On Making Offerings

I’ve been working on some longer pieces of writing recently (an essay on Eleusis for a forthcoming collection, and others that will form part of a new book The Fool & The Mirror that I’m planning to release later this year).

This means I’ve got less time for writing on this blog, at least the moment, so I’m planning to share various musings and later practices via my Youtube channel Deep Magic (please like, share, subscribe and all that).


Echoes of devotion at St.Credan’s Well, Sancreed.

Here are a few thoughts on the practice of leaving offerings. These reflections were prompted by the image on this post of a tree hung with prayer ribbons (and some of the responses to this image).

I mention in this video the term ‘clooties’, have a look at the Wikipedia entry for more details. There’s also Wiki information on Madron Well in Cornwall. For examples of trees hung with ribbon style offerings outside of ‘Celtic’ cultural settings one might look to North AmericaChinaThailand (or pretty much anywhere…). Finally a lovely article with multiple examples, including images of St.Nectan’s Glen and one of my favorite sites sacred sites Sancreed in Cornwall.

As the light grows in the northern hemisphere of our planet, so we come out of our homes and more and more into the landscape. May we find respectful and responsible ways to enjoy the special places we inhabit, and take joy in our recognition of the sacredness of this earth.



Julian Vayne

The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Magician

As a rule I generally find polarities quite difficult. I’ve spent much time on the blog wondering about where the boundaries between apparent opposites lie. Whether masculine/feminine, gay/straight or magician/mystic, I keep trying to explore those queered places inspired by my devotion to those fluid dynamics embodied by that strange god Baphomet.

Another binary that interests me, is that of Introvert and Extrovert. Somewhat predictably I take some comfort in the idea of an ambivert who is able to incorporate aspects of both poles, but I am also aware of the danger of seeking a premature synthesis that doesn’t properly value my introvert self. While people may debate what we mean by the term introvert, for me it connects to my need for space, quiet and relative solitude as a means of topping-up my psychological tanks. This space provides a greater possibility for reconnection to an internal world, within which I can gain the resources I need for dealing with the external world.

Part of my initial love of the work of Carl Jung was formed by his articulation of the differences that might exist for the introvert and extrovert. I bumped into Jung while I was both studying theology and exploring a possible monastic vocation. Jung’s formulation provided a vital key in my own process of understanding why I had always felt this need for quiet, self-isolation and space. Undoubtedly there were some less functional drives lying behind this need—shyness, confusion about self, and shame generated by bullying—but in embracing the introvert, I felt that I was giving myself permission to express a more authentic version of self.

The pull towards monasticism was in part inspired by the dual images of St. Anthony and St. Francis seeking a simpler, more stripped-down path in their pursuit of the divine. St. Anthony as one of the founding desert fathers and mothers, fled to the desert in response to the growing respectability of the state sanctioned expression of church. For Antony the sparseness of these desert places provided the ideal geography for encountering the vastness of God, and to do battle with forces he perceived as demonic. In contrast Francis provided me with a more accessible role-model in his pursuit of simplicity, and vision as an inspiration to service and social change. Francis (at least in my imagination) was an example of the introvert, who when refreshed by silence and space, was able to utilise that energy in his engagement with others.

This experience of space and silence can also contain negative connotations when our experience tips over into one of loneliness. In his excellent The Soul’s Code the psychotherapist James Hillman seeks to explore the experience of isolation and loneliness as central to the alchemical process of “soul making”. He seeks to contrast a mythic approach to loneliness that differs radically from either Judaeo-Christian depictions of it as a form of punishment, or as indulgent revelry in some form of Existentialist ennui. For Hillman, a more heroic/mythic engagement with loneliness and space allows the possibility for us to discover and attune with our unique daimon or life’s purpose. The sense of separation engendered by this positive use of loneliness allows us to challenge the conditioning and control that we may have imbibed via either family or societal scripts.

One example of such heroic separation that I’ve recently found inspiring has been via the character of Ragnar Lothbrok in the series The Vikings. For the uninitiated, the first four seasons of The Vikings is largely focused on the unfolding fate of Ragnar as he becomes a leader within his community. Predictably the show deals with the brutality of Northern European life in the 9th century and the interactions between the Old (Norse) and New (Christian) gods. What struck me about the programme’s depiction of Ragnar was that despite (or perhaps because) of his leadership role, he often seeks periods of silence and solitude as a way of reconnecting to his wyrd. In a number of episodes, Ragnar is seen undertaking a practice of “sitting out” (Utta Seti) in which he seeks both the quiet and sharpness of nature as an opportunity to hear and realign with his Gods. To some extent this is the territory we seek to explore in our monthly Zen Hearth, using both trance and deep listening as a means of gaining gnosis. We use the discipline of mindfulness meditation as a means for creating the space in which the whisperings of the deep self can be heard.


