Dreadful Magic

Many of us long for the divine and the mysterious, but what is it like to actually gain a glimpse of these things?

In his masterwork The Idea of the Holy Rudolf Otto, valiantly sought to map out those shared human experiences that lay at the heart of religious seeking. For Otto when we view the vastness and mystery of the Universe, we are met with both Dread and Awe. Dread and Awe act as two sides of a coin in which the vastness of time, space and the magnitude of life erode our sense of control and understanding. Just when we think we might be getting it, it’s that “oh shit” moment when we realize that barely have a clue.

otto

Rudolf Otto supporting his planet-sized brain

A couple of years ago I wrote this and for me it captured something of my own encounter with mystery and what Otto describes as “the numinous”:

“As I gaze out at the night sky, I find myself unable to find lasting meaning in any prevailing metaphysical position, be it a theistic one or that of the strict rationalist. The mystery and expansiveness of space seems to empty me of the trite and obvious. My sense of awe seems to both induce a sense of mild panic as I glimpse the limits of my control and understanding, while at the same time beckoning me onward into the depths of the unknown.”

stars

The more time I spend working with the Dread and Awe the more I am struck but the powerful parallels that exist with both existential philosophy and its application within existential psychotherapy.

The origins of both of these movements lie with Søren Kierkegaard and the way in which his own radical reading of Christianity led him to grapple with the uncertainty connected to the experience of existence. As is well documented these ideas were taken on by Jean-Paul Satre who, in being inspired by his reading of Heidegger, gave the lecture in 1945 “Existentialism is a Humanism”. Existentialism as a philosophical school sought to centralize the experience of the individual in the face of a Universe within which the Judeo-Christian God had been declared dead.

In facing a Universal vastness that had no apparent meaning, how were we as humans supposed to find authenticity and a sense of our true essence? What lies at the heart of being beyond the superficial roles and labels that society may want to hand to us? These questions were a major preoccupation for the early Existentialists. Thinkers such as Sartre, De Beauvoir and Camus were relentless in their pursuit of making choices congruent with authentic being (i.e. in “Good Faith”). When faced with absurdity, the existentialists were stark in their assessment that such insights triggered both Dread and an underlying sense of despair.

The impact of the existentialists was profound and they not only spawned weird adventures in art, literature and theatre, but they also inspired radical forms of psychotherapy.

Building upon the insights of existential philosophy, existential psychotherapy sought to explore the way in which these ideas regarding meaning, freedom and impermanence could be explored within the healing context of a therapeutic relationship. Therapists such as Otto Rank (who broke with Freud in the 1920’s), Viktor Frankl and Rollo May were central to the development of an understanding of our shared human experiences that was less focused medical diagnosis.

In contrast to Freud and his focus on pathology, existential psychotherapy tends to view experiences of anxiety, alienation and even depression as part of a normal maturation that most humans will experience in response to the disconnect experienced between our experience of self and the world we inhabit. More contemporary thinker/therapists such as Irvin Yalom believe that psychological dysfunction arises when we try to avoid these givens of life. While current schools of so-called “positive psychology” may view such perspectives as being doom-laden or negativistic, an existential approach maintains that in confronting such realities, the true value of life and consciousness comes into sharper definition.

For me as a Magician seeking to work with ideas of Dread and Awe, the insights of existentialism provide helpful keys to unlocking the process via which my own initiation is deepened. In truly looking at the world’s vastness and impermanence so I create the possibility of seeing with a Zen-like “Shoshin” or beginners mind. In experiencing Dread I recognize the limits of what I can know and yet the sense of awe I encounter also helps me pursue what Viktor Frankl called “The Will to Meaning”.

Magic asks us to see with new eyes and what we see is often not comfortable Magic accelerates and intensifies our experience of dread, but in doing this so the possibility of activating our will becomes both more necessary and thus possible.

“Know Thyself, Create Thyself!”

Steve Dee

Check out Steve’s review of Asexual Erotics on Phil Hine’s blog.

