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

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…;)

Our Heroic Selves

In recently reflecting on the way in which Punk has inspired my own process of awakening and self-understanding, I’ve also been prompted to consider how such self-actualization also asks us to question the norms and rules we inherit. Whether via my exploration of the Gnostics or the Thelemic-Tantra of the AMOOKOS work, the path of magic for me has always been linked to a project of self-sovereignty and a desire to explore what “Peace, Freedom and Happiness” mean as I live this life.

In our pursuit of occult heroism it can be easy to imagine that any sense of progress will inevitably entail some form if icy, isolate uber-human state. While our insights will often require that we question those norms adopted by both family and wider society, the deeper challenge may be to consider how we can radically reimagine and express our relationship with others.

One of the most helpful books that I’ve encountered in recent years that reflects on our connections to others is Rewriting the Rules by Meg-John Barker. As the second edition of this book is about to hit the marketplace, I thought I’d share with you a review I wrote for the first edition that I published on Phil Hine’s fantastic blog…

“All of us inherit sets of rules and scripts about how we think we should behave and who we should be in relationships. Such beliefs often have their genesis in our families of origin, the cultural trends we imbibe and the shaping provided by our own experience and emerging sense of identity. In the process of trying to make sense of the pain and dislocation that many of us experience in seeking closeness and relationship, it can be tempting to “buy into” a set of apparent certainties. Recent trends in self-help literature have tried to make of the confusion by playing “The Game”, “The Rules” or by mapping gender difference according to planetary allegiance. While I can understand the impulse of such books in trying to find a cure to what ails us, I must confess to being highly unconvinced by their over-simplicity and gender stereotyping.

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Rule book

In their book Re-writing the Rules Meg-John Barker provides a refreshing antidote to such works and a highly thoughtful and compassionate book that they describes as an “anti-self-help book”. For Barker the starting point in developing more healthy relationships comes not via seconding guessing the maneuvers of the desired “other”, rather it comes via a relationship with self in all its complexity. Self is presented as both an on-going process of change and also as a plurality of differing aspects that dialogue with each other. Barker’s insights are offered in spirit of openness and wondering-an attempt to explore the right questions rather than providing pat answers.

Part of the helpfulness of this work lies in the way in which the author focuses in on the nature of human relationships and current dominance of discourses around romantic intimacy. Barker skillfully weaves in both contemporary cultural references and philosophical acumen in critiquing the centrality of both heterosexuality and genitally focused intimacy. We are invited to move from a position of certainty and polarity, to one in which we seek to cultivate sensitivity to nuances and subtlety. Sexual minorities are not exempted from the danger of losing touch with our desires; the demands of identity politics often asking for a degree of labeling and certainty that some may feel less than comfortable about.

The structure of each chapter begins with a thoughtful reflection on the issues under consideration e.g. the rules of attraction, the rules of gender and then moves on to an exploration of the current set of beliefs that many of us find ourselves operating under e.g. “Relationships should be sexually and emotionally monogamous.” Barker then gently begins a process of questioning and deconstruction that ask us to re-evaluate. Meg-John’s own background in mindfulness practice and existential psychotherapy seem very evident during this process given the acute sense of awareness they display and the degree of compassion towards self and others that runs throughout.

The richness of this work defies detailed description in this context, but the chapters on sex, gender and monogamy resonated deeply with some of my own personal exploration. The chapter on sex examines the way in which insights from the Queer and Kink communities have challenged not only the linearity of “foreplay as a starter, intercourse as the main event”, but also the centrality of genital sexuality itself. In thinking about how gender effects how we do relationships together, Barker artfully unpacks Judith Butler’s thinking on the performance of gender and how we might loosen the tyranny of binary thinking.

One of the most enjoyable aspects of this book is the depth of its meditation on the nature of friendship. The chapters on the nature of love and commitment rightly question the qualitative distinction that we make between how we relate to “Friends” and “Lovers”. How might our relationships improve if we let go of the assumptions we make and unrealistic expectations that we often demand of those we have sex with?

