Dreadful Magic

Many of us long for the divine and the mysterious, but what is it like to actually gain a glimpse of these things?

In his masterwork The Idea of the Holy Rudolf Otto, valiantly sought to map out those shared human experiences that lay at the heart of religious seeking. For Otto when we view the vastness and mystery of the Universe, we are met with both Dread and Awe. Dread and Awe act as two sides of a coin in which the vastness of time, space and the magnitude of life erode our sense of control and understanding. Just when we think we might be getting it, it’s that “oh shit” moment when we realize that barely have a clue.

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Rudolf Otto supporting his planet-sized brain

A couple of years ago I wrote this and for me it captured something of my own encounter with mystery and what Otto describes as “the numinous”:

“As I gaze out at the night sky, I find myself unable to find lasting meaning in any prevailing metaphysical position, be it a theistic one or that of the strict rationalist. The mystery and expansiveness of space seems to empty me of the trite and obvious. My sense of awe seems to both induce a sense of mild panic as I glimpse the limits of my control and understanding, while at the same time beckoning me onward into the depths of the unknown.”

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The more time I spend working with the Dread and Awe the more I am struck but the powerful parallels that exist with both existential philosophy and its application within existential psychotherapy.

The origins of both of these movements lie with Søren Kierkegaard and the way in which his own radical reading of Christianity led him to grapple with the uncertainty connected to the experience of existence. As is well documented these ideas were taken on by Jean-Paul Satre who, in being inspired by his reading of Heidegger, gave the lecture in 1945 “Existentialism is a Humanism”. Existentialism as a philosophical school sought to centralize the experience of the individual in the face of a Universe within which the Judeo-Christian God had been declared dead.

In facing a Universal vastness that had no apparent meaning, how were we as humans supposed to find authenticity and a sense of our true essence? What lies at the heart of being beyond the superficial roles and labels that society may want to hand to us? These questions were a major preoccupation for the early Existentialists. Thinkers such as Sartre, De Beauvoir and Camus were relentless in their pursuit of making choices congruent with authentic being (i.e. in “Good Faith”). When faced with absurdity, the existentialists were stark in their assessment that such insights triggered both Dread and an underlying sense of despair.

The impact of the existentialists was profound and they not only spawned weird adventures in art, literature and theatre, but they also inspired radical forms of psychotherapy.

Building upon the insights of existential philosophy, existential psychotherapy sought to explore the way in which these ideas regarding meaning, freedom and impermanence could be explored within the healing context of a therapeutic relationship. Therapists such as Otto Rank (who broke with Freud in the 1920’s), Viktor Frankl and Rollo May were central to the development of an understanding of our shared human experiences that was less focused medical diagnosis.

In contrast to Freud and his focus on pathology, existential psychotherapy tends to view experiences of anxiety, alienation and even depression as part of a normal maturation that most humans will experience in response to the disconnect experienced between our experience of self and the world we inhabit. More contemporary thinker/therapists such as Irvin Yalom believe that psychological dysfunction arises when we try to avoid these givens of life. While current schools of so-called “positive psychology” may view such perspectives as being doom-laden or negativistic, an existential approach maintains that in confronting such realities, the true value of life and consciousness comes into sharper definition.

For me as a Magician seeking to work with ideas of Dread and Awe, the insights of existentialism provide helpful keys to unlocking the process via which my own initiation is deepened. In truly looking at the world’s vastness and impermanence so I create the possibility of seeing with a Zen-like “Shoshin” or beginners mind. In experiencing Dread I recognize the limits of what I can know and yet the sense of awe I encounter also helps me pursue what Viktor Frankl called “The Will to Meaning”.

Magic asks us to see with new eyes and what we see is often not comfortable Magic accelerates and intensifies our experience of dread, but in doing this so the possibility of activating our will becomes both more necessary and thus possible.

“Know Thyself, Create Thyself!”

Steve Dee

Check out Steve’s review of Asexual Erotics on Phil Hine’s blog.

