Pieces of the Witch

In my most recent book The Heretic’s Journey: Spiritual Freethinking for Difficult Times, I spent time exploring how the Surrealist movement embodied a radical form of self-exploration in their philosophy and the artistic expression for which they became so famed. What follows in a short excerpt and ritual exercise from the book for you to play with:

Whichever media the Surrealists worked in (Painting, poetry, drawing) one of the consistent themes that runs throughout the School, is their desire to work more overtly with the unconscious aspects of self. We have already considered the prevalence of dreams and dream-like states in the work of occult inspired artists such as Ernst and Carrington and the way that their work often used the juxtaposition of strange, jarring images as a way of articulating often pre-verbal themes that emerge from the deepest dimensions of being.

The Surrealists were renowned for their inventiveness in developing a vast range of artistic techniques and strategies for seeking access to the creative dimensions of the unconscious self. This involved everything from relief rubbings (“frottage”), automatic painting, the creation of dream resume and the artistic use of old parlour games such as Exquisite Corpse. One of these techniques that the surrealists utilised to great effect was that of collage.

Collage (from the French coller, “to glue”) is a technique of assemblage in which the artist brings together a number of different media and pulls them out of their original context in order to create a new reality in which radically different ideas and textures can overlap, contrast and interact in the eye of the viewer. Historically while examples of collage can be found in 10th century Japan and in the Cathedrals of Medieval Europe, in relation to its use in Modern art, it is generally agreed that it was primarily developed in the works of Georges Braque and Pablo Picasso from 1912 onwards.

Max Ernst’s artistic expression was hugely innovative. He is credited with the invention of the frottage technique and also made use of other approaches such as decalcomania (pressing paint between two surfaces). While Ernst worked in a wide range of media his work with collage is especially inspiring. In works such as his surrealist novel Une Semaine De Bonte: A Surrealist Novel in Collage (1934) we witness his exploration of the jarring and animalistic dimensions of self.  As Ernst himself observed regarding his often absurd combination of images, objects and text, they “provoked a sudden intensification of the visionary faculties in me and brought forth an elusive succession of contradictory images… piling up on each other with the persistence and rapidity which are peculiar to love memories and visions of half sleep.” (Quoted in Ernst by Ian Turpin pg. 7)

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Cutting things up with Uncle Max

Within his collage and his work more generally, Ernst repeatedly utilizes the symbol of the bird as a representation of himself. He named this avian manifestation of himself “Loplop” who he saw as the “superior of the birds”. When viewed through a more occult lens, I am struck by the potential parallels between these images and the concept of the Witch’s familiar or the animal aspect of the self, referred to as the “fetch” in Norse soul lore.  Via its window into the darker, unconscious aspects of self, collage provides a means through which strange and even macabre images can provide insight to our own process of self-understanding.

Exercise: The Witch’s Collage

I will state at the outset that there are a myriad of ways of working magically with collage, and I offer this exercise as but one example (albeit a creative and tested one!) for intrepid explorers to utilise. Unlike their more randomized Postmodern cousin Cut-ups, collages seek to work more deliberately with aspects of the unconscious from the outset of the artist’s project of creation. Hopefully having begun a process of reflection regarding your heretical inspirations, as we begin this activity, the images, symbols and colour associations will begin to bubble to the surface!

To provide you with a bit of structure you might want to follow some of the following steps:

