A small moment of ego

31 August, 2008

My loves and I are fond of the occasional game of Scrabble. We recently acquired the version called Super Scrabble and played it for the first time tonight.

The thing about Super Scrabble is the board is bigger and there are more letters – and more bonus squares (including the wonderful Quadruple word and letter squares).

This allowed me to do something rather splendid.

I put down a seven letter word (‘candles’) on two Triple Word Score squares – giving nine times the word total. Between that and the nearby word with a Z in it (which then became another triple-word-score word) I managed a nice total.

One hundred and eighty three points in a single move.

Finished the game with 465 points.

I swear, the second I realised I could make that move was as pure a high as I’ve ever known. Scrabblegasm.

The Soldier and the Hunchback

27 August, 2008

Today’s word is… ‘interrobang‘.

I found it in this fine article about nelogisms and the silliness of overly-rigid definitions of what is and is not a ‘real’ word, written by lexiconographer Erin McKean. It was described over at Boing Boing as being about ‘English as a user-modifiable technology’, which is a lovely concept… though not one explicated in the original article.

Oh… and interrobang means ‘a combination of the exclamation point and the question mark’. The title of this post, if you haven’t already got the joke, refers to this piece by Aleister Crowley.

Guttershaman – Working Magic

27 August, 2008

…hoodoo’s no different than regular praying. The prayers are always
answered, just that sometimes the answer’s
no.” Bill Fitzhugh, Highway 61 Resurfaced

(Disclaimer: this is not a how-to guide for spell-casting. It’s a quick look at some of the background and theory. I take no responsibility for the results of anyone mistaking the below text for an instruction manual!)

Previously, I made the point that any theory or description of how magic works will be necessarily subjective, partial and on some level utterly incapable of fully describing what happens.

But I’m going to have a go anyway.

So, a magician takes patterns in their mind, forges meaningful connections between symbols, events, people and places and things. This set of patterns, their map of the universe if you like, orients them and shows possibilities of action.

What happens next?
That depends on the map.

There’s a few ways of describing the overall patterns – the meta-models – used in most magical styles. A good summation of four rough types is here. Using that scheme, I’d describe what I do as a mix of the Energy and Information models, with a side-order of the Psychological. I don’t work the Spiritual model much, except when needed (i.e if I encounter something that acts like a spirit!).

The Energy model  – especially the Far-Eastern-styled variants – is pretty good for describing what I actually do and feel when I ‘do magic’. A ‘spell’ to me is basically a series of instructions imprinted onto personal energy and send out on a push of focussed emotion and intent. Like a martial arts punch – it’s not just the movement of hand and arm that matters, it’s the will behind it.

And, again like martial arts… it’s all about the breath.

If you look at most traditions, the words for magical energy all translate as ‘breath’. Mana, Prana, Baraka, Ch’i/Ki, Pneuma… they all seem to describe the same thing. Even a word like ‘conspiracy’ (which pops up now and again when talking about the occult…) means at root ‘those who breathe together’. The primacy of breath is one of the reasons so many systems instruct the beginner in some form of meditation – to teach breath control both as a quick-and-easy method for altering consciousness and as the basic tool of controlling and focussing one’s ch’i to be deployed magically. Meditation also teaches the student to cut down the signal-to-noise ratio in their mind, the better to sense the change in energies around them. To ‘detect magic’.

Again I should point out… it’s only a model. The use of the word ‘energy’ in mysticism, especially these days, has been haphazard to say the least. Probably the only word misused more these days is ‘vibrations’. Or possibly ‘quantum’.

Using the Chinese term Ch’i has a lot of utility for me, mainly because it’s considered a universal energy, pretty much like The Force. It scales up nicely – the same system used in acupuncture theory or martial arts is applied on a larger scale in feng-shui. It also ties in to my own Taoist tendencies belief-wise. So, I’ll be using it a lot here.

(I’ve always had what could be called a sensitivity to ‘magical energy’, to both my own ch’i and that in my environment. I usually feel it as a kind of temperature shift, sometimes as a tingle in my peripheral nervous system, sometimes even as a kind of ghost-of-a-smell. I’m pretty sure that this sensory input is only a symbol for whatever it is I’m actually getting information about/from, in the same way that the senses we call ‘smell’ and ‘taste’ don’t actually feel like molecules rubbing against our mucous membranes. It’s a shorthand, a symbol, like everything about magic – and it’s a good idea to remind yourself of that fact on a regular basis.)

