Dec. 6, 2017 (EcoSophia.net) -- Last week’s post here on Ecosophia.net dealt with some of the reasons why so many people in today’s industrial societies are acutely uncomfortable with the suggestion that the forces and processes of nature might be persons rather than things.
That’s what we’re discussing, after all, when we talk about nature spirits. The world of spirits, as it’s understood by occult philosophy, isn’t some alien realm whose inhabitants leap through into our world, violating natural laws with impunity; the world of spirits is the inner side of the world we experience with our senses.
I’m probably going to have to explain that, and then repeat it several times in different ways, because it flies in the face of some of our culture’s most deeply entrenched notions about reality. Thus people who’ve been raised in Western industrial societies are very good at not processing it and not thinking about it. Operative mages -- people who practice magic, the art and science of causing change in consciousness in accordance with will -- don’t live in some flashy otherworld like Middle-Earth, or even in a “wizarding world” linked with the ordinary world via anomalous train stations and the like. They live in the same world that scientific materialists do, and they’re subject to the same natural laws that scientific materialists are.
What makes the operative mage’s experience of the world differ from the scientific materialists’ experience is that the mage encounters the world through a wider range of senses than the materialist, and so perceives aspects of the world that the materialist doesn’t. The other senses just mentioned aren’t anything strange or exotic; everyone has them -- but in most of the modern industrial world, children are thoroughly bullied and browbeaten if they admit to perceiving anything that they’re not supposed to perceive. As a result, by the time they grow up, most of them have learned not to use these senses, or at least not to talk about what they perceive, on the occasions when they encounter something that can’t be ignored.
In the discussion that followed last week’s post, a Shinto priestess who reads this blog (tip of the druidical hat to Patricia O.), mentioned that when she mentions her priestesshood to people she’s just met, a very large number of them want to talk to her about experiences they’ve had with spirits and other things that, according to scientific materialists, aren’t allowed to exist. I’ve had exactly the same experience in my public appearances as a Druid and a student of occult traditions, and I know many other people with similar qualifications who’ve had the same sort of thing happen over and over again. To judge by these experiences, people all over the industrial world are desperate to talk to anyone who will listen intelligently and sympathetically to what they have to say about experiences of this kind, and not just behave like self-appointed members of the reality police.
The issues involved were framed memorably by the poet William Blake a long time ago:
Now I a fourfold vision see
And a fourfold vision is given to me
It is fourfold in my supreme delight
And threefold in soft Beulah’s night
And twofold always. May God us keep
From single vision and Newton’s sleep!
Single vision -- the shrill and dogmatic insistence that real knowledge can only come through the material senses, and must never be understood as anything but the random acts of dead matter and mindless energy in a dead and mindless cosmos -- pervades contemporary industrial civilization. It’s because we’re so used to thinking in these terms that we’ve gotten so good at manipulating matter and energy, but it’s also because we’re so used to thinking in these terms that we’ve done such a dismal job of maintaining the balance of the living planet on which our own lives depend. The old story of King Midas has an uncomfortable parallel here; just as Midas got the power to turn things to gold by touching them, only to discover that his food, his drink, and his daughter also got turned into lumps of yellow metal, we’ve gotten so good at manipulating dead things that we’re only just starting to notice that we’re turning everything around us into dead things, and may well end up turning into dead things in a hurry ourselves if we don’t get a clue or two.
Two of the other three modes of experience Blake was talking about in the poem I’ve just cited are familiar to most if not all of us; again, it’s purely the fact that we were raised in a culture that punishes children for paying attention to such things that keeps us from sharing the fourfold vision he described. You use one of those modes of experience whenever you meet a person or step into a place and pick up what those of us of a certain long-departed subculture used to call the “vibe” of that person or place. That’s a mode of perception as valid as sight or hearing, and like these, it improves through practice and atrophies through neglect.
Like sight or hearing, this other mode is subject to illusions and can’t evade the hard limits of subjectivity, but like sight or hearing, it can also bring accurate and useful information about the world around us. It also has aspects that go well beyond the simple sensing of “vibes” I’ve just mentioned. (I tend to use that simply because almost everyone knows what I’m talking about when I describe it.) The human mind very often casts the experiences that come through this mode in parasensory form: that is to say, you “see” something, or “hear” something, or “touch” something, even though your eyes, your ears, and the nerve endings in your skin don’t seem to be involved at all. Different people have different talents along these lines; there are people who habitually “see things,” or what have you.
That’s the second mode of experience. The third is a little harder to grasp, because our society uses it relentlessly in a one-sided way, and then has to scramble to fit that into the language of single vision; as a result, most of us are really good at not noticing it when it appears. The best way to get a sense of it is to think about what happens when you go from learning something by rote to making sense of it. Take any kind of knowledge that isn’t simply bulk memorization, and you almost certainly go through those two stages; at first it’s just a matter of fumbling your way through things you remember but don’t understand, but at some point things start to click, and you become able to think through them; they become, in a certain sense, transparent to you.
