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Beneath the surface: the election and the esoteric side of power

I have rewritten parts of the original essay here to clarify and better focus its argument.


We have just finished an election demonstrating the impact of Power. Positive messages were mostly absent.  Most contenders sought to make us even more fearful of the other side, while urging us to give up our energy, wealth, and judgment to themselves. This was particularly the case with Republican campaigns, but anyone on a Democratic mailing list can attest we were also inundated with dire warnings and the demand to trust others to protect us, for by ourselves we were weak.  For the most part neither party offered voters a positive enticement for their support. Instead they appealed to fear. 

Much will be written about this election from a secular perspective. Some will be by me. But there is another, deeper, and more important dimension, one that cannot be understood through a purely secular analysis. Understanding it gives us a deeper understanding of  the crisis currently gripping our country.

There is an esoteric dimension to this election. While I clearly have my political preferences they will not play a major role here.  If my argument is correct, political issues can get in the way of a deeper understanding of power. Elections are about power, but when an election is almost solely about power, and not what should be done with that power, something disturbing is happening.

Defining power

Power is the capacity to make a difference.  If you cannot make a difference you have no power.  Your power stops where your ability to make a difference ends.  Having power to make a difference is necessary to survive.  Without enough power, we perish.  Power in itself is not a bad thing, and its presence makes many very good things possible.

I suspect we are hard-wired to experience acquiring power as attractive because power overcomes many barriers to satisfying our needs and desires. Power is necessary to survive, is potentially in too short a supply, and can be lost, so we feel good when we acquire it or use it successfully. We rightly fear the consequences if we do not have enough.

But power has another dimension. 

Means become ends

Because acquiring power is so satisfying, getting it can become divorced from the reasons we initially sought it. This can happen in many ways. When it does, the quest for power can become its own reason for existence. What started out as a means to achieving a goal itself becomes the goal.  When it does, everything we encounter becomes either a means for acquiring or exercising power, an impediment, or irrelevant.

Seeking power often begins with laudable motives, initiated and continually justified by ideas and commitments not themselves destructive. For example, the protagonists on both sides of a war usually think of themselves as the good guys. This is even true of conflicts where the evil committed by one (or both) seems obvious in retrospect  But when conflict exists it is easy to subordinate everything else to the power to defeat opponents.  Even the supposed goals we initially sought the power to achieve.

Consider these five quotations, and where their underlying logic leads us.

A top Hamas leader, Mahmoud Al-Zahar said to an interviewer “All Israelis are potential soldiers.  They are all potential killers of Palestinians. When Israelis kill our women and children are they not terrorists? You’ve heard the saying, an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth?”

Gilad Sharon, son of a major Israeli military and political leader, wrote

THE DESIRE to prevent harm to innocent civilians in Gaza will ultimately lead to harming the truly innocent: the residents of southern Israel. The residents of Gaza are not innocent, they elected Hamas. The Gazans aren’t hostages; they chose this freely, and must live with the consequences. 

Osama bin Laden argued "given that the American Congress is a committee that represents the people, the fact that it agrees with the actions of the American government proves that America in its entirety is responsible for the atrocities that it is committing against Muslims". 

Responding to bin Laden’s 9-11 attacks, George Bush said  "Either you are for us or you are with the terrorists." He was echoed by Hillary Clinton, "Every nation has to either be with us, or against us.”

Al-Zahar’s logic applied to killing Israelis, Sharon’s to killing Palestinians, BinLaden escalated this reasoning to include killing citizens of Israel’s ally, the US. Then American leaders, Republican and Democratic alike, expanded potential targets to include anyone not on our side.

This logic ultimately divides the world into allies subordinate to our desires, and enemies.  Yet no decent person desires this absurd outcome.  It arises instead from people following out the logic of subordinating everything into becoming a tool of power, an obstacle to overcome, or being irrelevant. It is almost as if power has become a separate force subordinating people to it rather than being a tool people need to achieve their aims.

And I will argue in the second part of this essay that this is exactly what happens.

With this foundation we turn to examine the esoteric dimension of power. To do this I begin by examining the nature of ideas from an esoteric perspective.

Thought forms, egregores, and literary thought forms

Modern materialists argue our ideas exist only so long as we exist. They are encased within our heads with each of us fundamentally isolated from one another. But perhaps our boundaries are more permeable and our ideas more than just our private thoughts.  Might there be a mental or psychic realm where our ideas can exist at least somewhat independently of our private selves?

