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.

n'aton

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