Sitting with Intensity

One of the greatest challenges for those of us who feel compelled to explore these spacious (and potentially darker) dimensions of self and cosmos is how we return from our isolation so as to communicate any insights gained. The truly misanthropic may choose to reject such as role, but often the magician/shaman/witch has been the one who takes the high risk role of speaking prophetically to the norms of a given culture. Often we dwell at the outer edge of what is known and can at times become conduits of both mystery and the unorthodox.

When we take the risk of sitting with the pregnant void of silence, new insights and words may arise and we are often asked to become the midwives at their birth!

Steve Dee

Sharing this Magical Life

The community of practice—the sangha, coven, temple or wider network of esoteric practitioners (such as the IOT)—is really important to me. I know myself well enough to know that, while I can do solitary work (including my ‘baseline’ practices of yoga and mindfulness mediation) it’s in community with others that I thrive.

One example of this is how, while I’ve written 12 books, most of these works have been co-authored with other writers. Bouncing ideas off each other and working collaboratively is what I love and I’ve been fortunate to have been doing this with my dear friend Greg Humphries since we met in 1998 (beginning with a sequence of rituals that culminated at the total eclipse of the sun in Cornwall in 1999). Greg and I have now produced our second book. Well, really Greg has done most of the work—the lion’s share of the text is his, as are all the wonderful artworks, drawings and photographs that accompany the words.

This new book is about one of our favourite practices, psychogeography. For us this a series of tactics in walking that allow us to come into a special type of relationship with landscape. These methods allow us to reveal the occult ‘hidden’ aspects of reality; the sacred in the everyday, the possibility of multiple narratives in spaces accessed by disrupting the dominant discourse (like what you are ‘supposed’ to find interesting when you wander round a historic house as we were doing earlier this week).

(There will be a limited number of full colour copies of Walking Backwards or, The Magical Art of Psychedelic Psychogeography available now. After Midsummer the edition will be available only as a monochrome text.)

psychogeography books1

Texts of drifting, walking and wondering…

Psychogeography was the theme of a workshop I ran recently at Treadwell’s bookshop, from which I received some great feedback (like the review here). An interesting thing about psychogeographical explorations is that they attract a wide variety of people who sense that there are many possible relationships with the world we inhabit besides the narrow-bandwidth that is often served up as ‘being normal’ (or ‘acceptable’ or ‘permitted’ or similar). Excellent examples of both practical techniques for engendering these new states of awareness, as well as a deep theoretical exegesis of psychogeography, are to be found in the new work Rethinking Mythogeography… by Phil Smith. Phil is a seasoned traveller in non-ordinary spaces, creating plays and site-specific installations amongst other things. In his new book (which like the one by me and Greg, is replete with evocative photographic images) he explores the town of Northfield in Minnesota, counterpointing it with observations of the hidden histories of locations such as A la Ronde in Devon.

Phil writes beautifully, capturing in his prose the mythic intent and surreal outputs of ‘disrupted walking’.

The magic of the ordinary may at first strike you in flashes or by the sudden falling of a shadow across a scene; but if you can hold onto those moments for a while, stay calm and not grab for the first wonder, then—like the passing freight train—the magic will begin to steam around you in unfolding loops, in strings like movies or stories or chains of DNA.

The book by Greg and me comes out just as Greg (finally!) gets a major exhibition of his work. This will be happening at the Penwith Gallery in Cornwall (23rd March to 6th April) as part of the 80th celebration for St Ives School of Painting. Visitors will have the chance to see some of the amazing objects that Greg creates. These include a handmade, exquisitely carved longbow, with hand-stitched leather bow case and hand-forged and fletched arrows. This magical object, from an imagined Albion (‘Bring me my bow of burnished gold…’; part of the weapon is indeed gilded), is part of a series of pieces that bring together Greg’s skills in bushcraft and green woodworking with his magical world-view. Get along to the show if you can.


Greg Humphries, the artful woodland wizard

In other news, the Black Mirror Research network (exploring how ‘…artists have used esoteric, magical and occult philosophies as sources of inspiration’) and the Plymouth College of Art have a conference next month Seeking the Marvellous: Ithell Colquhoun, British Women & SurrealismOver two days in sunny Plymouth some of the leading academics in the field will be speaking about important female surrealists and occultists including both Ithell Colquhoun and blogofbaphomet favourite Leonora Carrington.

Foregrounding (to use a contemporary expression) women’s voices is something I’m pleased to say is happening more and more, especially in the psychedelic scene. I’ve just been listening to the first Psychedelic Salon podcast hosted by Kat and Alexa Lakey; The Family that Trips Together, Sticks Together. As well as a fascinating interview with Scott Olsen they also present two conversations between the sisters and their Mum and Dad, reflecting on their psychedelic experiences, both individually and as a family. This fascinating and beautifully comfortable conversation breaks new ground in the field of psychedelic podcasting; we are after all 50 years on the from the first, and 30 years since the second, Summer of Love. We now have two, even three, generations of psychonauts in some families who can compare notes and share an understanding of these most profound and potentially liberating of experiences. (And now we’re on to the Third Summer of Love.)