Everyday Magic – how to find time for occult practice in your busy life

For those of us from post-Protestant culture the notion of discipline in our practice often looms large. There is a sense that magical or spiritual practice is an obligation, something that demands a fierce activity and tenacity; this is ‘Work’ with a capital ‘W’, indeed it’s ‘The Great Work’.

As magicians we may wrestle with these feelings; the anxiety to get on with it, to do, to act, to turn up the heat on our practice. After all, if 20 mins of mindfulness meditation is good then seven hours of meditation must be better right?

Phil Hine in Prime Chaos expresses these feelings beautifully in the opening to this seminal work:

“A friend said to me recently, “I’m just not doing enough magical work at the moment.” I nodded, thinking, “Yeah, I’ve been there.” There is a kind of creeping Protestant Work Ethic implicit in modern magic, a view that you have to work at magic before you get anywhere, doing your regular practice-visualisation, meditation, daily banishing, muttering your chosen mantra on the train, controlling your dreams etc.- until it becomes ‘hard work’ accompanied by a guilt trip if you slacken off or take a break. Some time ago I was reading a basic magical training programme in some book or other and I thought, “Yeah, I bet this guy went to a public school”- the kind of place where you get up at dawn for a cold bath, run round the playing fields and get beaten senseless at every opportunity. The way the guy was going on, I wouldn’t have been surprised if some Archangel had appeared, thundering, “HINE! You didn’t do your daily banishing this morning! Stand in the corner boy until you can recite all the godnames in Assiah!” That sort of thing.”

It’s true that self-discipline matters and that magical practice is just that, a practice, something that needs to be enacted to be real. Chaos magic’s emergence into late 20th century occulture was predicated on this observation. You want to be a magician? Great! start doing something about it! Don’t wait until the guru, the Order or the Holy Book turns up. Pick up your wand (or just use your finger) and start experimenting. The attitude of punk and D.I.Y. culture informs this approach; sure your guitar playing, at least initially, may suck, but you’ve started a practice that potentially will lead to mastery.  Lao Tzu, who knows a thing or two, points out that, “The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.”

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Khaos Punx – Keeping it real since the late 20th century

Those feelings of practice inadequacy apply to many people. While some of us might have the luxury of spending weeks on silent retreat or months chowing down on Master Plants in the jungle – unless we adopt a  monastic lifestyle – we inevitably return to the day-to-day world and often the day job. After the ecstasy the laundry, as they say.

We can feel that once we are back at home, back in the office, that the magic fades into the distance. These feelings can result in us imagining that ‘the sacred’ is dependent, by contrast, on ‘the secular’. We feel that we’re doing magic when we do rituals, when we do our tai chi, when we meditate but not necessarily when we answer our business emails, when we walk the children to school or when defrosting the fridge.

If these feelings emerge it can be helpful to set goals and to recognize that even tiny steps towards achieving our intentions are important. We can seek the support of our community and find opportunities to practice together. This support may be in person or online and the very act of signing up to a course of study (and perhaps telling our friends and peers we have done so) can be just the spur to action that we need.

Another approach is to remember that perseverance is a virtue too. For while seven hours of meditation may be great in itself  it’s better to do 20 mins when you can over a longer period of time. In my own case; my hatha yoga practice is something that I’ve done at various levels of intensity for 40 years. Doing yoga irregularly but persistently has helped me be more aware of my bodymind and develop my interoceptive awareness. My formal yogic practice conditions me to stretch when I’ve been sitting for a long time as an automatic reflex. Over the years I’ve had the good fortune to have received teaching for some formidable practitioners of yoga and other body arts. At times I’ve joined classes. I’ve had opportunities to teach and share what I know with others, and to and to learn from Youtube teachers (my go-to practitioner is Adriene). In other periods I’ve done very little formal practice; just a few morning stretches and deep breathing. My overall approach to yoga is informed by the action of water; an irregular drip-feed of practice, variable in its details from week to week, but gently persistent over time.

