A Gnostic’s Progress: A book from our own Steve Dee

A_Gnostics_Progress_Cover_for_Kindle

The word ‘gnosis’ was adopted by early explorers of what became known as ‘chaos magic’; essentially as a synonym for ‘altered (or ‘extraordinary’) states of consciousness’. Gnosis is imagined as the engine of magic; a radical awareness where the relationships between self and other are destabilised and a visceral, direct and unmediated knowledge can be encountered. Within A Gnostic’s Progress Steve Dee provides a reflection of this understanding and asks instead what insights chaos magic can bring to the tradition of Gnosticism?

The usual Gnostic universe consists of a top-down, hierarchically framed series of relationships between principles such as the Pleroma (the spiritual universe as the abode of God and of the totality of the divine powers and emanations), the Demiurge (the creator of the world, sometimes imaged as a power antithetical to the purely divine), and Sophia (the spirit of wisdom and allegedly the reason we’re trapped in material reality). Such models come with plenty of value judgements about good and evil, spiritual versus material but how, asks Steve Dee, can we make sense of the relationships between these concepts if we use in its place the relativist and questioning approach of contemporary chaos magic?

Steve

As a professional therapist Steve Dee leads the reader into the territory of Father Gods, Divine Feminines, Archons, Aeons and all the rest and, rather than repeating patriarchal conclusions, instead approaches these divine players as members of a family. How, asks Steve, can we re-imagine these relationships in a way that acknowledges the differing perspectives and insights of these forces?

Looking into the relationships between the actors in the gnostic universe isn’t just a cerebral practice and Gnosticism ritual doesn’t need to look like a pseudo-High Church ceremonialism. Rather our author provides a range of practical methods for gnostic/chaos magic unapologetically postmodern exploration including stripped back ritual technology, contemplative and meditational methods, along with tales of gnostic practice from other practitioners (the book features an interview with and art work from Jung scholar and Temple of Set initiate Lloyd Keane).

Written from the perspective of contemporary magical practice and informed by depth psychology and artistic process, this is gnosticism, but not as you’ve ever seen it before…

JV

A Gnostic’s Progress can be found on Amazon. British sales here, US here; other countries please search on the appropriate Amazon site for your location. A Kindle edition is also available, with some illustrations in colour.

 

 

From the Foreword:

Steve, on the other hand, is demonstrably eager to do something with Gnosticism. Anyone who feels the same way will find plenty of examples of devotional and magical approaches to the legacy of the Gnostics here.

These essays may be delivered in bite-sized chunks but these are nourishing savouries not quick-fix sugar bombs. He is very aware of being a modern or postmodern spiritual explorer: “We make no claims to lineage or secrets shared on Grandma’s knee, rather this is a Witchcraft born of a connection to a raw coastline, the beating of drums and a desire to awaken.”

So enter a world filled with speedo-clad yogis and surfer fundamentalists, in which the ancient Nag Hammadi text Thunder Perfect Mind is declaimed to a backdrop of trance drumming. Steve’s writings do not merely reflect a lowest common denominator of the above influences, a Venn diagram intersection of three or four contemporary spiritual trends. His tastes are more eclectic than that, perhaps, but more importantly I sense that he is always bringing his experience to bear and is always trying things out. As the reader will discover, Steve even encourages us to try things out too.

Andrew Phillip Smith

Editor of The Gnostic: A Journal of Gnosticism, Western Esotericism and Spirituality.

 

Exercise 2: The Liberating Journey

The 1950s and 60s witnessed the birth of an important movement within the Roman Catholic Church in South America. People engaged on the coal face of day-to-day hardship re-envisioned the gospel message in relation to salvation from political and economic oppression. The Liberation of the Israelites from Egypt and the Gospel message of Christ were viewed as narratives of freedom whereby “the downtrodden were lifted up” (Luke 1:52). With the birth of Liberation Theology in the works of Leonardo Boff, Gustavo Gutierrez et al, past dogmas were no longer sufficient, and the rigours of true discipleship were now to be measured in terms of deeds or “praxis”. As Desmond Tutu powerfully observed; “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, then you have chosen the side of the oppressor.”

For many Liberation Theologians, the biblical exodus was seen as an exemplar of what personal, economic and social freedom might mean. The exodus is the central example in the Old Testament of salvation history, i.e. the way in which God is seen as intervening in the life of the Jewish people so as to demonstrate his on-going covenant with them.

