Using Magic to Improvise the Self: Explorations in Chaos Mysticism (Part 2)

In my last post I spent time thinking about the potential parallels between acts of creation at both a large and small scale. How might the way in which we view the origins of the Universe shape our perception of self and experience of being a human?

My own view is that the creative, cut-up style of Chaos magic provides us with a position of dynamic agnosticism that allows us to engage with the questions we grapple with. At a cosmological level I was keen to embrace an origins story that reflected a “fragmentary beauty and partial truths: a cut-up formed from moments of inspiration and hard-won life lessons…a custom job, slowly stitched together and arguably unique.” In this post I hope to explore the way in which such an approach can help shape the way we engage with the work of transforming the self.

As we seek to explore potential models of self, the Chaos magician (or at least this one) tends to exercise a degree of both skepticism and down and dirty pragmatism. Yes a specific model may provide a language with which to access new insights, but how do I take these lessons into the realm of my magical work so as to bring about lasting initiatory change?

Under the sway of Postmodernism, Chaos magic tends to be far more interested in the self as a process rather than seeing it as a fixed entity. Think more of a dynamic shifting river bed rather than a still pool of unfathomed depths. Rather than initiatory work being located in some far off idealized future, this “self as process” paradigm challenges us to experience the work unfolding in the moment as the primary location and focus of activity.

Most of us come to magical work in order to experience change. We may have felt trapped by the old, outdated scripts and principles we were adhereing to. If we were simply content with these we would not have entered the Temple of the Mysteries. Whatever the techniques or traditions we favour, my hunch is that we are seeking methods and frameworks within which to improvise new understandings of self.

I have previously written about how the artistic technique of cut-ups provide us with powerful insights into the shifting nature of both consciousness and identity. The dynamic and improvisational spirit of this approach captures well the experience of many and potentially provides a more fluid map for developing a more playful approach.

Cut-ups also happen at a cosmic level and the Mesopotamian creation myth Enuma Elish (lit. “when on high”) vividly depicts this. It tells the story of a struggle between the elder gods of primal chaos and the young upstarts embodying consciousness and order. The great primal Mother Tiamat is eventually slain by the heroic warrior Marduk who then forms the material universe from her draconian remains. This speaks powerfully of our own journey in pursuing the goal of self-creation; we may desire the coherence and direction of the ordered and linear, but if we fail to recognise the vital potency of the chaotic, our path is likely to become arid.

When we begin to pay more attention to the terrain of self, it can feel both challenging and potentially disorientating. Too great a sense of fragmentation and we risk both good mental health and the necessary cohesion needed for day-to-day functioning. Embracing fluidity and multiplicity can feel highly liberating, but we can also risk feeling distress if our experience of subjective complexity runs contra to older expectations regarding having a unified experience of self. Shouldn’t I be more consistent, less conflicted and frankly have my shit more together?

I hope you are beginning to spot how tricky it can be to find metaphors that help convey the complexity and mystery of the work that we are trying to do! In my own attempt to map-out some of my own exploration of what I experience going on:

In this circularity I have been trying to spot the links in my own chaos magical process and role that intuition plays in inspiring the form of play and ritual improvisation that takes place in the laboratory space of the magical circle. While my intuition can definitely have an unexpected and non-linear quality, the foundation for such gnostic insights has come by means of research, reading and the consumption of prodigious quantities of art.

When we dare to improvise, to step outside of the known and fully rehersed we can feel like The Fool in the tarot daring to step out. While that image is both powerful and inspiring, we should be cautious about taking it too literally! To improvise is not to disregard health and safety concerns or rely on blind-optimism, rather it allows us to trust in our own cultivation of poise and the possibility of what can occur when we relinquish the tightness of our control. 

Such states of being are often associated with “flow” and the outcome of mastery and we know that these experiences often result as a result of concentrated discipline in acquiring the basics. We would rarely expect to be able to play an improvised guitar solo without hours spent playing scales, and yet in our magical work we imagine that the possibility of mystical experience isn’t enhanced by regular spiritual practice. 

Perhaps with a new year and new decade beginning, it’s time for all of us to revisit magical bootcamps like Liber MMM (or others of your choosing), in order to reconnect to daily practices that allow the possibility of more creative experiences of both ourselves and our connection to others.