Given the centrality of existential psychology within the book, themes regarding endings, loss and transition are thoughtfully and thoroughly addressed. Barker is highly aware that in times of pain we may naturally seek to retreat and defend ourselves, with this in mind they provide many helpful exercises and strategies with a view to developing greater presence, flexibility and compassion. As with the other discussions in the book, the aim of such work is not to prescribe a new “hipper”, queerer orthodoxy, rather it seeks to explore how we might experience a greater sense of freedom, both for ourselves and those to whom we are connected.

I highly recommend this work to anyone interested in a philosophically and spiritually engaging examination in how we challenge and re-write the stories that we have inherited about how we “do” intimacy. Meg-John has managed to produce a book that is at once contemporary, engaging and entertaining, while at the same time providing depth and vivid insight.”

Steve Dee

Sharing this Magical Life

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

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

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

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

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Texts of drifting, walking and wondering…

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

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

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

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

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Greg Humphries, the artful woodland wizard

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Julian Vayne

 

 

In Search of Depth – A Review of ‘The Magickal Union of East and West’ by Gregory Peters

Much of the writing on this blog is preoccupied with the question of how we as Magicians of varying stripes seek to develop both depth and meaningful direction in our spiritual work. Rather than signing up to the concept of “one teleos fits all”, I hope that team Baphomet manages to balance a lively interest in the development of mature practice while revelling in the many potential ways that this might be pursued.

Once we move beyond the initial stages of understanding the core myths and ritual techniques of a given tradition it can feel bewildering as to how one can put down the type of deep roots that will enable more long term sustenance. While finding a helpful teacher or a structured Order may provide guidance for those lucky enough to locate them, I would not underestimate the role of a good book in providing us with new insight. Thankfully in The Magickal Union of East and West Gregory Peters has provided us with one of these volumes.

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Peters comes from a rich background of Thelemic ceremonial magic and various lineages of both  Hindu and Buddhist tantra. In this work he seeks to outline some of the key ideas and practices that he and other magical colleagues have worked with, within the Ordo Sunyata Vajra (OSV) over the past 18 years.  As is suggested by its English translation as an Order of the “Adamantine Void”, this is a curriculum that seeks to equip the magician with both philosophy and ritual technique for exploring dimensions of the “true” and “silent” self.

Peters is an open and enthusiastic guide who offers the insights he has gained with a deep sense of gratitude to those teachers and currents that have informed his work. Whether it be the work of Kaula Nath lineage of AMOOKOS, Dzogchen or Chan Buddhist practices, he presents these approaches within an explicitly Thelemic world view. However much he has gained from these Eastern traditions, his work seeks to engage with them as means for getting to the deeper dimensions of Crowley’s work as it was carried forward by Kenneth Grant, and Greg’s own mentor Soror Meral (Phyllis Seckler).

If we are to move beyond superficial heavy metal styling’s regarding the expression of “true will”, we will need to explore what will this mean in terms of the transformation of self and the manifestation of Thelema and Agape within our everyday lives. This is not a rejection of the Western magical tradition, rather it is an attempt to reconnect us to those spiritual traditions that were critical to the reconstitution of Neo-pagan paths long deprived of their own change technologies.

Our author is a big fan of Kenneth Grant and clearly sees the focus of the OSV as being profoundly connected to the recovery of a perennial form of “Stellar Gnosis”. In contrast to Grant however, Greg (as a Tantric and ceremonial practitioner) provides us with plenty of guidance with regards things we can do. Malas can be blessed and altars can be created and there are plenty of ritual outlines that we are invited to explore and adapt depending on setting and inclination. We also spend time thinking about what it means to inhabit the “dragon seat” of meditation in order to explore the oscillating sense of being and non-being.

For me, this work provides some helpful maps for exploring the limited spatial metaphors that we as magical types can get hung-up on. If we adopt a psyche-centric focus for work, are we seeking to reinforce concepts like ego-strength or are we pursuing the dissolution of our self-concept? In seeking to simultaneously deepen our engagement with both True Will and the formlessness of the Void, Peters seems to be acknowledging the inevitable spiralling movement of the self as it dances between such poles. In sitting with a spaciousness that demands the alchemical transformation of our Will, Self is ultimately embraced even though its newer form may now seem barely recognisable.

