Let’s be honest. Most of us would imagine that a move from the rarefied world of investment banking to establishing and running the thriving spiritual centre that is Banyan Retreat would be a pretty big leap and then some. But we’d be wrong. Read on. . .
I’ve visited Banyan Retreat on a number of occasions. For me and many others it’s a magical place, a calm spiritual oasis in the depths of the Kent countryside. But it’s not just the bricks and mortar or even the stunning grounds surrounding it that make Banyan what it is. You’ll think I’m getting into the realms of the airy-fairy here (perish the thought!) but I can only describe it as a feeling of ‘rightness’.
I put that down in large part to the vision and integrity of Banyan’s founder and director, Nic Whitham, and his partner and fellow trustee Steven Siu. Nic may have spent years in the financial sector but the reality is that he was steeped in the spiritual life from small childhood.
“I spent twenty years working in investment banking,” he tells me. “My responsibilities were primarily to project-manage the build and fit-out of new offices worldwide, with a heavy bias towards technology and networking. It was not unusual for me to take two or three long-haul flights in a week as I travelled around the world managing concurrently running projects.”
A heritage of healing
This jet-setting life may have been all-consuming for Nic at that time, but his roots were very different. He was born into a family of dedicated healers.
“My mother was a Reiki healer and my father was a trance healer,” he explains. “In my father’s development circle, whose main control I will call SC, I watched my father give and also receive healing many times throughout my childhood. My first memory of that was when my father experienced problems with his back and received healing from the medium of his circle. Her control was an African Zulu medicine man, and I watched as he cupped the medium’s hands when she was entranced, and blew loudly and very strongly into his back. As a seven-year-old child this amused me enormously and from that point on I had a great interest in healing.
“I chatted regularly to SC as a child and his guidance and wisdom stay with me to this day. When I was about fifteen, he asked me what I would like to do with my life. I told him I wanted to be a medium and work for his world. He responded that there would come a point in my life when I would work for the spirit world, but not yet. He said I must go out and live my own life first or I would always regret it.
“Shortly after that I moved to London and would often visit the SAGB which was then in Belgrave Square. I saw names such as Ivy Northage and Coral Polge on their posters. At the time those names meant nothing to me so I missed the opportunity of seeing them (and many others) work, which I now very much regret. I’d been brought up with mediumship all around me, but apart from the odd trip to a Spiritualist church when SC would be giving an address, I was quite oblivious to all other aspects of mediumship.”
Some years later Nic joined the healing and development circle of a trance medium in Highgate. She was Collette Simpson, later to become Collette Brewerton. He has fond memories of this group. “We had an amazing healing circle and excellent communication through Collette in the trance state,” he recalls.
On the move and a sad event
In 1986 Nic was offered a position with an American investment bank. He would be based in Hong Kong and Singapore. Some years later he was promoted to a vice-president/executive director role with the bank and was offered the choice between a new position in London, or moving to Australia. In 1997, before he could make that choice, Nic’s father passed to spirit and he returned temporarily to the UK.
“Whilst there, I went to seek advice from my old friend SC,” he says. “I asked for his guidance on the decision I had to make and he explained that the book of my life was in two halves. The first chapter was about to close and it was time to start the second. He told me: ‘It is time to come home and do some real work. All you have learned will be of use to you in your new life. You will become a meeting and merging of cultures in the same way you have been experiencing for the past few years as you travelled from country to country.’
“Shortly after that, Steven and I packed up our homes in Singapore and Hong Kong and moved back to London. Over the next few years I started to have vivid dreams about a healing and spiritual centre. Whilst still flying around the world each week I started to focus more on natural healing modalities. Steven and I studied and gained qualifications in Anatomy and Physiology, Reflexology, Indian Head Massage, Electro Crystal Therapy, Bio-Energyfield Assessments, Thai Massage and Spiritual Healing. We also became Reiki Masters. In addition, Steven is an accomplished practitioner of Tai Chi Qigong, which he now teaches and demonstrates on a regular basis.”
So, SC had given his advice. Nic and Steven had embarked on the study of many healing modalities. The stage was set for Part Two. And so began a search for the premises that would turn Nic’s dreams into reality.
Off with the handcuffs!
“Each weekend when I was at home, we would drive around looking at properties anywhere from Oxfordshire to Sussex. We saw hundreds of places but none suited our needs and we still had to sell our house. At Easter 2005 we finally received a call to say it had been sold. The pressure to find Banyan Retreat was about to increase significantly.
“Within days Steven found Lake House and we went to visit the property. As we drove through the gates we knew this was going to be our future home.
“After twelve months of renovating and changing the structure to suit our needs it was time to remove the golden handcuffs of city life and start our new life. The adjustment to our new lifestyle hit hard at first but we soon became accustomed to it. I made a promise to the spirit world that as long as I was able to take Steven to Hong Kong to see his family on a regular basis, and as long as we had food on the table, the doors of Banyan Retreat would remain open to all on both sides of life for as long as possible.”
These days Banyan hosts numerous mediumistic demonstrations, workshops and physical seances. Standards are consistently high, which to me is a blessed relief after all the – how shall I put it tactfully? – sometimes less-than-well-run centres I had to visit during my time as editor of Psychic News! So what is Nic’s overall philosophy in selecting his mediums and teachers?
The search for outstanding exponents
“In June 2010 we invited Ron Jordan to give a trance demonstration,” he explains. “
We didn’t know Ron personally, and when he arrived he asked to sit somewhere quiet before the dem. As it began, his control asked to speak to ‘the two boys at the back’ (Steven and me). He said that within twelve to eighteen months we wouldn’t recognise the place due to the changes that were about to occur. He also told us that many would want to work with us and we should accept only the best. We have tried to hold true to this ever since.
