Guttershaman, “…of Jedi and jail”

2 May, 2010

So, like I was saying earlier – this Jedi walks into a Job Centre

Because it’s a British Job Centre and we’re the proud world leaders in intrusive CCTV surveillence, the staff ask our hero to lower his hood. (Of course he’s in hood and robe – Jedi, remember?) He politely refuses, on the grounds that doing so is against his deeply-held beliefs.

So they chuck him out. And he sends a letter of complaint.

A couple of weeks later, the Job Centre send him a formal apology for disrespecting his faith.

This delightful tale of modern manners is interesting to me for many reasons.

For one thing, it hit the news a couple of weeks before the finale of another case of alleged religious disrespect, one where the complainant didn’t get the result they wanted. In this case, it was a Christian woman, a nurse, who was asked not to have her crucifix-on-a-chain visible at work. She sued the hospital and lost.

The parallels are notable. For one thing, both complainants were making a fuss about a display of their faith which is not defined as either a right or requirement of their belief – the Bible has no “Thou Shalt Have Jesus On A Stick Swinging Around Thy Neck” commandment and the Star Wars films have many examples of Jedi doffing their hoods in a variety of public and private settings.

The major difference, the thing that really interests me, is that the believer in a completely fictional faith actually got more respect and better treatment than the one from the long-established, allegedly historically-based one. That’s a first, I think.

And it’s a game-changer.

What happens when belief systems which cheerfully admit they are based on fiction get the same recognition in society and law as the ones that claim they’re not?

So far, the established religions have a hard enough time admitting any other faith deserves the same recognition or rights they they have. The case of Patrick McCollum in the US offers a sad example of the situation as it stands. McCollum is a Pagan priest who wants to be a prison chaplain. So far, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation is refusing him permission to do so. The reason they offer – which is supported by a Xtian protest org perfectly named The Wallbuilders – is that there are two tiers of religious belief under the US Constitution. The First Tier consists of the so-called Big Five faiths – Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, Muslim and Native American – who have all the rights and privileges. The second tier – everyone else – simply don’t.

Needless to say there’s a lot of pressure from pagan groups, and people who seem to have actually read the Constitution, against this opinion. The case is, to date, unresolved.

But now we have this precedent, that Jedi-boy has all the rights and privileges of any other believer.

I use that word ‘privilege’ carefully. Its original meaning, ‘private law’, seems more than a little significant under the circumstances. One rule for the First Tier… and there’s nothing so galling to the privileged as being made to share with the rest of the group.

There is of course one New Religious Movement that’s managed to secure itself all manner of rights and privileges – the Church of Scientology. Suffice it to say that recognition of your faith’s status is fairly easily enhanced by having access to lots of expensive lawyers. (Though it doesn’t seem to have helped them any in their home state of California, as noted above. Maybe there are some things money can’t just buy?)

(Interesting to compare this to the UK situation. As I understand it, members of any faith, including pagan, can be prison chaplains in Britain. I don’t know if anyone’s tried to be a Jedi chaplain yet, but I do know that all of the 139 prisons in England and Wales and many of the 16 prisons in Scotland have the equivalent of their own Scientology chaplains and spiritual services… and there are precisely three Scientologist prisoners in the whole system.)

So – how does society decide which beliefs should be respected? Who decides? On what basis? Who gets to choose what is called real?

Obviously, the belief systems which hold the current monopoly of privileged status aren’t going to give up their exclusive specialness without a fight – which, judging from previous displays of their intentions towards anyone disagreeing with their beliefs, will involve everything from whiny protests to inciting murder. So there’s that to look forward to.

Meanwhile, my position is this:

I honestly believe all religions and beliefs are, at best, stories. Possibly stories with some level of truth to them, but no less mythological for all that. We can debate the degree of ‘truth’ at the core of each ’till the cows come home – but it seems to me a politeness for all beliefs to meet on an equal playing field. Certainly, the hard core believers will insist that their faith deserves privilege above the others because theirs is the Real True Truth… but after the first fifty or so different flavours of believer stating that with a straight face, it gets real old, real fast. Either raise all beliefs up to the level of the most-favoured… or bring them all down to the lowest. No special pleading, no tax breaks, no exemptions from civil law on grounds of belief. Everyone gets the same treatment. From the Jewish Anti-Defamation League to the Na’vi one. From Sunni and Shia to followers of Sol Invictus and Satan and Scooby-Doo.

Then, finally, perhaps we can all compare notes about what we believe, and how we see the world, like civilised people.

Yeah. Sure.

(Next time on Guttershaman – looking deeper at the ‘Hyper-Real’ religions via the work of Adam Passamai, who coined the term.)


Guttershaman – Of Avatar and Otherkin…

8 April, 2010

“…stories dramatize ideas and truths that we all intuitively recognize. Although these stories are not exactly ‘true’, they nonetheless offer a kind of Truth that is more compelling than hard facts.”

Rabbi Cary Friedman, ‘Wisdom from the Batcave

“Believe nothing,
No matter where you read it,
Or who has said it,
Not even if I have said it,
Unless it agrees with your own reason
And your own common sense.”

