I was recently reading the biography of a pagan teacher on their blog and was interested in the way in which their self-description had shifted over the several years that I’d been interested in what they were up to. While they had initially sought to emphasise their pedigree in the witchcraft tradition they had trained, in recent times they had ceased calling themselves a pagan as a result of exploring types of mysticism that emphasised non-dual forms of awakening. On my most recent visit they seem to have moved yet again to a place where the witch and transcendentalist seem to be on better terms with each other!
Biography and self-identification are fascinating processes. On this blog the three main contributors have tried to pin down a number of descriptors that seek to provide a window into an aspect of who they are. Whatever semiotic “sign” that we choose to adopt, we are trying to communicate some sort of meaning to someone (even if that’s primarily ourselves) at a given moment of time. These attempts at self-definition are magical acts in and of themselves. As we are buffeted by the multiplicity of roles and demands that life places on us, the act of calling forth an aspect and giving it a name requires both self-understanding and will. Whatever the tribal affiliations that they may or may not indicate, their value is unlikely to be permanent especially if you engage in the type of transformational practices that seem to amplify the pre-existing forces of impermanence and entropy.
Julian recently flagged-up a fantastic interview from 1974 between William Burroughs and the Ziggy Stardust era David Bowie. In the interview Bill and Dave provide us with some brilliant insights as to how these adept magician/artists engaged with the idea of the self:
“Burroughs: They try to categorize you. They want to see their picture of you and if they don’t see their picture of you they’re very upset. Writing is seeing how close you can come to make it happen, that’s the object of all art. What else do they think man really wants, a whiskey priest on a mission he doesn’t believe in? I think the most important thing in the world is that the artists should take over this planet because they’re the only ones who can make anything happen. Why should we let these fucking newspaper politicians take over from us?
Bowie: I change my mind a lot. I usually don’t agree with what I say very much. I’m an awful liar.
Burroughs: I am too.
Bowie: I’m not sure whether it is me changing my mind, or whether I lie a lot. It’s somewhere between the two. I don’t exactly lie, I change my mind all the time. People are always throwing things at me that I’ve said and I say that I didn’t mean anything. You can’t stand still on one point for your entire life”
Burroughs and Bowie are on record as having been involved in occult practice and both of them exemplify the type of continual reinvention and conscious image manipulation that one might associate with the spirit of contemporary culture. Both also made extensive use of “cut-ups” as a way of loosening the hold of linearity in relation to art and communication. Like collage, cut-ups seek to use existing material in new ways that often involve the combining and juxtaposition of words and images so as to create new insight and meaning.
In tracking the lineage of cut-ups as an approach, from the surrealism of the Dadaists, Brion Gysin, Burroughs and Genesis P-Orridge, we can begin to see the depth of magical thinking embedded in this technique. As we seek to engage with and manipulate reality, the cut-up not only embodies the desired efficacy of our sorcery, but also the fluid shape-shifters that our arte forces us the magician to become. If our magic has any real depth, then our ego must undergo a similar process of reassembly.
The ego so often gets a bad press in spiritual circles, but often it simply represents our habits and attempts at self-protection as we encounter the pain and challenges associated with the rough and tumble of making sense of life. Such pain by necessity generates defenses and the development of psychic armor. These are not bad in and of themselves, but they can become problematic if we wish to evolve and awaken the deeper more mysterious aspects of Self. If we become over-identified with the armor, then we might be in danger of forgetting about the lithe athlete that lives within!
Magick cuts us up. It often parallels so called mental illness in fracturing the crusty shell of ego so that the light of Self can bleed through the gaps. We need to remain sensitive to the pacing of such work so that we allow the development of new more flexible ways of being without feeling overly exposed. Such work necessitates compassion towards the self as we bow in thanks to the function of the ego in helping us survive and negotiate the competing needs within us. Perhaps never fully abandoned, the ego becomes an effective tool for the awakening Gnostic explorer.
Whilst recently reading Mark Cunningham’s The Hours I came across this fabulous description of the way in which the mysteries of self can interact for the artist. In describing the process of Virginia Woolfe he writes:
“This morning she may penetrate the obfuscation, the clogged pipes to reach the gold. She can feel it inside her, an all but indescribable second self, or a parallel, purer self. If she were religious, she would call it the soul. It is more than the sum of her intellect and her emotions, more than the sum of her experiences, though it runs like veins of brilliant metal through all three. It is the inner faculty that recognizes the animating mysteries of the world because it is made of the same substance, and when she is very fortunate she is able to write directly through that faculty.”
Within the schema of the chaos star the work of ego magic is associated with yellow magick and the warmth of the midsummer sun. As the solstice approaches (at least for those of us north of the equator!) may our magics aid the shedding of old skins that inhibit the potential of what we might become.