Writing on Drugs: Three fabulous books to Feed your Head.

Secret Drugs of Buddhism: Psychedelic sacraments and the origins of the Vajrayana

The Buddhist tradition generally eschews the use of substances that cloud the mind but psychedelics (which, by definition, make manifest the mind) are by no means absent from the story of Asian religion. While modern Buddhists may take refuge in the idea that ‘drugs are bad’ (with certain notable exceptions such as the Zig Zag Zen school of Allan Badiner et al.) both Buddhism and Hinduism emerged from a cultural landscape rich in Amanita muscaria, Cannabis sativa and Panaeolus cambodginiensis.

In this book Mike Crowley hunts the questing beast of soma through layers of Sanskrit metaphor and potential botanic sources, following this elusive substance as it emerges into Vajrayana Buddhism as the sacramental nectar of immortality amrita. This analysis is the entheogenic equivalent of ‘who shot JFK?’,  and many theorists have spilt much ink trying to nail down the culprit; what kind of stuff was this food of the gods really? Our author, an accomplished scholar of  Sanskrit, Tibetan and Mandarin Chinese takes the broad view and intelligently and generously explores the options and opinions on this matter. Crowley, as well as being a fan of psychedelics, is also deeply embedded in the spiritual culture of Asia, having become an Upāsaka of the Kagyud lineage in 1970.

Mike’s suggestion is that it is the psychedelic effect that maketh soma, not its exact pharmacological identity. His view, that the Vedic soma may have started out (in the north) as Amanita and later (as cultures spread south) became psilocybin rich mushrooms, makes a lot of sense. It’s the entheogenic experience, this embodied encounter with the divine, that matters – whether that state is provoked endogenously through pranayama and protracted periods of fasting and solitary medication or by any number of substances – the effect is much the same.

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While the debate about the psychedelic nature (or not) of Soma and Amrita is far from over Mike has made a valuable contribution to the discussion and does so in a book which is well supported by notes and references and that, in itself, is a delightful read.

Check out this lecture by Mike Crowley on The Secret Drugs.

To Fathom Hell or Soar Angelic

To Fathom Hell… is a brilliant and very engaging book. Our story begins with a depressed psychotherapist seeing his clients (while secretly fantasizing about the gruesome ways they might die), painfully conscious that the therapy he provides has very little effect. Accidentally attending a conference on psychedelic medicine, our despondent hero teams up with psychedelic therapist and maverick Dr. Langley. Their partnership works, and together they embark on a project to create a centre in which they can deploy psychedelic medicine.

Author Ben Sessa is the perfect person to imagine such a story, as a well respected psychiatrist and advocate of the value of psychedelic psychotherapy. (Check out Ben’s wonderful TED talk). Psychedelic therapy sessions using MDMA, LSD, and psilocybin are described, expertly written by one of the few people in Britain legally qualified to undertake this kind of work.

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The novel skillfully leads us into this world and, while there is an engaging plot, much of what happens are conversations in which the theory and practice of psychedelic therapy is expounded. In this way To Fathom Hell… stands in the lineage of Aldous Huxley’s works where the narrative provides a setting in which ideas can be elucidated and explored.

Our Somerset Pala (the fictional psychedelic Island of Huxley) becomes the template for numerous therapeutic communities up and down the British isles. This isn’t just about getting squaddies PTSD sorted by arming them with MDMA – it’s about the transformation of culture; starting with the broken and moving towards healing those who do the breaking. The novel builds to a tremendous climax which put me in mind of the denouement from The Illuminatus Trilogy; a crescendo that feels both riotous and joyous.

A rollercoaster of a good read this tale is engaging, funny, dark and transcendent much like the psychedelic experience itself.  You can read more about To Fathom Hell, Sessa’s debut novel, and purchase your copy of the book via Psychedelic Press UK.

The Rose of Paracelsus: On Secrets & Sacraments

The final book I want to recommend is the genuinely awesome (in the proper sense of the word) volume by William Leonard Pickard The Rose of Paracelsus. This book was written by Leonard, using paper and pencil, in the US prison where he is incarcerated for “conspiracy to manufacture LSD”. Before he was busted (or set up…) Leonard was a research associate in neurobiology at Harvard Medical School, a Fellow of the Interfaculty Initiative on Drugs and Addictions at Harvard, and Deputy Director of the Drug Policy Analysis Program at UCLA. On all levels this is a Brother who knows what he’s talking about.

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Reading The Rose… is, quite honestly, like tripping on acid. The long text (656 pages) can’t be adequately defined as a either a novel or autobiography. The language is rich, powerful, lyric, poetic, terrifying, visceral, sublime. Reminiscent in style to the work of Jorge Luis Borges, the narrative of clandestine acid chemists, governmental intrigue, simple human stories of suffering and (sometimes) redemption weaves a spell over the reader. Add to this the real-world knowledge of the grotesque circumstances of Leonard’s imprisonment (he is serving two life sentences, has already served 17 years, is 71 years of age and is in a high security prison) and this book becomes even more poignant. The Rose… pulls the reader in, but has to be put down. The chapters, as rich and dense with references and allusions as they are, require time to be digested. I needed periods to reflect and frankly sometimes time to meditate and pray, during my first reading of The Rose…

I was pleased to be present at the Breaking Convention session on The Rose… where we were treated to readings from the text, including a recording of Leonard himself (once a month Leonard gets to make a 15 minute monitored phone call from jail).

