Demons in Modern Western Magick: A Conference Talk

Myself in the dark, at the podium, before a large image of the first slide.

Cranking up the demons at the beginning of my talk.

Seriously Possessed was a conference organised by ASSAP (The Association for the Scientific Study of Anomalous Phenomena) and Goldmiths University on March 7th, 2015, which invited a range of speakers to present views on demons, possession, exorcism, and other varieties of demonic experience.

My contribution was on experiences generated through the engagement of contemporary occult practice with the rituals described in The Lesser Key of Solomon the King (a.k.a. ‘The Goetia’).


Use the widget above to listen, or download the file [MP3, 57MB]. The audio is not perfect, largely because I was loping about the podium, demonstrating pieces of magickal equipment and interacting with the audience. I have added amplification during these moments, to make the words audible at least. There is also a PDF file [1.5 MB] of the slides that accompanied the talk.

Thanks to ASSAP, Goldsmiths, all the speakers, and everyone I chatted with for a very interesting and entertaining day.

The Powers Retreat at the Tower of Hallbar

The first two weeks of February, 2015, I spent on retreat at the Tower of Hallbar in Scotland, in the company of Florian Weps and Daniel Ingram. We were also joined by Tommy McNally, who popped in for a short but intense couple of days about half-way through.

The retreat was Daniel’s idea. For some years he had harboured an ambition to dedicate some time to exploring the Buddhist ‘powers’. These are supernormal abilities that arise as a consequence of attaining states of extreme concentration. Daniel discusses these, and some former experiences of them, in Mastering the Core Teachings of the Buddha (London: Aeon Books, 2008, p.173ff of the first edition).

Old and isolated stone tower in a snowy landscape. Brrrrrr.

The Tower of Hallbar, in all its rugged, wintry, sixteenth-centuryness.

The practice classically associated with the cultivation of the powers is known as ‘the fire kasina’. This involves staring relaxedly at a flame until an after-image forms on the retina, after which the eyes are closed and the retinal after-image becomes the object of concentration rather than the external flame. We drew up a pretty hardcore rota at the beginning of the retreat and managed to stick to it pretty well, notching up about twelve hours practice on an average day, and reaching fifteen when we were being especially good.

It was an absolutely magickal, fascinating fortnight, spent in the company of three lovely people, and in a wonderfully atmospheric setting. Every time I think back to it, I feel a glow of gratitude towards the others and what they taught me. From the beginning I sensed this might be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and indeed it now feels like it was.

Below are widgets providing access to two audio files that constitute our ‘debrief session’ at the end of the retreat. In short, the ‘powers’ that we discovered appear to be forms of mental imagery with exotic characteristics that cause them to behave more like perceptions than images. I was astonished to encounter 3D visual forms, rotating in front of me, in perfect perspective, and persisting even as I wriggled around on the cushion or fully indulged my feelings about how mind-blowing they were.

All three of us at the time agreed that the kasina practice seems a means for ‘hacking’ what might be hard-wired modules for colour and 3D perception in the mind-brain. But if that sounds to you like too glib an explanation, then I would agree you are probably right. What exactly is the supposed ‘hack’, for instance? I could not say how I was causing myself to have hallucinations, even as I was having them.

We also ran into the shadow side of these practices, which we discuss along with much other stuff in the recordings. Two of us, myself included, ran into some difficult territory and had to take steps to extricate ourselves from trouble. If you are thinking of pursuing a practice of this kind, please take note. Your mental health may be at stake if you push yourself too far.

Another thing we agreed on was that the traditional texts describing kasina practice are badly in need of updating and simplification. For starters, some simple colour diagrams would be a big help. All of us were amazed at how consistent and apparently universal are the forms and sensations that arise in the various stages of fire kasina practice. To this end, we have created The Fire Kasina Meditation Site, which contains only the following recordings at the time of writing, but which we hope to supplement in due course.

My thanks again to Florian, Daniel and Tommy. It was a pleasure and a privilege to be in the company of such wonderful people and distinguished meditators.

Audio: Part One

In this first instalment we discuss the circumstances and organisation of the retreat, the instructions for the fire kasina practice, the stages of concentration arising from the practice, problems in the translations of the standard texts, the need for both focussing and widening the attention, colors and the manipulation of colors, the ‘ebbing two-color’ phase, the role of the element of fire in the retreat, the attainment of hyper-vivid imagery across various sensory modalities, ‘pseudo parallax’ imagery (images that act like perceptions), animated 3-D imagery, the ‘molten gold’, and the ‘low resolution’ versus ‘high resolution’ image spaces.

Use the audio player widget, above, or download the MP3 file [49MB].

Audio: Part Two

In this final installment we offer a recap of the stages so far, and then move on to discuss the range of options for exploration that the practice offers, the two types of imagery in the ‘low resolution’ space (processions of images and images with a life of their own), the nature of images in the ‘high resolution’ space, energy flows and bliss, synaesthetic and tactile imagery, contraindications and instabilities (the shadow side of the practice and how to deal with it), elemental magick, the focus on form versus the formless, effort versus non-effort, the benefits of the practice, the social and comical aspects of the retreat, psychological benefits.

Use the audio player widget, above, or download MP3 file [39 MB].

The Contents, Too, Are Divine

In mystical practice we may tend to expect distraction from the contents of experience. This is an assumption I acquired from following the path of Buddhist vipassana.

In vipassana the focus is upon the nature rather than the contents of experience. Suppose I am looking at a green triangle. In concentration meditation, I concentrate upon the green triangle. In vipassana, I contemplate the perception of the green triangle. Eventually, I see that the perception of the green triangle is neither green nor triangular. The perception itself has different characteristics: it is dependent upon attention; it is intermittent, seeming to arise in bursts or pulses; it is neither ‘in me’ nor ‘out there’. The characteristics of sensory perceptions are therefore non-sensory. Nothing in the nature of perceptions is actually perceivable, but only in their contents.

An image of a green triangle.

Your perception of this is actually neither triangular nor green.

