On Letting Go – or, How Not to Get Sick on Ayahuasca…

I once wrote that ‘letting go is the critical ability for navigating psychedelic drugs’ and this is true on many levels. At a Treadwell’s workshop on altered states and at the fabulous Berlin psychedelics conference Altered, people have spoken with me about the challenge of ‘letting go’ in relation to psychedelic sacraments. In both cases my interlocutors were considering taking ayahuasca for the first time. In both cases they’d come to me for reassurance about that whole ‘being sick’ thing.

Ayahuasca can provide an opportunity for spiritual exploration, for self-discovery, for healing, problem solving and much more. As experiences go it can be dazzlingly beautiful and illuminating, and it is true that it can also make you feel nauseous. 

People have heard that taking ayahuasca involves vomiting. I too had these concerns before I took this medicine.  In addition I was afraid that peyote would also make me vomit. I was worried that MDMA would make me overheat and die, I was worried that LSD would make me psychotic and that smoking cannabis would turn me into a hippie…

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Tasty blend of herbs

Joking aside, all these fears do have some basis in reality. Ayahuasca can make you want to vomit, LSD taken in unwise circumstances can scramble one’s brain and toking weed may indeed encourage the consumption of vegan food.

In the case of ayahuasca (or peyote or many other psychedelics) the fear of vomiting is emblematic of the normal human fear of losing control; what looks like fear of being sick is actually about letting go in a much bigger sense. But take heart! Not everyone throws up on the magical Amazonian medicine. I’ve taken the brew many times, sometimes at a high dose, and I’ve not yet vomited on ayahuasca.  I put this this down to having spent many years using other psychedelic drugs where I would register nausea as body load caused by both adrenaline and the stimulation of serotonin receptors in my gut. I’d simply take my attention elsewhere to combat the nausea and it would go away.

Ever the scientist, I once tried eating a chicken tikka baguette not long before an ayahuasca session to see if that might bring on la purga (and turned down my instinctive process to disregard nausea). No luck. I might of course be sick in the future on this or another psychedelic medicine, then again maybe I won’t. When I spoken to a friend, who is much more familiar with ayahuasca than me, he said this wasn’t that unusual and that accords with my experience. Certainly in most  of the ayahuasca sessions I’ve attended the majority of those present didn’t vomit. I have however cried copious tears in the company of The Queen of the Forest; tears of both sadness and joy (sometimes at the same time). Crying for me is a thing,  it’s my physiological catharsis. I cry at the movies, so maybe the ayahuasca spirit uses that channel rather than my gut.

Chicken Tikka Baguette
Not the recommended dieta

The point is that we all fear losing control: our position in society, our face, our well-being. We don’t want to be the gringo covered in his own faeces looking like a J.P. Sears reject, we certainly don’t want our transgressive al-chemical adventures to harm us, or indeed others.

We are right to be thoughtful, mindful, when we approach psychedelic drugs. Sure there will always (I trust) be high spirited, youthful scrapes but, especially as adults, when considering taking a jungle brew (and more so in the case of obscure or new substances) we are wise to be cautious. Accidents, rare reactions and other difficulties can and do happen. However these are very, very rare with the ‘classic’ psychedelics. We know ayahuasca is basically safe because we’ve been testing it on humans for many thousands of years, likewise peyote. Even peyote’s modern daughter MDMA , though a new kid on the block, is known to be a very safe drug. The numbers prove it. Allowing for the problems of unknown dose, composition and other issues caused by prohibition, illegal MDMA is reported to have killed 63 people in the UK in 2016 (this is from government data which also lists 24 deaths as being due to ‘cannabis’, so it may be worth taking these figures with a pinch of salt). This total, whilst still significant and tragic, is very small when considered in the light of the 492,000 people that took one or more doses of this powerful unregulated drug (meaning, zero quality control or any accurate dosage information available at point of sale) in 2015/16. (MDMA use in the UK may be as high as 125 million doses per annum, on the basis of a hefty 200mg per dose of the estimated 25,000kg of Ecstasy consumed in Britain each year.)

Fear doesn’t necessarily have to be a bad thing. It helps keep us safe. It is perhaps what we should feel approaching a transformative experience such as can happen when you drink ayahuasca (or take MDMA). Let’s listen to what Terence McKenna (peace be upon him) says about fear and psychedelics:

“One of the interesting characteristics of DMT is that it sometimes inspires fear – this marks the experience as existentially authentic. One of the interesting approaches to evaluating such a compound is to see how eager people are to do it a second time. A touch of terror gives the stamp of validity to the experience because it means, “This is real.” We are in the balance. We read the literature, we know the maximum doses, the LD-50, and so on. But nevertheless, so great is one’s faith in the mind that when one is out in it one comes to feel that the rules of pharmacology do not really apply and that control of existence on that plane is really a matter of focus of will and good luck.”

