Transcript of Episode #104 of the OEITH podcast, Healing Dreams from the Temple of Asklepios, exploring the nature of dreams, their potential for healing, the diversity of mental life, and the ancient Greek god Asklepios and the practice of ritual sleep.

I was at the old house, in the lounge, and a young white cat suddenly walked into the room and was heading towards the fireplace where there was a lit fire. It was not our cat, and I found myself throwing cushions at it, but then I realised it looked so weak and frail that I was worried that if I hit it with a cushion, you know, it might hurt it. And it was still heading towards the fire, and then I was worried that the flames might kill it, if it walked into the flames. So I got up, and I tried to catch it before it could come to any harm, but then I saw that somehow it had wriggled past the flames and had got into a room behind the fireplace, a forgotten room, an old, musty kind of space which somehow I half remembered, and then it felt as if somehow I’d known all along that that room was there, so I wriggled past the fire as well and got inside. But then I realized, completely unexpectedly, that there was even more here. Even more space beyond this little room. Vast areas. And by kind of going around a corner and twisting around a bit, suddenly I found myself in the open air in this great big place: massive places, looking as if, somehow, they were in a process of being renovated, or being prepared for something. They were public spaces, and they looked as if they’d been designed for many people to assemble there for some purpose or other.  In particular, I saw a large, open, rectangular arena, which had a boundary but not walls. It was some kind of strange, floating barrier made of very fine, dark wood. And then I remembered the white cat, which was the reason I’d found myself in this place in the first place, and I didn’t know where it had gone, but I was sure it would be okay. I was sure it could look after itself. So, I returned back the way I’d come in – went back into the forgotten room, and then through the fireplace, and then back into the lounge, and then I went into the kitchen. And my mother was there, and she was getting ready for a long journey that she was about to take, a long journey away from home, and I mentioned the secret room to her and the spaces that lay beyond, and I asked her was she aware that they were there. And she carried on getting ready. She didn’t really look at me when she replied, but she just told me that it had to stay a secret – the rooms needed to stay secret, the space beyond needed to stay secret, until the work on the façade at the front was finished and everything was then properly joined up and ready. Everything had to stay secret, until all that work around the front had been done and only then could the public spaces and the secret room be used once again.

As you might have guessed, that was a dream.

In common with a lot of people at the moment, I suspect, things have felt quite difficult. I’ve been feeling pretty low, and the thing about that dream was when I woke up from it, suddenly it felt like everything had changed. I felt really lightened, energized, full of motivation, and feeling hopeful, in complete contrast to how I’d been feeling in the days before. So, what I thought I’d set out to explore in this episode is the healing power of dreams.

Sometimes a dream feels important. Sometimes a dream feels huge. It can have an impact on us and no matter how we choose to look at that, perhaps it shouldn’t be underestimated, because if there’s a change in mood then that can have real knock-on effects and suddenly all sorts of things can become possible and all sorts of things might change. Dreams sometimes enable us to arrive at a particular experience of truth, and because it’s a dream that truth is not necessarily vested in consensus reality. In that sense, then, there is a magical dimension to dreaming. Being aware and focusing on our dreams becomes in itself a magical practice.

How is it that a dream could heal, though? How is it that a dream could change our state of mind for the better? I could think of plenty of arguments that would run counter to that point of view. The consensus view on dreams is that they’re fantastical, insubstantial. Dreams are often placed in contradistinction to reality. So, consequently, assigning any weight or value to something experienced in or arising from a dream is regarded with suspicion. You could even argue that dreams aren’t experiences at all, because we’re unconscious when we have them and, generally, unless we’re having a lucid dream, we only become aware that a dream is a dream in retrospect. In a sense, you could say that we only really dream when we’re awake because that’s when we recognize that whatever we were aware of was a dream. What you could argue is that whatever you might take from a dream is not based in actual experience; it’s not deriving from an actual experience, so therefore it’s absurd to assume that a dream provides us with anything beneficial or anything non-beneficial. But as you probably suspect, none of those views which I hold.

Before that dream that I reported at the beginning came along, I think a number of things had contributed to feelings of depression. First of all, there was stuff around work, and the other issues playing on my mind (and again I don’t think I’m alone in this) to do with the general state of the world these days, and not having any realistic hopes of change. It was all feeling a bit pointless and, likewise, the difficulties these days that surround trying to have any kind of debate or conversation. It’s become very difficult for people to disagree with one another, without one or both sides perceiving that as hatred, as a kind of existential threat, so I’d ended up feeling as if there was nowhere to go nowhere to turn and I was just going to have to endure it, with no hope of change.

But thank God, that dream came along.

So, in the dream I’m back in my parents’ house, as if I’d never left, and that strange, little white cat walks in and I can’t get rid of it by throwing cushions at it, because I might kill it, it’s so frail and it’s walking right towards the fire. So, I think I’ve got to get up and save it. But maybe it’s not as puny and helpless as it looks, because it knows a way; it gets around the fire and goes into that secret room, which I kind of half-knew was always there. It’s nothing new. It’s familiar from childhood. It’s basically the personal unconscious, full of repressed, old mouldy stuff from childhood and the puny little white cat is my depression, I think, and it has led me into this space beyond the fire.

But beyond that secret room is where things get really interesting: a vast, open public space. This is maybe an image of the collective unconscious. But it’s in an odd kind of state in the dream: there’s nobody about; there’s this sense that it’s being renovated or prepared. It’s an odd kind of collective unconscious that doesn’t have anybody in it, or anybody around inside it, but it was nevertheless built on a huge scale, and it had a kind of classical air about it. And the thing I loved about it most was it was a civic space, but not commercial space. It was built on the scale of a shopping centre, but it wasn’t a shopping centre. There was nothing capitalist going on here. It was all about shared social spaces where people could come together for cultural events, for art, for lectures, for discussions, and it was on a massive scale. That rectangular arena that appeared in the dream: it was like a kind of football stadium, but not for sport. Imagine a football stadium for lectures! It had that kind of an atmosphere about it. Well, the cat’s entirely vanished by this point. Given the scale of this space the cat vanishes into insignificance, and it will be fine. It can wander around. Its needs will be met.

So, I make my way back into the house and then go into the kitchen and meet my mum. She’s 80 now, so she knows a thing or two, and in the dream, she tells me the way it is. Maybe that collective space will be ready one day, but now’s not the time. That space, it was non-commercial, non-capitalist, it was for people to come together and do cultural things and have debates. When that happens that’s going to be really amazing, but there’s no chance of that happening anytime soon. That is a space that our civilization in its current state is in no sense capable of making use of, like my mum says in the dream. It’s going to have to stay a secret until the work on the front has been done. When the work on the front is finished then, yes, people will be able to go in.

That doesn’t really make sense. That huge space is there and waiting and it doesn’t really require work on the facade of the building to be completed for that space to be used. But that’s just the way it is. Everything will have to be joined up at the front before everybody can enter into that space freely, but I know the way in there. And now, you know the way in there too, because I’ve just told you. We’ll just have to keep it a secret for now.

What the dream was basically showing me was that that wonderful space behind the fire cannot be inhabited by our civilization in its present form. It’s not going to happen. Work at the front needs to be done first, and there was no mention of a deadline for that. But that’s absolutely no barrier to someone who knows that space is there. Everyone who knows that space is there is free to go in it, and you don’t necessarily need a white cat to show you the way in.

I hope that this podcast and other things like it might perform the same function and save you the trouble of having to get depressed and having to have a dream point you in the right direction. Now, I’m aware that what I presented just there was an interpretation of the dream, and although an interpretation can be useful to give our intellect some kind of a handle on what a dream is doing, working with dreams, encountering dreams, I think, doesn’t hinge upon always needing to provide an interpretation. Whatever the dream is doing happens perfectly naturally and fully without an interpretation being given, and that’s the thing that struck me most of all about that dream I had, that it did something to me without me understanding. That feeling of lightness and optimism and renewed motivation was there as soon as I woke. I didn’t need to reflect on the dream or understand its symbolism in order to get to that place. It gave me that. It did that for me, and that’s why I think it’s possible to have healing dreams, and that’s why I disagree with those positions that I described earlier towards dreams: the idea that they’re just mental noise or that they’re not really experiences, they’re just narratives that we form after the fact.

I think a better way of looking at dreams is some kind of psychical process. I think I view them as a kind of movement of the soul, like the soul shifting itself into a more comfortable position, maybe, and perhaps that is something that we can’t experience in any way, but maybe that doesn’t matter.

I think that some aspects of what we might call “soul” are things that aren’t experiences, but that doesn’t mean that they’re not processes that have an important bearing upon our lives, and what shape our experiences might take within that. The mind, the soul, is an incredibly diverse arena. I think it embraces all sorts of different things. Sometimes there can be a tendency to regard the contents of our minds as made of all the same stuff; “it’s all mental stuff”: you know, that classic Cartesian dichotomy between mind and body, as if there’s only those two sorts of things.

