The imagination is the mind’s active scratch pad–our source of daydreams. Here we try out new ideas, we work out conflicts, literal and metaphorical. This is not to be confused with the unconscious–which we could call our passive scratch pad, operating below our awareness. Sometimes we get spillover from the unconscious into nocturnal dreams or other forms we can remember. If we pay proper attention to these spontaneous eruptions, we can gain powerful insights into our motivations, solve thorny problems, or perhaps compose a hit song. Writing down our dreams can also provide raw material for Jungian analysis.
Without our capacity for abstract thought and free-association, there would be far fewer inventions. Without the ability to run scenarios, create internal characters and empathize with them, we’d have a much harder time appreciating myth or story. Without our ability to create an inner map of the outer world, life would be bereft of a great deal of its meaning.
I’m going to discuss how subjective experience and imagination, while incredibly versatile tools, can also be a primary source of self-deception when they are used to espouse the supernatural.
Like a heads-up display projected onto their retinas, the imagination indelibly colors the believers’ view. They fail to differentiate between inner and outer perceptions–between wishful thinking and observation. In the most extreme cases, elaborate stories of the imaginal underlie their entire perception of reality. I discussed the example of Alex Reichardt’s story (previous article), which only made sense in his revisionist supernatural context. Otherwise it became a tawdry tale of abuse and blurred boundaries.
This believer milieu supports a gamut of supernatural ideologies. It colors both history (purported past lives, fictional tales of human development) and present-day experiences. These imaginings can precipitate a form of intense paranoia causing a person to feel beset by external forces beyond their control. They may feel they are both the target of hordes of demons and the beneficiary of legions of angels, “heavenly hosts” they imagine respond to their spoken commands. Sadly, this epic mock battle they engage stems from delusions of grandeur and the archetypal notions of Good vs. Evil which are a time-worn oversimplification of the complexity of real human events.
Unwilling to confine these imaginal projections of good and evil to describing their own behavior, the supernaturalist also uses them to form their theory of mind–the set of beliefs about the mental states and motivations of others. In so doing they tend to demean and insult those whose behavior violates their scriptural criteria. By defining common human dysfunctions, vices, or shadow expressions in supernatural terms, they attempt to set up a social imperative for their preferred solution: prayers of exorcism.
Let’s take a vignette: a person lights up a cigarette. A naturalist will immediately infer that the person is a habitual smoker, who is experiencing nicotine withdrawal symptoms. Not a lot to grasp. We can learn about how the nicotine molecule fits into acetylcholine receptors in the brain, and we understand the person’s cravings, even as we understand the insidious nature of the practice. We also know both humans and animals have sought out ways to alter body and brain chemistry since the beginning of mammalian life. Sometimes a cigarette is just a cigarette.
To the supernaturalist, this explanation is far from sufficient. They project agency and personality onto the chemical. On the one hand, it gets the person off the hook: they’re a victim of the “demon.” A hapless child of God in the grips of an agent of the Devil. It’s a dual-pronged attack on individualism. First, the supernaturalist attacks a person’s free will, as if they can be effortlessly manipulated by invisible forces. Second, they perpetuate a fear of these invisible “agents.” Sinister spirits who conspire to get that person to inhale nicotine, and thereby feed on their life-force. Of course this demands protection–commanding the hosts of the Lord to cast out and slay the demon. The action is “called forth” by the rituals of the chosen religion. This belief in demon-possession brings to mind the “pod people” from Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Except they don’t come from space, they come from the astral plane and they don’t steal your body, they steal your autonomy and turn you into their pawn.
It doesn’t seem to matter which religion we’re talking about. The Bible is full of stories about demons and demonic possession. My favorite is the one where Jesus casts the demons into 2,000 swine, who promptly run down a hill and commit suicide. But–not to be outdone–tribal lore from ultra-superstitious Africa spins tall-tales of Iwa, who take over a person’s body and drain immense amounts of energy–leaving the person with no memory of the experience (and perhaps no responsibility for their actions). Sumerians were the first to document their belief in possession by “gidim,” as they sought an explanation for disease. And of course, in medieval Europe and even Puritan America, witches used to be blamed for invoking “evil spirits” and curses. They were held responsible for just about any misfortune, and were routinely burned alive. Christians in Africa have recently revived this practice. (previous article) Thousands of children have been branded “witches,” and suffered horrific torture, neglect, or both, often leading to their death.
With the prevalence of vices in the world, believers in demon “possession” (which include many Catholics) imagine what must be billions of spirits of the dead hovering near humanity, just waiting to tempt them into “misqualifying” God’s energy in a myriad of ways. They hold that the only defense is prayer–decrees in the case of CUT–or as I’ve previously discussed, a stainless steel sword. Scientologists fret about “body thetans.” They’ll “clear” them for you–for a price.
Though a relic of the 20th century C.E. rather than the middle ages, The Summit Lighthouse/CUT teachings established–without a trace of irony–its own elaborate demonology of evil spirits (called “discarnate entities”) associated with human vices. The “entities” associated with smoking are called, predictably, “Nicola,” “Nicolus,” and “Inhala.” Hmm, how original.