“At the time of Ron’s visit, Banyan was not the thriving centre it is today. Steven and I didn’t know how much longer we would be able to survive. Where the two function
rooms are today was a swimming pool with a gym area which we used for workshops and demonstrations. It was always our dream to remove the pool and create work space. Within eighteen months of Ron’s prediction this transformation took place and we now have the workroom we always dreamed of.”
Few of us can be under the illusion that the Spiritualist movement is brimming over with excellent exponents. The truth is that exceptional demonstrators and teachers are not, and never have been, two a penny.
“Our movement has developed a culture whereby people learn to give a link, then immediately go out to work with the general public,” Nic laments. “What a huge disappointment for the spirit world! Very few mediums understand the history of the Spiritist and Spiritualist movements. The pioneers who dedicated, and in some instances gave their lives for their mediumship are now only names people have heard in passing.
“There are a number of organisations which insist that communication must be given only in the way they dictate. We in this world cannot dictate to the Great Spirit how communication should be presented. By doing this to mediums, these organisations limit what is possible by creating boundaries that they insist should not be crossed. When mediums teach at Banyan Retreat they all know they are totally free to work in the way they are inspired to work, with absolutely no boundaries or restrictions.”
Religions and egos
“I believe religions are mostly about control of the followers and Spiritualism is no different,” Nic says bluntly. “It is very easy to see the ego beginning to rise within those who have an influence on the future direction of Spiritualism, to suit their own ends. They claim to have consulted their own inspirers for guidance on various matters and the outcome always seems to fall in their favour.
“Although Banyan Retreat may be closely aligned to the beliefs and work of Spiritists and Spiritualists we will always remain independent of any religion. We are very fortunate to have the full support of the spirit world. We have received and continue to receive guidance from the spirit world when necessary. They also let us know when we should have handled matters differently.”
Drama in the seance room
One of Banyan’s most impressive facilities is a purpose-built seance room. It’s a lovely
forty-seat space which doesn’t engender that vague feeling of claustrophobia which can sometimes afflict sitters during physical seances in small rooms. The seance room hosts regular physical seances with Scott Milligan and has hosted seances with others physical mediums in the past.
Nic is passionate about the need for integrity in all forms of mediumship, physical in particular, especially when it takes place in complete darkness. Last year he took the decision to release film footage of a self-described ‘physical medium’ apparently engaged in fraudulent behaviour. Most people, myself included, applauded him for taking this stand. Yet there were others who were not happy and attempted to defend the indefensible.
I wondered how this affected Nic on a personal level and asked him if he would do the same again in a similar situation.
“I most certainly would do the same again if the situation arises,” he answers emphatically. “We are the voice of the spirit world in this our physical realm and we must speak out and defend their work at every opportunity. I believe it was my duty to make people aware of this fraudulent activity with a view to putting a stop to it.
“The experience over the past twelve months has affected us both quite deeply. It has made me become a little less spiritual in my thoughts and actions. For example, I am no longer able to offer people the benefit of any doubt I may have about their actions. I think of the people out there who still to this day defend this fraudulent activity and I have to remind myself that they are to be loved and forgiven, as one day they will see the truth.
“I now have zero tolerance for those who send me messages asking why I wasn’t more spiritual in my thinking and actions. I tell them that all my love goes only to the many who were duped by this person both financially and emotionally. There is no greater crime in my mind than preying on others’ emotional hurt and grieving. Many overlook the opportunity that was offered to this individual when I asked him to stop all physical work and then the video footage would never be made public. Sadly it was only a matter of days before he conducted another physical séance.
More than just teaching
Student mentorship programmes are also on Banyan’s menu. I’ve often wondered how these mentorships work in practice. Nic explains:
“There can sometimes be a level of frustration when tutors hold a one or two-day workshop and see great potential with one of the students. The tutors know there is little that can be done in just a couple of days. But if they see these students on a regular basis over a twelve-month period, great improvement is possible if the students are willing to listen and learn.
“The first mentorship programme started in 2012 and was the result of a brainstorming session with Mavis Pittilla, Jean Else, Steven and myself. We were the first to start these programmes and of course it wasn’t long before other tutors followed suit.”
“One of the major concerns is that many mediums start to teach long before they should,” says Nic. Very few mediums/tutors have the ability to track the link with their student – becoming aware of the communicator themselves and following the communication as received by the student. I have heard Mavis on many occasions say to a student: ‘Good, but you forgot to mention x, y and z.’
“Each mentorship programme consists of eight weekends over a twelve month period. The students must commit to these weekends and be receptive to absorbing knowledge from the tutors. The programmes do not only focus on the development of mediumistic faculties, they also focus on the history and pioneers of our movement.”
A gift from the spirit world
So what are Nic’s hopes and plans for Banyan Retreat’s future?
“That’s a difficult one,” he replies, “as we live in a very materialistic world and the costs of keeping the doors open at Banyan Retreat each month are considerable. Couple this with health and age, and I am not exactly sure where things will lead. Banyan Retreat will continue for as long as we are able. It may not always be located at Lake House due to the extensive workload required to maintain the grounds and property.
“I feel there are more genuine physical mediums in development at this time and when the time is right they will find their way to our door and will be supported by our wonderful tutors.
“Our hope is that Banyan Retreat will live on long after we are both gone from this world. The power that has built there, and the good work completed so far, must continue so that many more people can benefit from the experiences currently available.
“The spirit world must have places to work without constraints being imposed by this world. Seekers of the truth must have places they can visit knowing that all they will see and experience is done in truth, love and light. It is a true gift from the spirit world to humankind.”