Chapter Three: An exploration of Animism and how I came see it as a potentially valid knowledge system

This is one of a series of chapters. Please go to the original introductory post and read in order

In this chapter I discuss my ‘discovery’ of animism and why it became a central theme in my thinking. I also explore the meaning of animism in its original conception and consider what it means to discover that its essential elements are present in the major metaphysical and esoteric systems of advanced cultures, including the contemporary Western mystical and esoteric traditions.

The ‘discovery’ of animism

 In the late 1980s I eschewed my involvement in practice-based occult knowledge systems, recognising that I lacked the intellectual discipline and learning to satisfy my need to develop a coherent and comprehensible narrative. I spent the near next decade pursuing a wider line of inquiry. In 2002, while reading Johnson’s A History of Christianity (1976) I found his discussion on the Catholic church’s passion for relics struck a chord with me. I was familiar, from my readings in anthropology, with the importance of power objects amongst traditional cultures, and I was familiar with the role of sacred objects in ritual and magical practice. The discussion on relics was new to me and rather than laughing at the practice of the veneration of relics from the comfortable standpoint of a rational educated modern person looking back over the follies of history, I found myself strangely touched and moved. It was an epiphany from a most unexpected quarter. I had had my own moment of dealing with strangely almost sacred ‘relics’ that still resonated strongly.

In 1996 I disposed of many personal and household items in a local tip as I prepared to relocate to England. This was a surprisingly emotional experience as even otherwise insignificant objects excited strong memories and feelings. I was surprised at the wrenching emotions I experienced as I discarded things that had been part of my life for many years, and that now had become impedimenta. I kept a small selection of significant objects that later were arrayed in my flat in Dover as essential and powerful links to the life I had left behind.

One day, as I sat in the flat I suddenly realised that I had created a protective circle around me, and that it had similar elements to magical rituals of protection. I had adorned the walls with images of my life in Australia and had arrayed my objects and images around the lounge room so as to create a complete encirclement that defined my ‘place’ as separate from the world beyond it. These objects and images were both personal and, in a sense, archetypal or emblematic. I had created a distinct ‘other place’ that had meaning, power and protection for me. It was a sacred place in which I could evoke memories and associations that empowered me, gave me meaning and identity. It was a refuge and a sanctuary.

Aside from photographs I had stones I had gathered on my journeys, a bush potpourri, a didgeridoo, a carved tree root from a creek bed near Broken Hill that had a distinct phallic shape to it and an array of personal memorabilia, all of which defined a distinctly Australian story. As well, I had treasured occult images and objects that included a small-scale replica of a hawk representing the Egyptian god Horus, a startlingly life-like rubber snake, an array of crystals and an ornate chalice.

Outside, in the other world of England, my story meant nothing. The things that gave me identity and significance were meaningless, or, at best, curiosities. I was beginning to understand the immigrant experience – of being a stranger in a strange land, but more importantly I was starting to comprehend the power of objects and images as vital carriers of meaning in ways that I had never before thought possible. This experience made me more attentive to the role and importance of objects as sources of meaning, memory, comfort and emotional strength. They also seemed to have ‘power’, that is, a reservoir of  psychic potency, and a wellspring that tapped into distant places or realities remote in time and space. In a sense, they manifested ‘otherworldly’ potencies that could be called upon for strength and meaning in the present time.

Reading Johnson’s (1976) observations on holy relics triggered in me a sudden insight that here was a common human practice that embraced secular and sacred functions, and that provided a source of  powerful meaning and symbolic importance. Context may have differed in the instances that came to mind, but the essence of the practice seemed to remain consistent. Whether the object was infused with an indwelling spirit, sacred power or association, or memory, there seemed to be a fundamental similarity – as something that could convey strength or meaning.

Over the years of my inquiry I had encountered the idea of animism, usually in the context of the descriptor “animistic” as a general idea, but having presumed its meaning, at the most basic popular level, I had not investigated further. It was not until I had proposed this research project and commenced my research reading did the idea that animism might have a larger and more significant meaning begin to form. This was in itself an accident. I had been leafing through Funk & Wagnell’s Standard Dictionary of Folklore, Mythology, and Legend and glanced across the page at ‘animism’ to read; “The belief in souls; the attributes of spirits or personality to physical objects or phenomena…” (Leach, 1975 p. 62). It was a starting point that emerged, ineluctably, as a compelling central theme for my subsequent thinking. It was unexpected, and forced a complete rethink of the original project.

Here I became aware of an apparent paradox that reinforced my perception that operating within an ontological and epistemological system of specialist language and privileged knowledge inhibited understanding. The more I thought about them, the core animistic ideas not only crossed the secular/sacred boundaries but inhabited thought systems that appeared to be remote from the popular sense of animism as a primitive knowledge system.

I understood immediately what I was reading, because here was precisely what formed the core ideas in the Western mystery tradition, in Kabbalah, in Hermeticism, in Wicca and shamanism. If animism were the primitive system as was generally believed to be, what were its core ideas doing infusing these other sophisticated knowledge systems? Why were these ideas seeping into and through purely secular ideas? How could something I had dismissed in passing as no longer valid suddenly surge up as a central theme in my thought?

As I inquired further it also seemed that knowledge systems acknowledged as being essentially animistic also incorporated many elements of my own involuntary experiences. Rationally it seemed as if I could link animism as a primitive system to later more sophisticated mystical and magical systems, including those accepted and practised in contemporary Western culture by people who could not, by any means be considered ‘primitive’, and to my own experiences.

Something was not right. If animism were the primitive system of thought from which we had evolved into rational conscious humans, then elements of the system should not be present in such abundance in contemporary mystical and magical practice. Neither should I be able to perceive a clear link throughout Christian thought nor in modern secular life.

At this stage I decided I had to revise my research project and find a way of incorporating this new  information. Surprisingly this proved to be immensely difficult. Initially I was swamped with so many implications and avenues of inquiry that the project quickly lost its shape and the original research question became buried under a multitude of competing questions.

Having arrived at Animism so unexpectedly, I realised that it was now necessary to re-examine the  concept. It seemed to be deeply associated with both my experiences and my learning and training in magic.

It seemed possible that I might have to interrogate the most ancient and ‘primitive’ form of human religious knowledge (Guthrie 1995, Charlton 2002) in order to gain an understanding of what had been happening to me. Although, by now, I had accumulated many explanations that cast some light upon past experiences, I had not yet resolved them into a coherent articulation of systemic thought.

I had to refine my research questions to include secondary questions that could guide me towards answering the main thesis questions. One such question was: “What role did the essential ideas  of animism play in my experiences and my subsequent training and practise in ritual magic? How did this apparently primitive system fit within my evolving explanatory narrative? Did it have something important to say?

Towards a definition of animism

I have come to see in animism a most useful overarching intellectual framework, though somewhat maligned by ideological, political and cultural forces. It is therefore relevant to return to the original term and consider its meaning.

The development of the term ‘animism’ is attributed to the English scholar E. B. Tylor (1871) in his  theory on the origins of religion in the latter part of the nineteenth century. However Stringer (1999), writing in the Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, argues that Tylor would have preferred to use the term ‘spiritualism’ but decided against doing so because of its employment by others in a context with which he had little sympathy. Stringer notes that, “Tylor comments that Animism is not a new technical term” and a footnote explains that “the term has been especially used to denote the doctrine of Stahl. The Animism of Stahl is a revival and development in modern scientific shape of the classic theory identifying vital principle and soul’ (1871: I, 384-5)” (1999 p. 451).

The word animism itself derives from the Latin, animus/anima (soul or mind), but the deeper roots may be traced to the Greek anemos, meaning wind, and the Sanskrit aniti (he breathes). Soul is the animating principle of the world, the breath ( The Greek philosophers (especially Thales) are the source by which the idea of animism has entered Western thought, to be  eventually employed by Tylor, but its thought foundations are more ancient and near universal.

Tylor proposed that the earliest form of religion was a belief in ghosts and spirits, but he did this in the context of arguing that there was “a strict, scientific analogy between primitive man and the child and its mentality” (Bolle, 1987 p. 297). He saw this fundamental belief as the minimum necessary definition upon which religion might evolve.

Stringer’s reading of Tylor leads him quickly to observe, “Much to my surprise, I found myself reading a very sensitive, sophisticated, intellectually complex text written by a scholar whose ideas seemed to bear very little relation to my popular conception of his writing.” .1999 p.1 He goes on to make an important observation, in that, “My own particular interest relates to Tylor’s theories of religion, in particular his emphasis on ‘Animism’. I was not convinced that this concept could be dismissed quite as readily as many subsequent writers have suggested” (p. 1) Subsequent commentary on Tylor’s work seems critical, but this may reflect as much a vigorous interest in the subject matter as Stringer’s suggested misinterpretation and even carelessness.

Tylor’s presumption that early humans and contemporary indigenous people represented the child-like state of human consciousness at the commencement of the evolutionary journey towards modern consciousness could mean that the beliefs in spirits and ghosts were considered to be erroneous. Bolle (1999) says of Tylor that although he:

…wished to show that primitive religion was rational, that it arose from unmistakable observations, nevertheless he judged these observations to be inadequate of themselves. Although logical deductions were drawn from these observations, he believed these deductions were faulty. And although the “savages” managed to construct a natural philosophy, as a philosophy it remained crude. Tylor thus stressed the rational element in primitive religion and at the same time referred to that religion as “this farrago of nonsense. (p. 298)

But Stringer (1999) argues that Tylor, contrary to critical commentary, was not trying to find the ‘origin’ of religion. He had a stronger interest in “why so many people around the world appear to believe in  things which do not make immediate rational sense to the Victorian scientific mind” (p. 1). Tylor considered animism “a ‘primitive philosophy’, a prerequisite for religion, and not as a religion in itself” (p. 1).

Rational speculation and theorising of the time, sought to interpret what was observed within the boundaries of a culture that steeped in the Christian tradition and that had energetically engaged with Darwin’s radical theory. Animism could not be embraced by Victorian Christianity, which invalidated any spiritual tradition that did not conform to its claim of sole franchise on divine revelation. Neither could it be embraced in other than Tylor’s terms – as a primitive state of awareness out of which humanity had since evolved: at least to those members of humanity who saw themselves as representing the present apex of development. Tylor’s position that the precepts of animism arose from valid and rational, but:

“inadequate, observations, resulting in erroneous interpretations about how the world worked, reflected his time and circumstance. “Tylor was a Quaker, and in the spirit of his age he associated the evolution of man with the natural process of growth and with a general increase in human understanding and responsibility” (Bolle, 1987, p. 297)

The popular broad definitions of animism, discussed below, essentially express it in terms of the presence of animating spirits in objects and the landscape, and probably do not do justice to Tylor’s ideas. He is surprisingly close to later more sympathetic ideas in thinking that “…for the primitive, the dream-world would not be less real than the waking state” (Bolle, 1987 p. 298). Bolle argues that Tylor developed a coherent “theory of the soul” which was, in Tylor’s words, “one principle part of a system of religious philosophy which unites, in an unbroken line of mental connexion, the savage fetish worshipper and the civilized Christian” (1987 p. 298). To Tylor, “In general, developments taking place on the “lower level of mythic religion” are confirmed in higher, more intellectual traditions, such as those of Greece and China, and are finally reinforced by the spread of Christianity” (1987 p. 298). To Tylor it was natural that there should be a progression through varying levels of complexity and sophistication of religious ideation that culminated in the monotheism of Christianity.

In the early stages of the last century two writers sought to embrace Tylor ‘s work and honour animism as a valued legacy in human evolution. Clodd (1905) argued that “Animists, in germ, were our pre-human ancestors; animists, to the core, we remain. (p. 97) and “…that what is called Animism remains the  distinctive feature of the highest religions” (p. 96). Gilmore (1919) took a distinctly Christian perspective, asserting that animism had bestowed three legacies upon his culture. The first was “the precious discovery of the existence of soul in man …. The supreme expression of that value was given by Jesus of Nazareth”(p. 119). The second was “the continued life of the soul beyond the grave” and the third was “the belief in superhuman powers” (p. 120).

Gilmore considers these legacies “three great conceptions” for which the race “has to thank the stage of culture we have been studying” (p. 121). Neither Clodd nor Gilmore make any pretence to match Tylor’s scientific perspective. Both strive to accommodate the ‘primitive’ as a foundation from which subsequent religious thought has evolved, giving, in Gilmore’s case, its highest expression in Christianity. Clodd saw animism as a persistent “distinctive feature of the highest religions”. Beyond the concerns about how animism might fit within the scientific conception of human evolution Clodd and Gilmore represent an early effort to honour a legacy otherwise rendered problematic and invalid by the dominant scientific, cultural and religious certainties of the age.

The works of Clodd and Gilmore thus resonate with me, despite their now outmoded forms of expression, because they express the open-mindedness of religious thinkers striving to honour and accommodate what is elsewhere, in the same age, dismissed or diminished. Here I detect genuine efforts to acknowledge animism as an enduring and valued foundation to religious thought, and hence to philosophic and even scientific thought. As Stringer demonstrates in his re-consideration of Tylor there is a risk of ethnocentricity and historical hubris in dismissing earlier thinkers because we fail to mine beneath the seemingly offensive and grating idiom to the rich vein of thought.

Contemporary definitions of animism follow a common thread: that all things are possessed of an individual spirit or soul. In the natural world landforms or places, streams or ponds had a resident spirit. Small objects such as tools or amulets also have their indwelling sprit. Bates (2003) says that “For the Saxons the natural environment was imbued with invisible spirits, a parallel universe of sacred power.” (p. 71). The Funk and Wagnell’s Standard Dictionary of Folklore Mythology and Legend provides an insightful example of a definition of animism as: “The belief in souls; the attribution of spirit or  personality to physical objects or phenomena; specifically the religious philosophy found universally in mankind which peoples the physical universe with spirits found in animals, plants, stones, weapons, meteorological events etc.” (p. 62). This same essential description is repeated in the on-line Wikipedia: “Animism is a belief system that does not accept the separation of body and soul, of spirit from matter. As such it is based upon the belief that personalized souls are found in animals, plants, and other material objects, governing, to some degree, their existence. It also assumes that this unification of matter and spirit plays a role in daily life.” ( These definitions embrace the essential elements of the present popular conception.

Bird-David (1999) argues that these definitions are surprising unrevised interpretations of Tylor. She says: “Amazingly, the century-­‐old Tylorian concept appears in all these diverse sources (popular and academic, general and specific) revised little if at all.” (p. S67). She argues that this sets up a vicious cycle in which reliance upon the Tylorist interpretation reinforces the derogatory view of traditional peoples who are described  as  animistic.   As  a  solution,  Bird-­‐David  offers  an  alternative  notion:  animism  as  a  relational epistemology.

She argues that:

“that  hunter-­‐gatherer  animism  constitutes  a  relational  (not  a  failed)  epistemology.  This epistemology is about knowing the world by focusing the same to things around them, primarily on relatedness, from a related point of view.” (1999 p. S69)

Bird-David goes on to expand on this, asserting that:

“We do not first personify other entities and then socialize with them but personify them as, when,   and   because   we   socialize.   Recognizing   a   “conversation”   counter-­‐being—which amounts to accepting it into fellowship rather than recognizing a common essence – makes that being a self in relation with ourselves.” (1999 p. S78)

In essence then, what Bird-David offers by way of definition is a focus upon one aspect of animism as the central theme of attention: the sense of relationship, rather than the nature of those things that populate the relationship. She does not offer this as a final thesis, but, rather, sees thinking about animism in this way:

“as a spur to deeper questions concerning the nature and meaning of animistic thought, including, “Surely, however, the most intriguing question is why and how the modernist project estranged itself from the tendency to animate things, if it is indeed universal.” (1999 p. S79)

The chief distinction between Tylor’s definition of animism and Bird-David’s is, perhaps, one arising from culture. Where Tylor presumed and unpinning spiritual reality in relation to which he felt able to critique beliefs, Bird-David appears to adopt the default position of the ‘objective’ researcher by making no such presumption. This observation implies no criticism either way, but it does present a fundamental problem in that neither position is free of presumption. Tylor was able to derive his interpretation of animism because he presumed an underlying spiritual reality, just as much as Bird-David develops hers from the absence of such presumption. Is a definition that lies between both positions possible?

Bird-David’s perspective is closely allied to that of Harvey (2006) who certainly developed ‘new’  animism as a distinct and popular modality. He focuses on the sense of deep relationship, arguing that:

“Although there are good reasons for listening to calls for the term animism to be abandoned, there are better reasons to celebrate its reclamation and re-application. The term has been part of the battery of prejudice with which indigenous peoples have been assaulted. This being so, it is arguable that even the old negative use of the term should be kept, carefully fenced in and surrounded by warning signs…” (p. 28)

Harvey goes on say that he seeks to:

.”..demonstrate that animism is useful as a label for some actions, relationships, understandings, rhetorics, narratives, performances, constructions, worldviews and lifeways” (Harvey, 2006, p. 28)

His principle purpose is to:

“…contribute to the on-going re-animation of a term and of respectful academic engagement with our living, sensuous, communal and sometimes fragile world .:(p. 29).

However Harvey appears also to define this ‘new’ animism in essentially humanist terms, with a focus on conduct-based ethical concerns. He asserts that:

“Animist ethics, like animist spirituality, might – indeed must – engage with a wide and diverse community of persons, but its chief concern is with better ways of being human. Lessons may be learnt from observing and communicating with eagles, rivers, rocks and trees, but the most important of these lessons is not aimed at a transcendence of humanity but a fuller expression of it. Such encounters do not merely aim to produce better persons but specifically aim to produce better humans, better eagles, better rocks and so on>” (p. 172).

He goes on to argue that:

“Animism does not provide either a spirituality or an ethic that demands transcendence…animism is more concerned with being more human and more engaged in the life of this world (and) Elders rather than children are better acquainted with ‘the way of being human’ that is animism.” (p. 173).

Harvey addresses one aspect of animism, the sense of deep connection with other-than-human lives and establishes a sound argument for a sense of ‘moral economy’. He asserts that “People learn to be animists” (2006 p. 175), and adds that “For humans, life is a process of becoming increasingly human, of learning what it means to be a human person, and how to best achieve and enact such lessons” (p. 175). But in arguing that a ‘chief concern’ of Animism is ‘better ways of being human’ Harvey, in my view, sets a moral character to the idea, rather than recognising Animism as a mode of interpretation arising from experience. The moral implications may be seen as a consequence of Animistic perception.

The problematic nature of the term animism is rendered more problematic in the conception of ‘new’ animism. The original meaning, and the developed meaning, while employed disrespectfully to traditional knowledge systems because of the presumption of error, at least honoured the metaphysical or ontological depths of the belief systems. Harvey’s account appears to minimise the ontological elements of animistic experience by seeking to redefine the nature of spirits and souls, as relational constructs. I find this problematic. He suggests that: “Perhaps ‘person’ is more straightforward” (p.122). He goes on to argue that:

The terms spirit and soul may be helpful, necessary even, in a discussion of animist understandings of the nature of the world and persons within it. They are part of those popular discourses that reach for an understanding of the complexities of personhood along with ‘mind’, ‘conscience’, ‘consciousness’, ‘subconsciousness’, ‘heart’, ‘affections’ and so on. It seems unlikely that ‘soul’ or ‘spirit’ will ever be defined in a fixed manner or become technical terms with unambiguous and/or fixed referents. They appear to indicate a common perception that life is more than embodiment.” (2006 p. 137)

Both soul and spirit are terms that are defined within mystical knowledge systems. Both Halevi (1974) and Knight (1965) employ distinctions that define both terms finely within the Kabbalistic knowledge system. While both terms are part of popular discourses, they remain equally part of mystical discourses and the issue of attributing precise meaning to either has more to do with whether the employers of the terms are prepared to work within a definite knowledge system or within the messier realm of popular discourse, which, of necessity, admits plural and imprecise meanings to words drawn from more defined knowledge systems. In a similar respect ‘mind’, ‘conscience’, ‘consciousness’ and ‘subconsciousness’ are equally available to precise meaning within disciplines of psychology and philosophy, even while they are freely used with less precision in popular discourse.

Harvey’s position is that “animism is not a theory that ‘everything lives’, but is concerned with particular relationships” (2006 p. 120). This seems to me to misrepresent the essential metaphysic that a spirit infused world sometimes expresses in particularised ‘persons’ (in Harvey’s sense) and these persons intersect with and interact with the sphere of human experience, bringing consequences that need to be managed. Whether ‘everything lives’ or not depends on how ‘lives’ is understood. Does the universe live or ‘exist’, ‘persons’ with whom a managed and sensitive relationship is either desirable or necessary.

Harvey goes on to elaborate on the nature of relationships, saying that:

“Extraordinary encounters and experiences may be considered to validate intuitions, expectations and understandings about the nature of the world, but they are not sought after as the primary focus of animism. Indeed encounters with some such persons require the labour of shamans, and are generally unwelcome. Even more generally, however, animism – which embeds the living of life within a richly diverse community – certainly privileges some relationships as being more important than others. These privileged relationships are usually those of everyday life supported by the occasional extraordinary encounters…” (2006 pp. 124-125)

If I were to contrast Tylor with Harvey, one the ‘inventor’ of Animism and the other whose name seems synonymous of New Animism my sympathies would lie more strongly with Tylor. Harvey’s interpretation is meritorious in that it does seek to restore some sense of animistic awareness, but, for me, at the cost of seeming to deny the validity of the visceral and energetic experiences that Tylor saw as the root the way of knowing.

I drew from Harvey not a sense of the world as a “Thou”, but a sense of the world as an “It” that should be treated as if it were a “Thou”, because it is more beneficial to do so. I do not disagree with the proposition that it is more beneficial to do so, rather with the finer argument about why it is and the substance upon which the argument is made.

I first encountered the idea of the world being seen as a ‘Thou’ in Frankfort et al (1946). Frankfort proposed that our ancestors reflexively conceived of the world in terms of thouness as opposed to itness. It seems like a sensible assertion, though Radin (1957) emphatically disagreed, asserting such was the fruit of mistaken interpretation. But Radin does not actually articulate a counter proposition. He does, however, offer some finessed subtle insights into robust and practical world views. He does not, I think, offer support to Harvey’s interpretation. I prefer Frankfort’s characterisation as a broad assertion in that if thouness and itness were the only two available options then thouness, as a primary presumption about the nature of the world, would predominate as the preferred assumption. That is, I can see that an assumption of thouness may be an innate human reflex, but it also potentially represents a smarter strategy, more than Guthrie’s percepetual strategy, embracing the conceptual. This seems like support of Harvey, but here I am linking an assertion of actuality with a recognition of strategic benefit as well. Both Guthrie and Harvey see strategic merits, but deny the underpinning reality.

Likewise my experiences have obliged me to posit something closer to Tylor’s position than to Bird- David’s. Hence I have a greater sympathy for one perspective over the other. I struggle, therefore, to see things in terms that are not either/or. From my perspective there is a certain subtle self-deception in thinking that believing there is no under-pinning spiritual reality constitutes a neutral position, rather than an asserted contrary one. It is not possible, I think, to arrive at a compromise position between either/or. However what the notion of relational epistemology does is find middle ground between animism and no animism. But this is an entirely different matter. It is a useful and valuable means of advancing inquiry because it prevents total invalidation of the idea.

I will continue to employ animism in the spirit of the Tylorist interpretation.

Ghosts and spirits – the population of an animistic awareness

Tylor had a stronger interest in ghosts of deceased humans, than spirits in nature as the “earliest phenomena that could have triggered man’s mind in the formation of religion.” He thought that the  “experience of death and dying, and from dreams and dreaming” led to questions about what happens at death. “The primitive observed what happened and refused to accept death as final. Moreover, in a dream one would see the deceased alive, moving, speaking.” (Bolle 1987 p. 298) Perhaps Tylor’s chief difficulty was not in the development of theory from observation and evidence, but from the constraints of the acceptance of the proposition that Christian monotheism represented the apex of the evolution of religious ideation. This obliged Tylor to argue backwards from a known to interpret gained knowledge in conformity with a conclusion already established. Even though Bolle says that “the mass of evidence drawn from history and from among contemporary tribal traditions gave Tylor’s theory the impressive scientific persuasiveness that a more empirically inclined age desires.” (1987 p. 298) there is a presumption at the foundation, which accepts a pre-existing conclusion as valid. The theory is ultimately shaped by a foundational assumption and preconception.

Ghosts or spirits of deceased humans do raise the subject of post-mortem persistence of some element of the human psyche and constitute an entirely different order of non-corporeal being, relative to ‘nature spirits’. The spirits of the deceased and spirits of the natural world are both non-material and both are accepted within the broad animistic system of knowledge. The subject of ghosts has been treated lightly  in the contemporary West, in popular culture and among sceptics, although it has been the subject of serious but marginalised parapsychological study. The problem of compliant appearance and the lack of apparent repeatability defeats conventional scientific method, though ghost stories abound at the level of folklore and popular story telling. The questions of misapprehension and misinterpretation persist in the face of the fundamental difficulties of achieving scientifically valid data, and against the near universality of the phenomenon.

The shades of deceased humans play an important role in animistic thought, not only because ancestors are considered to be a source of guidance to the living, but also because they can be the source of trouble. Acceptance of ghosts demands acceptance of a post-mortem state in which human consciousness persists. And it can persist close to the human realm or remote from it. It is generally preferred that deceased  human spirits remove themselves from close proximity to the human realm because otherwise their presence usually signals some kind of interference. It might be argued that those of our ancestors, for whom the ‘dream world’ and the waking world were equally real and equally sensed, had a rational and pragmatic reason for paying attention to sprits and ghosts.

My experiences suggest that what we have come to understand as Animism may have evolved, as an explanatory model, from an interpretation of experiences and perceptions. Tylor’s assertion that ghosts and spirits have played a powerful role in the development of religion makes sense to me. My own direct experience with spirits illustrates how necessary it is to merge the experiences into a explanatory narrative. Two in particular involved my father and my mother, separately in post-mortem events. My father died of a heart attack not quite a month after his second wife died of cancer. They were very close and while her death was anticipated, his was not. Several weeks after his funeral I was at home writing when I heard my name called. I was alone at the time and was not able to determine its source, so dismissed the first  instance and went back to my work. The calling persisted and I finally had a strong sense of my father and his wife sitting above the high ceiling of the house. I asked why they were up there and he said that it was proper, because they were dead. They wanted to assure me that they had met up and were happy. They left and I had no more contact from them.

My mother’s situation was different. She died of colon cancer in a hospice in Hobart in early 1998. The family had gathered and we were keeping vigil. She was heavily dosed on morphine and was barely lucid. In the late afternoon of the day she died I was sitting in her room when I felt a distinct and malevolent presence and a voice saying bitterly and repeatedly “You foul bitch! you oul bitch!.” (it could have been ‘witch’ as the accent was thick) I used my past training to set up a defensive barrier around her. For the next hour or so I sat there as my sisters stayed close to my mother, evidently unaware of anything untoward. Shortly before my stepfather arrived, he had gone home to sleep awhile, the atmosphere in the room altered noticeably and a distinct thought intruded “We’ll take over from here.” There was a strong business-like manner to it, and I knew, then, that my mother would go soon. She died several hours later with my stepfather at her side.

The funeral was dominated by my step-father’s Pentecostal friends. My mother had been involved in the faith but had withdrawn some time ago, and only a few of her friends were present. After the funeral one of my sisters remarked that she had not felt mum’s presence anywhere. It really wasn’t her kind of event. It was steeped in the conventions of my step-father’s faith and was deeply unappealing. Later, at the family home, where I had returned alone, I felt her strongly in the garden that she had been making. I said my goodbye there.

She had died on the day before my birthday, so my birthday eve had a strange elegance of a cyclical sense of death and birth, and on the first anniversary, by which time I had removed to Lismore in northern New South Wales, she visited. It was unexpected. I was sitting on the front steps with a glass of wine engaged in a customary reflection on the year just ending for me when I had a sudden powerful sense of her presence, sitting, leaning back on a verandah post. She told me she had a birthday present and proceeded to tell me things about my childhood that had a dramatic and lasting impact on me. In neither case did I have the experience of seeing a presence externally. Rather it was a blend of a ‘mind’s eye’ perception allied with a distinct and powerful sense of presence.

By the time of these experiences I was accustomed to the notion of post-mortem persistence of the human consciousness, so I was receptive to them and somewhat attuned to the prospect of them happening, though I anticipated none of them. They were not disruptive. My mother’s visitation was a kind of formal gift giving, whereas my father’s was happy and funny. Acceptance of, and attunement to, deeper levels of perception are not confined to these kinds of experiences. Any experienced eye or ear will see and hear things in specific context that the unfamiliar senses will miss. The knowledgeable and experienced in any field will perceive what is otherwise ‘not there’, and interpret that evidence in what might otherwise be considered to be extra-sensory, even magical.

Ghosts and spirits are different. A ghost usually refers to a presence that has limited and habituated  conduct within a definite spatial domain, whereas a spirit of a deceased person possesses the full spectrum of behaviours and nuances, as well as not being confined to a specific place. A ghost is thought to be the energetic residual shell of a deceased person and, as such, it suggests a different order of post-mortem existence to that inferred by the presence of the spirit of the deceased. Where a ghost may be taken to be a kind of residual energy such phenomena might not suggest the supramundane realms that are essential in considering the reality of spirits. Belief in spirits virtually forces a certain kind of acceptance of some condition or state in which human life persists, and gives rise to the necessary question of what it might be. In Tylor’s sense ghosts and spirits may well be the basis upon which religious thought evolved, for if one persists beyond physical being important questions must be asked and answers to them sought. If experience delivers the dead to the living as givers of gifts or the bringers of trouble then some way of making meaning of their persistence is necessary. The scope of ontological interpretation must be expanded to embrace even the insubstantial. Of course, for those who have no such experiences, there is no imperative to embrace the insubstantial, and it might be unsettling to expand one’s ontological frame to embrace what is not experienced. ]

Baldwin (1995) provides a contemporary method of engaging with deceased spirits whose adverse impact upon the living includes physical illness and behavioural aberrations. He says:

“The condition of spirit possession – that is, full or partial takeover of a living human by a discarnate being – has been recognized or at least theorized in every era and every culture. In ninety per cent of societies worldwide there are records of possession-like phenomena.” (Foulks 1985)

Extensive contemporary clinical evidence suggests that discarnate beings, the spirits of deceased humans, can influence living people by forming a physical or mental connection or attachment, and subsequently imposing detrimental physical and/or emotional conditions and symptoms. This condition has been called the “possession state,” “possession disorder,” “spirit possession syndrome,” “spirit obsession,” or “spirit attachment.” (Hyslop 1, 1917, Wickland, 1924; 1934, Allison, 1980; Guidham, 1982; Mc All, 1982; Crabtree, Fiore, 1987). (p.12)

The same theme is taken up by Sagan (1994), who says that:

“…in all traditions and folklores of the earth, one finds references to spirits and non-  physical beings which can interfere with human beings. Thus Ayurveda, the traditional medicine of India, is divided into eight sections, one of which is entirely devoted to the study of …entities, their influence on health and sanity, and the ways one can get rid of them. If we look at traditional Chinese medicine, we find that in acupuncture, among the 361 points of the 14 main meridians, 17 have Kuei (discarnate spirit) as part of their main or secondary name.” (p. 1)

So to some contemporary practitioners who deal with the adverse effects of deceased persons upon the living, the ancient tradition of the presence of ghosts and spirits is not only an acceptable premise, but a valid element of therapeutic praxis.

The extent to which interest in these ideas has developed can be gauged by the number of websites  devoted to the subject. A Google search for ‘spirit releasement’ returned 30,600 possible sites – a substantial number, even if there is well-advised caution about the validity of the methods and the quality f the information.


 Bates (2003) focuses on the Middle-earth belief in dragons to question how we understand, over the boundary of cultural hubris, other knowledge systems. He says:

“Of course today, the notion of dragons seems a fanciful idea more appropriate to childhood – our process of growing up requires that we gradually fetter our fantasies, and  replace them with an adult perspective relentlessly based upon reality. So were the Anglo-Saxons childlike dreamers? On the contrary they had to be intensely practical, for times were hard… So was the belief that dragons were real a sign of primitive thought? Being able to distinguish between reality and fantasy even determines today our distinction between sanity and madness. So did the people of Middle-earth live in a delusional world?” (p. 79)

Bates goes on to argue that the dragon “brought insights to the people’s understanding of life’s vicissitudes” (p. 80), but does not, I think, positively resolve any question about whether dragons are real or not, rather that, as an idea or symbol, they were functional and served a purpose. In other words they were a conception or perception articulated in a particular symbolic way, expressing something that was ‘real’ in one sense, but perhaps not in another.

But the notion that ‘pagan’ knowledge systems evolve because they work and impart some kind of benefit to those who employ them is important because it asks us to accept that knowledge systems that include such as ghosts arose because ghosts were experienced in some way, and that their impact on humans was sufficiently important for the establishment of rituals and codes of conduct, including death rites. What we can infer from Bates is that a knowledge system is also contingent upon the context of perception. A culture that accepts ghosts or spirits and is attuned to their presence is more likely to encounter them than  a culture that denies their existence. In effect Tylor’s critique of animism being rational yet producing nonsense is more comprehensible as a clash of contexts – the experiencer’s and the observer’s differing widely.

