History & Science



 CHAPTER 2 of What to Do When You Can’t Decide by Meg Lundstrom (Sounds True 2010)

Lhasa, Tibet, March 1959. A final, fatal confrontation was in the air between the Chinese troops grouping just outside the city and tens of thousands of distraught Tibetans who had surrounded the Dalai Lama’s summer palace to prevent his being arrested by the Chinese. Inside, the twenty-four-year-old Dalai Lama again called in his official medium, the Nechung Oracle, who had twice that week counseled him to stay put. In his autobiography, Freedom in Exile, the Dalai Lama writes: “To my astonishment, he shouted, ‘Go! Go! Tonight!’ The medium, still in his trance, then staggered forward and, snatching up some paper and a pen, wrote down, quite clearly and explicitly, the route that I should take out of the Norbulingka, down to the last Tibetan town on the Indian border.” The Dalai Lama double-checked the counsel using Mo, a divining system akin to casting lots, and it concurred. Against all odds, under the noses of vast numbers of Chinese troops, the Dalai Lama succeeded in escaping Tibet on horseback that night.



When we’re in a dilemma and turn to divining, we’re in good company. “All peoples during all historical periods have practiced divination as a way of exploring the unknown, solving problems, diagnosing ailments, and prescribing medicines and other healing treatments,” writes divination scholar Barbara Tedlock, PhD, of the State University of New York at Buffalo, author of The Woman in the Shaman’s Body.

Originally, people looked for signs in the natural world that appeared out of the blue, so to speak: crows flying to the left or right, clouds forming certain shapes, the first spring flower to blossom, the first animal to cross their path on the first day of the year. This has its limitations. As Ray Grasse points out in The Waking Dream: Unlocking the Symbolic Language of Our Lives: “Though useful when they happen, one can never be sure when an omen might take place. One can’t very well wait for a comet to blaze through the sky or an animal to appear at one’s window before making an important decision. Consequently, humans have developed an assortment of methods to induce omenological messages at will. Given the order and harmony seen as underlying all events, it was believed that the inherent meaningfulness of the universe could be tapped whenever desired to answer specific questions.”

Across cultures and continents, people have successfully used sticks, stones, mirrors, knives, kites, ponds, mandalas, books, betel nuts, cards, tea leaves, animals, numbers, stars, shells —anything at hand —to pluck information out of the environment. Scholars have identified at least seventy categories of divination, many of which fall into the following three approaches (detailed in later chapters):

  1. Casting of lots. The random throwing or tossing of objects, seeing where they land, and interpreting the results to obtain an answer to a question. Perhaps the oldest form of divining, it was used in ancient Assyria with pebbles, in Greece and Rome with sheep knucklebones, in China with yarrow stalks and the I Ching, in Norseland with runes. Today, it’s used in tossing a coin to settle a dispute, in throwing dice, and in lotteries, which involve the random selection of a number or name.
  2. Dowsing. Using a tool to amplify intuition and access information beyond the five senses. Y-shaped twigs and rods have been used to locate water and metals in societies ranging from ancient Egypt through eighteenth-century Germany to present-day rural Oklahoma. The pendulum, a weight hanging from a string or chain, has been used in virtually every society. For example, the Cherokee have used it to locate lost articles, the Finnish and Russians to detect sources of disease in the body, and Australian, British, and Italian soldiers to locate water sources in enemy territory. According to the Observer, a military newspaper, U.S. Marines in Vietnam successfully used wire coat-hangers to dowse for Vietcong tunnels and underground bunkers.
  3. Kinesthetic. Using one’s body as the instrument of insight. As societies developed, this often became the province of trained experts called oracles or shamans, who predicted events and prescribed actions, often through the portal of an altered state induced by music, fasting, chanting, or hallucinogens. Oracles played key roles in Egyptian, Greek, Indian, and Nigerian societies, among others. Shamanism, the religion of indigenous peoples, revolves around mediums skillful at communicating with other dimensions of existence to solve problems.



In many religions, divining has played a role, particularly in Eastern philosophies that stress the interconnectedness of all things. The I Ching, or Book of Changes, is a divinatory text that is the bible of Confucianism. People toss yarrow stalks or coins to divine a pattern, then consult the I Ching to understand the larger context in which events are unfolding and to get specific advice on whether to advance, retreat, or remain still. (Scholars speculate that the orderly worldview, flexibility, and respect for authority embedded in that text do much to account for the success of capitalism in Confucian-based societies in China, Japan, and South Korea.)

Perhaps no religious tradition has developed a more profound understanding of the intricacies and foibles of the human mind than Tibetan Buddhism. Its teachings explore the most subtle levels of cognition in a way that makes psychology look rudimentary. When its most advanced practitioners make a major decision, divining systems are used to bypass the logical mind to access deeper wisdom.

