Pleasure, Power, Addiction and Connection

In this season of Beltane everything is alive and buzzing, or, to quote Austin Osman Spare in The Logomachy of Zos, “all things fornicate all the time”. This phase of the year is about sexuality or, more broadly, a celebration and exploration of pleasure and connection as the brighter, warmer weather opens us up to the possibility of summer. We begin to gather together, to come into closer, joyful, even ecstatic relationships. Although this year traditional gatherings, such as the Padstow May Day ceremony, have been absent as they were in 2020, things are changing. As the pandemic in Britain wanes (or is conveniently forgotten…) communities are slowly re-establishing their physical connections. Hugs are a thing again as the bonds of love and care are re-kindled in the flesh. Our desire for others, whether romantic or otherwise, our hunger for communion grows as the forest canopy opens to the sun.

Facts of life

I’ve written recently about the delicate nature of this time. The need for us all to cultivate tolerance for others and kindness towards ourselves. With our reduced cognitive capacity – caused by fear, isolation and loss – tempers may be somewhat shorter than usual. Our emotions can – and indeed in some cases should – over spill the banks of our usual decorum as we bear witness to these difficult days.

When we consider our social connections, it’s helpful to remember that spending time with our peers, our kin and with affable strangers, is what our biology yearns for. Social interaction makes us feel well, it’s a pleasure, a buzz, an essential part of being human. Even if we feel comfortable when we are alone, we still live lives profoundly embedded within the social network of human relationships. (The very fact you are reading this with language and literacy that came from your culture into your mind, and which structures your thoughts, is a clear demonstration of this fact.) Social connection, which can take many forms, is something we all crave. In fact some of the processes that drive our damaging addictive behaviours are exactly the same ones that encourage us to seek social, and indeed sexual, connection. These processes within our bodyminds are mediated by endogenous opioids. These opium-like chemicals, produced in various structures in the body, arise into consciousness creating the feelings of a warm comforting hug from our dearly beloved and, importantly, feeding our desire to feel these feels.

No substitute for connection with others

It is precisely for this reason that exogenous opiates (opium and its derivatives such as morphine), and synthetic opioids (like fentanyl) are so addictive. The sense of comfortable calm and pleasure we are wired to experience when in social communion can be hijacked by the comfortably numb refuge of addiction if we are lonely. Neuroscientist Rachel Wurzman brilliantly explains the relationship between loneliness, addiction, opioids and social connection in her TED presentation of 2018. Understanding the work of Wurzman and colleagues is of course even more pressing in this time of pandemic.

To reiterate that point; our desire for social and sexual pleasure dwells, in part, within the same neurological and social structures from which addictions emerge when we are lonely and therefore suffering,. And while there are additional factors when it comes to understanding addiction, the critical pathway is undoubtedly the one that Wurzman describes. 

Exploring our desires and our pleasures is an important part of the magical path. Many of us come to magic because it offers the possibility of answering our needs. Magic, at least for the beginner, may be imagined primarily as a means to an end. I desire a new job so I make a sigil and, abrahadabra! it manifests! The limitation with this approach is that it starts from what ‘I’ want but doesn’t address the question of who is this ‘I’ that does the wanting?

As we deepen our engagement with magic most of us move away from a focus on simplistic instrumental or operative magic. Desire becomes broader and in a sense deeper too. We may still do spells for particular outcomes in the world but we are perhaps more likely to focus these around acts of personal and cultural transformation. We are likely to develop desires that are less attached to our immediate personal circumstances but are part of a bigger picture. Acts of larger scale political magic and longer-term processes of cultural change become more significant than our relatively petty, and frequently transient, personal needs. Magic becomes more about capacity, the development of enhancements to our abilities to nourish ourselves and those around us; and the ability to be fully present in, and successfully adapt to, the circumstances of our lives. This is the work of illumination. Carl Jung writes about this process in his Collected Works stating “… all the greatest and most important problems of life are fundamentally insoluble…. They can never be solved, but only outgrown…“

The liberation from suffering, and the journey into states of illumination and bliss, are key themes in many spiritual traditions. Eschewing the focus on suffering and attachment that Gautama Buddha foregrounds, both Austin Osman Spare and Crowley – echoing the Tantric tradition – focus on the role of pleasure as a means to liberation. Crowley writes that ‘all acts of love and pleasure are rituals’. His words beautifully adapted by Doreen Valiente into the Wiccan Charge of The Goddess, “Let my worship be within the heart that rejoiceth, for behold: all acts of love and pleasure are my rituals.” Abiding in the state of bliss is, in some senses, the aim of Tantric practices in which the non-dual approaches of that tradition seek to reveal the ecstasy of existence in all forms of manifestation.

(Ian Baker – the lead curator of Tibet’s Secret Temple exhibition at the Wellcome Collection, London – provides a great introduction to non-dual Tantrism in this documentary and particularly discusses bliss states at 52:40.)

