We are all aware that some objects have more power over us than others. If I ask you to describe a room that you are familiar with but are not in at this minute - your bedroom, say - then you will provide, probably, a fairly good description. If I then ask you to go into the room and look around and compare your description or drawing or plan with what is actually there, you will realise that there are some things in the room that you have omitted completely and some that you have misperceived. You might get some surprises.

We tend to create around ourselves an environment that, in some sense, speaks to us. My room is full of books and objects to which I have a sentimental attachment, either because they remind me of something from the past or they seem to me to have a particular beauty, or for some other reason. In fact, the reason is not always apparent, even to myself. Why is this or that object special?

It is not just individual objects, but whole constellations. When we are out in nature, different places have different atmospheres. A particular glade or corner or opening, each place has its voice. In arranging the objects in one’s room one is composing such a world. Children make dens in this way. Rooms that have evolved and grown under the influence of the person who inhabits them have much more voice in this sense than ones that have been designed or copied from a magazine.

Developing a spiritual life involves tuning in to these voices. To read some supposedly spiritual manuals one would think that spirituality is about gaining such a tight control of one’s mind that one is not affected by anything. In my view and experience, the opposite is true. It is important to develop sensitivity to the powers around one and the subtle influences in one’s surroundings.

In ancient times, these subtle influences were understood to be the working of devas. They were divine voices speaking to us. Learning to live in a world in which such enchantment was everywhere was generally recognised to be the nature of a spiritual life. To be spiritual was to be in touch with these spirits. Sometimes spirits entered into one, but that was rare and not the main point. it was not the spirit in oneself that mattered so much as being in tune with the radiance that envelops everything.

The cultural influence that is sometimes called Modernism or “the Enlightenment” that is associated with the rise of science in the nineteenth century has involved a substantial disenchantment of the world. In the earlier paradigm, everything was, in one way or another, alive. This is called animism - everything being animated by an “anima” or soul. In the new paradigm we are invited to believe that most of what is around us is dead and functions, if at all, only in a purely mechanical way. In the extreme form of this approach, even “alive” things - like ourselves - are also regarded as only being mechanisms.

The mechanical paradigm has some advantages, it must be said. It enables some mechanical things to be done well and this accounts for much of the success of modern medicine. However, there is a lot to be said for the earlier paradigm too.

It is a challenge, in modern times, to recover some of that earlier way: to cultivate our sensitivity to tune in rather than tune out.

Of course, even the most modern of people is still affected by a beautiful sunset or a clearing in the forest where orchids are peeping. The ability to contact the devas has not been entirely lost. What can we do to resuscitate this atrophied faculty?

The current craze for mindfulness, if used in a certain way, could help. To be still, watch and listen plays a part. Such psychological methods as focussing can also help.

For some, drawing and other forms of representational art help them to connect. Writing poetry can be especially powerful in helping one to pay attention to rather than ignore tones and feelings.

One has to be willing to step, at least a little, out of the world of reductionism and into a different metaphysic. When buddha talked to devas - which he did often - he was inhabiting life in a different way from ourselves. Or, we could even say, he was inhabiting a different world.

In that world there were innumerable devas, “devas who dwell in the fragrance of the root-wood, heart-wood, pith, bark, sap, leaves, flowers and scents”, devas “embodied in cool-clouds, hot-clouds, clouds of thunder, wind and rain” (Saibaba p.33).

In the Buddhist text collection called the  Anguttara Nikaya we are told that recollecting and befriending devas is a means to cleanse away defilements and elements of viciousness from the heart. How is this? We can see, perhaps, that the correct attitude toward the devas is one of friendship. it is not so much a matter of worship - the right objects of worship are wisdom, compassion, faith, and so on. Toward the devas it pays to have an attitude of benevolence and friendship and equally to ask that they have such an attitude to us. When we cultivate in this way we not only have a richer experience of life, we also learn to be at home in the world amidst all its teeming powers.

One might think that this is all rather esoteric, but it only seems that way because our culture has moved so far away from the old way of experiencing. My mother talked to the plants in the garden and she was a very good gardener. She lived in a spirit of love and co-operation with the forces around her. To overcome the alienation that is so rife in modern life, do we need to learn to, once again, talk not just to the flowers, but also to the wind and the rain, the earth and the sky, rivers, roads, rapids and ravines, grass and snails, earth, water, air and fire, and not feel embarassed to do so?

V.V.S. Saibaba 1947 Faith and Devotion in Theravada Buddhism. Print world, New Delhi. ISBN 8124603294.