Thus in my case, having experiences thrust upon me forced me to seek an explanatory model that accorded with and accommodated experience. And as I moved toward a knowledge system that embraced those experiences the more what might be denied or thought strange to others became ‘normal’ to me. As the explanatory model evolved to accord with experience so, it seemed, that the experiences shifted from being strange to being unremarkable. These days, for example, a sense of spirit presence (a common enough occurrence) barely rates a mention unless there is something particular about it. Not long before writing these words I was followed into the house by a sense of presence of powerful and distinct passion. I had to consciously pause to determine whether it was distress or mischief.

Bates (2003 later observes that “Dragons may have slept ‘like the dead’ for generations, but they were hardly cold-blooded reptiles. Their internal fires flickered perpetually, ready to spit fire” (pp. 84-5). Here he, within the uncertainty of what dragons may be, accepts enough of the imagery to accord them some kind of presence beyond mere metaphor or symbol. Symbols do not sleep ‘like the dead’ or otherwise. The idea that dragons were believed in because dragons exist, or existed, is not something that a contemporary Westerner might comfortably accommodate, if for no other reason than the absence of an credible reports concerning their presence, let alone the howls of derision that might be anticipated if such an idea were to be seriously posited. But bearing in mind the Anglo-Saxon capacity to have knowledge of the ‘other world’ and to apprehend it in some fashion as it interacted with material world, we cannot be sure how they experienced the things they called dragons, nor what they were.

I had my personal accidental ‘dragon experience’ in early 1997. It was quite unexpected. I had travelled to the U.K. in early 1996 expecting to possibly relocate permanently. By March 1997 I had fairly well decided to return to Australia and travelled Ireland with the purpose of visiting my birthplace, Belfast. I was staying with my mother’s cousin in Newtonards, towards the fringe of the town, on Tullyganardy Road. One evening I wandered off up the road and sat on a pile of stones, wondering at the lack of feeling of ‘being home’. I employed a technique of projecting my consciousness into the earth, trying to sense something of the kind of vibrancy familiar to me in Australia. Unexpectedly I had a mental image of a kind of cave or nest, quite deep down, though I had no real sense of depth, in which there seemed to about four dragons sleeping. One rather languidly stirred and communicated to me the surprising, yet distinct message: “Go home. There is nothing for you here.” I was immediately shocked and wanted to withdraw quickly, but found myself forming a question about why it/they were there. I got an answer: “Our time will come again.”

This experience in Tullyganardy Road stands out as unexpected and strong. I had no sense of dragons at the time as anything with which I might engage, (then they were just an idea from fantasy) so I did not undertake the projection with anticipation of doing anything other than seeing if I could register some kind of sympathetic resonance with the land. I certainly did not go looking for dragons.

The sense of coherent energies moving through a landscape may be something like the dragons of the Anglo-Saxons, but I have no way of knowing whether that is the case. However that ability to sense coherent presences does open up the prospect of responding to apparent presences that might be non- apparent, and hence non-existent, to another who does not employ a similar kind of sensitivity.

Jones (2000), who engaged in an exhaustive study of dragons, asks:

“How are peoples of diverse cultures all over the world able to express through their arts the existence of a fantastic, flying, many-toothed, reptilian monster which never existed? Additionally how are they able to relate the same fundamental story about the animal’s behaviour, strengths weaknesses, nature, breath, facial features, haunts, and proclivities?” (p. 113)

He is not satisfied with conventional answers, saying:

“Explanations put forth in the past have been unfocussed, as if the subject matter of the dragon made modern scholars skittish. It seems that most specialists wish to move directly to the assumption that the dragon has no physical basis in reality; that it is powerful, yes, but after all, a mere symbol and therefore by definition inherently nonexistent and empty.” (p. 113)

He does not accept symbolism as the source of potent reality, nor does he accept imagination, arguing that: “The weakest of all arguments simply holds that the dragon sprang from imagination. That, of  course, does not explain its universality, appearance or behaviour” (p. 115). Jones (2000) argues that the image of the dragon combines three animals, the snake, raptor and cat that were long in a predator prey relationship with our primate ancestors, and that over time humans developed a ‘dragon complex’, concluding that “… we are still ancient beings possessed of an instinct for dragons” (p. 119).

In further considering the universal shaman images of the tree of life and the three cosmic realms, Jones asserts that “ The roots of the dragon, the tree, and the three levels are all part of what has to be one of the most crucial elements in understanding how culture evolved, the arboreal experience of our most ancient ancestors” (2000, p. 133). In essence Jones is saying that the only possible explanation for the universality of dragons, something that explains the degree of uniformity of the ideation can be found in the presence of an instinct, a melded image of predators that evolved into a complex in the course of human evolution. The presence of dragons or serpents associated with the tree of life is not an archetypal symbol for any subtle reality, but a residue that goes back to our arboreal primate ancestors, for whom the tree represented a fundamental cosmology of nurture and protection from the predators below and above. Either that or the dragons are denizens of the other world, and represent in symbolic form powers and agencies that impinge upon the physical world from time to time. Jones does not consider this explanation, but he does present sufficient argument against the dragon as misperception or a purely imaginary effort to symbolise the vicissitudes of life.

The Politics of Experience

 Several elements of animism – the perception of spirits and the existence of different realms to which the dead and shamanic travellers may venture constitute a recurrent phenomena that embrace not only ‘primitive’ and archaic cultures but also contemporary practitioners of mystical and magical systems. The simplest explanation, employing Ockham’s Razor, is that this wide and varied adherence arises out of common experience.

I have earlier cited Bates to argue that there is a fundamental sense of utility implicit in animistic ideation. Even Tylor, in his thinking about how archaic people confronted death, acknowledged that the development of animistic narratives at least were predicated upon an experiential ground, as well as rooted in attributes of perception.

If the idea of animism is accepted as arising from a fundamental human utility in responding to experience and perception, then we might expect that there were/are those who develop particular facility and skill in intentional experience and the formulation of specific knowledge. An examination of this knowledge of shamans and magicians can help to identify a coherent body of systematised knowledge drawn from experience and experimentation.

The role of experience, as an intentional practitioner, as opposed to being the recipient of unbidden encounters with phenomena, is less important to this inquiry. However the fact that there are communities of practice does testify to the power of the ideas associated with shamanic and magical practice.

My encounters with intentional practice left me keenly aware of the risks of self-deception, and the appeal of ideas and language whose meanings were too opaque to outsiders and not at all lucid to insiders.  Experiences that occur in conformity to practice raise different types of questions; and usually not ones as extreme as those generated by wild occurrences.

Nothing in my extensive reading and practice introduced me to the idea of animism beyond an encounter with the notion in passing. Although I can now look back and see how past study and practice melds with my emerging understanding of animism, none of it was the engine of my inquiry.

Animism as a means to articulate a response to experience.

Non-conforming experiences do create an exceptional problem of validation, especially when they generate challenging epistemological issues that impact upon self-identity. I sought out possible sources of explanation and meaning for my experiences within different esoteric traditions, but I found these traditions, in my experience, were more inclined to offer protective narratives that embraced ‘experiences’ rather than providing modes of inquiry that ‘explained’ them in a contemporary context. In this respect traditions could be both a haven and cul de sac. I did not want comfort at the cost of understanding.

As a European in Australia, I drew upon traditions that reflected my cultural orientation initially. I sought training in the Western mystery tradition and in Wicca. This presented important questions concerning the relationship between place and culture – what was appropriate in seeking to honour where one was, in terms of practices, symbols and the imagery and language used. What started out as a simple question about what direction one should walk within a circle escalated into a powerful and unsettling doubt about the way in which one might think about Magic, and hence one’s own sense of presence within, and  relationship to the world. The traditional thing is to move ‘clockwise’, but the path of a clock’s arms reflects the passage of the sun in the northern hemisphere. In the southern hemisphere this is direction is what we call anti-clockwise. In which direction should we move in Australia? To answer this question a great deal of argument and debate ensued. We settled on anti-clockwise. But then there arose a greater question. Our seasonal celebrations were the opposite time of the year. As a culture we celebrated the spring festival of Easter in autumn and the winter festival of Christmas in summer. If place mattered, then its character and seasons had to be honoured. Symbols had to be consistent with environment. No holly or snow at Christmas. The energies that were invoked and celebrated had to be founded in reality and not tradition, and where tradition persisted it had to be deeply rooted in reality, not memory.

An opportunity to explore these questions was provided by the discarnate teacher of an English magical order, whose head visited Australia. The following is taken from my magical diary entries of February 11, 1979 (Vol 1)

S.K. (the order head) allowed us to speak with T.M., the order’s inner plane teacher. I asked about the god forms distinct to this country and with which we could expect to be working.

T.M. The nature of the god forms of this land are active and fiery – they need controlling from within yourself. Let them rise within you rather than seek them at their source. They are difficult and very ancient forms.

I asked whether there might be a name of a god that might be applicable. The response was:

T.M. Little use to you. Look for them among the ancient god names you know best. Names are of little use; it is the nature of the force and the symbol that counts.

The theme was later followed up in conversation with our own guide. Entries in my magical diary of Feb 18 1979, pages 153 & 154 pick up the topic.

A:         There are many forces which are peculiar to different races. There are forces which are common to all. But they are not always equitable.

Me: Suppose the question were to lead on – why then X in Australia. Is it a question of our past?

A:         X is a force with which you are familiar. You – both of you are familiar. You would not try to contact this – you could not try to contact this force via the natural god forms of this land. They are not compatible to you. But there is rather a lot of useful information available to you – if you use that particular god nature. It is a tradition with which you have had links.

I have removed a specific name from the text above, replacing it with X to conform with a tradition of confidentiality. What is suggested by these two sources is that it is not always appropriate to access indigenous traditions as a source of spiritual insight and experience, because the nature of the energy is unsuited to the psyche of the alien individual. In this case this would be an admonishment against seeking to use the Aboriginal tradition. In my case what was recommended was a Greek form. The Greek tradition is something with which I have some familiarity, if for no other reason that its central role in the evolution of Western culture, through mythology and classical literature and thought, made me a natural heir. It is safer territory for my psyche than the raw energies of the Australian landscape.

The distinction between Greek and Aboriginal culture, as perceived through the filters of contemporary Western culture are considerable. Each is a response to their presence in place and time, but in terms of the ‘civilised’ psyche one is kinder than the other because the ‘civilised’ psyche is less robustly attuned to unmediated engagement with the natural forces of the world. As a filter through which the great energies we apprehend as gods might be encountered the Greek tradition is considered an easier, safer, path for the Western psyche. It is not, however, a kinder gentler filter in the sense that it is undemanding. The energies engaged with in the mystery traditions are considered inherently dangerous. That danger increases if the individual is ill-prepared or less robust.

The idea that ‘spirit’ agencies and entities are inherently dangerous, regardless of whether they are considered malign or benign embraces not just the profoundly disrupting and unsettling experiences I encountered but also ideas about potency. We are familiar with, and accepting of, the idea that many of our technologies are powerful and potentially lethal or catastrophically harmful if carelessly engaged with or ill-used. Motor cars and chainsaws are good examples. Likewise many life experiences can leave enduring legacies of degree of harm. Injury from devices and experiences can have their origins in the actions of the subtle agencies and entities as much as benefits. I have no direct clear memories of suffering specific injuries at the hands of such influences, other than the disruptions and dramas recounted, but I have strong memories of compelling influences upon my actions that clearly demonstrate the potential for good or ill.

On the 10th of December 1977 I was invited to a party in Balmain. I was sharing a house in the Glebe at the time and the invitation came from a housemate (RB). We took a taxi, along with two friends but on the way RB discovered that he’d left the paper with the address in his room. He proposed going to the pub instead. Normally I’d have agreed because I’ve never really enjoyed parties where I know very few  people, but on this occasion I was gripped with a powerful and astonishing panic. I had to get to that party even if it meant knocking on every door in Balmain. We returned and got the address. At the party  location we were ushered upstairs to a room with about ten people. We sat around for a while and going to the pub looked better and better as an option. But by then RB and our friends were happily stoned and in no mood to go anywhere. I was bored and decided I’d go to the pub. I’d forgotten about the panic that had driven me earlier.

As I left to go down the stairs I encountered a kind of force field through which I could not progress. No matter how hard I tried I was not able to commence my descent. I’d experienced this several times before and knew I had no hope of getting through it. I decided there must be a reason for staying so I returned to my friends. Subsequently, under another compulsion, I engaged in some bizarre conduct (about which I still feel a surge of embarrassment) that resulted in me meeting and later marrying my present partner. In this instance in one evening three instances of intrusive influence changed the course of events. First there was the induced panic the changed the plan to abandon the party and go to the pub. Second I was prevented from leaving the party. Third I was induced to behave in an outrageous manner utterly at odds with my normal shy socially unconfident self. Without each of these interventions the meeting would not have occurred. Here, plainly, was evidence of the capacity of something to affect my conduct for good or ill.

The proposition that agencies and entities can be place specific or not, and require care in engagement through forms and manners appropriate to them and the person seeking that engagement is consistent with the values and beliefs in cultures who may be considered animistic. Likewise the idea that agencies and entities may be malign or benign or neither, but simply dangerous, in their interaction with humans is consistent with animistic thought. Similarly, whether considered to be ghosts, spirits or gods, the presence of influences playing upon human life to alter conduct, and hence fate, is accepted among animistic cultures.

Radin (1957) observes that while some traditional peoples actively seek engagement with spirits through various disciplines such as rituals and vision quests they equally are cautious, recognising that some that are called up can be dangerous, if not lethal.

The use of ‘animism’ in contemporary Western culture

Although animistic ideas are embraced in the popularity of contemporary Pagan, Wiccan and Shamanic practices the words ‘animism’ and ‘animistic’ are rarely used. But the term, and derivations of  it, presently enjoy a resurgent reputation in psychological and in environmental (natural and urban) fields, as well as in arts theory and technology.

Charlton (2002) sees animism as the consequence of human consciousness being a social intelligence that sees the world as sentient, as composed of agents who have “dispositions, motivations and intentions” (p.1). He speaks of “recovered animism”, arguing that:

Animism is not a religious or philosophical doctrine, neither is it an error made by people too young or too primitive to know better – animism is nothing less than the fundamental mode by which human consciousness regards the world. Consciousness just is animistic. And this perspective is a consequence of human evolutionary history (p. 2).

He suggests that there is a future for animistic consciousness, but maybe at an individual, rather than a collective level, at least in more urbanised and standardised expressions of human culture:

“The most probable human future entails more complexity, more planning, more control, and more alienation. But if a shared and public animism is ruled-out, the situation for individuals is different. There may be niches for more-or-less wholly animistic individuals even in modern society, and there certainly are niches for animistic thinking within many ordinary people’s lives. The problem is that, for a modern adult, recovery of animistic thinking entails undoing the effects of an exceptionally thorough and prolonged process of socialisation that has buried animism under a vast superstructure of repressions. Modern adults cannot necessarily recover their animistic thoughts at will, even temporarily.” (Charlton, 2002 pp. 4-5).

Charlton thinks that animistic thinking has declined as a consequence of progressive alienation from the kinds of situations and relationships that made it a ‘natural’ aspect of human awareness. I would argue that certainly the spiritual and intellectual environment in the world into which I was born reflected a cultural movement away from animistic consciousness, at least at the level of understanding and valuing ways of knowing that did not conform to either the religious or scientific orthodoxies that prevailed.

Thinking that employs animistic thoughts and language in response to perceptions of a growing environmental crises appears to have been gathering support for some time. In 1991 Mack argued for the need to develop, or invent, “a new psychology of our relationship to the Earth” (p. 106). He said

By and large, we in the West have rejected the language and experience of the sacred, the divine, and the animation of nature. Our psychology is predominantly a psychology of mechanisms, parts and linear relationships. We have grown suspicious of experiences, no matter how powerful, that cannot be quantified, and we distrust the language of reverence, spirit, and mystical connection, recalling perhaps with fear the superstitiousness and holy wars of earlier periods (p. 106).

Mack saw a problem because of this suspicion. The new psychology must:

“…by virtue of the very nature of the task be a psychology which includes a powerful  spiritual element. This will mean, for example, a reanimation of the forests and of nature, which we have so systematically and proudly denuded of their spiritual meaning.” (Mack, 1991 p. 106).

Elsewhere there is evidence that animism has been taken up with enthusiasm by activists and innovators concerned to reframe thinking by using the term as both an intellectual and emotive leverage to support their vision. Bioregional animism essentially ‘borrows’ animism to strengthen bioregional arguments. The Centre for Bioregional Animism ( follows Harvey’s model in its definition:

It is a form of Personalism where other than human persons including the whole bioregion itself is related to and communicated with as a person, not as if it was a person but as a person. Animism does not personify other then human persons, animals forces of nature, plants, the land and sky, it gives up human dominion over the designation of who and what a person is.

In similar manner the Centre also draws in shamanism to evoke the depth of meaning and connection it sees as fundamental to its conception of bioregionalism:

Bioregional animism attempts to show us that the spirit of the shaman as well as the animist is derived from and is an expression of the bioregion, of the land itself and forms from deeply intimate relationships with the life and spirit of those around us. Bioregional animism works with a base inspiration from the work of Graham Harvey’s New Animism As well as with modern concepts of bioregionalism by such authors on the subject as Kirkpatrick Sales.

Here, I think, we see echoes of Charlton’s notion of ‘recovered animism’ and Mack’s perception of the need for a new psychology that has a more spiritual voice. It is consistent with the wider popularisation of animistic ideas through shamanism, as well as responding to the relational appeal of Harvey’s work. But unlike Mack’s interest in a formal psychology, this is activism, an informal adoption and adaptation of extant ideas in order to meet an imperative to re-conceive and re-value the physical environment.

Elsewhere urban animism reflects a re-conception of the built, human mediated environment. Furney (2004) explores the proposition that while most neo-pagans are urban dwellers, their tradition and its symbols and practices are firmly rural. How does an urban pagan cope with the culturally conditioned habit of seeing the cityscape as substantially inanimate? Can the animistic sentiments of the urban pagan be transformed into a form of “urban re-enchantment”? Furney’s interviews with urban pagans suggest that many are making the change. Some are self-describing as “techno-pagans” and others are inventing new goddesses to respond to the urban environment. She cites “Asphalta (goddess of roads and those who travel them) who help drivers find a parking space and Digitalis – Goddess of computers” (p.11) as examples of such adaptation.

On a more sophisticated level, Peck (2005) writes on responses to a 1923 German Expressionist film, “Die Strasse”, noting that:

“Anton Kaes goes on to develop a brief but bristling theory of the “nexus between urban modernity and the disciplining power of vision.” Protagonists as flaneurs encounter a city that offers them excitement and risk, as well as danger and defeat. What he calls “urban animism,” “the gendered gaze,” and finally “vision and power” round out a sophisticated framework for interpreting the status of seeing in the Expressionist film and beyond.”(p.1)

There is no exploration of what meaning is attached to “urban animism” in this context. In an almost equally unhelpful manner Reutter (2003) comments on Ludwig (2002), referring to his “methodological gesture” he names “radical animism” to “supplement cognitive concepts such as “radical empiricism” and “radical constructivism” and to indicate the epistemological possibilities of this theory that can respond to the political, ethnic and identity concerns of multicultural theorists and generally of contemporary theorists engaged in seeking exits from Western logocentrism.” (p.436)

Greenfield (2007), recognises the technological dimensions of animism. From the website session overview notes he says:

“Folklore is replete with caves that open at a spoken command, swords that can be claimed only by a single individual, mirrors that answer with killing honesty when asked to name the fairest maiden in the land, and so on. Why should anyone be surprised when we try to restage these tales, this time with our technology in the central role?

… many current models for interaction with ubiquitous information-processing systems amount to a reassertion of animism — and a reawakening of something that has  lain dormant within us for much of modernity. What are the consequences of this reawakening for the designers, developers, and marketers of ubiquitous systems?”

Greenfield comprehends that advanced technologies are not extensions of a linear vector of development, but a ‘return’ to something fundamental, a potent conception allied to a potent impulse. Material technology becomes the medium, effectively externalising inner domains and inner heritages.

Animism appears to serve a variety of contemporary needs, from providing a voice to articulate pressing environmental concerns for the construction of a narrative that enables a reframing of a sense of relationship with both the natural and human-made environments to articulating more complex and difficult theories on perception and relationship in the arts. Greenfield uses the term to envision existing and emerging technologies.

The idea of urban animism is, in my view, under-explored and under-utilised. Animism is not a ‘belief system’ but a way of knowing that is context sensitive. That is that the extent to which it expresses, and the manner of its expression depends upon the context of the experiencer. One whose lifeworld is in deep wilderness and for whom the natural world is the dominant domain of physical experience, through deep identity and relationship, will perceive the animistic elements of the environment. But an urban dweller, with none of that attunement of identity and sense may not at all, or very dimly, see the natural world as source of meaning or identity. Likewise a deep urban dweller will see their world as ‘alive’ with history and meaning. The sense of indwelling spirit, as in history ‘coming alive”, may be metaphorical on one level, but in the human mediated and human dominated world the source of identity, meaning and relationship will be, at its root, human.

These wider and contemporary uses of animism to articulate depths of perceptions and relational senses fit my own emerging view that animistic thought has validity in the human-mediated, the constructed and the technological domains, as much as it might be employed to express a more ‘natural’ encounter between the human and the world. The employment of ideas drawn from animism to influence environmental thinking and policy suggests an exciting evolution of our shared thinking. If it is a valid way of knowing, then animistic thought must be able to make a sophisticated contribution to the shared formation of values and knowledge.

My definition of animism

 Guthrie makes an important distinction between a psychological notion of animism, the views of Tylor and those of subsequent users of the term. He argues that Tylor’s original idea of a belief in spirits has been altered by “many anthropologists and other students of religion” who “adopted his term, animism … and narrowed his meaning to a second, related sense: that form of religion that attributes a spirit to  everything” (1995 p. 40).

A third variation derives from Piaget (Guthrie 1995), and is employed by developmental psychologists. In this children see things in the world as living and conscious. Piaget saw this perception as confusion (also attributed to ‘primitive’ people), but though this might be reflexive in a child, adults will intentionally and consciously elect to see the world in animistic terms.

Guthrie does not believe in spirits or ghosts. He does not fully consider animistic thought as an error, but rather a valid strategy that is, finally, rooted in error. This is Pascal’s bet, that it is better to be wrong and safe than wrong and sorry. Guthrie seeks to validate animism as a strategy while arguing that it remains without substance as an interpretation of perception. Here he essentially remains with the company of scholars who interpret other people’s experience in terms of their own knowledge rules. In essence this is ‘explaining’ a phenomenon by fitting it into an ontological frame, obliging it to conform to a convention of knowledge rules. It is how thinkers work backwards from assumptions (no ghosts or spirits and no ‘reality’ to animistic perception) to explain a phenomenon in terms of the framing assumptions.

I am one such adult who elects to see the world in substantially animistic terms. But, because I base this choice upon experience (multiple incidences) I accept Tylor’s proposition concerning ghosts and spirits. The notion that ghosts and spirits are real does not fit the knowledge rules under which Guthrie and others work. I am also inclined toward the idea of spirits in things or places, and the notion that the world is living and conscious.

I am inclined toward the idea of a spirit associated with things or places because this is what my experience tells me, and I choose to see the world as living or conscious at least in some degree because this seems to (a) be supported by experience – and hence probably true, and (b) a useful philosophical strategy that enables qualities of relational experience that are superior (functionally and sensuously) to considered alternatives. In this last respect I differ fundamentally from Harvey in his apparent willingness to disconnect the apparent benefits of the relational experience from any possible underpinning reality.

While Guthrie is content to observe that animism is alive and well and living in the western psyche as an intentional choice as well as a reflex, he does not sufficiently work with the transition from an essentially animistic view of the world to a mechanistic one. He does note the transition (1995 pp. 54-61), especially the spread of Newtonian ideas as the Industrial Revolution took hold and celebrated the machine and material science. He also notes that there is not a clearly defined and universally accepted line that divides the animate and the inanimate.

Long before machines, it is likely that the world was seen as living because that was the available frame, possibly the only one. The emergence of ‘in-animism’ has not yet finally disposed of the animate frame, but it has certainly altered the sense of relationship, affecting the moral dimension. It has also altered the attunement of the senses by offering an alternative way of perceiving the world, valuing it and relating to it. I argue that there has evolved a cultural imperative to prefer the in-animation of the world, and this may be seen, in its own right, as a perceptual and conceptual strategy that arose in consequence of the  particular vector taken by human evolution via Western culture.

The issue of error, therefore, is not a base issue of is/is not, rather it is one of perception in the manner that an expert eye will see what is invisible, or apparently non-existent. Depending on whether the expertise is valued or not we may or may not validate the claimed perception and interpretation. The Western cultural imperative has not favoured the animistic ‘expertise’.

The proposition that animism has been present and prevalent for the majority of humans over most of our collective history may be true simply because the available model has been animistic, not mechanistic. Animism might, therefore, be ‘hardwired’ into our psyches because generations after generations have modelled our brains that way.

Guthrie demonstrates that perceptual error occurs regularly, and we know that conceptual error is a  constant companion of human awareness and consciousness. But the issue about animistic thought is not whether it is ‘right’ in terms of explanatory narratives. The whole body of non-animistic religious thought, humanist, rationalist, scientific thought is no less prone to conceptual error that becomes erroneous explanatory narratives at every level of our culture. We refine or evolve our perceptions and conceptions, but such is our passion for interpretation that novel errors seem to constantly arise. The alternative to animistic thought might be considered to be ‘in-animistic’ thought: the merits of which have yet to be, in my mind, sufficiently asserted or defended.

In certain respects I was more attuned to animistic thought than many others in my culture. I grew up in either rural settings or on the fringe of towns or suburbs with ready access to farmland or the bush. I began collecting rocks and shells in late primary school and went bushwalking from early high school days. What few memories I have of distinctly human environments were the wharves in Hobart, where I went fishing or the ruins of Port Arthur, where my family frequently visited. After high school I was bushwalking, rock climbing or camping every chance I could get. I loved wilderness and I enjoyed my solitude. I developed an acute sensitivity to the Tasmanian wilderness refined through my then passion for geology and my love of photography.

This sensitivity is an attunement to a level of immersion in place at which perception and awareness are sharply responsive to subtle presences and behaviours. In those days I had no language for it. These days I would call it animistic.

I was also cursed, or blessed, with a measure of what is popularly called psychic sensitivity, again at a time when I had no language for it. Combined, the ‘educated’ and the innate sensitivities have precipitated considerably more non-ordinary experiences than appear to be available to other people. Some came unbidden, and unwelcome. Others were sought or welcomed. I can no more explain why I have had experiences that are not common than I can explain the appearance of talents for music, art, mathematics and the like.

I can well understand the making of theories that exclude the reality of ghosts and spirits by people who do not experience them, but such theories are relevant only to that class of persons, and not to humans as a whole. One might perceive a kind of hubris of universalism that pervades Western thought. Among those for whom spirits and ghosts are realities, and for whom the world is spirit infused and thought to be alive and conscious (along a spectrum of degrees) animism can have a distinctly definite definition. This is mine:

Animism is a term that applies to a mode of perception or experiences that affirm that ghosts and spirits are real. It is also a sense of relationship and a philosophy formulated in consequence of accepting the proposition that the world is spirit infused. It is further a discourse and a narrative form that expresses perceptions, thoughts and sentiments arising from living the acceptance of the proposition. Finally, it informs the psychological and behavioural dimensions of the lived experience. It is, in essence, the sum of consequences that arise from perceiving the world, the cosmos as a Thou.

 It is, however, no less prone to error, and will make the same errors, as any other mode of perception, interpretation and explanation. And those errors can and will inhabit the narrative, known or unknown to the teller and the hearer.





Chapter Two

Mounting evidence of something incomprehensible and how the dominant discourses of my culture’s ontology failed to offer explanation.

I have selected three experiences to illustrate the impact of radical non-ordinary phenomena on my life. While they are some of the more dramatic instances of a substantial body from which to draw illustrations, they have been selected not for their implicit dramatic attributes but because they constituted profoundly disruptive and challenging events that assailed my sense of the real. They also constitute signal experiences, in that after each I was forced to undertake a re-evaluation of my life. The first two (ML, from Chapter One, and WM, following) involve unwitting and unwilling participants that are a marked contrast with the last, involving my partner (PJ), who was the primary focus of the phenomenon and I, the more passive secondary participant.

The reactions of my co-experiencers had a strong impact upon me, precipitating, in the instances of ML and WM, rejection from their companionship and friendship. In the last, as a secondary participant I found myself in the reverse position, supporting another person distressed by what had happened and while having to deal with my own reactions.

The more disruptive paranormal experiences began in the latter part of 1970, culminating in the ML experience, which marked the commencement of an intense series of radical and disruptive experiences that ended with the WM episode, recounted next. This then precipitated an intense period of intellectual, spiritual and emotional turmoil of a largely solitary nature that ended in 1978, at the commencement of the PJ experiences, the last of the three accounts. The period between the WM and PJ experiences was an intense engagement with religious and rational paradigms as I sought to make sense of what had happened to me, and this period is explored subsequently.

The WM Incident

This incident is drawn from memory. It was so dramatic that it has been the subject of an unpublished short story drafted in several versions.

Following the ML encounter I removed to Adelaide where I hoped that a new location would contribute to a cessation of the non-ordinary phenomena. In Adelaide I had my first encounter with the Theosophical Society. This encounter raised the possibility of access to a substantial body of thought that dealt precisely with the kind of things I was experiencing. However rather than this being a grateful entry, at last, into a domain of succour and comprehension I experienced even more disruption. After about seven months in Adelaide I was feeling emotionally and intellectually exhausted. I had been writing to a school friend and bush walking companion who was nursing at the Royal Derwent Hospital, a psychiatric facility, in New Norfolk, Tasmania. WM was an avowed sceptic and atheist and was, then, scathingly intolerant of any discussion on any matter that was not rational. I now craved his company, hoping that escaping all reference to the non-ordinary would be a balm. We agreed to spend a few weeks camping and walking. I had told him nothing of what I had been experiencing.

Our plan was to head up the east coast of Tasmania to camp, walk and fish, and on the first day we drove to the Freycinet Peninsula, to a bay not far from Coles Bay, but on the ocean side. This was a rugged place with high granite hills to the immediate south and right on the relentless ocean, whose energy surged against the precipitous granite inclines. We camped on a flat sandy area with a few trees and a shallow creek that flowed into the ocean not far from our tent. The easiest place to get water was a short distance inland where the creek flowed around a large granite boulder and over a stone lip, beneath which was a small pool deep enough to accommodate a billy. Close on dusk I went to get water for the evening meal. As I neared the pool I could feel an intense sense of presence but tried to dismiss it as mere indulgence in the eeriness of the place that was emphasised by the deepening shadows of dusk. I had been to the pool several times before with no adverse response. Nevertheless I had to force myself not to run on return.   By the time we had eaten it was dark and it was WM’s turn to fetch water to wash up and make tea. When he came back he seemed to be rattled and agitated, but he said nothing.

As we sat around the campfire drinking tea and chatting both of us became aware that something was moving around us. For me it was a sense of movement just beyond the range of the campfire’s light. It seemed like a fast moving shadow of indeterminate size and shape, almost lost in the growing dark, yet somehow perceptible. There was no noise. We agreed it must be a dog and several times, on signal, we sprang up with our flashlights in an effort to catch sight of it, but to no avail. It was distracting and we decided to turn it because the conversation was becoming strained by our unwilling and uneasy pre- occupation with what ever it was. Inside the tent we both saw movement around the tent and between the tent and fire, silent. It was a dark form and definitely far larger than a dog, but still with no discernible form, even so close. Unexpectedly, and with one accord we lost our nerve, hastily bundled up the tent and its contents and scrambled up the embankment to the car. We fled to the camping ground at Coles Bay leaving a good deal of our gear behind. In the morning early we returned to collect what had been left behind and then decided to head further north. During it all WM said nothing, though he was plainly disturbed by what had happened. I remained true to my undertaking and made no effort to engage him in discussion. I knew WM well enough. If he wanted to talk about it, he would.

What had we experienced? Was it, as we had first thought a dog, maybe hungry but too untrusting to come close to our camp? Later, in the tent, what had we seen move between the tent and the fire, casting the shapeless shadow? WM and I were both experienced bushwalkers and we had walked together several times in the southwest wilderness. We were not easily spooked by strange things in the night. That night, though, what we saw might have subsequently surrendered its mystery to rational explanation, but we both did something uncharacteristic. We fled in the middle of the night in undignified haste and disarray into the safety of a camping ground. We did so with almost wordless accord. The believer and the sceptic both apprehended, at some shared visceral level, a sense of threat beyond willing tolerance.

There is a disturbing, and more telling, sequel to this adventure.

We left Coles Bay the next day, eager to be away from the place that had so disrupted our plans for a relaxing time. We had not travelled far north when the car alarmingly and suddenly swerved across the road and came, mercifully, to a halt on a flat under some trees. We had hit nothing save some small deadwood. WM confessed that he had blacked out momentarily and this greatly distressed him. He then said he had intrusive thoughts that something or someone was out to ‘get me’ and he wanted no part of it. He drove in silence back to Hobart and ejected me from the car with the warning to stay away from him. I was left standing bewildered by the roadside. We did not meet again for over a decade.

I had no sense of threat, no sense of anything ‘out to get me’. I knew WM well enough to know that he took great pride in his rationality. He was also a courageous companion in whose company I had always felt safe, knowing he would not ‘bottle out’ when things got tough. That was always how it had been before. What had happened? I did not know whether WM suffered from any physical ailment that might cause him to black out without warning, but supposed that might be possible. Would he have told me? I did not know. How could I account for his bizarre claim to have perceived that something was ‘out to get me’? Coming from my deeply sceptical friend this was unsettling. Did he, in saying it, fear he was going mad? Did he believe it? Was it symptomatic of the same thing that caused the black out? I left Tasmania and returned to Melbourne.