The Buddha

———————————

It’s an interesting time to be writing about belief and religion.

Consider, for example, the Avatar Otherkin.

Otherkin, for those of you who’ve not come across the concept, are people who believe they are (in some sense, be it spiritually or literally) non-human. There are lots of variations of this belief – some feel they are elves, vampires (in all flavours from Anne Rice-y to Twilight-ish), werewolves or dragons – others believe they are entities from what we usually call fiction – such as inhabitants of the Matrix, anime characters… or, recently, Na’vi from Pandora.

I trust I don’t have to explain what Avatar is.

What’s especially interesting to me (as someone who not only has a lot of sympathy for people looking to fiction for their spiritual metaphors but also who was involved with Otherkin earlier in my occult life) is not just how quickly this particular strain of Otherkin have emerged, but how vehement some of them are concerning their rights.

The Na’vi Anti-Defamation League were founded only a few weeks after the film was released. Their purpose is “to monitor and take action upon groups and individuals who are promoting hate speech and anti-Na’vitism against fans, Na’vi-kin, and followers of Eywa.” Now admittedly they’re a small group on Live Journal… but nonetheless, that they exist at all is interesting to me.

Why Avatar was the film which stimulated such strong feelings – among many people world-wide, not just the rather specialised area of the Otherkin community – is of course not entirely known. Some have suggested it was the exaggerated realism of the immersive 3D environment and computer graphics, or that its (to some folk) rather diluted version of classic mythological themes allows it to appeal to a wide range of viewers – or it could be simply that it’s the biggest hit movie of our time. For whatever reason, it’s become a major metaphor – to the point where Palestinian protesters in Gaza dressed as Na’vi when on protest.

After seeing Avatar, I have to say that all the criticisms – from plagiarism to white guilt – have justification. (A nice cumulative bitchslap version of them all here.)

But, you know, Smurf Pocahontas jibes aside… parts of the film still made me weepy with the sheer mythic aptness of it all. That much-maligned plot – a crippled warrior, twin of a dead scholar, seeks healing & truth in another world he enters through (more-or-less) lucid dreaming, finds magic powers after trials and ends as a fusion of his old and new cultures – None More Miffick.

You can certainly make a case that Na’vi spirituality is a watered down appropriation, a morass of once truly authentic cultural memes reduced to their lowest common denominator… but probably not to someone like me, whose view of the value of authenticity in mysticism is, shall we say, a tad harsh. It could be that the diluted Deep Green/Gaia Consciousness of Avatar simply fits some folk better than anything that other mythos of the world can offer.

And of course you could also make a case that Otherkin – Avatar or otherwise – are just mad. That they’re taking their imagination and wish-fulfilment too far, that they’re just sad fanboys-and-girls who’ve played one too many role-play games.

I wouldn’t.

For one thing – every religion or belief system looks crazy from the outside. All of them. Yes, even yours.

For another, these sort of beliefs are not only becoming more prevalent, but they’re also starting to be recognised as a legitimate expression of spirituality in our post-modern (and increasingly – I hope! – post-Judaeo-Christian) world. The sociologist Dr. Adam Possamai has coined the term “Hyper-Real religions” to describe them, and I’ll be coming back to that idea much more in later posts. Short version for now – people trying to seek meaning in a world where trust in traditional top-down belief structures has failed them often look for new myths to try and work out just who they are. They’re often a lot less picky about how ‘true’ something is for it to be ‘real’ to them… and there’s an awful lot of mythos to choose from these days. The end result – Otherkin, the Jedi religions and much else.

The Tribe of the Strange has a lot of overlapping sub-groups. The Venn diagram for ‘SF fan’, ‘occultist’, ‘tabletop role-player’, ‘BDSM/kink practitioner’, ‘polyamorist’, ‘Pagan’, ‘computer programmer’, ‘comic book reader’, ‘cosplayer’ etc. will often show a lot of people in any one category having at least two of the others going on. Unsurprisingly, they all feed into each other… so that, for example, the roleplayer  – whether in the form of tabletop or computer gaming or sexual exploration – will see a parallel between what they do in that state-of-mind and carry it across to their spirituality. (And if you’ve not yet experienced the kind of intensity which a good role-play session can create, the heightened unreality that nonetheless feels, at the time at least, utterly true and real… then your opinion is, shall we say, uninformed.)

But like any bunch of tribes, there’s a certain amount of internecine warfare going on among the conversations between them. (Drop words like ‘furry‘ or ‘Gorean‘ into some of those conversations, for example…) The degree of snottiness involved usually stems from one group having a perceived status over the other – of being more ‘real’ or ‘sensible’ or ‘proper’ or, my old fave, ‘authentic’. But there’s a phrase from one of those overlapping groups that fits pretty well here.

Your kink is not my kink and that’s OK.