As well as sensory perceptions, the contents of experience include stories we tell ourselves about what we perceive. ‘This is a green triangle’ is one such story, yet the perception of the green triangle itself nowhere includes this telling to ourselves of what we see. In vipassana they are simply recognised as stories, as just more contents of experience, rather than an indication of what that experience ‘is’. And then they are allowed to dissipate. In the process it often becomes apparent how unnecessary, neurotic or false those stories are.

Recently, I have been trying to learn counselling skills. Certainly, these skills can be helpful, yet my vipassana mindset baulks at them, because the tools of therapy consist mostly of re-arranging the contents of experience. For example, we might construct a story concerning why a certain feeling is felt; or we might start to identify as anger what was formerly experienced as depression.

Many people have odd notions about what ‘enlightenment’ means, but the liberation brought about through meditative practice is no defence against the contents of everyday experience, our personal psychological ‘stuff’, which continues to insist and to mean something. If it did stop, that would be terrible. Yet Buddhist discourse can sometimes foster an impression that the contents of experience are a cruel trick, to which the only sensible reaction is to try to escape. Certainly, I have struggled with moving into the areas of activity I am now moving into, because it seemed unbearable to embroil myself in other people’s psychological issues. ‘Content’ seems a distraction. I already have more than enough psychological stuff of my own, without trying to deal with other people’s. Yet when I run these ideas through the Neoplatonic framework that I favour these days, ‘content’ seems less like a cruel trick played by a hostile reality, and more like a direct embodiment of the providential nature of Soul.

Intellect and Soul

In the previous article, we encountered the ‘levels of being’ or hypostases, by which the Neoplatonic cosmos is structured. Intellect is that level at which the famous ‘Platonic Forms’ abide: those pesky things-in-themselves, which were denied existence by Aristotle, ruled unknowable by Kant, and psychologized to buggery by Jung.

The Intellect is the level at which things and appearances coincide, where understanding is not an issue because all Forms (participating at this level so strongly in the One) are already self-evidently comprehensible, now and unchanging for eternity.

The overflow of the perfection of Intellect produces the next level, which is Soul. Whereas the Intellect is unchanging, Soul differs from it precisely in being subject to time. Consider the contrast between knowing that 2 + 2 = 4 and knowing that you love your mother. Both might be true, but one of them will not be true always and forever. The first is a product of the human intellect; the second of the human soul.

Soul is the level at which ‘content’ manifests. A characteristic of content is its capacity to distract, and, to distract us, something has to suddenly appear (and hopefully disappear again). Feelings, for instance, are clearly comprehensible whilst they arise. We have no doubt that we are angry when we feel angry, ecstatic when we feel ecstatic. The problem with feelings is that they may not arise singly, but alongside other, contradictory, equally self-evident feelings. The reason they can pull off this duplicitous feat is that all feelings are ‘true’ yet also, to some degree, temporary.

How does eternal Intellect descend into time-bound Soul? How is the eternally self-evident transformed into an individual’s experience of what is temporarily the case? The answer to this question would be an answer also to the difference between awakening and preoccupation with ‘contents’. For Plotinus, however, this does not seem to have been much of a concern. He seems to have been more interested in the ascent of the Soul to the Intellect, and thence to The One itself, rather than with the metaphysics of the descent. He assures us:

[Y]ou will, by arousing the virtue that is in yourself and by remembering the perfection that you possess, regain your likeness and through virtue rise to The Intelligence and through wisdom to The One. Plotinus, Enneads VI (9: 11). (O’Brien 1964: 88.)

Yet, evidently, this purported experience of Intellect and The One is neither eternal nor even constant throughout our life. It is evident at certain times but not at others, which would seem to indicate that it is largely determined by the workings of Soul. It is the nature of Soul that must therefore be calling the shots in any purported experience of the hypostases above itself. All spiritual experience, because it is temporary, must be thoroughly permeated by Soul.

Proclus enters into minute detail in his attempt to nail the problem, which amounts to this: if Soul participates in Intellect, then in what sense is Soul separate from or independent of Intellect? To formulate an answer, in Proposition 64 of his Elements of Theology, he introduces the concept of ‘illuminations’ or ‘illuminated states’:

Every Archetypal Monad Gives Subsistence to a Two-fold Number; One indeed, Belonging to That Self-Perfecting Hypostases [sic], but the other, of Illuminations which Possess Their Hypostasis in Another. (Balboa, 2008: 76.)

According to this, the perfection of Intellect overspills into two kinds of manifestations of Soul: one that does indeed belong to itself, is intellectually self-aware and therefore self-complete; but also another that is an ‘illumination’ only from the Intellect, not actually belonging to Soul itself.

Human beings are embodied. Our experience is of the participation of a body not in Soul Itself, but in an individual instance of a soul. We are somewhat further down the chain from Soul as it has been described thus far, but hopefully it is possible now for us to grasp what – for Proclus – human experience fully entailed: the participation of a body in a self-complete soul.

Because it is self-aware, our individual soul evidently participates in the perfection of Soul. Yet our body is not itself self-aware; instead, bodily-awareness belongs to our soul (in the form of sensations and feelings). Nevertheless, human beings are the embodiment of a soul in body, so evidently there is some kind of a relationship between them. Proclus introduces an additional term to encompass this relationship: the irrational soul. This is not self-aware, but is the participation of body in soul in the manner of an illuminated state. The irrational soul achieves the linkage between a human body and soul, but not in a manner that renders our body self-aware in the same way as our soul is self-aware. The irrational soul is perhaps that which is described in psychological terms (i.e. ‘from the side of soul’) as the Freudian unconscious, and in biological terms (i.e. ‘from the side of body’) as instinct, subject to evolutionary (‘irrational’) imperatives.

Two brain activity scans.

The ‘irrational soul’: an irradiated state of the body by Soul.

Each hypostasis is characterised as a disunified multiplicity, in relation to the more unified and simple hypostasis on which depends, culminating ultimately in dependence upon The One, the most unified and simple of all. As Proclus points out (Proposition 111, Balboa 2008: 128), in this case there must be more souls than possess intellects, and more bodies than possess souls.