Psychedelic drugs require us to abandon ourselves to the experience, in the same way that in possession states we (that is; our usual way of thinking) must get out of the way. The Loa enter the ecstatic dancer, temporarily driving out their day-to-day self,  as their body becomes a horse ridden by the gods.

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Raving – still safer than horse riding…

Psychedelic drugs are antithetical to systems of control in a variety of senses. At a raw biological level that’s how they work. The fact that the world looks weird when we are high on ayahuasca is because the control systems in our neurology are being disrupted. Edge detection, motion and colour detection bits of the brain become cross-wired. The ability of your mind to smooth out the visual world into a seamless film (which isn’t how your biology takes in the scene at all, see Nikki’s article for more of this) is compromised by the weird chemistry of the vine and the leaf. Then the visions come; of vertically symmetrical faces, with eyes, mouths and tentacles (visual cues our biology is optimized to notice). What’s going on is that the control systems of our minds are so weakened that content floods between brain regions, creating cognitive chimera and marvellous mental mashups. Out of this creative chaos arise visually perceived sub-personalities or the archetypal programs of our unconscious mind (…or however one likes to think of these things). The spirits  enter our imaginations just as they enter the body of the ecstatic Voudou raver. We let go of control, becoming a vessel for the teaching of the medicine, and in losing ourselves, find ourselves reborn.

Let’s reconsider that basic form of control which preserves our adult decorum; what if the ayahuasca strips away our digestive competence and we make a fool of ourselves?

Any good ayahuasca season takes account of the fears, and indeed in many styles of practice this purging is seen not as a problem but as an opportunity for healing and cathartic release. Small plastic buckets and plenty of tissues are usually provided and, however it is managed, the fact that participants may need to vomit is planned for. By re-imaging this vomiting as ‘getting well’ or ‘la purga’ the experience, while not necessarily pleasant, can be a positive transformative part of the trip. Peyote can have a similar nauseating effect, and again good rituals will take this into account.

Within the design of the Native American Church peyote ceremony the central crescent altar is made from local soil. This soil is dug from a pit to make what is sometimes called a ‘Getting Well Hole’. Any vomit is disposed of into this hole. The soil from the crescent altar is used to fill it in the end of the rite. Flowers from the ceremony may be left on the replaced turfs covering the pit. Thus the process of ‘getting well’ isn’t just an annoying side effect of the drugs but is deeply incorporated into the ceremonial process.

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Altared state

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Getting well whole

More extreme loss of biological control (really needing to poo) usually only happens at high doses of psychedelics, and even then is usually within manageable bounds. Higher doses of any substance means more body load. A very high dose of anything will make you shit yourself as the body deploys one of its basic defensive (control) mechanisms. I’m reminded of a tale told to me by David Luke of some people he is researching who took far, far, far too much LSD (>20,000μg each). As soon as they drank the liquid (in which was dissolved more acid than they bargained for) they all immediately shat themselves, projectile vomited, and then spent a very, very, very long time tripping (one of them is still seeing strange things many years later).

Lots of things at high dose can make us throw up. I’ve seen people throw up on rapé snuff, 4-AcO-DMT, ketamine, cannabis, peyote, ayahuasca and MDMA but (even as someone who rarely goes to pubs) I’ve seen many more people throw up through drinking too much alcohol. In cultures like mine, where alcohol is a protected species of psychoactive and therefore commonly available, most people will have likely seen and possibly experienced vomiting from excessive drinking. Yet the fact that booze can potentially make us spew does not seem to be a major reason for people not trying alcohol.

With many psychedelics my view is that going-in slowly is a wise and polite approach to the spirit of a medicine. I agree that an initial Big Experience can be valuable, sometimes high doses are definitely what is indicated. But for many substances respecting the medicine can simply mean starting off gently. Drink less –  booze or ayahuasca – and you’ll probably feel less like vomiting.

Some styles of medicine worker like to make a big impression and strongly encourage the ‘heroic dose’ approach. Recently I’ve had a couple of people talk to me about shamans giving what they felt was too high a dose of a medicine, certainly too high for the recipients comfort. When I suggested asking the shaman for less they indicated that this would probably be met with a refusal. ‘Shaman knows best’ it would seem, an approach which ignores the feedback of the client. If you want less, particularly of a powerful substance such as 5-MeO-DMT, that’s what you should get. However wise the medicine person thinks their approach is, it is also wise to remain open to information from the client. For some medicines it’s not even an issues of having to take one big hit. 5-MeO-DMT for instance (the primary active ingredient of the psychedelic venom of the toad Bufo alvarius) can be taken in several bursts during a session, gradually increasing (or decreasing) the dosage as appropriate. There is no significant tolerance built up in a single session, and indeed subsequent inhalations of smoke can enhance the intensity of the trip while using less material. This approach is particularly helpful for people with less experience of psychedelic drugs. It also makes good sense in terms of testing for those rare but not unknown idiosyncratic reactions to a new medicine.