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“Water is fluid, soft, and yielding. But water will wear away rock, which is rigid and cannot yield. As a rule, whatever is fluid, soft, and yielding will overcome whatever is rigid and hard. This is another paradox: what is soft is strong.” Lao Tzu

Finding ways to keep our practice up when we are householders can certainly be a challenge but it’s also an opportunity since by bringing our magic into the everyday we aspire to recognize the everyday magic of the world. We can aim to notice what we do naturally, what actually arises, and then discover ways to formulate these everyday, even humdrum occasions, as practice. This isn’t  a new aspiration as indicated by the  words of the ancient tantra dedicated to the Goddess Parvati the Saundarya Lahari (‘Waves of Beauty’).

“Let my idle chatter be the muttering of prayer, my every manual movement the execution of ritual gesture, my walking a ceremonial circumambulation, my eating and other acts the rite of sacrifice, my lying down prostration in worship, my every pleasure enjoyed with dedication of myself, let whatever activity is mine be some form of worship of you.”

Here are a few more thoughts on embedding our practice in daily life…

…and a few reflections on mindfully moving through the landscape (psychogeography) – providing us with an opportunity for practice with every journey to work and each time we walk the dog.

May we each find ways to discover the magic in every moment!

Julian Vayne

 


Coming soon…

Saturday 31st August

Magical Words Workshop 

@ The Museum of Witchcraft & Magic

Boscastle, Cornwall

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In this one day workshop Julian Vayne will help you discover your own magical words. We will use a range of practical techniques, including working with the spirit of the fabulous library of The Museum of Witchcraft & Magic. Explore the power of magical words and signs; from Enochian to mantras, from sigils to poetic invocation. Bring writing materials and your curiosity for this adventure into the magic of text, language, symbol and literature. View details of this and other events here..

 

BREAKING CONVENTION 2019

5th INTERNATIONAL CONFERENCE ON PSYCHEDELIC CONSCIOUSNESS

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I’m pleased to announce that I’ll be speaking at Breaking Convention, the mother of all psychedelic conferences, at the University of Greenwich, 16-18th August. This is going to be a massive, multidisciplinary event hosting more than 150 interdisciplinary presentations over three days, across FIVE simultaneous academic tracks. The conference expands this year and features more than a dozen interactive workshops, a visionary art exhibition, installation gallery, psychedelic film festival, a comedy night, theatre and performance programme, evening banquet, and celebrations every night at the new Student Union bar within our Telesterion building!

At Breaking Convention there’s something for everyone, with contributions from cutting-edge neuroscience, clinical psychology and psychiatry, pharmacology, sociology and criminology, policy analysis, anthropology, archaeology, ethnobotany, music, art, history, literature, theology, mysticism, indigenous perspectives, parapsychology, and much else besides. Hope to see you there!

Get your tickets here.

Wyrd Relationships

When following a path of initiatory magic, however much we may want to emphasize our rugged individualism and uniqueness, most of us eventually come to the realization that we can’t do this on our own. However potent our initial gnostic insights regarding the need to take a radical degree of responsibility for own salvation, we soon realize that we will need to connect to the others for this process to be sustainable.

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Creating New Connections

I have already written on this blog about the influence of Gurdjieff/Fourth Way ideas on my path generally, but I have been especially influenced with regards to that tradition’s focus on the importance of finding dynamic spiritual relationships, in order to challenge and deepen our own explorations. Learning something by one’s self is of course possible, but most of us realise quickly that everything from Tai Chi to foreign language learning is made easier (and ultimately more fun) if we have a competent teacher or teachers. In having an experienced mentor, our learning becomes more rounded as pitfalls are avoided and the full range of sensory and kinaesthetic information becomes available to us.

Learning within an esoteric or magical context is usually associated with groups of other humans who organise themselves into Orders, Schools or networks centred on a shared philosophy, lifestyle or ritual aesthetic. This is often how we do things as Homo sapiens and however much our politics and aspirations hope to flatten hierarchies, we usually self-organise into something that looks like a tribe or family system. When we enter such environments, inspired by our search for meaning, it is unsurprising that most of us look to the longstanding members of such groups both for guidance, and evidence that the group’s claims have some degree of validity.

