Magic at the Core

Happy New Year to all our readers! I hope you’ve all had wonderful Yule festivities and have had some time to rest, relax, reflect and refresh yourselves.

As well as enjoying some time to hang out with family and friends during December, I was invited by Frater Isla for an informal chat which you can find on his podcast Right Where You Are Sitting Now. One of the things we spoke about was all those ‘hardcore’ esoteric practices; things that magicians do to face our demons, stir the cauldron of the unconscious, and shake us out of our day-to-day trance.

As I explain in the interview while I often write about the more dramatic approaches I use, these techniques are far from the whole story of my own magical work. In fact the majority of my practice consists of yoga and mediation.

I’ve done yoga for the last thirty or so years, through periods of more or less frequent practice. At the moment I’m a student of Adriene following her 30 days of yoga program. I went online to find a nice 30 minute yoga workout (since it’s helpful to have new input to keep one’s practice fresh) and happened instead upon this month long course which has been a delightful spur to my practice. (Check out the large number of excellent instructional videos by Adriene which include films on getting to grips with particular asanas, as well as yoga for particular bodymind intentions.)

Camp yoga

Meditation for me takes many forms. Sometimes it’s about sitting still and doing classic mindfulness practice (often at the end of a yoga session). At other times it’s about finding a focus, an anchor for attention (this could be music, mantra, an activity such as walking, carrying water or chopping wood), and encouraging my attention to rest in that activity. As other internal narratives arise (typically for me this means thinking about the future) I gently guide my awareness back to the focus of attention I have chosen. This approach allows me to segue meditation into a variety of settings beyond that of sitting on a zafu.

Both meditation and bodywork provide the steady drip-drip-drip of core practice. They are also the psychic lube that makes some of the more outré activities, such as entheogenic mummification ceremony, ritual piercing and situationist magic, more approachable.

So looking ahead to 2017: Next month I’m teaching at Treadwell’s Books in London delivering an evening lecture on Psychedelic Magic as well as a day long workshop on Baphomet. I’m also working on another pop-up exhibition by the Psychedelic Museum (we’ve got some exciting news about the museum coming soon, which I’ll post on the Psychedelic Museum site and reblog here).

I’ve also completed another two books that will be published this spring, one is another collection of essays and one my magnum opus about psychedelic ceremony.

Meanwhile 2017 will see the fourth manifestation of Breaking Convention, the most awesome psychedelics conference on planet earth. For details stay tuned to this blog and our Facebook page.

The Mother of all Psychedelic Conferences

The Mother of all Psychedelic Conferences

Nikki Wyrd and I are planning some further retreats and workshops this year, please check out our new page Deep Magic if you want to learn more.

So as the sun inches higher in the northern sky I’d like to take this opportunity to wish you all a fabulous journey through 2017.

And now back to the yoga and meditation…

JV

Sounds of the Secular Spirit

When Nikki and I wrote The Book of Baphomet we were both intent on exploring (amongst other things) the idea of the imminence of spirit. That’s why the book opens with a re-telling of the story of creation based on the latest scientific ideas. This account, rendered in prose poetry style, was for us the modem mythology of Baphomet; the story of how physics gives rise to chemistry, chemistry to biology and biology to awareness. Where the divine is situated not in an ex nihilo alien dimension, but right here, right now.

The scientific story of creation, as far as we know it in the early 21st century, is truly mind-boggling. A tale easily as vast, complex and dramatic as anything in the narratives of religion. Moreover this scientific story, like Baphomet, is forever incomplete and ramifying as new discoveries, in and through the world, are made.

milky-way

Space is big.

We can easily retell the scientific story in a way that meets our human need to recognise the sacred, the awesome. “We all have a thirst for wonder. It’s a deeply human quality” in the words of the great Carl Sagan (Peace Be Upon Him).

The Seven Secular Sermons are, for me, the most beautiful way I’ve yet encountered of poetically expressing the awesome truth of reality as science currently describes it. I’ve mentioned the project on this blog before and am enjoying immensely the emergence of each poem (or song, or meditation…the text could be these and many more things) as they are published here.