Why not draw inspiration from a myth you know isn’t based on fact? Why does that idea harm your beliefs? For some folk, it just suits them more than the half-true (at best), ‘legitimate’ religions of the world. Some mystics would bluntly state both come from the same source (one version of which is Alan Moore’s concept of Ideaspace). Some would even say it’s more honest than insisting a blurry, ancient myth structure is unassailable truth. At worst, it’s a new perspective, a different angle from which to view the numinous signals that inspire all faith. (Assuming of course that you’re not one of those believers who’s utterly certain theirs is the One True Way…)

There’s nothing at all wrong with drawing on avowedly fictional sources for definitions of your personality, mysticism, even sexuality. The trick is, as I’ve said often before, being able to step away from that viewpoint from time to time, to consider it as if real, not as real. And to be fair, many of those who identify as Otherkin do so. It’s nowhere near as simple as these people suddenly deciding they’re a dragon and not actually thinking about what that entails…

From my experience in these realms, that’s actually hard to do. There’s something deeply attractive, even intoxicating, about getting some confirmation that not only are you not like everyone else, but that there are people similar to you who feel much the same way. The dichotomy of being an individual and being part of a tribe, combined. For me, finally, it was a good and beneficial place to visit, but I couldn’t stay there. For others, it’s a perfect fit. Same could be said of any faith or perspective, really.

But there’s no question that once you permit the possibility of a belief based on fiction having as much validity in consensual reality as established religions, all sorts of interesting problems occur.

Such as the one which sounds an awful lot like a bad joke, that starts “this Jedi walks into a Job Centre…

More on that next time…

“The movie is the modern equivalent of oral tradition. The indigenous people would transfer their theology and ancestral through storytelling. Those stories were mythological from modern standpoint, but still maintained identity in their cultures. Avatar is our equivalent of oral tradition.”

http://nadl-org.livejournal.com/1011.html

———————-

Post Script:

I’m far from the only occultist to note and draw inspiration from the Otherkin – the clear leader in this field is Lupa, whose drawing together of the Otherkin impulse and older shamanic aspects (such as shape-shifting) is well worth your time. Start here with her piece on Shamanism & Subjectivity. This old thread at Barbelith is also worth reading.

If you feel drawn to looking at the Otherkin community further, you could do worse than looking at the forums at Otherkin.com. But if you’re going to comment, don’t be so impolite as to troll or stir it – for one thing, they’ve heard it all before.

And a big retrospective thanks to the Elves – you know who you are…


Guttershaman – The Authentic Shaman, part 2 – Body and Soul, Sweat and Coin

21 November, 2009

Where there is money, you have cheats. The two go together.” Eric Cantona

Send lawyers, guns and money – the shit has hit the fan.” Warren Zevon

Previously on Guttershaman…

I was looking at how modern Western ‘Shamanism’ is a mix of ideas borrowed from various native traditions (often without either respect or understanding). I also noted that sometimes the matter of ‘authenticity’ to an existing tradition was not the most significant point – that there are people who seem to have a genuine call to serve their tribe/culture/whatever and attempt to honour this vocation as best they can with the tools and ideas they have at hand. Authenticity to this impulse, if done sincerely and thoughtfully, can matter more than devotion to tradition. The question of how all this becomes even more complex when adding commerce to the mix, I left to examine at a later date.

In between then and now we have had a tragic example of how badly that mix can go wrong.

The story of how three people died and dozens were hospitalised as a result of taking part in a ‘spiritual warrior’ sweat lodge held by James Arthur Ray has been heavily discussed, both within the occult community and outside. (A good primer on this can be found at the Wild Hunt blog and the Wikipedia biography of Ray is also of use.) There’s been an awful lot said about Ray’s particular variation on the New Age Guru – much of it perhaps better left for the legal apparatus.

What is extremely clear, both from reports of those who were involved in the fateful sweat lodge itself and Ray’s own words (on his website – to which I will not directly link – and in his many media appearances) is that his primary focus is money. What’s also clear to me is that his ‘theology’ emphasises something I consider to be one of the nastier habits of many mystical systems – that the soul is far more important than the body.

I think those two points are deeply related.

The idea that spiritual purity and earthly success reflect each other – whether one calls it the Law of Attraction, Prosperity Theology or what have you – may seem to contradict the idea that the soul is more important than the material world. I think that it’s an inevitable result of how soul/body dualism is usually expressed in the West.

The idea goes:

“Money is power. If I have money, I am powerful. If there is a God or spiritual force, then surely my power and position show that God favours my endeavours? If not, surely I would be poor and powerless?”

Add to this the concept that the soul is immortal and thus above/better than the body… and you get the justification for an awful lot of cruelty and privileged behaviour.

“You’re poor? That means your soul is weak, that God does not love you.”

Then, up steps the Guru.

“I can make your soul better. I can bring you wealth in this world and the next. But in order to show you are ready, that your are committed enough to begin this process, you have to make an offering. A sacrifice to the coming purity of your soul and the inevitable favour of God.”

“That’ll be ten thousand dollars, please. Here’s your receipt.”

If you’re the Guru and your prime interest is making money, it’s quite an effective sales technique – and provides a lovely example of just how powerful the Guru’s mojo is. After all, look how much money he has! He must be good at this!