I would highly recommend this book to those magicians interested in how the Aeon of Horus can shake-off some of its dustier, pseudo-masonic origins. In the spirit of Grant’s Typhonic work and Nema’s Maat magick, the work of the OSV provides some highly helpful guidance as to how we as contemporary practitioners can work with both Eastern and Western magical currents in a manner that feels at once respectful, deep and innovative.

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Writing on Drugs: Three fabulous books to Feed your Head.

Secret Drugs of Buddhism: Psychedelic sacraments and the origins of the Vajrayana

The Buddhist tradition generally eschews the use of substances that cloud the mind but psychedelics (which, by definition, make manifest the mind) are by no means absent from the story of Asian religion. While modern Buddhists may take refuge in the idea that ‘drugs are bad’ (with certain notable exceptions such as the Zig Zag Zen school of Allan Badiner et al.) both Buddhism and Hinduism emerged from a cultural landscape rich in Amanita muscaria, Cannabis sativa and Panaeolus cambodginiensis.

In this book Mike Crowley hunts the questing beast of soma through layers of Sanskrit metaphor and potential botanic sources, following this elusive substance as it emerges into Vajrayana Buddhism as the sacramental nectar of immortality amrita. This analysis is the entheogenic equivalent of ‘who shot JFK?’,  and many theorists have spilt much ink trying to nail down the culprit; what kind of stuff was this food of the gods really? Our author, an accomplished scholar of  Sanskrit, Tibetan and Mandarin Chinese takes the broad view and intelligently and generously explores the options and opinions on this matter. Crowley, as well as being a fan of psychedelics, is also deeply embedded in the spiritual culture of Asia, having become an Upāsaka of the Kagyud lineage in 1970.

Mike’s suggestion is that it is the psychedelic effect that maketh soma, not its exact pharmacological identity. His view, that the Vedic soma may have started out (in the north) as Amanita and later (as cultures spread south) became psilocybin rich mushrooms, makes a lot of sense. It’s the entheogenic experience, this embodied encounter with the divine, that matters – whether that state is provoked endogenously through pranayama and protracted periods of fasting and solitary medication or by any number of substances – the effect is much the same.

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While the debate about the psychedelic nature (or not) of Soma and Amrita is far from over Mike has made a valuable contribution to the discussion and does so in a book which is well supported by notes and references and that, in itself, is a delightful read.

Check out this lecture by Mike Crowley on The Secret Drugs.

To Fathom Hell or Soar Angelic

To Fathom Hell… is a brilliant and very engaging book. Our story begins with a depressed psychotherapist seeing his clients (while secretly fantasizing about the gruesome ways they might die), painfully conscious that the therapy he provides has very little effect. Accidentally attending a conference on psychedelic medicine, our despondent hero teams up with psychedelic therapist and maverick Dr. Langley. Their partnership works, and together they embark on a project to create a centre in which they can deploy psychedelic medicine.

Author Ben Sessa is the perfect person to imagine such a story, as a well respected psychiatrist and advocate of the value of psychedelic psychotherapy. (Check out Ben’s wonderful TED talk). Psychedelic therapy sessions using MDMA, LSD, and psilocybin are described, expertly written by one of the few people in Britain legally qualified to undertake this kind of work.

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The novel skillfully leads us into this world and, while there is an engaging plot, much of what happens are conversations in which the theory and practice of psychedelic therapy is expounded. In this way To Fathom Hell… stands in the lineage of Aldous Huxley’s works where the narrative provides a setting in which ideas can be elucidated and explored.

Our Somerset Pala (the fictional psychedelic Island of Huxley) becomes the template for numerous therapeutic communities up and down the British isles. This isn’t just about getting squaddies PTSD sorted by arming them with MDMA – it’s about the transformation of culture; starting with the broken and moving towards healing those who do the breaking. The novel builds to a tremendous climax which put me in mind of the denouement from The Illuminatus Trilogy; a crescendo that feels both riotous and joyous.

