When the Rug Gets Pulled Out

What happens when our spiritual path undergoes unexpected, seismic shifts? Do we need a teacher or can we craft a path that reflects our unique being? Can an organized structure be helpful, and when is it no longer?


“We cannot even lay the foundation. The whole thing keeps shifting under our feet and under our seat. The rug is being pulled out from under us completely, simply from the experience of working with ourselves. Nobody is pulling it, but we find that the rug constantly moves.” –Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche on the groundless nature of the spiritual journey

The proverbial rug can be pulled out from under us at any time in our lives, in all too many ways—through relationships, family, health, social upheaval, and our spiritual paths. Often we look to our spiritual path as a source of stability and solid ground amidst the pain and suffering we face in our lives. Good psychological/spiritual paths will indeed pull the rug out from under us when we need it, but they will also nourish and nurture us. When things do start to feel groundless, it can occur in a greater context of healthiness and care.

My own path became groundless in a way that I didn’t expect over the past several years. I haven’t shared anything publicly about the transition I have gone through, and this finally felt like the right time. I write this 1) as an offering for anyone interested in exploring the question of organized spirituality/religion vs. a more personalized approach, 2) as an offering to people in the Shambhala community who may have felt the rug pulled out from under them recently, 3) for myself, as a way of telling my story and expressing my experience.

It was in my freshman year of college that I was introduced to Buddhism and was amazed and inspired that there was an alternative way of being in the world that involved living in a conscious way rather than sleepwalking through life, which is what I observed in most people around me. From there, I read lots of books and visited different meditation centers before eventually finding a home in Shambhala in 2003. I loved the quality of “blazing wakefulness” that I felt was palpable in the centers, the teachings, and teachers. It felt energetic and fierce, with a magical pulse that I hadn’t sensed in some of the other traditions I had explored.

After a few years, I dove in fully, head-first. My yearning for spiritual awakening had always been central in my life, and now Shambhala had become the primary vehicle for that. I was attending programs and retreats regularly at both the Boston Shambhala Center and Karmê Chöling, a retreat center in Vermont. In 2007, I moved to Karmê Chöling to live there and work on staff. I was living the dream—my path, my life, and my work had become inseparable. I was living, eating, sleeping, and breathing Shambhala, 24/7. The intensity of the environment, surrounded by fellow practitioners doing deep inner work, was a powerful catalyst for transformation—which was, of course, almost always difficult and painful.

In 2011, I moved back to Boston and became the Executive Director of the Boston Shambhala Center. Tasked with moving the community forward in its vision of “creating enlightened society,” I instead found a community divided and wounded. A newer, inspired generation and a disaffected generation of longtime practitioners faced off in a longstanding conflict centered around Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche’s approach and vision and its perceived contrast with that of his father, Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, who brought the Shambhala teachings to the west.

"Entering Salem" sign with cemetery in background on a rainy day
Photo by Dan Glenn

This is where the gory details matter less and I want to bring my own experience to the fore; I don’t intend for this to be an in-depth look at the particular problems and issues with that community, but rather at the questions, struggles, and pain that can arise from being intimately involved in an organized spiritual community. During this time as director, every day felt like a battleground. I was stuck in the middle of an impossible conflict, feeling like I couldn’t manifest the central organization’s vision nor could I satisfy or support the local community. By the end of my three years in the role, I had reached a place of profound burnout. In the final year and the years that followed, I descended into the underworld and went through a Dark Night of the Soul experience that completely changed me. In many ways, I now feel like a completely different person than I was just a few years ago. The Dark Night of the Soul phenomenon is a terrifying and powerful process that deserves its own written exploration, to say the least, and I plan to write more specifically about that soon. It’s hard to separate out this element of my experience from what I want to focus on here, but my intention with this piece is to explore what it means to be part of an organized spiritual community and structure, and the benefits and drawbacks of that.

In this regard, it is remarkable what hindsight and a bit of distance can do for one’s perspective. After years of being an unquestioning, faithful devotee, I began to question what I had long-assumed was simply “the way things were” when it comes to the spiritual path. Of course you need to find a teacher, a guru. Of course you need to follow in the footsteps of those who have walked before. Of course you need mentors and guides to tell you what to do next, and a “sangha” or community to set you straight if they think you’re off-base.  Of course you need to follow a single, narrow path that has been laid out for you. Or…do you?

