Psychedelic Ecology

Gods dwell amongst us, and have done so since before the dawn of time.

Shh! Can you hear…? The distant sound of footsteps, careful steps, of a creature trying to move stealthily, making the footfalls irregular. But we can spot the subtle pattern of left, right, left right. And the breathing, you hear that too? On the edge of your perception…

Goddesses and gods, walk the world.

Sometimes, we hear them singing. Not with words like those a pop star would use, not Taylor Swift. More, soaring melodies with powerful emotional key changes, free of standard musical motifs like birdsong is free, to move at will between tones, as the breath goes.

Psychedelic Ecology is the field of psychedelic entity study, when entities are regarded as having an existence of their own, treating them as creatures which live in the perceptual experiences of all Life.

Any persona could be viewed as an emergent property of the material base it inhabits. From stone to human, the difference is only one of complexity. Everything can be said to perceive, or rather is aware of the world outside it, according to its abilities. A stone is aware of gravity, of other things resting upon it, of temperature, and reacts accordingly. A human is aware of far more in the immediate world, and has memory and imagination to allow it to time-travel.

Entities which we notice whilst in psychedelic states grow from the abilities they have at such times. We notice what we are able to at such times. Somewhere in this double approach, we might be able to describe their phenomenological reality.

Beginning before the beginning of humankind, entities existed. Eyes need to be noticed, odd movements must be picked out from the background, movement through the outside world has to have an internal construct. We have always carried these hardwired Important Things. Entities, representations of these deep patterns, were already old when that ancient fish dashed away from the glint of awareness in the rippling body of the eel. That tentacular movement, that enormous eye, lived beyond the animal that carried it, and away from the animal that saw it too. All of us, for billions of years, have to know what to look for; and when we look for something whilst tripping, we tend to see it.

With thousands of eyes, tentacles for legs, numerous arms, strange movements… all these parts deeply embedded in our biology, a collection of physicality with deep associations. Many arms do many things, thousands of eyes demonstrate wide awareness, moving unlike a human, demanding our attention. When we cause ourselves to pay attention really, really pay attention, we summon entities. We see eyes in trees, rocks breathe, the mountains and rivers have characters.

Psychedelic states reveal things to us. They lift the veil of interpretation we add to the raw sensations around us. This brings to mind Aldous Huxley’s metaphor of our senses acting to restrict input. What Huxley did not know of, is the Default Mode Network.

Briefly, the DMN acts as a running commentary on what is happening in our worlds. It overrides the actual world around us, changes the evidence of the present to suit the past narrative, and generally smooths out any kinks or unexpected glitches we encounter from our easily confused sensory inputs.

Our DMN could be said to contribute to our persona. The patterns that establish themselves, the waves of neurological activity which pass through hemispheres, triggering intellectualisations and emergent noises form our organisms, this is what, who, we are. Take away the DMN and we all resemble each other, reduced to immediate awarenesses, raw sights and sounds overwhelming the past stories we arrived with.

Emotional set becomes our personality whilst we trip (at high enough doses). In good settings, we play, dance, smile, feel good. Past and future, those identical not-nows, cease to have meaning. Sometimes they vanish so convincingly that we forget events, confuse names, release belief from all we knew for sure in ordinary life. If we can relax into this, safe in a space held by those we trust to care for us, the confusion lifts us to flights of imagination and make-believe.

In these psychedelic states, we are open to habitation from the spirits, the entities. They come to us in guises and disguises, speaking to us with still small voices, with thunderous roaring, with telepathic messages that arrive without needing soundwaves. They appear in costumes built from echoes of our expectations, clothed with whatever is to hand; I once asked to meet the spirits of Ayahuasca, who appeared as two cartoon characters, borrowing mice from Speedy Gonzales (a childhood hero of mine). They talked with me for a long time, about the collapse of barren concrete cities, and I talked with them too, trying to describe how to inform Westerners in order to achieve their mission of plants regaining greater importance than human-built creation. (Persuade them, I advised, show them the better alternative, please don’t add more fear to the future we are told to see!) They showed me skyscrapers covered with vines.

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I know that ayahuasca is not two cartoon mice. But the vision was there to allow for my hero worship, coupled with a childlike delight in the overthrow of boring, authoritarian society. The voices matched, high pitched, enthusiastic, fast, full of clever wordplay.

Entities take shape from what we can give them.

They sound like, something else; they sound outside of us.

The challenge we face as a rational bunch of people, who nevertheless clearly encounter otherworldly beings whilst tripping, is how to allow ourselves to believe fully in their existence beyond the limitations of our own perceptions and knowledge base. They tell us things we did not know, and possess qualities and abilities we lack.

Since time began we have tried to make sense of their presence within our minds, their manifestation out of and into nothing, puffs of smoke, mirror creatures that dwell in impossible places, out of time. A popular metaphor of current usage is that of ‘another realm’, a kind of sideways step dimensional shift to a world separated from our own by some kind of perceptual cloaking screen, through which we (or they) can pass in certain conditions of altered consciousness.

