Mystery at the Roots

In my last post I spent some time thinking about the concept of World Trees as cosmological maps. These maps are vital to the evolution of our theologies and also the mechanisms via which we see personal transformation happening. Whether we view such change as “magick”, initiation or psychological change, the maps provided by these mythic trees often highlight those key components that allow the shifts to be both balanced and sustainable.

Living in North Devon (in South West England, close to both moorland and rugged Atlantic coastlines), it’s hard to escape the impact that the winds of winter have on trees. With many stripped of leaves and being forced to bend in the face of sharp winds, they rely on flexible trunks and deep roots in order to survive. This combination of being flexible while retaining depth seems to hold wisdom for those of us feeling buffeted by gusts that we feel we have little control over.

To find our roots means to journey into the dark and the soil from which we sprang. When I seek to help families and individuals understand their current behaviours in therapy, it is inevitable that we have to adopt some archaeological moves in uncovering past role models, patterns and stories. When we dig down into these places that often feel lost and poorly understood, so the shape and speed of our growth can be understood more fully.

These roots are often unseen (or unconscious) and their depth and critical role is easy to underestimate. Anyone who has ever tried to uproot or move a tree will know of what I speak! Approaches that focus on present tense problem-solving and changing day-to-day cognition are of great value, but even these have to attend to those deeper roots in order to address more longstanding issues.

This journey of descending, searching and then ascending is hardly new and the Eleusinian and Orphic mysteries bear witness to the human need to contend with the dark, the animal and the chthonic in order to provide a more mature blossoming of any initiatory work. This motif of descent became crucial to Jung’s depth psychology, the grand mythic arcs of Joseph Campbell’s “Hero’s Journey” and in turn the scripts of the first Star Wars trilogy. In order for our transformational work to be both rich and sustainable, we need to be drawing on nutrients that only darkness and decomposition can produce. The alchemical stage of nigredo and Jung’s concept of the shadow provide us with insights into this realm; as much as we might aspire to transcendence and states of eternal permanence, we must ground our endeavours in the reality of death, the body and our struggle with uncertainty.

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Confronting the darkness

In the face of such stark challenges it can be easy to seek false refuge in either metaphysical projections or our technology-driven attempts to control and escape from discomfort. Both of these approaches are fully understandable, but often prove to be fragile and disappointing in the face of life’s brutality. In having previously considered the example of Odin on the World Tree Yggdrasil, we can see the something of the cost involved in seeking those mysteries (Runes) that seek to capture the wholeness of human experience. Whether we see his gaining of gnosis as being of triumph (“I took up the Runes roaring”) or terrifying revelation (“I took them up screaming”) it is clear that these insights came via ordeal and struggle and that such travail was lengthy.

With the degree of hyper-acceleration that seems so endemic within Western culture, it can be hard to hear that something is going to take both time and significant effort. I’m sure I’m as guilty as anyone in wanting things faster and wanting them now, but when we journey to the roots we can begin to appreciate a slower approach. For me it feels that this more gradual, organic form of emergence takes us beyond the realms of spiritual consumerism and seems to allow what James Hillman describes as the “soul making”.

My own attempts to slow things down and locate deeper roots have recently been via a reconnection to the path of Druidry. When I started exploring the path of magic over twenty years ago it was to Druidry that I was initially drawn. Perhaps because of the apparent gentleness of its style, and the way in which it allowed the Christian and Pagan to converse with each other, it provided me with a less jarring route into occult practice. Alongside my more daring adventures in Chaos magic and Tantra, I have had this slow burn affection for a path that seeks to hold together creativity, magic and wisdom (bard, ovate and druid).

Of the little we know about the druids from early sources (interested readers may like to check out the excellent The Druids by Ronald Hutton), it seems likely that it took at least twenty years to complete one’s training. For me this is good news as I’m just about on schedule! If all this was about was some obsessive attempt at Celtic reconstructionism I’m sure it would have taken far less time, but my hunch is that my deeper relationship with the druid tradition has been about the discovery of what my own expression of Wisdom and Soul should look like in the world around me. The roots of this work are deep because they are as much about my creativity, my social work and my relationships as they are about some well-choreographed wand waggling.

SD

Pagan Roots

I was recently reflecting at a Queer book group that I attend, about the issue of how we communicate about aspects of ourselves and the process of “coming out” and what this might mean. Whilst in that group we were specifically thinking about descriptors regarding sexuality and gender identity, it also raised for me the issue of how I adopt religious labels for myself.