The “who’s who” of CUT entities can be seen in the 7.11E entity decree from the Summit Lighthouse decree and song book. (Official Title: Prayers Meditations Dynamic Decress for the Coming Revolution in Higher Consciousness III) Members read the names of the entities aloud, swinging their swords to “cut themselves free” from the “evil spirits.” This follows a teaching from Helena Petrovna Blavatsky’s Isis Unveiled where she claimed stainless steel could “pierce through the veil” and destroy the discarnates.
But I ask, in all seriousness, what would be the point? No matter how many demons believers slay with their sword, more rise up to take their place. In the paranoid world of the supernaturalist, no human behavior could be considered autonomous. Everyone is perceived to walk around under the control of essentially limitless evil forces. Legions of angels provide the only hope of stopping “bad” behavior and coming into alignment with the “Will of God.” This debilitating belief steals people’s ability to exercise their own self-restraint and keeps them powerless. It’s one sense of what Carl Sagan was referring to when he described the Demon Haunted World.
This mental trap is not limited to “entities” involving substance abuse. The faithful have long attempted to avoid acknowledging their unconscious rage, lust, greed, aggression, jealousy, and other shadow qualities. They do this by creating a deliberate split in their personalities. The device of personifying and removing the shadow to a realm of invisible “entities” is an essential component in their idealistic yet futile drives for purity and human perfection. They’ll claim it’s “divine perfection” they’re after, but it’s actually a smokescreen to justify their rules and regimentation.
By attempting to “cast out” demons, the “dweller on the threshhold,” “black magicians,” “astral hordes,” etc., they try to remain above the fray of dealing with their human foibles, challenges and darkness. But all they accomplish is to split off a part of themselves with which they will later have to deal.
Remember, the shadow is a part of the unconscious. By its very definition, we are unaware of it. Once something is exposed and enters our awareness, it is no longer shadow. And that’s the work. Excavation, a little at a time. Instead of projecting these undesirable qualities on to either supernatural “bogeymen” or onto “other” people, we can actively explore ourselves. Accepting the shadow self is difficult for many, since they’ve been raised with the flawed idea that acknowledging human darkness involves moral compromise or hinders their “spiritual” progress.
A person is actually far more dangerous when their shadow goes unnoticed. They’ve focused all their attention on living in “love” and “light” and don’t readily admit the mayhem of which they’re capable. It’s not just the person’s own defenses which have been lowered, but the defenses of their entire social circle. At the moment when shadow bursts on the scene, it’s often able to do severe damage.
That’s the real possession–when the unacknowledged shadow strikes without warning. It comes from within, not without, and it’s motivated by our primal brain.
But a person is still fully responsible for their behavior. Because of their split, they often can’t reconcile it. So they hide behind a virtuous mask while continuing to express the pathology of the unchecked shadow–often for years. This can be seen in the Catholic and Jehovah’s Witness sex scandals. Or the vile financial predations of Bernie Madoff. No doubt, as he recruited additional monies needed to keep his Ponzi scheme afloat, Madoff considered himself on some level a “good man.” But his shadow was fully in control.
As a counter example, let’s imagine what it might be like for a person who has integrated their shadow to handle their temptation to engage in an inappropriate sexual relationship. They might say: “I know this is a temptation for me and I don’t trust myself. So I need to either appropriately fulfill my sexual needs elsewhere, or remove myself from a position of authority over young people.” That’s what should’ve happened in the Catholic Church. But they’ve institutionalized shadow repression (of which celibacy is but one form), and they reaped the inevitable results. Unless the institution renounces repression, the problem will certainly recur.
For a further discussion of the reality-distorting potential of repression, and the clarifying process of shadow-integration, see Morgaine’s 2007 article How Personal Shadow Work is Integral to Perceiving Reality. It’s seriously worth a read.
There’s one more tactic in the arsenal of the shadow-repressor we must discuss: stifling debate. When faced with evidence or critical thought, they mount ad hominem attacks on their opponent. They accuse them of being under the control of a “demon” or “black magician.” I know–because I’ve been a target:
…to the extent that he would allow himself to be used as a sword in the hand of the very Black Magician that controls Sean Prophet to cut and slash away at the character of Elizabeth Clare Prophet.
My position on my parents is clear, compassionate, and well documented. I’ve never said anything untrue about them. The quote above was referring to the recent comments of Harry S. about ECP, which are also 100% true. And I’ve supported my sister Erin in publishing her story, which aroused believers’ ire.
For the ‘crime’ of standing up for the truth in an uncompromising manner, I’ve been accused of being under the spell of a “Black Magician.” It’s patently absurd. It’s not something that’s falsifiable or even observable. If I suddenly changed and told believers what they wanted to hear, they would change their tune and declare that I had now cast off the “Black Magician” and was now speaking as my “true self.” You can’t win. “Possession” is an intellectually dishonest rhetorical trick believers use to block out any sources of inconvenient information. It’s par for the course, which is why it’s time for them to change their course.
Demons and dragons may spin a good yarn for top-grossing fantasy movies. But if we want to avoid self-delusion and make moral progress, a quixotic fight against “demons” is exactly the wrong move. We must instead slay our pretenses toward the supernatural itself: by keeping the angel and devil archetypes in our imagination where they belong. We must accept agency and responsibility for all of our actions–and hold others to the same standard.