Earlier this year I had the opportunity to interview Daniel Böttger, the author of the Sermons. At Daniel’s request Nikki Wyrd and I have made this recording of the First Sermon. Find yourself a nice bit of planet to hang out on, and have a listen.

“This meditation’s rhyming verse
describes a paradigm
of us inside this universe,
adrift in space and time.”

Enjoy!

JV

 

 

 

 

Push Me Pull You: A short, enlightening meditation

Once, while meditating upon my actions, a reverie occurred where I found myself wondering about whether I was the source of my movements, or the world around me was manipulating me into those movements.

From one perspective, I was deciding to move my arm, shift my centre of balance, place my gaze in a certain direction.

From another, my physiology was reacting entirely to external cues, both those present immediately in the environment around me, and those stored in my neurological patterning and muscle memory from previous situations.

So which of these was correct? To keep you reading this essay, I shall withhold the answer until a later point.

Talk with the animal

Talk with the animal

This meditation, wondering about where the causal motivation arises from in a situation, has become a habit for me since then. Spending time trying to attribute initiative frees one from other trains of thought, in itself an interesting output of this methodology. Other questions become apparent as one ponders: What do I understand as ‘external’? Do chance fluctuations in the biochemical electric soup that ‘is’ my mind affect my choices? Or that flicker in attention when the sunlight falling in the room alters, as the wind moves a branch outside the window; deos that make me think differently?

The old puzzle of (individual) free will vs (divinely ordained) destiny presents a similar thought process, though my version is more materialistically science based. But, they share the same base question of “Do I do this because I choose to or, because outside forces make me do it?”.

The answer of course lies firstly in considering where the border is between oneself and the outside. Once this has been identified, the scoresheet of factors originating in either domain can be drawn up.

My own conclusions to this part of the meditation are ongoing, my choosing of boundaries altering as I investigate further. Some days I can’t quite even believe there are any.

I have found my own satisfactory resolution to this, a kind of flow state where the push/pull are illusory perspectives meaningless in any context other than the human animal’s desire for narrative. Holding on to this perception for more than a short time proves tricky, and tbh I don’t know that it actually helps! Such is the way with enlightenment results/processes. They are, as my daughter would say, a thing.

And then I start to wonder, whether the urge to question this kind of thing; does it arise within me, or from external cues…?

NW

To Duality, and Beyond!!!

When my children were very small, they were supplied with a set of cards by a well-meaning relative, of ‘Opposites’. Up Down, In Out, Hot Cold, Dark Light, Soft Hard, etc. The pairs were illustrated so that the concepts could be appreciated by pre-reading minds, and locked together uniquely.

We spent many happy hours with these cards, discussing carefully how they were misleading and that most adjectives/adverbs indicate relative qualities, on a far wider spectrum than could be depicted by two sample points. Take temperature; ‘hot’ was illustrated by a sunny summer day, ‘cold’ by snow. However on a cosmological scale, a sunny day (say 25oC) and a snowy day (about 0oC) are incredibly close together, with ‘naturally occurring’ temperature ranging from close to the absolute zero, a nebula at -272oC, up to 99,999,999,725oC in the heart of a newly formed neutron star.

Looked at in relation to this scale our instructive ‘hot’ and ‘cold’ examples appear ridiculous.

However!

Please, do not think I mocked the examples given in the set of cards, nor derided their usefulness and practicality. As comparative terms, ‘hot’ and ‘cold’, ‘up’ and ‘down’, ‘in’ and ‘out’ are vital to the functioning vocabulary of a growing child.

My objection was the forcing of these terms into a concept of ‘opposites’.

Of course, when addressing my babies, I used different terminology and examples. They had inadequate knowledge of the universe to talk of neutron stars and nebulae (unlike our far more educated readership here at the Blog).

So, now we have had a nice easy access lead-in story, the moral of this blogpost is, that we have choices we can make when presented with apparent ‘opposites’.

As with the trite example of temperature, we can opt to see things as points on a scale. Degrees of difference. Even adding a third axis of comparison, where the setting of a thing defines how it gets conceptualised; a nice recent example of this comes from marketing research.