When we look into our mind we find a kind of zoo, I think; of all sorts of highly diverse phenomena: perceptions, images, sensations, experiences, thoughts, memories – these things are all very distinct from each other, or can be, sometimes, and all seem to be performing different functions and presenting in massively diverse ways, and appreciating and understanding that diversity can be really important work, magical work, because it can shift our understanding of the reality of what’s really going on in our minds and the relationship we have with it.

Just a few examples to illustrate, maybe. Intrusive thoughts. People experiencing intrusive thoughts. And sometimes, when you really look at this with somebody, what’s actually being experienced is not really thoughts, but feelings. There’s a lot more variety in thinking than there is in feeling. It’s possible to think of absolutely anything and to be creative in thinking, but that’s not so much the case with feeling. You can’t invent an emotion, for instance, and it’s not very easy to feel things at will in contrast to the way that it’s possible to think whatever you want to think at will, to a good degree, so if we find ourselves having thoughts that feel that they’re coming not because we’ve willed them, and if there’s not much variety to those thoughts, but it seems to be the same or similar thoughts coming back again and again, then we might label those intrusive thoughts and we might start to feel that there’s something not quite right going on here. But you don’t really hear people talking about “intrusive feelings”, do you? It’s accepted that feelings to some degree force themselves upon us, and we don’t regard that as pathological. Thoughts and feelings are very different things. They both appear in the mind and yet they’re very distinct, diverse, and appreciating the nature of that difference enables us to start to get a handle on what might really be going on.

When someone’s experiencing so-called intrusive thoughts, these might not be thoughts at all. They might be feelings, or they might be thoughts that form a kind of surface to feelings. The same feelings are coming back again and again and they’re triggering certain thoughts, but we’re only really aware of the thoughts, or maybe what we have here is some kind of complex combination of thoughts and feelings that are arising together, or maybe it’s even some sort of hybrid of the two. But in any case, if it can be recognized that these thoughts are actually feelings, or mixed with feelings, then what can be helpful is to start to deal with them as if they were feelings rather than thoughts.

If we arrive at a thought that we don’t like then one way of counteracting it is to think it through and arrive at another thought, but if what we’re dealing with is actually a feeling then we won’t be able to think it through, because it’s a feeling. You can’t talk yourself out of feeling something. Thinking something through requires bringing attention to whatever it is that you’re thinking about, which gives the thoughts energy. But if you’re dealing with a feeling instead, and you’re having a feeling that you don’t much care for, probably the worst thing you can do is to give that attention. When we’re dealing with feelings that we would prefer not to have the best thing to do is to withdraw attention from them, to the extent that we can, and usually they pass, and it seems counter-intuitive at first, when dealing with intrusive thoughts, but often the best thing to do in the face of intrusive thoughts is nothing. Just do nothing. They can’t be reasoned with or thought through, because their nature is to a large extent the nature of feelings.

Thoughts are interesting things. Thoughts have all sorts of strange qualities of their very own, and there’s maybe a bias within our culture to regard everything that arises in the mind as some form of thought, and maybe there’s something in the nature of thinking itself that tends us towards this. As a contrast to thinking, let’s think about imagining for a moment. So, suppose I asked you to imagine Sigourney Weaver, for instance. Now it’s possible that instead of imagining Sigourney Weaver, you might bring up an image of Susan Sarandon instead, let’s say. If we’re imagining something then it’s possible to confuse one thing with another: that we might intend to imagine “a” but we end up imagining “b”, and we realize this later. The weird thing about thinking is that this doesn’t apply in the case of thoughts; a thought always hits its mark without fail, and this is something we take for granted we probably don’t notice it much of the time. But it’s a really strange thing. So, although you might imagine Susan Sarandon when you were trying to imagine Sigourney Weaver, you can’t think about Sigourney Weaver without actually thinking about Sigourney Weaver. In the same way you can’t think about the number five, for instance, without actually thinking about the number five and not accidentally thinking about the number six.

When you think about something, that thought always hits its mark. Now, that’s not to say the lines of thought or the conclusions that we draw from thoughts might not be wrong sometimes. Of course not. But the thought of a thing is always actually about that thing, whereas other types of phenomena we encounter in the mind don’t have that infallibility about them.

Images, as we’ve seen, can fail to hit their mark. Memories, of course, are fallible. Perceptions can mislead us. But if we’re thinking about something then we know it is actually that thing that we’re thinking about and not something else, and because of that this gives thoughts a certain objective quality about them. This characteristic of thoughts almost makes them seem as if they’re part of the objective fabric of the world. In a way, there’s an actuality about them, which makes it seem as if human beings thinking are, through their thinking, making the fabric of reality. Sort of like termites building their mounds.

There’s a sense that thoughts construct, create, build, and endure, in contrast to feelings, perhaps, which, like we said, pass away more readily and lack variety or creativity. They do, however, make life worth living – or not – so don’t go thinking that I’m privileging thoughts over feelings! Not at all. The point I wanted to make from this digression is that we often tend to look at human existence as a dichotomy between material and mental, body and mind, and it’s easy to be seduced by that into the idea that mind stuff is all one kind of stuff, but actually it’s lots of different kinds of things, and I think it’s useful to take this approach into our exploration of dreams.

Now, the example of a dream that I’ve been discussing: I gave an interpretation of it, and that interpretation was a Jungian interpretation that included Jungian terms: the personal unconscious, the collective unconscious. And I’ve presented it as a healing dream, and that’s quite a Jungian approach to dreaming as well. I suggested that I was feeling depressed, and the dream had presented something that compensated for that depression, and that’s a very Jungian notion of what dreams do: this idea that, originating in the unconscious, they present something that’s in opposition to or counteracting whatever our conscious attitude might be at a given moment.

But other types of interpretation of that dream are possible, of course, because there are lots of different ways of interpreting dreams and different writers, thinkers, have adopted different approaches to dreaming.

Freud, of course, has been very influential in his approach to dreams. He regarded dreams as the disguised fulfilment of a repressed sexual wish. And then there was Fritz Perls, the gestalt psychologist, who took an approach to dreams seeing each element in a dream as a representation of a part of the self. I think it’s evident that these theories of dreams are in conflict with each other. They contradict each other. But at the same time, over the years, I’ve come to the conclusion that all of them are true, in one way or another, and the reason that they can all be true to some extent, even though they’re often at odds with one another, is this diversity of the inner world. It’s my impression that you get different types of dreams, that not all dreams are alike, that they’re structurally quite different, that they perform different sorts of processes, and for that reason sometimes a Jungian interpretation is more illuminating than a Freudian one, and sometimes vice versa.

The dream I’ve presented, I’ve suggested, was transformative. It did something. It changed me. It healed me. The Freudian approach towards dreams, on the other hand, is very, very different. As was mentioned, a Freudian dream is an unconscious repressed sexual wish that’s been dressed up in a way that enables it to come to awareness. In the dream, at night, we’re asleep, we’re unconscious, the defences that we use to protect our ego during the daytime are less active, and a dream is a way in which parts of our self that we’d rather not acknowledge find a means of expression.

Earlier, we were thinking about the difference between thoughts and feelings, and there’s a kind of analogy between thoughts and feelings and between Jungian dreams and Freudian dreams. Jungian dreams perhaps are a bit more like thinking: they are creative; they perform some sort of work; they have an objective. Freudian dreams, on the other hand, are a bit more like feelings: they’re a bit more affective; they are an outpouring of desire; and, from a certain perspective, they can seem quite monotonous. In fact, Freud suggests in The Interpretation of Dreams that, despite appearances to the contrary, dreams can’t create anything. They don’t reason. They don’t originate. They’re merely the expression of a wish.

One of my favourite dreams in Freud’s collection of dreams in his writings is one of a woman, a patient of Freud. She comes to Freud during a session one day, and describes this dream and tells him that she dreamt the previous night, of – I can’t remember what it was – but something like going to dinner with her mother-in-law. She doesn’t like her mother-in-law. Going to dinner there is the last thing she wants to do. So, she triumphantly says to Freud: “You tell me that dreams are expressions of wishes. Well, obviously not. Because I don’t want to go to dinner with my mother-in-law.” Freud reflects on this for a moment, and says to her: “Well, what can I do? You’re right. That’s what you dreamt last night, and we both know that you wouldn’t want to go there. However, what’s finding expression in the dream is not anything to do with you wishing to go to your mother-in-law’s. It’s about you wishing that I was wrong. You dreamt that dream because it’s a dream that proves I’m wrong.” And Freud mentions that there was material coming up in the analysis with this patient at the time that she would very much have preferred that Freud was wrong about.

