Dionysus’ Doorway

Thousands of years ago, Plato attended the Rites of Eleusis. He stood in the crowd, and had a deeply meaningful experience which set him, and us, on the road to the split of mind-body duality. He writes:

For, as has been said, every soul of man has by the law of nature beheld the realities, otherwise it would not have entered into a human being, but it is not easy for all souls to gain from earthly things a recollection of those realities, either for those which had but a brief view of them at that earlier time, or for those which, after falling to earth, were so unfortunate as to be turned toward unrighteousness through some evil communications and to have forgotten the holy sights they once saw. Few then are left which retain an adequate recollection of them; but these when they see here any likeness of the things of that other world, are stricken with amazement and can no longer control themselves; but they do not understand their condition, because they do not clearly perceive. Now in the earthly copies of justice and temperance and the other ideas which are precious to souls there is no light, but only a few, approaching the images through the darkling organs of sense, behold in them the nature of that which they imitate, and these few do this with difficulty. But at that former time they saw beauty shining in brightness, when, with a blessed company—we following in the train of Zeus, and others in that of some other god—they saw the blessed sight and vision and were initiated into that which is rightly called the most blessed of mysteries, which we celebrated in a state of perfection, when we were without experience of the evils which awaited us in the time to come, being permitted as initiates to the sight of perfect and simple and calm and happy apparitions, which we saw in the pure light, being ourselves pure and not entombed in this which we carry about with us and call the body, in which we are imprisoned like an oyster in its shell. So much, then, in honour of memory, on account of which I have now spoken at some length, through yearning for the joys of that other time. But beauty, as I said before, shone in brilliance among those visions; and since we came to earth we have found it shining most clearly through the clearest of our senses; for sight is the sharpest of the physical senses, though wisdom is not seen by it, for wisdom would arouse terrible love, if such a clear image of it were granted as would come through sight, and the same is true of the other lovely realities; but beauty alone has this privilege, and therefore it is most clearly seen and loveliest.
Plato, Phaedra, 250 a-e.

Plato can rightly be regarded as the auctor of Western philosophy. His vision of the soul yearning to soar free of the sepulchre of the body has influenced countless generations of those whose world view forms the scaffold of our own individual versions of the body/mind division.

However, he was wrong. Limited by the dichotomy of the Greek language comparing this on one hand, that on the other, he was blind to the multitudinous steps betwixt cup and lip, from objective (out there) to subjective (in here), and slipped up.

I recently read two things posted in close succession on my facebook wall. One was the news of publication of research on the physiological effects of LSD on the brain’s blood circulation. The other was a report on how vision works, how the incoming signals from light striking our retinal cells is smoothed out by the activity of the brain.

Before I draw my tentative conclusions, I’d like to examine these two scientific findings a little more closely.

  1. LSD, similarly to other psychedelic substances such as psilocybin, seems to affect the brain’s blood flow adversely. In contrast to the expected extra activity, stimulating extra colours and shapes, instead the fMRI scanner showed a loss of blood flow (and therefore activity, in its gross sense) in many areas of the brain. Something is not happening which usually does.
  2. Light falls on the cells of our eyes, causing the photo-pigments within the eye to change shape. This chemical change affects the transmission of an electrical signal to the brain. Once the signal has been ‘sent’, the photo-pigment regains its previous shape, and awaits another external input to fall upon it and allow the process to repeat. This takes a measurable amount of time, which if always perceived would cause issues with evaluating the true colour of any thing.  To allow a consistent picture of the colour, the brain averages out the inputs received over some seconds, approximately 15 according to this study. A sensible way of overcoming the refresh rate of our mechanistic system.

It occurred to me that this constant activity of the brain in smoothing out these sensorial flickers could be part of what ceases during the low level of blood flow observed when in a psychedelic state. If so, then under the influence we would perceive a world with waves of intense/fading colours, especially if the gaze rests upon an object meaning that colour perception is our main focus of attention.

painting arm

Freudian

And this seems to be borne out by personal observations. 1P LSD is currently legal in the UK (although probably for only a few more weeks), and having taken one blotter recently in auspicious circumstances I waited to see if my theory might bear fruit. Looking carefully at a painting, I saw the colours appear and disappear clearly, fading in and out of my awareness. Greens, reds, blues, and the mixtures of these, became visible in turns, creating a shifting texture of shape as different elements of the composition revealed themselves in turn.

The painting was a modern one, depicting a hand and forearm. As the colours ‘moved’, the arm came alive. Later, I stood on the doorstep of the house and watched the trees in the front garden shift and sway from the inner breeze originating from my eyeballs’ pigments changing shape.

The experience was profound. Aware intellectually of what was happening at a basic level of my own biochemistry, added to the wonder I felt at the sight, just as the knowledge that the stars are gigantic balls of gas lights years away adds to the magic of the immediate view of them as twinkling pin pricks of light.