…and if you should fail at the various little tests at the weekend spirit warrior workshop…

…if you can’t break a board with your hand after an hour of preaching (rather than ten years of martial arts training and physical conditioning)…

…if you can’t stay conscious in a sweltering hut covered in plastic tarps with no water or ventilation…

…if you die while under the Guru’s tender care…

..well, that’s a shame. At least your soul learned something. Better luck next incarnation.

This is not to say that it isn’t possible for mystical pursuits to have an effect on the material world – I wouldn’t be much of a magician if I believed that. I also know that spiritual development can demand a heavy toll on the body of the practitioner, that the shamanic path often relies on stress, shock and fear as methods of altering consciousness. But it infuriates me when Gurus and teachers blithely assume that a purified soul is worth any cost to the body.

(It’s exactly the same attitude which leads to exorcisms resulting in the injuring or death of the subject – as long as the ‘demon’ is driven out and the immortal soul saved, it’s considered a price worth paying. As someone who strove to protect in every way those under his care as a professional exorcist and curse-breaker, it disgusts me when the supposed pursuit of spiritual purity is used as an excuse to torture, maim and kill.)

Ray is an especially clear example of how modern conceptions of the shaman are far too often expressed. His publicity makes a great deal about his experiences with several ‘authentic’ native traditions, but also borrows heavily from the layman’s version of quantum theory… while showing a painfully superficial understanding of both. There’s a lot of lip service to concepts such as (one of my all-time favourites) becoming a ‘spiritual warrior’ without actually having any martial training or combat experience whatsoever. There’s also the classic come-along of his Deep Inner Knowledge of Mighty Secrets of Power which he will share with you… for a hefty fee.

And what he’s selling is such a superficial version of wisdom, a weak dilution of knowledge. Shamanism For Dummies.

He, like so many New Age gurus, sells the illusion that someone can become a powerful magician/shaman without actually putting in the work – the months and years of practice, study and trial it takes to develop yourself. This isn’t just cheating his clients, it’s insulting to those who actually have done the work. It also gives a dangerous impression that Ray and his ilk are far more competent in these matters than they actually are. Ray claimed he was an expert, an authority in this field and as a result people trusted him with their lives and souls – and he wasn’t even able to work out that people in hot rooms need to breathe.

I think the thing about Ray that stood out for me most is how utterly plastic and shallow, how inauthentic in every sense, he seems. He comes across as nothing so much as Tom Cruise in Magnolia… I can picture Ray running around a stage, his little wire microphone stuck to his head, declaiming “Respect the cock! And tame the cunt!”. No master of the occult arts – just a salesman.

(An effective salesman, though. Bear in mind he’s still open for business and people are still going on his retreats.)

It’s not that I don’t think there’s a place for teachers of mystical knowledge – or that they shouldn’t be compensated for their time and services. As I said about the appropriation of native techniques, it’s about not taking the piss – not getting greedy, not assuming that everyone has the same strengths and abilities, not caring how hard you push the bodies of those under your tutelage as long as your idea of the soul is satisfied. When you think like that, it’s easy to forget that a person is mind and body and soul together – and that their existence does not come with a price tag.

———————————

Further reading:

Although their focus is mostly on the mysticism of the Indian subcontinent, the Guruphiliac blog has an excellent perspective on the money-grabbing (and ass-grabbing) side of so many alleged spiritual masters.

I also strongly recommend the two-part post at “Thoughts from a Threshold” which gives excellent advice on safety in ritual spaces, which is one of the few positive benefits to come out of the Ray affair.

Pt 1

Pt 2

——————————–

Next time on Guttershaman – more on money and Newage, tricksters and con-men. Possibly even Rainbow Unicorns.



Guttershaman Halloween Special – The Gutter Press and the Tribe of the Strange

12 October, 2009

 

 

“The majority is always sane.” – Larry Niven, Ringworld

 

“Happy Halloween, ladies… Nuns – no sense of humour.” – The Kurgan, in Highlander

 

——————————————————————

 

All my life, the stories that have spoken to me have invariable been from what are usually considered the ‘lesser’ kinds of storytelling – science fiction, comics, B-movies, horror, fantasy.

 

Why?

 

Mostly because I can more readily identify with the characters. The mainstream and ‘literary’ works I’ve read are about people who are utterly unlike me and those I know and care about. Their concerns (blood relations, conventional seductions, party politics, capitalist greed – in other words, the consensus reality called ‘normality’) are not my concerns. The people who are my heroes and inspiration in fiction are ‘larger than life’ – because my life, though not on the same scale as such figures, is still far closer to those ‘unreal’ tales than to the ‘real life’ ones. Being a magician in a world which mostly doesn’t believe in magic will do that, I guess.

 

I also think that genres which allow room to step outside contemporary society and look at it from an angle have far more to offer than those which reside utterly within it – it’s something at which SF and horror, at their best, excel. And that reading SF and other fantastical genres specifically stretches your brain in beneficial ways that mainstream works simply cannot do (one benefit seems to be a kind of memetic inoculation against Future Shock – once you’re used to considering complex multiple universes and ideas in your reading matter, rapid change of information and wider ranges of ideas in the physical world become so much easier to assimilate).