The wisdom is this: it is always possible to add more, but difficult to take away too much.

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…the toad, ugly and venomous,
Wears yet a precious jewel in his head.

A good psychedelic facilitator works to create a set and setting that is supportive and transformative. For those who are new to this territory, with all their fears of losing control of bowel and brain, it’s important for the wise shaman to create an environment where the substance component of the ritual is used intelligently. We want this space to feel safe because it’s important in my view that lots of people have access to the psychedelic experience. This means not just backpacking, adventurous hippie types but many others too. These folks may come from backgrounds where they have been told that drugs are bad, will send you mad and potentially kill you. Unlocking this control can be a powerful journey.  Sometimes blowing open closed minds can work wonders. But let us also cultivate a circumspect form of practice that gently leads people into the psychedelic waters rather than throwing them in at the deep end.

Care and attention are the skills needed to create the best set and setting within which to address our fear of losing control. We care for the vomiting ayahuasca traveller by providing buckets and toilet rolls. We care for panicked festival psychonauts by creating supportive spaces (like this and this) where they can be helped to ride the dragon of a challenging trip.

For my part, when people express their concerns to me about vomiting on ayahuasca I tell them the truth. Yes you can be sick, but you can be sick on beer too, or from a dodgy kebab. Maybe if you are very concerned ask for a smaller dose (and be thoughtful of practitioners who do not listen to your concerns about these matters). If you are sick think of it as ‘getting well’, acknowledge that this is a simple human activity, without shame and easily dealt with. Use the facilities provided, just like you would on a boat or airplane. You will not die (yet), you’re just throwing up.

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Fear not, this too shall pass…

So the message folks is that these concerns about taking ayahuasca makes sense. Be sensible about what you take and with whom, but don’t fear the vomit. Let go of your worries about losing control (you never had it really anyhow), embrace the experience. By and large these psychedelic substances are safe, healing, fun, wonderful and good for us. (Though if possible I recommend going somewhere where prohibition does not impose on the set and setting of your explorations, like here)

Prepare your bucket (which you may not need anyhow). Relax and let it happen, this is good medicine.

JV

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Here’s a brief update on some of the events and projects that we are involved with in early 2018.

Julian is running a one day workshop at Treadwell’s Books in London on Working Magic in the Landscape: Psychogeography on 13th January 2018 11:00 am – 5:30pm.

Nikki and Julian are running a retreat in The Netherlands on Altered States & Magic. This promises to be a magical weekend which runs from 9–11th February 2018.

If you’re interested in finding out more about our 2018 programme of retreats (we’re really excited to have an amazing new venue at St Nectan’s Glen in Cornwall and some great guest facilitators joining us). Please drop us a line here and we can keep you informed by email of the latest events, publications and more.

The amazing Psychedelic Press UK has just released issue 22 of their journal, check it out and subscribe.

More details on events can be found here at the blog and on Facebook too.

Blessings

NW & JV 

 

Retreating in Order to Advance

The summer is a time for rest and relaxation, counter-pointed by the retreat time of (northern) midwinter. In the capricious temperate maritime climate of the British Isles the summer can be a time both of glorious sunshine and torrential rain. For those of us with children it means the delight of spending quality time together, having a chance to pause and to take stock before the start of the new academic year and the now headlong rush towards the nadir of the December solstice.

This summer I have mostly been on retreat in Cornwall. Part of this came in the form of lovely family holiday in West Penwith. Staying at a charming campsite managed by two friends (complete with gypsy caravan and our own new high tech tent) we had a base from which we could sample diverse Cornish delights from a marine safari (where seals basked on rocky outcrops and pterodactyl-like gannets sliced the sun-bright air above the swell) through to a some rainy-day virtual reality fun (with experiences such as a virtual journey into the watery depths and an opportunity to try VR art). Counterpointing our visits to sacred sites such as Mênan-Tol (an iconic prehistoric megalith, the Cornish name for which translates as the high-art sounding ‘stone with hole’) was a visit to an escape room, a kind of crystal maze-eque challenge cunningly constructed so that each one of us could contribute to the solution (we escaped successfully with just a few minutes to spare!).

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Stone with Hole, photo by Nikki Wyrd

Camping provides an opportunity to reconnect with the simple and timeless features of life; weather, fire, water. The sky, that remarkable artwork beneath which we live our span, revealed itself in its star-strewn glory on a few nights. Lying on our backs by the campfire cushioned by sheepskins, we could look up and out into space, back into time, and marvel at the plane of our galaxy which we call the Milky Way. For me these times help keep the rest of life in perspective. What really matters is how a marshmallow burns when ignited over the flaming logs, or the amazing bright red colour of the large fox we spied out by the lake, or the whether one can spot a shooting star.