I know that kind of Freudian reasoning drives a lot of people insane, but if you work with dreams for a period of time sometimes that approach does seem to be valid. Years ago, I remember, one night I had a dream. It was quite a strange one and it puzzled me for a while after waking. In the dream I saw an icy landscape: snow, ice, and a cold, cold wind blowing, and superimposed over this landscape was a grid of a crossword puzzle, and there was one of the clues that remained to be filled in, and the one clue remaining said: “Greek hero, eight letters”. And I looked at the grid, and immediately in the dream to my mind came the solution: Hercules. It was obviously Hercules, and when I woke up, I was struck by this because at the time I was reading Freud and thinking about dreams a lot, and his assertion that nothing creative happens in a dream. And I was thinking to myself, well, how was it that I could have a dream and, in that dream, work out the answer to a crossword clue and for that to be obviously correct? Surely, I’d worked that out in the dream. I’d done something creative. I’d engaged in a process of thinking rather than just the blind expression of a wish, and this puzzled me for several days until one afternoon I had to put some clothes in the airing cupboard, and it was a shared house I was living in at the time, and I went upstairs, and I put the clothes in the airing cupboard, and then I caught sight of the boiler. There was a brand name on the boiler, in big letters that I’d never really noticed before. And the brand name was: Hercules.

Now, like I said I was living in a shared house at the time and one of the guys who lived there was a bit of a tyrant and we always used to have arguments about putting the heating on. I mean, he was always quite stingy about spending money, and he was always very resistant when one of the rest of us wanted to turn the heating on. The night I’d had that dream, I realized, had been a really cold night, and again we hadn’t been allowed to turn the heating on and I hadn’t been warm enough in bed, tossing and turning a bit, because I was so cold. So, there was indeed a wish finding expression in that dream on a number of different levels. On the most surface level, the wish to be warm. The solution to the puzzle in the dream was Hercules and indeed Hercules, in the shape of the boiler, was the solution to the problem of being cold. And maybe, on a deeper, more unconscious level, there’s also something there about needing, wanting a Greek hero to overrule the tyrant in our shared house who prevented us from turning on the boiler. There’s other stuff in there as well. In Freudian dreams everything is rooted in the personal life of the dreamer. What appears in a dream is not so much mystical, universal symbols, but links between ideas that are often very mundane, very personal. As I mentioned, I was studying dreams and a psychoanalytic approach to them at the time, and there’s a famous quotation from the psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, who once commented that people training to be analysts should do crossword puzzles as a way of getting to grips with how the unconscious works. At that time, I think, I was wishing and hoping that I could discover something that would indicate that dreams were something more creative than Freud suggests, and maybe that’s how the image of the crossword came into the dream, and the whole idea that in that dream I was accomplishing something. Something creative. Something original. In short, then, it seems to me that there are all sorts of different dreams, and all the theories that we have about them are true to some extent, because maybe different sorts of dreams are indicative of different sorts of processes, or different sorts of levels of consciousness maybe. An anxiety dream, for instance – those sorts of dreams where we’re worried about something and basically we lie in bed, not quite awake, not quite asleep, just reliving whatever it is that we’re anxious about – maybe something like that is a very low level of dreaming, hardly removed from daily experience at all, and maybe Freudian dreams come from a level beyond that, perhaps where we’re more asleep and there’s an opportunity for things that are beyond our daily awareness to come into the dream, but this tends to be fairly personal, mundane stuff, although that’s not to say that there isn’t material here that isn’t valuable to us. And maybe Jungian dreams come from a level beyond that, where we can connect with processes and ideas beyond personal experience, from a transpersonal realm. And, of course, there’s maybe many other types and levels of dreaming beyond this. There’s lucid dreams, of course, and out-of-body experiences, and things that we might describe as visions, intense immersive experiences that can seem like we’re transported to a different realm. You know, sometimes this can happen when we’re awake and meditating, or if we’re in trance states. It’s very important, I think, simply to be open to this idea that dreams can perform all sorts of processes and open up onto all sorts of different levels of consciousness, and that somewhere among all of these are dreams which heal, because maybe they affect some sort of shift in the structure or position of the soul that makes an adjustment to something that previously was causing us pain.

Thanks to Freud’s interest in dreams, dreams, of course, came to occupy quite a position in therapy and psychoanalysis. Dreams can bring into therapy issues that the client might not quite be aware of or look at in the same way when they’re awake, and in that sense, they can be useful and can lead to insights that might be healing, might be helpful. In my own therapy I’ve talked about my dreams quite a lot and when I first started working as a counsellor I was surprised and a bit disappointed to discover that clients didn’t seem to talk about their dreams at all as a matter of course. I found this quite frustrating sometimes. What I tend to do now, depending on the person and the situation, is just to ask outright if clients have had any notable dreams recently, and I’d say that probably seven times out of ten, if you choose the right moment to ask, that would actually elicit some interesting dream material that moves things along in some way.

The idea that dreams can provide us with something helpful, something healing, goes back way, way earlier than Freud, as you might guess. I came across an interesting book a couple of years ago by Guy Dargert called The Snake in the Clinic, and in this book, he attempts to trace the earliest possible origins of psychotherapy, and it seems to trace all the way back to the ancient Greeks and the somewhat beguiling and mysterious figure of the god Asklepios, who is also the god of medicine in general.

Asklepios was said to be the son of Apollo, who was the god of light, and the sun, and harmony, and reason. His mother was a human princess, and the myth is a little bit vague on what happened with Asklepios’s mother, but she died in childbirth or soon after his birth, and Apollo entrusted him to the care of Chiron, the centaur, who is another amazingly rich figure in Greek mythology. Chiron is the the healer par excellence, but he’s an ancient, chthonic figure. He’s not human. He’s a centaur. There’s something very nature-based about his approach to healing, something magical, and part of his healing power comes from the fact that Chiron himself is wounded. He nurses a constant wound. It’s almost as if Asklepios brings an extra dimension to medicine and healing, a human dimension that includes that Apollonian light and striving for harmony and reason, and Guy Dargert in his discussion of Asklepios mentions how statues of Asklepios would usually depict a figure that wasn’t distant and vengeful like the majority of the Olympian gods and goddesses, but usually had an expression that looked compassionate or full of emotion. He usually had long hair and a beard, and he was venerated for a long, long time. The Romans took up the figure of Asklepios and traces of him have been found all over the outposts of the Roman Empire, and it seems as if Asklepios may have been a strong influence upon the imagery and iconography of Christ.

Asklepios, god of medicine. (The Glypotek, Copenhagen.)

According to Dargert, it wasn’t until the church had finally put an end to polytheism that representations of Christ showed him with long hair and a beard. Apparently before that he was often shown as a shaven youth with short hair, so it might be that the elements of Asklepios got transferred over into what we recognize today as the figure of Christ. Furthermore, apparently the supplicants of Asklepios would refer to him as “savior”, and in the Greek myths Asklepios finally meets his end when he’s killed by Hades, the god of the underworld, in revenge for Asklepios raising the dead.

Another aspect of Asklepios that has survived to the present day is his emblem: his staff. The physicians of Ancient Greece were itinerants. They used to wander around, ministering to the sick wherever they felt they were needed. So, the staff symbolized their wandering nature, and around the staff of Asklepios is entwined a snake. The symbolism of the snake, of course, is very ancient and subtle. Snakes have an apparent power to renew themselves by shedding their skins. They make their homes underground, which associates them with the element of earth, and perhaps their tunnels were thought to provide them with access to the underworld, to the subterranean gods.

Jung, in The Red Book writes about snakes and the way they move, the way they slither left and right, and the sense in which snakes represent transitions between opposites, moving left and right in order to move forwards. What the snake might be taken to represent in the emblem of Asklepios’s staff, then, could be ideas about regeneration, transformation, connections with the underworld, and deep animal and vegetative energies. And, of course, Asklepios’s staff is still the emblem of the medical profession to this very day although, curiously, the profession itself seems to have got a bit confused about its own emblem and often it’s the caduceus of Hermes that you’ll see on the side of ambulances or on doctors’ letterheads. This is perhaps ironic. As Dargert points out, Hermes was not the god of doctors and healers, but rather a trickster god sometimes associated with thieves and deceivers.

Some of the most intriguing passages in Dargert’s book are about what happened in the temples of Asklepios, of which there were many in the Roman world, in all sorts of different places. Supplicants would come to the temple of Asklepios when they were seeking to heal themselves. The temples would usually be in out-of-the-way places, so it would be necessary to make a kind of pilgrimage to get there. They would often be large, beautiful, impressive buildings. They would be away from the centres of population, where there was plenty of fresh air and pure, running water. Dargert suggests that we would probably now conceive of these places as a kind of combination of a hospital, a health spa, and a spiritual retreat centre all rolled up into one.