Such potentially ecstatic feelings, where we feel profoundly connected to all things, are of course available through a variety of ways of altering consciousness including the intelligent use of psychedelic drugs. But this process isn’t a Polyanna-ish acceptance that all is well in the sense of requiring no action. Rather these states also allow us to discern how we might address the barriers that stand between us – all of us – and a deeper sense of connection and therefore bliss. As an example of this process in action check out this wonderful interview with Rick Doblin of the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies. In his tale Rick recounts psychedelic insights from decades ago that inspired him to work for the rehabilitation of psychedelics as medicines (the key section is at 03:36).

Expanding our capacity for pleasure is far from the rapacious and empty pursuit of the bigger and better buzz. Or as Crowley puts it in The Book of The Law, “…refine thy rapture!…if thou love, exceed by delicacy; and if thou do aught joyous, let there be subtlety therein!” Developing an engagement with desire and pleasure means developing the capacity to feel more deeply (remember that the root etymology of the word ‘magic’, while often given as ‘power’ can equally be described as ‘capability’). Taking delight in the great mystery of existence, cultivating our capacity to experience that delight in daily life, and to work to support that capacity in others, are all essential. The aim is to feel more fully, to refine ourselves so that the freedom, pleasure and power of the world is accessible in every moment and not just in the high-octane experiences we may encounter. Psychedelics can be catalysts of this, where our changed perception can remind us of the remarkable mystery of the simple things; the water we drink, the sky we live beneath, the warmth of the hearth fire, the flow of the breath through our bodies, the touch of the beloved.

A seasoned magical approach to manifesting this bliss doesn’t require us to become some kind of results magic Übermensch. Rather the process is to connect with a desire that isn’t selfish in the usual sense but rather transpersonal. The ‘I’ that does the desiring, in our example of siglized results magic, recognizes that it is intimately interdependent with all those other ‘I’s, and that distinctions between self and other are arbitrary and impermanent. Pleasure therefore, in its fullest sense, cannot be at the expense of others (be they human people or other beings).

I connect

From this understanding grows an ethic and practice where, to quote Spare again – this time from The Focus of Life – we ‘embrace reality by imagination’. We use magic not so much to grasp for things, nor to push them away, but rather to develop our capacity to be fully present in this single existence we share, and to change that in ways that allow us to access increasing bliss.  In doing so magic moves from being something that looks like a series of gamer cheat codes into something much deeper. A process by which we seek to be fully ourselves not at the expense of others but in community with them. We put aside our understandable but ultimately debilitating addictions and instead thrive on a diet of authenticity, full presence and pleasure. We seek to cultivate these abilities in all of us and for that reason the dedication of our Great Work to the liberation of all beings is actually the only game in town.

I feel this delight in my own life is when I’m able to share practices in ways that are accessible and beneficial to others. As an example, a couple of days ago I received an email from a student on my First Steps in Magic course:

“I wanted to let you know that I have been working your classes and wanted to let you know what I think as someone that is deaf. I love them.

I have been part of this whole witch world since I was very young ….when I had sound and heard a voice no one else did. It has been many years… I now walk in that golden age…these inspired some splendid new ways to continue to grow. These are not just beginner classes on magick this is also about revisiting and re-inspiring the magick that we have. This has been delightful.

I really appreciate your videos and that fact that you accompany it with the course notes. I can see that you speak clearly and concisely and that matters.  I need that as hearing is far more challenging in the real world.  I love the re-inspired directions you have brought me and hope that you will continue to offer more.  

I am not done with them yet but as I do them I am constantly impressed and really just felt bold enough to share that with you. I wonder if that is more of the magick I am re-learning from you….where else will it show up I wonder? Thanks so much.”

In recent months I’ve also been translating some of the techniques I’ve learned in an esoteric context into language more suited to a wider audience. This has enabled me to share esoteric practices in mainstream health care settings to support mental health and wellbeing. I’ve been pleased to receive some touching feedback about how these practices have helped people.

My experience as a teacher and occultist is a microcosm of the wider picture. Methods formerly known as esoteric technologies – psychedelic journeywork, meditation practices, breathwork, guided visualization (previously called ‘pathworking’) and more – are entering mainstream culture. Given the trauma that both recent events and historic situations have generated, empowering people to access these techniques seems to me to be vital work. These techniques, this magic, can help us transform our isolation into connection and bliss. May we each find the right way to discover and follow our bliss.

Wishing you well with your Great Work

Julian Vayne

Coming Up Next…

Julian is teaching at Treadwell’s Books about Gods, Spirits and Servitors and The Thoth Tarot.
Julian will also be taking part in the Fungi Academy Integration Circle on 1st June.
The My Magical Thing video documentary project continues to grow, subscribe to the Deep Magic YouTube channel for updates.

And in the physical world:
Psychedelic Press Journal, with Nikki Wyrd at the editorial helm, continues to present cutting edge literary psychedelia.

Pilgrimage: Journeying in the body and landscape

Perhaps as a result of lockdown related ennui, I have been thinking about sacred journeys. 