My second location for retreat was also in Cornwall but this time further east and on the northern coast. I’ve written before about the amazing place of pilgrimage known as St.Nectan’s Glen and this was where I stayed. Over the last six years the Glen has been beautifully enhanced by well considered new buildings, woodland walks, art and the planting of over 3,000 new native trees. By spring 2018 the Glen will also be available for retreats, with accommodation for around 20 people and the opportunity to have sole use of the space once the day-time visitors are gone. Nikki and I will be facilitating retreats there as well as helping other groups make use of this unique magical place so if you’d like to find out more please get in touch.

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The magical waters of the Kieve

The river Trevillet falls some 60ft through a naturally cut circle in the rock and into the kieve. Joined by the outflow from two smaller falls (which can be seen from the new woodland walk) the wider stream flows through the woodland as does the path that visitors  need to walk up to access the site. The river then flows on its way down to Rocky Valley (where Troy Town mazes of uncertain age are inscribed upon the rock).

The Glen is rarely a place of literal silence. That said the only sounds that are audible, water, wind, and birdsong create a textured background sound that is at once both stimulating and restful. Further developments on the site over the next few years will include additional accommodation and the erection of a stone circle. But even in the hurly burly of building works those caring for the site have shown enormous sensitivity to its special character. For example, at one point some land needed to be cleared in preparation for the creation of a Zen meditation and sensory garden and Iron Age style roundhouse. Of course the easiest plan would have been simply to grub up the (not terribly impressive) apple trees and get on with the job. What actually happened is that the trees were carefully moved and re planted. Now in a much better place, and having been treated with care and love, they are flourishing.

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Magical mazes in Rocky Valley

To go on retreat, however we do it, implies having time to listen. We make an opportunity to be actively passive. This may be very inwards (sitting in silent meditation in order to see what arises in this moment) or outward (becoming tourists and allowing ourselves to engage in a journey of curiosity and discovery). We can choose to downshift and spend hours by the river watching the play of light on the water or actively seek out novelty (in the case of donning VR goggles). Whatever we do, the aim is to make space, to change our usual modus operandi and engage with a different way of being that can shed light on our ‘normal’ lives, putting things into perspective and nourishing our souls. By stepping outside of our usual settings, we can look inside ourselves afresh.

JV

 

PS: Nikki and I are running a retreat in The Netherlands on Altered States & Magic. This promises to be a magical weekend which runs from 9–11th February 2018. There are still a few spaces left, please get in touch if you’d like to join us.

Working with the Body at Halloween

For me one of the benefits of  working  with the turning of the year (especially alongside the 8 colours of magic), is that I often feel as though I’m being asked to maintain a balance in relation to the diet of my magical/spiritual activity and to pay attention to the way in which such work promotes health. If for example the heights of ego magic at mid-summer risk the danger of grandiosity, so the demands of Lammas and harvest help ensure that I pressure test any sense of advancement.

In the Northern Hemisphere this time of year can be an interesting time to take stock.  Whether we call it Samhain, Halloween or All Souls, the entry into the colder, darker period of the year often provides a natural impulse to slow down and review what we are doing and how this lines-up with our personal aspirations.

One of the great benefits of having both close magical friends and using a magical diary is that they both provide aid in the process of reflection and the way that I keep returning to important themes that I would have been less aware of if I had been left to my own devices. By making the most of such support, one of the reoccurring themes that I keep bumping into, is the importance of the body in my current spiritual practice. In discussion with beloved friends over cups of tea and in deciphering the rambling stream of consciousness contained in my diaries, I have to contend with the question of what it means to experience both the joys and limitations of the physical realm.

For much of this year I have been exploring my relationship with my body by reconnecting to my love of surfing. Living by the coast, I have the good fortune of getting into the sea and exploring the pleasure and challenges that it offers. I tend to surf either without a board (bodysurfing) or on a small inflatable surf mat. Both of these approaches are viewed as somewhat eccentric within the wider surfing community, but help maximize the rider’s closeness to the power of the wave. Outwardly the rider may not seem to be doing much beyond gliding down the face of the wave, but for me they provide a direct experience of nature’s power and the ever changing conditions of the Ocean. However odd and unimpressive this might seem to onlookers, the simple and intense pleasure of this watery Tantra keeps calling me back.

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Inflatable surf action!

My relationship to surfing is a complex one. I started surfing at age 10 when living in Australia and was an enthusiastic devotee until my family returned to the UK 6 years later. For the next 10 years I hardly went in the sea, and my focus on Christianity and theological education provided all the distraction I could want. When I eventually started surfing again, I simply assumed that despite the need for more wetsuit, I would be able to resume my obsession as before. Sadly my body didn’t agree, and following the move to Devon with my partner I was quickly faced by the reality that this love of mine was making me ill. I was confronted by limitation in the form of chronic fatigue symptoms and the realization that I couldn’t really do this, and work and have a life.

