When I was younger, I took a photo in the family backyard. We had a huge yard, all things considered, with lots of trees, and our lot ran back against an undeveloped, wooded lot. When I developed and printed the photo I took—35mm color—I saw a little figure in it. I grabbed a magnifying glass and examined it more closely.
It looked like a little Tolkienish…dwarf. Rather Gimli, in hindsight.
I cannot tell you how annoyed I occasionally am that I lost the negatives and the one print I had years ago.
At the time, I wasn’t sure why this little 2-foot-ish tall “dwarf” or “gnome” or whatever you want to call him (he looked like a guy) was doing in Texas, but that’s a fair question to ask most anyone in Texas. Was he passing through? Was he a “nature spirit”? He looked like he had an axe. Was he a warrior? A woods-person? Ready to defend himself against cats and dogs?
I had no luck seeing this dwarf otherwise. After a point, that property wound up being weird. I suspect the local spirits didn’t appreciate what I and others were up to, or how we were bumbling around, as one does.
Now, my ability to see has varied over the years, often in relation to how much I’m consciously trying. I have often bemoaned how difficult it’s been for me to see what I feel like I should be able to see, or hear, or experience otherwise. However, I will then at some point idly imagine or look, in an off or reflective moment, and then it’s rather vivid and clear. Sometimes, when I try to see, and I have my eyes closed, it’s like I’m trying to look through literally “closed” spiritual eyes.
I remember an exercise via Victor and Cora Anderson:
The following exercise is part of the first step in learning to use etheric vision. Hold your hand in front of your face and pay close attention to its structure. Give the thought to your α spirit that you are going to see with that part of your vehicle. Now close your eyes, and imagine yourself opening your eyes and looking at your hand, while keeping the physical eyes closed. Do not try to tell yourself what to see, just look. Note carefully what you see, or think you see, without worrying about whether you are seeing correctly or not. It is important to keep a pleasant dreamy state during this exercise.
I remember reading this and finding the exercise fruitful to think with and try, and I reflected on how I seemed to often see best when I had my eyes open but wasn’t looking here precisely. I found all this also indicative that the “spirit world” is altogether more “physical”—if differently physical—certainly far more embodied than I had been led to believe. Even the Greek gods consumed ambrosia and could be injured, and though they bled ichor rather than blood, they still bled.
That said, it proved frustrating at times for me to see. Often, when something weird was going on, I could just get down to business and see well enough. But outside of crisis situations, it was harder for me to accomplish.
A sorcerous friend—Mister “Delicious Brian”—had pointed to Ramsey Dukes’ How to See Fairies as having helped him develop certain core tech relating to his practice, and I got the Kindle edition and began reading. Dukes spends a fair amount of time in the book writing to a general, newbie crowd who may need some gentle paradigmatic massaging in regards to magic—as well as about what counts as “real” or not—but his “Great Arcanum” about seeing spirits was worth the price of the book:
What am I truly trying to see?
In other words: “If I could see the spirit, what ought it to look like?”
When I gazed at my favourite hawthorn tree that night, and I asked myself that question, it came to me immediately…
That is, it’s a matter of engaging one’s imaginal faculties, but in a receptive state. I actually tried using this on myself at first, trying to see my “aura.” And that proved rather powerful and even liberating. The trick, of course, is not to determine what you’re seeing, and to be open to perceive in an imaginal manner. But I had one of the more intense “energetic” experiences I’ve had lately doing so.
I also did this while out walking the other day, and I would look at other folks I passed. I quickly realized that I was seeing particular shapes, densities, sizes, and colors, but I also realized that I had no idea what different colors meant, if indeed they mean anything more than what green means in a leaf or blue means in the sky. I haven’t belabored that, though. Part of the point is to learn my own “language” in this regard, and go from there.
But on this same walk, walking through a woody, older residential area, I realized I was seeing figures like the “dwarf” or “gnome” I’d seen years before in the photograph. Some were roving about. Others I had the sense they were “tending” or “preparing” for spring. Indeed, I had rather the sense that they were tending what was, in a way, a massive garden (which makes me ponder Eduardo Kohn’s descriptions in How Forests Think of what the forest looked like from the perspective of the spirit-masters.) The trees seemed like hominins, humans, near-humans, and such—
And as I paused at a nearby park to sit, reflect, and look—several things came to mind.
Firstly, I was struck by how, ahem, Paracelsian much of what I was seeing was. “Gnomes.” “Sylphs” in the air. And so on. It was not exclusively Paracelsian, but it occurred to me that that’s how I was seeing much of what I was looking at. I can wonder how much I’m projecting personhood via the humanoid form onto the world, and I can wonder how much that’s necessarily a feature for how human minds are going to wind up personing things, given how much facial and pattern recognition (or pareidolia, let alone apophenia) seem hard-wired. I’ve also seen wyrms, serpents, and more, so it’s not exclusively the hominin I’m seeing, but I found that—weird.