A rollercoaster of a good read this tale is engaging, funny, dark and transcendent much like the psychedelic experience itself.  You can read more about To Fathom Hell, Sessa’s debut novel, and purchase your copy of the book via Psychedelic Press UK.

The Rose of Paracelsus: On Secrets & Sacraments

The final book I want to recommend is the genuinely awesome (in the proper sense of the word) volume by William Leonard Pickard The Rose of Paracelsus. This book was written by Leonard, using paper and pencil, in the US prison where he is incarcerated for “conspiracy to manufacture LSD”. Before he was busted (or set up…) Leonard was a research associate in neurobiology at Harvard Medical School, a Fellow of the Interfaculty Initiative on Drugs and Addictions at Harvard, and Deputy Director of the Drug Policy Analysis Program at UCLA. On all levels this is a Brother who knows what he’s talking about.

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Reading The Rose… is, quite honestly, like tripping on acid. The long text (656 pages) can’t be adequately defined as a either a novel or autobiography. The language is rich, powerful, lyric, poetic, terrifying, visceral, sublime. Reminiscent in style to the work of Jorge Luis Borges, the narrative of clandestine acid chemists, governmental intrigue, simple human stories of suffering and (sometimes) redemption weaves a spell over the reader. Add to this the real-world knowledge of the grotesque circumstances of Leonard’s imprisonment (he is serving two life sentences, has already served 17 years, is 71 years of age and is in a high security prison) and this book becomes even more poignant. The Rose… pulls the reader in, but has to be put down. The chapters, as rich and dense with references and allusions as they are, require time to be digested. I needed periods to reflect and frankly sometimes time to meditate and pray, during my first reading of The Rose…

I was pleased to be present at the Breaking Convention session on The Rose… where we were treated to readings from the text, including a recording of Leonard himself (once a month Leonard gets to make a 15 minute monitored phone call from jail).

I cannot recommend this book highly enough. The proceeds go to support Leonard’s family (his son was a newborn as his father went to trial) and I would encourage readers of the text to check out his page and, in whatever way they can, to send thoughtful correspondence and messages of solidarity to him (he does have some access to email).

With Leonard’s permission, here is a recording of me reading an excerpt from the early section of the book where the hero meets one of ‘The Six’. (This hexad of high level psychedelic chemists, rather like the Guild Navigators in Frank Herbert’s Dune novels, have developed super powers following years of exposure to vast quantities of LSD.) In this section our protagonist makes contact with Crimson, the first of The Six.

The Rose of Paracelsus is a truly psychedelic read. Highly recommended.

JV

Contact High

Getting Higher is turning into something of a wild ride! As well as a mention in The Guardian and the opportunity to appear on several podcasts (most recently with Mikedelic), I was also invited to formally launch the book at the Ecology, Cosmos and Consciousness salon at the October Gallery (haunt of cool folks like William Burroughs, Pablo Amaringo and Nnenna Okore). I was delighted to find the event sold out and indeed there was a waiting list! So, for those who couldn’t attend on the night, here is the text of the lecture that I delivered – enjoy! 🙂

“I’m an occultist; that is someone who studies the occult, the hidden. This means the twilight of human experience; extraordinary states of consciousness, spirit entities, trance states, telepathy, flying saucers, black magic, there must be something in astrology, gay liberation, the Loch Ness monster, the abominable snowman, the Surrey panther, copper bracelets for rheumatism, levitation, water divining, poltergeists – all that jazz. More than this I’m a magician (like a shaman but without so many anthropologists staring at me), someone who uses the methods of magic; rituals, initiatory ceremonies, meditative and imaginal practices and all that stuff.

october

Me banging on about drugs

Magic, shamanism, occultism et al are systems of thought concerned with the real imaginal. That is the lens of perception through which we experience the universe and through which we act. These imaginal technologies, which sometimes look like religion, sometimes like psychology, are ways of changing and directing awareness to make transformations in the inner and outer worlds.

Drugs were part of this territory of magic for me, inspired primarily I have to say by the life and work of the notorious Aleister Crowley. Crowley as I’m sure many here know had a life full of sex, drugs and magick, and died tragically young at the age of 72. He experimented with, among other things, mescaline, as did several of his chums from the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn such as the writer Arthur Machen and poet WB Yeats. Years I later I would encounter mescaline, not in Thelemic magical ritual, but rather through American shamanism as it entered Europe.