Back in the Middle Ages, before single vision got its claws so deeply embedded in the Western mind, this capacity was called intellectus. You can think of it in English as “understanding,” in the literal sense of standing under something so you can see what makes it tick. It’s a distinctive mode of experience; like the material senses and the perception of “vibes,” it improves through practice and atrophies through neglect, and the aspect of it that shows us how to make existing bodies of knowledge transparent to our awareness is only one of its many uses. It can also be used all by itself, without some existing body of knowledge to direct it. Like the other two modes of experience, it’s fallible and subjective, but like them, it can bring us accurate and useful knowledge of the world that surrounds us.
And the fourth mode of experience, the one that Blake experienced in his “supreme delight”? That’s the mystical experience that’s called satori in Japanese and samadhi in Sanskrit, the integrative insight that makes the entire world transparent to consciousness. Those who have experienced this assure us that nothing that can be said in any human language can do an adequate job of communicating what this mode is about, and so -- well, as the saying among mystics goes, of that concerning which nothing can be said, it is best to remain silent.
So we have four modes of experience -- in Blake’s phrase, a fourfold vision -- and three of these modes are accessible to most of us most of the time. For the sake of convenience, occultists like to use the metaphor of “planes” when talking about what we perceive through these modes of experience. The things we perceive through the five physical senses, in this way of speaking, belong to the material plane; the things we perceive through “vibes,” and the parasensory perceptions that unfold from that mode of experience, belong to the astral plane; the things we perceive through intellectus, the sense of meaning, belong to the mental plane; and the things we perceive though mystical experience belong to the spiritual plane. These planes, again, aren’t different places or mystical otherworlds; they’re all aspects of one and the same world. You exist in all of them right now. You’ve been existing in all four of them since you were born, and you will continue to exist in all four until you die --
And then you’ll exist in three of them.
That’s the thing about these planes or, to move back from the metaphor a bit, the things we experience through these four modes of experience. The landscapes they show to us aren’t quite identical to one another, and there are things that aren’t present on all four planes. Living human beings exist and can be perceived in all four of them. Dead human beings, and a very broad range of entities that aren’t human and apparently never were, exist and can be perceived in three of them. The single vision of modern industrial society insists that since only one of these planes exists, whatever we perceive on the others is some combination of fraud, delusion, and make-believe. That belief is defended with impressive displays of circular logic, but I’ve discussed that in an earlier essay and we don’t have to get into it now.
There are also beings who exist on all four planes who don’t have the same kind of bodies we do, and nature spirits belong to this category. To make sense of this, we’re going to have to spend a little while talking about the nature of embodiment.
You and I, dear reader, are members of the animal kingdom. That means, among many other things, that our material bodies are more completely differentiated from their environment than the bodies of living things that belong to other kingdoms. That doesn’t mean that we’re entirely separate from our environments, not by a long shot; we constantly absorb things from our environments and release other things into our environments, and about 10% of our body weight is made up of microbes of various kinds, without which we can’t survive -- but unless you use a microscope, it’s fairly easy to figure out where our bodies stop and the environment starts.
That’s less true of other living things. Plants, for example, are much more integrated with their surroundings than we are. Unlike animals, which cycle the same water around and around in their bloodstreams until it gets used to flush wastes through the kidneys, plants take water in through the roots, use it to haul nutrients up the stem, and then let it out through the leaves. It’s no exaggeration to say that the circulatory system of a plant includes the entire biosphere. The same lack of differentiation is true of plants in other ways, including some of those that are perceived through the other modes of experience we were talking about a few paragraphs back.
There are other living things far less differentiated than plants. Soil ecologists have been pointing out for a long time now, for example, that humus -- the organic slime that makes the difference between powdered rock and fertile soil -- is for all practical purposes alive. It takes in food, excretes wastes, circulates nutrients, passes information from one part of itself to another, and can even reproduce, when circumstances permit, in much the same way that amoebas do. The difficulty in classifying humus as a living thing is simply that it has none of the boundaries our scientists expect to find in living things: no cell walls or membranes between parts of itself, no skin between it and its surroundings.
To explain nature spirits, in turn, it’s simply necessary to take the same insight a little further and recognize that there can be other modes of embodiment even less differentiated from the environment than humus. That’s what the traditional lore found in occult literature amounts to: every force and process of nature is the embodiment of a living, conscious entity. Phrased in so bold a way, such a concept invites instant repudiation from those who’ve bought into the conventional wisdom of our age -- but for human beings as a whole, around the world and across the arc of recorded history, that conventional wisdom is very much a minority view.