Back to that spell… the next point to consider is, what is the spell for?
It can be for anything the magician can imagine. Though the intent alters the kind of emotional set-and-setting for the spell, it doesn’t usually change the mechanics of casting – though of course some techniques work better than others, depending on the intent. (You probably wouldn’t want to focus on feelings of anger and violence when attempting healing…) The key thing here is the magician must seriously want the instructions to be carried out, they suit their mood to the intent, and that they formulate their instructions reasonably clearly.

I could go on at great length here about the morality of magic use – and I may do so at a later date.
(Short version – I’ve seen no sign of any kind of automatic ‘Law of Three-fold Return’ or similar retribution governing spell use. The morality of magical action falls to the caster. Though Karmic payback isn’t guaranteed, often like energies will attract like… but it’s not inevitable that ‘bad magic’ will lead to a bad end. Unfortunately.
My own morality leans heavily toward the issue of consent. I never initiate magical combat – only defend or counter-attack when hostilities are begun. I don’t push healing unless I’m asked. And I never, ever, work love spells… to my mind, they’re the psychic version of date-rape drugs.)

The traditional old-school, Spirit-model-based magical styles of spell-casting are usually lengthy processes. The mage would have to thoroughly research the timing (both logistically and astrologically) of the casting, determine which spirits and entities have to be invoked or kept away, lay out surroundings which are conducive to those spirits, select tools in keeping with the occasion, make a magically clear and safe space, probably observe some kind of ritual cleansing beforehand, cast a circle, make ritual obeisance to the pantheon involved… and then finally cast the spell.

All very well and good… and those High Magic rites can have great beauty and efficacy.
But from my perspective, most of that prep falls under the heading of ‘getting into the mind-set’, reinforcing the associations in the pattern. For most people, generating the emotional charge needed for working magic requires a dramatic shift from ‘ordinary’ reality – and the borders of the magical reality they are creating have to be fiercely guarded, lest they fall. They’re making a kind of Temporary Autonomous Zone, a brief suspension of the Ordinary rules. Though this separation of the magical and the mundane has its uses, I find it mostly a false distinction.

With practice – and a good understanding of one’s internal patterns of symbol and ch’i – one can generate the right mood with a few muttered words, humming a snatch of a tune, or simply taking a slow deep breath.

The emotional push, the ch’i-generation/harnessing needed for magic, can be found in anything which matters to the mage and fits their internal map. Some find it in rituals as described above. Some get to it through sexual activity. Some from dancing, from the emotional climax of a piece of a music or a movie or beating the Boss Level in a computer game. Anything can work. The closer it fits both the intent of the spell and the internal pattern-map of the mage, is usually the better.

The mood is found, the intent created in the magicians mind… then with a push (or a shout, or a waving of wands, or an orgasm, or…) the spell is cast. Instructions/requests given to the Universe to change according to the magician’s will.

Some kind of ‘banishing’ should then follow. Even if there’s no clear delineation between the magical and non-magical space, the energies recently harnessed should be allowed to settle and disperse, any entities which may have manifested given leave to depart… and generally the whole place cleaned and tidied up thoroughly. The residue of a space where this is not done can deform, grow toxic… and sometimes attract unpleasantness. (Think of the neglected remains of a picnic, attracting ants. Replace ‘ants’ with ‘demons’ or ‘bad vibes’. You get the idea.)

Then comes the hard part… seeing if the spell ‘worked’.

Like everything else in magic, deciding whether or not a casting has actually had any effect is just about as subjective as you can get. (And that’s before you even start to worry about how it worked!) Quite often, the exact results aren’t quite as the caster imagined them… usually the changes in the world are small.

Maybe that’s all magic is – a way of nudging chance in a tiny way, allowing the repercussions to spiral outward like the butterfly wing altering the quantum flow of…

Bugger it. I said ‘quantum’.


(Next on Guttershaman – much, much more on tradition, ‘authenticity’ and such. And I use ‘the S word’ again.)

Zen Anarchy

27 August, 2008

A very good three-part look at the core of Zen – the playful, anarchic, dogma-shattering side.

