Revisiting The Betty Book – Part 1

New Introduction

Back in January 2019 I posted 3 essays based on The Betty Book by Stewart Edward White. The book is a classic of communicated writing, containing ideas of great sophistication. The key character, Betty, and began communicating in company with a body of more advanced entities, called the Invisibles.

On my reread, in 2018, I was struck by the remarkable similarity with Frank DeMarco’s works – his series of Rita books. Both White and DeMarco present challenging ideas ‘from the other side’.

Unlike much ‘channelled’ writing the content is mentally taxing and often confronting. Engaging with it, in my experience, is often difficult because I have found myself reacting to the content in ways that making staying focused hard.

Quite a lot of ‘channelled’ content I have explored has been hypnotic and emotional, with no real content of value. Most of it has been admonition only – something the ‘channeller’s own psyche has either completely made up, or so interfered with an original message it has been rendered useless.

New ideas, or new takes on familiar ideas, are a different matter. In this case, as with DeMarco, there is an acknowledged difficulty in translation – putting into words ideas formed where no words, such as we know them, exist. So not just new notions, but a challenge in expression as well.

White represents a further challenge as well. The Betty Book was published in 1937. The writing style has changed a great deal since then, and it will seem a lot out of date to many readers. 

I have reformatted the original text as dot points re make reading easier.

Do I believe what is written? Not necessarily. I don’t think it is a matter of belief. It is whether the content resonates with the reader – and it resonated with me.

Some mental and emotional effort is required in engaging with the text and the ideas it contains. For some, it may be rewarding.

Original Introduction

Back in the late 1970s my then girlfriend started to channel a discarnate entity (see earlier posts for more on this). She freaked out and thought she was going mad. On the other hand, I set out to do some research on the phenomenon. That’s when I encountered Stewart Edward White’s 1937 classic, The Betty Book. It was an account of another instance of the spontaneous development of the ability to convey thoughts from ‘the other side’.

I last read The Betty Book in the mid 1990s, and recently I decided to write a post on in it, for reasons that were not clear even then, just an urge. But as I started, I paused. It had been a long time, so maybe I should have a quick look to refresh? That was a good thing to do. It was nothing like I remembered! So, I reread it in its entirety, no skimming or skipping.

It was not an easy read. White is an accomplished author – his extensive body of works endure on Kindle. Maybe part of the problem is simply that, 70 years on, writing styles have changed and I am habituated to what is, for me, a more fluid style. However, another thing seems to be commonplace with writing that introduces new ideas – the thoughts need to be chewed over, and not simply swallowed. The reader has to work at the task of consuming the book’s content.

This time I made notes. Actually, I imaged the Kindle app’s page on my iPad, and used OCR to turn the quotes into Word docs, albeit with some persistent formatting issues. What I want to do here is provide a list of the captured quotes plus some commentary.

The reason I want to do this is that The Betty Book seems to me to lay out a perfectly coherent articulation of a vision of human spirituality that confirms understanding in the deeper esoteric tradition – and contradicts many other claims. The ideas merit re-engagement.

This exercise will be undertaken over 3 posts.  There seems to me to be 3 distinct phases in the book. I encourage readers read the words of the quotes deliberately and stay reacting to them while reading. Of necessity, a lot of material, that may elaborate on what is quoted, is missing. If you want to read the who text, you can buy a copy of the book or download it from sites like

There are 3 voices in the text excerpts below – the author’s, Betty’s (as a participant in the process of communication) and “the Invisibles” (the present but unseen informants).

The excerpts

Uneven progress

  • Furthermore, the degree of our ability to deal with it is a pretty good indicator of how far we have travelled. 
  • For we have by no means come all the same distance. In evolution we do not advance in company front, but string out irregularly like a crowd going to a ball game.
  • “You all live together on earth at different levels – levels of consciousness, we mean.” the Invisible expressed this. “Certain prerogatives pertain to each level of capacity. 
  • Your voluntary capacity or the level you attain, contains certain growths, senses or prerogatives peculiar to that element, altitude, substance or level. This of yours is the level of dawning perception.”
  • In the course of our development, they went on, we progress from one level to another, like going upstairs. And each step must be lived out to the full before we can go on to the next.


It is, to me, a critical insight that our human family comprises people at different levels of development – or spiritual maturity. This has nothing to do with delineation by race or culture, but within cultures and communities. It means that some folk are motivated by high ideals and others by more fundamental imperatives, and neither is inherently better or worse than the other.

There is an implicit suggestion that each individual has to meet the challenges of their ‘level’ before moving on. This can be interpreted to mean there is an essential ethos, or morality, that guides human life.

There is no basis for judging another person as inferior – we are just at different stages on our own journeys.

The value of material experience

  • “There is so much leisure of mind and soul and time for your attitude toward people,” explained Betty, “none at all for getting things two cents cheaper at another store, and all those dinky-dinks. 
  • It’s like the difference in size between the fingers on a moving picture screen and human beings in the front row. I argue that I can’t live in the material world without doing many little things, and THEY argue that it is just what we are sent here for, to find out what things are worth doing and what are not. 
  • They have great respect for the material labour and necessities and such things; but they are only so important. 
  • They are not asking me to do what the big idealists have done, like Buddha or Confucius; throw humanity aside and walk with fixed gaze; but they ARE asking me to approximate that freedom. 
  • It’s a case of focus as near as I can come to it. 
  • You must change your focus so that all the little things near you will not look sharp and important.”


I am struck by the notion that we are sent here to find out what things are worth doing and what are not. It seems like such an innocent statement – until you think on it. Things are worth doing – but only up to a point. Where is that point? What do we invest in our material being as a priority – and when do we turn our energies inward and ‘upward’? 

Mind and body are one

  • Both mind and body are human manifestations of one reality, the human consciousness. 
  • The body is a material manifestation of the sort of consciousness that is human. 
  • The mind is a link between body and what we call spirit, or cosmic germ. 
  • Spirit or cosmic germ, the actual I AM of the individual, itself has a definite body, with weight, form count, colour, substance.


What we call mind, as we know it, arises as a node in our consciousness that is situated in relation to our physical being – it is aware of time and space and the necessities of being in material existence. While our consciousness operates in a larger domain, our present awareness (as mind) has a particular material angle only. 

The limits of the brain

  • We over here cannot work through the brain very well because of its great educational and perceptual restrictions. 
  • Don’t be so OFFENDED in your intellect. Give us a chance.
  • We won’t do more harm than present your precious intellect something for it to work on for the rest of its natural life. 
  • Leave it in to soak and keep it flexible, and we can go on. It’s bound to be satisfied later. 
  • When this becomes the leader of your intellect, it MUST immediately react on it; it MUST, just as the blood goes through your body to nourish all the parts.
  • I thought maybe I could make you see the point; it’s always a great stickler. That’s why I came. 
  • Working only in the limited knowledge of the brain is slow business. It takes generations to develop new respectable symbols.


The brain, as a physical thing, is shaped and configured by ‘education’ and experience. That means it is either responsive to, or unresponsive to, certain information or experiences. There’s a suggestion here that in consequence to exposure to some BIG IDEAS it will take quite time before desired effects manifest. This is an argument for developing habits of exposure to fine or noble notions, as opposed to base input (like porn or violence) if you want to change your mindset.

On the other hand, we are exposed to enriching ideas that register with our non-brain-based awareness – so we may end up in a kind of inner tension – of ‘the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak’ kind. 


Heaven forbid that I should decry the human brain, but it should be proportioned. 

  • The eternal self must be developed as a fit controlling power.
  • In trying to act DIRECTLY on the highest – call it organ – possessed by man, his eternal spirit, we are constantly interfered with by the more developed, the more easily developed side of him which clamors, INSISTS on translating every instinct into its own language and limiting it to its own experience and comprehension; insists we should go no further than the facile ready-made symbols its world education sanctions. 
  • We have to ignore it as much as possible, keeping it quiet by systematically baffling its efforts at restriction.
  • Meanwhile, under this anaesthetic we work directly, stimulating the enduring part, trying to develop it. It should be the dominating part of man.
  • When this has been developed to its proper proportion, then the intelligence will have its innings again. 
  • The intelligence is an essential part of the whole, but it simply must be quieted down and made flexible in any way possible, in order that we may give insight beyond its comprehension.


It seems that efforts to stimulate us spiritually are often thwarted by our insistence on translating everything into physical terms – emotional, instinctual intellectual. You can see this as an explanation as to why religions turn out the way they do – converting high spiritual ideals into sometimes shameful brutalities, disgraceful enmities and mind numbing dogmas.

The higher faculty of perception isn’t framed in intellectual terms – and scarcely in language. If we are conditioned to internal dialogue (self-talk) as our norm it will be hard to escape the merely intellectual.

Perception beyond reason

  • An animal dwells in his equipment of instinct, sensation, emotion and habit; with fragmentary incursions into an adumbrated faculty of reason. 
  • Man uses these also; but he has moved the centre of his being more into the mental field, so that, as he develops, more and more intellect dominates his life.
  • But reason is not the end of the line. Beyond it lies perception. 
  • And, again as he develops, more and more will he transfer control, until eventually it will hold in his life the same dominant position he now accords to intellect. 
  • This thought, we are told, is not fantastic – as the ultimate possibility. 
  • Probably we, as individuals, in this present life, shall not reach any such attainment. 
  • But how many of us have got even as far as complete intellectual control? However, we can move along that path. We can increase, little by little, our use of perception in the management of our daily affairs.
  • And if we do so easily, normally, without forcing, without strain, we may astonish ourselves.
  • Mistakes? Of course! But, the invisibles pertinently remind us, what is our batting average of correct decisions of pure intellect.


I like this notion – that beyond intellect (which is a processing thing) is perception (which is awakening into knowing) – though I think there is some refinement in the definition of perception needed here.


This first instalment deals with some basic, but essential ideas:

  • We are at many different stages in our evolution as spiritual beings – so expectations and judgements must be tempered accordingly.
  • There is value in physical existence – it fosters a capacity for discrimination in action and desire.
  • Our minds are not our highest sense of awareness but are attuned to physical existence.
  • By education and experience our brains are configured in ways that can impede our ability to assimilate spiritual ideas.
  • As a result, spiritual ideas are translated into renditions that can debase and distort the intended meaning.
  • There is value developing refined habits of mind – of ‘soaking’ the brain in finer ideas so that the rigidities of education and experience will eventually soften.
  • The intellect is transcended by the capacity for perception.
  • Our goal should be to inhabit a state of perceptive awareness.

UFOs /UAPs a question of national defence? No


Over the past 12 months the USA government has been obliged to make public comment about UFOs. Its preferred term is UAP, which is even more non-specific – Unidentified Aerial Phenomena.

This necessity has a risen because of the leaking of footage of UAPs taken by US military jets using probably the most sophisticated sensing hardware and software on the planet.

The US government, while insisting it still has no idea what a UAP is, asserts they are a potential (and unresolved) threat to national security. If that is a credible assertion, we can infer a threat to all of us.

However, it is not a credible assertion. Here I want to discuss why I think this.

The Report

On 25 June 2021 the US Office of the Director of National Intelligence released a report titled Preliminary Assessment: Unidentified Aerial Phenomena. It was a surprisingly short document for such a monumental theme, running to only 7 pages, with 2 pages of appendices.

There was a flurry of public comment, but the report seemed to have disappointed popular media, and it soon disappeared from public consciousness. 

The essence of the report’s findings was:

  • There’s stuff happening.
  • We don’t know what it is.
  • We need more research, and more money to do it.

According to Wikipedia, “On 17 May 2022, members of the United States House Intelligence Subcommittee on Counterterrorism, Counterintelligence and Counterproliferation held … the first public congressional hearing into UFO sightings in the US in over 50 years.”

The hearing perpetuated the national security threat theme. So, two public events in 12 months. Interesting.

The problem with this is…

UAPs have been in the public consciousness since 1947 when Kenneth Arnold introduced the term ‘flying saucer’. The US government has been involved, with some degree of public acknowledgment, in trying to figure out what UAPs are for at least 75 years.

The idea that they represent a possible threat to national security now, and more funding is required to do more research is so absurd it is either not true, or it is grossly incompetent – or a blend of both. I prefer not true.

The fog of the national security blanket

You can use the term ‘national security’ like an anaesthetic and put public opinion to sleep. It is also an excuse for saying nothing, revealing nothing and be as vague as all get out.

The inference is that UAPs constitute a potential military threat. However, that is nowhere explicitly stated. The audience is left alone to infer that – which it has done readily.

The absurdity of a military threat

The recent publicity re UAPs has come courtesy of leaked footage from military aircraft because this is compelling evidence that ‘something’ is going on. It does appear that UAPs have been intentionally engaging with US military aircraft and ships with increasing frequency in the past few decades. This may also be the case with other nations as well, but they are not saying so openly.

However, engagement with the civilian population has been reported for around 70 years as well. It isn’t unusual for an enemy to engage with an opponent’s civilian population to enlist them as allies in a possible invasion. But such action is predicated on a need to do so – as might be the case between near peer opponents. Not in this case.

The technological disparity between US military hardware and UAPs is stark. It has been over the past 75 years – and there is no evidence there has been any meaningful improvement in that difference.

It is a fair conclusion that if there was to be a ‘hot war’ between the US military and UAPs it would be short and catastrophic for the US military. This is an important consideration for two reasons:

  1. If UAPs were the product of peer, or near peer, nations like Russia or China, why would they ‘toying’ with the US for years, and not pressing their advantage in an effective geo-political manner?
  2. If the operators of the UAPs had hostile intent, why spend decades ‘toying’ with military forces while being friendly to civilians? At what stage would the plain military advantage be pressed – if that was the intent?

I have spent a few months on the unpleasant task of catching up on military hardware and method. I grew up with a passion for World War 2 war games, so I had a set notion in my head about capability and tactics. Since the Russian invasion of Ukraine, I have realised my understanding is utterly out of date.

What became apparent to me was that the evolution of our power to destroy continues in a disturbing fashion. If what is imagined comes to pass it will be far worse. However, looking at the disparity between our military capacity now and 75 years ago makes it apparent that the disparity between us and UAP operators is even greater. If they wanted to ‘invade’ we would be defenceless.

It is certainly not comfortable for any nation to be aware that it has no capacity to defend against a technologically advanced adversary – a situation most nations are in when considering human adversaries. It is far harder for a nation like the US, acknowledged as having the most advanced war fighting technology on the planet, to face this realisation.

Sticking to the idea of a ‘security threat’ as a military threat is convenient because it distracts attention from a far more challenging idea.

An existential threat?

We must ask what is the ‘security’ that is perceived to be under threat. It is not military or territorial so much as the conceit we are the superior beings on this planet, and we will stay that way.

In effect, our ‘normal’ is under threat. This is arguably our ‘security’.

There is no evidence I am aware of that the operators of the UAPs intend to change things any time soon. If they have an intent, it seems like a long game that appears to be about evolving attitudes and behaviours – rather than shifting them via radical disruption to our norms on a collective level. It is, however, certainly true that individuals have had their norms radically disrupted by encounters with the operators of the UAPs.


The US report mentioned above declined to talk about ET or aliens because, fair enough, there is no evidence ET operates the UAPs. This is true, so even if inferring ET operates them is on the money – and we confirm this in the future – we can’t say this is a fact now. There is no evidence peer war fighting nations operate them either. We do not know who does.

The term ET usually means beings not of this Earth, but from elsewhere in our realm of physical space – space people. But if we understand ET to mean just beings not of the Earth, without any assumptions, that can also mean elsewhere from other planes of existence as well.