  1. Find the images and symbols that you feel capture the essence of your journey into heretical freethinking. Don’t be weighed down by the expectations of others! If cartoon heroes or industrial noise musicians do it for you include them alongside more standard spiritual symbology.
  2. Assemble art stuff. At a minimum you will need scissors, glue, pens and pencils. Coloured paper of differing textures work and you may want to incorporate pieces of text. Your imagination is the only real limit here! Make sure you have a large piece of paper or card (A3 or bigger) so that you have enough space to stick your stuff onto.
  3. Find a space that you feel comfortable in. Ideally you should be able to spread your images and materials out so that you can see the possible directs that your collage can take. Personally I like having some music on to inspire me and I usually need a minimum of 45 minutes to an hour to let the collage take shape. Having a time limit can also be helpful for this specific exercise in that provides an end point rather than having to struggle with that sense of not knowing when you’ve done enough.
  4. Like the approach of sleep, light hypnosis and some meditative states this work will be best approached with a sense of playfulness and a desire to not take it too seriously. Let your eyes move over your assembled materials and images and simply begin. You can’t get this wrong and your images and textures will build up during the duration of the work.
  5. Often our results can surprise us. What I love about collage is the way in which it can have various pockets of activity and interest. Our eyes may be drawn to one thematic cluster only to realize that there’s something really interesting in another part of our work.
  6. When our collage is completed, we can put it to any number of ritual uses. I often place mine in the corner of the house where I meditate and do ritual work. This allows me to come back to it repeatedly and spot emerging themes.
  7. Given the connection between collage, the unconscious and the realm of dreams, one interesting practice could involve placing your collage under your bed or pillow prior to sleep. Spend some time before sleep meditating on your collage and let the interplay of images and textures enhance your nocturnal journeying!
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Here’s one I made earlier 🙂

Steve Dee


Events update…

  • There are still a few places available for Julian’s workshop on Sigil Magic in London on the 27th of July at Treadwell’s Books.
  • You can also join Julian for a Magical Words workshop at The Museum of Witchcraft & Magic in Boscastle, Cornwall on Saturday 31st of August.

Details of both workshops can be found HERE.

 

Breaking Convention: 16-18 August 2019, London, UK

Nikki and Julian will be at Breaking Convention, Europe’s largest conference on psychedelic consciousness. This is set to be an epic event. As ever Breaking Convention brings together under one roof scientists, medics, artists, shamans, and many more at one of the most intellectually rich and inspirational gatherings in the world. Highly recommended! Book your tickets HERE.

 

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Nikki and Julian will be running Deep Magic camps and retreats in 2020, bringing together freestyle shamanic techniques and wisdom from indigenous medicine traditions. To find out more please ping us a message letting us know a little about your spiritual practice and experience with altered states of awareness. These will be intimate, powerful, accessible and transformation events. We hope you will join us as we go deep into the magic! Ahoy!

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Winter Solstice 2018: A film ritual for everyone to enjoy

We were happy to be asked to conduct a solstice eve ritual as part of a series of events at The Cube Microplex in Bristol, a marvellous community enterprise. Because we were in a cinema venue, we made use of the medium of film, and thought that you might enjoy seeing what we did; the YouTube version does require a little advance preparation, though nothing too taxing (find an orange and a candle).

Basically…

• Get an orange and a lit candle
• Start film
• As the stars twinkle, shake off unwanted energies
• When you see the sun, reach out your arms, feeling into the space around you
• Think about the sun
• As the sun sets over the city, sit and think about your year, from the heat of summer into the darkening evenings of the autumn
• In the dark the candle flickers, and you focus on the Here and Now
• The sun returns!
• Celebrate by eating your orange
• As the twinkling stars appear again, move around, make joyful noises

 