The notion of “creating your own path” was always generally frowned upon in Shambhala. Chögyam Trungpa adamantly discouraged in students from “spiritual shopping” in the 1970s—the message was that if you’re always searching, always jumping to something new, you’re bypassing the hard work. It’s too easy to squirm away, to avoid one’s ego being decimated. There is absolutely a lot of truth to this. But as I began to explore new traditions, I saw that there were a lot of people who were quite wise and respectable who were “piecing together” wisdom traditions in a way that fit their own unique disposition. It’s too dangerous! I thought to myself. It’s blasphemous! And yet as time passed, my perspective slowly began to shift. What had once seemed completely erroneous started to look like the preferable route.

Now would be a good time to clarify that I don’t believe there is one “right” way for everyone. When I say “preferable,” I mean preferable for me, now, at this time in my life. It is impossible and dangerous to try to be prescriptive with the spiritual path. It is a very personal journey, and that can include being involved with an organized, structured path for parts of or the entirety of one’s life. I would not have reached the point I am at—which I feel very good about—without having been deeply and intimately involved in the Shambhala tradition and practices.

But what I thought was going to be just a little “space from it all” and “recovery time” after my intense directorship just kept extending further and further. I couldn’t conjure up the enthusiasm to go back, to get involved again. I tried, but it just didn’t feel right. I was more drawn to exploring other traditions—first Jungian and archetypal psychology, then shamanic traditions, then Gnosticism, then Western esoteric and occult traditions.

The further I went in my explorations, trusting my intuition, “following my nose” as I tumbled down a rabbit hole I never expected to be falling through, the more exciting and alive these explorations felt for me, and the more uninspired I felt with the idea of attending a Shambhala retreat or event. The rug had indeed been pulled out. I would never, ever in a million years have imagined being in this place five years earlier.

Photo of author wearing shirt which reads, "Read a Grimoire"
The new me prefers to read a grimoire (shirt by The Blackshelf)

I thought that I was just going to “find my path” and “follow it.” Walk it to the end. Be guided by my teacher. I was so dedicated. I was so deeply engaged and passionate about Shambhala. It was everything to me for many, many years. I thought I would spend my life serving in leadership roles in the community, doing the “next” retreat I was told to do, and do the various sadhanas (meditation/visualization/invocation practices) I’d been given. Though I did find that power remained in my personal connection to many of these practices when I would do them on my own, overall I just kept feeling that on a deep, gut level, nothing in me wanted to reconnect any further than that. It was not even for any logical “reasons,” per se. I just had to trust my own inner compass.

My interests have continued to evolve and have gone through many shifts, and often swiftly, over the past few years. My explorations have involved a lot of reading and podcast listening, and some assorted hands-on experimenting, but the latter has been minimal. Mainly my “practice” has been allowing a deep, alchemical transformation to occur within me as I lead my life, and to not resist it or even try to direct it. I have had to allow a darkening to move through my bones and my entire being. Over time, on a practical level, I began gaining confidence in actually engaging with various energetic and magickal practices from different Western esoteric, occult, and magickal traditions. A big part of that was finally realizing I didn’t have to wait for someone to tell me what to do, as had become deeply ingrained in me.

Part of my burning out and pulling away had to do with my own personality, my own particular karmic makeup and disposition. What I went through in the director role at the Boston center was often hellish, but it catalyzed a deep inner transformation in a way that honestly nothing else could have. Funny how these things seem to work.

In that sense, it had to do with me. I can own that—my own need to try to please, accommodate, make people happy, avoid conflict was a big part of why it was all so hard and why I burnt out. I had to confront my own need for belonging, as well as my susceptibility to groupthink. But there was also something just completely impossible about the situation, about working in governance/leadership in a non-profit spiritual organization (which I did for seven years, between Karmê Chöling and Boston).

I am, in part, writing this now because there have been recently allegations of sexual misconduct and abuse by Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche and other leaders in Shambhala, that have hit the community hard The ground has been suddenly pulled out from under a lot of people, and many are feeling like something and someone they deeply trusted and relied upon turned out not to be what or who they thought it was. One of my deepest struggles throughout my own process has been with the notion of having a teacher or guru who you hold as your ultimate spiritual authority. My perspective has slowly over time shifted to one of honoring personal intuition and oneself as the ultimate spiritual authority (occult author Mitch Horowitz wrote a beautiful piece recently that really resonated with where I’m at right now in my own journey, on “anarchic magick,” which I highly recommend; this talk by Erik Davis and Jennifer Dumpert exploring similar themes is also really fantastic). Of course, the notion of having a guru in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition is ultimately for the purpose of connecting to your own inner guru, your own inner wisdom—so thus, it is a path of externalizing the source of wisdom in order to ultimately recognize and completely trust your own. So, in this sense, as long as the relationship between teacher and student is healthy and serves the purpose of cultivating the student’s inner wisdom and strength, it can be tremendously beneficial.

