This is a guest post by author, lecturer and occultist Julian Vayne. It is an essay that attempts to go beyond the simplistic and unhelpful real/not real debate about spirits. First published at theblogofbaphomet.com
The question of the ‘reality’ or otherwise of aliens/elves/spirit beings seems to be a perennial one. Two recent lectures, at The Birmingham Psychedelic Society and at the Nova Stella pagan moot in London, this was a subject of discussion. Aficionados of N,N-DMT, ayahuasca and some other psychedelics, notably high doses of psilocybin, also get to wrestle with this problem. What are the ‘spirits’ that we may encounter when in these altered states?
Perhaps one of the greatest modern commentators on the Western encounter with the entheogenic spirit realm is Terence McKenna. He famously and carefully engineered our appreciation of the entities from DMT space. He developed a highly open-ended mythology that permitted multiple interpretations of his nevertheless emphatically held ideas; the importance of psychedelics in the evolution of humans, the existence of intelligence in the DMT experience, and of a world heading towards an apocalyptic omega point. McKenna remains, in much of his writing and lectures, radically uncertain—or perhaps unwilling—to advance a simple single answer to the question ‘what are these DMT spirits really?’.
Earlier, in the 20th century, Aleister Crowley also addressed the question of the ‘reality’ of entities such as gods, angels, spirits and demons. He counsels the student of magic to be simultaneously respectful of the phenomena and suspicious of its ultimate origin and meaning. And while Crowley, like McKenna, got swept up within a personal apocalyptic narrative (in Crowley’s case that of being The Beast 666), much of AC’s work espouses a significant degree of indeterminacy when it comes to the ‘reality’ of the stories we tell ourselves.
Crowley writes in Magick in Theory and Practice:
In this book it is spoken of the Sephiroth and the Paths; of
Spirits and Conjurations; of Gods, Spheres, Planes, and
many other things which may or may not exist. It is
immaterial whether these exist or not. By doing certain
things certain results will follow; students are most
earnestly warned against attributing objective reality or
philosophic validity to any of them.
Psychedelic countercultural hero and outlaw chemist Casey Hardison, in conversation with leading historian of psychedelics Andy Roberts, considers this issue too. In an interview for Robert’s book Acid Drops, Casey is asked for his views on the objective reality of these entities. In a characteristically brilliant answer Hardison opines thus:
Andy Roberts: Some people have claimed that during a
psychedelic experience they have had contact with/been
contacted by what might be termed intelligences or entities.
Have you had any such experiences? If so can you give an
Casey Hardison: I have no certainty this has ever happened
to me. I have, however, made shit up to this effect. I tend to
think that the molecules themselves are entities. And, they
have given me great insight into the vastness of my
intelligence. Sure, I’ve seen the typical machine elves
laughing at me and thought ayahuasca was an alien being
that resides in my brainstem but I was high at the time.
AR: Do you think these experiences represent objective/real
experiences involving entities external to the mind/body,
whether their origin is earthly, extra-terrestrial, inter-
dimensional, aspects of our mind/psyche or a mixture of
any of these and more?
CH: No. I think that these experiences are personifications
of the DNA instincts innate to us. They appear to be
generated and sensed by our own brains. Jung would call
them manifestations of the archetypes. Plato had his
perfect forms. I tend to keep it simple and not tool off about
possible alien intelligences. In short, I do not know. If there
are aliens, I can’t wait to try their drugs.
DMT and related tryptamines may flick a neurochemical switch in our heads that induces a sense of ‘the real’, but that is not the same as saying that the subjective experiences generated by this medicine are real in the same way that these words or your mother are real. While many DMT visions may contain similar content, and while psychedelic drugs may promote conditions where phenomena such as apparent telepathy take place (leading to shared visionary experience), the notion that these chemicals allow us to interface with a ‘separate reality’, as Castaneda might have put it, is sparse.
Such notions of an ‘astral plane’ existing as an ‘objective’ realm in the way our apparent world does are not only the preserve of popular shamanism. Neurologist Andrew Gallimore hopes that one day we can get the dose and duration of DMT right so that; “we can envisage a time in the near future when a brave voyager might spend hours in their [the DMT elves] realm, asking specific questions, performing experiments, and bringing us closer to an independently verifiable relationship with citizens of an alternate universe”.
