A human being consists of both a physical body that is at home in the physical world, and a spirit body that connects with the spirit world; it is the latter that survives death and carries a person’s identity, consciousness, and personality into the afterlife. This means that while on earth, human beings live in two worlds. Although the heavens and spiritual realms are vast and extend throughout the universe, they include the earth. Hence, earthly people are in constant contact with spirits. Some are sensitive enough to sense their influence; others sense nothing, but that does not mean that spirits are not influencing them, even without their knowledge.
The premise that the visible world is pervaded by invisible forces or spirits that affect the lives of the living is the basis of Shamanism. Believing that illness and bad fortune may be caused by spirits, shamans use their psychic abilities to remove evil spirits and draw in the protection of good spirits. Despite repression by organized religions, Shamanism survives among indigenous peoples, and shamanic practice continues today in the tundras, jungles, deserts, and other rural areas, and also in cities, towns, suburbs, and shantytowns all over the world. Moreover, the Christian Bible reports that Jesus healed the sick and the mentally disturbed by performing exorcisms to cast out demons and evil spirits that were inhabiting the victim’s body. In addition to Christian exorcism, instructions for exorcism are found in the Vedas and in the Jewish Kabbalah. In the Sunnah, it is reported that Muhammad also cast out demons.
Negative Spiritual Influences
Unwanted spiritual influence can occur when:
- A spirit influences an earthly person: the victim may suffer an unexplained mental disturbance, called spiritual obsession (or in the most extreme cases, spirit possession). The obsessed may be led to behave abnormally without apparent reason and may not be able to explain his deeds or crimes. Or, the possessing spirit may cause the victim to suffer from chronic pains or physical illness for which there is no medical explanation.
- A spirit influences a second earthly person to harm the subject: in this case the victim is maligned, attacked, or persecuted without cause by someone else, whom the spirit uses to get at the victim. The agent of that attack usually does not know he or she is being influenced. Typically some small complaint is the hook upon which the obsessing spirit acts to magnify the emotions out of all proportion. If the spirit obsesses a spouse, it can wreck a marriage. Spirits who perished in a long-ago war can stir up war fever in a population. This type of spiritual influence is not often recognized.
- A living person or a spirit influences a spirit: mostly occurs when the spirit of a deceased person is not able to break his bonds with the living and hangs around, suffering as they suffer.
Obsession and spirit possession is discussed by spiritualists and exorcists, not only because it is the basis of their work, but also because the practices of mediumship and exorcism can make the practitioner vulnerable to unwanted spiritual influences. Nevertheless, spiritual influence may be far more widespread, having also been detected by hypnotherapists. People may become vulnerable to obsessing spirits when they go through a trauma such as surgery or the sudden death of a loved one, or by partaking of drugs or alcohol.
The obsessing spirits, having once lived on earth, persist with the same types of motives that they had during their earthly life, and continue to act on them whenever the opportunity arises. Hence they have the same kinds of motivation as criminals in any crime—envy, revenge, prejudice, sadism—plus some new ones due to their condition as a spirit:
The lust for earthly pleasures that the spirit, without a body of its own, cannot experience. This leads him to obsess a living person to share his or her emotions, eventually leading her to do things so that the spirit can partake on his or her feelings.
Prolonged grief for the deceased loved ones may keep strong bonds between the living and the dead, preventing the latter from leaving the world and going on with their missions.
Spirits seek to assuage old resentments against enemies long dead by taking vengeance on their enemies’ living descendants—either by obsessing them directly or obsessing an agent to harm them.
Not all mental perturbations have spiritual origin. It is necessary to rule out any psychological or psychiatric causes prior to any spiritual treatment. “To hear voices” may be a case of obsession, but is usually a simple case of paranoia. Nevertheless, many apparently neurotic and psychotic phenomena have spiritual causes.
The solution to the problem of spiritual influence requires:
- Living according to the commandments of God so that one’s moral stature can act as a wall between oneself and the “inferior” would-be obsessors.
- Loving one other as Christ taught, forgiving and asking for forgiveness.