Given that my own spiritual path is probably even more complicated than how I experience my sexuality and gender, it has caused me to ponder why in the 2011 UK census I chose to describe myself as a Pagan. In all honesty my decision was partially prompted by activism by groups such as the Pagan Federation that were seeking to increase awareness regarding the growth of minority religious communities. I was momentarily tempted to self-declare as “Jedi” (or possibly Sith), but in pursuit of the greater good I opted for Pagan.

Part of the reason that I take at least partial refuge in the self-description of being a Pagan, is the creative way in which many of the communities under that umbrella seek to engage (and wrestle!) with polarities and seek balance between them. Those of you who have read my recent series of posts about Androgyny will be well aware of my personal journey in exploring apparent dualities and how we as magical explorers dance with them.  Male/Female, Light/Dark, Internal/External all represent different attempts at trying to map and classify our experience of life’s complexity.

One such dichotomy that I have been considering recently has been the contrast between the vertical and horizontal aspects of religious expression.  Pagans of varying stripes (Druids, Wiccans, Heathens etc.) are hardly unique in trying to consider the tension between our relationship with the numinous realm of the vertical (gods, spirits, celestial beings etc.) and the horizontal plain in which we experience time, space, matter and relationships. Almost all religions seek to mark the year’s calendar with festivals that reflect the emergence or revelation of their given truth, but in my view, most Pagan paths go further in making use of sacred time and awareness of place in a way that brings the vertical and horizontal closer. The wheel of the year is not only a matrix in which the specific events of a salvation history can be placed (as in, say, Christianity), rather the changes in Nature during the course of our planet around the Sun is a divine revelation in and of itself.

Many forms of contemporary neo-paganism have at the heart of their theology a cosmological map that views matter less as something to be moved away from, and more a realm of experience in which our connection to the natural, the relational and the horizontal is explicitly the realm within which the vertical and numinous is experienced. It may seem obvious to state that our experience of the Gods inevitably happens within the realm of the life we know and experience, but I would argue that Paganism goes a step further in paying attention to the process in which the vertical and horizontal directly feed each other. Maps such as the Norse Yggdrasil are rarely realms of cosmic harmony that promise utopia, rather these World Trees hold realms in a dynamic tension whose frisson creates a Cosmos-driving energy.

For me, this more interactive process is perhaps part of Paganism’s appeal in owning its identity as a more emergent rather than revealed religion. While Paganism has its fair share of prophets laying claim to revelation and channelled material, over time (and through scholarship) it seems to be becoming more open in acknowledging the human soil from which these new religious expressions have grown. While our Gods are inevitably co-created as their archetypal patterns meet the challenges of our lives, these divine beings are no less real for having come through the filter of our contexts, our longings and our struggles.

Tree_Roots_at_Riverside

Networking

The beauty of these World Trees is that while their branches reach towards heaven in an attempt to connect the divine realm to our daily lives, so also their roots delve deep into the soil of our unconscious in search of sustaining nutrients. If our Gods are to have true depth, they will hold a rich darkness alongside their light. Without depth and mystery they will be little more than two dimensional pop-icons that while momentarily distracting, fail to exemplify our own longings for authenticity.

As in the example of the All-Father Odin, such explorations are not without sacrifice and as we delve into the roots of our lives and contexts, our engagement with Mystery (Runa) may well produce both roars of triumph and screams of anguish:

I know that I hung on a windy tree
nine long nights,
wounded by a spear, dedicated to Odin,
myself to myself,
on that tree of which no man knows
from where its roots run.

No bread did they give me or drink from a horn,
Downwards I peered;
I took up the runes, screaming I took them,
Then I fell back from there.

Havamal 138–139

I guess for those of us who are magical practitioners, our relationship to the vertical was always going to be more complicated. If the simpler task of faith, worship and subservience alone were going to satisfy, we wouldn’t be walking this path. While my own magical work has strong currents of Bhakti yoga and devotion within it, I am aware that such acts are less about worship and more about the active use of body and emotion to gain alignment with the principles these deities embody. I engage with these divinities not just to further my personal solipsism, but rather to amplify those narratives and ideas that I wish to see in the world. For me these generally represent a guarded optimism and a desire for the mysterious and heroic that comes from the deep roots of our full humanity. I continue to grapple with the challenge that any insights that I gain, must be embodied at the horizontal level of my interactions with other organic beings and the planet we inhabit together.

SD

The Queerness of Gnosis

It’s probably not very surprising that I find myself trying to write a reflection on how Queerness and Gnosis intersect given the importance they both play in my life. My blog posts, and the book A Gnostic’s Progress, bear witness to my attempt to explore the complexity of human life and how we utilize experiences of direct knowing in our attempts to manage the dilemma of existence.

