Around this time of year, between Imbolc and the March Equinox, I begin the totes majix process of purification and cleansing, otherwise known as The Spring Cleaning. There is sufficient light to see that the windows of the house need a good wash, and the areas of the garden in need of repair after winter. Within me the spring rises up, my mood lifts and I spontaneously smile when I see the first snowdrops and daffodils emerge.
I’ve written before about the importance, in my view, of locating magic in the everyday and not only in explicitly ceremonial settings. This is the role of magic to ‘intensify the normal‘ as Austin Spare expressed it. Thus, as I potter about the garden, cutting some wood for the fire, sweeping the path, I allow my mind to mull over the projects that are coming up with the spring. I’m co-facilitating a workshop next month with David Luke and Nikki Wyrd in Snowdonia, Wales. This is the second Neuro-Magica retreat, where we use (to quote Uncle Al) ‘the method of science, (for) the aim of religion’. Informed by psychology and ethnography, using technologies derived from various spiritual traditions, we collaboratively create a space designed to generate insights and even peak experiences for our participants. That’s what we do.
Halfway up the stone steps, between the lower terrace and the enclosed grove of the second one, I find myself absent mindedly rotating a root between my finger and thumb. I’d unconsciously picked this up from the floor whilst sweeping, perhaps attracted by its alien gnarled shape. I am playing with this root, my hand above a ceramic planter in which a purple crocus valiantly pushes skywards. I take my attention to the Neuro-Magica project. I let my mind flow into the spaces that we intend to create. Mentally I step back and see how this project looks in terms of the some of the larger stuff that I (and the other two facilitators) are involved with (especially now that the psychedelic express train that is Breaking Convention 2017 is filling up with speakers, artists, performers, films, installations, volunteers and ticket holders). I am aware of how the old root and the new shoot are emblematic of various processes connected with the projects and transformations I’m currently engaged in.
This example is not one of a planned ritual. Rather it is an instance of discovering the magical in the mundane; again of ‘intensifying the normal’. Ritual itself (to use my current favorite description) is ‘a series of inhabited metaphors’. I described it thus recently at a workshop I ran at The Museum of Witchcraft and Magic. ‘What does that mean?’ asked one student, a perfectly good question, so I gave an example, something along the lines of this…
“Today in this workshop we are working within the library of the Museum of Witchcraft and Magic. The library is a complex web of history, words, authors, collectors and many other stories. It is full of knowledge, and of truth, and of lies. For the purposes of today we are going to imagine that the library is an entity, a being, a person, a spirit. We do this because relating to other beings is what our brains are good at (see this article for more on spirits). In a moment we are going to leave the library and go outside for a short time. We will ask Judith as our host, and co-manager of the museum [who was also attending the course] to formally welcome us into the library. As we come back in, we each need to greet the library as though it were a person (perhaps aloud, perhaps mentally). By doing this we are inhabiting (i.e. doing stuff) within a metaphor (i.e. that the library is an intelligent spirit which we are looking to be on good terms with).”
(There’s a full report about this workshop on the Museum blog if you want to know more.)
Sometimes these metaphors are ones we know and create (perhaps in a ritual), sometimes there are ones that we stumble upon (me with the root and the shoot), and others are ones we only see once we have done the work. To provide an example of the latter: I am acting as mentor in magic to a friend in the USA, using a combination of Skype and email communication. This person, acting on the discussions we had, created a devotional ritual to a saint. The ritual was an original composition and, like any art, grew out of the interface between the raw media (in this case text about and images of the saint), and the artist/magician’s creative genius. Having used the ritual for a while my friend began to see things in the rite that hadn’t been obvious when it was first created. (This included some rather lovely links to the iconography of kundalini yoga and Thelemic cosmology.) This isn’t surprising since plenty of artists create their work and only later, sometimes with the help of critics and commentators, become aware of (potentially) deeper levels of interpretation in their creation.
When we do magic we are working with these archetypal forces or perhaps ‘deep structures’ of the ‘unconscious’or, to use that lovely term from Paul Huson, the ‘Deep Mind’. Our praxis is the reflection and articulation of these deep structures of the Deep Mind. This is why human rituals, however elaborate their cultural costume, when undressed, all look pretty much the same.
Another instance of a deep structure can be found in an example I used in my Museum presentation (and, coincidentally that same weekend, also used by Nikki Wyrd in her workshop at the fabulous Glastonbury Occult Conference). There are complex relationships between written and spoken words and sounds. In magic we often use sounds and words to do stuff, to change the universe. Occulture is full of vibrated words of power, hidden names of God, mantras and sacred letterforms. While the languages (spoken and written) may be as different as Mayan, Mandarin or Sumerian (the cultural costume) nevertheless they still share deep structures, such as that demonstrated by Bouba and Kiki.
The bouba/kiki effect is strongly suggestive of the idea that word sounds are non-arbitrary, and that there is a deep relationship between speech sounds and the visual shape of objects. (This effect was first observed by German-American psychologist Wolfgang Köhler in 1929.)
Which shape is bouba and which is kiki? The vast majority of neurotypical people would say that bouba is the rounded shape, whereas kiki is spiky. When we talk about ‘high’ and ‘low’ notes or suggest that bouba is the rounded (soft, welcoming, perhaps feminine etc. etc.) we are articulating the common relationships between the psychic structures of our shared humanity. These deep structures are something magic taps into. Though they can perhaps never be precisely defined (within the conscious mind) through explorations, such as art or magical practice or scientific investigation, we can get a sense of them (we have a sense of ‘what is right’). These deep structures are our common heritage as humans (and indeed probably as mammals). Deep structures may also contain echoes of past patterns; from our families, our species and maybe beyond. To give an example of this consider the brilliantly poetic (and scientifically verifiable) example given by arch-mythographer Joseph Campell: Baby chicks from the moment they hatch know to fall silent and motionless at the sight or even the shadow of a hawk. Campbell observes: ‘Furthermore, even if all the hawks in the world were to vanish, their image would still sleep in the soul of the chick.’
As I pull the rotting leaves from the pond in the garden I am both doing a pragmatic job if I want to provide a useful environment for the amphibians and insects, and, if I pay attention, entering a metaphorical space. Turning such everyday actions into acts of magic is about being sensitive to the poetics pregnant in every moment of existence, and using our ability to notice these opportunities and align them with our desires.
Desire is what makes magic magic. Our wish, our intention, our (True) Will is what drives the magician to seize these moments of power. For me desire is like the concept of motivation in Vajrayāna. It is something that emerges in and through us; desire happens within the network of relationships. Thus we ‘keep pure our highest idea’ (again to paraphrase Crowley). My desire to clean the pond serves as a practice in which I clear out the clogged winter detritus of my own psyche and in doing so conjure a place for animals and plants to flourish in my garden. A win-win set of mutually beneficial outcomes. I get what I want and so does everyone else. I come to recognize my own Buddha nature by striving for my own liberation in a context where my desire becomes part of the larger project for the liberation of all beings.