Belief-shifting. A powerful magickal technique. Because by changing belief we change perception, and by changing perception reality changes, for what is reality other than perception?
Suppose everyone knew this. Suppose everyone, by choosing what to believe, could construct a reality.
Unfortunately, this is increasingly the world we inhabit. Aided and abetted by technology, reality is progressively more amenable to belief. Yet “magickal” is probably not the word to describe the current state of the world.
Belief is an echo of knowledge. Belief can reproduce a sense of certainty but none of the substance of knowledge. The difference between them is work: to gain knowledge we must do something. Knowledge implies a methodology. To know about Alaska we could read a book, ask an Alaskan, join a study group, or travel there to see. The more we do, the more and various types of knowledge we gain. Someone who knows something, even if it is false, can say how they came by that knowledge. Someone who believes, even if what they believe is true, is not telling you what they have found but what they hope to.
Belief is useful when we cannot do the work required to know. What is needed to do the work might be unavailable, or it might take time to obtain it or learn how to use it. Belief guides and focuses our effort, like a picture of a destination before we arrive. Belief is a motivation, not an end in itself. Later we might enjoy an opportunity to realise how our belief was wrong.
Knowledge and belief take forms that can make it hard to distinguish between them. The difference is not the true/false binary (because both belief and knowledge may be either false or true) but the amount of work done. In a digital culture we have lost capacity to appraise the analogue quantity of work that produces the material before us, as if each item somehow manifested from a uniform degree of effort.
Belief requires minimal effort whereas finding or making facts demands work. Belief-shifting is magickal because it seems to leap-frog work and jump directly to the experience of belief becoming reality. But beliefs do not come from nowhere. They are reflections of ideals. Not even a magickian can transform laziness into a virtue, because magick requires us to believe well. Any belief will produce effects, but the necessity for excellence in belief may only become apparent from unpleasant consequences.
That the needs of future generations are being sacrificed to the interests of an elite might not seem an unreasonable belief to many. But positing a paedophilic liberal conspiracy (Oluo 2016) will incur a different set of consequences. Likewise, it is perhaps not unreasonable to believe that unrestrained expression of opinions will cause actual harm, but believing it is rightful to ban the writings of J.K. Rowling because of views she has voiced elsewhere (Harrison 2020) leads down a different reality tunnel.
The Platonic ideals of goodness, truth, and beauty are universal. Ultimately, as rational animals, we all want the same, but we differ in our means of realising it. Knowledge is closer to truth than believing, but where we cannot do the work required to know then we must believe. Excellence in belief is striving to manifest to the highest degree the ideal in our belief. To be on the Left is to manifest an urge for freedom from what is regarded as bad. To be on the Right is to enact an impulse to maintain what is regarded as good. From the perspective of the ideal they amount to pretty much the same. The closer we align to the ideal, the less scope for division and conflict there will be.
Alignment with the ideal is the Great Work of Magick. “[T]he Science and Art of causing Change to occur in conformity with Will”, was how Crowley (2000: 126) famously defined magick, but he emphasised also the importance of discovering True Will – knowing what we truly want, which is by definition the ideal. Only by doing the work required to know True Will can we approach excellence in belief, which is how we manifest the ideal as best we can.
Magick can look like a quick and easy way to bend reality by shifting our beliefs. Post-modernism and digital communications have widely distributed the tools for doing this. We need not look far for examples of people doing it and where it has led them. Belief might seem to offer a convenient alternative to knowledge, but the dire consequences of this confusion are now endemic, and so too of the failure to believe well.
Crowley, Aleister (2000) Magick: Liber ABA Book Four. York Beach, ME: Weiser.
Harrison, Ellie (2020). JK Rowling: Hachette UK book staff told they are not allowed to boycott author over trans row. The Independent (17 June), https://tinyurl.com/y3u4kuxd (independent.co.uk, accessed January 2021).
Oluo, Ijeoma (2016). Pizzagate is a lie. But what it says about our society is real. The Guardian (5 December), https://tinyurl.com/zz7aqbd (theguardian.com, accessed January 2021).
Sigils are a hallmark of chaos magick, yet it was interesting to hear Phil Hine suggesting recently that the chaos magickal approach might actually have over-complicated their usage (Ross 2020: 11’53”).
Peter Carroll in Liber Null and Psychonaut (1987: 20-22) delineated the classic process for sigil magick: construct a glyph from a written statement of intention; focus upon the glyph and enter an altered state; and then, after the climax of the rite, forget all about it.
Carroll’s technique was based on the writings of Austin Osman Spare:
When conscious of the Sigil form (any time but the Magical) it should be repressed, a deliberate striving to forget it, by this it is active and dominates at the unconscious period, its form nourishes and allows it to become attached to the sub-consciousness and become organic, that accomplished, is its reality and realization. (Spare 2001: 177)
In Spare’s view, conscious desire or belief separates us from what and who we really are – which is unconscious. Spare, in turn, was influenced by Freud. Spare’s sigil magick produces a symbolic form for an intention, but then, by disguising and forgetting that symbol, it supposedly creates a means for the intention to fall into the unconscious where it becomes “organic” – part of our lived nature rather than merely a desire for or a belief about ourselves.
A process or a technique is a means of causing something to happen. Spare’s use of sigils supposedly turns a belief or an intention into a realised, unconscious aspect of the self. But because he draws upon Freudian thinking Spare is open to some of the criticisms levelled at Freud, including the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein’s argument that Freudian thought is bedevilled by a confusion between reasons and causes.
For instance: low atmospheric temperature causes snow. But the reason for snow is the air being cold. What distinguishes a reason from a cause is meaning: the interposition of a perceiving mind between one thing happening and another. Cold weather causes snow regardless, but a reason for snow arises only in a perceiving mind that has or shares with other minds a lived experience of snow.
Wittgenstein criticised Freud’s tendency to suggest that psychoanalysis revealed the causes of human behaviour and was therefore a science. Certainly, this is not the case. However, in Freud’s defence, in the realm of the mind reasons often carry more significance than causes. Consider: the cause of a depression is decreased serotonin, but the reason for it might be the death of a loved one. Reasons are how reality operates at the human level.