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  • Thank you Charlene and David.  This is a really promising discussion. I'll add something next week. All the best

  • Nice thoughts, Charlene. What gods do trees worship? Buddhism arriving in Japan had to accommodate to a culture where nature and its deities were already well established, leading eventually to the idea of the goal of the enlightenment of every rock and blade of grass.

  • Thank you Massimo for that thoughtful article and the reminder of Julian Jayne's great work. I found him much juicier than Eric Neumann's The Origins and History of Consciousness, which seemed to veer steadily toward an answer, while Jayne's in my reading at least seems to inspire question. Mind, Neumann's work predates Jayne's by a couple decades and I believe Jayne refers to the earlier work with some respect. 

    I'm also brought to mind of Nietzsche's Zarathustra, the sludgy green slime dripping off each of the latter pages as he brings down a monolithic approach and indicates something more earthy. 

    Also David yes, polytheism but not only humans: what gods do the trees worship? What wind inhabits their dreams? And on through all life...what gods held in the hearts and consciousness of vegetables, minerals, the elements of Earth, Water, Fire and Air or are these also Goddesses? 

  • I'm glad that you have brought in the word polytheism. It seems to me that whatever inkling of divinity we have it must manifest in diverse forms. Different people (and peoples) tune into these energies in different ways and this gives rise to many different conceptualisations and sets of terminology or names. There was something about the polytheistic races that enabled them to have a much more vivid experience of all this than we seem to be capable of in out reductionistic age.

  • Thank you, David, for your reply 

    Concerning the issue you raise, I would like to underline the importance of the enactive approach (put forward by F. Varela and colleagues). It tries to go beyond the traditional opposition between subjectivity and objectivity.  The former claiming that the world is a creation of the mind (various families of idealism, constructivism, postmodernism); the latter that the mind is engaged in knowing a world which is definitively "out there" (various families of positivism, science, scientism, etc.).

    Enaction (main reference "The Embodied Mind" (1993) is a construct generated through the convergence of Buddhism (Madhiamika school, Nagarjuna), phenomenology (mostly Merleau Ponty) and cognitive science (Varela). It allows us to look at cognition as taking place in a middle way: there is an external world but its objects can appear only when the mind puts its focus on them. I.e. there is a continuous co-creation of mind/consciousness and world.  

    Concerning the problem, again, of the devas and the power (powers?) around us, I think it would be great to start thinking about the issue of the "energies" that surround and cross ourselves (body-mind-relations). We are continuously dealing with energies (that for the Homeric Greek were direct manifestations of specific gods) but we know practically nothing about them. This could be an interesting branch of the debate on polytheism: how we live by these "divine" forces; the nature of these forces; how we perceive them (actually, at present, in very reductive ways. Mostly ignoring them)....

  • Thank you, Massimo. Nice reference. It is also interesting to investigate the earlier consciousness by reversing some of our modern formulations... eg. "what we call hallucination is actually gods appearing" etc. The structures in the brain come from somewhere, being, mostly a reflection of the world around us. Nowadays we like to think that things start in the mind or brain and then get projected out into the world, but how did the brain or mind get them in the first place?

    I'm certainly quite interested in the bicameral brain/mind and the way that we do seem to have contrasting modes of consciousness that conspire to pick up something of the world in a holographic way.

  • Our consciousness is our guide in life. We can survive, carry on our business, interact with others, etc, etc., thanks to consciousness.

    In meditation we can discover how our consciousness (the ideas about ourselves) is fragile and messy, how fearsome can be the lack of a real consciousness centre and how (much more rarely) happy can be the experience of no-consciousness.

    According to modern science (neuroscience) and philosophy (from Locke to Chalmers) consciousness is a big problem: it is impossible to locate and clearly identify it. Consciousness doesn't exist as a given entity.

     The Buddha pointed out this truth in the 5th century B.C..: consciousness is empty like the other aggregates: this is why we cannot claim to be an "I/me".

     Rewinding the film of human history up to the Homeric times it's possible to find something strange and marvellous about consciousness: half of it, in the "bicameral mind", was saturated by gods of different kinds who were the real instigators of human behaviours.   

     I hope that "The Origins of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind" (1976), by Julian Jaynes, an overlooked genius,  could become a source of  inspiration for the friends of La Ville au Roi.  In my opinion this masterful work can provide a number of suggestions for better experiencing the mind. 

     It is possible to affirm that in our times we went through other mind's breakdowns, as modernity definitively debunked traditional morality, religion, social links, etc... We live in a definitively disenchanted world. This probably implies that we are in a better position than our closer ancestors for feeling impermanence and anatta  as the fundamentals of our condition and causes of our suffering.  