Our habits are to imagine reality as an extension of the plane of existence (horizontal) we are on – unless we have cultivated an imagination that allows for other equally real planes of existence beyond our own (horizontal). The horizontal vector has been confined to religion, mysticism and shamanism, fairy tales and fantasy/sci fi. It exists in science also but hasn’t entered our shared imagination as a form of reality we can grasp. We haven’t yet developed a cultural narrative that blends science and technology with extra-dimensional realties.

ET as spacemen/women who come from elsewhere in our physical space may be a limiting idea we must abandon. However, we do not know where the UAPs come from, and so can make no firm opinion about who they are – unless we have direct knowledge.

There are claims made by people who insist they are in touch with ET. Most of the ones I have read are, I believe, delusional. The others are intriguing but without confirming content. There are tantalising hints – but nothing is being given away.

I do think people have been in contact with ET, and maybe they do know who they are and where they are from – and why they are here. But it’s not public knowledge yet.


The US government’s action over the past year seems like a watershed of some kind. There are a lot of YouTube videos exploring how real the UAPs are. They seem to have been prompted by the report. It is hard not to conclude that here are real phenomena whose nature and origin are not presently knowable – and about which we must pay attention.

The big question of intent is the problem. Takeover by force does not seem to be a goal. Nor does turning up to ‘rescue’ us or provide environment saving energy technologies. The intent is not evident, but can, I believe, inferred to some extent.

There is no concrete evidence about who operates UAPs. If the US military evidence is taken in isolation trying to imagine that peer war fighting nations may be responsible can seem plausible. But placed in a wider, and more appropriate context, we must imagine that ET is a plausible explanation as well.

I do not favour the peer war fighting nations argument because it does seem deeply implausible in the wider context. Better informed critics say the same thing. It is implausible because the technology gap is way too wide. It is deeply improbable that China or Russia would have obtained such a scientific and technological advance on the US without giving any clue. And the conduct of UAPs is not consistent with comprehensible conduct of an adversary. This conduct seems to be a lot of ‘messing with’ military assets, rather than being provocative in a military sense.

I favour the ET option because it makes the most sense.

What appears to be happening, from my perspective, is a stimulation to foster growth in awareness of what it is to be human. This isn’t always benign. ET can be a risk to us as individuals at times. Nor is there any assurance that all ET are ‘good guys’.

The theme is deeply complex, but many will try to render it as simple and concrete – ignoring it all is the easiest option. As an old sci fi devotee I am more disposed to see this in terms of potential benefit, as part of our shared evolution. As such, I do not expect it can, or will, be explained in neat and easy to digest ways. However, there may be signal events whose significance becomes apparent after the fact. I think US report and the hearing in the past 12 months are in this category.

The Politics of Experience: A Reflection on What Exposure to PSI Does


I have been trolling through a mass of fragments of writing on my psi experiences – efforts I have made at recording them, and which have been abandoned in various stages of completion.

There’s nothing spectacular to boast about. I am not ‘psychic’ in the way that term is usually understood. I can’t simply turn on a performance. My experiences can be better described as an unwitting (and sometimes unwilling) sampling of a smorgasbord of incidents and examples. It was as if Spirit was intent on keeping me modest, never cocky enough to claim expertise.

Experience matters, because it is what influences what you think and believe. If you have had no significant experiences, a proposition that might seem suss to me might seem plausible to you. And a proposition that seems plausible to me might seem like wild nonsense to you. 

It is never my intent to have you believe what I say – only to allow that it may be plausible and worthy of deeper inquiry and reflection. An explorer who returns from a distant and unfamiliar land can lie and exaggerate – as well as render faithful witness to remarkable things and places. An audience, without the means to verify his claims can only be cautiously enthusiastic. This is the peril we all face when encountering novel ideas.

I have learned to be very sceptical and cautious of claims of a paranormal nature. There are liars, pretenders and the self-deluded aplenty. Sometimes it is safer to not want a thing to be true; and test it severely. By that I don’t mean taking a position of denial and demanding proof certain be offered. That never works – and its arrogant and lazy. I mean allowing something may be true and engaging with it with care. The most dangerous situation to get into is wanting to believe. Not everything is what it seems to be.

The Point of Experience?

Sometimes things happen and years later I am still wondering what it was all about. Was it just a demonstration of power? Was it forcing me to think beyond my normal frame?

Quite a few experiences were useful in that they provided immediate real-world results. Others guided/pushed me in a certain direction that turned out to significant.

I want to make a point here. I have become attuned to the influence of spirit. Others may well have psi experiences and not see them as that. We all have theories about how the world works running in the background – and it may well ascribe a psi experience to an entirely different cause.

In the same way that learning a discipline like architecture, psychology or chemistry gives us a capacity to see some experiences in a more nuanced light, developing an animistic vision alters how we see, and interpret our engagement with our life experiences. You can do something similar through adoption of a religious belief. I am not keen on beliefs systems beyond them being an initial guide. Unfortunately, adherents to, and promoters of, belief systems tend to be deeply invested in them as a complete answer. They are not – for anybody with a hunger for unmediated engagement. This is why I prefer to think in terms of learning a discipline – and not adopting a belief.

Belief is necessary in a contingent sense. When we were growing up and at school we learned about the Periodic Table, and we had to accept this was real and valid knowledge. We had no way to evaluate it. If we didn’t ‘believe’, we’d find making progress in learning chemistry impossible. This is what derailed me with maths. When I was told that -1x-1=+1 I got stuck on the logic of the proposition. The maths teacher couldn’t explain it to me. Suddenly maths looked as irrational a belief system as religion. I regret that now. Sometimes being a smart kid can make you stupid as well.

We have to believe a bunch of things just to make life possible. But the difference between these necessary operational beliefs (the thing I called my car yesterday is still my car today) and existential beliefs about the nature of reality is vast. Existential beliefs don’t always directly impact your experience of being in the world on an operational level. Whether you believe in gods or magic does not impact day-to-day beliefs about the world at that operational level.

The Sacred

Now this is where things get interesting. The moral psychologist, Jonathan Haidt identified a sense of the sacred as a moral value often missing in progressives. Here he was talking about US politics. A lot of progressives are atheists. And many who retain some sense of religion have rendered it a background sentiment only.

The idea of the sacred includes things that are valued as well as things to be avoided. This goes beyond religion to include symbols, places and dates that are important to a sense of national identity. It also includes family, cultural and even personal domains. When religion and nationalism combine it can be a potent mixture. For example, there is a powerful persuasion in the US that the nation was founded as a Christian nation, which it was not.

Belief in the sacred does not, I think, go away among those who might deny the idea has any sensible meaning. Rather, it transforms into rational and abstract things like ‘science’ and ‘justice’. 

Our ancestors needed a strong sense of the world they lived in. They ‘felt into’ the world of their experience using senses far more acutely tuned than ours. Europeans scoffed at the ‘primitive’ and ‘savage’ (two words employed to describe indigenous people in the 19thCentury, and the early part of the 20th) for their beliefs. These people were not ‘civilized’. This distinction is interesting.

The word ‘civilized’ essentially means town dwelling. The opposite was ‘pagan’ (a country dweller). Historically, as Christianity spread out over Europe, it took root in towns first, so the more distant rural communities retained their traditional ways longer.

But there’s a more important distinction. Town/city dwellers had less direct contact with food getting and became more involved in works arising directly from denser levels of human habitation. Differences between types of sensitivity became distinct. A city dweller did not need the acute alertness to the forest dweller needed to stay safe and find food and other necessities. Their senses were tuned to the human, and the human made. As these domains came to dominate, the natural diminished.

The human domains evolved in power and importance – and became pre-eminent as expressions of reason. The intuitive was channelled into art. The human dominated environment discouraged acute sensitivity, and relative insensitivity became the norm. Reason dominated intuition and subtle awareness. It was considered superior and anything else was dismissed as weakness of mind and superstition. 

I am not suggesting our forest dwelling ancestors were all psychics, just more tuned and more sensitive to the world they lived in. Some would have been far more attuned and sensitive than others.

This is where a sense of the sacred comes in. Places in a landscape could be powerfully beneficial or detrimental because of the quality of the atmosphere of the place – its spirit. Objects can have their own potency too. But places and objects can have sanctity ascribed to them as well. A place where an important event took place might be designated sacred. An object can become symbolic – the Christian cross is a prime example.

Places can carry human induced potency – battlefields and cemeteries for example. These can become psychically dangerous places to be avoided, save at special times.

We call awareness of the subtle emanations of the sacred ‘psychic’, but perhaps it is better to say it is a subliminal awareness rendered conscious through a particular level of sensitivity. How that sensitivity is acquired is the question to answered. Whether it is of value should also be considered.

Whether and How

Let’s consider whether developing that sensitivity has any value these days. Most folk do perfectly well without it, or so it seems. But in truth there’s a huge sense of existential angst about.

There is sound evidence that humans do better where is some nature about – even a solitary plant confined to a pot. What is it in our nature that responds to the presence of plants and animals as if they are part of something essential to our wellbeing?

Perhaps being confined to the purely human shuts us off from the more than human dimensions of our reality. Cities are the very epitome of ‘civilization’. They are human creations for human needs and interests. At their worst they are a cacophony of overstimulation wreathed in a toxic atmosphere. At their best, nature is permitted in and nurtured.

But other-than-human is not just about the nature we can see. It includes the web of subliminal connections of all kinds. Research into trees shows that they are not the individuals we plant in our gardens and parks. They are knitted into webs of inter-species connection. Even our own supposedly individual bodies are, in fact, communities of unalike creatures working to the common cause of being our flesh and blood.

To be fully human, we must go beyond the homo-centric focus of what we do and think and make. We must remember we are members of a community, and our well-being depends upon the other-than-human and the greater-than-human, and their interaction. 

Being mindful of, and sensitive to, those community members is, I think, a good thing.

The how, is easy, if you accept the above proposition. Be mindful. Be open to the sense of being a member of a community – and be a good community member – and a good neighbour.

I don’t believe in doing exercises to increase sensitivity for its own sake. Engaging in efforts to be intentionally more aware of your membership of the community is a different matter. This might be a good meditation theme, or something to affirm while in the garden, or on a walk.


A lot of my ‘psi’ experiences arose from contact with ‘spirits’ of some kind. This was never something I sought out consciously. In fact, it was often unwelcome and bewildering.

The nature of those ‘spirits’ varied as well. Some were what are called ‘nature-spirits’. Others seem to have been guiding spirits who never made their nature or present apparent to me on a conscious level.

I do firmly believe that we do have a community of souls or spirits with which we are connected. But that does not mean that they will flagrantly intervene in our lives. It also does not mean that any intervention or influence is absent, but rather something of we are simply not aware of at the time.

Don’t go looking for contact with spirits with careless enthusiasm. Over the years I have come across many instances where a desire to make contact has led to misfortune. I am not saying do not seek contact, just don’t leave yourself open for whatever comes along. There’s a difference between contact with spirit being a growth experience and pandering to one’s ego. It’s not always useful thing, and generally speaking, when it is it will happen without you pushing it.

I will repost my earlier essay on the theme. Do read The Siren Call of Hungry Ghosts. It’s a fascinating story in its own right, as well as a cautionary tale. 


I will post an essay listing my experiences soon. As noted, they are not spectacular – well, a few are. The point of sharing them is their variety and their impact on my life at various times.

My purpose is to awaken a deeper thinking about the subtle levels of awareness that we can develop to become more alert to the influences upon our lives. 

Our lives are multi-dimensional in their expression. At any time, the influences of this material world interact with the influences of the subtle dimensions. Mostly we miss this interaction for two reasons:

  1. We don’t have a model of our reality that allows for the interaction.
  2. We edit out evidence for it because our self-talk is primed to materialism.

Our reality is much more subtle and multi-dimensional than we consciously experience – well most of the time.

Of the One, not as the One


I have been listening to Matthew Stewart’s Nature’s God and I am intrigued by the number of philosophers who insist that there is only one God. An interesting, and strange thing to insist upon. Why does it matter?

We have, I think, a self-limiting problem with the word ‘god’. It is used to describe a subset of divine agents as well as a supreme state of being. 

In the Christian Bible God was there in the beginning and made a list of things. Gods were not in that list. But elsewhere in Genesis God is made to speak in the plural – we. 

Now consideration of gods and God shouldn’t be confined to Christianity. I use this faith as a reference only because it is the faith tradition the philosophers were most familiar with – and so it would have been their primary source of ideas. This is despite their familiarity with the Greek philosophical tradition – grounded in polytheism. The Greeks, to be sure, were not necessarily fond of their gods in any case, so maybe didn’t inspire a lot of inquiry. 

Monotheism is confusing

The Christian Old Testament had its roots in the polytheistic traditions going back to Sumer. The early Jews were resistant against monotheism. In fact, the Old Testament contains quite a few exasperated rants against their recalcitrance. This, incidentally, is better discovered by listening to an audio version of the Old Testament. I found reading it pummeled my critical faculties into submission. I don’t think the OT is suited to being read at all.

Monotheism is an innovation which makes little rational sense and has more utility as a political device or a means of social influence. The idea disrupts tradition and sets up a distinction against other cultures.  There is certainly utility in the idea if the intent is to create a distinct community identity – which may have a perfectly good rationale – given that in polytheistic societies it was not unusual for a community to follow just one god – the god of a city for example.

Monotheism still needs sub-agents, so it has developed archangels and angels. In short, you can’t have just a single homogenous notion of deity and express complexity with any ease or clarity. The Jewish Kabbalah is an excellent instance of how a metaphysical model can be developed to deal with complexity under a monotheistic system. 

But we don’t know what gods are 

The problem with the idea of polytheism is that it assumes that there is some kind of equivalence between gods and God. True, we have the shared word, but beyond that there’s the fact that the gods are represented in human form – or some human hybrid or some animal. 

But representations such as these can’t be assumed to be more than symbolism and the use of narratives to convey ideas. We do this, for example, with Justice. We don’t literally mean justice is a blindfolded woman holding a set of scales. The symbolism conveys meaning in a potent and concentrated form. 

The Egyptian Greek gods stood for complex ideas represented in symbolic and narrative form. At their foundation is an assertion that reality is grounded in spirit – what we might call consciousness these days. Our ancestors did not have available to them the notion of abstract rational ideas that described a mechanistic reality. 

So, we have 2 classes of beings who might be gods – fundamental principles or values and actual discrete volitional agents. In fact, these were often combined – like the god of war or the goddess of love. 

The question is whether such agencies could exist as objective beings. And, because we haven’t really accepted that such beings might exist, we have not explored the idea intellectually. Mostly, where these gods are accepted it is their symbolism and innate (but unexamined) reality that are affirmed.

The idea of the One

There is an important distinction between one God and the One, though the former seems to impose upon the latter. The One might be called God, or Goddess as a primary expression of all being – infinite and eternal. But that’s more a case of gilding the lily than making a useful distinction – save that Goddess fits a sound narrative and symbolic form. The One, as an idea, is beyond description and characterization on a rational level. In the shorthand of the mystic traditions, it is that it is. This has been expressed also as “I am that I am”, or more simply “I am”. Such assertions are not literal utterances. They are attributions that convey an essential idea – there is a fundamental absolute being that is beyond all conception or description.

So, the idea that there is only one God is redundant as a rational idea. It is neither useful nor necessary outside of making a political statement – a denial of polytheism. There can’t be conflicting supreme deities. But it does appear that the polytheists of old were not above promoting their local god to the top job. But that can’t be the One – because that can’t be a job.

The God of the Old Testament cannot be the One, if for no other reason than the presence of the words “In the beginning” and the description that God was separate from that which he acted upon. The God of the Old Testament is a creator god of the old polytheistic traditions – a subset of the One. He cannot be understood without the context of the polytheistic narratives as a whole story of creation – all the way down to the creation of values and principles.