As we have suggested, humans are embodied, yet have self-complete souls, by means of the irrational soul that yokes together soul and body, whereby body is an illuminated state of soul (i.e. soul is aware of body, but body is not self-aware like soul). Animals, meanwhile, have no self-complete soul, but only an irrational soul: an awareness of body, but not an awareness of self. And thus, the level of body is less unified and more multifarious than the level of soul, in that there are more bodies than possess self-complete souls.

But before we start to feel too smug about being human, or too outraged by the description of animals as ‘lacking’ souls, we have still to consider from this perspective how humans stand in relation to Intellect, the level above Soul. For if we follow Proclus to his conclusion, we see that humans stand in relation to Intellect as animals stand in relation to Soul. In a radical departure from Plotinus, Proclus averred that human beings have no self-complete Intellect, only an image of such, which is merely an illuminated state of our soul, in the same way that the soul of an animal is only an illuminated state of its body.

Proclus describes the position of gods and daimons in contrast to the human relationship with Intellect. Daimons are to Intellect as humans to Soul, in that a daimon has a self-complete individual intellect, but only by virtue (presumably) of an ‘irrational intellect’, an illuminated state of soul, which forges the link from its soul to its intellect. Gods, meanwhile, have an individual intellect that does not descend to the level of Soul. (A daimon could perhaps be conceived as the temporary expression of an individual Form; a god, as its eternal, unchanging expression.)

As far as we are concerned, being human happens mostly at the level of our soul: this is as far as we can proceed with respect to experience that is self-complete. What we experience in life is self-evidently the case, when we experience it, but beyond our personal feelings, perceptions and thoughts, there is nothing we can know directly. We have to apply understanding. What we arrive at through understanding, thanks to this shoddy image of an intellect with which we are saddled, is knowledge only, not a direct experience. Knowledge is the image of experience.

Fortunately we have developed scientific method, a means of arriving at certain and reliable knowledge. It works, but is laborious and slow. Contrast this way of knowing with how directly we ‘know’ our own feelings and thoughts. From the Neoplatonic viewpoint, this is analogous to how the divine ‘thinks’. Indeed, it does not need to think; its knowledge is its experience.

Feeling content?

‘Content’ appears a distraction, an interruption, but actually it is the only kind of thing we can know directly, know in a way analogous to what our experience would be if we had access to Intellect. This is why all forms of meditation involve awareness of our experience as it currently is, the setting aside of our habitual preoccupation with the images of our experience, the contents of our thoughts, the things we need to think about because (having only an image of an intellect) thinking is our only means of relating to what we cannot experience.

In our effort to transcend them, it is easy to lose sight of how the contents of experience are actually our perpetual springboard into transcendence. Content is constantly and specifically offered to us as a vivid picture of precisely what we lack: the means to know the divine as intimately as we know our own experience. What we lack at the level of Intellect is actually given in abundance at the level of Soul. Our soul is self-complete. All we have to do is to come to know our experience in the same way as our soul directly knows itself.

Simply and beautifully, the contents of experience nag at us in order to make us aware of them.

How can we have missed this, and how could we possibly fail?


Balboa, Juan F. (2008), trans. Proclus: The Elements of Theology. Available from, ID 2321337.

Chlup, Radek (2012). Proclus: an Introduction. New York: Cambridge University Press.
(Particularly pp.105-11.)

O’Brien, Elmer (1964), ed. and trans. The Essential Plotinus. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing.

Neoplatonism, Proclus, the gods — and magick

The popular view of Neoplatonism is that it traffics in ineffables, yet Neoplatonism asserts that the cosmos is intelligible. A philosophy contending that absolutely everything is directly amenable to human understanding is actually extremely hands-on.

Take The One, for instance, the highest and most utterly transcendent principle of the Platonic system. Is The One effing about ineffably in some misty, removed dimension?

No. Because not only is The One the highest transcendent principle, it’s also the most prevalent and busy. Everything has to be ‘one’ or unified in order to have existence. Even the most transient of sub-atomic particles becomes one, for the tiniest fraction of a moment.

Diagram of Plotinus's philosophy.

Neoplatonism. A quick recap, according to Plotinus.

Yet isn’t this mere tautology? Isn’t The One merely a projection of the workings of the human mind or language onto material reality?

No. Because material reality itself manifestly creates unities. We have only to look around to see how the principle of Unity physically precedes existence and intelligibility – in our minds, yes, for sure, but also in material reality (which is what our culture traditionally places in opposition to mind). Things come into existence by becoming one, and once they are unified they become intelligible.

The One is everywhere and active, because everything has to participate in the nature of the One in order to exist. The subsequently derived ideals of Unity, Goodness and Beauty, therefore, are not to be discovered only in some transcendent realm or altered state; they are always and everywhere in the material world, because material things participate in their nature.

Platonic philosophers express differing views, of course. In Proclus (412-485 AD) we have the last great expression of the Neoplatonic tradition. Plato (428-347 BC) and Plotinus (205-270 AD) were in some respects quite open-ended in their approach, whereas Proclus seems to have been the sort of thinker who always felt compelled utterly to nail things down.

In Proclus’s day, Hellenism was in a terminal decline as Christianity took an ever greater hold. There had always been a degree of uncertainty over how the Hellenistic gods fitted with the Platonic cosmology. The gods presumably were not aspects of The One, else The One could not be unified, but if the gods did not abide at this supreme level, in what sense were they ‘divine’?

The solution that Proclus offered was possible, in part, because his views on matter were less critical than those of his predecessors. For Plotinus, in contrast, material reality is the level on which things become hopelessly screwed up. When the soul manifests in a physical body it is, according to Plotinus: ‘A thing fallen, chained, at first barred off from intelligence and living only by sensation… in a tomb or cavern pent’ (O’Brien 1964: 66).

A drawing of some guy's face.

For argument’s sake: Proclus.

Proclus, in contrast, was sensitive to a subtle paradox in the Platonic cosmology. Human existence is subject to a whole chain of cosmic causes, which includes The One, Intelligence, Soul and matter. Yet matter itself is not produced from participation in the middle terms of this chain.