This is what all the great teachers show: Zen is the practice of anarchy (an-archy) in the strictest and most super-orthodox sense. It rejects all “archys” or principles—supposedly transcendent sources of truth and reality, which are really no more than fixed ideas, mental habits and prejudices that help create the illusion of dominating reality. These “principles” are not mere innocuous ideas. They are Imperialistic Principalities that intrude their sovereign power into our very minds and spirits. As anti-statist as we may try to be, our efforts will come to little if our state of mind is a mind of state. Zen helps us dispose of the clutter of authoritarian ideological garbage that automatically collects in our normal, well-adjusted mind, so that we become free to experience and appreciate the world, nature, and the “Ten Thousand Things,” the myriad beings around us, rather than just using them as fuel for our ill-fated egoistic cravings.

Part One

Part Two

Part Three

(Found via Technoccult)

The Dalai Lama, heresy and politics

26 August, 2008

I like a good heresy, me.

It’s always seemed to me that heresies (that aren’t extinguished) usually end up as the new orthodoxies – but before they do, they’re interesting to watch and often instructive… at least, of the current orthodoxy.

So it was with some interest I read this bit in (of all places) The New Statesman, on the Dorje Shugden heresy in Tibetan Buddhism. I’m far from an expert on this subject (though I use some tools and concepts from Bön Shamanism which drifted into Tibetan practice long ago), but the basics go like this:

Dorje Shugden is a ‘protector-deity’ who, when called upon, looks after those seeking enlightenment. His worship is banned by the current (14th) Dalai Lama, for reasons which vary depending on who you talk to. His stance seems to be that Dorje Shugden is a) an evil spirit, b) not a real Buddha, c) the preferred version of Buddha-worship favoured by the Han Chinese authorities or d) all of the above.

Worshippers of the Dorje insist that this is a political move on the DL’s part, an attempt to unite all forms of Tibetan Buddhism under his leadership – and the tail-end of a political struggle some 400 years old, involving the previous incarnation of the Dorje who was a rival of the 5th DL…

You got to love it when the archetypal ‘peace-and-love’ belief system falls into this kind of schizm. And especially when there’s a fair bit of evidence that that nice old man the 14th Dalai Lama has caused purges of thousand of heretical worshippers from temples both in Tibet and elsewhere using the O***pics as a distraction…

I don’t, as they say, have a dog in this race. But my inner cynic leads me to seriously consider the claims of the Dorje Shugden followers – and the magician part (that is, most of me) leads me to wonder the kinds of results one might get from working a system which simultaneously claims no god-figure but has thousands of gods, goddesses and demons in the pantheon… and which are which depends entirely on context and minor differences of teaching.

Well, not wonder so much as smile slyly at the similarity to the syncretism of, say, Xtian and Yoruba traditions that resulted in the effective system usually called Voodoo.

That whole Guttershaman thing on ‘authenticity’ and tradition? Coming real soon.

Authenticity and its discontents

19 August, 2008

There’s a Guttershaman piece coming soon on the small problem of ‘authenticity’ in magical systems and belief systems in general. I’m still chewing that one over, as I don’t want to insult or belittle too many people at once… but at the same time I have a need to point out a few holes in the whole concept of authenticity, with a little help from my friends such as Doktor Sleepless.

As a taster, some observations of my lady Kirsty Hall, regarding our recent road trip to Trellach in Wales:

The Virtuous Well or St Anne’s Well is a Christianised well almost certainly built over a Celtic sacred spring. It’s a lovely place; it’s in a field just off a country road but it feels about a million miles from anywhere. You can walk down into the well and sit on little stone seats while you soak up the atmosphere. There are little alcoves where you can leave offerings – on the first visit I picked buttercups from the field, this time we brought sweet peas from our garden.

The water contains iron, which may be responsible for its reputed medicinal qualities. The water was thought to be especially good for ‘complaints particular to women’, which would make sense if the woman in question was anaemic from endless pregnancies and breastfeeding.

Above the well, people have festooned a tree with fabric offerings.

Kirsty Hall, photograph of fabric offerings at The Virtuous Well, Trellech
Kirsty Hall: Offerings at The Virtuous Well, August 2008

This is a very old British custom: tying pieces of cloth called clooties or clouties onto trees beside sacred wells is believed to have Celtic origins.

