Unfounded Suspicions and Genuine Pitfalls of Playing Dungeons & Dragons

Controversy has surrounded the role-playing game Dungeons & Dragons since its creation over 30 years ago. Many Christians hotly contend that the game is a source of occult evil, enticing players to develop interest in Satanism and ultimately commit deplorable acts of murder and suicide, while many others believe role-playing games to be merely a harmless form of entertainment which offers an escape from ordinary life. After closer reflection on the matter, however, one will find that there may be some truth to both sides of the argument.

The role-playing game genre was developed in a time before mass entertainment through computers and videogames was commonplace, and it offered an innovative way to engage in the cooperative imagining of a fantasy realm in which players interact within an immersive story while engaging in physical and magical combat against formidable enemies through the use of dice and pen-and-paper calculations. The 3rd and 4th editions of the game produced in recent years still retain the essential concepts of the original Dungeons and Dragons (D&D) game and have restored the darker elements of D&D, dealing with evocation of demons and ritual sacrifice, which had been omitted from the 2nd edition after numerous protests from the public. The basic mechanics and themes of the game have remained unchanged throughout the years: players assume the role of a good, evil, or neutrally-aligned character from any class ranging from devout paladin knight to chaos-invoking warlock, and battle creatures chosen and controlled by the game’s storyteller, or ‘Dungeon Master’, throughout a series of encounters in an ever-expanding adventure campaign.

One prominent critic against D&D is William Schnoebelen, a Christian convert who claims to have been a ‘witch high priest’ of a satanic coven during the time when the concept of Dungeons & Dragons was being conceived. According to Schnoebelen, two of the game’s creators paid him a visit in order to study actual black rituals from a prominent real-life sorcerer and implement the concepts into the game to make it as ‘real as possible’. If this account of D&D’s origins is true, then there is reason to be cautious over delving too deeply into such a game. And even if this story of satanic origins is just a fabrication, concocted merely as fear-inducing propaganda to discourage fellow Christians from playing occult-themed games, the fact remains that the world of D&D does make constant reference to magic and rituals of both destructive and benefic natures. While an occult-themed game may provoke an interest in actual occult practices in some players, this is typically rare, as most players view magic as mere fantasy, and subsequently an occult-themed game carries relatively little risk in itself. Any real danger comes from the heart of the game genre: that of role-playing.

Imitative Magic
The practice of abandoning one’s everyday identity to take on the role of a hero, deity, or even diabolical creature, is an age-old practice, dating back to the oldest spiritual practices of shamanism. Whether it was a Native American healer assuming the movement and vocalizations of a totem animal to evoke its power and wisdom, or a Tibetan lama summoning all of his focus and will to temporarily merge his identity with an adored celestial deity, the practice of imitative magic is found throughout the world in every traditional culture: shedding one’s limited, everyday identity in order to receive knowledge or influence from the world unseen. Contemporary religions still retain certain elements of this practice, such as the role of a Christian priest to act as emissary of Christ to the congregation at Mass.

Traditionally, the practice of transcending individual identity was not only necessary for obtaining blessings and guidance from benevolent deities, but it was also a means of manifesting and binding evil. For instance, in ancient Rome during public games, so-called ‘wandering influences’ were allowed to manifest among the organized chaos so that they could periodically be released in a controlled setting and swiftly exorcised by the priests. In this way, malevolent forces were kept at bay and the people remained under ritual protection once daily life resumed.

Nowadays, with the deterioration of spiritual tradition, role-playing has taken on strictly secular forms, namely in psychotherapeutic settings or in mass entertainment through Hollywood actors. Although it may be stripped of its esoteric element, the act of role-playing still retains its power to profoundly change individuals.

When used correctly in therapy, role-playing allows patients to assume varying roles within a safe environment to overcome any number of emotional or social maladjustments. For example, a person with a social phobia may imagine him or herself onstage giving a public speech, or in a group setting family members may take on each others’ roles to gain clearer insight into their intentions and feelings. While role-playing in a clinical setting is not suitable for everyone, in many cases it has shown to be transformative for certain types of individuals when under the proper guidance of an understanding therapist.

The art of acting generally held an important role in a traditional society and often provided a means of transformation not only of the actors but of the audience as well, as characterized by the concept of catharsis in ancient Greek theatre. An actor who genuinely identifies with the character he is portraying becomes a medium of those thoughts and emotions which play a part in the story. While the story and characters may be nothing but a fiction, the actual emotions generated by experienced actors are very much real, as a psychic, emotional force is built up during the performance. Once those energies are released and resolved, the actor and audience experience a catharsis, and the undesirable tendencies are purged away, leaving a lasting effect on all who take part. It must be remarked that not all performances achieve such results, especially nowadays, as many actors are not trained to fully immerse their consciousness into their character, or if such genuine channeling of emotion is achieved, the result can be disastrous if not handled appropriately. Actor Richard Gere, a practicing Buddhist, once commented that the acting profession can in fact be dangerous, as actors are often required to embody unbalanced characters, resulting in an experience which can subsequently alter an actor’s consciousness and well-being after the work is finished.

Take for example, Eli Roth’s performance in Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds, in which Roth (director of horror films in the emerging ‘torture porn’ genre such as Hostel) plays the role of the ‘Bear Jew’ who ruthlessly bashes in the skulls of Nazi soldiers with his baseball bat. In several interviews, Roth has expressed his personal feelings of vengeance poured into his ‘method acting’ performance, having grandparents who fled from Nazi persecution and distant relatives who were killed in the Holocaust. Here he describes the satisfaction he derived from partaking in onscreen vengeance and brutality, and how the enraged emotions he summoned up often took hold of him after shooting was finished:

‘It was an incredible honor and certainly an honor that I took very seriously… When I have to do that scene where I beat the guy’s head in, I was like, it was one thing I mean I lifted weights and put on almost 40 pounds of muscle…That’s one thing, but what’s going to make it work is the look in his face and the look in his eyes. This guy has to look possessed, he has to look tortured and tormented that all he thinks about is beating Nazis to death. So to do that you have to really dredge up, the most painful, think of your worst breakup, your worst fight, the most horrible death and like make it feel like it happened 15 minutes ago. So I was working myself up into this state, and after you film a scene like that even though the scene’s fake. And when everyone is like, ‘OK, it’s a wrap. Let’s go out for drinks,’ like you just want to crawl into a hole and die. Cause you’re like, you are gaaaawddd. And I talk to the actors, I was, it was exhausting and draining in a way I could’ve never anticipated. So even the climactic scene... I remember the day when I was going to do this scene where we’re wiping out the high command and everyone is like, “G-d, what's with Eli? Are you alright?” And I’m like I’m going to go. ‘Do you mind? Leave me alone. I'm trying to work myself up.’ And people would be like, ‘Stop, what’s up? Wait, wait. The guy's in a really bad mood. It’s like it’s Acting you guys, I'm allowed to act also….. Finally we got to the scene and I was like ready and I was just ready to explode. And I just unloaded on the guy, and it was it was great to finally beat him and just to get it out and do it over and over and over and over……[This experience] is certainly going to change the way I write scenes. I’d always in “Hostel” after I did an intense torture scene gave the actors a few days off to recover and rest and you know I’m glad I did that. I can see why you need that.’

Considering the psychic-emotional forces brought into play during dramatic performance, it is not surprising that many old theatres and movie studios carry stories of hauntings and paranormal phenomena, as the psychic forces unleashed during intense performances are apt to have an effect on the surroundings and individuals involved. And considering the increasing prominence of sadistic violence and disturbing emotional displays found in so many modern films, one is left to wonder about the effects such performances have on not only the actors, but the general audience as well, not to mention world events at large. Imitative magic can have effect even if those involved are not aware of its reality, and perhaps it is this unsuspecting mentality that is the most perilous, as chaotic forces are unleashed without intention or awareness, and therefore the means to control and expel such forces is lacking.


