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  • Luis Cayetano

The role of consciousness in the UFO mythos

Updated: Jul 2, 2023

This article first appeared on this website, was then modified and expanded on the The Invisible Night School's website, and has been slightly altered again here.

Much of what underlies belief in space visitors is a dissatisfaction with the standard categories of material science and a desire to extract from it, along with the experiences had by many people, a spiritualist meaning that links us (both as individuals and as a species) to the wider cosmos. While many believers see things in broadly materialist terms and are concerned with the mechanics of interstellar space travel, the possibility of reverse-engineering putative alien technology, the likelihood of the humanoid shape as a configuration of alien biology, and sensor confirmation of UFOs from Navy fighter jets, it is nevertheless true that much of the focus in ufology revolves around the question of consciousness and our connection to the universe. This stream of thought has a long pedigree going back to the Contactee Movement (a rather arbitrary term but one that serves as a useful delineator for a period between Kenneth Arnold’s 1947 sighting through the late 1970s, during which many people reported contact with friendly “Space Brothers”) but has more recently being concretized (and, in the view of the current author, taken to truly absurd lengths) in such works as Making Contact (2021; edited by Alan Steinfeld) in which something close to a total rejection of rationalism and materialism is not only evident but openly extolled.

The question of consciousness has long vexed philosophers and scientists. There is no universally agreed-upon definition of the term, and it can denote anything from subjective self-awareness, qualia, sentience, a sense of self and personhood, and knowledge. Why the UFO genre has become so infused with the question of consciousness and its various meanings is a fascinating and important sociological and cultural question worthy of serious study.

Here are some of the ways in which the issue of consciousness, however defined, manifests itself in UFO/alien stories and accounts:

  • UFOs are purported to be capable of doing things that make a purely “nuts-and-bolts” approach untenable, and in which a spiritual or “immaterial” element is seen to be necessary. Like apparitions, UFOs can disappear or “materialize;” they can engage in aerial maneuvers that are deemed impossible for physical craft; they can merge or split apart; and/or they can change shape. While some interpretations see these aspects as support for the interdimensional hypothesis and the related control system hypothesis (more on this below), some think that the craft are spiritual/immaterial capsules or manifestations or even spiritual, conscious beings in and of themselves. For example, “fallen angels” regularly make the rounds in YouTube comment sections speculating, for example, about the “true” nature of Bob Lazar’s “sport model”. It is sometimes difficult to clearly delineate what believers think counts as immaterial/spiritual or interdimensional, since in some quarters of ufology consciousness itself is thought to literally be another dimension.

  • Consciousness is imagined as a “field” permeating the universe. Such musings date at least as far back as Helena Blavatsky’s writings, such as this offering from The Secret Doctrine (1888):

Parabrahm (the One Reality, the Absolute) is the field of Absolute Consciousness, i.e., that Essence which is out of all relation to conditioned existence […] once we pass in thought from this (to us) Absolute Negation, duality supervenes in the contrast of Spirit (or consciousness) and Matter, Subject and Object.

  • The UFOs often mimic the behavior or instructions of the observers, or even anticipate them. A famous example is that involving Father William Booth Gill and his mission in Papua New Guinea in 1959 (a case that has been ably and hauntingly conveyed by religion scholar David J. Halperin in his excellent book Intimate Alien - The Hidden Story of the UFO). David Fravor, a former fighter pilot and the most well-known personality involved in the US Navy “Nimitz encounters,” relates how the “Tic Tac” seemed to anticipate his moves.

  • Long-time ufologists Jacques Vallee posits that UFOs present us with symbols that rearrange our conceptual categories of the world and allow us to transcend those categories tied to logical and rational (and, in his view, constricting) systems of thought in order to get to a higher truth or logic (a “metalogic,” which he uses in the sense of a metalanguage). By linking up with the “metalogic” and “latent meaning” of the UFO, we are better able to appreciate our place in the cosmos. Vallee also suggests that this metalogic operates as part of a “control system,” in which interdimensional intelligences spur the progress of human consciousness and social evolution by presenting it with images and motifs that resonate with the concerns of the age (for example, space aliens in the current age of space travel) and perhaps compel us to engage in socially transformative action. The UFOs are imagined to be operated in such a way as to provoke within us a “Wow!” response that will prompt us, as individual experiencers, to begin life-long quests for answers to cosmic and existential problems that will, in turn, help usher in a paradigm shift in our conceptions of and relations to the universe and each other. This theme is developed by Grant Cameron in his chapter “UFO Disclosure and the Theory of Wow” in Making Contact.