This research tells of how people in high arousal states prefer simple, clear messages, presented as statements. “This laundry detergent gets clothes very clean.”

People in states of low arousal were more engaged by messages presented as questions, leaving room for them to add their own thoughts to the product the company wished to sell. “Does your laundry detergent get clothes as clean as this one?”

And thus, we have context dependant meanings of comparatives, which can even reverse their effectiveness under certain circumstances.

In this example, the different methods of addressing the audience are not just different in themselves, but are effective dependent upon the audience’s state. (Which state are you in right now? Would you prefer me to ask you philosophical questions, or give you pre-processed facts and opinions?)

Other options are always available

Other emoticons are available

Storytelling, as I began this blogpost, neatly provides us with the option to take either perspective. We can go along with it as ‘fact’, whilst if we have the inclination, we may reflect upon the tale and ponder ‘questions’ it raises within us. Perhaps storytelling points towards another alternative to the binary options of ‘fact vs opinion’?

Moving out of the confines of dualistic binary choice thinking, can result in some wondrous creativity. Try it for yourselves; here are a few starter pairs of words which often get presented as if they are exclusive, oppositional, and/or absolutist:

Me Them

Internal External

Personal Communal

Good Bad

Active Passive

Right Wrong

Happy Sad

WARNING! Listing ‘pairs’ of words like this produces what I shall refer to as the Lévi-Strauss effect (this has nothing to do with jeans, check out Wikipedia if you need to know who Claude L-S was…).

One could argue that listing things, especially visually like this in columns, can create artificial categories, associations, and links in the human mind, which is largely geared towards seeing patterns (even when they don’t really exist). So by placing a certain one of each pair first as we read, we privilege that information, as position implies to our narrative constructor that these ‘first column words’ are in some way similar… and even, more important and therefore valuable.

Meditating upon such matters shows us ways to navigate the simple, childish version of reality we are encouraged to inhabit. It takes time and some effort, as do many worthwhile things. Consider other points on the linear scale that each pair indicates, wonder how the 3D version of comparatives might appear as well. Austin Osman Spare’s exercise which urges one to consider the ‘opposites’ of black and white, to imagine their combination (grey), and then the ‘opposite’/pairing to the combination; this can propel the mind into non-duality quite rapidly. The instruction is then to apply the same methodology to other ‘extremes’, in order to escape standard patterns.

These distinctions between pairs, opposites, comparatives, scalar quality identifiers, are incredibly relevant to our concepts, definitions, and behaviours of self. A basic distinction between the duality of Self and Other is key to most lifeforms, else how would anything know what to eat? Sensorial perception of the external environment tends to go pseudopod in tentacle with a rudimentary mental map, which can model constructs of that environment internally, and base behavioural decisions upon that internal map.

This is not to be confused with self-awareness in the sense of consciousness, btw.

This Self/Other construct is deep. Whatever arbitrary markers we might be provided with in order to distinguish between Them and Us, alters all our emotional (and hence behavioural) responses to those marked.

Within any relationship we tend to define ourselves in contrast to the Other. Ramsey Dukes wrote an excellent essay on this topic in What I Did in My Holidays: Essays on Black Magic, Satanism, Devil Worship and Other Niceties.  He uses the way couples tend to split into paired traits/behaviours, so one takes on the fiery more provocative role, while the other is calmer, cooler, and shows restraint instead of rushing into things. Such stereotyping of roles gets enhanced, as each partner acts more extremely in type, one desperate to provoke some, any, kind of reaction, while the other becomes ever more glacial and reasonable in the face of irrational anger.

As Mr Dukes points out, this process is not always helpful to a continuing healthy relationship. Each of us has fiery and icy aspects (as well as others), which need expression to allow for a rounded complex of personalities.

I would suggest, that one could imagine cases where a person stuck feeling mainly one emotion continuously for years is likely to present with health issues, both mental and physical (another ‘pair’ of ‘opposites’, which I like to spend much time and effort blurring the boundaries of in my writings).