With its roots in ancient Paganism the Western occult tradition contends our beliefs of an absolute separation between mind and matter is mistaken. Further, connections exist between entities beyond what seems in consensus reality to be the limits of their bodies.  “Mind stuff” or awareness are not simply encased privately within the body.

Many of the explanations about why magick can be effective emphasize intention as a mental or psychic force able to some degree to operate independently of those who are doing the magick.  In fact they emphasize this is central to the efficacy of magick. Many traditions teach that after doing a magickal working, those involved no longer pay it any mind, and allow the energies they developed to do the work they were empowered to do.  The intention, once empowered, operates independently of our conscious mind and at a distance from our physical body.     

Very interesting recent scientific research is in considerable harmony with the occult contention our minds can be creators, but to some degree once we create something it becomes separate from us physically.See for example work by Russell Targ, Dean Radin, and Gary Schwarz.

How important is this? I think it is very important.

In the Western occult tradition mental creations that have acquired some degree of independence are often termed “thought forms.” Usually deliberately created, thought forms and equivalent concepts such as "Tulpas," are discussed in occult and esoteric traditions across the world.  Adepts skilled at maintaining a sustained highly focused attention bring them into existence as a kind of psychic robot.  Once created, they have an independent existence so long as they are fed psychic energy by their creator.   

Some fascinating experiments support this contention, strange as it seems to the modern mind.  The Philip experiment and subsequent  Skippy experiment describe the deliberate creation of imaginary characters that then take on sufficient independence from their creators to act and speak separately from them.The difference is that these creations are not simple robots empowered by a single will and intention. Perhaps because several slightly different minds were engaged in their creation they were to some degree independent of any single person.  These thought forms developed a degree of independence from any single member of the group that created them.

The egregoreis a variant of the thought form, distinguished by its not having been created deliberately and in having multiple creators.  The concept reflects the same insight that consciousness is a creative force physically and at more subtle levels, but emphasizes this creativity can operate without our intending it. Egregores are the unintended creation of a large number of people united by a common purpose or belief. They are a kind of diffuse group mind - presumably because the common focus needed for their manifestation is too vague for something more focused to emerge.  They are more atmospheric in character.

Think of the feel of a crowd in some big sports or music event as people creating and experiencing a temporary egregore. In these cases they are not sustained long enough to take on much independent existence.  But some egregores can last much longer.

I will never forget my experience upon first visiting Washington, DC on my own as a college student. I was on a political mission, the nature of which I no longer clearly remember.  What I do remember was the extraordinary and intoxicating feeling of power that permeated the city. This was during the late 60s, a long time before I became interested in the esoteric and occult dimensions of life beyond reading a little Alan Watts. I was sensitive to the ‘energy’ of the place without having the knowledge to understand what it was I was experiencing.  And I ‘got high’ on it.  It was captivating.

When I returned home and reflected on my experience, I decided I should never live in Washington. I was too attracted to that feeling of power and now that I was away from it, I feared being seduced by its attractiveness.   Many people go to Washington to be close to or involved with the government and the power it exercises.  It is likely that some become ‘power junkies,’ as I feared I would.  (Interestingly, today acquiring political power no longer interests me and Washington does not feel the same. It’s just a place with too much traffic, heat, and humidity for my comfort.)

If I can extrapolate from my experience, egregore energy is most tangible to those most attracted by its qualities. Once engaged, they feed it and increasingly identify with it.  Those not focused on its qualities are not much touched by it nor do they add much energy to it.

If focused thought forms can be deliberately created and egregores can manifest unintentionally, a third possibility arises. Might thought forms of a sort arise from more focused images held by large numbers of people who individually do not intend to create anything?  In my experience there is strong evidence for their existence.  They are called “literary thought forms” because they can arise from many people focusing on powerfully imagined fictional characters.

Last year in Patheos  I described the impact two such thought forms had on a young woman’s life. ‘Darth Vader’ and ‘Luke Skywalker’ had apparently become distinct psychic entities able to influence the lives of people sufficiently sensitive as mediums, and not always in nice ways. Apparently hundreds of thousands of people watching a very gripping movie   and having relatively similar attitudes towards the main characters, who significantly had been deliberately modeled   along mythic themes, accomplished the same result as might have been done by deliberate focused attention by a much smaller group of people.

If collective creations like egregores and literary thought forms are possible, and if deliberately created thought forms can become to some degree independent of their creators, human beings can unintentionally create independent formations of mental energy able to act at least somewhat independently of their creators.