In addition to the personal grappling that I have gone through, I witnessed first-hand the unbelievable amount of projection that people place on the teacher. Most often it’s very extreme in either direction: either the teacher is perfect and idolized and his every word is to be heeded without question, or the teacher is oppressive and we must rail against him and fight for our freedom. As the director of the center, I fully and wholeheartedly embraced the former perspective and often dismissed out of hand the disgruntled latter types. I never would have imagined reaching the conclusion that reality is not so black and white.

When a spiritual community is so completely centered around one person, it can easily become problematic. To his credit, Sakyong Mipham has very much eschewed the role of a traditional guru as time has gone on, particularly with newer students coming in, and has made the focus of Shambhala its societal vision—creating a society based on embracing humanity’s inherent goodness, wholeness, and sanity. However, it often felt to me like—and I as much as anyone embodied this perspective—we were all propagating some kind of abstract vision, and doing it because Sakyong Mipham told us that this is what Shambhala was about. Of course, the vision itself is deeply inspiring and a notion that we hopefully all would want to get behind and work toward. So again, it’s complex.

In that sense, as I pulled further and further away from Shambhala, I found myself wanting to make it black and white. I wanted to figure out the answer: either it was a cult and everyone involved were sheep, or my pulling back was the kicking and screaming of my ego, terrified of its own dissolution. After many years, I began to feel more comfortable with the ambiguity and grey areas: that these are profound teachings, that people bring their own issues and experiences, wisdom and fallacies to the path and it’s different for everyone, and that Sakyong Mipham is both a wise, brilliant teacher and an ordinary human (that human side has been more than revealed this past week—and although this is not anything I ever witnessed or heard about during my time in the community, I believe the victims and I find the reports disturbing).

Book binding with title Witches Still Live

Had I written this a few weeks ago, I probably would have concluded by saying that anything is possible—that I would have never expected to be here a few years ago, and thus I would never close the door on reconnecting with Shambhala if that were what I felt called to do by my inner daimon. The allegations and trauma that have been unearthed in the past few weeks in the community do feel for me like a “last straw,” in conjunction with simultaneously feeling increasingly comfortable with and inspired to move forward with my path as a kind of gnostic occultist. I also want to acknowledge that my own process occurred before the abuse allegations were revealed, and I know that for many people, a situation of abuse like this being uncovered is far more traumatic than much of what I have been describing. I hope, though, that part of what has come through in my writing is that a cataclysmic shift of any nature in one’s spiritual journey can be confusing, traumatic, and can take years to process and unfold.

I sense that our world is moving away from gurus and organized, hierarchical religious or spiritual paths. Raising our gaze and looking around for just a moment after having our heads buried in liturgy reveals a potent movement toward the divine feminine, shamanic practices, and witchcraft spreading swiftly and fiercely, particularly in the face of the dying of patriarchal society and white supremacy, which happen to be displaying one hell of a death rattle at the moment. Perhaps organizations will adjust, and we’ll begin to see more non-hierachical ways of being in community emerge, ways of being that wholly support and empower women, indigenous people, people of color, queer people, trans people, disabled people, and ways that don’t encourage silence or deference in the face of abuse. Perhaps there are ways of being in spiritual community that allow for individuality rather than subjugating the individual for the sake of the functioning of the organization. Perhaps we can create spiritual organizations that don’t require us to go bankrupt trying to pay for retreats, and that overtly reject capitalism as an ugly, oppressive system that should be outwardly challenged rather than replicated. Or perhaps some of us will decide that the life of the hermit, the solitary witch, is best for us, writing and casting our spells from the shadows and doing our best to disrupt the systems of oppression that exist in this world through whatever means we can, enjoying the beauty and wonder of what remains of the natural world, and opening up to fully becoming who our daimon knows us to be. It’s up to each of us to trust ourselves, trust each other, and know what’s best for ourselves at any given point in our lives, and to know that that will surely change as we do.



Unleash Your Gnostic Fury

I recently came across an online image/meme that said, “God gave me depression because if my ambitions went unchecked I would have bested him in hand to hand combat by age 16.” I don’t know the original source of this image or who created it. When I saw it, in addition to thinking, “Wow, this is so Gnostic,” I also immediately resonated with it because this topic is one that I have had on my mind lately: depression resulting from suppressed or denied anger.

