Sauteed Tofu with Chinese Mushrooms

“I have two protective spirits”, a co-worker told us over lunch.

We had been discussing religion and spirituality, a topic that arose since the Chinese restaurant where we were having lunch was right across the street from an impressive religious building. Next to our table was a little altar to Chinese deities, burnt-down joss sticks in front of a heavenly court made of porcelain.

My co-worker’s family had emigrated from a Southeast Asian country a generation or two ago. They still have family ties to the old place, and once in a while family reunions take place, presided over by the most senior grandmother.

During one of those stays, years ago, he told us, the family insisted on calling in a local wise man to conduct a ceremony which dedicated two protective spirits to watch over him. He joked about the fact that he had two such guardians, and speculated that this might be due to his living in a far-off place on another continent, so twice the protection would be required.  Or maybe because he was always making mischief.

Our lunch arrived at this point in the discussion, fragrant plates of sauteed food and bowls of rice. Chopsticks and spoons were sorted out, orders for additional drinks had to be placed.

After a mouthful of tofu with Chinese mushrooms, I remarked how this ceremony resembles the child-blessing sacraments of other religions. He agreed that it was similar, and we explored the social pressure surrounding this type of religious event. My wife and I never had our child baptized, and received a certain amount of disapproval for it from our relatives, I told him, even though they were not religious at all.

Others on the table joined in to the discussion, which then diverged over such topics as nominally religious political parties like the Christian Democrats or its counterparts in Turkey, church tax (an issue in this corner of Europe), and cults like the one in the large modern building across the street.

Village house in Southeast Asia

Finally we got back to the actual choreography of the guardian spirit ceremony our colleague had been subject to all those years ago. Interest in the exotic aspects of Southeast Asian folk religion had increased during our meal, he was asked for more details, and he indulged us in good-natured fashion.

“Now this year, the wise man wants to do another ceremony, because this thing only lasts so long”, he told us.

Understanding nods around the table. Everyone was relaxed and satisfied after a nice meal. The earth-bound spirituality of a far-off people with their ancient traditions had given the afterglow of the Chinese food a pleasant romantic tinge.

“Only now he says it will cost the equivalent of three thousand Euros. And that’s at the current exchange rate, not some kind of wage equivalent.”

This marred the atmosphere a bit. People suggested to tell the holy man to get lost.

“Yes, that’s what I’d do myself”, he grinned. “Only, if we do that, the protection will go away, you see? People back there take this kind of thing seriously. They all paid their fees to the wise man, so if we don’t, then that makes them look stupid, and there is also the superstitious aspect.”

Protection Racket
Guardian Archons

On my way back to the office, I had black thoughts about supernatural protection rackets, and riots in heaven, about tearing down spiritual hierarchies, smashing celestial spheres, and watching the aethyrs burn as we dance on the debris and rubble of an overthrown cosmic order.

Any magician will have done banishing rituals and maybe contacted some kind of guardian spirit. Protective servitors are also popular. But are they effective against social pressures and the transcendental insurance salesmen offering protection against fragile things breaking because of clumsy people in a bad mood?

The supernatural protection racket situation hinges upon several parameters:

  • there are “bad guys” in other realms. In this paradigm, the protective spirits are getting something profitable to them out of the arrangement. Their motives diverge from the pure, wholesome image conveyed by the term “guardian spirit”.
  • the social control mechanisms which fail to prevent mobsters from doing their thing in this world equally fail to do keep the mobster spirits under control in other realms. The archontic police forces may be impotent or corrupt.
  • in this realm, social pressure accumulates at the bottom of the pyramid. The rich and powerful take advantage of social norms and expectations, harnessing them for their own purposes: Delegate influence and responsibility to the man with the beard or the suit. On top of this the would-be guardian spirits also hook into these convenient patterns of behavior: Blindly believe in what you are told, submit to spiritual authority.
Project A

There have always – or at least as far back as we have documented history, and probably before that given human nature – always been those who thought about or even attempted to implement more egalitarian modes of coexistence in human society: Mutual aid and solidarity rather than reliance on the benevolence of bullies, decentralization instead of concentration of power, direct action, and voluntary participation as opposed to hierarchies.