A healthier couple then, might deliberately play at switching being the stronger, the desired, the ideas person, the carer; remembering throughout that these too will pass, and that other options (including both acting the same role) are always available.

To sum up; much of magickal thinking/perception relies upon removing received linguistic categorisations from the world, perceiving directly what is there/here (gnosis), and then returning to a state of ‘normality’ slowly enough to reassemble those linguistic categories in a potentially novel way which might allow for fresh emotional responses to existing environments, and hence affect behaviours. Also, magickal thinking allows us to play with altering shifting these concepts along linear or other shapes of scales, within the confines of a smaller area (the magic circle), which we can successfully get our heads around a subset of what the universe has to offer, before trying out such engineering on the wider world.

Using the chaosphere as our scale we can try to expand greatly upon the simplistic duality line, attempting to find eight ways of measuring/comparing e.g. the physical quality of temperature, or moods of various flavours. These could, or could not, correspond to the existing conventional eight colours of magick (which are the conventional planetary groupings). As with many spurs to creative thinking, going beyond a single solution into multiple answers creates further outside-the-box imaginings. (So, eight here is arbitrary, chosen merely for sake of familiarity, and to provide a starting pictorial symbol. You can of course make up your own, which could be 3D in nature, like the tetrahedral arrangement; which for me always brings to mind the ancient defensive weapon, the caltrop.)

Next, I would like to extend the microcosm to the macrocosm, and ask if our tendency to compare and contrast applies on this wider stage. And if so, does that help anyone?

As groups, we identify and think in analogous ways to those described above for an individual person. The process is less localised, and often slower to emerge, but broadly speaking similarities can be observed.

This insight has great power.

Magick, the act of changing the environment in accordance with one’s Will, has no more important aim than this, the amazing ability of our species to be thoroughly self-aware, as individuals, and as groups.

Could magick, the act of changing the environment in accordance with one’s Will, have any more important aim than this, to use the amazing ability of our species to be thoroughly self-aware; both as individuals, and as groups?

NW

Mindful of the danger – problems and pitfalls of mindfulness meditation

Mindfulness is all the rage at the moment. The technique of ‘just sitting’ (observing the breath, noticing that thoughts arise, and gently leading awareness back to an appreciation of the breath) is increasingly being used in a variety of settings. The work of people like Jon Kabat-Zinn and clearly reproducible effects (for reducing physical pain, decreasing anxiety, alleviating depression and other challenges that people face) has made mindfulness a big hit. In my own spiritual practice mindfulness often features and I teach mindfulness in museums, to teachers, older people and others. I’ve got friends who regularly use it in therapeutic settings with people suffering from a variety of problems – and it works. Not only is it effective (in empirical terms) but the basic technique (outlined above) is very simple. Mindfulness does not rely on ‘mastery’ (at least not in the way it is typically presented in secular western settings). It’s all about the practice.

I was pleased to discover recently that one of the students, from a meditation group I had been teaching, had been so inspired by their experiences with mindfulness, that they had started sharing the technique in the educational setting in which they taught. They had started an opportunity for mindfulness practice for teachers and also, in a wonderfully accessible way, for students as a voluntary course of study. This included an opportunity for students to explore mindfulness technique as way of supporting them as they faced examinations.

Mindfulness is certainly helpful when we are ‘sitting with’ anxiety and that is bound to be a feeling which may be difficult to manage when facing an academic test.  However the vogue for mindfulness in medical, psychological, corporate and even military settings is not without its problems. As recent articles have pointed out, for some people mindfulness can throw up some difficult situations. Problems that arise for practitioner can include feelings of ennui and emptiness, disconnection and even fear. These reactions are ones that therapeutic practitioners are increasingly aware of. This is important news since, if you’re diagnosed with a ‘medicalised’ experience of depression in Britain, and many other western countries, mindfulness-based cognitive therapy is something you’re likely to be offered as a treatment.

freaky anorexic rich kid

freaky anorexic rich kid

There are also voices being raised about the political implications of mindfulness. Mindfulness practice can be imagined as something that locates ‘the problem‘ in the mind of the individual, and as such may ignore the social dimension. The anxiety or depression is our, internal, problem. However, what we feel emerges not from our own isolated neurochemistry, but through the relationship between us and the world in which we find ourselves.