I cannot recommend this book highly enough. The proceeds go to support Leonard’s family (his son was a newborn as his father went to trial) and I would encourage readers of the text to check out his page and, in whatever way they can, to send thoughtful correspondence and messages of solidarity to him (he does have some access to email).

With Leonard’s permission, here is a recording of me reading an excerpt from the early section of the book where the hero meets one of ‘The Six’. (This hexad of high level psychedelic chemists, rather like the Guild Navigators in Frank Herbert’s Dune novels, have developed super powers following years of exposure to vast quantities of LSD.) In this section our protagonist makes contact with Crimson, the first of The Six.

The Rose of Paracelsus is a truly psychedelic read. Highly recommended.

JV

A User’s Guide to Psychedelic Ceremony

I was very pleased to be an invited speaker at Breaking Convention and honoured to find that the lecture theatre was full to capacity. The vast majority of the presentations filmed at Breaking Convention will be uploaded over the next few weeks to the Youtube and Vimeo channels. However, as is traditional, the film of my talk (and that of Bruce Parry, John Crow, Karen Lawton & Fiona Heckles) disappeared in a puff of digital fairy dust. Luckily the Seed SistAs were able to re-record their talk and I’ve promised to plonk myself in front of a (working) video camera and record my talk before too long. In lieu of that recording here’s the text of my presentation at BC. Many thanks to all the people who found me afterwards to let me how much they enjoyed my talk. 

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I’m going to talk about psychedelic ceremony. I’m going to give a range of examples and finish by considering the opportunities and challenges that face us, the growing, planet wide, psychedelic community.

I suspect we the people in this room have a broadly shared consensus of what we mean by ‘psychedelic’. Our consensus would probably be around ideas like altered or extraordinary states of consciousness. The conscious bit matters; these are states of awareness, things we can recall, however imperfectly, when back in what we typically describe as our baseline or ‘normal’ states of awareness. The ‘extraordinary’ component of our definition reflects our subjective perception that these states are ones that are different, sometimes radically different, from the states of awareness that we usually in. To use one of the latest descriptions for what what the psychedelic state is; we can describe it as one in which the connectivity across brain regions is significantly changed, and increased (or perhaps more accurately ‘normal’ cognition is down regulated and other connections emerge). We know that these mind states can be induced through a wide variety of practices; sex, dance, meditation, protracted periods of darkness, breathwork and of course by introducing various substances into our bodies.

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This is your brain on drugs…

But what is ceremony? When we think of ritual and ceremony we may imagine military or civic rites. Those of formal religious or public occasions. Celebrations of a particular event, achievement, or anniversary. We may imagine that words like ritual or ceremony indicate a series of actions performed according to a prescribed order. We might imagine a solemn act, formal and dignified, characterized by deep sincerity. Equally we might imagine the wild bacchanalia or carnival. Ritual and ceremony is a broad church but in the sense that I using it here I’m interested in ceremony as the intentional use of metaphor to affect the imaginal world.

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Colourful ceremony

Ceremony for me is a natural activity for symbol using, meaning making creatures such as ourselves. Sure sometimes it may be formal in nature; at other times it may well up as a spontaneous gesture. Laying flowers at the site of a tragic event, wrapping presents, ritually disposing of our dead. These are things our species does. Ceremony then is the deployment of acts that are symbolic, often metaphorical, sometimes carefully planned, sometimes free-form and spontaneously arising in the moment.

In context of the use of psychedelic drugs, psychedelic ceremony is the manipulation of sets and settings within which we might explore those remarkably potent and remarkably safe experiences offered by medicines such as DMT, ayahuasca, mescaline, LSD and all those other fascinating chemicals, the power and significance of which we are celebrating and exploring at this conference.

Why not ‘psychedelic session’? Why use the religious sounding word ‘ceremony?’ Well there are two reasons for this.

The first is that I come to psychedelics as an occultist, an indigenous shaman of the British Isles, and so I tend to think in those terms. Occultism is course the study of that which is hidden, such as the relationship between matter and mind that psychedelic drugs bring into stark relief. The practice by which this exploration happens is usually called magic which we could think of as the use of the imaginal world to extend the limits of our achievable reality.

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Me being totes shamanic

The second and bigger reason is that the sense of the sacred that these substances can generate I feel demands the use of a word that goes beyond the apparently ‘secular’ expressions ‘session’ or ‘experiment’. The word ‘ceremony’ itself derives from a Latin root that suggests ideals of holiness, sacredness and awe. Sure many people eschew anything that sounds ‘religious’ but I feel that using this word shows both respect to those indigenous traditions who use entheogens, and reclaims the word from the dead hand of doctrinal belief. We need not throw the baby of the sacred out with the bathwater of dogma.

Looked at through the lens of contemporary neurology we could say that this sense of the divine is what we experience when the psychedelicized brain lights like a christmas tree in an fMRI scanner. Considered in a historical sense we can see how psychedelic substances are often implicated in the genesis of religions; the blue-throated mushroom of Shiva, the burning acacia of Moses, the kykeon of Eleusis.

