Magic in the Darkest of the Seasons

The Wheel of the Year spins, towards the darkest phase of the year here in the far north (i.e. Britain) .

Yesterday I was at a funeral in the local crematorium, to say goodbye to someone that I’d known in the course of my museum work. Within that garden of well-trimmed yew hedges, punctuated with sober brickwork structures, I stood out of the rain in the tiny waiting room. Drinking the vending machine coffee, and feeling emotions rising in me. This time last year I was swept up in that surreal swirl of organisation which attends the end of a human life. My Dad having passed away after a brief illness, I went with my Mum to speak with funeral directors, to make formal registration of the event. I helped her enter data into Governmental web forms.

A midwinter spirit

A midwinter spirit

It is during the winter months that most people in Britain die and, while some of this may be put down to infections, most of those deaths are not, at least overtly, directly caused by the darkness and harsh weather. Yet the correlation between death and the winter has remained true for hundreds of years. It is this fact that gives the death and rebirth of the solstice added poignancy. Thus there are those bitter sweet stories of the relationship between sacrifice, death, winter and spring, from The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe to The Selfish Giant.

Christmas, or Yule, or Mithrasmas (or whatever you like to call this feast) is the pivot point of the sun’s journey. It is overflowing with symbolism; there is the iconography of everything from the Messiah through to the Krampus; there are stories of hope and redemption, gifts brought at midnight by an aerial shaman, and ghostly tales from Christmas past.

The actual human deaths that occur in the deep midwinter enrich the symbols we absorbed as children; the Christmas tree, singing auld lang syne, then singing about the birth of magical child here to bring peace – as we mature as people, our reading and relationship with these symbols becomes deeper and more complex. Christmas becomes bitter sweet; an assertion of life and joy in the face of pain and heartache, but (if we are fortunate) we can continue to see the underlying message of renewal, of transformation and hope. Opening our-selves up to that Midwinter spirit, with all its sadness and joy, its blend of longing and elation, can be a difficult thing. For many people the black dog of depression follows them about in this season; echoing the outer darkness within their mindscape.

Given my own story at this time of year I can fully appreciate some recent writing by Anglesey Druid Kristoffer Hughes about the death of his Father, John Hughes, on the 11 of December:

This day, 10 years ago, was a dreadful day. We sat and we waited for the edges of forever to open and allow him respite and freedom from the pain of cancer. It is a day that none of us will readily forget. As twinkling fairy lights lit the streets beyond the hospital, as carolers took to singing, my Dad turned his face from this world and ventured into mystery.

The mystery of life and death was the subject of recent meditation I shared with folks at The Psychedelic Society of London (where I took part in a collaborative ritual event).

Psychedelic supper time

Psychedelic supper time

After an excellent evening of food and simple, highly accessible ceremonial practice, one participant asked whether, as an occultist, I had special powers. Where had all my years of magical ceremony, gnostic states and spiritual adventuring really got me? Could I leap tall buildings in a single bound, or perhaps control the weather with my mind? What was the kind of power that magic provides to those who practice it successfully?

There are lots of potential answers to this perfectly legitimate question. But one special ability many magicians aspire to, is to be able to live this life fully. To engage and connect intimately with the universe in which we find ourselves. This is the work of living a fully human authentic life (and the praxis of magic is a great way to approach this process). Come this time of the year, this time of death and of tinsel, this authenticity for me is about being able to hold the paradox of midwinter, to be empowered by it, and to express that insight in relationship with others (as Kristoffer did in sharing his writing about his father).

We can describe this aspiration (or, to the degree we manifest it, this ‘special power’), to be authentic, fully alive, in terms of doing our (True) Will, manifesting our inner nature, being in tune with the web of wyrd and all that (should we wish it to sound properly esoteric).