The point here is that mindfulness is a tactic and a process. It’s an approach to help us manage our anxiety, for instance when facing an examination. It’s also a process which, when considered in the light of the huge corpus of Buddhist texts which describe it, can create a wide variety of states of awareness. For instance mindfulness can generate weird sensations of heat or cold in the body. It can also generate optical phenomena and occasionally experiences that are perhaps best described as ‘spiritual visions’. What we might describe as ‘breaks’ in attention are perhaps the result of the mind looking for something to do. Consciousness craves stimulation and when we reduce the input (closing our eyes and focusing on the breath) it is prepared to create all kinds of odd feelings and ideation to get our attention. Typically the advice, especially in spiritual traditions that use mindfulness, is to concentrate on the breath, notice those feelings, and let them pass. The problem is that encounters with these phenomena sit outside of the simplistic utilitarian view of mindfulness as a cheap and easy way to stop employees going off sick with mental illness.

Again, this is an example of using a one-size-fits all approach to the world rather than appreciating mindfulness, and other ways of thinking, as tactics. Mindfulness certainly has benefits in situations where we cannot do much to change things (eg when we are registered to take an exam). Never-the-less there are times when we should be angry and distressed, and determined to change things. Trying to paper over the cracks in situations where inequality, oppression, alienation and other difficulties face us, with what amouts to an injunction to ‘stop thinking about it’, is not much better than using repressive psychopharmacology to restrain us. As they say, ‘calm down dear!

The way to address these problems is to see mindfulness as part of a repertoire of techniques for living. Sometimes it’s helpful but at other times it may be disempowering, and certainly it can be deployed in a one-dimensional way to keep people isolated, passive and compliant. If we are to mine techniques from Buddhist culture it would be interesting to see other methods being imported into the west. These could include the art of debate as practiced in the Tibetan traditions. In this method, a rapid fire technique of question and answer is used between two or more people, to explore what is truth.

If mindfulness is a method for addressing our suffering, and perhaps enhancing our lives, it must be balanced with methods that do this in the social sphere as well. Moreover the range, depth and meaning of experiences we may encounter using when using this technique need to be fully appreciated (especially by those teaching this tactic).

When I lead a mindfulness group I generally finish the practice of just sitting by thanking everyone around me for their practice. Although this perhaps seems like a quaint flourish it is very important. This act is a way of acknowledging that the exploration of who we are, in this instance by meditation, is a social act. I thank my students for engaging with this technique because their work affects me and all of us. We are not isolated meditators but a sangha, a community of practice, where what we do is a shared experience. We all share the limitations, the challenges and difficulties, as well as the benefits, that mindfulness practice offers us.

JV

Gnostic Practice 1: Working with the Mind

Having spent some time musing over creative ways for seeking to understand Gnostic mythology, I thought it was time to get down and dirty with some practical means for experimenting with the current.

The ways of awakening are, of course, manifold! No one should place a limit on the way in which we as humans are able to gain greater insight into the nature and purpose of our lives. If this were to happen for you while surfing or drinking excellent coffee then all-the-better! Please bear in mind that these are serving suggestions only; read the primary texts for direct inspiration, and tune in to your gods and inner allies as to how to integrate any new insights gained.

In the history of Gnostic revivalism over the past 150 years, much emphasis has been placed on ecclesiastical structure and the role of sacramentalism within the churches birthed from this impulse. In my view the form that these groups adopted partially relates to the French Catholic context from which this revival emerged, but it is also connected to a belief that the sacraments of the church provide a powerful and established means through which gnosis can flow (cf. the work of Leadbeater and the Liberal Catholic tradition).

While I might personally struggle with some of the aesthetic and structural aspects of such an approach, far be it from me to criticise the rich tradition such churches embody, and the benefits that others might gain from it. We must remain awake to not allowing fine robes and titles to distract us from the true work of gaining gnosis, but as a Chaos magician I more aware than most that all of our spiritual traditions are ‘made up’ at some point in response to our encounter with Mystery!