WM’s sober sceptical demeanour was severely challenged by what he had experienced. He chose not to engage with what had happened. I met him in Queensland some 15 years later. It was a brief meeting. When I told him of my interest in the occult, he asserted his disinterest. He was clearly uncomfortable with me and we parted, with mutual disappointment. WM’s unwillingness to engage with or explore what had happened reflected the degree to which the subject matter generated reaction among those who saw themselves ‘rational’. He had been there. It was a shared experience. He had put up a barrier, dissolving a friendship and firmly drawing a line between what may or may not inhabit his ontological construction. After 15 years I was less reactive against such rejection, but the confirmation of the death of what had been a close friendship nevertheless underlined the degree to which my experiences had been, and continued to be, estranging.

Psychic attack

There was one experience that could possibly be construed as something ‘out to get me’ It was the only time, at that stage, that I had felt in distinct danger. Some weeks before I left Adelaide to travel to Tasmania to meet WM I had an experience that was described to me as a “psychic attack” by a member of the Theosophical Society. It is not, apparently an uncommon ordeal.

Late one evening, I was sitting on my bed about to go to sleep when I felt surrounded by a dense and malign atmosphere and seemed to close in on me. I feared harm if it succeeded and I held it at bay by force of will. Then I knew none of the various means of self-defence or mantras to keep the mind safely focused. I spent the night, until first light, repeating the only thing I knew, the Lord’s Prayer. Even so there were times when my mind went blank I could do no more than repeat “Our Father…” over and over until recall returned. Eventually the sense of malignant presence dissipated as the sun came up.

Aside from this single encounter I felt no enduring sense of threat and was surprised and dismayed by WM’s assertion. Even now I am not prepared to say that I agreed with him. He did black out and the car did veer off the road. I accept that such had never happened to him before and I have no idea if it has since. I have to accept that for a deeply sceptical Mental Health worker to admit to me he had intrusive thoughts of this kind had to be extremely unusual. His subsequent conduct confirmed that he, at least, absolutely believed that he was at risk if he remained in my company. I should be grateful, perhaps, that I was not immediately ordered from the vehicle and left stranded on the east coast, from where, I knew from past experience, hitching a ride back to Hobart would have been difficult.

By then I was extremely emotionally disoriented even shattered and contemplated returning myself to psychiatric care, just to get some respite. I even contemplated taking psychotropic medication. In despair and frustration I called out and demanded that these bizarre events stop, and, strangely, they did. For the next nearly five years I was mercifully free of strongly disruptive phenomena. I had a steady stream of comparatively mild experiences, mostly intuitions that were consistently and helpfully reliable. However, on a personal level I had been damaged and I became determined to make sense of what had been happening. I read voraciously but in an undisciplined way, anything that seemed it might provide some explanation.

Both the ML and WM experiences concerned unwilling participants in radical events. Neither was aware of my situation, so neither had the opportunity to collaborate in any subjective or delusional activity in which I might have been engaged. The ‘dog’ incident with WM was a genuinely shared experience, with neither of us anticipating any of what happened. While it was a dramatic illustration of what might be a called an encounter with the spirit of a place, it was the second part of the drama, WM’s blackout and intrusive thoughts that displayed a compelling similarity with ML’s experience. Both had been unwilling participants in something that they said, related directly to me. In neither case did I share their direct experience. It was as if I were being given evidence that whatever was going on was not a product of my ‘madness’.

The emotional toll on me was immense. For the next five or so years, during which time I had been keeping journals, I was preoccupied with making sense of what had happened. The respite from disruptive experiences was welcome, but my journals reveal deep intellectual and emotional turmoil.

Intentional encounters with a willing participant

In March 1977 I left Tasmania and travelled to Sydney with the intent of staying briefly before heading west. However, I met people with a mutual interest and became involved in studying astrology. A new chapter in my life was about to start.

In December 1977 I met my partner (PJ) and we quickly discovered a mutual interest in things of a non- ordinary nature. She had some equally disruptive and disturbing experiences, and was vaguely aware that there were groups in Sydney with whom we might undergo some learning and training. We set out to discover one. I had also met a woman who styled herself as a witch and she agreed to provide some introductory education to us, including some basic rituals. It was immediately after the very first ritual that things took a surprising turn.

After we had finished the working, which we had conducted in PJ’s lounge room, PJ had gone to the toilet. I heard a massive “crack” and my immediate thought was that she had fallen against the oak dining table and broken it. She was a bit ‘spun out’ when she had left the room. I rushed to see the anticipated disaster and found her, instead, standing dazed by the door to the bedroom and I helped her on to the bed. As we both sat on the bed trying to discuss what happened the room seemed to fill up with an intense energy. She seemed to enter a trance-like state and I stayed, struggling, for full consciousness. At her insistence, I found a pen and paper and she scrawled in a poor hand the first words of contact with a spirit entity with whom we would subsequently work for a number of years. The following is an excerpt from volume one of my magical diaries. I have changed my partner’s name.

Saturday night – Middle pillar ritual. Extraordinary powerful. I went to sleep for most part, All very happy & positive. After effect potent- whole house charged up. PJ went through auto writing – resisting full effect. Energy came upon us while we were sitting in the bedroom. PJ’s hand took up pen and proceeded to scrawl with some difficulty line which yielded no immediate apprehension of their significance, if any.

There was a great deal of force upon PJ & I sitting close by felt the force of its energy. I watched PJ quite motionless and seeming under a gentle command to be sit (sic).

After awhile the pen is dropped form PJ’s hand in apparent frustration. PJ then falls back into a trance-like state and proceeds to scrawl forms with her right hand. She is directed to Steiner’s Great initiates – section on same.

I played a passive role in the whole affair. Such was the benevolent aura the (sic) enveloped the energy I felt no sense of concern or worry for PJ.

I think on Friday night PJ was zapped & sent reeling back from the back door. B&I heard loud bang at that time (we were sitting in lounge room) when I met her (PJ) in the doorway she was proceeding to collapse backwards, I supported her onto the bed. (Magical Diary Vol 1, 26 /2/78)

The second incident was similar. My recollection is that we were heading out of the house intending to go to a movie but as we neared the front door we were surrounded by an intense energy field, similar to the first, but considerably more potent. The same pattern of hesitant and barely legible writing occurred. What was represented here was a different entity, one whose presence, and our subsequent involvement with, was deeply problematic. My experience was that of being subjected to an intensely energetic influence within which I struggled to maintain consciousness and found co-ordinated movement quite difficult. In both instances the experience of a palpable radiation was remarkable because it added a shared experience dimension to what might otherwise have been no more than a case of my partner entering a trance-like state with no indication to me that might have been other than her own subjective or physical manifestation of even a pathological condition. Again the magical diary record is slightly different:

Report of events Monday 19/2/79. Evening time about 6.45. PJ and I were about to go out to movies (Fellini’s Casanova). We were taking our ease over coffee & Dr Who (TV) when PJ reported a particularly strong urge to write. I gave her pen & paper and quelled protestations that it was not a good time.

Some initial squiggles & spirals. I asked PJ to ask who it was. The response was P. I asked PJ to ask the entity the name and number of our teacher. (The response was accurate). I asked what the entity required. (a question and answer session followed). (Magical Diary Vol 1, 21/2/79)

I was taught that a safety precaution when dealing with discarnate entities is to require them to give a name and a number if they claim to be teachers or guides. Those who are familiar with the magical system will know that names and numbers have esoteric significance. In this case the first entity became a teacher to us and I recorded many pages of transcribed conversation, although several dozen tapes (now lost) remained untranscribed. In the second instance the entity P could have been mischief and asking him the name and number of our teacher was a way of assuring that he was not. It also was a way of determining whether he was familiar with the magical tradition. The difference between what I recorded and what I recall illustrates the problems of memory in terms of detail, but not in terms of the essential event.

These two experiences precipitated an ontological crisis in both of us, but with differing foci. Who or what were these entities and why were they intruding into our world and seeking communication with us? For PJ, as the primary experiencer these questions were vital at the personal level. She was the one acting out the apparent communication. She was worried. Had she precipitated some bizarre psychotic drama? As a witness and a passive participant my questions were less personally urgent. Something was happening, but what was it? Both times I experienced a seeming external source of radiant energy that engulfed both of us, and within which I had struggled to remain alert and focused. I did not think I was witnessing PJ acting out any kind delusional drama. We had similar questions: “What was going on here?” and “Why us?”

Some of these questions were answered by degrees over the following years. I recorded a great deal of material as the entity spoke through PJ, at first with great difficulty and then, progressively with greater ease and fluency. I transcribed a number of the tapes, but only a small portion of the total. It was a slow and tedious business and life events drove on with other fascinating and challenging experiences, both mundane and supramundane.

Even though explanations were forthcoming PJ experienced tremendous difficulty in accepting what was happening and her willingness to explore the phenomenon diminished and eventually departed. She was having her own intense difficulties and I was left with half answered questions and many more unanswered. These ‘contact’ experiences had taken us outside the realm of ‘normal’ occult investigation, so much of the literature that had been helpful ceased to be useful. There seemed to be another level of meaning beyond the accessible material. Our association with several formal occult teaching groups became fraught, and we found ourselves alone. We learned that there were politics associated with such things and that in the view of those who ran the groups what was happening to us was outside their scheme of things and disruptive to the way they wanted things to go.

From my perspective what had held promise as a source of knowledge, training and fellowship had gone, and I was left in a somewhat solitary situation. PJ was dealing with her own drama, and I needed to work through mine. I did not have the answers I wanted. While we shared the experiences, from differing perspectives, our responses and personal challenges were distinct, with powerful individual foci, rather than a shared one.

Reflecting on the various interpretive options open to me

These recounted experiences represented critical steps in displacement from the shared ontological frames of my culture, and the movement towards seeking an alternative ontological construction.

Could I accept the diagnosis of paranoid schizophrenia? I did not feel mad. The voices were maddening – unwanted, uninvited and incomprehensible – but otherwise I had no personal sense of disordered thinking. The unwillingness of psychiatry to discuss or explore what was happening to me, to merely observe apparent evidence of insanity, was frustrating and disempowering. The solution of medication as a lifelong means of controlling the voices was not a palatable or acceptable option. If that was all that psychiatry could offer me then I would have to find another way.

Could I accept the easy proposition that the voices were just as they were – beings attempting to communicate with me? Nothing I knew enabled me to accept such a proposition. I had then no sense of cultural heritage that accommodate the voices. Nothing in my learning made their reality a plausible proposition. I rejected the acceptance of the prospect of an invisible, populated and interactive realm on sound methodological grounds. It was not possible to subject such experiences to structured and disciplined inquiry and so I could not admit them into the realm of what could be known and asserted as real. But they had happened. Furthermore they had happened in company, so I could not discount them as purely personal experiences that might be safely put down to momentary aberrations that were misperceived and misconstrued. Even within the domain of shared experience the possibility of misperception and misinterpretation could not be ruled out. I speculated as to whether I could accept the proposition that there were non-ordinary or paranormal phenomena.

By the time of the PJ experiences I had a history of serial non-ordinary experiences, of both disruptive and gentle natures, and by now serial experience that incorporated both shared encounters and events that had distinctive utility were obliging me to deal with the proposition that there had to be an ontological frame that accommodated them as bona fide, not as malfunctions and misperceptions. Further more any explanation had to be reasonable and rational, and not merely in the guise of occult literature, whose surface rationality betrayed an underlying reliance on ‘givens’ that were not understood.

Direct experience of the milder non-ordinary phenomena did not present any significant challenges to my sense of being within my culture, because, although they were not explicable by science, they were sufficiently common, and shared by others, as well as being not especially disconcerting. They could be explored and thought about as interesting mysteries. The disruptive experiences that generated significant personal distress were a different matter. Understanding them became urgent because they were presenting serious challenges to my wellbeing. I was at serious risk.

Exploring the discourses

From the time my disruptive experiences began to make my life a miserable and bewildering adventure I sought explanations from the two major discourses that collectively constituted a substantial portion of the foundation of the Western ontology – religion and science. This was all I knew. While my brief encounter with the Theosophical Society opened up some prospect of more, left to my own devices I returned to familiar territory.

There are two distinct phases to this process of inquiry, the early initial response that was an immediate effort to address the disruption and the shock I was experiencing, and a later, more thoughtful and mature, inquiry as my reading advanced and my capacity to engage in dialogue improved.

I have taken particular caution here to separate out the two stages and to avoid putting wiser words in the younger mouth.

The religious options, and initial response

My parents, my twin sister and I migrated to Australia in 1955 from Northern Ireland and moved, with an interlude on a farm near Coleraine, to Casterton in Western Victoria. My father came from a committed Protestant family and my mother, less committed, was nevertheless content that we became an active church-going family. In Casterton I was exposed to family life dominated by the faith, forced into Sunday school and later into Church. I was not natively a religious child and had to be enticed with threats to participate.

My father’s Irish Protestantism was steeped in dogmatism and intolerance. It was only after his death that I found he had re-joined both the Apprentice Boys and Orange Lodge within a few years of arriving. I was expected to be a compliant heir to his tradition. But in a new country, without the same intense history of religious division, and in a small country town, it was impossible for me to accommodate his mono- cultural isolationism. I went to school with Catholics and Anglicans, who were also friends. The choice between unreasoned loathing and friendship was easily made. My reality as a child was dominated by the need for acceptance and inclusion. If religion was not going to serve that need then it had no benefit for me.

Religion had also become an incomprehensible and unpleasant thing fervently practiced by the least pleasant adults who came into my life. Initially I was obliged to attend Sunday school where I was fascinated by a large picture of Jesus that dominated the room. Children were sitting on his lap and were all around him in a frozen clamour of attention seeking. He was happy and accepting. I have no recollection of sitting on my father’s lap and remember him as an emotionally remote and troubled man. I was later to learn that he was raised in an emotionally abusive family. The wall mounted Jesus seemed to offer a type of religious experience alien to my real life. It was an ideal that I was not able to experience. When I became too old for Sunday school I was taken off to church, which I remember as a place of unalloyed boredom, induced by the incomprehensible droning of the minister and the awful hymn singing, hypnotic dirges that I loathed with a deep passion.

When my parents separated I went with my mother and in our new life I asked her to release me from any obligation to go to church, and she assented. My new step-father was not, at that time, inclined to religion. He would later become a dedicated Pentecostal, and the family entered a new phase of a religion-drenched life.

At high school I had enough curiosity to sample the range of scripture classes on offer. I harboured a doubt about my rejection of faith. This sampling was not particularly edifying, but I had a spectacularly acrimonious interchange with an arrogant nun who, in response to a question now well forgotten uttered the indelible response “That’s for God to know and for you to find out.” I walked out determined to find out, whatever it was. But this determination took a back seat to an active childhood and early adolescence, besides I had no guidance in religion and knew of nothing outside Christianity.

Aside from some later attempts to read books on Christianity I had effectively dismissed religion, and Christianity in particular, from my life, so by the time of the experiences I not only saw no value in religion I had no motive at all for seeking guidance or succour from it.

However, although I had dismissed Christianity as a faith I had not eradicated the language, or the ideas. I remained intensely interested in the spiritual dimension. As I reviewed my journals I was struck by the references to Christ and God. My sense of relationship with such ideas was beyond Christian-based thinking and much more metaphysical. Whilst in Hawthorn, Victoria, I wrote:

I ask myself how may a truth be free from error and I can only answer that it is of God’s making and not one of man’s making. A man may interpret the truth of God but unless he himself is free of the bonds of self he may never transmit a truth of God without altering its nature. (Personal Journal Vol 2, 9/6/75)

I can see the influence of reading in Zen here, in the idea of freedom from self. Later the entrenched habit of Christian influenced thought is still evident. On my birthday in 1977 in Zeehan, Tasmania, I wrote:

Do I believe in God now? In a God of my own image yes. In so far as God made man in his own image then I perceive God in my own image. I do not imply that the God who made me and the God I perceive are (the) same image. That they are the same God I do believe. Perhaps one day the two images shall mirror each and each shall say I am he – but one shall be the maker and the other the made. (Personal Journal Vol 2, 22/1/77)

These two excerpts reveal a continuing desire to make sense of the religious, yet, increasingly, a clear sense that what may be knowable and believable was very much a matter of what is constructed in the mind. Making sense of the idea of God had become a focal point of my life and this is reflected in the last entry of Volume Three of my journals, my last, in Balmain, Sydney I wrote:

The spiritual quest is all I have ever known it to be and rarely read it to be. It is anguish & struggle & it is not a smooth magical transition from ignorance to enlightenment … Spiritual enlightenment is not the simplistic acceptance of religious dogma. It is a far far greater thing. It is comprehending & living a fullness of being human on this planet in this time. (Personal Journal Vol 3, 24/10/79)

By 1978 I had begun a period of involvement with esoteric groups teaching and practicing ritual magic in the Western Mystery Tradition. The initial glamour of relief at discovering something that seemed to offer the promise of a rational and coherent system tarnished quite swiftly. A particular problem was the discovery that those with whom I became affiliated were significantly less driven in their passions than I was. I was still operating under an extreme sense of personal urgency and found it almost impossible to adjust to the more measured approach of the groups. Significant intellectual and ethical issues also emerged.

The science option, an initial response

From an early age I had a passionate questioning curiosity that drove my parents to distraction. My father gave up on me when I asked him why cows were different colours. I remember his exasperated response, which was to shape to give me a clip around the ears, save that my mother intervened. I was, inconsequence, provided with whatever knowledge-based books my mother could find. I was a voracious reader and serially exhausted various libraries of material at and above my reading age.

From year five I developed a passion for geology that culminated in an award of second prize in a science talent quest when I was in year 10. My teachers and parents presumed I was destined to study geology at university. It was an ambition that I was content to share. But I was a complete dunce at maths. In science I loved theory, but calculus of any nature seemed to defeat me utterly. Nevertheless I grew up with a love of science and a deep respect for scientific method. I was sceptical, but not a sceptic.

When I left home a little after I turned 17, I commenced working in the Taxation Office in Hobart. I spent a good deal of then meagre wage on periodicals, mostly related to photography, but I was an avid reader of Scientific American. I also read what more general books on science I could find in the State Library, and progressively developed an interest in science fiction, which, while not scientific, developed and maintained a speculative interest in technology and how it might be applied.

I was as imbued with the culture of the triumph of science and technology as one could be. I saw science as it was promoted, as purely rational truth seeking, a great intellectual adventure unravelling the mysteries of life and existence. It was a naïve perception that was just beginning to be shaken a little through my involvement in the campaign to save Lake Pedder. I had no involvement with medicine or psychiatry, so my anticipations in those fields were unformed.

When I began to have the invasive ‘voices’ I was initially curious and a little perturbed, and then eventually deeply perturbed. They had become increasingly frequent and more invasive and I did not want them. I sought psychiatric care in a naïve belief that psychiatry represented a reasonable and rational scientific approach to understanding human experience. I wanted to understand what was happening to me. I did not understand that I was mad because I did not credit the voices with any merit, and had been refusing to listen to them. I wanted help to get rid of them.

My encounter with psychiatry was disempowering and disappointing. Immediately on presentation and after a very brief description of my problem I was obliged to enter immediate in-patient care. I was not permitted to have any discussion with a psychiatrist and my determined efforts to do so resulted in a warning that I would be removed from the facility. I decided to be patient in the hope that something would change, but after a week I was given only a brief interview at which I was told I had been diagnosed as suffering from paranoid schizophrenia and that I would be taking medication for the rest of my life, and then dismissed.

I was struck by the remoteness between resident patients and staff and by the absence of any attempt to investigate my experiences, and yet arrive at a solution in the form of medication. I could not see the science here.

My brief experience of psychotropic medication was alarming. The medication, a phenothiazine marketed as Stelazine (trifluroperazine) did not actually remove the phenomenon, but what it did do was disable the capacity to react to it. Stelazine, as an antipsychotic or neuroleptic drug, works on the brain, and effects the nervous system, rather than on the relationship between the individual and the source of distress – other than the proposition that it was the brain itself that was the problem. If one is troubled by a non- existent biting dog, then calming the anxiety may be a sensible thing if the dog can be removed as well, but calming the anxiety while the dog is still biting can be terrifying on a different scale. In my case it was the phenomenon that bothered me, not the response. I thought my response sane and reasonable – I did not want the intrusion and could not make it go away unaided. All the medication did was leave me emotionally disengaged from the voices. I needed help to deal with what was, to me, a reality that was unwanted and intrusive. My cognitive processes were not disordered. I did not understand what madness meant to psychiatry, and psychiatry did not, in my encounter with it, understand what I wanted.

Outside of psychiatry I had no other sense of scientific involvement in my situation. Hence, for the time, while the disappointments of psychiatry waned, I could retain a comfortable anticipation that there was a scientific explanation. It would be a number of years before I returned to psychiatry as a subject of inquiry, reflecting back on my experiences and attempting to understand madness. By then I was motivated by concern that my involvement in magical and esoteric groups had exposed me to potentially delusional conduct and I discerned a need to develop a sufficient understanding of psychotic behaviour. This was partially self-protective and partially to better understand the people I was mixing with.

The struggle to remain true to my love of science and rational thought is reflected in my journals. In 1976, in Strahan, I wrote:

My head is going about a de-mystifying and a de-glorifying. I am doubting and disposing some long held and long cherished beliefs. I am not discarding them utterly but more putting in their proper place as possibilities rather than knowledges. (Personal Journal Vol 2, 7/4/76)

Doubting seemed to be important to me. Earlier I had written:

Our dilemma is only our unwillingness to doubt sufficiently, to forget in our consciousness significant things. Our dilemma is what we call need, necessity. What it is that constitutes our “reality”. (Personal Journal Vol 2, 5/1/76)

This blended both the mystical sense of doubt and the rational sense of inquiry, but the activity of doubting was essentially reflective, rather than through acts of more ‘scientific inquiry. This is evident in my journal entry in March, 1976:

What it is I am yet to know. It seems inexpressible and unknowable yet oft it is expressed in fragments and knowable in fragments. If I chase it as fragments it is not for the sake of the fragments but for the sake of the whole. How, what and why is unanswerable though not quite unknowable.(Personal Journal Vol 2, 15/376)

I was struggling. On Thursday 29 April 1976 in Strahan I noted: ”Information breeds (sic) more & doubts multiply along with possibilities. God knows when this confusion shall end.” (Personal Journal Vol 2)

The science/religion concern that dominated my thinking was expressed passionately and optimistically in a journal entry on Wed 23 April 1976, Strahan:

Our science draws nearer the lore of the magician yet is held from it by the cult of reason which shies from things sensible otherwise to a man whose head & heart are combined. We may yet see the day upon this world when the scientist priest is supreme. As yet the priest is bound from reason save it be cloaked in mystery and foolishness and similarly the scientist suffers the bonds of over reason. Between the two lies a realm wondrous which is narrowed in the passing of each year.( Personal Journal Vol 2)


I took to reading in philosophy in my first year away from home, with State Library conveniently located between home and work. By the end of the first year, before I turned 18 I had read through three volumes of Russell and one each of Kant, Hegel, and Kierkegaard. I also read a book on Greek philosophy and a compendium on Western philosophy. Though I found the philosophers fascinating they were also dense and dry, and without companionship to share the interest and stimulate further thought, I left them behind. They were, at the time, no useful source of practical assistance. I continued to read in books of a philosophical nature, but tended to be drawn to those whose influences were chiefly Eastern.

I don’t recall much of those readings save that I took a dislike to Russell, but nevertheless endured all the volumes of his autobiography, and I sufficiently objected to Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason that I penned a lengthy rebuttal. It was, no doubt, complete naïve nonsense and at the time I had not the slightest sense of the arrogance of the act.

What I took from reading in philosophy was, chiefly, the sense of relief that ideas might be explored in depth, and that nothing stood, of itself, as a pure assertion of truth or fact. The diversity of my reading left me with no clear sense of a personal philosophic position, other than the sense of excitement towards the possibility of thinking through things in a deep way. I was aware of my own ignorance, awed by the complexity of thought I had encountered. But none of the Western philosophers touched me as much as my reading of Paul Brunton’s Hidden Teaching Beyond Yoga.

I had acquired this book at age 16 from a friend’s mother and it had taken me over 18 months to read it. As an exploration of Hindu metaphysics it seemed to me to possess a clarity and coherence that was not as evident in the Western tradition. I did not come across books of a similar nature for some years. There were certainly none in the library. In effect my reading in Western philosophy, while it excited my curiosity, came about only because I not find any follow up reading to Brunton. Whilst still at Matriculation College I had contacted the University of Tasmania to determine whether it was possible to study eastern metaphysics. It was not. My interest in going to university declined thereafter.

I rediscovered a copy of Brunton for the first time in January 2008. I could immediately see the distinction between the styles of writing. Brunton was not attempting formal philosophic thought, so the writing was far less formal, but no less stimulating. I briefly reread a portion of the book, realising that not much of it would have made a great deal of sense to me at the time. Perhaps the main appeal was the discovery of writing on deeper and spiritual matters that offered far more than my previous exposure to religious thought. Until then I was unaware of the existence of other religious ideas or of philosophy or philosophers. All I knew was religion, science and literature. I loathed the former, loved the next, and though I was a voracious reader of fiction (and non-fiction) I never quite took to English as a subject in high school.

In the absence of an environment in which philosophy was studied under guidance and with a disciplined and systematic approach the more formal nature of the works, and their density of thought, did not sit well with the more urgent personal sense of meaning making that drove me through the 1970s.

Parapsychology – an early encounter

I eventually found books on parapsychology and read many, though now I have no recall of which, save that they were, for the most part, in the form of popular literature, rather than scholarly works. What I recall were detailed and dry accounts of experimentation to demonstrate the reality of ‘psychic powers’, ghosts, poltergeists and the like. While I was prepared to be convinced with no great resistance, nothing I read offered me any kind of useful practical advice that related to what I was experiencing. Eventually, too, the books became repetitive and I lost interest.

Parapsychology did at least encourage me that there was some serious consideration of phenomena and ‘powers’ of the mind. I was also keenly aware that such research stood, at best, at the fringe of valid scientific investigation and that there was passionate objection to it from ‘proper’ science. I was less concerned with the ‘fringe’ nature of the studies than the fact that no amount of reading in the field advanced an understanding of my own position. I had ample demonstration from my own direct experience of the validity of the proposition that extra sensory perception was real, and I was generally willing to accept the ‘reality’ of the more spectacular powers such as telekinesis.

Outside the more dramatic accounts of research and the speculations on the nature of the phenomena, the recounting of finely controlled experiments demonstrating ‘better than chance’ instances of cognitive phenomena tended to suggest only that such phenomena manifested randomly and without any forms of control, save in some rare instances. This fitted with my own experience.

Chiefly I saw a clear distinction between the discipline of intentionally planned and conducted experiments that gave good data and kind of wild unexpected things that had been happening to me, with no prospect of applying scientific method in exploring their nature or validating their occurrence.

As my interest in magical and esoteric thought deepened parapsychology became less attractive as a specific field of inquiry, other than something I would occasionally look into out of curiosity to see what developments there were. It is perhaps significant that I had essentially forgotten to include it as an influence in my thinking until I was prompted to do so, and then recalled that I had actually read quite a bit on the subject.

Other alternatives

Up the time that I relocated to Adelaide and I encountered the poster advising of the Theosophical Society presentation I was reading as constantly as I could through borrowed books from friends, though now I have no recollection of what I read. I was, from childhood a voracious and fast reader, so I read for interest and distraction, both fiction and non-fiction.

The Theosophical Society opened up a whole range of possibilities as I became aware, for the first time, of an organised community of interest that might have the answers I was seeking. I did not, subsequently, form any connection with the Theosophical Society, largely because my lifestyle was erratic and mobile, and would be for some years to come. Also, at that stage my cultural orientation was distinctly ‘alternative’ and it did not fit well with apparent sober conservatism of the Society.

I came across individuals who were members of various informal groups with an interest in the occult and UFO, or who had joined any of the range of Eastern religious sects that had become popular. None appealed to me. I wanted some sense of sceptical rational inquiry, not easy acceptance of teachings and dogmas. While I had no interest in joining any of the groups I encountered I was happy to spend time talking with members, collectively and individually. I had a number of friends who had been attracted to missionary branches of various Indian religious movements and spent a good deal of time with them and their fellow adherents, but I could not be persuaded to join. Nevertheless I read their literature and participated in discussions. In some ways I envied their fellowship.

It would not be until 1978 that I became intensely involved with occult orders and esoteric schools.

Confrontation between the astonishing and the rational – the sense of ontological crisis

With the opportunity to review my journals from a research perspective I was struck by the swinging between enthusiastic response to new ideas and decline into a profound sense of spiritual and intellectual angst as it seemed that nothing I explored finally served the healing purpose I hope for. The period from the early 19070s to 1979 marked a profoundly difficult time as I worked through the dilemma of meaning. My almost mono-maniacal focus finding some resolution had led to the dissolution of my first marriage and the loss of close friends.

On Tuesday 25 (Jan) 1977, in Zeehan, I wrote:

The fear of being invalid is a constant companion. It is not a matter of not being here, but a fear of being a fabrication – a process of not defining self but reinforcing self delusion – reinforcing the armour of deep seated – deep rooted suspicion – fear of what? Even now I cannot put it to words – it arises out of doubt & believing. I write frequently of vision – a vision of something a reality which fractures and in fracturing loses its omnipotence. Once shattered the vision must refine itself and once again become omnipotent. Who can tell what is shattered and how much is shattered. This is part of the necessary condition of experience. (Personal Journal Vol 3)

This was a low point, shortly after my 25th birthday, celebrated alone. I had not been able to resolve my experiences, even after nearly six years. Others experiences than these recorded here had added to the burden. The more I inquired into them the less I found answers, and what seemed to be happening was that doubts and inquiry were exacerbating my situation, rather than being a balm my sense of self. I didn’t feel authentic because I had no ground, no ontological foundation, and no assured sense of belief. I was also pre-occupied with intellectual merit, writing that “Intellectual honesty and a consuming passion for understanding is the essence and not intellectual capacity.”(Personal Journal Vol 2, 11/6/75, Hawthorn).

My idea of vision was how one sees the world, and is all embracing, and all powerful. It is an ontology, a way of believing what is so and real. When it is shattered, as with radical non-ordinary phenomena, its power is broken, but one does not know what of the vision or how much of it is shattered. Only as one experiences the consequences does this become evident. The objective is to refine the vision, to rework the ontology until its power is restored.

What I was doing was becoming overly extreme and fixated. In 1975 I wrote:

I struggle with my eyes to see differently, with my ears to hear differently, with my voice to utter differently, my body to act and feel differently, my mind to perceive & conceive differently. All this to change according to my knowledge and my faith in my ability to enable my knowledge to grow untain(t)ed by base fears and prejudices. (Personal Journal Vol 2, 9/1/75)

Two years later when my first marriage had finally collapsed I record “Conversation with J today lead (sic) me to more attempts to make a comprehensible summary of my thoughts. I am thwarted by the apparent assumptions that appear and by the sheer magnitude of the scope that is necessarily covered.” (Personal Journal Vol 2 1/4/77, Tasmania). A short time later, on April 24, I wrote “I am well aware of the precarious situation within my own mind. It may be that I shall soon reach a crisis that will require a vast and strenuous effort to pull myself back onto my feet.” (Personal Journal Vol 2). The last paragraph for the same entry reflects the degree to which I had become determined to drive myself to a point of resolution. I wrote: “J’s repeated comment that what I am doing is ‘risky’ haunts me. That she should regard the degree of risk as a valid consideration for action surprises me.” I was surprised that she thought it was not worth the risk. I did not see I had an option.

The fact that I felt a persistent risk of inauthenticity arising from not being able to have a clear sense of intellectual or spiritual foundation was not helped by my interest in Eastern philosophies. In a journal entry dated May 17-18 Tues-Wed 1977 Sandy Bay Rd, I wrote:

I feel I have reached a crucial point in my thoughts upon the philosophies of life and how they are applicable to our culture without violent polarization. These thoughts are largely generated form my own discomfort and to a lesser degree an abiding fascination with the process of our civilization. Thinking upon Tao, Shinto & Zen have (sic) forced me to radical debates whose resolutions are yet more radical. (Personal Journal Vol 3)

This was written shortly before I left Tasmania in 1977, effectively marking the end of a particular chapter in my life. I had been attracted to these traditions, for their style of thought, but knew that I did not want to adopt their full expression. I was happy to be influenced and inspired. The deep sense of connection with the natural world had powerful appeal to me, but I sensed that by becoming a devotee, as with any of the Indian sects, meant further particularisation of self, and marking myself as distinct, different. The more I internally debated their merits the less I could see them as fitting within my parent culture without precipitating stark polarisation, as was evident to me, most clearly demonstrated by my observations of the Hare Krishna movement. I knew several devotees, with whom I got on well on a personal level. I could not, however, share their sense of certainty and missionary zeal, or their sartorial extremes. While I had no desire to be invisible, I did not want to a starkly visible moving target. They stood in their certainty, their devotion to their beliefs. I had no certainty, not even the certainty of uncertainty.