Detailed instructions:
1. Read through these instructions first, before pressing play at 22:08pm UT on the 21/12/2018.
2. Find an orange. Place it near the screen.
3. Find a candle, put it where you can look at it, and light it.
4. Turn off the other lights in the room.
5. Stand up, shake it off! Flick away all that yucky energy, making way for a cleaner you. Take a couple of minutes to gently stretch out.
6. Reach out with your arms, like the branches of a tree swaying in the breeze, sensing the air flow which brings with it information, molecules of knowledge.
7. Think about the Sun, whose birthday this is. Take some time on this process. Such an amazing phenomenon deserves our full appreciation! Here are a few facts (you can of course research more of your own in advance). E.g. Third generation star, very big, burns 600 million tons of hydrogen every second, the sun isn’t made of coal (as the Victorians thought), a photon can take thousands of years to emerge from its creation point in the central nuclear fusion zone to the outside, from where light takes 8 minutes to travel across the cold vacuum of space to our rock, the jets of gas which flare off are larger than our Earth… etc.
8. As the sun appears over the city skyline in the film, take a seat. Recall your summer past, a moment when the sunshine was super powerful. A field, with plants grabbing the carbon out of the air, to build amazingly complex structures out of which us animals can eat. Remember the feel of the heat on your skin.
9. The clock ticks. Bring that warmth, that intense light, inside you. As the sun sets, and we hear the sounds of city traffic, focus on your breath. On your heart beat. On the internal warmth of your body, your life as a creature in a house, with other creatures around with whom you have relationships, with whom you might like to visit.
10. Feel the dark around you. Bring to mind the sparkling of lights, the immensity of starry skies.
11. As night falls, watch the very tip of the candle flame; it contains millions of microscopic diamonds, forming and burning up with every moment.
12. The screen fades to black for the astronomical moment of the winter solstice, at 22:23pm UT. For this one minute, focus your attention on the world you can directly sense. The feel of your body on the ground, the sound and movement of your breathing, the heat generated within you. The sensations of the air as it moves in and around you.
13. The candle flame represents a portion of the sun’s energy. It represents the Now, the present portion of eternity, the only moment in which we can Do.
14. (By bringing our attention to this fact, we collectively empower our abilities to choose, to decide, to behave, to recognise we are free of the habitual stories of the past and future, the standard narratives which we blindly follow for the sake of convenience.)
15. As the light and sound return, when you feel the urge, pick up your orange. Hold it in your hand.
16. Behold! This is the solar globe in microcosm, a shining orb of orange, solar energy made matter.
17. Consider the orange; how it arrived where it is. The journeys it has taken. The people who cared for the tree it grew upon. The hours of sunlight, the rain that fell to water it. And then back, to the seed this tree grew from, then the tree before that, and on and on, with all the people, the land, the sunlight, the rainfall. All those thousands of years passed through, by all those moments, all those individual photons falling out of the sun star, through space, to our rock, creating this object.
18. Celebrate your knowledge of these moments which make up eternity by peeling and eating the orange.
19. Finish by dancing about a bit, putting the fairy lights on, waving some tinsel or whatever makes you smile.

We hope you enjoy your Christmas Present. Thank you for the time and attention!

NW & JV

Walking the Narrow Road

Most contemporary Western magical traditions, at some point in their curricula, make use of pathworking as a technique for inner exploration. By making use of an imagined journey, the aspirant is encouraged to move through any number of different landscapes and domains as a means of gaining a fuller, more vivid appreciation of the icons and symbols that are central to a given path.

I was recently chatting with Julian over tea about his teaching on a Master’s course on ecology and spirituality at Schumacher College and his attempt to communicate the way in which a variety of occult traditions had been shaped by historic processes such as the Industrial Revolution and the birth of Romanticism. In seeking to convey the importance of the Golden Dawn’s role in providing the esoteric underpinning for many of the subsequent manifestations of Neo-Paganism, Julian decided to take his willing students on a pathworking through the Tree of Life. In moving through the various Sephiroth and by incorporating the occult rich imagery of the Crowley-Harris Thoth tarot deck, Julian was able to provide a vivid and immersive means for his students to access these central ideas. As a masterful communicator, he was well aware that such experiential ways of learning are a far deeper and more exciting way of promoting both understanding and curiosity; certainly more effective than handing over a well-thumbed edition of 777 and wishing someone “best of luck!”

As I’ve mentioned previously on the blog, I have recently been revisiting my own engagement with the Druid tradition. Such explorations have been a way of deepening my own connection to the landscape I live within and also my own sense of Priesthood in the magical contexts I currently work. In contrast to many paths that have a more Hermetic or Neo-Platonic emphasis, much of the pathworking that I have undertaken during my training within Druidry has been rooted in the raw glory of Nature’s immanence. Sacred groves and holy wells are visited, dark caves are explored and snowy peaks are scaled in pursuit of wisdom and inspiration.