I find this solution unsatisfactory. It reduces these majestic beings, these goddesses and keepers of eternal knowledge to mere equivalencies of ourselves, elves over there instead of here. I want my spirits up close and personal, ever present, not in a side room to physical reality.

They are at once more easily explained, and more powerfully endowed, by open our minds to the possibilities of wider concepts. I’ll try to paint a picture…

Hear me now! I am the voice of Pan, echoing across these lands for all of time! I am the movement of the smallest creature that crawls, I am the stirring of a leaf, and the raging storm that fills the sky. I dwell wherever life watches and listens. I am awareness, the prickle of your skin when something approaches. The rise of joy within y0our heart as friends draw near, the flow of smooth skin on skin, the strength felt by muscles as they flex and stretch. I bring to you the eternal now, a moment as old as the world. which lasts for ever. This is the moment in which we can do.

Whether we refer to Pan as a god, an archetype, a personification of an abstract concept, we can allow for his existence in the moment, as a useful way of communicating outside our usual frames of reference. Escaping the reality tunnels of our individuality reveals existence without standard labelling; a semiotic chaos, of undifferentiated ground from which emerge all apparent forms anew, ready for reappraisal.

And we need this reappraisal of Normality so desperately.

Less activity in the DMN correlated to the sense of ego-loss felt by people after being injected with psilocin. Psychedelics also cause an increase in the global traffic between regions, whilst a decrease in local activity, within brain areas dealing with discrete tasks, occurs.

The judging part of us disappears. We process inputs and internal processing at a global level. The functionally discrete parts loosen their boundaries, and we find poetic truths dwelling beneath the surface of what looks like home.

We need, as biological organisms, to differentiate between ‘me’, ‘you’, and ‘this cup’. How can I pass the cup to you, if those three objects are merely aspects of one substance? That would be stupid.

As soon as deliberate movement became possible, our ancestors needed to know which way was up. Clues as to what lay ahead of them proved incredibly advantageous. Remote sensing became all the rage, back in prehistory, with eyes and vibration sensing apparatus catching on. Upon our heads we bear the latest version of this technology, vibrating air passes through holes originally intended as gill slits, and tiny bones (which evolved from jaw bones, bones for eating) move, minutely, leveraging further membranes attached to the brain’s nerve endings.

From these oh so subtle twitches, the neurons of auditory centres cause cascades of chemicals, and some how, these patterned forms make us think we hear.

Reaching forward in time and space, to what lies ahead of us. We must have a plan, a map. We see, we create, a future world which is not yet our present. We can move towards this future over that world, or maybe that future over that other world; we hold multiple worlds, in order to compare the more desirable. These worlds are real, we make them as we make the world of now, from our sensory inputs and our internal processing. We feel them, we feel how they feel, do we want to move towards this world, or away? No time to rationally assess them, we move according to our will and whim.

Our emotional responses to sensory inputs, and our internal processing, have to be prioritised by hardwiring them together.

Be attracted to this!

Move away from that!

The complexity of this and that should not be underestimated; after a few billion years of practice, we are getting quite good at complexity these days.

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Default Mode Network connectivity

Wedded for millions of lifetimes, emotions and actions. Unexpected intrusions, which appear as if from nowhere to stand before us plainly upon our world maps, demand a lot of attention. Contrariwise, when we have a lot of attention, we find ourselves confronted with unexpected intrusions, standing in front of us…

These are no phantasms however, nor yet visitors from another physical dimension next door. They exist, they live, as creatures which have inhabited our senses for longer than we have. The voice of the siren luring us onwards. The terrifying noise of silence broken by a footstep where none was before. Shrill shrieks, calling for our notice. The regular breathing of a body sleeping beside us, snuggled together in the dark. Water falling, that most promising sound!

From these ancient strands are woven our entities, combined with the visual clues we might have to hand.

Waterfalls sing to us, notes at first, then words. We hear them clear as day.

Auditory hallucinations, clearly heard sounds, with no external source. I hear them all the time, tinnitus attends my every hour, a faint high-pitched tone as if a tv is left on. Buzzing noises often precede spirit encounters for me, I hear them fly past my ear, just before the magic happens. Have you heard the far away voices, that speak from beneath the ground, from behind the hills, from the sky above? They talk and sing so quietly, yet you perceive every word.

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Praying formation

Perceiving other entities as other entities, rather than conceptualising them as ‘thought forms’ or ‘archetypes of the psyche’, has huge benefits in the moment of interaction. Our brains are set up to evaluate incredibly complex social evaluations, to assess the motives of others, to recall factors influencing fair division of resources and task allocation. Entities, whether we call them spirits, deities, aliens, elves, animal familiars, genii loci, ghosts, faery, and so on, whatever we categorise them as are best treated as separate actors on the world stage to ourselves. They have an identity wider and deeper than our individual encounters. We represent our species evolutionary past, embodied in this body at this moment, and we hold the programming of our cultural surroundings as the lens through which we can intuit, hear, and see.

