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At the Edge / Bob Trubshaw /

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dowser (4k)

Dowsing - the good, the bad and the muddled

Bob Trubshaw

'the mind that holds an idea becomes held by it.'
S. Radhakrishnan East and west in religion (Allen and Unwin 1933).

Like so many other people, my first 'active' involvement in the various issues that make up 'Earth mysteries' was through dowsing 'Earth energies'. My armchair reading activities had brought to my attention the British Society of Dowsers and, one Eastertime, I set off for Hawkwood College near Stroud for the BSD's beginner's course. After a most enjoyable weekend I returned home feeling able, with some qualifications, to dowse for water, 'energy lines' and what have you. Subsequent holidays saw me waving my 'coat hangers' around various standing stones and prehistoric sites around England and Scotland. When I moved to Leicestershire I quickly made contact with the East Midlands Dowsing Group (EMDG) and learned much from the various lectures and field trips which they arranged.

This autobiographical introduction is not simply self-indulgent; rather I want to demonstrate that I've 'been there, done that'. On most Mercian Mysteries field trips there are folk fairly new to Earth mysteries who are taught to dowse. It is easy for me to recognise the initial enthusiasm which follows the realisation that 'Hey, I can dowse!'.

But, like many others who found they could dowse, and subsequently found 'energy lines' here, there and near-enough everywhere, the next step is, frankly, one of confusion. In an attempt to find out more about a given place 'energy lines' open up so many possibilities that the abundance of responses becomes self-defeating. The answer, clearly, is to impose one's own set of 'rules' to reduce, describe and perhaps quantify the phenomena. There are enough published accounts of such systems - from the pioneering work of Lethbridge or Underwood, through Tom Graves or Havelock Fiddler, plus the wealth of articles in the Journal of the British Society of Dowsers - for it to be clear that there are as many such sets of 'rules' as there are dowsers.

What also emerges from reading any quantity of this literature is that these personal systems rarely have any close correlation with each other. Furthermore, when different dowsers accurately describe what they find at a given site (an all-too-rare occurrence, it might be noted) they rarely have more than a superficial resemblance to any other dowser's work. EMDG field trips have proven this at various 'minor' sites, such as medieval churches, as well as a well-recorded session at the Rollright Stones. Apart from a general tendency to find spirals or concentric circles (and this may well be because of familiarity with Tom Graves' published ideas about this stone circle) none of about ten dowsers who were at Rollright agreed on the number of 'energy' rings, their spacing, or other fundamental factors.

The common trend is for each individual dowser to build up a belief system that 'works' and then use this foundation for further conjecture. For whatever reasons, knowledge that no two dowsers pick up the same energy patterns does not cause the practitioners to subject their observations to the slightest overview or self-criticism. As any one who has tried dowsing will recognise, if you expect to find something, the dowsing instrument will quickly confirm your assumptions. It is quite a different matter to dowse with an open mind and to subject every observation with rigorous checks and evaluations.

In the end, anyone coming to energy dowsing from the 'outside' must be forgiven for thinking that the whole subject has devolved into an unselfcritical mess. The purpose of this article is not to untangle this mess but to merely try to identify what can be salvaged.

Allow me to stop here to clarify this. I'm talking specifically about dowsing for 'Earth energies'. Similar EMDG field trips have shown quite conclusively that different individual's attempts at 'physical dowsing' - by which I mean seeking underground water, buried remains and such like - do correlate extremely well (at least for reasonably experienced dowsers). The best example must be an outing organised by Norman Fahy to Arbor Low where we split up into twos and each pair independently dowsed and mapped the underground water in one 'quadrant' radiating from the circle. When the results for the separate 'slices of pie' were brought together the match-up was excellent. Similarly first-rate results were obtained nearby when the ploughed-out remains of a ditched barrow were dowsed and the results compared to the plans of archaeological excavations. In this instance the dowsers responsible were not particularly experienced at such a task - not least because I was one of the small number involved!