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Ancient advert for kykeon

We are fortunate to be living in a time when knowledge about methods to hold, support and direct the psychedelic state is abundant. There is a great confluence of wisdom from ‘traditional’ practitioners, underground psychonauts and licensed scientific researchers. In the West, since the time of Tim Leary et al., we have known that the mental state and the environment can profoundly influence the way that our drug trip unfolds. Western culture itself has created ceremonial settings in response to the emergence of two widely availabile psychedelic drugs. Our first attempt at this was the creation of the music festival, our culture’s collective response to LSD. Later we created the rave to hold the experience of MDMA. Our indigenous shamanic intelligence gave rise to the First and Second Summers of Love.

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Oh my God look at the litter, blah blah blah…

Psychedelic drugs are special, powerful things that by their very nature stimulate a feeling of ‘the sacred’ and this feeling runs deep. This feeling often inspires people not only to create specific environments, and ceremonies for their psychedelic sessions, but also during the process of producing the drugs in the first place.

Whether we are mindfully rolling a joint, or singing as we stir the bubbling pot of ayahuasca, the preparation of these medicines that can evoke a sense of the divine is itself a sacred process.

There is, for example, some fascinating research to be done on the use of ceremony by contemporary clandestine chemists. I spoke with Casey Hardison and asked whether he did anything he would consider to be a ceremony when he produced, for instance, LSD. Casey told me that he used crystals, smudging with sage and other practices during some of this work. He had a practice of setting LSD to crystalize while music played. ‘Righteous Rasta music’ structured to echo the pattern of the chakras in Asian esoteric anatomy. Asked why, Casey said that his intention was that the molecule would somehow be affected the music, helping those who took the drug to “absorb the energy of loving themselves, allowing them to have the highest vibrational experience”. 

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Casey Hardison – the naked LSD chemist

Casey was by no means unique in this practice. To quote Cosmo Feilding Mellen in an interview about the film he directed The Sunshine Makers:

The purity of different types of acids was an important part of psychedelic culture. People believed that the purer the acid, the better the trip. It was all very subjective, of course – Owsley would pay attention to the music they were playing in the lab at the point of crystallisation, and would then pray over the equipment to imbue it with positive vibes. Tim (Scully) was a rational scientist and initially thought it was all mumbo jumbo, but he eventually got sucked into it.

The unfortunately still incarcerated LSD chemist William Leonard Pickard mentions the ritualization of psychedelic synthesis in his wonderful book The Rose of Paracelsus. In a recent email to me he wrote:

“Indigo [an LSD chemist] mentions Gregorian chant during synthesis or crystallization, often Amazonian shamanic, soft, gentle chanting. From my interviews of very high-level mfgs in the 80’s-90’s for drug policy research, I recall most fondly one individual [who would] never dream of conducting a crystallization without Vivaldi’s ‘The Four Seasons’ playing in one continuous loop, quite loud, for many hours from start to finish. He did so for years. Something about the beauty of the molecules finding each other, and the harmony of the seasons. The Vivaldi seems to be a lineage in certain groups.”

In all these examples, leaving aside any parapsychological or subtle physical interpretations of what may or may not happen when one crystallizes LSD in the presence of music, what we can see is that these chemists are doing ceremony. They are creating a set of poetic, metaphorical relationships to influence their set by changing their setting (putting on certain music). They are doing so while in a psychedelically altered state (lab accidents, as even extremely thorough Swiss chemists know very well, can happen). They are using this poetic language of behavior with a specific intention – that of making the best LSD, making good medicine.

So let’s break down the idea of psychedelic ceremony in a little more detail and give a few examples of practices.

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The toasted Hof

When we drink alcohol we say ‘cheers’! We make an invocation to the spirit of happiness, perhaps a toast of greater or lesser complexity. So too in many traditions and approaches to psychedelics will people take a moment before they take the drug. That pregnant pause we have, sat before the awesome reality of the loaded DMT pipe. Some like to say a prayer over their drugs, some do this by offering their lover a pill in their mouth, ending the kiss with the words ‘have a good one’.

Depending on the nature of the psychedelic adventure the location where the experience will unfold may have been specially prepared. The style may be very varied. From complex patterned fabrics and ready-to-undulate-when-the-mushrooms-kick-in wooden floors, through to white walls and soft cushions. The point about the space is that it supports and directs the experience and therefore, in whatever way we choose, it demands our attention. Re-set your Set by sorting out your Setting. As we clean the room, and place our power objects around us; pictures of our family perhaps, or of deities, of sports cars or kittens (if that’s our thing) we develop a deep sense that all is well. The mutual relationship of Set and Setting means any act of preparation (which could instead be about getting all glammed up if we are going out clubbing) is an instinctive ceremonial process.

Some spaces look very clearly like psychedelic ceremony. The beautiful crescent altar of the peyote circle, marked with the long glorious road that the participants take through the night together. Other ritual spaces may have a more modern look, with specially selected images projected upon the walls, sigils glowing in the blacklight and rotating dream machines. As psychonauts we make these chemical autonomous zones, these ceremonial spaces, in many ways. From spontaneously arising moments when we realise and respond to the sacred, through more formal group rituals, to gatherings so large we call them festivals.