Originally people would leave pieces of clothing that had been soaked in the well water in the belief that their ailment would pass from them as the cloth rotted. These days, a more eclectic variety of (mostly) fabric offerings are left. I noted a plethora of ribbons and strips of torn cloth interspersed with more unusual items including scarves; a pair of underpants; socks; a martial arts belt; a ceramic medallion; hollow blown eggs; a hand-crocheted flower; numerous hair decorations; strings of beads; shoelaces; knotted plastic bags; the remnants of a balloon; bright yellow fruit netting; a Tibetan prayer flag and even a cuddly toy. They were all knotted and tied together in what I felt was a genuine outpouring of decorative and sacred expression.

Kirsty Hall, photograph of fabric offerings at The Virtuous Well, Trellech
Kirsty Hall: Offerings at The Virtuous Well, August 2008

Kirsty Hall, photograph of fabric offerings at The Virtuous Well, Trellech
Kirsty Hall: Offerings at The Virtuous Well, August 2008

Kirsty Hall, photograph of fabric offerings at The Virtuous Well, Trellech
Kirsty Hall: Offerings at The Virtuous Well, August 2008

Kirsty Hall, photograph of fabric offerings at The Virtuous Well, Trellech
Kirsty Hall: Offerings at The Virtuous Well, August 2008

Kirsty Hall, photograph of fabric offerings at The Virtuous Well, Trellech
Kirsty Hall: Offerings at The Virtuous Well, August 2008

I read one review of the well that decried the modern cloutie rags because some of the fabric is man-made. But I loved them all. There’s a raw honesty to this sort of spontaneous folk installation that I find very appealing.

While it might be better if people thought ahead and brought biodegradable offerings, I love that people aren’t constrained by what might be thought as proper but instead offer the item that they are moved to leave. While many of the offerings have obviously been deliberately chosen, I suspect that many people find the well by accident and leave what they have on them in an instinctive response to the existing offerings. It certainly explains the hair ties and beads.

And really, who cares if it isn’t ‘authentic’? It’s far more important to me that this place is still in ceremonial use. And who gets to define authenticity anyway? Perhaps the person leaving a sock was genuinely trying to heal their foot? Perhaps the grimy, slowly rotting underpants were originally part of a fertility ritual! There was no graffiti on or near the well and there was no rubbish lying around. Everything that had been left had been done so neatly, carefully and reverently. Sure, some of the offerings could be seen as irreverent but the way they were placed suggested that they weren’t. Surely authenticity isn’t something that’s set in stone but is, instead, a reflection of what people actually do.

Should I have gone and removed all the artificial objects from the tree in a futile longing for some sort of sacred or environmental purity? I don’t have that right. And I simply don’t want to. If folk customs such as leaving rags at wells are not to fade into obscurity then I think we need to accept that they will change and that some people will leave cotton Tibetan prayer flags while others will leave neatly tied plastic bags. And taking the long view, perhaps one day future archaeologists will unearth ‘inauthentic’ plastic beads and fragments of polyester ribbon that have fallen from the tree and been buried in the earth and they will know that this was once a sacred well. For all its wonderful qualities, cloth made from natural fibres is in pretty short supply in archaeology, especially in somewhere as damp as Britain…

That question of the Authentic isn’t an easy one to examine – but look out for future posts trying to get a handle on it.

(NB – Her art and words copyright to Kirsty Hall on a Creative Commons license – see her site for forther details.)

American Fascism and the Divine Feminine

19 August, 2008

Two pieces of note:

Gary Lachman appears to have suddenly discovered Dominionist Xtianity… actually, it’s a good and thoughtful piece, not only about the influence of mysticism on politics but also how he tries to synthesize past and future in modern times. Worth sticking through the comments thread for GL and Daniel Pinchbeck arguing about the importance/value of the 2012 meme and much else.

Speaking of dualistic propositions… this piece by Elizabeth Debold is on the false oppositional dualism of male and female, and considers how to address this in creating a modern female sense of divinity. Food for thought – especially in her consideration how steeped in Victorian ideas of the gender divide Carl Jung was, and how this colours his archetypal models.