The letting go of my surfing obsession was made easier by becoming a parent and the inevitable demands and focus that this requires, and yet I still can’t/won’t let go of this thing I love. Surfing inevitably teaches me all those hippy lessons about flow, and awe at nature’s beauty, but it has also taught me some important things about limitation and self-care. I now avoid those beautiful winter waves and when I do surf in warmer months, I pay attention to my diet, my Qi Gong practice and the need for rest. Other illnesses and life events have provided more stark challenges, but my ability to surf/not surf has definitely allowed me some insight in how I experience my body.

Within the excellent work that Julian has done mapping on the colours of magic to the 8 major fire festivals Samhain is seen as having strong correspondences with black magic and the realm of death. Perhaps this is inevitable as we hunker down in front of fires and contend with early sunsets, but this drawing in and reflection brings associations with endings, darkness and remembering those people or things we have lost. When we work with the body we can become aware of not only the intense pleasures that can be sensed and experienced, but also the frailty of our physical selves and their finite span.

For those of us walking a magical path, the reality of own deaths can trigger a range of differing responses. Having worked hard at refining our psyches via the rigours of esoteric endeavour, the ending of our physical life as we know it can feel like an injustice that we rage against in a desire to buy more time. Alternately, in taking inspiration from Buddhist practice, can we use our awareness of mortality to sharpen our appreciation of this moment and review how we wish to be living now?

If I knew that I had three years left, what changes would I be making in the choices I make and in the quality of my relationships?

What if I knew I had 1 year?

What if I knew I had 6 months?

Stark questions, but also ones that can inspire us to awaken and taste life more fully!

Blessed Be.

SD

 

Divine Androgyne (Part 3): Monstrous Alchemy

The impact of Queer experience on the ideal of androgyny is a truly disruptive one. Gone are our neat Kabbalistic flow charts and clear cut Neoplatonic stages of descent. In contrast to these linear sequences, this Queered Androgyny is an ever oscillating, multi-directional chaos-star whose many rays can be simultaneously moving both outward in expression and engagement, and inward in reflection and self-nurture.

This principle of Androgyny is fed as much by the lived experience of unique, individual Androgynous people as it is by the realm of aspirational metaphysics. It as much as about the creativity of the Radical Faery and Butch Lesbian as it about Adam Kadmon or Ardhanarisvara. For me, to work with this form of Androgyny means to acknowledge both a dialectical process that seeks to capture the world of ideal forms, while at the same time experiencing a dialogical reality in which a multitude of positions need to be held together without a necessary resolution.

Ardhanarishvara

‘Can’t tell if you’re a boy or a girl’

To seek deep benefit in engaging with these ideas and images seems to require that we tolerate a certain degree of uncertainty. So often this form of doubt, confusion and psychological tension is seen as a negative or a hindrance to spiritual development and yet I believe this does not need to be case. For those of us seeking to walk an occult path, we are often called upon to make use of emotions and methods which our exoteric cousins view as dangerous or retrograde. If however we are able to engage consciously with the sense of resistance experienced in grappling with the complexity of such dialogues, then this very tension can bring about alchemical change.

If the stated aim of magical work is to create change, it would seem somewhat odd to then resist the transformation when it comes; and yet in my own life this has so often been the case. Change can happen at many levels and impact both how we experience ourselves and how we engage in relationships with others. Often the routes to change are manifested in dilemmas, loss and conflict, and the keys we need are to be found in attending to the strangeness of our dreams and the currents of the unconscious made manifest in our Art.

This is the unconscious territory that the Surrealists were so adept in exploring in their work, with the strange often jarring images revealing aspects of self that were bizarre, blurred and often monstrous. In alchemical terms this connection to the unconscious and the shadow represent the stage of nigredo or “blackening”. For the surrealists such territory was vital to their artistic inspiration and similarly for our magical work to have any really depth or sustained power, we must tap into this libidinal black flame of inspiration.

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Leonora Carrington Inn of the Dawn Horse

We have already explored something of the fertile intersect that exists between Surrealism and the artistic deployment of occult ideas and images. Themes as diverse the etheric double, the daemonic and the Witches’ sabbat were explored to varying degrees and there seems to be a significant connection between this use of magical themes and the often weird animalistic characters with which they populated their artistic landscapes.

The link between the magical, the animal and the potentially Queer is present in much Surrealist work and for me the most engaging aspects of such exploration, lies in the way in which it seems to capture that zone of liminal strangeness and mystery. The Surrealist imagination was alive to potency to be found in understanding the animal (whether actual or in more mythic forms) as a way of recontacting the sensual and instinctual realms that weave through the body. For me this wilder magic seems to connect to an almost pre-verbal stage of development that resonates with Spare’s idea of “atavistic resurgence”.

The folklore of the Lycan and Vampyre point us towards a magical worldview in which we can explore the vitality gained through a deeper connection to the visceral. Similarly the Witches’ animal familiar the “Fetch”, or the animal-dimension of Norse soul-lore breach our polite attempts to conceive of a humanity devoid of wildness.