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Ceremonial space

There are many groups in many countries that meet to do these kinds of ceremonies; some are peer-led, others with more formal structures, often inspired by indigenous entheogenic cultures of the Americas  For some people their psychedelic ceremonies are solitary affairs, perhaps lone psychogeographical wanderings or night long solitary vigils, still others make pilgrimage to the temples where God is a DJ.

Once we are tripping we can use our skills to make the best use of our time in that space however it is constructed. While sometimes all we need is to lie down and let the experience take us, at other points we may like to do stuff; anything from contemplating the aeons old architecture of our own hands, through to creative practices such as making art or singing and dancing.

As the psychedelic state is so plastic we can make interventions here; in some contexts we might think of these as acts of psychological neurohacking, or perhaps acts which sound more like sorcery, in any case these are examples of deploying symbolic activity with an intention.

For example. We can use mimetic magic also known as sympathetic magic. We create a psychological link as X happens so Y follows, magical thinking or perhaps thinking magically. This works especially well when we are high and different (novel) parts of our minds are connected. The embodied psychedelic experience recalls the magicians’ axiom ‘as above so below, as within so without’. In psychedelic ceremony we are deploying symbolic action within the interrelated network of all things which, when not high, we experience as discreet objects.

Let’s take a not too woo-woo psychological example of how this works: We might for example become aware that, when difficult memories of a failed relationship arise during the trip, that we screw our face up and hunch our shoulders. In the psychedelic state, where everything in the mind (and who knows, perhaps all things in the universe) is connected, we make a magical link; ‘as I relax my tense muscles so I find a way to sit in equanimity with the pain of my past’. As we relax, passing through the journey of that intention, our state of mind while tripping, and our subsequent relationships with others after we come down, also relaxes and becomes easier.

Then there can be things that look more like spells in the proper witchcraft pointy hat sense. One might do a spell to encourage the conditions in society in which the benefits of psychedelic drugs can be appreciated. This spell could aim to find ourselves in a better relationship, as a species, with these divine medicines. One might do this by creating a magical sculpture, a physical form for a spirit, giving it a name and celebrating it as a god. Offering our psychedelic gnosis to it, desiring that it is empowered to carry this intention into the complex web of wyrd that connects all things. (You can see what we in magic call the ‘material base’ of such a spell, cast from within psychedelic ceremony, in the museum here at Breaking Convention).

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Magical things in The Psychedelic Museum

Let’s consider another ceremony which can be deployed very easily by the psychonaut. We can think of this as a handy neurohack.

We know that our bodies primarily get our conscious attention when things go wrong. We experience the alert of pain and discomfort when there is a problem. Most of the time we don’t notice our left foot unless it hurts.

We also know that cultivating an optimistic and grateful attitude has benefits on everything from the functionality of our own immune systems and mental health and that this well-being in turn affects others. This practice boosts us, and thereby helps those around us, it’s a particularly powerful charm against depression both individually and culturally.

(Technically this is left-hand path vajrayana, fourth turning of the wheel of dharma shit we’re talking here; check it out if you’ve not already grokked that stuff).

To cultivate this beneficial attitude we take a moment to thank all those things that are good. To deliberately take our attention away from the painful and the incessant human desire to solve whatever current is ‘the problem’. One way of by doing this is by smoking in a ceremonial style.

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Smokin’ Sabina

Let’s set the scene for this easy to do psychedelic ceremony: I walk away from the bonfire and the pumping sound system. I’ve got a pre-rolled joint or tobacco smoke in hand. I kneel down on the dry grass. I am here to pray. I ceremonially breathe the smoke of the joint up to the sky, then directly down onto the earth, I then blow it to the left and right and finally towards the moon above me. This metaphorical ritual process orientates me within the world. I use the joint to focus me in the moment and I pray, speaking about what I love, counting my blessings. There are many imagined locations to which we might address our prayer. Simply to ‘The Universe’, or for the those more theologically inclined ‘the Great Goddess’. Personally I rather like ‘Great Spirit’ and ‘Great Mystery’, and sometimes ‘Baphomet’. We may silently formulate our prayer or it speak aloud. Our prayer remembers all those things we are grateful for; those who love us, our health, this life, these medicines, the cool of the night air. Whatever we really love and what fills us with joy and we take delight in.

When I’m done I bury the end of the joint in the earth, nod my thanks to the moon and return to the pumping sound of the party…

Our psychedelic ceremony, however we do it, unfolds…

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Cards and crystal

Perhaps, for example, towards the tail end of the trip, you decide to do some divination by consulting the tarot, using those obscure occult images to explore the relationships of things in your life that are important. Changing your perspective and looking on the problem as though from the outside, finding new possibilities. You can do something similar through a process which psychologists call a ‘sculpt’ using found objects to represent characters or situations. Just as the psychedelic state joins up bits of our brains so we can express and reflect on this process by using external symbol sets to discern the new meanings that arise.  These techniques of divination can be usefully employed when we are high: from ones where a meaning is sought in what some claim is random stuff, such as clouds, the shapes in fire or the first three runes picked from a bag. By interpreting these symbols, and perhaps manipulating them in some way, we open ourselves to new possibilities. It’s also the case that, in my experience, what parapsychologists call ‘hits’ happen more commonly when we are in an altered state of awareness.