'Physical dowsing' is somehow a different entity from 'energy dowsing' and other aspects which I will refer to later as 'psychic dowsing'. My own working hypothesis runs rather as follows: Physical dowsing is a way of being conscious of sensory inputs which are not directly connected to the more cerebral brain functions. Take as an example man's sensitivity to magnetism [1]. The organ most likely to be responsible is the pineal gland (at puberty the outer layer hardens and becomes magnetically-sensitive) [2]. Yet, although contained within the skull, the pineal lies outside the brain and has no more direct contact with the brain than your big toe; in fact less, as there are no direct nerve connections. So the pineal must communicate with the lower brain, which means the sensations rise up not as 'rational thoughts' but as subconscious 'urges', 'moods' or whatever other word one wants to use to describe such diffuse impressions. In the case of dowsing, clearly the subconscious brain is, in some way, able to alter muscle tension in the shoulders and arms, giving the characteristic 'flick' to a 'V' rod, the crossing of angle rods, or the change in rotation of pendulum.

Yet the same, or similar, channels must also be used by other 'subconscious' stimuli for them to be 'felt'. Among these may well be a variety of 'psychic' perceptions, through to full-blown ESP. Anyone who has become used to using dowsing tools may find that the same techniques work well for 'psychic' explorations, such as dating artifacts, map dowsing, and such like. But, although the manner of bringing the raw impulse through to conscious perception may be the same, this does not mean that the origins are the same. Physical dowsing may, for instance, be linked to the magnetic sensitivity of the pineal, whereas 'psychic' sensations have emanate from quite different organs.

There is a widespread tendency for us to perceive the novel and 'unknown' in terms of our own cultural contexts. Dan Wilson was perhaps the first to explore in print the idea that our psychic capacities tune in to highly specific forms. To act as a 'handle' for his ideas Wilson adopted the term 'Display Theory' (DT) which he described as '. . . the idea that psychic (or 'second-seen') phenomena such as energy lines and auras are not things in their own right but explanatory constructs within the mind of the perceiver . . . ' [3]. If this sounds dry and dusty, elsewhere Wilson writes: 'It is sometimes said that energy lines are the acupuncture meridians of the planet. As we shall see, in DT this is like saying cotton wool is candy floss for the eyes: not a very valuable statement.' [4]

Putting it another way, medieval Europeans saw visions of the Virgin Mary; the Japanese or Chinese equivalent was to see demons from their own pantheon; in our profane era we just encounter aliens [5]. To quote an academic article in Anthropology of consciousness 'Contemporary interpretations of UFOs serve the unconscious resurrection of the power and function of omnipotent beings during a secular age.' [6] The article later goes on to cite the authority of three independent researchers before making the following claim: 'spontaneous altered states of consciousness are endemic in any "normal" population and cultural beliefs exert primary influence upon the content.'

Starhawk has approached the same subject with greater insight: 'Sensory forms and symbolic interpretations are subjective, the cloak of objective energies and entities. Whether those entities are internal forces or external beings depends on how one defines the self. It is more romantic and exciting (and probably truer) to see them as at least partly external; it is psychologically healthier and probably wiser to see them as internal. A thing can be internal and still be objective, still be real. A neurosis or conflict, for example, may be verified as real by others even before it is perceived by the self.' [7]

Forgive me if I continue with another lengthy quote, this time from a very different author: 'To understand the problem we have with energy dowsing consider the fact that, within the "neural network" of the brain, there is only information: input and output. At this level we have almost no way of linking information with the original source of that information. Ideas and images and metaphors - meta-levels of information - are, at this level, indistinguishable from sensory information: they are all equally "real" . . . . any kind of pattern can easily become a "preferred pathway", a pseudo-cause of the dowsing effect. (I suspect, very strongly, that this is usually, rather than occasionally, the case with most so-called "energy dowsing" that happens today.)' (author's emphasis) [8]. So wrote Tom Graves in his attempt to put right the many misunderstandings that he sees making up 'energy dowsing' in recent years. Indeed, the whole article makes essential reading for anyone who has followed so far my own attempts to cover very similar ground.

What is not necessarily in dispute is that there is 'something there' - whatever this so-called 'Earth energy' may be. Maybe it is something 'subtle' and intangible in any other way (a 'consciousness field', if you like). For my money it could just as easily be the Earth's natural electromagnetic field being distorted by each and every object - and person - on the planet. Any attempt to make sense of such a complex and ever-varying phenomena would be, to borrow a taoist metaphor, like trying to catch a moving stream in a bucket.