My own approach to Gnosis has been decidedly less wordy and formal than either the ceremonies of Sacramentalism or the pseudo-masonic rubric of the Golden Dawn tradition. In contrast I have sought to utilise a form of “deep listening” practice, that has its origins in both contemplative prayer and Buddhist inspired mindfulness practices. It’s probably fair to observe that my own approach and ecclesiology resemble that of the early Quaker and Shaker traditions (though sadly with less furniture construction involved!).

Working with Stillness

In my view, both the gnostic cosmologies and the insights of the Buddha’s Four Noble Truths were born out of a profound unease regarding the pain of human experience. Mindfulness practice is far from imagined utopias or having to adopt beliefs that jar with our experience of reality. In contrast it lays down the rather stark challenge of staying with the present moment and what arises for us in that moment. In my own experience, in being attentive to what arises and the dynamic of that process, accessing greater insight or gnosis becomes possible.

Paying attention to Comtemplation has its attractions

Contemplating one’s position in the world

What stillness-based approaches allow us to do par excellence is create a sense of distance between ourselves as thinkers; and the thoughts we have. For the mindfulness practitioner such a challenge is less about the suppression of unwanted thought, rather it seeks a more neutral ‘just noticing’ that acknowledges that as thought arises, so eventually it will dissipate. This stuff gets kicked-up because it is in the nature of the human mind to do so; we can get caught-up in trying to construct a coherent narrative from it, or we can wait to see if a deeper, less reactive wisdom emerges.

In recent studies focused on positive psychology much has been made of the role of flow or fluidity as an optimal state in which a person is able to access a greater sense of personal happiness and creativity. Somewhat paradoxically mindfulness practice appears to enable this through a greater acceptance of life’s unpredictability and the sense of uncertainty that this can cause for us. With its historic roots in a Buddhist philosophy that saw the challenging nature of life as being unavoidable, mindfulness practice seeks to provide us with skills for managing our internal struggles more effectively. With its insights with how to work with both impermanence and our sense of existential dissatisfaction (Dukkha), the Buddhist tradition has much to offer those of us seeking to evolve a contemporary gnostic pathway.

While both the Buddhist and gnostic perspectives sought to grapple with how we humans respond to our experience of suffering, the Buddha’s teachings do highlight the danger of trying too hard to locate cosmic causation. As Illustrated by the parable of the soldier injured by an arrow, we should focus less on who shot the arrow and more on our need to deal with the reality of being wounded! Those of us trying to engage with gnostic creation myths should probably heed such sage advice. The teaching stories of the Gnostics may help elucidate our human experience, but sometimes the truly wise realisation is that there might be limits on what we can truly know and that we have to learn to live with uncertainty.

Gnostic Pathworking

As well as utilising more passive, receptive states of consciousness, it can also be helpful to have some more active, change focused strategies in one’s personal magical armoury. In seeking greater access to the type of spacious stillness that we might associate with the Pleroma, the Sethian Gnostics sought to employ a type of active pathworking technique that enabled them to explore the internal terrain of the psyche in the belief that it paralleled the aspirant’s journey up and through the various Aeonic strata:

The human mind is a kind of miniature representation of the aeons that emanate from the ultimate God… For this reason, the Gnostic could also contemplate God by contemplating his or her own intellect…” (Brakke, The Gnostics, p.80)

This seems to reflect something of the Hermetic insight, “as above so below”. What I also find interesting (and encouraging!) is that such an approach makes few grandiose claims of access to immediate mind blowing epiphanies; rather it recommends repeated and reflective exploration of this territory as a preparation for full union with the divine.

In working with such cosmic schema we allow the construction of an internal psychogeography. These maps can become constrictive over time, but at best they provide a means for making greater sense of incoming gnosis, and tools for integrating new insights more effectively.

These big, beautiful brains of ours can be realms of both joyous discovery and confusing torment and in parts two and three of this practice series I will spend some time considering how bringing together work with both the body and the emotions is critical in seeking balance. As the mighty Gurdjieff before me has observed, it is only in the integration of all aspects of our being that we can live most skilfully.

SD