To conclude here’s a beasutiful quote from the preface of Viola Spolin’s excellent Theater Games for the Lone Actor:

“In the present time a path is opened to your intuition, closing the gap between thinking and doing, allowing you, the real you, your natural self, to emerge and experience directly and act freely, present to the moment you are present to.

You, the real you, must be seen. There are many facets to your basic persona unknown even to you , that you may come forth, appear, and become visible. You, the unique, invisible, unknown, must emerge, be seen, and connect!”

Steve Dee


Deep Magic Retreat

Cultivating Connection

Our 2020 springtime retreat will take place in April (17-19th). Please join us for this magical adventure, exploring the connection between Nature and ourselves!

This weekend will give you the opportunity to engage with a remarkable landscape in which humans and other species live and work together. Through group practices and solitary exploration we will discover how we can bring together spirituality and practicality. Using a range of artistic, ceremonial and meditative processes developed specifically for this site, we will re-engage with our humanity as a harmonious part of Nature. The key themes for this retreat will be regeneration and relationship; bring your curiosity, your open mind, and a willingness to participate.

Ragmans Lane Farm is nestled in the Wye Valley on the edge of the Forest of Dean, in an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. An hour from Bristol, Birmingham and Cardiff, the 60 acre site is one of Britain’s most well established permaculture and organic farms. Ragmans has hosted numerous courses over many decades with teachers including Starhawk, Patrick Whitefield  and Bill Mollison.

Accessible to novices, and beneficial for experienced practitioners, these days of practical deep magic will give you plenty of opportunity for personal transformation, learning and fun.

We will be staying in a superbly converted 400 year old barn, with three dormitory style areas (6 beds, 2 beds and 3 beds). The barn also has a comfortable sitting room, and a large dining room/kitchen, both perfect for socialising. The retreat includes full-board accommodation with delicious home-cooked vegan food, much of it grown locally, some at Ragmans Lane itself!

We will be using a separate meeting hall for indoor ceremony and practices, as well as several beautiful outdoor spaces. 

The retreat runs from Friday 17th until Sunday 19th April. 

Cost £300. Early Bird £250 (until 14th February).
PayPal contactdeepmagic@gmail.com

If you have any questions, or want to know about alternative payment options, please email us at contactdeepmagic@gmail.com

The Mind’s Eye – Psychedelics vs Hallucinogens

As the psychedelic renaissance continues the language we use about these substances frames how they emerge from ‘traditional’, underground and research contexts and into wider culture.

For example, it’s worth pointing out that psychedelic substances, indeed all drugs for that matter, are not and have never been ‘illegal’. While this point may seem like splitting hairs to some it’s vital to understand how drugs are controlled, by whom and for what reasons (mostly Richard Nixon’s paranoia). Sure, in day to day parlance, we may speak of ‘illegal drugs’ but understanding the deeper truth of their juridical status helps us appreciate key nuances. What we are dealing here with isn’t outlaw substances, but rather the politics, policy and underlying ethical positions that support prohibition.

Another important aspect of pharmacolingistics is how we choose to describe the class of drugs being investigated in clinical and academic settings world-wide. While ‘hallucinogen’ has been used in this past this term has serious flaws.

Hallucinogen is now, however, the most common designation in the scientific literature, although it is an inaccurate descriptor of the actual effects of these drugs. In the lay press, the term psychedelic is still the most popular and has held sway f,or nearly four decades.”

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Psychedelic drugs, not just active in the mind’s eye…

The comment above is from David Nichols, one of the leading psychedelic chemists on the planet, who knows a thing or two about such matters (see hallucinogen in Wikipedia). Luckily David’s wish to change that ‘inaccurate descriptor’ has been granted.

The quote from Professor Nichols dates back to 2004. These days a brief glance at contemporary research shows how ‘psychedelic’ has now become the preferred nomenclature in scientific circles . There is for example The Journal of Psychedelic Studies, a leading academic peer-reviewed publication that brings together scientific research concerning these medicines. Then there is Psychedelic Press Journal that publishes ethnographic research, rare historical material and experimental writing. There’s nothing remotely equivalent out there with the ‘hallucinogenic’ tag and for very good reasons, as I explain here…

The book I name check in this video is Mike Jay’s wonderful Mescaline: A Global History of the First Psychedelic; a meticulously researched and moving account, especially in relation to the development of peyote ceremony within Native American communities. Highly recommended.