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Narrow path on the Holy Mountain

While there may be some benefit in my trying to lay down in detail the imagery and sensory information that would make for a vivid pathworking in the Druid tradition (see the works of Philip Carr-Gomm, Emma Restall Orr and Philip Shallcrass for suitable inspiration), I thought it would be of greater benefit if I described the component parts that I feel might be helpful for effective journeying more generally, so that you, dear reader, can construct your own within the mythological paradigm of your choice:

  1. Grounding in a place of safety: Magic can be a risky business that often asks us to question certainties and re-evaluate the person(s) we think we are. When we set out on a journey it can be good to start by connecting to our breath and body within an imagined setting that allows us to get our bearings and to connect to the values and allies that provide the motivation for the work. In the Druid tradition this is often described as a sacred grove, but it could as easily be by the side of the Nile or within the grounds of Apollo’s temple at Delphi.
  2. Descending to the underworld: Now this might reflect something of my dodgy Luciferian tendencies, but I often like an initial period of connecting to the Chthonic, underworld powers. Whether it involves the roots of trees, stygian tunnels or dragon infested caves, I gain great benefit in reconnecting to the dark and unconscious dimensions that such places often represent. We often enter such realms quietly in acknowledgement of their power and the desire to use such serpentine energy to ensure a rich depth to the insights that we hope to gain.
  3. Connecting to a source of Inspiration: When we re-emerge from the underworld blinking as our eyes readjust to the sunlight of the conscious mind, we may wish to connect to a primary source of inspiration within our mythic universe. Whether our encounter is with the guardian of a sacred well or the Priestess of a temple, we may be met with a challenge as to why we wish to access these places, and we may need to reconnect to our motivation for pursuing this work and the extent to which any Gnosis gained will be put into the service of the greater good.
  4. The Ascent: Having restated our motivation and reconnected to the heart of our work (Tiphareth if you will) we are then ready to ascend in order to gain new insight and challenge. You may wish to frame this journey to Shambhala in any number of ways, such as an encounter with the Holy Guardian Angel or our future magical self. Here we must expect the unexpected and we may also wish for portents and signs in future days as a means of “testing the spirits” and ensuring a balanced integration of new knowledge gained.
  5. The Return: Having gained wisdom and/or new insight, it’s important that we return to base so as to ground these new perspectives and to ensure that we can attend to other day-to-day matters without spinning off into space. Returning to our sacred grove and reconnecting to body and breath allows this process to begin and we may wish to formally conclude by giving thanks to our guardians and by ensuring that we do something that grounds us such as eating. Most magical groups eat and drink together after magical work because they’re hungry and the reality of these mundane acts ensures that we don’t lose our shit/get lost in the realms of faery.

Anyhow, hope that this is helpful! Safe travels!

Steve Dee

A Magician in Residence at The Museum of Witchcraft & Magic

For a while, before the office opens, I’m sitting in a hollow on the cliffs, overlooking the sea. I plan to meditate and sing and do some yoga for an hour or so. This will ensure that I’ll be in the right frame of mind for work. Below me is Boscastle harbour. I am sitting on the eastern side of that long inlet, a snaking chasm of rock, half barred by two gently curving sea walls (built in the 16th century). Behind this there are a few boats, some sand and seaweed. On the seaward side there are great cliffs. In undercut hollows, carved by the restless waves, blow-holes form, squirting jets of spray back over the rising tide. This is a deeply magical place, for me and many others. Boscastle is the beautiful, sometimes dangerous confluence of the River Valency and River Jordan. It is one of those deep wooded valleys (‘coombes’ we calls ’em in Devon) that are typical of the north Atlantic coastline. It is also the setting for the Museum of Witchcraft & Magic, where for one week in June I was the ‘Magician in Residence‘.

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Beautiful Boscastle

The Museum of Witchcraft & Magic (MWM) is a collection that is locally adored and internationally recognized. If you’re not already familiar with the amazing range of things they do (from supporting international academic research, to commissioning new artworks) then please take some time to look around their online presence.

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Lurid old skool Baphomet

I’d been aware of the Museum for many years (if nothing else through those brilliantly lurid photos of Baphomet in occult coffee table books of the 1970s). But it wasn’t until fifteen or so years ago I went there for the first time. These days I’m closely involved with the Museum, including as Chair of The Friends of the Boscastle Museum of Witchcraft, a registered charity that supports the museum, in particular with its mission to educate and engage people. One aspect of engagement is to encouraging people to visit spaces like MWM. Visiting museums, especially places of the quality of MWM, can be a powerful, authentic, moving experience. Sure you can see many items from the MWM collection using their online database. However the physical experience of walking down the path, towards the wild Cornish sea, turning right and there, nestled against the rock, is the Museum of Witchcraft & Magic – that embodied experience takes some beating!