 

It’s not easy being at such a remove from consensus reality. Even ignoring the scorn (and occasional bullying) it can attract, just finding people you can talk to who Get It, who share some of your perspective and have read those same weird writers, seen the same odd films, was an uphill struggle. It’s easier now of course – the internet has made fandom much more accessible than back in the day when the only way to contact other fans was through mimeographed zines and occasional conventions. And though those folk are not always people I can get along with, I still feel a stronger affinity for them than those who stick to the mainstream of thought and art.

 

(It’s worth noting that there’s a huge overlap between fandom groups and other Outsiders – roleplay gamers, sexual and gender explorers… and, of course, magicians.)

 

Sometimes, I think of it as being a member of the Tribe of the Strange. Those (to adapt a quote from SF writer Bruce Sterling) “whose desires do not accord with the status quo.” And though inhabitants of that tribe do indeed work, love, make families and strive for some kind of everyday stability on which to base their existence, their idea of what that entails – and the values they espouse – are often qualitatively different from those of the mainstream.

 

It’s not simply a matter of the knee-jerk opposition to/rejection of the mainstream (though there’s always an element of that going on, I suspect). It’s more that there’s a greater breadth of possibility outside it. And it’s certainly not saying that those who live within the mainstream are inferior or wrong – just that other possibilities exist and can be just as valid (or more so to those who the mainstream consider outsiders). And some of us prefer to live in that tribe far more than any of the ones offered by the Normal world.

 

Interestingly, ever since the outpouring of the counterculture in the 1960s if not before, those stories and underground ideas have become more and more part of the mainstream. We’re now at a point where the most popular books ever written are fantasies about magicians and vampires, the best-selling movies are about robots, superheroes, spaceships and aliens. Yet somehow there’s still that disdain for the ‘Fantastika‘, both from ordinary people (who find it ‘weird’) and the academic intelligentsia (who find it ‘common’).

 

Co-opting of the counterculture is something that’s gone on for a long time, but the pace of it has increased rapidly as the mainstream has begun to run out of ideas. But what gets pulled into contemporary mainstream culture is of necessity diluted and superficial. And lacking in imagination – the fuel that drives both genre writing and magic… and which seems to be peculiarly limited in mainstream and literary writing. (After all, how much imagination does it really take for a middle-aged college professor to write a novel about the sexual desires of a middle-aged college professor?)

 

While out for a walk during the writing of this, I overheard a conversation which ties into this nicely.

A young-ish upper-middle-class couple, chatting after visiting a friend, who they were talking about:

“He’s just so… so unconventional“, they said. “I sometimes wonder if he’s got a screw loose.”

Unconventional equals insane? For a lot of folk, that’s about right. Showing even a tiny deviation from the Normal is an invitation to scorn, rejection – even violence.

 

But what the hell is ‘normal’, anyway?

 

To anyone who’s paid attention to history (and is not part of a religious or political tribe which rejects examining the past through any filter but their own) the definition of normality is a mercurial thing – changing constantly, no more solid and immutable than fashion. But all those definitions of normal have to be about stability, conservative (small ‘c’) attitudes, preservation of the status quo – and I do see the necessity of that. But at the same time, there needs to be room for outliers from that majority view, or the culture/tribe/country stagnates. There’s even indications that the lack of innovation caused by the rejection of the un-normal can destroy civilisations.

 

Perhaps this is why so many societies have times where the rules of the normal are temporarily suspended, where the usually despised and shunned aspects – sexual expression, weirdness, dressing strangely – are allowed to roam the streets. Carnival. Mardi Gras.

 

Halloween.

 

That lovely time of the year, when dressing like a monster (and increasingly, a sexy monster) in public is acceptable. When for a short while, Goths, gender queers and other outsiders can blend in, won’t be ostracised. When the rules of Normal don’t quite apply. Where the superheroes and wizards and beasts are, briefly, as welcome as anyone else.

 

And of course a time when the normal folk get to be tourists in the Tribe of the Strange… only to wake up the next day (possibly with hangovers and/or sugar crashes) and go back to the ‘real’ world where dressing up like David bloody Beckham is the only acceptable form of cosplay – and the demons and witches get put back in the box marked ‘unreal’.

 

I love Halloween. I love that everyone gets to join in. I don’t think the Tribe of the Strange needs a solid border between it and the ‘mundanes’ – but I know the difference between being a tourist and being a citizen, that me and mine can’t really do the same. That dressing up as a magician one night a year, and being one all the time, are quite different things. Part of me wishes my tribe and theirs could get along better… but that the distance and difference between us might actually be the whole point.

 

Another part of me looks at all this and sees something that looks a whole lot like cultural theft.

 

Think about it – the majority culture cherry-picks what it finds attractive from an existing tribal tradition, shows little or no respect to that tribe, commodifies what it’s nicked and still insists it’s somehow superior to the tribe that’s been pillaged… (Much like those ‘literary’ writers who co-opt SF and horror tropes without having actually read enough of the genre to avoid the worst clichés, then loudly claim what they have ‘created’ isn’t that horrible sci-fi but somehow better… the Plastic Shamen of the Fantastic.)