In other words: human experience participates in Soul, which itself arises from participation in Intelligence, which in turn arises from participation in The One, yet matter does not require either Soul or Intelligence in order to be matter. Therefore, although matter is furthest in nature from The One, in another respect it remains close, in the sense that matter participates only in The One (i.e. it is unified), albeit to a much weaker extent than Intelligence and Soul. (See Balboa 2008: propositions 59 and 72.)

This idea, that matter need not be viewed as cut off from transcendent levels of being but, in its simplicity, that it still relates to the highest level of all, is what enabled Proclus to find a home for the gods – not on any particular level of reality, but on all of them.

Each level of reality is an image of the level above and preceding it. Thus, Intelligence (what we might describe as ‘Universal Impersonal Consciousness’) is but a pale image of the indescribably empty, concept-free and transcendent One. Likewise, Soul (which we might label ‘Qualitative Awareness’) is but a pale image of content-less Intelligence. The One is the ultimate nature of reality, and so, because each level is an image of this ultimate reality, each level has within it an image of The One, progressively more distorted as it descends.

Beneath The One, unity can be expressed only by multiplicity – i.e. only as qualities or natures separate from their possessor. The principle of unity finds expression on lower levels in a degraded image of itself: the principle of individuality. This is where Proclus situates the gods: ‘The Distinctive Character of Every Divine Order Constantly Traverses through All Secondary Natures, and Bestows Itself to all the subordinate (inferior) Genera of Beings’ (Balboa 2008: proposition 145). In other words, where there is a god (i.e. an image of The One having a certain individual character), then that character is expressed in all subsequent beings: souls, animals, plants and minerals.

For example, the sun is an image of The One, regarded as a deity in many cultures. The metal gold has an affinity with the sun by its colour. The sunflower and the heliotrope realise this affinity also, but in a manner peculiar to plants. At the animal level, the lion is regarded as a solar beast, due to the resemblance between the sun’s rays and his mane, but also the cockerel, who greets the sun each morning with his call. (See Chlup 2012: 130-1.) As Proclus puts it, quoting Thales, the pre-Socratic philosopher who lived almost a thousand years earlier: ‘the All is full of The Gods.’

Evidently, participation in the gods is possible in a variety of ways, and a single being may participate in a variety of gods. Another consequence of this is that all beings participate in the divine through their own nature. In Proclus’s words: ‘All things pray according to their own station and sing hymns’ (cited in Chlup 2012: 130). The universe is sown with symbols of the divine, which enable us through contemplation and manipulation of them to enter into participation.

Proclus called this theurgy. Another description is magick. Take a book of magickal correspondences, such as Aleister Crowley’s 777 (Crowley 1973). It is nothing other than a catalogue of exactly the kind of affinities that Proclus is describing. It is these affinities that form the basis of any conceivable religious ritual or magickal act. And yet the relationships between the gods and the beings that participate in them are obviously not of the same type as those between the Platonic hypostases (i.e. between The One, Intellect and Soul), which produce the different levels of reality.

Through Proclus we arrive at the notion that although the image of The One is progressively degraded on each successive level of reality, nevertheless it offers an alternative network of relationships, of a symbolic rather than a productive kind, which are themselves an inbuilt feature of whatever level of reality they are found within, and which offer a convenient route back to the divine. ‘Convenient’ in the sense that each being can discover in its own nature the relevant symbols.

T-shirt slogan: 'My boss is a Jewish carpenter'.

Christianity: if you’re kinky for Jewish carpenters, you’re in luck.

The implications of this view are pragmatic and highly empowering. Contrast them with an eastern tradition such as Buddhism, which avows that everyday experience is meaningless or an illusion; or the western Christian view, which sanctions only a highly specific set of symbols and agencies as a valid route back to God.

Proclus’s worldview lost out to the prevailing Christian ideology, of course. It is fascinating to imagine how our culture would have been different if Hellenism and Neoplatonism had endured. And it is also tempting to speculate upon the various forms in which these traditions never really died out at all, but persist subtly into the present day.


Balboa, Juan F. (2008), trans. Proclus: The Elements of Theology. Available from, ID 2321337.

Chlup, Radek (2012). Proclus: an Introduction. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Crowley, Aleister (1973). 777 and Other Qabalistic Writings. York Beach: Samuel Weiser.

O’Brien, Elmer (1964), ed. and trans. The Essential Plotinus. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing.

On Retreat with Alan Chapman

I recently returned from the best spiritual retreat of my life. It was the most absorbing, supportive and productive period of practice. The retreat was taught by Alan Chapman, my friend and erstwhile magickal cohort, but before anyone concludes that my assessment is therefore biased, consider the admission it requires on my part: that whereas I have ineffectually fannied around for the past five years, Alan has created a teaching and a vocation that presents a joyful, revolutionary challenge to the spiritual orthodoxy.

Alan Chapman.

The guru, pictured snickering into his coffee after telling a knob joke.

Putting it frankly, Alan’s approach pisses all over Buddhism from a great height. My previous retreats were all Buddhist-based, with the attendant assumption that spiritual development demands confrontation with suffering, and that progress only occurs through intense effort. Alan’s teaching draws instead on Greek philosophy for its cosmology and methods. This is a genuine enlightenment tradition that originated in the West but, unfortunately, has not been properly understood or practised here in quite some time.

Here is how we practised it last week: we socialised; listened to Alan explain the teaching and its practice; took turns to engage in one-to-one Socratic dialogue with Alan; sat in formal practice approximately three times per day, for periods of up to 30 minutes; used a specific method for examining each other’s dreams, day-dreams and ‘random’ thoughts; ate nice food; went for relaxing walks and visited the pub.

By omitting the usual Buddhist lunacy of ‘noble silence’, last week acquired the flavour of a shared endeavour. I became absorbed not only in my own process, but also in the expression of that same process in my fellow retreatants. During the week people were indeed waking up.