The curious thing (for magicians) is that DMT entities are hailed as ‘real’ denizens of some imagined—but in no way objectively supportable—alternate universe, whereas gods, ghosts, servitors, nature spirits and all the rest get (perhaps conveniently) forgotten. This perhaps says more about researchers’ lack of knowledge about other ‘entities’ not encountered through mind-bending psychedelics, and their habitual use of real/not real dichotomous conceptual models to understand imaginal entities, than it does about the entities themselves. Sure, when we have our ontological noses tweaked while high on drugs by the dance of a ‘jewelled, self- transforming basketball’ such as described by McKenna, we may be shocked by what we encounter. However, when people report spirits in other contexts (such as hauntings, channellings, UFO abductions and evocations) many folk are prone to dismiss these as purely subjective perceptions. The unspoken assumption seems to run; ‘seeing ghosts=temporal lobe epilepsy or delusional thinking’, whereas ‘seeing technicolour morphing faces after smoking a crack pipe of DMT=possible evidence of another parallel universe’.
Aside of Gallimore’s proposal of getting super high on intravenous DMT, there are other approaches we can try to explore the ontological reality of spirits. One of the best documented examples of this process is the so-called ‘Philip Experiment’ conducted by the Toronto Society for Psychical Research in the early 1970s. To cut a long and fascinating story short, the group created a fictional entity (‘Philip’) who they proceeded to ‘contact’ by deploying the usual technology of spiritualist séances. As one might predict, even though the spirit was ‘imaginary’, including a backstory that deliberately contained logically contradictory information, the team soon end up getting ‘actual’ psychic phenomena. Their imagined spirit became ‘real.’
How might we, as magicians, as people that work with spirits—with or without the administration of strange drugs—make sense of what’s going on and escape the cul-de- sac of Cartesian dualism that demands spirits be either ‘real’ (in the way that ravens and writing desks are real) or imaginary (by which we really mean ‘not real’)?
When we begin to unpack the ideas contained in words like ‘spirits’, we can get closer to a more nuanced appreciation of what may be really going on. ‘Spirit’ is a small word with a vast collection of potential meanings. Wikipedia observes:
The word spirit is often used metaphysically to refer to the
consciousness or personality. The notions of a person’s
spirit and soul often also overlap, as both contrast with
body and both are believed to survive bodily death in some
religions, and “spirit” can also have the sense of “ghost”,
i.e. a manifestation of the spirit of a deceased person.
Let’s take the ‘spirit’ of a human person as our exemplar. Where does that spirit live? What creates it? Out of what stuff does it emerge? Where does it go when the person dies?
Let’s start with the body. This is particularly relevant since the word ‘spirit’ is from the Latin spiritus meaning ‘breath’. The physical body of a person exists in intimate relationship with the environment. People are born, nourished and raised. As we develop physically, we are admitted into the collective conspiracy of language and culture. Our minds emerge through this network of relationships. The physical architecture of the body itself is also about relationships, it is a vast interplay of electrochemical interactions. If we say that there is a ‘spirit’ here, that spirit consists of the sum total of these socio-cultural and electrochemical processes. We might say that the spirit is that which we recognize as the holistic entity (the personality) that arises from this complex web of interactions. When it comes to people, we imagine that the spirit dwells somehow within the physical anatomy of the person we associate with it (and in modern Western culture we locate it more specifically in the brain), but in the event of illness or death that spirit may be released from the confines of the body.
For example; it may have been the case that at least one person in ancient Israel was the human individual that inspired the Gospels to be written. If that person lived, they had a body made of interacting physical forces, existing within a cultural space. After death (especially when empowered by the miraculous story of a resurrection) they inhabit instead only the cultural space. This post-mortem entity grows and becomes branded as the ‘Spirit of Christ’.
Once we understand that ‘spirit’ is the word we give to personality or entity that emerges from a series of processes (physical and cultural) we can see why we apply the word in so many contexts. We can meaningfully talk about the spirit of a place, an epoch, an ancestor and more. Does this mean the spirits are ‘real’? The answer is clearly ‘yes’.
We often encounter this approach in magic where the practitioner is encouraged to embrace their perception of these spirits as ‘real’ entities. As magician and author Ramsey Dukes and many others have pointed out, imagining that the recalcitrant office photocopier has a personality (as does your car, boat, computer or whatever) confers a variety of advantages as a strategy to interact with such machines. This is hardly surprising because interacting with self-aware entities is what the human nervous system is designed to do. Our brain has evolved to recognise faces above all else, and our whole organism is geared up to interact with other humans. We are a deeply social species. In ceremony when we invoke the gods, we interact with them as though they are ‘real’ independent beings because that viewpoint provides the best results and it’s what we do best.