Wishing you all a fabulous December Solstice!

Stay high! Stay free!

Julian Vayne

 


Yuletide shopping opportunity!

I’m really pleased to announce that Getting Higher has been published in Polish! You can get your copy here 🙂

Polish version Getting higher

I’m also running a workshop at Treadwell’s Books in London on Spaces and their Spirits on the 1st of February where I’ll be sharing techniques to enable us explore a metamodern animism. Expect spirit beings of all sorts, from genuis loci and faeries to chaos magic servitors and ancient deities!

Nikki and I will be running more Deep Magic retreats in 2020. If you want to be kept up to date with our plans please get in touch and we will add you to our mailing list.

I’ll be presenting at the Conjuring Creativity conference in Stockholm in March. The theme for the conference is art and the esoteric in the age of the anthropocene.

Have a magical 2020!

Jx

 

 

 

 

 

Big Creation, Small Creation: Explorations in Chaos Mysticism (Part 1)

Candles and incense are were lit and the wood burner was fed. We were few in number but in the stillness between All Souls and Solstice, we had come seeking “the still point of the turning world.”

Vowel sounds are intoned as Gnostic pentagrams are vibrated through the body and before we journey through drumming and sitting practice, our declaration is made:

Zen-Gnostic Poem

(Ring Bell 8 times)

“We begin in Silence and Space

The realm of vast consciousness

The marriage of Darkness and Light.

In the pregnant space of reflection

Wisdom is born

Glowing deep blue against the blackness

Silver Star points grow

As the holy Aeon spins her web of connection.

Wisdom makes manifest

An outflowing of the multiple and the complex

The Craftsman makes the World:

Baphomet-Abraxas, liminal world dancer

Changing, growing and creating.

We come to listen and to remember our original face,

We come as heroes of practice

Who sit like mountains together!”

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For the magician-mystic, the stories of creation on the grandest scale are also stories of self. Diverse cultures over millennia have grappled with both imagining the process of cosmic becoming and also in understanding individual experiences of consciousness upon that stage. These are parallel processes that mirror each other at the deepest level and the beliefs we hold about our significance and structure are often projected upon the big screen of our creation stories.

These stories may attempt to place us in relation to a supreme deity or they may hold positions (as with many Buddhist schools) where speculation regarding our metaphysical origins is kept to a minimum. For me what often feels different for the magician is that rather than viewing ourselves as passive spectators of a completed process, we are active agents upon a stage on which our own self-creation is a vital chapter. While this potentially risks megalomania, most of us chose to walk this knife-edge rather than feeling overwhelmed by powerlessness.

In my view the postmodern insights of Chaos Magic have something valuable to offer to this process. While many Chaos magicians may embrace world views that emphasize the uncovering of the essential Self/Buddha-mind, the dynamic fluidity of the Chaotic approach also allows for the active creation of self.

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As I re-read my Zen-Gnostic creation poem, I am struck by its fragmentary beauty and partial truths: a cut-up formed from moments of inspiration and hard-won life lessons. This is a custom job, slowly stitched together and arguably unique. The orthodox will decry its hotchpotch constructionism, but these monstrous forms contain their own potency in being born from an honest encounter with dread and comic awe.

The Magician is engaged is an on-going and arguably endless process of zooming out (the Big, the Cosmic) and then in; in the pursuit of self. When I apply this method to the alchemy of self-transformation, perhaps I can learn to accept the complexity of who I am and that I am very much a work in progress. Effort and analysis remain essential, but it is also good to question what the fuck I think perfectionism means and whether I can relinquish the relentless conveyor-belt of self-improvement tasks?

In thinking about what helps with this opening-out, here’s a few ideas that I am currently exploring:

  1. A Mystic of the Self:

While we might initially balk at the idea of the place of Mysticism within magical traditions with a more Left-Hand Path/antinomian  perspective (mysticism being far too fuzzy and imprecise), I find potential value in the way in which it might grapple with the expansive boundaries of self that we experience in our psyche-centric exploration. Of course each of us will have favored models of the self that provide helpful maps for reducing the likelihood of confusion and feeling lost, but even these have their limits when we are faced with mystery and the limits of the known.