Alan has formulated three classical stages of enlightenment. The first of these is awakening. This is the attainment of abiding non-dual awareness, a stage of insight sometimes described as ‘enlightenment’ by Buddhist teachers such as Daniel Ingram, or by Advaita teachers such as Tony Parsons. The second of Alan’s stages is liberation, which I will discuss in more detail later. The third is enlightenment, which Alan also refers to as ‘Returning to the Source’. There is a further refinement of understanding beyond this stage, but I do not currently have the personal experience to describe anything beyond liberation.

I will not be describing either Alan’s teachings or methods in any great detail. He is the one best-placed to do that. Instead, I will describe what happened to me during the week, the attitudes I adopted and the insights I received through exposure to the teaching.

I entered the retreat recognising that I was badly stuck. The last few years have been pretty tough. Yet on the basis of the weird and wonderful things that had happened during my magickal alliance with Alan, I was pretty confident that a breakthrough was likely.

As readers of this blog are aware, I love psychic and psychological stuff, and the breakthroughs expressed themselves primarily in these terms. This did not surprise me, but others were having very different experiences. Some were engaging with the process on an intellectual level, some on an emotional level. Others were having insights during the teaching, whilst they were fully conscious and awake. In my case, the insights arrived mostly when I was alone and asleep.

Alluring goddesses

On the first night I dreamt:

I was at a magickal moot where a group of women were taking on possession by goddesses. The women were attractive, and in some cases not wearing many clothes. After the ritual, there were all these expressions of divine femininity with which we could converse. Some were so alluring, they were intimidating. A voice introduced each goddess and explained her nature. As the introductions proceeded, the images became more abstract and the explanations included unpronounceable languages, or featured terms that could not be translated. The images were no longer like women at all, but were abstract designs featuring lines, or rips made in sheets of paper.

The retreat was so informal that the closest thing to it I have experienced is a magickal moot. And Alan was making for the retreat the kind of outrageous claims he used to make back in our magick-wrangling days. (Not that they failed to bear fruit.)

Diagram on a flipchart showing a Platonic cosmology.

The Platonic cosmology. You’ll have to come on a retreat to find out what it means…

Alan asserts that no effort is necessary for the process to advance. Paradoxically, the only thing to be done is to avoid the temptation to force or try to guide the process oneself, a sure-fire recipe for becoming stuck.

In the Platonic cosmology, the soul is in the process of perfecting itself and returning to its source in the One. During the retreat we were invited to explore what we really want. This exploration through questioning revealed how there are ultimate ideals for which everyone is longing, a longing that no one can remember ever being without. Our longing for goodness, wholeness and perfection entails that in some way we have known these already, and the soul is on a mission to return to them. In Western spiritual traditions, this longing, its source and its goal, is represented in the figure of ‘the Beloved’.

My dream on the first night seemed concerned with identifying the Beloved. At first, real women are assuming divine forms. But already there is progression into something new and unfamiliar: abstract forms and unfamiliar languages, which bypass the ‘allure’ and ‘intimidation’.

At home with Grimes

The next dream I recorded:

The singer Grimes is coming to the retreat centre. She will be staying in my room. We are a couple.

The Beloved is now a specific figure [1]. We have an established relationship and her arrival is imminent. There is a confidence in this dream, which might be arrogance or psychotic pride, if it were not that the longing is reciprocated by the Beloved. The retreat was enabling me to understand how the longing always already is reciprocated.

If Alan’s first big claim was that no effort is necessary, and all we had to do was allow the transmission of the teacher’s enlightenment to work on us, then the second was this: that suffering is not a necessary part of the process.

This is so contrary to what I have read and experienced in the past that it seemed too good to be true. But it turned out that it is true. Last week was the only retreat on which I experienced virtually no discomfort or suffering, yet it was the only retreat during which I attained a classical stage of the process. So-called ‘Dark Nights of the Soul’ or periods of ‘contraction’ are not inevitable phases of spiritual progress. Alan convinced me that it really is possible to have only fun whilst on retreat.

There was a whole session exploring what the ‘shitty bits’ in spiritual practice actually are. I will not rehearse it here, except to say the realisation that nailed it for me is how the expression of longing for the Beloved, which is the focus of the practice Alan teaches, is not dissimilar from the longing to be free from the desolation of a Dark Night. To experience one is actually to experience both. In a flash of insight, I could not envisage ever being stranded in a Dark Night again.

To be in love is to long for someone, even in their presence. And to be loved is to be longed for in return. The longing of the soul is at once its love for the Beloved, and the longing of the Beloved for ourselves. The assurance in the dream that Grimes’s love was mine was an expression of this. Only a misguided assumption that the longing signifies a deficit, or that persuasion is required to win someone who already loves us, could spoil the imminent wedding.

Me and Dave

The relationship with the Beloved came into more detailed focus in the next dream:

David Bowie visited. He played the guitar part from his song Fashion. ‘That sounds amazing,’ I thought. ‘It just pours naturally from him.’ The problem was that Bowie could interact only with other celebrities. It felt a bit shitty, but I pretended to be the comedian Vic Reeves, interviewing Bowie, in order to spend time talking with him. I might also have to pretend to be Bob Mortimer for a while, after being Vic, but this was not a disaster: Bowie was happily talking. This was the only situation that Bowie could deal with, and I was creating that situation, making him comfortable.

Waking, there was a blissful sensation in my heart that I had never before experienced, as if my heart were open to the world and something were radiating outwards. It was neither overwhelming nor uncomfortable, but somehow like a quietly flickering flame.

Chaotic-looking words and sketches on a flipchart.

Alan’s analysis of the ‘Bowie’ dream. Part of the technique includes drawing and writing out the dream.

The Beloved, effortlessly excellent, overflowing in the expression of Its goodness, appears in the guise of Bowie. The image of the Beloved seemed to be diversifying also in my co-retreatants’ dreams, encompassing hermaphrodites, transgendered individuals, and a septuagenarian in the costume of a sexy young woman.

