On Catching Covid

A few weeks ago I caught Covid-19. The tell-tale double line of the lateral flow test slowly emerged to confirm what I could feel happening. This was the closing of a time-loop that I recall beginning in late 2019. Nikki Wyrd and I had been keeping an eye on an emerging novel disease in China and once the first few cases started turning up elsewhere it was pretty obvious that we were headed towards a global phenomenon. In my office, before First Lock Down, I showed a graph of the infections from the influenza pandemic of 1918 to a colleague and opined that this new disease would likely follow a similar course. Taking the long view of matters like this is one I find tremendously helpful, it is said with some truth that those who forget the past are are doomed to repeat it. The history of pandemics, from HIV to the Black Death, unsurprisingly contains many of the same human behaviours; denial of the reality of the disease, the deluded or unscrupulous making money with bogus cures, overreach in social control by institutions desperately grappling with an enemy within, and so on. There is, as they say, nothing new under the sun. Back through history we can see similar patterns and we can also seek a wider context for what we are experiencing now. For example, one might consider the similarities and differences between SARS-CoV-2 infection and other communicable diseases, for instance, poliomyelitis. Many people infected with polio have no symptoms, and the infection has a high recovery rate. However both polio and Covid-19 are potentially lethal for some and can cause significant ongoing health problems for many.

I remember sitting in my garden on that first Thursday in the British Isles where, with the lock down in place, there was a solidarity action called ‘clap for our carers’. That was the evening that I decided to do some magic in response to Covid-19. Using a significant dose of psychedelic medicine I made my way into the Web of Wyrd, trying to follow the patterns of the universe into the narrative of the pandemic. I found a brilliant bright light that was both the spirit of the virus and the lightning fast calculations of the computing systems, such as Summit, which were being used to sequence the virus genome. As a police helicopter hovered over the town and applause rose from each garden, the dystopian strangeness of ‘clapping for our carers’ was not lost on me. At that time a magical colleague was stepping much closer to the virus than I. They wore the Hearty Sigil, designed by a magician in North America, as a protective talisman as they nursed Covid patients in the first wave of the illness.

Some two years on from all of this, and thousands of miles away from the origin point, I find myself meeting the direct descendants of the viruses that caused those first reported cases. Shivering, coughing, sniffing and with a splitting headache which nothing in the way of non-dissociative pain relief seems to touch. For three days the symptoms are significant and then begin to slowly abate. A further 10 days on and my lateral flow test is negative. I am in the privileged position of being able to pause all my appointments and focus on the work of convalescence. I can feel that the illness has taken the energy out of me, but as I write, some three weeks after the infection began, my appetite and energy levels are returning to normal. The warm sunshine in my garden helped, as did my lovely and less affected partner who was able to arrange deliveries of tasty food from local supermarkets, and the many kind get well messages.

Quite a lot of the practice that I do is focused around interoception. This is the ability to feel the internal processes of the body. Training interoception is useful when it comes not only to knowing what’s happening within our physical form but also what’s going on in our social and wider ecological context. People who are good at interoception are better informed when they make choices by making use of their ‘gut instinct’. A high degree of interoceptive awareness (which can be measured using a variety of techniques) can be observed in people such as hostage negotiators. In the contexts of complex, fast moving situations the excellent negotiator is using not only data gathered through spoken or written language but is also listening to the deep body ( or ‘unconscious’) knowledge of what is going on. The psychedelic experience of course is a great example of a powerful interoceptive experience, where the changes of chemistry in the body resolve themselves into a range of perceivable mental phenomena. (Of course there is no real dividing line between mind and body; the distinction between the two is an unfortunate artefact of current language). Illness is another opportunity to focus our attention in an interoceptive manner. Pain and discomfort are interoceptive experiences that call us to action; to address infection, decay or injury . A interoceptive metaphor provided by a friend about Covid echoed my experience; they said it felt as if the virus was moving round the body like a burglar, trying the windows and doors, figuring out where the least well guarded points of entry were to be found. This impression of the virus makes sense when it comes to the wide range of signs and symptoms that it seem able to provoke. Whether directly as a result of the virus, or the subsequent cascade of inflammatory processes that it precipitates, Covid has effects that range from mental confusion through to inflammation in the muscular-skeletal system. Covid isn’t ‘just ‘flu‘.