MWM’s work includes supporting the increasing appreciation, in academia and wider culture, of the influence of occultism (as I mentioned here). They’ve recently loaned objects to some internationally important shows, such as Victoria and Albert Museum’s exhibition, You Say You Want a Revolution. There are the many ways in which the MWM collection is relevant to wider culture. One of my own interests in this field is in the social phenomena of witch hunting as a form of scapegoating. The way in which communities, of many different sorts, go about hunting and killing ‘witches’ says something very important to all of us. In order to understand, mitigate and perhaps transform our scapegoating behaviour, we have to understand how it happens. Collections such as that at MWM can directly help us do this by bringing us up close and personal with objects that are the anchors for stories of prejudice, misunderstanding and punishment. (You can see some examples of the educational resources I helped to create, enabling young people to explore these issues on the MWM website.  If you’re a teacher, especially of teenagers, you may like to check these out).

Inside MWM there are many wonderful things; the material traces of many expression of occulture. The galleries themselves are a cunning interplay of dark and secret with bold and well-lit spaces. The standard of presentation is second to none (and I’ve worked in many museums over the past 15 years). This excellent curation isn’t surprising given that museum director Simon Costin is something of a creative genius.

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Tasteful modern Baphomet

(Talking of Baphomets, it was also during this week that I helped transport a rather famous Baphomet mask from London to its new home at the Museum. But more of that later…)

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Baphomet, last seen in public on The Fourth Plinth in Trafalgar Square

For my week in residency I got to hang out in the library. This is, as you might imagine, another wonderful space. There are wooden desks, a gigantic witches ball in the window to repel the evil eye, and many, many books. I set up my office here; runes, two decks of tarot cards, crystal ball, special magic A4 white paper for sigils, sage smudge, some magical pointy things from the Himalayas – and we are good to go!

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In residence

I’d imagined that I could spend much of the week writing and maybe doing a spot of research. In addition to an amazing range of books in the MWM library it houses hundreds of files containing everything from facsimile editions of Gerald Gardner’s original Book of Shadows, through to collections of obscure short-run occult ‘zines from the 1980s. However my research plan was not to be. Rather than reading the books I spent most of my time that week doing tarot readings for visitors.

This was both enjoyable and an honour. People often open up in a divination session and place their trust, to some degree, in the diviner. I encourage this, as an important benefit of having a reading is the confidential, candid, even confessional opportunity that this setting provides.

When people come to me for a reading I explain that I can’t divine the future with any great certainty. I usually joke that were this one of my special powers I’d divine six numbers, win the lottery and spend all my time on holiday. (Actually the problem with this analogy is I do generally to get to spend my time doing what I love, but anyhow…). Instead I explain that my role is primarily to work with clients to explore how things are for them, and to look at what possible futures and courses of action might emerge from their present circumstances. This makes the whole process about discovery; the reading becomes a space for mutual investigation and reflection. The querent is not the passive recipient of advice, but an active agent in their own narrative. For while there may be some circumstances where our options are limited. we do usually possess some degree of freedom; this realization is often a key outcome. Cultivating this awareness of freedom, in a realistic way, and exploring the options for change, are for me what tarot readings are all about.

Now I won’t lie, even within this broadly psychological paradigm of divination things with a distinctly parapsychological flavor do happen. For example, my usual practice is ask the querent to draw three cards. On the basis of these I begin a story, then together we explore how this might relate to their situation. Sometimes, especially when I’m on a roll and have been doing lots of readings over a short period of time, I say things in this opening section that the client responds to with surprise. ‘How could you have known that?’ they say. Then there are moments, perhaps halfway through reading (sometimes accompanied by a sense of having something speak through me, or some sense of ‘absence’) where a rush of words comes out. Again the querent may be impressed; I’ve perhaps articulated the problem we’ve been discussing in a radically new way that helps them see a totally new picture, or perhaps I’ve revealed how one character may be acting and what can be done to make things better. These intuitive insights may be surprising, including to me. But however spot on my words are I always bracket what I say. I explain that one reason we call this stuff ‘magic’ is because none of us (perhaps least of all magicians) really known how any of it works. I acknowledge that this is how things may appear in this moment, in this reading, but that the future is uncertain and new information and possibilities may well arise. I may be ‘inspired’ but I’m also quite clear that my impressions may be wrong or incomplete in any number of ways. Sure listen to the oracle, but take it all with a pinch of salt.