There are likely to be analogous effects on other sensory inputs; sound, bodily sensations such as temperature, kinaesthetic awareness, proprioception, taste and smell. So psychedelics, named after the apparent mind-manifesting effects, may actually reveal instead a lack of ‘mind’ as we currently understand this terminology. The reducing valve theory of Huxley has already gained acceptance with regard to integration of brain centres. This visual phenomenon of visible colour waves could provide an easily accessible concrete example of its application. Psychedelics may well reveal the building blocks of our raw state of perception. This could explain that sense of familiarity many people have commented on, the coming home. For really, we ALWAYS see the world this way with our sensory apparatus, the non-psychedelic reality being constructed post-here&now by constant activity within our filtering brain.

Thus, I suggest that the iconography of ‘higher’ levels of consciousness, of the ideal realms beyond our mundane reality, is unhelpful. Rather, we could use linguistic approaches emphasising the physical ground of our existence as those worthy of most awe, exposure to direct lived embodied awareness as the basis of our spiritual awakenings. Shifting our attention downwards, to the felt foundation, could resolve the vertiginous sickness of the last two millennia spent trying to find the Real in the cosmic distance. The ‘other dimensions’ beloved of so many entheogenic gurus may turn out to be the real world, whilst our normal awareness describes for us a practically useful fiction, a steady state narrative within which we see and move.

Ego dissolution, changes to the serotonin system and other physiological effects of classic psychedelic drugs are under investigation. As further results are published, I anticipate greater insights into how our Newtonian mechanistic body, and our idealist Platonic mind, could swirl together beyond divisive labels of classification; this has profound implications for spiritual thinking, panpsychism, and the imminence of the divine. By directly experiencing the bodymind as One Thing, seeing with full cognitive and intellectual awareness even one aspect of how our marvellous complex neural processing creates useful simpler narrative consistency, we may come closer to a unification of this apparent duality into a tangible philosophy.

Previous attempts at describing the numinous have placed it somewhere other, often above us, in higher otherworldly spaces accessible only to those who can climb above others. Top-down hierarchies have given us dry channels to literally non-existent heavens, whilst a model of underground networking provides far more resilience, sustainability, and dare I say it, a better legacy. I posit that instead of shouting our prayers to the stars, we ought to listen to the ground when seeking deeper wisdom. Conceptualise our ‘altered states of consciousness’ as the apocalyptic, revealed, awesome foundation of our beliefs, as the bedrock, the floor of our magick. Sky-dwelling supernatural beings have had their day, and as they fall, the earthly body answers our entreaties. Rise!

Dionysus, god of ecstatic visionary states, Plato’s inspiration, has held the key to this doorway of perception for thousands of years. As the source of philosophical musings, in vino veritas, he seems a fitting deity to honour in naming this observation of mine, regarding the revelation of what is actually seen in these states:- The opening of Dionysus’ Doorway to a truly visionary way of perception.

NW

I Can’t Even.

Words fail us sometimes. I hear people telling me of their failings, how they cannot make progress with their life or career. (We have all found ourselves here, on some level.)

Listening to them, I see a person not only unable to choose the next move, but unable to even consider they might have options to change their circumstances, change the person that they are/have been. They appear stuck, frozen helplessly by the mantras of the past.

Linguistically, they describe a situation, and then (even if supplied with a helpful response), their next statement is predictable: “…I can’t”. Occasionally, this is followed with a qualifying reason as to why, but more often than not they simply stop, and look down.

Biologically, feelings of depression and other forms of anxiety force us to pay attention to our immediate surroundings. Something IS wrong, so we MUST solve the current crisis before moving on. Which, as a survival strategy, makes sense. However when anxiety lasts for months or years, we can get trapped into habitually seeing no further than our now, our here.

Looking up and away from the ground beneath our feet when we feel as if at any moment we will sink into quicksand, takes courage. If, that is, we can even remember to think of looking ahead, while it takes all our concentration just to stand!

Thanks interwebz! :)

Thanks for teh memes, interwebz! 🙂

A ritual, for those who can’t even…

Standing with your arms by your sides, look at your feet. This is where you are.

Repeat continuously, aloud if possible, “I literally cannot even … I literally cannot even … I literally cannot even … I literally cannot even …”.

Would you like to move?

“I cannot even … I cannot even … I cannot even … I cannot even …”

Look a short distance ahead.

“I cannot … I cannot … I cannot … I cannot …”

Take a step.

“I can … I can … I can … I can …”

While doing this, take a plenty of time at each stage to take stock of your internal state; using at least three adjectives, describe how you feel, physically. Paying attention to our body gives clues to our elusive subconscious emotional status.