Okay, so far so good, but if such groups can be beneficial why is it that they can also be a complete pain in the arse? For me, part of why Schools and Orders can be challenging is they often have profound tensions at their core. In reflecting on this, here are a few of them that seem critical:

Openness versus Discernment

Most religious and philosophical groups require the internalization of a certain amount of information and adherence to specific behavioural requirements. When we enter this as a newcomer to a group we can often feel that we re-enacting those scenes from our childhoods in which we were seeking approval. When this is going on alongside the message that we should be aspiring to become powerful, competent initiates we can be forgiven for becoming somewhat confused and disheartened.

For me, the saying attributed to Christ is helpful: “Be as wise as serpents and as innocent as doves” (Matthew 10:16). If we are too naïve we risk exploitation and buying into a type of group-think that can run contra to the aims of initiation, but if we are too shut off and not willing to unlearn then there is little point in being there.

Most of us don’t get it right upon the first time of trying and it is also possible that part of our difficulty lies in bringing the same expectations to the School that we would to other (more conventional) religious contexts. Many enter a School seeking a Church and then seemed shocked that it feels more like a dojo!

Freedom versus Structure

Working with others can be tricky. By definition most magical practitioners are free spirits with anarchic tendencies. We can experience a deep desire to work with others in order to empower and sharpen our work, but most of us are prone to experiencing claustrophobia when we feel our agency and liberty is being threatened!

In traditions that involve truly transformative perspectives there is a certain inevitability that we will need to challenge existing values and certainties. While they will never be perfect in their execution, many Orders out of necessity have had to spend time reflecting on how they provide boundaries and guidance to ensure that ethical standards are understood and respected. Such reflection often takes decades of shared work to develop maturity and shouldn’t be dismissed lightly. Groups will always make mistakes in the doing of the Great Work, but what feels critical is that they have mechanisms for feedback and reflection so that the inevitable mistakes are learnt from. The presence of such processes for self-reflection are vital in ensuring that a School’s core philosophy is both truly life promoting and able to counter any organizational excesses.

Personally speaking, being part of a more formal magical Order has provided me with an excellent opportunity to learn. Even if I might not agree with some of what’s being proposed, the content and structure of such systems provide me with something solid to bash up against and thus refine my own initiatory understanding. The pursuit of grades and curricula may become yet another form of “spiritual materialism”, but at best they can fulfill our need for structure and a way of mapping our development, especially in the early to intermediate stages of training.

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Something clever about trying to think outside the box

Personal versus Impersonal

While undertaking any deep spiritual work will inevitably lead to the forming of close relationships with others, one of the strengths of an Order is that they usually provide a corpus of techniques and perspectives to engage with. Without a solid body of ideas and practice with which to engage, there is a danger that our involvement becomes overly reliant on interpersonal connection. While warm rapport and friendships can be a major strength in the sustainability of group involvement, if we become overly dependent on this, then our own motivations for doing the work can become distorted. People inevitably come and go from magical and initiatory groups as their own focus changes or the costs of involvement outweigh the benefits. Finding like-minded souls can feel amazing after perhaps years of feeling isolated, but we must remain clear about our own goals, and alive to where we may need to go next.

These tensions are likely to remain in play while we choose to take the risk of working magically with others. The probability of finding some imagined perfect balance between these polarities is both unlikely and frankly a bit dull. Like the perfect job or the perfect relationship, the perfect group or school simply doesn’t exist, but in recognizing the dynamics at work we may become more conscious of the push and pull of such forces and how we might play with and respond to them more skillfully.

Steve Dee

 

Digging in the Dirt

“No tree, it is said, can grow to heaven unless its roots reach down to hell.”