Lest we forget the concrete nature of why liberation was so needed by these people.

“Indian Soldiers from the Coritiba Province Escorting Native Prisoners” by Jean-Baptiste Debret

For the Liberation Theologians the movement from oppression and captivity, through tribulation and wilderness and then on to the Promised Land, provides us with a critical paradigm as to what the Gospel needs to embody. To speak of salvation without there being concrete transformations at a practical grass roots level is to utter empty words. These insights were such a direct challenge to the wealth and power of the institutional church, that leading thinkers (such Leonardo Boff) were silenced by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (Led by Cardinal Ratzinger/Pope Benedict).

While the metaphor of a journey is often something of a cliché in spiritual communities, I believe that we can still make effective use of it when applied skilfully to our own life situations. In the case of the exodus story, rather than it being based on new age meandering, it was a journey that first required a rather stark awakening to the profound discomfort and oppression that the Israelites had been subjected to. Like the Buddha being profoundly awakened to the impermanence of the Universe, for us to truly pursue change and transformation we need to view our current dis-ease with open eyes.

If you are considering a journey of change in your own life, you might want to try this exercise that makes use of some insights gleaned from Dialectical Behaviour Therapy (DBT). As is self-evident from its name, this therapy (developed by Marsha Linehan) seeks to use Hegel’s thinking on how processes of change occur (Dialectics). DBT seeks to work with the difficulties that we can arise if our thinking and emotions become polarised and cut off from each other. The therapy’s goal is focused on developing skills that allow the less connected aspects of ourselves to communicate more effectively. In DBT, as emotions and reasons are allowed to inform each other, so we begin to cultivate the deeper wisdom of what Linehan calls “Wise Mind”.

Step 1.

Draw a line down the middle of a blank piece of paper and on either side draw a circle that has enough space to write inside. Inside of the circle on the left, use words or symbols to describe the current situation that you wish to change. Like the Israelites or the Buddha waking up, we need to view our situation with as much clarity as possible. Some people find it helpful to imagine themselves viewing the situation as if it were occurring to a close friend: what would we feedback to them? How would we describe the nature of the problem or dilemma? What aspect of the situation is most changeable?

Step 2.

In the other circle use symbols or words to describe the situation that you wish to journey towards. As you see it in your mind’s eye, what things are you doing? Are you wearing specific clothing? What are your surrounding like? These can be vital questions in order to focus your desire
to see things change. It will also provide you with a goal (albeit a visualised one) that you can measure your progress against.

Step 3.

On another piece of paper re-draw these circles as intersecting like this:

circles

So this is where the rubber hits the road! If we have connected to the situation we are unhappy with, and also have a clear vision about where we wish to journey to, how do we use the insights gained to actually begin to make it happen?

The intersection between these two circles is the synthesising point where our desire for freedom needs behavioural expression. In the same way that Liberation Theology places a firm emphasis on praxis, so the behavioural aspect of DBT would insist that we gain the greatest benefit when our longings are translated into actually doing something. The beginnings of this journey will often start with small steps that, when they are added together, can cause significant shifts within the eco-system of our current situations.

For example if we want to ultimately reduce a pattern of habitual/addictive behaviour that we feel is damaging us, how do we start increasing the positive new activity that we want to experience more of? If I want to reduce my smoking in order to improve my yoga practice, I might increase my practice at home or attend a new class so that I can maximise my desire to change the target behaviour (the smoking). By increasing my practice at home I’m reminding myself of why I want to reduce my smoking and by going to a (good) class I’m using the practice of others to reinforce my new activity and to provide myself with inspiration. This then acts as a feedback loop (or spell!) that helps me reach my ultimate goal i.e. being more healthy.

There are many types of response that can be generated by mapping out change processes in this way. As we let the dialectical tension simmer between what we want and where we currently are, numerous alchemical realities can be generated. We might realise that the change we want is actually something less radical (we might redraw our circles with new goals in mind). Seeing our current situation more clearly may help fuel our motivation and get us reflecting on whom we might invite to join us on this journey (other people’s circles begin to intersect with our own).

A psychiatrist once had a sign in their waiting room stating “Either way it hurts”; i.e. it hurts to change, it hurts to not pursue change. To think about change is never without risk, but the alternative of not seeking growth can be a slavery that most Gnostic explorers would struggle to bare.