Looking further afield and later reflections on the religious and scientific discourses

After I moved from Tasmania to Sydney my life quickly changed. The options open to me were far more substantial than my early level of awareness enabled me to grasp. Without the advantage of an overview, and on the basis of very limited knowledge I had pursued an idiosyncratic path of inquiry that eventually led me eventually into the Western Mystery Tradition and Wicca. While my involvement in the Western Mystery Tradition and Wicca was a time of rich and rewarding experience, neither of knowledge systems satisfied my need to find meaning that was comprehensible within wider cultural narrative. My entrenched aversion to belief and faith, born of my childhood Christian experience, caused me to chaff against the legitimate limits these systems had to offer. But here I began to develop a sense of rational and coherent structures. In particular study of the Kabbalah helped me see that it was possible to have a complex, coherent, sophisticated and intellectually challenging system. This was what, I realised, I had craved.

Both the Western Mystery Tradition and Wicca were fundamentally practice-based systems in which the theoretical elements reinforced the practice. They did not seem designed for intellectual inquiry and for speculation, indeed such was not only not supported, but, from my experience, actively discouraged. Certainly both had an experimental and exploratory side, but this was not evident in my initial encounters, wherein conformity and acceptance dominated.

The foundational knowledge was ‘given’ and came as highly specific ideas in a language peculiar to the system. This was, in essence, no different from learning physics or chemistry, but unlike foundational ideas of science, these knowledge systems did not provide a commonly accepted body of ideas that explained how the world worked in a way that satisfied my need for rational explanations. For the most part knowledge was imbibed and expressed within a discrete community of like-minded participants, many of whom were content operate within the limits of ‘privileged’ knowledge, which was, in any case, often imparted with injunctions to secrecy. In practical terms the advantage of secrecy lay not in the risk of imparting knowledge that was privileged, but in not sounding like a complete idiot to an outsider to whom what was said was incomprehensible nonsense.

There were certainly controls on knowledge that had real regard to safety against ill-advised practice. As with any practice-based or empirical praxis, there are stages by which skills are developed and experiences undertaken. However the injunction against revealing what one learned did more to prevent contention and embarrassment than anything else, and this highlighted a particular problem for me. The ideas were not articulated in contemporary language, nor did they take account of contemporary developments in learning. It was entirely possible for a person with little education and learning to dedicate their time to the study of these knowledge systems with little equivalence by way of learning in the world. This limitation, that is a consequence of both degree of interest and ability as well as time, pointed up another major concern for me. Practice-based systems blend knowledge and narrative into a single discourse that does not need to be tested against external environments so long as it meets the needs of functionality and personal satisfaction. This means there is a risk of the development of a self-serving belief system that is reinforced by compliance and conformity. It can sit outside the cultural norm, self-perceived as superior to it. This does not contribute to the integration of disparate ontological elements into a shared narrative.

The groups with which I associated were structured on a traditional hierarchical system, with those holding senior offices possessing a higher degree of training in the various techniques such as meditation, structured visualisations and conduct of ceremonial rites. Their roles also included supervision of study programs, and this meant leading discussions on various themes. Without exception I found such individuals ill-equipped for, and disinterested in, exploratory discussions. I found a similar difficulty with distance learning courses where supervisors were overseas and communication was confined to written responses to study and practice reports. These mail-based affiliations did not last long. As well as concerns over the intellectual content I also became disaffected by the conduct of meetings and the overall attitude to what I saw then as an earnestly serious matter. On reflection I think I was a little extreme in my attitude.

My magical diary entry of 19 April 1978 reflects the degree of discontent felt in relation to the first group I was involved with: “Rethinking much about (group) and my affiliation. PJ doing likewise. Its muddlesomeness is getting to us and the people are becoming boring again. Still much serious contemplation is done so that no hasty or ill-advised thoughts or actions manifest”. (Magical Diary Vol. 1 p.64)

Months later, on July 6th the same discontent is evident:

My displeasure with the order disturbs me and there is nowhere I can turn to seek dispassionate advice. I find the members presently singularly dull and unimaginative and in response I annoy them… The meetings are deadly boring I dislike feeling obliged to attend what is an utter waste of time … I may put in several hours of highly profitable reading in the time I endure the merciless waffle … Is my attitude disloyal? I say not for I demand quality and abhor its absence. (Magical Diary Vol. 1)

These early group-based experiences did offer some sound benefits as well, in terms of a community of like-minded individuals with a shared interest, and the opportunity to engage in ceremonial rites as a proper ritual drama. When things went well they were rewarding and enjoyable, but in the long term the innate limitations imposed by the necessarily diverse membership and reliance on a traditional teaching mode that emphasised acceptance of givens over inquiry rendered such affiliations finally unsatisfying.

With the advantage of hindsight, these groups were strongly hierarchical and were limited by the depth of knowledge and style of those who headed them. As learning experiences they did not cater to individual needs of students, but demanded compliance with a structure and style of learning that had been handed down, without much amendment, from the late 19th century.

In seeking to answer the questions that were plaguing me I needed to be able to use reference points that lay within the ‘normal’ ontological frame. The solution of stepping outside one’s culture in order to answer questions had a certain appeal, but it also struck me as a capitulation to the perceived tyranny of science, atheistic scepticism and religious dogma. The option of adopting Buddhism, Taoism, Zen or other ‘alien’ knowledge system, or becoming an adherent of the Western Mystery tradition or Wicca did not ‘solve’ the problem. Rather it provided a refuge from the storm of intellectual contention that had been, and remains, the hallmark of Western culture.

Such self-limiting knowledge systems were, to me, anachronistic, since the traditions upon which they rely were more integrated into the collective ontology than they are in the contemporary West. The Greek mystery tradition or the European ‘pagan’ roots to Wicca participated in the ontology of their parent cultures and times in ways that contemporary adherents to these systems do not. While there may well be merit in these systems, this isolation, and especially the intentional perpetuation of it, makes testing the validity of the ontological precepts, and any eventual integration into Western narrative difficult.

The proposition that there are three valid ontological positions that are equally valid, yet mutually exclusive and contradictory seemed reasonable only at the extremes of metaphysical argument. Ordinarily, it seemed, we might think that human experience draws from a common well. The alternative that one position is valid and the other two are not presents opportunity for insoluble conflict, especially where the asserted knowledge is beyond the capacity of inquiry to test its validity. The proposition that all three are potential contributors to a shared ontology, but with fundamentally differing assertions as to what is true, was difficult for me to engage with at the time.

My personal challenge had become how to frame my experiences within the ground rules of Western culture, and not presume some implicit intellectual and moral superiority that is the unfortunate consequence of adopting another intellectual and philosophical tradition. It was a challenge I failed on many occasions, as I became ‘seduced’ by the conceits of membership of groups and in the desire to ‘belong’ to a community of shared experience and knowledge. But the appeal always faded as the limits to tolerance of inquiry became evident.

Subsequent engagement with science

Science remained a touchstone for me, and it was to it that I constantly returned, but there was a persistent disappointment for a number of years. Laszlo (2004) summed up what he discerned as a fundamental split in scientific thought, arguing that “it has deep cultural roots. The historian of civilization Richard Tarnus pointed out that since the dawn of the modern age, the civilization of the Western world has had two faces. One face is that of progress , the other, of fall.” (p.13) Laszlo’s point is that while there has been some progression, it has come at the cost of a previous deep connection with nature. He goes on to argue that:

Contemporary Western civilization displays both positive and negative faces. Its duality is reflected in the attitude scientists adopt toward the question of meaning. Some, like Weinberg, express the negative face of Western civilization. For them meaning resides in the human mind alone: the world itself is impersonal, without purpose or intention. Others, like Peat, align themselves with the positive face. They insist that though the universe has been disenchanted by modern science, it is re-enchanted in the light of latest findings. (2004 p. 14)

Peat & Briggs (1999) argue that science, at various stages in history, becomes a metaphor for larger paradigms, and for value sets and beliefs, that are not, themselves scientific. They say that Darwinism, for example, came to be seen as a struggle of the fittest, but not fit in the sense of meaning apt, rather fitness in the sense of vigour. Hence evolution is seen in the sense of “what goes under must have been in some way flawed while what survives must be “better”. (1999 p. 6). They share the sense of a dark or negative side to a certain type of science thinking, observing that, at the end of the twentieth century “we have also encountered the dark side of that path we began to lead 800 years ago where we separated ourselves from nature.” (1999 p. 152)

Gray (2003) cites Feyerabend’s (1999) observation that “science contains so many different and yet empirically acceptable worldviews, each containing its own metaphysical background.” (p. 109), in observing that within this diversity the beliefs in an eventual single theory of science is, itself an act of metaphysical faith.

I am not sure whether science informs value systems or the value systems inform science, but within the diversity of science worldviews that interact with culturally derived values, many metaphors for more general paradigms can be developed. In observing that in the Middle Ages “rationality meant a mind capable of seeing the spiritual connections in things, the rhythms and delicate balance or “ratio” among subjects and objects’ (1999 p.120) Briggs & Peat illustrate how the meanings of language applied to thinking has shifted with the movement away from a presumption of spiritual thought as a valid element of scientific thought. Through the study of Chaos Theory, Briggs & Peat consciously see that the ideas and perceptions drawn from Chaos Theory have the power to function as a cultural metaphor, so, for them, “rationality” can recover an older meaning.

Briggs and Peat, (1999) along with Laszlo (2004) and Zukav (1980) are among a growing number of science thinkers and writers who are establishing, with empirically acceptable worldviews, an alternative set of metaphors for describing the human condition, seeing a convergence between science and metaphysics or spiritual philosophy. Briggs & Peat see that “Paradoxically the insights of the newest science share the vision of the world presented in many of the world’s oldest indigenous and spiritual traditions.” (1999 p. 7). Zukav is bolder: “Now, after three centuries, the Scientists have returned with their discoveries. They are as perplexed as we are … “We are not sure,” they tell us, “but we have accumulated evidence which indicates that the key to understanding the universe is you.“ (1980 p. 92). Zukav expressed the extreme point at which inquiries into the deeper aspects of the material world merge with issues of perception and consciousness. The extend to which this is science and not metaphysics may be debatable but it does illustrate Brigg’s & Peat’s point about how scientific ideas can become metaphors for wider cultural concerns.

That there is a monolithic and homogenous thing called ‘science’ with values and beliefs in common is more myth than fact. Feyerabend’s observation (in Gray 2003) poses a multivocal response as the complexity of science throws up multiple valid interpretations. What is shared is the set of rules for inquiry called ‘scientific method’. What is not shared is the complexity of human experience, beliefs and values that inhabit those who practice science. The scientific and rational ontological framework seems to be porous, heterogeneous and complex. Belief and knowledge systems intermingle to produce a vibrant cultural discourse that is subject to constant evolution, and passionate defence. Over decades of reading, the illusion of scientific homogeneity progressively evaporated for me, revealing a dynamic and exciting realm of investigation.

For nearly a century the ontological implications of Quantum theory have been disturbing the old verities. Zukav argues that the Copenhagen Interpretation of Quantum Mechanics, arising out the 5th Solvay Congress in Brussels in 1927 “began a monumental reunion that was all but unnoticed at the time. The rational part of our psyche, typified by science, began to merge again with that other part of us which we had ignored since the 1700s, our irrational side.” (1980 p. 37). The further implications of Chaos, Complexity and Systems theories, along with advances in methodologies afforded by the evolution in computing technologies, have provided new ways of interrogating human experience.

Zukav (1980) observes that although Newtonian physics has been superseded by Quantum physics as the prime explanatory system at the leading edge of inquiry, the rules of Newtonian physics still hold true for the bulk of human experience. While Quantum physics and the subsequent developments in theory and technology confer important benefits to our culture, the interface is at a substratum level, beneath mundane awareness – in communication and computing systems and the numerous now familiar devices, in the operation of complex market behaviour, in weather forecasting. For the most part neither the theories nor the ontological implications they generate penetrate and significantly influence the collective cultural narrative, at least not yet. We benefit from, and are increasingly dependent upon, a knowledge system whose potential implications upon our sense of meaning are largely unknown.

This largely unknown knowledge system has shattered the old ontological verities that once underpinned the knowledge system of the West. Zukav says that:

the philosophical implications of quantum mechanics is that all of the things in our universe (including us) that appear to exist independently are actually part of one all-encompassing organic pattern, and that not parts of that pattern are ever really separate from it or from each other.” (1980 pp. 47,48)

Such implications, on a philosophical level, are yet to be explored, accepted or incorporated into a shared world-view.

De Quincy (2002) is more specific about the need for a broadening of the Western ontological frame, saying:

A major – perhaps the major – element in the conceptual and perceptual matrix that shapes our worldview is our scientific attitude to consciousness and its relationship to the world of matter. For, from this view, we look out on a world devoid of any real intrinsic value, of any inherent purpose, meaning or feeling.

Science has exorcised the ghost from the machine and left us with a desacralized and dispirited world. And it has done this because the fundamental beliefs about the world (its ontology), and what we can know about the world (its epistemology), and how we can know the world (its methodology) are based upon a set of assumptions grounded in the metaphysics of matter-in-blind-motion, of reductionist mechanism and materialism. This is what must change. Without such a profound metaphysical shift, all the good works in the world will never amount to anything more than well-intentioned Band-Aids. (p. 4)

Broomfield (1997), critical of the Western way of knowing, argues that there is fundamental weakness in the Western way of knowing, that “we have made a serious error of equating our way of knowing, which we variously call science and history, with all knowledge.” (p.1) Broomfield argues that there are other ways of knowing, beyond the Western dominant ontological constructs. De Quincey agrees, arguing that:

It is critical, it seems to me, that scientific knowledge that shapes and limits the contours of our social reality – our communal “paradigm” should be expanded to include and honour non-measurable phenomena such as values, meanings, purposes, and feelings. For modern science to do this will require a radical reorientation of its basic metaphysical assumptions about the nature of reality. It will require a thorough reassessment of the epistemology underlying science – of how we know anything about the world, particularly consciousness itself. (2002 pp. 2-3)

De Quincey, as a philosopher, is primarily interested in consciousness research, so his critique does not specifically embrace other cultural perspectives. What arises from philosophical inquiry into what scientific theories is the proposition that, on an epistemological and ontological level, it is necessary to integrate cultural and even metaphysical narratives into the [rational] evidence of science. De Quincey’s position is that cultural narrative is necessarily metaphysical at base, because it frames a perception of what is real and, by implication what is not real, or valid. At this level of analysis, the illusion of the rule of science and reasoned inquiry breaks down. What emerges is the possibility of a synthesis between the ‘rational’ disciplines and what we now might see as ‘irrational’ ones – but both are, essentially ‘rational’. Such integration is a future potential rather than a present, broadly accepted endeavour, though movement toward it is underway.

In stark contrast to the perception that advances in science are leading to a closer union with ancient and traditional spiritual thought, Kurzweil (1999) illustrates the other side, arguing that in the twenty first century “The human species, along with the computational technology it has created, will be able to solve the age-old problems of need, if not desire, and will be in a position to change the nature of mortality in a postbiological future.” (p.2) Kurzweil’s passion is artificial intelligence, so his metaphor for his projected cultural values rests on computational technology. He sees the prospect of a future human state that, with the aid of technology, has rendered pure biological existence redundant. To Gray (2004) this is an   instance of science giving rise to a secular religion, driven by metaphysical faiths and belief in a noble human future in which scourge of biological mortality, and other limitations and ills, is defeated. Gray does not dispute progress in science but challenges that this constitutes progress in the human condition. Science may be able to meet the needs and desires of a human population, and may defeat the otherwise inevitable death of the biological vehicle, but to Gray this is not progress. He argues that “Whatever role it may have had in the past, belief in progress has become a mechanism of self-deception that serves only to block perception of the evils that come with the growth of knowledge. In contrast, the myths of religion are ciphers containing the truth of the human condition.” (2004 p. 5)

Gray’s position draws a distinction between the kind of science that advances knowledge as if it constitutes the foundation of human knowing, and hence setting a future that is genuinely unique, and the kind of knowledge that is complementary with past knowledge. Here we might discern a Darwinian ‘error’ which assumes that past knowledge is surrendered because it is defective and that all new knowledge is ‘better’. Gray’s chief objection is:

The error is not in thinking that human life can improve. Rather, it is in imagining that improvement can ever be cumulative. Unlike science, ethics and politics are not activities in which what is learnt in one generation can be passed on to an indefinite number of future generations. Like the arts, they are practical skills and they are easily lost.” (2004 pp. 3-4)

What Gray is arguing is that meaning itself, whether the meaning of existence, or the meaning of life, is experiential rather than the consequence of inheriting and adding to a body of knowledge. If we go back to the idea of the negative face of science in which meaning is held to exist only within the human mind, and if we take the extreme view, only within the human brain, then the endeavour of science may be seen as lacking heart. Briggs & Peat, Zukav and others propose that rather than science projecting along an evolutionary vector into unique territory, it seems to be curling back on a vector that is leading it towards a confluence with metaphysical thought, and to questions of meaning well beyond the confines of the human mind or brain, towards a cosmological sense of meaning.

Joseph Needham (1900-1995), whose extensive studies into early Chinese science and technology demonstrated the extend to which Western technological progress owed a profound debt, observed that:

… the sciences of China and Islam never dreamed of divorcing science from ethics, but when at the Scientific Revolution the final cause of Aristotle was done away with, and ethics chased out of science, things became very different, and more menacing … Science needs to be lived alongside religion, philosophy, history and aesthetic experience; alone it can lead to great harm. (in Temple 2007 p. 11).

Here Needham argues for a holistic foundation to human knowing, one in which no particular knowledge system is privileged above the others.

The objections that one should not make metaphysical projections out of science, and still call the activity science may be legitimate if scientific method is to remain at the core of scientific endeavour. But the distinction between science as a ‘pure’ pursuit given only to untainted questioning is challenged by Quantum science. The science – metaphysics nexus or science as a cultural metaphor, in which science and culture exist in mutual dependency, would seem to be inescapable realities. The religious, philosophic, historical and aesthetic elements of human thought and experience, along with science, constitute a whole. And it is this whole thought, a holistic way of knowing that seems to be increasing demanded of Western culture.

There is sufficient diversity in science, with the many worldviews arising out of perfectly sound inquiry, to enable a diverse array of reasonable positions to be derived as guides or metaphors for thinking about the human condition. This includes the development of personal positions that reflect individual orientations or biases.

My orientation toward the more metaphysical metaphors and interpretations is a step away from the deterministic perspective with which I was imbued as a child, and later encountered in psychiatry. In so far as I have sought in science answers to questions I have become progressively aware that where answers may not be available, the changes in science do provide permission to inquire within the scope of alternative paradigms, without violating the essential spirit of scientific inquiry. This is, to me, a vital contemporary development that moves science back into the community of its brother and sister modes of thought as a co-participant rather than a demagogue or tyrant.

The mystical and magical knowledge systems that lay excluded from the Western frame propose ideas and interpretations that might be embraced within a collective ontology under the umbrella of a reinterpretation of the wider cultural narrative as a metaphysical discourse. We cannot now excuse them from serious consideration as either unscientific or inconsistent with the tight frames of dogmatic religiosity. The science thinking that flows from Quantum physics, when encountered as a metaphor, virtually forces thought into metaphysical pathways. Uncertainty has dethroned certainty, and the result is elegant chaos.

If we accept as valid the scientific passion for a theory of everything (which Gray says is a metaphysical faith), then a shared ontology must also be on the table, but such must be articulated outside the constraints of cultural pragmatism and utility, at the level of metaphysical thought. Western ontology is woven into the whole of the social fabric, effecting political, economic, scientific and cultural discourse. The consequence of destabilising this complex interplay through direct metaphysical or political engagement of either a moral or intellectual character, is most likely to meet determined resistance. Nevertheless the necessary discourse, as a creative endeavour, must be undertaken. As science asks increasingly metaphysical questions to address the conundrums that arise concerning perception of, and participation in, events, the brackets that once firmly held the metaphysical at bay cease to be relevant.

This is not, however, to suggest that the whole panoply of metaphysical ideas merits immediate embrace, rather, because we are now metaphysically impoverished, we can begin to revisit ideas once cast into the outer darkness of ‘civilised’ thought. Little of what was once asserted as unvarying verity remains inviolate or sacrosanct, save, perhaps fidelity to integrity of method.

Shifting ground in psychiatry

My early experience with psychiatry had an indelible impact on me. Because I had to struggle, at a deep and urgent personal level, with notions of madness, I had had an ongoing interest in psychiatry, though it developed some years later. The question as to whether one is drifting off the path of rational thought into self-delusion also became a recurrent one as my involvement in occult groups progressed. While engagement with the occult has its particular fascinations and consolations, it is also an opportunity to permit one to be seduced into belief, and be caught up in the momentum of groupthink.

The diagnosis of paranoid schizophrenia was incomprehensible to me at the time. The standard definition provides that it is a psychotic condition, which can exhibit paranoid symptoms such as “delusion of persecution” and “hallucinatory voices”, and schizophrenic symptoms include “bizarre delusions” and “hallucinations”. The essential difference I see between contemporary material on paranoid schizophrenia and what was offered to me is that “The course of paranoid schizophrenia may be episodic, with partial or complete remissions, or chronic.” (from I was offered no such prospect of remission.

The idea that this illness is based upon the diagnostic perception of delusions and hallucinations is an idea about what is or is not real. A hallucination is the sense of something that does not exist and a delusion is a belief not based upon reality. In this respect psychiatry sees itself as the arbiter and expert of the real, and hence what is or is not meaningful. A diagnosis of paranoid schizophrenia suggests that what is experienced by the individual is neither real nor meaningful.

I see psychiatry as essentially a medicalised construction of an ontological frame created at the level of a small but dominant element within our culture, and it reveals an arrogant hubris to set itself up as the arbiter of reality and meaning. But at a time when a culture does not have wide access to alternative perspective, such apparent expertise can rest substantially unchallenged. However, things are changing.

Read, Mosher & Bentall (2004) offers a contemporary perspective on psychiatry that vastly contrasts with my encounter. Their perspective is separated from my experience by a good 30 years and what is evident is the embrace of more contemporary philosophical models, rather than the dominant positivist model of my experience. I want to explore this text at some depth because the contrast between my experience with psychiatry and the ideas and values expressed appear to demonstrate a significant advance, but nevertheless still present unresolved problems. In the essays we see the incorporation of values that honour personal experience, indicating a fundamental shift from the substantially quantitative medical model to a more client orientated qualitative approach that gives the client’s voice a role to play. The new and emergent models of analysis and therapy “suggest that it is the way that people interpret psychotic phenomena that accounts for distress and disability, rather than the psychotic experiences themselves”. (Morrison, A.P. in Read, Mosher & Bentall p. 291) Morrison adds, “It is also worth considering that people with psychosis frequently develop post-traumatic stress disorder in response to their treatment experiences or the psychotic symptoms themselves.” (2004 p. 302) This is certainly a view with which I have strong sympathy and accord.

Mosher (2004) expresses a view that significantly shifts psychiatry toward the established principles of psychotherapy:

Within this defined and predictable social environment, interpersonal phenomenology was practised. Its most basic tenet is ‘being with’ – an attentive but non-intrusive, gradual way of getting oneself ‘into the other person’s shoes’ so that a shared meaningfulness of the subjective aspects of the psychotic experience can be established within a confiding relationship. This requires unconditional acceptance of the experiences of others as valid and understandable within the historical context of each person’s life. (2004 pp. 351-352)

However this sentiment is still constrained by the key assumptions of psychiatry, seeing validity in a narrow personal and historical context, rather than potentially on an ontological level.

Geekie understands that “a psychotic episode can sometimes be an overwhelming experience, it is not surprising that clients are eager to make sense of it.” and “clients want to be active participants in this process rather than passive recipients of the clinicians model.” But the “client’s explanatory models may not always correspond to professional understandings of psychosis, and it may, therefore, be necessary for some form of discussion and negotiation to take place if a shared understanding between clinician and client is to be established.” (2004 p. 158) I agree with Geekie that a radical non-ordinary experience can be overwhelming and there is an urgent need to make sense of it. And he is right is saying that there can be a desire to be an active participant in meaning-making process. But I found none of his willingness to see that there is some discussion and negotiation – not that I had any explanatory model to offer at the time.

Read (2004) observes; “Any behaviour can be transformed into a symptom of mental illness simply by an expert decreeing it so. It helps, however, if the behaviour is portrayed as meaningless or bizarre. An effective way to do this is to ignore the social context.” (2004 p. 29) Read naturally does not extend his observations to include ignoring the ontological context at the metaphysical level, but here we may, at a lower scale, take “social context” to mean a relative ontological context. Here Read displays a sensitivity that at least suggests the possibility of a conversation about what is or is not madness. In my case there was an automatic presumption that my experience was meaningless and bizarre, as the diagnosis supposed the absence of foundation in reality and a violation of the ontological norm. Although I did not have a metaphysical context to offer at the time (if I had then I would not have sought psychiatric care), alternative discourses were known, or possible to be known. The psychiatric presumption of illness indicated that alternative explanations had been discounted, with or without any exploration.

Finally, Davis and Burdett’s (2004) assertion that “meaning is not discovered. It is not something lying around on life’s road waiting to be tripped over. Rather one makes meaning and fully honours the individual struggle to make meaning out of strange and disruptive events. They argue that “Prevention of mental illness is about creating the preconditions necessary for a life worth living: the essential one being having sufficient autonomy to determine one’s own life.” (2004 p. 272) But the extent to which that autonomy embraces the freedom to elect and function within an alternative ontological frame has to be part of an ongoing dialogue between those who have experiences and those who function is to provide care when those experiences become catastrophic, and conduct, subsequently, becomes dysfunctional.

How would I have progressed to find meaning for my experiences had I had available psychiatric services operating with the values and ideas that are now possible, but by no means always or yet widely, present? I think the outcome would have been substantially the same, because despite the evident advance, psychiatry is still, in my assessment, rooted to the proposition that there is not a wider sphere of the potentially real. While there is a shift towards honouring the personal, it does not appear to go so far as to admit that disturbing and disruptive experiences may actually come from bona fide intrusions whose source and nature are outside the orthodox ontological constructs. In other words, it is not such a huge leap to imagine the existence of other planes of consciousness. The sensitivity and accommodation is almost at the point of considering utility and functionality as the critical considerations for intervention, but not yet there.

An alternative view on hearing voices

Hearing voices is one of the key diagnostic elements of schizophrenia, and certainly was so in my case. Because it was hearing voices that precipitated my crisis it is useful to consider the marked changes in the way this phenomenon is considered outside the more conventional psychiatric perception, and within a self-help context of a community of ‘sufferers’.

A review of current websites indicates a shift from the classical psychiatric position. The Mental Health Foundation, a UK charity founded in 1949, reflects a significantly more open view:

Some people define hearing voices as a symptom of mental illness, where as some voice hearers are able to live with their voices and consider them a positive part of their lives.

Indeed research shows that especially for people recently bereaved, it is not an uncommon experience to hear the voice of the recently deceased person.

As well as hearing voices through the ears people also hear voices as if they are thoughts entering the mind from somewhere outside themselves … the thoughts are not their own and would seem to come from outside their own consciousness like telepathy (

A similar, more open perspective is reflected in the website,, which says “Auditory hallucinations are more common in psychotic conditions such as schizophrenia … In some case hallucinations may be normal. For example, hearing the voice, or briefly seeing, a loved one who has recently died can be part of the grieving process. “


The acceptance of hearing voices as a feature of the grieving process probably makes the diagnosis of a schizophrenic condition less acceptable, creating the problem of pathologising grief as a mental illness. The website,, an information and support service for people who hear voices and those who provide care and support to them, provides research resources, including:

Rees (1971) conducted a study of 293 widowed people living in a particular area of mid- Wales. He found that 14% of those interviewed reported having had a visual hallucination of their deceased spouse, 13.3% an auditory one and 2.7% a tactile one. These categories overlapped to some extent as some people reported a hallucinatory experience in more than one modality. Of interest in light of the previous heading was the fact that 46.7% of the sample reported experiencing the presence of the deceased spouse.

From Olson , Suddeth , Peterson & Egelhoff (1985)

Widowed residents of two nursing homes who were oriented to person, time, and place were interviewed to determine the extent to which they had hallucinatory experiences of their deceased spouse. Fifty-two interviews were completed with 46 widows and six widowers. Results are reported for the widows. Twenty-eight (61%) of the widows reported hallucinatory experiences of their deceased spouse. Twenty-four (86%) of the widows described the experiences as good or helpful. Thirteen (46%) reported that the experiences continue to happen. Nineteen (54%) of the widows had never discussed the experiences with anyone before this study. These results are surprisingly similar to previously published findings by Rees in Wales and suggest that these experiences are more common in the United States than has been recognized.

What these two excerpts pose is the problem of turning grieving into an illness if the classical criteria for psychotic illness is employed. And even so, assuming that the experiences arise from part of the grief process can lock the experience of voice hearing and other non-ordinary phenomena into a period of life experience that appears to be dysfunctional, because it violates the norms of perception and experience, or so it is thought. The relationship between voice hearing and trauma is, below, asserted, and while this is a shift from such experiences as symptomatic of psychotic illness, it is nevertheless still firmly rooted in the assumption of a nexus between voice hearing and some kind of traumatic experience that, even temporarily, the norms of perception.

Intervoice has 170 groups in the England and there are affiliated groups in 18 other countries, including Australia, where the Richmond Fellowship WA has established the Hearing Voices Network Australia.

Intervoice evolved out of the growth of The Hearing Voices Movement, which was established in 1987 by Prof Marius Romme, Professor of Social Psychiatry at the University of Limburg, Maastricht, the Netherlands, and Sandra Escher, a science journalist. The movement opposes the standard psychiatric interpretation of auditory hallucinations as being indicative of schizophrenic disorder. Romme and Baker (2007) argue; “Schizophrenia is not a valid concept because it completely fails scientific tests” and that “schizophrenia is not and never has been proven to be a brain disease”. They go on to assert that, “In our research concerning people who hear voices we found that in 77% of the people diagnoses with schizophrenia the hearing of voices was related to traumatic experiences.” and “In our experience many people start to hear voices and only afterwards develop other experiences. These arise as a reaction to hearing the voices and because people cannot cope with their voices.” (p. 1 Intervoice online Hearing Voices and Schizophrenia – updated 11/6/07)

Romme and Baker go on to say that “there are quite a large number of people (about 4%) in the general population who hear voices and even more (about 8%) have peculiar personal convictions, that we call delusions, without being ill (and this) compels us to realize that that the experience of hearing voices or having ‘delusions’ are not in themselves a sign of mental illness.” (2007 p. 2)

The position taken is still fundamentally psychiatric, arguing for recognition of “Trauma Induced Psychosis”, possibly as an alternative to schizophrenia, and asserting “recovery” from the phenomena of hearing voices is possible. Romme and Baker say that the objective of therapeutic intervention is to “help the person to learn to accept and cope with his voices and or delusions and with the problems that led to them.” (2007 p. 2)

In contrast to the clearly psychiatric perspective adopted by Romme and others the Intervoice website carries stories, feedback and comments from who accept that hearing voices can belong to valid spiritual traditions that accept such voices as not necessarily the product of trauma or necessarily undesirable phenomena. The Intervoice site, under the heading Alternative Perspectives says that Intervoice “has always considered the importance of accepting peoples’ own explanations for their voice experiences as paramount. Many people believe their voices to have spiritual or other significance.” In an unattributed short article entitled Voice hearing in history and religion the author observes that:

Throughout human history there have been descriptions of the ‘voice within’ in religion, in the occult, magical and mystical descriptions, historical, psychological, fictional and mythical. The psychological literature on these experiences has largely focused on individuals considered to be “mad”, while the religious literature concentrates on those thought to be divinely or demonically inspired or possessed. Unsurprisingly perhaps, little attention has been given to the inner voice experience of people who fall into neither of these groups.


It might be observed that those who fall into neither the mad nor religious have not existed as a category until fairly recent times, at least within psychiatry, which would also embrace the religious and demonic communications within the orbit of psychotic symptoms. In this instance psychiatry and religion have known ontological paradigms that are generally admitted within Western culture, whereas such paradigms as may exist for those in neither category are less known, and less amenable to acceptance or validation, especially if they violate the precepts of the more hegemonic ontology.

Thomas, Bracken & Leudar (2004), whose article is posted on the Intervoice site, take a phenomenological-hermeneutic perspective on the subject of hearing voices, arguing that:

It is only when we consider the totality of human experience that we can understand its meaning. This has two main benefits. First it legitimates the claims made by those can hear voices that their experiences are intrinsically meaningful. Second it can provide a framework for those who with voice hearers and who are interested in understanding these experiences.” (p. 13)

Thomas et al propose an alternative to the enduring influence of Cartesianism in psychiatry and the proposition that the mental life can be explained in neurological terms. They say:

We have argued that although cognitive science and neuroscience claim to move us beyond ontological dualism, they perpetuate the essential features of Descartes’ philosophy. In particular they uphold the epistemological separation of inner mind from outer world. They fail to acknowledge the problems that arise if we regard the mind as a “thing”… We have also argued that psychiatry (and medicine) need a different philosophical framework if we are to move beyond the limitations of Cartesianism. The question of meaning lies at the heart of this framework. (2002 p. 14)

The problem with applying the cognitive model to the interpretation of auditory hallucinations is that it proposes only dysfunction, and explains them only in “terms of disordered inner mental processes” (2002 p. 15) Considering the classic story of Socrates and his daemon, Thomas et al observe that were Socrates forced to accept the proposition that his experience were hallucinatory “He would be forced to accept that there were no such things as Gods and daemons, because these beliefs were an integral aspect of his culture.” (2002 p. 15). Observing that “reality is not determined universally in terms of distinctions between inner and external worlds, but is influenced by cultural factors that make it possible for us to understand and make sense of our experiences in certain ways.” (2002 p. 16) Thomas et al propose that “Ontological phenomenology situates the human experience in personal, historical and cultural contexts, and through these contexts that experience can be understood as meaningful.” (2002 p. 16)

The problem here with such an endeavour to locate experience within an experiential context, rather than in a clinical interpretative one, is that in a culture where hearing voices is not ‘normalised’ by reference to current beliefs that give validation, the capacity to construct meaning is problematic. What is ‘meaningful’ can become uncertain as well as contentious. While a phenomenological perspective shifts the interpretive narrative from the ontological presumptions of the observer to those of the experiencer, outside a culture whose ontological frames accommodate hearing voices as a valid element of personal or social experience, the experiencer is little benefited unless they are able to construct a useful theory. But on what basis is such a theory constructed?