For me the journey of Covid convalescence has been relatively easy. As I recovered I’ve been able to enjoy books, music and film. (I’ve particularly enjoyed the charming and intelligent travel documentaries of Rick Steves and the excellent A Brief History of Nakedness by Philp Carr-Gomm). Covid has been a good reminder of my own mortality and therefore the need to get on with those major projects I want to complete over the next few years. It’s been a reminder of the fact that I need to spend time gently cultivating my wellbeing and of the importance of making time to nourish, replenish, rest and review my life.

The naked magician

Friends have died from Covid and still others have found that this illness has hit them very hard. A few friends, disturbed by the pandemic, have taken refuge in understanding this outbreak in ways that make little sense to me. These are strange days, and while the story is globally shared the individual ways we meet it and try to make sense of it are endlessly diverse.

It’s easy to think of Covid as an invading enemy and in some sense, as it stalks the structures of the body looking for weakness, that is an accurate and useful way of understanding what is going on. But for the magician it is also important to discover how the lead of disease might be transmuted into the gold of renewed health, of expanded compassion for ourselves and others, and into insight.

Covid-19 has given me a renewed appreciation of the importance of interoception; of being sensitive to the foods, rest, exercise and other practices that I felt were helping me through this journey. The experience of being properly ill reminded me of my childhood, of those dreamy off-school days with chicken soup, of strange daytime TV and wearing pyjamas all day long while speckled with chickenpox. Having rarely had any major infections since those days Covid helped me slip into that nostalgic space and, acting much like a psychedelic experience, moments of long-lost memory would come drifting into awareness. In this way the experience of Covid was a re-collection of myself, a chance for re-connection and regeneration.

Stepping back from my own experience to a wider perspective, I’m reminded of the previous pandemic; the emergence of HIV in the late 20th century. In those days groups of magicians cast their spells in the hope of witnessing reductions in the fatalities from the virus and towards the development of new medicines to combat it. Decades later, HIV is much better understood, much easier to treat and those treatments are much more accessible for many who become infected. HIV, like Covid, caused much suffering. It also helped open up honest conversations about sexuality and drug use. Covid likewise has and will continue to be a source of pain for many and at the moment perhaps it’s hard to see much good that has come from this most recent pandemic. But rest assured that there is gold to be found even in the most unprepossessing of lead if we can listen to our bodies; the personal body, the body of culture and biosphere as a whole. There is a teaching in this virus for all of us; as its effects reveal those points of weakness that need attention, the enemy may serve as an ally.

Julian Vayne


Coming Up Next…

The next few months includes a packed program of events I’m presenting or hosting at Treadwell’s Books of London. There are online workshops and magical conversations in which you can take part in live or join later with a delayed viewing ticket. There’s also two in-person workshops in the program too! I’m really looking forward to being physically back at Treadwell’s and hope to see you in the store or online, soon!

The Magick of Aleister Crowley – Workshop 12 May, 19:00 – 21:00 online

Lon Milo DuQuette Thelema, Qabalah and Thoth – A Magical Conversation with Julian Vayne 19 May, 19:00 – 20:30 BST online

Damh The Bard – A Magical Conversation with Julian Vayne 24 May, 19:00 – 20:30 BST online

The Magical Qabalah Introduced – Workshop 26 May, 19:00 – 21:00 BST online

Psychedelic Magic – In-person Workshop 18 Jun, 11:00 – 17:00 at Treadwell’s Books, 33 Store St, London WC1E 7BS, UK

Meeting Baphomet – In-person Workshop 19 Jun, 11:00 – 17:00 at Treadwell’s Books, 33 Store St, London WC1E 7BS, UK

Mentoring – I work with a wide variety of people, from those who are newly exploring magic, experienced practitioners who want an ally to support their process, people working in the field of psychedelic therapy and those seeking integration of psychedelic experience. Some people I work with I see weekly, some for a defined period or time, and others check in occasionally when it feels right. If you’d like to explore the possibility of working together please send an email to contactdeepmagic@gmail.com

I also provide tarot readings, usually of 1 hour long, using either the Thoth or Smith-Waite decks. Please drop me an email if you’d like to discuss a consultation.

Don’t forget you can sign up to my mailing list to find out about retreats and other projects first.