While others may view the conflating of Queer experience and Gnosticism as being a personal eccentricity or indulgence on my part, I would ask for your patience as I try to unpack some of the resonances that I experience. For me the starting point for both the Queer-identified and the Gnostic is a sense of discomfort and dislocation in response to binary attempts at classification.

While the Gnostics are often typified as dualists, for me a large part of what lies at the heart of gnostic exploration is dissatisfaction with attempts to divide our experience of the world along binary lines. An orthodoxy that seeks to classify things in terms of the works of God or those of Satan made little sense to those religious free-thinkers who wanted to embrace complexity more fully. Rather than being satisfied with the simple answers of faith, the Gnostic sets out into deep space in order to explore  the tension, complexity and contradiction that seems to lie at the heart of life’s mystery.

The Gnostic is the sacred scientist in the truest sense in their attempts to openly explore; question and pressure test their findings. Their metaphysical insights may fail to meet the rigour of the strict reductionist, but their attempt to map the weird cosmologies experienced through inner perception still provide us with much of value. These strange inner landscapes had a clear resonance with depth psychologists such as Carl Jung as he felt that they provided insight into the nature of human experience and how we might work with the process of personal transformation.

Somewhere over the Bifrost

Early Gnostic cosmologies such as those mapped out by early groups, for instance the Sethians and Valentinians, contain a wide variety of spiritual couplings (or syzygies) that seek to convey the dynamic dance at work in the process of creation. For the Gnostic, the numinous realm is full of a wide array of beings such as Aeons, Archons, Powers and Principalities, all vying for expression and manifestation into both matter and the realm of human consciousness. While diagrammatic attempts to depict such systems usually come off looking quite linear, in reading the oft-confusing description of them in primary Gnostic texts, the heavenly host often feels far more fluid, over-lapping and multi-directional.

For me the Gnostics embody a type of heretical free-thinking that seeks to challenge a form of certainty that relies on blinkered tunnel-vision.  Neat delineations that require us to ignore the messy complexity of our deepest longings are challenged by the heretics’ brave act of choosing. While the pedlars of certainty proclaim loudly that their polarised, black and white world is either the result of natural order or God’s will, the heretic is listening to a quieter inner voice.

The awakening to Queerness can of course happen in a whole host of ways. It might be an internal awareness of the complexity of desire or (as was in my case) communication from the straight world of the demi-urge that my way of presenting was not working for them! These realisations may happen suddenly or in a more slow-burn fashion in which you become increasingly aware of dissonance. Whichever speed it happens at this is a profound unfolding of who we sense we are and for me it definitely had a Gnostic dimension. If the admonition to “Know Thyself” was to have an authenticity then it needed to account from the outsider experience that I experienced as a Queer person.

Gnostic explorers of most stripes are usually willing to question what we mean by the natural. In trying to grapple with the discomfort associated with our experience of living, they sought to question the narratives about this transmitted by both Church and State. These organs of authority have been keen to get us to believe all sorts of ideas, in the name of their being natural. Whether it’s the inevitability of reproduction, the subjugation of Women or the exclusion of Black people, both Church and State have the potential to become archonic in their restriction of personal expression and liberty. In their attempt to control and contain they seek to minimise the complexity of our life experience and to present a dominant narrative that limits the possibility of a deeper connection based on a truly rich diversity.

The syzygies so loved by the Gnostics often sought to embody a richer story in which the binaries experienced were held together as they moved through a process of reconciliation. Manifestations of this unification often pop-up in androgynous figures such as Adam Kadmon or Abraxas, but I think that we risk losing something crucial if we see them as fixed icons and fail to appreciate the Queer dynamism that they embody. Queerness often presents a disruptive challenge to our attempts at neatness. At best it moves beyond mere hip theorising and compels us to enact, perform and intensify the often blurry reality of who we are.

In this fluid dance, Queerness can be experienced as identity, mood and the dynamic that exists in the interactions between people, objects and organisation. For me it provides a way of knowing that provides not only a space for inhabiting the present, but also a lens for viewing the past.  In asking us to stay awake to sensitivity to context and process, Queerness provides a necessary challenge to the type of brittleness that can come when we get overly invested in fixed identities.  In my view, such a dynamic creates a type of optimism as I see glimpses of the type of human creativity that Jose Esteban Munoz refers to as “Futurity”.