If fish - from the humble dog fish to the sharks - are sensitive enough to subtle variations in electric field to be able to 'dowse' out their prey in dark water (or even under sand) then I do not find it impossible to believe that we have some residual sensitivity of this kind. In a somewhat overlooked book, The black goddess and the sixth sense, Peter Redgrove [9] evaluates the 'Extra Sensuous Perceptions' of the animal - and human - world. He cites various scientists, such as Becker and Marino [10], who state that not all information gathered by the usual senses is 'processed at the conscious level, and there is no physiological principle that would preclude the subliminal detection of EMFs [electromagnetic fields] by the nervous system.'

Indeed, anyone who is more than superficially interested in this article would do well to read Redgrove's book, as he covers a range of related topics, such as people whose moods swing with the weather, those who are overly-sensitive to high voltage fields such as from pylons, and a whole world of subtle sensitivities in 'abnormal' humans (or is it just that these faculties have atrophied from not being used in the majority of the population?). He develops such ideas both in the context of claimed 'extra-sensory perception' and for dowsing. He summarises this section with the statement: 'The dowsing or water-diving reflex - the twitch of the arm muscles that indicates a field-change - is only one of the human responses behind which lies this 'webwork of forces' of which animals and plants are, as it were, initiated and active presences. It is like a great collective mind, which we call Unconscious, for the reason that we are for the main part unconscious of it. We are capable of more, far more.'

As mentioned in my rant in the last Mercian Mysteries, 'News from the frontline', there is something about some people that makes it necessary for them to impose order on complex phenomena. Perhaps we would be better to accept the raw phenomena as beyond neat and tidy categorisation and instead adopt a greater humility to the sense of place - somewhere along the lines of what Nigel Pennick is describing in Anima Loci (Nideck 1993)and Paul Devereux's notion of 'being and seeing' [11].

It seems to me 'Earth energy' dowsers have three options:

  • Stick with the 'mumbo jumbo' (but don't expect other folk to take you seriously).
  • Get to the bottom of what you're claiming - and provide repeatable evidence, which can lead to double-blind testing and/or predictive theories.
  • Give things up as a bad job and move on to something more interesting.
No prizes for guessing that the present author falls into the latter camp - but anyone following the second option is very welcome to use the pages of Mercian Mysteries to air their ideas. Option one enthusiasts will no doubt want to subscribe to other magazines in future!

[The information concerning East Midlands Dowsing Group activities is purely personal and does not necessarily reflect the opinions of other members.]


1: As demonstrated by Dr Robin R. Baker of the University of Manchester; cf. 'A sense of magnetism', R.R. Baker, New Scientist, 18th Sept 1980. Also 'Magnetism and its influence on humans', Paul Tinman, Magonia No.26, 1987.
2: Where science and magic meet, Element, 1991 and 'Earth, science and magic - the pineal connection', The ley hunter, No.114, 1991.
3: 'DT2: more about display tradition', Dan Wilson, The Fountain No.16, 1987.
4: 'Totally new: the display tradition (but I hate traditions!)', Dan Wilson, The Fountain No.15, 1987
5: 'Imaginary reality', Patrick Harpur, Magonia, No.32, 1988; see also 'Off limits - ufology and the deconstruction of reality', Peter Rogerson, Magonia No.30, 1988.
6: 'The quest for transcendence: an ethnography of UFOs in America', R.E. Bartholomew, The anthropology of consciousness Vol.2, No.'s 1-2 p1-12. Although not pertinent to the topic of this article I cannot resist including another quote from this source: 'If
an anthropologist: were to place the same standards of legitimacy on Western religion that Western social scientists have placed on UFO realities, Christianity would be ignored as "exotic", pseudoscientific nonsense.'
7: The spiral dance, Starhawk, Harper and Row, 1979. Another good piece in the same vein is 'Belief - a key to magick' by Phil Hine, in The wild places No.3.
8: 'Energy dowsing - muddling with the meta-pattern', Tom Graves, The ley hunter, No.113, 1990.
9: The black goddess and the sixth sense, Peter Redgrove, Bloomsbury 1987 (paperback Paladin 1989).
10: Electromagnetism and life, Robert O. Becker and Andrew A. Marino, State University of New York Press, 1982
11: As described in Earth Memory, Quantum, 1991.

Originally published in Mercian Mysteries No.15 May 1993.

See also:
Dowsing: a review of experimental research by George P. Hansen

Slawek Wojtowicz's 'how to dowse' site

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At the Edge / Bob Trubshaw /

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Created April 1996; updated November 2008