It must be emphasized that not all forms of role-playing and acting are capable of having such effects on a psychic level; such power is only realized if those involved truly identify themselves with the person they are portraying, whether they are participating in a theatrical performance or in an actual magic ritual. In the case of Dungeons & Dragons, it is fair to expect that a majority of players take the game more or less lightly and only allow a partial suspension of belief in terms of their character and their fantasy world creation. In such cases, players are not in much risk, if any, and in many instances the role-playing experience offers them a chance of self-discovery and growth, in a similar manner to how some patients or actors discover unknown aspects of themselves while taking on characteristics of a role different from their everyday self.

But what of those players who truly immerse themselves in their role-playing experience and become entirely wrapped up in their fantasy world? Can it be said then that D&D presents a real risk of malefic influences? Perhaps it depends entirely on the participants’ disposition and motives while playing. If good-aligned characters work together to dispel evil, then any unintentional magic performed through the instrument of the game would in fact have a potential beneficial effect in the real world, no matter how small. However, in the case of a deeply-immersed player controlling an evil-aligned character who mercilessly slaughters innocents and evokes the aid of demonic entities in a search for power, such imitative magic may hold unseen risks for such a player, who exposes oneself to similarly attributed entities who might be drawn to such enactments. It would seem that those who refuse to acknowledge the existence of magic and spirits as reality are potentially more at risk, as these players are more likely to view the role-play content as merely a game and hold few reservations in their gameplay behavior, believing any action, whether good or evil, to carry no real consequences outside the game.

It is unlikely, however, that such occult phenomena frequently take place amidst D&D gameplay. After all, no matter its purported controversial beginnings, D&D was designed primarily as a fantasy game, not as a means of contacting wandering entities, as is the case with such ‘games’ as the Ouija board, which easily opens gateways to low-level entities, whether the board was mass-manufactured from plastic or homemade out of paper and a glass. The intention behind the initial creation of the Ouija board subsequently placed the same ‘charge’ in all corresponding forms and incarnations of the device. Unless the creators of Dungeons & Dragons intentionally imbued their game with these spiritualistic properties, for most players it remains simply a game, and not a gateway instrument for contacting spirits or practicing real magic. However, these possibilities do exist, and may be triggered by players with the capacity for unleashing such forces.

Fragmented Mythology
There may be other, indirect risks due to the occult themes presented in the Dungeons & Dragons universe, namely that of the religious concepts and mythology depicted in D&D lore. The invented lore of D&D borrows heavily from various spiritual traditions, describing the realms of the Astral Sea inspired by Eastern religions, and the realms of Primordial Chaos, which reflect the ancient Greek concepts of Hades and Tartarus. Situated between these two realms of the gods and the demons lies the physical world, in which the battle of good and evil takes place.

While seeming to portray a more or less traditional view of the spirit realms, one crucial element is omitted from the D&D universe: that of a transcendent, unmanifest Source of creation which remains beyond the duality between good and evil. Whether it is depicted as Brahma in Hinduism, the Void in Buddhism, the First Reality in Pythagorean esoterism, or God the Father in the Judeo-Christian tradition, many spiritual faiths describe a transcendent Source which acts as the ground of all Being – a concept notably lacking in D&D mythology. Instead, players are presented with an ideology bearing similarities to Manichaeism, in which evil is depicted as being equally powerful to good (rather than being merely the privation of good, an entropic force which aims for separation from the Source), and the entire existence of the cosmos rests on the balance between these two opposing forces in an endless struggle, both of which are necessary for creation to take place. A simple exclusion of the eternal Creator, central to many spiritual traditions, reduces the mythology to a ‘cosmological’ level and eliminates any reference to a transcendent Principle. As a result, the world is presented as a morally relative universe, in which evil characters are justified in their actions, and the powers of good are restricted within certain limits, never granted full omnipotent potential.

While such criticism against a mere game’s shallow representations of spiritual myths may seem unmerited, any fictional mythology must be understood within a modern context, that is, a culture in which no spiritual myths are given due reverence or understanding. Myths are powerful devices, and even when taken as part of a simple gaming world, they can still imprint their core themes and moral messages to those who take an interest. It is for this reason that a skewed attempt at replicating genuine myths taken from spiritual traditions can inadvertently plant misleading, distorted beliefs in those who listen.

Accusations of Violence and Satanism
Many advocates against Dungeons & Dragons often cite cases of murder and suicide committed by people who had been involved in the game, placing blame solely on their role-playing activities and denouncing the game as an occult practice. While it may be extreme to place all blame on a game, ignoring all other factors in the forces which shape an individual’s decisions, it is worth taking account of the fact that many crimes committed were inspired by occult dabbling, initially inspired by themes presented in D&D.

A prominent case is that of Sean Sellers, convicted and executed for the murder of his parents and a convenience store clerk in 1987. A testament written by Sellers states that playing D&D initially inspired his interest in the occult, and he eventually became a practicing Satanist. In his own words:
‘With the controversy over role-playing games so prevalent today many well meaning people have sought to use my past as a reference for rebuking role-playing. While it is true that D&D contributed to my interest and knowledge of occultism I must be fair and explain to what extent D&D

When I was playing D&D I was not a Satanist, and in fact would probably have punched any Satanist I met right in the mouth. I was interested in witchcraft and Zen however. In doing some research at the library for a D&D adventure, I was leading, I happened upon other books that led to my study of occultism.

After I became a Satanist, I used D&D manuals for their magical symbols and character references for my initial studies. I also used my experience as a Dungeonmaster to introduce people to satanic behavior concepts and recruit them into the occult.

I do have objections to some of the material TSR released for their role playing games. I think their excessive use of paganism and occultism is unnecessary and can lead to idealistic problems among some players; however, to be fair to TSR and in the spirit of honesty, I must concede that D&D contributed to my involvement in Satanism like an interest in electronics can contributed [sic] to building a bomb. Like the decision to build the bomb, I had already made decisions of a destructive nature before I incorporated D&D material into my coven projects, and it was Satanism not D&D that had a decisive role in my crimes.

Personally, for reasons I publish myself, I don't think kids need to be playing D&D, but using my past as a common example of the effects of the game is either irrational or fanatical.

February 5th 1990
Sean Sellers’
It is important to note Seller’s insistence that D&D only had an indirect effect on the path his life took, that Satanism was first and foremost the motivation for his committing murder, and playing D&D was simply an instigative factor. Similarly, many criticize movies and videogames for being the sole causes of teenage violence, without acknowledging the many instances in which engaging in violent entertainment does not lead to acts of aggressive; rather, only certain types of individuals acquire a sort of inspiration from such media. In the same manner, the occult themes in Dungeons & Dragons present no inherent risk of social deviation, but players with a twisted disposition may find that immersion in the game will lead themselves into darker places. While the occult is not equivalent to Satanism per se (as occultism in itself is a varied range of practices, either good or bad), the two practices are often co-mingled, especially given the modern stereotype of associating dark magic with any practice that involves dealings with the spirit world. For this reason, players whose imagination is sparked by the occult themes in the game may quickly gravitate toward the darker elements of magic and other-worldly beings.

For better or worse, perhaps the main appeal of Dungeons & Dragons (as well as other fantasy genre games, books, and movies) is the sense of wonder that a world of magic evokes in both youths and adults, having been raised in the materialistic, scientifically-minded society of the modern world. Not only does the fantasy realm offer escape from the mundane, more importantly, it offers an enlivening vision of a magical world, a perspective which has been omitted from daily life, shunned by modern preconceptions. Perhaps so many people are drawn to stories of magic and fantastical creatures and abilities because these stories reflect a long-forgotten truth: that there do exist other realms, whose events effect the physical domain in which we reside. What was once held to be common knowledge is now reduced to mere fiction and shunned by any commonly-accepted reasoning. But the unseen worlds remain, and their reminders push into other forms acceptable to modern society, manifesting in forms of entertainment, whether the latest fantasy blockbuster or work of creative fiction, often leaving even the creators of such works bewildered at the sudden inspiration for realizing such imaginative creations.