Let me unpack this long string of left-wing buzzwords and apply them to the subject of spiritual protection.

A Freebox in Berlin, Germany 2005, serving as a distribution center for free donated materials. (source: Wikipedia)

Mutual Aid: this amounts to a slight paradigm shift in the time-honored system of making a sacrifice which is a staple of magick both ancient and modern. Rather than viewing the sacrifice as a payment for a service provided by a spirit, sacrifice in the vein of mutual aid has the quality of a flea-market exchange: everybody and -spirit brings their goods and services along, and from this pool, everybody and -spirit can get what they need.

Decentralization: magickal systems tend to be highly structured, with tables and lists and precise prescriptions, rituals with elaborate choreography or at least rigid rules on how to improvise, grades and degrees and hierarchies of recognition… even Chaos magick has produced paradigms and institutions that emulate these to an extent. In a decentralized paradigm, small self-organized groups form networks according to their interests and needs. Information control, which is a mainstay of institutionalized power both in this realm and spiritual ones, is replaced by open access to knowledge. Of course magick without secrecy, grand titles, and the hosts of heaven and hell seems unappealing. In the specific context of guardian spirits however, these are the aspects which make the supernatural protection racket work in the first place.

Direct Action: examples are strikes, blockades, occupation, sabotage, and civil disobedience. Chaos magicians will recognize these readily, summarized in such foundational quotes as, “nothing may be true, everything may be permitted”, the basic premises of tantric practices, and the generally heterodox outlook of the chaos magick subculture.

To get back to the question of how to approach the conditions which facilitate abusive spirits to pose as guardian angels, let me boil all of this socio-spiritual analysis down to something pragmatic:

Foster mutually beneficent relations with a diverse and egalitarian group of humans and spirits. The group will have the means to protect its members. Do not pay for individual spiritual protection. Do not delegate this to cosmic institutional hierarchies.

Our Fundamental Mode of Being

The Spell of the Sensuous, by David Abram
The Spell of the Sensuous, by David Abram.

In The Spell of the Sensuous (1997) ecologist and philosopher David Abram examines how our minds have become severed from sensory experience, and – consequently – our bodies disconnected from the natural world.

The blame for our current ecological plight he allocates predominantly to alphabetic writing, which destroyed the link between meaning and its basis in our physical participation in the processes and qualities of the natural world.

When linguistic signs become based on arbitrary vocal sounds (in contrast to pictographic symbols), then: “the larger, more-than-human life-world is no longer a part of the semiotic, no longer a necessary part of the system” (1997: 101). Consequently,

our organic attunement to the local earth is thwarted by our ever-increasing intercourse with our own signs […] Human awareness folds in upon itself, and the senses […] become mere adjuncts of an isolate and abstract mind bent on overcoming an organic reality that now seems disturbingly aloof and arbitrary. (1997: 267)

Specifically, it was the ancient Greeks who led us into this sorry state. “Socrates forced his interlocutors to separate themselves, for the first time, from their own words” (1997: 109). Myths and stories formerly provided a union with nature, which Plato’s writings undermined and destroyed. In an oral culture, a term such as “Justice” always has a context: it is expressed in stories as a specific occurrence, as an event that actually took place. Yet “Socrates attempts to induce a reflection upon the quality as it exists in itself” (1997: 111), and so we arrive – via Plato – at the sense of Justice as a thing-in-itself, an abstract entity with an existence somehow independent from the physical world. There is now scope for belief in a realm of ideas separate from nature, and Abram’s complaint is that we have become increasingly lost in this Platonic invention.

Abram’s book has been influential. His evocation of the role of sensation and perception in human cognition is powerful and compelling. He offers a philosophical foundation for shamanistic and ecological magicks. Yet I am troubled by his demonisation of Platonism, and his privileging of the body and nature above soul and intellect.