  • Quantum mechanics is regularly invoked in a cavalier and dubious fashion to promote the idea that consciousness is “non-local”, and that the universe is not temporal but “relational” (another view espoused by Vallee, who hails from an information science/cybernetics background and also has leanings towards Rosicrucianism and astrology) in which information and meaning are connected across what we normally experience as discrete spatial and temporal intervals. These musings are rather similar to those of the British formerly far-right extremist David Myatt, who espoused the view that humans (at least those he saw as being suitably racially endowed) can tap into a Platonic realm in which time and space don’t exist and use their own bodies as “nexions” to undertake supernatural feats. By eschewing our standard notions of temporal causality and embracing the relational universe (or nexion), we may, according to these authors, better understand what the UFOs “mean” and decipher their behavior. According to Myatt, we might also be able to power interstellar spaceships using willpower as a form of Faustian magic (a hope that he saw as enabling the Aryan race’s glorious future colonization of the universe and its evolution into superbeings).

  • Also linked to quantum mysticism is the currently fashionable New Age woo about “vibrational frequencies,” “self-actualization,” “5-D consciousness” and the like. These notions have a long pedigree going back to the Contactees, many of whom were also heavily invested in New Age ideas in the Californian subculture. The easy traction that these tropes garner in our society may well speak to a pattern of pathological narcissism and indifference to the veracity of scientific claims (N.B.: I do not wish to denigrate anyone’s experiences or to suggest that they automatically derive from narcissism, only that narcissism seems, to me, to be an important factor in many cases), which also makes it unsurprising that many New Age types go in heavily for anti-vax and fake-news claims, a worrying trend that Jules Evans has detailed in his brilliant series on spiritual eugenics (importantly, Evans is a practitioner of Western spiritualism but has taken it upon himself to highlight and call out the more disturbing and toxic currents within this tradition). The very same hyper-atomized society that we inhabit produces narcissistic tendencies and extreme alienation that we then seek to resolve through narratives about cosmic connectedness, which itself often possesses the germ of narcissism (for instance, notions of being adepts of super-intelligences or of being “chosen” by extraterrestrials (e.g., Starseeds)). Bryan Sentes of the Skunkworks blog has made the insightful remark that, ironically, the Enlightenment may be partly to blame for these tendencies, emphasizing as it did the need for individual thinking and a natural distrust of authority (it is worth noting that some streams within the Enlightenment were distrustful of democracy, perhaps especially those linked to and patronized by the “Enlightened Despots” of the age). Of course, we’ve seen how that sentiment can go wrong when taken to an extreme and become an overcorrection and unthinking reflex, with Trumper anti-vaxxers rejecting all medical scientific knowledge pertaining to COVID because it hails from a distrusted authority in the form of the scientific community. Self-aggrandizing notions of being an adept or an initiate of higher intelligences are the ineluctable outcome of the dichotomy and tension between hyper-atomization and the need to affirm individual agency in a world of information overload and “soulless” capitalist consumerism. Elitist and eugenics-promoting strains run deep in New Age practice. The “Starseeds” see themselves as specially attuned beings who can guide humanity – or at least themselves – to a new, more enlightened age.

  • UFO and alien encounters are associated with altered states of consciousness, with witnesses/contactees/abductees/experiencers regularly reporting loss of bodily control, missing time, a transference of information and/or dialogue between themselves and the ufonauts via telepathy, deep feelings of euphoria (or terror), a sense of intimate connectedness to existence (and sometimes with the ufonauts themselves, in which the thoughts and minds of the participants meld seamlessly together and reveal themselves as being parts of a unity), a linking of past, present and future, and a sense of ascending and descending through vistas of space, sometimes simultaneously (for example, a sensation of descending into a deep cavernous darkness while also ascending into outer space). Many reported experiences are highly reminiscent of, or are outright concrete instantiations of, hypnagogic and hypnopompic hallucinations. Whitley Strieber, who became perhaps the most famous purveyor of consciousness-related narratives about otherworldly beings after the publication of his smash-hit Communion (1987), himself alludes to the dream-like quality of his encounters with the “Others” (who are not necessarily extraterrestrials in his telling, but may be something even more alien than alien), and skeptical observers have long drawn attention to the close fit that his experiences bear to the aforementioned types of hallucinations.