 

I don’t actually take that idea seriously. If anything, I see that the weird is actually colonising the mundane in many ways. As our world grows more complex (both technologically and in terms of how many competing ideas surround us), ordinary life more and more resembles the science fiction of only a few years back. Those discrete fandoms that used to be obscure are becoming more acceptable and fannish conceits (from the value of behind-the-scenes documentaries to slash fiction) are becoming part of the general culture.

 

But no matter how much is absorbed into the common culture, there will always be those ideas and people who are too weird, won’t fit, stay beyond the pale – no matter how much money and publicity gets thrown at Harry Potter and Edward Cullen (and as the latter so perfectly shows, even those parts of the weird which do creep into the mainstream are softened, bowdlerised, rendered safe). And as mainstream culture shifts from permissive to restrictive and back again, this will oscillate. Or the weird will simply, once again, fall out of fashion. For a while.

 

And outside the normal world, the Tribe of the Strange will persist. We don’t shift with the tides of fashion. We’re not tourists in the weird parts of life – we live here.

 

We’re not as scary or inhospitable as the mundane world thinks. We don’t want to take them over or make them go away – we just hope to find a place where we can all talk, hang out, celebrate life in all its oddity and loveliness. Maybe we’ll find that Temporary Autonomous Zone, where the fantastic and the ordinary are all one tribe.

 

On Halloween, perhaps?

 

——————————————————————

 

Buffy: “You’re missing the whole point of Halloween.”
Willow: “Free candy?!”

 

From Joss Whedon’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

 

 

 


Guttershaman – The Authentic Shaman

20 January, 2009

‘Of course the Chinese mix everything up – look at what they have to work with! Buddhism, Confucianism and Taoist alchemy and sorcery. We take what we want and leave the rest, just like your salad bar.’ Egg Shen in John Carpenter’s Big Trouble In Little China

(Disclaimer: I am, to quote Jim Jarmush’s great film Dead Man, a Stupid Fucking White Man. I have no formal training in the deep mysteries of any native ‘shamanic’ or tribal tradition – of any single tradition at all, for that matter. I am just a product of my time and place, trying to find my way. That perspective is the basis for all that follows.)

The title this time around is a misnomer. There are no authentic shamen. Not any more.

The term ‘shaman‘ is a specific one. It refers to Tungus-speaking tribal practitioners of folk magic and spirituality. They were wiped out so completely by Soviet and Chinese Communism that Western ‘neo-shamen’ from Michael Harner’s school came over and instituted their own versions of ‘shamanic’ practice to replace the native tradition. So that makes anyone claiming to be a shaman – neo or Gutter or otherwise – inauthentic.

The idea of shamanism we have today, which draws ideas from many different tribal and native traditions (via anthropology, which co-opted the term), is likely a very different thing than the original Siberian form. The word ‘shaman’ has become a placeholder, a symbol for something else – usually describing various interpretations of traditional and tribal spiritual praxes involving a rather borderline position to the rest of the tribe, consciousness-alteration and ‘travelling’ to spirit realms for healing and wisdom. Of course, in considering the use of tribal spiritual motifs from other cultures, we soon hit a problem… which is usually called cultural ‘theft’ or appropriation.

There’s no doubt that an awful lot of problems have arisen due to the heavy-handed appropriation of older cultural concepts. The Native American Nations have often complained about (mostly) white New Age practitioners taking elements of their practices and touting them, out of context, as a spiritual path. Interestingly, common terms used by Native Americans to describe these Newagers are ‘plastic shamen‘ and ‘shake-and-bake shamen’…

I think the key factors here are around concepts of respect and authenticity. (A third factor is, of course, commerce. That’s a big enough can of worms that I’ll have to open it in a later post.)

The respect part I get, absolutely. Barging into a native tradition and announcing you’re not only a fully-fledged practitioner of that traditions mysticism but that you’re improving it and that the natives are Doing It Wrong, is insulting and crass. “Taking the piss”, as we Brits call it.

If you’re going to work fully in a magical or spiritual tradition, I would say showing due respect to the culture it came from is just good bloody manners, as well as good sense. But at the same time, worrying about how the symbols and memes of such cultures are used (or even misused) outside of their native context often seems more a matter of colonial guilt and shame than disrespect. It’s a complex set of issues.

(Plus, some of those tribal traditions have attitudes and practices – homophobia, misogyny, isolationism, child abuse, human sacrifice – which are frankly best left to the past. Of course the actions of colonial invaders in the past were often just as vile… and I can’t offhand think of a culture that has not been invaded and colonised at some time in their past, or been the invader, or both. Like I said, complex.)

Is it cultural appropriation for a white man to enjoy (or perform) Afro-Carribean-based music? Or for an Indian movie maker to be inspired by Hollywood (or vice versa)? Or an Amazonian native to wear a Manchester United t-shirt? For a magician to use laymans versions of quantum or meme theory as magical tools?

To me, that’s kind like asking whether Crossroads Blues was performed better by Robert Johnson or Cream. Or more directly, which is better – traditional Yoruba magic, Haitian Voudon, New Orleans Voodoo or Cuban Santeria?

