Pleasure, Power, Addiction and Connection

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

Facts of life

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

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

No substitute for connection with others

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I connect

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wishing you well with your Great Work

Julian Vayne

Coming Up Next…

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

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

In the Dark’s Early Light

In the Northern Hemisphere we are emerging from the darkness of winter. Blinking into the cold, clear, even cruel light of the Imbolc season. This year, we initiates emerge from the long vigil of the pandemic night and now, as the seasons turn, we can begin to imagine what comes next.

What sort of rebirth will this be?

We need to appreciate that for many people the last year has been the most challenging of times. Some have been working to save the lives of others. Some have fallen down lonely rabbit holes of conspiracy fetishism, holes that have become yawning chasms in culture, where legitimate fears are conflated with concerns of a much less well-evidenced sort. Some have found themselves with several months off work on full pay, a delicious time in which they have been rediscovering their local area and exploring their creativity. Others have been holed up for months in difficult or even dangerous situations. Healthcare workers have been living through a time of tremendous stress. A friend of mine spent several weeks holding up iPads to the faces of prone and dying patients with Covid-19 so their families could say goodbye.

The range of experiences within this one great, shared, global crisis are legion. But for all of us there is now the challenge of finding good ways to remake our connection with others. There is both danger and opportunity in this delicate time.

One practice I’ve developed to help deal with isolation is contained in the guided meditation below. This is a practice to help us connect with our sacred magical places. Special places we may not have visited for some considerable time. We know that a lack of connection is commonly at the root of both depression and addiction. By using our imaginal skills to reconnect with those places we love, we help ourselves be well and better prepared for the challenges to come.

This meditation was one of the practices that Nikki Wyrd and I shared in our recent online ritual hosted by The Psychedelic Society. For the rite Nikki also wrote a beautiful text about the spirits of the time which you can read in its entirety at the end of this article.

Imbolc or Candlemas is closely associated with the Goddess (or Saint) Brigid, the archetypal skilful woman. A skilful woman who received a long overdue celebration of her work this month is the artist and occultist Rosaleen Norton. A beautifully realized film documentary telling her story, The Witch of King’s Cross, is now available on Vimeo and Amazon. If you find yourself entranced by Norton’s work and story then your next stop has got to be Pan’s Daughter, an excellent biography by Nevill Drury. I’ve been a fan of Norton’s work for many years, and the new film includes some stanzas of her ritual poetry. Below, I’ve recorded in full a poem quoted in part in the film. The image I’ve chosen is the one originally published alongside the poem in her banned occult art book The Art of Rosaleen Norton (published in 1952, just one year after the repeal of the witchcraft act in Britain).

As we in the North emerge from the winter and into reconnection with others beyond Zoomland, in physical space, there are going be lots of issues to negotiate, many of which will cluster around our ability to trust. It is lack of trust that fuels the conspiratorial mindset. This is quite understandable. The hesitancy to be vaccinated as demonstrated by some communities is perfectly intelligible given the very real abuses of trust they have suffered in the past where people, generally the more excluded members of our societies, have indeed found themselves the unwitting guinea pigs of appalling unethical scientifically mediated interventions, such as the infamous Tuskegee Study. Sure, the whole notion of ‘the state’ is problematic, orientated as it generally is around a monopoly on violence. Simply put; some guy comes along and tells you you have to give a percentage of your crops to The King, if you don’t his knights will make things difficult, or terminal, for you and your family. Later The King explains that he is protecting you from other Kings and other knights, and so the great protection racket begins. It is therefore explicable that, in the face of this pandemic, the state narrative (for some nations) is voiced in the language of fear, protection by authority, othering and ‘reasonable’ draconian measures.

However, that is not to say that letting the state control pendulum swing totally in the other direction would have been any better; some people fail to understand that, especially in a pandemic, it’s not just one’s own health that matters but rather the health of the nation, or indeed the species. Such an individualistic attitude would have let the pandemic rip through our society, which would have been most unkind; nor would it have necessarily have led to less suffering than that caused by lockdowns, social distancing and the other strategies. We might for example think back to some early news coverage of the pandemic which suggested that a large percentage of the British workforce could be off sick all at once. This could realistically have led to many kinds of problems in maintaining even basic infrastructure like water and power, leading to potentially catastrophic domino effects. The point about the pandemic is that we are dealing with dis-ease, an experience that, by definition, is not easy. Life is often like this, there are some situations in which there is no good option, Whatever we do it’s going to hurt. (I should mention here other models of the nation state, or more broadly collective action, that don’t originate in totalitarian oppression which in turn gives rise to the shadow of the ‘sovereign individual’ as an apparently isolated and autonomous self. Alternative systems based on compassionate collective action and personal integrity are possible, as exemplified in this excellent documentary Gather.)