Take any human culture, anywhere, that hasn’t been too heavily influenced by contemporary scientific materialism, or by the prophetic religions that unintentionally laid the foundations for contemporary scientific materialism by way of their radical devaluing of nature. Look at what that culture has to say about the natural world, and odds are you’ll find a set of understandings that make perfect sense from within the perspective suggested here. Shall we take ancient Greece as an example? To the ancient Greeks, even the greatest of the gods and goddesses were closely associated with natural forces. One common way to speak of wet weather in ancient Greece was to say “Zeus is raining.” (Nowadays we say “it’s raining.” What is raining? To the ancient Greeks, the proper interrogative would have been “who?”)
In the same way, Demeter was always closely associated with the soil, to the extent that recent research has shown that sacred groves of Demeter were consistently planted in places well suited to stop soil erosion. Athena was the goddess of olive groves, and the distinctive ecology that olive domestication produces -- and it was from that, and from the cascading ecological and economic effects of olive domestication, that she became a goddess of civilization and the civilized arts and crafts. Pay attention to each of the old gods and goddesses and you can see the force of nature that provides him or her with a body.
It used to be very popular among students of comparative religion to take this equation and insist that it meant that Zeus was “nothing but” the sky, Demeter “nothing but” the soil, and so on. That’s not what the ancient Greeks had in mind, though. To them, Zeus was the sky as the body of a living, conscious entity. Demeter was a life and mind made manifest through the body we call “soil.” What’s more, they extended the same insight down to very localized scales. Poseidon was the god of the sea -- in the terms we’re using here, the ocean as the body of a conscious entity -- but there were also beings embodied in individual seas and straits and harbors, and indeed in individual waves. In the same way, the smallest spring or grove of trees had its tutelary spirit, a living, conscious entity who was embodied in that spring or grove, and who would respond to certain traditional acts of reverence in certain more or less predictable ways.
That was the basis for the old pagan religions. It’s not going too far at all to think of those faiths, in one of their most important aspects, as a system of practical techniques for communicating with the inner, conscious side of natural forces and processes: a sort of traditional language, composed of those acts we call “rituals,” which helped human communities establish and maintain good relationships with nature. All that was swept away across most of the Western world when a new religious movement redefined religion in puritanical and dogmatic terms disconnected from nature. When Christian zealots backed up by the power of the Roman state ordered the groves of Demeter cut down, they plunged Greece into an ecological catastrophe that can still be measured in thick layers of eroded topsoil on the bottom of the Aegean Sea, and caused population levels in Greece to crash by around 50% over the centuries immediately after: a reminder that when traditional lore claims a god or a goddess will punish certain kinds of impiety very harshly indeed, that claim may not be as superstitious as it looks.
The modern industrial world has inherited that ancient tradition of ecologically ignorant zealotry to a far greater extent than most of today’s scientific materialists like to admit. It’s a source of wry amusement among those of us who take the old lore seriously that fundamentalist Christians and scientific materialists, who claim to disagree about almost everything, have identical reactions to the sort of thing I’ve been discussing: they throw up their hands in horror and denounce it with the strongest label in their vocabulary. For the fundamentalists, that’s “devil worship” and for the materialists, it’s “ignorant superstition,” but the tone of voice is exactly the same whichever phrase gets used.
Look past those cries of pious outrage and it becomes possible to glimpse a world of human experience that most people, through most of history, have treated as perfectly ordinary, but our culture has rejected for reasons of its own: a world full of living, conscious beings embodied in the forces of nature, with whom our species can cultivate mutually beneficial relationships. That world of human experience isn’t restricted to followers of the old religions of nature, or for that matter to the newer traditions along the same lines that are evolving around us today; there are, it deserves saying, plenty of Christians past and present who have found ways to integrate such insights into their own faith, and for all I know there are atheists (for some values of that word) who have managed the same thing, though I’ve yet to meet one.
What I’ve been discussing in this post, after all, is a matter of experience rather than ideology. Stop automatically discounting modes of experience that most human beings have treated as just as valid as the material senses, start paying attention to all the ways in which natural processes behave like subjects rather than objects, and you’ll find yourself stepping into a living world -- or, more to the point, realizing that you’ve been in a living world all along. Your perceptions of that world, it bears repeating, are no more infallible than any other human perception; the beings who inhabit that world, for that matter, are not necessarily well-disposed to you, and are certainly not harmless -- but it’s a lot less dead in that world than it is in the world that scientific materialists and their fundamentalist kissin’ cousins think they inhabit. For some of us, at least, that’s reason enough to make the transition.
John Michael Greer is a widely read author and blogger whose work focuses on the overlaps between ecology, spirituality, and the future of industrial society. He served 12 years as Grand Archdruid of the Ancient Order of Druids in America, and currently heads the Druidical Order of the Golden Dawn. He currently lives in East Providence, Rhode Island, with his wife Sara.