For the Gnostics, our relationship with our body has not always been an easy one. The problems of pain and impermanence that played such a central role in the development of Gnostic dualism, most likely originated in their experience of the body within the natural world. In previous posts we spent time thinking about how theodicy, or the problem of evil, contributed to the evolution of Gnostic cosmologies. If disease and death demonstrated the imperfection of the demiurge’s realm, then it would seem likely that the strategies of either asceticism or antinomian excess were evidence of a potentially hostile attitude towards the body.
While we may concede that many Gnostics viewed the divine pneumatic spark as being trapped within the material realm, as contemporary magical practitioners exploring what we might learn from them, I believe that it is wise to pay attention to what they did as much as what they may have believed. Often the ‘lived experience’ of what people actually did can help us gain insights into the complex relationship that they had with apparently straightforward ideas.
Dance like the Pleroma’s watching
In the Gnostic scripture “The Acts of John” we have a really interesting description of ritual dance and liturgy that is alleged to have taken place during the last supper:
So he commanded us to make a circle, holding one another’s hands, and he himself stood in the middle…..
I will pipe, dance all of you! Amen….
An eightfold power is singing with us. Amen
The whole universe takes part in the dancing. Amen
He who does not dance, does not know what is being done. Amen.
The Acts of John Section 94-95.
Some scholars believe that this is most likely a ritual text that was part of the style of worship employed by the Johannite community. In seeking to fathom the myth of incarnation, it is hardly surprising that we are met with the possibility of Jesus and the apostles using their bodies to move, both in celebration, and to dissipate the mounting tension of what was to come.
It may seem like a somewhat obvious point to make, but generally as human beings the realisations and ecstasies of the mind and heart bubble over into these bodies we inhabit. Personally I would question the true depth of any revelation that did not impact upon all dimensions of our being.
Even if we chose to limit our attention to phenomena within the Christian tradition, we can consider traditions such as those of the Shakers and the Pentecostals, and the role that movement and dance had as people sought to express a form of gnostic experience that moves through and beyond intellectual insight alone.
As someone exploring the Gnostic material through the less orthodox route of a Chaos Magically inspired form of Witchcraft, I find that dance and improvised movement have been highly beneficial in helping me process what might be going on:
“One of my personal routes to accessing such gnosis has been through the use of dance and shaking states. In seeking to loosen the tensions and defenses that often get located in what Wilhelm Reich described as “body armour”; I often have a sense of a deeper instinctive knowing emerging in and through the body. When I move in response to the music my self-consciousness slowly melts away. This type of “shape-shifting” may well relate to the way in which the body allows us to process aspects of the self that the conscious mind struggles to make sense of. Interesting research is beginning to explore this territory, and it may be the “darker” more instinctive drivers of the early or “reptilian” brain get processed more effectively when we actively engage the body. As I dance I often feel that in my messy embodiment, I am making sense of my early and deepest drives (for more on this see “The Compassionate Mind” by Paul Gilbert and Peter Levine’s work on trauma).” SD, What We Find Ourselves Doing…
For those interested in exploring this territory further I would recommend Bradford Keeney’s book “Shaking Medicine”. Also worth checking out is Alkistis Dimech’s site which provides a brilliant example of a contemporary magician making use of dance and movement.
The very act of ritual speaks to and through our bodies via symbol and movement, set within space and time. By making use of colour, light and sound we engage the senses, and vibrate words through our flesh. Even the most apparently dualistic Gnostics made use of baptisms and the Eucharist as a way to bring God into the body. Rarely do we rely on cognition alone, rather we anchor experience through the sensual. Perhaps part of the answer lies in bringing a greater degree of awareness to what we experience in the body?
The type of alchemical process that I’m seeking to describe at a microcosmic level is similar in many ways to the dynamic interaction that occurs between the Pleroma, Sophia and the demiurge within Gnostic mythology. However much the Gnostic myths might highlight the dilemmas experienced by inhabiting human form, we must also remain mindful to the reality of a sensual ritual praxis that provided a more creative and lateral approach to exploring how the mysteries of the divine might be experienced right here and right now. Often the rich theatre of a ritual and the items on an altar reveal as much about a tradition’s theology as does a ‘scriptural’ text.
Hopefully such reflections will link in nicely with the third part of this practice series which will look at working with the heart within a Gnostic context.