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.

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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

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


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Rending the Veil, Samhain Issue is up

22 October, 2009

I’m happy to note the bumper Halloween issue of the ever-pleasing Rending The Veil is up. As well as a repost of the last Guttershaman piece, I’ve got a book review in there – a rather scathing one.

Enjoy…


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

 

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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?

 

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

 

From Joss Whedon’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

 

 

 


…resumed

10 October, 2009

After that lengthy bout of Pig Lung, I’m back to writing stuff that’s longer then 140 characters. Feels good.

A few things to catch up on…

One of my perennial points of incomprehension is why people with ‘deeply-held’ religious beliefs find it so very difficult to step away from them, to consider that other possibilities are worth considering. A recent study may explain this – evidence is appearing that the brain processes fact and belief in the same place. Of course there are other studies which seems to show the complete opposite

Perhaps the most fun I had while in downtime (that didn’t involve watching all of Lost – which I thoroughly enjoyed) was Twittering my little heart out on the inaugural International Blasphemy Day. Those who’ve been reading me for a while know that I consider taking the piss out of belief not only to be funny but also a necessary tool, even a human right. I think I managed to take the piss out of every major creed and belief system in there at one point or another… my favourite post being:

My god fucked your god. Your god loved it, the little slut.

Amusingly, the only direct responses I got complaining about my doubting their deeply-held beliefs came from atheists…

Also, downtime allowed me to get to grips with what was perhaps an inevitable tech upgrade… an iPhone. This solved 99% of my portable comms needs for the foreseeable future – excellent Twitter and RSS apps especially. Now if they’d come up with GPG encryption for mail, I’d be sorted.

Next up – a Guttershaman piece for the Halloween season, various rants and raves…  and maybe, just maybe, a little fun.


Normal services…

27 August, 2009

Two brief points:

There won’t be much new coming up here until I have recovered from an inconvenient bout of Swine Flu.

But, as I continue to Twitter feverishly, it is good timing that the News Felch aggregation of my daily Twitter output has been restored. See link on sidebar for this.

Catch you on the flipside.


Mind, senses, science and the spiritual

16 August, 2009
“Saying there’s no soul because the brain has consciousness structures is like saying there’s no light because a lightbulb has filaments.”
John Shirley

Saying there’s no soul because the brain has consciousness structures is like saying there’s no light because a lightbulb has filaments.” – John Shirley

A thought which needs further development…

It’s a common statement by modern scientists – especially the strain of no-ghost-in-the-machine rationalism espoused by the likes of Pinker and Blackmore – that there’s a part of the brain which acts as though it has some contact with a higher consciousness or God. Of course in their minds this part is either some kind of bizarre evolutionary holdover like the appendix or else just a glitch in the way we think. It can’t be actually be sensing anything, because what it reports doesn’t fit their model of the universe.

It occurs to me that the same thread of scientific enquiry has found many interesting flaws and glitches in our senses – in fact many optical, sonic and other sensory illusions are often offered as a kind of explanation for why people see or report non-ordinary phenomena. Yet, knowing this, those scientists do not automatically dismiss all sensory data.

Why is it so hard to consider the possibility that the ‘god-sensing’ part of our minds is at least as valid a sense organ as the others?

Prone to confusion and mistake, sure. Full of holes and possible to trick, certainly. But since that’s exactly what all our other senses are like, why dismiss it completely?


Mason Lang on film

24 July, 2009

Two interesting posts on the relationship between movies and religion recently leads me to remind folks of the splendid character Mason Lang in The Invisibles. This quasi-Bruce-Wayne figure, partly as a result of an early experience with non-ordinary reality (which he perceived originally as a classic alien abduction scenario) grew up a little… odd. Lang, a rich benefactor of the Invisibles combat-magic cells, has a theory…that some movies contain hidden subtexts designed for the Invisibles and allied occultists and mystics to receive.

And, to benefit those who might not have met the thoughts of Mr. Lang, here’s some quotes. (All words by the Magus Grant Morrison.)

“Speed is about human evolution, right? It’s so obvious. The bus represents the world. Watch it again – they’ve got every nationality on there. Not only that, but it’s being driven to disaster by this guy who’s either made up to look Cro-Magnon or chosen becasue he looks that way. He’s our brutal evolutionary heritage, driving the world to armageddon while everybody argues. The whole thing’s symbolic… Just look at the amount of times you see the number 23. it’s in scene after scene. That’s not coincidence. The whole things a coded message.

…and finally , after the whole tantric love trip on the subway train at the end, they burst out into the street in front of a cinema showing 2001-A Space Odyssey…”

“I see this weird stuff every time I watch a movie. Think about Pulp Fiction – the glowing thing in the 666 suitcase is Marcellus Wallace’s soul, right? The band aid on his neck in the bar scene with Bruce Willis is where the soul was extracted. I mean I could go on all day. Check out Speed next time you watch it, just keep in mind that the bus is the World and that big gap in the highway construction is the Apocalypse.

…it means… I don’t know. It means, basically, that some movies are clearly being made by Invisibles and they contain messages for other Invisibles. Invisibles talking to each other in ther own secret language… the movies are signals, they let us know that others are out there…”

And this one goes a little deeper behind the curtain…

“I remember looking at the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia when I was a little kid. That’s what I love about illusions; they’re right up there in front of you but somehow you don’t see them… until suddenly you do… and I saw that I lived in a world where the symbol was more important than the reality. Where the menu was supposed to taste better than the meal.

They’re bombing Planet Hollywood… those terrorists know exactly where the power lies. None of it’s real.

Kennedy was a good man. Nixon was a bad man. Is that true or is that just what we’ve been told is true?

Half of the stars in Hollywood are gay pretending to be straight… Walt Disney was a shit.

The moon landings happened in a studio.

The America I thought I lived in was a trick; I’d only ever really seen it on TV, in comic books and movies… especially movies. The Rosicrucians who built this country wouldn’t know where they were if you brought them here, would they? Not until you showed them Independence Day.

That night when I pissed down over Manhattan, I saw time. I saw time itself… America has been in a declared state of national emergency since March 9th, 1933, giving the president powers to suspend freedom of speech and take control away from all communications media at any time.

Who cares? Bruce Willis is here to save us all.

The more I looked, the less real America became. And the less real it became, the stronger it got. Planet Hollywood.”

As someone who’s had a fair share of emotional experiences watching movies – which I would not hesitate to call mystical – I kind of identify with Mason. (Maybe my old idea of reviewing movies in the style of Mason Lang should be revived? Hmm…)