I’m pleased to say that Alexa and Kat have invited me to work with them on some forthcoming podcasts. Stay tuned to The Psychedelic Salon and this blog for details!

Meanwhile I’ve been writing about psychoactives for a forthcoming collection of essays on psychedelics (I was pleased to be asked to contribute by the erudite and playful Erik Davis who interviewed me recently for his podcast). Writing longer stuff means that I’ve had less time for blogging here so I’m planning to start some vlogging (as I believe the young people call it…). There is an initial video here and more to follow. Please like, share and subscribe and all that.

Away from the virtual world, Nikki and I are looking forward to running a series of retreats at St.Nectan’s Glen. I’ve written about this space many times before on this blog so to have a newly built retreat centre there that we are helping to develop, and to hold space at this sacred location, is a great honour. Details of our May retreat can be found here.


Prayer ribbons and fairy towers at St.Nectan’s Glen

Nikki is also going to take part in a panel discussion alongside Dave King and Danny Nemu at the inaugural meeting of the Durham Psychedelics Society (for those who don’t know, Durham University is famous for its learning and researching in the fields of Biblical studies, Christian theology and the sociological and the anthropological study of religion). We’re both super excited to be speaking at the wonderful Beyond Psychedelics conference in Prague, (the call for papers is open now but closes soon!) and later this year at the Ozora festival in Hungary (7 days, 25,000 people and 24 hour psytrance, what’s not to like?).

On a more one-to-one level I’m also really pleased to find myself in a situation where I’m being asked to mentor and support people as they explore their own spiritual development. Part of the delight of this has been to be able to share my knowledge and experience but without adopting any kind of guru role. I offer my services in this respect as a Kalyanamitra (Sanskrit) or kalyanamitta (Pali), that is as a ‘spiritual friend’—someone who is walking a similar path and can provide support and encouragement to others, along with suggestions for practices and technique—but without any pretence to ‘knowing the answer’.

I get a huge amount out of this sharing of ideas. It’s great when this happens in a formal academic context (I’ll be teaching this year on the Spirituality & Ecology Masters Degree at Schumacher College) as well as in less formal learning settings (check out our Deep Magic pages for updates) and in peer-support environments too. Like many of us I understand things best when I’m exploring ideas with others.

As social creatures making these interpersonal connections, we have the possibility of developing both a collective intelligence (a group mind) and also of allowing the community to enable our own individual understanding. There’s a simple example of this; you may have had the experience of calling IT support and explaining the problem with your computer. As you do the explaining, even if the helpdesk person says very little, you are creating a new neural connection and often realize how to fix the problem as you are speaking. Making words to describe the problem to another person creates a new pathway for information to move through, often leading to insight and discovery. (You can try a similar process when looking for your keys by simply repeating ‘keys, keys, keys…’ which measurably increases how quickly you find your keys). Holding space with and for people, so that they can speak their truth, and come (like finding our lost keys) to moments of self-realization, is a real privilege. I think having a background in chaos magic helps, since while I have my story to tell and experiences to share that may inspire others, I’m not a ‘better’ or a ‘more powerful magician’ than anyone else. I’m also not interested in cheerleading for any particular paradigm, so while there are pagans and magicians who attend the sessions I curate, there are plenty of participants present who would not identify with those terms.

For me, as a group person and as an individual who thrives on collaboration, this diversity is wonderful. While I enjoy those more ‘inward facing’ conferences and meetings (where everyone is dressed in black, sporting various spooky bits of jewellery and making niche gematria jokes), making occulture accessible, intelligible and relevant to new audiences is, at least for me at the moment, where it’s at.

Julian Vayne



Human Beings in Space

The maps that we create as human beings are usually attempts to avoid confusion and the inevitable sense of distress we experience when we lose our bearings. In trying to deal with the complex experience of being alive, we undertake cartographic projects to help us feel more secure. Whether our adventures are geographical or psycho-spiritual, we hope that our maps (whether self-created or inherited) will bear some resemblance to the landscapes we move within.

In my last two posts, I have been musing over the potential value of the maps that various World Trees might hold in connection to our spiritual aspirations. These trees can provide us with powerful images for exploring what balance and growth might mean as we dig into the deep places of personal and ancestral memory. When we engage with them consciously, they can provide not only a macrocosmic map for comprehending the mythic currents of history, but also a microcosmic plan as to how we might experience the complexity of self. As roots might reflect our longing for nutrition via connection to history and place, so our branches stretch upwards seeking light, space and the new.

Ironically this stretching, yearning impulse often feels as if it is taking us “off the map” and into unknown territories that might need new skills. Rather than pouring over the minutiae of hill contours and grid-references, we might need to look up and fully take in our surroundings. Inevitably we will view new experiences through the lens of what we know, but the challenge and clear air of the new often provides us with an opportunity for awakening:

“A person needs new experiences. It jars something deep inside, allowing them to grow. Without change something sleeps inside us, and seldom awakens. The sleeper must awaken.”
Duke Leto Atreides (Dune)

Godzilla BD 00427-2.indd

Compulsory Viewing.