Freud set out by attempting to account for human mental processes at a causal level, but soon abandoned his so-called Project for a Scientific Psychology (Freud 1895) and psychoanalysis was born. It is a mistake to regard psychoanalytic entities such as the id, ego and superego as anything more than theoretical constructs. Through these constructs psychoanalysis offers not causes but reasons for various types of human experiences. Freud may have wanted to intervene at the level of causality, but the degree to which therapy is effective lies in its exploration of reasons for suffering, offering possibilities to change the meanings we ascribe to experience rather than necessarily altering the conditions that cause it.
What chaos magick incorporated from Freud, via Spare, is perhaps a similar preference for causes rather than reasons. However, the skeptics who insist that magick does not work are correct in the sense that magick does indeed lack any basis in causality. Instead, it operates at the level of mind, of reason. Where the skeptics go wrong is in supposing that by “mind” is meant something not wholly sufficient in itself nor quite real.
Carroll’s procedure for sigil magick yields results, but it does not work (in the sense of causing something to happen). Alan Chapman and I made the experiment of messing around with Carroll’s technique, sometimes leaving out the altered state of consciousness, sometimes intentionally remembering the sigil and/or the desire it represented after the ritual. Guess what? The magick still bore results.
Servitors are another staple of chaos magickal practice: these are thoughtforms or entities created by the magician to perform a specific function. The advantage of a servitor over a sigil is not having to start a working completely from scratch. If you need to heal someone or find a new job or a place to a live, you fire up the servitor previously designed for the purpose. Yet this evidently contradicts the principles on which sigil magick is supposed to work. How could it be that sigils work only when we forget them, but servitors work (supposedly with increased efficacy over time) if we give our attention to them frequently and repeatedly?
Many magicians will have had the experience of deciding to cast a sigil, only to find that the desired result manifests even before they get around to doing it. This suggests that results from sigil magick arise regardless of whether we forget the sigil, alter our state of consciousness, or – indeed – whether we actually produce a sigil or perform any kind of ritual at all!
Magicians (in their various guises) have always strived to understand “how” magick works so that they might be able to do it “correctly”. But whenever a magician wonders “what is the correct method of getting a result?” they are falling victim to the fog of simplicity — because what you do, and the result you get, is your decision. There are no laws (unless you create them) and there are no secrets (unless you pretend). (Chapman 2008: 36)
There are no causes in magick, only reasons. And because reasons proceed from mind (rather than from matter, as it is conceived by materialists), then we can determine them for ourselves to a significant degree. Magick can change and expand experience because it is not restricted by causation.
If we suppose instead that magick “works”, that it operates according to specific principles or techniques, then we enter the realm of technology. I disagree with Arthur C. Clarke’s assertion: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic” (Clarke 1973: 21). Technology is a kind of image or echo of magick. There is always a significant difference between them: magick expands or changes experience, whereas technology seeks merely to replicate inner experience outwardly. For example, internet technology connects us in an ersatz telepathy but has not changed human experience itself in ways likely to facilitate the union of humankind any time soon.
Nevertheless, technology is valuable. Meditation and prayer are technologies: methods for replicating certain states or insights. But whether they produce genuine growth and change depends on our reason for practising them. “Magick works in practice but not in theory”, Peter Carroll commented recently, and was seemingly taken aback by the implications of his own remark (Carroll 2020). There can be no theory of how magick works other than the theory that it does not work at all, because magick operates in the realm of reasons rather than causes.
Having a reason to use magick is all and everything we need.
Carroll, Peter (1987). Liber Null and Psychonaut. San Francisco: Red Wheel / Weiser.
Carroll, Peter (2020). Magic works in practise [sic] but not in theory. https://tinyurl.com/y8y2l9p2 (specularium.org). Accessed January 2021.
Clarke, Arthur C. (1973). Profiles of the Future: an Inquiry into the Limits of the Possible. New York: Harper & Row.
Freud, Sigmund. (1895). Project for a Scientific Psychology, in: The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, translated by James Strachey, vol 1: 281-391. London: Hogarth.
Hoenisch, Steve (1996). The myth of psychoanalysis: Wittgenstein contra Freud. https://tinyurl.com/y7exutz2 (criticism.com). Accessed December 2020.
Ross, Keats (2020). Pragmagick: Phil Hine’s varieties – beyond chaos. https://tinyurl.com/y6vg2sop (wethehallowed.org). Accessed December 2020.
Meditation on the breath is not supposed to be relaxing. It is supposed to be intense.
The aim is to cultivate concentration, achieved by hurling every morsel of awareness at the sensory experience of the breath. Notice every wiggling blip in each fluxing microsecond. Ramp up awareness to a pitch that borders on the unbearable. Do not fry yourself, of course, but consider that the possibility of overdoing it is maybe what is needed to maximise the practice.
Abandon the risible notion that “mindfulness” is only beneficial to mental health. If avoiding hurt is the aim, it is inadvisable to embark on such practice. Care for yourself by balancing intensity of practice with wholesome activities and relationships, and with supplementary practices to generate compassion and a grounding in the mundane.
Mantra meditation is amenable to the same approach. Reject the mantra as a background murmur, as a somnolent drone, but with the white heat of attention forge your mantra into an ear-shattering tsunami of a rock opera, or a heart-melting symphony of orchestras and choirs. Make it into what you will not possibly ignore, what you cannot resist losing yourself inside.
After a few days, the drone of the fan heater than warmed the venue of our retreat had become a cathedral organ, intoning an intricate, melancholy sonata. When the retreat ended each of us could recall its tune and we hummed it together. This is the most meagre example of the magickal potential of concentration. Focus the mind beyond the level that daily life affords, and strange and wondrous realms fall open.
Fire kasina practice involves staring at a candle flame until a retinal after-image forms. Then, closing the eyes, instead of the flame itself the after-image is taken as the object of concentration. The after-image passes through a sequence of transformations: at first it is oval, then it condenses down into a bright red dot. After this it dims slowly, eventually becoming a black dot, and then the entire visual field resolves into bustling grey static, signalling that it is time to open the eyes and stare at the actual candle flame. Repeat this sequence, throwing your entire attention into all its details. Repeat over and over, for twelve to fifteen hours per day. Keep it up, take care of yourself, and after three or four days things become interesting. After seven to ten days your concentration may have reached full power, but will drain away within twenty-four hours unless you maintain the practice for a minimum of about five hours daily.