To begin, a bit of background: God, from a Gnostic perspective, is not one of the good guys. The Gnostics—originally 2nd and 3rd century Christian heretics though likely coming out of a stream that existed in pre-Christian traditions as well[1]—saw this world as a “prison planet” of sorts. They viewed it as a “false” world in which the spark of divinity lay deep within us as human beings but was actively suppressed by ruling “archons” who sought to maintain power for the Demiurge, or creator god who mistakenly thought he was the God despite actually simply being one of many[2]. Gnostic spirituality is centered around gnosis—direct experience of the primordial, the pleroma, as they called it. Gary Lachman describes this as “immediate, direct, non-discursive cognition of reality.”[3] Gnosis is the key to thwarting the powers of the archons and the Demiurge who keep us imprisoned. Whether we wish to take this as an origin story or a symbolic myth, it holds a lot of power as a contemplation or worldview, particularly as one considers how to “wake up” from the slumber of cultural programming and familial conditioning to a more conscious way of being.

On some level, one would expect that waking up would be a process of becoming more and more at peace and at home in the world. However, opening one’s eyes to the reality of the atrocities that exist within this world as well as to our deep wounds and the repressed shadow aspects of ourselves can be incredibly painful. It is hard to do this, fully and wholeheartedly, without becoming depressed or infuriated or both.

Over the past several years, as I have become increasingly aware of the horrors this world of ours beholds—endless war, unfathomable inequality, very deliberately orchestrated oppression—I have at times felt profoundly heavy. Defeated. A sense of impossibility. As the times grow increasingly dystopic, it can be easy to slide into a sense of hopelessness, to feel the archons have already won. But I think this is what they want us to feel. They wish for our fury to remain inaccessible because it is our fury which is the true threat.

I have never felt comfortable with my own anger. It is fiery, it feels claustrophobic, it makes me want to crawl out of my own skin. As a child it was discouraged in me—I learned from my parents and teachers that one should be nice and good and keep their anger under control. With this foundation already in place, my suppression was fortified further as I began my spiritual path in my late teens and took on the idea that being a “spiritual” person meant being peaceful, calm, at ease. Through some combination of the teachings I was exploring (primarily Buddhist) and my own interpretations of them, I developed an idea of what it looks like to be an “awake” person in the world. Anger was not part of the picture.

However, as I entered into the practice and study of Vajrayana Buddhism, one of the most valuable teachings I encountered was that of the five wisdom energies or five “Buddha Families.” The notion is that there are five core energies within ourselves and within the phenomenal world, and that these energies are neutral in and of themselves. They can manifest in a neurotic, ego-centered way, or a conscious, open, awake way—like two sides of the same coin. The neurotic manifestation of vajra energy—one of the five wisdom energies—is anger, based in self-centeredness. The awakened manifestation is clear seeing, a diamond-like quality of mind. Irini Rockwell, who has written several books on the five Buddha Families, writes, “Vajra energy reflects its surrounding like a calm, clear pool of water, without distortion or bias. Thus Vajra wisdom is mirrorlike: it sees things as they are.”[4] There is tremendous wisdom and intelligence in this clarity, and the intensity of the energy can be a powerful motivating force to drive us forward.

If we are unable to stay present with that intensity, we tend to find ways to bury it, to suppress it. So part of my experience over the past few years has been noticing how I will often feel anger about our world, but then suppress it because I don’t know what to do with it. The result is a sense of hopelessness, heaviness, despair.

Visual representation of the five Buddha Families of Tibetan Buddhism

I will pause here for a necessary clarification of terms and perspective. I have never been diagnosed with clinical depression. I believe depression has a lot more social causes than we typically acknowledge today. Frankly, I don’t quite understand how someone could be alive today and not experience a frequent sense of depression. However, I am aware that there are biological causes for depression in many people, and that many people benefit from taking medication for it. I am not a psychologist and I am not claiming anything universal here, just trying to speak from my own experience. Furthermore, as you might anticipate where we’re heading here, I do not advocate violence nor do I believe that any form of violent expression of anger leads anyone to genuine liberation.

There is another important caveat here, which is to be clear about what to be angry about. There are a lot of angry white males out there today, desperately clinging to their dying worldview and evaporating privilege. As a white male, I would implore these people to deeply examine the social and psychological causes of suffering and to recognize that while class oppression is something to be genuinely angry about, the erosion of white privilege is not. When you’ve been privileged your whole life—by being male, white, heterosexual, cisgender, neurotypical, able-bodied, in a financially stable situation, or any combination of these—equality can feel like oppression. But we need to learn and understand history better than this (not just the history we’re spoon-fed in school) understand socio-political power better than this (not just the picture portrayed by mainstream media), and work tirelessly for collective liberation—which is centered around supporting the empowerment of marginalized and oppressed peoples. This also means recognizing that identifying as a Democrat or “liberal” in 2018 not only doesn’t go far enough, but also usually means you are part of the problem.