Involvement with magic and spirits is a powerful concept, and when showcased in a seemingly harmless game, there may be unintended consequences if such forces are inadvertently released by players. In esoteric practices, the imagination is understood differently from the modern approach, and is considered an essential element of the mind when communicating with the spirit world and manifesting physical results. An entity can be summoned first by single-pointedly fixing its image in the mind, which acts as a beacon to attract its presence. If players of D&D are encouraged to imagine themselves in the game as deeply as possible (as encouraged by the official Dungeon Masters’ Guide) and engage in magical rituals and encounters with monstrous beings, then it may be possible that players with sufficient suspension of belief and focused imagination will unintentionally provoke actual contact with similar entities. This paired with the allure of dark occult practices presents a real danger to certain players. But it must be emphasized that only a rare minority of people encompass such a disposition when playing role-playing games, for most others, D&D and other similar RPGs carry little risk of danger. Provided those who engage in role-playing do so lightly and take the necessary precautions of remaining mindful of the inherent potential of releasing the very magical forces that the game encompasses, then D&D remains only a game -- a game in which players are free to explore mystical ideas that are unpopular in the modern worldview, and players may discover facets of their strengths and potential that were previously hidden and left unexplored.

How to Trust Your Demon: A Hollywood Counter-Myth

It has been said that the telling of myths has no place in the modern world, that the only remnants of such transformative symbolism are to be found in modern storytelling through film. Joseph Campbell once remarked that movie theatres are now our temples, where the public receives its teachings of myth. Whether or not this is a positive quality of mass entertain is subject to debate, considering the Hollywood tendency of propagating either progressive, anti-traditional values and debased morality, or the retelling of ancient myths with inverted meanings. Often both of these characteristics are to be found within modern storytelling, and Dreamworks’ recent children’s movie How to Train Your Dragon is no exception.

Reversing the ancient tale of the hero who slays the dragon, the film promotes the value of compassion towards these creatures. While the story may imbue a message of tolerance to the audience, encouraging children to question common prejudices and to embrace ostracized groups, this simple allegory should not distract from the face-value message of the film that demonic creatures are merely misunderstood creatures who mean no harm to humans. From a symbolical, rather than simply allegorical, point of view, this message neutralizes the traditionally held representation of the dragon as an evil being.

As discussed in the previous article, metaphysical symbols each carry a dual character and meaning. In the East, the dragon is generally of a Divine disposition, as portrayed by the wise Chinese dragon who has mastery over the element of water, or by the Hindu Kundalini, the serpent force which lies at the base of the human spine, who upon awakening ignites the yogic process of transformation. In the West, the Divine character of the dragon is represented by Ouroboros, the cosmic serpent who swallows its own tail, symbolizing the cyclical existence of the manifested Universe, an embodiment of the eternal One.

Conversely, Western legends generally depict dragons as malevolent creatures, such as in Saint George and the Dragon, Saint Romanus and the Gargouille (which tells of the origin of gargoyles used atop churches), the Greek myth of Cadmus, the Anglo-Saxon legend of Beowulf, and the Norse tale of Fafnir. The Hindu myth of Vritra also tells of a dragon-like asura who battles the god Indra.

From the opening of How to Train Your Dragon, it is apparent which aspect the dragon represents in the film, as the first impression of the dragons ruthlessly attacking a village bears a malevolent trademark.

The story features the ever-repeated motif of the bumbling outcast protagonist who, despite all odds, saves the day. In the first scene, Hiccup tries to prove himself as a courageous Viking by shooting a snare at an elusive Night Fury dragon.

The dragon is hit, and falls with an illuminated burst.

The next day, Hiccup finds the dragon, but makes a failed attempt at slaying the creature, instead choosing to free it.

He soon discovers that the dragon is unable to fly, as the left fin of its tail has been destroyed.

The image of an imperfect, winged creature falling from the sky brings to mind the story of the fallen angel Lucifer. Considering the traditionally demonic character of dragons, such a connection would not be inappropriate.

Moreover, the damaged tail parallels the Islamic foretelling of the dajjal, in which asymmetrical deformity is a telling characteristic of the Antichrist, who leads the world astray under the trustful guise of benevolence.

Just as in other animated films, particularly Monsters Inc., creatures that have traditionally been considered to be evil and hostile to humans are shown to the audience to be in fact misunderstood, friendly beings.

Gradually, Hiccup forms a friendship with the dragon, which he names Toothless, due to the hidden set of teeth that spring out of its mouth.

As Hiccup undergoes dragon combat training with his peers, Gobber, the ‘idiot in charge of initiation’ as described in the book, encourages Hiccup to read the Dragon Manual, which contains generations of knowledge that his people have obtained on dragons.

Owing to the lack of information on Night Furies, Hiccup soon realizes that his people do not know everything there is to know about dragons, and, in fact, many things they think they know turn out to be untrue.

In a secular Hollywood film, this ancient book is not considered to be of a sacred nature, but simply revered; however, this rejection of generational knowledge by the protagonist demonstrates the anti-traditional undertones of this film, giving the impression that one’s ancestors are merely superstitious and hold only transitory knowledge which can be replaced by younger generations.

Furthermore, Hiccup’s own father, Stoick, portrays the stereotypical domineering father who refuses to listen to opinions which differ from the accepted norms of the people. As with most animated features, the protagonist’s father is depicted as narrow-minded and ignorant of the way the world really is; rarely do we see a movie in which a protagonist’s parents are understanding and wise, coming from an ancient and knowledgeable tradition. All we encounter are themes of rebellion against ignorant elders and backwards traditions.

And like many other animated films’ attempts to connect with the audience, How to Train Your Dragon mockingly portrays a traditional culture with characters who behave just like modern movie-goers, speaking crude dialog rife with contemporary sarcasm (although it must be noted that, unlike most other Dreamworks productions, pop culture references are fortunately absent in this film). Even any references to Norse spiritual traditions are done in an off-hand way, in which appeals to the gods are made with such superficial exclamations such as
‘Odin, it was rough, I almost gave up on you, but all the while you were only
holding out on me. Oh Thor almighty!’
What we essentially see are a group of profane modern characters guised as medieval Vikings with no understanding or effective interaction with the world unseen.

Apart from being a dragon combatant-in-training, Hiccup also works as a blacksmith’s apprentice, and using his iron-working abilities, he designs and forges a new tail wing for his dragon.

The image of merging flesh with machine evokes the modern pursuit of bionics and transhumanism, in which physical limitations, whether impairments or simply the ‘human condition’ in general, are overcome through the implementation of technology. In this sense, man ‘evolves’ by means of his own ambition. In the film, the dragon is made able to re-ascend, due to the hero’s promethean ingenuity, again another luciferic element present in the story. It is worth noting that the trade of blacksmithing was traditionally considered to be one associated with lower magic, which ultimately degenerated into base sorcery, as metal-working involves the chaotic nature of ‘infernal’ elements.

By studying the behavior of his dragon, Hiccup soon discovers methods of subduing other dragons in combat, without having to inflict violence (establishing a myth counter to such legends as George and the Dragon). He quickly draws admiration from the village, and is chosen by the elder to participate in the traditional slaying of the dragon.
In this case, either the village elder is just as blind as all the rest and truly believes that Hiccup will conform to their ways and kill the dragon, or she silently condones his iconoclastic rebellion and hopes he will bring about a change in the village customs.

In the battle arena, Hiccup attempts to demonstrate to the people their ignorance of the true nature of dragons; they are not evil, humans can befriend them.

The peaceful demonstration is interrupted, however, by Stoick, whose aggressive stance provokes the dragon to resume its attack, thus confirming the people’s ‘ignorant’ suspicions.

