Dreadful Magic

Many of us long for the divine and the mysterious, but what is it like to actually gain a glimpse of these things?

In his masterwork The Idea of the Holy Rudolf Otto, valiantly sought to map out those shared human experiences that lay at the heart of religious seeking. For Otto when we view the vastness and mystery of the Universe, we are met with both Dread and Awe. Dread and Awe act as two sides of a coin in which the vastness of time, space and the magnitude of life erode our sense of control and understanding. Just when we think we might be getting it, it’s that “oh shit” moment when we realize that barely have a clue.


Rudolf Otto supporting his planet-sized brain

A couple of years ago I wrote this and for me it captured something of my own encounter with mystery and what Otto describes as “the numinous”:

“As I gaze out at the night sky, I find myself unable to find lasting meaning in any prevailing metaphysical position, be it a theistic one or that of the strict rationalist. The mystery and expansiveness of space seems to empty me of the trite and obvious. My sense of awe seems to both induce a sense of mild panic as I glimpse the limits of my control and understanding, while at the same time beckoning me onward into the depths of the unknown.”


The more time I spend working with the Dread and Awe the more I am struck but the powerful parallels that exist with both existential philosophy and its application within existential psychotherapy.

The origins of both of these movements lie with Søren Kierkegaard and the way in which his own radical reading of Christianity led him to grapple with the uncertainty connected to the experience of existence. As is well documented these ideas were taken on by Jean-Paul Satre who, in being inspired by his reading of Heidegger, gave the lecture in 1945 “Existentialism is a Humanism”. Existentialism as a philosophical school sought to centralize the experience of the individual in the face of a Universe within which the Judeo-Christian God had been declared dead.

In facing a Universal vastness that had no apparent meaning, how were we as humans supposed to find authenticity and a sense of our true essence? What lies at the heart of being beyond the superficial roles and labels that society may want to hand to us? These questions were a major preoccupation for the early Existentialists. Thinkers such as Sartre, De Beauvoir and Camus were relentless in their pursuit of making choices congruent with authentic being (i.e. in “Good Faith”). When faced with absurdity, the existentialists were stark in their assessment that such insights triggered both Dread and an underlying sense of despair.

The impact of the existentialists was profound and they not only spawned weird adventures in art, literature and theatre, but they also inspired radical forms of psychotherapy.

Building upon the insights of existential philosophy, existential psychotherapy sought to explore the way in which these ideas regarding meaning, freedom and impermanence could be explored within the healing context of a therapeutic relationship. Therapists such as Otto Rank (who broke with Freud in the 1920’s), Viktor Frankl and Rollo May were central to the development of an understanding of our shared human experiences that was less focused medical diagnosis.

In contrast to Freud and his focus on pathology, existential psychotherapy tends to view experiences of anxiety, alienation and even depression as part of a normal maturation that most humans will experience in response to the disconnect experienced between our experience of self and the world we inhabit. More contemporary thinker/therapists such as Irvin Yalom believe that psychological dysfunction arises when we try to avoid these givens of life. While current schools of so-called “positive psychology” may view such perspectives as being doom-laden or negativistic, an existential approach maintains that in confronting such realities, the true value of life and consciousness comes into sharper definition.

For me as a Magician seeking to work with ideas of Dread and Awe, the insights of existentialism provide helpful keys to unlocking the process via which my own initiation is deepened. In truly looking at the world’s vastness and impermanence so I create the possibility of seeing with a Zen-like “Shoshin” or beginners mind. In experiencing Dread I recognize the limits of what I can know and yet the sense of awe I encounter also helps me pursue what Viktor Frankl called “The Will to Meaning”.

Magic asks us to see with new eyes and what we see is often not comfortable Magic accelerates and intensifies our experience of dread, but in doing this so the possibility of activating our will becomes both more necessary and thus possible.

“Know Thyself, Create Thyself!”

Steve Dee

Check out Steve’s review of Asexual Erotics on Phil Hine’s blog.

3 thoughts on “Dreadful Magic

  1. Andrew Salkeld says:

    Interesting post. I would say this, which i hope will help a little.

    The seeker becomes confused because he/she does not understand the difference between The Path of Spirit and the Path of Soul. The Path of Spirit, is in its essence, the path of inner discipline/striving through meditation and contemplation (on the mat or in the pew, if you like). It is the path of ‘up and through and out’. It’s here that Oneness and Ecstasy is experienced if you are lucky and one in a million! The Path of the Soul, on the other hand, is the inner and downward path, so to speak. This path connects our spiritual nature with our psyche and the very ‘nature of reality’ and with the real job at hand since birth – of thoroughly experiencing in full consciousness – the world and ourselves – by knowing ourselves and by diligently walking our pilgrim path, and thereby experiencing the joys and despair and striving that encompasses a fully lived life. There are no shortcuts in this path. But through this type of striving comes the perfection of the soul, and also finally the numinous experience you talked about – and the perfection of spirit connects with perfection of soul. True alchemy.
    When you have traveled both paths to fullness of your ability, not only are you freed from all existential fear and anxiety – but ecstasy and the numinous become your friend.
    As teachers our job is to encourage the pilgrim along both paths; but also drag the seeker after enlightenment up off the mat and into the world (or he will miss the big event!) and also to encourage the pilgrim of the soul to look heavenward and to spirit as he carries his burden and puts his shoulder to the wheel of the cart of common interest.

    And as for you, dear teacher, your task is to know, as alchemist, that the alchemist is also being transformed into gold, through use of the philosophers stone. Jesus did not die for us so we could pray to him as the only living deity, and as someone out there – but to show us that we can all do the same as he did, just as the alchemist strives to do – making ourselves part of the experiment (total identification) and sacrificing ourselves to become one with the pain and the ecstasy and the truth – the numinous – the ineffable. And then free from questions, fear or doubt – we quietly dissolve into the background and emerge only as Bodhisattva to guide others as necessary. The Alchemy continues.

    Thank you,
    (Forgive typos – my roof is being replaced above my head as i write! Noisy business.)​

    Andrew Salkeld

    +1 819 459 4420 (Canada)
    +44 (0) 7716 865452 (UK)

    Find me also at:- Journey of the Soul
    website:- http://www.soulsatisfying.net
    email:- soulsownjourney@gmail.com


    • zenelf says:

      Thanks for your reply Andrew-I agree that alchemy relies on our dynamic engagement with tension. Change happens generally through pressure and heat!
      I like your image of a movement both upward and downwards-for me there are moments of numinous awareness and bliss but I am also enough of a gnostic to experience the oscillation between such states and a return into the impermanence of everyday existence. At times this movement is a hassle and at others it is a dance I relish in!

  2. […] Nothing stays still for long and when I thought about this reflection inevitably I began to think about how my work with the Chaos Buddha has evolved. In recent years my own work has become less focused on the down and dirty “results magick” aspect of chaos magic and more on the meaning of deep psychological change and initiation. For me that has involved a deep-dive into Existentialism and how concepts such as emptiness and the Void can be applied in the context of a Left Hand Path type approaches. […]

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