Carl Jung

Digging in the dirt
Stay with me, I need support
I’m digging in the dirt
To find the places I got hurt
Open up the places I got hurt

The more I look, the more I find
As I close on in, I get so blind
I feel…

The more I look, the more I find
As I close on in, I get so blind
I feel it in my head, I feel it in my toes
I feel it in my sex, that’s the place it goes

Peter Gabriel  Digging in the Dirt

When we enter onto a path of initiatory magic that seeks to transform the Self it can be easy to lose perspective. In exercising the antinomian bravery of putting our own evolution before the concerns of the gods (real or imagined), we can still get caught-up in becoming overly attached to our own reflection. In the project of awakening and self-sovereignty we can easily become delusional about where our humanity and divinity intersect. Even so-called “living Gods” have to clean the litter tray and push the shopping cart!

In seeking to assess the potential value of the plethora of resources claiming to offer progress along the Left-Hand Path, I would be highly skeptical about any source or school that doesn’t account for failure. Organisations and Orders may well want to emphasize the potential greatness of what their methods might help you attain and obtain, but we still need to show discernment in evaluating the actual method in getting there. While I may be drawn to night-side aesthetics that Kennet Granholm helpfully described as “the Post-Satanic” (cf. his article in the anthology The Devil’s Party), we still need to answer the question: “what is actually required of me for such feats of alchemy to be accomplished?”

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Getting dirty with Peter Gabriel  

The initial Faustian act of taking responsibility for our spiritual development can be fuelled by a healthy dose of adolescent punk-rock rebellion or Black Metal grimacing, but without a depth psychology they eventually risk becoming little more than posturing. For such transformational work to have authentic power and true sustainability it needs to actually engage with the darkness that it is so keen to espouse. As the above quote from Jung maintains, the roots of our being need to be deeply engaged with the dark soil of the unconscious and the shadow aspects of the self.

One magical curriculum that I feel successfully embodies an engagement with these dimensions is the Nine Doors of Midgard that is used within the Rune Gild. This work authored by Edred Thorsson outlines a somewhat terrifying course of work that can take anywhere between 3 and 5 years to complete. The Nine Doors demands a profound engagement with the elder furthark and requires extensive use of body, mind, emotions and voice as a way of internalizing these mysteries.

In the early phases of the Nine doors (the first door), the new apprentice is required to reflect on both their strengths and areas of difficulty. These are termed “Bright” and “Murk” aspects of the self and for me there is significant wisdom in the placement of this activity at the beginning of such a potentially arduous journey.

Often in the early stages of any new relationship (whether friendship, a romance or an initiatory connection), we are keen to emphasize the positive aspects of who we think we are. Whether consciously or unconsciously we have maximized those bits of ourselves that we deem most attractive and desirable to others. This is completely understandable at a human level, but the maintenance of such a relentlessly positive persona will inevitably fail to bring about psychic maturity.

In contrast to the penitent believer, the acknowledgement of such weaknesses need not entail compulsory repentance. This is not about the pardon of an imaginary friend, but rather a challenge to self-examination and an honest assessment of what we need to do in order to create change. While we will certainly be required to refine our strengths in the course of any serious undertaking, it is inevitable that our areas of fragility will be the place in which we either falter or find new dimensions of being.

Whatever cosmological map we use to track our progress, be it Yggdrasil, the Tree of Life or chakras, the enduring value of such schemas is that they embody the challenge to pursue balance and eventual holism. If our eventual goal is to fully actualize our potential as a human being, it would seem inevitable that the keys to our liberation lie with those aspects of self that we are currently most likely to reject or shy away from.

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The Nine Worlds (illustration by Alexis Snell)

To embrace these fragile and fractured aspects of who we are represents a profound act of self-compassion. This is far from glorifying our failings or wallowing in dysfunction, rather it represents a profound realization that the hope of becoming something new is fueled by the potency of what is currently blocked or stuck. Your explorations may take the form of ritual, artistic play or via seeking therapy, but when our heroism allows us look clearly at the shadows, so transformation begins to become possible.

“Filling the conscious mind with ideal conceptions is a characteristic of Western theosophy, but not the confrontation with the shadow and the world of darkness. One does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light, but by making the darkness conscious.”