The father, who bears a hammer resembling the mythic Mjöllnir, evokes the image of Thor, the Norse god of strength and protection. The audience readily perceives Stoick as an intolerant and judgmental character set in his ways, as he calls innocent Toothless a ‘devil’ and declares the dragons’ nest to be ‘hell’. However, this character, who embodies the paternal deity Thor and casts judgment on infernal creatures, bears similarities to the Christian and Judaic conception of God, of which the primary audience for such a film carries. The story demonstrates that this father figure is in reality limited by his intolerant disposition, and a new approach to dragons (or infernal entities) is needed, once the old ways are rejected.

Refusing to fight in the arena, Hiccup is exiled, and Toothless is confined, forced to lead the Vikings to the hidden dragons’ nest. Upon arriving, the warriors witness an unknown beast emerge from the cave, the dragon queen.
One may recall the dragon and the two beasts from the Book of Revelation: the dragon Lucifer falls from the sky unto the earth, and at the time of the apocalypse, the first beast rises from sea, resembling a leopard, and the second rises from the earth, making a noise ‘like a dragon’. The parallel between Toothless’ fall and that of Lucifer has already been remarked upon; however, it is also significant that the art directors for the film deviated from the book’s original description of the dragon, in favor of a more feline-like creature inspired by a black leopard screen saver displayed on a Dreamworks employee’s computer. This image paired with the initial scene of the dragons’ attack over the sea, offers a parallel of Toothless and the other dragons to the first beast of Revelation. And in this scene, the queen dragon fits the description of the second beast, emerging from the deep underground.

Hiccup and his peers arrive, each mounted on a dragon and attack the queen. The others are soon defeated, leaving only Hiccup and Toothless against the giant beast. In the final strike, the queen is hit, and Hiccup and his dragon fall through the fire.

It seems they are both dead, until an injured Hiccup emerges from the protective wings of Toothless. The father approaches the dragon, and realizing his mistaken views, says apologetically, ‘Thank you for saving my son’. The flawed father’s only begotten son is saved, and the dragon is a hero.

Symbolically this evokes an inversion of Christian doctrine, as the devil (Toothless) saves Christ (‘resurrected’ Hiccup), with the Father (Stoick) begging his forgiveness.

Having fallen with the dragon, Hiccup now bears a similar deformity, his missing leg reflecting Toothless’ damaged tail wing.

The subtle message given in this film, doubtlessly unintentional by the moviemakers but significant in its scope, is that what we have traditionally thought to be evil is, in fact, benevolent and should be befriended. This brings to mind the often-endorsed sentiments of New Age teachers encouraging others to ‘embrace their shadow’ and attempt to heal negative subconscious energies by integrating them into the personality (See the article False Shepherds for further analysis). As Hiccup intimates his reason for not initially slaying the dragon, ‘When I looked into his eyes, I saw myself.’ The concept of owning one’s shadow and identifying with negative traits of the subconscious offers an open invitation to outside, infernal forces, which gain access to the human mind through the gateway of the subconscious.

Furthermore, the happy ending in which all the townspeople change their ways and each have a friendly dragon pet, resembles another New Age practice of acquiring spirit guides, typically found among an array of unknown, low-level entities often mistaken for wise, benevolent beings.

It may seem an exaggeration to detect demonic themes underneath an otherwise innocent children’s movie, but the powerful impact such images have in shaping young minds must be brought into consideration. In effect, Hollywood movies are practical tools for social programming, with or without the filmmakers’ conscious intention. In this seemingly harmless, or ‘toothless’, fairy tale, the audience is exposed to a number of jibes at traditional beliefs, favoring a new, modern approach to life, while simultaneously promoting the idea that the devil is not evil, but merely misunderstood, thus blurring the borders between good and evil, encouraging children to seek out the creatures found in darkness, in hopes of making a new friend.

A World Turned Upside Down: The Inversion of Sacred Symbols


The values held by our modern society can be said to be a complete reversal of those held by preceding cultures rooted in spiritual truths. The accelerating contempt for tradition has led the masses to believe ancient wisdom and its myths to be mere foolishness, that only the world of the senses is real, there is nothing which lies beyond; or, if it be conceded that higher realms do indeed exist, they are of minor importance, earthly life takes precedence now, let us leave death to worry about the hereafter.

In every spiritual tradition, symbols were implemented in initiatic practices to act as a bridge between this world and the world unseen. The realm beyond, incapable of being expressed in ordinary language, was represented through the use of symbols. These sacred symbols acted as supports which could transport an initiate into higher realms of being, while simultaneously acting as conduits to channel Divine Knowledge unto to the realm of manifested existence, following the hermetic adage ‘As above, so below’.

In recent times, however, this ancient wisdom has been denied and rejected, now considered to be nothing but superstitions of the past, inapplicable to our ‘advanced’ modern civilization. Nevertheless, remnants of this knowledge of the power behind sacred symbols has survived, but not without corrupt distortions and misuse of the teachings.

The slow decay of spiritual practices over the centuries has given way to the anti-traditional movement of our times, a movement which rejects both tradition and the spiritual principles it represents in cultures throughout the world. Most people today remain unconscious of their anti-traditional mentality, which has been instilled through generations of cultural conditioning, having been raised to understand their materialistic, unspiritual worldview to be ‘just the way things are’ in terms of everyday reality. Even those who consider themselves religious hardly act any differently from all the rest; once Sunday prayers are finished, the return to secular, ‘ordinary’ life resumes.

There are others, however, who play a conscious role in the destruction of spirituality, humans who assist in manifesting malefic forces into the corporeal realm in which we reside. Ancient knowledge that has survived into the present age is now being distorted and inverted to suit the intentions of the few ‘Elite’ of the anti-traditional movement, who seek to break all ties humanity once had to the higher realms, effectively destroying any defense we might have had against the impending breach of the lower realms into our world. Evil, whether in its brute, unconscious form, or in its manifestation through pernicious, intelligent beings, has subtly spread into our realm. Humans who have acted either knowingly or unconsciously have participated in the reversal of symbols and the inverted direction human activity is taking. ‘As below, so above’; the gates of the underworld are opened, as all hell prepares to break loose.

Before undertaking the current study of symbols, a note must be made concerning the topic of evil. Many today do not believe in such a concept, either due to conditioning by materialist scientific views on the one hand, or by watered-down New Age teachings on the other, which suggest that if we are all One, then evil is only an illusion. This last point is a common misconception. The unmanifested Divine realm remains situated above duality, transcending all concepts of positive/negative, good/evil; the Infinite reduces all existence to metaphysical Zero. We, on the other hand, reside in the manifested physical realm, the world of relativity, individuality, and division, where the forces of good and evil have very real effects on our lives. In other words, angels and demons are just as real, or unreal, as ourselves.

Holding the concept of duality in mind, it must be understood that all symbols hold both a benefic and a malefic character, depending on the intention, or charge, of the image. Having no original tradition of its own, Evil must use pre-existing spiritual systems and invert the practice to achieve its subversive ends.

The symbols to be analyzed here presently are instantly recognizable, if not notorious in character. What were once held to be the most sacred of symbols have now been twisted into icons of evil, and the frequency of which we are exposed to such images is staggering, along with the implications of such mass propagation of inverted tradition.

The Swastika

Appearing in a wide variety of traditional cultures throughout the world, the swastika is one of the most ancient Divine symbols, used by traditions in East Asia, India, Ancient Greece, Celtic societies, and even Native American tribes. In the Middle Ages, the swastika even appeared in Christian symbology and can still be found within some Carmelite and Cistercian order churches in Europe.

The swastika derives its meaning from a related symbol, that of the solar disc. The symbol of the sun, composed of a single dot within a circle, refers to not only the astrological body but also the Divine Source of Life itself. The Center represents the Divine Principle of pure Being, from which all manifested creation derives its existence. The realms furthest from the Principle reside on the outer circumference, while the more spiritual realms are located in close proximity to the Center. From the Center on out we find the formless Causal realm, then the dreamlike Subtle (Astral) realm, followed by the Physical realm, and finally, the lower, infra-human levels of the Underworld, being the furthest from the Divine Principle.