My own commitment to this work has been about a desire to make self-awakening the center of my work while retaining a willingness to loosen my old certainties about what I think that is. Life and initiation may well require periods of focused crystallization in which consistency, boundaries and being “of a single-eye” are required, but if we resist refinement and alchemical dissolution, we may carrying around the corpse of yesterday’s self. I’m ever thoughtful of Odin’s experience on the world-tree and what it might mean to “sacrifice self to self” (Havamal 138). If we are able to retain our sense of exploration, what might we discover as we take up the Runes (mysteries) and seek to explore the fragmentary mysteries of our self and the world around us?

  1. Connected Independence:

Most of us are familiar with the archetypal antinomian lone wolf who makes great claims to godhood and yet is all too clearly lost in a labyrinth of their own solipsism. Our initiation requires the challenge and insight of others who have walked the path before us. While we need to bring the sharp-edge of consciousness to our own motivation for seeking connections, we also need to be authentic in acknowledging the counter cultural value of “finding the others” who support and inspire out efforts toward greater becoming.

  1. The Ability to Play:

While the early stages of individuation may necessitate a rejection of the spiritual perspectives of family or culture, most of us go on to a more mature position of “return” to original ideas or images that we may have dismissed during our rebellious fervor. Such a position reflects a certain lightness of touch and an ability to engage with something while still questioning it. For me this feels like a shift in which we move away from cynically dismissing something and towards a position of being able to play with ideas and concepts in a way that both values them but allows some distance and even irreverence.

While determination and dogged focus are undoubtedly essential in making progress as a Magician, how do we also ensure that we feel free enough to experiment, to play and to make mistakes in that process? Whether we are experimenting with new magical techniques, body-focused practices or mythical framework for exploring awakening, I believe that we benefit when we give ourselves and others permission to adopt a position of Shoshin or “beginner’s mind”.

“At the still point of the turning world. Neither flesh nor fleshless;
Neither from nor towards; at the still point, there the dance is,
But neither arrest nor movement. And do not call it fixity,
Where past and future are gathered. Neither movement from nor towards,
Neither ascent nor decline. Except for the point, the still point,
There would be no dance, and there is only the dance.”

Burnt Norton, The Four Quartets, T S Eliot

Steve Dee

 

Spirits of Place

I’ve been thinking recently about the spirit of place. The subject came to mind following recent visits to cities in the North America and Europe.

There are many esoteric practitioners who rejoice in the magic of the city, the archetypal British example being William Blake. Blake is one of the great inspirations of John Constable who last month celebrated his 23rd year as the oracular bard of Crossbones graveyard in London. Crossbones has been transformed from a derelict patch of land into a garden in remembrance of the outcast dead. The very fact that John and his confederates have held that land against the machinations of predatory capitalism is a testament to a remarkable act of magic.

When we explore the spirit of the city one of the key issues, it seems to me, is the ability to see beyond the simplistic duality of natural/artificial. While where I live is often thought of as ‘the countryside’ and therefore ‘natural’ I often point out to visitors that the green fields of Devon are actually the factory floor of the dairy industry, while the moorlands were created by prehistoric tree felling. Equally the ‘artificial’ city can be perceived as a technological rhizomatic complexity, a palimpsest of histories, as rich in its own way as a rainforest ecology.

Here, for your enjoyment, some recent pics of my recent wanderings in cities and just outside them…

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Ancient life street art, Bristol

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Sekhmet, Bristol Museum

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Beneath a prehistoric form, Bristol Museum

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Inhabited spaces, Bristol

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Organic Gaudi, Barcelona

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Inside La Sagrada Familia, Barcelona

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Basilica growing, Barcelona

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3D printed tiles, London

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Aboriginal Artwork and city reflection, British Museum, London

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Seattle skyline at dusk

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Peak experience, North Bend, Washington

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Hollow Hills, Snoqualmie

Whether the magical city is Zion or Shamabhala, and whether that magical city is physically manifest as Northampton or elsewhere, the magician’s power lies in being able to discern the hidden reality. For even in the steel and the concrete, the glass and the tarmac, the spirits live if only we know how to find them.

Julian Vayne


 

Next workshop…

I’m going to be in the sacred city of London in February next year where I’ll be sharing a range of practical techniques to help us discover the magical spirits of place. I hope you can join me there.