As we reach upwards, we are often seeking to grapple with the mystery and vastness of space. These branches are often our attempts at entering the realm of Asgard as we seek to interact with the numinous world of the gods. Whether we view our deities as actual or imagined, they often represent our longings and aspirations. They often embody key aspects of our future magical selves, and our attraction to them often reveals important dimensions of our own becoming.

Now this is all well and good, but it prompted me to wonder how I might maximize my own internal state, so that I might be more receptive to the incoming of such gnosis or new insight.

I have written previously about the ways in which we might work with our awe at the vastness of space as a way of gaining perspective on our existence and in managing our terror. For me, the wonder of space is that it simultaneously provides a glimpse into an unknown future while also plunging us into a primal void from which the possibility of creation can occur. We are at once viewing the place where our branches will grow while experiencing a vastness that exists before consciousness and the uttering of the first word.  When we first enter into this territory it can feel decidedly challenging as the uncertainty and sense of emptiness threaten to overwhelm us.

Different traditions describe this type of space as the Pleroma, Sunyata or the primary Chaos of the serpent Apep. Even when these states of being/non-being are viewed more positively, the question still remains as to how we should work with them. Unsurprisingly such territory can seriously mess with your head, but here are a few things I have been working on so as to stay rooted; and to avoid losing my shit.

1. Sitting practice/working with silence: Perhaps the most radical way in which to work with space and its uncertainty is to befriend them. The easiest temptation to give in to when we experience this void-space is simply to fill it with more thinking, more interpretation or more spiritual toys to play with. Chogyam Trungpa described this tendency as “Spiritual Materialism” and as a magical practitioner with Chaos tendencies, I’m all too familiar with my ability to use the clutter of occult theory and practice as a way of avoiding the harder work of sitting with the not-knowing.

If we can set aside our constructs and schemas in order to embrace a Zen-like “beginner’s mind”, what might we find ourselves encountering? When we let ourselves experience a greater sense of space, we create the possibility of truly hearing new words arising from the depths.

2. Using Creativity: When seeking to work with uncertainty and the emergence of new insights, the use of visual art, music and dance can be powerful ways of accessing both the deep roots of the unconscious and the incoming of the numinous future. As we let go of the linear and the known, so new insights become possible. Cut-ups and Collages especially have provided me with a dynamic set of tools for exploring the dynamic tension between ideas and images emerging from the unconscious/superconscious aspects of self.

3. Working with the Spacious Body: In seeking to work with our sense of the incoming and unknown it can be easy to tie ourselves into knots of anxiety as we try to anticipate an avalanche of what ifs.  As with our sitting practice and creativity, when we engage the body through conscious movement it becomes more possible to turn down the volume on the voice of our internal critic. Like our minds, our bodies too can become full-up with those familiar, automated patterns that can leave us feeling stiff and armour-plated. For me, gentle dance, Qi Gong and shaking practices have provided the opportunity to explore movements that disrupt machine-like tendencies, and create a greater sense of spaciousness and opening out. It would seem fitting to conclude with a quote from that mighty Tantric sage Abhinavagupta:

Thus one should think of the body as full of all the Paths (to enlightenment and cosmic emanation). Variegated by the workings of time, it is the abode of all the movements of time and space. The body seen this way is all the gods, and must therefore be the object of contemplation, veneration and sacrifice. He who penetrates into it finds liberation.

From  Tantraloka. Quoted by Mark Dyczkowski in The Doctrine of Vibration.


Mystery at the Roots

In my last post I spent some time thinking about the concept of World Trees as cosmological maps. These maps are vital to the evolution of our theologies and also the mechanisms via which we see personal transformation happening. Whether we view such change as “magick”, initiation or psychological change, the maps provided by these mythic trees often highlight those key components that allow the shifts to be both balanced and sustainable.

Living in North Devon (in South West England, close to both moorland and rugged Atlantic coastlines), it’s hard to escape the impact that the winds of winter have on trees. With many stripped of leaves and being forced to bend in the face of sharp winds, they rely on flexible trunks and deep roots in order to survive. This combination of being flexible while retaining depth seems to hold wisdom for those of us feeling buffeted by gusts that we feel we have little control over.

To find our roots means to journey into the dark and the soil from which we sprang. When I seek to help families and individuals understand their current behaviours in therapy, it is inevitable that we have to adopt some archaeological moves in uncovering past role models, patterns and stories. When we dig down into these places that often feel lost and poorly understood, so the shape and speed of our growth can be understood more fully.

These roots are often unseen (or unconscious) and their depth and critical role is easy to underestimate. Anyone who has ever tried to uproot or move a tree will know of what I speak! Approaches that focus on present tense problem-solving and changing day-to-day cognition are of great value, but even these have to attend to those deeper roots in order to address more longstanding issues.