Each one of us is far more than ‘one of us’. As such, the psychedelic encounter with an entity becomes a meeting in the mythical realm, where we become aware of ways of understanding and acting which we could not have considered beforehand.

Realising that these entities have purpose, history, future existence, and a right to their own world view, places the centre of the discussion outside our self. Outside our species’ collective identity. We escape the trap of anthropocentric motives. Given the results of categorical, human centred planning of the past centuries in the dominant world cultures, perhaps this is the most intriguing aspect of meeting otherworldly characters. Just as children come to the astonishing revelation that their parents have a need for happiness, as we mature out of the squabbles of territorial demarcation and fighting over toys, we are learning that we are not the only intelligences which inhabit this planet.

This is not to say there are invisible creatures occupying some kind of parallel dimension to our own, another literal world, which we could reach by stepping through some kind of portal as beloved by so many tv writers of the late 20th century. This particular mythological construct appeals to our childish imaginations, and is very easy to understand, but to my mind diminishes the vastly more rewarding poetic truth I have outlined here, of entities as truly ancient, astonishing collections of perceptual patterns embedded deep within our sensory apparatus, which live in each of us, and which we believe often create what we call paranormal or magical events, whether by information downloads that are impossible to account for by rational means, or even by causing material effects in the world around us (e.g. weather magic). (Most magical traditions explain the magic powers by referring it outwards to an other, a helper spirit, an ancestor. God told me to do it.)

It is worth comparing the view of these commonly held perceptual patterns as entities in their own right, with the way we view other people as entities in their own right. We are happy to attribute personhood to a collection of biological cells, constructed of chemistry, which arose from physics. We are often happy to extend this personhood to animals, or plants (oh, you look sad, would like some water?). Often we relate to places as persons; hello house, nice to be here again! Or events; the figure of father Christmas being the prime example from northern European culture.

Regular engagement with this kind of encounter leads to a more open-minded attitude to the non-psychedelic state. People tend towards a lack of preconception about people, places, and situations. It is likely that this attitude creates the luck with which many psychonauts seem blessed. Richard Wiseman’s research on luck strongly indicates that those who look around see more (unsurprisingly!). it is of course possible to cultivate this open mindedness without psychedelics, but they present unavoidable opportunities for us to practise this skill…

Look around you.

NW

Abridged from a presentation at Beyond Psychedelics conference, 21st June 2018, Prague.

Walking the Narrow Road

Most contemporary Western magical traditions, at some point in their curricula, make use of pathworking as a technique for inner exploration. By making use of an imagined journey, the aspirant is encouraged to move through any number of different landscapes and domains as a means of gaining a fuller, more vivid appreciation of the icons and symbols that are central to a given path.

I was recently chatting with Julian over tea about his teaching on a Master’s course on ecology and spirituality at Schumacher College and his attempt to communicate the way in which a variety of occult traditions had been shaped by historic processes such as the Industrial Revolution and the birth of Romanticism. In seeking to convey the importance of the Golden Dawn’s role in providing the esoteric underpinning for many of the subsequent manifestations of Neo-Paganism, Julian decided to take his willing students on a pathworking through the Tree of Life. In moving through the various Sephiroth and by incorporating the occult rich imagery of the Crowley-Harris Thoth tarot deck, Julian was able to provide a vivid and immersive means for his students to access these central ideas. As a masterful communicator, he was well aware that such experiential ways of learning are a far deeper and more exciting way of promoting both understanding and curiosity; certainly more effective than handing over a well-thumbed edition of 777 and wishing someone “best of luck!”

As I’ve mentioned previously on the blog, I have recently been revisiting my own engagement with the Druid tradition. Such explorations have been a way of deepening my own connection to the landscape I live within and also my own sense of Priesthood in the magical contexts I currently work. In contrast to many paths that have a more Hermetic or Neo-Platonic emphasis, much of the pathworking that I have undertaken during my training within Druidry has been rooted in the raw glory of Nature’s immanence. Sacred groves and holy wells are visited, dark caves are explored and snowy peaks are scaled in pursuit of wisdom and inspiration.

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Narrow path on the Holy Mountain

While there may be some benefit in my trying to lay down in detail the imagery and sensory information that would make for a vivid pathworking in the Druid tradition (see the works of Philip Carr-Gomm, Emma Restall Orr and Philip Shallcrass for suitable inspiration), I thought it would be of greater benefit if I described the component parts that I feel might be helpful for effective journeying more generally, so that you, dear reader, can construct your own within the mythological paradigm of your choice:

  1. Grounding in a place of safety: Magic can be a risky business that often asks us to question certainties and re-evaluate the person(s) we think we are. When we set out on a journey it can be good to start by connecting to our breath and body within an imagined setting that allows us to get our bearings and to connect to the values and allies that provide the motivation for the work. In the Druid tradition this is often described as a sacred grove, but it could as easily be by the side of the Nile or within the grounds of Apollo’s temple at Delphi.
  2. Descending to the underworld: Now this might reflect something of my dodgy Luciferian tendencies, but I often like an initial period of connecting to the Chthonic, underworld powers. Whether it involves the roots of trees, stygian tunnels or dragon infested caves, I gain great benefit in reconnecting to the dark and unconscious dimensions that such places often represent. We often enter such realms quietly in acknowledgement of their power and the desire to use such serpentine energy to ensure a rich depth to the insights that we hope to gain.
  3. Connecting to a source of Inspiration: When we re-emerge from the underworld blinking as our eyes readjust to the sunlight of the conscious mind, we may wish to connect to a primary source of inspiration within our mythic universe. Whether our encounter is with the guardian of a sacred well or the Priestess of a temple, we may be met with a challenge as to why we wish to access these places, and we may need to reconnect to our motivation for pursuing this work and the extent to which any Gnosis gained will be put into the service of the greater good.
  4. The Ascent: Having restated our motivation and reconnected to the heart of our work (Tiphareth if you will) we are then ready to ascend in order to gain new insight and challenge. You may wish to frame this journey to Shambhala in any number of ways, such as an encounter with the Holy Guardian Angel or our future magical self. Here we must expect the unexpected and we may also wish for portents and signs in future days as a means of “testing the spirits” and ensuring a balanced integration of new knowledge gained.
  5. The Return: Having gained wisdom and/or new insight, it’s important that we return to base so as to ground these new perspectives and to ensure that we can attend to other day-to-day matters without spinning off into space. Returning to our sacred grove and reconnecting to body and breath allows this process to begin and we may wish to formally conclude by giving thanks to our guardians and by ensuring that we do something that grounds us such as eating. Most magical groups eat and drink together after magical work because they’re hungry and the reality of these mundane acts ensures that we don’t lose our shit/get lost in the realms of faery.

Anyhow, hope that this is helpful! Safe travels!

Steve Dee

A Magician in Residence at The Museum of Witchcraft & Magic

For a while, before the office opens, I’m sitting in a hollow on the cliffs, overlooking the sea. I plan to meditate and sing and do some yoga for an hour or so. This will ensure that I’ll be in the right frame of mind for work. Below me is Boscastle harbour. I am sitting on the eastern side of that long inlet, a snaking chasm of rock, half barred by two gently curving sea walls (built in the 16th century). Behind this there are a few boats, some sand and seaweed. On the seaward side there are great cliffs. In undercut hollows, carved by the restless waves, blow-holes form, squirting jets of spray back over the rising tide. This is a deeply magical place, for me and many others. Boscastle is the beautiful, sometimes dangerous confluence of the River Valency and River Jordan. It is one of those deep wooded valleys (‘coombes’ we calls ’em in Devon) that are typical of the north Atlantic coastline. It is also the setting for the Museum of Witchcraft & Magic, where for one week in June I was the ‘Magician in Residence‘.

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Beautiful Boscastle

The Museum of Witchcraft & Magic (MWM) is a collection that is locally adored and internationally recognized. If you’re not already familiar with the amazing range of things they do (from supporting international academic research, to commissioning new artworks) then please take some time to look around their online presence.

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Lurid old skool Baphomet

I’d been aware of the Museum for many years (if nothing else through those brilliantly lurid photos of Baphomet in occult coffee table books of the 1970s). But it wasn’t until fifteen or so years ago I went there for the first time. These days I’m closely involved with the Museum, including as Chair of The Friends of the Boscastle Museum of Witchcraft, a registered charity that supports the museum, in particular with its mission to educate and engage people. One aspect of engagement is to encouraging people to visit spaces like MWM. Visiting museums, especially places of the quality of MWM, can be a powerful, authentic, moving experience. Sure you can see many items from the MWM collection using their online database. However the physical experience of walking down the path, towards the wild Cornish sea, turning right and there, nestled against the rock, is the Museum of Witchcraft & Magic – that embodied experience takes some beating!

MWM’s work includes supporting the increasing appreciation, in academia and wider culture, of the influence of occultism (as I mentioned here). They’ve recently loaned objects to some internationally important shows, such as Victoria and Albert Museum’s exhibition, You Say You Want a Revolution. There are the many ways in which the MWM collection is relevant to wider culture. One of my own interests in this field is in the social phenomena of witch hunting as a form of scapegoating. The way in which communities, of many different sorts, go about hunting and killing ‘witches’ says something very important to all of us. In order to understand, mitigate and perhaps transform our scapegoating behaviour, we have to understand how it happens. Collections such as that at MWM can directly help us do this by bringing us up close and personal with objects that are the anchors for stories of prejudice, misunderstanding and punishment. (You can see some examples of the educational resources I helped to create, enabling young people to explore these issues on the MWM website.  If you’re a teacher, especially of teenagers, you may like to check these out).

Inside MWM there are many wonderful things; the material traces of many expression of occulture. The galleries themselves are a cunning interplay of dark and secret with bold and well-lit spaces. The standard of presentation is second to none (and I’ve worked in many museums over the past 15 years). This excellent curation isn’t surprising given that museum director Simon Costin is something of a creative genius.