The solar sign is often divided into four sections, forming the sign of the solar wheel, which can represent the four periods of the day, the four phases of the moon, the four seasons, the four directions, even the four ages of humanity. The Center also represents the union of opposites, as the polarized ends of each spoke of the wheel are brought into balance in the center.
The swastika is a variation of the solar wheel in that the four sections of the circumference are bent into arms to show movement. Contrary to popular believe, the direction of the arms’ rotation does not change the symbol’s meaning, as both orientations have been used in spiritual traditions. The symbol of the swastika depicts how all existence revolves around the timeless Center of Being.

As René Guénon explains:

‘The fixity of the Center is the image of eternity, where all things are present in perfect simultaneity. The circumference can only turn around a fixed center; similarly, change, which is not sufficient unto itself, necessarily supposes a principle which is outside change; this is the ‘unmoved mover’ of Aristotle, which is again represented by the Center…[T]he Center communicates movement to all things, and, since movement represents life, the swastika becomes thereby a symbol of life, or, more exactly, the vivifying role of the Principle in relation to the cosmic order.’ (Symbols of Sacred Science, 1962)

A symbol that was traditionally considered to embody the very Principle of Life has now taken on the complete inverse in meaning, as the general public in the modern West now associates the swastika solely with the atrocities committed by the Third Reich. Consequently, the swastika now embodies the anti-spiritual concepts of tyranny, war, and mass genocide.

The Nazi regime heavily relied on knowledge of the occult in order to rise to power. This is an often overlooked characteristic found in those who gain power so swiftly and effectively with little resistance in their path. To effectively alter the course of events in the physical world, it is necessary to appeal to the forces that have a direct influence over this world, that is, the powers of either good or evil which belong to the nonphysical realms. It is likely for this reason that the Nazis chose such a powerful spiritual symbol to emblemize their rising global empire. As a result, the malefic aspect of the symbol’s dual nature was accessed, and the swastika became an icon of death.

The Pentagram

Like the swastika, the sign of the pentagram has been used by many traditional cultures and is perceived with an equally negative connotation in modern culture. The pentagram has been found in the traditions of Taoism, Ayurveda, the Ancient Greek Pythagoreans, and medieval Christianity.

Christianity used the pentagram as a sign of the five senses and a symbol of health. It also portrayed the five wounds of Christ and was therefore used as a protective symbol against evil.

The ancient Pythagoreans used the pentagram as a sign of health as well, and the five points referred to the five elements of creation, with ether (or spirit) vivifying and ruling over the other four elements of fire, earth, water and air.

However, during the emerging interest in occult magic in 19th century Europe, the occultist Eliphas Lévi propounded that an inverted pentagram with two points facing upwards was a sign of evil. Whatever his intentions for propagating such a concept, the negative connotations of the pentagram spread, and ultimately the symbol in both its upright and inverted forms became associated with evil in Western mentality.

It is only recently that Wiccan and Neo-Pagan groups readapted the original meaning of the pentagram; however, the association the symbol has with evil gives the impression that many newcomers join these groups out of a sense of rebellion for their own Christian roots, giving a sort of ‘edginess’ to their newfound magical practices. Even if these groups’ aims are expressly peaceful, nature-oriented practices, the modern influence of negative associations one has of the pentagram and magical practices in general stills remains. Despite all good intentions, the likely outcome is that these groups are likely to attract some members who are either consciously or unconsciously attracted to the idea of black magic, an idea that is hardly dispelled by Wicca’s sole ethical code of ‘an it harm none, do what ye will’, a doctrine echoing the creed of Aleister Crowley’s ‘Do what thy wilt shall be the whole of the Law.’

All Neo-Pagan groups aside, the practice of black magic has been gaining popularity in recent decades, hidden from the public eye. The inversion of the once sacred symbol of the pentagram is just another indication of the chaotic times we live in, as a symbol that was once used to invoke health is now feared by the general population. More discomforting, however, is that this symbol, once used to ward of evil, is now implemented in its very evocation.

The All-Seeing Eye

The Eye of Providence, or the All-Seeing Eye, is a symbol found in both Christian and Masonic traditions, which carries a meaning similar to that of the solar symbol discussed above and bears similarities to the Egyptian Eye of Horus. Generally depicted as a single eye centrally placed inside an upright triangle, the image reveals the Divine Creator as the Center of all Being, whose omniscience reaches through all realms of existence. If the triangle is inverted, Divine Providence is depicted as descending from Heaven unto manifested creation.

‘The upright triangle relates properly to the Principle; but when it is inverted by reflection in manifestation, the gaze of the eye contained therein appears in a way to be directed ‘downward’, that is, from the Principle toward manifestation itself, and besides its general sense of ‘omnipresence’ it takes on more clearly the special sense of ‘Providence’. If, on the other hand, this reflection is envisaged more particularly within the human being, it must be noted that the form of the inverted triangle is none other than the geometric schema of the heart; the eye in its center is then properly the ‘eye of the heart’…’ (Guénon, Symbols of Sacred Science, 1962)

Taken on the microcosmic level, the All-Seeing Eye represents the seat of intuitional intelligence of the heart. It can also represent the Third Eye, which grants access to knowledge of the Eternal, that is, the timeless present moment, which holds all past and future events simultaneously.

It is likely that early Masonic interpretations of this symbol were more or less in accordance with the esoteric Christian understanding. However, the tradition of Freemasonry eventually fell into modern corruption, as true initiates came to be replaced by certain members of the aristocracy, who usurped the tradition and implemented its symbols without a deeper understanding of the Mysteries.

Modern distortions stemming from the growing ideology of the English ‘Enlightenment’ of the time quickly changed the esoteric quality of the Masonic tradition, as rational Deism came to reject reverence for the supernatural and mystical intuition. Instead, the Deists embraced logical reasoning as the supreme faculty for the attainment of knowledge in the newly established ‘Age of Reason’, a movement which essentially severed any connection with higher realities, as religion became subject to redefinition by profane modern science, an essentially materialist view which denies, or formally ignores, the existence of the nonphysical.

This new form of Deistic Freemasonry was eventually established in the New World. Thomas Jefferson, one of several Deists among the United States’ Masonic-influenced founding fathers, stated in a letter to John Adams,

‘To talk of immaterial existences is to talk of nothings. To say that the human soul, angels, god, are immaterial, is to say they are nothings, or that there is no god, no angels, no soul. I cannot reason otherwise: but I believe I am supported in my creed of materialism by Locke, Tracy, and Stewart. At what age of the Christian church this heresy of immaterialism, this masked atheism, crept in, I do not know. But heresy it certainly is.’ (1820)
This statement adequately summarizes the anti-traditional mentality that America was founded upon. Belief in the supernatural, miracles, and Divine Providence was declared to be ‘heresy’ and ‘atheism’; inversely, the belief in the material realm as the one reality was deemed noble. To the Deists, God, the Supreme Architect, could only be known through His works, that is, by observing and studying the natural world, i.e. applying reason through the scientific analysis of the material realm. Even the concept of God was reduced to a mere abstraction, as Deists proclaimed belief in the existence of a Supreme Being simply because they found adequate logical reason to do so and were unwilling to take their anti-religious stance to the extreme of atheism.

Harboring resentment toward the priestly ruling class of organized institutions, the founding fathers built ‘the wall of separation between church and State’, granting mere tolerance to religion as the world’s first secular society was established. Many of the ideals found in the Declaration of Independence were inspired by Benjamin Franklin’s encounters with the Iroquois Nation, with its admirable demonstration of a self-governing people. However, only the outward aspect of this traditional culture was borrowed, while disregarding the spiritual principles upon which the Native Americans’ very way of life was centered. Despite the inspiring example set by the Iroquois, General George Washington ordered their villages burnt to the ground, disregarding their partial alliance in the war against the British, just one of many occurrences of the mass killings Native tribes were subjected to, all in the name of American ‘liberty’.

Many prefer to forget the atrocities committed against the Native people of the Americas (whose population of 40 million was nearly equivalent to that of Western Europe at the time of the first settlers) and tend to believe the United States to have been founded upon ‘spiritual’ values, but a closer examination of these ideals is needed.

