Magicians are generally those interested in exploring the terrain of the psyche and body rather than rushing toward union with the divine. Experimentation and reflection create an interactive process where the Self becomes a lab from which working hypotheses can be derived and refined. Such reflection can be about our sex life, the food that we eat or what we think about death. Death used to hold no fear for me.
Certainty provided me with a set of blinkers that blocked off the messy realities of a world that didn’t fit my faith. That faith (a Christian one) is now long gone but the tenets of the Nicene Creed are not the only victims. The death of that identity came via a very painful existential crisis that nearly cost me my mind. From the furnace of that testing I came face-to-face with a realisation about myself: I could no longer allow myself the comfort that belief claimed to offer. I was on the hunt for gnosis.
The search that compelled me to seek means for shifting consciousness eventually brought me to the door of Chaos Magic. Its heady melange of anarchic creativity and punk rock pragmatism sought to give the rather stuffy halls of western magic a good spring-clean. Undue reverence was no longer given to a batch of half-baked theosophical dogmas as the new magi sought to grapple with the joys of fuzzy logic and Post-Structuralism.
Generally I feel that such a paradigm shift has been positive, and yet after working with this approach for well over a decade I began to feel troubled. I began to wonder whether its over-referenced hipness and self-conscious flippancy provided answers to what it truly means to live and die as a magician. If I can no longer cling to certainty with regards the Summerland or some mapped out process of rebirth, could Current 23 help me deal with the big questions?
In his excellent “Prime Chaos” Phil Hine contrasts two of the primary paradigms with which the chaos tradition has played: Discordianism and the Cthulhu Mythos. Discordianism (or Liber Nice as Phil calls it) represents the irreverent, playful face of Chaos Magic. Inspired by anarchist Situationism, the spirit of Eris invites us to joyfully embrace the absurdity of both life and death. Our attempts to control and predict are laughed at by the non-linear nature of realities. Now when faced by the loss of those people, things and ideas dearest to us, laughing may not be on the agenda. Yet the holy fool of Discordianism encourages us to half-smile into the face of grief and to hold on to things with an open handed lightness. I would highly recommend the video interviews that Robert Anton Wilson did as his own death approached- one can’t help but be moved by the sense of spaciousness and compassion that are palpable as he struggles with his pain and impending departure. Hail Eris! Hail RAW!
Ia! Ia! Cthulhu Ftagn! The Cthulhu mythos (Liber Nasty!) presents us with unredeemable vision of cosmic horror. In his seminal Liber Koth Stephen Sennitt maps out an eight spoked path working via which the Adept can engage with these dark denizens. Azathoth, Nyarlathotep and their colleagues inhabit a qliphotic realm of dark, really dark and pitch black. To work with “the mythos” means engaging with such hazardous realms and the sense of psychic compression that such adventures bring.
Why do we like this stuff? It’s like a cosmic car crash that we can’t look away from, but does it have significance beyond our fetish for heavy metal aesthetics? For me the world of Lovecraft embodies our sense of horror in response to the Universe’s vast uncertainty. The monster-gods of the mythos provide us with a potent set of shadow archetypes that can be sat with and glanced at side-ways. This is not easy work, but if handled wisely the mythos gives us a vehicle via which we can channel our all too real terror of death and non-existence.
Ecstasy as rehearsal
One of the most positive aspects of Chaos Magic as a style of working has been its emphasis on the Dionysian. Trance states; whether they be those of ecstasy/excitation or inhibition have been one of the primary technologies that it has utilised as a tradition.
Its forefather Austin Osman Spare was critical in rescuing the Magical tradition from a dusty and over-linear style of working. His work stressed the use of the non-linear and the unconscious. The use of sigils, automatic writing/drawing and the death posture all ask us to let go of our attempts to control. The lust for results must be swamped by the dark flow of Kia.
Much has been made in contemporary shamanisms about the role of initiatory death and dismemberment- the Shaman is destroyed by the realm of the Spirits so as to be remade. Such may also be the experience of the Chaos Magician. Whatever remanifestation our selves will take when our physical body conks out; the states of ecstasy sought by the work of magic provide us with a dress rehearsal. The type of belief-shifting that the Chaotic approach employs often leads to a sense of loss, disorientation and jarring weirdness. Too much of this will lead to psychic burn-out, but more judicious application can be both entertaining and informative. This approach, with the potential uncertainty that it creates can feel like a little death for the psyche-arguably good practice for what’s ahead.
So does this leave us stuck in some trendy but ultimately futile spiritual dead-end street (pun intended)? Hopefully not. If we are able to ride the currents of the zeitgeist in such a way as to open up greater freedom and possibility, then Chaos Magic may help us in developing inner poise. This is not the certainty of faith, but a sense of knowing based on practice. Yogis, mystics and sages have spent millennia experimenting with the Self. What can we learn for ourselves about life and death if we follow a similar path? My own journey continues to be an exercise in developing curiosity. If I work with these states of ecstasy and the expansion of Self that they represent, where am I left in facing the ultimate mystery of death? I find myself in a place of openness – sitting with my own uncertainty and fear, but also open to the possibility of a further becoming and remanifestation that even the Vale of death cannot contain.
I think CM asks us to determine experientially not so much what is Universally Real, but what are the Laws that govern our Personal Reality. Now some will attach to “Nothing is True, Everything is Permitted” as a Law. And some will try to see what this might have meant to The Old Man of the Mountain, and see if there is a key to a bigger more useful Law to be found up there.
My approach has largely been the later. I don’t have any use for slogans or quips or pat answers anymore. Over time I have come to a model of reality that works. It allows me the freedom I desire, but works (emphasis on works!) within the Laws that govern my Personal Reality.
I check the borders and test the gates, and periodically pick another lock and the parameters of my life expand again. The Laws seem to change as I do.
I do my best to make like a good Thelemic Buddhist Sorcerer and root out the weeds and water the flowers- and sometimes I have to dig deep into my seed-store when I realize that the dandelions made the finest wine…
Thanks Fireclown, glad you enjoyed it! I think you’re right, the freedom allowed by the chaotic approach doesn’t need to mean a lack of personal meaning or belief, rather it asks us to take responsibility for the evolution of such perspectives and that we hold onto them lightly. I think many of us here like the sound of the “Thelemic Buddhist Sorcerer” 🙂
Good stuff! Thanks for sharing! Just like any psychedelic experience, the key seems to be the ability to orient to different sets of rules ON THE FLY. I wonder if death is the same.