So this is where our fury must be directed: at all the forces that create genuine oppression in this world. We must examine these systems, understand them, and then work to dismantle them. They do affect all of us, albeit in different ways. Many of us who grew up in middle or upper-class suburban homes were effectively programmed to see the world in a certain way that encouraged us to be cogs in the machinery that perpetuates the system. In that sense we are both complicit as oppressors and also victims, because who wants to live their life as an automaton?

In order to awaken our fury at the gnostic situation we somehow find ourselves in, in an effective way, we have to tap into the power of vajra energy—that icy cold, focused, sharp clear-seeing that can pierce through both the inner veil and the outer walls of society. It may mean allowing ourselves to feel the uncomfortableness of anger in order to lift ourselves out of hopelessness and despair. Then we can access the power and drive to begin to fight back against the archons and the Demiurge himself, in whatever unique, transgressive way our particular daimon calls upon us to.

Let us allow ourselves to feel what is a very appropriate response to the situation we have awoken to find ourselves in. The very mission of the archons of this world is to believe this situation is so impossible that we sink into our depression and give up hope. Sadness is okay to feel. In fact, sadness is very good to feel. Our hearts are tender because we know things could be otherwise, and sadness keeps us in touch with our longing for a better world. But instead of allowing that sadness to veer into despair, let us instead, with crystalline precision, unleash our gnostic fury and make it our life’s mission to dismantle the prison that keeps us enslaved. The Demiurge and his minions can be bested.

[1] Lachman, Gary (2015). Secret Teachers of the Western World. p. 105,

[2] Ibid, p. 109

[3] Ibid, p. 30

[4] Rockwell, Irini (2002). The Five Wisdom Energies. p. 33

Imagining Infinite Play

One of my favorite thinkers, the writer, activist, occultist, and now podcaster Conner Habib, writes and talks a lot about the importance of imagining and creating a new world. A self-described utopianist, Conner uses a really brilliant and helpful image to represent this bold vision of possibility: Bugs Bunny, chased into an alley until he reaches a brick wall, then pulling a marker out of his pocket and drawing a door which he can open and enter just before his pursuer reached him. This is also reminiscent of one of my favorite childhood books, Harold and the Purple Crayon, in which the protagonist literally creates his world as moves through it. There is a key for us embedded in these images. At this point, it appears there is only one way out; our backs are against the wall. And that doorway contains infinite possibility.

It is becoming increasingly clear that we are indeed on the edge of a collective precipice. What has led us to this point is a web of causes and conditions too vast to explore here, but important that they should be named. They include, but are not limited to, the interconnected web of: Neoliberalism, capitalism, our pillaging and raping of the planet, the culture of imperialism, settler colonialism and white supremacy, patriarchal culture, and rampant materialism that breeds greed and fosters an utter misunderstanding of the nature of what it is to be alive on the Earth. The problems we face globally are complex beyond measure.

In an article called “How to make enemies and influence people: anatomy of the anti-bugsbunnysoursepluralist, totalitarian mindset” that grows ever-increasingly significant by the day, creativity researcher Alfonso Montuori discusses how the ability to handle complexity and ambiguity is one of the marks of creative people.[1] What we see from those who cannot handle complexity is a fixed, black-and-white line of thinking that seeks oversimplified answers for the sake of a false sense of certainty. This is what attracts people to authoritarian leaders and to scapegoating[2], both of which—obviously—are widely prevalent today. More than ever, we need people who are able to think creatively, rather than succumb to authoritarianism or conformity. Quite literally, any future we may have depends on it.

Of course, it is so much easier to just blame immigrants, or Muslims, or name-an-oppressed-peoples-or-ethnic-scapegoat-here than to actually be willing to look at a complex, interconnected web and attempt to think outside the box for creative solutions. In fact, that task seems quite impossible. I know that when I try to think about creative possibilities for society, I often become quickly overwhelmed and feel like it has just all gone too far—we’re cornered—and there is nothing to be done. And maybe there is nothing to be done.

Regardless of whether there is anything to be done at this point, this is a time for creativity, imagination, and infinite play.

We need to learn to use our imaginations. Really use them. In using the word “imagination,” I am talking about a faculty of knowing—a way of exploring unseen worlds and possibilities by using a very ordinary human superpower that has largely become dismissed as the stuff of child’s play. I go into more depth about this in this essay. I am talking about Bugs’s and Harold’s moves as real, as ontologically valid. His method worked, right? Is it not worth a try for us as well?