KalachakraSera

 

 

Wisdom in the Aeon of Maat 

I have recently been getting excited about the release of this forthcoming book published by those wonderful people at Starfire  and thought I’d share a piece of writing that appeared in my book The Heretic’s Journey that sought to explore the key role of Nema’s work in manifesting the aeon of Maat:

In reflecting upon the Aeon of Maat and how Nema’s own work developed the initial articulation by Frater Achad, I feel one of her wisest insights relates to the importance of “the double current” in seeking to develop a more balanced magical path. In contrast to simply seeing our current age as needing the mono-message of Thelema or Will, Nema’s own journey has been towards a place where the overlapping Aeons of Horus and Maat dialogue with each other.

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Horus; “Welcome!” Ma’at; “In peace.”

The issue of how Magicians in the West quantify progress has always been a tricky one. Yes, we may choose to rely on the grade system mapped out by a given Order that we participate in, but this is no guarantee of personal evolution. Grades and titles are not without value, but they seem to function primarily as markers of progress within the given sub-culture of that Order. I think a more interesting and potentially demanding question is how we translate any claimed maturation into social or cultural change.

Such dilemmas are not unique to overtly Gnostic or Magical religious paths, with most religions having to grapple with the more collective or political dimensions of their original spiritual message. Certainly in the Buddhist tradition the historical development of the Mahayana tradition (from the earlier Theravarda) reflects an attempt to explore the more collective implications of that philosophy.

The pursuit of true will as a project for the contemporary Mage certainly resonates with the existential and individualistic concerns of the 20th century that birthed Thelema, but is it enough? The icon of Horus as the conquering child certainly seems to capture the type of surging technological change of the last century, but to my mind this energy needs some counter-balance.

The primary symbolism in ancient Egypt regarding the goddess Maat reflect her position as the neter (divine principle) of justice and balance. The hieroglyph of the feather is seen as representing the breath of life, as well as the standard against which the human heart will be weighed at the judgement. Her other symbol of the ruler is in keeping with these ideas of accuracy, assessment and truth.

For Nema (and Achad) the importance of the Horus/Maat “double current” is that it at once acknowledges the need for a prophetic cleansing of a corrupt Piscean/Osirian age, while at the same time recognizing that such change needs balance and stabilization in order to prevent “Will” becoming egoic megalomania. I see great parallels between Maat and the Gnostic Sophia as the embodiment of wisdom. The punk rock energy of Horus may get the revolution started, but in the longer term we need our Aeons to overlap and to allow a multiplicity of perspectives to support us in the cultivation of a fairer society.

maat2

This idea of the Aeons being sequential and dominated by mono-mythologies is frequently promoted in esoteric lore, and while it may have been helpful and even accurate in times past, I believe that the value of such an approach is now limited. What Nema seems to be pointing towards (and which Maat herself embodies) is the importance of allowing these differing Aeonic currents to dance with and inform each other, and create what she describes as a “PanAeonic Magick”.

In my view Pete Carroll highlights something similar in his seminal “Mass of Chaos B”:

“In the first aeon, I was the Great Spirit
In the second aeon, Men knew me as the Horned God, Pangenitor Panphage. 
In the third aeon, I was the dark one, the Devil. 
In the fourth aeon, Men knew me not, for I am the Hidden One
. In this new aeon, I appear before you as Baphomet The God before all gods who shall endure to the end Of the Earth.”

Liber Null and Psychonaut

In contrast to those ages ruled by a singular narrative or dominant discourse, now is the time of Baphomet, a deity more overtly borne of humanity’s creative imagination. Baphomet embodies duality itself and transcends it, within their being they hold the ongoing process of dissolving and coming together.

I believe the Aeon of Maat with its core message of balance holds within it the possibility of the multiple, and the aspiration of being able to recognize numerous perspectives and approaches. Nema’s artistic depiction of N’Aton captures much of this as the half of their face that is visible contains a multitude of individuals dwelling in a futuristic city scape. N’Aton represents the potentiality of a future in which dualities are played with by the Magician: transcended, discarded, redefined and embraced in accordance with a true will that balances both individual freedom and collective responsibility.