     But this could be also the starting point for questioning the void left by gods and devas when they left their space in the bicameral mind.  Going a step forward: did they really leave? Wouldn't be possible to re-perceive them?  Are they only metaphors of our emotions and drives?

     In the Buddha Teachings the truth of not-I/not-me lives side by side with the presence of gods and devas. We usually accept the former and refuse the latter: it is perfectly legitimate, and nevertheless a sort of regret arises for not being able of feeling such presence. Somebody can do it. And we should listen to him/her.

     (What follows is taken from the above mentioned book (pages 74 - 75).  Please note that the full book can be easily downloaded from the Internet)

    "The gods were organizations of the central nervous system and can be regarded as personae in the sense of poignant consistencies through time, amalgams of parental or admonitory images. The god is a part of the man, and quite consistent with this conception is the fact that the gods never step outside of natural laws. Greek gods cannot create anything out of nothing, unlike the Hebrew god of Genesis.

    In the relationship between the god and the hero in their dialectic, there are the same courtesies, emotions, persuasions as might occur between two people. The Greek god never steps forth in thunder, never begets awe or fear in the hero, and is as far from the outrageously pompous god of Job as it is possible to be. He simply leads, advises, and orders. Nor does the god occasion humility or even love, and little gratitude. Indeed, I suggest that the god-hero relationship was — by being its progenitor — similar to the referent of the ego-superego relationship of Freud or the self-generalized other relationship of Mead. The strongest emotion which the hero feels toward a god is amazement or wonder, the kind of emotion that we feel when the solution of a particularly difficult problem suddenly pops into our heads, or in the cry of eureka! from Archimedes in his bath.

    The gods are what we now call hallucinations. Usually they are only seen and heard by the particular heroes they are speaking to. Sometimes they come in mists or out of the gray sea or a river, or from the sky, suggesting visual auras preceding them. But at other times, they simply occur. Usually they come as themselves, commonly as mere voices, but sometimes as other people closely related to the hero".


    "The picture then is one of strangeness and heartlessness and emptiness. We cannot approach these heroes by inventing mind-spaces behind their fierce eyes as we do with each other. Iliadic man did not have subjectivity as do we; he had no awareness of his awareness of the world, no internal mind-space to introspect upon. In distinction to our own subjective conscious minds, we can call the mentality of the Myceneans a bicameral mind. Volition, planning, initiative is organized with no consciousness whatever and then 'told' to the individual in his familiar language, sometimes with the visual aura of a familiar friend or authority figure or 'god', or sometimes as a voice alone. The individual obeyed these hallucinated voices because he could not 'see' what to do by himself".

  • Here are two nice articles about devas, the first one is about Findhorn, the second one about nature spirits and devas.



    About 'seeing the elementals'... there are many ways of 'seeing'. Eleusis and especially the woods of Eleusis are a nice place to experience the devas. One of my ways of experiencing the devas is to be aware of the light. Suddenly the light is changing, the light is more intense or the sun is shining brighter... In the same way you can be aware of the wind and how the wind is whispering through the leaves, or how birds and insects respond to you when you are in their neighbourhood.

    Maybe it all starts with this attitude - willingness to see and be open for the experience of devas. The more you open the more you will see. I will explore this more myself in my discovery journey at Eleusis.


    Kwan Yin shrine hidden in the woods of Eleusis. This shrine gives you a 'sacred' feeling. A beautiful spot to open oneself for the devas.

  • Thank you David for this inspiring topic, one that as Carol has said above is too seldom taken up. I find richness in this phrase: "To read some supposedly spiritual manuals one would think that spirituality is about gaining such a tight control of one’s mind that one is not affected by anything. In my view and experience, the opposite is true. It is important to develop sensitivity to the powers around one and the subtle influences in one’s surroundings."

    My mother, too, when she was not struggling with the fractures in her psyche, tended with great love the African violet plants she delighted in; she also loved and talked to me about the sparrows and squirrels in a way that led me to believe these creatures are real, in need of love, and responsive to love. 

    A lifestyle description that excludes quiet solitude in nature, times alone when to turn eyes slightly to their corners may mean a chance encounter with an elf, or sprite, or garden fairy. In Findhorn we learn these elementals need our consciousness or else they fade from our planet. When once we realize how much we need them, and how much our consciousness feeds their world, we are enriched beyond the cultural demands for things, things and things. 

    Has anyone else seen the elementals? 

  • This is just lovely, thank you. I think many feel this way but we seldom communicate abput it as there is little modern context or language for it. What you are writing about reflects the essential way we are embedded in the world. If we lose contact with this no amount of activity or intellectual pursuit will replace it and we will lead impoverished lives.
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