Here I am not decrying the movement towards honouring the experience of the patient (in the case of diagnosed mental illness) so much as arguing that the context of the experience may not be sufficiently rich to enable a useful theory that confers meaning to be developed. Whereas Romme (2007) moves thinking about hearing voices away from an illness model, his alternative of an experiential crisis still is seen in the context of recovery from an adverse situation. It is not an ontological crisis from which one recovers through adaptation of a previously limiting ontology to one with wider or more porous boundaries. There is a distinction between the perceived need for, and benefit from, validation of personal experience as meaningful, and the development of an intellectually rigorous theory that ‘explains’ the hearing voices phenomenon, but within a preordained ontological field.

My experience not only involved the problem I had with voices I had not invited and had not agreed to have present, but also one of not being able to locate the phenomenon of hearing voices within any knowledge available to me. At a stretch the closest thing to hearing voices I knew of were the prophets of the Old Testament, but what I experienced mercifully did not present itself as God, neither was I inclined to interpret any religious significance in the experiences. The fact of the voices is one thing, but where they come from and what is their nature is another.

In the absence of validating knowledge within one’s native cultural context, the honouring of experience as being one’s own and meaningful at a personal level is potentially hollow. Although the movement away from imposed and dominant ontological frames towards the accommodation of the personal experience as potentially meaningful within a particular context is a welcome development, it is not the whole picture.

Thomas et al do propose the need for an alternative philosophical perspective and suggest that meaning is the key. What does an experience mean? If we consider the Socrates example, he has two alternatives – to accept the hallucination hypothesis or to reject it. Because he believes in gods and daemons he has an alternative ontological frame within which to locate his experience, and the hallucination proposition can be accommodated within it. Alternatively, if hallucination is the only available explanation then gods and daemons have no reality, save as symbolic interpretive images that give ‘flesh’ to an entirely subjective experience.

Thomas et al fail, I think, to properly account for the ontological implications. Considering their Socratic illustration, they propose that a diagnosis of ‘hallucination’ must invalidate the belief in gods and daemons. But Socrates may have been mistaken. He may have hallucinated, but he has the option of an alternative explanation. Gods and daemons are part of his culture, but did that infer that every instance of hearing voices was not a hallucination? Socrates may have had the means for testing whether his experiences were hallucinations or bona fide communications with his daemon. The argument that Socrates’ cultural context enables a validation of the experience of communication with one’s daemon needs to account for the distinction between the articulation or description of an experience and the proposition that the experience is ‘real’, that the daemon exists as an entity distinct from Socrates. There is the risk of intellectual sleight of hand, in which the cultural context is used as an element of validation and the claimed reality of gods and daemons side-stepped.

As Romme and others move the possible explanations for hearing voices out of the illness model of psychiatry, they reflect a wider movement away from absolute and given ontological frames, towards the possibility of individually determined meaning arising from personal context – individual, cultural, historical. In this alternative model a dysfunction is accorded meaning. It is an aberration rather than an illness. Its roots are experiential rather than physiological, and the phenomenon is interpretive rather than absolute. In effect this is a strained accommodation of personal experience. The phenomenon of hearing voices is an artefact of interpretation that has meaning that can be discerned through investigation of elements of personal experience in context.

There is no suggestion that the source of the voices have a reality outside the subjective experience of the hearer. While Romme does not say as much, there is a gentle suggestion that such a belief might constitute a delusion – of the kind that it is possible to live with, so long as the conduct that results is merely aberrant rather than dysfunctional.

Even with reference to old cultural traditions, to other cultures, where hearing voices is accepted as part of the real, the hearer of voices is extending their context, casting a wider contextual net in order to snare an anchor upon which validation of meaningfulness can be established – meaningfulness that asserts the voices have an independent existence beyond the subjective and personal experience of the hearer. The grieving widow hearing her spouse may not be necessarily inclined to accept that the spouse and his words are an artefact of her consciousness – a comforting construct of memory serving some mechanism of grieving.

This is not a phenomenological analysis. Old cultures and other cultures alien to the hearer at the time of the experience, regardless of their capacity to validate and elucidate the phenomenon of hearing voices, cannot be part of the phenomenological context of the experience itself. As Romme and others suggest, the response to the voices may generate distress that leads dysfunction and efforts to make meaning of the experience. This meaning making is a different phase of the experience. The fact that hearing voices is a long-established historical phenomenon, validated within certain cultures as part of one’s spiritual life, does not drive a wedge between the interpretive experience (a phenomenon is interpreted as hearing voices) and the proposition of the independent reality of agencies that do speak to human via the phenomenon of hearing voices.

My experiences moved from being private and potentially only an issue of interpretation – that is, I was experiencing something that I experienced, or interpreted as, hearing voices – to encounters involving other persons. The purely personal and private explanations, as interpretations of personal reality, cease to be valid. More complex issues of aberrant or delusional conduct among several people arise, but, as with any shared experience, the possibility of an ‘objective’ reality becomes, at least, worthy of consideration, even when it seems like a sharp pin inside an ontological balloon.

If such phenomena constitute separate and distinct agencies having their own valid and independent existence, then a radically new philosophical perspective, offering quite different potential meanings becomes necessary. This was the proposition that I had put to myself. The crisis of the experiences of hearing voices was minor compared to the ontological crisis that they precipitated. The subsequent experiences in which others saw, spoke with or had thoughts (as with ML and WM) that were related to my experiences, but did not directly involve me at the point of experience as a participant, even more forcefully posed the question of separate and independent entities.

In an age in which validation of individual experience is achieving increasing acceptance over the universal declarations of how things are (the ontologically dominating powers based upon authority and persuasion), such validation is a tempting compromise. But the proposition that there are things that are objectively real outside the act of interpretation, and beyond the ontological norms, while constantly offered as a possibility, is often lost in the illusion of accommodation and acceptance. That is to say that the honouring of personal experience, the accommodating of a personal ‘reality’ that is meaningful, can also be seen to serve the purpose of avoiding the more contentious ontological problem of whether the source of the experience has an independent existence beyond the subjective experience of the subject.

There is, then, an imperative that arises in the mind of the experiencer, where the evidence exceeds the safer proposition of interpretation of an entirely personal ‘reality’, to make meaning by asking the question whether the causes of an initially aberrant experience have independent existence, and if they do, what does that mean? What does it mean as an individual for an individual to have such encounters with no control and no knowledge of the fuller potential context? What does it mean for the ontology of a culture that has long dismissed such a prospect as preposterous and only the stuff of madness?

I would like to propose a three-phase scale, using the phenomenon of hearing voices as a touchstone:

  1. The classical psychiatric model that proposes that it is an illness arising from disturbance within cerebral functioning. It can’t happen in reality because there is no aspect of reality that accommodates it. Thus, when it does happen it is the consequence of cerebral
  2. The mind responds to trauma or grief by constructing illusory vignettes in which the subject experiences auditory hallucinations as part of a meaningful mechanism, as part of a meaning making, or coping strategy. This appears to be a ‘normal’ thing, especially for those grieving the death of someone close to them. Because this is not an illness, rather an induced aberration, it is okay to live with the experience and okay to have the ‘harmless’ delusion that it is ‘real’.
  3. For reasons not well understood, but which may include trauma or grief, and also an absence of any evident environmental or contextual trigger, some people experience communication from, or influence by, entities who are separate and distinct from them. The consequences may be adverse or beneficial. They may accept or reject such encounters, and may suffer distress or trauma as a

Each of the three stages has distinct responses. The first denies any possibility or reality or validity, the second asserts validity, but only subjective reality, and the third proposes validity and objective reality. The first is the dominant position of ‘modern’ Western culture. The second is a relatively recent interpretation, which might loosely be called postmodern. The third is the oldest interpretation, predating the ‘modern’.

At the time I was undergoing my experiences the second stage was either not yet developed or unavailable to me. My position was essentially black or white. It was either stage one or stage three. While many favour stage two, presently it is an alien set of ideas to me. I moved from rejecting stage one to considering stage three without considering that it might be a possible intermediate stage. At the time I lacked the intellectual sophistication to even consider stage two as feasible, and the early participation of other persons in my experiences also urged me closer to stage three.

Stage two appears to reflect much of the thinking explored in the discussion on methodology, in that it accommodates individual experience, seeking to honour it as valid and meaningful in itself, subject to reflection and articulation within the philosophic tradition, and so long as one does not appear to make declarative ontological statements that represent an exclusion of a position that might seem to be contrary. While this approach is accommodating and inclusive, and constitutes a significant advance on past philosophic or ontological positions that present definitive and exclusive assertions of factuality, it commits a similar ‘offence’. By confining ‘reality’ within the bounds of subjective construction born out of personal and collective contexts, it makes assertion of non-conforming objective realities both contentious and objectionable. Hence the proposition that there might be independent ‘real’ entities participating in communication with humans, becomes both contentious and political.

I have thought a great deal about my position in relation to this. Do I want to appear to the reader to be non-conforming in relation to the prevailing philosophic orthodoxy? Do I want to appear to be churlish, prepared to grasp the apparent tolerance proffered by clear advances in thinking – the willingness to accommodate my experiences as meaningful – and then say that this is not enough?

I want to take some thoughts from my readings in methodology to locate my own position. Guba & Lincoln observe that “new-paradigm inquirers are, however, increasingly concerned with the single experience, the individual crisis, the epiphany or moment of discovery, with that most powerful of all threats to conventional objectivity, feeling and emotion.” (2005 p. 205). Validation of individual experience radicalises philosophic thought, because what is true for an individual is potentially true for everybody, so the potential template for universal human experience is a mosaic of individual experiences, and the extreme or radical personal experience disrupts generalisation. If it can be demonstrated that hearing voices involves intercourse with separate, independently extant entities on an individual level, then the whole ontological picture must adjust to accommodate it. The particular then becomes the universal.

Guba & Lincoln go on to assert that: “the assumption that there is no single “truth” – that all truths are but partial truths … leads us ineluctably toward the insight that there will be no single “conventional” paradigm to which all … might ascribe in some common terms and mutual understanding. Rather we stand at the threshold of a history marked by multivocality, contested meanings, paradigmatic controversies, and new textual forms.” (2005 p. 212) What is under-estimated here is that common human experience shares a common ground of base realities that are substantially uncontested, and which from our sense of ‘reality’ is collectively developed. What is real may blur at the margins and controversies may rage over interpretations and meanings, but what is real has been fleshed out as philosophic, ethical and scientific positions have evolved. The distinction between the classical psychiatric perception that hearing voices is symptomatic of illness and the evolving sense that it reflects meaningful experience, albeit, maybe as the product of trauma, or an aberration, is clear. It reflects an evolution in thought through the contesting of paradigmatic boundaries, and the weakening of a particular ontological construction against the incursions of new paradigm thinking. But it does not end there.

From the perspective of an individual who has undergone a powerful crisis of experience and thought, I argue that that the transition from denial to partial and conditional acceptance of individual and non- conforming experiences may be a stepping stone on a more radical pathway of profound ontological transformation. I cannot say that it is definitely so. The nature of individual experience is such that one cannot safely advance from the particular to the universal, even when the philosophic environment is favourable. Guba & Lincoln, despite their enthusiasm for the importance of the individual experience are alive to the problem of interpretation. They ask “Are we interpretatively rigorous? Can our co-created constructions be trusted to provide some purchase on some important human phenomenon? (2005 p. 205) It is a vital question. I would add that there are times when an issue that is an ‘important human phenomenon” plays havoc with the intellectual comfort zones, and that subtle forces of control, even among the most ardent idealists, conspire to corrupt interpretive rigour. The question as to whether there might be independent agencies involved in communicating with humans threatens the tolerance of the tolerant. It can appear as an ontological rupture that can unravel much that has been safely contained, either disposed of or considered ‘unreal’ in an absolute sense.

The expression ‘paradigmatic controversies’ masks existential passions that accompany the polite practice of philosophic discourse. As a thinker who largely by-passed a good deal of postmodern thought in favour of esoteric thought I can celebrate the developments that open a door once closed in terms of toleration of non-conventional thinking. When Guba & Lincoln observe; “We may be entering an age of greater spirituality within research efforts” that “may yet integrate the sacred with the secular in ways freedom and self-determination” (2005 p. 212) they are articulating not an ontological evaluation, but an ethical one. There is an apparent assumption that the ontological issues will not become contentious because they have been accommodated within the relativistic sense of partial truths. But here that sense of partial truth relates to experience, rather than a sense of what constitutes the ground of the ‘real’. Like the famous tale of the blind men describing an elephant from touch, each articulating the partial truth of his limited sensory contact, nobody disputes the elephant’s existence. The experiential ground is common, only the experience and response varies, and the varieties constitute the whole, or contribute toward it.

There is a fundamental difference between stages one and three. They have differing common ground. Stage two progresses from stage one. It is an advance toward the ideals of shared experience constituting a collective sense of the real. But where acceptance of the validity of hearing voices is an advance over denial of such, it constitutes a lesser degree of acceptance than the proposition that such voices have independent existence. In the classic development of human consciousness as accepted in modern and post modern Western thought, stage three comes before stage one, and then stage two signifies the most advanced thought, moving toward the ideal of commonality. But its advance is predicated on the invalidation of stage three, or its relegation to a primary stage. If stage three were accepted as valid then not only would stage one be redundant, but stage two would have to be significantly, but not wholly redeveloped.

The crisis the stage three thinking precipitated was precisely that it was utterly alien to stage one and the ontological environment in which it flourished. It permeated my culture, such as I knew it. A combination of immaturity and a lack of learning proposed an awful wrenching sense of disjuncture between what was happening to me and the ‘normal’ world. It is not my objective to assert that stage three is a definite alternative that rules out stages one and two. Rather that stage three is where I ended up having to go in order make sense of my experiences. It dwells at the very contentious edge of conversations involving problematic paradigms. It is an exciting place.

From destructive doubt to a sense of possibility

Just as there are limitations to memory, we need to not overlook the fact that there are limitations to our capacity to analyse and interpret information, of which an extraordinary volume is available to us. We have to, in effect, ignore or forget much and focus upon that which is significant. But electing to privilege some information as significant, and other as not, is a matter of choice, and such choice is made on the basis of what is important. Selectivity and choice making, deciding what is important to self, is a complex business. So de Quincey’s (2002) proposition that Self exists only as choice covers the spectrum from the secular and political to the deep metaphysical. We are what we chose to be, or how we chose to respond to what happens to us, indeed if we have the capacity for choice in such all matters. In a sense our social self, which responds to and is shaped by others, is a product of their choice, as much as it is our own.

For me, self questioning about one’s sanity was a profoundly urgent and demanding experience and when utility and ontology become blended at the level of cultural determination as to what is or is not acceptable, the problem was magnified. Importantly, I found that when the cultural ontological frame is comprised of both conscious and unconscious elements and the business of boundary keeping is privileged as being rational, the individual experience of meaning-making become a powerful struggle.

Wilson (1956) sums up the problem: “If a solution exists, it must be sought not in reasoning, but in examination of experience. We must keep in mind the logical possibility that a solution may not exist. In any case, it is the empirical approach that must be examined now.” (p. 27).

Wilson proposes that a solution may not exist as a consequence of the examination of experience, but I disagree. That is to propose that there is the possibility of an insoluble ontological dilemma, that what experience might tell us, through its examination is something that may be beyond accommodation. The fundamental difficulty in arguing from reasoning is that reasoning itself is not evidentiary and may be contaminated by ontological presumption. As Guba & Lincoln observe, considering the now willingness to consider axiological perspectives: “Arguably axiology has been “defined out of” scientific inquiry for no larger reason that it also concerns “religion”. (2005 p. 200) We can reasonably exclude that which we presume to be unreasonable on the basis of ‘reasoned’ assessment – and others, with equal reason can find our reasoning completely unreasonable.

But at the same time how one examines experience has to be considered. It can be examined within or outside of a prevailing dominant ontological frame. As we saw with the classical psychiatric interpretation of hearing voices, the presumption that it is not possible for voice sources to exist outside the brain, requires either a presumption of dysfunction, or, more generously, adaptive response. If we allow the possibility of a source outside the brain then the experience is open to potentially unexpected and disruptive interpretations. This might push the boundaries of ‘new paradigm’ research beyond the meaning intended by Guba & Lincoln, but well within their sense of “paradigmatic controversies”.

It is one of those paradoxes of life that Wilson’s remarkable ‘The Outsider’ had eluded me until October 2007, 51 years after it had been written and 37 years after I needed to read it. Wilson’s ‘outsider’ sees the world, and experiences it differently, and hence develops another view of what is real and meaningful. If we are to embrace the individual experience as a valid contributor the collective construction of what is real, then we have to consider to what degree an ‘outsider’ view might also be an ‘insider’ one. If we are to accommodate unique individual experience at the point of crisis or epiphany, as Guba & Lincoln suggest, as a means of opening up the depth and complexity of human experience, we have to be prepared to enter a realm of inquiry that “may give rise to more dynamic, problematic, open-ended and complex forms of writing and representation”. (2005 p. 210)

That realm of inquiry includes asking whether the structures that underpin our collective sense of ‘reality’ permit the proposition that there may be domains beyond those presently embraced and validated.



For some months now I have had inner prompting to put my Social Ecology Masters Honours thesis on this blog. It has been something I have resisted, because I do not have fond memories of the experience of writing it. I had in mind that it was a poor piece of work, contaminated by adverse experiences, and one that barely scraped through the marking process.

I have tried to read a lot of theses, and I have rarely succeeded. They are mostly boring and badly written. That is a pity because so often the content should be fascinating. When I read George Hansen’s The Trickster and the Paranomal I was astonished by the depth and variety of academic works he referred to. So much fabulous research lost to us because there has been no will to make it accessible. I am not pretending for a moment that my efforts are in the same class a the outstanding PhDs he wrote about.

I completed my thesis after 8 years of struggling to write it. I won’t go into details about the personal circumstances. It is sufficient to say that against my better judgment in early 2008 I was persuaded to submit rather than quit. I subsequently was obliged to do a rewrite after my paper was sent to an academic whose work I had dealt with harshly. My university was wreaking havoc upon Social Ecology school and the quality of my supervisors diminished radically, leading to that cock up.

The title of my paper was An inquiry into animism as a source of meaning in response to radical and disruptive non-ordinary experiences.

In April that year I came down with a nasty dose of Guillain-Barré syndrome (GBS), which put me in hospital for 10 months. From my discharge in February 2009 to my return to work in late September the same year I rewrote the paper and resubmitted.

Writing the thing was such a trauma that I had not revisited it since. By trauma I mean that I went through an existential hell processing the ideas. It took me over 18 months to formulate what my research question was. For many months nothing worked as an idea, and yet I felt compelled to persist. The ‘penny dropped’ in a manner I describe in one of the thesis chapters, and which I will not preview here.

What started out as an intellectual exercise became a strange kind of personal initiation journey. I can’t describe it any other way. The fact that it was supposedly a formal academic exercise seemed to be irrelevant. This was more personal and much deeper than that. I can look back now, still, on ways the university failed to support me, and that still rankles. But really all it did was create the context for a formal game. It set rules I agreed to play by.

It was the exercise of having to account for what was really a fundamental existential crisis for me within a set of rules that made the thesis writing business such a drama – and so valuable. I grew up in a game playing culture, and I was pretty adept at most of the games I played. Good games are a test of character as well as game skill. The thesis, for all the shitty failings of the university, was a good game.

I had the intellectual goods. I could write well enough. What I hadn’t anticipated was the existential storm that was about to engulf me. I can look back now, a decade later, and see how copping the GBS was actually a proper follow on. For many people that is going to sound like complete madness. As a consequence of the GBS I am left with residual disability that means I cannot walk without aids (at the moment Canadian crutches) and my manual capacity has turned to crap. But disability has transformed my life. True, it has taken away a lot of things I had. But it has given me stuff I didn’t have and needed. It has been character building in a serious way.

The link between animism and disability will not be obvious. Indeed it may be no more than my quirky interpretation. A sudden and acquired disability completely disrupts your normal relationship with the material world. For 3 months I was in an Intensive Care Unit on a respirator. I was paralysed from the neck down and that left me conscious and inhabiting a large lump of inert flesh. It was pretty obvious to me, in this state, that I was not my body. I inhabited an imaginal world that was more real that what I could see through my waking eyes.

I had become a giant baby in physical terms. As my recovery progressed I had to rediscover how to be in a body in the physical world. After I was mercifully discharged from hospital I engaged in long daily routines of physiotherapy on the back verandah at home. The year progressed into autumn and then winter. I struggled to handle a camera again and took photographs of the seasonal transition in my garden. These images still affect me deeply. The home screen on my iPhone shows the very first photograph I took when I was finally able to visit my favourite open garden at Mt Wilson in the Blue Mountains. That was in the autumn of 2010. (image below)

The world spoke to me in moods and colours that affirmed to me a loving embrace. I cannot adequately convey that experience of perilously navigating the garden’s walkways on my crutches. A few of the images do a little justice to my sense of deep immersion and communion.

As I reformatted the chapters for the blog I recovered memories of the final stages of the rewrite. I had forgotten how much of my personal journey I had exposed. I had confessed my perilous encounter with psychiatry as I struggled to comprehend the tsunami of paranormal events flooding over me. I revealed entries from my journals and diaries that charted the trauma of uncontrolled paranormal experiences.

I had survived the insult of GBS, and I didn’t really give a damn. I wrote fearlessly. I had to defer my rewrite because of the GBS. After the resubmit I got a terse letter confirming I would graduate. It was as if that was all that mattered. There was no feedback. No comment. It was as if nobody gave a damn, save that I was not yet another fail to finish. I had done enough to give the university sufficient grounds to give me a passing grade, and it cared about nothing else.

I was exhausted. I had escaped hospital, done the rewrite and had returned to work. I thought I had done a lousy job, and nobody had said anything because that would not have been kind. But now I have had a chance to revisit what I wrote I can see I did a decent job.

This isn’t an intellectual paper. It is an account of an existential drama. It is about how one knits experience into a cultural discourse in a way that preserves membership and sanity. This is a paper from the heart, not just the head.

There are 85 pages all up. I won’t post them all at once. There are 4 chapters and a conclusion Chapter One is accompanying these introductory remarks. From it I have excised the Methodology, which is an important part of a thesis for academic purposes, but it is utterly boring if you have no compelling reason to wade through it. However, if you have a perverse interest in it, let me know I will send you an untouched version of the chapter (I write this confident that nobody will do that).

I will, post the other chapters progressively. I hope to intersperse them with other posts for anybody who does not have the stamina for such a read. Can you block, copy and paste from the blog into your own document?

So why bother put up the thesis? Animism is kinda what I am about, as the blog name suggests. This is the reason why. There have been some great discussions on podcasts recently and a great forum discussion on the Skeptiko site that reminded me that you really can’t approach animism from a purely intellectual angle. That forced me to yield to the promptings to do something with the thesis chapters.

You gotta get your hands dirty. I hope those who endure the read are inspired. Actually it’s not too bad. In fact, at the risk of sounding like a helium head, some of what I write is pretty damned good – at least that’s what I tell myself, so I can post it without too much anxiety.



Thesis chapter 1 – short version




Chapter One

Introduction and Methodology

This research applies an autoethnographic method to explore of the consequences of a series of personal radical non-ordinary experiences that commenced in the early 1970s. The initial effects of these experiences were profoundly disruptive to my sense of self, and my sense of sanity. They eventually precipitated a deep ontological crisis as I attempted to discover their meaning within the dominant cultural narrative that did not appear to accommodate them.

The crisis led from unintentional to intentional non-ordinary experiences as the struggle to make sense evolved, over time, from the urgent and immediate personal drama to a more measured inquiry that sought to answer the questions posed by the experiences and their possible meaning in a progressively widening frame of thought.

The meaning we draw from experience is the substance of our sense of reality, and the narrative we create shapes that sense of reality into a shared, and bonding, or an isolating thing. So when my experiences reached a pitch of intensity, and a degree of strangeness, that went beyond my capacity to construct meaning I had to confront the prospect that I was going mad. What was happening was of vital, urgent, importance to me, but it was incomprehensible to others. I could see the risk of ostracism, and it was not what I wanted. But what was happening was part of my reality, and I was not prepared to surrender it for acceptance. The struggle to make ‘good’ meaning has preoccupied my attention for many years. Many times this preoccupation has deeply disrupted my desire for a ‘normal’ life. Answers I hoped to be substantial have morphed into chimerical creatures of the mind.

This thesis carries on the process of inquiry, but within the rules of a formal research project. I have chosen an autoethnographic approach because the inquiry is rooted is personal experiences, and these experiences remain as a constant reference and a spur. To do otherwise would sever the inquiry from the energy that feeds it, and hence offer an artificial, and possibly misleading, context to the reader. I recount a few of the more radical experiences; ones seminal to my own reflections. I also give account, drawing on personal journals, of the personal journey of response and reflection as I struggle to discover the bedrock of meaning I believe to be somewhere beneath the forest of unsatisfactory and unsatisfying explanations.

The first profoundly disrupting encounter

The experiences commenced from about age four but reached a crescendo of destabilising intensity in my early 20s. Until that dangerous period of early adulthood what I experienced tended only to bemuse me, aside from some truly terrifying childhood experiences. Most of what I encountered seem to be useful; what one might call ‘psychic gifts’ that helped me find things. One of the early profoundly challenging experiences occurred in the middle of 1972. I was living in a house occupied by students from the University of Melbourne. I was the only non-student. I had become friendly with ML, who had the front upstairs bedroom and we spent many hours in conversation when she should have been attending to her studies. On a particular evening she retreated to her room early to meet a looming deadline.

The next morning I encountered her in the kitchen. She did not look well rested and my immediate assumption was that she had stayed up late at her studies. The instant she saw me she launched into verbal attack. “I had been ignoring my friends.” “Why should they have to wake me up at two in the morning to ask me to get you to talk to them?” Words to this effect sprinkled liberally with expletives left me stunned. I had no idea what she was talking about. What few friends I had left in Melbourne I had seen recently and regularly. She was plainly distressed and when she calmed down enough I asked her to explain her conduct. This is what she told me.

She had studied until close on midnight and had then gone to bed and fallen asleep quickly. About two o’clock she was woken up by three people (two men and a woman) in her room. She was initially alarmed, thinking it might have been a police raid searching for drugs, but they quickly assured her that they were on a different mission. For some time, she thought perhaps about twenty minutes, she sat up in bed while they sat on chairs they had moved and placed closer to the bed. The gist of their conversation, at least the only part she conveyed to me, was that they had been trying to talk to me and I had been ignoring them. Would she kindly speak to me and ask me to be more responsive to them. They then left and she went back to sleep more or less convinced that the incident had been a dream.

When she woke she was startled to notice that the chairs had been left as she presumed she had dreamed them. ML is a tidy person. She had placed the chairs against the wall and had neatly placed clothing on several of them. It was then that she became alarmed. Who were these people? How had they entered her room through a locked door? And why in hell did they not simply talk to me, who was asleep downstairs? She was also annoyed that they had not returned the chairs to their position.

I listened to ML’s story in utter astonishment. What she did not know and could not know was that for the past near eighteen months three invisible presences, two men and a woman, who were trying to engage me in conversation, had bedevilled me. My experience of them was one of intrusive thoughts accompanied by mental images that were not sharply defined, but clear enough to get the impression of three people aged maybe in their late thirties or early forties. I was sufficiently concerned to have sought psychiatric care, fearing I was going mad. I had told ML none of this, but now I had to confess, to offer some kind of explanation for her bizarre encounter. Our relationship rapidly deteriorated thereafter. She felt violated by the extreme and frightening nature of the event and did not want to be exposed to any repeat. I left the house soon after.

This was an early instance in a series of profoundly disruptive non-ordinary experiences that forced me to question the nature of the world I lived in, and the nature of experience within it. Not only did it force confrontation with conventional narrative assumptions of the Western cultural discourse (de Quincey 2002), but also, like other and similar experiences (further explored in Chapter Two), it had a devastating effect upon my sense of personal identity, my relationships and my ability to function in the world. What was going on? How could I find out?

While I had an interest in spiritual and philosophical matters, my orientation through my childhood had been scientific. I had commenced studying geology in grade five and had a passion for physics. My teachers and family expected I would go to university to study geology. This orientation placed me in an awkward position. I wanted to understand what was going on consistent with my customary sense of rational inquiry. What were the voices, why were they there, what did they mean? Acceptance of them as a spiritual or psychic phenomenon was not enough because all that did was clothe existing incomprehension in new language, without furthering understanding.

Non-ordinary experiences of a gentle kind were not unfamiliar to me. They did not challenge my capacity to dwell within the dominant cultural ontological frame because they did not radically disrupt my sense of belonging to, and participating in, ‘normal life.’ I had intuitions and an uncanny ability to find things, aided by sudden flashes insight. I had spent most of my youth in the bush in southern Tasmania with a profound sensitivity to place and atmosphere that sometimes created problems with my walking companions who found my refusal to sit or camp in a particular place a bit strange. But the ML experience, the first of a series of profoundly disruptive events, was of a very different order. It had involved another person and gave unexpected apparent verification to something that was, until then, entirely subjective and personal. It moved experience from that personal and subjective sphere into the objective – it made it ‘real’. At least it made it real in the sense that there were two participants, a shared experience. It was not verifiable and not repeatable. ML wanted no exposure to the risk of recurrence. I was left with a problem.

These intrusive experiences left me stranded in the shadowy realms of doubts about perception and sanity. Could I trust my own perceptions? I did not know. To have done so, I would have had to dared to go beyond what reason and courage I had at the time. But I was equally unable or unwilling to accept what seemed to be a simple and disengaged rejection of them. I felt I had entered a kind of limbo state in which I could trust neither external nor internal sources of knowledge. I had no ground upon which to stand and draw any sense of what was real, or what offered explanation and meaning.

ML’s bewildered and outraged report conveyed her sense of violation; not that being asked to pass on a message was offensive, but that the manner and nature of the intrusive participants in the experience constituted a shattering of her sense of the normal. She could have dismissed the encounter as a very strange dream, but she was confronted with the evidence of disarranged chairs. Not only was her ontological domain invaded, but also her personal space of material order had been offended against. Tidiness was a valued personal discipline and the ontological invaders had also been poor guests.

I compounded ML’s distress by telling her something that forcibly altered the options she had open to her. Denial that it was real was suddenly not an option. But she could contain the damage by rejection. If she stopped interacting with me she could minimise the risk of repetition and recover some sense of order, some return to safety. I never met ML again after I left the house, so I have no idea if or how she subsequently thought about what had happened.

The prospect of order and safety were not open to me. I had tried denial and rejection of the voices to no avail. And rather than being left in the unfortunate limbo between the prospect of madness and the discomfort of unwanted intrusion into consciousness the source of the voices had upped the ante by staging a dramatic demonstration that they were not delusions or misperceptions. So what were they? Where did they come from? And why were they intruding into my consciousness? This ‘why’ question had its own urgency to it, but I could not construct an answer at the time. I desperately wanted to know “Why is this happening to me?” But I also knew I needed to answer the ‘what’ and ‘where’ questions before the ‘why’ would make sense.

It seemed to me that when one’s delusions become disruptively proactive in asserting possession of a nature beyond being mere cerebral artefacts, a certain crisis is precipitated. The normal becomes an insufficient container of experience, which now extends into a domain that cannot be mere imagination or misperception. The voices became more than agents of personal misery. They became agents of disruptive change and challenge. If I were to accommodate their vandalism against the boundaries of my sense of reality, then I needed to admit that they existed in some state of being as active and intelligent entities. This was not part of the map of the real in which I had been educated. The map of the real had four dimensions, three of which accommodated the spatial and the fourth that accommodated the experiential. The experiential had levels of sensory, emotional and intellectual awareness and a dimly defined something called the religious or spiritual, whose validity as an experiential domain was subjected to doubt. To the extent that I had understanding of that doubtful domain it did not accommodate the disrupters. And they had no place in any other experiential domain either. In as much as I accepted their presence they occupied a domain unknown. How could I make sense of this unknown world from my position of ignorance and deep uncertainty?

It was becoming clearer that I needed to go beyond the boundaries of the Western cultural discourse to find any answers. Strangely, because I had been brought up on a diet of Western science and the naïve idealism about the truth-seeking character of science I was reluctant to seek answers in other cultural traditions. With the present advantage of hindsight I am now struck by the degree to which this reluctance influenced my subsequent course of inquiry. How could I make sense of what was happening to me and remain within my culture’s ontological domain?

The kind of radical and disruptive non-ordinary experiences I had, by their very nature, made it very difficult for me to think about them in conventional scientific terms. They came, had effect and departed. They were not available to repetition in any controlled way, or for verification. They seemed to be unreliable, save that they left a cumulative psychological impact upon me. This impact accumulated undischarged content that needed to be discharged in some manner. I was at real risk of becoming obsessed, not only with the intellectual problem presented but also with the personal sense of crisis of meaning and validity.