The icon of N’Aton provides a potential map for the Magician’s project of self-sovereignty. N’Aton seeks to balance the needs for individual self-definition and collective connection. Rather than getting overly focused the type of brittle, self-obsession that can tip into solipsism or megalomania, for me N’Aton asks that any claims to insight are pressure tested in the realm of wider society. In many ways the Aeon of Maat closely parallels the description of the Aquarian age as described one of Nema’s magical colleagues Louise Martinie of the New Orleans Voodoo Spiritual Temple:

The Aeon in which we are presently incarnate has been called by various names. “Aquarian” seems to be the designation which is most widely used in the New World cultures. The Aquarian mode emphasizes profound searching, a reliance on experiential knowledge, and a uniting of diverse occult systems. Aeonic Voodoo seeks to incorporate these dispositions in its structure. 

Waters of Return: The Aeonic Flow of Voudoo

He then goes on to describe this Aeon’s defining features:

Anarchism; the state of being without a “frozen” hierarchy. Postdrogeny; the abrogation of all existent gender roles so that new perceptions may manifest. Feminism; as it is in the forefront in its stand against restriction and for human liberation. Equalitarianism; the belief that all people have equal political and social rights, and Nonviolence; a refusal to subject the self or others to physical coercion. 

Whether we define this Aeon as being Aquarian, of Maat, or holding a multiplicity of overlapping words, we seem to be moving towards a place where language and definitions are being asked to become more plastic and amorphous in trying to stay alive to the diversity of human experience.

Steve Dee

Do you believe in magic?

Happy belated Halloween!

I’ve just returned home from a family holiday in Barcelona staying within sight of the magnificent Sagrada Familia. Over the previous 25 years I’ve seen this remarkable building grow, having visited it several times (once with Rodney Orpheus during a particularly dramatic electrical storm) . It’s quite something to encounter such a multi-generational project, a fitting setting to reflect on ideas of ancestors and families.

 

Upon my return to Britain I’d been asked to speak and MC an evening of talks at Real Magic, part of the Do you believe in magic? exhibition at Bristol Museum and Art Gallery. This was a delightful way to spend my birthday, with over 720 people attending. The evening featuring wonderful presentations from speakers Esther Eidinow, Kurt Lampe, Vikki Carr and Ronald Hutton. Do you believe in magic? is a very engaging exploration of the occult and it’s relationship with science and religion, do go along to see it if you have an opportunity.

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Mind manifesting in the Enlightenment Gallery at Bristol Museum

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Ronald Hutton and me chatting before his magnificent presentation on The Wheel of the Year.

 

Here’s the text of my talk that evening on Psychedelics, Shamanism and Magic – enjoy!

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We live in interesting times, one sign of which is perhaps the renewed engagement by academia and museums with the subject of magic. We have interdisciplinary conferences, most recently Trans-States at the University of Northampton, bringing together magical practitioners, artists and academics. The Victoria & Albert, Ashmolean and now Bristol Museums are working to widen the cultural conversation about what have often been excluded or even forbidden aspects of the human experience.

Tonight I’ll be speaking about an aspect of the human experience which has, until quite recently, remained occult, hidden, and even forbidden, namely the use of psychedelic drugs.

Psychedelics Shamanism and Magic

witches and alchemists

The role of mysterious substances is deeply embedded in the iconography of western magic. Where would the witch be without her bubbling cauldron, or the alchemist without the arcane paraphernalia of their laboratory? In European herbalism correspondences between plants and astrological forces informed diagnosis and treatment. Malevolent witches were imagined by some to make use of poisonous plants; henbane, datura and deadly nightshade. Scattered references in the grimoires of ceremonial magic suggest the use of mind-altering incenses. 

While ongoing research gathers together these fragments of our indigenous tradition, it is primarily through the encounter between European culture and the peoples of the New World that the modern story of psychedelic substances emerges.

The term psychedelic ‘literally mind manifesting’, was coined in 1956 by the psychiatrist Humphry Osmand in conversation with writer Aldous Huxley to refer to a particular class of drugs. Their principal effect is to radically transform awareness, inducing a state of consciousness with some very curious, some might even say magical properties. The word Osmand coined was first applied to the effects of a  cactus.

