Shy Stories of Freedom

Stories have power. We tell ourselves stories all day long. Stories about the past and what it meant, as well as stories of how we want the future to be.

Other people tell us stories as well. Media bombardment about what and how we should think: slow-bleed toxicity leaking into our systems as we seek some space to think our own thoughts and to live our own lives. Their desperate hands claw at us as we try to break the surface to gulp in the fresh air of our own freedom.

Michel Foucault knew about the power of the stories we tell. The big stories or meta-narratives that we get told, and tell ourselves, profoundly shape our beliefs about who we are and what we are worth. In fear of nuance and complexity,  we create stories to help manage our fears, and often push the source of our confusion outside of ourselves and as far away as possible! It’s hard not to do this, but as we wake up to it, we can begin to explore the possibility of writing something new.

In his groundbreaking work with David Epston, the family therapist Michael White recognised that his clients were often bringing a particular set of stories into the therapy room. Because of the nature of his work, these stories were often “problem saturated narratives”, i.e. ones that focused almost exclusively on the problems being experienced, and often bowing under the weight of medicalised diagnosis. In their evolution of Narrative Therapy, White and Epston sought to help people recover the lost, “shy” stories of function that were often hidden. In helping people uncover these stories they often helped them tap into forgotten veins of resilience.

The stories that constrain us are like the Gnostic Archons of old. They are spirits invested in inducing an amnesia that causes us to forget our true potential. They are the dusty layers that accrue on our Buddha Minds, impairing our ability to see and be seen for who we really are. These archonic tales make sense—of course they do! Otherwise we wouldn’t pay them heed. Sadly they often play to our fears about the other, the different, and the new. They deal in certainties that downplay the detail and rely on the grouping together of humans and ideas so that tidy labels can be applied.

Perhaps the first stage in recovering these shy stories is learning how to listen. Rather than anxiously projecting into the future or getting lost in the labyrinths of past “what ifs”, what happens if we try to taken in our current situation with a bit of Zen beginner’s mind? Contemplative practices are good for this, allowing silence and space to turn down the volume on our endless narrative that we keep telling ourselves. This is not an easy place to start as the uncertainty and apparent emptiness can feel bewildering as we sit with things rather than endlessly updating our internal status. If nothing else this is a good chance to do less and cultivate some curiosity: “What the hell is actually going on here?!”

Part of the power that big stories (meta-narratives, dominant discourses) hold over us is the sense of inevitability that they engender. These stories often like to fix identities and to locate qualities within groups or individuals rather than trying to understand the more complex interaction that occurs between ourselves, others and the social context we sit within.  Yes, patterns can be reinforcing—e.g. you might bomb the shit out of people and they may get angry with you—but it doesn’t follow that all those people are angry at all times and in all situations. Thankfully Systemic thinking and Narrative approaches (with all their postmodern grooviness) have some interesting ways of interacting with, and disrupting, such viciousness circles.

In contrast with more Freudian approaches, rather than locating qualities within a given individual, Systemic and Narrative approaches are more interested in the dynamics between people, and the scripts and stories that are constructed as we interact within a variety of socio-political settings. Rather than being overly preoccupied with prying secret meaning from the depths of the unconscious, it seeks to explore new or lost meanings by being curious and Columbo-like about the way we communicate.


Just one more thing…

One technique that can open up such curiosity is that of externalisation. If we tend to locate current challenges internally: “I am a failure” or “I am depressed”, externalisation invites us to decentralise the issue and enter into a dialogue with it. E.g. ‘how long has depression been affecting aspects of your life as a whole?’. In working with this approach we might write letters to the given issue-

“Dear Book Buying habit….”

In writing we are not seeking a quick fix, rather we are seeking to explore both the negative and positive aspects of a given issue in our lives. Book buying might be connected to an academic pressure to know more than others but equally it might represent more helpful urges towards self-development. By de-centralising issues that feel problematic, good Narrative practice then seeks to explore the space created. Are there other stories of function? Can we tune into shy skills and talents that have become buried by problem saturation?

To disrupt, de-centre and externalise are innate to much of magical practice. Our engagement with spirits is a way of understanding and negotiating with differing aspects of ourselves. Things that we may want to exorcise and/or build pacts with.  This is not to reduce them to mere psychological parlour tricks; rather it helps us understand the deeper motives for the alliances we seek. Those interested in this approach should check out the awesome work of Philip Farber, and Ramsey Dukes’ Little Book of Demons.

To be a magician is to awaken to the narrative being told, both by ourselves and the cultures that shape us. We can’t really turn the story off, but we can choose to slow the story down, listen more clearly and become more active in creating narrative rather than simply consuming those that others give to us.  Don’t let the Archons grind you down!


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.