  • “Channelers” have long played a role in the UFO mythos, including among the Contactees (see A” is for Adamski – The Golden Age of the UFO Contactees (2018) by Adam Gorightly and Greg Bishop for numerous examples), with many people claiming to be able to channel the minds of extraterrestrials or to even be the self-same extraterrestrials, at least during a séance. Here is such an event captured in the 1980 documentary UFO Syndrome, with a gentleman named Brian Scott channeling an alien he calls “Voltar.”

Channeling as a ufological item is a continuation of its presence in cosmically-themed esoteric practices such as Theosophy, which alluded to Ascended Masters concentrating their consciousness through the portal of Venus* and John Ballou Newbrough’s Oaspe, A New Bible, in the Words of Jehovih and His Angel Ambassadors (1882) (this obscure work, importantly, was popularized by Ray Palmer in the 1950s, and detailed a galactic hierarchy in which Jesus traversed the cosmos in an ethereal ship). Brad and Francie Steiger, who have for decades advocated a consciousness-based, spiritualist, and interdimensional take on UFOs, and have written books on the topic, as well as appearing in a number of TV specials, have also been proponents of the channeling aspect as a source of communication with the ETs. Here are the Steigers expositing every UFO hypothesis under the sun in a 1982 TV special.

  • Similarly, the CE5 narrative pushed by Disclosure activist Steven Greer, in which one can communicate with ETs through meditation, preferably in the desert (he assures us that “disclosure has already happened,” by the way). The type of information one can glean from the ETs does not seem to be of an eminently scientifically verifiable sort, and is instead the usual stock of “aliens want us to love each other” tropes that are ultimately no different to those emanating from the Contactees and their Space Brother guides.

  • The ufonauts are imagined to be, or to have the ability of transmogrifying into, incorporeal entities able to pass through walls or engage in similar ghost-like behavior, and sometimes harbor overtly benign intentions whilst other times having more intrusive or inscrutable ones. They can traverse, whether “naturally” (even though they are in effect described as being supernatural) or through technological means the material world and the “subtle realm,” as John Mack termed it, or something in between, taking us (by which is meant, taking our consciousness) with them.

  • The ufonauts seem to need us for something, perhaps to “complete” themselves by engaging in the emotions and joys that we as humans are capable of feeling, while also imparting some hidden knowledge or way of seeing to us. They are perhaps trying to recover something that they have lost, while also warning us about our own fate if we continue on a foolish and destructive path. These themes feature prominently in Whitley Strieber’s writings.

  • The ufonauts are often described as bringing guidance and a model for a new way of life that is not ecocidal. This awakening of a cosmic evolutionary trajectory will connect us with creation, the Source, God, etc., and we will have achieved cosmic brotherhood once we “awaken” and reach this new level of consciousness. As Vallee warned in Messengers of Deception (1979), however, there were some worrying tendencies in some of these narratives, namely that the Space Brothers were often imagined to be racially homogenous and ruled by a totalitarian elite promising humanity utopian bliss. It seems that many people today, given the vicissitudes of democracy and its seeming aimlessness, wish to anchor themselves to something more “organic,” even at the loss of liberal institutions and the rule of law (ironically, Vallee has continued to push his own Forteana well past its welcome).

  • Among many in the New Age crowd, evolution is seen as a teleological unfolding of progress, which is something like the term’s original meaning. (Incidentally. Charles Darwin was loathe to use ‘evolution’ in The Origin of Species and preferred the term ‘transmutation’ in order to eschew any teleological connotations in his own theory of evolution by natural selection, though of course the usage of “transmutation” can carry teleological baggage if it is packaged with alchemical and magical claims) and has itself been turned into a religion in some quarters. Hot on the heels of Darwin’s revolutionary insights, some saw – and some continue to see – evolution as an opportunity for humanity to consciously imprint itself into the cosmic story and to achieve greatness among the stars, elevating its own intellectual and spiritual quality in this great forging process. Here, again, we can also note the dangers of eugenics ideas, with some groups of people being seen as “worthy” of participation in the grand evolutionary game, while others are to be left by the wayside of history. David Myatt’s fascist cosmic imperium comes to mind as one of the more grotesque and concentrated manifestations of such impulses.