For a more magickal experience, do the ritual inside a magic circle, with yellow candles to represent the importance of ego magick, incense which matches the intention to expand awareness, and holding a sword to signify your decision making ability.

NW

Your Very Good Health!

I don’t have perfect health. My body after nearly 47 years taking breath, has had things happen to it, and has broken in several places. A casual passer-by would never know but, I have; ligament damage to my knee, a weak Achilles tendon, currently a bad back (from sitting funny last week and spreadsheeting for three hours), and a severely damaged inner ear. Also, various other temporary aches and damaged bits come and go, along with the rounds of viruses, bacteria, and so on. My skin and bones record dozens of small scars from long forgotten injuries.

This is my normal. Having a blemish free body, unaffected by incidents after so long would be unnatural. It is a miracle I am alive at all! I marvel at how well biology does at maintaining this form I inhabit in recognisable similarity year to year, despite replacing all the cells on a regular basis.

Evolutionary adaptation takes into account this wear and tear, accidental impacts, and attacks from hostile micro-organisms. As well as repair, it has blessed us with death, and its companion, reproduction, so as to give the life force a restart every generation. Our tissues are designed to receive damage and recover from it as best as possible. Life expects us to be hurt.

I once heard a skin specialist being interviewed, who was asked what we could do to keep our skin totally safe. He said, cover it in petroleum jelly and stay indoors permanently; which he immediately followed with, of course that is impossible. Living entails a process of acquired ‘imperfections’. Like trees none of us has grown entirely according to the biological instructions we were provided with at conception, our surroundings alter our shapes and behaviours. This even applies to how our DNA instructions manifest themselves (see epigenetics).

Having experiences gives us personalities, and interesting appearances. Like trees, the ‘perfect’ human form would likely seem bland and without character.

My perfect tree

My perfect tree

Part of living is accepting that we do not remain in that mythical state of ‘perfection’, even if we are born with no obvious errors; which in itself is not something we ought to expect. Having the ability to see what we do have, in the face of adversity, to count our blessings, gives us a different take on who we are.

In a world influenced by the futile quest for a standardised perfected body image, the scars and marks of survival can loom large. For me a big step in defining myself came when I was asked by my friend (a psychologist with many years experience of counselling those with chronic conditions) what percentage of me was ‘ill’, and what ‘healthy’. I realised that whilst my internal sense of (literal) balance was flawed, it made up only about 3% (subjectively) of Me. The other 97% was in fact in pretty good shape. Suddenly instead of feeling broken, beyond repair, I felt that I had worked well at keeping what I could functional; my senses were fine, I had limbs that did what they should, I had reasonable fitness. I could do more things to make that ok part of me better, or perhaps Good; even if I couldn’t change the damaged inner ear.

And so I did. I’ve spent the last few years practising yoga, eating well, ensuring I sleep properly, and enjoying the things I can do, pushing aside the terror of inadequacy by building the abilities I have; so that when I get dizzy or have issues then the weller bits of me can compensate. This is not a perfect solution, but, as well as the health benefits, this strategy has made me feel I have influence over myself, my behaviours. A feeling not to be underestimated in its power.

On a magickal level the approach has changed my attention, which for me right now seems to be one of the defining skills of a magician; to direct attention as necessary for optimal results. And as I switched to this different perspective, I began to discover (by myself, and via information shared by others with me), possible remedies for the problem, as its import shifted to non-critical. Perhaps, by allowing the damage to be there, whilst seeing the strengths I had, this made space for the previously non-existent (in my world) herb-lore to appear?

However, I write this suggestion very cautiously. It is easy to say, ‘think positively! and all your ills will vanish!’ That is not my intention here. Our aim ought to be to acknowledge our imperfections, our normal state which means we cannot, then look for and focus on the normal we have which means we can.

My inner ear is not mendable. The surrounding biological systems and my way of life however can adapt, so nowadays when I lose balance I barely notice that my body catches me before I stagger and fall. The fatigue can be held at bay (mostly…) by factoring in rest periods throughout every day. Feeding the health, giving attention to wellness, pushing aside the trauma of not-perfect.

Recently I visited my mum, and we were talking of my university days; and I found myself glad that I had done that training, but, pleased it had been forced to stop, as I now have a career which suits me far better. With hindsight, I learnt so much from the years of pain and discomfort, those twists of my branches away from the programmed high reaching symmetry of a scientist has given me a lower profile with greater stability, and arguably made me far more likeable… though without a control it is hard to tell 😉

I would like to encourage those readers who have health issues, whether intrinsic or from external sources, to make a slight shift in perspective, and (in a Pollyanna way…) play the game of rejoicing in their abilities.

Accentuating the positive can drive out the negative. Directed attention does miraculous things to the bodymind. We notice what we look for; seek out your strengths, and you might be amazed at how those weaknesses atrophy.