Carl Jung  “The Philosophical Tree” (1945). In CW 13: Alchemical Studies. P.335

Steve Dee

 

Vision and Discipline

Once upon a time my spiritual path was firmly situated in a type of theism that viewed all human activity as flawed. As a result we lowly worms were reliant upon the grace and favour of a rather changeable deity/demiurge. His book told me that not only was I doomed, but I was doubly doomed if I chose to exercise the Faustian audacity to question his divine authoritarianism.

Although my adolescent longing for identity and certainty made me vulnerable to the promises of orthodoxy, I have never responded well to bullies and attempts to control, and it wasn’t too long before the cracks in my faith grew from being hairline to truly cavernous. Ironically it was study of Christian theology itself that hastened my departure from the fold. Amongst the inevitable deconstruction that occurred via Biblical criticism and the irrational claims of systematic theology, one of the key books that helped me expand my understanding of spirituality was Celebration of Discipline by Richard Foster.

While this book is written by a devout Christian who is unapologetic about the language and imagery he uses, what affected me was the way in which he highlighted effective habits and practices that were able to allow the development of psychological and spiritual fitness. The disciplines of study, meditation, fasting, ritual and pilgrimage were all means for increasing ones’ openness to the incoming of the numinous. Such an approach had a profound resonance for me given the value I had found in the structure and discipline of the Yogic practice I had explored in my early teens and the way they sought to engage all aspects of being.

Throughout the meandering journey that my personal religious instincts have taken me, I have often been suspicious of the type of vulnerable subservience that can feel innate to those paths that have a heavy emphasis on the grace and largesse of supernatural beings. Whatever metaphors or masks that I seek to employ in engaging with Mystery, I am more interested in developing a relationship that allows for the co-construction of meaning rather the wholesale consumption of a “revealed” truth.

I don’t want to minimize the potential importance of strange revelations and non-ordinary states of consciousness, I love a weird gnostic experience as much as the next person. Non-linear insights coming out of the blue? Check! Profound devotional needs expressed to dark deities? Hold my coat. My own practice as a magician has always been as much about what I do and might experience as it has been about the acquisition of arcane lore.

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Okay…that was weird!

For me the visionary dimensions of initiatory development acts like a trail of bread crumbs leading me along a path that has often been hard going and overgrown; and yet on their own they are not enough. While this incoming of gnosis and insight has been essential I am still left with the question of how I might create the ideal environment to receive and sustain such experiences so that they might be translated into patterns of change within myself. For me this is a question about the development of character, the quality of my self-awareness and an appreciation of the combination of qualities that make me uniquely me. For me this a question of Soul.

Theologians and psychologists can argue endlessly about the structure of the Self and whether the Soul is innate or developed. Many of us in the West are slowly unlearning the simplicity of the models proposed by orthodoxies of both the Christian and Freudian variety so as to recover richer languages for our internal processes. Whether via pre-Christian Egyptian or Norse models or the Post-Freudian transpersonal work of Assagioli, we are gradually recovering more functional maps of alchemical self-change. Given this, what feels clear to me is that whether or not we view the Soul as ontologically innate, it is something that can be evolved and strengthened through consciously applied effort.

In Systemic Family Therapy we often talk about first and second order change. First order change is a shift in behaviour in response to a direct challenge or stimulus, while second order change is a change of our scripts or patterns of behaviour so that a new way of being is established in an on-going way. Our visionary encounters may provide the initial jolt away from the routine and mundane, but the application of discipline feels critical if we are fully utilize the shocking energy of gnosis in accessing more profound levels of transformation that are sustainable.

The early stages of applied discipline can feel like hard work. As we try to move from conscious incompetence to the mastery of relaxed competence it is inevitable that we need to grit our teeth in overcoming the forces of inertia. In my own experience, those times where I have been able to persist have been when I have kept returning to my initial motivation and goals. Why did I choose this path? Why this one and not another? What am I hoping to gain via this effort? How would I feel if stepped away from this current path?