In contrast to the clean, vertical fusing of Ardhanrisvara, the truly Queer genius of Levi’s depiction of Baphomet is partly located in the way in which the animal sits alongside the male and female. In trying to work with our own processes of dissolving and coming back together, Baphomet’s animal dimensions remind us of the power, joy and danger that can be accessed when we risk tuning into the whole of ourselves.

My own attempts to access these states has come via bodywork, dance/shaking states and prolonged trance drumming. I have also had a great deal of pleasure revisiting Gordon MacLellan’s excellent book Sacred Animals which provides some excellent practical guidance for exploring these themes. The ability to inhabit these places feels vital for those of us seeking to embody both freethinking and the magic of the Queer. These places beyond binaries and old certainties rarely allow prolonged rest, but they are undoubtedly transformational!

SD

 

 

 

 

 

Want Magic? Just Do It!

There are certain perennial questions asked by people that are new to magic (and indeed any aspect of human endeavour) which basically boil down to variations of ‘where should I begin?’. This is a perfectly reasonable inquiry. Before plunging into anything new we like to know where we can find support (good books, reliable online sources, helpful organizations and peer networks), and what are the first steps (what practices to do). The issue of support, especially peer support, these days is perhaps easier than it was in ye olden dayz (i.e. before teh internetz). Even though there are undoubtedly a range of opinions (and of course some card-carrying crazy folks) online, the intelligent user (by checking sources and looking at how relationships are between a given person or group and the wider esoteric community) can usually sift the wheat from the chaff. However the problem of ‘where to begin’ is perhaps trickier now than it was in the past simply by dint of the vast range of ideas on offer.

When I started exploring magic there were perhaps hundreds of books available on the subject (back in the late 1970s). These had to be bought (in specialist shops or via mail order catalogues) or obtained through the slow process of inter-library loan. (I remember how excited I was, age 13, having requested The Key of Solomon on receiving the letter informing me that this grimoire was ready me to collect at local library.) While my access to esoteric texts was much easier that it would have been for my ancestors (especially for someone like myself from a working class background living in the provinces), I certainly wasn’t drowning in a sea of data. If I had a book that captured my interest I would read and re-read. If I wanted to try some occult practice it was a case of studying the few texts I had available and picking something from there. As a kid (when frankly I should have been out climbing trees and riding my bike) I worked through tattvic visualizations given in books on the magic of The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. I did yoga by following the instruction of Lyn Marshall and my first try at candle magic was informed by the writing of Michael Howard (Peace Be Upon Him). I used what I had, it wasn’t much but it got me started.

As I reached my teenage years I began to save funds to buy the items of ritual paraphernalia I wanted. This was the early 1980s. I had read about Wiccan ritual and various ceremonial styles (as described by Crowley, and in texts such as The Flying Rolls and Seasonal Occult Rituals by W.B.Gray). This provided me a wishlist of stuff; athame, white handled knife, cords, pentacle, chalice… a whole collection that I imagined would be my essential magical tools. I obtained a ceremonial sword, of the classic Solomonic design, from Lois Bourne (spending a fortuitously uneventful afternoon wandering around the Hertfordshire town in which Lois lived with the weapon until my Dad came and picked me up in his car) along with a lovely heavy copper pentacle inscribed with the traditional Wiccan signs.

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“First the Magic Sword…”

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“Fifth the Pentacle…”

I bought my chalice from the fabulous Seldiy Bate and Nigel Bourne at a psychic fayre event. (Surrounded by white light and crystals, we three gathered in a corner full of witchy darkness and pungent resin-on-charcoal style incense.) I filled in more blanks on my occult paraphernalia shopping list; a wand courtesy of Dusty Miller and sundry items from the wonderful Occutique in Northampton. Then I was ready to obtain what I considered to be the most important ritual item (as someone strongly in tune with that Witchcraft style); my athame.

As the witches ‘magical weapon’ I knew that I needed something that was really awesome. Finally, after much searching of cutlers and the few occult shops who sold that sort of stuff, at a psychic festival in London, I came across the marvelous Elizabeth St. George. Elizabeth was a real radical, I guess in some ways a chaos magician before that term had even been coined. I recall visiting her home in London and noticing a bust of E.T. in her temple, ‘a wonderful spirit to work with, ideal for interplanetary magic’ she assured me. It was from Elizabeth that I purchased my athame. A cool looking knife with a dark Toledo steel blade, turned ash wood handle and lunar crescent guard.

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(My athame – a bit like this design only better).

I’d been rather discombobulated by my visit to Elizabeth’s home though. Sure I kinda got the idea of working magic with E.T. but there was more, ‘I don’t really cast a circle’ Elizabeth informed me. ‘I make the whole of this temple protected’. I guess it took me a while to realize that a ‘magic circle’ is an imaginal construct. Unlike if one were to draw a literal circle in a square room, casting a magic circle would not either leave the corners of the room unconsecrated or extend beyond the room to include part of the house next door.