I felt tainted by a contamination that made me an outsider to the normal world in which I desired to dwell. The experiences were unsought and unwelcome, but they came in a manner that forced me to consider that they may possess some kind of validity. This question became the central preoccupation of my life. Clendennin (1999) captures something of drama of experiential contamination in her account of an Aboriginal woman who had had an encounter with French explorers on the Western Australian coast. She asks the reader to reflect on how the woman was received by her people afterwards: “Was she received at all? Was she shunned? Was she killed?” (p.4) In this case the woman’s sense of normality was invaded by pale ghosts from a strange bird like vessel, but we can understand and accommodate their identity. They were from our world after all

Like Clendennin’s Aboriginal woman, I had been struck by a strange phenomenon, and as I sought to integrate the experience I encountered reactions that sought to quarantine me, as the experiencer, as if I had been tainted. And I was not clear on whether I had been so, or not. I was dealing with my sense of identity, a precious thing to me, so whether it was now somehow tainted, whether I had become ‘mad’, seemed vitally important.

This work takes advantage of the opportunity, afforded by formal inquiry to bring discipline and structure to bear upon the questions of what had happened and whether it was real. It not only brings into the frame a later and more mature investigation but some novel and innovative ideas that arose out of the research are viewed in the context of the initial motive for inquiry. The opportunity to engage in research in a formal manner opened hitherto unexpected avenues of thought.

Key Research Questions

How do I make sense of my experience of the non-ordinary?

An imperative, on a personal level, was to satisfy the necessity of deriving meaning from the experiences. The questions were simple: “What is going on?” “What is happening to me?” “Why is this happening to me?” These were, at the time, pressing personal concerns that needed to be addressed. They have continued to shape my inquiry as I have sought answers, and as further questions have arisen.

Since the initial drama much of the angst associated with the disruption has been resolved. Nevertheless these experiences and their early impact constitute a vital and persisting energy that drives ongoing inquiry. The shift out of a sense of personal urgency into a more measured inquiry occurred as knowledge and experience progressively provided me with the content to frame my questioning in a wider context than the purely personal.

Could I find a way of fitting my experiences within my cultures ontological narrative?

My initial experience of finding that what had happened to me was not validated within the cultural and ontological discourses of my culture precipitated a crisis. What was considered real, what was considered valid and valuable was framed by the beliefs and assumptions (scientific and religious) that dominated the cultural discourse, or at least that to which I had access, and my experiences did not fit within the boundaries of the real or the good. I discuss the issues of ontology and ontological crisis more deeply below.

As I inquired, I found possible and plausible explanations and answers in the religious and spiritual traditions of other cultures. I could have adopted a number of faith and philosophic traditions whose ontologies accommodated my experiences, but to have done so seemed to me to an abdication of my own heritage, as well as necessitating adherence to traditions and practices with which I felt no innate affinity.

I was imbued with, and fascinated by, Western culture. Perhaps, initially, I possessed a naïve and idealistic sense of scientific truth seeking, but the notion that the drama had to be worked out within my culture’s traditions and elements sat strongly with me, if not well articulated for quite some time. While I had dismissed Christianity as a faith tradition I had not wholly abandoned the prospect of a spirituality arising from within my culture. I had no reason to reject science.

The problem of fitting my experiences within my culture’s narrative as a valid expression of human experience was both a personal determination and an intellectual challenge. In neither respect did I have any idea what this may entail in terms of difficulty or complexity.

Chapter outlines

In the following chapters I have sought set forth a process of inquiry that constitutes my responses to the key questions of this thesis. This process of inquiry is not presented as a ‘solution’ in any universal sense, rather charts my own efforts to find a ‘reasonable’ explanation for what I had experienced.

Chapter Two – Mounting evidence of something incomprehensible and how the dominant discourses of my culture’s ontology failed to offer explanation.

In this chapter I recount several other profoundly disruptive experiences and look at how I engaged with, or rejected, the available explanatory systems in an effort to find meaning. I review past and current reflections on possible explanatory systems, with a particular emphasis on scientific and psychiatric thought, and how that has evolved, and may yet evolve, towards more accommodating knowledge systems.

Chapter Three – What is Animism and why has it apparently re-emerged as a knowledge system?

In this chapter I describe how I discover that the essential ideas of animism are surprisingly present in my experiences, my involvement with esoteric groups and in my secular life, and how animism becomes focus of interest. I also inquire into the nature of animism and consider how the term is presently thought about and employed.

Chapter Four – An exploration of animistic ideas in the contemporary Western world

In this chapter I look at apparent evidence that the essential ideas of animism appear to be present in the contemporary Western world, and seem to permeate it. Whether an idea, of a way of thinking, has been eradicated or subsumed is important because elimination supposes total absence, whereas ‘rebadging’ or absorbing into discourses and narratives as an unconscious component represents a difference degree of disappearance. The implications for how we might think about Animism are different, depending on how we perceive what has happened to it.

Is the Individual finished?


There is no more iconic notion of our era (in Western culture at least) than that of The Individual. In fact, the idea of individuality virtually defines Western culture. But, like so many ‘Great Ideas’, it has a use by date.

Individuality has been latched onto by predators and has turned to the service of their agendas. It has become toxic. We must ask –Is the idea of the individual still useful to us? Has it reached its use by date?

In Inventing the Individual, Larry Siedentop traces the evolution of individualism in concert with the development of Christianity. It is a compelling thesis. The very essence of the Christian ideal is the lifting of the individual toward the prospect of personal salvation. I do not want to here enter into a debate about the merit of this focus or role the faith has played in an imputed transformation. The Church acted as much to crush individuality, so while it may have been the carrier of the flame of individualism, it certainly was not the custodian. It may have been no more than the available vehicle to carry an evolutionary impulse.

Siedentop argued that the individual evolved out of a more fundamental and instrumental condition of being – as part of an essential group like a family or tribe in which personal will was trumped by collective or group imperatives. We understand this best through the way marriages that once served social and political ends are now expressions of personal affection.

It is important to understand that evolutionary impulses that alter the human condition are not uniformly expressed. This is why arranged marriages are still crucial aspects of some cultures today. It is as if these impulses have one or two starting points in the world and their influences radiate from them – and transform the human condition over centuries or millennia.

As Western civilisation evolved, wars and displacements disrupted traditional instrumental groups and the relationships that made them functional.  It is arguable that Christianity grew because it offered something essential to disrupted people, especially those dispossessed and exploited. As the roots of identity and meaning were torn away what could be more comforting than a community of strangers forming a new kind of group – voluntary and foundational – where the right of membership is not rooted in geography or blood. Here was an association that honoured a singular being – a person dislocated and separated – individualised.

Would Christianity have evolved without the Roman Empire disrupting the cultures it touched? Would the necessity of individualism emerged without the devastation of traditional ways? What happens to the person torn from the soil of homeland, tribe and family? They are wrenched from the spirits that cradled, nurtured and protected – that gave meaning and identity.

The trauma of dispossession and displacement is something we can understand in our observation of indigenous peoples whose lifeways have been shattered by an often brutal encounter with modernity. Individualism is so entrenched in our psyches that we find its absence incomprehensible and repellent. Its absence was ‘primitive’, and even ‘savage’, to use the language of late 19th century gentlemen who saw themselves at the very apex of human expression. Indigenous peoples remain a ‘problem’ to modernity precisely because their cultures and identity are not constructed on the precepts of individuality.


The very idea of the individual denotes a person apart. But apart from what? In Why Liberalism Failed, Patrick Deneen says that Liberalism had the intent “to liberate the individual from embedded cultures, traditions, places, and relationships”. Humans are understood to be “by nature, nonrelational creatures, separate and autonomous”. This is a bold and radical assertion that we need to look at in more depth.

Implicit here is that the pre-individualised state is inimical to the human condition because it is contrary to its nature. The indigenous person, embedded in place and culture, is justifiably to be seen as the enemy, especially if they defend their embedded condition.

Deneen’s critique is focused on Liberalism, which is an Enlightenment political and moral philosophy centred on ideals of liberty and equality – and which has the individual at the very centre. Perhaps it opposed the suffocating social power structures of its time for what seemed like good reasons, but the growth of the idea as a universal doctrine led to an absurdity.

Individualism was certainly not the foundation of human nature, unless we assume that the family and tribal states of being are inherently oppressive. In contemporary individualistic thought that would not be unexpected. If we do a quick self-check we might find a sentiment of reflexive agreement.

Am I saying that individual equality and liberty are not fundamental principles of our culture? Yes I am. They exist as ideas and ideals, but not as actualities. Are we really “by nature, nonrelational creatures, separate and autonomous”? Such ‘creatures’ exist, but, bar the psychopath, they are not human. They are, rather, fictions created by commercial and political powers.

Humans are inherently the very opposite – embedded and relational. We are happiest when we are in a stable community with strong relationships. Every time there is a shared catastrophe this is what we turn to. Any coach will tell you that a bunch of star performers do not make a team.

So what’s happened here? How come there is a fiction at the heart of Western culture? If the transition to individuality is in fact evolutionary, then prior states are inimical to the individual in the same way that being in the womb is inimical to our sense of being in the world. Perhaps birth is an act of liberation, but it is not one that regards the mother or an unborn child as an enemy. The evolution from one state to another does not involve a change in nature.

Here we can see the root of the philosophical error. There are two sources of individualism, not one. The Enlightenment source arises from a discontent formed as an aspiration – to be free from a condition thought to be oppressive, denying liberty and equality to those who think they should have both. We have sympathy with that.

The other source is spiritual, but this is confused. We see in original Christianity a balm to the trauma of displacement and dislocation through the restoration of the opportunity to be embedded and related. But the symbol of the faith became the radical individual in a state of mystical transformation. This individualisation is an intensification, not a separation, and it is expressed through shamans, priests, magicians and mystics – all shades of the one, rather than distinct expressions.

Intensification generates distinction, not separation, but that distinction is so often expressed through spatial separation. The radical individual lives apart often, alone or in a community.

Intensification also precipitates the trauma of initiation. The Crucifixion of Christ echoes the shaman’s initiatory drama of being hung on a tree.

In important ways the trauma of separation and the trauma of intensification are related. Both mark a transition into an alternative state of awareness. Both are transitory phases. The error of Liberalism is the assumption that individualism is an end state marked by the expression of the ideals of liberty, equality and rationality. The free, equal and rational person is the apogee of human evolution, it was thought.

The error of Christianity was to make an extreme claim on individuality, and be unable to sustain it. The central radically transformative individual was both feared and celebrated, and not infrequently killed before being revered.

The ideal

That Enlightenment ideal imagined the perfect human as radically displaced – from religion, culture and nature. Deneen observes that according to Liberalism’s fans [T]he advent of liberalism marks the end of a benighted age, the liberation of humanity from darkness, the overcoming of oppression and arbitrary inequality, the descent of monarchy and aristocracy, the advance of prosperity and modern technology, and the advent of an age of nearly unbroken progress. Liberalism is credited with the cessation of religious war, the opening of an age of tolerance and equality, the expanding spheres of personal opportunity and social interaction that today culminate in globalization, and the ongoing victories over sexism, racism, colonialism, heteronormativity, and a host of other unacceptable prejudices that divide, demean, and segregate.

It’s a compelling and familiar sales pitch. But if we agree on this we must confess also that Liberalism has led to the sundry ills of the contemporary world – the pollutions, illnesses of body, mind and spirit. It is not an unalloyed good. It articulated a promise of idealism, and failed to deliver on it.

There is a difference between what has happened and what must happen. History does not necessarily deliver necessary sequences – only those that do happen. In the same way that Christianity was, in part, carrier of the torch, not the custodian, so Liberalism must be seen in relation to the idea of the individual. Where Christianity’s error was the assertion of an historically ground sole franchise, Liberalism’s championing of individualism as a universal and absolute ideal was its. Christianity did not emerge because it was perfect and ordained by God, but because it was responding to a human need at the time. Had it baulked at its delusion of exclusivity, the Enlightenment would likely not have manifested. Had individualism not become a universal ideal Western civilization would not have become what it is. In the mess of what we have there is a constant theme of individuality, but the agents are carriers, not causes.

Deneen cautions that the liberated individual “becomes synonymous with hedonic titillation, visceral crudeness, and distraction, all oriented toward promoting consumption, appetite, and detachment.” Has the individual been “liberated” only to be left with no clear pathway into the future? This is the problem of excising a spiritual vision from an account of individuality. But the dream of being a ‘free and equal’ individual is powerful only because it has a spiritual foundation to it. It is nonsensical in its atheistic or materialistic mode. Freedom and equality are aspirational goals, and hence a kind of redemption – a restoration to a ‘lost’ state.

The US Declaration of Independence asserts that “all men are created equal” and that “they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights”. The authors of the Declaration were religious men, and yet Liberalism has come fuse religious principles with materialistic thought. Materialism has to employ the ideals that are religious to serve its ends because it cannot develop its own.

It is abundantly clear that materialism, expressed through political and commercial interests, has delivered neither equality nor liberty. In Age of Anger: A History of the Present Pankaj Mishra traces the failed efforts to manifest Liberalism’s noble ideals. Overtly religious wars may have ended, but, as John Gray in 7 Types of Atheism argues, worse proxy religious wars precipitated. It is no doubt that the worst conflicts have occurred under Liberalism’s banner. Why is this?

The confusion

We inherently blend religious and materialistic thought, whether we see ourselves as religious or as atheists, or as a member of the rising new class of Spiritual But Not Religious (SBNR). We live in a blended culture that sees individuality as important as being embedded and connected. We don’t see an inherent contradiction. And that generates a confusion we are mostly unaware of.

In fact our culture is a constant battle zone between the two, and for us it is just normal life. We do not know a world in which there is an absence of binary conflicts. Conservatives want to preserve the embedded and connected and the Progressives champion the dislocated individual. These days, however, simple binary descriptions fail to deliver the complexity of the actual state of cultural tensions. These conflicts are not real. Only the confusion is.

If Liberalism’s individual is the ideal universal condition, it is opposed deeply by many who disagree. There is an existential conflict afoot. If individualism is a transitional evolutionary phase in human consciousness and spirituality then we can understand the conflict in a different light.

Aside from the radical individuals who occupy heroic and mystical roles human, cultures embrace their members in the encompassing arms of place and tradition. For individualism to natively arise it must do so by disrupting the norm. And, short of looming catastrophes, that is not likely to happen. Externally imposed trauma acts as a plough that disrupts the ‘soil’ and precipitates separation. Individuals emerge out of necessity, rather than desire – but where to from there? There is no going back to things as they were.

Liberalism’s individual seems frozen at the moment of separation, celebrating the novelty of the moment and wanting to hold it forever. It can exist only in the ruins of what was. The spiritual individual seeks a restoration of the state of connection through a novel interpretation of faith and belief. There is no celebration of release. Each response is distinct. For one, individuality as a sense of separation is the attainment of a desired state. For the other it is a terrible condition to be in.

Christianity has developed a doctrine that admits no evolutionary imperative in the divine creation. Were it otherwise, it might imagine that the Fall, and the Redemption that must follow, is an evolutionary mechanism that applies to all humans. Liberalism in its materialistic guise admits evolution, but not of human consciousness (and hence spirit) other than in incidental relation to the brain.

A deeper enduring tradition of mystical thought offers that human consciousness evolves through the experience of being in physical form. The human person (not the individual) evolves, and individuality may be one of the stages it goes through.

These days we are conditioned to think the self, the person and the individual are all the same thing, and the terms are freely interchangeable. But they are not. As humans we are persons who possess distinct selves that may be individuated to some degree.

We must conclude that Liberalism’s individual is a fiction and a fantasy. A being with no natural connection to place, community or the divine cannot exist other than as a grotesque expression of a traumatized person. Christianity’s individual is maligned by the imputation of sin and the need to be redeemed from its separation from God.

In both instances there is an existential trauma that fuels a conception of being. It is twisted out of shape. Christianity and Liberalism – the twin engines of Western culture – have both failed for the same reason. They have misread human nature. The idea and ideal of the individual exemplifies that failure.

The fusion

In the West Christianity has played a double paradoxical role. It has called the human person forth from the mud of life with a promise. And then it has put a tollgate on the road it has mapped out. The price demanded was the subjugation of the personal inner life to that marketed by the clerics. That same subjugation was later demanded by the owners of factories. Industrialization created a market for a compensatory individualism that was exploited in what we now understand as consumerism. What began in religious faith flowed into the imperatives of commercial and political systems that demand similar observances.

Wither “I” in the maelstrom of product? With a credit card as a compass and a catalogue as a map many embark on the Ikea pathway to salvation and satisfaction – and no one gets there.

Frank DeMarco, in his latest book, Awakening from the 3D World, invites the reader to imagine that they are a constituent of a continuity of being. Our individual sense of I is not an expression of separation but of particularization – an intensification of awareness of being that must find a new form of relationship to the world in is inhabiting.

This is very different to the social or political notion of individuality that asserts a sense of specialness and singularity with no sense of substance or character. Being is alone sufficient. The cry, “I am an individual!” is an affirmation of separation and significance, not as a good thing, but as an articulation of profound existential crisis. It is a cry against being a ‘nobody’ – a loss of connection and meaning. Here individuality is used to assert what it cannot ever deliver. This is the central confusion of our culture.

Individualization as an expression of intensified awareness rooted in the continuity of being is profoundly different to an expression of separation and significance that has no conscious affirmation of belonging. The experience of the individual as a separate thing is intense, but like the amputee, it is haunted by the phantom of what it has been separated from.

It is time to change language here. From here on the term ‘individual’, and its variants, will stand for Liberalism’s creation only. The alternative term is the Intensified Self. This denotes a person whose expression might be taken to be radical individualism, but who driven by a deeper sense of connection and belonging. This is exemplified in the mystic or shaman whose greater awareness of essential interconnectivity of lives intensifies their being.

Is it possible to walk with a foot in both camps – spiritual and materialist? Not without persistent confusion. Individualism is not a useful thought any more. Besides it is not what we mean most of the time in any case. A sportsperson may wear shirt with a number on the back, but it is not to denote their individuality, rather their particularity. To clarify our thoughts we must clarify our language.

As humans we are not individuals, but nodes in a network – points of particularity – unique and enduring. The sense of individuality that we struggle to understand and live with is a signal of a sense of separation – an absence of awareness of a greater being of which we are part.

We can lose this sense of individuality because it is a fiction. It will die, but our particularity will not. The intensification of awareness of connectedness will render the illusion of individuality redundant, and we will see it as an injurious idea.

The Intensified Self is the phantom element of the separated individual. It is the part of us that cannot be pleased or satisfied by stuff bought by adding adornments and embellishments to our bodies. Deneen observes that the founders of Liberalism separated themselves from a culture that promoted the “virtues of self-restraint and civility.” Now, in the pursuit of free speech, neither virtue is easy to find. The individual is not inherently virtuous.

The separated self craves connection and belonging, but has been persuaded that these can be attained through the acquisition of commercial products and services. Even the promise of the Intensified Self has been turned into a commodity.

Yet implicit in the messages of our culture there is a clear signal – the confusion of the Individual is losing its appeal. We may not yet be at the stage of acknowledging the Intensified Self, but the growth of the SBNR movement flags a growing momentum in walking away from Liberalism and institutional religion. Jeff Kripal, Professor of Philosophy and Religious Thought at Rice University in Texas, sees the people who identify as SBNR as “placeholders” – signaling they still have skin in the game of cultural discourse on spiritual and religious matters, but they have no truck with faith traditions tainted by evils and errors.

The future

There is no shortage of evidence that Western culture is in a deep crisis of meaning. This is perhaps nowhere better exemplified in the foreword to Why Liberalism Failed:

The Yale University Press series Politics and Culture begins with the premise that self-government, the hallmark and glory of the United States, the West, and an expanding number of countries around the world, is ailing. Those who sense the ailment cannot agree on what it is, much less how it is to be treated; and that disagreement, only deepening as time passes, is in fact part of the ailment.

When this message is being delivered through a major American university’s textbook you know the concern is very plainly mainstream.

The legacy of the Enlightenment is an extraordinary conceit married to a singular philosophy. The humanist conceit that the human being (and European males in particular) is the highest form of intelligent life has been united to an assertion that there is nothing beyond the mechanism of the physical world. The best future that can be imagined in this marriage is that of transhumanism – humans will be subsumed into rapidly evolving technology. We have reached the end of the natural process of evolution and now step into a new stage enabled by robotics and AI.

The PSI researcher, Dean Radin, is far from convinced that we have reached our evolutionary apogee. In Real Magic he says:

If extraterrestrials are watching, they may well have decided that as a species, we’re still basically infants, spending most of our time sleeping, pooping, or crying. We haven’t reached out to say hello via humanity’s global telepathic mind because we’re still enthralled with the cowboy myth of rugged individualism? What other than our planet-sized ego makes us think that the conscious universe of galactic minds would be interested in engaging with infants?

To Radin we are in our infancy still. He quotes Peter Carroll, the founder of Chaos Magic, from his book Liber Null: Psychonauté saying that “Science has brought us power and ideas but not the wisdom or responsibility to handle them. The next great advance that humanity will make will be into the psychic domain.”

To some the Enlightenment’s rejection of religion constituted a radical disruption to a mentality that was incapable of moving beyond habits of thought and tradition. In an important way the founders of Liberalism added their own contribution. The idea of the individual deeply disrupted habits of thought as well. But it was not a profound insight so much as a useful idiot of an idea – that has now outlived its usefulness.

The evolutionary impulse that is driving the transformation of human consciousness (and no doubt others as well) needs better carriers than Liberalism and Christianity, and the confused thought they have generated.

The television series Star Trek opened with the proposition that Space was the “final frontier” in perfect materialist thought. Peter Carroll thinks the “psychic domain” is next. There is a difference in thinking here –one final and the other next. One closed and absolute, and the other open.

We use the term ‘spiritual’ in many loose ways. There is a necessary connection between spiritual and psychic – and from that a whole array of contentious and speculative ideas will emerge. Our ideas are imprecise and ill-formed, showing how much work we have yet to do.

It is our choice to decide where we locate ourselves in relation to the passions and arguments about the nature of human being and our destiny. If we move away from Liberalism and its companion notions and arguments we have to be prepared to let go the idea of the individual – and all it means and implies.





I have just spent a couple of months reluctantly becoming entranced by the claim that the 2012 shooting at the Sandy Hook Elementary School was an elaborate hoax construed by the US government. Actually, I became entranced by one Wolfgang Halbig, the man who kicked off the claim.

The public story is that on 14 December 2012 Adam Lanza went to the Sandy Hook Elementary School Newtown, Connecticut and shot 20 students and teachers dead and wounded another 2. Halbig says this ‘shooting’ was in fact a hoax, an exercise concocted by the USA government as part of a campaign to control guns. Halbig collaborated with Professor emeritus Jim Fetzer in a book, published under Fetzer’s name entitled Nobody Died at Sandy Hook. That book was apparently withdrawn from sale on Amazon, but can be had online in PDF form.

For this idea to be real the government would have had to have induced the families of around 500 kids at the school (based on post 2012 figures) and their extended families, friends, neighbors, workmates and others to play along with the cruel lie that children did not die. In fact a whole community would have had to be induced to play along. And the difficulty in making that happen is so vast it hurts my head just trying to imagine it.

My immediate response was that the claim was complete nonsense. Halbig’s assertions didn’t make any sense to me. But he was plainly believed by a lot of rational, intelligent and thoughtful people. So why didn’t they see what I thought I saw? Why were they disposed to believe? What was it about Halbig and his claims that triggered me to be deeply suspicious of his claims? I was told that nobody had disputed Halbig’s credentials. That wasn’t literally true, but I think the statement intended to mean that among those who believed Halbig there was no reason to doubt his credentials. In other words he seemed to be eminently plausible on face value.

Now I am not a stone hard conspiracy skeptic – or denier. I accept that 9/11 stinks like a dead sheep in the summer sun. We have been lied to or been subject to serial misrepresentation on many many things since Father Christmas and the Tooth Fairy. Just not everything. Some of my friends are default conspiracy theorists – that is their starting point. To be fair that’s probably a prudent safety strategy, so I respect folk who take that position.

But here is an upside-down conspiracy. Supposedly the government conspires to convince a nation that a shooting that did not actually take place did. Usually it is the other way round. Something did take place and the government denies it. Getting a community that knows an event did not take place to pretend that it did just lifts the order of complexity into the stratosphere.

To me the very idea that this was a government conspiracy is just so ludicrous I struggle to understand why any one who paid it any attention could sustain belief in the proposition.

We are supposed to accept that some bloke watching telly on the other side of the country sees evidence in news reports that it is all a hoax. We are asked to believe that he has the insight and acuteness of perception to discern this so readily via a television report. This one was so acutely aware that he alone knew what was really going on.

If you pay attention to the conspiracy theorists this was the one time the government went all squeamish and decided not to use its tried and true method of actually setting up a mass shooting and framing some poor sucker as the lone wolf crazy. This time it decided to engage a whole community in an elaborate fraud to only pretend that the shooting took place. Parents and grandparents would have to pretend that their child had died. The child would have to pretend to be dead, agree to a new identity and be separated from their family. Even if we could imagine a government conceiving such a lunatic scheme what would motivate the families? Halbig suggests money would. Really?

My background – personal and professional – compels me to reject this proposition as ludicrous and preposterous. For most of my working life I have been in federal, state or local government roles, and operating on a conspiracy first basis would be suicidal in terms of professional conduct and career.

My model is assume incompetence (normal) first, then unorganized low-level corruption before considering conspiracy as an option. I have to say that by taking this approach I have still ended up at conspiracy, but relatively rarely. In my roles presuming conspiracy first is a denial of natural justice. You may think that assuming incompetence is just as unjust but reality is a fusion of natural mess (complexity which conceals evident order) and natural mild human incompetence (we are mostly wrong and we don’t do things particularly well naturally– which is why we need so many rules and management experts). Once that natural incompetence was just considered normal. Now management theories demand ongoing improvement, which is usually lost on public servants who sincerely do not get what the problem is. But that’s a whole essay or two in itself as a topic.

My point is that in any kind of role, if you want to survive, the incompetence/corruption/ conspiracy model works very well. If you are a complete outsider, a mere spectator or recipient of information on a matter about which you know squat, maybe having conspiracy as a default response is a useful and prudent reflex.

If you are in the forest and you see something that looks like it could be a bear it is better to act as if it is a bear if you are not a forest dweller. That will improve your chances of not getting eaten by a bear – provided you know how to behave. If you are a forest dweller, and you know how bears behave, you can start off thinking that that bush looks like a bear – but it’s only a bush.

For a whole bunch of reasons mostly associated with my now many public service roles, it seemed to me that Halbig was operating in a forest I knew pretty well, but he did not – and neither did those who believe and support him. He saw something that looked like a bear to him and went hollering to the whole world that it was bear. But it wasn’t.

At various times I have inspected aged and disability accommodation for compliance with licensing conditions, conducted field audits against contract compliance requirements, investigated allegations of serious misconduct, conducted program evaluations, prepared evidence of prosecution of tax offences, prepared evidence for medical tribunal assessments of claims for military disability pensions, reviewed and remediated service systems, assessed tender submissions, conducted contract performance reviews. In essence I have a very strong background in assessing people, situations, systems, performance. I also spent over 3 years in recruitment – interviewing people, assessing their backgrounds, skills and character. I have also conducted a number of community strategic plan consultations, so I have a sense of the complexities of a community at a social and economic level.

I have also been involved in bush search and rescue in a very direct way. I have been in floods and fire crises as a volunteer. So I have some small appreciation of how things can go in critical incidents. I have never been involved in anything to do with shootings.

In 1997 I worked with the Tasman Council in Tasmania in a position associated with the shootings at Port Arthur the previous year. So I have some sense of personal and community responses to a shooting tragedy.

Apart from going to 4 primary (elementary schools) a high school and a matriculation college, my experience of schools has been limited to dating a primary school teacher and later marrying a high school teacher – and selling books and teaching aids to around 30 rural and regional schools during a brief and unhappy foray into private enterprise.

And I have Masters and Masters Honors degrees in Social Ecology, which I hope conferred on my some capacity for research and analysis.

I have gone through this background because Halbig claims to have a background in law enforcement and in school safety and security. I can’t assess him on those things because I don’t know enough about either. But I can say that on the basis of the information I was able to review I doubt either claim would stand up to scrutiny by people who know these fields well.

I have been involved in a number of community-based organizations incorporated under state legislation and funded by state and federal departments. At various times I have been an ordinary board member, a secretary, a deputy chair, and a chair. I was a co-founder of one organization, and I set up the board, wrote the funding proposal, gained community and business sponsorship. In short I know how to set up and run an NGO. In a professional capacity I have assessed NGOs to ensure compliance with legislation, which is a condition funding.

So when I read that Halbig had founded two institutes, and had conferred upon himself impressive titles (Education Director, Chief Investigator, Executive Director and National School Safety Consultant). I knew to ask key questions – how substantial were these institutes? What was their revenue? What did they do? So were they just paper exercises that gave legal legitimacy to claims of impressive positions?

Halbig and another person set up a security company (some sources say he set up several companies). Did it trade? To what degree? Was it more than a basis for Halbig to claim to be a security consultant, or a school safety consultant?

I found nothing on Google to convince me that the institutes had any standing in their claimed field. Likewise I could find no confirmation that his security company had ever operated in any substantial manner, or at all.

This is evidence of nothing in particular, other than that neither institute or the security company had any enduring presence on the web. They could have flowered brightly and briefly.

Halbig claims he is or is claimed as (it is unclear exactly which) a nationally recognised expert in school security and safety. He claims he has investigated school mass shootings, including Columbine. But this claim came late, and, if true, should have been a key element of his claimed credentials. However nobody has been able, apparently, to verify this claim. When interviewed by mainstream media his qualifications were far more modest. This is interesting because the media was supposed to be a part of this establishment plot. Indeed far from sustaining the conspiracy claim, mainstream media dealt harshly with Halbig’s claims.

I am an Australian in a nation of 24 million, and not in the USA with a population of just under 327 million. The population size matters because here in Australia getting recognised as a national expert generally means you have a substantial, visible and credible profile with evident expertise and standing in your business area. But in a much vaster population maybe the bar is set much lower because, comparatively, visibility is much lower and the relative need to demonstrate merit is lower. One could become a ‘nationally recognised’ expert via a narrow community of people. The term could actually be meaningless, but can imply a great deal. The claim could be true, but the implication misleading.

How many people does take for one to be come a ‘nationally recognised’ authority? If I had one person in each state and territory in Australia willing to say I was an expert in X does that mean I could say I was nationally recognised?

I haven’t seen Halbig’s CV. I have seen a document put out by the website (a site created by members of the Sandy Hook community) which tracks significant recorded evidence and which provides a timeline of aspects of his career. Halbig, or his supporters, claim he has presented before many school boards across the country on the subject of school security. This may be true, but was that on the basis of his self-styled positions in his own self-created institutes?

Halbig claims a credible background in law enforcement. Others, who claim to know, dispute his claims. When he makes public claims related to law enforcement actual law enforcement agencies seem to disagree with him. While he may have been a Florida State Trooper, the extent and length of his service is not evident. I am used to hearing law enforcement officers being quite precise about the nature and length of their service. I have seen no evidence that Halbig is as precise.

Halbig claims to be an expert in school safety and security. I’d expect this to be confirmed in explicit ways. When interviewed by the BBC Halbig is described as an administrator and safety advisor only – a very modest rendition of his claims. There is clear evidence he served in an administrative capacity with Lake County Schools as Director of Risk Management. This role, however, seems to have been concerned with employee WHS and insurance, not student safety and security. His apparent co-ownership of a security business (while being employed full time it seems) does give him the right to say he is a security consultant.

I have no doubt at all that his role as Director of Risk Management gave him the opportunity to visit many schools in his district (with 65,000 students apparently) and form opinions about school safety and security which may have been perfectly valid, insightful and valuable. But I saw no convincing evidence that any of his opinions or insights could be sustained on the grounds of professional expertise.

This brings me to another interesting aspect of Halbig’s character as recorded. He seems to be not well liked in many of the recorded perceptions of him. There are a number of recorded comments about him, and to him, saying he is a know it all who knows nothing, and claiming that he is aggressive and offensive in public forums. There are records of his attempts to win elected office and he seems to consistently perform very poorly compared to those who are successful – he loses by very significant margins.

Again, perhaps this is an Australian perspective, because of the small population; people who win national standing tend to be likable folk. Credible national experts tend to be able to manage their public images – are able to ‘sell’ themselves to people in authority consistently.

Now it could be that my assessment of Halbig is flawed in a major way – the information about him, and upon which I rely, is incomplete and insufficient. I would acknowledge this as a risk, but then would object that there is a pattern of probability here exposing three key weaknesses, in terms of what I can confirm readily:

  1. Halbig’s claim of expertise cannot be readily verified, and is, in some instances specifically refuted.
  2. Halbig’s apparent standing and credentials are almost wholly dependent on legal entities in which he has a personal stake as founder. It is easy to form the impression that he created them and the titles he later relies upon – and these entities did no other work.
  3. Halbig doesn’t appear to be a likable person in general. This matters because being liked is a big factor. Being likable is a major factor in personal success, and especially professional success. Now and then there are people who deliver great professional value, but are not liked by clients and that does not matter. This could account for Halbig, but I doubt it.