You wouldn’t be allowed in if the physicians thought that you were likely to die or be close to death, nor would you be allowed in if you were pregnant. So, the emphasis in these places was very much focused upon the self and upon self-renewal. There would be a theatre, and the plays that were put on were designed to elicit deep emotional responses, and they’d be presented in a specific order. So, first of all there would be tragedies, followed by farcical, rude, rough-humoured kinds of plays, and then finally in the sequence would come the comedies, the idea being to elicit from the supplicants a means of expressing and accessing a wide range of emotions. There was magnificent architecture and art and statuary in these places. Lots of statues of the gods. Devotion to the gods would be encouraged, perhaps as a means of connecting people with those sorts of archetypal energies. But after a period of physical and psychological purging, the physicians would decide at a certain point whether the supplicant was ready for the main feature of what happened in these places, which was an encounter with the god Asklepios himself.

You would be led into a place called the abaton, which translates as “the place not to be entered unbidden”, and here there will be a chamber in which there will be a larger than life-size statue of Asklepios. And also, in this place there would be snakes roaming freely, and dogs. The snakes that were used would be non-venomous varieties of a kind that grow to a big size, but aren’t poisonous, and you could make offerings of honey cakes to the snakes, and the dogs roaming around would lick wounds or be there for people to pet them or cuddle up with them – sort of therapy dogs, basically.

So, you’re in this space with the dogs and the snakes and the big statue of Asklepios, and it’s all dim and it’s all filled with incense and there are attendants walking around, dressed as Asklepios or as his daughters, and their attending to the supplicants. And then eventually it’s time for the ritual sleep. Everybody lies down in this temple space on a couch, and you sleep in this special, atmospheric, strange place, and you hope that the god will send you a dream. A special dream. A dream of healing. And this dream might take the form of an encounter with Asklepios himself, or one of his sacred animals – a snake or a dog. And in the dream one of these figures might tell you what you needed to do to heal yourself. The figure in the dream might prescribe a cure or a remedy or some other kind of message or advice, or you might have some other kind of dream, in which case one of the physicians on hand would try to interpret it as best they could and tell you what the meaning of it was and how you should proceed.

And after this dream you might feel cured straight away, or it might then be time to follow the advice in the dream, or you might feel somewhat better. But if you didn’t have a dream or if you didn’t feel better at all then the physicians might recommend that you stay a while longer and come back to the abaton and try again. And if you were feeling better then some kind of payment would be due at this point. This would generally be cash, depending on the means of the pilgrim. Apparently, a sliding scale of fees was operated, and additionally it was traditional to make a votive offering to Asklepios, to compose a song or poem in his praise, to write a little account of the benefit that you’d received and offer praise to the god.

These places lasted for centuries, which suggests they must have been of some use. They had all gone by the end of the fourth century, due to their suppression by Christianity. But, as we’ve seen, the figure of Christ perhaps owes an iconographical debt to Asklepios.

The ancient Greeks didn’t have the knowledge of anatomy, of course, that would develop later, but that doesn’t mean they didn’t know anything about healing. What happened in the temple of Asklepios evidently seems designed to address the psychological dimensions of illness, disease. They seem designed simply to transplant people into an unusual environment that would take them out of what they were used to at home, give them an opportunity to express strong emotions, connect them with images of the divine, and give them an opportunity to dream, to really connect, perhaps, with what was going on within themselves. The ancient Greeks may not have had the knowledge to fix illnesses to the extent that medicine can achieve these days, but it seems they did have some kind of handle on what could make people feel better. They couldn’t tackle illness to the extent that is possible today by tackling it through the body, but it seems that they were able to tackle it through the mind. No matter what kind of suffering or disease we might be facing, if it’s possible to affect some change, some helpful change, in our state of mind regarding that then some kind of recovery to some degree may become possible. That’s what the temples of Asklepios seemed designed to set out to achieve.

But after the temples had vanished it was hundreds of years before dreams would feature again as a possible means of relieving distress, when Freud turned his attention to them and started to use dream interpretation as part of the technique of psychoanalysis.

These days, if you’re in search of a healing dream you might find it in therapy, but there’s nothing to stop you from creating your own temple of Asklepios. It could be depression or illness itself that shows you the way in, although hopefully that won’t be necessary. The way in is past the fireplace, the centre of our everyday life that always consumes our attention. It seems that there’s no way around that without harming yourself, but there is. You can wriggle past or through it and then you’re into that half-remembered place, that mouldy, mildewy room full of all those issues from the past. But then, if you twist and wriggle about, again you’ll find yourself outdoors in that vast, collective space that puts everything else into perspective.

As the poet Rumi puts it:

Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing,
there is a field. I’ll meet you there.
When the soul lies down in that grass,
the world is too full to talk about.
Ideas, language, even the phrase “each other”
doesn’t make any sense.

From Rumi, “The Great Wagon”.


Transcript of Episode #103 of the OEITH podcast, The Terrors of Awakening, exploring the potentially destabilising effects of awakening and the possible relationship of these to alienation abductions, MK Ultra, conspiracy theories, and more.

I remember very vividly that first awakening experience that I had in 2009. I had a regular meditation practice. I was sitting for about two hours a day. And I came down one morning to meditate and realized on sitting that something was different. Something was really different.

There was a new awareness. There was something in my mind that didn’t make any sense at all. It felt like almost as if a part of the external world was somehow inside the mind. There was something and it was indescribable: it wasn’t a thought; it wasn’t a sensation; it wasn’t an emotion; it wasn’t a concept; it was something beyond the mind entirely that somehow seemed to be in there, and I remember sitting, looking at this thing and thinking: How can I be aware of this? How can this even be possible?

In that moment I realized that, obviously, experiences of this kind were what people down the ages had described as “God”. There seemed no better word for it. It felt like I was in touch with something that was outside of material reality. It wasn’t me but somehow it was part of my awareness.

Other feelings came up as well, which was: What do I do with this? What the hell do I do now?

When I sat down that morning to meditate that experience just instantly made redundant everything that I had been trying to do. What was the point in sitting to meditate now that this was here, because before then, an experience like this was presumably what I’ve been trying to reach but now, now it was just there all of the time, blaring in my face, and it was disturbing and it was terrifying as well as amazing and incredible and filling me full of wonder, because where was I supposed to go now? What was I supposed to do? What was supposed to happen?

Somebody had once said to me, knowing that I was into awakening and enlightenment and all of that; they said to me once: “Well, what if you get enlightened and you don’t like it?” At the time I thought that was one of the most stupid things I’d ever heard anybody say. But then after that experience, that first awakening experience, suddenly it didn’t feel so stupid. There is something about experiences of awakening that – besides all the bliss, amazement, wonder, fusion with the divine, which those sorts of experiences can bring – is troubling, disturbing.

I find myself inclined to describe it as a kind of positive trauma. I like the way that those two words contradict the normal sense of things. Awakening experiences are deeply destabilizing, de-centring, but at the same time full of light and bliss and amazement. Does it make any sense at all to think that there might be such a thing as positive trauma?

Normally we take the view that trauma is a negative experience. But if it’s possible to frame trauma in a positive light, such as awakening experiences might suggest, then perhaps that takes us into some interesting realms.

There’s a famous moment in a television interview that Jung gave in 1959 when the interviewer asks him does he believe in God.

Interviewer: Do you now believe in God?

Jung: Now? Difficult to answer. I know. I needn’t – I don’t need to believe. I know.

The first time I ever heard that I was just struck by how arrogant Jung seemed, the fact that he was saying that he knew God existed. Could anyone have that certainty? Now, when I listen to that clip, it’s the silence as Jung struggles to find the answer to that question that I can hear. I can hear him trying to somehow put that experience that he’s had into words. He had already put it into words, however, in The Red Book, although it wasn’t published at the time, of course. I’m going to read the passages from The Red Book where he talks about his experience. And maybe keep in mind again that idea I’ve put forward of awakening as a kind of positive trauma… This is what Jung writes:

“Through uniting with the self, we reach the god. I must say this not with reference to the opinions of the ancients or this or that authority, but because I have experienced it. It has happened thus in me, and it certainly happened in a way that I neither expected nor wished for. The experience of the god in this form was unexpected and unwanted. I wish I could say it was a deception, and only too willingly would I disown this experience. But I cannot deny that it has seized me beyond all measure and steadily goes on working in me. So, if it is deception then deception is my god. Moreover, the god is in the deception, and if this were already the greatest bitterness that could happen to me, I would have to confess to this experience and recognize the god in it. No insight or objection is so strong that it could surpass the strength of this experience, and even if the god had revealed himself in a meaningless abomination, I could only avow that I have experienced the god in it. I even know that it is not too difficult to cite a theory that would sufficiently explain my experience and join it to the already known. I could furnish this theory myself and be satisfied in intellectual terms, and yet this theory would be unable to remove even the smallest part of the knowledge that I have experienced the god. I recognize the god by the unshakableness of the experience. I cannot help but recognize him by the experience. I do not want to believe it. I do not need to believe it. Nor could I believe it. How can one believe such? My mind would need to be totally confused to believe such things given their nature. They are most improbable. Not only improbable but also impossible. For our understanding only a sick brain could produce such deceptions. I am like those sick persons who have been overcome by delusion and sensory deception. But I must say that the god makes us sick. I experience the god in sickness. A living god afflicts our reason like a sickness. He fills the soul with intoxication. He fills us with reeling chaos. How many will the god break? The god appears to us in a certain state of soul. Therefore, we reach the god through the self. Not the self is god, although we reach the god through the self. The god is behind the self, above the self, the self itself when he appears, but he appears as our sickness from which we must heal ourselves. We must heal ourselves from the god since he is also our heaviest wound.”

