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Viewing the World through Pagan eyes III. Occult contributions

 VIII: A living world: language, memes, and thought forms

This section follows parts I  and II.

As I came to a better understanding of memes, I was struck by their similarity to the occult concept of thought forms.

Both memes and thought forms confront traditional Christian and secular distinctions between mind and matter. There seem to be three possibilities here. First, awareness is enclosed within our heads. This view fits Christian theology and most scientific perspectives, but scientists must face the mysteries of how it could first arise.  Alternatively, awareness is a “user-illusion.” What really exists can only be described in the language of physics, chemistry, molecular biology, and neurophysiology. Or, third, awareness is somehow distributed throughout the world rather than being hermetically sealed within our heads or being nonexistent? My view is this third possibility.

Excellent books have been written arguing consciousness is not isolated in our bodies, let alone illusory. One I recommend is by a Druid philosopher, Emma Restall Orr.   Another, a short one, by Thomas Nagel, a widely-known modern philosopher. Because this paper is written for Pagans, I assume we mostly agree on this third perspective. Further questions can be addressed if anyone asks questions below. 

Think about how we informally talk about ideas. If the idea is meaningful enough, we often speak of it as if we encountered an independent entity. 

  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. So can people. We refer to ideas as if they alive and existed independently from us, because we experience them that way. And here is where things get interesting…

We usually think of ideas as tools that empower us in our lives, but in return, particularly as memes, they shape our lives. Like other tools, ideas shape our perceptions.  Trouble arises when we identify too closely with an idea (or a person). When we experience them as part of us, we “fall under their spell.” We become the idea’s tool rather than it being ours. The same thing can happen with our relations with other people. Not all memes are like this. I doubt anyone identifies with shaking hands or the opening notes of Beethoven’s Fifth. But ideas are another matter.

There is one way we talk about concepts and ideas we do not use with regard to human beings: An idea can be “in the air.” Public ideas are memes, and not only do we describe memes as if they were alive, we speak of them as if they existed in some realm other than the purely physical. I think they do.

IX. Thought Forms

Those of us who have done healing work with energy know intention and focus influences not only our actions, they also influence what happens in others’ bodies. Mind-plus-energy-plus-will can influence others physically separate from us. The same point applies to many kinds of magick. One such magickal creation is commonly called a thought form, (or ‘Tulpa’ in Tibetan traditions).

In magickal terms, thought forms, are deliberately created centers of focused mental energy possessing a semi-conscious existence that can act independently. Thought forms are created to carry out some task, often one of protection. When not ‘fed’ with mental energy focused on them and their task, thought forms eventually dissipate. Thought forms are also commonly thought to have access to the contents of the minds that sustain them, at least insofar as they relate to their reason for existence.

One fascinating account of creating a thought form is described in Conjuring Up Philip: An Adventure in Psychokenesis  Sadly, it is out of print, and pricey used, but you can easily watch a television broadcast, made in Toronto, on Youtube.    A group of Canadian researchers created a fictional character, Philip, by writing a fictional biography and imaginary portrait, and focusing intently on him as the character so described. They then sought to contact him through classical séance methods. The idea was that their efforts would gradually give Philip some psychic reality. They succeeded. While created by the group, once in existence, Philip was independent of individual members. If thought forms are to last, they must be able to renew the energy that gives them power- and often, as in Philip’s case, this is through being ‘fed’ by those who created them. 

But not all such phenomena are deliberate creations, and this is where another dimension of memes should be considered.

In occult terminology, an egregore is a mental field that arises from the more diffused focus of many people in a common context. It was apparently developed to describe the group mind, a kind of personality a group takes on independently of its members. Egregores are not so much deliberate creations as the result of many minds sharing a common focus.  As I understand the term, an egregore can be created by events such as a football game, a Nazi Party rally, or the energetic ‘feel’ of a city or neighborhood. Perhaps also a close-knit coven or a sports team.

But can something as focused as Philip arise spontaneously?

Early in my Wiccan years I was on the periphery of a group investigating such phenomena as they manifested in Darth Vader.  Vader was certainly a meme, a widespread and popular one.  He also attracted significant mental and emotional energy, particularly while people watched the original Star Wars series.

Like a thought form, a meme exists independently from any particular person, so long as it is fed mental energy. But memes are rarely deliberate creations, and once in existence are open to use and influence by an open-ended number of people for many different purposes. They arise through a selective process that incorporates many minds in their maintenance, many more, as a rule, than are involved in creating thought forms. If this is true, memes are a kind of ‘wild’ thought form. Vader would be an example.

If we take memes, thought forms, and egregores seriously, and I do, one more step emerges from this line of thought. These are created by consciousness, and once part of our mental ecosystem, help give it shape, but the underlying ground is awareness as such. For example, as I was first developing insights that ultimately led to this argument I asked a former Zen abbot, and friend, whether the usual popular understanding of mindfulness meditation might be mistaken.  Rather than our minds creating thoughts we are taught to passively observe, these thoughts enter our awareness, and we give them energy by attending to them.  He told me that was actually how they saw the matter, but rarely spoke in those terms to Westerners. It was too far removed from Western patterns of understanding the world. Better just to meditate.

But in terms of how I have described memes and thought forms, the practice of mindfulness meditation and the experience of ideas operating independently on our minds, take on additional significance.

Memes can lodge in our brains in order to promote their own survival in some realm, even at our expense.  They have interests separate from and sometimes even antagonistic to ours. Mark Pagel, referred to in Part II,  argues, “The nature of cultural evolution means that some memes evolve as parasites that live at our expense.”  Memes do not care about us, but only for their own flourishing. From their perspective, we are valuable only insofar as we serve them by attending to them. I am not importing this way of speaking into scientific discussions, this is how the discussions are framed by scientists like Pagel. The difference is that what he would call a metaphor, I call a description of something real.

This insight opens up one last point I wish to develop before looking at specific issues important to the broader Pagan community: how beliefs lead to trance. 



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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.


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