I do not know how a person with these adverse indicators could make it to the degree that he is genuinely considered a national expert, and be employed in projects run by the US Department of Justice. I am assuming that the Department conducts proper background checks. If they do and they can confirm that Halbig met their requirements I am happy to rescind my adverse provisional opinions.

This isn’t a take down of Halbig as a person. I have heard him speak and I have no personal issues with him at all. What I am trying to do here is trace my efforts to satisfy myself that I should accept this guy’s claims.

This is an account of how I have responded to a hugely serious allegation in tune with my natural personal and professional reflexes – relative to somebody who has no experience or knowledge that can help them break down a situation.

There are real and important conspiracies to manipulate what we know and think about the world and reality we live in. People in positions of power conspire routinely to retain that power or to gain more. Their motives are grubby and shameful enough. If we are induced to give them credit for deeply elaborate and complex plots, we are handing to them a power they should not have and we are surrendering a power we must retain.

We must obtain and retain the capacity to distinguish between a genuine conspiracy and a fake one. Halbig’s claim that the Sandy Hook shootings were a fraud invokes a level of complexity that, for me, cannot seriously be executed and a motive that cannot be comprehended against the sacrifice the complicit community must make, let alone at an individual level. And the fact that members of the community are resisting Halbig’s claims just demonstrates how hard it is to induce a whole community to play along with an insanely elaborate fraud.

I believe that aspects of 9/11 point to a conspiracy by some elements of the American government and power elite. Perhaps because I have had an enduring interest in community development, and personal and professional involvement in community engagement, as well as an active interest in sociology I think any 9/11 fraud would be a walk in the park compared to setting up a Sandy Hook massacre hoax. Imagining the motive defeats me. Imagining the methodology just sends me into shock.

I get that these days we are constantly induced to offer our opinions and many take up those invitations with relish even though they are devoid of any actual knowledge, experience or insight.

I get that the level of trust is now so low that presumption of conspiracy is prudent. But that does not mean that you employ the conspiracy reflex as an actual response – just keep it as a provisional response. If you don’t have the time or means to check out a claimed situation do try to be a genuine skeptic – one who suspends formation of opinion because they have insufficient evidence to arrive at an informed conclusion.

I have been, and will remain, an enduring fan of Phillip Adams, the immortal host of the ABC Radio National program Late Night Live. Phillip has long and loudly declared himself an atheist. His listeners do not care. But one evening not so long ago he was indulging himself with a bit of a homey chat with a fellow atheist. They carelessly opined that being an agnostic was kinda gutless. Not knowing was, they were saying, a lack of courage. You had, in their mind, to elect Yes or No. Saying I don’t know was not acceptable.

This was and is a bullshit materialist trick. In fact any deeply critical examination of what we think we know will appall us by demonstrating that most of what we think we know is rubbish and most of what we think we can know is illusion. We ultimately guess. Mostly we engage in acts of social affirmation and not philosophy. We are more concerned to be accepted and like than demonstrate a capacity for deep critical thought. Its not a nice to know about oneself, but it is necessary.

I like to think I say “I don’t know.” a lot. I do say “I don’t care.” a lot as. I like to think I care whether I can genuinely evaluate claims within my capacity to assess and confirm claims. I do work hard to watch, listen to and read what quality stuff I can. But in the end I live in a community in which being loved is more important than being a smart arse.

Maybe the Nazis really did contact Reptilians who gave them access to anti-gravity technology so they could get to the Moon and Mars and have a ‘secret base’ in the Antarctic. But, you know, I really don’t give a shit. If this has been going on since the 1940s it hasn’t impinged on our reality to an extent that it is completely unworkable (this is another huge topic). The Halbig thing is more important to me.

It is the phenomenon of acceptance of, and belief in, conspiracies that seriously has me intrigued. The reflex to believe conspiracy is something I get and respect. But like any defensive reflex it must be only provisional, pending further evidence. You cannot build a successful defense strategy on inflexibility – the Maginot Line is the famous case in point. My personal motto seems to have become ‘the price of liberty is eternal vigilance’.

Assuming conspiracy and then locking it in sans evidence is, well, self-indulgent. It means arriving at a fixed position in advance of evidence and then being unable to adapt to actual evidence.

I have been asked why I got so wound up about Sandy Hook and Wolfgang Halbig. Outside natural compassion I do not much about Halbig the man. I care more that families in Sandy Hook have been subjected to the awful allegation that they participated in a lie that their children died. It is the willingness to believe that Halbig had a case that concerns me. From the very outset the idea that a mass shooting had been staged should have been treated with the deepest suspicion, and the most compelling evidence demanded. Instead the claims that supported the hoax hypothesis were just risible. But I am being unkind. They were risible to me because I have a deep sense of how governments work, and what they can and cannot do – and what they will and will not do.

They will do terrible things in our name. But some things they cannot do – and running a hoax as alleged at Sandy Hook is one such thing.

My default was not conspiracy, but doubt and curiosity. I have less investment in whether Halbig is right or wrong – but how his claims were assessed, and why some people elected to follow his conspiracy theory and others did not.

The Halbig situation embraces a number of issues. He appears credible to those who do not know enough to think otherwise. It seems to me that this was his intent. I suspect that he set out to deceive and misrepresent who and what he is. I think he was intimidated by the BBC journalists who visited him in his home, and he contracted his misrepresentations to a safe degree.

Halbig is supported by allies, who respond to the fact that his details were allegedly removed from Wikipedia. The inference is that Wikipedia or some other agency was responsible. But the reality is that personal bio data on Wikipedia is frequently changed by people who have personal or ideological motives. I could well imagine that Halbig took down his own information. You can write your own bio on Wikipedia, and others can amend it.

Halbig’s Wikipedia data was supposedly transferred to another site but it is, in my view, doubtful that Halbig is the author or that he authorized the content, because of the inconsistencies. For example this new posting claims Halbig assessed or provided training in over 8,000 school districts nationwide. On the basis of published information it does seem that Halbig could not have done this until 2009. So if this information were to be considered credible he would have had to visit 3-4 schools per day every week from 2009 to 2017. That is, in my view, not plausible.

I do not believe that Halbig authored or approved this information. But I do not believe that if you are a nationally respected and recognised expert in the field of school security and safety you would not be abandoned to the support of idiots or be careless of what is published about you.

I have tried to apply a genuinely critical assessment of Halbig’s attributes with no interest at all in his claims about Sandy Hook Elementary. Is he a credible agent?

I have been working from Australia using only my computer and acting in comparative haste. I have not done an in depth analysis, only a quick and dirty indicative one. The impression I have formed is that I do not think that Halbig is either a credible person in the fields of expertise he claims or in relation to his claims about the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting.

Pending closer and better research, I am not persuaded Halbig is a credible actor on the basis of the evidence I have had access to. I do not have evidence to prove my case, but I am satisfied that it is reasonable for me to assert that there is no compelling evidence that Halbig’s opinion on the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting should carry any weight.

I have done my homework on this matter. I think I am entitled to express an informed opinion. What about you?

There are real conspiracies we should attend to. If we cannot tell truth from fiction because we have not bothered to go beyond our comfortable prejudices and biases we risk losing the right and power to know what is true and what is not.

Defaulting to conspiracy mode is justifiable as a remote defensive reflex. It is not a foundation on which to build policy or commit to action, and you cannot hope to have a culture of justice and truth if your first reflex is conspiracy.

I was watching one of those Marvel movies in which a deranged officer of the US military recites his duty to defend his country against “enemies foreign and domestic” as he kills a superior officer. Yes that was a fiction, but the alt right guest on the podcast Unslaved describing left progressives as “enemies” was not.

The internal fault lines lines between groups of people in our cultures are becoming magnified as our means to communicate ideas and emotions become more sophisticated and accessible. It is easier to make allegations without evidence and gain a support base. It is easier for disinformation and misinformation to be not only spread, but targeted. Fake news is not new. Calling it that is.

There are many possible conspiracies afoot these days, and it can be tempting to become a passive consumer led by one’s prejudices and suspicions – and accept accusations as true. But in reality that is to risk causing damage and harm to institutions and people who do not deserve it.

I don’t have time to investigate every conspiracy to which my attention is drawn, and I am not prepared to take other people’s words on them. Long experience has taught me that doing so is perilous. I have made poor professional decisions because I trusted information given to me by colleagues who sincerely believed the information was true. It was not. Somebody assumed and nobody checked. These days I apply the carpenter’s rule of ‘measure twice and cut once’.

If defaulting to conspiracy mode is moving to an attitude that is vigilant and sceptical I have no concern with that. But we live in an age when we are encouraged to have opinions expressed confidently and assertively. It is easy to be seduced into belief, and whether we like it or not, belief is not a neutral state – it is an action that has consequences.

Yes, we are lied to routinely by governments, commercial interests and religions. Misrepresenting truth is the norm and has always been the case. It would be nice to return to days when we did not know this was the case. No chance, sadly. Here we are, and here we will stay.

This imposes upon us a critical duty to manage our perceptions and conceptions of truth by taking personal responsibility to evaluate what we elect to believe. If we abdicate that personal responsibility for critical assessment, we are abdicating a vital element of our liberty.

Technology has not eradicated the need for hard work. It has simply shifted the demand for effort from the physical to the metaphysical (intellectual, emotional and spiritual). Our access to the sophisticated information technology means that we now have unfamiliar chores to perform – developing the intellectual and moral fitness to engage with what we encounter on line.

Our biases are where we are weakest, and most vulnerable. Conspiracy theorists believe they are strengthening their liberty by identifying plots. But if they fail in their due diligence they are also revealing how they can be exploited, manipulated and preyed upon.

In a substantial population of 327 million you need only a tiny proportion of that population to generate a sustainable market place – in terms of credibility and income. A conspiracy theory can be a source of income. Believers will give you money. Even if you do not give money you need to know that what seems to you like a plausible proposition could be no more than a scam that has been finely marketed to trigger your biases.

Richard D Hall’s investigation into the claimed abduction of Madeleine McCann (on YouTube) is not just an example of how an investigation of a suspected conspiracy should be undertaken, It also reveals what happens to money donated by people sympathetic to what turns out to more probably be an elaborate lie. Not a lot of it actually, or usefully, supported the core proposition – that Madeleine could be found.

Halbig raised money that enabled him to go places and do things he could not have otherwise done. While not accusing him of misappropriation I simply observe that there seems to have been no form of independent governance over the funds received. If funds are applied to travel, for example, there is no way of knowing the class of a plane ticket, the standard of a hotel, the cost of a meal. It seems to be easy to be funded to live well, and not tax one’s own funds. There is, in short, no code of conduct for recipients of unregulated public funds given freely to informal requests for aid.

Halbig didn’t survive because his claim had merit, but because his claim had fans who were not interested in any factuality. They bought the conspiracy/hoax story. That is what they want and it is what they pay for.

Of course Halbig could have a personality disorder. Intelligent and sophisticated people nevertheless experience personality disorders and that could drive their behaviors in certain circumstances. I found reading up on the Narcissistic Personality Disorder particularly instructive in the context of those who instigate and propagate conspiracy theories.

In an article in the New York Magazine article Halbig is quoted as saying. “I feel good, because I really feel deep inside my heart that no children died that day,” … But then on the other side, what if I’m wrong?”

Elsewhere Halbig is quoted as saying “I’ll be honest with you,” he says, “if I’m wrong, I need to be institutionalised.” (

So these are the words of a bona fide nationally recognised and respected expert on school safety? I don’t think so.







A Reflection on a Decade of GBS

Ten years ago I was swiftly taken down by sudden and savage bout of Guillain-Barré syndrome (GBS). I was paralyzed almost completely and utterly unable to breathe independently. For 3 months I was hooked up to a respirator through my throat, with a feeding tube up my nose, because I couldn’t swallow. It wasn’t fun.

There followed 7 months of rehab in a hospital that did not take rehab seriously, and which had to be firmly dissuaded from shipping me off to a nursing home. A year later I had the pleasure of revisiting the hospital to let them know the guy they wanted to send to a nursing home was back at work, full time. All in all I was off work 18 months.

A decade on I carry the lingering consequences of GBS. My ankles work poorly. They don’t flex enough to keep me upright, and they can be so slack that I will trip on a shadow if I am not paying attention. I walk using Canadian crutches. My fingers are bent (I’ll never wear gloves again) and my hand grip is rubbish. Take out fully functioning feet and hands and a remarkable number of things cease to be doable.

But an equally remarkable number of things become doable. I move slowly in a world that could be full of perils if I do not remain alert and vigilant. So I see things – the small nuances of the world around me. Because I move slowly I am patient. I can’t rush. So many things I do have to be envisioned and planned in advance. I imagine, visualize and plan as if my life depended on doing so – and in a way it does. Well, my safety at least.

For me walking is a full work out. I have to raise my feet in an exaggerated way, so that I don’t trip. Because I use sticks I am using wrists, arms and shoulders to get around. If I injure a wrist, I can’t walk safely. Imagine that! Mercifully I can drive still. My ageing BMW is a haven and a respite. In it I can feel like things used to be, only I have to slow down and take it easy, because my reflexes ain’t what they used to be.

The thing about a bloke on crutches is that he must seem harmless, maybe vulnerable. I encounter empathy, sympathy, kindness and generosity from people I would have avoided, feared or suspected. It has taken me a few years but I have finally learned to say “Thank you” in a way that is genuine. At first I felt obliged to express gratitude I did not feel for help I did not want. Then I learned to express gratitude for the spirit of the intent – to be kind or generous or helpful. The difference between the two responses is palpable. These days both of us make the world a little better, and we do it often.

I have met arseholes of course. Maybe 4. All in all people are pretty darned decent if we give them the chance. I am harmless and I am vulnerable, and that’s an interesting place to be. It means that strangers feel safe around me, and feel confident in being their native good selves. Not only am I relaxed about it, I like it. This surprised me. I thought I would feel disempowered and threatened. But I feel neither. In a way I have been empowered in a manner that would be incomprehensible to an unimpaired me.

On the day I was struck down, as I lay on the floor until the ambulance came, I felt a strange calm descend over me. I thought later it was that kind of state of calm one enters during a crisis, and that I would come out of it. But I haven’t. Yes, I have had my tantrums and bursts of targeted anger and frustration, but they blow over like a summer storm. Then the calm comes back. It is as if I don’t care, but I do. In fact maybe I care more than I ever have. But in a peaceful way.

As my physical presence has become impaired I have gone inwards in ways I had not anticipated.

In late September 2009 I returned to work with absolutely no idea what I could do. And my workplace had no idea how to handle somebody returning to work with the level of impairment I had. We worked it out, eventually. In 2010 I became a founding member of my Department’s Disability Employee Network (DEN). In 2015 I became Deputy Chair and in later 2016 I became Chairman.

I became fascinated by the organizational politics of disability, and the culture, and the psychology. The very concept of disability is bedeviled with assumptions and passions. Being a person with disability puts one outside the norms. A small body part dysfunction, or its absence, can have massive repercussions for participation in physical life activities. On one level the apparent ratio of the magnitude of the impairment to the size of the impact seems absurdly high. But body parts and senses are not separate elements that just come together. They are interlaced and interdependent. The whole is vastly greater than the sum of the parts. Diminish one part and the whole is impaired – or changed.

At least it is impaired in terms of the ‘normal’ it once inhabited. It sets up a new ‘normal’ that is, in its fullness and richness, as inaccessible to the unimpaired as the unimpaired normal is the impaired. The difference with an acquired disability is that I know the other side. I know what I have lost, and what I have gained.

Disability can be a challenge of spirit. It can demand relational changes, changes in self-identity and senses of self-worth. Physical life can become difficult and draining. What was once a simple fluid act can become painful and awkward and time consuming. The inherent obstructed nature of physical being is magnified when the body designed to navigate the physical with comparative facility stops being able to perform what is asked of it with ease, or at all. Our physical body has evolved beautifully to navigate the physical world. When it ceases to be so adept I think we enter a metaphysical phase – of psychology and spirituality.

Acquiring a disability brings the potential for both losses and gains. But the whole is not diminished. The balance and character of inner and outer challenges changes. The term ‘disability’ does not do a sufficient job, because it speaks only from the unimpaired (usually physical) normal, and while it is dominant, it is not all – and it maybe not best.

A few weeks ago I heard the term “differently abled” for the first time in over 20 years. It is a loathsome term coined to convey something well-intentioned but utterly inconceivable. I worked for a time on a hospital ward of a psychiatric hospital caring for people with profound physical disabilities. If they were “differently abled” it could only be on a spiritual level – way beyond the smug condescending tripe uttered by people who could not accept a total lack of physical utility. The people I care for were not ‘differently abled’ in anything other than a spiritual way – invisible to the nonsensical reframers of the hard reality.

But here I am arguing for a sense of “otherwise abled” – not as a soft pandering disguise for a plain lack of any actual physical ability beyond the most rudimentary, and heroic, efforts at doing something. I say that when the whole of the normal is impaired another whole takes its place. Another normal is made.

In the same psychiatric hospital I encountered a 12 year old girl who had been found locked in a woodshed. That’s where her parents kept her. She was born blind and deaf. In the hospital I was set up for a newbie prank. I was asked to feed her. I did, and afterwards my colleagues could not understand why I was not covered in food. The joke, apparently, was that the girl, when forcibly fed a spoonful of whatever mush was in the bowl, sprayed it out back over the hapless sod in her range.

I subverted that witless scheme because I held her hand when I fed her. I figured that if she was blind and deaf then touch was the only remaining medium of communication. After she had eaten I held her hand and took her back to her room. Apparently she resisted that. She didn’t for me. Of course I was reprimanded for inappropriate contact with a patient and taken off the ward immediately. We were stupid bastards back then.

My hospital experience taught me that there were full humans inhabiting those appallingly impaired bodies. Recent discoveries using brain imaging have demonstrated that the person remains beneath the apparent coma or vegetative state. My own experience of months of moving scarcely more than my eyes confirms the presence of even a magnified sense of self – a sense of personal being that is in no way impaired. Self and body are distinct.

For me the whole is not diminished. The outer physical impairment is counterbalanced by an inner psychological/spiritual potential. I do not mean that physical misery is balanced by spiritual joy. Far from it. It could be crap on both sides. The point is that what ever is is whole. And the life experienced has an ‘other’, or ‘different’, ‘normal’ whole dimension to it. You can’t compare physically unimpaired and physically impaired lives other than by strictly comparing physical attributes. There is no such thing as a ‘disabled life’, or a ‘disabled person’. You can live a life with a [physical or other] disability. You can be a person with a [physical or other] disability. But the life and the person remain whole.

A decade ago I acquired a radical new sense of normal. My physical presence altered. My character commenced an evolutionary process. That took me out of the ‘normal world experience’ I shared with many others, and for which our physical infrastructure and our culture have been best adapted, That has altered my status, and my relationships.

It is a fine principle of our culture that our collective normal must be secular, and not privilege any particular type of normal. So the physically unimpaired do not get to continue dominating? We must be done with a culture that will favour the physically unimpaired psychopath over the blind emotionally intelligent but otherwise equal on balance in professional competences.

The unfortunate thing about the politics of disability in the community and the workplace is that it attends to ability and refutes impedance by design or habit. That is that the ability to exercise one’s natural potential should not be obstructed by physical design or by habits of expectation and presumption. Of course we strive to change this, but we are stuck on normal – on a parsimonious notion of what normal is.

When my Department introduced a person-centred approach to working with people with disability I understood imputing the presence of a full person in an impaired body was a kind of secular spirituality. Even if we perceive evidence of partial functionality of body and senses personhood can only be whole. So the experience of being a person in a physical body in the physical world can only ever be a whole experience – even if engagement with the physical can only ever be partial or inept.

Life only ever brings opportunities for us to be what we can be with what we have. An acquired disability can disassemble what you had and hand it back to you reconstructed in a radically new way. Some things are taken away and other things are given.

If you don’t have a disability what are you missing out on?

Okay, that was to get your attention, and to make a point. When you look at me, and people like me you may think you can see what has been taken away. But can you see what has been given?

I love Claire Cunningham’s observation that disability as part of the spectrum of being human, and not a mistake. Humanity is not an assemblage of ideals, but a complex spectrum of potentials and possibilities. The idea that anybody on the spectrum, and outside a dominant normal, is less a member of the community and less entitled to equal access to the benefits of being a community member is now, mercifully, unacceptable. But the aspiration to that inclusion is not yet realizable.

Our physical infrastructure and the culture that inhabits it is not designed to accommodate those who are beyond the limits of the dominant normal. The very thin and the very fat, the very short and the very tall all struggle. The deaf and those whose hearing is hypersensitive suffer. The list is long and I am sure you can add to it. Those who inhabit the fringes, the extremes, are essential to the sense of human wholeness. We cannot exist without those who are not like us in those subtle ways. Yes, disability is a subtle distinction compared to what we share, and how we are alike.

The dominant normal is a cluster of compromises. Rarely is anything ideal and mostly it is tolerable. We are used to making do with what is acceptable, but only because we have discounted those who are invisible because what is acceptable to us is inaccessible to them.

Acquiring a disability forced me to see that the cluster of compromises that constitute the dominant normal can be widened so that what is inaccessible to others becomes acceptable to them. The idea of the normal curve, also called the Bell Curve, suggests in any given population there will be a minority at either end of the curve – a small community of extreme expressions of human potential. This seems to be a natural pattern, otherwise the whole idea would possess neither merit nor utility.

What this means in a useful sense is that any community will have its extreme manifestations of human potential. Those extremists are inherent, essential and necessary members of the community. We cannot take a eugenic logic and seek to remove the extreme that fails an arbitrary measure of what is good enough. Beyond the bizarre irrationality of Social Darwinism is Nature’s demand that we be all we can be – in all our forms – and as a collective experience.

Stephen Hawking left us recently. A great mind in a radically impaired physical presence. Somewhere a person in a vegetative state can signal through an MRI that they are still present. The body is inert, but the person remains, whole.

Our normal must become universal. Our ideals of inclusiveness are not always articulated with sensitivity. We inhabit culture that has evolved through defining distinctions that separate and divide individuals and groups from others. The dominant group is virtuous by reason of wealth, breeding, race, position, employment status, religion, gender, and education. We still apply it today. We define the minority group by negative attributes of: health (poor), unemployment, poverty, mental illness, gender (other than male), age (old or young), race, education (low), sexuality (other than hetero) – and disability. Of course there are the positive extremes – genius of various kinds.

However we have a sense of an included normal and an excluded abnormal. We need an included abnormal so that it is merely a different normal. Cunningham’s idea that disability is on the spectrum of human expression and manifestation is a powerful and transformative one. It argues that disability is normal. And rather than it being a class of excluded expressions of being human, it must be an included extreme expression.

It must be included and it must be normal. It must be part of our normal – in family, in community, in the workplace.

That demands two adjustments:

  1. To an environment created from human fiat through an ideal of universal accessibility.
  2. To the environment of human community that embraces and values the diversity of extremes.

Here is an interesting thing to ponder. Most of us belong to a minority and extreme expression. Above I identified a set of negative attributes that are most often associated with people we think belong to an extreme minority. That is because other extreme minorities do not attract particular moral or political attention. How many cyclists? How many bushwalkers? How spoon collectors? How many Elvis fans? You get the idea.

We have a sense of physical utility that seems to dominate our culture. We must participate in economic activity to have value and meaning. But we don’t apply that to the very young or the very old, who are excused that obligation. If we have economic value then we have cultural value and meaning. If we have a disability and our capacity to work is diminished then somehow our intrinsic worth is lowered. Disability is an idea that mostly relates to our physical capacity and that also translates into employability.

Employment is highly valued in our community. It is the dominant normal and it is natural, therefore, that people with disability want to be part of it. But let us distinguish between meaningful, purposeful and valued activity, and the need to generate an income sufficient to allow one to enjoy life with relative dignity. The two are not necessarily connected. The relationship between labour and income is tenuous at best, and yet it is the dominant way in which we think about a person’s sense of self-worth, and their status in their community.

There are people with disability who struggle to function in a workplace. There are multiple reasons why but I want focus on the idea that the workplace normal does not expand enough to embrace their normal.

People respond to disability differently. Some have family members with disability and that can actually generate a negative attitude. Others are not aware of any disability among their family and friends, I suspect through want of daring to see. In the workplace it can be easy to focus on the lack that disrupts the normal and ignore lack that reinforces the normal. Active discrimination and bullying are ignored, and even tolerated, precisely because they reinforce the normal.

But workplaces are normal environments too. Global experience is demonstrating that diverse (read minority and extreme expressions) workplaces are more productive. People who are ‘other than normally abled’ contribute to enhanced performance. They bring a different normal to thinking about a world that is awash with different normal.

This is the thing about our dominant normal – it is constructed by people who are full of sameness, and they enable compromises to be made. Different normal can’t do compromises – it often just gets what is left over and takes it or leaves it – because there is no bargaining or negotiation power. So you need real innovation to meet the needs of the dominant and the different. Mixing dominant and different creates the kind of hybrid vigor that genuine innovation thrives on.

I don’t want to ditch the idea of disability. I want to add the idea of difability – what difference adds.

Over the years I have, now and then, imagined that I had returned to early April 2008 with a time machine and the chance to skip around the GBS. Would I take it? So far I haven’t been able to imagine that I would. That always surprises me. But the fact is that I don’t want to lose what I benefit I have gained. Besides I can’t be sure that this line of destiny won’t turn out to be the best for me. In an alternative version of my future something really crap could befall me.

I want to celebrate my difability.

Shedding Light on Our Sun

I have been distracted on research for post that got out of hand. This is an essay submitted to Skeptiko in 2015. It merits revival as we move toward the Autumn equinox in Australia.

Shedding Light on our Sun

I live in Katoomba in the Blue Mountains, about 62 miles (100 kilometers) west of Sydney. I have a day job in Penrith, 29 miles to the east. I catch the 6.26 am train. For a brief time, in winter, I can witness the whole drama of sunrise from the comfort of a train seat – from the paling predawn sky, the breathless moment the fiery orb kisses the far horizon to its full emergence into the day sky. If I drove I would be cursing the dazzling glare and hiding behind sunglasses and a visor drawn down. But sitting in the train seat I get to sit back and watch the unfolding drama of dawn, culminating in the emergence of an extraordinary blazing furnace we casually call the sun.

That sun has been the subject of human curiosity since as far back as we have evidence. My Celtic ancestors honoured the sun through the Awen, the three stations of the sun on the horizon, at the two extremes (north and south) of the solstices, and the midpoint between the two, the equinox position. My inquiry into the nature of the Awen was hampered by a presumption of the sun as an object. The past few years have been slowly transforming my thinking, in the morning, on the train, as I dared open up to the visceral presence of the furnace in the sky. The presumption of object, of thing, begins to dissolve.

In all of this interrupted personal transformation I came across Gregory Sams’ book, Sun of gOd. I rushed through the first part of the book, impatient to get to Greg’s description of the sun’s scientifically determined attributes. It would be easy to think that, even with no shred of mystical sentiment, a purely rational and scientific assessment of the sun would fill us with awe and reverence. Here should be the God for atheists. Beyond the sun, Greg takes the reader on a deeply rational micro and macro adventure to propose that consciousness underpins reality.

I emailed Greg eager to engage him in a conversation. What follows are my questions and comments, and his responses.

Michael Patterson: Greg, my first reaction to the title of your book was an apprehension that you might be a wacky pedant, but that fear was quickly dispelled. I’ll ask you to explain your reasoning to the current reader, then I want to get into the logic of dropping the definite article, thinking not of the sun, but Sun, for instance. Some years back I was listening to a guy from Poland talking about environment, with no definite article. It was unusual and it struck me as being a more moving mode of expression. The separate thing became not definite and remotely singular, but integral and intimate. Can we choose to make that it/thou distinction in favour of thou as an expression of more than intellectual recognition?

Gregory Sams: Michael, my first reaction to your pre-question words is to appreciate how your distilled soundbite. “Here should be the god for atheists.” Might use that.

Yes, about “dropping the definite article.” Thanks for reminding me what that is called. As soon as I began writing the book I realized that Sun is the proper name of our local star and Earth is the name of this planet, with “earth” referring to the soil upon it. Mars, Saturn, and all the other planet’s names are capitalized, as well as other stars such as Sirius and Proxima Centauri. I then realized that we rarely use the “definite article” with proper names such as the Boston, the Henry, the Mars or the Sirius. Having a name brings closer familiarity to something otherwise nameless and faceless in our cabinet of familiarity. It’s not the daughter, but Rachel; not the dog, but Rocky. I have noticed that many scientific publications have taken to capitalizing Sun in their writing though they still tend to precede it with “the.” Language goes deeper than the intellectual, shaping our opinions and responses to whatever it describes without us having to think about it.

(Quote from book) The outlandish explanations of creation offered by organized religions serve to convince many that science must have the better answers. But the sometimes stranger theories of cosmologists explaining how dumb particles accidentally bumbled into becoming stars and fleshy organisms make many cling to the irrational ideas of organized religion…”

Michael Patterson: You seem to be saying that while people don’t want the religious myths as literal renditions of what happened neither do they want to accept the narrative of chance creation with no purpose, no soul, so to speak. What’s in between? Where do they go to get what they need?

Gregory Sams: Today we’ve got just the “all planned in detail by someone like us but a WHOLE lot smarter” option or the “completely accidental” scenario. What about it being self-constructed from the bottom up, with intelligence built into the system? It’s not that preposterous an idea when we recognize that the EM Force pervades all. Since dedicating a chapter to it in the book I have gained a greater appreciation for the quality of the force that manifests in our world as light, in all the vibrations of the electromagnetic spectrum.

Our linguistic body language acknowledges the inherent intelligence of light without us even realizing it. We “see the light, shed light on the matter,” have “bright” ideas, get “illuminated,” reach “enlightenment,” follow a “guiding light,” and so forth. Science believes that it is the electromagnetic force that gives atoms their character, giving wood and rock and metal and water the qualities we experience – despite them being 99.999% empty space (empty of matter, that is). The EM Force could have been the intelligence working within the system, building as it goes, from the bottom up.

Once we take on board stellar consciousness, which to an unbiased mind makes more sense than some accidental light bulb in the sky, we open up a much more meaningful route back to the beginning of space and time. And now that we realize energy does not need a place in which to vibrate and that light exists only in the now, we have a candidate for something that could have existed before there was any time or a place to be. Perhaps it was not a Big Bang but a Big Whoosh as all that smart energy condensed into matter. Just a thought.

(quote from book) “Acceptance (of the idea that consciousness underpins all) opens the door to a veritable Pandora’s box of quackery and hocus-pocus, things that science has “religiously” sought to exclude from its arena. But I am afraid that it is too late. The box is open. Scientists have already discovered spirit and the evidence shouts at them from their own research.

Michael Patterson: Can you elaborate on the claim that scientists have already discovered spirit? Do they know this, and are denying what they know? Or do they know it, but, because they have ruled out this prospect, are calling it something else?

Gregory Sams: The scientific mind is tightly constrained by a set of religious taboos that have long been in place. During many centuries that the Church maintained a total monopoly on anything to do with “spirit,” any scientist who ventured into that territory risked getting more than their fingers burned. Now they think it is scientifically sound to reject anything not measurable by our existing toolkit.

Now, with our tools becoming ever more sensitive, they are peering into the world of cells and seeing more than five million individual components going about their daily work of eating and excreting and building and repairing and communicating with each other and with other cells. Ever more powerful telescopes and tools allow them to see communities of galaxies and detect the electromagnetic conduits connecting Sun to Earth, exchanging high-energy particles every eight minutes. They study the invisible corona of our Sun and believe it manages many puzzling solar features.

Our own spirit (consciousness) is acknowledged as the greatest mystery of human existence and about the only thing scientists do know about it is that nothing else shares it. Only in the past 10-15 years have scientists dared to suggest that a handful of animals might possess consciousness, having for centuries viewed them an unthinking machines. Now they are even wondering if some plants display intelligence, divorced from consciousness, of course.

There are a growing number of scientists who, in altered states of consciousness, have perceived realities unrecognized by the status quo. I predict that new tools will come into play to support those scientists wanting to re-incorporate the study of spirit into the scientific agenda.

(quote from book) It is my belief that a universal consciousness pervades all matter, whatever its form of existence—that this consciousness is the vibrational DNA of the Universe. This is not to suggest that blades of grass are very clever or rocks all that sentient or that, individually, either play much of a part in the scheme of things. But perhaps even a grain of sand might know of its existence as a micro-part of the beach or desert——a life being polished and rearranged by the waves of water and wind?

Michael Patterson: How did you come to formulate this essentially animistic cosmology? I converted to ‘animism’ after thinking animistic thoughts for many years. Even after decades of involvement the Western Mystery Tradition and Wicca, and with a strong interest in Eastern and ancient Western traditions I stumbled across the word by accident. I think I had come across the idea of universal consciousness before, but when I encountered the idea of animism a penny dropped for me. How did this belief evolve for you?

Gregory Sams: I’ve had that feeling that everything has some smidgen of consciousness for a long as I can remember but think it probably developed in my late teens when I began eating natural and organic foods, having been on a meat-free diet from the age of ten. Being thus better tuned to the world around me made me more connected somehow to organic objects like trees and sesame seeds. As life progressed I noticed connections between our consciousness and so-called inanimate objects, whether lost things, furniture, kitchen implements, office equipment, whatever. We’ve all experienced curious and amusing, frustrating and infuriating encounters with inanimate stuff. I venture to say that our consciousness is some form of electromagnetic field, however that field arises. All stuff, all matter, has some form of electromagnetic field, and is infused with the electromagnetic force that permeates our Universe. Our fields overlap and interact with those of our surroundings and sometimes all the energy needed is enough to aim our eye at a particular moment to reveals something of great value. Being in tune makes a huge difference.