Of course, in answer to the question about ‘special powers’ one might offer stories about the many and varied ways that magic works. I’d claim magic is capable of making all kinds of transformations in the world (from things that look like applied psychology, through to proper parapsychological and synchronistic effects). However if the Great Work of Magic is really that, Great, it has to be about more than gaining skills in spells that increase the probability of accomplishing some simple desire.

But are such Taoist musings simply a cop out because sane people generally don’t claim to have any demonstrable superhuman abilities? What’s the use of doing magic if you can’t do literalist Harry Potter style spells? The difficulty is that real magic, outside of the imaginal world, does not often look like ‘special powers’. Magic is much more subtle and indeed far-reaching, which is why it is so difficult (and often meaningless) to empirically test. Any magician worth their consecrated salt is also aware that there are always multiple ways of reading any event in the universe. (Even something as ‘nuts and bolts’ real as the brain structure changes that appear to be the result of mindfulness and other practices). The most effective of magicians generally hold lightly to their accomplishments, not because they do not believe in their agency, but rather because they believe that ‘as above, so below’, and they know that the simple cause-and-effect/linear chain-of-events view of reality is only a partial truth.

What magic looks like (in your head)

What magic looks like (in your head)

Moreover when we are faced with human scale reality, for example the inevitable death of those we love, this is where our magic needs to be at its most powerful. Not in trying to hold back the tide of reality, like some kind of death-defying comic book character, but rather to learn how to flow with the way the world is; with grace, kindness and strength. To use the challenges we meet as humans in our work to make our soul.

So what might the star-following, wise magus want for Christmas? What gift of siddhi or mystical insight might we hope that the Santa Shaman might present to us? (Especially if we’ve been good all year; done our meditation and body work, done Priest work for others, deployed our magic in day to day acts of sorcery, undergone powerful initiatory journeys etc etc…)

For myself I’d like the power to enter that Mystery of the Darkness (a mystery glyphed in the Chaos Craft system by octarine). To fully know, at all parts of my self, the potential and power of transformation possible at the time. To pay attention to, and be inspired by the stories of this season; in myself, in the landscape, in the communities I meet; and to communicate that wonder to others.

At a human psychological level this darkness works its magic by transforming the loss I feel when I think of my Dad. Instead I am thankful for the fact that these feelings arise because I loved my Dad and he loved me. I notice the loss, the darkness, acknowledge it. Then I become aware of that tiny, but bright light of hope. This is my gratitude to the universe for having this good man in my life. I reach out through the web of wyrd to those others who sit with loss at this time of the year and wish that they too can find their own light in this long night.

At the end of his writing Kristoffer likewise goes beyond this own sadness into an affirmation of his connection to his father; a clear act of magic:

“…I sense that part of the Universe that holds his experience of being Alan John Hughes, my father…
And that for today, is enough comfort for me to hold his memory close and know that a part of him lives on.”

Christmas is a time for magic. Part of the magic of this time is that we come together, friends and family and share our company and stories. We feast in the darkest of seasons, we shine the light of our humanity through our communities and this illuminates us all. As magicians we seek to place our attention into this time, for ourselves and the liberation of all beings, we step into the octarine unknown of the new year. We tune in to the tides within the micro and macrocosm and use these to empower our Great Work of transformation, in whatever way makes sense for us. Not as superheroes but as fully realised (and ‘realising’ – it being a process) flawed, mortal, fabulous humans.

Seasonal Shiva; Yuletide intervention by Number One Son

Seasonal Shiva; Yuletide intervention by Number One Son

May you be blessed with the magical gifts of this midwinter spirit; with peace, delight, joy, empowerment, transformation, and may these manifest in your life in the way that serves your unique humanity in the best way possible.