In fire kasina practice, the object of concentration floats right before your face in a way most people will find harder to be distracted from than a mantra or the breath. I know of no better method for incubating concentration, and for experiencing how, with concentration, magick arises.
By taking the after-image of the flame as the object of concentration (the so-called nimitta or “sign”) we enter a realm oddly positioned between perception and imagination because the retinal after-image is neither wholly mental nor wholly physical. In daily life we tend to maintain a sense of a boundary between “out there” and “in here”. Transgressing this, the result is magick.
On retreat I noticed a vivid mental image: the face of a bearded god. Each time I closed my eyes I saw him clearly. The odd thing was that if I turned my head the visual perspective on him changed. Something in my mind was acting as if it belonged in the external world! This occurred only a few days into the retreat. Later came transportations into other realities, sometimes inhabited by sentient beings that – in one instance – took the form of a spider-like creature with the head of a buddha. Its legs were covered all over with asynchronously blinking eyes.
As the distinction between imagination and perception progressively fell away, there were experiences that might be described as telepathy. Once, I was able to “see” the colour and shape of a figure another retreatant was visualising. Another time, a vision showed me that someone had run into difficulties, even though he was in a distant room. Daniel Ingram reports a beam of light that surged from his body and flew across the room, into the flame of a candle, causing it to burn sideways (as he had consciously willed) for a few seconds. He raises the question whether a witness (had there been one) would have seen the same (Ingram 2018: 555-6). As every magician knows, magick is tricksy. Its results do not necessarily manifest in straightforward, literal ways.
I am only half joking when I describe a fire kasina retreat as a long, slow journey into psychosis and (hopefully) out again. The practice chips away until there is no boundary between mental imagery and perception. Reality then assumes a curiously molten quality: vivid, and filled as usual with inexhaustible detail, but strangely malleable and to some extent shapable by conscious intentions.
Professor Hans Gerding, alongside his research in the field of parapsychology, offers counselling sessions to people troubled by anomalous experiences. In a podcast interview, Gerding described how Arthur Schopenhauer’s The World as Will and Representation (1819) can be useful for conceptualising paranormal experiences.
Schopenhauer asserts that among all the objects in the universe, there is only one object, relative to each of us – namely, our physical body – that is given in two entirely different ways. It is given as representation (i.e., objectively; externally) and as Will (i.e., subjectively; internally). One of his notable conclusions is that when we move our hand, this is not to be comprehended as a motivational act that first happens, and then causes the movement of our hand as an effect. He maintains that the movement of our hand is but a single act – again, like the two sides of a coin – that has a subjective feeling of willing as one of its aspects, and the movement of the hand as the other. More generally, he adds that the action of the body is nothing but the act of Will objectified, that is, translated into perception. (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy 2017)
“Will” in Schopenhauer refers to the inner, subjective aspect of things. Individual consciousness is what we experience as the inner, subjective aspect of our body, and Schopenhauer suggests that all things possess this aspect in some way. Consequently, he situates Will in the place of Kant’s thing-in-itself: the universe is the expression of Will presented through the Kantian categories of space, time, and causality. This approach leads in interesting directions. The most relevant to us here is the idea that perception is not a window onto reality but a means by which Will manifests. Perception is an “outward” presentation of the “interior”. Of course, the two are not separate: the “outward” is the interior’s means of viewing itself. It then becomes comprehensible how concentration upon an object (that is, inward focusing upon an outward manifestation), reinstates the primacy of Will over presentation by bringing them together. This manoeuvre is the act of magick.
Professor Gerding remarks how Schopenhauer’s philosophy provides a space in which paranormal phenomena can occur:
Here lies the world of the paranormal, because it is possible to go – as it were – in the world of the Will, and go back into the world of phenomena at another place, another time, and when this happens people report precognitive dreams. […] These paranormal phenomena can only be explained if you take his philosophy seriously. (Ellis 2020: 20’37”)
For Kant the thing-in-itself is inaccessible, unknowable. But for Schopenhauer, if the universe is the objectification of Will as perception, and if we participate in Will through our own consciousness, then (as Gerding describes) would it not be possible to enter into Will in a way that might then influence how Will presents itself in perception?
Distraction, everyday consciousness, is a preoccupation with the representations by which Will manifests. But we can also use concentration to move in the opposite direction and enter more deeply into Will. The everyday use of concentration, of course, is simply for focusing on the presentations of Will. Magick, however, is when concentration is used instead to melt down perception into new shapes malleable by Will.
Those practices that select objects situated on the boundary between body and mind (e.g. sensations of the breath, or retinal after-images) seem particularly effective at quickly breaking down perception, as Schopenhauer’s philosophy might have led us to expect. But magick, of course, is not limited to these: any act with an intention of changing how reality manifests is likely to meet the criteria of magick. It will probably also employ concentration to an extraordinary degree in order to bring about its desired effect.
Ellis, James (2020). Hermitix: Schopenhauer and philosophical counselling with Hans Gerding. https://tinyurl.com/ya8vmy6a (podiant.co). Accessed December 2020.
“The words are almost interchangeable: magick and art”, claims Alan Moore (2015: 0’10”). But I will be taking the contrary view, arguing how magick and art are fundamentally unalike.
When performing group magick in a public place, our cover story was always the same: we were a theatre group or a team of performance artists. So there is, as Moore suggests, a resemblance between art and magick, but at the same time a stark difference, or else it would not have been possible to deny we were doing one by claiming we were doing the other.
Art is admissible within public institutions and can also be a commercial activity, but if magick has value this is proportionate to the extent it releases us from mundane social and financial constraints. Artists can use magick as an aesthetic in which to wrap their work, and magicians can hide theirs behind a facade of art.