Cultures are always a mix of the native and the foreign, the traditional and the new. Have been ever since humans started to trade. The quote at the start states the mix of currents in Chinese spirituality quite nicely, for example. The degree of mixing changes over time and place – sometimes just a touch, sometimes a dollop. Sometimes the mixings can provide something genuinely good – like the massive upgrade to British cuisine provided by Asian immigrants in the 1970’s. Sometimes it doesn’t work so well – such as Japanese whiskey. But cultures and traditions evolve through mixing and exchange of ideas.

This is especially true of Britain, a Mongrel Nation if ever there was one (as explained in scrupulous and often hilarious detail by Eddie Izzard in his TV show of that name). The original native British (and Western European) ‘shamanic’ traditions are all but gone too, banished by the Christians… but enough hints and pieces remain in myth and legend – in our culture – to inspire a new ‘tradition’ of mystical praxis to arise. It’s not terribly authentic, in all likelihood – there’s no way to really know (though many talented pagans and historians are doing their best to find out all they can about it.). Large chunks of it have been drawn from other native traditions. But it is powerful and quite beautiful at times. At other times, it can be a farrago of confused, misquoted and misapplied traditional currents, mixed in ignorance, stirred in arrogance. The result isn’t authentic at all – no matter how hard some Newage types try to claim it as such.

No question that the Plastic Shamen and their techniques are all-too-often a hodge-podge of different traditions and practices thrown together more-or-less at random. And, I have to admit, that could be said of what I do too.

That’s part of the reason I coined the term Guttershaman to describe my path/spirituality/whatever. Most people know what shaman – and gutter – implies.

Yes, I picked up my information from libraries, other practitioners, movies and TV shows – and I made a whole bunch of stuff up, based on my experiences and discoveries. At the same time, there was always something about the shamanic concept as I understand it that called to me. The elements of being an outsider to the tribe as a whole, but still in some sense having a responsibility to it. The use of ecstatic and terrifying occurrences as a tool for spiritual development. The process of bringing something back from ‘the other side’. And, ultimately, the sense of being called to the path by something beyond the normal world. If there’s any ‘authenticity’ in what I do, it’s to that.

My wife is also a ‘shaman’. Her path, to put it mildly, differs from mine. She found that her way is Curanderismo – the Hispanic American folk practice. She has spent a long time in Peru, learning it first hand from a master whose family has worked in this path for generations. She’s also a neuroscientist by training, and has picked up more than a little of the multi-model approach to magic both from myself and her own studies. Thus when she thinks about that path, there is a degree of both distance and immersion, depending on circumstance and context.

Also… her master has taken the sacred songs (icaros) from many different tribes in Peru and elsewhere to bring into his praxis. And… that tradition is itself mixed with Catholic elements brought over by the Conquistadors. In fact, the majority of the lyrics to the icaros are in Spanish and use Christian imagery. The pure native tradition just isn’t there any more.

Is the system she follows ‘authentic’? Is it more or less so for her (an American woman of East European Jewish ancestry and a trained scientist) to practice it than for her Columbian-born, mixed-race, Catholic-indoctrinated Maestro? And is she more or less of a ‘shaman’ than I?

Put it this way – she and I both get results. And we work together great.

It’s the concept of ‘authenticity’ that gets in the way, I think. It’s like ‘purity’ in some ways – an impossible, and sometimes dangerous, ideal. Except, perhaps, when talking about being authentic to an ideal…

To feel your true identity is not based in your immediate family, your tribe, your country and its religious and social habits – but is something you sense and strive towards – is not easy. Sometimes an idea from another culture is exactly the thing you need to, forgive the term, become yourself. Sometimes who you’re born and raised as isn’t who you are. It isn’t theft to find a different culture to your own enriching – as long as you are authentic in your respect, that you strive not just to take but also to give.

As long as you don’t take the piss.

………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………

‘Authenticity is bullshit. Never more so than today.

We can be anyone we can imagine being. We can be someone new every day.

…See if any of these comments are familiar:

“You should be happy with who you are.”

“Be yourself”

“That stuff’s just fake.”

“Don’t get ideas above your station.”

“Take that shit off.”

“Why can’t you be like everyone else?”

Yeah?

We’re not real enough. We’re not authentic to our society.

…But you know what? Back in the days before the internet, a kid called Robert Zimmerman said, “fuck that, I’m going to be the man I dream of being. I’m going to become someone completely new and write about the end of the world because it’s the only thing worth talking about”. And that was one guy in Minnesota, in the decade the telecommunications satellite was invented. Imagine what all of us, living here in the future, can achieve.

Be authentic to your dreams. Be authentic to your own ideas about yourself. Grind away at your own minds and bodies until you become your own invention.

Be mad scientists.

Here at the end of the world, it’s the only thing worth doing.’

Warren Ellis, in Doktor Sleepless Issue 5, ‘Your Imaginary Friend.’

POSTSCRIPT – In researching this piece, I came across a lot of very interesting writing on the subjects discussed. Two I found – one long, the other very short – are especially worth a look.

(Next on Guttershaman – Culture, money and morality. Tricksters and thieves. Probably.)


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.)


