Making Use of Divination in the Classroom
by Michael Berman

Divination is defined in the Introduction to Loewe and Blacker’s Divination and Oracles (1981) as ‘the attempt to elicit from some higher power or supernatural being the answers to questions beyond the range of ordinary human understanding’. If we concur with the belief that such techniques enable us to catalyze our own unconscious knowledge’ (see Von Franz, 1980, p.38), then divination can also be claimed to be the attempt to elicit the answers to such questions from what is commonly referred to in New Age texts as the “inner shaman”.

The practice of divination can be traced back into the distant past and by biblical times it was clearly widespread. Despite the warning given to the people of Israel not to follow the “abominable practices” of neighbouring nations, which included human sacrifice, divination, soothsaying, sorcery, mediumship, and necromancy, (see Deuteronomy 18:9-11) we now know that ‘Israelite divination corresponded broadly in the range of its uses to the utilisation of divination in Mesopotamia and elsewhere in the Near Eastern environment’ (Cryer, 1994, p.324). And there is actually ‘no reason to believe that the various phenomena which the Israelites banned as “practices of the peoples” were actually derived from Israel’s neighbours’ (Cryer, 1994, p.326). Historical linguistics suggests that the forms of magic used in Israel were in all likelihood domestic (see Cryer, 1994, p.262). A good example of this is the goral-lot, for which there is no useful extra-Israelite etymology from the early pre-exilic period. So how come practices forbidden by God were not only utilised by the people of Israel but are also likely to have been domestic rather than the foreign imports they were previously believed to have been by scholars. The answer is simple. ‘The strictures against certain types of divination were probably a ‘means of restricting the practice to those who were “entitled” to employ it … to the central cult figures who enjoyed the warrants of power, prestige and, not least, education’ (Cryer, 1994, p.327). Cryer’s explanation makes perfect sense for if the practice had not been restricted to the chosen few, then the cult figures would no longer have been cult figures and would have had to look for alternative employment.

As Lama Chime Radha, Rinpoche points out, one can scarcely expect such a process

will be totally convincing to someone who has never experienced the reality of divination … and whose culture conditions him to an almost instinctive and unthinking rejection of everything relating to magic, mystery and the operation of forces and principles which are not at present recognised by modern Western science, [though] … Jungian psychology, with its concepts of the supra-individual reaches of the unconscious mind, and of intuition as a function of equal validity to that of reason, offers the easiest way for the modern sceptic to arrive at an intellectually respectable position (Loewe & Blacker, 1981, pp.12-13).

It can also be argued that if divination had not been sufficiently successful over the years, it would not still be practised so widely. There remains the possibility, however, that when people are desperate, as a last resort, they are prepared to try anything and that this is the real explanation for its appeal. Clearly more convincing arguments need to be found in order to justify its use.

Kim suggests that ‘Instead of trying to rationalize away the irrational nature of shamanism, we need to see that it is precisely its irrationality which gives it its value and its healing power. Irrationality is important in the field of misfortune, since the experience of misfortune does not really make sense to the sufferer in rational terms’ (Kim, 2003, p.224). The same argument could be applied to the use of divination. It would seem to me to be doubtful, however, that experience of misfortune or the results of divination would make any more sense were they to be explained in irrational terms, and that consequently the suggestion is not particularly helpful to our cause. So let us instead consider the “Jungian” position in more depth by turning to the work of one of his followers, the psychotherapist Von Franz.

She points out how the belief that a statistical truth is the truth is in fact a fallacy as all we are really handling is an abstract concept, not reality itself. And then goes on to add that if we make the mistake of imagining we are dealing with absolute laws in the field of mathematics, we can then be open to the criticism that we are identifying ourselves with the godhead (see Von Franz, 1980, p.32). On the other hand, people who live on the level of the magic view of the world, such as practitioners of divination, never believe that magic is like an absolute law (see Von Franz, 1980, p.37). Incidentally, nor do they talk about magic in such terms, unless they happen to be unprofessional charlatans.


Von Fanz defines oracle techniques as attempts to get at structures which condition certain psychological probabilities – generally collective patterns of behaviour which lead to us reacting in certain predictable ways in certain situations and she refers to these as archetypes (see Von Fanz, 1980, pp.54&56), and the physicist Wolfgang Pauli thought that by knowing which archetype is being constellated, we can then predict what is likely to follow (see Von Fanz, 1980, p.77). Evidence to support this hypothesis can be seen from the way in which we can have the precognition, without knowing the story, of what will happen next in archetypal stories such as fairy tales (see Von Franz, 1980, p.79). Whether or not we use the word “archetype” to describe such structures is not particularly important. What we can conclude, however, is that we tend to behave in certain ways when certain circumstances prevail and what diviners do is to refer to these tendencies. And, viewed in this light, the practice of divination surely becomes a lot more acceptable in the eyes of “non-believers”.

