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

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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

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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…

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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

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



No hay banda!

24 January, 2009

Been on a bit of a David Lynch binge the last couple of days – with both Beloveds away, I can induge those pleasures neither appreciates. As ever, that man’s movies get me all kinds of mystical and Mason Lang-y. (More about Mason and his odd tastes in movie criticism later.)

So, without further ado, featuring the talents of Naomi Watts, Laura Elena Harring, Richard Green and the glorious voice of Rebekah del Rio… the Club Silencio scene from Mulholland Dr.

(Interesting postmodern analysis of the movie – spoilers galore – and the concept of ‘prosthetic memory’ here.)


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.)


Gyrus interviews Harpur

20 November, 2008

My old mate Gyrus just posted his interview with the excellent Fortean hermeticist Patrick Harpur, author of Daemonic Reality and Mercurius (the latter of which he also reviews).

Here’s a snippet:

Gyrus: The threefold division of ‘body, soul & spirit’, as opposed to the dualistic mind/body model so common in our culture, seems central to your work. Could you sketch it briefly, and discuss how you feel “soul” has come to be distorted, misunderstood, or lost?

Patrick: You’ve started with the hardest possible question! I’ve just jotted down 14 ways in which the word ’soul’ can be used, and there are many more. It’s impossible to define. But this flaw is also its strength. Like ‘God’, it’s a portmanteau word, ‘empty’ in itself, yet taking on meaning in different contexts and in relation to other things.

Soul in relation to body likes to personify itself as Jung’s anima, for instance, or as the personal daimon whom Plato describes in his myth of the geezer called Er who returns from the dead at the end of The Republic. It’s different from soul in relation to spirit, which is where I prefer to use the word as the Neoplatonists used it. For them, soul was a whole realm intermediate between the spiritual or intelligible world (nous) and our own familiar sensory, material world. It was Anima Mundi, the Soul of the World, wherein dwell the daimons who link us, as Socrates remarked, to the gods.

However, this all-pervading collective realm was paradoxical: it could also manifest individually, as individual souls—in other words, as us. Since the chief faculty of soul is not reason but imagination, it likes to imagine itself in many different ways, cutting its cloth to suit the times. Thus it re-imagines itself now as Imagination itself—a powerful autonomous realm beloved of the Romantics whence all the myths come—now as Jung’s collective unconscious. It supplies the root metaphor for such modern re-inventions as the earth-spirit Gaia and Sheldrake’s morphogenetic field.

But, in another sense, soul and spirit can be thought of as symbols of the two main perspectives through which we view the world—the two perspectives which create the world we see. We experience them as a tension within ourselves between the spiritual longing for Oneness, unity, purity, light, transcendence etc. and the imaginative need to recognise Manyness, multiplicity, labyrinthine entanglement, darkness, immanence etc. It’s because, historically—ever since the Enlightenment—Western culture has emphasised the preeminence of ‘masculine’ upward-striving Apollonian reason and science that I have tried to emphasise the neglected ’soul’ perspective which is dark, moon-struck, downward-spiralling and Hermetic or Dionysian—the Affirmative way of the artist, as the medieval mystics might have put it, instead of their own Negative way, which disdains and seeks to overcome the images and myths which soul, willy-nilly, besieges us with and which we find so hard to free ourselves from in spiritual disciplines. The great ascents of the spirit into rareified mountain realms where the One dwells in blinding light can be read as a disastrous neglect, even repression, of the Nekiya—the underworld journey of the soul whose course is tortuous and mazy, moving towards darkness and death. That’s why, as far as any sort of gnosis goes, I prefer the soul’s way, death and resurrection, the painful initiatory dismembering of the shaman, to the rather unsexed and anodyne rebirth system of ’spiritual’ paths.


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)