NW

Magic in the BodyMind

Recent blog posts regarding the spheres of Chaos have been prompting some reflections for me on the way that progress on the magical path might be experienced within our bodies. We might acquire new titles or embark on yet another curriculum promising new Gnostic vistas (Aeonic timeshare anyone?) but do these chunks of learning or imagined shifts in status actually translate into tangible shifts in how we experience our bodymind?

Much ink has been spilt on this blog with regards the centrality of body within our experience of this initiatory pathway that we call magic. To dance, shake and vibrate the names of god in our bodies is central to the type of ecstasy and awakening that we are in pursuit of. Ours is not a means of escaping the physical, rather the insights gained come through the messy, fragile realities of our flesh.

Body magick

Body magick

My own baby steps as a spiritual explorer began when I discovered a book on hatha yoga that my Mum had used whilst being pregnant with me. Much to the amusement/dismay of my working-class builder Dad, the 10 year old me spent hours trying to master “Salutation to the Sun” and crashing into furniture as I attempted daring headstands. On reflection, a big part of my love for this approach was the extent to which it demanded something of me at a very physical level. For the proto-adolescent me trying to come to terms with a rapidly changing body, the discipline and degree of bodily awareness that these exercises awakened felt deeply congruent with stirrings of the libido and the unfolding of sexual awareness.

As my body underwent the alchemical awakening of puberty, I sought to use the channels of asana, pranayama and the Maha mantra of the Vaishnavas as a means of trying to negotiate the primary challenge of “identity vs. role confusion” (cf. Erik Erickson). Eventually I chose to run into the arms of the church in hope of escaping my growing sexual uncertainty, but even here Pentecostal ecstasies found their messy way into my body via glossolalia and Holy Ghost tremblings. My own journey through Christianity and ultimately out the other side, felt as though it were a response to this deep need to experience religious sensuality as a whole body experience. Although the lives of St. Francis, St. John of the Cross and Theresa of Avila point towards such embodied ecstasies, personally I needed technologies that mapped this territory more fully.

Whilst in the early stages of training for the Anglican priesthood, the ideas of Jung turned on the lights with regards depth psychology and the potency of occult knowledge. These concepts were not abstractions, Jung’s ideas concerning anima and animus flicked another switch with regards my own gender fluidity. The breadth of his engagement with alchemical traditions allowed him to develop a psychological model that contrasted starkly with orthodox Christianity. The primary dualities of light/dark, Christ/Satan that are generally viewed as oppositional, are now viewed as being polarities within which a natural oscillation can take place over time. Whether using the yogic psycho-physiology of the Ida, pingala and shushumna or the severity/mercy polarity of the kabbalistic tree it becomes possible to dance with apparent opposites rather than struggle against them. These dualities are not mere topics for intellectual ascent, but realties that can be mapped and felt within the body.

The decision to step out onto the path of occult knowledge and magical practice is rarely an easy one to take. For me the core conditioning received via the church dictated that such a journey was psychologically and spiritually dangerous. In many senses I’d agree – the desire to eat from the tree of knowledge brings with it a process of individuation that necessitates pain and growth. Such processes ask us to examine and challenge the beliefs that we have inherited so as to break new ground in the hope of becoming who we need to be.

As I began trying to find a path or magical tradition that made greater sense of my spiritual yearning, I became aware of how much of the body-focused material from the yogic traditions I had absorbed was resurfacing within neo-paganism. From Theosophy, the Golden Dawn and the work of Crowley I came back into contact with a heady fusion of ideas that while potentially helpful, were also confusing in the lack of intellectual transparency with regards their origins. What would it look like to engage more thoroughly with the source material from which these ideas originated whilst retaining the spirit of creativity and rebellion that stirred their genesis?

Personally I have found that my own attempts to cultivate a dynamic, magically informed sadhana have provided an invaluable lens through which I can appreciate the efforts of my tantric forebears.

A Tantric forebear

A Tantric forebear

My own attempts to make head-way along this path eventually led me to seek initiation within an Order that remains unapologetic about its east/west hybridism. My own initiating guru within the AMOOKOS tradition was clear in stressing many of the commonalities that exist between hermetic and tantric approaches. Given my history this has helped me greatly in seeking to integrate different aspects of spiritual explorations. Some may be uneasy about this type of approach, but for me this considered syncretism continues to contain a potentially magical dynamism.

As I walk my own path, what I find myself returning to (albeit in a number of differing traditions and sets of practices) are those methods that ask me to deepen the degree of holism in the insights that I might gain. This leaking, failing body is both the arena for potential ecstasies and the ultimate reminder of my own mortality. For me the process of alchemical refinement that I am pursuing is not one of moving up and away from the body, rather it aims to be one of return and refinement as new levels of consciousness are brought to bear.

SD