I am a native of the British Isles. I like to think of myself as a shaman from Stevenage (a town with the strap line ‘Where Imagination Takes Hold’) but the entheogenic traditions of my own country are lost to me. There are shadows in the landscape (in the cunningly arranged acoustic effects of chambered tombs) and folklore (the stories of intrepid adventurers in the fairy realm). There is the bright re-imagining of practices in modern paganism. But there is no tradition in the historical record of the entheogenic use of our native plants, even the blessed liberty cap. So I’ve had to look to techniques of changing awareness embedded in the Western occult tradition and then further afield, primarily to India and the Americas.

In Getting Higher I present something which I guess could be looked at as the ‘chaos magic’ approach to entheogenics. Chaos magic is a style of occultism that emerged in the late 20th century and was characterized by a highly eclectic occulture that incorporated multiple belief structures within an envelope of experimental practice.  Getting Higher attempts to explore both traditional and novel practices of entheogenics and present what I consider to be shared core teachings. This is perennial wisdom for psychonauts, a ‘core shamanism’ where sacred drugs are permitted.

I’ve been into magic for some 35 years and actively practicing with other people for only a few years less. For, while I have my own practice, I really enjoy working with others and collaborating on projects, which is why many of my previous books are co-authored. For Getting Higher I worked with many amazing people. I’m very grateful and honoured to have worked in ceremony with practitioners from a variety of traditions. As a Westerner I particularly acknowledge the contribution to my own practice from those cultures in places such as India and the Americas, who have been attacked by the structures of the culture in which I live. I hope that I can use their wisdom to help me, and anyone who reads this book, to create a society in my native land that is less inclined to exploit and destroy. This is why we need this medicine, for while there are indeed many amazing and uplifting things about Western cultures, there is a sickness in our soul which I suspect may be due our millennia long disconnection from the psychedelic gnosis.

I’m also honoured to have had the foreword written by the fabulous David ‘Agent of Chaos’ Luke. My teenage hero, the illustrator and cartoonist Pete Loveday, has provided the great cover art and illustrations to the text. The wonderful team at Psychedelic Press UK have done so much outstanding work that it really feels like a team effort. I’m particularly grateful to my lovely partner Nikki.

When Getting Higher was first written I had terrible trouble. You see, the thing with the psychedelic state is that, as you all know, everything is interconnected, so where to start? For a number of years this book was no more than a skeleton of notes. But during that time, and the years that followed, I tried to pay special attention as I took part in a variety of different ceremonies. What should I pass on from this? What would have been helpful to know here? Since then, I’ve passed the book via a few friendly psychonauts to see if they feel I’ve missed anything out, and while more can always be said of anything, and any explanation expanded, I think we all felt that the core material was there. Hence I could legitimately claim that this was the manual of psychedelic ceremony.

As well as describing what I see as the core technology (to use a phrase that turns up in chaos magic) of various non-European entheogenic traditions, I’ve also been exploring approaches to psychedelics that are informed by our current scientific understanding of these substances. I’m fortunate that through my work with Breaking Convention I’m connected with current research, allowing me to blend insights from ancient cultures with data from the latest brain imaging studies and studies of synthetic psychedelics.

GH artwork medicine circle

Medicine Circle by Pete Loveday from Getting Higher

Ketamine is one of the synthetic substances I talk about specifically in Getting Higher. This is for two reasons; the first is that ketamine is usually associated with stupefied folks sprawled out by the side of the dance floor covered in snot and smelling faintly of urine rather than refined spiritual pursuits. The second, is that ketamine is, as far as I’m aware, a molecule that has yet to be discovered anywhere other than inside human laboratories. My point is that it isn’t what you do, it’s the way that you do it, that matters. Artificially synthesized psychedelics, traditional herbs, as well as newly discovered botanicals – they all have their value.