What does this look like? It is tapping into something beyond our conceptual mind. Something beyond rational thought. Something beyond “thinking” altogether. It is seeing, feeling, directly experiencing. This can take a variety of forms: shamanic journeying, art, writing, music, forms of meditation, Jungian active imagination, dreaming; occult and magickal practices. The key is that it arises from a source beyond conceptuality, beyond ego. Does that mean we will receive messages from another realm? Possibly; I don’t know. The whole point is that we don’t know. Somehow we have to be willing to go to this place of not-knowing and see what emerges

Going to this place of not-knowing and using the faculty of our imagination is drawing the door. Once we enter the doorway, we are in the realm of infinite play, a concept framed by James Carse in his brilliant must-read Finite and Infinite Games. There is vast openness. There is possibility.

Infinite play cannot occur, however, if our minds remain fixed. “Finite play,” for Carse is life led within socially constructed boundaries. Finite play is about control: trying to control what will happen in the future, trying to prevent what we do not want to happen from happening and trying to make what we do want to happen occur. Infinite play, however, is life lived in connection with primordial vastness and possibility. “Infinite players prepare themselves to be surprised by the future” and because of this they “play in complete openness.”[3]

In order to be surprised by the future, I think we first need to be surprised by our past. We all need to be constantly challenging ourselves to see where our minds are stuck in seeing things the way we were taught to see them, to see where our perspective is based on unexamined assumptions, to see where we’re seeking comfort and security. Most of us have been indoctrinated into a variety of ways of thinking and seeing the world based on our familiar and cultural upbringing. This matrix can be very hard to penetrate, even for the most insightful people.

In order to open up to actual infinite play, we first need to go through a process of deconstructing how we see the world and questioning our beliefs at a core level. What have we normalized as part of our worldview? Some of these unexamined assumptions and normalizations are personal, others cultural—ultimately, that’s a difficult distinction to make anyway. They can include beliefs such as, “I am fundamentally flawed,” “War is inevitable,” “We are moving slowly but surely in the direction of ‘progress,’” “My favorite source of media is the most accurate,” or “Science is real, magic is not.”

In order to be able to think outside the box, we first need to be able to fully see the extent of the box we’re in. We need to dig deep and think critically. We need to tease apart what thoughts and beliefs we have that came from other people. Let us understand what led us to this cliff, and not try to claw our way back to the death trap. Let us let go of what we think to know, and open to something we couldn’t have even thought of. Then we can leap into the unknown, using both our imaginal capacity and our ability to think beyond the confines of the known, into the vast space of openness and possibility.

Our backs are against the wall. The only choice is to draw the door. Let’s invoke our inner Bugs and Harold and see what we can do.

[1] Montuori, A. (2005). How to make enemies and influence people: anatomy of the anti-pluralist, totalitarian mindset. Futures37(1), 18-38.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Carse, J. (2011). Finite and infinite games.


The Imaginal World

In this complex and bizarre world, getting in touch with a trustworthy inner compass is both increasingly challenging and essential. One way that we can access that compass, our personal daimon—our inner creative urge, or guiding spirit that drives us toward purpose and who we really are (introduced in more depth here)—is through the imaginal world. This article will provide an introductory overview of the concept, which has relevance and applicability in not only connecting with our daimon, but for many other esoteric and even secular pursuits as well.

While imagination is commonly regarded in today’s rational materialist world as mere “child’s play,” for practitioners in many different esoteric traditions the imagination is a faculty that can be used to explore actual existing realms. Scholar of esotericism Henri Corbin called this the “mundus imaginalis,” or the “imaginal world.”[1] Corbin, whose work elucidates the visionary experiences of Suhrawardi, the twelfth century Iranian esotericist, stresses as he describes this visionary realm that this is “no utopia, but a real country and a real space…which has neither location nor climate in the world perceived by the outer senses.”[2]

From The Secret Tradition of the Soul by Patrick Harpur

In discussing a recurrent theme in the work of Mullah Sadra Shirazi, Corbin highlights another key point: “that the Imagination is a spiritual faculty which does not perish along with the physical organism, because it is independent of it.”[3] This sheds particular light for us on the importance of the imaginal world for the Gnostics, whose ontological perspective regarded this material world as a “false” world; if this faculty exists independently of the physical world of matter, it would follow that it would be a key to transcending the world of matter. However, this exploration of the Gnostic perspective is one that I will leave for another time (in the meantime, the podcast Aeon Byte Gnostic Radio is a great resource on Gnosticism).