I’m pleased to say that I got really nice feedback from some of the folk I read for during my residency and I’m glad they found the sessions useful. For me whether a reading is heavy on the psychological exploration, or has significant parapsychological moments, isn’t what matters. What is important is that the consultation provides an opportunity to empower the querent; allowing them to find their own way in the world. This is the magic of it.

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In the magicians chair

An additional delight of this week was to be able to spend time with many of the members of my extended family, enjoying this magical landscape and each other’s company. (Which is why each morning on those rocks I gave thanks to the Great Spirit – whom I call Baphomet – for those lovely people and the magic in my life.)

I’ve  recorded a few thoughts towards the end of my residency about the role of the proverbial village witch on my Youtube channel too.

Many thanks to the wonderful people at the Museum for welcoming and supporting me during that week, and to all those people who came to see me over those days; may the royal road rise to meet you!

Blessed Be

Julian Vayne

PS Our next Deep Magic Retreat at St Nectan’s Glen will take place from 27th September-1st October 2018 For more details please visit our Facebook page.

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Labyrinth at Rocky Valley, where the river that runs through St.Nectan’s Glen meets the sea.

 

 

 

 

Schumacher College – Where Ecology and Spirituality Meet

Set in the South Devon countryside on the Dartington Hall Estate (famed as place of radical socialist ideas) stands Schumacher College. The College takes it name from the environmentalist, educator and ecomomist Ernst Schumacher, author of the ground breaking book Small Is Beautiful: A Study of Economics As If People Mattered. This May I was invited by Andy Letcher (author of the seminal Shroom: A Cultural History of the Magic Mushroom) to teach a module on the MA in Spirituality and Ecology; my area of expertise being the history, theory and practice of British Paganism and occulture.

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Schumacher in the Summertime

The academic study of what is usually called ‘Western Esotericism’ has been growing apace over recent years. For instance, the vital role of magic in the work of many artists is today being recovered and celebrated in the academy (whereas mention of occultism was strictly forbidden within the prevailing materialist vocabulary of late 20th century artistic criticism). Meanwhile the relationship between esotericism and many other domains of culture are now seen as legitimate territory for scholarly engagement.

In teaching at Schumacher I was joining  an august list of former lecturers including  Fritjof CapraStanislav GrofJames LovelockLynn MargulisArne NaessRupert Sheldrake, StarhawkVandana Shiva, etc etc. This was a great honour especially since my qualifications are primarily those of esoteric practitioner and writer rather than those of academia. It was a residential week, so I was invited to stay in the beautiful college building and eat wonderful food, much of it grown and prepared by the students. Each day I would come into work, walking past a quote from Goethe, writ large at the college entrance: “Whatever you can do, or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it.”

The week’s teaching began with a brief overview of British history, focusing on the previous 200 or so years. It’s hard to understand the emergence of British paganisms (such as Wicca, Thelema, Druidry, Chaos Magic et al) unless one appreciates something of the history of the British Empire and the social impact of the Industrial Revolution.

Thereafter we plunged into the story of various forms of pagan spirituality; the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn and Thelema, Wicca and witchcraft, Druidry and, towards the end of the week, chaos magic, Discordianism and neo-shamanism.

Each day started with a seminar to provide context, explore origins, key concepts, characters and events.

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Fabulous history

As you can see from the (incomplete) diagram above, the general history of modern British paganism is deeply indebted to the Romantic movement. The Romantics initiated a reappraisal of all those groups of people considered inimicable to the then dominant (religious) discourse. The Romantics looked to the witches, the druids, the heathens and the magicians, re-imagining these groups in powerful ways; seen by some as standing against (repressive) Christian culture. They (witches, druids et al) were more authentic, more spiritual, more in touch with the land, more magical, more matrifocal etc etc than people are today (‘today’ being the 18th and 19th centuries). Thus the devils of the dominant religion become the heroes of the new.  And this process has a powerful magic in it. Druidry, for instance, is successfully re-imagined by the Romantics and antiquarians into inhabited reality. That is, there are people who start to call themselves ‘Druids’ and claim some form of lineage, spiritual or cultural connection with the Druids that Tacitus writes about. As this re-imagination unfolds polymorphously through time, making all kinds of twists and turns. Druidry becomes both a form of LARPing for Anglican ministers and an identity for protest (at Seahenge and Stonehenge) and for a sporting nation (at the Olympics and Paralympics).