The Dalai Lama, a learned sage of the highest order, regularly consults the Nechung Oracle, a monk who enters a trance state in which his body is believed to be possessed by an entity that supplies information from subtle spiritual realms. High lamas routinely use a system of divination called Mo, which is a casting of lots. It is still performed in monasteries under secretive conditions, but —this being the time of the Tibetan diaspora and the diffusion of its wisdom —you can also purchase a book on Mo over the Internet. A Buddhist nun who was part of the entourage of a famous Tibetan lama once told me that they would arrange for him to speak in, say, Singapore, and the night before leaving, he would toss some small objects and decide to go, not go, change the date, or send someone else instead.

In Hinduism, astrology, which is a formalized system of divination, is used to determine whether marriage partners are compatible, raising the chances of happiness in arranged marriages.

In Western religions, some researchers believe that when the Torah or Old Testament speaks of Urim and Thummim, two stones in the breastplate given to Moses on Mount Sinai and used by a succession of high priests, it is speaking of divining tools, Urim representing Yes and Thummim being No. In the New Testament, the apostle Matthias was chosen to replace Judas by a casting of lots. Although divining is frowned upon in a number of Christian churches today, Christians will sometimes ask a question, pray, and open the Bible at random for an answer, a divining method known as bibliomancy.



Elizabeth Lloyd Mayer, a psychology professor and researcher at the University of California at Berkeley, felt her world of rationality crumble when her eleven-year-old daughter’s prized and rare harp was stolen after a concert in Oakland. After trying every avenue to find it, in desperation Mayer followed the advice of a friend and sought the help of a dowser. The president of the American Society of Dowsers, Harold McCoy, asked her to mail him a map of Oakland; he scanned it using a pendulum, and then called to tell her the exact house the harp was in. The police refused to act, so she plastered posters within a two-block radius of the house, offering a reward for the harp. Furtive phone calls came in, and a few days later, in a dark parking lot, she was handed the instrument.

The episode caused her months of sleepless nights; no part of her belief system could explain how a man sitting in a trailer in Arkansas could locate a stolen harp in Oakland. She embarked on a decade-long exploration and found “a vast, strange new territory of research regarding …interactions between mind and matter that simply cannot be contained inside what we call normal science,” as she described it in Extraordinary Knowing: Science, Skepticism, and the Inexplicable Powers of the Human Mind.

Her initial skepticism was typical: science has, naturally enough, had a hard time with the unseen aspects of divining. This persists in spite of the fact that cutting-edge studies by quantum physicists, neuroscientists, and cell biologists are dismantling cause-and-effect explanations of physical reality. “One of the hallmarks of much late twentieth- and early twenty-first-century science has been its failure to conform to mental images drawn from our everyday experience. Instead, scientists are now imagining parallel universes, quantum nonlocality, wormholes in time and space, mass-energy transformations, cosmic strings, gravity-bent light and other strange concepts that defy common-sense reality,” writes Tedlock. As one physicist put it, quantum reality is not only stranger than we think, it’s stranger than we can think.

Quantum physics has revealed that we live in —and are —a vast ocean of pulsating energy that is 99.999999% empty space. The teacup in your hand, even your hand itself, is not solid matter but actually particles and wave-forms of energy that are connected in nearly unfathomable ways to everything else in the universe.

The breeze on our face, the twinge in our back, the look in our lover’s eyes: physicist David Bohm speculated that these “realities” that we perceive within ourselves and without emerge in each moment from a shapeless, infinite void of pure potentiality. The universe is one of “unbroken wholeness,” he writes, with information being transmitted and received everywhere all at once.

Indeed, in exploring the zero-point field, the so-called empty space between quantum particles, scientists are finding a heaving sea of flux that seems to dynamically link all things in ways that boggle the mind. The effects are nonlocal, which is to say, space and time don’t matter. In hundreds of tightly controlled trials at the Stanford Research Institute and the Princeton Engineering Anomalies Research lab, ordinary people were asked to mentally focus their attention on a person at an unknown location; about two-thirds of the time, they did better than chance at describing what he was seeing around him, such as shoppers in a mall or a boat arena. Often they were able to describe the scene ahead of the time he arrived there, hours before he himself knew of the site. The scientists found that almost all of us, if we’re relaxed and feeling playful, can do this kind of thing and get better at it with practice; it’s just that we typically don’t ask it of ourselves.