Opposing monotheism means opposing the legitimacy of the god of the Abrahamic tradition. Accepting many gods legitimizes the awful faith of pagans. But supporting monotheism simply condenses the vastly complex affair of creating reality into a too simple notion. It could be said, in fact, that monotheism led to the creation of modern rational thought and science as humans struggled to find an alternative way of making sense of the complex reality they experience.

So, do we need gods?

First, let me create a definition of ‘god’ here, so we can think about the same thing. A god is a coherent volitional agency functioning at a scale greater than the human. For example, we know a human is coherent volitional agency operating within an environment that has both internal (bodily fact and subjective awareness) and external domains. We know this because we have direct experience of this being true. 

These days we assume that our solar system is only a system of interacting physical processes. We do not assume it has a character or intent. We have no direct experience of this, so we assume it not to be true.

However, our early polytheistic ancestors did not make such a presumption. The sun, moon and planets constituted a coherent system – and we see the remnants still in astrology.

The monotheistic conception of God has given no coherent sense of how that God acts in the world, in our reality. What has been produced is an incoherent cacophony of prayers, priestly intercessions, and confused conceits of being favoured. A typical problem for monotheists is that of attribution of cause and effect. What favours them is of God and what does not is of the Devil or down to sin. The one concept of the divine has to do all the work of explaining reality and how to live in it. That’s a heavy burden.

The polytheists had a far more coherent model. But was it more effective? Probably not in the long run. I’ll come back to this.

If we play with the idea of the solar system as a coherent and intentional being, we are dealing with a hugely complex thing – beyond any capacity we have to imagine its full nature. 

By the mere use of the word ‘system’ we are acknowledging coherence. But beyond a purely mechanistic conception our thinking grinds to a halt. We could dare go further, but we must cast off the shackles of materialism.

How does God work?

The standard conception of God, post creation, is influence by supernatural means. Depending on your beliefs, this supernatural influence may be exerted by God, Jesus, Mother Mary, or saints and priests.

By contrast, the gods of the polytheists are exerting intentional creative effort constantly, if capriciously at times. Unlike the monotheist’s God, humans are not the primary concern of the gods. They have their own lives and priorities. The monotheist’s God has done his work and is now chiefly concerned with how ‘His children’ behave. Little wonder the Deists found this idea unfulfilling. 

Now we are caught up in the subtleties of faith, virtue, and obedience. The monotheist’s sense of their God as a stern but loving father essentially makes it all a supernatural psychodrama.

In short, the monotheists’ God lurks around his now automatically running creation with an unhealthy passion for those he made in his image to behave as he imagined. It’s not a very edifying notion, and the extent to which this influence works it is so subtle as to seem non-existent.

On the other hand, the gods are active agents in the reality they co-creators of. Their creation was not deemed perfect at the end of a set of phases. To the extent that humans have a necessary concern about how the gods behave, to ensure that avoidable misfortune is avoided, there is no sense of dependency upon them – other than that they maintain the fabric of reality.

The problem we face as humans is the habit of assuming that the gods are inordinately interested in us. We must break that habit. We don’t assume the planets, or the Sun, are interested in us, yet by what they are, and what they are doing we exist. There are subtle and knowable physical forces that impinge upon us constantly. In fact, the same is true of our galaxy. Might it, at some vastly deeper level than we can imagine that the galaxy is also a coherent intentional agent?

If we imagine our reality governed by intentional agents rather than mechanical processes, we are doing more than merely paying lip service to the oft asserted notion that consciousness underpins all. We are allowing that that conscious may be organized as discrete agents below the level of the One True God because this model of organization fits the ‘as above, so below’ credo. Rather, as below so above. We can infer only from the small to the large.

If we reflect upon the Epicurean Nature’s God, we can imagine that if nature is the expression of the divine it may divide into discrete agents as part of the sensible organization of reality. 

Gods not only make sense, but they also seem necessary.  However, this does not mean that we understand them – neither their intent nor their nature.  We can infer that they may be real only.

It might be reasonable to ask, why then bother with the notion of gods? Well, they either exist or they do not. If you assume they do not the chances of discerning evidence of them will be greatly reduced. Allowing that they may exist at least reflects a modesty and a curiosity which may be rewarded simply because it permits the opportunity of awareness. Yes, of course, this will be also permission for self-delusion. 

Can we move on please?

We can see that over the past 3 millennia there has been a steady evolution of human consciousness in various places at various times. There is no sense of uniformity. Its more like chaotic progress. Today many millions of people live with the idea of many gods, and a great deal of others with the idea of only one god. A lesser number think there is no god, no deity of any kind at all. And there are many who do not care.

There is a growing enthusiasm for the idea that reality is underpinned by consciousness. But what does that really mean beyond asserting that matter isn’t the foundation of being. It may mean to some that ‘consciousness’ is merely a sub-material thing that is just as inert as the materialist’s matter. Ultimately it is hard to distinguish between intentionality and chance in any distinct way.

Consciousness is, I think, just as problematic a term as god/God. But these are early days in our efforts to fuse science with the precepts of the mystics and the religious. We are forced to use ill-defined terms because we are yet to achieve intellectual clarity in the way we think about non-material ideas. And even here one need only see how we employ the word ‘space’ to have meaning for both the volume of a cupboard and the universe.

We must move on from the language we are using. God and gods have so much baggage and intellectual muddiness they are less and less utility. Note, please, that it the language that’s a problem, not the underlying ideas. We can’t deal with them until we sort the language out.

In a strange way, we are far more likely to encounter gods than God. This is because as we explore systems and improve our understanding of them, it will be the smaller systems we will get to know first.


I have been encountering spirits my whole life – coherent intentional agencies that have interacted with me in sometimes shocking ways. Once that interaction was so compelling, I felt I was being irradiated by an intense sunlamp that left me struggling to remain coherent and barely capable of movement. My companion was similarly affected and entered a trance. What happened next was a flooding of my mind by a consciousness that was utterly beyond human. There was no malevolence, just an intensity so great it was oppressive and disorienting.

I have also spoken with discarnate humans whose intelligence and power were beyond doubt. One asserted that the gods were real, that they were “of the One, not as the One”. They were not, he assured, human inventions.

My direct experience is that there are coherent intentional agents who primarily exist in another dimension and interact with ours. This is routine apparently. They are part of an ecosystem, and sometimes a community. They function in nature and in direct relation to humans. I have no idea how that situation scales up – planet, solar system, galaxy? How large can a coherent intentional agent get?

If our reality is as fecund and teeming with spirits as the ancient Greek thinkers affirmed, and I think it is, the conceit of ‘being alone’ seems utterly foolish. Monotheism has collapsed our vision and dulled our senses. Materialism has made us wrong-headed and dull witted. The systems of thought we loosely call polytheistic seems to me to be more in accord with my own experiences, but that does not mean their models of reality suit our needs.

There’s a lot about modernism that is refreshing and corrective. It has broken thought ways that had become moribund and brought new ways of apprehending reality. But it has its own conceits and dogmas. The west has been recovering polytheism for the past 150 years or so. This process has been enthusiastic, romantic, rational, and silly as we have struggled to rediscover that sense of animistic complexity and coherence that I think we intuit lies beyond our materialistic and religious dogmas.

I am for gods. I wish there was a better way of naming them though. Some have offered the Egyptian ‘Neter’. That works for me.

Nature’s God


This is a quick reflection on a book by the philosopher Matthew Stewart – Nature’s God: The Heretical Origins of the American Republic.

I have an interest in the political and cultural influence of Christianity in the US. In recent years the claims that the US was founded as a Christian nation have been getting louder – as Christian fundamentalism has been more enthusiastically enlisted into a growing culture war.

But going back to the 1970s I came across assertions that America’s founding fathers were Freemasons. These were defended by claims that Masonic symbolism is to be found on the US dollar bill. Certainly the ‘great seal’ image supports this assertion. 

However, I hadn’t come across as scholarly exploration of what the ‘founding fathers’ thought and believed – until now.

Deists and atheists

Stewart combines an historical account of the activity at the foundation of the split from England with a deep dive into the evolution of deistic thinking. He rescues Epicure’s philosophy from travesty of self-indulgence it had been reduced to, and traces it via Lucretius’ poem, On the Nature of Things, into the essential thought of western philosophy during the Enlightenment.

Emma Restall Orr’s The Wakeful World is the only other book I have encountered that takes a spiritual perspective on western philosophical thought.

Atheism, in this context, is not the denial of deity so much as asserting that god is not a being apart from nature – no separate creator and created. The two are one. There is a brief allusion to Epicure saying this unitary being is the goddess. Stewart also acknowledges ideas about gods in the same context but doesn’t elaborate to any useful degree. This is fine. It’s not his purpose. Nature is its own creator, its own god, so to speak.

The deists essentially acknowledged god as having made everything has no further engagement. This allows them to also insist that nature is the source of all we can know. No point in calling on a god that will not answer.

No so much anti-religionist as anti-superstition

The heroes of the book disposed of the idea of the God of the Bible being real on the logic that all descriptions of it offend against reason. That is all humanity has to work with – and to surrender it in favour of a rationally offensive fiction is an incomprehensible thing to do. They do not abandon piety, however – hence the idea of Nature’s God.

The anti-Christianity sentiments are strong. Quite apart from the faith’s superstition, its adherents’ insistence upon it being the only permissible belief system creates a tyranny. The wording of the Declaration of Independence makes it clear that not just the tyranny of England is being refuted. There is an essential reason none of the ‘founding fathers’ were Christian.

When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

People must be free to make choices essentially. Religious freedom was locked into the Constitution via the First Amendment. You really can’t imagine the Christians of the time ensuring religious liberty.

The value of this book

The conception of Nature’s God, so plainly asserted in the US’s Declaration of Independence, has not been previously explored with such clarity. That alone makes the book worth reading. But in that exploration, we are treated to an examination of the foundation of philosophical thought during the Enlightenment. It was spiritual in a way not usually acknowledged.

Here I use this term loosely – as an expression of piety – a humility before the Laws of Nature and Nature’s God. The only true instrument humans have is Reason. This, in a sense, makes this “Atheistic piety” scientific. 

The focus on Reason in the common telling of the Enlightenment misses that sense of piety. It has permitted the impious atheist to evolve as the hero of our culture. 

Materialism was once predicated upon the proposition that matter was the very foundation of being – Nature. It became an assertion that all there is gross matter, and there is no subtle domain of reality. True, the original conception supposed that atoms were the primary constituents of being – a forgivable error in 5th century BCE Greece.

Read the right way Nature’s God is an extraordinary examination of the thinking that is at the foundation of our civilization. Our propensity to develop dogmas and superstitions is still evident in some expressions of Christianity today. But it is equally present in the impious materialistic atheism that has come to dominate our culture.


If I declared myself a materialistic atheist these days, I would astonish those who know me well. But, strictly speaking, that is what a believer in the Goddess is. The One – that vast eternal and unknowable foundation of all being is neatly symbolised in the idea of a Goddess – rather than a God.

It would be truer to have asserted Nature’s Goddess, but ages have their limits and there is no way that Nature’s Goddess would have survived in the Declaration of Independence. In any case it hardly matters, since such a nuance is not something to be avowed in public, and certainly not in the presence of ardent Christians.

For me, the discovery that atheistic materialism had a deeper foundation than the crass dogmatic superstition it has become was a delicious insight. I was grateful to be reminded of the inherent spirituality of Enlightenment philosophy too.

The book didn’t explore deeper metaphysical ideas. That was not its purpose. The term superstition is now often employed as an insult asserting credulity and irrationality in the formation of a belief. It is essentially the formation of a belief without evidence or sound reason. Acceptance of the Christian God can be fairly called an act of superstition – without insulting intent – if there is no defensible rational foundation (misattribution is another, complicating, matter). But the term has been employed by the impious and dogmatic atheistic materialist to dismiss all things that do not fit with in their narrow frame. 

It is just as superstitious to dismiss what does not fit with that narrow frame. Concluding without evidence or reason what does not exist is equally a folly. The better path avoids the hubris of intellectual conceit in favour of a gentler path of pious curiosity and humble intellectual discipline.

The Declaration of Independence was first published 1776. That’s 246 years ago and its not long in the scheme of things. What has driven our civilisation’s evolution since then has been Enlightenment values – not always perfectly expressed of course. What has brought us peril has been impiety, hubris, and intolerance.

I like to remind myself of John Dewey’s insight – there really isn’t such thing as Religion. There are religions and religious people. Likewise, there is no Science, only sciences and scientists. Is there is no Christianity – only sects and believers? Not all Christians can be tarred with the same brush, but the brand has become tainted. The style of Christianity that the US Founding Fathers so disliked was intolerant, hubristic and impious. It is worth wondering how the world might be now if an aversion to such a form of faith was absent in America’s founding.

The American passion for ‘Freedom’ was, in the words of the book’s title, born of a heretical determination framed by a profound commitment to Reason. That reminds me of Stephen Jay Gould’s assertion that Science and Religion are “non-overlapping magisterial”. If he means Reason and Superstition, he would be right in a way – save that superstition is mere innocence of mind and nothing else.  Sciences and religions overlap all the time, and are the yin and yang of our consciousness.

Reflections on thesis conclusion


I posted my Masters’ Honours thesis’ Conclusion today (1 May) and had another read of it. I read it a few months ago. And before that, in 2010, shortly after I graduated.

The thesis title, An inquiry into animism as a source of meaning in response to radical and disruptive non-ordinary experiences, still has an emotional resonance for me. I started the thesis in 2002. I wanted to wait a few years, but because I was granted a scholarship, that was not an option. My then partner had started her PhD at the same time and having two people working on their theses in one household at the same time was not a smart thing to do.

I struggled for almost 2 years for frame my research question. I began obedient to the assertion that one should inquire into a theme one was passionate about. The trouble was that my passion had never been articulated in a disciplined way. It had been driving me, but more like a haunting spirit than a guiding hand.

There was one event that triggered clarity. I will quote from Chapter 3 of the thesis where I describe it. 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.

It was far more dramatic than that. It was an epiphany that left me stunned. There was an instant flood of recognition of the implications of the idea. I was astonished and confused. I had never knowingly encountered the word animism before. This was even though I had been reading on themes related to and embracing the essential ideas of animism for decades. Why hadn’t I come across that word before?

The experience was like sitting with a hopeless jumble of jigsaw puzzle pieces with no idea what the final picture would look like – and then getting a sudden intuitive flash of the completed puzzle.

There had been a single organising idea absent from my experiences and thought for decades. True, I had vague ‘spiritual’ notions of a unifying sentiment or principle, but nothing so concrete as the sudden flash of awakening encountering animism gave me. 

It took me a few more years to finish. There were difficult times. As I revisited my early experiences with psi phenomena, I triggered memories that forced me to process surprisingly powerful emotions – a kind of existential PTSD. Even though the thesis was autoethnographic I was unwilling to record the real depth of my reactions.

 The final form was not submitted until late 2009. This wasn’t an intellectual exercise anymore. It was a kind of spiritual ordeal. I April 2008, I contracted a severe case of Guillain-Barré syndrome (GBS), which put me in hospital for 10 months. In the 8 months of subsequent home-based physio before I could get back to work, I had to rework the whole thesis.

While I got a letter saying I would graduate, I had no feedback comments. By that stage I didn’t care. On the level where it mattered the thoughts of the markers were irrelevant. This was a personal matter.

Together, the thesis and the GBS transformed my thinking – and have continued to do so. The Conclusion was an affirmation of the transformative dramas – on an intellectual and spiritual level. It condensed time before GBS and after into a single moment. Here I want to revisit it and see whether it has stood the test of time, and my ongoing inquiry.

Three themes

I want to take only 3 themes from the Conclusion – to keep this essay at a decent length. They are the environmental movement, technology, and urban animism. I have selected these because each speaks to our contemporary world in powerful and singular ways. I haven’t researched these themes in any deliberate academic way since I graduated. I read, listen, and watch widely, so I also am curious as to whether any of the themes has become prominent as part of the general conversation.