Inspiration from the Darkness – the psychology of magick

As well as the theoretical material here at theblogofbaphomet we also like to include examples of practical esoteric technique. So here’s a recent example of a ritual that I did with Steve Dee and Nikki Wyrd. The aim of this practice was to enter the darkness of the coming year, and be nourished by that time in order to empower the writing work that we’re all engaged in at the moment. This is particularly helpful for me as, like many folks who live here in Britain, I sometimes find the darkness of the year psychologically challenging. While my own story isn’t medicalised into ‘seasonal affective disorder’ I do sometimes wish that my work pattern was one where I could spend more time outside in the light (and of course working in museum environments means I’m often out of reach of daylight) and more of the dark part of the year hibernating and dreaming.

For some people this kind of magic looks perilously close to psychology. I’ve certainly seen (for example in response to Steve Dee’s recent article about sculpting and altars) folks getting exercised about how their gods are not ‘just archetypes’ and their mystical path as something much more profound than neurological hacking plus a pointy hat. In my view this kind of opinion (also voiced by Nick Farrell in his article) perhaps misses the point that psychology is, of course, literally the study of the mind. I’m not sure that there is anything much more magical than the psyche and, solipism notwithstanding, all magical acts (even those with apparently measurable parapsychological effects) require a mind somewhere in their operation.

There is also the confusing idea of ‘real’ (Nick in his article says “Personally I would like an NLP “expert” to try to explain a real Daemon as an extension of their unconscious as it strangles him or her with his own intestines.”). The problem with ‘reality’ is that it is inevitably mediated through inter-subjective consensus (ie people’s minds). But anyone with an appreciation of psychology will appreciate that the mind is also ‘real’. Placebo, psychosomatic illnesses and the power of positive thinking are all real, and indeed have hard-science measurable effects. However whether a demon (however arcane our choice of spelling) can, in a literal measurable sense, strangle someone using their own gut  is, I would suggest, open to debate (and a request for proof).

Reasons to be fearful

Reasons to be fearful (probably)

Those familiar with the four models of magic proposed by Frater U.’.D.’. will also recognise that the ‘psychological paradigm’, rather than being a species of ‘magic lite’ is actually just one way of describing what is going on. No less useful (or true) than the energy, spirit or information models. However it is currently the dominant model in our culture (most people believe in psychology whereas belief in occult energies or demons is perhaps less common). There is also lots of very useful research that has emerged from psychology (in its many forms, from transpersonal psychology to sociology, neurology and more) and the wise magician is likely to find much of value in the grimoires of those disciplines.

And so, to Work!

In robes we descend to my subterranean temple space. Here under the earth we have prepared candles, a strobe light, smoke machine, incense and music (specifically this). We begin by holding hands (because that’s always nice). We take four breaths together; one for the sky above us, one for the earth within which we sit, one for the water that surrounds our island of Britain, and one for the fire in our hearts.

I strike the singing bowl and read the invocation of Baphomet (from The Book of Baphomet).

We sit for a while in silence.

Still seated in the circle we being playing drums, manjïrà, blowing a conch, striking singing bowls and using our voices. The music is loud, the strobe machine flashes bright pulsing light in the underground chamber. As the smoke swirls around us we contact the darkness, the earth, bringing our attention to the fact that, as they say,  winter is coming.

Shamanism going underground

Shamanism going underground

The music ends and we go upstairs, into the light and the brightness. We light incense and more candles. An image of Thoth, god of writing, graces the altar. We begin by shaking our bodies, loosening up and then dance using this music.

Finally we laugh and embrace, the ritual ends.

This basic technique; a movement from dark to light was done on the day of the September equinox. Our rite is both a celebration of this time and a way of orientating ourselves to the coming experience. We could have dressed it up with more bells and smells, more favourite deities and even demonic seals and other old skool majix. We could have added mind-expanding substances or barbaric languages but sometimes magic can just be simple. As simple as psychology, but no less magical for all that.

JV