Whether simple or highly structured, lasting just half an hour or several days, eventually our psychedelic ceremony comes to an end.

As the dawn breaks we perhaps sweep clear the circle around the crescent altar and place the final sticks with impeccable care on the arrow fire. We tidy up after the party. We thank the spirits or the power of the time, the place, the medicine. We allow ourselves time to come down, to enjoy the shamanic return to a world renewed and full of possibility. To reflect, to eat, to sleep, to dream.

And, each of us a shaman, we bring back the insights from that trip into the ultraworld for the benefit of ourselves and community.

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Psychedelic insights

What insights might we gather from these psychedelic adventures? Too many to list of course, but considering the value of these substances in themselves, what might be learnt?

  • That psychedelics have the potential to be amazing, fascinating medicines that feed our souls and inspire our spirits.
  • That the benefits of these experience could be just the medicine our species needs.
  • That we could  live in a culture which nurtures settings in which the self-administered and autonomously interpreted psychedelic experience is open to all who seek it

And to realise this possibility we know that in many ways, and many places, there is work to be done.

We are living in a time of increased licensed research and I’m deeply appreciative of the work of organisations such as the Beckley Foundation, MAPS, The Tyringham institute and others for their herculean efforts. But their work is hampered by both the laws and culture surrounding the prohibition of these substances. Both things that need to change.

As things are now we know that the law relating to psychedelics is critical to our story. Most of us here, I would conjecture, took our first psychedelics in unlicensed and therefore possibly criminal circumstances. Given the severity with which some states punish the use of psychedelic sacraments, but for the Grace of God, we are all potentially the prisoners of prohibition.

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William Leonard Pickard

For some people prohibition hits hard. I mentioned my chickens in an aside when writing an email to Leonard Pickard, who is in jail (serving two life sentences)  for LSD manufacture. He told me in his reply that he’d not seen any creatures, besides humans, for 17 years. This is the real horror, the real bad trip – as we speak Leonard is shut away in his prison and we ourselves are only part-way free. So we must use all the strategies we have to transform this situation, even as these sacraments we have taken have changed us.

As a community of practice, we share our insights at gatherings such as this conference. Inspired, respectful and considerate of the teachings of contemporary indigenous psychedelic cultures, and informed by the discoveries of licensed and underground researchers. 

We have a tremendous opportunity in this, the psychedelic renaissance. By sharing our collective wisdom I hope that we can build a culture suitable for a post prohibition psychedelically upgraded world. More intelligent, more creative, more humane, more curious than perhaps ever before. Because, while it’s easy to get Messianic about drugs, we could really be onto something here. Perhaps these substances really are that powerful, that important to our species. These are medicines for the mind and therefore for our culture, and we should not be afraid to use them.

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The psychedelic triangle

Through deploying psychedelic ceremony we are learning to make our own medicine. ‘The medicine’ as a whole is the combination of the psychedelic experience within a set and setting designed to enhance its transformative and entheogenic potential. The medicine is the complete psychedelic triangle of set, setting and substance.

Ceremony does not necessarily imply orthodoxy and I would like to see us maintain a variety of psychedelic spaces. Spaces for psychedelics as legitimate tools for healing, for research, for spiritual and for recreational use in our society. There are many medicines.

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Searching for meaning

The medicine of psychedelic ceremony can heal our souls by providing opportunities for revelation, rapture and fun. Used as medicines these substances offer opportunities to transcend our limitations. Psychedelics employed in this manner can support our human search for meaning in a way predicated on personal spiritual inquiry rather than rote doctrine of any stripe. These are substances that entwine the scientific and the sacred, the religious and recreational, substances that can help make us whole.

With our wounded cultures and ecocidal behaviors it is clear that some wholeness and healing would not go amiss. We could do with this good medicine.

Stay high and stay free!

Ahoy!

JV

The Psychedelic Museum: Celebrating the Summers of Love at Breaking Convention

This gallery contains 17 photos.

Originally posted on the psychedelic museum:
Rather like the psychedelic experience itself, Breaking Convention (BC) is a whirlwind of stimulating new ideas, interconnections and ramifying insights, a place to have preconceptions challenged, and a place to celebrate. This biennial, always sell-out conference on psychedelic research and experience, is a wondrous melting pot of influences. In…

Divine Androgyne (Part 2) : Androgyny as Spiritual Ideal

For me (unsurprisingly) combining both Queerness and a gnostic approach to religious exploration reveals considerable overlaps. It is my belief that our experience of being an Outsider can be encountered in a number of different parts of our lives at any given moment, and that insights gained or progress made can benefit the wider story of how we live and experience our lives.

The concept of Androgyny as a religious aspiration can be found in a multitude of cultural settings and across a vast period of time. Authors such as June Singer and Mircea Eliade have produced highly valuable work documenting the wide range of spiritual contexts that have sought to explore Androgyny as both an expression of cosmological wholeness and as a goal of personal integration.