The 1957 Giant Rock Interplanetary Spacecraft Convention. This event ran from 1954 to 1977 and brought together many of the Contactees and members of the public interested in the UFO phenomenon. Image credit: Ralph Crane for Life magazine.

  • The Contactee movement became increasingly interwoven with psychedelics and altered states of consciousness into the 1960s and 70s, and this trend, as well as the message of the Contactees itself (peace, universal brotherhood and cosmic connectedness) was arguably a premonition of the hippie counterculture in that and other regards, aiming as it did to get away from the standard mores and strictures of middle America in order to, well, expand consciousness. Much of the talk one hears among New Age proponents about “tuning” into “vibrational frequencies” originates from this period, and overlaps with the desire to reach blissful states of communion with the aliens, who were seen (felt?) to be contacted on an expanded universal “spectrum” that could be “tuned” into, much as one tunes the frequency of a radio. Contactees such as Bernard Copley wrote about hallucinogenic drugs and the link to ESP (extra-sensory perception. Note also that telepathy with the aliens was a major running theme all throughout the Contactee movement and was claimed by many to be the standard means through which communication with the space beings was achieved). The rock and roll music scene, including Pink Floyd, also tapped into this counterculture, expressing a fascination with flying saucers and the possible connections to drugs. UFO theorists such as John Keel (with his “Superspectrum” hypothesis) would also draw the link, as would famous DMT psychonauts like Terence McKenna. The pineal gland as the “third eye” or gateway to the subtle realm was invoked. This trope has a long pedigree and continues to this day (in a more sinister context, esoteric neo-Nazis have also spoken of a third eye that allows travel into an immaterial/astral/spiritual realm, albeit only if one is racially attuned or wants to transcend one’s corruption from the kali yuga).

  • A version of panpsychism is sometimes evoked in UFO accounts, with all of existence being conscious and our minds seen as small pieces of a much larger universal Mind. This is a theme explored in the aforementioned Making Contact. One can imagine (and many experiencers believe they have partaken in) tapping into this mind to access a hidden library of knowledge, instantly gaining wisdom and esoteric truth. This too was a theme in the writings of Blavatsky (and continues today in the garb of quantum mechanics) but is also seen in stories such as those related by CIA and Army psychic spies, reputed to be capable not only of spying on Soviet nuclear installations but to catch glimpses of an ancient Martian civilization. This latter vision by Joseph McMoneagle has been bizarrely latched onto by the co-founder of the alt-right, Jason Reza Jorjani, to argue that there was a time-traveling secret civilization that set up shop on Mars by traveling back in time hundreds of millions of years ago, only to have to ultimately evacuate back to Earth during the Cambrian period due to a nuclear cataclysm on the Red Planet, later acting as overlords to various terrestrial civilizations such as the Inca. While invoking the Nordic blondes trope (McMoneagle reported Caucasian people living on Mars who intuitively seemed to him to have come from our future despite living millions of centuries ago), and while his musings do carry a flavor of 1990s neo-Nazi yarns about defeated Third Reich officers traveling back in time after WW2 to found the ancient civilization of Sumer (and therefore gifting humanity with its first civilization in a Dark-style time loop), to Jorjani’s credit he does at least describe the Nordic overlords as tyrannical and an impediment to human progress (apparently, these cosmic tyrants still rule over us), and he has also disowned the alt-right, at least nominally (though his ideas have a disturbing Faustian expansionism about them – shades of Myatt there, perhaps – and are drenched with all manner of paranormalism and Forteana in a heady mix that in this post-truth era of “alternative facts” and fake news are not exactly what we as a society really need right now, his aspirations to creating a new sacred mythology to help achieve a “Promethean” future notwithstanding).

  • Experiencers often report heightened levels of consciousness, deeper understanding of the world, and psychic/telekinetic abilities after returning from their time on board an alien craft and/or being in contact with the ufonauts. This has been taken up by promoters of the Skinwalker saga, with their talk of a “hitchhiker effect” (in which various paranormal happenings “follow” the experiencer long after they are geographically well clear of the ranch itself), but it was already a theme decades ago in the writings of Vallee, who has invoked Uri Geller as an example of a genuine experiencer bestowed with extraordinary abilities after he supposedly encountered an otherworldly presence.