I have already spoke of the inspiration that I have gained via Nema’s description of N’Aton as an embodiment of our future magical selves, and part of my attraction to this figure is in the way it manifests a type of magical optimism and Futurity. Depictions of N’Aton often hold together the individual and collective perspectives and for me such images embody a type of spiritual awakening that allows for a multiplicity of perspective. When we step away from the tunnel-vision of either Christian or Orthodox Thelemic eschatology, we can begin to explore the Queer possibility of our aeonic utopias overlapping, blurring with and potentially strengthening each other as they balance and inform each other’s insights.

This is a tightrope walk in which we try to balance the reality of both our individual and collective struggles with the need to explore the possibility of what hope might mean. When the Archons shout their “truth” so loudly, we must dare to keep the richness of our stories alive! I’ll end with this great quote from Sara Ahmed in which they discuss the possibility of what we might create when we radically reappraise the type of future we might have:

To learn about possibility involves a certain estrangement from the present. Other things can happen when the familiar recedes. This is why affect aliens can be creative: not only do we want the wrong things, not only do we embrace possibilities that we have been asked to give up, but we create life worlds around these wants. When we are estranged from happiness, things happen. Happiness happens.
The Promise of Happiness p.218

SD

Typhonic Strands and AMOOKOS

What follows is far from definitive, but hopefully allows for further reflection and an appreciation of the unique contribution that the Amookos (Arcane and Magickal Order Of the Knights Of Shambhala) current has made to the current magical revival.

In considering my own magical development, and the role that the Amookos work has had in shaping my evolution, I was struck by some of the often unspoken commonalities that seem to be shared between some of the main practitioners within the tradition. When assessing the contribution and histories of those adepts whose work I have come to respect, I have been struck by the significant influence of what we might broadly describe as the Typhonian tradition.

While we may gain much from an in-depth discussion as to what we mean by the descriptor ‘Typhonian’, for the purposes of this reflection I am using it to broadly categorize those people who have been shaped significantly by the work, ideas and writing of Kenneth Grant. As I hope will become clear, the people who have been involved with the Amookos work have each taken his inspiration in unique and interesting directions, but have a shared appreciation of the spiritual terrain he was seeking to map.

The genesis of Amookos is often considered to be the result of Mike Magee’s (Sri Lokanath) initiatory relationship with Sri Mahendranath (Dadaji) and the seismic impact that this had on his personal magical universe.  While the encounter with Dadaji was undoubtedly powerful in setting Mike along a path via which he came to be recognized as an expert Sanskrit scholar and translator of key Tantric texts, I have often wondered whether the richness of the Amookos current is derived from a more complex interplay.

kennethandmike

Mike writes: “This picture is of Kenneth and me in 1978 in our flat in Golders Green, just round the corner from where he lived. I am missing him. He was a master of wisdom.  I venerate his memory.”

Prior to this shift Mike had worked for some seven years with Kenneth Grant and while he was clear on the profound change wrought by contact with the Dadaji, it would be fair to speculate as to the degree that his earlier work with Grant continued to be foundational. We know from Grant’s history (as depicted within At the Feet of the Guru) that he himself had had direct contact with Yogic teaching and technique, and Mike is quite open about how the presence of this material in his work with Grant catalyzed his own journey eastwards. Prior to travelling to India and encountering Dadaji, Mike had already begun mantra work, embarked on in-depth studies of Sidereal astrology and Sanskrit, and was familiar with Kashmir Shaivism. While the work with Grant was undoubtedly rich and challenging, he was unable to offer Mike the type of direct initiatory experience he was seeking in order to affirm the knowledge he had gained.

Far be it from me to make comment on the internal dynamics of a Guru-Chela relationship and the whole complex of relationships and community politics that resulted from Sri Lokanath’s work with Dadaji. As some may know, much ink has been spilt and opinion expressed as to how Dadaji’s declining health impacted on his relationships with those close to him. What I feel to be worthwhile, is to describe my own sense of why I and others continue to experience the idea and curriculum of Amookos as having spiritual value.

Having spent significant parts of my adolescence exploring the spiritual traditions of Buddhism and Hinduism, when I began training as a magician in my mid-20s, the East-West synthesis that I experienced in the Amookos work made a great deal of sense to me. Here was a magical group that made use of Yogic technique and perspectives while at the same time incorporating the liberty and self-determination associated with the philosophy of Thelema.

My own route into the Amookos work was via the writing and inspiration of Mogg Morgan. I was fortunate to receive some mentoring from Mogg over a number of years and was eventually given diksha by him. Mogg’s work with the Egyptian God Set is well known and he is quite open about the early impact that his time in Kenneth Grant’s Typhonian Order (the then Typhonian Ordo Templi Orientis, TOTO) had on his magical development.