When I read that passage in The Red Book, I immediately recognized my own experience in that. But of course, Jung puts it in a way that I couldn’t equal. There’s that sense there that the awakening experience is a kind of sickness, a kind of wound is the word that he uses, a wound that is inflicted upon us and, after the experience, we need to heal from that in some sense – and just the sense in that passage of Jung’s reluctance, inability to accept what it is that that he has experienced really struck a chord with me.

Now, just to say that awakening experiences take different forms to different people. I was talking with a friend yesterday and we were laughing because although the experience I had put an end to me describing myself as an atheist, for him it very much confirmed his atheism. I’m pretty certain that he’s had the same experience that I’ve had, but whereas for me it was an experience in which I encountered something that it seemed to me obvious was what people had described as “God”, for him it was an experience of encountering something that was so unlike what he had conceived of God as being that for him it confirmed that there is no God. But I’m pretty sure, as I said, the experiences that we’ve had are the same, and this points to something important that also seems to be in play here, which is: we approach these experiences through the filter of our own personal ego.

For some people, I think, awakening doesn’t have a traumatic aspect to it at all because it’s something that perhaps people respond to in different ways, that people can be more open to than others. But certainly, for me, there were aspects of it that were definitely disturbing, and I recognized that as well in in Jung’s description of his experience.

There’s a really interesting book by a guy called Russell Razzaque with the title Breaking Down Is Waking Up. Now, Razzaque is a psychiatrist, and he happened to get very interested in meditation and went off, did a retreat, got hooked, kept meditating and eventually had an awakening experience, some of the elements of which were quite destabilizing. Immediately afterwards, and being a psychiatrist, he was struck by seeming parallels in what he was experiencing and the sorts of symptoms and experiences that his patients described to him. What he does in this book is present a model that casts interesting light on the possible relationship between psychosis and awakening. How he ended up visualizing that model was seeing the two on basically a continuum. He visualizes psychosis and awakening as two points along the continuum and he suggests that when we exercise self-awareness, when we’re meditating, that takes us in one direction along the continuum, whereas stress and trauma take us in the other direction. The main thing that seems to determine what direction we’re moving in seems to be intention. If we’re meditating then we’re usually meditating because we’ve decided to do so, we’ve made a conscious choice to engage with it, whereas if we’re stressed or traumatized then that’s against our will; that’s something that has been forced upon us. But in either case we’re being driven along the continuum in one direction or the other. And what that continuum itself appears to be is basically just the way in which the ego is reacting to its experiences. If we’re meditating, then the ego is quietly dissolving in an intentional way. But if we’re stressed or traumatized then the ego’s struggling to defend itself as best it can in the face of hurt, injury, destructive forces coming from outside.

Razzaque provides a metaphor. He talks about the ego “rising like a souffle” when it’s under stress. So, when we’re subjected to trauma or stress, the ego tries to make itself bigger to withstand the attack, but it rises up like a souffle – it disintegrates even as it gets bigger. That’s the image that he uses, whereas, presumably, when we meditate, when we intentionally still and calm the mind, the ego just gently dissolves away. In both cases – awakening, and psychosis or trauma – something beyond the mind is invading the mind. In the case of awakening, generally that’s something that we’re inviting; that’s something that’s being invited. In the case of trauma or psychosis that’s the mind coming apart as things from outside force their way in. So, when I’m talking about positive trauma, what I’m suggesting is there can be an invasion of the mind that’s invited. It may be destabilizing, frightening, terrifying to some extent, but what I mean by positive trauma is that this is something that’s been invited and it’s something that we can also step back from if we need to, at any point, if things get too overwhelming.

Somewhere in the middle perhaps are psychedelic experiences. We may well intend to take a psychedelic substance and have an experience from that, but of course once we’ve taken it, we’re on a ride that we can’t get off, and if we decide that we don’t like it then there’s seven or eight hours that we’ll need to get through before we get back to normal, and sometimes it can become more of a traumatic experience than something that we’ve willingly undertaken.

If we’re meditating, generally we can only get as far as our ego can tolerate and usually, if the experience is too much we can easily take a step back. But psychedelics and trauma can easily push us past our limits, and we can end up in places or having insights that we may not in a spiritual sense be ready for or prepared for, and that can sometimes throw up odd paradoxes.

I came across somebody a while back who had taken LSD and found themselves having an experience of the oneness of all things: that sense that there’s just one consciousness that we’re all part of. This had come unexpectedly out of the blue and the person concerned had been very disturbed by this and it seemed that they were seeking reassurance that what they’d seen during that trip wasn’t true because, as they expressed it, if it were true then that would mean consciousness went on forever and there was no death and they would never die.

I wonder if instead of taking psychedelics they’d been meditating and they’d got to that insight at their own pace, in their own time, whether in that case it would have felt a lot more tolerable and whether then they wouldn’t have ended up feeling, as they did, that the idea of death was actually more consoling than what they’d actually stumbled upon.

This idea of trauma, psychosis, and awakening all being on a kind of continuum leads us into some dark and strange places, but perhaps also into a useful perspective for making sense of some of the phenomena that we see on the occult scene, and helps us make a bit more sense maybe of the darker, more conspiratorial dimensions of occultism.

What sent my thoughts heading in this direction recently was, as often happens, just the coincidental coming together of ideas I’d come across in a few places, and one of these was a podcast, an interview that Alex Tsakiris did with Whitley Strieber a while back.

Strieber, of course, is the author of Communion. He’s a prolific and accomplished writer who basically created the whole alien abduction phenomenon. Strieber was talking with Tsakiris about how his uncle and father were both in the US military and both seem to have been involved in the intelligence services to quite a high degree. Strieber was talking about how he remembers being enrolled in some kind of intense educational programme in around 1952, when he was about seven. From this time the memories that he has are sort of vague and uncertain and he himself wonders whether some of them might be half-imagined, but what brought things to a head was when he mentioned these memories to a close friend who was from a similar background, and this friend, who was a little bit older, remembered being on the same program, which was pitched as a educational program for bright children, and it was presented to them as an honour for them to take part in this. Strieber remembers it was on Thursday nights and he went along quite happily for the first time, but then when he was about to leave for the second time he panicked and would not attend.

From what I gather, though, he does remember going back on a number of occasions and on one of these he remembers getting upset while he was actually in the class, and they took him outside – it was on the airbase, apparently – and they took him outside to sit in a jet but even that didn’t distract him or calm him down. He remembers that this program started about two weeks before the autumn school term, but after school had started his immune system collapsed and he remembers getting ill and he was taken to the military hospital and isolated for three or four days, and when he went home he was not allowed to be in school for a few weeks or see any of the other children, and when he finally returned back to school in January he was no longer on the educational program.

Strieber doesn’t go into a lot of detail about things that he actually remembers from this time, but the impression is very much that some of them were strange and disturbing. One of the things he does mention is being on the educational program and being placed in a Skinner Box: a piece of equipment from behavioural psychological experiments. It’s a contraption. You would typically put a rat inside a Skinner Box and it would have a bar that the rat would press to get rewards. That kind of an apparatus. So Strieber can remember being put into one of these as part of this program that he was on. The suggestion is that he and the other children were part of psychological experiments and were being conditioned in some way.

Now, at this time it’s now known that the US Government was running a secret project called MK Ultra. This was headed up by a guy called Sidney Gottlieb and it was run by the CIA. The project had quite a wide scope. All of what it did was very secret. Some of what it did was illegal. What it was mostly focused upon was psychological warfare and finding ways to, in effect, influence or destroy the human mind. Supposedly, at the end of the project Gottlieb came to the conclusion that it wasn’t actually possible to control or destroy the human mind, but it seems that they spent a lot of effort on trying to do that and, as well as psychological techniques, they also experimented with various drugs, including LSD, as is quite well known.