Moore, instead of maintaining a distinction between them, seems inclined to draw art and magick even closer together:
If they were only to take on the values of the other camp then we would have magick that […] might actually produce wonderful works of art […] that would give a purpose that modern magick is almost completely lacking. At the same time, if contemporary artists were to be drawing upon the ideas that are in magick then we wouldn’t be getting all of this empty vacuous conceptual shit that art seems to be frozen in at the moment. (Moore 2015: 1’16”)
Of course, we want better art and better magick. But to be good, does art need to draw upon “the ideas that are in magick” rather than find new ones? Will magick “produce wonderful works of art” when magicians are not necessarily artistically trained? If magick lacks purpose, does it then even deserve the title of magick at all? “All art is quite useless” declared Oscar Wilde (1998: xxiv), which perhaps suggests that the utterly purposeless has more more in common with art.
Lionel Snell (writing as Ramsey Dukes) delves deep into this question of where magick and art overlap and depart. His classic text SSOTBE(Dukes 2000) postulates a quaternity of world views – Art, Magick, Science, and Religion – which he explores through comparisons and contrasts. Although he cautions against over-simplification, Snell suggests: “Magic, Art, Religion and Science represent movement towards Wholeness, Beauty, Goodness and Truth respectively” (Dukes 2000: 133). Magick aims at Wholeness, then – oneness, or unity, in other words. The trajectory of magick is union. Magick brings self and world into direct connection. By means of magick we shift our consciousness in order to harmonise with reality. Whereas art, in Snell’s schema, takes a different trajectory, one that by engendering beauty aims at reconciling reality with ourselves:
A poet once told me that it was wrong to think of a symbol as a sort of telephone number connecting one to an idea, and I was surprised because that is exactly what it is in Magical usage. […] In the Magic sector meaning is a precious thing, a pointer towards wholeness, while in the Art sector meaning has become a tangle of associations that one seeks to cut away to reveal life in its pure essence. (Dukes 2000: 46-7)
By bringing art and magick together, Moore envisions that “they would both have a human purpose and would relate to the world in which we are actually all existing” (Moore 2015: 2’47”). For Moore, it seems that neither magick nor art presently connect with reality well enough. But from Snell’s perspective, Moore’s conception of magick seems closer to the trajectory of art. To “have a human purpose” and “relate to the world” might be an end for art, but for magick it is only a means. Magick does not need to relate to or reflect reality but offers a means of directly uniting with it.
Something that is beautiful stops us in our tracks. We admire it for what it is and do not want or need to pass beyond it. In this way the productions of art are ends in themselves. But the products of magick are different; they are “pointers towards wholeness”. As Crowley famously expressed it:
By doing certain things certain results will follow; students are most earnestly warned against attributing objective reality or philosophic validity to any of them. (Crowley 1909)
The “ideas that are in magic” (as Moore put it) have value in allowing us to unite with the absolute, but not in successfully representing it. The Holy Guardian Angel, for example, is a dualistic expression of the non-dual; it is a knowingly poor representation of something that nevertheless enables us to unite with what it points at. No self-respecting artist would produce poor representations, but magicians sometimes strive for this. A good sigil is one that helps us disregard what it represents.
What threw these issues into relief for me recently is The Dark Pool (2020), a podcast created by Rob C. Thompson, occult scholar and a professor of theatre and performance at Chesapeake College, Maryland. It throws these issues into relief because of how it blurs the boundaries between magick and art.
“So many occultists talk about how […] knowing things is not achieving any kind of wisdom. True wisdom comes from practice,” Thompson stated in an interview (Lux Occult 2020: 46’21”), describing how this was his inspiration to make something that was more than a commentary on the occult but also included practical magick:
I created a meditation and I had four of my actors who were fairly new to the group […] and I wanted to experiment with them and have them do the meditation which asked them to reach into that subconscious space and find sounds and just make sounds. And then I built each of them their own meditation track based on those sounds with a mind to attuning them to the higher vibration of their consciousness […] I tell them that through this process they will attune to their subliminal consciousness – and they do. There is a reasonable amount of success. (Lux Occult 2020: 47’21”)
It is an interesting idea, and I agree with Thompson’s interviewer, Luxa, when she comments how The Dark Pool has a similar feel to the film documentary series Hellier (Pfeiffer 2019). This perhaps arises from their shared domain somewhere between art and magick. Whereas Hellier slides inexorably towards the occult, The Dark Pool veers in the direction of art. The meditation Thompson gives his students becomes a springboard for an improvised drama – about a college professor who assigns his students an occult practice for motives that only gradually become apparent. The self-referentiality of The Dark Pool blurs the boundary between fact and fiction, to the extent that in the quotation above it seems unclear whether Thompson is describing a factual magickal working, or simply the fictional plot-arc of his drama, or – being one and the same – both.
This blurring of reality and fiction is not in itself “magickal” but is available fully within the realm and resources of art. The results of the meditation could have been recorded and left to speak for themselves, yet this is not what Thompson gives us. However, the self-referentiality of The Dark Pool ensures that we are not entirely certain that this is not what we are hearing.
I use a lot of students on the podcast, acting students […] My administration got wind of the work and made me promise that I wasn’t forcing them to do it for a grade or that they needed it to complete the theatre degree. (Lux Occult 2020: 25’57”)
This comment from Thompson suggests that what is at work in The Dark Pool is the same dynamic we considered at the outset, the game of hide and seek that magicians play with art. As we have considered previously, the ethics of magick are concerned with providing insight and salvation, which often conflicts with the ethics of a secular mainstream focused more on preventing possible harm. As an educator with an interest in the occult, The Dark Pool offers Thompson and his students a frame whose apparent fictionality will not offend the university administration, and yet which teases its audience with the possibility that they are listening to a work of magick.
Lux Occult (2020). Lux occult podcast episode 10 – ritual, performance and theatre with Dr. Rob C. Thompson from Occult Confessions and The Dark Pool. https://tinyurl.com/y2byvh7j (podcasts.apple.com). Accessed November 2020.
I am not sure that he ever wrote it down, but Alan Chapman gave what I consider the best definition of the Holy Guardian Angel (HGA):
A dualistic representation of the non-dual.
In eastern spiritual traditions realisation of non-duality is labelled “awakening” or “enlightenment” whereas the western magickal tradition personifies this realisation as the Knowledge and Communication of the HGA (KCHGA).