Having made some links with Mogg via the Oxford Golden Dawn Society, I dug into his Tankhem writings that sought to draw parallels between the God Set and the path of Tantra. What could the recovery of the myth of this “Hidden God” reveal about the diversity of the Egyptian tradition; and how might Tantric and early Hermetic traditions cross-fertilize? This is heady territory, and part of my own desire for closer links with Amookos were significantly influenced by Mogg’s interest in the early history of these Typhon-Tantra links.

As I dove into the Amookos grade papers (published as Tantra Magick) I was struck by the helpful way in which Mike sought to lead the aspirant through a process of self-understanding that would allow for the cultivation of Svvechacharya (true Will). The path of Tantra is often described as that of the Virya, or hero, and when expressed within the tribe of practitioners of the Nath sampradya, the Thelemic goal of awakening and self-sovereignty seemed especially to the fore.

KalachakraSera

Kalachakra thangka painted in Sera Monastery, Tibet.

For me, the beauty of Tantra Magic as a curriculum is that rather than being left with a vague sense that we should pursue “Peace, Freedom and Happiness”, we are given some clear exercises to help us in developing a more Tantric appreciation of our lives. Time does not allow a full exposition here, but Sri Lokanath does a masterful job in exploring themes as wide ranging as the awakening of the senses, the nature of time, and the conscious use of the persona in interacting with the world. Mike does a gallant job in wrestling with the Tantric project of engaging with the realm of the body and life’s earthiness as a means of awakening, and seeking to answer the question of what it might mean to become more fully human.

The heydays of Amookos in the early 1980s provided both inspiration and direction for innovative magicians on both sides of the Atlantic. Not only do we have the emergence of Chaos Magic (again heavily influenced by Grant), but we also have the Voudon-Gnostic research of Michael Bertiaux (see Cult of the Shadow) and the Post-Satanic work of Michael Aquino as manifest in the Temple of Set. For me personally, one key figure to emerge from this occult maelstrom was Maggie Ingalls.

Known more commonly as Nema, Ingalls worked directly with Grant within the TOTO and her inspired engagement with Frater Achad’s work with the Aeon of Maat is described in some detail by Grant in Outside the Circles of Time. Via her work with Maat, Nema received a channelled work via an androgynous figure from the future that she identified as N’Aton. For her, the Aeons of Horus and Maat formed a complementary whole or “double current”, with the scales of Maat providing a feminine counter-balance to the surging energy of the conquering child. In addition to working with a collective of ritual magicians in the Cincinnati area,  Nema was also an initiate within the Amookos tradition. While I may be unfamiliar with many of the adepts working at this time, figures such as Denny Sargent (Hermeticusnath) and Jan Fries were also instrumental in articulating a fusion of Typhonian, Maatian and Nath-Tantric currents.

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Horus-Ma’at Lodge – N’Aton

I hope what this potted history is helping to illustrate is that there seems to be lots of thoughtful, creative magicians finding inspiration from both the Yogic approach of Amookos and the more creative, nightside explorations of the Typhonian current. While this is an interesting intersect to note, perhaps the more pressing (and interesting) question is to why these approaches are experienced as being complimentary?

Like his teacher Crowley, Grant’s genius is arguably that he was both a great innovator and a great assimilator of other sources. In his desire to explore mystery, Grant engaged with a broad range of occult practitioners (Crowley, Spare, Bertiaux and Nema) and filtered their insights through his own magical imagination. In considering the commonalities between the luminaries that inspired him, I am struck by their shared engagement with the unconscious and their use of visual art as a means of accessing it.

Grant’s magical exploration of both dark Stygian depths and weird stellar realms seem to embody a more Lunar-Vaginal Thelema in contrast to Crowley’s Solar-Phallic one. Of course we are grappling here with binaries and the dangers of over-simplification, but it does feel that Crowley’s somewhat outdated, linear Victoriana was counter-balanced brilliantly by Grant’s strange, writhing surrealism.

For me this is where the strength of something like the Amookos work comes into its own. While Kenneth Grant’s work is strong in the evocation of mood and sense of how strange the magical universe can be, arguably he is weaker at communicating what precisely one does (in terms of technique) to actually get and remain there.

If Crowley (and Parsons) introduced us to the way in which the pursuit of Babalon can fuel our personal Grail quest, then Grant confronts us with the disturbing cost that the pursuit of Shakti might entail. If we seek an experience of the Goddess that moves beyond two-dimensional wish-fulfillment, then it is likely that we will need to make contact with those sources that have evolved a deeper appreciation. For me it feels likely that part of the attraction to Tantra for second and third generation Thelemites is the way in which it offers richer, time-tested means for experiencing She who births, loves and destroys.