Alan’s approach to dream divination is that the dream shows what is already the case. There is no guidance or instruction to be extracted from a dream. If we understand by means of the dream what is happening now, then that understanding takes effect. When Alan analysed my dream in the group, it became apparent how pretending to be a celebrity afforded the contact with Bowie. This might seem inauthentic, but rising up to Bowie’s level in the guise of Reeves was already proving successful. What the dream showed was that my assumption I would have to go on pretending was unfounded. It feels to me in the dream that I shall also have to pretend to be Bob Mortimer (Reeves’s comedy partner), yet this never actually happens. Instead I wake up to bliss.

Not my job

Understanding the dream did indeed appear to be enough to drop a false belief and allow the process to continue. The ‘Bowie’ dream came on Wednesday night, was analysed on Thursday, and the breakthrough into liberation had arrived when I woke on Friday. On the Thursday night I had two dreams, the first one before the breakthrough, the second after. The latter I shall perhaps save for a future article, but this was the former:

I was in a junior role at a fashion agency. The staff were giving cookery demonstrations and serving food to important customers. A young, gay guy, senior to me, was cooking. His boss, an immaculately coiffured black woman, looked on in controlled horror. ‘Who is coming to the next demonstration on Friday?’ someone asked. ‘Dior,’ said the woman. It was clear the young ‘chef’ would not be competent. I was so junior within the organisation that none of this had anything to do with me.

A fashion agency is certainly a place where I would be the least qualified to work. But within the agency, all the staff are incompetent at what they have chosen to pursue. This was not an anxiety dream, because of the pleasurable realisation at the end that none of it was my responsibility. Dior would come on Friday, regardless of anything I could do. Dior / Dios / Dieu / God is the One beside whom everyone is incompetent.

When I woke on Friday, for the first time in five years there was a change in the structure of consciousness. Before then, at the level of awakening, on looking into awareness there had been something that did not fit any category of the personal mind: it was not a thought, emotion, sensation or idea. Beside it, all categories and distinctions failed.

The problem I had struggled with for the past five years was how this ‘thing’, which was evidently what people have been describing for millennia as the experience of God, could have any relationship to me. The answer had seemed that our natures were distinct: God is ‘absolute’ (the same for all time, everywhere and to every being), whilst my awareness is ‘relative’ to this.

At awakening, God manifested as a radical nothingness transcending consciousness, on the threshold of which comprehension failed. But, last week, this changed in a totally unexpected way. What specifically had changed was the nature of my longing for God, the longing for the Beloved. Where, formerly, the sense of radical nothingness had appeared, as something impersonal and foreign from the nature of my being, in its place was now the longing. The longing itself had transformed into something impersonal and absolute. As such, there was no longer any distinction between my longing for God and God’s longing for me. This absolute love, a love in which loving is indistinguishable from being loved, meant that there were no longer two distinct natures. God and I were unified in a single awareness.

Alan Chapman and me.

Selfie with the guru.

I could not have dreamt in a million years that this was remotely possible. In subjective terms, it feels like my heart has expanded infinitely. But this infinite heart is God’s as much as mine. My heart is encompassed within the heart of God, even as God raises mine to the dimensions of Its heart.

Why had it taken five crappy years to come home to this? Alan had guided me to a place where I could understand. Sick of the apparent disconnect between my nature and God’s, I had decided that the disconnect was not real and had come to regard the experience of God as an appearance only, as merely a sensation. This was in effect a denial of the Beloved, an attempt prematurely to terminate the disconnect, rather than entering more deeply into relationship and resolving the seeming problem through genuine understanding.

Alan’s retreat returned my practice to the longing for the Beloved. In other words, it put me in touch again with my soul.

At the moment, I am still on honeymoon with this new phase. Alan has briefed me on the next set of seeming problems, which I will perhaps discuss here if or when they arise. For now, I am still trying to express this new understanding as fully as I can, and to the Buddhist framework I have used in the past to describe these experiences, I think I must finally say goodbye.


[1] It is interesting how Grimes featured in a recent article on this blog, in connection with the figure of the Girl Genius. It looks to me now as if the appearance of the Girl Genius archetype foreshadowed the Beloved. The vision of the Girl Genius seems to describe the quest of the soul for the Beloved, and her relationship with duality now appears to be a naive description of liberation. Something seems to have been trying to help me out even further back than this. In August last year, an instruction arrived whilst meditating that I should dedicate myself to the goddess Psyche, who is – of course – a personification of the soul. My article ‘The Myth of Psyche and Eros’ was the result, but Apuleius’s allegory seems pretty trite alongside Plato.

An Apology for Meditation

A video interview with Bill Joslin recently appeared on the website Gnostic Media, in which Joslin shows how meditation causes harm through creating a type of psychosis in the meditator, and how meditation is a form of exploitation and mind-control.

Joslin’s views are closely-argued. He examines the nature of mind, self and perception in considerable detail. His arguments are likely to sow doubts even in the minds of experienced meditators, and to compound the opinions of those already opposed to spiritual practices.

However, his use of the term ‘psychosis’ is where we might begin to pick his arguments apart.

Mystical experience and psychotic episodes, in an ontological sense, are essentially identical. The primary difference between the two is that one returns to sanity relatively in tact [sic] after a mystical experience. (Joslin 2014, p. 27. Unless stated, all further page references are to this text.)

Yet what I understand by the term ‘psychosis’ is actually quite dissimilar, ontologically, from a mystical experience. Psychotic states are by definition problematic for the person experiencing them. On the frequent occasions that I have had the experience to which I believe Joslin is pointing with the expression ‘I am God’ (p. 26), it has always been overwhelmingly benign. For someone with a psychosis, however, the apparently identical realisation ‘I am God’ is often experienced as an onerous burden, likely to lead to a great deal of suffering. A psychosis is characterised by an irrepressible need to act upon the realisation; to regard it as an objective fact with necessary consequences.

Likewise, the mystical experience of a single mind in which all beings share (‘I am one with everything’ [p. 23]): the mystic experiences this as blissful and liberating, whereas the psychotic may be left struggling with the disturbing implication that everyone, therefore, can read her thoughts.