If, as Abram suggests, the invention of phonetic writing sealed us within a world of human signs, excluding the other in the body, in non-human species and the natural environment, then our conception of soul or spirit is a harmful, autistic delusion.

However, surely by coincidence, the very next book I read after Abram’s makes a similar but opposite argument. In The Primitive Edge of Experience (2004), psychoanalyst Thomas Ogden writes of a basic mode of human experiencing that he names “the autistic-contiguous position”:

Sequences, symmetries, periodicity, skin-to-skin “molding” are all examples of contiguities that are the ingredients out of which the beginnings of rudimentary self-experience arise. (2004: 32)

The elements of this level of experience, which first appears in early infancy, are perceptual sensations of bodily contact, hardness or softness, being rocked, rhythms of appearances and disappearances, all of which: “have nothing to do with the representation of one’s affective states, either idiographically or fully symbolically. The sensory experience is the infant” (2004: 35).

The Primitive Edge of Experience, by Thomas Ogden
The Primitive Edge of Experience, by Thomas Ogden.

Yet whereas Ogden concurs with Abram that the use of language or symbolisation detracts from experience at this autistic-contiguous level, in Ogden it lacks the Edenic quality evoked by Abram’s writing. For Ogden, the autistic-contiguous is “preparatory for the creation of symbols” (2004: 59), and to dwell exclusively within it presents a dilemma of becoming “entrapped in sensory experience” (2004: 78). For Abram, the sensory is primary and language is an autistic detraction. For Ogden, sensation attracts the label of “autism”, yet without any sense of pathology, because this type of non-reflective experience provides an essential “bounded sensory ‘floor’ […] of experience” (2004: 45), “the beginnings of qualities of who one is” (2004: 54).

For Abram, the turning in upon human signs results in alienation from the body. But for Ogden, the turning in upon sensory experience results in a basic sense of self on top of which further maturational developments may accrue. Both writers are exploring similar territory, but from opposing points of view. Placing these authors beside one another, perhaps we start to see how this “autism”, the reflexive turning in upon oneself, is perhaps not by definition detrimental. And perhaps neither is sensation or symbolisation necessarily malign or benign. Increasingly, it may seem that we are labouring beneath a false opposition between the body and spirit.

Abram himself recognises a flaw in his privileging of the sensory and those indigenous means of apprehending the world that are deeply rooted in it. “If our primordial experience is inherently animistic,” he wonders, “how can we ever account for the loss of such animateness from the world around us?” (1997: 90). The argument that x is our primary mode of being, but that x has been forgotten, contains a glaring contradiction that the forgetting of x is evidently more primary than x itself. In that case, perhaps the ecological crisis is not a consequence of the invention of writing so much as the forgetting of nature because our (even more) primary mode of being is, perhaps, forgetfulness. Indeed, for Ogden, the autistic-contiguous is a “position” (2004: 11), a kind of stance or attitude that may be lost, or into which we may fall at any time, if more sophisticated levels of being are placed under stress. Our fundamental mode of being is maybe neither sensory nor cognitive, neither bodily nor spiritual. Perhaps our fundamental mode of being consists in not having a fundamental mode of being.

Enlightenment traditions present themselves as the antidote to habitual forgetfulness. Techniques for realising the absence of a fundamental self rely on cultivating a turning inwards, a kind of intentional autism that contrasts with the reactive type that both Abram and Ogden evoke. Within enlightenment traditions, it does not appear to matter what the objects of that turning inwards might be, whether sensations, thoughts or meritorious actions. The intention is to realise how whatever fills experience is not fundamentally what we are, because it is not invulnerable to forgetting.

Applying this to magickal practice, my view is that magick is wherever we find it. There are body magicks and shamanistic nature magicks. But there are also word and number magicks, and magicks of abstract contemplation. They are not of equal value, but neither is one of them necessarily of greater value than all the rest.


Abram, D. (1997) The Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and Language in a More-Than-Human World. New York: Vintage.

Ogden, T.H. (2004) The Primitive Edge of Experience. London: Karnac.