Balance is always difficult to maintain, both in terms of our own personal equilibrium and in addressing the various domains of magical development within the context of an Order. Active skills versus cultivating receptivity, prescription versus personal liberty, and group versus solo practice are all competing needs that we seek to balance in ensuring a holism to our learning. In my experience curriculums such Liber MMM and Tantra Magick tend to have an enduring value in that they provide substance and suggestion without demanding adherence to material that may not fit too well with individual disposition.  As Mike himself states in Tantra Magick:

This expression of the I Ching reveals the dynamic magick of AMOOKOS. The Ridgepole is the fluid yet equipoised point existing between the two states of active/passive. Tantra Magick, p93.

Having waxed lyrical for over 1,500 words about the benefits that working with this curriculum offers those wanting a deeper experience of the Thelemic and Typhonian currents, one may rightly wonder, “Well, why isn’t Amookos that functional as an Order anymore?” The answer to this question is complex in that it is connected to the question of whether we believe formal magical Orders remain valuable; and also, which measure we use in quantifying success.

While formal Orders may have a specific and valuable role in the early stages of a person’s magical development, I would wonder whether longer term involvement is essential as a universal aspiration. Social media and a greater espousal of “Open Source” philosophy, mean that for many there is far easier access these days to both arcane information and the possibility of discussing its meaning with others. While I still personally believe that there is much to gain from experiencing the demands and checks that Orders can provide, I am also aware that much energy can be expended in political struggles and in perpetuating ideas that while once helpful are now largely irrelevant.

Many of those people who were members of Grant’s TOTO report the rather strange experience of having made progress and then having been kicked out.  Now while on one level this might appear a bit odd, it may be an initiatory masterstroke! If we reflect upon the way in which a variety of adepts have taken their initial inspiring experience of the Typhonian current and then dispersed it more widely into occult culture, then we might begin to wax lyrical about dandelions succeeding at the point at which they manage to disperse their seed to the wind.

In many ways I see the current role of Amookos as being quite similar to this. As a functional Order that convenes lots of lively gatherings it’s frankly a bit of a failure (at least currently in the UK!). What I do think it succeeds in doing is in providing a node of practice, thought and inspiration around how we integrate Yogic thinking with Thelemic philosophy in its broadest sense. It is my hope that it can still offer some supportive mentoring and friendship to those wanting to evolve a more balanced Magical path in which solar, lunar, light and shadow are allowed to dance together. By seeking to make transparent the ongoing influence of the Typhonian tradition on its form of Tantra, it is my hope that we can move beyond over-dependence on idealized teachers, or the pursuit of a style of Hindu re-enactment that fails to bring us closer to greater freedom. As Mike wisely observes in the introduction to Tantra Magic:

If the work of the Amookos grades was successful, an individual would finally realise that the grades and work were simply a means to an end, to be discarded once the essence was extracted. … Names such as Nath, and groups such as Amookos, could only remain as relative things. When spirit is free, what matter the name its outer form is given?

SD

Many thanks to Mike Magee and Mogg Morgan for giving this piece the once-over and filling in some historical gaps. J

Enjoy Sex… a review

Enjoy Sex (How, when and IF you want to): A Practical and Inclusive Guide

enjoy

Frankly if you like your sexual self-help replete with pencil drawings of bearded blokes and their female partners trying to get pretzel-like in search of “better sex” this book is a bit rubbish. I can see from the back-cover author snap that Justin has a beard but that’s as far as it goes. By contrast what Enjoy Sex… gives us is powerful tool for exploring what is might mean for us as human beings to explore intimacy with both others and ourselves.

Visitors to this blog will already know that I’m a bit of a Meg-John fan boy! As well as writing this review for their recent graphic non-fiction book Queer (in collaboration with the brilliant Julia Scheele).  I also wrote a review several years ago for their first relationship opus Rewriting the Rules. In that book Meg-John sought to challenge us to consider the societal stories and familial conditioning that we might have received concerning intimacy, gender and friendship. In a compassionate and accessible manner they asked us to honestly explore what we really wanted for ourselves and those to whom we are connected.

In many ways Enjoy Sex… feels like an organic expansion of this previous work. We find chapters looking at the messages we receive about sex and how the sex advice industry often compounds powerful ideas about perfection, performance and a penis in vagina (PIV) end game. This is a book that beautifully inverts the presumed heteronormativity of most sex advice and openly revels in diversity. Each chapter incorporates multiple voices of people exploring intimacy and I loved the richness and complexity that these added to the themes under consideration.