However, there are other times when we may be only interested in one small set of interactions within a system. By way of an example; if I were a doctor helping a patient with diabetes, while I would want to talk to them as a thinking, feeling, intelligent entity, I would also want to approach the measurement of the level of insulin in the blood as a predominantly mechanical chemical process. It’s about using the most appropriate conceptual tool for the job in hand. To give another example with a slightly different emphasis; if I look at a painting, I might describe the image in terms of its location within the canon of Western art (the art historical view). I may decide to talk about the image in terms of what it means to me and how it makes me feel (the personal aesthetic view). If I’m a conservator of paintings I may be primarily interested in the chemical composition of the paints (a purposeful, reductionist mechanical view). Like the wise men feeling the body of the elephant, each view is ‘a truth’, a ‘reality’. Truth is inevitably partial. Depending on what we want to achieve the person, and especially the magician, selects the approach that is the most helpful. Inside the ritual we interact with ‘the gods’; outside we may choose to view them as psychological constructs or convenient fictions.
The dichotomy of real/unreal is dissolved by this way of thinking. Breaking down this dichotomy allows us to admit the reality of subjective perception (of ghosts or DMT elves) but doesn’t seek blunt Occam’s razor and postulate a different order of reality populated by entities that exist in some vaguely hypothesized alternative universe.
A close look at all disincarnate entities, from Father Christmas through to Aeonic Word transmitting Holy Guardian Angels, shows how these things emerge from within the cultural experience of the person experiencing
them. In the case of the haunting of Philip this imagined being was conjured into a certain setting (1970s spiritualism and parapsychology) and true to form behaves in ways that make sense in that context.
In summary we can suggest:
- A spirit is our perception and recognition of an
apparently external (i.e. non-self) entity.
- This spirit emerges from a complex set of interactions
which may include physical processes (e.g. the spirit of a
living person that dwells in their body) and/or cultural
forms (e.g. a character in fiction).
- We can choose to interact with the spirit as a separate
entity without assuming that it has any kind of ‘objective’
- We can choose to interact with one or more of the
processes that appear as a spirit entity, and disregard the
idea of its apparent personality.
- We can admit the real subjective experience (‘I met a
ghost’) and simultaneously recognise that cultural and
other factors inform our experience (in Medieval Europe
people met tricksy fairies, in modern America they
encounter anal-probing aliens).
During my first journey with ayahuasca I encountered the spirit of the brew as the Queen of the Forest. While I danced and sang in the ceremony a giant mantis-like entity descended from the ceiling and, amusingly, in a voice that sounded rather like British comic Kenneth Williams, said; ‘well, how nice to see you here!’ Now it may be the case that in some imagined spiritual-quantum-woo alternate universe this being had a radically separate existence and had contacted me from a parallel dimension. I would suggest that the spirit was the emergent property of Banisteriopsis caapi + Psychotria viridis + the ceremony (which was Santo Daime style, and therefore included songs about the Queen of theForest) + my mind (my memories and associations both personal and collective).
This isn’t the same as saying the spirit wasn’t ‘real’, for it was undoubtedly a genuine experience for me of an objective entity. Rather, I suggest that the ‘spirit’ is the sum total of these interactions (including presumably my familiarity with the genius of the camp-Cockney comic) expressed in my awareness, at that time, as an apparently externally manifesting independent, talking entity.
Remember, as Casey says, ‘I tend to think that the molecules themselves are entities’ which is another statement of this magical approach. DMT entities are real but they live not in a different dimension but instead emerge when human brains meet this molecule. For me this is a much more satisfying answer than anything possible within the dichotomy of real/not real.
This approach to entities places magic and the spirit realm radically within the universe we inhabit, and in my opinion accords much more closely with many animist and panpsychic views of reality both ancient and modern. This approach explains the confusion that ethnographers often face when interacting with animist cultures whether they are researching in ‘traditional tribal’ or ‘modern (post) industrial’ contexts; that there often seems to be no hard and fast distinction between people, animals, so-called inanimate objects, ‘subjective’ feelings, spirit beings, ancestors and gods. While the Cartesian tradition in Western thought desires neat distinctions this isn’t how many, or perhaps even most, cultures actually work.
We should, as Dr Gallimore suggests, continue to explore the DMT realm, but I wonder if framing this exploration in terms of a quest to discern whether the elves are ‘real’ or not, is a profound misunderstanding of the phenomenology of spirits. Or, as The Queen of the Forest in her incarnation as Kenneth Williams might say: ‘Stop messing about!’