SD

Exercise: Sculpting Your System

One of the techniques that I often employ during my own systemic psychotherapy practice is that of the sculpt. Sculpting is a tool for making an external picture, or ‘sculpt’, of an internal process such as feelings, experiences, or perceptions.  It can use body postures and spacing as a demonstration of relationship patterns of communication, power, closeness, and distance.

Sculpts can take many forms. They can involve the placement of individuals in proximity to each in order to capture something of their relationship with each other, e.g. “You’ve chosen to stand behind your son, does that mean that you feel protective of him?”; or they can utilise objects like buttons or rocks to map out the things that are important to us in our lives. Work with sculpts was pioneered by the brilliant Virginia Satir (see her book Peoplemaking). Satir was one of the three therapists of excellence on whose work Richard Bandler and John Grinder based their development of Neuro-Linguistic Programming.

things

Many things

For this exercise I’d like you to find a collection of small objects that you feel can represent the people or interests that are currently important in your life. You might chose something fairly abstract (buttons or rocks), or you might use objects directly connected to a person such as a feather or a chess piece. Make sure you also choose something to represent yourself.

Once you have collected your objects and placed the object representing yourself in the centre of your working space, begin to place these objects in proximity to yourself and each other. Perhaps a sister is currently somewhat distant (she’s a smooth black button, very prim and proper), whereas the uncle you’ve reconnected to (the small toy golf club) is quite close. Don’t limit yourself to family or even people. Pets, hobbies, spiritual beliefs, the deceased and your games console can all be represented within your personal universe. Part of the aim of this exercise is to enable us to gain a new appreciation of the elements within our personal universe and to consider whether there are aspects we wish to change.

Often when people use this technique in therapy, the next step is to consider what you might want to move, introduce or remove from the sculpt. As people move objects closer or further away from each other, the therapist might explore what could need to change for that desire to take hold more objectively. Maybe I need to ring my sister to have that tricky conversation or, if I want those cigarettes out of the picture then I need to get to a chemist. This can be a highly helpful exercise as we think about what might prevent change and also the things we thought were important but forgot to put in there.

Perhaps it needs stating that this can be a highly poignant undertaking that one should not feel rushed in doing. We are always very conscious within a clinic session of allowing people to disassemble their own sculpts and allowing them to keep a specific object if they feel the need to.

Given that recently I have been thinking about the main players within Gnostic mythology and their inter-relationship, for those of us following an esoteric path it can also be interesting to use a sculpt technique to depict our relationships with our gods, spirits and other spiritual allies. Many magical folk already do this unconsciously via the construction of altars. When we look at these spaces, we can see the way in which we perceive our alliances and also how we want to communicate them to ourselves and potentially others. As Julian and I have reflected upon in these two podcasts, altars often act as anchor points for our spiritual lives, by which we return to these spaces to reconnect ourselves with the values and worldviews that are important to us during a given time.

Another exercise of potential value is to create a sculpt involving the spiritual forces that one currently sees as being present in your life. You may wish to use small objects again or you may choose to utilise statues and magical tools that are currently integrated within altars or working spaces. When I have done this for myself, I have noted with interest the distance between those things  I assumed were important and what I actually found myself putting in my altar/sculpt (in my case there wasn’t a chaos star in sight!).

One star in sight!

One star in sight!  (Behold, an altar yesterday.)

After we have created this altar-sculpt; take time to reflect on what its significance might mean for you. Following your reflection you may want to shift, introduce or remove elements of what you have depicted in physical space. The very act of doing this can be an invocatory act as we acknowledge those spiritual realities that we wish to see more present in our lives. As we consider the new map we have created, it can be helpful to make notes of these changes, as these shifts may provide us with directions for further more in-depth ritual work.

My own experience, both therapeutically and in a more ritual context, is that sculpts can be a highly effective tool for helping us access the less linear aspects of ourselves. They can help promote more visual forms of processing and allow a greater sense of playfulness in that you can’t really do it wrong! Anyway I hope you have fun with it and find it helpful. 🙂

SD

Gnostic Practice 2: Working with the Body

For the Gnostics, our relationship with our body has not always been an easy one. The problems of pain and impermanence that played such a central role in the development of Gnostic dualism, most likely originated in their experience of the body within the natural world. In previous posts we spent time thinking about how theodicy, or the problem of evil, contributed to the evolution of Gnostic cosmologies. If disease and death demonstrated the imperfection of the demiurge’s realm, then it would seem likely that the strategies of either asceticism or antinomian excess were evidence of a potentially hostile attitude towards the body.