Psychedelics Shamanism and Magic (1)

Classic psychedelic people and plants

The peyote cactus has been used for over 5000 years by communities in the Americas. The principle psychedelic alkaloid in peyote is mescaline, isolated and identified by western chemists in 1897, and first synthesized in 1918. Two other cacti also containing mescaline are used in the Americas for a variety of purposes which could be described as medical, religious and magical. Mescaline can include visionary phenomena, synesthesia-like effects where music might be perceived as visual patterns as well as evoking a range of very profound feelings including personal insight, euphoria and peak mystical experience. The effects of mescaline, like all psychedelics, are highly responsive to what has become known as ‘set and setting’ that is the mindset of the person taking the substance and the setting or environment in which the drug is consumed. Ritual specialists use ceremony to curate the set and settings for specific purposes, such as divination or healing. While these practitioners use various words to describe their work and social role their practice is often labelled as  ‘shamanism’. Shamanism is a complex and contested term which some feel should be limited to the Siberian and central Asian areas from which it derives. For others, the word has a broader pan-cultural use and indicates a certain style of what we could call ‘magical’ practice that often includes interactions with spirits and the use of altered or ‘ecstatic’ states.

In some shamanic traditions these ecstatic states are induced by practices such as long periods in darkness or solitary mediation, or through the use of drumming or chanting. All these methods are effective but psychedelic substances provide one of the most reliable ways of inducing ecstatic states and perhaps for that reason are central to many of the shamanic traditions of the Americas. This doesn’t only mean states that are pleasurable, though they may be. The etymology of the word ‘ecstasy’ points to a feeling of being ‘outside of ourselves’, to be ‘out of one’s mind’. In the psychedelic state we are propelled outside of our usual way of thinking into a form of cognition that is rich and strange.

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Mind the drugs

We can see this change in these two brain scans made during research in 2014 at Imperial College London, using the psychedelic psilocybin found in magic mushrooms and also used in New World Shamanism. On the left we see the brain in it’s ‘default mode network’ state. This arrangement is, in some respects, our sense of self, our egoic identity, the pattern that consciousness habitually adopts when we are alone, ruminating on the past and thinking about the future. The right hand image shows the same brain on psilocybin. We see that the self-identity pattern is turned down and novel connections between previously discrete systems in the brain emerge. We remain conscious and aware but our perception of reality is dramatically transformed.  To use the language of shamanism – we might take flight and soar over an innerworld landscape, looking down from this new vantage point to gain new insights about the world. We might encounter spirits such as ancestors or mythological figures. We have a sense of going on a journey, a trip.

On our return to everyday awareness we can bring these insights with us, leading to transformations in our social relationships and effects such as the healing of sickness. In the psychedelic state we experience the deep truth that all things are interconnected or, as the Hermetic magicians would say; ‘As Above, So Below’. 

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Beastly rites

In the early 20th century the use of psychedelic substances, began to filter into European culture. Aleister Crowley dosed the audience at his Rites of Eleusis, a series of publicly performed rituals,  with mescaline. His rituals, which included music, clouds of incense and epic poetry, were performed in London in 1910 making them one of the first attempts to formulate a ceremonial setting in which to ingest a psychedelic sacrament outside of the Americas. Crowley’s rituals can also claim to be the first psychedelic art-happening. In this sense Crowley’s rites were the forerunner of the Be-In’s of the beat generation and the LSD enhanced concerts of the Grateful Dead and Hawkwind.

The trickle of interest from artists, medics and researchers exploring mescaline became a flood in the mid 20th century with the discovery by Albert Hoffman in 1943 of LSD  Hoffman’s new psychedelic substance initiated seismic changes in culture. These included the development of the rock music festival which aimed to provide a cultural container for the psychedelic state which had suddenly become available to thousands of people.

Within European occulture of the late 20th century, while psychedelics informed the cultural context, they were not central to the emerging esoteric styles of Wicca and neo-paganism. However they were enthusiastically integrated into the practice of some occultists, notably those influenced by the work of Crowley. 

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Peyote circle and Castlemorton festival

A third wave of psychedelic exploration occurred in the late 20th century as a novel chemical, closely related to mescaline, began to hit the headlines; MDMA or ecstasy. The development of the rave, like the emergence of the music festival decades earlier, provided a setting in which the psychedelic state could be held. The emerging rhythms of acid house music (a term arguably coined by the occultist Genesis P.Orridge) matched those used by other ‘shamanic’ psychedelic communities such as Native American Church.