William Blake was another explorer of the imaginal world and advocate for the necessity of doing so in order to awaken. Kathleen Raine, a poet and scholar of Blake, helps elucidate why, for Blake, Corbin, and many others, a “world” which is invisible to the naked eye can nevertheless be more “real” than our ordinary world of matter: “We must remember at all times that a ‘world’ for Blake is situated not in Cartesian space but in consciousness; therefore every change of consciousness changes the world.”[4] She deals a further blow to the viewpoint that only the world of matter and the senses is worth experiencing when she writes, “By banishing the phenomena from the Imagination— the ‘faculty which experiences’ — they are emptied of all significance, retaining only a quantitative existence.”[5]

These two statements denote the way in which the Imagination opens the door to an entire world that is ontologically significant. First, we see how a “world” can be considered to exist outside of the realm of physical space: worlds exist within consciousness. Raine then drives home the significance of this statement by pointing out that every change of consciousness changes a world we experience. This highlights the importance of cultivating clarity of consciousness and developing the inner faculties to be able to experience the imaginal world—but also reminds us that we are not simply passive players within our “everyday” lives, but rather that we create that world and how we experience it depends on the state of our consciousness. This makes sense, given how vastly varied different people’s experiences of “the world” are.

Raine then goes on to say that the Imagination is the “faculty which experiences,” and that our Cartesian materialist/dualist worldview has actually rejected Imagination altogether. What this means is that we are actually stripped of our ability to experience. Raine and Blake would question whether a materialist who believes only in this visible world actually sees or experiences anything at all. These two ideas together reveal the hollowness of the materialist experience worldview, painting an image of a flat, two-dimensional skeletal world, contrasted with the vivid, colorful, 3D realm of the Imagination.

C.G. Jung and many depth psychologists teach a method of engaging with inner figures called “active imagination” which enables the practitioner to travel inward and explore the realm of the Imagination. Active imagination can be explored by choosing a figure such as a dream figure, or an inner voice or aspect of ourselves, and dialoguing with it through imagery and writing. We can specifically choose to enter into a dialogue with our personal daimon or other imaginal allies; Jungian analyst Jeffrey Raff offers great practical exercises on this in his book Ally Work. Likewise, the practice of shamanic journeying, as well as certain visualization practices across a variety of esoteric traditions, can be way of using the faculty of the Imagination to enter into realms unseen.

These methods offer the possibility of accessing worlds beyond the one made of matter that is most immediately accessible through the human sense faculties. Though not limited to personal daimon work, many of these techniques can be valuable for accessing our inner guides. The possibility of being able to access a world beyond the one we know through our senses also has significant societal implications. Particularly at a time when our world is in dire need of some serious re-imagining, being able to not only think outside the box but also literally conjure up something new using the power of our imaginal faculties may be our only hope in turning the proverbial ship around. Perhaps we can think of that as a bit of a “to be continued…”

[1] Corbin, H. (1998). The Voyage and the Messenger. (Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic Books). p. 125.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid. p. 132.

[4] Raine, K. (1991). Golgonooza: City of Imagination. (Hudson, NY: Lindisfarne 1991). p. 18.

[5] Ibid. p. 19

The Pull of the Daimon

Do you ever feel driven by a force that you sense is outside of your conscious will? Perhaps this energy is directed in a productive way toward a creative passion or vocation, or perhaps has darker or destructive manifestations that veer into the realm of obsession or addiction? You may be in the grip of a powerful personal force that is trying to communicate with you. In fact, many traditions around the globe would say that we all are, whether we know it or not.

The personal daimon is said to be an inner guide or guardian spirit that protects, challenges, and drives an individual forward throughout life, according to a variety of cultures throughout the world.[1] One of the primary roles of the personal daimon is to help direct its human partner toward purpose, or even destiny.

James Hillman, a Jungian analyst who developed his own approach to understanding the human journey, which he called archetypal psychology, wrote a book devoted entirely to the topic of the daimon and heeding its call, The Soul’s Code: In Search of Character and Calling. Hillman credits Plato’s “Myth of Er” as his own source of understanding this notion of the daimon, though he acknowledges that the idea is ancient and is present in many different cultures around the world.[2] He includes some other terms for the same idea that shed light on the way the notion of the daimon may be more popularly present in segments of Western culture, while not quite acknowledged as such: the term genius, as used by the Romans, as well as the Christian notion of a guardian angel.[3] Hillman’s description of the daimon is as follows: “The soul and each of us is given a unique daimon before we are born, and it has selected an image or pattern that we live on earth. This soul-companion, the daimon, guides us here.”[4]

Writer and psychotherapist Thomas Moore describes the daimon as an “inner personality” that guides a person throughout life.[5] He notes that a distinguishing quality of the daimon is that it is often experienced as other. A person may experience this inner guidance as an actual separate entity that seems to live within, or close by.

img_1090Here’s where it gets even more interesting: the direction in which the daimon urges one to move may not in fact be the direction in which the conscious ego or “personality” wants to go.[6] In that sense, the daimon challenges its partner and is and potentially problematic. It can create inner conflict and there can be a sense of wrestling or struggling with this pull. At times it can feel much easier to ignore this force than to attempt to follow it, as following it may go against one’s beliefs about who they are. Life may be simpler if the daimon is not acknowledged. At the same time, the rewards can be exquisite: it is the daimon that helps us become the person we were born to be.