Joslin argues that the psychosis caused by meditation is mitigated because ‘[a] spiritual context for the experience provides a container for the experience ’ (p. 27). Yet if placing my experience in a spiritual context is what saves me from madness, it might be expected that placing his experience in a psychiatric context (i.e. knowing that he is ‘ill’) might prevent the symptoms of the psychotic person. But sadly, this is rarely the case.

In support of his argument that mystical experiences are psychotic, Joslin cites a paper by Caroline Brett. However, this paper does not advance the same conclusions as Joslin, because it highlights also some significant differences between mystical and psychotic states. For instance:

in psychosis there may be an objectivization of thoughts that leads to an ascription of externality or alien provenance; in mysticism a lack of identification with thoughts leads to freedom from blind reaction to their content. (Brett 2002, p. 336)

Therefore, according to Brett, mystical experiences are characterised by freedom from the effects of psychotic experiences. This is quite different from Joslin’s view that ‘the mechanics of meditation is [sic] geared directly toward the creation of psychotic states’ (p. 31).

The ‘lack of identification’ and ‘freedom’ highlighted by Brett suggest that something else is in play besides the structural similarities upon which Joslin’s argument is content to rest. This, I think, concerns the ‘self’, a term also used by Joslin in a manner that seems dubious.

First we create a ‘self’ then position the world related to this ‘self’.

Try it. Imaging a coffee cup. Now ask yourself where this coffee cup is with in [sic] the imagined landscape. It is somewhere in front of a point-of-view, a ‘self’. Without this ‘self’ the perception of the coffee cup is not possible. (p. 5)

For Joslin, self and perception are primary. They are given. Through the interplay of both comes awareness (p. 7).

For me, this genesis of the self in ‘a point of view’ seems to rely too much on a visual metaphor, and fails to encompass what is commonly meant by ‘self’.

If self originates in adopting a point-of-view then, regardless of what occupies the ‘field of vision’, self is essentially the same in everyone. But what is commonly understood by the term ‘self’ is that which is unique in each of us. In other words, my experience of my self right now feels like ‘me’; but my experience of having a point of view against my experience is something quite abstract, which (as such) would be the same for everyone. Joslin’s definition of self lacks the individuality and sense of direct experience on which the common usage of the term depends.

Suppose that rather than relying upon a visual analogy of viewing a teacup, we chose an olfactory analogy of smelling a rose. We ask ourselves the same question: ‘Where is the rose?’ But smell is not a sense suited to answer the question ‘where’. For all we know, it could be ourselves that we are smelling. What is there in this (or any other) perception to set a ‘me’ against it? How does the ‘point of view’ ever get constructed?

We must remember that, according to Joslin, there is no awareness (yet) that could help this process along. We are not yet aware of the smell, because we have to wait first for a ‘self’ to appear from adopting a position against the smell, and only thereby attaining awareness. Unless, perhaps, he is suggesting that somehow the self is always already present in perception. But in that case, his analogy is not the explanation of the origin of self that it pretends to be.

If we suppose instead that awareness is primary, and self proceeds from it, then all these difficulties evaporate.

Aware from the outset, certain things in my experience I identify with, and certain things I do not. This process of identification with aspects of awareness makes those aspects of awareness (bodily sensations, for example) feel like ‘me’. From its very beginning, then, self at once feels like ‘mine’ and, as such, is unique. It originates and maintains itself through an active process – identification. It is not stuck at the bottom of a chain, as in Joslin’s model, forced to labour in the production of awareness. Instead, self grows out of awareness and, in this way, enjoys a dynamic relationship with its experiences.

For Joslin, self is implicated in perception, which leads to awareness. Meditation undoes self, thereby undoing (or ‘corrupting’ [p. 31]) both perception and awareness.

For me, self grows out of awareness through a process of identification. Meditation undoes self, thereby undoing identification and expanding awareness beyond self.

An image from the interview.

The YouTube edition of Jan Irvin’s interview with Bill Joslin.

Because Joslin views self as a given component in perception and awareness, it is understandable that he takes a grave view of meditation. But my view is that he gravely underestimates the individuality, flexibility and freedom implicit in the notion of self. If I am wrong, then considering the many years I have been practising meditation, I can only wonder that I can still function.

There is much in Joslin’s arguments with which I do not disagree – for instance, his comment (in the interview) that awakening experiences are not that big a deal. Granted, teachers have and continue to use meditation as a means of exploiting students and, I think, will continue to do so. But this problem, and its solutions, seem to me an ethical rather than an epistemological issue. If meditation is a swindle, should we not focus our energies on the swindlers rather than the scam?

The spiritual scene is far less black-and-white than Joslin paints it. In the interview, he talks as if meditation affected all students in the same way. Given his model of the self, I can see why he tends towards this attitude. Yet, of course, everyone is different. People react divergently even to similar experiences.

Some students will indeed fall victim to manipulative teachers. Some will have experiences that will cause them to crash and burn. Some will practise meditation for years, with never a sniff of anything extraordinary. Some will have their lives radically changed by it for the better, yet even among these there will be vast differences in opinion and understanding.

The reason is that every self reacts differently to its own undoing. It does so, because it can. Whereas Joslin’s view implies that there is only one ‘correct’ relationship between the self and awareness, actually all sorts of relationships are possible, because awareness is not dependent upon self.

Contrary to what he would have us believe, exploring the boundaries of self through meditation is to exercise and develop the self’s intrinsic freedom.


Bill Joslin (2014), Presentation accompanying on-line interview: ‘Meditation: Deconstructing Nonsense’, (Accessed July, 2014.)

Caroline Brett (2002), ‘Psychotic and Mystical States of Being: Connections and Distinctions’, Philosophy, Psychiatry, & Psychology (vol. 9, no. 4), pp. 321-341.

The Cult of the Girl Genius

From the corner of my mind’s eye, I began to notice figures that shared a certain characteristic: the girl genius.

She is a young woman or a girl, gifted with prodigious abilities. Her recent visitations culminated in a dream.

Portraits of Hit Girl, Grimes and Velma.

Avatars of the girl genius: Hit Girl, Grimes and Velma Dinkley.