“Angel” is often employed as a term of convenience in western magick for any type of entity, process, or experience that lacks a material basis. For instance, if a person survives a situation or illness against extreme odds, this can be experienced as the intervention of an angel. Similarly, processes that act on a transhuman level (such as historical, national or cultural transitions) may also find expression as angelic personifications. A famous example is the Angel of the Mons, an entity that supposedly shielded British forces from certain defeat at the Battle of Mons in Belgium, 1914. This incident most likely originated from fiction and propaganda, but that did not prevent eyewitness reports of angels from troops who were present (e.g. Russell 2017).
you shall see your Guardian Angel appear unto you in unequalled beauty; who also will converse with you, and speak in words so full of affection and goodness, and with such sweetness, that no human tongue could express the same […] In one word, you shall be received by him with such affection that this description which I here give unto you shall appear a mere nothing in comparison. (MacGregor-Mathers 1976: 84-5)
The experience of non-duality can be described in many ways, but the dualistic representation of the non-dual that is the HGA very clearly portrays it as like being in the presence of someone lovely beyond expression. For Abraham, the narrator of the text, the KCHGA is a coming into relationship with a being absolutely good and perfect. It is a wondrous and unique relationship: “your Guardian Angel is already about you, though Invisible, and conducteth and governeth your heart, so that you shall not err” (MacGregor-Mathers 1976: 78).
To arrive at the KCHGA demands of the magician attainment of the understanding by which this relationship becomes possible. The ritual given in the text for this purpose (henceforth referred to as the Abramelin ritual) is elaborate and long and it is not my aim to rehearse it here. What it boils down to essentially is prayer, but not routine or formulaic prayer: “it is absolutely necessary that your prayer should issue from the midst of your heart” (MacGregor-Mathers 1976: 65). In its very core, the Abramelin ritual is simply heart-felt prayer, for a couple of hours every day, over a period of six months.
It is widely repeated that Aleister Crowley failed at the Abramelin ritual. The full story is far more complicated and subtle than that. I shall discuss this in more detail in the book I am currently writing, but the gist of my argument is that Crowley completed the Abramelin ritual numerous times in different modalities. Yes, he did not complete the ceremony in the specific form that Abraham describes, but instead he fulfilled its objective through the use of an alternative ritual (both physically and astrally), through visionary trance work, and through purely psychological techniques.
As related in The Baptist’s Head Trilogy, Alan Chapman and I had the good fortune to discover that the methods and techniques of chaos magick can be applied to awakening. So why go to the trouble of sourcing a purpose-built temple with a terrace covered in river sand (which is what Abraham instructs us to do) when (as Crowley demonstrated) simpler methods lead just as surely to the HGA?
However, just because the methods are simplified this does not mean the work will be easy. The “fake it till you make it” methodology of chaos magick will only take us so far into the KCHGA. To imagine we can “belief shift” our way into (or out of) an encounter with the HGA would imply a controlling ego deciding what and when to believe. This may suffice for sorcery, but the KCHGA is theurgy. Eventually we will hit a point where our ego and the dualistic representation that is the angel must yield to the direct experience of the non-dual. Sometimes a preliminary to this occurs as a vision of how the HGA has always been with us, a guiding and nurturing presence. But the full realisation of the KCHGA is that there was never any separation from the HGA – we are one and the same.
I have noticed recently some recurrent difficulties described by magicians undertaking this work from a chaos magickal perspective. The first of these is a sense of incompleteness: “amazing things happen but don’t lead anywhere”. The second is relentless doubt over whether the entity invoked is truly the HGA. The solution to both is quietly ready and waiting in the very notion of the HGA itself.
Unlike other traditions that characterise awakening or enlightenment as a state, the KCHGA is presented as a relationship. The practices we undertake for the KCHGA are therefore intended to cultivate that relationship, rather to act simply as a means for attaining a result.
An analogy: we could go to a restaurant to eat, or with someone on a date. In both cases the aim is food, but in the latter case something more besides. We could still enjoy a good date even if the food were bad. Success at the KCHGA is developing the kind of relationship where the date is great even if the food never arrives.
As previously mentioned, the KCHGA is theurgy not sorcery. Magicians with a background in chaos magick are likely to arrive at the KCHGA with a very results-based mindset, and this is where that feeling of “that was amazing but now – so what?” originates. Just because you had some nice food with someone does not mean you have found the love of your life. Once we decide to use the KCHGA paradigm as the means to arrive at non-duality (and there are plenty of good reasons to do so) then the work has to focus on the relationship to the angel rather than upon any state or experience construed as an ultimate goal or result of this.
Flip it around: suppose you were a HGA whose sole task is to guide to awakening the human being you are guardian over. Your human frequently invites you around for dinner, occasionally seeming totally into you and having a great time, but on other occasions they complain of feeling confused because these meetings are not leading anywhere. In this situation, what would you want to say to your human? What would be the likely effect of their behaviour on your relationship?
Sorcery is great for getting a handle on your HGA. Chaos magick techniques will readily obtain the HGA’s name, sigil, visual image, and other attributes, but these are not the goal; they only serve the KCHGA to the extent that they enable the relationship to develop. Chaos magick obtains results but does not help in ascertaining if those results are true. If you are the type of magician who cringes at seeing the last word of the previous sentence without scare quotes, then the work of the KCHGA may become clouded by doubt.
Rather than thinking in terms of whether a correct result has been gained, once more we should approach the question in relational terms. Suppose you were seeing someone but were not certain they were truly what and who they claimed? If there are grounds for supposing the other is not what they seem then there is simply no basis for a relationship. The HGA by definition wants what is best for us, but our only reason for remaining in a relationship with someone we fundamentally do not trust is because we believe we cannot have or do not deserve anything better. Either we must work on understanding why we do that to ourselves, or we should find someone else who obviously has our best interests at heart. No experience proves more conclusively how much the HGA loves us than a mind-blowing synchronicity, leaving us in no doubt we are indeed at the very centre of the universe.
The HGA is a dualistic representation of the non-dual. What this definition brings to light is at once a potential problem but also that problem’s solution. The problem stems from the fact that the HGA is not the non-dual, but the solution lies in how the personification of the non-dual places the focus of the work not on an attainment of a goal but on the development of a relationship.