(quote from book)“…a giant spiralling magnetic bubble, called the heliosphere, which reaches out beyond Pluto to encompass our entire solar system in its protective embrace.”

Michael Patterson: There is a powerful sense here that gives rational form to that idea of deity being that ‘great being in whom we live and move and have our being’. If we work with the idea that Sun is the center of agency that is underpinned by fundamental consciousness then can we not see this heliosphere as a kind of organic envelope? I am conscious that even when we try to think in terms of fundamental consciousness our habits of mind pull our thoughts into conformity with our norms, so I’d like you speculate here and give some creative thought to how we might think of the heliosphere.

Gregory Sams: You might view this answer as too concise but if we’re trying to reduce the heliosphere into something that we can understand then you might see it as a Sun-built bus that transports us all safely through the galaxy. At another level this all-embracing electro-magnetic field could be the means through which Sun keeps in touch with all of its charges.

Michael Patterson: You were saying that you have been studying Zoroastrian thought and have realised how much Zoroaster and quantum physicists are ‘speaking the same language’. Personally I think that mystical and scientific inquiry should arrive at essentially the same understanding, even if the narrative is different in form. However some in the quantum physics community are pretty frustrated by folk hijacking their science to support mystical arguments. I guess I can see where they are coming from, especially when complex ideas are reduced to almost glib recitations of marvelous fact in not very clear support of a metaphysical proposition.

Gregory Sams: The connection in understanding between the two, however, is the focus of a talk I give with the theme of “seeing the light through ancient eyes.” Light itself is the divinity of Zoroastrians and they have 101 names for it, which are all descriptive, the main one being “Ahura Mazda,” which translates into “light wisdom.” Many of the others fit neatly into the quantum understanding of light’s strange qualities, including Richard Feynman’s famous quote that “Anybody who says they understand quantum theory doesn’t understand quantum theory.” EM = Electromagnetic Force, which manifests as light. Without going into the full lecture, here are just a few of those names, with comment in parentheses: A-ehem                       Beyond Reason

An-aiyâfah                  Cannot be Understood

Ân-âinah                     Formless (photons are without substance or form)

Aokh-Tan                   Without Body (photons have no content)

Mb înôtum                  Invisible (we don’t see light, just the information it carries)

A-zamân                     Timeless (at the speed of light, time ceases to exist)

Abadah                        Without beginning (this implies time)

Abî-anjãm                   Without end (this implies time)

Vasna                          All-Pervading (the EM force, manifested by light, is everywhere)

Rakhôh                       All-energetic (light is pure energy)

A-Gar-Aa-Gar-Gar     Creator of Stars (The EM force shapes cosmic dust into stars)

Meeno-Nahab             Hidden in Invisible Creation (the EM force gives atoms the sense of substance despite being 99.99% empty space)

Afjaa                           Creator of Growth (Photosynthesis, a quantum process, means made by light)

Parwara                       Nourisher

Safana                          Bountiful One

Stewart Edward White’s 1947 book With Folded Wings is centered on conversations with his deceased wife, Betty, and other persons described simply as Invisibles. Here is a quote from the book. “The first business of each day,” said the Invisibles, “is a recognition of the sun of your life: unquestioning and eager heart-lifting acknowledgment of the warm, loving, positive creative force of the universe beyond our knowledge. Always give time to purify and clothe fittingly your spirit to contemplate the unknown great Causal Force operating through each living thing.”

This allusion to the sun surprised me. It is not clear from the book whether the sun is literal or figurative, or both. As you know the sun has played a central role in many religions, including Christianity. Alvin Boyd Kuhn, in Easter – The Birthday of the Gods observes that Jesus was transformed from a spring equinox solar deity to a winter equinox solar deity (effectively inverting the birth and death celebrations). D.M. Murdoch is strong on the Jesus as the Sun theme with her book, Jesus as the Sun. In a sense Christianity was continuing the earlier solar traditions.

The logic of the sun as being the focal point of thinking about the divine is plain enough. Even before you know the science the experience of Sun is powerful enough in an entirely mundane way. The solstice and equinox festivals I celebrated during my time in Wicca were, in one sense, scarcely religious in the sense we now know the word. They were expressions of awe and gratitude, as well as awareness of the round of seasonal changes. The religious seems to have arisen from the absence of any notion of materialism or mechanism (all was entirely animistic), and from a natural sense of awe and respect for something that is palpably present and yet utter mysterious.

So the idea of the sun as a literal and/or symbolic agency (including ideas of the hidden sun, or the sun behind the sun) seem fundamental to our psyche and our culture.

(from email) On his deathbed Goethe confided to his closest associate “I am prepared to revere the Sun…which is likewise a manifestation of the highest Being, and indeed the most powerful which we, the children of the earth, are allowed to behold.”

Michael Patterson: The quote from Goethe seems to say that he sees the Sun as the most powerful expression of the highest Being that humans are able to encounter. There’s a lot in that, and, as you picked out this quote I want to give you the space to expand on it.

Gregory Sams: Not a lot of space needed on that one. I am with Zoroaster who recognized Light as the universal deity and Sun as it local representative, so to speak. We cannot comprehend or even see “the highest Being,” the all-pervasive electromagnetic force (EM) that permeates our Universe, whether in the space between galaxies or that between the protons and electrons of every atom. We can “see the Sun.”

Zoroastrians also recognize fire as a manifestation of the highest being and worthy of worship. Bear in mind that in English, “worship” derives from recognizing the worth of something to us. In Vedic usage, worship means to imbue the qualities of that which you worship. There is nothing primitive or ignorant about recognizing the enormous contribution that Sun’s light makes to our lives, well beyond putting a smile on our face and generating Vitamin D in our bodies.

(from email) The other thing I’ve got a little more to say about is Dark Matter, that curious stuff so far detected only in the minds of cosmologists seeking to explain away the Universe as a collection of dumb balls of plasma responding to nothing more than the laws of physics.

Michael Patterson: Sun of gOd came out a little over 6 years ago, and, of course, you have moved your thinking on. You said you have been thinking about what is called Dark Matter, which you rather provocatively say has been detected “only in the minds of cosmologists seeking to explain away the Universe as a collection of dumb balls of plasma responding to nothing more than the laws of physics.” Okay. That has my attention. Go for it.

Gregory Sams: Well, my full thoughts on this are expressed in this piece I wrote for International Times, but I’ll try to soundbite it. Basically, I see this as being like the centuries-long search for the luminiferous aether once thought to pervade all space. Cosmologists cannot figure out why stars in a galaxy are not behaving like dumb balls of matter responding to nothing more than the laws of physics. There must be some other agent at play and with no evidence of that to hand they have invented “dark matter,” which is really just the name given the solution of a problem that has not been solved. If they called it “Factor X” then I would have no problem with that. To my mind, the reason stars do not behave like dumb balls of matter is because they are not dumb balls of matter but living organisms in a living community. Consciousness is that Factor X and perhaps once cosmologists accept this they will discover how those EM fields that permeate space are brought into play in the trajectories taken by celestial beings.

Michael Patterson: I want to finish off with a bit of where-to-from-here blue sky thinking, especially around how anybody who accepts the proposition that consciousness underpins all (“all is consciousness in evolution” according to A.E. White) can most effectively adapt to shifting from a native materialist thinker to a native consciousness thinker. We are deeply conditioned by our culture to think within the materialist paradigm, even when we profess no alliance with it on an intentional level. In the same way the echoes of Christian habits of thought still reverberate in our minds. Even when our aspirations are post Christian and post materialist the reflexes remain; habits of thought remain.

Gregory Sams: You are asking about consciousness and I am not alone is suggesting that consciousness pervades the entire Universe. I cannot say how many others, apart from Zoroaster, see that consciousness as being carried by the electromagnetic force manifesting as light. There is a chapter in my book dedicated to the question of consciousness in what we perceive as inanimate objects, but at this stage let me just put it in a human perspective that applies to all other life forms as we know them.

We think we are physical bodies needing physical food in order to survive. But what we need from that food is the invisible energy of light stored in the food. That light is the energy of life, powering mind and thought. All the physical stuff exists to support that activity. If the light stops then the physical stuff rots away. We are light processing light.

When we talk about the light in somebody’s eyes it is not just a figure of speech.

Michael Patterson: Where to next from here for you? How can people interested in following your work get in touch with you?

Gregory Sams: I have done a lot of culture-changing in a busy life, initially spending over twenty years persuading people in the UK that what we eat affects our health, and introducing a wide range of natural and organically grown foods. To some degree I affected the entire world with my creation and christening, in 1982, of the original VegeBurger.

In the years since I have written two books with seminal messages. One of them, titled “The State Is Out Of Date – We Can Do It Better,” puts across a message about the coercive state regulating us from the top down. It is a relatively recent concept and only arose after we had, in a state of freedom, built up a viable civilization with wealth to be conquered. The underlying issue is not who is in power, how they got there, what they want to do, or why. It is not a question of whether politicians are corrupt or honest, male or female, or whether they are in the pockets of corporations, religions, or the military. The question is whether the basic modus operandi of “Do, or do not do, this or we will damage you” can ever bring peace and harmony to our planet, whatever directives are being enforced. The proposition is that in a state of freedom we can and will evolve sustainable means to govern our complex society peacefully, from the bottom up instead of the top down. It’s a very important message.

In Sun of gOd, I seek to bring our Sun out of the closet after 15 centuries of spiritual darkness. That’s a very big and very important job that changes just about everything we think about planet Earth and the greater Universe. To me, this is as important a message as getting across that what we eat affects our health – and a suitable lifetime achievement goal. If I can succeed in changing our understanding of the starring character in the movie of life then I will exit this planet a satisfied man.

So to answer your question, until I find something that is more important than resolving world conflict and reconnecting us to our spiritual roots I shall continue chipping away at different aspects and angles of the ideas raised in those two books.

More material at my website,, and scores of audio and video interviews online as well as articles and written interviews. Just search Gregory Sams in Google or on YouTube.


By early August, as I commence my journey eastwards, light is diluting the morning sky with soft pastel shades of gold, and Sun is coming up from the grey horizon full of redness, an emphatic presence that now dazzles my eyes. Before long Sun will be up and in the sky before I get to the platform and that annual window of wonder will be closed.

For the past little while each morning has been an episode of existential vulnerability, a brief time in which the demands of the world of human fiat are suspended and a primal sense of awe is awakened. In my days of formal ceremonial working we celebrated the solstices and equinoxes, reflecting upon the seasonal changes and the challenges of an agrarian lifestyle – an ancient way of living denied to us, mostly, now. If we are fortunate we have gardens whose conduct marks the cycles of the year. But even so we can forget that Sun is the core of everything – what we are and what we do – unless we are reminded in a purposeful fashion. We can elect to remind ourselves by celebrating the seasonal stations of Sun, not as an intentional act of religious reverence, but as an intentional act of existential awe – to place our being and doing in a context larger than boundaries of human imagination and endeavor.

It is a purely rational act, this exposure to awe. By doing no more than reciting the catechism of scientific knowing about the nature of Sun we can amend the context of our being and doing and knowing in a way that can restore an inner, and outer, harmony. What we have come to call religion was, I believe, just such a rational response in a human reality that had no conception of lifeless mechanism. Sun was a living agent because it was inconceivable that any alternative way of knowing existed (the idea of the mechanistic universe was some time away). Our knowing is vastly different to our ancestors, but the same primal forces exist and exert the same fundamental influence upon us. But culture has altered our orientation and we are bent to the gravity of human powers in a way that leaves us unaware of, and unresponsive to, the purer powers of our being.

The role of science in our culture has been increasingly subverted from exciting rational wonder to inducing reverence for the brands of the makers of devices. There is a cartoon by the Australian cartoonist Michael Leunig depicting a father and son marveling at a sunrise/sunset on television, while through a window we see the self same event. Life mediated by culture, belief or technology cannot ever equal the dazzling engagement of the real thing, but we cannot know that until we turn away. In Sun of gOd Gregory Sams takes us a rational journey, via science, into the challenge of existential engagement with the depth and breadth of the complexity of Being and Nature. This is what science is supposed to do for us, when it is not hobbled by other people’s dogmas.

The sun worshipper was an object of ridicule when I was growing up – a simpleminded superstitious soul. But now it seems there is no more perfect representation than Sun as the focus of both rational and existential inquiry. And for any person with any deep concern for a sustainable human future that fact is magnified. What Sams’ book did for me was to excite a reunion, a reconciliation, between the rational (scientific) and the existential (spiritual) in a way that was completely unexpected.

Mike Patterson

August 2015







Serious Conversations From Beyond the Grave

Stewart Edward White published The Betty Book in 1937. The last publication date I could find was 1988. Fifty-one years is not too bad at all.

I found one review online, which said, in part No book changed my life more radically than “The Betty Book,” because it is so well-written and credible yet flies in the face of mainstream science, which, until I read “The Betty Book” in 2002, I used to have faith in.” The author of the review is Paul W. Silver, a writer.

These days the Betty Book is little read, and it’s not hard to see why. The hardcopy cover is awful and dated. The content is hard to read. There are two reasons it’s a hard book to read. One is just a matter of style. What was good to read way back can be hard to read now. The second reason is more pertinent to this essay. The subject matter is inherently hard to read.

This is from Following an experience with a Ouija board at a party during March 1918, Betty White, wife of the famous America novelist, Stewart Edward White, discovered she had mediumistic gifts and subsequently began receiving messages from a group of discarnate beings who called themselves the Invisibles. Initially the messages came via automatic writing and later while Betty was in an entranced state.

The messages amounted to hundreds of thousands of words which dealt with life’s big questions such as our purpose here, the nature of life after physical death, and a philosophy of life as seen from the perspective of the invisibles who claimed to be a little further along the cosmic highway than we are. Communication continued after Betty passed away in 1939 via another medium and continued with Betty’s help until Stewart passed away in 1946.

After Betty’s death on April 5, 1939, White began receiving messages from her through the mediumship of a woman named “Joan,” who preferred to remain anonymous. Betty’s teachings were then put together by White in The Unobstructed Universe, published in 1940.

 The latest publication date for The Unobstructed Universe is 2010. That’s a decent 70 years – not bad for a book whose content is obtained via mediumship. To put White into perspective as an author, my book finding app –, has over 150 entries for White – titles and different editions. That is a substantial presence for any author 72 years after his death.

White wrote more books drawn from Betty’s experiences, pre-and post mortem, but The Betty Book and The Unobstructed Universe are the best known, and most enduring. I have belaboured White’s background to emphasise the point that he is an author of significant standing in American literature, and whose works endure to this day. His ‘digressions’ from fiction into automatic writing, trance communication and mediumship were not mere fancies or indulgences.

I was trying to recall when I encountered White, and I really don’t know, but it was some time in the 1980s at least. I found the two books deeply engaging, and they have stayed with me. But my efforts to encourage others to read them have been a dismal failure. It seems you have to have a certain determination to get through them.

That was certainly the case for me. I found my mind wandering, or just drifting off, and I would have to pull my attention back to focus. But the focus and effort was rewarding.

At present I am reading Frank DeMarco’s latest, Awakening from the 3D World: How We Enter The Next Life. This is my 4th DeMarco book. I find the parallels between White and DeMarco intriguing.

The first DeMarco book I read was Rita’s World. Rita was a friend and associate with a mutual connection to the Monroe Institute. Rita worked with Frank to bring through material from non-physical entities they called The Guys Upstairs (shortened to TGU). The similarity to White’s Invisibles is significant. Then Rita dies and she communicates with Frank in what became a series of ‘Rita books’.

White introduces the idea of the Obstructed Universe (the material reality) and the Unobstructed Universe (the non-material reality). In DeMarco’s books these ideas are rendered as the 3D reality (3 dimensional) and the All D (multiple or infinite dimensions).

Both authors encounter the difficulty in thinking from the 3D/Obstructed reality into the All D/Unobstructed reality. The problem of translation is a constant concern for both authors.

This from White: Betty early began to have trouble with terminology. The ideas she wanted to convey were exact; and our habit is to use words inexactly. Her ideas were new; and they deserved new terms. However, at first she used those with which we were familiar, and eased us out of them only when by their means she had penetrated our density.

As an example, for some time she distinguished her universe and ours as unlimited and limited. “It is all one universe,” she insisted, “but yours is limited.”

This from DeMarco: As so often, the difficulty looks like a difficulty in definitions. More essentially, it is a problem of holding several variable definitions in mind and changing them repeatedly to look at them from more than any one side.

 For me the problems of translation and comprehension are exemplified in this following passage from The Unobstructed Universe.

These ESSENCES, the great trilogia of her unobstructed universe, correspond to the co-existent trilogy (time, space and motion) of our obstructed universe. Each of these essences will be explained separately in a chapter all its own. Nonetheless, and though they were defined in the preceding chapter, they must be restated here as the basic conception of orthos – restated even as Betty restated them “over and over” for the labored understanding of Darby and me. 

  1. The essence of Time is Receptivity.
  2. The essence of Space is Conductivity.
  3. The essence of Motion is Frequency.
  4. The co-existent trilogy of the obstructed universe (Earth) is Time, Space and Motion.
  5. The co-existent trilogia of the unobstructed universe (Betty’s) is Receptivity, Conductivity and Frequency.

 Those five statements are of the greatest importance – and to be remembered.

 For a long while–it seemed long in our struggle to encompass her ideas, though, as I have said, actually she put over her entire concept in but forty sessions – Betty allowed our three-cornered discussion of receptivity, conductivity and frequency to advance not only on the supposition of their being the ESSENCES of time, space and motion; we were also allowed to consider them the “absolutes” of time, space and motion. As she said afterwards it was the only way she could get her wedge into our brains! Something like the theory of giving a fellow enough rope…!

The message is the same from both authors. We experience reality as dual, what I call the physical and the metaphysical – or obstructed and unobstructed (White) or 3D and All D (DeMarco). But “There is only one reality. All is consciousness in evolution.” (White) and “…remember that everything is an expression of consciousness.” (DeMarco).

Neither White nor DeMarco are theorising here. Both are engaged in conversations with entities that dwell in that Metaphysical/All D/Unobstructed dimension (the Invisibles and TGU) and both engaged in conversations with people they were close to and knew well (Betty and Rita). These books are efforts to convey ideas, to translate them from one dimension to another.

Is this stuff real? Does it have any value? Answers to those questions always have to be personal. We don’t have an accepted tradition of getting information this way, so it can be a struggle to be okay with it. And it’s hard to read because it messes with your head, and puts up ideas that can be confronting, triggering a reflex to reject.

I find White and DeMarco challenging and rewarding reading, but my track record in convincing other people to explore these works is lousy. I am okay with that. It’s not everyone’s jam. Could it be yours? No pressure from me. My interest is only in bringing this material to the awareness of those who might have an empathy with this kind of material. It isn’t for everyone.

If its for you and you don’t do Kindle, I recommend to search for hardcopy.

And for folk yet to be persuaded that Kindle is a good thing there is an immense reservoir of resources at prices that are surprising. This is especially the case if you have an interest in esoteric literature. Search Kindle first before you commit to buying hardcopy, especially if you are on a tight budget. If you are, and you are into reading, Kindle will be a best friend very quickly.

So many ‘old’ books are on Kindle, and many others can be found on line in PDF format, and via sites like the Gutenberg Project.









Why are we here?

Who are we? Where do we come from? What are we doing here? These are 3 questions that have generated endless an endless array of claims. I can’t say that I have any answers I can swear to as being on the money. I want simply to discuss a few notions.

Back in 1979 I was in situations that enabled me to participate in conversations with high-level non-physical entities. I have retained records of many of these conversations as transcripts from recorded sessions, and a few notes made after the event. In some instances the communication was via a form of ‘automatic writing’.

The following brief notes were written, and were part of an unanticipated event that came upon us very suddenly. The written notes were intense and fragmentary. Some of the writing was simply beyond deciphering, because it was scrawled with great energy and little control. I was not the writer. I was a witness and a participant – in the sense that I asked questions, somewhat in a state of shock. Of course the questions were not recorded.

I won’t go into the details of the encounter, because I want the focus on the content. I will say that the whole event took place under the influence of intense radiation. I can liken it only to being in the full sun on an intensely hot day – only without the sensation of heat. The atmosphere seemed thick and I struggled to stay focused.

This is what was written: The difficulty is that man this time is not evenly evolved but is made up of many groups from past civilizations all incapable of cohesive action.

Back then I had no sensible notion of the planetary state of things, so it took me a long time before these words started to make real sense to me.

Much later, in 2016, in fact, I listened to an Audible recording of Robert Monroe’s Far Journeys. Monroe talks about how souls from elsewhere in physical reality and elsewhere on a metaphysical level come to live a life on Earth – drawn by some promise of experience unique to physical incarnation.

A number of perfectly sensible people I know insist they are from far way. And frankly, there are aspects of their conduct in this life that make me very sympathetic to the notion. It lets me be kinder about some of the things they say and do. They seem, simply, to not ‘get’ being here at all.

So here are two ideas. The human population comprises those with past lives from differing civilizations from here on Earth, and there are folk who come here with no history of being human – first timers.

Now I do not know if these ideas are true, so it is a useful exercise to imagine that they are. If true, what would the world likely look like? How different would that be to what we can see today? Indeed, is there anything about how the world appears to me now that would suggest that either or neither idea has any merit?

So what are the attributes we might be looking for? One is plainly stated – an inability for cohesive action. Another might be fixation with old patterns of behaviour – repeating old themes. Another might be a lack of natural empathy for planetary systems. Let us add strong self-interest.

What we might imagine, therefore, is a kind of layering or separation as past patterns draw groups into association – or cause separation through an absence of any basis for empathy or connection. We would expect to see conduct that is not tied to any deep connection for place. And we would also expect to see the opposite as well.

All the world may be a stage, but how many plays are being performed? Which is a large elaborate performance and which is a small ensemble, or even a solo act?

The classic Darwinian notion is that humans are at different stages of evolution. We all started out primitive and some got on an evolutionary fast track, while others ended up in a backwater. That ‘explained’ the differences better than seeing some folk as spiritual degenerates who were unsaved, and others were the ‘chosen’ of God. In fact we have had many ways of trying to explain the flagrant differences between people.

For those who accept reincarnation it is fairly clear that people are at different stages of development, and even among those who seem to be peers there are differences that cannot be explained by nature/nurture arguments. Our biology has an effect upon our psyche, as does our nurture. But any one who has had children, or had close connection with children, knows they bring fully formed personalities into their lives – and not always endearing.

There are theories about reincarnation, or should I say opinions. It is clear, from evidence, that some people appear to have serial lives on Earth. But intervals between lives vary, and cohorts from a certain source (time and space) will be born together. Are they serial lives or aspects of the one life expressing at the same time in different times and places? This notion of how things might be has arisen relatively recently and opposes the standard accepted version of reincarnation. There are compelling arguments to favour it.

Who is managing all this? There are many claims that life on Earth comes about by assent – and some say also coercion (in the sense that not being born into material existence is not an option). For me this the most intriguing question of all. There is a hint that there is some level of management that resides somewhere in the non-material levels of reality. I say there is a hint because details are hard to find, beyond sufficient hints that suggest there is management on some level.

Well, you may say, if there is any such management it is plainly utterly hopeless. Indeed recall the classic Atheist’s bleat – if there is a God why does he let children suffer? Children suffer – ergo there is no God. We imagine that management must be competent in our terms.

Now this is a perfectly reasonable point of concern and suspicion. The neo-Gnostic position seems to be that there is a dark conspiracy that goes all the way into the metaphysical dimensions – and that conspiracy is to enslave humanity. This is a matter upon which there should be strong and energetic debate. It’s a popular contemporary theme. My position is that I am persuaded that there are entirely legitimate concerns about deception and manipulation to our common detriment that must be engaged with by concerned citizens. I am not, however, yet persuaded that there is a metaphysical dimension. I am not saying there is not, only that I am not yet persuaded.

If there is some kind of management why do we see it as inept? I have worked in government most of my now substantial working life. And I can tell tales of gross and eye-watering incompetence, willful efforts at political manipulation and deception, and genuine acts of compassion and care for the community and its members. Very often all three are intertwined so that sometimes good comes about by sheer accident, though still the intent of the many players.

Managing at the level of government is immensely difficult. Sadly the allure of power and influence attracts the unworthy and inept, and it is left to an army of less powerful, but more adept and noble to make the best they can out of a persistently bad situation.

Management at a metaphysical level is so much more complex and difficult. We have really no idea of the degree of complexity. We have no idea of the operating environment this planet exists in. And to make matters worse, we have a reflex to assume that non-physical folk are perfect. But we cannot presume that on this level management still attracts the ambitious and unworthy. It is interesting to note that in the general field of management it is getting harder for the truly inept to aspire or survive.

We can complain, from our point of view, that management is doing a lousy job. For all but a tiny minority, life isn’t easy. The rest of us struggle in some way – and in so saying I am deeply conscious that what I think of as a struggle would be, for many others, a blessing compared to what they must endure.

But is the purpose of being human on Earth to enjoy the good life? I think there is no doubt that the few benefit at the cost of the many. Life for many seems more like a torment and a curse. If the sole purpose of being alive in a physical body was enjoyment of pleasures then life of Earth would be mostly hell.

What are we doing here?

If we accept that human nature is primarily metaphysical and being in a physical body is not the major experience, our sense of purpose must be shaped accordingly. This is not something we think about in any great depth. In any given sense of time, instances of being born into a physical body relative to existing in a non-physical state are comparatively low. I haven’t encountered any definitive evidence for this statement. All I can say is that in the many years of inquiring in this area I have formed an impression that, in general, for a given duration, we are in a physical body less than 30% of the time (I am aware that this is a nonsensical thing to say in one respect, but I am trying to make a point that admits only the nonsensical in its service). But this is only in relation to the present claims about reincarnation.

And if we subtract our sleeping time our actual time of being aware and conscious of being in the physical body is considerably less. Quite plainly there is a distinct set of purposes for being in the physical body, but they cannot have a higher value than the periods between physical lives. The fact that we do not have conscious awareness of them does not mean that they are not valuable – just not relevant to us in physical existence. If we add to that the fact that being in the body is so hard we need regular respite from via sleep and dreaming, we can start to build up a better idea of what is most important.

Some things seem evident about being in the physical body:

  • We are here because we want to be or have to be.
  • We are here to gain an experiential benefit.
  • This is not our primary state of being.
  • There is some kind of logic or intelligence governing our presence.
  • We are mostly not here for fun or pleasure.

If we accept the idea of reincarnation or the idea that our nature is primarily spiritual it is still unlikely that we have thought through what that might mean if we use that logic to govern our insights about who and what we are.

In his most recent book, Frank DeMarco records his non-physical informant (Rita) as saying: Your minds are in non-3D. Your origins are in non-3D. Your destination is in non-3D. Here the term “3D” refers to the physical world, so “non-3D” is the metaphysical dimension.

We are still more likely to be influenced by notions of what is fair and just framed by Christian (or other religious) or atheist values, even though neither of those ways of knowing are consistent with the fundamental reasoning that arises from our metaphysical presumptions or beliefs.

What is just and good?

We tend to think of justice in terms of somebody getting what is coming to them – as punishment or compensation. What is fair implicitly depends on a notion of merit, which begins with an ideal of equality. This is a sound communal foundation that produces a functioning community. Anybody craving an excessive amount of wealth or power, strangely, has long been valourised in our wider culture, rather than being condemned as breaking the communal bond.

The presumption of merit associated with power and wealth is declining as discontents with the ideals of democracy and equity grow. The efforts to establish some kind of social contract between business owners and employees and their community seem to have reached their highest point for many, and the decline is well underway. For me the turning point was in the 1980s. But that may be only an Australian perspective.

Our notions of what is good are cobbled together – enduring principles, traditional religious values, new ethics, new politically determined ideals – to create a confusing and conflicting mess. Good is what we think it is. It is a mixture of opinion and sentiment fused with good intent. We struggle to work together because sincerely held notions of what is good do not mesh together, and often conflict. Not much is the fruit of deep philosophical reflection or deep spiritual or metaphysical understanding. Not much is the fruit of honest self-reflection.

It is appropriate that notions of good are dearly held, but if we cannot see that this also applies to those whose ideas we find incompatible with our own, we lay the ground out for strife. Is the solution to find some compromise that serves no one well – or to inquire together, to go deeper into self-reflection and contemplation?

The chances are that, if we conflict, we are both ‘wrong’.

I am moved by the ancient Egyptian idea of Maat. This from Wikipedia, which is as good a sources as any for my purpose here. Maat refers to the ancient Egyptian concepts of truth, balance, order, harmony, lawmorality, and justice. Maat was also the goddess who personified these concepts, and regulated the stars, seasons, and the actions of mortals and the deities who had brought order from chaos at the moment of creation. Her ideological opposite was Isfet, meaning injustice, chaos, violence or to do evil.

Let me try to break this complex idea down in terms of what is good. I want to keep the idea of good because this makes sense only if we keep it simple. If it gets too wordy and complex it is easy to lose focus.

Good is truth and balance and order and harmony and law and morality and justice all rolled into one essential notion. This is not an intellectual concept, but one that is grasped intuitively, usually via some meditative practice. And it is an evolving one as well, not something that you ‘get’ perfectly at any stage.

We are habituated to think of good as just one of those elements. This is why so many well-intentioned thoughts and actions deliver unintended consequences. Thinking in a holistic way takes a lot of effort – shifting out of the immediate personal scale, away from reference to the personal self, is not easy. Actually, it is incredibly difficult

DeMarco’s informants offer a further perspective:

(Informant) “Indeed, all of this long discussion, beginning with your joint exploration with Rita fifteen years ago, concerns nothing else, in a way, but the question of purpose. Why are you here, wherever and whenever “here” happens to be? Why do you feel the way you do, why is this or that overwhelmingly important to you? Why are you obsessed by whatever obsesses you?”

(DeMarco) “What is the meaning of life?”

(Informant) “Yes, what is the meaning of life as an abstract question, and what is the meaning of your life, as an urgent and gripping question?”

Here DeMarco introduces two essential and linked ideas – purpose and meaning. If our life has a purpose it also has a meaning.

Is the purpose of our life to be good (in that grander sense of the word)? That’s a genuine question. I don’t know what my answer is. But I do know that trying to answer that question can be useful.

Teilhard de Chardin is credited with saying that “we are spiritual beings having a physical experience.” This insight flips the usual way we look at things. We usually begin from the presumption that we are physical beings aspiring to spiritual experiences.

This leads to an interesting question – in what way does living in the physical world benefit the spiritual? What can this domain of limitations, obstructions and pain bring to the spirit? In essence the answer seems to be that we undergo some kind of intensification of awareness and focus to express or create a life experience.

I suppose we might see in those who dedicate their lives to the attainment of some goal or skill a real commitment to concentrated or focused effort – think musician, artist, or some kind of sports professional – as an example. But in reality most of us struggle and strive to be an okay human being who is a decent family member, friend and employee. Perhaps we come into this life with a theme – one that is ours to attend to.

These days, it seems that some folk aspire to be famous, when they are better off just trying to be themselves and esteemed amongst a small community of intimates. That can be hard enough.

The fact is that some folk, as spiritual beings, have a facility in being in the physical body because their life themes are more esoteric. Others are not so natively adept, and struggle to make a decent fist of a life. Their life experience themes are not so elaborate.

I grew up with the idea of social justice. That is, as I was entering adulthood, that ideal was being passionately espoused. It was natural that I should find it attractive as I looked around and saw gross inequities. But I could never fully embrace it. That said, most of my working life has been in government at federal, state or local level – and mostly in employment and disability services. I am deeply committed to the use of community resources to meet community needs. But not with any sense of social justice. Just compassion.

My understanding of social justice is that it grew out of what was essentially a Marxist and atheistic interpretation of the world. So while the intent is good, the foundational premises are flawed. I do not think an atheistic model of justice can work out in reality.

Likewise I do not think a Christian (or any other religion) model of justice can work out in reality if it based upon a set of theological dogmas that confer exclusive, or primary, virtue upon an adherent of the faith.

This is why I like Maat. It pushes beyond dogma into the humbling regions of deep complexity where neither ego nor intellect has any prospect of functioning. Curiosity and compassion are necessary. Good can never be what I say it is. It has to always be more.

DeMarco makes an engaging observation: You are not smarter than the universe. You are not more moral, more careful, more sensitive, more anything. What is true has to be always more than you can think it. Good has to be more. Purpose has to be more. Meaning has to be more.

I have quoted DeMarco quite a bit here. This isn’t because I believe what he writes. I like what he writes because it provokes and challenges me. I often have to work hard to get the full meaning of his words, and then work even harder to assess them to decide whether they are useful to me or not. For me, that’s a great read.

I am going to leave the almost last words to DeMarco:

Suppose you take for granted that life is, and that you cannot work your way to a definition of its meaning. That need not leave you bereft. It leaves you free to live, to work out the meaning of your life—which is your only responsibility, hence your only real possibility—by living it. Knowing this, you may feel freer to live as you wish, as you are prompted to live, and this will automatically provide you the way.

I hope I have left you stirred up and unsatisfied. I didn’t write this little essay as a comfort piece. We have work to do, and most of it isn’t easy. But at least it can be fun.

I have taken words from Frank DeMarco’s book Awakening from the 3D World: How We Enter the Next Life – a Rita Book. I commend it unreservedly as a tonic and a stimulant, and a laxative.