Strieber, understandably, doesn’t specifically remember what it was that was done to him during these so-called educational sessions, but he does express the view that whatever it was it seemed to incline himself and the other children on the program to later contact with the alien beings that he described in his book Communion, and commentators have come up with various theories about what the true aims of MK Ultra might have been, which, of course, you can find all over the internet, some of them being the idea that the CIA was intentionally inducing dissociative identity disorder in people through traumatizing them, because by breaking down the personality this opens people to telepathic contact with extra-terrestrials.

By all means draw your own conclusion about that theory, but I came across another take on MK Ultra on Laura London’s podcast, Speaking of Jung, where she interviewed a guy named Walter Bosley who has recently written a book called Shimmering Light, which contains his reflections on MK Ultra and what its true aims may have been, which he based on personal experience. His father was in the air force and told a rather strange story that he experienced as a memory, which we’ll come back to in due course. Bosley’s theory is that what MK Ultra may have been trying to achieve, and perhaps did achieve, is a technique for implanting false memories. Bosley himself worked in the intelligence service and his idea is that the CIA would have found such a technique really valuable. It would be a way of ensuring that servicemen didn’t divulge state secrets. Suppose you had some personnel who’d been involved in something that you wanted to cover up. What you could do would be to subject them to this technique, implant a false memory in place of what had actually happened, and make the false memory something outlandish so what the servicemen would end up telling instead would be some strange-sounding story that no one would take seriously rather than what had actually happened to that person.

But let’s return to Whitley Strieber for a moment. Now, one of the things that Strieber definitely recalls is being placed in a Skinner Box and he feels that whatever was done to him as part of whatever conditioning or psychological experiment opened him up to communication with aliens later in life. The experience of being put inside a machine, the experience of being under the control or influence of a machine, is a common feature of psychotic delusions, of psychotic experiences, and here we start to venture into very murky, very dark and uncertain territory.

Strieber also suggests that some of the memories that he has from this time in his life are of very disturbing, possibly atrocious things. The idea of satanic, sadistic cults carrying out atrocities can be a feature of psychotic delusions also, but at the same time that doesn’t mean that satanic ritual abuse isn’t something that could possibly happen to somebody. Likewise, being put in a Skinner Box and being subjected to psychological experiments isn’t something that couldn’t happen, and supposing it did happen, supposing an individual were subjected to being put in strange machines and having strange things done to them, or being the victim of ritual abuse, witnessing atrocities, those would be extremely distressing experiences very likely to produce in someone psychological trauma or possibly psychosis. And if that is the case then we find ourselves in an area where, by definition, it’s almost impossible to say what’s going on, what’s real and what isn’t. If you’ve intentionally subjected somebody to a situation like this then you’ve made the cause of their condition indistinguishable from the symptoms of it. You’ve in effect hidden what you’ve done to them at the same time as you’ve discredited any account that they might give of it.

The story that Walter Bosley’s father told him as a child, and this was many years after the events were supposed to have taken place, was that as a member of air force personnel his father had been sent as part of a rescue operation to Arizona. They were briefed that the military were aware of another civilization living in parallel with us on earth, a hidden civilization, and that from time to time there would be contact between us and them and that Roswell was actually one of the craft belonging to this other civilization crashing. So, Walter Bosley’s father maintained that they were sent to Arizona because another craft had crashed and there was reason to believe that the pilots of this craft were alive and needed to be rescued, and what subsequently happened was a descent into a subterranean cavern and, unfortunately, coming into conflict with members of this other civilization, and one of the men with Bosley’s father was killed during this altercation, and Bosley recalls that this is usually where the story would end with his father getting very emotional about what had happened.

Having worked in intelligence himself, Bosley’s theory is that his father had had some sort of false memory implanted. His father had been involved in some sort of secret mission, perhaps, and the powers that be had wanted to cover this up so they’d implanted this memory that no one would believe, no one could verify, and presumably this had been achieved by conditioning or traumatizing Bosley’s father in some way.

Bosley in the podcast suggests that Sidney Gottlieb, the head of the MK Ultra program was very interested in New Age thinking and also in myth and folklore, and also around this time we have The Schaefer Mystery: these were a series of stories published in science fiction magazines that developed a mythos of an underground civilization living in parallel with those of us dwelling above ground level. Bosley suggests that this may have been the reason why those particular memories had been implanted into his father, because that was the sort of stuff that Gottlieb was into.

I’ve only done a little bit of searching, but I’ve not been able to confirm that Gottlieb was interested in those sorts of myths, but there is an interesting question here of why it does seem to be certain sorts of narratives, certain sorts of symbols and stories, that seem to prevail in this area, in this realm: the idea of a sinister, hidden group that has evil intention, that perpetuates atrocities against us, that hides in the shadows or literally lives underground in caves, that has technology superior to ours, that can influence us in strange ways that we don’t quite understand.

If the intelligence forces wanted to obscure what Walter Bosley’s father had been up to then they could have chosen any sort of narrative. Why not unicorns and tigers? Supposedly they concluded that it was not possible to destroy the human mind, but maybe they did find ways to seriously obscure memories, the truth of the past. Or could it be that actually you don’t need to implant a narrative at all. Could it be that these narratives lie close to hand in some sense, that they’re part of the architecture of the mind?

Razzaque suggested that when the mind is subjected to stress or trauma the ego inflates like a souffle – sort of blows up. Maybe it cracks along specific fault lines. Unlike spiritual practice, in trauma the ego doesn’t willingly surrender, in which case it’s having the experience of being invaded by something from outside itself. So, is it not understandable if that souffle has a specific flavour, which is the flavour of being in telepathic contact with aliens, of being subject to the influence and cruelty and atrocity of shadowy groups of people who are vastly more powerful than ourselves? What these narratives possibly might be is an image of trauma itself, seen from the perspective of the ego. That’s why these narratives keep coming back, because they embody the story of the ego’s forced dissolution.

Strieber says something really interesting in his interview with Tsakiris and I’m going to quote it. He says: “Let me tell you something about black magick. First, it’s quite real, and second, it’s like flypaper. You touch it, you can never escape. An organization touches it, that organization is part of it. The more you try to escape from it the deeper you get.” And then he says there’s only one way to escape: “and that is to live a life of love, compassion, and humility. If you do not actively work on that you will not escape.”

It’s interesting there, maybe, that what Strieber is advocating is a kind of spiritual practice. You need to live a life of love, compassion, and humility, he says, which is moving in the opposite direction that we talked about in Razzaque’s model: finding a way to intentionally make the ego small, in contrast to having it smashed apart by unintentional forces outside of itself. The antidote to the horror of being invaded, Strieber seems to be suggesting, is to practise compassion, humility, love; to find ways to open yourself up intentionally to what’s beyond the ego. He seems to be suggesting that that’s the only way to cope with it and to transform it into another type of experience altogether. Still traumatic, of course, but bringing in an element of intentionality, of opening.

So, we began by considering how awakening can sometimes lead into trauma, and where we’ve arrived at now is perhaps how trauma can lead into awakening, with Strieber talking about how he came to cope with his experiences by developing what is essentially a spiritual practice, exercising compassion, humility, and trying to find ways to accept the “visitors”, as he calls them, into his life. But it’s not that “acceptance” (to whatever degree that’s achievable) means that there isn’t pain and suffering involved in those visitations.

What I wanted to turn to now is that other side of trauma turning into awakening, thinking back to the story that Walter Bosley’s father talked about: the rescue mission in the caves and the hidden civilization that lived in the caves. It links up with the Schaefer Mystery that was in circulation around that time, but it also links up with the documentary series Hellier, which was released a few years ago.

Hellier is a documentary record of a group of paranormal investigators who receive a series of emails from a guy based near or in the town of Hellier who sends through some evidence of visitations to his property by creatures that look like goblins or alien greys and which he suspects are coming from nearby cave systems. So, this group of paranormal investigators they go to investigate and over the course of two seasons of episodes they get drawn into an increasingly bizarre web of coincidences, connections, synchronicities, that lead them progressively into occultism – away from paranormal investigation into very much the occult world in which Aleister Crowley and ideas taken from his system of Thelema begin to feature more and more. And towards the end of the series, they find themselves drawn towards performing some kind of ritual in the system of caves that is designed to invite the god Pan back into the world. It’s as if these sorts of narratives, these sorts of symbols, spontaneously create themselves, continue to re-echo, re-emerge.