Will you, won't you, will you, won't you, will you join the dance?

Will you, won’t you, will you, won’t you, will you join the dance?

While we may concede that many Gnostics viewed the divine pneumatic spark as being trapped within the material realm, as contemporary magical practitioners exploring what we might learn from them, I believe that it is wise to pay attention to what they did as much as what they may have believed. Often the ‘lived experience’ of what people actually did can help us gain insights into the complex relationship that they had with apparently straightforward ideas.

Dance like the Pleroma’s watching

In the Gnostic scripture “The Acts of John” we have a really interesting description of ritual dance and liturgy that is alleged to have taken place during the last supper:

So he commanded us to make a circle, holding one another’s hands, and he himself stood in the middle…..

I will pipe, dance all of you! Amen….

An eightfold power is singing with us. Amen

The whole universe takes part in the dancing. Amen

He who does not dance, does not know what is being done. Amen.

The Acts of John Section 94-95.

Some scholars believe that this is most likely a ritual text that was part of the style of worship employed by the Johannite community. In seeking to fathom the myth of incarnation, it is hardly surprising that we are met with the possibility of Jesus and the apostles using their bodies to move, both in celebration, and to dissipate the mounting tension of what was to come.

It may seem like a somewhat obvious point to make, but generally as human beings the realisations and ecstasies of the mind and heart bubble over into these bodies we inhabit. Personally I would question the true depth of any revelation that did not impact upon all dimensions of our being.

Even if we chose to limit our attention to phenomena within the Christian tradition, we can consider traditions such as those of the Shakers and the Pentecostals, and the role that movement and dance had as people sought to express a form of gnostic experience that moves through and beyond intellectual insight alone.

As someone exploring the Gnostic material through the less orthodox route of a Chaos Magically inspired form of Witchcraft, I find that dance and improvised movement have been highly beneficial in helping me process what might be going on:

 “One of my personal routes to accessing such gnosis has been through the use of dance and shaking states. In seeking to loosen the tensions and defenses that often get located in what Wilhelm Reich described as “body armour”; I often have a sense of a deeper instinctive knowing emerging in and through the body. When I move in response to the music my self-consciousness slowly melts away. This type of “shape-shifting” may well relate to the way in which the body allows us to process aspects of the self that the conscious mind struggles to make sense of. Interesting research is beginning to explore this territory, and it may be the “darker” more instinctive drivers of the early or “reptilian” brain get processed more effectively when we actively engage the body. As I dance I often feel that in my messy embodiment, I am making sense of my early and deepest drives (for more on this see “The Compassionate Mind” by Paul Gilbert and Peter Levine’s work on trauma).” SD, What We Find Ourselves Doing…

For those interested in exploring this territory further I would recommend Bradford Keeney’s book “Shaking Medicine”. Also worth checking out is Alkistis Dimech’s site which provides a brilliant example of a contemporary magician making use of dance and movement.

Ritual Space

The very act of ritual speaks to and through our bodies via symbol and movement, set within space and time. By making use of colour, light and sound we engage the senses, and vibrate words through our flesh. Even the most apparently dualistic Gnostics made use of baptisms and the Eucharist as a way to bring God into the body. Rarely do we rely on cognition alone, rather we anchor experience through the sensual. Perhaps part of the answer lies in bringing a greater degree of awareness to what we experience in the body?

The type of alchemical process that I’m seeking to describe at a microcosmic level is similar in many ways to the dynamic interaction that occurs between the Pleroma, Sophia and the demiurge within Gnostic mythology. However much the Gnostic myths might highlight the dilemmas experienced by inhabiting human form, we must also remain mindful to the reality of a sensual ritual praxis that provided a more creative and lateral approach to exploring how the mysteries of the divine might be experienced right here and right now. Often the rich theatre of a ritual and the items on an altar reveal as much about a tradition’s theology as does a ‘scriptural’ text.

Hopefully such reflections will link in nicely with the third part of this practice series which will look at working with the heart within a Gnostic context.

SD