- Praying for God’s protection and guidance whenever one’s will is weakened.
- Recognizing the nature of the spirit’s resentment as reflected in one’s own weaknesses and predilections, and working to make amends for those things.
Positive Spiritual Influences
The workings of the spirit world can influence human society for good, for instance, in the inspiration given to artists and poets, scientists and inventors. In classical Greek thought, the term inspiration, literally “breathed upon,” refers to the spiritual origin of creativity in the arts. Homer wrote that a poet’s songs were placed within his heart by the gods (Odyssey 22.347-8). Plato taught that the poet breaks through to the world of divine apprehension and is compelled by that vision to create (Symposium 197a and Phaedrus 244). Other classical thinkers, from Aristotle to Ovid and Cicero believed likewise. In Christianity, inspiration is a gift of the Holy Spirit, but may be mediated by the personality and views of the artist. For church fathers like Saint Jerome, David was the perfect poet, for he best negotiated between the divine impulse and the human consciousness. Romantic writers such as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Percy Bysshe Shelley saw inspiration in terms similar to the Greeks: the poet tuned himself to the (mystical) “winds.” Recognizing the necessity of inspiration from a higher source, poets and artists from antiquity to modern times have invoked the Muse to stimulate their creative work. Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Æolian Harp compared poetry to channeling from the spirit world. William Butler Yeats would later experiment with and value automatic writing.
The same can be said of the spiritual influences that inspire scientists and inventors. A scientist may work on a problem for many years with no result, and then in one moment may unexpectedly receive the solution through a flash of inspiration or even in a dream. For example, the German organic chemist1 August Kekulé puzzled for years over the chemical structure of benzene, until he dreamed of snakes seizing their tails in their mouths to form rings. Einstein reported that after years of fruitless calculations, he suddenly had the solution to the general theory of relativity revealed in a dream “like a giant die making an indelible impress, a huge map of the universe outlined itself in one clear vision.” Numerous scientists have reported a similar creative process. While it may be due to some as-yet unexplained psychological mechanism, it fits the pattern of artistic creativity in which the role of spiritual inspiration has been traditionally acknowledged.
Various accounts of the spirit world describe halls of invention, where spirits work on new discoveries that will be communicated at the appropriate time to earthly people. Baha’is likewise affirm this type of benevolent spiritual influence:
The light which these souls [of departed saints] radiate is responsible for the progress of the world and the advancement of its peoples. They are like leaven which leavens the world of being, and constitute the animating force through which the arts and wonders of the world are made manifest… These souls and symbols of detachment have provided, and will continue to provide, the supreme moving impulse in the world of being (Gleanings from the Writings of Bahá’u’lláh 81).
How Spiritual Influence Benefits the Spirits
Intercourse between heaven and earth works both ways. Spirits can be mobilized to assist earthly people for a righteous cause; conversely spirits need help from earthly people to resolve their own difficulties. Many religions promote the idea that the living should make offerings to benefit the dead; the Latter-day Saints even promote baptism for the dead as a way to bring them closer to the perfection of the end-times.
Spirits are often motivated to influence earthly people because they need to complete unfinished tasks on earth. In Kabbalah such a spirit is called a dybbuk, the name for a spirit that is permitted to return from Gehenna (the Jewish name for purgatory or the middle spirit world), because it had not been able to fulfill its function in its lifetime and so should have another opportunity to do so. The spirit then seeks out and “attaches” itself to a living person who is going through things or in a similar “life position” to what the soul was in during its lifetime. There are good dybbuks and bad, with a good dybbuk’s “attachment” performing more the role of a spiritual guide to help the person through their current trials and tribulations that the soul was attracted to. These good influences are usually referred to as a sod ha’ibbur. This phenomenon is sometimes mistaken for reincarnation.
In the case of a negative dybbuk, the spirit is not there to help as much and causes the same mistakes and chaos that it originally experienced during its own lifetime. Nevertheless, if the earthly person perseveres and overcomes those difficulties, the spirit receives that benefit also.