Magical history is full of such wyrd transformations: one of my favorites being the way that Margaret Murray sacrifices her academic standing on the altar of Gerald Gardner’s (supposedly ancient) Wicca (by writing the Introduction to Gardner’s Witchcraft Today) and, in doing so, helps to give rise to an actual religion of pagan witchcraft. (A curious historical artefact observed by Wiccan practitioner and scholar Melissa Harrington.)

The afternoons at Schumacher were given over to practical exercises (from Hermetic pathworking through to eclectic-shamanic-style ritual). Through embodied practice I aimed to demonstrate that the techniques of imagination, of ceremony and of attention, that get grouped together as ‘magic’ actually underpin many (apparently non-magical). things. Identity, marketing, economics, religion, all pivot, not on the material stuff of the world, but primarily on our ideas about the world and ourselves. Therefore the fact that we can use these ‘magical’ approaches to stir up and change our awareness is deeply relevant to how culture happens, especially when we consider how our beliefs (our spirituality) relates to the communities and planet we inhabit (ecology). Magic also rests on the axiom ‘As Above, So Below’, or more generally that ‘everything is interconnected’. Such a world view is natural to the ecologist. With that in mind it is important to equip those studying ecology and related disciplines not only with ideas, but with embodied practices by which they can modify awareness so that this ‘holistic’ world-view becomes a deeply felt experience.

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At the Entrance to the Underworld, shrine space decorated by students on the Spirituality & Ecology MA programme.

Naturally I learnt lots as a teacher at Schumacher. One insight was a renewed appreciation of how the history of British occultism can initially appear like a tiny (irrelevant) scene, a cul-de-sac of culture. But dig a little deeper and it is soon becomes apparent that, not only does magic respond to and reflect wider culture, but it also acts to change it; often in far reaching ways. Another lesson was something I’m often reminded of when I teach magical techniques and that is this; the process of doing ritual, of creating ceremony, is a deeply human need. It’s a process which, for many people, is linked to experiences of orthodox religion and its associated oppressions, and so they (understandably) distrust it. But ritual need not be like this; empowering ourselves to understand and use this approach for purposes such as spiritual exploration, group bonding and social transformation, on our own terms, is essential.

My heartfelt thanks to Andy Letcher and the staff at Schumacher, and to the students for being up for everything from constructing the Qabalah from tarot cards through to rune singing and the gnostic pentagram rite! I look forward to my next visit 😀

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Exploring the Tarot and the Tree

Use this link find out more about the MA in Spiritual and Ecology.

Julian Vayne

On Making Offerings

I’ve been working on some longer pieces of writing recently (an essay on Eleusis for a forthcoming collection, and others that will form part of a new book The Fool & The Mirror that I’m planning to release later this year).

This means I’ve got less time for writing on this blog, at least the moment, so I’m planning to share various musings and later practices via my Youtube channel Deep Magic (please like, share, subscribe and all that).

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Echoes of devotion at St.Credan’s Well, Sancreed.

Here are a few thoughts on the practice of leaving offerings. These reflections were prompted by the image on this post of a tree hung with prayer ribbons (and some of the responses to this image).

I mention in this video the term ‘clooties’, have a look at the Wikipedia entry for more details. There’s also Wiki information on Madron Well in Cornwall. For examples of trees hung with ribbon style offerings outside of ‘Celtic’ cultural settings one might look to North AmericaChinaThailand (or pretty much anywhere…). Finally a lovely article with multiple examples, including images of St.Nectan’s Glen and one of my favorite sites sacred sites Sancreed in Cornwall.

As the light grows in the northern hemisphere of our planet, so we come out of our homes and more and more into the landscape. May we find respectful and responsible ways to enjoy the special places we inhabit, and take joy in our recognition of the sacredness of this earth.

Ahoy!

 

Julian Vayne

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.

psy_ornament_201511_06

…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