Gnostic Musings – Part 3, When Archons become Aeons…

In part 2 of this series I was experiencing serious flashbacks to part of my day job as a family psychotherapist. In seeking to grapple with the dynamics at play within Gnostic cosmology it didn’t feel that dissimilar to the issues that arise in the therapy room. In one corner we have the Pleroma as the somewhat distant father figure, seemingly critical of his wayward son’s attempts in the other corner, to make his way in the multiverse (“Dad you just don’t understand! I just want to create and make stuff happen!”). In the middle of this conflict we have a somewhat care-worn Sophia trying to mediate between these two. It’s not easy being caught in the middle between numinous perfection you respect and a wayward but creative rebel you don’t want to lose.

Is there really only one way to find out…?

Like most families however, drawing in the perspectives of the wider system can bring new and interesting insights that provide balance and richness to stories that can easily get swamped with focusing on difficulty (a “problem saturated narrative”). In the case of Gnostic mythology, I was wondering whether the Aeons and Archons might help.

As intimated at the beginning of this series, Gnostic cosmologies are notoriously complicated and for much of the time it’s hard enough to know what’s going on, let alone what it might signify!  At the risk of over-simplification, Aeons tend to be viewed as extensions or hypostases of the Pleroma (and generally therefore viewed as the good guys) while the Archons are seen as having their origin from the realm of the Demiurge and connected to the “challenges” associated with the material realm. In some Gnostic schemas, those of us awakened to the divine spark within (the “Pneumatic”) must ascend through a number of layers or hierarchies associated with the Archons in order to reunite with the Pleroma. The methods employed on such a journey are manifold – magical passwords may be sought in order to level-up, and groups such as the Sethians seemed to have a complex system of baptisms used for opening up these realms.

For those of us with any connection to the wider Western magical tradition this will hopefully feel like familiar territory. With its heady reliance on Neo-Platonism, the Qabalistic tree of life and various systems of yogic psycho-physiology (Chakras any one?) most “Western” magicians will probably have a fairly ingrained sense that they should be either ascending or descending to something. While the use of such maps may be prone to the danger of getting stuck in taking either them or ourselves too seriously, they can provide helpful tools in seeking to avoid premature maturation.

While we could expend much energy debating whether enlightenment is a gradual or immediate experience of a non-dual nature, I’ll cut to the chase and let you know that it’s probably both 🙂 We may have glimpses of Samadhi or angelic epiphanies, but human nature usually dictates that we want to explore and “unpack” the significance of what such experiences might mean and how we should then live. This idea of a gradual unfolding also permeates psychological models such as Maslow’s “Hierarchy of Needs” and Erik Erikson’s “Stages of Psychosocial Development” as they grapple with the challenges we often need to meet in being alive.  Developmental research such as that done by Paul Gilbert (cf. The Compassionate Mind) also point towards the reality that our need to examine such complexity from a multiplicity of angles, is innately connected to the evolution of the human brain as it has sought to understand and prioritise the competing needs of human existence.

Our engagement with these different stages can take either an adversarial or integrative approach, depending on our chosen worldview. The archonic model can be helpful in that it provides us with a means for understanding the pervasive influence of “the spirits of the age” in perpetuating the dominant discourses of the cultures we are situated within. The Gnostics were often keen to resist these forces in that they were viewed as compounding the Demiurge’s imprisonment of human consciousness. Via the adoption of anarcho-magical strategies (including both asceticism and antinomianism) the Gnostic explorer actively sought to limit the impact of these forces so as to realise their true pneumatic nature.

Rulers can be useful

Rulers can be useful conceptual devices

While such an approach may be understandable from a more dualistic perspective, we may want to question its wisdom in relation to our psychological well-being.  If we view these challenges as being largely archonic and problematic, while a combative approach may provide an initial burst of anger fuelled resistance, we may rightly wonder about the sustainability of engaging in such conflict.