That said, it’s only weird to me because of how the “elementals” have been framed, and often framed as not actually persons but as mechanical contrivances of nature and the spiritual. (And I’ve read Pope’s The Rape of the Lock enough to have the Norton Anthology of English Literature’s canned take on Paracelsian elementalism appear like a textual earworm that always pings my general disdain and annoyance with elementalism.)
Secondly, I realized that I’ve already been doing this off and on, haphazardly but kinda consistently, for quite some time. I first met the Devil in a daydream and idle thought, What would the Devil look like to me?
Thirdly, I recognized that they responded to being noticed. Now, fairy folklore has instances where this turns out poorly for unwary humans. There’s the midwife who got some fairy ointment in her eye and could see the fae through that eye, until she let the secret out, and the fae blinded her in that eye. But there’s also something to be said that, when you can notice the Neighbors, they can probably more easily notice you—but who and what do they notice?
I mean, I was sitting with and seeing the Devil, but I was also seeing myself, and thusly also showing forth more as myself. And as Sarah Anne Lawless has observed, how you appear to the spirits matters.
Since this initial realization, which brought 20-something years of visionary Stuff into better relief while helping me find the shape of seeing in my mind, I was sitting and meditating one morning before work when one ally come up from behind me, to my right, and whispering to me, she asked, “Why don’t you do that with hearing? With touch? With all of it? And more.”
And indeed, why not?
There is also something else I want to think with here, and it’s how I move through the world with this awareness and how, in imagining myself, I also find myself feeling like I’m moving through myself.
I will find myself, in looking at myself, beginning to breathe far more deeply and sustainedly, and as I do so, my vision and other senses often grow clearer, more vivid. Although I could attribute this in part to increased oxygenation, I can’t ignore the long-attested and even conserved association of spirit and breath.
Indeed, I realized the other day (I have many realizations) that I have often been told that the word spirit originally referred to the breath, to breathing, and I have often seen the references to “spirits of the airs,” but for me, this linguistic trivia has remained trivial. That is, this association of spirit and breath remains primarily a linguistic association. However, as I reflected on airs, winds, spirits, movement, and more, it occurred to me that breath is spirit, spirit is breath, at least for many ancient cultures for whom bad airs were evil spirits and sources of disease simultaneously.
And in increasing the depth and frequency of breathing, I am very much trying to increase my throughput of, well, my spirit and everything that goes with that, including spiritual perceptions and my spiritual environment. Of course, I note that I can often work well enough when I’m not over-determining or over-thinking what I’m doing, and the breathing seems to provide a way to boost the “signal,” so to speak.
And I pondered how on my walk, there was something significant in the act of moving briskly, breathing deeply, imagining-seeing myself as myself moving amidst an environment, a neighborhood that was simultaneously older and poorer residential but also an enchanted neighborhood with “gnomes” and tree spirits. Hell, I went by a big box store later that same night, and I had the corporate enchantment version of the experience. But I can be my “image,” my “etheric body” (to borrow the Anderson’s usage), and also the larger, well, sense that sees myself, imagines myself, sees the environment–that larger breath and movement through my bodies and through my environment and among the spirits, fae, jinn, dragons, and more about me.
The deep breathing is then a mechanism to help work around whatever’s blocking me in my body and conscious mind. The imaginal-perception—especially turning that gaze on myself—helps me do something similar. I have wondered whether “energy work” and related practices entail more embedding our imaginal/spiritual selves more sustainably and persistently into entanglement and alignment with our physical bodies than trying to turn ourselves into batteries of energy.
A signal-to-noise analogy is probably also helpful, especially as our bodies exist in environments in which they deform in response to stress and trauma and outright manipulation. I also cannot help but consider how my own “sense of self” has often felt decohered, incoherent, in the face of environment, illness, mass media, others projecting their feelings onto me, and so on. In that sense, I suspect that our ability to perceive, to imagine ourselves as spirits is one of our key tasks in engaging with the broader, enchanted landscape. And at the same time, I suspect we need to be able to do so while also entangling that spiritual self into our embodied, physical-here experience.
Featured Image: 705847 | Pixabay
 Victor H. Anderson, Etheric Anatomy: The Three Selves and Astral Travel (Albany, CA: Acorn Guild Press, 2004), 57-8. Anderson Feri has a three soul/body model for spiritual “anatomy,” and the α spirit refers to one of these souls.
 Ramsey Dukes, How to See Fairies: Discover your Psychic Powers in Six Weeks, Kindle edition (London: Aeon Books, 2011), 137.
 It’s not that I don’t necessarily think that “elements” aren’t a thing, and many folks have used elementalism for practical results. It’s in part that I can’t fit “elementalism” as it’s usually described into a metaphysic that can sustain scrutiny. The idea of the four elements being fundamental to reality is Aristotelian bullshit to me: I will concede they are components of reality, but so are plasma, nuclear reactions, consciousness, and coffee.