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Henry knows the score.

Your method of developing soul will inevitably unique to you as an individual, but if I would offer advice I would recommend those models of change that advocate a holism that tries to account for the fullness of our human experience. Models such as Leary’s Eight-Circuit model or Gurdjieff’s Fourth Way ideas have much of their strength in the fact that they seek to actualize the physical, the emotional and intellectual dimensions of who we are rather than advocating lopsided forms of development.

The creation of Soul and magical character is never about merely knowing stuff. The mighty Don Webb in describing the work of the Order of Setne Khamuast rightly identifies the three critical stages in ensuring initiatory change: learning, enacting and then finally communicating about our discoveries. Knowledge and even the divine glimpses of gnosis are vital in providing the spark of inspiration but they will rarely keep the flame alight for long. To stay warm and to survive we also need oxygen and fuel. Here’s to keeping the flame alive!

Steve Dee

 

Things & Stuff – magical happenings…

The Glastonbury Occult Conference is on the 23-24th February and both Nikki and Julian will be there speaking independently and providing a workshop together on Sunday.

Next month:There are still a couple of places available on Julian’s workshop on Queer Magic at Treadwell’s Books on Saturday 9th March in London.

Both Nikki and Julian will be leading a workshop on shamanism in Wales on Saturday 23rd March.

This is the year of Breaking Convention, one of the biggest and best conferences on psychedelics in the known multiverse. Details of tickets can be found here along with how to submit a paper, performance, workshop etc as well as information on volunteering opportunities. This is going to be an amazing event with over 1500 people taking part!

September 13-14th will see the second Trance-States Conference in sunny Northampton at the University. If you fancy a comprehensive download from the leading edge of  occulture this is the place to be.

There will be more events coming up at Treadwell’s and The Museum of Witchcraft & Magic later this year. Please see our Deep Magic page for details

Wishing all our friends in the northern hemisphere a bright new spring!

The Toxicity of Magic

Making generalizations about magic is always perilous. 

To speak about magic is to speak of the almost the entirety of humanity’s attempts to understand and explore both science and religion. What are these things? Why are they like this? Can I influence these things (including myself) so that they might behave differently? To do magic is to set sail on an adventure of exploration and understanding regarding the nature of things and the (possible) means of causation.

When we reflect on the broad categories of theurgy and thaumaturgy, we can see that magic seeks to provide us both with creative ways of wrestling with the questions of theological meaning and also our human attempts to exert some control over our experience of material existence. When I view my own journey as a magician I can see a variety of stages in which I have used creative ritual and occult technologies (trance, evocation, divination etc.) to engage with a number of these dilemmas.

While I have spent significant amounts of time working with the type of theological preoccupations shared by many forms of contemporary Neo-Paganism, if I was trying to locate any common thread between the techniques and traditions that I have explored, I have largely been preoccupied by the psychological alchemy that magic can exert when we attempt to use it to engage with the unknown, the mysterious and what Freud called “the crushing superiority of nature”.

It’s fair to say that I take my magic with a fair dose of existentialism, and for me the sense of agency created by occult work provides me with a degree of leverage when seeking to create meaning in the world. Whether via the drama of ritual or the creative mind-set of the initiatory imagination, magic helps me both embrace the strength of my passions and also the possibility of managing chaos so that the likelihood of being overwhelmed is reduced.

Orthodox believers are often perplexed or horrified by the ways of the magician. We not only consciously revel in the pursuit of power and agency, but we often engage with personifications of death, impermanence and misrule. The magician is often the one who while valuing the light and the conscious, recognizes that the brutality of life also demands an engagement with the dark, the hidden and the potentially destructive. We see these forces both within ourselves and at work in the world. These are dangerous forces that threaten to overwhelm us and yet for the initiate, we respond to a deep hunch that we need to engage with this material. What matters in such work is the dose we take.