  • Carl Jung is often evoked in ufological discussions, not least because he himself wrote an important tract on flying saucers, titled Flying Saucers: A Modern Myth of Things Seen in the Sky (1959). He espoused the view that flying saucers evoke the archetype of the mandala, symbolizing in its circular form the need and yearning for unity (the Cold War context in which he expressed his views spoke to a psychological need to avoid nuclear obliteration. Alien visitation-themed films from the period in which he wrote also invoked the dangers of nuclear warfare). One can also apply (though how empirically profitable doing so is still an open question) a Jungian analysis, as the scholar of Jewish Kabbalah David J. Halperin does in his fascinating book Intimate Alien – The Hidden Story of the UFO (2020), to attempt to decipher the meaning of the Belgian wave, Strieber’s pantheon of creatures (including the Greys), stories of Lemuria and the Hollow Earth, the John Lennon & May Pang UFO encounter, and the Betty & Barney Hill case, among many others.

  • Esoteric fascist currents often invoke the “Black Sun” (a motif with a history that long predates fascism and its nasty connotations by centuries, if not millenia, but that has been eagerly co-opted by fascists, especially those of a mystical or esoteric bent) or other cosmic energetic emanations that call out to the Aryan “race” to fulfill its historic “mission” (that is, the subjugation or destruction of all other “races” in a Race War and an end to what they see as the current Jewish-dominated kali yuga by replacing it, with an alchemical “click,” the next turn of the cosmic cycle, the satya yuga or Golden Age). Miguel Serrano, the Chilean esoteric Hitlerist and practitioner of kundalini yoga, was an adherent of UFOs, which he saw as being powered by a “metaphysical” energy source. He also claimed that it was possible, through an act of sheer will, of turning oneself into a flying saucer (Hitler, according to him, had undertaken this very feat and thus was able to pass into another dimension that was more real than reality itself – one has to understand such things at an intuitive level to “get” what Serrano is on about and to affirm one’s Aryan blood – with the Axis defeat in WW2 transmuted into a victory on the esoteric rather than exoteric, material plane). Importantly, Serrano also invoked Jung, though to say that he took the latter’s archetypes too far would be a massive understatement. For Serrano (who struck up a friendship with the Swiss psychoanalyst, though one that ultimately didn’t last, not least because Jung was no Nazi), Jung had merely “psychologized” the literal supernatural race memory of pagan gods in his essay Wotan (1936). Returning to flying saucers, I note how ironic it is that its circular form can come to encapsulate the yearning for unity, while also acting for some as a viral image of a deranged racial supremacism.

  • Bryan Sentes advances the notion that UFOs represent a collective dream – though not in the Jungian mold – of the so-called advanced societies, who project their technophilia into the UFO by seeing it as a vehicle implicitly embedded with the solutions to our civilization’s woes via technological/technocratic means (witness all the talk in the UFO circuit about “free energy,” for example, and how reverse-engineering the flying saucers’ power plants would “change everything”). We also find similar technophilic proclivities emanating from the Martian-Space-Nietzschean fantasies of Elon Musk, Peter Thiel and other “tech-bros.”

  • In her book American Cosmic (2019), professor of religious studies Diana Pasulka discusses (though does not outright endorse) the idea that certain highly-innovative people throughout history, including important figures involved in the American and Soviet space programs, have been in communication with other-worldly presences. Proponents of this view speculate that the true creative spark of genius comes about, after stewing on a difficult problem, by allowing these intelligences to just sort of come to you and let them conjure the magical eureka moment in your mind. The solution to the pertinent problem only seems like a spontaneous epiphany but is in reality a gift bestowed on these geniuses (adepts?) by the mysterious denizens of another dimension, universe or whatever the case may be. Ironically, these people are tacitly admitting that they do not have privileged access to their own consciousness, and that processes beneath the level of “conscious awareness” are doing the legwork of creativity – which means that the brain might as well be the culprit. Henry V, in the Shakespearean play of the same name, decreed that “God fought for us,” chivalrously declining to attribute the spectacular victory at Agincourt to the ingenuity and preparedness of himself or his fighting men. One senses a whiff of this among people who attribute their own creativity to higher or unseen esoteric powers, perhaps as a means to grovel to these entities to ensure the continued flow of intellectual bounty. This might seem to have an air of humility to it, until it’s suggested that these people consider themselves to have been chosen or to be specially attuned to receiving the alien signal. Notably, notions of being “attuned” are sometimes linked to genetic predisposition, a theme alluded to by Gary Nolan and John Ramirez, and is also implicit in stories about human-alien hybrids (themselves arguably subsumed versions of Biblical angel-human mating fables). The aforementioned Starseeds are another variant of these tropes, though by most accounts these people do not seem to be much of a cut above the rest of humanity.