There is no bond that can unite the divided but love: all else is a curse. (Crowley 1909: I, 41)
Some are contending with trauma from their past and arrive at spiritual insights through a perilous confrontation with mental breakdown. Others reach the same crossroads by engaging with spiritual practices and/or entheogens. What becomes apparent is the close affinity between mental illness and spiritual awakening.
Our culture regards mental illness as real enough to require intervention, but experiences of enlightenment fall under “delusion”. If spiritual awakening indeed offered a way through and out then the dominant ideology would be perpetuating mental illness rather than providing a socially sanctioned means of arriving at its resolution. Every contribution to Breaking Open re-tells a story of how its author had to find their own ways and means of achieving this.
The day before yesterday I was meditating, when it became self-evident that I was the incarnation of a long-forgotten god and should now re-introduce myself as such to the modern world. Having experienced this realisation, I took a moment to check in with myself. “Have I really bought into this?” I wondered and was relieved to discover that I had not.
The average mindfulness teacher is unlikely to issue warnings that meditation leads to experiences like this, or that the more expert at meditation a person becomes the more likely it is that such will arise. Meditation supposedly produces relaxation and stress release. Any odd effects will be regarded as due to poor mental health. However, through meditation I have arrived at veridical experiences of psychic phenomena, messages from the dead, interactions with discarnate entities, and spiritual awakenings. Yet we are not to suppose that these are what meditation might actually be for. As Louisa Tomlinson puts it:
Having a mindfulness practice is acceptable, marketed as “good for your health” and “giving you the edge”. But God forbid you go beyond the five senses into the ineffable fabric of cosmic reality. God forbid you actually have a spiritual experience. (Evans & Read 2020: 44)
In her contribution to the book Amy Pollard writes on how Brexit precipitated a breakdown. She describes herself as white, middle-class, living in North London from a socialist, feminist family, and working for a democracy charity. The murdered MP Jo Cox was part of her professional network. At the time of the Brexit vote Amy was bringing up small children and acutely sensitive to the ways babies signal their needs. “It had made me notice, with amusement”, she writes, “how many things adults do which are really grown-up versions of this” (Evans & Read 2020: 92). It is difficult to imagine anyone for whom Brexit could have been more of a disaster.
As the days and nights wore on I started becoming more sensitive. I noticed the self-soothing that was evident in the inflection of the newsreaders as they were talking. If you listened, you could hear the little tells in their voices that let you know where their attention really was – whether they were needing to connect or disconnect from you […] You could hear, in very subtle and understated ways, the pure despair of the British establishment. The more despair I could hear in the voices and bodies of others, the more panicked I felt that nobody was out there who knew what to do; and the more responsibility I felt to try to do my bit. (Evans & Read 2020: 93)
Awakening and mental breakdown are alike in that they confront us with uncontainable experiences of a truth that we must go out of our minds to apprehend more fully. Everyone, all of the time, really is a grown-up baby. Everyone really is a deity, utterly forgetful of their real name and wearing a human identity in the modern world. Spiritual insights are truths that are too big to be lived in our limited human form.
Amy’s “madness” offered me some perspective on the US Election this week: the tantrum thrown by the liberal left when it looked as if Trump might win, as if this would be somehow inexplicable or not allowed; and the inability of the dissenting right to tolerate due process as it became clear that Trump had lost. Madness erupts out of culture as well as out of individuals because culture, too, is sorely limited in comparison to what reality can throw at it.
Brexit was a bolt from the blue, a trauma that the liberal-left mindset could not contain. If Brexit could happen then it seemed no one was in control; everyone was a baby, and Amy was left struggling with the necessity to become a super-human mother who could respond to the needs of everyone. Amy described this sensitivity as “the motherhood ear”. To integrate the immensity of Brexit and the other pressures she was facing, she went out of her mind and into the realm of spiritual insight. Gradually she reached a turning point:
I had found the strength of my motherhood ear to be utterly overwhelming. It felt almost like I was controlling other people, or predicting what they were going to do. But gradually I came to see this ability not as any new power of mine […] It wasn’t so much that I was controlling or predicting what people would do; it was that noticing the interplay between me, other people, and the things around us was exploding the illusion that we are each separate people at all. (Evans & Read 2020: 98-99)
This lead to major changes and insights into an underlying reality, enabling Amy to accommodate greater and transpersonal dimensions of truth.
A few days ago I was afforded another vision, which maybe offers a useful analogy. I was in an antique laboratory. Upon a table or plinth, some kind of alchemical process had been erected: a mass of complex equipment, channelling bubbling liquids and emitting steam. The entire caboodle was sealed inside a huge glass vessel. As I looked on, everything inside the vessel violently exploded and all was destroyed. Although it had protected me and the laboratory from any damage, the glass vessel too had been utterly disintegrated. What remained was a pile of smouldering black ash and red embers, but also a sense that the alchemical process was continuing – indeed, that it was proceeding as planned, albeit in a more subdued form. My Guardian Angel appeared at my right-hand side. “The vessel cannot hold,” he explained.
I wondered if the vision were a warning, but now I think it shows things simply as they are. The process running in the laboratory remains mysterious. It explodes, yet the sense endures that it is proceeding on track. What is unfolding is therefore what is supposed to unfold, although this might not agree with our expectations.
The vessel does not hold, not because it fails, but by disintegrating it fulfils its function. It protects against the explosion yet must disintegrate with it, so that the process can smoulder, continuing in a different way.
Maybe our culture is undergoing an unknown process. Maybe the vessel of our beliefs and knowledge protects us but, to stay on board with that process, we will need to let it disintegrate so we can accommodate bigger truths. Perhaps madness is what happens in both the individual and in culture when the vessel attempts to contain rather than to yield.
Samhain approaches, and thoughts turn to the dead. They have made their presence felt more strongly this year than ever before.
We meet the dead in the questions and demands they leave in us. More than this: they are those demands; this is their post-mortem existence. We live in a perpetual karmic embrace with the dead. They need us to help them die more fully and offer us a possibility of living more fully when we recognise our misperceptions in their questions and demands. (This is fully explored in Liber Pisces [Geur 2020]).