The idea of a daimon as external entity may present a challenge to Western minds, as the scientific materialist paradigm that permeates Western culture today does not typically include unseen entities, spirits, or angels. For the purposes of this short piece, I would like to propose that whether the daimon is considered an actual external entity or an aspect of a person’s mind, heart, or psyche does not matter. The separate entity versus part of oneself debate is a rich one that certain warrants its own exploration. My view is that these two seemingly opposite perspectives may be one and the same. When this question is examined in depth, it is actually quite difficult to tease out the difference between an “entity” that is “outside” oneself and an inner figure or aspect of one’s own mind.  The daimon need not be understood as an “entity” in order to be worked with. It can be seen as an inner urge or creative force.

The daimon communicates with its partner in a variety of ways including psychological and physical “symptoms.”[7] Therefore, paying close attention to various symptoms we experience and trying to sense what these symptoms may be attempting to express is essential to understanding the daimon’s pull. If one wishes to go even further and intentionally cultivate a relationship with the daimon, one way to do so is through accessing it by way of the imaginal realm. As this is an immensely rich and provocative topic in and of itself, I will explore the subject of the imaginal realm and how one can begin to cultivate a relationship with the daimon in a future post. For now, if the idea holds intrigue for you, I invite you to contemplate how your daimon may be attempting to make itself known in your own life. What a thrilling and terrifying possibility!


[1] Harpur, Patrick (2011). The Secret Tradition of the Soul. Berkeley, CA: Evolver Editions. pp. 94-97.

[2] Hillman, James (1996). The Soul’s Code: In Search of Character and Calling. New York: Random House. pp. 7-10.

[3] Ibid, p. 8.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Moore, Thomas (1993). “On Creativity.” Sounds True.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Hillman, James (1996). The Soul’s Code: In Search of Character and Calling. New York: Random House. p. 10.

Soul and Spirit

For a long time, the word soul didn’t mean much to me. The usage in the generic context (e.g. “this movie warms the soul”) was too watered down and unclear, too new-agey. When used in the context of describing our “true self” housed within the body didn’t work for me either, particularly after beginning to study and practice Buddhism, which does not use the term or the concept. Even in the context of reincarnation, the Buddhist perspective is more that consciousness continues in some form, but it is not a “soul” that travels from body to body.

For the past few years, my life has been dedicated to exploring the realm of soul. At first I didn’t identify my process as such; then after beginning to enrich my personal experience with study of the works of other soul explorers, I was able to put a name to it.

As I began to read the work of archetypal psychologist James Hillman, whose work draws IMG_2836from Jungian psychology and Neoplatonism, a new understanding of soul began to reveal itself. In fact, I became aware of an entire Secret Tradition of the Soul—the title of Patrick Harpur’s book on the subject.[1] This tradition, rooted in ancient Greek philosophy, offers a very clear distinction between soul and spirit—two different, complimentary aspects of our experience and life’s journey.

Spirit has to do with ascent, purity, and light; soul is connected with depth, imagination, and darkness. Exploring the realm of the soul has a quality of descent. There is a grittiness within the soul—a salt-like nature, as James Hillman describes. According to Hillman, the soul is

…a world of imagination, passion, fantasy, reflection, that is neither physical and material on the one hand, nor spiritual and abstract on the other, yet bound to them both….[the soul has] a connection with the night world, the realm of the dead, and the moon. We still catch our soul’s most essential nature in death experiences, in dreams of the night, and in the images of lunacy.[2]

I began to recognize that most of my personal path thus far had been devoted to cultivating spirit, which Hillman describes as “fast” with “its images blazing with light…fire, wind….It is masculine, the active principle, making forms, order, and clear distinctions.”[3] This soul-oriented period of my journey seemed to emerge, independent of any conscious effort on my part, as a balancing process.

This blog section of my new website will be a space where I continue to reflect on aspects of soul and the personal journey we all make to integrate the various aspects of ourselves. Our culture is not particularly supportive of soul—so for me, the people I have encountered who encourage soul work as an essential aspect of becoming wholeheartedly who we are, have been tremendously helpful. In the same way, I hope that my studies and personal experience can be of benefit to others.


[1] Harpur, Patrick (2011). The Secret Tradition of the Soul. Berkeley, CA: Evolver Editions.

[2] Hillman, James (1989). A Blue Fire. New York: HarperPerennial. p. 122

[3] Ibid, p. 121