The language of animism

While our culture does not acknowledge even the possibility of such phenomena, our language indicates otherwise.  We may not be entirely unaware of this hidden reality. I initially developed this point in a blog post that followed my relating the Vader and Skywalker story, and will explore it further here.

Think for a moment about how we talk about ideas when we are speaking informally. Having a new idea or insight is a creative act. Alternatively we can encounter a new idea created by someone else.  If the idea is meaningful enough to us, after its creation we often relate to it as if it were an independent entity, and describe it accordingly.  All the examples below make as much sense when “idea” is replaced by “individual.”

  I am entranced by an idea.

  I am captivated by an idea.

  I am obsessed with an idea.

  I am intrigued by an idea.

  I am grabbed by an idea.

• I am revolted by an idea.

• I am infatuated with an idea.

• I am intrigued with an idea.

• I am in love with an idea.

• I am inspired by an idea.

  I am loyal to an idea.

  I am interested in an idea.

  I am bothered by an idea.

  I cannot get an idea to leave me alone.

An idea can be powerful, grand, subtle, boring, comforting, fascinating, repellant, tantalizing, upsetting, or difficult to get hold of. We also use these terms when describing our relations with people and other beings.

We enter into relationships with ideas. We treat them as tools and they empower us in our lives, but in return they come to shape and even in some cases dominate our lives.  Again, the same thing can happen with our relations with other people. Ideas take on a life of their own. We refer to ideas as if they alive and had an existence independent from us, because we experience them that way.

Trouble can arise when we give ideas and people alike energy when they motivate us, because with this comes the possibility of our “losing ourselves” in them. Most dangerously, we can become emotionally attached and invested in them to a dangerous degree.  When we identify with them and experience them as part of us, we lose track of who we are. We “fall under their spell.”

Mindfulness meditation

Buddhists insist we are not our ideas and one goal of meditation is to free ourselves from identity with or attachment to them. Mindfulness meditation in particular teaches us to see ideas come and go, and not to hold on to them.  When we do we acquire greater peace and equanimity, This outcome has been studied by neuroscientists with strong correlations observed between reports by meditators and measurable brain states. This practice does not require our accepting the larger philosophical frameworks taught by different Buddhist traditions, as is clear from its use in some large corporations. It is essentially a technology of mental examination and discipline.

The usual interpretation of mindfulness meditation is that our mind creates these ideas and as we gradually become detached from them it quiets down.  Another perspective examines the practice from a different perspective: that these ideas exist to some degree independently of our mind, and receive the energy to persist by our focusing on them. We first create or attract them, and then help sustain them. 

The difference between these two descriptions is that the first treats these phenomena as private events whereas the one I favor leaves open the possibility, I would say likelihood, that some ideas, I would argue the most powerful, are not private at all. 

Memes and thought forms 

With his concept of memes Richard Dawkins tried to get at some of the same insights from a materialistic perspective, sometimes treating a meme as metaphor, sometimes as more than that. I think there are serious problems with coherently considering an idea in entirely materialistic terms, but if we treat consciousness or awareness in some sense is a fundamental dimension of existence, those problems go away.  And as they go away the concept of a thought form gains in its plausibility. I think this animistic framework is not simply metaphorical.

When I first read about memes I did not see any difference between them and concepts. To my view Dawkins had created an unnecessary complication in our terminology (and gotten good press for doing so).  I could not see anything added by the idea of a meme to the perfectly adequate terms “concept” or “idea.”

Now I think Dawkins is on to something important, but approaches it from within too limited a framework.  A concept or idea is something originating from within a human mind and so is private. But ideas and concepts can be shared with others, although often those others will give them a different take or interpretation. At any time concepts exist only within minds.

A meme by contrast is something able to be analyzed to some degree as an independent power. Dawkins emphasized this independence.  For me, memes make sense when considered as thought forms, ideas given a degree of independent existence through being fed with psychic energy.

Ideas as entities

Unlike minds, ideas are not creative.  They can surprise us when we realize their unexpected implications, but they themselves cannot be surprised.  Ideas cannot have new ideas.  They are mental realities that cannot transform themselves the way we can because we transform ourselves, in part at least, by changing our relation to many particular ideas. We rearrange them in new ways and we create new ones.  Metaphors are an important tools by which we accomplish this, creating realms of freedom and discovery. We are distinct from the ideas that shape how we see and experience our world and others.