The environmental movement 

From the Conclusion: Animistic thought is finding a place in the environmental movement, as it seeks ideas and language that better articulate emergent values and ideas. Mack has argued for a ‘new psychology’ to express such values and ideas as core and key to a needed change in attitudes and conduct.

The most telling development for me has been the greater accessibility to indigenous ways of knowing. There are more books and podcasts tackling animistic themes; and expressing a far more sensitive awareness of planetary lives – even as persons, as kin.

The environmental movement has dropped off my radar. It is unsubtle and jarringly political from my perspective. Greater sensitivity to, and awareness of, environmental issues has been growing – chiefly because of ‘natural disasters’, and the advocacy of ‘climate change’ activists.

I don’t think we are seeing the emergence of a ‘new psychology’ just yet. But I sense a hunger for it. Engagement in metaphysical ideas or ‘woo’ isn’t an issue if you have a predisposition for it. It is a problem is if you want to get there from a materialistic perspective there is no rational pathway yet. In a way, the reliance on ‘science’ has impeded the development of an articulate and deep value vision. And the passion for a kind of ecological sentiment without a countervailing reasoned foundation has impeded it as well.

I see an opportunity to develop a ‘new psychology’ based on what we do know, and what we know we need to know. Rational assertions of immanent peril are not working. We need stories. Stories are the foundation of the psychology of driving change. That means we need smart informed and creative thinkers on the job of developing an intentional transitional psychology – getting us from where we are to where we know we want to be.

I didn’t like the idea of New Animism that appealed to some in the environmental movement when I was writing the thesis, and I haven’t shifted from that position. It may help for environmentalists to have a greater awareness of the natural world as the home of kin. I am not disputing that. What concerned me about New Animism was that it was, in my view, an adaption of an idea intended to modify and support another idea. It’s the ‘New’ that bothers me. I came to animism as an idea that made sense of my experiences. I did not see it as something to explain or organise my thought. What I see as animism is far more than New Animism offers.

That said, I don’t oppose New Animism per se. I see it has value in expanding awareness of environmental advocates. It’s just not what the name says it is. Animism, as an idea, is far more than that. Far better is to learn from an indigenous perspective how to think about the natural world. Braiding Sweetgrass is a good place to start.

I am aware that in New Zealand that the Whanganui River was granted personhood under New Zealand law in 2017. That is a powerful thing to do, but to what extent the spirit of the intent has been honoured in action I do not know. That’s something I will follow up on. Again, this is a case of the indigenous perspective being a guide. 

We do need to build these other ways of knowing into our own. This may be the foundation of a new psychology – to create a shared ‘value vision’. I use this term advisedly because envisioning a destination in a rational sense is restrictive. Such a vision must be values based – but values based on, and articulated through, a psychologically informed philosophy. It must, of course, embrace the precepts of animism.

I have no doubt there are exciting and inspiring developments that I am not aware of. I can speak here only of what I am aware of as a person who is open to, and curious about developments in the environmental movement. I will allow that in today’s deeply fragmented media, there are great conversations happening on platforms I do not engage with.


From the Conclusion: The other area potentially rich in opportunity for inquiry is technology… In some ways designers are employing the potential implicit in technologies to impose a new kind of animism on us. Machines are engaging us, drawing us in to animistic relationships. I perceive a metaphysics of the machine that can help us explore extension of the human domain beyond the physical – engaging with the energies operating on the sub-strata of material existence. Is it entirely co-incidental that it is animistic analogues that take us there? 

I think it is now beyond doubt that we are animating our devices in wholly remarkable ways – and we are nowhere done with the potential. There is a possible future world in which those who live in ‘advanced’ economies will live in an AI drenched world. Echoing Thales’ ‘Everything is full of gods’, we might say, “Everything is full of microchips” (or whatever new term we develop). 

Between the internet of things, AI in everything, and robotics we might find ourselves living in a machine consciousness-based constructed environment. Such may take centuries to eventuate, but the early steps are here, and they are only the beginning.

Humans crave belonging and acceptance. It’s hardwired into our biology and fundamental to our spiritual ideals. Those who live in close connection with country know also that such a craving extends place and the kin lives who dwell there.

The rational separation between thing and living, or meaningful, being is not fixed. Things imbibe attributes beyond their intrinsic form via experience (just by being in time and space). And they acquire meaning because of that experience. Things ain’t just things. You know this when the property of famous persons sells for many times an item’s ‘normal’ price. Hence a guitar that would make say $5,000 normally might sell for $1m if it belonged to a rock & roll legend.

Some things are made sacred or imbued with a kind of secular manna

and are thus elevated beyond the normal. We can argue whether the ‘spirit’ expressed as monetary value is the same as the idea of the sacred. I think it is, and that’s an argument I am happy to have.

I really have no thoughts about AI infused human generated objects, beyond their occasional convenience. As a person with a disability, I am grateful I can say, “Hey Siri” and make stuff happen.

But what I will observe is that machine animation is not a surprising development. We may be amazed by what is happening, but we should not be astonished that it is happening, or that it can happen. Humans have been making automata for millennia. We are answering an innate impulse.

We really must stop talking about ‘Artificial Intelligence’. In the sense that the term denotes human made, it makes some degree of sense. But artificial can also imply fake; and confer a sense of invalidity.

If consciousness is the foundation of all, its manifestation in what we call intelligence should not be surprising – when the opportunity to do so arises. Human made devices are opportunities for consciousness or intelligence to express through the natural process of humans being humans.

Urban animism

From the Conclusion: Urban animism offers the opportunity to explore how we vest living significance and meaning within whatever environment becomes our ‘natural habitat’…We may comprehend a human- centred animism describing the built human-mediated environment in terms of the ghosts and spirits of history. 

I think that if we fuse our modern passion for automata with the urban environment, we can see that not only will many people live in situations dominated by human-caused structures and objects, but they will all have histories and interpretations that resolve into underpinning human stories – as well as engaging with us.

The distinction between natural and artificial is essentially a distinction between a presumption of objective mechanical forces and a perception of intelligent agency. It is very much a materialistic point of view. A religious view distinguishes only between divine and human. The Christian view, which I cite because it is still the foundational faith of our culture, was closer to the animistic (everything is full of God). Christianity simply stripped the multiplicity of voices down to one. 

The idea of urban animism is essentially an idea of sensitive awareness to human causes, heritage, ownership and meaning. It should also include how these attributes of the human-caused intersect with the natural/divine agencies and systems.

The story of what we grandly call Civilisation is the story of humans crafting and transforming their operational environment from one that was wholly ‘natural’ to a fusion of ‘natural’ and ‘human’ to one dominated by human artifice.

That transformation has been fuelled by a biological imperative to survive, and a deep non-biological impulse to express metaphysical aspirations. The city became the apex of human expression – but one born in contestation with, and disdain for, the ‘natural’. In the history of the evolution of the city over the past two millennia, ‘nature’ has been a vital resource and a dump – debased as crude and savage, fit only for domination and exploitation. That exploitation has included enjoyment of what has been tamed.

The tension between wilderness and the urban remains confused and unresolved. The deep sense of contestation lingers unresolved. The idea that the urban has the same claim to an animism of its own is not yet a comfortable idea.

It is still a field of great potential.


From the Conclusion: I can best sum up my sense of the potential for future research by repeating Guba & Lincoln saying that “we stand at the threshold of a history marked by multivocality, contested meanings, paradigmatic controversies, and new textual forms.”  

I love this statement. Animism is a wholly inadequate term for the rich lifeworld of indigenous and other sensitive peoples. It was a western European conceptualisation that had a pejorative tone to it. But we do not have a better one yet. New Animism merely skimmed off surface notions for a purpose nowhere near holistic as is needed to give fuller insight into the potential.

I have retained the word more as a signal for what lies beneath it – a deeper, more coherent potential source of meaning. In a sense it is a political affiliation – in the politics of ideas. I reject New Animism because it is not an intellectual or spiritual spade to dig deeper, rather something to make mental sandcastles with. That’s fine. It has a purpose and value, but it’s not enough for me.

From multiple fields of human inquiry, we do indeed stand at a threshold “marked by multivocality, contested meanings, paradigmatic controversies”. It should be an exciting time. In a way this may be said of multiple times in the preceding centuries going back for millennia. There is no certainty that what we know and believe now will endure even a decade hence. A sense of curiosity and a passion to seek deeper meaning will always place on a threshold.

We have a choice – to cling to knowledge and beliefs we feel were hard won, and deserve to be preserved because of what we have invested in getting there; or adapt to a more dynamic response to how things are. It is true that the threshold we may be standing on is applicable only to inquirers, and not believers. The alternative to is step back, close the door, and enjoy our knowledge and beliefs as they are for a little longer. That’s okay.

In terms of inquiry, now we have multiple looking glasses as entrances to our own paths to a wonderland. Animism is my looking glass. Sometimes I look into it, and it looks right back. Other times I can see through it to an alluring realm of possibilities. Our challenge is to fuse our looking glasses into a shared instrument of inquiry.

We must also learn to carry the fruits of disciplined rational inquiry in the same basket as spiritual sensitivity and insight. They are not the “non-overlapping magisteria” Gould asserted. They are the yin and yang of our consciousness, dancing together – when we let them.

Thesis Conclusion

How has the research addressed the thesis questions?

I asked the two key research questions:

  1. How do I make sense of non-ordinary experience on a personal level?
  2. Could I find a way of fitting my experiences within my parent culture’s ontologicalnarrative?

The personal

All three recounted experiences that illustrate the precipitation into deep ontological crisis can be accommodated within the spectrum of ideas that constitute animism. That is to say that certain conditions or circumstances may lead to non-ordinary events occurring as a consequence of animate agencies intruding into the ‘normal’ realm of personal reality – conditioned by a cultural ontological frame to deny or reject such things. In this respect animism provides a wider paradigm that makes such experiences possibly valid – they can happen. I know they did.

However, this explanation should not extend to the role of giving personal ‘meaning’ to the experiences. That something can happen and did happen does not explain why it did happen. The “Why me?” question can be answered within the frame of animism, but at a more personal level of asking what possible relationships exist between me and the range of possible intelligent agencies opens up deeper issues of meaning and reason that remain unresolved. In seeking an answer to the question “Why did these things happen to me?” I needed to ask “Of what possible benefit is the precipitation of an ontological crisis?” One answer is that it generated the motive force for a journey of discovery, arriving at, for the moment, this research project. This suggests the possibility of meaningful and purposeful experiences may be had long before meaning or purpose can be discerned. But this supposes ‘meaning’ to life of a bigger stage, for which I have offered no evidence or argument. It is a choice, irrational maybe, that I elect to make in order have some sense, no matter how illusory it may ultimately be, of coherence, of meaning. So my focus has been not on ‘why’ but whether there is the prospect of intellectual validation.

I spent a good deal of time thinking about crisis experiences, including reading extensively on Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. I wondered whether there was any necessary distinction between what I had been through and any other kind of critical incident, and concluded that there was not, at least in terms of the sense of disruption and dislocation. The precipitation of ontological crisis in consequence of uninvited and disruptive non-ordinary phenomena, or as the unanticipated by-product of intentional acts, is almost a cliché. Life changing experiences are not rare. There are innumerable challenging or catastrophic events that precipitate the experiencer into a crisis of meaning. That my experiences were of the paranormal variety marks them as perhaps extraordinary, but the drama that followed is not especially remarkable, save that it was expressed in a peculiar context and related to a particular theme. The realisation that I was, in effect, just another person struggling to make sense of a dramatic intrusion into my life was a sobering and necessary thing.

The cultural

The idea of animism permeating sacred and secular thought, as a ‘natural’consequence of awareness and perception, suggests to me that I can locate my struggle for meaning making within my cultural paradigm. Of course, it cannot be located within that aspect that insists on the fundamental ‘error’ of animism (or anthropomorphism) or persists in denial of the paranormal. But there is a significant community of those who are exploring deeper meaning and other ways of knowing, and here it has a natural place.

From the time I began to undergo the drama of ontological crisis in the early 1970s many deep shifts in knowledge and values have altered the cultural landscape. Nevertheless there is still the risk of inhabiting the pluralistic environment as an isolate, bound off by beliefs, language, practices and hubris that mark one as not a full member of the wider community, save in the sense of tolerated inclusion. This was the risk I saw in the Western Mystery Tradition, and later in Wicca. The danger of set specific beliefs, ideas and language is that of inflating one’s particular set to precedence, as if it has universal, rather than a context-based virtue. The merits of ideas risk being lost in the accoutrements of groups and cultures, as if the ideas belong, natively, to the set. Each individual map is but a perspective of common country, and none, of themselves, are wholly representative.

Exclusion and the denial of validity of experiences or ideas serve a critical function of defining membership of a set, group, community or culture. But when cultures become complex they lose their homogeneity, or their illusion of such, and learning this was an important lesson for me. I could belong, but I had to understand better the complexity of the culture in which I lived.

The fact that Western culture is in need of revising its ontological frame is, I think, well enough established. Being a participant in that revision might be a good way to see myself. Cultural revision begins at the level of personal experience, so I might be permitted to think that my experiences are part of a larger cultural movement towardsrevision.

I have located my experiences within a common and knowable domain that is animism though it is a fragmented, blurred, and contested domain. I have resolved the dilemma occasioned by my dramatic, disruptive, and dislocating non-ordinary experiences in relation to how I fit within my cultural narrative by showing that there is a coherent pathway of thought that functions within my culture and which is exploratory and creative.

I have not set out to create an alternative ontology but have sought to resolve apparent conflicts and mutually exclusive contradictions in a way that privileges no particular cultural frame. In the course of inquiry the contingencies and contextual cautions that were identified in the methodology have shown to be consistently relevant across the spectrum of ideas encountered in the research of literature.

Western ontology is not homogenous, but complex and context sensitive and full of power plays for dominance, or, at least, acceptability. Certain elements have attained dominance because they reflect practical, utilitarian and pragmatic responses to changing human needs, especially for material stability, and especially in the political and economic domains, with resultant impact upon intellectual and cultural areas. At the edges of those public domains the ‘spiritual’ continues to interact and contend with the formation and perpetuation of discourses on identity, relationship and meaning where material and non- material imperatives intersect and interact.

The dominant materialist ontology has established particular notions about the nature of identity, relationship and meaning in relation to the Earth (and Heaven if one considers the ‘materialistic’ aspects of religious thought), and these appear to be unsustainable and harmful. There is an emerging vigorous and contentious dialogue that represents a vital perpetuation of an ancient endeavour – to engage with and understand the physical and metaphysical domains, and how they intersect within the lifeworld of human experience.

My initial attempts at validation and defence were tentative and self-protective, but as my examination of meaning-giving cultural discourses progressed I found a location that enabled and preserved my sense of full membership of my culture. This seems to reflect an evolutionary progression common to historically excluded discourses, as might be seen with feminist, queer, disability, and multicultural voices.

A reflection on the possible role of animism

I have sought to establish a chain of argument that works through the consequences of the experience of radically disruptive non-ordinary events and towards a theoretical position that locates them within a rational ontological construct that does not demand fleeing from my parent culture. The initial drama of experience was matched by the dislocating problem of not being able to find a fit for it within the ontological frame of the ‘normal’ world of my culture’s ontology.

The sense of ‘misfit’ within my culture and the dilemma concerning how to remain within it or seek the solace of systems based in other cultures turned out to be an illusion, the product of my own ignorance and naivety. The ontology of Western culture is not homogenous, but a dynamic constantly changing and evolving environment. It is, however, dominated by large forces that contend for supremacy, and which oppress and exclude other voices. This includes suppression and oppression of perceived opponents. But the culture is also permeable and porous, adoptive and adaptive and this enables the struggle for acceptance, toleration and validation by minority or non-conforming voices to progress.