This journey of descending, searching and then ascending is hardly new and the Eleusinian and Orphic mysteries bear witness to the human need to contend with the dark, the animal and the chthonic in order to provide a more mature blossoming of any initiatory work. This motif of descent became crucial to Jung’s depth psychology, the grand mythic arcs of Joseph Campbell’s “Hero’s Journey” and in turn the scripts of the first Star Wars trilogy. In order for our transformational work to be both rich and sustainable, we need to be drawing on nutrients that only darkness and decomposition can produce. The alchemical stage of nigredo and Jung’s concept of the shadow provide us with insights into this realm; as much as we might aspire to transcendence and states of eternal permanence, we must ground our endeavours in the reality of death, the body and our struggle with uncertainty.


Confronting the darkness

In the face of such stark challenges it can be easy to seek false refuge in either metaphysical projections or our technology-driven attempts to control and escape from discomfort. Both of these approaches are fully understandable, but often prove to be fragile and disappointing in the face of life’s brutality. In having previously considered the example of Odin on the World Tree Yggdrasil, we can see the something of the cost involved in seeking those mysteries (Runes) that seek to capture the wholeness of human experience. Whether we see his gaining of gnosis as being of triumph (“I took up the Runes roaring”) or terrifying revelation (“I took them up screaming”) it is clear that these insights came via ordeal and struggle and that such travail was lengthy.

With the degree of hyper-acceleration that seems so endemic within Western culture, it can be hard to hear that something is going to take both time and significant effort. I’m sure I’m as guilty as anyone in wanting things faster and wanting them now, but when we journey to the roots we can begin to appreciate a slower approach. For me it feels that this more gradual, organic form of emergence takes us beyond the realms of spiritual consumerism and seems to allow what James Hillman describes as the “soul making”.

My own attempts to slow things down and locate deeper roots have recently been via a reconnection to the path of Druidry. When I started exploring the path of magic over twenty years ago it was to Druidry that I was initially drawn. Perhaps because of the apparent gentleness of its style, and the way in which it allowed the Christian and Pagan to converse with each other, it provided me with a less jarring route into occult practice. Alongside my more daring adventures in Chaos magic and Tantra, I have had this slow burn affection for a path that seeks to hold together creativity, magic and wisdom (bard, ovate and druid).

Of the little we know about the druids from early sources (interested readers may like to check out the excellent The Druids by Ronald Hutton), it seems likely that it took at least twenty years to complete one’s training. For me this is good news as I’m just about on schedule! If all this was about was some obsessive attempt at Celtic reconstructionism I’m sure it would have taken far less time, but my hunch is that my deeper relationship with the druid tradition has been about the discovery of what my own expression of Wisdom and Soul should look like in the world around me. The roots of this work are deep because they are as much about my creativity, my social work and my relationships as they are about some well-choreographed wand waggling.


Pagan Roots

I was recently reflecting at a Queer book group that I attend, about the issue of how we communicate about aspects of ourselves and the process of “coming out” and what this might mean. Whilst in that group we were specifically thinking about descriptors regarding sexuality and gender identity, it also raised for me the issue of how I adopt religious labels for myself.

Given that my own spiritual path is probably even more complicated than how I experience my sexuality and gender, it has caused me to ponder why in the 2011 UK census I chose to describe myself as a Pagan. In all honesty my decision was partially prompted by activism by groups such as the Pagan Federation that were seeking to increase awareness regarding the growth of minority religious communities. I was momentarily tempted to self-declare as “Jedi” (or possibly Sith), but in pursuit of the greater good I opted for Pagan.

Part of the reason that I take at least partial refuge in the self-description of being a Pagan, is the creative way in which many of the communities under that umbrella seek to engage (and wrestle!) with polarities and seek balance between them. Those of you who have read my recent series of posts about Androgyny will be well aware of my personal journey in exploring apparent dualities and how we as magical explorers dance with them.  Male/Female, Light/Dark, Internal/External all represent different attempts at trying to map and classify our experience of life’s complexity.

One such dichotomy that I have been considering recently has been the contrast between the vertical and horizontal aspects of religious expression.  Pagans of varying stripes (Druids, Wiccans, Heathens etc.) are hardly unique in trying to consider the tension between our relationship with the numinous realm of the vertical (gods, spirits, celestial beings etc.) and the horizontal plain in which we experience time, space, matter and relationships. Almost all religions seek to mark the year’s calendar with festivals that reflect the emergence or revelation of their given truth, but in my view, most Pagan paths go further in making use of sacred time and awareness of place in a way that brings the vertical and horizontal closer. The wheel of the year is not only a matrix in which the specific events of a salvation history can be placed (as in, say, Christianity), rather the changes in Nature during the course of our planet around the Sun is a divine revelation in and of itself.

Many forms of contemporary neo-paganism have at the heart of their theology a cosmological map that views matter less as something to be moved away from, and more a realm of experience in which our connection to the natural, the relational and the horizontal is explicitly the realm within which the vertical and numinous is experienced. It may seem obvious to state that our experience of the Gods inevitably happens within the realm of the life we know and experience, but I would argue that Paganism goes a step further in paying attention to the process in which the vertical and horizontal directly feed each other. Maps such as the Norse Yggdrasil are rarely realms of cosmic harmony that promise utopia, rather these World Trees hold realms in a dynamic tension whose frisson creates a Cosmos-driving energy.