What does this suggest for divining? Unfathomable amounts of information are available to us, if we’re relaxed and open enough to tap into it. When we ask a question, our thoughts may produce a subtle, specific vibration that catapults through time and space to resonate with the target with that same vibration. It’s like tuning in to a radio station: when we fix the dial on a target, the radio’s receivers instantly connect with that frequency out of thousands of choices to pull in the music we want. The attitude we take and the skills we develop—which involve putting aside preconceptions, emotions, and desires— enable the signal to come through clear and strong.



Some scientists speculate that the unconscious —­the part of our mind from which concepts emerge, seemingly out of nowhere —­may interact easily with the zero-point field, the flux between particles from which physical reality emerges, seemingly out of nowhere. Some wonder, in fact, if they are not one and the same thing. Our unconscious, as personal as it feels, may emanate not from the gray matter of our brain but from a vast, pulsating universe of potentiality that is simultaneously inside and outside our bodies.

The unconscious, scientists have found, seems to have unfathomable abilities; it is like a parallel supercomputer compared to the cumbersome adding machine that is our conscious mind. It can process vast quantities of information in a split second and spit out an answer, as long as the conscious mind doesn’t meddle too much. In Blink, Malcolm Gladwell writes of “thin-slicing,” the ability of our unconscious to find patterns in situations and behavior based on very narrow slices of experience. He tells of marriage researchers who can tell in an hour if a marriage will be intact in fifteen years, and a tennis coach who can forecast a double fault before a serve is completed. In part, it’s because they’ve built up a dense body of knowledge about a subject, and in part, it’s because they trust their gut. We all have that instinctive knack of sorting through information without conscious thought, it seems. For example, students watching a two-second silent video clip of a professor gave the same rating of effectiveness as students who had the professor for a full semester. But the information is not infallible, Gladwell points out; it can come through distorted if we are blind-sided by erroneous prejudgments, such as racial stereo-typing, or if we are disabled by strong emotions such as fear or anger —factors that also lead divining astray.

Relying on the conscious mind can actually be counterproductive when making a complicated decision, Dutch scientists have found. In one of many such experiments, when people were asked to choose between four cars distinguished by twelve variables, such as gas efficiency, legroom, and stereo systems, those thinking it through carefully and conscientiously made the best choice 23% of the time; people whose unconscious mind did the work (because they were distracted with puzzles) chose correctly 60% of the time. The conscious mind, said study leader Ap Dijksterhuis at the University of Amsterdam, can process only a limited amount of information at once and isn’t good at weighing the relative importance of many factors, whereas the unconscious is better at integrating large amounts of information. His research also found that thinking a lot about a complicated purchase like furniture or a sound system makes us actually more prone to buyer’s remorse afterward. On the other hand, we’re likely to be more satisfied with a consciously-made purchase if we’re buying a simple item with few factors to weigh, like an umbrella or paper towels.

The best strategy, it seems, is not to prize one mode over the other, but to allow both the conscious mind and the unconscious mind a voice. In our culture, attaining that balance usually means giving the unconscious its due and its say. Divining is an approach that provides the tools for that, and because it accesses both modes —conscious and unconscious, left brain and right brain —it can help us to deftly sort out the real from the unreal, the superior from the inferior.



As a society, we prize rational decision-making, yet the more deeply neuroscientists examine conscious choice, the less logical and more mysterious it looks. German researchers, in a study published in Nature Neuroscience, reported that the brain appears to make up its mind ten seconds before we consciously decide to do something. Asked to push buttons with their left or right hand at random and at their own pace, subjects wired to MRIs showed brain activity ten seconds before they made a conscious decision to press a particular button; 70% of the time, scientists could predict in advance which button they would push. “We think our decisions are conscious, but these data show that consciousness is just the tip of the iceberg. This doesn’t rule out free will, but it does make it implausible,” study head John-Dylan Haynes of the Bernstein Center for Computational Neuroscience in Berlin told the Wall Street Journal. The study seems to back up the words of well-known spiritual teacher Eckhart Tolle in A New Earth: “‘I think’ is just as false a statement as ‘I digest’ or ‘I circulate my blood.’ Digestion happens, circulation happens, thinking happens.”

This is almost too mind-boggling to take in —the conscious mind rebels! —and for many centuries, people have vigorously debated whether or not we have free will. But clearly, we feel as if we have it, and flexing the muscle of self-determination is one of the delights of being human. Perhaps with the interactive process of divining, we are experiencing both sides of the coin. When we ask the question, we are enjoying the exercise of our will-power; when we absorb the answer in a receptive state, we are —if just for a moment —enjoying the no-effort state of “being willed.”