I must confess I’ve never actually taken the time to read his books, but Kenneth Grant also comes to mind: that same circle of ideas about threatening, dark forces and underground places and spaces, and alien intelligence about to burst into the world. They keep coming back, they keep returning. They’re the very stuff of trauma and psychosis, and sometimes these ideas return as that, but we have to be careful with pathologizing them because, as we’ve seen, these sorts of images can be symptoms, but they can also be the causes of those symptoms. Trauma and psychosis are sometimes expressed through these images but these images, if they relate to actual happenings, could just as easily be the cause of those conditions. Somebody might end up with a memory of alien abduction due to traumatic experiences, or psychosis, but they could also end up with a memory of alien abduction because they’ve been abducted by aliens.

When you’re thinking and working in this area you simply have to keep both of those options in play. But we considered also Razzaque’s idea that when confronted with trauma and stress the ego disintegrates even as it expands to try to counteract the impact of what’s attacking it, and therefore the possibility that these images and symbols might be a kind of debris that tends to appear when the ego responds to overwhelming experiences that it can’t in any way integrate. In that case, if awakening experiences can also be experienced as traumatic, could it be possible that these images might also arise as a response to the prospect of awakening?

In terms of stress and negative trauma, these images would arise as a consequence of that, but could it be that in cases where someone is approaching an awakening experience, these images might arise as a kind of prelude? As somebody moves towards an awakening experience and that encroaches upon them, could it be that the ego starts to break down, starts to try to defend against that, and these images are thrown up as part of that breaking down process? Thinking about this in terms of the documentary series Hellier, the team begin as paranormal investigators doing the sorts of things paranormal investigators usually do, going around haunted sites calling out to spirits, trying to get measurements of EMF fields and doing EVP research – all that kind of stuff, which I’ve always tended to think of as not the science that often these paranormal teams think that they’re doing, but as really a form of magick, a form of ritual.

Paranormal investigation teams, unless they’re guided by a strictly scientific methodology, in my view are usually performing unwitting magick; they’re creating experiences. But as the team in Hellier get drawn more and more into weirdness and synchronicities, and it does seem possible in Hellier that there may be some sort of guiding intelligence behind this, because they continue to receive emails from an anonymous source that seems to be steering them in a particular direction – as this continues, as this proceeds, they become drawn more and more into what is explicitly magick and occultism to the extent that they end up performing what is explicitly a ritual to invoke an ancient god. Hellier is in essence the story of an initiation into ceremonial magick. A team of paranormal investigators become, by the end of it, occultists.

Towards the very end of the series references start to appear to a ritual called the Star Sapphire ritual, which, when you look at the details, is a sex-magical practice for inducing states of non-dual consciousness; and references to the number 418, for instance, appear, which is the number of the Great Work of magick, the union with the Holy Guardian Angel. At the very end that’s where it seems to have been leading them all along, but to have reached that point they’ve done an awful lot of stumbling around in caves looking for goblins and possible traces of sinister satanic groups performing atrocious rituals in dark places. Are these types of stories, these types of images possibly the necessary outcome of the ego rebelling against the encroachment of awakening, initiation? Is Whitley Strieber describing something similar in his trajectory, involving brutal, terrifying invasion by entities from another place, which, as he describes, over time he had to respond to by trying to find a way to accommodate this phenomenon that’s entirely from beyond? And what that entailed for him was compassion, love, humility. These images, as we said, are the very stuff of trauma and psychosis, but they’re also the stuff of conspiracy theory.

Now, I really enjoy listening to Alex Tsakiris on his Skeptico podcast, and on almost every episode he challenges the secular materialist paradigm that views human beings as “biological robots”, as Tsakiris puts it. “Biological robots in a meaningless universe.” And, as he sees it, science so completely and wilfully ignores evidence to the contrary, such as near-death experiences or the placebo effect, and this seems so nonsensical to him, that, for Tsakiris, he argues that science as it is today has to be run from a conspiratorial framework. In other words, his view is that science is intentionally suppressing evidence that runs counter to the dominant materialist paradigm and pretty much every guest he has on he tends to run this idea past them, to see what sort of a response he’ll get. And sadly, for the most part, most of the guests, from what I’ve seen, tend to sidestep that question.

The view I tend towards at the moment is that materialism, scientific materialism, is not a conspiracy; it’s just a very, very crappy version of the truth. Let’s break that down a bit. So, if we take Tsakiris’s characterization of materialist science, which presents human beings as “biological robots in a meaningless universe”, well, let’s compare that notion of reality with a non-dual experience that you might encounter during meditation, say, or during a psychedelic experience. When we’re in the midst of a non-dual experience, is it true to say that we are a human being? My view is that I don’t think it is true in those sorts of experiences: we are merged with the divine. There’s a kind of awareness that is very much beyond ordinary human awareness. And consider as well, in a non-dual experience do we have free will? And again, my view is that no, I don’t think we do. When we find ourselves in such an experience, we cease to be individuals. We don’t have a sense of our self as a separate, individual person anymore. So, the idea of free will doesn’t apply.

Okay, taking stock of that in a non-dual experience we are not a human being, and we do not have free will, and it is perfectly evident to us in that experience that this is the nature of reality, so now comparing that with materialist science, that asserts that we are “biological robots in a meaningless universe” – those two perhaps aren’t so far apart. Common to both of them is what looks like a sort of objectification of our humanity, although it’s a bit more complicated than that in the non-dual experience.

I don’t think science is a conspiracy. I think it’s sincere, and it’s a sincere adherence to what is, in comparison to the non-dual experience, a kind of crappy version of it. It’s got all of the objectivity but none of the transcendence. Likewise, maybe the idea of being taken up into a UFO and whisked away by alien beings and subjected to invasive procedures by them, maybe that too is really just a sincerely held but kind of degraded picture of the non-dual experience, which in a sense is also like being swept away and totally taken apart by something immeasurably vaster than ourselves.

Spiritual awakening can be hugely traumatic, and perhaps we can sometimes find ourselves fending it off just as vigorously as we would fend off any other kind of trauma. I’m thinking again of the person I mentioned earlier, who felt more consoled by the notion that he would be dead forever than the notion that he might be part of one consciousness that was ceaseless and eternal. But maybe here as well are symbols, images, that incline in a slightly different direction. And I’m thinking of Strieber, how, in his book Communion the dominant female alien that he encounters, and whose face is shown famously on the cover of the book, he comes to identify her with the goddess Ishtar.

This entity tells him that she is very ancient, and he wonders whether Ishtar was a form in which she was perceived by our ancestors. Alongside all the caves and goblins and extra-terrestrials and satanic cults, what we also sometimes glimpse is an encounter in a place of darkness with the goddess. In Hellier the team end up venturing into the caves to intentionally evoke the god Pan, and I’m reminded of the Greek philosopher, Parmenides, although this takes us far beyond where I wanted to go, who creates the very foundations of Greek philosophy in a vision that he reports whereby he arrived at the truth by first having to venture into the underworld and meet a goddess there, the goddess of the dead. But this is material for another time, perhaps.


Two texts concerning encounters with non-terrestrial entities: the first, Anthony Peake’s The Hidden Universe: an Investigation into Non-Human Intelligences (2019); the second, the film series Hellier (Pfeiffer 2019). Both were created at around the same time, probably unknown to each other, but each confronts a similar mystery of non-human entities which, as Peake puts it:

all have one thing in common: they originally existed in the heavens, came down to earth, were defeated or banished by a controlling power, and ended up underground to occasionally enter this world through portals such as caves and sink-holes (Peake 2019: 44)

Both texts are initiated by personal encounters: in Peake’s case, his mother’s experience of something strange in the sky, followed by a bedroom encounter with an alien grey, even though such things were outside his mother’s cultural frame of reference; in the case of Hellier, unsolicited emails describing incursions of goblin-like greys upon a household in Kentucky.

Figurines of white humanoid figures
The White People. Figurines about 1m tall. Discovered at Ayn Ghazal and dated to 6500BCE.

In each instance, the ensuing narrative leads the protagonists and the reader or viewer into “high strangeness”: happenings so bizarre they transcend the usual categories of weirdness, so that phenomena such as ghosts, extraterrestrials, and psi are jumbled together in an inseparable melee of oddness.

What distinguishes these texts, however, is the trajectory the respective investigations take. Peake begins with shamanism, myth and magick, formulating an argument that reaches its conclusions in what is supposedly science. The Hellier team begin with a supposedly scientific, investigative approach, but are drawn ineluctably towards a conclusion in occultism. Along the way, both are confronted with questions about the nature of reality.

The Hellier team commence in that dire confusion typical of paranormal investigation teams. The first season is almost unbearable to watch, because of the faulty reasoning, their inability to distinguish between knowledge and experience. On their first visit to the town of Hellier they find it odd that so many people approach them with stories of strange happenings. When they return, months later, hardly anyone comes forward, yet this is taken as odd too. Is it really so improbable to have different experiences in the same place at different times?