  • The utilization of hypnotic regression by UFO and alien abduction researchers. This methodology is, of course, replete with problems that have been highlighted in endless expositions by skeptics and mental health professionals (often to no avail against the wishes of ufologists hell-bent on pushing the narrative that bona fide alien abductions are occurring) and is correctly seen as a severe ethical breach (notoriously, some investigators do not even possess a medical license of any type, which in itself calls into question the objectivity of their enterprise).

UFOs are indeed centrally about consciousness, but not, in my view, for the same reasons that Literalists, as we might call them, would have it. There is, more likely, a Jungian-esque or at least subconscious dynamic involved in many cases, in which the UFO encapsulates various meanings that erupt from the subconscious and find articulation in the visual and other modalities of alien spacecraft and contactee or abduction experiences. The symbols and themes therein relate to issues ranging from death (as Halperin terms it, the “ultimate alien”), ecocide and planetary extinction, the bioinformatics and computer revolutions, nuclear war, personal and social alienation, emotional trauma, sexuality, and, indeed, the very natures of consciousness and the subconscious. Of course, the more exotic candidate explanations invoking ETs and interdimensional psychic fellow travelers are themselves worthy items for further exploration within a psychosocial paradigm, and should not be dismissed as mere items of silliness (some of them – such as the notion that alien abduction experiences must necessarily be pointing to literal aliens literally abducting people, a view espoused by the likes of the late Budd Hopkins and the still extant David Jacobs – are outright dangerous and for that very reason alone merit further study precisely so their harmful effects can be nipped in the bud - Budd? - with professional clinical advice emanating from people with medical qualifications rather than a UFO agenda).

The role of fiction also deserves a mention. While the underlying urges and drives that motivate the UFO topic are very much terrestrial, they can be imbued with elements derived from science fiction and fantasy (though these elements can themselves be reflections of the terrestrial anxieties of the original authors of those works). Stress, hallucination, misidentifications, confabulation and embellishment, cult brainwashing, the suggestibility of the mind, pareidolia, neurobiology, and psychosocial processes round out the rest of the field and make literal ETs superfluous.

There is a great irony at the core of all this: namely, that many of the UFO believers implore “open mindedness” and eagerly remind us that consciousness has not been resolved by science, while implying that they themselves somehow know enough about consciousness to say that the aforementioned psychological, social and neurobiological processes are insufficient in principle to account for their own experiences. This of course does not mean that consciousness must of necessity be explainable only through recourse to processes in the brain (and body, in the mold of Antonio Damasio’s model) – that is a question that must be resolved empirically – only that we need not credit the particular explanations offered by experiencers even if we accept that they have indeed had experiences, whatever said experiences may ultimately entail. It is also possible that something like panpsychism turns out to be a correct description of the world and that a Daniel Dennett-style “fame in the brain” or Stanislas Dehaene-style “global neuronal workspace” functional and computational model turns out to be wrong, while the ET and New Age woo explanations of some experiencers is also incorrect despite their refrain of “I know what I saw!”

When it comes to the question of consciousness, our attitude should always be “Keep investigating!”, for as over a century of scientific inquiry into human cognition has shown, the mind has more than enough competence at bamboozling itself. Death may be the ultimate alien, but the human mind is surely the ultimate trickster.

*While allusions to Venus originally couched it in spiritualist terms wherein beings could exist at different “levels” of reality, ultimately consummating the purpose of their existence by migrating to the Platonic world of pure spirit and consciousness, subsequent developments – or transmutations, to use a more properly alchemical term – of Theosophy spoke of Venusians as something closer to flesh-and-blood extraterrestrials, and many of the Contactees, including George Adamski, were themselves strongly influenced by Theosophy.

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