The most powerful ideas carry emotional energy. As we grow up we take certain ideas as reality, and in so doing lose ourselves in them. This is unavoidable to a degree, but wisdom acquired from experience teaches us that what once seemed obvious and eternal is neither.  Even so, in daily life we can get so enmeshed with an idea as to identify ourselves emotionally with it. It can channel our thoughts, shape our concepts, alert us to some data and blind us to others.  When we are powerfully shaped by an idea we send our emotional energy into it, and away from us.  We become its carriers rather than it being our tool for understanding and living within the world.  Often we even take criticisms of an idea as criticisms of ourselves, making them (and us) far more impervious to reasoned analysis than they otherwise would be.

Ideas grab hold of us as soon as we give them sustained emotional attention. We become strongly connected to the idea rather than observing or making use of it.  We then become the vehicles through which those ideas manifest in the world, on the idea’s terms rather than ours. They are not primarily our tools; we are primarily theirs.  Our relationships have to some degree reversed themselves.  Depending on our relationship to them, ideas can empower or dis-empower us. If we are disempowered, what is empowered?  The focused mental energy that constitutes the idea, often symbolized by a word.

We live within a natural; ecosystem ultimately rooted in the coevolution of organisms and their environment.  We live in a social ecosystem ultimately rooted in the patterns of relationships that can sustain a society.  We live in a psychic ecosystem shaped and sustained by the relationships of the thought forms that comprise it. 

Words and their meanings exist within a ecosystem of ideas, and ideas that are reflected and expressed within a living language are able to adapt and grow, or alternatively become extinct through a lack of use. The words are carriers of ideas but their meaning is shaped by their relations to other words and meanings, as is demonstrated on a massive scale these days by changes in the meaning of marriage.  The words carry energy depending on the power of the meaning they symbolize.  Those carrying lots of energy become thought forms.

A thought form that is a collective creation of millions of people using a word to symbolize it can and will change.  It is not a robot.

With this background we come to the subject of power as a thought form. That is the subject of my second essay.



Last modified on
Gus diZerega DiZerega combines a formal academic training in Political Science with decades of work in Wicca and shamanic healing. He is a Third Degree Elder in Gardnerian Wicca, studied closely with Timothy White who later founded Shaman’s Drum magazine, and also studied Brazilian Umbanda  for six years under Antonio Costa e Silva.

DiZerega holds a Ph.D. in Political Science from UC Berkeley, has taught and lectured in the US and internationally, and has organized international academic meetings.

His newest book is "Faultlines: the Sixties, the Culture Wars, and the Return of the Divine Feminine (Quest, 2013) received a 'silver' award by the Association of Independent Publishers for 2014. It puts both modern Pagan religion and the current cultural and political crisis in the US into historical context, and shows how they are connected.

His first book on Pagan subjects, "Pagans and Christians: The Personal Spiritual Experience," won the Best Nonfiction of 2001 award from  The Coalition of Visionary Resources. 

His second,"Beyond the Burning Times: A Pagan and a Christian in Dialogue" is what it sounds like. He coauthored it with Philip Johnson. DiZerega particularly like his discussion of polytheism in Burning Times, which in his view is an advance over the discussion in Pagans and Christians.

His third volume, "Faultlines: The Sixties, the Culture War, and the Return of the Divine Feminine," was published in 2013 and won a Silver award from the Association of Independent Publishers in 2014. The subject is obvious, and places it, and the rise of goddess oriented spiritual movements and our "cold civil war" in historical context.

His pen and ink artwork supported his academic research in graduate school and frequently appeared in Shaman’s Drum, and the ecological journals Wild Earth, and The Trumpeter. It now occasionally appears in this blog.


  • Greybeard
    Greybeard Wednesday, 12 November 2014

    Most Americans are quite unhappy with what Obama and Democrats have done with Power over the past few years. That much was obvious from the elections.

  • Gus diZerega
    Gus diZerega Wednesday, 12 November 2014

    So am I.

    But you are off topic about 100%. The post has nothing to do with Obama. Reread it if you think otherwise.

    But in terms of political analysis, actually the turn out was small even for midterm standards, vote suppression was attempted by Republicans and may or may not have made a difference, and those Democrats who defended Obama did better than those who sought to distance themselves from him. His approval ratings are higher than those for either party in Congress.

    NOT an issue I am interested in because the points I am making have nothing at all to do with him in any specific sense. Please take me seriously as to what I am actually posting on.

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