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Tasteful modern Baphomet

(Talking of Baphomets, it was also during this week that I helped transport a rather famous Baphomet mask from London to its new home at the Museum. But more of that later…)

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Baphomet, last seen in public on The Fourth Plinth in Trafalgar Square

For my week in residency I got to hang out in the library. This is, as you might imagine, another wonderful space. There are wooden desks, a gigantic witches ball in the window to repel the evil eye, and many, many books. I set up my office here; runes, two decks of tarot cards, crystal ball, special magic A4 white paper for sigils, sage smudge, some magical pointy things from the Himalayas – and we are good to go!

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In residence

I’d imagined that I could spend much of the week writing and maybe doing a spot of research. In addition to an amazing range of books in the MWM library it houses hundreds of files containing everything from facsimile editions of Gerald Gardner’s original Book of Shadows, through to collections of obscure short-run occult ‘zines from the 1980s. However my research plan was not to be. Rather than reading the books I spent most of my time that week doing tarot readings for visitors.

This was both enjoyable and an honour. People often open up in a divination session and place their trust, to some degree, in the diviner. I encourage this, as an important benefit of having a reading is the confidential, candid, even confessional opportunity that this setting provides.

When people come to me for a reading I explain that I can’t divine the future with any great certainty. I usually joke that were this one of my special powers I’d divine six numbers, win the lottery and spend all my time on holiday. (Actually the problem with this analogy is I do generally to get to spend my time doing what I love, but anyhow…). Instead I explain that my role is primarily to work with clients to explore how things are for them, and to look at what possible futures and courses of action might emerge from their present circumstances. This makes the whole process about discovery; the reading becomes a space for mutual investigation and reflection. The querent is not the passive recipient of advice, but an active agent in their own narrative. For while there may be some circumstances where our options are limited. we do usually possess some degree of freedom; this realization is often a key outcome. Cultivating this awareness of freedom, in a realistic way, and exploring the options for change, are for me what tarot readings are all about.

Now I won’t lie, even within this broadly psychological paradigm of divination things with a distinctly parapsychological flavor do happen. For example, my usual practice is ask the querent to draw three cards. On the basis of these I begin a story, then together we explore how this might relate to their situation. Sometimes, especially when I’m on a roll and have been doing lots of readings over a short period of time, I say things in this opening section that the client responds to with surprise. ‘How could you have known that?’ they say. Then there are moments, perhaps halfway through reading (sometimes accompanied by a sense of having something speak through me, or some sense of ‘absence’) where a rush of words comes out. Again the querent may be impressed; I’ve perhaps articulated the problem we’ve been discussing in a radically new way that helps them see a totally new picture, or perhaps I’ve revealed how one character may be acting and what can be done to make things better. These intuitive insights may be surprising, including to me. But however spot on my words are I always bracket what I say. I explain that one reason we call this stuff ‘magic’ is because none of us (perhaps least of all magicians) really known how any of it works. I acknowledge that this is how things may appear in this moment, in this reading, but that the future is uncertain and new information and possibilities may well arise. I may be ‘inspired’ but I’m also quite clear that my impressions may be wrong or incomplete in any number of ways. Sure listen to the oracle, but take it all with a pinch of salt.

I’m pleased to say that I got really nice feedback from some of the folk I read for during my residency and I’m glad they found the sessions useful. For me whether a reading is heavy on the psychological exploration, or has significant parapsychological moments, isn’t what matters. What is important is that the consultation provides an opportunity to empower the querent; allowing them to find their own way in the world. This is the magic of it.

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In the magicians chair

An additional delight of this week was to be able to spend time with many of the members of my extended family, enjoying this magical landscape and each other’s company. (Which is why each morning on those rocks I gave thanks to the Great Spirit – whom I call Baphomet – for those lovely people and the magic in my life.)

I’ve  recorded a few thoughts towards the end of my residency about the role of the proverbial village witch on my Youtube channel too.

Many thanks to the wonderful people at the Museum for welcoming and supporting me during that week, and to all those people who came to see me over those days; may the royal road rise to meet you!

Blessed Be

Julian Vayne

PS Our next Deep Magic Retreat at St.Nectan’s Glen will take place from 27th September-1st October For more details please visit our Facebook page.

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Labyrinth at Rocky Valley, where the river that runs through St.Nectan’s Glen meets the sea.

 

 

 

 

An Audience with Christina Oakley Harrington

I was fortunate to catch up with the wonderful Christina Oakley Harrington while at Treadwell’s Books for my second Psychogeography workshop.

Christina is Treadwell’s founder and presiding spirit. She was voraciously interested in spirituality and magic since childhood, and grew up in West Africa, Burma, and Chile, only moving to the West at the age of 15. In her early twenties she was heartened to discover Europe’s own native religious traditions, and has been a pagan ever since. A former academic, she left university life in 2001 to establish Treadwell’s. These days she serves as a consultant for programmes and projects but is usually at the shop somewhere during the week.

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Christina presents Golden Dawn magician Florence Farr

Here you can listen to the conversation that Christina and I had which ranges across the subjects of women in magic, the importance (or not) of visualization, the use of mescaline in witchcraft, the feminist history of psychedelics, post-modern (or metamodernist) magical paradigms and other stuff!