To do this work you must know your dead. Other people’s dead lack a strong enough connection to leave questions and demands. Some of our dead are ancestors; others are connected not by DNA but through their impact on our lives. Some may be cultural, spiritual, or intellectual figures we may never have known personally, but their works have shaped us. Others have an almost angelic status or may never actually have lived as individuals; Daniel Foor describes them as “a collective embodiment of ancestral consciousness” (2017: 40).
To connect better with my genetic ancestors, I signed up to a family history website. I dived towards the distant past, resisting the urge to trace siblings (apart from the most recent generations) but following directly the female bloodlines back through my grandmothers, and the male bloodlines through my grandfathers.
I discovered what I had dreaded: the history of my ancestors is merely a slow percolation of genetic material about the villages of the English midlands.
Along all four bloodlines the story is the same: generation after generation of the English, rural working class. They were mostly agricultural labourers and then, as industrialisation took hold, they mostly worked in shoe manufacturing – the main commercial activity of Northamptonshire, the county in which most of them lived and where I grew up. An exception was Alfred Vorley (1855-1917), on my paternal grandmother’s side, who clawed his way up from agricultural labouring, through iron mining, to owning a fish-frying business. But whatever spark of entrepreneurship he possessed, it had fizzled by the next generation.
As research brought my ancestors into view, I realised how much I hated them. I was sneering at them through my attitudes towards wealth, work, and class. Yet those attitudes do not emerge from nowhere. They, too, are the whispers of my dead: We are insignificant. We are contemptible. There is nothing for you to find here. Look away.
Through the cultural dramas of Enclosure in the eighteenth century, the Industrial Revolution in the nineteenth, and the twentieth century’s two world wars, these were folk who hunkered down and endured. Their tactic for survival was to slip beneath the glare of history. “Along the cool sequestered vale of life / They kept the noiseless tenor of their way” (Gray 1751: 75-76). Thomas Gray’s “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard” is all about my dead.
They followed the track laid down for them from field to factory, avoiding the horror of the workhouse that awaited those who faltered, a horror whose echoes persisted even into my grandparents’ generation. By being born at just the right times, my bloodline predecessors coasted through the world wars virtually unscathed. Luckily for them, passing unnoticed was an option. No one took them away in ships and sold them as slaves. No one singled them out for ethnic or religious persecution. So they stayed put and circulated their homogenous DNA quietly about the vicinity.
They may have weathered the brunt of history but did not escape the pain of human life, the dramas that define our lives yet leave few marks on the historical record. In what meagre records survive it is possible sometimes to catch faint echoes of suffering.
The 1841 census shows Susannah Palmer (1772 – 1845), wife of William Ward (1772 – 1853), my four-times-great-grandfather, no longer living at Kislingbury with her husband. Their marriage record in 1796 indicates she came from Hinton. Her death record states she died in Brackley, close to Hinton-in-the-Hedges. These bare facts suggest she returned to her birthplace, dying there in 1845, yet she was buried in Kislingbury. William seems to have had her body transported back across the twenty miles that separated them when she died. In the 1851 census he is listed as “widower”. There is probably no chance of ever finding out whether Susannah fled an abusive relationship or walked out on a marriage that did not suit her. Maybe some other obligation drew her back to Hinton. When William ferried her body back to Kislingbury, where the Ward family lived for many generations (Tutchener 2000: 143), was this because she was the love of his life, or was it a final exercise of control? Of ancient pain and trauma these questions are the faint ripples that remain.
Even before the work of cataloguing my forebears was properly underway, one morning whilst meditating I heard a man singing and striding in from the open countryside came Badger. Imagine a seventeenth century mendicant with a floppy hat and haversack. Badger is the village cunning man gone walkabout, with poached coneys dangling from his belt, and dog-eared pamphlets in his pockets prophesying the True Commonwealth of England. Taken aback I asked him: “Where have you come from?”. Matter-of-factly he replied: “1650”.
Badger is what Daniel Foor describes as an ancestral guide, one who “resides beyond remembered names and living memory, in the realm of the older, collective dead” (Foor 2017: 119). The oldest bloodline ancestor I can trace with certainty is William Barford (1699 – 1744). In a record of William’s baptism his parents are named as Lawrence and Frances, but that is the extent of all now known about them. Sure enough then, 1650 is the moment in my lineage when oblivion falls upon the preceding ancestors’ names.
Another ancestral guide appeared a few weeks later. She wore a veil and was richly dressed in a Tudor-era gown. She was a lady in waiting, secretly well-versed in witchcraft, perhaps the reason she did not give her name. She was young, dark-haired, possibly of Spanish descent. Embroiled in political and relational intrigues, she conveyed a strong impression of knowing how to stay safe.
These are both the kind of ancestors I am proud to have behind me. I understand them not as individuals who lived but as manifestations of a spiritual rather than genetic legacy. They appeared vibrant, energetic, and well – not bad for a couple of dead people. I would happily trust Badger as a guide, but the young witch I would need to understand better. Never rush to trust a spirit that will not give its name.
Ancestral guides “mirror back to us our own potential and responsibility to be exemplary human beings” (Foor 2017: 97), and “they can understand and treat dysfunctional family patterns at the source, no matter how far back in history the troubles are rooted” (Foor 2017: 98). The feelings I harbour towards my dead are a symptom of those dysfunctional patterns. I can sense but do not yet fully understand the trauma and pain lurking along my bloodlines.
My maternal grandmother was born outside of marriage. Her mother, my great-grandmother, Annie Dahlia Maycock (1881 – 1951), was an unconventional woman. My grandmother was one of three sisters so physically similar they were obviously born of the same father. As well as her own three girls, Annie provided a home to children who had no parents, bringing them up as part of her family. She was paid for doing this, yet it seems she provided them all with a loving environment. Some of my mother’s happiest memories are of time spent with Annie.
She raised her children with no husband in a time and place where this was socially unacceptable. The shame of it was so great that although my grandmother and her siblings knew who their father was, they took his identity with them to their graves. My mother and my uncle asked questions, of course, but grew used to being rebuffed or misdirected.