(In order to avoid the frustrations of travel porn I will provide a link to a previous piece about taking inner journeys via pathworking techniques Walking the Narrow Road.)

When we scan the vast landscape of human religious experience and expression, the act of Pilgrimage is almost universal in its scope. Moving from our place of origin towards a sacred site is an undertaken in religions both theistic and non-theistic. Whether it is the ground zero of the Buddha’s enlightenment at Bodh Gaya, A Sufi Saint’s tomb or Canterbury Cathedral, the power and significance of a spiritually meaningful journey should not be underestimated.

In the introduction to their wonderful and encyclopedic guide Britain’s Pilgrim Places Nick Mayhew-Smith and Guy Hayward make the following observation:

“Meaningful journeys are one of the few universal patterns of human behavior, seeking out special places where communities share their memories, spill out their hopes and fears. They are places where all can find wholeness, be part of something bigger. They are open to all.”

Whatever the destination particular to our chosen religious or magical path, the Pilgrimage represents a very physical expression of our devotion and longings. We are no longer armchair aspirants, rather our internal journey, in pursuit of meaning, is gaining a very physical and spatial expression. Whether undertaken independently or with the support of others, we are acknowledging that staying-put is not enough, we need to hit the road. 

Our journey usually begins long before we step outside our front door. We may have spent months or years planning and anticipating this journey. Finding the time, the funds and the support of others to make this possible all contributes to casting a powerful spell upon such undertakings. Often the amount of sacrifice needed to make our pilgrimage happen, profoundly encapsulates the importance of that destination as an embodiment of our spiritual intentions. I have clear memories of what it has felt like as I began a journey to a large Pagan gathering, a road-trip to monastery and even my preparations to see a band like Fugazi whose music captured my politics and desire for authenticity. 

As we travel, our hopes and expectations sharpen our senses in a way that creates story. Aspects of my own Pilgrimages feel etched in my memory: what I drank in the airport, the challenges of negotiating a foreign public transport system and those meals with fellow pilgrims where time slowed down and deep connections were made.

Pilgrims at the Ka’ba in Mecca

On the road we often meet fellow travellers and we resonate with a shared knowledge that often remains unspoken. We connect with the perseverance needed, the aspirations shared and the badge of honor earned via the journey. We have a common mythology as someone who was willing to step-outside mundane time in pursuit of new truths. Symbols and shared songs while on the way add to the creation of a temporal community. Markers such the white robe of the Hajj pilgrim or the Scallop Shell of the Camino walkers, mark us as changed. 

Given that Pilgrimage often involves journey to the remains of a Saint or beloved spiritual teacher, as we travel we enter into a new relationship with both time and death. When we travel with intention we enter a liminal zone between life and death. We have uncoupled ourselves from our static, safe bases (if we ever had them) and we are forcing ourselves to face change and the finite nature our lives. In the light of our mortality how are we to live? What are we doing with the time we have left and how does the life of our saint exemplify how we might do things differently?

We might fantasize about the Pilgrim as being an embodiment of rugged individualism, but such ableism has little place in the reality of mobility and sensory challenges that many of us experience. Even if we travel alone most of us have benefited from the support of a community that has helped get us there. They become “a cloud of witnesses” (Hebrews 12:1) surrounding us and cheering us on in spirit via thoughts, spells and Instagram messages. 

Recent connections have been made here between bipedal movement through a landscape and the type of trauma processing that occurs via trauma therapies such as Eye-Movement Desensitizing Reprogramming (EMDR). In a way similar to the bilateral tapping or use of moving lights that encourages eye-movement, travelling through a landscapes creates a rhythm that seems to allow us to make sense of things in a way that linear problem-solving alone fails to do. The home-spun wisdom of “just go for a walk” may not be bad advice and in my own experience as a somewhat nominal runner, I often find that the rigors of a sweaty and breathless 5K run often allows access to previously unconsidered wisdom.

Discovering Wisdom: The Canterbury Tales

Sometimes the sense of magical space that we inhabited during pilgrimage can make the readjustment to normal life quite bumpy. Perhaps the expectations we had were too high and we are making sense of disappointment; perhaps the freedom of the road makes a return to our previous life impossible? Intentional journeys create change and no change is without a cost. 

Personally I am taking time to recollect my own past journeys and I am savoring the way in which their magical atmosphere changed me. With lockdown still a reality, I am breaking out the maps and my walking shoes and warming up my imagination for what is to come. ☺ 

Here’s some more inspiration from the brilliant British Pilgrim’s Trust to inspire you:

“Pilgrimage (n.): A journey with purpose on foot to holy/wholesome/special places.

People have made pilgrimage across countless geographies, cultures and eras.

To turn a walk into a pilgrimage, at the beginning set your private ‘intention’ – dedicate your journey to something that you want help with, or for which you want to give thanks.

Pilgrimage is for everyone, promoting holistic wellbeing via pilgrim practices and connecting you with yourself, others, nature and everything beyond.”

Steve Dee