Enjoy!

Julian Vayne

Schumacher College – Where Ecology and Spirituality Meet

Set in the South Devon countryside on the Dartington Hall Estate (famed as place of radical socialist ideas) stands Schumacher College. The College takes it name from the environmentalist, educator and ecomomist Ernst Schumacher, author of the ground breaking book Small Is Beautiful: A Study of Economics As If People Mattered. This May I was invited by Andy Letcher (author of the seminal Shroom: A Cultural History of the Magic Mushroom) to teach a module on the MA in Spirituality and Ecology; my area of expertise being the history, theory and practice of British Paganism and occulture.

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Schumacher in the Summertime

The academic study of what is usually called ‘Western Esotericism’ has been growing apace over recent years. For instance, the vital role of magic in the work of many artists is today being recovered and celebrated in the academy (whereas mention of occultism was strictly forbidden within the prevailing materialist vocabulary of late 20th century artistic criticism). Meanwhile the relationship between esotericism and many other domains of culture are now seen as legitimate territory for scholarly engagement.

In teaching at Schumacher I was joining  an august list of former lecturers including  Fritjof CapraStanislav GrofJames LovelockLynn MargulisArne NaessRupert Sheldrake, StarhawkVandana Shiva, etc etc. This was a great honour especially since my qualifications are primarily those of esoteric practitioner and writer rather than those of academia. It was a residential week, so I was invited to stay in the beautiful college building and eat wonderful food, much of it grown and prepared by the students. Each day I would come into work, walking past a quote from Goethe, writ large at the college entrance: “Whatever you can do, or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it.”

The week’s teaching began with a brief overview of British history, focusing on the previous 200 or so years. It’s hard to understand the emergence of British paganisms (such as Wicca, Thelema, Druidry, Chaos Magic et al) unless one appreciates something of the history of the British Empire and the social impact of the Industrial Revolution.

Thereafter we plunged into the story of various forms of pagan spirituality; the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn and Thelema, Wicca and witchcraft, Druidry and, towards the end of the week, chaos magic, Discordianism and neo-shamanism.

Each day started with a seminar to provide context, explore origins, key concepts, characters and events.

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Fabulous history

As you can see from the (incomplete) diagram above, the general history of modern British paganism is deeply indebted to the Romantic movement. The Romantics initiated a reappraisal of all those groups of people considered inimicable to the then dominant (religious) discourse. The Romantics looked to the witches, the druids, the heathens and the magicians, re-imagining these groups in powerful ways; seen by some as standing against (repressive) Christian culture. They (witches, druids et al) were more authentic, more spiritual, more in touch with the land, more magical, more matrifocal etc etc than people are today (‘today’ being the 18th and 19th centuries). Thus the devils of the dominant religion become the heroes of the new.  And this process has a powerful magic in it. Druidry, for instance, is successfully re-imagined by the Romantics and antiquarians into inhabited reality. That is, there are people who start to call themselves ‘Druids’ and claim some form of lineage, spiritual or cultural connection with the Druids that Tacitus writes about. As this re-imagination unfolds polymorphously through time, making all kinds of twists and turns. Druidry becomes both a form of LARPing for Anglican ministers and an identity for protest (at Seahenge and Stonehenge) and for a sporting nation (at the Olympics and Paralympics).

Magical history is full of such wyrd transformations: one of my favorites being the way that Margaret Murray sacrifices her academic standing on the altar of Gerald Gardner’s (supposedly ancient) Wicca (by writing the Introduction to Gardner’s Witchcraft Today) and, in doing so, helps to give rise to an actual religion of pagan witchcraft. (A curious historical artefact observed by Wiccan practitioner and scholar Melissa Harrington.)

The afternoons at Schumacher were given over to practical exercises (from Hermetic pathworking through to eclectic-shamanic-style ritual). Through embodied practice I aimed to demonstrate that the techniques of imagination, of ceremony and of attention, that get grouped together as ‘magic’ actually underpin many (apparently non-magical). things. Identity, marketing, economics, religion, all pivot, not on the material stuff of the world, but primarily on our ideas about the world and ourselves. Therefore the fact that we can use these ‘magical’ approaches to stir up and change our awareness is deeply relevant to how culture happens, especially when we consider how our beliefs (our spirituality) relates to the communities and planet we inhabit (ecology). Magic also rests on the axiom ‘As Above, So Below’, or more generally that ‘everything is interconnected’. Such a world view is natural to the ecologist. With that in mind it is important to equip those studying ecology and related disciplines not only with ideas, but with embodied practices by which they can modify awareness so that this ‘holistic’ world-view becomes a deeply felt experience.

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At the Entrance to the Underworld, shrine space decorated by students on the Spirituality & Ecology MA programme.