For me, this more interactive process is perhaps part of Paganism’s appeal in owning its identity as a more emergent rather than revealed religion. While Paganism has its fair share of prophets laying claim to revelation and channelled material, over time (and through scholarship) it seems to be becoming more open in acknowledging the human soil from which these new religious expressions have grown. While our Gods are inevitably co-created as their archetypal patterns meet the challenges of our lives, these divine beings are no less real for having come through the filter of our contexts, our longings and our struggles.



The beauty of these World Trees is that while their branches reach towards heaven in an attempt to connect the divine realm to our daily lives, so also their roots delve deep into the soil of our unconscious in search of sustaining nutrients. If our Gods are to have true depth, they will hold a rich darkness alongside their light. Without depth and mystery they will be little more than two dimensional pop-icons that while momentarily distracting, fail to exemplify our own longings for authenticity.

As in the example of the All-Father Odin, such explorations are not without sacrifice and as we delve into the roots of our lives and contexts, our engagement with Mystery (Runa) may well produce both roars of triumph and screams of anguish:

I know that I hung on a windy tree
nine long nights,
wounded by a spear, dedicated to Odin,
myself to myself,
on that tree of which no man knows
from where its roots run.

No bread did they give me or drink from a horn,
Downwards I peered;
I took up the runes, screaming I took them,
Then I fell back from there.

Havamal 138–139

I guess for those of us who are magical practitioners, our relationship to the vertical was always going to be more complicated. If the simpler task of faith, worship and subservience alone were going to satisfy, we wouldn’t be walking this path. While my own magical work has strong currents of Bhakti yoga and devotion within it, I am aware that such acts are less about worship and more about the active use of body and emotion to gain alignment with the principles these deities embody. I engage with these divinities not just to further my personal solipsism, but rather to amplify those narratives and ideas that I wish to see in the world. For me these generally represent a guarded optimism and a desire for the mysterious and heroic that comes from the deep roots of our full humanity. I continue to grapple with the challenge that any insights that I gain, must be embodied at the horizontal level of my interactions with other organic beings and the planet we inhabit together.


On Letting Go – or, How Not to Get Sick on Ayahuasca…

I once wrote that ‘letting go is the critical ability for navigating psychedelic drugs’ and this is true on many levels. At a Treadwell’s workshop on altered states and at the fabulous Berlin psychedelics conference Altered, people have spoken with me about the challenge of ‘letting go’ in relation to psychedelic sacraments. In both cases my interlocutors were considering taking ayahuasca for the first time. In both cases they’d come to me for reassurance about that whole ‘being sick’ thing.

Ayahuasca can provide an opportunity for spiritual exploration, for self-discovery, for healing, problem solving and much more. As experiences go it can be dazzlingly beautiful and illuminating, and it is true that it can also make you feel nauseous. 

People have heard that taking ayahuasca involves vomiting. I too had these concerns before I took this medicine.  In addition I was afraid that peyote would also make me vomit. I was worried that MDMA would make me overheat and die, I was worried that LSD would make me psychotic and that smoking cannabis would turn me into a hippie…


Tasty blend of herbs

Joking aside, all these fears do have some basis in reality. Ayahuasca can make you want to vomit, LSD taken in unwise circumstances can scramble one’s brain and toking weed may indeed encourage the consumption of vegan food.

In the case of ayahuasca (or peyote or many other psychedelics) the fear of vomiting is emblematic of the normal human fear of losing control; what looks like fear of being sick is actually about letting go in a much bigger sense. But take heart! Not everyone throws up on the magical Amazonian medicine. I’ve taken the brew many times, sometimes at a high dose, and I’ve not yet vomited on ayahuasca.  I put this this down to having spent many years using other psychedelic drugs where I would register nausea as body load caused by both adrenaline and the stimulation of serotonin receptors in my gut. I’d simply take my attention elsewhere to combat the nausea and it would go away.

Ever the scientist, I once tried eating a chicken tikka baguette not long before an ayahuasca session to see if that might bring on la purga (and turned down my instinctive process to disregard nausea). No luck. I might of course be sick in the future on this or another psychedelic medicine, then again maybe I won’t. When I spoken to a friend, who is much more familiar with ayahuasca than me, he said this wasn’t that unusual and that accords with my experience. Certainly in most  of the ayahuasca sessions I’ve attended the majority of those present didn’t vomit. I have however cried copious tears in the company of The Queen of the Forest; tears of both sadness and joy (sometimes at the same time). Crying for me is a thing,  it’s my physiological catharsis. I cry at the movies, so maybe the ayahuasca spirit uses that channel rather than my gut.

Chicken Tikka Baguette
Not the recommended dieta

The point is that we all fear losing control: our position in society, our face, our well-being. We don’t want to be the gringo covered in his own faeces looking like a J.P. Sears reject, we certainly don’t want our transgressive al-chemical adventures to harm us, or indeed others.