Like much of cutting-edge science, studies on divining raise more questions than they answer. Scientists typically focus on water dowsing, since the results are easily verifiable. For example, a rigorous ten-year German peer-reviewed study found that drill teams directed by dowsers had a success rate of 96% in finding water in an arid region of Sri Lanka, far above the 30–50% rate of conventional drilling methods. But when scientists bring dowsing out of the field and into a laboratory —surprise! All bets are off. “Whenever someone’s tried to do a scientific study, whatever makes dowsing work has either sulked and refused to play at all in the laboratory (though continued to work quite happily outside), or followed the experimenter’s theory for a while and then suddenly changed its mind and worked some other way instead. Awkward as ever!” writes Tom Graves in The Dowser’s Workbook. Luckily for us —and for pandas, who can’t breed easily in a lab but manage it just fine in nature —laboratory findings are not the final word but a work in progress.

There is another way to study divining. Using sophisticated equipment, neuroscientists can peer inside the circuitry of the brain to see what is “lighting up.” Brain studies of dowsers, although very preliminary, are intriguing; they show a unique pattern of brain-wave activity that differs from that of skilled meditators. When a dozen experienced dowsers were wired up to EEG machines and told to dowse with a pendulum for water sources underneath the building, activity simultaneously occurred in all four brain-wave frequencies: beta waves (ordinary waking consciousness, the busy, buzzing mind), alpha waves (calm, relaxed, peaceful), theta waves (between wakefulness and sleep, as well as dreaming), and delta waves (deep, dreamless sleep; also seen during intense spiritual and psychic experiences). In effect, they were thinking, relaxing, dozing, and sleeping deeply, all at the same time.

This extraordinary pattern is “something that apparently not even the accomplished yogi can exhibit when he performs his siddhis or paranormal wonders,” write T. Edward Ross and Richard D. Wright in The Divining Mind. Furthermore, the neurons were firing simultaneously on both sides of the brain, in an even and coherent manner, indicating a synchronization that amplifies the brain’s power.

These dowsers were highly skilled, and most likely developed these patterns with practice over time, just as meditators do. In fact, they typically showed that pattern, although less markedly, even when they weren’t dowsing, which could indicate that dowsing helps mold the brain over the years.

The study makes sense to Joe Smith, a retired farmer and long-term dowser, who can carry on an animated conversation while still dropping into the theta state typical of someone on the edge of sleep. “It’s like controlling the pulse of your heart by clearing your mind,” he says. “I can drop my pulse to 38 or 40 —they run and get another nurse!” The more he dowses, he says, “the more I seem to be in the right temperament of mind for it.”

The findings dovetail with the anthropological research of Tedlock. Because science has often relegated divining to the realm of the irrational, it might be speculated that divining activity takes place in the intuitive, nonlinear part of the brain. But in her examination of studies of diviners in Africa, Latin America, and North America, Tedlock found that diviners use both sides of their brain. For example, they intuitively take in images and symbols, sort through them in an orderly way, interpret them, and then discuss with the client the cause of the problem and how to respond —tasks that indicate not just brain activity in the left and right lobes, but the coursing of neurons across the fiber passageways between the two sides called the corpus callosum, indicating that they are integrating both modalities.

Really good dowsers seem to be in a relaxed but alert state throughout the divining process, able to move limberly and seamlessly from task to task and mode to mode. This is a process that you too will experience as you work with the tools in this book. When you ask a question of a divining system, you use your analytical left brain to frame the question precisely, your intuitive right brain to settle into a state of receptivity to pose the question and receive the answer, and your left brain to evaluate it and decide on the next question or step, which may be supplied intuitively.

As you get better at it over time, you’ll feel yourself moving in a delicate dance of opposites: you’ll be relaxed yet alert, neutral yet engaged, surrendered yet fully participating. Interestingly, this is also the paradoxical state in which spiritual insights blossom, and changes in consciousness manifest. In An Experience of Enlightenment, Flora Courtois describes the “linchpin of enlightenment” as a state akin to sitting deeply relaxed in a silent forest, waiting with intense alertness for ultimate danger that can strike at any moment from any direction. “Attention telescopes to point zero at the center and simultaneously opens to infinity at the periphery. Yet neither center nor periphery remains,” she writes.

People in highly evolved states of consciousness often report experiencing a luminous spaciousness that pervades all matter, and sometimes longtime dowsers report a similar sensation. “The longer you’re at dowsing, the quieter you become and the more it becomes a clear, empty space on which things are written,” says Leroy Bull.

Divining, indeed, can lead us to higher, expanded states of consciousness. It must, because we are fully engaging with the Divine and experiencing sacred energies in a relaxed yet purposeful manner. As we sit receptively awaiting a response, our mind becomes still, and in that moment, we touch the Ineffable.