The dose makes the poison” (sola dosis facit venenum) is an axiom credited to the 16th century scientist/alchemist Paracelsus and alludes to his idea that the amount of something is the critical factor in determining its risk to us. Basically this  means that a substance can only produce the harmful effect associated with its toxic properties if it reaches a high enough level within a given body or system. Therefore risk is influenced by a whole range of variable factors such as our personal constitutions and our experience with a given substance.  

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Paracelsus – Awesome alchemist, great taste in hats

When I reflect upon my spiritual and magical practice, I can see direct parallels between this perspective and the way in which I use my explorations of ritual, ecstatic states and divination as a way of more effectively managing my own struggle to engage with the uncertainty and anxiety of being alive.

Life throws all sorts of crazy shit at us: the reliable fails, we get ill, people die, politicians make hugely unwise decisions; you get the idea, this list could go on for a very long time. As we try to create a semblance of order and stability in our lives, the variable and the unknown encroach upon our efforts and then things fall apart. As much as we try to live peaceful lives, the shock of the new and the unexpected induces a whole flood of fight, flight and freeze responses as we try to make sense of the traumas that blind-side us.

While my own pursuit of the “Great Work” of magic is inevitably focused on creating an increased sense of agency in the face of such challenges, for me this is rarely about beseeching prayer and attempts to defy the laws of science. For me, it is more likely to be about a confrontation of my fears within the (relatively) contained setting of the ritual chamber or circle. This is the work of the initiate as we consciously seek to work with a potentially toxic aspect of reality so as to build a degree of resilience or even immunity.

Such work can be profoundly alchemical, in that in working with our fears and wrathful aspects of reality, we can consciously create tension and induce a profitable form of psycho-spiritual resistance. There are some parallels between this work and Hegel’s dialectical process. To introduce a challenging concept (e.g. our fear of death) also asks that we acknowledge its apparent opposite (the joy of experiencing life’s pleasures) and then via the tension between these polar extremes we can begin to synthesize our own unique resolution.  The great mystic Jacob Bohme saw this dialectical tension within the very Godhead itself and the value that bitterness (Grimmigkeit) had in generating creativity and change.

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Working with tensions

Overdose is always possible and part of maturity on the path is knowing when to reduce our intake and ground ourselves via friends, food and more everyday concerns. Magic can be both upsetting and disturbing; the holism that it advocates usually demands the confrontation of aspects of self that we would often prefer to ignore. Most magical paths are designed to give the unconscious an almighty stir so that we are forced to wake from our sleep-states. There are easier hobbies out there if all we are seeking is distraction, but for those of us touched by this initiatory need-fire, this is a work not easily relinquished.

Steve Dee

 

Truth, Lies & Magick

I’ve been reading Gary Lachman’s new book Dark Star Rising: Magick and Power in the Age of Trump which set me thinking about the nature of ‘fake news’ and the complex relationship in magic between the stories we tell ourselves (and each other) about the world, and the world itself.

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There are hundreds of great examples of how things that are not ‘true’ lead to real and ‘true’ outcomes. In mathematics we have crazy concepts that never-the-less still generate real and useful answers, imaginary numbers are perhaps the most obvious example. Then there are all those imaginary lines we draw in the globe for the purposes of navigation and communication, and for deciding which day it is. Such imaginary lines include the (in some respects quite recent) notion of national boarders which of course are a major concern in the politics of America First and Brexit.

Here are a few thoughts on how things that are not ‘true’ can indeed manifest as real things in the world. Not through a naive New Thought solipsism (the kind of thing usually marketed as ‘prosperity consciousness’) but rather through the multiplex processes of culture and the imagination.

One of my favourite tales that I didn’t mention – about the relationship between truth, lies and magick – comes in the form of a chess playing Turk. This was a (fake) robot automaton from the 18th century which (it is said) inspired Charles Babbage and more broadly the industrial revolution. Check out ‘How a magician helped the industrial revolution’ by Gregg Tob for this amazing, and instructive, story.

Details of the December event at The October Gallery with the author of Dark Star Rising and yours truly coming soon.

Julian Vayne