I was performing on stage, part of her band. Before the show, she led me backstage to demonstrate how it was all worked out. It was all so simple, yet hugely inspiring. All hers, and yet she gave it so freely it felt like it were mine.

The performance began. As she played electric guitar, next to her was a tall, black receptacle into which – I understood – fell all the wonders and miracles generated by her playing.

She is an archetype, but perhaps one less common within our culture. Trying to piece together what her manifestation might mean, I considered some of the forms in which she had appeared, some of the people and characters who had played for me her avatars.

First, the musician Grimes (aka Claire Elise Boucher). What I have heard of her music strikes me as an intriguing mix of cuteness and darkness. Before Grimes there was Björk, and before Björk, Kate Bush, but both have since matured as individuals in ways that have muted their reflection of the girl genius.

Grimes carries the archetype in its emotional mode, whereas Velma Dinkley, from the Scooby Doo cartoons, is a manifestation of its more intellectual register. A ‘geek’ is the point at which the numinosity of the girl genius has faded so low, it enters the phenomenal world. The girl genius can appear as a geek, but no geek is the girl genius. She is always concerned with wisdom rather than cleverness.

The character Hit Girl from the movie Kick-Ass is another manifestation, this time played out on the physical plane. The controversy caused by this character arises from her combination of girlish sweetness, psychosis and extreme sadism. In this register, the manifestation of the archetype is contradictory and monstrous, a reminder of how archetypes can indeed become dangerous, the closer they approach physical reality.

I could feel the presence of the girl genius in the background of my awareness, where the perceptible fades into inexpressibility, but it seemed that only intentional effort would bring her into fuller focus, so I banished a space, lit incense and a candle, made a sigil for her and then visualised it, and requested an audience.

The vision

She appeared as a female youth dressed in chainmail and armour, with long blonde hair and a sword in her right hand, a halo about her head.

At her feet played two younger siblings, a girl-child and a boy. All three delight in each other’s company, especially the children, who take turns casting upon one another the shape of a beast or lion. The girl-child makes of the boy a lion, then the boy-child makes a lion of her. Meanwhile, the girl genius watches over both, enjoying their play.

Then the girl genius puts on the habit of a hermit (although her slight physique and blonde hair remain apparent), and she journeys leftwards across the vision space, into darker lands, until she stands before an uncrossable lake of black, turbid water.

In the lake resides a giant frog-monster, which she conjures to the surface. This is supposed to be a battle, an ordeal, but the girl genius leaps onto the head of the monster as it rears up for a fight, and before it can submerge she has ridden it across to the other shore of the lake. The monster is affronted and furious, but can do nothing.

On the other side of the lake she takes up residence in the dark and builds a machine that generates mist. Witches are attracted into the mist, but inside they cannot navigate. The machine extracts their magickal powers and they cannot escape.

Equilateral triangle with a cross from its base, topped with a circle, and short, perpendicular lines from the triangle's other sides.

Sigil of the girl genius.

A super-witch presides over this enterprise, in league with the girl genius. The super-witch takes the witches’ powers for herself, but it is not long before the girl genius tires of this arrangement. One day, she walks away, taking nothing. The super-witch remains, but she does not understand the machine and was only ever interested in the power she stole.

Meanwhile, the girl genius journeys back to the world of light. She assumes the form of a male youth, slightly older than herself. Then she becomes a mature woman. She continues in this way, swapping from female to male, ensuring that she acquires experience of every stage of life: girl, boy, girl genius, heroic male, mother, father, crone and wise old hermit.

Then she takes her original form and builds another machine. This one issues flashes and bangs so bright and loud it shocks the user out of the world. The dazzling inner brightness it creates enables people to detach from their problems.

But the effects of this machine are more profound than at first appears because, later in their lives, its users experience strange ‘slits’, like gaping mouths, opening in the fabric of reality. The slits appear in all kinds of places, assume all manner of shapes, and the user steps into whichever of these they choose.

The slits lead to another universe, a soothing, quiet, purple-pink realm, where users go to take a complete break from reality. The machine tackles human problems in both a short and long-term sense: it makes people feel better, but it also gives them a place they can go whenever they feel the need.

Nothing at all is changed by being in this place, but it is an other place, and offers an opportunity for reflection away from reality itself.

Here, the vision ended.

Her meaning

Its most vivid aspect was the image of the girl genius with her siblings, which seemed to hint at the relationship of the archetype to duality. It reminded me of two highly dualistic images from the tarot: The Chariot and The Devil.

The Chariot and The Devil (tarot cards), alongside an image of the girl genius and her siblings.

Ways of dealing with duality: the tarot and the girl genius.

In The Devil we see duality as stasis: the male and female demons are enslaved in fixed and separate identities. Whereas in The Chariot, the driver harnesses and balances the competing pull of opposites in the service of forward motion.

The girl genius, meanwhile, is guardian of a more immersive attitude. In their play, her siblings take turns at embodying the beast, without remaining stuck in this identity, yet also without the burden of assuming control.

Blonde female youth in armour bearing a sword.

The vision of the girl genius as St. Joan.

For the girl genius, the beast holds no fear. Confronting the beast means becoming the beast. For her, this is literally ‘child’s play’.

I am a middle-aged male, whereas the girl genius is youthful and female. This vision of otherness performs for me the role of the anima, a Jungian term for an archetypal personification of the unconscious, which takes the form of a woman for a man, and the form of a man for a woman.

Hit Girl, Velma and Grimes had manifested certain aspects of this figure, but the vision reveals a deeper level. The girl in chainmail, bearing a sword, recalls St. Joan of Arc (c.1412-1431), who was perhaps the fullest expression in a human life of the girl genius archetype.

St. Joan was a warrior and military strategist, but she was also a visionary, motivated by overwhelming feelings of religious devotion. Joan’s life and legend expresses the girl genius on the physical, emotional, intellectual and spiritual levels.

After noticing her cultural manifestations, in the vision she revealed herself at this deeper level. Her otherness operates not only as a symbol, but is also the means by which she calls me onwards. The girl genius is the free engagement with life on all its levels. She is the exercise of our talents, completely and without fear.