circle
Next, on Whyberd’s advice, I decide to set up a ‘circle’ of my own (a group of like-minded people to practise my new-found skills with). I enlist two pals who are open to this sort of thing (you have to pick your audience when discussing matters of another realm – I once blew a first date on the basis that I didn’t entirely disbelieve the existence of unicorns and ghosts). We use a guided meditation I’ve found online – it’s deeply spiritual, all third eyes and spirit guides asking you to sense energies, hear sounds and feel temperature changes. After it’s finished, we keep our eyes closed and try to gauge what the other is feeling via our intuition. I feel very strongly that one friend has some exciting developments with her love life (she later confirms this to be true). With the other, I feel a strong sense that she’s going through something stressful with her family (again: true). At this point I feel oddly calm. It’s probably because of the meditation, but I can’t help think that it’s also knowing that I’m starting to become connected to something, whether that’s other people or maybe even a higher spirit…
Two weeks into my psychic journey, I want to up my spiritual game. So I go to visit Eilyen Feirbairn, who runs a two- to three-week Mystic Tarot Course. She shows me different tarot packs, from ornate Egyptian and Russian designs to the 1910 Rider Waite deck (with cards like The Magician and The Lovers), which you might recognise from teenage dabblings. She talks me through all the major ‘arcana cards’ (the 22 ‘big picture’ cards found in a 78-card tarot deck), explaining that the Death card is actually a card of new beginnings (rather than a cadaverous omen) and that The Fool generally stands for new beginnings and the desire to feel free. I learn that, although many tarot readers use it as a means of telling people’s fortunes, some, like Feirbairn, read people’s cards (ie. pluck them from the deck and assign personal meaning to each one) as a means to provide guidance and help them make decisions about their life. Learning tarot (remembering the different, and often complex, meanings of countless card combinations) can take years, and I can see why: it’s really intense. But I set aside an hour each day to practise and find an online course to supplement my learning. Eventually, I feel like I can sort-of give a very simple reading. It seems I’m getting there. Slowly.
Take me to church
It’s my final week and I want to really immerse myself in the spiritualist scene – just to see if anything else might rub off on me. So I pay a visit to a spiritualist church, ie. a church run by mediums. Walking into the tiny hall, festooned with flowers and neon candles, I’m unsure about what’s about to go down. There are about nine people in the congregation, and we sing non-denominational hymns (zero mention of religion, only ‘God’) and one of the mediums gives a reading about the importance of being connected to ourselves and each other. She finishes by individually connecting everyone in the room to the ‘spirit’ that has come forward to speak to them. People recognise their loved ones by descriptions of how they looked – such as being hunched over, or holding a walking stick – and the objects they are holding (like Bibles or family photos). It might sound vague, but I get a real sense that there’s some truth to what is happening. However, sadly, when she comes to me, twice, she says that nobody comes forward to speak to me. I’m upset, and a little angry – after all this effort, the spirits are mugging me off!
I’ve seen many sides of the psychic realm this past month – and truthfully not one has taught me anything deceptive or untoward. After four weeks, I am not a medium, but I do think I now have some degree of psychic ability. What I have learnt is the true value of intuition – being able to sense another person’s positive or negative energy and see how it affects certain situations. In fact, our gut feelings are scientifically proven to react more quickly than our logical brains, so it’s worth trusting that flicker of unease we might normally ignore. If a friend is having trouble, I’m definitely going to be on hand to read their cards to help them out. To me, that’s much more realistic than spirits and fortunes, but don’t call me Mystic Anita just yet.
We put Anita’s new-found skills to the test. Scroll down to find out how she fared on her first readings
The tarot card test
Anita tests her new tarot skills on three Stylist staff she’s never met – and we ask our insiders how accurate she is
“She knew I’d been waiting for something”
Amy Queen, ad production and email executive, 25
Anita says: I sensed that Amy has been waiting for something for a while and needed some balance. In terms of energy, Amy was hard to read. She was very poker-faced and it wasn’t until right at the end that I realised what I said had been relevant. She told me at the end that she found it pertinent, but I had no idea if I was hitting anything on the head throughout the whole reading.
Amy says: Anita was pretty accurate with my cards; all had some relevance to my current situation. I am in the process of buying a house and I’m at the very last stage. One of my most relevant cards was The Devil. Anita said this could mean I need more balance in my life and should perhaps cut down on socialising to focus on settling down. She said The Hanged Man means I’ve been waiting for something for a long time but if I hold on, it will eventually happen. To me, this relates to the overly long house buying process (almost eight months). I’m glad there’s light at the end of the tunnel!
“I’ve definitely got some thinking to do”
Moya Lothian-Mclean, editorial assistant, 21
Anita says: Moya’s cards felt like something was imminent. We spoke about the possible breakdown of her relationship; you could tell she’s been thinking about it a lot. The cards read towards a big change. Moya was the easiest to read because she struck me as a very open person. I could tell that what I was saying was relevant because she kept saying, “Oh my god.”
Moya says: I was shocked at how well Anita read me! She explained that the Justice card meant I was feeling that things were unbalanced in my current romantic situation – true, just three days earlier I was upset by my boyfriend dismissing something I wanted to talk about. I audibly gasped when she explained that one of my cards, The Hanged Man, means a sense of hanging around or stagnancy. We ended on more positive cards: The Magician, which means taking control and creating something new, and The Fool – signifying new beginnings and stepping into the unknown. I’ve definitely got some thinking to do.
“Anita picked up on my underlying anxiety”
Stephanie Keating, advertising manager, 27
Anita says: Stephanie was very straight-faced at first but it gave way to nervousness. She explained afterwards that she’s very new in her job. A lot of her cards read about feeling unstable – and she confessed that she had been very worried about fitting in at work and that it was having a knock-on effect on her relationship. Her final card, The Magician (which is all about creativity and taking control) read that she needs to think about things differently. That’s the advice I gave her: to reframe things and relax.
Stephanie says: I’ve just moved house and started a new job, so things have been a bit chaotic. I felt strangely emotional throughout the reading. I felt Anita picked up on my underlying anxiety, which was comforting. Something I will take away is the message that all things come in cycles, they may not be exactly how I want them to be right now, but that doesn’t mean that they won’t work out in the future. I need to sit tight and not fret.
“I did better than I thought I’d do in terms of reading the cards and relating that to the subjects’ lives. Learning the basics of tarot in a month was tough but my readees seemed pleased with their readings and I felt I was giving them a positivity boost, which I loved.”
Additional photography: Nicole Holcroft-Emmess
Props: thanks to Theme Traders
Thanks to Lee Whyberd (leewhyberdpsychicmedium.com), Gordon Smith (gordonsmithmedium.com), Eilyen Feirnbairn (mystictarotwisdom.co.uk), Alison Wynn-Ryder (discovertheangels.com), Katie Winterbourne (katiewinterbourne.com)