Even though the laws set by the Constitution protect individual rights, founding a nation upon the creed of ‘Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness’ simply reduces all human activity to aspirations contained within the material realm, thereby denying any recognition of supra-human truths and adherence to higher principles. Taking the solar symbol discussed above into consideration, it is as if the outer ring of the solar wheel divorced itself from the Divine Center, the physical realm proclaiming to be sufficient unto itself, an act that brings to mind the spirit of Lucifer rebelling from Heaven.

Essentially, the empirical studies of science were consecrated as being the only path to knowledge, thus binding modern civilization to the realm of matter in a new age of humanism, in which the Divine Principle as represented by the Eye of Providence was rejected, replaced by a different conception of godhood.

The image of the All-Seeing Eye remained in use, however, and the founding fathers combined the symbol with that of an unfinished pyramid and the inscription of Annuit Coeptis, ‘Providence favors our undertakings’ to compose the Great Seal of the United States.

To those who followed the Age of Reason’s faith in logic, enlightenment was considered to be the acquisition and synthesis of knowledge collected from scientific research. In this sense, a being does not undergo inner transformation to attain transcendent enlightenment, as understood in the East; instead, Western enlightenment is tantamount to the endless toil of discovery and ‘progress’. Thus, the image of God as portrayed on the Great Seal became the emblem for endless Becoming, rather than the traditional embodiment of pure Being.

The sight of the unfinished pyramid placed beneath the distorted image of Divinity brings to mind the tower of Babel, as humanity seeks to attain godhood through its own ambitions.

The pyramid is constructed by the workings of the nation’s people, massed together into a collective body, as exemplified by the obverse side of the Great Seal’s motto E pluribus unum, ‘Out of many, one’. All individuals are assimilated into the collective melting pot, with the Great Work of humanity as the final goal.

Many today despair at the corrupt condition America has fallen into, viewing the early years of the country as the halcyon days of the nation, in which local communities governed and provided for themselves. But what many fail to see is that the seeds of the centrally-controlled corporatist political machine that America has become today were planted at the very inception of the country. Secularism and the myth of progress gave way to uncompromising scientific ‘advances’ in industry, and the consequent efficiency of production gave rise to a utilitarian, consumerist society, which erupted from the United States and continues to infect the rest of the world to this day.

The Great Seal not only degraded the once sacred Eye of Providence into an emblem of collective utilitarianism and humanistic progress, however. As the character of the United States continues to degenerate, so too does the meaning of the Great Seal which represents such a global empire.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt, a 32nd degree mason, opted to print the Great Seal on the one-dollar bill under the influence of fellow mason Henry Wallace in 1934, coinciding with the dictatorial New Deal. Since then, the ‘big government’ practices of the United States have ceaselessly expanded, and the All-Seeing Eye has gained a new association, that of the all-powerful, all-seeing surveillance of the Leviathan State.

J.R.R. Tolkien’s image of the Eye of Sauron in The Lord of the Rings demonstrates how a traditionally sacred image of Divinity can just as fittingly depict the inverse, evil nature of the symbol: the ever watchful Eye of Sauron represents not benevolent omniscience, but rather nefarious surveillance and control.

As the global-encompassing dominance of the modern, anti-traditional civilization continues to spread its influence, one is left to speculate on the intentions behind those who implemented such a powerful symbol as the All-Seeing Eye as a national, monetary, and now corporate emblem (see Vigilant Citizen’s article 'Pyramid and All-Seeing Eye: Their Occult Meaning and Use in Corporate Logos'). Is this simply an unconscious manifestation of malefic forces? Or is it possible that, like the Nazi regime, there are those who secretly use the inverted charge of powerful sacred symbols as a means to gain dominance over the unsuspecting public?

The Perpetual Carnival

A common element found in traditional cultures around the world is that of the carnival. Allowing for an annual time of disorder among a society offered the opportunity for chaotic forces to manifest and to be regularly dispersed. One example is the Feast of Fools in Europe, in which religious customs were mocked and social roles were reversed. The temporary allowance for the mockery of traditions and the expression of negative characteristics of the people typically ensured a return to thriving social order once the festivities ended and routine life resumed.

Guénon explains:

‘[I]t is, in short, a matter of somehow ‘channeling’ these tendencies and rendering them as inoffensive as possible, by giving them an opportunity to manifest themselves, but only during very brief periods and in very set circumstances, and by assigning this manifestation narrow limits which it is not allowed to overstep. If it were not so, these same tendencies, for lack of the minimum satisfaction required by the present state of humanity, would be at risk of exploding, so to speak, and spreading their effects to the whole of existence, collectively as well as individually, causing a disorder far more serious than that which is produced only during some few days especially reserved for that purpose…’ (Symbols of Sacred Science, 1962).

As desecration of religious traditions has now become commonplace in modern pop culture, there is no longer any use for an annual time of disorder, as chaos has been unleashed on society at large. The clearest sign of the subversive nature of modern society is the shameless proliferation of inverted sacred symbols. It must be recalled that the image itself need not be altered for the inversion to take place; the distortion lies in the intention behind the symbol’s use, and as we have seen in this discussion, there are plenty of examples of perverse modern usage.

Recently, there has been some discussion over the use of occult symbols in the media and corporate logos, suggesting a conspiracy of the ‘Elite’ manipulating the masses. While the work exposing such malevolent use of symbols is important, the sacred side of esoteric symbolism must never be forgotten. To declare all occult imagery as being evil is not only seeing one half of the issue, it is fueling the negative connotations and further destroying any sacred meaning with which humans associate these powerful symbols.

Guénon warns of the satanic ‘counter-initiation’ presently at work within modern society, which seeks to destroy all traditional notions of the sacred:

‘[T]he cleverest and most dangerous subversion is not the one that betrays itself by too obvious singularities easily noticed by anyone, but it is the one that deforms the meaning of symbols or reverses their import while making no change in their outward appearance. But the most diabolical trick of all is perhaps that which consists in attributing to the orthodox symbolism itself, as it exists in truly traditional organizations and more especially in initiatic organizations (the latter being specially liable to attack in this case), the inverted interpretation that is specifically characteristic of the ‘counter-initiation’; and the ‘counter-initiation’ does not fail to take advantage of this method of promoting confusions and uncertainties when it can derive some profit from them. This is really the whole secret of certain campaigns, very significant in view of the character of the present period, conducted either against esoterism in general or against any one initiatic form in particular, with the unconscious help of people who would be very astonished, and even appalled, if they could become aware of the use that is being made of them; unfortunately however it sometimes so happens that people who imagine that they are fighting the devil, whatever their particular notion of the devil may be, are thus turned, without the least suspicion of the fact on their part, into his best servants!’ (The Reign of Quantity and the Signs of the Times, 1945)
Perhaps all this talk of evil brings many to scoff at such ramblings and superstitions. But it is worth considering: if malevolent forces do indeed exist and have direct influence over our feelings and thoughts, then would propagating ideas of the absurdity of its existence not be evil’s greatest strategy? Those who refuse to admit to this possibility put themselves at risk, as they disregard any measure of protection and remain susceptible to malefic persuasion. We are given many clues to the hidden forces at work, and a good place to start is by observing the corrupted nature sacred symbols have become.

The Illusory Nature of the Self: Transcending the Ego

'Who am I?'

It is a question that most prefer to avoid, especially in our culture of sensory extravagance and constant distraction from thought. It seems that most people prefer to ignore this pertinent question, instead losing themselves in the activities of work and leisure to avoid any anxiety that might arise if such introspection is pursued.

A stable identity is generally achieved during adolescence, as one experiments with varying roles and temperaments among others. However, this sense of individuality does not solve the greater riddle. When asking this question 'Who am I?', what exactly is this 'I' to begin with? Does it even exist?

The Cartesian logic of 'Cogito ergo sum' is inherently faulty; as Friedrich Nietzsche indicated, it would be more precise to declare 'There is thinking' or 'It thinks', considering that the notion 'I think, therefore I am' presupposes the existence of an 'I'.