Both of these authors bring their considerable wealth of experience as educators and activists to the format of this work. Justin has worked for over two decades in providing meaningful sex education to young people and Meg-John is renowned as a lucid communicator and advocate for sexual and gender diversity. This book is accessible without dumbing down and provides a whole host of exercises and activities for helping the reader dig into their own reflections and explorations.

This is a book that places self-understanding and consent at its centre. In order to access the type of intimacy that we may or may not want with others, we must first reconnect to our own bodies and the stories that our culture and experience have passed to us. In order to act compassionately and consensually towards others we must first exercise proper self-care in understanding what we value for our selves in this present moment. This is a book that seeks to move mindfulness from the meditation cushion and into the realm of our whole lives. In contrast to so much touted as “spiritual” sex, the erotic realities of solo sex, porn and consensual non-monogamies are explored as possible means for more fully “knowing thyself”.

In a world where the tyranny of performance and perfection threaten to disconnect ourselves from truly engaging with deep sensuality, Justin and Meg-John have provided us with an accessible tool-kit for tuning in to our own unique version of the erotic.  A truly liberating work!

SD

Surreal Christology (Part 3): The Trickster

Now I’ll be honest, part of problem with Tricksters is that the process of trying to define them can, in and of itself, be a bit tricky! The very nature of these liminal figures that push irreverently against what is polite, acceptable and knowable means that they tend to slip out of attempts at neat archetypal categorisation. As with my previous explorations of Queer theory and the way in which its blurry fluidity can be both liberating and infuriating, so attempts to corral figures as diverse as Hermes, Loki, Coyote and Eshu will meet with frustration.

Tricksters tend to be those figures who dwell on the outer-edges of ordered society and speak often difficult truths regarding that culture’s need to change and evolve. By inhabiting this prophetic, questioning role they are often seen as subversive agents of chaos seeking to destabilise the rule of law. While this may well be part of their role, like the heretic’s relationship with more orthodox beliefs, the relationship between the Trickster and those in authority is often far more symbiotic.

In many senses the depiction of Christ in both the canonical and Gnostic gospels can be seen as having a trickster-like role. Jesus spends time with sex workers and the drug dependent; he questions religious authority and seeks to challenge the servant/master paradigm of how we engage with the divine:

“The kingdom of God is within you” Gospel of Thomas saying 3

“I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends” John 15:15

Here we have Jesus as a prophet and reformer within the context of 1st century CE Palestine, challenging and questioning received orthodoxies. He asks his listeners to dig deeper, not as a rejection of historic teachings, but as a means of encountering a richer experience of truth:

“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfil them” Matt. 5:17

The disruptive anarchy of the Trickster can become a powerful catalysing agent that shifts perception and allows social evolution. This is rarely as smooth or as bloodless as it sounds, especially when acting prophetically challenges the excesses of hierarchy and control. Arguably the tipping point for Jesus in the gospel narratives was less about declaring the incoming of God’s Kingdom and more about his denunciation of the misuse of religious power (Matt. 23). For the Trickster to speak truth to power is far from risk free and while Jesus’ death was at least partially triggered by his own messianic self-perception, we may want to  reduce such risks by being “as cunning as serpents” in determining how we deploy our insights.

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The Sacrament of the Last Supper, 1955, Salvador Dali

Part of the Trickster’s role within myth and culture more generally, seems to be about challenging our certainty about perception and what we think we know as real. For me this willingness to slip sideways into a blurrier, half-glimpsed reality is central to the work of both the magician and artist. To take the mantle of either of these roles is to imbibe the spirit of the Trickster and to work with the challenge that this can provide to both your sense of self and your relationships with those around you. To walk these paths skilfully usually entails profound degrees of work on the self at both a conscious and unconscious level.

For the Surrealists, the Trickster was often present in portraiture, with the artist’s depiction of self or others often reflecting the incoming of new insight. The weird process of alchemy at work in surreal art makes vivid the way in which we try to make sense of mystery both at a macrocosmic level and in relation to the differing aspects of ourselves. Our encounters with aspects of reality that are strange, bizarre or “dark” often shake us from automaton sleep-states. For the Gnostic explorer this is the still small voice of the Trickster that at once draws us in and disturbs us, causing us to question what we think we know so as to trigger new states of awakening. Unsurprisingly, Trickster gods like Eshu are the guardians of the crossroads and it is often at these junctures of choice and liminality that we benefit most from their less-lateral approach.