The struggle for personal validation of direct lived experience, especially that which intrudes upon and challenges the universality of the dominant ontological prescriptions and proscriptions, is an ongoing dynamic that has great potency in the present age. Individual lived experience, and the validation of non- conforming knowledge, is now honoured as the age of individualism matures. The implications for shared experience are less ‘scientific’ and more human-centred, concerning shared and mutual understanding and engagement. This reflects a wide appreciation of the complexity and uncertainty of knowledge itself, and more so as it applies to the human experience.

The object of this thesis was to work through the journey of attempting to reconcile the experiences and resolve them into a coherent ontological frame that may have meaning and validity to the Western mind. The focal point for doing so was the idea of animism. The essential precepts of animism accorded with my direct experiences, both the involuntary ones and those later intentionally sought, but the idea of animism itself did not present itself as a cohering idea until at a much later stage.

Animism, when explored in greater detail, presented a more complex and coherent thought system than in its popularly conceived aspect: as a primitive and erroneous knowledge system that rightly belonged an earlier evolutionary stage of the human psyche. As the concept was expanded, it became evident that the essential precepts of animism had a home in contemporary Western culture on many levels – unconscious and reflexive as well as intentional.

Anthropologists and psychologists see that animism, along with anthropomorphism, permeates Western thought and worldview. Some see that animism is virtually fundamental to human consciousness and perception. I argue that this persistent attribute might be understood as Animistic Consciousness, an innate human propensity to see the world in animistic terms, whether wholly within the human mediated sphere of civilisation or in relation to the natural world. This suggests to me a psychic analogue of the reptilian brain that functions at an unconscious and instinctive level to maintain the physical human body, and without whose continued operation that physical body would cease to function. I propose an equal level of consciousness that has an equally vital function – that of maintaining essential human psychological functions of relationship, identity and meaning – in relation to the material world [especially the natural], and the immaterial domains.

While we might consider the reptilian brain as primitive, we would not consider advocating its eradication and replacement with a new improved version. Instead, we live with, and honour its role in maintaining our essential physical presence in the world. I suggest a similar attitude towards the fundamental mechanism of our psychic well-being would be appropriate. Animistic consciousness links us to our world, and beyond the human mediated to the natural. At the deepest level it participates in the sense of fellow feeling with other lives and acknowledges a larger sense of living being than might be otherwise evident to the rational senses.

Cultures that share animism also share a sense of a binary nature of reality, and especially the presence of an inhabited and interactive realm beyond the physical. We can see how this natural apprehension, denied unfettered expression, finds expression in analogue of imagination and now in the conception of cyberspace. The challenge is not so much accepting the idea of an inner realm but accepting the reality of it. The reliance on physical sciences as the primary authoritative determinant of what is real has arisen, in part, because the failure of religion to maintain a credible narrative on the realm in relation to which it has asserted supreme authority – a gatekeeper of experience and knowledge. As a consequence, the methodologies of science have set the limits at the boundary of the physical world. So we have become accustomed to living without knowledge of what is beyond it.

For the most part living without that knowledge has not been evidently problematic because when the inner world has intruded it has been contained through diagnoses of madness, acceptance of error, accommodation of occasional strangeness, and tolerance of religion. Secret beliefs or removal into a sub- set community of shared ‘secret’ knowledge have also been accommodated and tolerated where eradication has not been effective. But on the other hand, it has enabled the mythic inflation of elements of the material world to act in a substitutional manner as surrogates of essentially metaphysical functions. The apparent ultimate failure of this inflation has become one of the ‘hungers’ now seeking satiation in non-traditional and contentiousways.

Animism in this context needs to be ‘recovered’ in Charlton’s sense, and it needs also to be honoured as an experience and respected as a discourse or narrative – as a natural heritage. And for those who choose animism as a philosophy it needs to be accorded due respect.

Animism has the potential to re-engage physical being with a sense of the sacred and the numinous, to extend meaning and value into secret domains beyond appearances.

Further research possibilities

There is little evidence of contemporary systematic thinking about Animism in what I’d consider a sympathetic manner. Harvey (2006) is sympathetic but essentially redefines animism, creating a ‘new’ interpretation. It has its merits in that it appears to enable engagement with elements with animistic ideation without having to deal with the ‘metaphysical’ side of it. Harvey asserts that he is, in fact, rescuing Animism from disrepute and I’d agree he is, but only partially, though usefully. Guthrie (1995) addresses animism as a perceptual strategy, but from a squarely atheistic position, thus reinterpreting it against a default ‘scientific’ context of anthropological inquiry. The difficulty with Guthrie’s position is, however, that the scientific model of inquiry does not properly extend into this domain. The scientific disciplines of examining human being and conduct are not yet accompanied by a fully-fledged science of human experience. That is to say there is no actual scientific examination of whether spirits exist or not. Neither is there exploration of what the experience of spirits might be as if such spirits were real. Guthrie theorises on what the experience would be if they were not. Thus we are dealing with speculative thought: theory based upon opinion based upon certain assumptions. It is fully useful only if the assumptions can be supported by evidence and hold to be true. Otherwise what we have is interesting scholarship with limited practical application.

In contrast to Harvey and Guthrie, Frankfort et al (1946) and Radin (1957) exhibit a certain comfort with spiritual and magical ideas in their examination of ancient and “primitive” thought. Here aspects of the animistic experience are thought through rather than redefined, and this is because the root premise is accepted (that there is a spiritual domain, though this also is an assumption). These inquirers share an acceptance of the spiritual as a given in human thought and experience. It is the obverse of rational or scientific atheism. The debates are about method and interpretation. Frankfort asserts that the ancients saw the world as a ‘Thou’ as opposed to the post-Cartesian ‘It’. Radin disagrees, arguing that this is a kind of armchair misinterpretation that relied upon mistaken perceptions and interpretations of inquirers locked in the vice grip of ethnocentricity, albeit unconsciously so. However he does not actually articulate precisely an alternative proposition. Radin criticises Tylor in this respect. While Radin is no doubt also subject to criticism he does exhibit remarkable and sensitive insight into magical methodology, and hence his ability to interpret evidence is, in my view, superior. Neither Frankfort nor Radin offer any critique of Animism per se. Their values lies solely in exploring animistic ideation in a sympathetic manner and within a  greater context of intellectual and philosophical thought .

If we take a time line from Tylor to Harvey at either extreme, and Radin in the middle, animisitic ideation has been employed to many ends. It has penetrated, but not permeated, our culture as an evocative descriptor whose precise meaning is not always clarified. It’s use is artistic rather than rational. On the other hand the experience of what Tylor called Animism appears to permeate our lived experience. This certainly seems to me to be true at a cultural level and, I would argue, at an individual level the experience varies from the mild and benign to the radical and disruptive, even catastrophic. There is, however, no disciplined or structured examination of common experience, so my comments are impressionistic. The challenge is to define what constitutes an animistic experience and then search for it. I would anticipate that such an inquiry might well demonstrate that there is a greater level of experience than admitted or spoken of. The ghosts and spirits of Tylor’s inquiry retain a persistent presence in contemporary fantasy and in ‘folk’ reportage.

There are related ideas. This is, for me, one of the most exciting domains for further inquiry, and also probably the most contentious. Animistic thought is bound up with the notion of another world – the proper domain of spirits, the realm of dreams, the territory of the shaman; and to which we might fruitfully add the domain of imagination. There are two questions – whether this elsewhere is as substantive as is reckoned within animistic thought and whether is has any role to play as a source of affect upon our familiar reality. We are accustomed to dismissing this realm as “just” imaginary but on the other hand accept it as the repository of archetypal psychic forces. I am not presently aware any sympathetic studies that embrace the full potential extension of this vital element of human consciousness.

Various thinkers touch upon it. Redfield (1968) distinguishes between moral and technical orders of human experience in his consideration of the distinction between ‘primitive’ and ‘civilised’ living. Armstrong (2001) explores ideas of mythos and logos in order to articulate the differing kinds of consciousness in her exploration of religious thought. Frankfort (1946) considers the emergence out of mythopoetic consciousness into rational thought, a theme also explored by Jeynes (2000) as the emergence of consciousness itself. So some see distinguishing states of consciousness that may denote degrees and types of development or evolution or attunement.

In spiritual and religious thought there is widespread thought of other dimensions of being. There is, in short, a near universal acknowledgement of another domain to human experience. It might be called the mythopoetic imaginal realm rich in moral energy (here I wish to distinguish a certain kind of dynamism that concerns itself with issues of conduct – the virtuous or ennobling actions as well as fears and failures). This domain appears to be fundamental to animistic thought. That is; it appears to be a necessary companion to human life experience. It is part of the lifeworld of the ‘primitive’ Animist, and it is part of the lifeworld of even the sophisticated atheistic Westerner. There are, I think, clues to suggest that there may be an essential psychic architecture to this domain. It may be that we have, in the contemporary West, evolved so that the locus of our consciousness is no longer substantially located in this mythopoetic domain, but it is a different and possibly perilous thing to argue that it no longer exerts a vital or fundamental influence upon us. In fact, Newberg et al (2001) comment on the value of religious ideation in life in contributing to our health psychological.

There is a certain desire from dedicated rationalists to see human destiny as entirely liberated from the legacies of instinctual and mythopoetic impulses. This is an extreme view that champions what is conceived as reason as the highest and most valued attribute of humanity. At best this is an emergent quality confined to a few extraordinary individuals. The general human condition, from the tenacious remnants of traditional cultures to the urban sophisticates of Western culture, remains true to both instinctual and mythopoetic impulses, as much as it is responsive to reason. This fundamental trilogy remains the essential constituents of the human lifeworld for the time being.

The advent of sophisticated technologies has enabled not an orgy of rational and reasoned content in movies or on television but a ‘bringing to life’ of the fantastical in evermore elaborate forms. We mine the potential of our mythopoetic heritage to construct popular entertainment of increasingly compelling character. And we ‘animate’ these same technologies with presently rudimentary smarts as if we are driven by a desire to render our servant machines intelligent and capable of communication as if they were fellow animate beings. Here we may perceive a convergence of high reason expressed in the deeply sophisticated technologies and the science that enable them and that ancient imaginal capacity that give a stage to archetypal psychic energies. If our view of this convergence is to lament it, seeing a degradation of fine machines as mere servants of whimsy and fantastical irrational nonsense then we risk divorcing two remarkable human attributes – the rational and the imaginal. If we rather permit the marriage of both, then the intellectual prowess we apply to one we might also apply to the other.

But this requires genuine free inquiry, not engaging with ideas bound about by pre-conditions that insist upon an assumption of atheism as the responsible and rational default position. In my view the presently scattered and fragmentary engagements with animistic ideation do not, come close to tapping the potential for examination and exploration of the subject matter.

There is a number of areas of particular interest on a more concrete level.

We can explore the kind of animism that is bound implicitly within religious and spiritual practices not traditionally widely accepted within the ‘old’ West. There is a growing multicultural element within the ‘new’ West (no longer dominated by a singular ethnic, cultural and religious bloc) whose religious traditions are steeped in animistic thought and practice. Added to this is the growth in Pagan  and Shamanic practices and thought among members of the ‘old’ West.

Animistic thought is finding a place in the environmental movement, as it seeks ideas and language that better articulate emergent values and ideas. Mack has argued for a ‘new psychology’ to express such values and ideas as core and key to a needed change in attitudes and conduct. The extent to which such a new psychology is predicated upon animistic ideation based upon a disciplined conception of Animism is not something I’ve explored. The extent to which a psychology (as a science) is influenced by a philosophy in the context of the various permutations of animistic ideation might be usefully explored.

Urban animism offers the opportunity to explore how we vest living significance and meaning within whatever environment becomes our ‘natural habitat’. If animism is an innate impulse then it will apply as  a mode of perception whether the environment is ‘natural’ or human-made. In design and art, in planning and in conceptualisation of the built environment as the dominant domain of human experience there is a potential to merge inanimate and organic elements into a unified discourse. We may comprehend a human-centred animism describing the built human-mediated environment in terms of the ghosts and spirits of history.

The other area potentially rich in opportunity for inquiry is technology. We create devices, systems, and media in response to desire and need. But how we interpret that desire and need depends upon what assumptions we have made about our nature. In some ways designers are employing the potential implicit in technologies to impose a new kind of animism on us. Machines are engaging us, drawing us in to animistic relationships. I perceive a metaphysics of the machine that can help us explore extension of the human domain beyond the physical – engaging with the energies operating on the sub-strata of material existence. Is it entirely co-incidental that it is animistic analogues that take us there?

Animism is but a portion of the wider prospect of validation of an innate propensity for the spiritual/religious that may be confirmed in brain and other scientific research fields. If this transpires, we will have to rethink a good deal of what constitutes knowledge about our psychology.

Despite the dominant Western aversion to the metaphysical and the spiritual humans have persistently demonstrated a profound responsiveness to ideas and values that transcend the physical. It may be a response to a genetic heritage that bids us obedience to the greater good of the species. But this shared survival imperative has its own metaphysical implications. We do not yet understand the root of our motives for noble and self-sacrificing actions. Animism, as a pervasive and universal aspect of consciousness, may be a vehicle for penetrating that mystery more deeply.

Guthrie illustrates perhaps the most critical and interesting potential for future research. He surveys the range of ideas that ‘explain’ animism and anthropomorphism in terms of error, whether of a cognitive or interpretative kind. The view is that humans have evolved from error to superior, and maybe even correct, interpretation of experiences and perception. This, however, demonstrates only one way of considering the evidence. Under an alternative philosophical orientation, the apparently innate propensity for humans to see the world in animistic or anthropomorphic terms might be a response to the way things are. What appear as errors or vices under one way of knowing can be seen as truths and virtues under another.

We can perpetuate the now shaky assumption that knowledge has an objective dimension, or we can embrace more completely that notion that knowledge expresses relational and contextual interplays between human experience and perception and the things experienced and perceived. So whether we interpret the world in terms of wrong/right or in terms of context sensitivity – whether in determinative or contingent terms – matters a great deal.

As our culture is enriched through the acceptance of diverse people whose heritages bring knowledge systems and cosmologies the challenge to critically examine the dominant knowledge discourses of the West, already seen to be problematic, must precipitate uncertainty and contention. This can be taken to be a disruptive consequence against which defence must be mounted or an exhilarating opportunity.

I can best sum up my sense of the potential for future research by repeating Guba & Lincoln saying that “we stand at the threshold of a history marked by multivocality, contested meanings, paradigmatic controversies, and new textual forms.” (2005, p.212)

A final autoethnographic thought

At the top of Katoomba Street, here in Katoomba, there is a pre-loved bookshop. It is usually closed when I walk past it, in the mornings and evening, to and from the station, on workdays. Today is Saturday and it is early morning. The shop is closed. Almost always I stop a moment to survey the books arrayed in the window. Recently I discovered Brunton’s Hidden Teachings Beyond Yoga, a book I had not seen in over 37 years. Today I saw a Hesse and several other volumes that immediately recalled my turbulent years in the early 1970s. The sight of the books threw up powerful images. I could immediately recall the circumstances of reading them.

The bookshop has become a potent time machine that activates images and emotions long since locked away and overlain. The exultation of a new idea, the agony over the wretched struggle to make meaning, the frustration of ignorance, and those occasional blissful moments of the sweet illusion of comprehension – they all come tumbling back. It has seemed to me that over the past few months, especially, these trigger books have appeared in greater profusion, agitating me into a turmoil of thoughts and emotions at a time when I am grappling with the last stages of writing this project.