To avoid, however, the subsequent crisis and nihilistic despair the existentialists face, it is necessary to turn to traditional sources of wisdom. Every human being carries a sense of self, the 'I-am-ness' as described in Patañjali's Yoga Sutras, but delving into this scripture and other traditional writings of both East and West reveals there is a deeper mystery concerning the individual.

The Cosmic Dream

As a creation of the Supreme Cosmic Spirit, a human being's existence is dependent on a higher reality. After all, how can a creature hold a greater reality than its uncreated Creator? Take for example the works of a writer or an artist: fictional characters cannot hold the same degree of reality as their human creator, and the same principle holds for us humans as emanations from the eternal Source.

To put it simply, we are all dream characters in the mind of God.

As explained in the Bhagavad Gita (9-6,5):

''Look at My divine yogic power. Although I am the maintainer of all living beings and Myself being the creator of all entities, I am not situated in them. Just as the mighty wind moving everywhere rests always in space, similarly being born of My will, know that all beings are situated in Me.''
The Divine Reality is hidden from us as long as our imprisoning sense of separation remains locked in place by our individuality, our sense of self.

As William Blake wrote,

'If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it
is, infinite. For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things through narrow chinks of his cavern.'
Transcending the ego and realizing its illusory nature is the first step of initiation into the greater mysteries of the Divine. This can be realized through a variety of practices including meditation, contemplative prayer, chanting, drumming, sleep deprivation, fasting, or dance, such as whirling practiced by Sufi Dervishes of Islamic esoterism.

The 13th century Sufi poet, Jalāl ad-Dīn Muḥammad Rūmī calls others to 'Die before you die' in order to realize the Divine Reality:

Inside this new love, die.
Your way begins on the other side.
Become the sky.
Take an axe to the prison wall.
Walk out like someone suddenly born into color.
Do it now.
You're covered with thick cloud.
Slide out the side. Die,
and be quiet. Quietness is the surest sign
that you've died.
Your old life was a frantic running
from silence.

The speechless full moon
comes out now.

(The Essential Rumi, Coleman Barks translation, 1997)

Transcending the self and realizing Oneness with all existence is often compared to waves on the surface of the sea, as the following Buddhist parable taken from Zen Speaks illustrates:

Guatama Buddha instructed his disciple Ananda,

''have you ever stood on the seashore and watched the waves rise and fall on the surface of the sea? Birthlessness and deathlessness are like the water. Birth and death are like the waves. Ananda, there are long waves and short waves, high waves and low waves. Waves rise and fall, but the water remains. Without water, there could be no waves. The waves return to water. Waves are water, water is waves. Though the waves may rise and pass away, if they understand that they themselves are the water, they will transcend notions of birth and death. They will not worry, fear, or suffer because of birth and death." (Old Path White Clouds by Thich Nhat Hanh, 1991)

Just as waves appear separate from the sea, we appear to be separate selves from the world around us, but ultimately we are all made from the same substance of creation and share a common root of existence.

The understanding of Oneness comes not by logical reasoning or an abstract conceptualization. The knowledge can only be gained by direct experience, which is sought through spiritual practice. States of mystical union are incapable of being expressed in words, which is why the use of metaphor is so prevalent in all spiritual traditions. When the false self dissolves, the world is seen as it truly is, as though one has just waken from a lifelong dream, washing away all past sorrows and allowing the pure bliss of being to shine through unhindered.

As Rumi said,

'This place is a dream. Only a sleeper considers it real. Then death comes like
dawn, and you wake up laughing at what you thought was your grief.'

Modern Complications

Besides resulting from spiritual practices, the experience of a loss of self can seemingly come about on its own accord and often occurs just after waking from sleep or even at the most unexpected times during ordinary activities.

However, it is this spontaneous realization that the self is illusory that frequently causes fits of panic attacks in people from all walks of life. Instead of enjoying the sublime bliss of union with the ocean of pure being, these experiences are often devastating to an individual. The old familiar world falls away as the veil of reality is lifted, leaving the mind tumbling down an infinite abyss of terror. It is unfortunate that in our secular modern society, these potentially transformative experiences are understood to be nothing more than a psychological 'disorder', termed depersonalization by psychologists. What is often missed in terms of psychological 'treatment' is that this anxiety-invoking condition can be overcome if the sufferer turns to the path of spiritual purification of body, mind and soul, whereby the same sensation of losing the sense of self begins to be accompanied by blissful liberation, instead of stark terror.

Another modern complication arises from the increasing use of psychedelics in order to intentionally bring about 'ego death'. Traditionally, a native shaman might work with naturally occuring plant products like Ayahuasca, psilocybin mushrooms, yopo, or cannabis in order to heal a patient, as the shaman would rise above ego awareness and gain astral insights into the subtle causes of a disease.

By contrast, in a modern setting both natural and chemical psychedelics are frequently used merely for recreation, oftentimes resulting in horrifying episodes for the uninitiated. However, there are some people who take psychedelics in an earnest attempt at uncovering spiritual knowledge, but the pitfalls in this far outweigh any benefits, as the potential for attracting negative forces to oneself are greater when the requisite mental discipline as means of protection is not taken, as with traditional meditative practices. There is also the problem of dependence on a substance for spiritual insight, which becomes a sort of crutch to a genuine seeker, not to mention the false sense of accomplishment oftentimes paired with arrogance for those who pursue such means.

The use of psychedelics is best to be avoided altogether, as the Himalayan yogi Swami Rama warned,

'For those who have not practiced austerities and trained their minds, psychedelics are harmful. They might damage the nervous system and especially disturb the finer channels of energy (nadis). Hallucinations occur, and one may become psychotic. I have examined the effects of drugs on people who have used them and have not found any spiritual symptoms in their behavior. They might have an unusual experience, but what good is that experience which has an adverse effect and a harmful reaction later on? A prolonged subtle depression is a common symptom of these drugs if the mind is not prepared and dietary habits are not carefully observed...Those who are not psychologically prepared will have negative experiences either when they ingest the intoxicant or later. Those who are prepared don't need such drugs.' (Living with the Himalayan Masters, 1978)

Apart from the misuse of psychedelics, there is another modern danger when embarking on the spiritual journey. For various reasons, a spiritual seeker is often at a very fragile time in his or her life, and any experience of ego death often heightens the sense of uncertainty and borderline sanity, giving rise to the desperate need of a guide. However, considering the exploitation and distortion of traditional practices these days, the possibility of finding a genuine spiritual teacher in the modern world is almost nil. The host of false gurus preaching enlightenment to the masses often wear the guise of selfless revelators of truth, but in reality form a parasitic relationship with their followers, spewing forth distorted teachings in exchange for wealth and admiration (Shri Mataji, Ramtha, Jasmuheen, and Andrew Cohen, to name a few). And even traditional religious institutions of both East and West have lost touch with the spiritual truths that founded them, having given way to blind fundamentalism and materialistic pursuits. In this dark age, the only security lies with reliance on ancient teachings and Divine guidance by means of Grace. Seeking truth solely from another human more than often leaves one susceptible to deception, just as relying solely on oneself for guidance can lead one astray from the true path. To evade misguidance from the egoic self or deceptive forces from this world and beyond, it is helpful to practice prayer and meditation each day, remaining open to inspiration and guidance from Divine sources.