The Native American Church developed in the late 19th century in North America. The central sacrament of the Church is peyote consumed during an all night vigil which features singing, drumming, prayer and other ritual activities. The Native American Church flourished because one of the effects of psychedelics is healing. In the context of the plains dwelling First Nations people this healing was a response to the genocidal damage caused by European colonialism. In particular many Native Americans sought to self-medicate their pain with whisky and this lead to much suffering. The peyote ceremony had the power to help people see things from a different perspective and this often led to them stopping drinking. The medicine of the ritual; that is the intention of the participant, the structure of the ceremony, and the psychedelic cactus – or more succinctly the ‘set, setting and substance’ came together to effect radical personal and social transformation.

Humphry Osmand and his colleague Abram Hoffer attended a Native American Church peyote ceremony in 1958 and this inspired them to wonder if LSD could be used to help people escape their additions. Their informed speculation was correct and, until the advent of Richard Nixon’s War on Drugs, many hundreds of people underwent successful psychedelic therapy using LSD.

In Britain, one might suggest that the emerging popularity of  MDMA served to address the cultural wounds caused by post-industrial dislocation. This was the time of Margaret Thatcher, mass unemployment, the ever present threat of nuclear war and the miners strike. The emerging traveller communities and rave culture came under censure in much the same way that the Native American Church had done in the USA. The difference was that without an identifiable ‘shamanism’ or indigenous psychedelic tradition there was little possibility of legally defending the right to party, the sacred music defined in the UK Criminal Justice bill of 1994 as  “…sounds wholly or predominantly characterised by the emission of a succession of repetitive beats” was driven underground. 

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Healing the harm

But the times are changing. Whether we consider the remarkable transformations that a suitable set, setting and psychedelic substance can generate as magic, shamanism or science matters very little. For these mind-manifesting materials are being re-discovered as allies in healing a range of illnesses that are present at epidemic levels in our culture.

Today MDMA is being used in Bristol within licensed settings to help people overcome chronic alcohol addiction. In the USA it is being licensed to treat Post-traumatic stress disorder. Other psychedelics such as cannabis, ayahuasca and psilocybin are also being recognized as having potent healing effects on conditions ranging from depression and anxiety to autoimmune illnesses. The current wave of research, often described as the Psychedelic Renaissance, a term coined by Dr Ben Sessa who works in Bristol doing MDMA therapy, includes studies on the potential of psychedelics to aid creative problem solving, to helping us face death with equanimity, and to develop ways to resolve interpersonal and social conflicts.

To the Mexican Curandera or the Siberian Shaman the discovery that ecstatic trance carries with it magical transformative potential isn’t news, but for European culture this is a radical change. For European, and by extension much of Euro-American culture was disconnected from the use of  substances that could safely induce ecstatic states when the great Temple of Eleusis closed in the 4th century AD. 

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Mystery trend

Eleusis was the principle Mystery initiation of the Ancient World sacred to the goddess Demeter. In her temple 3000 initiates at a time would experience was many regard as the core elements of the shamanic process. They would undertake ritual purification, they would make a pilgrimage, they would fast and, crucially, they would ingest a sacred potion before descending into a vast darkened temple full of drumming and chanting. There they would face their fears and emerge into the light for a party to celebrate their rebirth. This annual ritual went on for thousands of years with its participants being drawn from all ranks of society. This shared psychedelic experience of crisis and rebirth shaped the pre-Christian pagan world. After Eleusis and the loss of the shamanic psychedelic experience European culture, one might suggest, started to behave just like an addict, rampaging across the globe in search of tranquilizers like opium and stimulants like tobacco and cocaine. Later that culture would give rise to two World Wars, the creation of weapons of mass destruction, and the poisoning of the biosphere.

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Connected future

While we celebrate the return of the magical to academia, to museums and to a wider cultural setting we may also like to consider that the return of the psychedelic state to mainstream cultural as part of the same movement. A movement to value again the importance of the subjective, the magical and the ecstatic if we are to successfully cultivate our individual wellbeing and find better ways to live together. To find a medicine in these difficult times that heals us and, as they say in the Native American Church, all our relations.

Julian Vayne

 

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Do you believe in magic? is open until 19th April 2020 at Bristol Museum & Art Gallery.