There I was with this totes magic item, my athame, and I knew that before I used it, it would need consecration. I understood consecration to be a process of a) removing any previous vibes from the object so that it was ‘virgin’ and ready to be b) charged with magical power and dedicated to the Great Work. The banishing bit was easy. I recall (following the advice in one of those 1970s occult coffee table books) sticking the blade of the athame in the earth while the sun shone. I guess the sympathetic magic was something along the lines of ‘bright sunshine burns up any lingering ‘shadows’ in the object’. (The UV component of sunlight of course has the literal effect of bleaching and killing bacteria and this cleansing effect was commonly employed by our ancestors long before microscopy). I plunged the blade into a flower bed in the back garden of my family home, the sun beat down. I assumed the process was working.

The next stage was more complex and that’s where I hit a problem. I had various books providing rituals for consecrating objects – from The Key of Solomon through to Mastering Witchcraft. The difficulty was that I felt such an important, indeed central bit of the witches kit, needed a consecration process that was super powerful. The relatively simple rituals given in the books I had simply didn’t seem grand enough. Had I had access to the internet I would have been submerged in even more suggestions on how to accomplish this magical act. I had access to the instructions given in the Book of Shadows that had been published at that time (this was before Janet and Stewart Farrar released The Witches Way), yet nothing seemed quite impressive enough. I imagined a ritual that addressed my own cosmology, maybe including a few of my fave deities such as Thoth and Set, Cernunnos and Hecate and Baphomet. I felt such an important ceremony had to be outstanding and full to the brim with occult symbolism.

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Cutlery lore

Having banished my athame with sunlight I wrapped it in silk (using an old scarf belonging to my Mum, on reflection probably made of nylon) and put it to one side. I carried on doing yoga and meditation and candle magic. I began to make forays into rune signs and sigils, I made myself (rather inexpertly) a robe. But my witches blade lay unused, shrouded in fabric, on my bedroom altar.

By the time I was 16 I was invited to join a coven. A remarkable event that saw the High Priestess of the group thoughtfully speaking with my parents in order to confirm that they knew what I was up to. I remember that first ritual in a large room in a house in north London; it was magical.

I also recall how the High Priestess of the coven asked if I had an athame. ‘Yes’ I replied, ‘though it’s not consecrated yet’. I handed her the knife.

‘Better get it done then!’ She proffered me the pentacle from the altar and placed the athame on it. Muttering some words about power and blessing the High Priestess sprinkled my knife with consecrated salt and water, she wafted incense over it, smoke curled round the pentacle and over the blade. She took an altar candle and waved this over the knife and beneath the pentacle. I could feel the warmth on my hands.

“There it’s done.’ She said, “ready to use!”

Later that evening I had the honour of performing the consecration of the wine with my now fully activated athame. I was told to keep the knife under my pillow for at least a month so it could soak up my vibes and we could bond. I was also told to ‘use it!’

I’d become stuck in that ‘where to begin?’ when it came to what I imagined to be the terribly important business of consecrating my athame. This ‘option anxiety’ led me to procrastinate. I was waiting to do the Work until I found what I thought would be the best (i.e. most super-power-majix – the ideal) way of consecrating this tool. By cutting the Gordian knot of my own confusion the High Priestess had released me from this self-imposed paralysis (and of course this was the powerful magical act I needed!). 

Fast-forward thirty three years and I observe similar behaviours among occultists and psychonauts. While it’s sensible to solicit advice, and to consult the terabytes of esoteric data online, there is nothing like cutting through those Gordian knots and getting on with the Great Work – for that is where the magic is; in the act. That’s one of the reasons I rather like the chaos magical approach, where practice wins over theory, and doing is emphasized over being.

We may not have what we think of as the optimum conditions to practice. We may have all kinds of pressures, of time, of not feeling we know enough yet, of waiting until we can find a teacher, whatever. But to do magic we must ‘dare’, and though our first steps may falter we will at least have begun our journey.

As the Goddess Nike might say, ‘just do it!’ Or to quote from one of the idiomatic versions of ‘Nothing is True, Everything is Permitted’ that Nikki Wyrd and I collected for The Book of Baphomet ‘It’s all bullshit, just pick something!’

(As an epilogue to this story, when I consider the magic bling I purchased, I notice that the only thing I still regularly use is my incense burner. A lovely cast iron bowl with a figure of eight serpent coiled beneath it, head rearing up into the perfumed smoke. This item cost me a grand total of £2 from a junk shop in London and ironically has never been formally consecrated.)

JV

Further Adventures in Ma’at Magick

In my last post I touched upon the inspiration that I have been gaining from the Ma’at Magick current as outlined by the wonderful Nema (Maggie Ingalls). It was through her description of her work with the mysterious figure of N’Aton that I found a vehicle for furthering my own explorations of the Gnostic current in a more creative, future orientated way.