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We like dancing and we look divine…

Geographically it spans pretty much the entire globe (Australasia, Asia, Africa, Europe and the Americas) and encompasses traditions as diverse as Tantra, Judaic Kabbalah, Hermetic Alchemy and a variety of Native animistic traditions. Eliade highlights that the employment of the Androgyny as an organizing idea has an enduring resonance due to the way it simultaneously points toward the primal unity of opposites (often in a numinous pre-historical realm), while at the same time trying to map the process of human development.  Part of its ongoing appeal seems to be the way in which it seeks to hold in parallel our Gnostic longings concerning divinity, and our own experience of psychological transformation. The wholeness of all binaries held in tension within a single being  offering us the hope that our own ennui will be soothed via our own internal marriage of opposites.

In her seminal Women, Androgynes, and Other Mythical Beasts, Wendy Doniger O’Flaherty goes some way in identifying the possible range of androgynous forms as represented in religious and mythical iconography. In this highly valuable work she examines the Androgyny as a manifestation of aspirational unity (“fusing”) e.g. Ardhanarisvara, and of chaos (“splitting”) e.g. the necessary differentiation enacted via puberty rituals. The ideal of fusing can be seen as having many resonances with Jung’s goal of integrating the contra-sexual self (Anima/Animus) while the desire for reverting to an undifferentiated pre-creation has some parallels to Freud’s primal wish for death.

In trying to garner such an overview we will always struggle to contain the complexity of such a topic as it seeks to engage with both the mythic archetype and the lived reality of how gender non-conformity is manifested in day-to day human existence. While the highly balanced “vertical” androgyny of Arhanarisvara may represent an iconographic and aspirational success as an embodiment of fusing, for me the messier, potentially Queerer movement in, out and back through multiple identities, may hold as much value as manifestations how we actually live with the tensions of binaries. Those trickster stories of amputated penises and ecstatic cross-dressing may come closer to embodying the type of embraced imperfection or “Queer failure” (see Judith Halberstam’s work) that makes our lives more possible.

For me Androgyny has a vital role in pointing us towards the occult, the enigmatic and the hidden. The Androgyne’s weird complexity offers the possibility of both transcendence of the erotic (via the nullified eunuch) and at the other extreme a vast realm of erotic possibility when unchecked by the natural limitation of childbirth. In the projected fantasies of its viewer the hermaphrodite’s complex sexual possibility is both potentially alluring and terrifying. To engage with them may result in a cornucopia of new sensual experiences and/or our ultimate destruction via their alien genitalia. They become avatars of Baphomet in being both sex and death, our dissolving and coming back together.

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Rebel, rebel…

The Eunuch as an androgyne also presents us with a type of dialogical tension in which story and fantasy intersect. Via their various degrees of genital nullification they may represent both a state of idealised asexuality or a perfect servant who while safely sterile is also the potential recipient of other people’s penetrative activity. The chaste harem attendant and Hijra sex worker represent both ends of this dichotomy, but in both cases they hold a magic in that their very presence is potentially unsettling and disruptive.

In the gospel of Matthew chapter, Jesus made the observation:

For there are eunuchs who were born that way from their mother’s womb; and there are eunuchs who were made eunuchs by men; and there are also eunuchs who made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. He who is able to accept this, let him accept it. (Matthew 19:12)

Androgynes of either nature or via human creation disturb our perception of what we think of as natural. If we also account for the broad range of folks who would embrace some form of Transgender identity we also see a vast number of possible responses (changes pursued in external presentation, surgery, hormones and psychology). The magical potential of the Androgyne for me lies in the sense of uncertainty that they induce. This sense of liminality may attract or repel depending on our own level of comfort around self exploration and our ability to sit with not knowing. Often this feels connected to the distance between Androgyny as an idealised spiritual icon and the messier reality of Androgyne as a Queer embodiment. This lived experience for me feels richer, more complex and a more creative expression of individual creativity.

For me the ongoing value of Androgyny as a spiritual goal or organizing principle lies in its ability to be challenged and informed by the reality of Queer lives. This dialogue between the distant ideal and the flux-state of day-to-day creativity is one that we need to keep working with. Let’s keep talking!

SD

Divine Androgynes (Part 1): Personal Reflections

Many people realise that they are Queer from quite an early age. In my case it was less something I knew innately and more something that my world told me I was.

I was probably 6 when my Dad returned from a trip to Scotland where he had been working as a bricklayer. He had returned with gifts: a big yellow digger for me and a Scottish dancing doll for my younger sister. I remember clearly the moment when, after receiving our presents, my sister and I looked across at each other and simply swapped!

As I recollect my early years and adolescence, there were a number of such occasions when it became all too apparent that I was out of step. Maleness in my world came with some fairly fixed markers of success and I as far as I could tell I wasn’t doing so well. I didn’t even know what a “poof” was, but I could guess from the mockery with which it was spat that it was probably something to hide.

It can be easy to get shut down by shame. While I am certainly aware of situations and groups of people that I avoided due to their perception that my gender expression and sexuality didn’t fit with their norms, thankfully this was not the whole of the story. While the question of whether magicians are born or made is open to debate, I personally managed to find conduits for letting my Queer magic flow.

I have already spoken of the impact that Hatha yoga practice had on not only shaping my metaphysical outlook but also my relationship to my body. I liked Billy Elliott’s answer to the question that he was asked at his Ballet school audition “what do you feel when you are dancing?” Billy answers that he forgets himself and feels like electricity. This made sense to me as the opening extension of the asanas allowed me to more fully inhabit my physical self and contact the possibility of the sensual. The discipline and demands of the postures often blurred the boundary between pleasure and pain and provided my adolescent bodymind with new tools for making connection.

