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

Review – Scansion in Psychoanalysis and Art: the Cut in Creation by Vanessa Sinclair

For regular readers of this blog, it will hardly be surprising that I approached Dr Vanessa Sinclair’s new book with both excitement and high expectations. In my own writing (especially The Heretic’s Journey), I have been keen to explore how the methods of artistic creativity can be used by the magician as a means for mining the depths of the self.

Over the past decade or so, it has felt that many occultists have rejected psychological models of magic in favour of more traditionalist cosmologies that promise both historic roots and thorough methodology. In response to the postmodern, disposable approach of Chaos Magic such seekers are forthright in their critique of the “pop”, lightweight nature of the insights offered and question their ability to leverage lasting change.

In marked contrast to the surface level reflections that the psychological model can be prone to, Vanessa Sinclair’s work provides a necessary and significant counterweight. This work gives us a vital and re-energised perspective on how the insights of psychoanalytic thinking, language and artistic expression can have true transformative power and be:

 “…a generative way of working with and through unconscious material and processes; cutting through ingrained systems of belief and oppression in order to attain new insights, ways of being and modes of becoming in the world.”

As I approached this book my expectations were already high, I was aware of Vanessa’s role as a visual artist, a practicing Psychoanalyst and co-convener of many excellent conferences focused on art, the occult and psychoanalysis. The breadth of her work and vision is nicely encapsulated here

In this book, Sinclair makes skilled use of Jacques Lacan’s expanded re-visioning of scansion as not merely a marker of poetic meter and emphasis, but rather scansion is a study in the disruptive and punctuating power of creativity. Sinclair invites us to a panoramic overview of modern art and culture; the vastness of her view can at times feel dizzying in its breadth but it is masterful in the vision that it captures. Scansion is a bold invitation to “new ways of seeing ourselves, one another and society…in a state of perpetual destruction and creation.” (p27)

We are treated to a pacey but theoretically engaging whistle stop tour through the history of modern art that sees a potent synchronicity between the advent of the Kodak’s hand-held camera the “Brownie” and the birth of Psychoanalysis at the dawn of the 20th century. Our ability as individuals to perceive, capture and display images reflects a new autonomy that mirrors the powerful tools espoused by Freud for accessing the mysteries of the self.

The captured image offers us a “slice” of reality that often holds dimensions of the unconscious that shed new light on our realities. Vanessa’s analysis of this rich timeline demonstrates the disruptive power that sparks of inspiration can having in cutting through centralized control and orthodoxy. The stabbing brush strokes of Van Gough, the stark cut-out images of Matisse and the surreal “readymade” objects of Marcel Duchamp all challenge any attempt to create a boundary between the art that we create and the intuitive way of viewing the whole of our lives. 

The symbiotic relationship between art and the birth of psychoanalysis comes to full fruit in the work of the surrealists. The creative genius of artists such as Max Ernst and Leonora Carrington made overt use of their dream lives, the unconscious and techniques of automatic writing and free association to bypass the psychic censor and plumb the depths of being. Things then come full circle as Lacan seeks to incorporate the methods of the surrealists within his clinical practice much to the distress of his more staid contemporaries. Sinclair provides helpful insight in noting the way in which the potency of the unconscious disrupts any attempts to control or create new orthodoxies. When conformity and normalization begin, the energy of the cut will not be far behind!

Marcel Duchamp with a Readymade

The surrealist use of mirrors and dream-states in their work often reflected a deep fascination with the Double. This doppelganger-double as a reflection of the self often disrupts the encrusted certainties of our ego so that new realms can be explored. Sinclair introduces us to the gender fluid work of Pierre Molinier whose photomontage evoked the complex, overlapping and multiple nature of the self. Such work significantly inspired Breyer P-Orridge and we can see the way in which such “existential playfulness” not only informed their pandrogeny work but also the jarring sonic cut-ups found in the early Industrial noisescapes of Throbbing Gristle and Psychick TV.

Vanessa provides us with an insightful perspective on the heady mash-up between culture and occulture. The spirit of the cut-up and surrealism was manifested potently within the creative hot-house of the Beat Generation (especially Gysin and Burroughs) who in turn famously helped shape David Bowie’s approach to song writing. This is not a “how to” book of occult techniques, rather it is a deeply magical work in reflecting on how seismic change works within the internal world so as to send shock waves through an often stagnant culture.

Throbbing Gristle, not ones for stagnation

The magic of the cut is a magic that is profoundly embodied. Sinclair highlights Freud’s view that it is the ego-body through which we first experience the world. The magic of art and analysis invites us to deconstruct and cut-through the constraints of normalization and conditioning in order to recover the whole body sensual liberty of an earlier polymorphous perversity. This decidedly queer territory. The gender focused works of Val Denham, the post-human performance art of Stelarc and wider trends in modern primitivism all point to a more fluid and engaged relationship with our flesh and the impact that our transformative experiments can have on the psyche. 

Sinclair’s book skillfully demonstrates the importance of the cut, in its various forms, as a potent approach to transformation for the magician to explore:

“The cut is another royal road to the unconscious. It allows us to dislocate and derail the narrative, so that we may understand ourselves and our past in a different light and rewrite our future in a new way; a way in which we desire to be, rather than the way we are predestined to be based on our histories, families and societies.”  

Highly recommended.

Steve Dee

Buy Scansion in Psychoanalysis and Art: the Cut in Creation by Vanessa Sinclair (Routledge 2020)


Coming up next

Julian is teaching online magic with Treadwell’s Books and has also released a new course on the Deep Magic teaching site: First Steps in Magic.

In this course you’ll encounter the magic of the elemental powers of Air, Fire, Water and Earth through practice, ritual, journal work and guided meditations. You’ll learn how to cultivate the corresponding Four Powers of the Magician; To Know, To Will, To Dare and To Keep Silent. In addition to providing you with a comprehensive training program First Steps in Magic invites you to do things your own way and to develop your unique magical creativity. This course is available at a discounted price for a limited time. Click here for details.

On Sunday 25th April Nikki will be co-presenting an online workshop with Dave Lee on The Structure of Psychedelic Ceremony, click here for details.