Wishing you well 🙏

The Red Magic of Lammas

The British archipelago, that cluster of islands off the European mainland on which I live, is changing colour. The sky, while still sometimes blessed with the bright blue of summer, now fills with the grey of anvil headed thunder clouds, gravid with rain. The green of the land, with trees magnificent in their full leaf, tips over into the gold of harvest time. Rolls, bales, and here in North Devon even stooks of grain, stand sculptural in the fields. This is the time of Lammas, a time associated with Red Magic in the Chaos Craft interpretation of The Wheel of the Year.

In Liber Kaos Peter J. Carroll describes Red Magic as ‘war magic’. Inspired perhaps by his father’s military experiences Carroll often uses combative metaphors in his work. However, there are many other approaches to understanding Red Magic. My perception of this ‘ray’ or ‘sephira’, to use older nomenclature, is similarly influenced by my father. When my Dad did his National Service, or more accurately was conscripted, he did so as a medic. Perhaps this is a reason why my perception of Red Magic is, in part, refracted through the lens not of war but of medicine. Healing and war do of course have much in common. For instance, it can sometimes be useful to describe biological processes in martial terms: a virus can ‘invade’ the body and ‘attack’ our cells whereupon ‘guard’ cells and other ‘defenders’ begin the ‘counter-attack’ etc etc. However the essence of chaos magic, as a philosophical practice, is to recognize that this vocabulary, like any series of metaphorical statements, inevitably reveals certain truths while concealing others. For example, the military narrative of ‘viral attack’ if taken literally would seem to be quite incompatible with the processes by which viruses become part of our genome

On both the battlefield and in the context of healing one of the virtues of Red Magic is that of courage. This courage is the bravery of the child resolving to rip off a sticking plaster in one swift movement, or the courage to face a devastating diagnosis and find ways to live as well as one can, not only to ‘fight’ an illness, but also to open to the experience and to learn from it. This courage can be quiet and unassuming, such as the social courage to live with illnesses that cannot be seen as signs by others, but only reported as symptoms. There is the courage to face rehabilitative exercises and surgical procedures, the courage of seeking to heal our trauma, and the courage of reaching out for help. 

magnetic hematite ally

There’s also the courage to wait before we act; to be patient until the time is right before we scythe the crop or the determination to endure the swelling boil until it is ripe for the lancet. In combative terms – for indeed one important aspect of Red Magic is how we deal with adversaries as well as adversity – we bide our time so that when make our move there is a swift and comprehensive effect.

When we work with Red Magic the emphasis on cultivating virtues, such as courage, can be helpful to stop us battling with monsters and thereby becoming monsters ourselves. It is also important to remember that while violent conflict (war) is part of the human repertoire – and arguably that of some other species too – the realist knows that beneath the thin veneer of civilization (with all its exploitative characteristics) human nature is fundamentally kind and collaborative (check out the excellent Humankind; A Hopeful History by Rutger Bregman for more on this).

These processes of endurance, of breaking, of cutting, of drawing lines in the sand, are central to the iconography of Lammas. This is the time of the dying god, the cutting of the Corn King who gives us our daily bread and becomes, in the words of the Wiccan ceremony of Cakes & Wine ‘The Body of our Harvest Lord’. The agricultural tools of this time of the year are the blade, the flail, and the grindstone. The Red Magic gods are deities of warfare as well as gods of agriculture and self-sacrifice. Týr, for example, from the Norse pantheon, who gives us our day-name ‘Tuesday’ , bravely gives up his hand in the process of binding the wolf Fenrir. Týr is a deity suitably invoked by Pagan practitioners who are serving members of the armed forces and emergency services in these difficult times, and by those seeking justice.

The mythology of Lammas, that speaks of the courage to cut and be transformed, to fall and rise again, to give up power and so find it, is deliciously captured in the folk ballad John Barleycorn:

There were three men came out of the West

Their fortunes for to try,

And these three men made a solemn vow

John Barleycorn must die.

They ploughed, they sowed, they harrowed him in

Throwing clods upon his head,

And these three men made a solemn vow

John Barleycorn was dead.

They let him lie for a very long time

Till the rains from heaven did fall,

Then little Sir John’s sprung up his head

And so amazed them all!

They let him stand till the Midsummer Day

Till he grew both pale and wan,

Then little Sir John’s grew a great long beard

And so become a man.

They hire’d men with scythes so sharp

To cut him off at the knee.