If yoga touched my body, then it was music that allowed me to access my creative, emotional self. I remember flicking through a friend’s record collection and seeing Bowie’s “Scary Monsters” and some of the early Devo albums. Yes the music moved me, but much more than that, these strange New Wave icons seemed to inhabit a sexless space in which gender seemed endlessly plastic and subject to mutation. Bowie’s make-up and hair unsettled and inspired me in equal measure as the alien persona of Major Tom strutted through my increasingly rich internal world.

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Boys keep swinging…

Back then I didn’t possess a word to capture that strange blurring of male and female, all I knew was that I liked what I saw and that it acted as a mirror in which to see something that I knew was deeply real about myself. The concepts of androgyny and Queerness were to come much later, but in having my imagination captured by the gender ambiguity of the New Wave and the New Romantic, it felt as though internal radar had been activated than sensitised me to those presentations that challenged the binary norm. I offer these reflections with a deep bow of gratitude to early Duran Duran, Depeche Mode and orange buzz-cut of Annie Lennox!

My adolescent exposure to androgynous imagery was not only limited to my musical world, it was spiritual as well. Having spent most of my teenage years wandering around the Gold Coast area in Australia I had been exposed to all sorts of religious weirdness. I remember the hours spent moving between music shops and the Hare Krishna restaurant at which I was able to acquire free books and magazines that fuelled my yogic imagination. In addition to discovering the joys of mantra meditation, these magazines contained some beautiful depictions of the 16th century Vaishnava saint Lord Caitanya.

Caitanya was a bhakti yoga mystic whose intensity of love for Krishna took him into some decidedly Queer territory. In seeking to express the degree of his love for his Lord, he often dressed as Krishna’s divine partner Radha.  This act of sacred cross-dressing typified the ecstatic longing that Caitanya was able to direct in helping reform Vaishnava spirituality. Some view him as an incarnation of Krishna and if we at least entertain that notion, we are presented with a deeply tantric manifestation whereby the power of devotion allows for both partners of a divine coupling to be held within one being.

If it was the beautifully ambiguous portraits of Caitanya that drew me to him, my relationship with Jesus came more through words and story. Having not grown up in a religious home, apart from the Lord’s prayer I was largely unaware of the Gospel stories. This was to change dramatically during my mid-teens, as the certainties of Evangelical Christianity were to provide a ready conduit through which to pour my adolescent longing for identity.

The depiction of Jesus in the Gospels provided me with a model of masculinity that accommodated both a sense of gentleness and emotional openness that I found liberating. The Christ to which I became devoted both cleared the Temple in righteous indignation and went compassionately seeking for the one lost sheep. For me it was his ability to hold both these dimensions together that proved so attractive and inspiring.

As I look back now 30 years later, I am struck by the homoerotic edge that seemed to pervade so much of my spiritual devotion at that time. The Church at which I worshipped was decidedly conservative in terms of it theology and views on homosexuality, but seemed quite comfortable with hours being spent in writhing ecstasy before the throne of a Messiah who in my mind’s eye was a beautiful, bearded 33 year old male who was deeply in love with me! One might be forgiven for getting confused.

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Ama et quod vis fac

Such paradoxes permeated the Charismatic/Pentecostal form of worship that I engaged in. On the one hand they adopted an attitude towards sexual pleasure that was quite severe and repressive (sex outside of marriage being wrong and masturbation being viewed as morally dubious), and yet theirs’ was an embodied ecstasy where God as Holy Spirit induced dance, fainting, glossolalia and all manner of strange “signs and wonders”.

While I can now see this radical sublimation as being harmful to many, I remain uncertain whether it was entirely so for me.  As a person who finds comfort in the blurry self-descriptors of gender fluidity and grey asexuality, this location of spiritual experience within the physical body allowed me to access a more polymorphous type of sensuality that seemed far less located in genital sexuality and inherited scripts and expectations regarding the erotic activity I should be engaged in to prove my normality.

Although my current spiritual path is evidence that this form of belief failed to meet my needs, I can see direct parallels between that past and my current use of dance, music and other body transforming practices. Even if the certainties of adolescent belief no longer feel authentic, the day-to-day practice that informs my on-going spiritual explorations, I still feel the powerful pull of devotion and a desire to experience an ecstasy in the body that blurs the lines between Agape and Eros. Even with my conscious embrace of theological uncertainty, I dance, shake, drum and burst forth with strange tongues as I walk the tight-rope liminal zone that my life asks me to inhabit.

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

The Queerness of Gnosis

It’s probably not very surprising that I find myself trying to write a reflection on how Queerness and Gnosis intersect given the importance they both play in my life. My blog posts, and the book A Gnostic’s Progress, bear witness to my attempt to explore the complexity of human life and how we utilize experiences of direct knowing in our attempts to manage the dilemma of existence.

While others may view the conflating of Queer experience and Gnosticism as being a personal eccentricity or indulgence on my part, I would ask for your patience as I try to unpack some of the resonances that I experience. For me the starting point for both the Queer-identified and the Gnostic is a sense of discomfort and dislocation in response to binary attempts at classification.