Naturally I learnt lots as a teacher at Schumacher. One insight was a renewed appreciation of how the history of British occultism can initially appear like a tiny (irrelevant) scene, a cul-de-sac of culture. But dig a little deeper and it is soon becomes apparent that, not only does magic respond to and reflect wider culture, but it also acts to change it; often in far reaching ways. Another lesson was something I’m often reminded of when I teach magical techniques and that is this; the process of doing ritual, of creating ceremony, is a deeply human need. It’s a process which, for many people, is linked to experiences of orthodox religion and its associated oppressions, and so they (understandably) distrust it. But ritual need not be like this; empowering ourselves to understand and use this approach for purposes such as spiritual exploration, group bonding and social transformation, on our own terms, is essential.

My heartfelt thanks to Andy Letcher and the staff at Schumacher, and to the students for being up for everything from constructing the Qabalah from tarot cards through to rune singing and the gnostic pentagram rite! I look forward to my next visit 😀

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Exploring the Tarot and the Tree

Use this link find out more about the MA in Spiritual and Ecology.

Julian Vayne

Swimming in a Sea of Black Light

“The passing from the “black light”’ from the “luminous night”, to the brilliance of the emerald vision will be a sign…of the completed growth of the subtle organism, the “resurrection body” hidden in the physical body.”

Henry Corbin The Man of Light in Iranian Sufism

To bring work with the body into the magical circle almost always entails risk. Those neat, finely honed borders that we think we have constructed within our minds are threatened by dissolution when we dare to dance, move and touch. Our attempts to manage the raw heart of emotion via the brute force of cognition feel fragile and dusty when our magic asks that we tune in to where the weight of life sits in the body.

Documenting life below the surface

Tidal forces

Whether our emotions are connected to joy or grief so many of us dump portions of these experiences into the unconscious due to the threat of feeling overwhelmed. When faced with the terrifying flood of these tidal forces, we often disconnect in order to survive. While such a strategy provides us with a valid short-term solution, most of us know that at a deeper level attempts to suppress or even deny can ultimately endanger our health. As magicians seeking to engage with the body, our work allows us the realization that however our clever minds might seek to dodge the impacts of life, our flesh and frame are persistent in pursuing the alchemy of feeling and processing.

My own journey into this territory has taken a number of different forms over the past 40 years-Hatha Yoga as an adventurous 10 year old, Holy Ghost writhing as a petulant teenage Pentecostal and the Shamanic dance/shaking of my current Queer-Gnostic Witchcraft. Beyond my sometimes tortured attempts to capture certainty via belief and communal belonging, I found myself returning again and again to a magic in and through my body. My connection to these methods feels located in their ability to express something that felt both profoundly visceral and immanent, while allowing my sense of self to open to an otherness that I often experience as alien and transcendent. Beyond the occultural expectations to know more and to authenticate my chosen path, the Magic that I find myself doing is one in which the messages of deep intuition are felt as much as thought.

Over the last 6 months I have been making some tentative explorations of various Martial Arts and in addition to the new challenges that this has provided both socially and kinetically, it also catalysed a process of reflection about masculinity and my own experience of grief. While I had been somewhat familiar with western sword fencing and Yang style Tai Chi, these recent forays into Kick-Boxing and Krav Maga caused me to ponder the way in which I used my body to attack and defend in a dojo or gym that predominantly in habited by male-identified humans.

In thinking and writing a lot recently about the experiences of Queerness and androgyny, I started to ponder whether my explorations of Martial Arts were an attempt to explore the expressions of masculinity that I often experience as difficult. From previous experience I knew that such explorations would be challenging for me, but I was unprepared for how they would affect me when, after a short-illness, my Dad passed away.

Grief can do many things to us, but I was truly unprepared for how the engagement in body work via Martial Arts proved to be far too much for me in the midst of such a profound loss. Grief can take on many forms, but for me it felt as though I was carrying around a concrete block that I simply wasn’t ready to put down. In talking with friends (especially those who had lost a parent), I am aware of how complex the process is of making sense of who this person was and is to you following their physical death. This process of internalising his image and memory within me demanded a degree of energy that required quiet incubation rather than an energetic surging outwards.

My experience of loss hit me at a profoundly somatic level and I would often find myself staring off into space as my body tried to manage the waves of tiredness that washed over me. Emotion inevitably found expression through my body: slow stretches and shadow boxing providing a way to connect to the complex amalgam of gratitude and sadness that I feel.

My work with the body is allowing me to swim in the black light of grief. Lessons from surfing provide rich material as I try to make sense of what the heck is going on. Often when held down by the impact of a wave, we can become overwhelmed by panic as we struggle to know which way is up and we are all too aware that we are running out of air. The key in such situations is to relax as much as possible so that with eyes open you can see the direction of light once the waves force has passed. So this is what I’m doing: letting myself feel what I’m feeling, trying not to force myself to struggle against the weight of what has happened. I keep tuning into my body because my training and experience have taught me that it so often the best barometer for where I need to be and the form of self-care I need to invest in.

Steve Dee

 

Magical Words and Images

I hope you’re having a wonderful May! Having not long got back from running the very first retreat at St.Nectan’s Glen I’ve now got the opportunity to share some really excellent books that I’ve recently added to my library.