At the point of ‘enough’, when one knows it is time to abandon something and leave it to fend for itself in the world, the shop window has become an elegant articulation of beginning and ending – the commencement of my journey is now before me as I come to an end – going far does mean returning, so it seems. And as I write this on January the 19th 2008 I am also suddenly struck with the fact that it is three days before my birthday, and two days shy of the tenth anniversary of my mother’s death – another potent articulation of ending and beginning.

Suddenly I am thrown back to a day in the mid 1970s. I am travelling by car from Strahan to Hobart. My wife is driving. There is a sudden strong gust of wind and debris is driven across the road in front of us. I say “Merlin has just died.’ She laughs. She hates it when I do this. “How do you know?” She asks, because she has to, not because she wants to know. “The world just told me.” The conversation flags, and I note the time. When I get back to Strahan, I confirm Merlin was shot just about then. Merlin was a stray blue heeler who adopted us. He was smart and spirited and a mischief-maker. He was harassing chooks in company with other dogs when he wasshot.

The world often ‘speaks to me’, so I see the shop window as a point where it and I intersect in a dialogue about my project. Sometimes it seems that, John, the shop owner, collaborates by provocatively arraying the books and titles to trigger a potent thought or emotion for my journey, or, as today, spur me to scrawl in my notebook over an early morning coffee.

Of course, I may not mean that John is a collaborator in any sensible sense, as if there is an external truth to the notion. Rather the dynamics of the bookshop window is a nexus between me and something else, and it is where my sense of self chooses to find meaning. De Quincey’s notion of self as choice and Briggs’ & Peat’s moments of bifurcation meld to allow me to choose to be reflectively and creatively responsive to what I see. The content in the widow must be there as much as the permitting of potentialities must be there in me. I have a degree of freedom in interpretation only because I let scope of possible meanings find its own horizon.

At a certain level of metaphysical thought whether the cosmos is or is not animate, or is or is not meaning drenched, is an unanswerable and pointless question. Reason and intellect cannot satisfy a sufficient degree of testing any such hypotheses. And there is sufficient complexity and uncertainty for any such proposition to be lived as if it were true, with a sufficient number of validating experiences to make seem to be true. Choosing one hypothesis or another creates potential interpretations that then influence conduct, and whether one chooses one or the other seems dependentupon influences beyond personal control. I choose the animated meaning-drenched interpretation of the cosmos because it seems to be in my nature to do so, and because my life experiences have orientated me towards such a choice. It is a choice potential that I can go with or struggle against, and the more I go with it the happier I seem to be.

This does not suppose that there is an external truth or an entirely internal one, but rather a truth that intersects and interacts across the self/other boundary. A key thought that emerged for me in the course of the research project was that of how senses of identity, meaning and relationship work in concert to create a sense of what is real. I cannot say whether the cosmos is animate or whether it is meaning drenched, or whether it matters whether it is or not. But what I can say is that for my sense of identity, meaning and relationship it seems to matter a great deal, and hence I choose what matters to me.

What has emerged for me, in the course of this project, as the essential ‘take home’message, is the proposition that humans are naturally imbued with an animistic impulse. Regardless of its status within the collective ontologies and paradigms that constitute the profoundly complex psychic environment of Western culture, it is a birthright, in relation to which we have an innate liberty of choice to leave it latent, unconscious or engage with it actively and creatively in our meaning making endeavours.

If this project has a contribution to make, I see that as being a step towards the restoration and healing of permission to make that choice, if it is in one’s nature to be inclined to do so.


A volume I had entitled “A” Transcripts Vol 1 had been commenced in the early 1980s. I had intended to undertake the large job of transcribing the 40 odd audio cassettes of recorded conversation between me and the discarnate entity who had spoken through PJ. It was a task I did not finish, and there are only 53 pages completed. It had been the most neglected of my journals as I had penned most of the transcripts in my magical diaries. Towards the end of 2007 I took the leisure of going through it, in case I might find something worthwhile to be included in the project.

On 11 March 1979 I had asked about the voices that had precipitated my drama. These were the three entities ML had encountered in her bedroom. This is what I recorded in response to my question:

A: These (are) discarnate entities with whom you have profound psychological links. 

Me: Ah, could you explain.

A: No.


The Individual, Personhood, and Solitude


Now and then I find myself drawn to books that seem to be a long way from where my thinking is at. Such a book is The Sovereign Individual: Mastering the transition to the information age. I also read/listened to the The Fourth Industrial Revolution, by the Chair of the World Economic Forum, Klaus Schwab.

The concept of the sovereign individual is interesting. The idea of a sovereign was obviously familiar to me. The Queen of England might be thought a sovereign individual in a sense. In this instance it is an idea of an individual who is not fettered to nation, person, or place in a primarily economic sense. The focus of the book is on how the Information Age will impact our world to such a degree that how things are done, and what is considered normal, will change radically. And in this environment the sovereign individual can flourish. 

The sovereign individual is an attractive idea for those who believe that accumulating wealth for its own sake is a good pursuit. It is a particular philosophical approach I have no sympathy for, but it was good to explore it. I read Schwab for another perspective on a similar theme. I was surprised to discover that Schwab has a more humanitarian, even spiritual, perspective on the same change scenario.

The Sovereign Individual is an extreme expression of the idea of the individual incubated in a certain intellectual and moral environment. I was curious about it because of Larry Siedentop’s Inventing the Individual: The Origins of Western Liberalism. This book is a masterpiece exploring how the emergence and evolution of Christianity fueled the development of our idea of the individual. I have been musing on the idea of the individualfor a few years now.

It is certainly true that the Information Age has transformed how we interact and engage – and will continue to do so. The need for persons to stand out in terms of their passions and ideas (as misguided as we may think they are) has been afforded a magnified intensity via the lens of social media. 

There is a pervasive sense of disappointment, injustice and powerlessness that has been given a voice that can influence governments in ways not seen before. It will be some time before that can resolve into a positive agency. At the same time, we are struggling with our relations with the planet and its greater than human life web, and we are struggling with our own human-to-human relationships. Let’s add to that the compelling sense that life from elsewhere is messing with our awareness as well. It’s a turbulent time.

I have just listened to a show on Plants as Persons on Wisconsin Public Radio’s To The Best of Our Knowledge podcast. It struck me that personhood and individuality are definitely not the same thing, despite what my Oxford Dictionary asserts – personhood is “the quality or condition of being an individual person” and person is – “a human being regarded as an individual”. An individual is “single, separate”. So, person is an individual in a state of being singular and separate? No. But that is how we encouraged to interpret the idea.

Particularization is a better idea.

Our biology and psychology say we cannot be ‘individuals’ in any complete sense – not single, separate. A better term might be a particularization, denoting an emphasis or concentration, rather than something that stands alone – stands out might be more to the point.

Separate individuals cannot exist. We see a tree standing as if alone, but beneath it is woven into a web of lives. A single oak in a park does not have the same quality of being as a single oak in a forest where there are other oaks. It lives, but not as it might. Individuality is not an optimum state for a tree.

If we see ‘individual’ as a something we distinguish from a community – a particular person – say a member of a football team – rather than someone separate from, we will have a better idea. A single footballer is of no value if there is no team. A single oak, distant from its forest kin, isn’t the same as one growing with its kin. It is separated. We did that – because that’s okay by us. We like individual specimens separated from kin.

The word individual is fine, it’s the meaning we ascribe to it that is the problem. Over the latter part of the 20th century being an individual apart has been a handy concept for predatory marketers who prey on insecurities, fears, and senses of powerlessness. The sense of individuality is the last bastion of hope before obliteration and meaninglessness. It has become the refuge of the hurt and angry, who believe they cannot turn to family or community for safety and belonging.

The idea of separation is very modern. It may reflect a conflict between tradition and modernity which emphasises a greater level of mobility and separation from old ways and structures. But it expresses a transitional state, rather than an absolute one. We are always seeking belonging and community.

This matters because particularization is a very different thing. It Is not a separation so much as a greater focus or concentration. The individual is simply more prominent, but still connected. A bleating lamb is still part of the flock even though its cries draw our attention. We hear the cries, identify the source, and see a particular lamb. It is individual, but not separate.

So, plants can be persons, along with fish, fowls, and human folk – and none are apart from their kin in any real way – until we remove them. We are okay with separation. We do it all the time. Perhaps we have a profound sense of separation in our cultural DNA? At the root of our western religious tradition is the story of expulsion from paradise, followed by a tale of genocidal slaughter via flood. And this by a ‘loving father’. Its nice to feel wanted.

In fact, our culture is founded on a demand for redemption, as if we were born wrong. In Australia the indigenous people experience intergenerational trauma arising from our expulsion of them from their paradise, followed up with genocidal efforts. And we have tried to make them feel wrong too.

The victims have become the perpetrators. The separated have become separators. The individual as apart, single, has meaning to us. It is in our cultural DNA.

Siedentop explored how cultural evolution altered the focus of identity from a patriarch to other family members who shared their own sense of identity without being separated from family. It is true that such evolution did involve conflict and acts of physical and emotional separation, as the old order gave way to the new. But that’s not the same thing as being ‘separate’ in the way we now mean. Being apart; but connected is better.

We see in nature documentaries that predatory hunters will seek to separate the vulnerable from the herd – to kill and eat. In modern terms predators will separate the vulnerable by boosting their illusion of separation – as individuals – to exploit them.

Personhood is universal

Personhood denotes sentience and intelligence expressed in a particular and coherent form via representatives of a community – as opposed to supposedly separate entities. Separation itself is an illusion. It arises only because connecting elements are shorn off, discounted, and ignored.

The clearest example is a human being. The physical appearance of separateness is countered by the psychological reality that personhood is framed and sustained by relationships and inclusion in a community. Human identity is comprised of descriptors of belonging and connection with others who are alike or similar. In indigenous communities those others included the many lives who shared country with them – physical and non-physical.

The individual in that modern sense of apartness has no identity beyond the fact of their physical presence – unless there is a nurturing connection to others. Without that there is only profound psychic distress.

The filter of organic being

Humans in this world are constructed on a physical primate foundation. But it is not all we are. The gulf of difference between primate and human is significant, and this is poorly understood. We are primate +, and it is this plus that has been so contentious in a culture dominated by materialism.

Beneath our seeming apartness as individual humans, something connects us beyond our biology. This is made evident in the research into Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion. Being excluded from connection with others causes psychological suffering – from which relief is sought. Restoration of connection is, of course, a clear objective. We have biological and psychological needs for connection.

But then it does not explain the need for solitude – the intentional separation and isolation from others – as the means to create a deeper connection with that + element of our humanity. We are more than we appear to be, and we are more than we know. Seeking solitude to find wholeness is a remarkable logic. Of course, the idea of actual solitude is absurd. Though we may be apart from our own kind, we are embraced by other lives. Maybe that’s the point. We need to know we belong within a manifold global community of persons, and beyond, to create a sense of spiritual connection.


The ideas in the Sovereign Individual were useful to me because the central premise of the book is real. The Information Age is transforming how we live in fundamental ways. But the book is flawed in its moral and philosophical model. It speaks, I believe, to the more psychopathic personality. Schwab is a counterpoint.

So much of our contemporary notion of individuality is the product of a predatory effort to separate the vulnerable from the family/group/community that should sustain and protect them. By the maintenance of an ongoing level of psychological stress a marketplace for products and services is created. These are presented as means by which relief can be secured. But they are a solution without the prospect of satisfaction. Nothing can substitute for connection and belonging – on the biological and the plus levels.

If we can reframe our individuality to be a unique particularization of humanity, we do not need any concept of separation. In fact, the idea has no meaning of value, and can only be harmful. We are particular persons who flourish in a community of like kin, and in solitude (the community of unlike kin) when we choose it. So much depends on who embrace as kin.

The genesis of our mentality is the story of the expulsion from paradise. That story has been infecting our culture for millennia. It is a story of trauma and separation. It lives on in our framing of our idea of the individual.

Separation is a denial of connection, of belonging. It is a state of harm. This is true for all beings – all persons.

We need a new genesis story.

Chapter Four

An exploration of animistic ideas in the contemporary Western world

In this chapter I explore the extent to which animism is apparently present within contemporary Western culture, other than through intentional use of the term and its ideas.

Camouflaged Ideas

I argue that animistic thought is present within Western cultural conceptions and language, but camouflaged against a secular backdrop. That is that as human context changes, so do ideas and the language used to articulate them, but this does not mean that the underlying architecture of the ideas are fundamentally altered.

Although animistic thought is not formally or widely recognised as a component of contemporary Western consciousness there many elements of popular culture that are directly animistic or contain thought elements that are linked to a wider sense of animistic ideation.

As I became more attuned to intentional animistic thinking it became easier to identify or attribute animistic ideas. Some are familiar, for example the way in which people may name boats or vehicles, or the way sport teams favour ‘totemic’ animals or mythic or heroic figures to articulate something of their team spirit. Other ideas are linked to the evolution of technologies, especially the development of more ‘animated’ devices using artificial intelligence (such as voice recognition) and automation. In the context oflife as we understand it this ‘animation’ is a faux vivification, but the developmentalpotential for more subtle interaction between device and user does, at least, enable a comfortable (or disturbing) illusion to be created. And what happens is often less about actuality than perception, in terms of how such developments are accepted as normal.

Animistic ideas are gaining niche popularity as intentional adoption at the level of interest in the spectrum of ‘Pagan’ or Neo-pagan philosophies and practices. At the same time animistic and animated toys and entertainments are a response to the increased sophistication of technologies and the lowering of cost points. But this would not be possible without market demand or at the least, responsiveness to these innovations.

In an age in which traditional religions have lost appeal, and atheism and scepticism have grown, the phenomenal popularity of the Harry Potter books and movies, along with The Lord of the Rings movies reflect a persistent interest in and acceptance of the magical and the animistic. One assessment of the top grossing movies in the USA market suggests that only 25% do not have a fantasy, science fiction or magical/animistic element. And in the top ten this drops to 10%, with The Titanic, the only non-magical movie, at number one. ( level of popularity such movies is consistent with advances in, especially, CGI technology, which makes it possible to create film representations of ideas otherwise confined to books and comics.

I grew up with Marvel comics, which might have extended my childhood exposure to ‘acceptable’ animistic tales, such as Mother Goose and Wind in the Willows. I was also exposed to Aesop’s fables and fairy tales, which were perfectly acceptable within a Christian household. This same household permitted stories of Christmas elves, Santa Claus and flying reindeer. In an almost schizoid manner my parents  were able to, on the one hand, celebrate the animism of childhood so long as it was fantasy; and, on the other, have no tolerance for other than the Christian world-view. It seems to me now that we exercise our secret inner animism through our children, allowing ourselves to be washed over by the myriad instances of animation of normally inanimate objects and the anthropomorphic transformation of wild and domestic creatures, as well as giving them voice in their own right.

It is as if the caveat that allows and legitimises childhood fantasy acts as a permission giver to recover, as adults, that which we surrendered. Perhaps Charlton’s notion of ‘recovered animism’ begins here and continues to express through popular entertainment, but remains as entertainment.

In the late 1970s I had an experience that continues to challenge my thinking about how the brain filters experience. I was woken suddenly by PJ who urgently wanted to tell me of her out of body experience. She had been floating above the bed up neat the ceiling and had become alarmed. She told me I had spoken to her very calmly, directing her to return slowly to the bed and her physical body. I had been woken froma dream in which I was standing in a dry sparse landscape. In front of me was a multi-storey construction made entirely of scaffolding. I was directing the operator of a crane on top of the construction to lower a stretcher holding a body in a fragile state onto two semi-trailers parked side by side. Even in the dream I paused to observe how odd it was that the trucks’ suspension was surprisingly soft. I had achieved my task and the scene instantly changed to another, which had PJ on the lying on the ground when I was woken up. The bed we were sleeping on was made from two single dunlopillo mattresses.