Let us now go on to consider the part intuition plays in the process. There is a strong likelihood that what we believe to be is our intuition at work is in fact the activation of our unconscious knowledge. ‘Our minds process vast amounts of information outside of consciousness, beyond language’ (Myers, 2002, p.29) and thoughts, even when they are outside of awareness, clearly influence other thoughts or actions. Consider, for example, what happens when you go shopping for toothpaste and of how, when you reach the shop, a certain brand name comes into your head. The awakening of such associations is known as priming. Unattended stimuli can subtly affect the way we behave in that ‘implanted ideas and images can automatically – unintentionally, effortlessly, and without awareness – prime how we interpret and recall events’ (Myers, 2002, p.26)

Timothy Wilson argues that the metal processes that control the way we behave are distinct from the mental processes we use to explain our behaviour. Often, what seems to happen is that our gut-level attitudes guide our actions, and then our rational mind attempts to make sense of them. From this Wilson concludes that we are often unaware of why we feel the way we do (see Myers, 2002, pp.33-34). We might say, for example we asked for the “Colgate” brand because we know it’s good for the teeth, though the real reason could be the effect of the adverts we have seen. ‘Reflecting on the reasons for our feelings draws our attention to plausible but possibly erroneous factors’ (Myers, 2002, pp.33-34).

Focusing is something people can do ‘for themselves and with each other’ (Gendlin, 2003, p.6), something the process shares in common with the technique of “journeying” at least as far as neo-shamanic practitioners are concerned. It has been described ‘a process in which you make contact with a special kind of internal bodily awareness’ (Gendlin, 2003, p.10) and it is said to be able to profoundly influence our lives and help us reach personal goals. Gendlin claims that ‘When your felt sense of a situation changes, you change – and therefore, so does your life’ (Gendlin, 2003, p.32). The six movements consist of clearing a space, experiencing a felt sense, identifying a handle for it, checking to make sure the felt sense and the word resonate with each other, asking about its qualities, and receiving whatever comes with a shift and staying with it for a while (see Gendlin, 2003, pp.43-45).

Not only is focusing useful as a form of self-help, it can also be adapted for use by learners in other contexts. It can be used to tap into our unconscious storehouse of knowledge when learning a foreign language – when we are unsure of which possibility to opt for in a multiple-choice vocabulary test, for example. We know our passive knowledge of a language is greater than our active use of it and, once we reach a certain level of competence, we are able to tap into that unconscious linguistic sense to find the solutions we seek. The problem is that most of us lack the confidence to take such an apparently illogical approach to the problems of choice we are faced with and so need encouragement and practice in doing so. And once the results are seen to be positive, this fear then naturally disappears.

The suggested way of going about this is, after clearing a space by making use of relaxation techniques, to say each of the possibilities aloud to oneself, and by this process to identify which one feels right, thus tapping into the unconscious storehouse of knowledge. For it is more than likely you will have heard this word or collocation before once you have attained a high level in the language being studied. It has to be pointed out, however, this is less likely to work in the initial stages of studying a language.

What I am proposing in this article is that effective diviners point out the way in which we tend to behave in certain ways when certain circumstances prevail, and at the same time tap into their vast storehouse of unconscious knowledge. Moreover, it is a technique that, contrary to common belief, all of us, when provided with necessary training, are able to make use of.


Cryer, F.H. (1994) Divination in Ancient Israel and its Near Eastern Environment, Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press.

Gendlin, E.T. (2003 25 th Anniversary Edition) Focusing, London: Rider (first edition published in 1978).

Loewe, M., & Blacker, C. (eds.) (1981) Divination and Oracles, London: George Allen & Unwin Ltd.

Myers, D.G. (2002) Intuition: Its Powers and Perils, New Haven and London: Yale University Press.

Von Franz, M.L. (1980) On Divination and Synchronicity, Toronto, Canada: Inner City Books.

Wilson, T., Lindsey, S., & Schooler, T.Y. ‘A Model of Dual Attitudes,’ Psychological Review 107 (2000) 100-126.


Michael Berman is currently a research student at the University of Wales, Lampeter, and working part-time as a teacher at Oxford House College in London. Publications include A Multiple Intelligences Road to an ELT Classroom and The Power of Metaphor for Crown House Publishing and The Shaman and the Storyteller for Superscript. Michael has been involved in TESOL for over thirty years and has given presentations at Conferences in Austria, Azerbaijan, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Cyprus, Finland, France, Georgia, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Poland, Romania, Russia, Slovenia, Spain, Turkey, and the Ukraine.

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