Guttershaman – Meanings and Patterns, part 2. The Nature of Reality, and other short subjects

14 August, 2008

Before I get started, many thanks to those who commented on the series so far. Special thanks to my old mate Gyrus, for pointing out the work of Ramsey Dukes to me. Dukes is one of those writers I never quite got around to reading until recently… and as one of the direct influences on the Chaos current, he’s important. I recommend his book ‘SSOTBME!’ highly – you can download a free copy of it at www.skilluminati.com/docs/RamseyDukes-SSOTBME.pdf . Put it this way – if you’re interested enough in the subject to read what I think, you’ll certainly benefit from reading him.

And a convivial shout-out to those who found their way here from Whitechapel.

Onward!
————-

What is truth, man? You heard the weirdo…
Zaphod Beeblebrox.

Earlier, I made the point that there’s a difference between what is (for want of a better word) real and what we can actually describe. This is an idea which many find a little troubling.

It’s not a new idea. Plato’s Cave model is a couple of thousand years old at this point, the acceptance that reality cannot be fully described a basic in Taoism, which is at least twice as old. The modern riff on this usually called Post-Modernism has been around long enough in modern society to become cliché.

I think the reason folk find this notion unsettling has a lot to do with the need for stability. Once you start considering just how much of ‘consensus reality’ is neither that real nor that much of a consensus, things get very unstable, very fast. People work harder to reinforce the boundaries of their version of reality when it is questioned – often falling back into simpler beliefs which they don’t have to think too hard about.

“Just keeping it real”…

Another reaction is, of course, to ridicule the idea. Often when the idea of a subjective element in perceived reality comes up – both in discussing post-modern ideas in general and modern magic in particular – the line of attack most used is “You don’t believe anything is real, right? So why can’t you walk through walls then?”, or similar.

It’s not that we think nothing is real. It’s just that we’re aware that local definitions of reality vary, that the context matters.
If you change language, you change the way you think. Change the way you think, you change which parts of the outside world get filtered. The outside world doesn’t suddenly go away, you just notice different bits of it.

Of course, even that notion of ‘the outside world’ is a blurry one at best. All we can ever know about reality is what we sense – and it’s known both to science and common experience just how easy our senses are to fool. Eyes have blind spots, ears have sound frequencies they can’t hear – and even a small chemical change in the brain (say a few microgrammes of an entheogen like LSD, or a lowering of sugar or oxygen levels) will completely mess up both the filters and the mind receiving the data. Yet knowing this doesn’t change most people’s opinion that what they see and sense is Really Real Reality. But there seems to be something beneath that sense data and filtering. Usually.

For example…
Just because you’re so off your face that the cars whizzing past you on the street look like Technicolor Unicorns doesn’t alter the cold hard fact that all cars continue to be real – as you will soon find out if you step in front of one. Like Philip K Dick said – reality is that which, if you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away. But that still leaves a lot to play with – especially if belief itself can actually alter what you sense as being real, what you filter out… and maybe on some level, in a very small way, the underlying reality itself.

That’s the trouble with magic. It’s so much smaller, subtler, than the hype makes it out to be. The myths and fantasy tales about mages walking through walls, levitating mountains and disintegrating enemies bear as much resemblance to what actually happens as cars exploding in movies does to driving down the road. Of course from inside the mages head, what happens can have the same impact mentally as lifting a mountain with their mind… or indeed, being hit by that car.

It helps a lot to have some way to balance solid reality with subjective imagination. Magicians lacking this are often found in mental health facilities. The ones who do come to an understanding of the difference often develop a kind of ‘model agnosticism’, an ability to switch from one description of reality to another, depending on the needs of the moment – but never ignoring all those cars.

One of the most handy mental tools in modern magic is often stated like this – ‘treat the things you encounter as if they are real, not as real’. It’s a key concept in the work of Austin Spare and informs many of the less dogmatic Fortean theorists like Jacques Vallee and Patrick Harpur. There’s a need in magical practice for the mage to immerse themselves in belief – if they don’t believe in what they’re doing, the magic doesn’t work too well – but that all too often leads to slipping into the oh-so-easy mindset that the belief system they’re immersed in is Real. The ‘as if’ rule-of-thumb helps guard against this.
(Crowley’s technique of working intently within a belief system until you get a magical result and then dropping that belief system completely, swapping another one in and repeating the process is also quite instructive. Eventually.)

It’s a lot easier to deal with some of the heavier results of magical working – such as being faced with something that looks, sounds and acts very much like a god/demon/angel/alien – if you can take that one step back and act as if it’s what it looks like, not that it really is that. Though at the same time, it’s a good idea to treat the alleged apparent entity with the same degree of respect as you would if they were Really Real. That’s just polite. And much, much safer than not doing so.

————

I’m very aware that this piece is kind of loose and non-specific. That’s the nature of the beast. I’ll likely waffle on more about this in later posts.

For a longer and better consideration of the subjective nature of perceived reality, you could do a lot worse than reading Robert Anton Wilson’s ‘Cosmic Trigger Volume 1’.

(Next on Guttershaman – a quick guide to spellcasting. Thoughts on the misuse of scientific terminology. And maybe some of the things I promised last time.)