We are right to be thoughtful, mindful, when we approach psychedelic drugs. Sure there will always (I trust) be high spirited, youthful scrapes but, especially as adults, when considering taking a jungle brew (and more so in the case of obscure or new substances) we are wise to be cautious. Accidents, rare reactions and other difficulties can and do happen. However these are very, very rare with the ‘classic’ psychedelics. We know ayahuasca is basically safe because we’ve been testing it on humans for many thousands of years, likewise peyote. Even peyote’s modern daughter MDMA , though a new kid on the block, is known to be a very safe drug. The numbers prove it. Allowing for the problems of unknown dose, composition and other issues caused by prohibition, illegal MDMA is reported to have killed 63 people in the UK in 2016 (this is from government data which also lists 24 deaths as being due to ‘cannabis’, so it may be worth taking these figures with a pinch of salt). This total, whilst still significant and tragic, is very small when considered in the light of the 492,000 people that took one or more doses of this powerful unregulated drug (meaning, zero quality control or any accurate dosage information available at point of sale) in 2015/16. (MDMA use in the UK may be as high as 125 million doses per annum, on the basis of a hefty 200mg per dose of the estimated 25,000kg of Ecstasy consumed in Britain each year.)

Fear doesn’t necessarily have to be a bad thing. It helps keep us safe. It is perhaps what we should feel approaching a transformative experience such as can happen when you drink ayahuasca (or take MDMA). Let’s listen to what Terence McKenna (peace be upon him) says about fear and psychedelics:

“One of the interesting characteristics of DMT is that it sometimes inspires fear – this marks the experience as existentially authentic. One of the interesting approaches to evaluating such a compound is to see how eager people are to do it a second time. A touch of terror gives the stamp of validity to the experience because it means, “This is real.” We are in the balance. We read the literature, we know the maximum doses, the LD-50, and so on. But nevertheless, so great is one’s faith in the mind that when one is out in it one comes to feel that the rules of pharmacology do not really apply and that control of existence on that plane is really a matter of focus of will and good luck.”

Psychedelic drugs require us to abandon ourselves to the experience, in the same way that in possession states we (that is; our usual way of thinking) must get out of the way. The Loa enter the ecstatic dancer, temporarily driving out their day-to-day self,  as their body becomes a horse ridden by the gods.

rave 2.gif

Raving – still safer than horse riding…

Psychedelic drugs are antithetical to systems of control in a variety of senses. At a raw biological level that’s how they work. The fact that the world looks weird when we are high on ayahuasca is because the control systems in our neurology are being disrupted. Edge detection, motion and colour detection bits of the brain become cross-wired. The ability of your mind to smooth out the visual world into a seamless film (which isn’t how your biology takes in the scene at all, see Nikki’s article for more of this) is compromised by the weird chemistry of the vine and the leaf. Then the visions come; of vertically symmetrical faces, with eyes, mouths and tentacles (visual cues our biology is optimized to notice). What’s going on is that the control systems of our minds are so weakened that content floods between brain regions, creating cognitive chimera and marvellous mental mashups. Out of this creative chaos arise visually perceived sub-personalities or the archetypal programs of our unconscious mind (…or however one likes to think of these things). The spirits  enter our imaginations just as they enter the body of the ecstatic Voudou raver. We let go of control, becoming a vessel for the teaching of the medicine, and in losing ourselves, find ourselves reborn.

Let’s reconsider that basic form of control which preserves our adult decorum; what if the ayahuasca strips away our digestive competence and we make a fool of ourselves?

Any good ayahuasca season takes account of the fears, and indeed in many styles of practice this purging is seen not as a problem but as an opportunity for healing and cathartic release. Small plastic buckets and plenty of tissues are usually provided and, however it is managed, the fact that participants may need to vomit is planned for. By re-imaging this vomiting as ‘getting well’ or ‘la purga’ the experience, while not necessarily pleasant, can be a positive transformative part of the trip. Peyote can have a similar nauseating effect, and again good rituals will take this into account.

Within the design of the Native American Church peyote ceremony the central crescent altar is made from local soil. This soil is dug from a pit to make what is sometimes called a ‘Getting Well Hole’. Any vomit is disposed of into this hole. The soil from the crescent altar is used to fill it in the end of the rite. Flowers from the ceremony may be left on the replaced turfs covering the pit. Thus the process of ‘getting well’ isn’t just an annoying side effect of the drugs but is deeply incorporated into the ceremonial process.


Altared state


Getting well whole

More extreme loss of biological control (really needing to poo) usually only happens at high doses of psychedelics, and even then is usually within manageable bounds. Higher doses of any substance means more body load. A very high dose of anything will make you shit yourself as the body deploys one of its basic defensive (control) mechanisms. I’m reminded of a tale told to me by David Luke of some people he is researching who took far, far, far too much LSD (>20,000μg each). As soon as they drank the liquid (in which was dissolved more acid than they bargained for) they all immediately shat themselves, projectile vomited, and then spent a very, very, very long time tripping (one of them is still seeing strange things many years later).