They bound and tied him around the waist

Serving him most barb’rously.

They hire’d men with their sharp pitch-forks

To prick him to the heart

But the drover served him worse than that

For he bound him to a cart.

They drove him around and around the field

Till they came unto a barn

And these three men made a solemn vow

On poor John Barleycorn

They hire’d men with crab-tree sticks

To strip him skin from bone,

But the miller, he served him worse than that,

For he ground him between two stones.

There’s Little Sir John in the nut-brown bowl

And brandy in the glass

But Little Sir John in the nut-brown bowl

Proved the stronger man at last.

For the huntsman he can’t hunt the fox

Nor loudly blow his horn

And the tinker, he can’t mend kettle or pot

Without a little Barleycorn.

(I recommend Damh the Bard’s version of this tune as well as his seasonal celebratory Lughnasadh and the dialogue ballad of Green and Grey.)

In this season of Red Magic it is time to take aim, to swing, and cut with skill and clear intention. This is the time to take control of processes, to consider how and what we might need to change in our lives. What needs to be harvested, what cut down and, if necessary, incinerated to make fertile ash and space for new growth.

Along with Samhain, Lammas is a time when we consider endings and death, including our own mortality. What have we achieved in our lives, what nourishment for the future will be left by our ashes? What are the fruits of our labours? As the Norse folk would ask; what will be our renown? What stories, if any, will be told of us by future generations?

As ye sow…

As we age, and enter our golden years, we are drawn by necessity to focus attention on our own mortality, our health and our vigour. In my case, aged 52, I find myself in what Victor Hugo calls ‘the youth of old age’. I’m aware that I need to actively invest more energy in caring for my bodymind. There are only so many times you can copy a file before glitches inevitably start to happen and – until one gets to re-spawn (to continue the gaming metaphor) – it makes sense to aim for compression of morbidity. This means actively working to be as well as we can be so that, when our death process arrives, it is as easy as possible. My tai chi teacher puts this brilliantly, quipping; “the purpose of tai chi is to live a long, happy and productive life and then die quickly and easily so as not to be a burden on your family and friends’. Tai chi chuan is a great example of the multivalent nature of Red Magic. With the Chinese name of this ‘martial art’ being commonly translated as ‘supreme ultimate boxing’, in one sense tai chi is clearly a species of ‘war magic’. But to see it only in those terms would be to ignore its many other aspects, such as its value as a means to cultivate good health, and as an approach to spiritual illumination.

The daylight draws in, and as the apples swell on the trees, the temperature drops while swifts circle frantically overhead before beginning their long migration to Africa. For my friends in the Southern Hemisphere the spring rises and the light grows. But for all of us on the planet, as we move through this shared experience of pandemic together, may we find skilful ways to connect with the spirit of these times, the courage to face our fears, and the opportunity to be transformed.

Julian Vayne


Coming up next…

Breaking Convention

– The Intermission –

14th August

You are invited to join other psychedelic-curious people at this unique day of talks. Our focus this year is very much on ethics, especially in relation to indigenous reciprocity and psychedelic capitalism. News of scientific research comes direct from the source, courtesy of a couple of luminaries from Imperial College London. We are honoured to host a lecture from Robin Carhart-Harris, Founder and Visiting Professor of Imperial’s Centre for Psychedelic Research, in his last public appearance before moving to America, and we are very pleased to welcome David Erritzoe, their Clinical Director, who will be telling us of their current and future research.

We start the day with the words and powerful presence of Don Eugenio Lopez Carilloo (Uru Muile), a Mara’akame in the Wixarika Laguna community, accompanied by Eusebio Lopez and Rodrigo Rurawe. We at Breaking Convention acknowledge the gratitude we owe to all those people who have kept the knowledge and practices of plant medicines alive for so long, in incredibly difficult circumstances.

Also on our stage will be several people with expertise and experience in the field of ethical engagement with psychedelics; from Canada, Andrea Langlois (activism and indigenous rights), and from closer to home our own Alexander Beiner (psychedelic capitalism) and Ashleigh Murphy-Beiner (ethics of the therapeutic process). Timmy Davis, of CDPRG, speaks about their current campaign for rescheduling psilocybin. There will be an in-depth panel discussion around these areas of ethical consideration.

https://www.breakingconvention.co.uk/events.html