A Mindful Mass to Sophia

In a recent interview that I did about Chaos Magic and Gnosticism, the interviewer was keen to understand more about the process of ritual creativity that Chaos magicians often engage in. For me personally I am engaged in an on-going journey of exploration, research and poetic inspiration as I seek to make deeper sense of the material that I’m digging into.

Anyhow, I thought I’d provide a recent example of such ritual practice that probably gives you a feel for how we go about such work. Such ritual outlines are not meant to be prescriptive; rather they are serving suggestions to inspire your own innovation and creativity.

The purpose of this ritual was to creative a ritual environment in which the concept of divine wisdom could be explored via the Gnostic figure of Sophia. Via the use of both poetry and meditative technologies, we were seeking new insight regarding holy wisdom and a sense of deep listening as to how future work should proceed.

Wisdom hath builded her house, she hath hewn out her seven pillars

Wisdom hath builded her house, she hath hewn out her seven pillars

Opening with singing bowl rung in the 8 directions.  

“We begin in Silence and Space

The realm of the Pleroma

The marriage of Darkness and Light.”

8 Breaths taken together.

“In the pregnant space of reflection

Wisdom is born

Glowing deep blue against the blackness

Silver Star points glow

As the holy Aeon descends

And gives birth to life.

Selah

20 minutes Mindfulness practice – using awareness of the breath as an anchor for awareness and gently surrendering thoughts, feelings and bodily sensations as they arise. 

“Wisdom makes manifest

An outflowing of the multiple and the complex

The Craftsman makes the World

Soul glows and breaths:

“I was sent forth from the power,

and I have come to those who reflect upon me,

and I have been found among those who seek after me.

Look upon me, you who reflect upon me,

and you hearers, hear me.

You who are waiting for me, take me to yourselves.

And do not banish me from your sight.

And do not make your voice hate me, nor your hearing.

Do not be ignorant of me anywhere or any time. Be on your guard!

Do not be ignorant of me.

For I am the first and the last.

I am the honored one and the scorned one.

I am the whore and the holy one.

I am the wife and the virgin.

I am the mother and the daughter.

I am the members of my mother.

I am the barren one

and many are her sons.

I am she whose wedding is great,

and I have not taken a husband.

I am the midwife and she who does not bear.

I am the solace of my labour pains.

I am the bride and the bridegroom,

and it is my husband who begot me.

I am the mother of my father

and the sister of my husband

and he is my offspring…..

I am the silence that is incomprehensible

and the idea whose remembrance is frequent.

I am the voice whose sound is manifold

and the word whose appearance is multiple.

I am the utterance of my name.”

(Excerpt from Thunder Perfect Mind.)

Trance drumming.

During this ritual we had three drummers all using the technique outlined by Michael Harner, where trance is induced through the use of a consistent drum beat of around 200 beats per minute.

After the trance period and drumming ceases the following words are spoken:

“The many forms beget Joy

But also the forgetting of our original face,

We give thanks for these moments of stillness and remembering!

Wisdom calls:

“Does not wisdom call out?
Does not understanding raise her voice?
At the highest point along the way,
where the paths meet, she takes her stand;
beside the gate leading into the city,
at the entrance, she cries aloud:
“To you, O people, I call out;
I raise my voice to all humanity.
You who are simple, gain prudence;
you who are foolish, set your hearts on it.
Listen, for I have trustworthy things to say;
I open my lips to speak what is right.
My mouth speaks what is true,
for my lips detest wickedness.
All the words of my mouth are just;
none of them is crooked or perverse.
To the discerning all of them are right;
they are upright to those who have found knowledge.
10 Choose my instruction instead of silver,
knowledge rather than choice gold,”

(Proverbs 8 1-10.)

Close with three bells.

SD

 

In my recent post I mentioned the concept of ‘soul making’. This notion appears in a number of contexts. One of the earliest is in the Ireanean theodicy inspired by the work of Saint Irenaeus, the second-century philosopher and theologian. The Ireanean view is that creation happens in two stages. This process requires the existence of suffering and evil, making the world something akin to schoolroom for the soul. The creation of a soul is the work of humans, their aspiration being to become perfect and like God.

Soul Brother

Soul Brother

This ritual grows out of a desire to explore these ideas, concepts related to the tension between the (theoretical Platonic) perfect creation and the (apparently) flawed world of the Demiurge. Through this meditation, this trance and these words we have a space to encounter imperfection, suffering, pleasure and those other abstractions that so fascinated the ancient Gnostics.

Soul making also appears as an important concept in the work of psychologist and Jungian analyst James Hillman. The Wikipedia entry for Hillman nicely summarises this:

The poetic basis of mind places psychological activities in the realm of images. It seeks to explore images rather than explain them. Within this is the idea that by re-working images, that is giving them attention and shaping and forming them until they are clear as possible then a therapeutic process which Hillman calls “soul making” takes place. Hillman equates the psyche with the soul and seeks to set out a psychology based without shame in art and culture. The goal is draw soul into the world via the creative acts of the individual, not excluded [from] it in the name of social order. The potential for soul making is revealed by psychic images to which a person is drawn and apprehends in a meaningful way. Indeed the act of being drawn to and looking deeper at the images presented creates meaning – that is, soul.

Thus this ceremony is an encounter with this Gnostic ‘realm of images’ and, critically through drumming, emphasising the encounter as a somatic as well as intellectual event. This is Gnosticism but one that includes, rather than rejects, the world of the flesh. Fathoming suffering and the vicissitudes of life not as the result of a Fall from grace but perhaps as a necessary proving ground for the unfolding of a divine Self.

JV

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