Meanwhile, the number of people I know who have been vaccinated against Covid-19 is increasing. Thus far none of them have been taken over by Bill Gates’ nanobots or whatever, so that augurs well for my own chances when the time comes! Personally, I rather like vaccination as a concept, the idea of limited exposure to disease which primes the body to better manage the actual infection has a somewhat alchemical or even initiatory quality to it.

In initiation rituals we go down into the darkness, recapitulating the experience of our intrauterine existence and our birth. We do this in a limited, controlled but authentic way. Initiation is a little death, a death that doesn’t kill the bodymind but instead enables us to experience a managed crisis of psychic dismemberment and physical tests. In passing through these rites we discover a new appreciation for life just as those who experience near-death events do. Moreover, we acquire enhanced resilience in the face of challenges posed by the human condition.

Over the last few months I, like many people, have spent quite a bit of time online and I know for myself that it’s going to be a curious journey re-making and re-joining collective physical space. While we have all experienced a pandemic, the differences in our narratives will be very significant, as will our experiences of coming back into social space. There are going to be lots of people, notably those in the medical profession, who will be carrying with them deep wounds and trauma. I hope very much that as a community we can find good ways to help each other, and as the year turns, to re-emerge together into the light. Let’s spring clean, shaking out the dust of the wintertime, and make space for the year to come.

Julian Vayne

St Brigid’s crosses (the three-armed variation!) made by Nikki Wyrd
A Call to Brigid and the Spirits of Imbolc

We call in the spirits of the technology that connects us, electronic wizardry conjuring deep magic spells through wires drawn from deep in the ground. 
Flowing electrons, rising sap, leaves budding, fluid birdsong, surge across landscapes. 
We feel the life force stirring beneath the earth. 
Feel the quickening in the belly of the year.
Start to see glimmers of sunlit days ahead. 
The clean clear white light reminds us of the Shining Emptiness at the centre of the psychedelic experience. 
Place of creation, forge of identity, lit by sparks of aspiration from the hammer that beats, and beats with passion for the making of love. 

Imbolc, the time of emerging from the dark of winter days, the time of emerging from under the ground.  
Green shoots with white bells, push up through the snow. 
Pale primrose yellow signals the opening of the season for flowers: Golden trumpets herald the sun’s return. 
Make way, make space! 
For new shoots, springing from old roots. 
Clear the ground, clear your mind, hear the beginning of life from way, way down.  
Make room to breathe, room to forge ahead, room to grow. 

Brigid, goddess of smithing, of fire, of the bright, of wells, of healing and fertility, of poetry, of love, of brilliance. 
Crowned with candles, the saint walks through the land, stirring our hearts with a touch of her wand, soothing away the cares of the winter with a touch of her hand. 
Milk flows from sheep, from mothers, they give life to those that are just born, ancestors nurturing and nourishing what were twinkles in last year’s eyes. 

Brigid, Brid, you who were born as the sun rose, exalted one, blessings on those who celebrate you on this holy day! 
You, who know what we need, wise goddess, we ask for visions, for words, for you to show us what is hidden within! 

The pulse of the year, as the wheel turns again; the beat of the heart, as the smith’s hammer beats time into shape. 
Sparks fly up, tiny lights glimmer, the sun glints from ice crystals as the daylight grows. 
Tiny bright sparks, catch them in your mind’s eye. Breathe with the bellows breath and see the light glow. 

Brigid, inspire us, as our thoughts rise up, like a spring bubbles forth from the ground, overflowing with inspiration long held, deep within our hearts. 
Seed sparks, giving rise to bright flames, flowers blooming on the anvil of Earth as the season of creation arrives.

Nikki Wyrd

Coming up this spring