While the Gnostics are often typified as dualists, for me a large part of what lies at the heart of gnostic exploration is dissatisfaction with attempts to divide our experience of the world along binary lines. An orthodoxy that seeks to classify things in terms of the works of God or those of Satan made little sense to those religious free-thinkers who wanted to embrace complexity more fully. Rather than being satisfied with the simple answers of faith, the Gnostic sets out into deep space in order to explore  the tension, complexity and contradiction that seems to lie at the heart of life’s mystery.

The Gnostic is the sacred scientist in the truest sense in their attempts to openly explore; question and pressure test their findings. Their metaphysical insights may fail to meet the rigour of the strict reductionist, but their attempt to map the weird cosmologies experienced through inner perception still provide us with much of value. These strange inner landscapes had a clear resonance with depth psychologists such as Carl Jung as he felt that they provided insight into the nature of human experience and how we might work with the process of personal transformation.

Somewhere over the Bifrost

Early Gnostic cosmologies such as those mapped out by early groups, for instance the Sethians and Valentinians, contain a wide variety of spiritual couplings (or syzygies) that seek to convey the dynamic dance at work in the process of creation. For the Gnostic, the numinous realm is full of a wide array of beings such as Aeons, Archons, Powers and Principalities, all vying for expression and manifestation into both matter and the realm of human consciousness. While diagrammatic attempts to depict such systems usually come off looking quite linear, in reading the oft-confusing description of them in primary Gnostic texts, the heavenly host often feels far more fluid, over-lapping and multi-directional.

For me the Gnostics embody a type of heretical free-thinking that seeks to challenge a form of certainty that relies on blinkered tunnel-vision.  Neat delineations that require us to ignore the messy complexity of our deepest longings are challenged by the heretics’ brave act of choosing. While the pedlars of certainty proclaim loudly that their polarised, black and white world is either the result of natural order or God’s will, the heretic is listening to a quieter inner voice.

The awakening to Queerness can of course happen in a whole host of ways. It might be an internal awareness of the complexity of desire or (as was in my case) communication from the straight world of the demi-urge that my way of presenting was not working for them! These realisations may happen suddenly or in a more slow-burn fashion in which you become increasingly aware of dissonance. Whichever speed it happens at this is a profound unfolding of who we sense we are and for me it definitely had a Gnostic dimension. If the admonition to “Know Thyself” was to have an authenticity then it needed to account from the outsider experience that I experienced as a Queer person.

Gnostic explorers of most stripes are usually willing to question what we mean by the natural. In trying to grapple with the discomfort associated with our experience of living, they sought to question the narratives about this transmitted by both Church and State. These organs of authority have been keen to get us to believe all sorts of ideas, in the name of their being natural. Whether it’s the inevitability of reproduction, the subjugation of Women or the exclusion of Black people, both Church and State have the potential to become archonic in their restriction of personal expression and liberty. In their attempt to control and contain they seek to minimise the complexity of our life experience and to present a dominant narrative that limits the possibility of a deeper connection based on a truly rich diversity.

The syzygies so loved by the Gnostics often sought to embody a richer story in which the binaries experienced were held together as they moved through a process of reconciliation. Manifestations of this unification often pop-up in androgynous figures such as Adam Kadmon or Abraxas, but I think that we risk losing something crucial if we see them as fixed icons and fail to appreciate the Queer dynamism that they embody. Queerness often presents a disruptive challenge to our attempts at neatness. At best it moves beyond mere hip theorising and compels us to enact, perform and intensify the often blurry reality of who we are.

In this fluid dance, Queerness can be experienced as identity, mood and the dynamic that exists in the interactions between people, objects and organisation. For me it provides a way of knowing that provides not only a space for inhabiting the present, but also a lens for viewing the past.  In asking us to stay awake to sensitivity to context and process, Queerness provides a necessary challenge to the type of brittleness that can come when we get overly invested in fixed identities.  In my view, such a dynamic creates a type of optimism as I see glimpses of the type of human creativity that Jose Esteban Munoz refers to as “Futurity”.

I have already spoke of the inspiration that I have gained via Nema’s description of N’Aton as an embodiment of our future magical selves, and part of my attraction to this figure is in the way it manifests a type of magical optimism and Futurity. Depictions of N’Aton often hold together the individual and collective perspectives and for me such images embody a type of spiritual awakening that allows for a multiplicity of perspective. When we step away from the tunnel-vision of either Christian or Orthodox Thelemic eschatology, we can begin to explore the Queer possibility of our aeonic utopias overlapping, blurring with and potentially strengthening each other as they balance and inform each other’s insights.

This is a tightrope walk in which we try to balance the reality of both our individual and collective struggles with the need to explore the possibility of what hope might mean. When the Archons shout their “truth” so loudly, we must dare to keep the richness of our stories alive! I’ll end with this great quote from Sara Ahmed in which they discuss the possibility of what we might create when we radically reappraise the type of future we might have:

To learn about possibility involves a certain estrangement from the present. Other things can happen when the familiar recedes. This is why affect aliens can be creative: not only do we want the wrong things, not only do we embrace possibilities that we have been asked to give up, but we create life worlds around these wants. When we are estranged from happiness, things happen. Hap happens.
The Promise of Happiness p.218

SD