Our Heroic Selves

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

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

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

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

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Rule book

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Steve Dee

Spiritual Freethinking

Being a human often involves the construction of stories. In trying to make sense of our own lives, those of other beings on the planet and the Universe more generally, we create narratives to help us order what might be going on. We respond to the information we receive and fuse it with our existing perspectives in order to make decisions about how we wish to live and the potential risk things pose to our current experience of being alive. Most of this time we do this amazing work without even knowing that it is going on, but sometimes we have moments when we realise that we are doing it, and that we might want to make conscious changes to our method and style.

Most religious movements and schools of philosophy lay claim to providing tools for waking us up from the automatic reliance on assumptions. The process of becoming aware of the lenses we rely on for viewing the world can be both shocking and disorientating as we try to incorporate any new insights gained. The problems for most religions come when the incoming of new, enlightening knowledge (Gnosis) begins to disrupt the presuppositions that they themselves rely on e.g. that God either doesn’t exist or is radically different from how they were initially understood to be.

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Sapere aude!

Many of the posts on this blog are penned with a view to promoting a process where we begin thinking about how we think and consider the risks involved in stepping outside the lines of received orthodoxy. If we start to question “received truths” and embrace the heretic’s path of choosing our own way, then we must realise that we will increase discomfort for both ourselves and those around us. For the freethinker, to refuse to question is often an even less desirable, stultifying path, but we would be naïve if we underestimate the disruptive force of heretical thoughts and behaviour.

Part of the creative, disruptive power of the heretic, is that they take existing received truths and they bend them. It would be bad enough if we adopted an antithetical position, but the fact that we take an image or language and inject it with a new, nuanced or odd meaning, truly infuriates those seeking to maintain their monopoly on perceived truth. The gnosis of the heretic triggers a creative process in which their artistry reveals strange variants of reality. While on one level we reject the easier answers of Faith, we often retain a symbiotic relationship with those beliefs and images. In our heresy we internalise these ordered creeds and transform them in to something both far stranger and more interesting.

For me, the adoption of such bold new readings allows the possibility of inhabiting a place of greater spaciousness that often feels more congruent with the lives we wish to live. Such territory is often at the outer edges of familiar maps and requires a level of wit and will that many of us experience as demanding and exhilarating in equal measure.

While each of us need to discover our own optimum means for accessing spaces of cognitive liberty, I have noticed that my own is often facilitated by allowing apparently disparate sources to sit alongside each other. I have been aware of my own journey in allowing the different aspects of my personal religious history to dialogue with each other. The Witch and the Cleric have been sitting down together for a beverage and conversation in the hope that new meaning might be discovered. All too often I have tried to rush them in the hope of a tidy resolution, but thankfully they have resisted my efforts!

In seeking to allow the unique parts of my own story to have a voice, I have often found more help in dreams and art than I have in theological concepts and reformulations. Of course I find great value in thinking and writing, but they often face the danger of overly concretising those states that are more subtle, subjective and sensed. In seeking to resist the urge to prematurely reconcile, synthesise or harmonise this multiplicity of voices and ideas, I have often found that artistic experimentation within a ritual context is a powerful tool.

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Occult art experiment

While others may gain greater stimulus via extended textual analysis and linear debate, on their own these have not been enough to allow me to access the type of psychological integration that I long for. The Queer and transformative states that I need in order to challenge the bulwarks of orthodoxy in my own life, have been found more readily in the images of Abraxas, Baphomet and N’Aton than in attempts at systematic theology. For me these part-made gods embody the ongoing dialogue between idealised androgyny and the complexity of Queer experience. The Queer aspirations of “Postdrogyny” and “Pandrogyne” are the first fruits of an artistic exploration of the possibility of identity. This is an Aquarian age in which our neat categories are troubled and disrupted by the bold lives of those seeking a more authentic way.

The use of sigils, collage, and altar sculpts can all be means of allowing us to inhabit a type of magical space that allows for a personal alchemy that I hope will catalyse change on a wider, societal level. This zone is the place of the crossroads, and as I have observed elsewhere:

If we journey to the crossroads in our attempt to rediscover our magic, we are inevitably entering a realm of liminal possibility. The crossroads is a meeting place of apparent opposites and seeming contradictions. The dynamic tension generated by the friction between these polarities makes it the place of initiation.
A Gnostic’s Progress p. 155

The crossroads is a place of incarnation and inspiration, and the word must become flesh (John, 1:14) in order for us to experience its fullness. May our art, inspiration and willingness to explore, allow access to such fullness! This is rarely an easy peace, but as we allow ourselves to tune into the complexity and mystery of our lives, may all of us experience greater authenticity and freedom.

So Mote it Be!

SD