Lots of things at high dose can make us throw up. I’ve seen people throw up on rapé snuff, 4-AcO-DMT, ketamine, cannabis, peyote, ayahuasca and MDMA but (even as someone who rarely goes to pubs) I’ve seen many more people throw up through drinking too much alcohol. In cultures like mine, where alcohol is a protected species of psychoactive and therefore commonly available, most people will have likely seen and possibly experienced vomiting from excessive drinking. Yet the fact that booze can potentially make us spew does not seem to be a major reason for people not trying alcohol.

With many psychedelics my view is that going-in slowly is a wise and polite approach to the spirit of a medicine. I agree that an initial Big Experience can be valuable, sometimes high doses are definitely what is indicated. But for many substances respecting the medicine can simply mean starting off gently. Drink less –  booze or ayahuasca – and you’ll probably feel less like vomiting.

Some styles of medicine worker like to make a big impression and strongly encourage the ‘heroic dose’ approach. Recently I’ve had a couple of people talk to me about shamans giving what they felt was too high a dose of a medicine, certainly too high for the recipients comfort. When I suggested asking the shaman for less they indicated that this would probably be met with a refusal. ‘Shaman knows best’ it would seem, an approach which ignores the feedback of the client. If you want less, particularly of a powerful substance such as 5-MeO-DMT, that’s what you should get. However wise the medicine person thinks their approach is, it is also wise to remain open to information from the client. For some medicines it’s not even an issues of having to take one big hit. 5-MeO-DMT for instance (the primary active ingredient of the psychedelic venom of the toad Bufo alvarius) can be taken in several bursts during a session, gradually increasing (or decreasing) the dosage as appropriate. There is no significant tolerance built up in a single session, and indeed subsequent inhalations of smoke can enhance the intensity of the trip while using less material. This approach is particularly helpful for people with less experience of psychedelic drugs. It also makes good sense in terms of testing for those rare but not unknown idiosyncratic reactions to a new medicine.

The wisdom is this: it is always possible to add more, but difficult to take away too much.


…the toad, ugly and venomous,
Wears yet a precious jewel in his head.

A good psychedelic facilitator works to create a set and setting that is supportive and transformative. For those who are new to this territory, with all their fears of losing control of bowel and brain, it’s important for the wise shaman to create an environment where the substance component of the ritual is used intelligently. We want this space to feel safe because it’s important in my view that lots of people have access to the psychedelic experience. This means not just backpacking, adventurous hippie types but many others too. These folks may come from backgrounds where they have been told that drugs are bad, will send you mad and potentially kill you. Unlocking this control can be a powerful journey.  Sometimes blowing open closed minds can work wonders. But let us also cultivate a circumspect form of practice that gently leads people into the psychedelic waters rather than throwing them in at the deep end.

Care and attention are the skills needed to create the best set and setting within which to address our fear of losing control. We care for the vomiting ayahuasca traveller by providing buckets and toilet rolls. We care for panicked festival psychonauts by creating supportive spaces (like this and this) where they can be helped to ride the dragon of a challenging trip.

For my part, when people express their concerns to me about vomiting on ayahuasca I tell them the truth. Yes you can be sick, but you can be sick on beer too, or from a dodgy kebab. Maybe if you are very concerned ask for a smaller dose (and be thoughtful of practitioners who do not listen to your concerns about these matters). If you are sick think of it as ‘getting well’, acknowledge that this is a simple human activity, without shame and easily dealt with. Use the facilities provided, just like you would on a boat or airplane. You will not die (yet), you’re just throwing up.


Fear not, this too shall pass…

So the message folks is that these concerns about taking ayahuasca makes sense. Be sensible about what you take and with whom, but don’t fear the vomit. Let go of your worries about losing control (you never had it really anyhow), embrace the experience. By and large these psychedelic substances are safe, healing, fun, wonderful and good for us. (Though if possible I recommend going somewhere where prohibition does not impose on the set and setting of your explorations, like here)

Prepare your bucket (which you may not need anyhow). Relax and let it happen, this is good medicine.



Here’s a brief update on some of the events and projects that we are involved with in early 2018.

Julian is running a one day workshop at Treadwell’s Books in London on Working Magic in the Landscape: Psychogeography on 13th January 2018 11:00 am – 5:30pm.

Nikki and Julian are running a retreat in The Netherlands on Altered States & Magic. This promises to be a magical weekend which runs from 9–11th February 2018.

If you’re interested in finding out more about our 2018 programme of retreats (we’re really excited to have an amazing new venue at St Nectan’s Glen in Cornwall and some great guest facilitators joining us). Please drop us a line here and we can keep you informed by email of the latest events, publications and more.

The amazing Psychedelic Press UK has just released issue 22 of their journal, check it out and subscribe.

More details on events can be found here at the blog and on Facebook too.