I also place quite a bit of emphasis on having a good time. In many of our cultures there is the idea that spirituality is work, and religion is something you do out of duty. That fun is, at best wasteful and at worst sinful or destined to debilitate us. However if you’ve ever been to an ayahuasca session where the music transported you into an ecstatic state, or where the grin on your face the morning after the peyote circle just won’t go, perhaps it makes sense to accept that joy is good. The fact that we enjoy a good rave, a festival or simply getting high with friends is not the opposite of what I’m saying. The ‘medicine’ I’m speaking about could come as part of a delicious peak experience on the dance floor surrounded by good friends as easily as it could come from within a more formalized ceremony. We are allowed to have fun, we can have mirth and reverence and receive the ecstasy of these medicines with as much appreciation as we receive their ability to transform and challenge us. What nourishes our souls is good.

Getting Higher gives examples of rituals but these are just serving suggestions. What I really want is for people to discover their own practice. To do so by learning a few basics and then listening to the medicine. Sure it’s great if you can come and sit with a visiting American shaman, or nip over to Mapia for a couple of glasses or five of ayahuasca. But for other people, who maybe have access to the drugs though the internet but don’t have mentors who can be physically present, I hope this book can help them dream up wonderful, supportive and transformational ways to meet the spirits that they’ve summoned via incantations over the darkweb.

These are powerful medicines, so powerful that they have twice tried to break on through and radically reshape culture in the two previous summers of love. Drugs like LSD have caused huge changes in our culture and while it’s not possible to be empirically certain a good historical case can be made to support the assertion of Michael Randall from the Brotherhood of Eternal Love who says, in the film Orange Sunshine: “Today you see health food shops and places selling good organic food in every town; that’s because of LSD!” The use of entheogens can, has, and will, change the world.

Now remember kids ‘the medicine’ is the message, not just the drugs.

I’m an advocate for the medicine. I have experienced the fact that these drugs, intelligently used, are powerful methods for transforming us. They can transform us from damaged, alienated, grief-stricken and fearful people into thoughtful, caring, curious and joyous individuals. Critically ‘the medicine’ as a whole is the combination of psychedelic experience within a set and setting designed to enhance its entheogenic potential. The medicine is the complete psychedelic triangle of set, setting and substance. This is context engineering for chemically augmented awareness. We need this medicine, to heal us from our divisions that perpetuate the illusion of isolation, to allow us to transform our bitterness and form better relationships with ourselves, each other and the planet.

I want to nurture settings in which the self-administered and autonomously interpreted psychedelic experience is open to all who seek it. Imagine then what our species could achieve if we turned on the world to the medicine? The simple fact that we know these drugs help hot-wire our neurology, creating minds better able to work with complexity, to discover new solutions and appreciate new perspectives, should give us hope. Perhaps with sufficient ramping up of the simian wetware we can discover ways to address the challenges that face us as species? Perhaps we can boot our intelligence up to the next level? Many people have observed how individual people can be totally fine whereas groups of humans often exhibit much more stereotyped behaviors. Maybe if we have sufficient people operating with minds informed by the higher processing capacity of the psychedelic state we may begin to behave more mindfully as a species? And we can choose to explore inner and outer space together for ever!

But these are just a few wild speculations about sacred sacraments, the point is that the medicine – the set, setting and substance of entheogenics – certainly has the potential to be a great ally for our species. Overcoming the legal, economic, environmental, cultural and social problems associated these substances is essential work. This means supporting licensed scientific and medical research, and bearing witness to the value of the psychedelic experience, and demanding it as a point of cognitive liberty, an essential part of our humanity, and a legitimate spiritual practice.

We need to realize that, as Nick Sand (Peace Be Upon him) says in The Sunshine Makers, “freedom is not about being in chains, it’s about not having your mind enslaved”. The intelligent use of psychedelics can liberate us from this slavery, the slavery of psychic distress and restricted cognition. Psychedelics can alter us and in turn our culture; they teach us both acceptance and the importance of intention, the value of challenge and of ecstasy, of self-awareness and of empathy.

sand1

So I say take your drugs and turn them into medicine for yourself, your community and all beings. Liberate yourself and others! Ahoy!”

JV