The opportunity to match the two experiences and draw parallels between my dream and PJ’s out of body drama illustrates to me how  the fantastic and absurd nature of dreams can mask a lucid experience.  Dream imagery has a metaphorical function, crowding meaning from non-ordinary lucid experience into seemingly absurd or fantastic image experiences. The reasons and mechanisms that generate this odd process of translation must be left to brain science, but the business of interpreting dreams is ancient. Jung says, “Nowadays animals, dragons, and other living creatures are readily replaced in dreams by railways, locomotives, motorcycles, aeroplanes, and suchlike artificial products…”(in Sabini 2002 p. 74). It would seem that it is not so much that the symbols have enduring meaning, but that they are context related, and stripped to their barest functionality.

Gardner (1999) argues that Western folklore and fairy tale masks historic truths, and Hancock (2005) argues that the same also mask non-ordinary experiences from the invisible world. Von Franz (1995) says that fantasy and mythic imagery conceal psychological and psycho-spiritual truths, not arising beyond human consciousness. Regardless of where each is right or not, what we have is a masking of a lucid or rational ‘truth’ in fantastical imagery in dream, myth and fairy stories. It is as if the human psyche and brain combine to generate an in between realm of metaphor and illusion that separates ordinary waking consciousness from deeper lucid meaning. This raises the importance of the role of fantasy in the contemporary world, in story and in advertising. This is not so much myth but the clothing of myth, such that the fantastical speaks to us because it is so often the form and voice of myth.

Whether the content is ‘true’ is probably something purists may dispute, as contemporary stories show no loyalties to what are seen to be past pristine tales. Contemporary story telling is shamelessly eclectic, and shamelessly contemporary. Shrek is a good example. In children’s stories the talking animals, often somewhat anthropomorphic in nature, echo the shamanic tradition of tutelatory animals. These characters as well remind us of ancient traditions that speak of a ‘unitary time’ when animals and humans shared the same language (Abram 1997).

In advertising fantasy plays a powerful role. There are soft drinks and confections that are presented as possessing consciousness-altering capacities that convey magical powers to the consumer, not infrequently suggest that they are able to transport consumers to a paradise place. There are strange fantastic and animistic creatures speaking on behalf of products, even if, as in the case of Louie the Fly, it is against their best interests. Magic and animism are sufficiently recurrent as themes inproduct promotion to suggest that those who design the ads and those who pay for them tacitly agree that something resonates with the audience in a positive way.

Complex Ideation

Animism and animistic ideas seem to be inextricably bound with other notions, such as magic, supernormal powers, religious ideas and otherworldly places and supernatural entities. Animist cultures appear to include these other elements along with the purely animist notions. So the presence of the same spectrum of themes within Western popular culture, with a high level of exposure and acceptance should suggest something distinct. It has not been within the scope of this project to quantify the volume of fantastical elements spanning infant to adult life experience (toys, books, movies, Christmas related material, advertising) within contemporary Western culture, but I want to suggest that it is of sufficient volume as to be a significant indicator of something significant about our collective psyche.

It might be that the childhood animism identified by Piaget is a valid observation and that we do not grow out of it so much as sublimate it in conformity with the dominating narrative that expresses ‘civilised’ sentiments. Fraser (1994) explored cultural practices that had persisted into his time, though with diminished primacy within the life of a community. Guy Fawkes night was still celebrated in my childhood, but without any potent sense of what it meant. As children we dimly grasped the notion of the gunpowder plot but we were far more articulate about the explosive potential for mischief that lay in the ‘crackers’ we could buy. Bonfires and explosions activate primal responses, so they are likely to survive in consequence. Fraser noted an ancient communal practice of bonfire lighting reaching back to times when the animistic world-view was far more prevalent.

Modernity and even post-modernity has layered over more ancient worldviews, but it has not extinguished them, nor rendered them inconsequential. The more ancient thoughts, sentiments and reflexes may no longer be prominent as clear ideas serving to articulate and explain the human experience, but it does seem that they continue to play a vital role in releasing or processing psychic energy.

I have spent ten of the past 18 months in hospital recovering from Guillain-Barre Syndrome, a condition that confers sudden and almost total paralysis. My ability to make notes was radically impaired. Sometime during that period I heard a speaker on radio saying that our dreams make us whole. I had not much other than my dreams at that stage so the idea stuck with me. I have evolved this idea into the context ofanimism.

It may be that the innumerable ways in which the suite of animistic and related ideas seep into our cultural experience, camouflaged as innocent fantasies and the pleasant entertainments of childhood reflect a fundamental need. It may be that unless this need is permitted sufficient free expression we cannot properly experience a genuine sense of psychic wholeness. Fantasy and entertainment are the other side, the ‘yin’ to the ‘yang’ of rational awareness. So they remain within the culture as carriers of the animistic while the overt cultural narrative, blending religious, humanist and scientific discourses denies, essential its ontological validity.

In Christianity we can readily identify hell and heaven as occupying the lower and higher positions, once literally so in the popular consciousness. We can expect that the pervasive influence of Christianity upon the Western psyche will have resulted in lingering influences, even when our culture is seen as predominantly secular. We still speak of a terrible experience being ‘hellish’ and of a pleasant one as ‘heavenly’. In the criminal ‘underworld’ and the realms of ‘stardom’ we may detect classical allusions, but these images retain traction also because they speak to something innate. We talk of ‘low life’ to denote disreputable realms of behaviours, and the ‘high life’ to express rich or opulent lifestyles.

Paradisiacal elsewhereness is no longer something that is only a post mortem experience. These days it is ‘heaven on Earth’, even if only for a brief interlude. The magical luxury of a holiday in the sun carries the echoes of the ancient land beyond the horizon, but as a destination for restoration and recreation; and both these terms have connotations of rebirth and (unfortunate) return to the mundane world.

Between the criminal underworld and the privileged high life of ‘stars’ lies the middle world of the mundane life, from which one may, traditionally, escape to the upper levels through virtue and fortune, or descend beneath when neither is present. The same linear moral scheme is echoes in the traditional social classes: lower, middle and upper.

Magical devices

Greenfield’s thoughts concerning the animistic potential of technologies merits further exploration. I want to think about technologies in the sense of enabling the doing of things that could not otherwise be done, and those that make the doing of something easier – saving time and labour. The first time humans picked up a stone to smash a bone to get to the marrow enabled something that could otherwise not be attained by intent. The development of laser surgical techniques has made operations once too perilous to contemplate possible. But the majority of our technologies make the doing easier.

Many devices make it possible to do things that once could be only dreamt of or wished for. Other devices virtually ‘democratise’ the magical and the paranormal. The magical skills that enabled remote transfer of thoughts and sight were once attributed only to wizards, witches and shamans. Now it is possible to use mobile phone and satellite technologies to replicate these feats. There was a time when a person walking down the street animatedly engaged in conversation with no apparent companion would have been thought quite mad (or, more generously, one blessed by a spiritual gift). Now we need to confirm the absence of a Bluetooth earpiece before conferring such a diagnosis.

As well as the animation of technological devices, they are reducing in size and becoming less obtrusive, less evident. The microchip is becoming a pervasive resident in toys and domestic appliances. And as technologies advance the energies they use and the media with which they operate is moving outside the purely physical realm into the fuzzy quantum domain on the boundary of physical existence.

In a very real way technology is oriented toward serving our dreams and allowing us to more fully inhabit our imagination as much as it serves the more evident needs of maintaining and refining our physical existence.

I argue that technology is responding to our innate propensity for both animistic and magical thought. What drives now innovation (especially in computing) may be less a response to the instincts of our physicality and far more a deeper, more primal, and maybe more fundamental, imperative. Palaeoanthropologist Peter McAllister has reviewed the status of the modern male in his book, Manthropology, (Hachette 2009) and argues that, “every man in history, back to the dawn of the species, did everything better, faster, stronger and smarter than any man today.” (from publisher’s website).  Technology has certainly been a significant contributor to the decline in our physical prowess, and our appetite for the nonphysical, for the imaginative and the magical, seems undiminished but perhaps more realized and realizable than ever before.

The chief point to make here is that our development of technology has not been confined to the substitution of physically demanding or onerous tasks, enhancing physical pleasures or salving psychological anxieties. I maintain it has been also employed to respond to more complex impulses, including a passion for the magical and animistic. The relatively disproportionate representation of supramundane and supranormal themes among popular movies, for example, suggests the possible presence of an element of human behaviour favouring animistic and magical thought.

I argue that technology seeks to inhabit the dream/imagination-state as a medium through which the fantastic is rendered as drama, as with the popular computer generated animations that perpetuate talking animals, for example, in films like Finding Nemo or fairy stories and folklore like Shrek, or as devices that enable quasi lucid dreaming as with virtual reality devices. Technology is not inventing new places andspaces so much as making possible mediated access to the ancient ones, albeit as counterfeit, vicarious experience.

Cyber space has become an analogue of an invisible world, and this is nowhere better demonstrated in the present development on on-line worlds such as Second Life, which boasts a population of 7,880,873 residents, of whom 1,763,640 logged in the past 60 days. Second Life provides a comprehensive economic analysis of its residents’ activities, using its own currency, which can be converted to ‘real’ tangible money. This economic activity includes selling parcels of land, of which 6,287 were available for sale. ( accessed 8/7/07)

It is in technology that we may find the most potent expressions of the magical and the remnants of religious aspiration. Much of our technology brings attributes of the invisible realm to the physical, seeking to render unobstructed the realm that is naturally obstructed. The dream state, the invisible world, has no time or space as we know it, and no gravity. It is unobstructed. White’s (1940) now classic ‘Unobstructed Universe’ expresses the distinction between physical and non-physical time and space in five essential points:

  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 andMotion.
  5. The co-existent trilogia of the unobstructed universe … is Receptivity, Conductivity and Frequency. (1940 p. 59)

The relationship between events/forms expresses differently relative to the medium of manifestation. The essence of White’s argument is that what we perceive as time and space, the material world, is a lower, or denser, analogue of attributes that function within the invisible world. It is these attributes that we witness most lucidly in computer generated ‘worlds’ in cyber space, where the analogue physical world displays apparent space, where none exists, though it is experienced as existing. Here also the time taken for something to happen can be diminished or expanded elastically because none of the process impediments of the ‘real’ lumpy world apply. The relationships between events remain, but they are no longer constrained to conform to material world rules. The ideal of the invisible, unimpeded world has become the ideal oftechnology.

It is perhaps paradoxical that in an age that is often asserted to be grossly materialistic, we may be witnessing a de-materialisation, as we further engage with the imaginative and magical through devices whose presence is less and less apparent. These same devices are also becoming more and more animated, in appearance at least.

The biological dimension – hard wired for the sacred?

Brain research appears to be confirming ancient knowledge, though there is still an understandable reluctance to admit that there may be another order of reality involved. Instead, it is claimed that the brain still generates the things that would otherwise appear to be ‘unreal’. In terms of scientific method this is entirely appropriate, because the invisible world does not yet routinely register on the instruments of the visible material world.

Research into ‘spiritual’ experiences and into the impact of psychoactive compounds remains at the contentious edge of scientific research. The work done is suggestive to a sympathetic inquirer that further advances will support the assumptions and assertions of ‘believers’. While this may turn out to be the case, I want to go no further than saying that the implications are favourable, and appear not to rule out spiritual interpretations. There is a concern is that reliance on science that is faithful to a conservatively methodological approach can be abused when the evidence is extrapolated to support a hypothesis long before the science is completed. At present the science suggests that anticipations of vindication might be valid, but it by no means has yet served up ‘proof positive’.

That innate human propensity for connection with the other reality that is translated as a religious impulse, or the brain being hardwired for God is now being asserted to be inherent within our biology, in the architecture and chemistry of the brain (Newberg, D’Aquili & Rause 2001; Pearce 2002; Strassman 2001). This has led to interesting speculation on the ‘survival’ values of a biologically determined instinct for the mystical, confined within the ground rules of atheistic Darwinism. Can a propensity for the metaphysical and spiritual be hardwired into the brain to serve entirely biological imperatives?

Newberg et al do see clear physiological and psychological benefits from beliefs and practices of a spiritual nature. They say:

Evidence suggests that the deepest origins of religion are based on mystical experience, and that religion persists because the wiring of the human brain continues to provide believers with a range of unitary experiences … evolution has adopted this machinery, and has favoured the religious capabilities of the brain because religious beliefs and behaviours turn out to be good for us in profound and pragmatic ways. (p. 129)

Strassman’s (2001) work on DMT, which occurs in nature as well as in humans, and to a remarkable degree, hints at the possibility that it may be more than humans who have an inbuilt supply of DMT to assist their communion with the sacred. This would be very much an animistic perspective. If we accept that plants and animals are animate conscious spirit beings with physical counterparts then we cannot rule out the role of DMT as a means of attaining ‘peak experiences’ across the board, and perhaps more than humans are biologically ‘hard-wired’ for the sacred.

Strassman says of DMT that it:

Provides, regular, repeated and reliable access to “other” channels. The other planes of existence are always there. In fact they are right here, transmitting all the time. But we cannot perceive them because we are not designed to do so; our hard wiring keeps us tuned in to Channel Normal. (pp. 315-6)

Here we have contrasting perspectives, one proposing that the brain is hard-wired to the sacred and the other that it is also hard-wired to the ‘normal’. Both see a common attainment of a unitary state, induced by a number of means, including ingestion of psychoactive substances, ritual methods and intense physical excitation.

It would not be unreasonable to expect that the physical and chemical architecture of the brain would ‘fit’ the experiences that come from the range of ‘spiritual’ experiences, nor that the reports of mystics and shamans would find confirmation through scientific investigation. But interpreting what this means remains deeply contentious. How do we define the benefits of a hard-wired propensity for the sacred in the context of a cultural ontology that has substantially dismissed the heritage of mystical and spiritual  thought? Strassman’s position, like that of McKenna & McKenna (1993) is less cautious than Newberg et al, because the latter remain within the boundaries of scientific enquiry that presumes no validity to the assertions of other domains beyond the material. That there is a fit between the shamanic and mystical  and the science of the brain invites the assumption of validity of knowledge systems derived from such traditions, and perhaps, as research continues the fit and validity issues will be more definitively addressed.

There is potential to explore the nature of the membrane that divides the ‘normal’ from the ‘mystical’, considering the discourses of the grand esoteric and religious systems that promote unitary consciousness as the objective of human endeavour. This might also be matched to the unitary tendencies that appear to be inherent in evolving technologies – especially the emphasis on connectedness and communication.

The monomyth

Campbell asserted that a certain persistent theme was common across the body of human mythology, and he called this the “monomyth. In effect this ‘monomyth’ is the final test of the persistent and pervasive presence of animism in any culture.