To communicate with non-human entities the team employs “The Estes Method”, which involves relaying output from a ghostbox through powerful noise-cancelling headphones to a blindfolded human operator who then speaks out loud the messages he or she receives. Questions are addressed to the entity by the other participants and whatever is spoken by the human operator is taken as the response. Whereas typical ghostbox communications are vulnerable to different participants hearing different messages, the Estes Method limits the number of interpretations to one and creates a sense of dialoguing with an entity in real time.

ancient cave painting of human figures
Detail from the Junction Shelter “Bridge Scene”. Note the domed skull and pointed chin of the central figure. Upper Paleolithic.

This is taken a step further in a subsequent episode where the same set-up is employed with another member of the team donning a “god helmet” and engaging with the ghostbox operator in dialogue. A god helmet is an apparatus that stimulates the temporal lobes of the wearer with low intensity magnetic fields. In this sequence the helmeted team member, possibly in an altered state, reports multisensory communications from an extraterrestrial entity, which seem to correspond with the verbal utterances being relayed from the ghostbox operator.

But even as the paraphernalia of modern ghostbusting proliferates, the Hellier crew are converging on what amounts to an ancient method of spirit communication: spirit possession. They could have dispensed with all the technology and gained the same experience simply by calling out to the supposed entities, entering a trance state, and allowing whatever happens to happen. Indeed, the climactic scenes of Hellier amount to this: the team decide the phenomenon relates to the god Pan, so they perform a ritual in the caves to open a portal for Pan to re-enter the world. Their transformation from paranormal investigators into magicians seems complete.

The narrative strands of Hellier are manifold, and I will not enter into them here, but at the very end of the second series, after the somewhat anticlimactic results of the Pan ritual, further pointers seem offered by the phenomenon, two of them being: (1) a passage from The Book of the Law obtained by gematria: “the man and the name of thy house 418 the end of the hiding” (Crowley 1976: 38 [II: 78-9]); and (2) Crowley’s Star Sapphire ritual (1992: 36), obtained by gematria and through some striking synchronicities.

418 is the gematric value of Abrahadabra, which for Crowley means “The Great Work accomplished” (Crowley 2020: point iii). The number therefore symbolises enlightenment, awakening – although I suspect the Hellier crew might be thinking it is the street number of the house where Indrid Cold lives. (Long story…) The Star Sapphire ritual, meanwhile, is a sex-magickal invocation of the non-dual consciousness that forms the basis of spiritual awakening.

The Hellier team discuss the idea of performing the ritual, but no comment is made on its sexual aspect. Famously, in the sixteenth century John Dee and Edward Kelley made contact with angels and were instructed by them to arrange sexual intercourse on the same night with each other’s wives. The Hellier team are perhaps confronting discarnate beings with a similar intention of pointing them towards ritual sex as a means of gnosis. Jason Louv (regarding the case of Dee and Kelley) offers a rationale for this:

We know that sex and particularly possessiveness issues around sex are really tightly wound into the human ego and issues of territory and dominance […] The point of all of that is reproduction […] You need functional ego boundaries to take and defend territory in which children can be raised […] When you deal with sexual deconditioning you’re really hitting at the root of the personality […] It makes sense from the angelic perspective: they are trying to crack the centre of the human personality, but what often happens with these things is that what spiritual beings think human beings can handle they often can’t. (Kaminsky 2018: 51’10”)

Engaging in non-habitual sexual activity, then, can be used as a method for challenging ego boundaries and thereby entering non-dual awareness. If there is a third season of Hellier I doubt that these considerations will be pursued, and I am not recommending that they should (for the same reasons that Louv touches upon) but I imagine the trajectory into ritual and magick will continue, as it becomes clearer that (because it is discarnate and therefore without a material basis) the phenomenon cannot be subjected to scientific investigation – not that the Hellier team were ever really doing that anyway.

Peake, however, does not regard the immateriality of the entities as an obstacle to contemporary science. He traces encounters with non-human entities, or “egregorials”, through shamanism, religious myth, legends of faeries and djinn, the magick of Dee and Crowley, psychical experiments, ufology, and entheogens. By this point he has collected a bunch of odd but recurring motifs: beings originally from the heavens that for reasons unknown have retreated to dark, subterranean caves; that appear in forms often similar to or associated with reptiles or snakes; and with whom entheogens or trance states seem to offer a means of communication. Their motivation and ontological status remain uncertain, but they reappear so often and in so many contexts that it is too simple to dismiss them as fiction. Yet if they do not have material existence, then where are they? Referring to quantum mechanics and theories suggesting that material reality is some kind of simulation, Peake concludes:

If the physical world is, in fact, created purely from non-physical digital information then the existence of non-human intelligences existing outside the program is not so far-fetched. Our Egregorials are simply sentient programs in the same way that we are sentient programs. They just exist on a different level. (Peake 2019: 206)

Peake’s trajectory sends him on a reformulation of reality to accommodate discarnate entities. However, does the idea of the physical world as a simulation make sense? If an aspect of reality leads us to conclude reality is not real, what we were expecting to find? Peake seems perturbed by the suggestion “that physical reality is not actually solid in any real sense” (Peake 2019: 191). For him, apparently, if reality has characteristics somewhat like a computer program or a hologram then it becomes suspect. What seems more likely, however, is that his assumptions are unrealistic. A notion of reality as not real is an idea inherently confused and false.

On the one hand we have Peake, trying to find the entities by using science to reformulate reality; and on the other the Hellier crew, attempting communication by using magick to alter their perceptions. What both might be missing is an invitation implicit in the encounter to radically alter their conception of self. In Peake’s case, if reality indeed lacks substance and is like a hologram, then what would be the nature of human existence within that reality? In the case of the Hellier team, if it is not material creatures that their investigations yield, but meaningful synchronicities, are they noticing what effect this is having upon themselves?

Cave painting of human figure with large head and eyes
Pech Merle, “The Wounded Man”, a human figure with oddly domed head and large eyes. Upper Paleolithic.

The nature and motivation of the entities is implicit in these questions. They are not material creatures but symbols. They come down from the heavens and live in the underworld because that is where we must go to find them. They communicate through dreams, drugs, rituals, and trance because changing our consciousness is what they do. Describing them as “symbols” takes away none of their reality. To approach a symbol is to fall under its meaning and be affected by it.

The association of the entities with reptiles or serpents is related by Peake to an ayahuasca vision of Michael Harner: “The dragon-like entities informed him that they were inside all forms of life, including humans, who are but the receptacles and servants of these creatures” (Peake 2019: 166). This is perhaps taking a living symbol too literally, although it is understandable, given that it was apparently Harner’s first ever ayahuasca ritual, and at the time he was an anthropologist studying the perplexingly alien culture of the Conibo people in Peru.

Compare the conclusions Harner draws from his visionary encounter with reptilian entities to that of Carl Jung in The Red Book:

The serpent is the earthly essence of man of which he is not conscious. […I]t is the mystery that flows to him from the nourishing earth-mother. […] The serpent has the weight of the earth in itself, but also its changeability and germination from which everything that becomes emerges. It is always the serpent that causes man to become enslaved now to one, now to the other principle, so that it becomes error. […] The way of life writhes like the serpent from right to left and from left to right […] Thus the serpent is an adversary and a symbol of enmity, but also a wise bridge that connects right and left through longing, much needed by our life. (Jung 2009: 180-1)

My suggestion here is that we are not the slaves of the serpent (as Harner supposed), but only potentially so. We become slaves to these entities if we follow them into the earth, taking them literally. Earth is materiality, but it is also the site of germination, potential and growth. The myths inform us that these reptilian entities originally came from the stars, but they have a trickster aspect and can ruin us by leading us into confusion. Whereas Peake aims for the stars and tries to trace them back to their original home, the Hellier crew are led into the caves. However, as Jung suggests, we avoid confusion by recognising them as the living symbols that they are, enacting transformation upon us. Where they lead to wisdom it is because we have recognised that how they appear illuminates the nature of the reality that enables this.


Crowley, Aleister (1976). The Book of the Law. York Beach, ME: Weiser.

Crowley, Aleister (1992). The Book of Lies. ( Accessed September 2020.

Crowley, Aleister (2020). Liber Samekh. ( Accessed September 2020.

Jung, Carl Gustav (2009). The Red Book Liber Novus: A Reader’s Edition. New York: W.W. Norton.

Kaminsky, Greg (2018). Occult of personality: episode 191 – Jason Louv and John Dee’s empire of angels. ( Accessed September 2020.

Peake, Anthony (2019). The Hidden Universe: An Investigation into Non-Human Intelligences. London: Watkins.

Pfeiffer, Karl, director (2019). Hellier. Planet Weird.