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Portrait of Max Ernst, 1939, Leonora Carrington

Whether via art, ritual theatre or an active engagement with our dreamscapes, those less-tidy, potentially disruptive aspects will demand that we give them space. To endlessly supress or ignore them is to invite an eventual tsunami of shadow material that inevitably leads to widespread persecution of others onto whom our fears get projected. For me, an acknowledgement of the Trickster and the creative power of misrule can be vital in fuelling and inspiring the changes we wish to see. While we must remain wary of the excesses of self-indulgence, embracing the Trickster can help us avoid the type of grim activism that loses sight of the happiness and peace that should hopefully accompany the freedom which we are pursuing.

SD

Surreal Christology (Part 2): The Mirror

It’s hardly surprising that mirrors get used a lot in magic; frankly they’re a bit weird. When we look at them they extend space, they reverse and they potentially distort. Whatever we think we look like in our heads, when we look into a mirror we are pushed into a dialogue between that internalised self-perception and the version of self represented in front of us. We may be delighted by what we see or we may become flooded by dysmorphia. Our dis-ease may be skin-deep or it may reveal deeper truths about who we want to be and how we wish to interact with the world around us. Whatever we think is driving us, if we see ourselves more fully we may be confronted by aspects of our daemon that are as likely to shock as they are to empower.

The magical use of mirrors can be manifold, ranging from aids for spirit evocation to scrying tools that allow the diviner greater access to their own unconscious processes. To explore a mirror nocturnally, via candle-light, is to journey to occult edges, and the practice of covering mirrors following a recent death alludes to a need to stabilise our environment in the midst of grief. Given the way they seem to play with the nature of time and space, it’s of little surprise that the Surrealists found them so fascinating.

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Self-portrait in Spherical Mirror, 1935. MC Escher.

The Surrealists on occasion had mirrors explicitly within their art (often as puddles of quicksilver or mirrored melting clock faces) but more often their presence seems far more implicit. Via their use of depth of field and inversion, when we engage with surrealist art we can often feel that we are gazing at a reflection, with all the subtle strangeness innate to that process. Like the melting clock we are required to relinquish our hold on our sense of time and solidity; i.e. things get a bit wobbly and dream-like.

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Self-portrait: The Inn of the Dawn Horse, 1937-38. Leonora Carrington.

In many ways myth and mythic heroes can act as powerful mirrors for viewing ourselves. When we consider those stories or figures that we are drawn to, they can often reveal some significant aspects of who we are at both a conscious and unconscious level. While our initial attraction to a myth may reflect a need or a connection that seems quite obvious e.g. a promise of liberation or an exemplar of individuation, when we renew and revisit this process over time, arguably something subtler takes place. When we truly engage with and internalise these spirits, their strangeness starts to haunt and shape our dreams and outlook.

In terms of my own experience, while my initial flight into Christianity was largely related to my adolescent confusion about the fluidity of my sexuality and gender identity, the Queerness of mystery still managed to break through via my interactions with the myth of Christ. While recognising my personal projections onto the gospel narrative, I eventually uncovered in my reading of Jesus a blurry ambiguity that remains inspiring. Yes this was still the radical who threw over tables in the temple, but he was also the mother hen who wanted to gather the lost underneath his wings.

In a personal world where the versions of maleness, certainty and force made little sense to me, my own gnostic encounter allowed access to a gentler, more mysterious experience. This Christ became a mirror through which I could view myself more closely. Such looking can be far from comfortable, but over time it allowed me to engage with deeper truths about who I needed to become. For me this magical process of engaging with the Christ myth allowed me (somewhat ironically) to become accepting enough of myself that I no longer wished to call myself a Christian.

This Gnostic Christ seems to be asking me to both take more responsibility for my path, while at the same time doing less violence to the core of who I am.  This reflective process is most definitely a work-in-progress and has been far from tidy or pain-free. To walk a magical path requires that we “dare”, even when it means the willed deconstruction of those stories and heroes we hold as precious. This is a narrow road, but it holds the potential of liberty from the claustrophobia of childlike sentimentality.

Whichever mythic mirror feels most attractive to you, I would recommend revisiting it with a Zen-like state of beginner’s mind. Find some great art concerning these myths, or better yet create some art of your own. In my own recent explorations of the Queerer dimensions of Christ I have been inspired by some of the art on sites such as Kittredge Cherry’s  “Jesus in Love” blog. Often these creative explorations into the surreal and less-lateral aspects of ourselves provide us with gateways to discovery and the possibility of further evolution.

Find art that feeds your soul and allows greater insight into who you are and who you can become. Seek the Mysteries!

SD