To Campbell the monomythic theme arises as “the one shape-shifting yet marvellously constant story that we find, together with a challengingly persistent suggestion that more remaining to be experienced than will ever be known or told.” (1993 p. 3) It operates through myth, which Campbell sees as the “living inspiration of what ever else may have appeared out of the activities of the human body and mind.” (Ibid p. 3) And Campbell is bold enough to assert that “…it would not be too much to say that myth is the secret opening through which the inexhaustible energies of the cosmos pour into human cultural manifestation.” (Ibid p. 3) But it is almost ‘too much to say‘ by virtue of saying it is not. Nevertheless Campbell framed a large question: “What is the secret of the timeless vision? From what profundity of the mind does it  arrive? Why is mythology everywhere the same, beneath its varieties of costume? And what does it teach? (Ibid p. 4)

In setting out to answer these questions Campbell defines the hero as “a personage of exceptional gifts. Frequently his is honoured by his society, frequently unrecognised or distained. He and/or the world in which he finds himself suffering from a symbolic deficiency.” (Ibid p. 37). The central theme of the monomyth is a ‘journey’ that is “a magnification of the rites of passage: separation-initiation-return.” (Ibidp. 30). In effect, then, the monomyth is the making of the shamanic, the culture hero who undergo “agonising sacrificial torture, death and often dismemberment in the spirit world and subsequent reassembly and rebirth in his earthly body, now equipped with shamanic supernatural power.” (Hancock 2005 p. 271)

The reason that the monomyth and its hero have central concern to cultures is, as Eliade observes, because those who possess the ability to move between the worlds are the vital link in connecting humans on the physical side of the veil with what is beyond. The myths tell the story of the visible and invisible world intersecting and of the journeying to the invisible realms. He says, “these myths refer to a time when communication between heaven and earth was possible; in consequence of a certain event; or ritual fault, the communication was broken off; but heroes and medicine men are nevertheless able to re-establish it.” (1988 p. 133) In short, reconnection has been a pervasive human theme and objective. Regardless of the historical reality we can see that Christianity inflated the Jesus story to match the monomyth. Jesus  represents the last monomythic hero who exists in a time of real mythos, regardless of the historical dimension. For Western culture, the AD dating might represent the last symbolic presence of a mythic character believed widely to have been divine. But the fundamental drive of the monomyth persists because it is essential to the human psyche. The innate spiritual impulse is towards what the hero/shaman can do. But because we cannot all be heroes and shamans, the stories that mirror the monomyth assure us that somebody can.

In the West the monomyth is alive and well, though in a somewhat materialistic or secular form. It lives on in Superman, who has superhuman powers but the flaw of susceptibility to Kryptonite. Superman is the hero of the industrial age, and there is no overt sense of the mystical in him. The hero is Luke Skywalker with the ability to draw power from ‘The Force’, and whose hand his father cut off. In a strange kind of way the hero is also Star Trek’s android, Data, who is a humanist version of the mythic hero. He possesses the superhuman powers of a robotic brain, and is flawed in the lack of ability to experience human emotions, and therefore to be fully human, In numerous other ways truncated and embellished versions of the monomyth play out in dramas on television and movie theatres. The journey may be only to defeat the ‘bad guys; and the supernatural powers are really only supernormal – to a secular sense, the supernatural has to be encoded, and may be no more than flash weapons or powers concocted in a computer. But that is enough. The good guy suffers and struggles against evil, and restores good to the world, children to their parents or freedom to the oppressed. These are costume dramas that colour the monomyth in the appropriate cloth of belief and believability of a culture and an age.

Does animism persist?

I have argued that there are fundamental continuances of the essential elements of animism in Western culture from diverse sources, historical and contemporary and that it seems as if this way of knowing  seeks and finds expression as cultural contexts permit it do so. It seems to be present as an innate undercurrent permeating the superstructure of time and circumstance through available forms and avenues. It also appears to be spontaneously celebrated as a valued component of human life, especially childhood.

The celebration of the animistic stage of childhood, as described by Piaget, should, I think, give us pause. Not only are inanimate objects accorded animate attributes but ‘imaginary friends’ are present. It is difficult to imagine that there is any utility of evolutionary or survival value in such a stage without there being some deeper underpinning factor. It is adults who enable, perpetuate, develop and market the plethora of animistic childhood orientated things. Is this just an honouring of childhood or capitalisation upon it? Or could there be that in adults the animistic phase is subverted, rather than transcended and the things of childhood cannot be put away until they are honoured and integrated?

The first toy I bought my grandson was a truck, chosen for its sturdy construction and functionality. It was only later that I discovered eyes on the windscreen and mouth, of simple linear design, on the grille. The effect was that of happy endeavour. I am not sure he noticed it as he subjected the toy to his robust and ill- coordinated pleasure. Nevertheless the eyes and mouth signified something to the designer.

As I write these notes I am sitting at a footpath table outside my favourite café in Katoomba. My coffee has arrived in a blue mug with eyes, a bump for a nose and a mouth. The ‘emotion’ conveyed is that of anxious concern. The eyes are downcast, playing over the page of my notebook, and I might be induced to think the mug is gazing on my words, thinking, “What are you thinking? How could you possibly think that? Are you mad?” This is not a child’s thing, but it is playful, perhaps a comic code acknowledging some secret animistic thought, with which I am invited to engage.

This makes me wonder, also, about the names of football teams – sharks, tigers, lions, panthers, bulls, dragons, and eagles. It is as if we are responding to some innate impulse to evoke totemic animal images as emblematic of male potency. It is no less than we do in ordinary speech, invoking animal characteristics to convey particular meaning – chicken, dog, goat, ass, rat and turkey come immediately to mind. Are we acknowledging, outside the formal and rational ontological discourses, that there are some things that are meaningful and powerful and effective, that are best drawn from a now seemingly remote history of our development? Or have we not really transcended the animism of childhood or our ancient heritage? Guthrie sees similar things, adding that we name cars and planes after animals and birds. He concludes that, “Animism, then, seems intrinsic to perception.” (Ibid p. 61)

Jay Griffiths (2007) probably grasps the challenge of Charlton’s recovered animism more than most in the publication of Wild: an Elemental Journey. She confirms the apparent universality of the essential animistic precepts, struggling to endure within surviving traditional indigenous cultures in the 21st Century, against the ineluctable encroachment of Western culture, but mostly yielding and diminishing with great sadness, as if something monumental and profound is being lost.

Griffiths starkly articulates the fundamental dilemma the contemporary Western way presents to those within it, and of it, who are sensitive to the bleak dichotomy that has evolved between civilisation and nature. For though the homo-centric Western way has striven to become a full system that embraces and satisfies the need for mythos, or to eradicate it as ‘irrational’, fit only for gentle indulgence as fantasy, the boundary is porous, and yearning for the natural, the wild, the animistic has not abated.

She says of the dwellers in the Amazon “they will tell you of different ways of knowing. The Western way, they say, is merely theoretical; their own way is better, for it is both spiritual and practical, involving a constant moral dimension that includes a respect for nature”. (p. 16) It is this moral dimension, the respect for nature that lies at the centre of a culture that generates the divide between the Western way and those ways it has encircled and constricted. The animistic sense is at the root of the distinction. Griffiths says that:

Amazonian people speak of spirits everywhere in the forests. The Kukama people say there are spirits in the streams, lakes, salt licks, and in small garden plots.

One Shawi man comments, “We Shawi think that every living thing has its own  spirit.”  For a Shiwilu man, Fidel Lomas Chota, there is a connection between wildness and spirit; domesticated plants don’t have any spirit, but by contrast las frutas sylvestres, wild fruits, have spirits, and everything in el monte (the wild forest) has a dueño, spirit. (Ibid pp. 44-5)

The idea that spirits are absent from ‘denatured’ place is common, as Griffiths found, with the same sentiment being expressed among Papuans and among the Inuit. It is as if the natural spirits are displaced, excluded or simply depart when the moral dimension of human conduct loses connection with the natural world, even if it is the simple erection of a fence or intentional gardening. (My partner, a naturopath, prefers ‘wild crafted’ herbs as opposed to farmed ones, and similar preferences are expressed in relation to such as fish and game animals by those of discerning tastes.) The notion of a moral dimension, a sense of lawfulness is central to traditional culture, but not laws conceived by humans, rather how humans respond to the natural world. “For indigenous people, Law is the land and Nature is anything but lawless; rather there is a profound core of order within wild nature.” (Ibid p.228) Griffiths catalogues this notion of ‘natural law’, saying:

This universal law, or Way is Asha in Zoroastrian thought, Maat for the ancient Egyptians, R’ta in Vedic India, Dharma for Hindus and Buddhists, the Tao in ancient China. For the Greeks, Themis was goddess of law, the law of nature as distinct from human law (and when Themis is disregarded Nemesis brings retribution). The deep law of nature was Maligait for the Inuit, it was Wouncage, the old way, for the Oglala Lakota and the Dreaming for Aboriginal people. They are all expressions of a profound Law beneath everything, a Way of being. Wildness, nature, freedom and law are all part of this Way, not in opposition to it. Wildness – complex, free, beautiful and only apparently chaotic – is part of a larger deeper order.(Ibid p 288).

Griffiths summaries the wounding dichotomy that has emerged in Western thought. She observes that “Terms for sin and evil were taken from the natural world … Terms for sinners were also terms taken from nature … By contrast, the words for virtue do not lean to nature but to the off-ground sky.” (Ibid p. 247)

Redfield (1968) makes a related point concerning the transition from ‘primitive’ to civilised life, saying that: “The point which we are to insist … is that in the early condition of human societies, the nexus which held people to together was moral.” (Ibid p.28) and that “…every pre-civilized society of the past fifty or seventy-five millenniums had a moral order to which the technical order was subordinate.” (p.30) Redfield’s concern is that foundation of values alters as the conditions and nature of human activity changes. He observes that, “In civilization the old moral order suffers, but new states of mind are developed by which the moral order is, to some significant degree, taken in charge.” (Ibid p. 37) The new states of mind take charge of the moral order through thought and language, as well as the priorities of conduct.

Griffiths recognises the Earth – Heaven dichotomy, engraved into language and thought, conditioned by tradition that reaches back into the very foundations of Western culture. We can see the Greek influence, when rationalism established the distinction between what is valued and what is not. She says:

To the Greeks the city was a way of thinking and represented rationality. The city-state was associated with (male) reason and contrasted with (female) irrationality of the wilderness. The city, with its plumb lines and right angles, represented the straight lines of logic, not the winding ways of intuitive emotional thought.

The city represents law and order (the word police derives from Greek polis, “town”, while the “villains” dwell in lawless wild nature outside. The word villain (a Middle English variant of villein, “peasant”) once meant a rustic and the root of the word is in villa – originally the word was merely a simple description of where someone dwelled. The word gradually shifted, coming to mean criminal. (Ibid pp. 34-5)

Thought and language construct a sense of reality for those who live within a culture, and, even if the act is unconscious, and the offence unintended, the perpetuation and preservation of words perpetuates the logic of their evolution. Those ideas and words whose evolved use evokes a shifting set of values can be traced, as Griffiths demonstrates, into a hard polarity – the feminine, natural and Earthly and the masculine, rational and Heavenly.

Griffiths also recognises the central role of the scared mountain, saying that “All over the world, mountains have been considered sacred – it seems to be a human constant.” (Ibid p. 314) But not only are mountains the dwelling place of gods, the home of the spirits of the deceased, the refuges of the rebellious, the mystical and the holy, they are emblematic of the elemental, of wild nature, where Earth and Heaven come together. While Griffiths does not survey Eliade’s notion of the surrogate sacred mountain as the ziggurats and pyramids of human fiat, her central thesis makes it possible to grasp the degree to which the human-made, conceived in the linearity of geometry, and located within the city, constitutes an absolute capture and transformation of iconic image of natural spiritual energy. Here we can imagine the first fault- lines, the initial forces of separation, of the creation of the enduring dichotomy.

The classical, Taoist text, the Tao Te Ching, says “The ways of men are conditioned by those of earth. The ways of earth by those of heaven. The ways of heaven by those of the Tao, and the ways of the Tao by the Self-so.” (Waley, p 26 1997). The traditional animistic ways are emphatically Earth-centred. Griffiths observed that:

For the Amazonian people there are spirits or essences within reality, and this essence takes different forms – human, bird or animal – but since the essence is the same, the spirit in one form can transform into another form –a kind of Ovidian metamorphosis known throughout the forests, The same life force is in everything, animating you and the eagle, the glossy leaf and the kingfisher, the jaguar and me.

Creatures are gentle I’m told, everywhere I go in the Amazon: they are “people like us” with customs and homes and they are accorded gentleness for being gentle. You must address the world gently, I was told, even to the wind you should speak con cariño –with tenderness. The Harakmbut told me that all animals were people más allá – long ago – and there is a profound equality between us and them. (Ibid p. 57)

This fundamental fellow-feeling at the root of indigenous and traditional Law generates a profound response to perceptions of Western conduct. “Yuri Rytkheu comments that in many Chukchi legends, the words for “white man” and “enemy” are synonymous. The newcomers were identified “as the physical embodiment of the evil spirits, as the personification of avarice and contempt for the rules of human conduct.” (Ibid p.132). Trudgen (2000) says the Yolnu people of the Northern Territory saw Europeans as “lawless” and yet with tremendous power. And Campbell saw that heaven became the source of a new way of knowing. Heaven-centred knowledge did appear to alter the way some humans saw the Earth, seeing it no longer as a scared being or presence from which they derived the essentials for life, but as a resource to be exploited and transformed, redeemed into the model of heaven. The idea that Western ontology developed into a sub-set that is lawless in relation to the long tradition of ontologies that linked human/Earth relations in a complex and intimate way is one I think we need to consider deeply.

What Griffiths essentially demonstrates is that no matter the degree to which the animistic architecture can be found within Western culture, it is constructed on a logic that is fundamentally at odds with those who continue within, or cling to the remnants of, life ways that intimately bind human being and behaviour to the Earth. The progressive emergence of ‘Heaven’ as the source of Law seems to have had the effect of ‘cutting out the middle man’: humans, rather than deriving Law from Earth in the Taoist sense, sought to draw Law directly from heaven. The development of science, especially its evolution from the advent of quantum theory, and more so with the development of chaos, complexity and systems theories is enabling a rethink of human/Earth relations. This is also happening at a time when disastrous ecological concerns are inviting us to rethink the way we are interacting with natural systems.

The promise of Heaven seems to have played out its drama over five millennia or longer. The bubble that began as the establishment a connection between the human and the divine atop a surrogate mountain has expanded to create a human-made realm within which we are perfectly adapted as members of the  Western culture. In its own way it has become a model, a mimic of a larger system, now expelled, following the principles of self-organisation.

Griffiths sees that wildness has not been banished from civilised humans, rather it has been confined and shaped. And while it seems to have been tamed, rendered docile, it does simmer, like Bates’ sleeping dragons, and shimmer with potential.

If our culture, our way of knowing, despite being a seeming bubble of ontological hubris, remains fundamentally modelled on an innate architecture, if Charlton is right (in company with Guthrie) in his assertion that “Consciousness just is animistic”, then Griffiths may offer us something that is valuable in her comment, that after the seven years journeying to experience and to write Wild, “In the end – a  strangely sweet result – I came back to a wild home.” (Ibid p.3)

Of all I had read, Griffiths’ work touched me most deeply, throwing me back into memories of wild places of my childhood, and how I found a natural ‘fit’ in solitary wandering along creek beds or sea shores, often to my parents’ consternation. On my most recent birthday (Jan 22nd) I had an unexpected call from my stepfather, a man of deep Pentecostal commitment. He reminded me of something I had forgotten, of how I had numerous times ‘gone bush’ and simply had forgotten to go home. It bought back memories of how every wild place, no matter how, small, even a vacant block in our suburb, drew me. I would spend hours observing, sometimes closely, small creatures or a waterway that trickled through tangles of blackberry and weeds.

I wrote to Griffiths on 15 September 2007 to thank her for the book, saying, in part:

I don’t propose Goddess as a literal idea (not saying it isn’t either), but I do see clearly that it is a perfect archetypal metaphor that enables the creation of a coherent and workable thought/feeling model. What ‘Wild’ did for me was to give that idea the clothing of human passion, the shape formed from raw experience. It breathed life into it. Thank you. You reminded me what I had almost let become dulled – that visceral sense of being in the presence of the wild world.

Chapter Three

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

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 & Wagnells 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 arosefrom 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 Wagnells 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 thesediverse 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 andinteract with the sphere of human experience, bringing consequences that need tobe 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 andpreconception.

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 fromthem.

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 theconventions of my step-father’s faith and was deeply unappealing. Later, at thefamily 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, (1985. 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 tochildhood – 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 hadto 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 ofunderstanding.

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 thatprevailed.

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 spiritsand ghosts are realities, and for whom the world is spirit infused and thought to bealive 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.