Entering the Sea

Transcending the ego is not the final goal of the spiritual path; it is only the means of venturing further toward the supreme goal of union with the Divine Principle. And not every encounter with ego death can be considered a truly spiritual experience, as the same sensation occurs during panic attacks or 'bad trips' from the use of psychedelics. Earth-based, pantheistic practices tend to consider discarding individuality and diving into the ocean of collective consciousness to be the final goal (see the previous article The Inverted Spirituality of Avatar). Whereas, in truly transcendent traditions such as Buddhism, a practitioner who frees himself of his identity is considered to have achieved only the first stage in reaching Enlightenment and becomes a Srotāpanna, or 'stream-enterer'; there is more to accomplish on the journey and many dangers to avoid along the way of ascension. As René Guénon explains in his Vedic commentary, Man & His Becoming According to the Vedanta, in the yogic path of Hinduism, the ultimate goal is to cross the 'lower waters' of the collective, which belong to the realm of ever-changing manifestation, transient forms in a perpetual state of becoming, and to reach the 'upper waters' of the formless, changeless Absolute. The initiate sheds his illusory lower self of the ego, crosses the 'sea of passions' (the astral plane) and ascends to the unmanifest realm, where he finally finds repose. As found in the Bhagavad Gita:

'I am the ultimate goal, the maintainer, the Lord, the witness, the abode, the shelter, the unselfish friend, the origin, the end (annihilation), the resting place, the basis of everything, and the imperishable, eternal seed (cause) of this universe.' 9-18

Revelation 3:12 alludes to the final goal as well, with the individual coming to eternal rest with the Father:

'Him that overcomes will I make a pillar in the temple of my God, and he shall go no more out.'

Oftentimes after undergoing a profound, reality-shifting experience, one returns to the ordinary state of reality feeling a great sense of accomplishment, feeling privileged to have gained such esoteric insights into the nature of reality and the self, only to resume ever more egoic attitudes of superiority over others and a secret prideful esteem of the self, despite having just realized its illusory nature! Some develop an even more distorted view, that of solipsism, which is the belief that only the self is real and all others are illusions. Trent Reznor's song 'Only' is an example of this mentality, with lyrics such as 'There is no you, there is only me.'

Along with the errors of egotism, solipsism, and believing oneself to have reached the final goal before attaining full Enlightenment, there are many other pitfalls on the journey to be wary of. As Buddha admonished, there are two errors on the spiritual path: not starting the journey, and not attaining the final goal. The dangers involved in pursuing higher realities are best overcome by means of guidance from above, including those who have gone before us into the unseen.

But what can be said of those perfected beings who upon physical death, shed their individuality and ascend to the unmanifest realm and unite with Godhead? It is told that these beings are not 'annihilated' but rather 'transformed'. Guénon explains,

'In order to bring out the nature of this 'transformation' more vividly, compare it to the disappearance of water sprinkled upon a burning hot stone. This water is in fact 'transformed' on contact with the stone, at least in the relative sense that it has lost its visible form (though not all form, since it clearly continues to belong to the corporeal order), without however its being possible to say on that account that it has been absorbed by the stone, since, actually, it has evaporated into the atmosphere, where it remains in a state imperceptible to sight. Similarly, the being is in no wise 'absorbed' on obtaining 'Deliverance', although it may seem so from the point of view of manifestation, whence the 'transformation' appears as a 'destruction'; viewed from the standpoint of absolute reality, which alone remains for it, the being is on the
contrary dilated beyond all limit, if one may use such an expression (which exactly translates the symbolism of steam from water spreading itself indefinitely through the atmosphere), since it has effectively realized the fullness of its possibilities.' (Man & His Becoming According to the Vedanta, 1925)

Compare with Rumi:

'When our guide and those who are cherished by us leave and disappear, they are
not annihilated. They are like stars that vanish into the light of the Sun of
Reality. They exist by their essence and are made invisible by their

The Illusory Self

When discussing such a sensitive topic such as identity and the ego, it is essential to clarify what is meant when saying that the self is empty and illusory.

A teacher of the Tibetan tradition, Tenzin Wangyal Rinpoche, explains:

'Without understanding emptiness it is difficult to cut the root of the egoic self and to find liberation from its boundaries.

However, when we read about the spiritual journey we also read about self-liberation and self-realization. And we certainly seem to be a self. We can argue to convince others that we do not have a self, but when our life is threatened or something is taken from us, the self that we claim does not exist can become quite afraid or upset.

According to Bön-Buddhism, the conventional self does exist. Otherwise no one could create karma, suffer, and find liberation. It is the inherent self that does not exist. Lack of an inherent self means that there is no core discrete entity that is unchanging throughout time. Though the nature of mind does not change, it should not be confused with a discrete entity, a "self," a little bit of indestructible awareness that is "me." The nature of mind is not an individual's possession and is not an individual. It is the nature of sentience itself and is the same for all sentient beings.' (The Tibetan Yogas of Dream and Sleep, 1998)

Although a seeming paradox, our everyday self is indeed 'real', despite the reality of 'no-self' experienced in an egoless state. Both are valid realms of experience and therefore both encompass their own degree of reality. Sometimes, a real crisis emerges for an individual upon returning to the ordinary world after having melted into the Divine ocean. The return to the mundane can leave one bewildered and even on the verge of losing sanity, due to the difficulty of reconciling the two realities. 'How can I be real, if I have just experienced that this 'I' is an illusion?' One must come to understand that higher states of truth do not render lower modes of being invalid. Because we experience ourselves and our everyday reality as a solid, genuine world, and live through all its joys and sorrows, the experience can never be said to be unreal, only illusory, as transcending the ordinary self and its ordinary world gives way to a profoundly new mode of experience. Rumi compares the soul to a dirty mirror, that when polished, can reflect the clear light of the Source, revealing the Oneness and Divine presence in all of manifestation.

As Tenzin Wangyal Rinpoche continues, referring to the metaphor of reflections in a mirror:

'If we focus on the reflections, we can say there is this reflection and that other reflection, pointing to two different images. They grow larger and smaller, come and go, and we can follow them around in the mirror as if they were separate beings. They are like the conventional self. However, the reflections are not discrete entities, they are a play of light, unsubstanced illusions in the empty luminosity of the mirror. They exist as separate entities only through conceptualizing them as such. The reflections are a manifestation of the nature of the mirror, just as the conventional self is a manifestation that arises from, abides in, and dissolves back into the empty limpidity of the base of existence, kunzhi.'

Identifying ourselves as a separate ego, the lower self, has given rise to our lifelong experience of the world of duality and separation from awareness of the Divine presence. Once the veil is lifted, the world is suddenly transformed, and the Kingdom of God is revealed right here, in every object and being we encounter. The world is seen just as Christ taught in Luke 17:20-21

'The coming of the kingdom of God does not admit of observation and there will
be no one to say, ''Look, it is here! Look, it is there!'' For look, the kingdom
of God is within you.'

This experience is often fleeting, lasting only a few moments or even a number of days until individuality is restored and one returns once again to the ordinary world of relativity, perceiving everything in terms of self and others as before. It takes a steady discipline and constant vigilance awaiting the Divine touch to descend and reawaken us from our earthly slumber. After all, it is better to learn to die willingly to the Spirit now while incarnate in physical bodies, rather than waiting until the body's last breath and entering the other world unprepared.


In this modern age of hyper-egotism, we find an alarming lack of genuine connection and concern for others. Traditional values of compassion have been replaced by pathological individuality, disregarding the fostering of community and seeking solely material desires and selfish aims. Both secular institutions and religious traditions have become divorced from the notion of receiving direct experience of the Divine Reality, often scoffing those who admit to such experiences.

One need only turn within and examine that which we have ignored the most: our true nature.

Such a being who ventures forth into the unknown not only uncovers the key to end all self-inflicted suffering, but also brings forth spiritual gifts to those who are not yet self-realized. Upon returning to the ordinary world, one who has seen beyond often feels a profound compulsion to aid others, unburdening their sorrows with an attempt to point the way out of their prison. Of course, perfection of a being is never realized overnight; however, one who becomes just a little more selfless and focused on others provides a real glimmer of light in a world full of darkness.

The perennial wisdom of the ages is available to anyone who approaches the threshold with sincere intention and requisite preparation. Even in this age of spiritual ignorance, there is still the possibility of realizing the Divine Reality right here and now. It is a matter of relinquishing the limited egoic self and surrendering to the Divine Will, allowing blissful truth to radiate through our very being and coming to aid those in most need of guidance.
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