Those acquainted with my writing here will probably be unsurprised by my attraction to N’Aton as a future-mythic figure. N’Aton represents a non-binary ‘They’ at a number of levels. As is represented by their image half in starry shadow and half in light, their gender is located in a third place that dances between and beyond polarities. N’Aton as a future magical self also integrates an inspiring way of being that holds together the unique individual and shared collective.

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Face of the Future

While the primary structure of the book Ma’at Magick follows the time-tested format of the Hermetic Kabbalah, for me juiciest insights are gained as Nema incorporates her more Typhonic and Nu-Thelemic inspirations. Having worked closely with Kenneth Grant and the Kaula Nath lineage of AMOOKOS, her work weaves together a rich variety of magical strands.

One of the areas of magical practice that seems to reflect this rich material is Nema’s work with the Forgotten Ones. For her these are the personified aspects of our ancient and primal drives that have allowed humanity to survive and evolve. These are the lurkers in the deep that connect us to the potent needs of hunger, sex, clan connection, communication and curiosity.  As Nema observes: “Civilisation, law, governance and good manner form a fragile veneer over the survival urges in the human unconscious.”

Once one has entered into conversation with the Holy Guardian Angel, Nema believes that it is vital to engage in our work with the Forbidden Ones so as to avoid the perils of megalomania and potential magical burn-out. For us to truly earth our experiences of transcendence and the sense of who we might become, it is essential that we as magicians remain connected to the earthy reality of who we are as human animals. For our work to have sustainability the balancing scales of Ma’at need to be attended to. If we focus only on the future, the “spiritual” and the new, we risk fragility and escapism. If we focus only on the ancestral drives of the past, we risk getting bogged down in materialism and missing the possibility of who we might become. Like the scales we seek balance, a Hermetic tightrope walk of “as above so below”.

For me part of the genius of author-artists such as Nema, Kenneth Grant and Austin Osman Spare is their appreciation of the ‘darker’, dream-like dimensions of magical work and how critical these are in fuelling a more integrated version of magical advancement. While critics might depict such approaches as being ‘nightside’, I couldn’t frankly care less as my own experience with dusty, linear approaches is that they often fill the head while doing little for the heart or the body. For our alchemy to be real we need the fuel of body, mind and emotions ignited and transformed.

This need to reconnect to the Forgotten, dark and unconscious has been a theme key to my own magical journey. The psychological struggle to hide aspects of mySelf behind a mask of perceived respectability drove me down into what felt like a pit of confusion and personal torment.  While I longed for a quick fix that demanded less effort or a ready rescuer, the answer came via darkness, stillness and the eventual death of who I thought I was. While these days I find limited value in terms such as ‘Left-hand path’, I can still recognise the territory it is attempting to map in trying to describe those spiritual paths that engage  with the dark, earthy and potentially frightening dimensions of existence.

In revisiting these insights of Nema’s, I was reminded of my own ongoing focus on the form of draconian magic articulated in the works of Michael Kelly. In works such as Apophis and Aegishjalmur, Kelly describes the work of the initiate as being an ongoing dialogue between consciousness and chaos. Yes we might strive for an awakened sense of Self that seeks the qualities of Godhood, but we must also recognise the darker more chaotic currents of the Serpent moving through the depths of both ourselves and the cosmos. The true adept is the one able to acknowledge the presence of both chaos and order within their personal sphere, and that both impulses can be harnessed when done so consciously.

While the approaches outlined by Nema and Kelly might differ significantly in their chosen starting point and aesthetics, for me their shared authenticity is found in their balancing of wide range of human needs and competing drives. Our personal journeys and tastes will of course shape the degree of comfort and congruence with a given path, but my hunch is that any school or method of lasting value will force us to confront those forgotten aspects that potentially hold the key to deeper progress.

SD

 

Chaos Streams 01, by members of the IOT

As we reach the deepest darkness of the northern year and await the return of the sun, I’m very pleased to announce the publication of the latest installment in the story of chaos magic; Chaos Streams 01 – written, illustrated and published by members of the British Isles Section of the Magical Pact of the Illuminates of Thanateros.

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In this volume you will discover first person accounts of magical explorations, descriptions of techniques, philosophical reflections and tales of high strangeness. These are the diverse voices of individual practitioners who gather together to do group magical work as members of the Pact.

Chaos Streams includes a comprehensive history of chaos magic as well as essays on ceremonial BDSM, Zen and chaos, spirit possession, the relationship between science and occultism, life-hacking, entheogenics, Tibetan ritual paraphernalia, devotional yoga, esoteric ethics, invisibility and more, 193 pages of fabulous practical magic! This is a wide-ranging collection that demonstrates the multiplicity of styles and techniques that are part of the IOT today.

Copies are now available as paperback  £8

And on Kindle 99p

We hope that you will enjoy and be inspired by this manifestation of our magic.

Have a Cool Yule & Choyofaque!

JV