In this series of posts we have already touched on the way in which radical dualism was incorporated as one voice within the Corpus Hermeticum, and for myself  it is within the broader Hermetic and Western alchemical traditions that we find a potent synthesis of the integrative and adversarial positions.  Via the process of seeking to transform lead into gold, the practitioner works with resistance at both a macro and microcosmic level so as to bring change. Magicians are often those who choose to walk the treacherous path of transmuting those substances which others seek to avoid. The initiate’s vows of “Daring, Willing, Knowing and keeping Silent” challenge them to confront those obstacles within themselves formed by either genetic make-up or environmental conditioning. Arguably part of the ‘Great Work’ that we pursue in daring to “immanentize the eschaton” is the transformation of our Archons in order to make them Aeonic opportunities of becoming.


Human Givens – Sex, Drugs, Spirituality and the Olympics

The war is far from over, but at least there appears to be some glimmer of hope for an end to hostilities on the horizon. The war I’m talking about is the ‘War on Drugs’, often described on the’ War on (some) Drugs’ or indeed the ‘War on (some) People who take (some) Drugs’.

I’m not going to rehearse the backstory of the conflict, I guess most people reading this blog will know it all too well. The epic battle between cotton and hemp producers, an economic conflict in which the cotton rich Southern USA successfully deployed the spectre of a reefer smoking underclass against the hemp farmers of the Northern States. Leary, Kesey and the acid revolution. There were the Reagan years, the Zammo generation, the plaintive cry of ‘just say no’.

Scag scallywag

Scag scallywag

But the times they are a-changing. The increasingly acceptability of medical and now recreational cannabis use in the USA for instance. The legalisation of marijuana in Uruguay is another part of this sea change, and interesting to note that this law has been enacted first in this fiercely secular Latin-American nation. Liberalised drug laws in Czech Republic, Portugal and elsewhere with changes in the legislation bubbling just under the statute book in many other places.

Within the medical field we are finally entering a time when psychedelic medicine is once again a realistic possibility. Research is being conducted worldwide with ketamine, psilocybin, MDMA and a range of other molecules. Using the latest brain imagining techniques we can drill down into the deep layers of the neuronal substrate of awareness and look in minute detail at how these drugs work. In clinical settings the deployment of psychedelic assisted therapy is actually happening and getting good results (for instance check out the current research listed HERE).

With these changes are also intelligent notes of caution, often sounded by members of the ‘entheogenic’ community themselves. The naive position; that these substances are a universal panacea (either for medical, social or spiritual healing), is heard much less often these days. Take for instance the work of Ben Sessa, who manages to intelligently look at the mental health dangers associated with cannabis without being in any way blinded to the benefits of this or any other psychoactives.

There are other pressures emerging that are challenging the War on Drugs. Spiritual and sacred use of various medicines or sacraments, notably peyote and ayahuasca, have led to some critical legal and cultural challenges over the last few years. Moreover I detect a broader cultural understanding that these religious traditions are real as just that, legitimate spiritual practices, and not just ‘an excuse’ to bosh a big load of drugs.

Yet it seems to me that a key problem remains and that is money. While we have seen the liberalisation of laws (in some nations at any rate) governing some aspects of human behaviour (such as homosexuality), drugs are still problematic. They are ‘stuff’, they can be manufactured, harvested, bought and sold. Historically they have been the economic engines of many nations (especially the British Isles, what with the trade in tobacco, sugar, tea, coffee, chocolate and opium) and (the proposed revolution of molecular 3D printing notwithstanding) this is likely to remain true for years to come. Certain drugs can be grown in many environments and on small scales (cannabis), whereas others have niche ecologies (Erythroxylum coca likes sun, prefers high altitude and you need 100kgs of leaf to produce 1kg of hydrochloride of cocaine). Then there are those chemicals that are solely the product of laboratory processes. Understanding how our cultures can successfully integrate the economic side of our biological drive to change our minds pharmacologically is a big but not insurmountable challenge.