Heart Vision
Tarot’s Inner Path
Michael Orlando Yaccarino

Book ended with a foreword by tarot guru Rachel Pollack, and afterword by novelist and Egyptologist Normandi Ellis, Heart Vision comes with an impressive pedigree. Michael Orlando Yaccarino is perhaps best known for his engaging and exhaustive biographical works on the life of Luisa Casati (written in collaboration with Scot D.Ryersson, who also created illustrations for Heart Vision)). As per his books on The Marchesa, in Heart Vision Michael draws our attention to the work of another, sometimes overlooked, female creative. In this case it is Pamela Coleman Smith, the artist responsible for producing the compelling designs of the so-called Rider-Waite tarot deck. It is through the imagery of this quintessential deck that Yaccarino explores each of the arcana.

As Heart Vision unfolds Michael skillfully guides us through the deck, deftly bringing our attention to the hidden, the background imagery and the ‘veiled aspects’ of each card. But it’s not all about the iconography: A comprehensive range of spreads are given, with some very interesting variations. There are also examples of readings that demonstrate how the interpretative process unfolds.

Little gems of wisdom are scattered through the pages, culled from Yaccarino’s clearly extensive reading and conversations with contemporary practitioners. This is an excellent introduction to the tarot, and an enjoyable and illuminating text for the seasoned reader too. Available from Mandrake of Oxford.

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They Shimmer Within
Cognitive-Evolutionary Perspectives on Visionary Beings
Bruce Rimell

This is a very cogent, well cited exploration of why it is that we humans see things; things like ghosts and pixies, spirits and aliens, gods and, of course, entities when we are high (especially when we are high on Salvia, NN DMT and ayahuasca).

This book is grounded in both personal experience with visionary psychedelics and contemporary scientific models of neurological evolution. They Shimmer Within builds up the case that the beings we see (whether we are high on drugs or anxiously wandering round a haunted house) arise because our minds are primed for the detection of intelligent agents.

As well as exploring the wider lore of disembodied entities this volume also engages with topics such as those invasive alien surgeons summoned by DMT (frequently encountered when the psychonaut is injected by Dr Strassman in a hospital setting, weird eh?) and the nice summary of those ‘are the machine elves real?’ discussions as articulated by David Luke. The deep phenomenology of the ayahuasca experience (Shanon) and the modular nature of the mind (Mithen) also have a role to play in this masterful exploration of this curious and contested territory. My own copy is now full of marginalia (some of Bruce’s ideas are very similar to those I’ve written about previously) I’ve certainly been informed and inspired by this excellent text. Available via Amazon.

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3 Essays on Virtual Reality
Overlords, Civilization and Escape
Eliott Edge

It is true that in every age people have used technology to frame their thoughts about how things work. The human mind for example has been variously imagined as a loom, a hydraulic engine, a radio antenna, and of course, a computer. Elliott Edge’s book stands within that tradition, here virtual reality (VR) is the cutting edge metaphor of choice through which we may (virtually) peer at ‘the wiring under the board’ of the universe.

Discussions about whether we are living in a (computer) simulation have existed in occulture for a number of years (notably in the work of Lionel Snell aka Ramsey Dukes) and years later exploded into mainstream society in the movie The Matrix. What Edge does in his work is move the conversation on, with a range of nice thought experiments and observations delivered in an engagingly rigorous yet conversational style.

For each generation there are those who who remind us that ‘the map is not the territory’. Using the language of VR Edge analyses the world-views or reality tunnels we inhabit and reminds of this perennial (multiple) truth. 3 Essays on Virtual Reality does not fall prey to solipsism but instead addresses the very real consequences of simulated reality theory. Edge points us to paranormal studies, shamanism and magic (as well as psychedelic drugs) as agents that may allow us to examine the architecture of the reality studio, and perhaps even reconfigure the inevitable VRs in which we live. Download these essays into your VR helmet here.

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The Devon & Cornwall Pagan Federation Conference

A delightful conference that has been going for 20 years was held again in March of this year. I was invited to make the first presentation of the day on the theme of Paganism past, present and future. I had to pack my talk into less time that I initially thought available but still managed to get a few gags in.

The key point of my  presentation was that while there may be a slow down in the number of people who identify as ‘Pagan’ (at least in UK census data) there are many, many more people who do pagan things – paganing as a verb as it were.

The great increase in the numbers of people creating autonomous spiritualities, of those involved in entheogenics and many others paths, perhaps means that the practices of Paganism have gone beyond the limits of identities such as ‘witch’, ‘heathen’ and all the rest.

Next year this conference will be back, but this time as part of the Pagan Phoenix South West. More details as these unfold but for now, enjoy!

(With thanks to the wonderful Damh the Bard for his contributions to this talk and to our own Steve Dee for the metaphor of the ‘Monsters of Rock’.)

If you want to check out details of forthcoming events please have a look at this page.

Hail the Queen of the May!

Julian Vayne

PS Don’t worry if you can’t access the article Keeping the Doors of Perception Open, all will be revealed soon…;)