A few of our favourite things

A few of our favourite things

The fact that this desire, our need, to change awareness with drugs, is a ‘human given’ is a vitally important point. Although some drugs are privileged while others are castigated (in particular cultures) there is, in my view, an intrinsic human desire to get high. This behaviour can be observed in many other species beside our own; from reindeer drunk on Amanita muscaria through to cats rolling in catnip. The same might be said of homosexual behaviour which, given the forthcoming Winter Olympics in Russia, is very much in the news. While different cultures may have different social mores about homosexuality as to whether it is ‘moral’ or not, the fact is that this behaviour is ubiquitous in human cultures (though obviously acknowledged to greater or lesser degrees). And like drug use this behaviour exists within many other species. There is therefore a good case to say that both psychoactive drug use and homosexuality are both ‘natural’ features of being human, and that attempts to suppress these behaviours (whether justified through religious or political ideologies) inevitably manifest as social control, scapegoating and violent repression.

Repressive social controls, one might argue, are themselves ‘natural’; social species like ours are geared up, in evolutionary terms, to protect members of our in-group against outsiders. We all embody processes whereby we engage in cathartic community acts by expelling individuals – kicking the shit out of the Catholics, the Jews, the queers, the muggles and the rest – basically to make the rest of us feel better. But if the magical idea of The Great Work is to have any social meaning (a Greater Vehicle Great Work rather than a purely self-centred ‘becoming one with’, or ‘as God’ trip) then it must mean intelligently appreciating our humanity. (The model of The Great Work as ‘becoming more fully human’ or ‘soul making’.) We acknowledge our feelings; the desire to change our minds with drugs, to love members of the same gender, and our war-like, gang culture simian heritage. Then, knowing ourselves, we can explore social relationships that celebrate, and where necessary mitigate, our essential human characteristics .

Getting off our heads on drugs is a normal, natural desire, and for many people, even in legally problematic environments such as Britain, this desire is something that enhances rather than damages lives. Understanding the problems associated with drugs in culture means appreciating that addiction to them is most importantly a function of environment. The simple fact is that it’s really easy to get a rat (or a human) addicted to cocaine when it’s in an impoverished environment (a bare cage in a lab or a run-down ghetto in a city). But take that animal (rat or human) and put it in a richer more interesting environment where it still has easy access to drugs and, unsurprisingly, it will tend to do much less coke. Knowing these facts; about drug use and abuse, gives us a firm place to stand when we make demands for more liberal and humane drug laws and a skillful means for dealing with the problems of economics and addiction that are entwined within the drug narrative.

By the same token the pressure being brought to bear on Russians anti-gay legislation at the moment is spot on. Sure the focus is on that nation because of the Olympics, and there are lots of countries that have as bad, and in some cases a far worse record on gay rights than Russia. But by acknowledging homosexuality as a ‘human given’ I believe we can kick aside the wringing of hands about cultural relativism and, while acknowledging our own short comings (in places such as North America and Britain), know that it’s still right that we call on Russia to continue to liberalise laws concerning gay people. And in current international law what I’m calling on as the need to accept ‘human givens’ is re-framed as ‘human rights’.

From Russia with love

From Russia with love

Meanwhile owning our own (social and individual) tendency towards mob violence (another human given) we put into place systems such as the rules of evidence, impartial (as far as possible) judges and juries, expert witnesses and other processes to prevent abuses of power through the apparatus of the State. Secondly, we need to encourage political and social engagement by people in all walks of life to ensure that our political systems are not allowed to become tyrannical and plutocratically elitist. Thirdly, we should seek to encourage techniques (such as mindfulness meditation) that support our to ability engage emphatically, to discover compassion for ourselves and others (especially by the people who we select as the leaders of our states and corporations). Finally, we need to find ways to transform our desire for conflict through the alchemy of processes such as sport and other non-lethal pursuits. The Olympics is one example of this sublimation.

And as we address all these difficult issues we must do so in a way that is predicated on the knowledge that we are one human family, thus far stuck on this single, small planet. We owe it to ourselves, our ancestors and our children to find good ways to be here together.