One of my great-aunts claimed that she and her sisters’ father was John Garforth (1889 – 1912). His surname is also rendered as Garfirth, Garforte, and Garfield. Although my ancestors made a good job of avoiding history, other families were not so lucky. In 1912 John Garforth had decided to emigrate to Canada with his friend George Patchett. They were due to set sail from Liverpool on 5 April aboard the Empress of Ireland, but had to abandon their plan when, due to a coal strike, their train was delayed and ran only as far as Manchester. They returned home disappointed, but revised their arrangements and embarked five days later from Southampton – on the Titanic.
At least one person on the genealogy website I was using has taken my great-aunt’s fable as truth and has cited John as the father of Annie’s girls. But in my view, weaving John’s tragic death into the Maycocks’ family history is a misdirection, a cunning use of the dazzle of history to hide a less glamorous truth in its shadow.
That said, I was surprised to discover the Maycocks and Garforths lived right next-door to each other on Hinwick Road in the village of Wollaston. Doing the maths, John would have been 16 when the first Maycock sister was born, whereas Annie was 24. Not impossible, but perhaps unlikely when it is considered how two more siblings appeared over the next several years.
John had an elder brother, Herbert, who was 20 at the birth of Annie’s first child. Maybe he is a more likely suspect, especially as the census shows he and Annie not only living next door but both of them working at home during the day. Of Herbert, little is known. He died unmarried, five years after Annie’s death. This contradicts other family rumours that the girls’ father was a married man with another family elsewhere.
The mystery endures, but so does its effects. My grandmother had rigid views on who was the right sort of person and who was not. Snobbery was her way of dealing with the shame inflicted upon her. My mother processed this in more indirect ways, and me – more indirect still, but maybe the impact is just as palpable. My contempt for my ancestors is the case in point.
What if there were a form of snobbery that just rolled on and on until no one on earth was good enough? Indeed, another way to avoid shame might be to renounce self altogether. The attempt to avoid being someone altogether is a trope I can recognise across various areas of my life.
The impact of the dead, the intergenerational aspect of the psychological baggage we all carry, should not be underestimated.
I listed to a podcast interview in which a couple of the questions were so good that in the response more than the answer was heard.
There was a brief silence from the interviewee. Then a summoning of energy, with a faint sense of bluster, but expressed in a way that felt intended to create a misdirection. It was as if, rather than a considered response, which is what they seemed they wanted to convey, actually they were pushing back.
It was the unmistakable sound of desperation.
Maybe there is a special variety of desperation in occultism, arising when someone wants to espouse a principle or idea, but they lack the genuine experience required to actually see things that way. It is this metaphysical desperation – a wish for a truth that experience has failed to provide – which is my focus here. Of course, a material solution is often the best response to desperation of other kinds.
So much of therapy is being with the client’s need for things to be otherwise, and so much of magick is about accepting in ourselves this same wish for things to be other than what they are. Desperation is the mother of both therapy and magick. No one comes to either when satisfied with the conditions of existence. Yet neither therapy nor magick necessarily changes those conditions.
After all my years of magickal practice, this is how I describe the way things are:
God does not exist.
Spirits do not exist.
There is no continuation of consciousness after death.
Magick does not work.
Given the subject of this blog, this might sound surprising, but the secular materialist and I inhabit the very same world and she is perfectly intelligent, so I do not question her description. After all, she has plenty of evidence.
The magician deviates in the understanding of this shared reality. The difference is evoked perfectly by William Blake:
I assert for myself that I do not behold the outward creation, and that to me it is hindrance and not action. “What!” it will be questioned, “when the sun rises, do you not see a round disc of fire, somewhat like a guinea?” Oh! no! no! I see an innumerable company of the heavenly host, crying, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty!” I question not my corporeal eye, any more than I would question a window concerning a sight. I look through it, and not with it. (Gilchrist 1863: ii)
For Blake, material reality is a view through a window. Both the window and the vista have materiality, but not the perspective from which we look, which is defined by a point in space rather than by what occupies that space. It is understandable why the window and the perspective might be confused with one another, but a key difference between them lies in how the perspective includes the window. Because from it we can see the window, the perspective is not limited or defined by the window – “I look through it, and not with it”, as Blake says.
God, spirits, the dead, and magick cannot be seen through the window because they truly are not there. They have no material reality, no existence whatsoever. But not only is the window a metaphor, so is the perspective: it is only analogous to a point from which a person looks; it is not literally that. As the window and the vista are to the physical senses and material reality, so the perspective through the window is to a non-sensory awareness that can take the physical senses as its object. We “look at” and “see” beyond our senses on this level of awareness, and by this means what has no material reality becomes apparent. We “see” it not with the physical senses but with our understanding.
The text of the Nineteenth Enochian Key, revealed to John Dee and Edward Kelley in 1584 by the angel Nalvage, laments the divided, multiplicitous, and cruel nature of material reality. It is a hymn of total desperation, but it ends with an exhortation for delivery from confusion through understanding:
[T]he Earth let her be gouerned by her parts and let there be diuision in her, that the glory of hir may be allwayes drunken and vexed in it self […] One while let her be known and an other while a stranger: bycause she is the bed of a Harlot, and the dwelling place of Him that is Faln. […] Open the Mysteries of your Creation: and make vs partakers of Vndefyled Knowledg. (Maa-kheru 2020)
The knowledge is “undefiled” because it does not come through the senses and does not pertain to material reality. To know material reality is inevitably a struggle with confusion and division, entailing (not least) a brutal but methodologically necessary separation between the knower and the known. What Blake and Nalvage are pointing to is a non-sensory form of knowing that instead of coming by the laborious and problematic route of the senses presents itself directly to the understanding.
It offers an end to the desperation of wishing things were otherwise. Material reality is precisely as the materialists describe it: devoid of God and spirit; constrained by causality and the limitations of organic matter. It is idiocy both to assert that spirit could be perceptible or measurable in matter (because this is impossible) and to seek to prove that spirit is nowhere to be found (because this is obvious).
Do I experience desperation?
Yes. All of the time.
It functions as a precious signal when we are seeking a false solution.
I came downstairs and saw that the kite machine had finished. It had taken care of all the troublesome work of launching the kite high above the garden of my parents’ old house. Outside, it was a clear, summer day. The kite was already so high that it could not be seen. Its cord stretched up into the air, vanishing from sight, but I knew both kite and cord shared the same shade of pale blue.
Thanks to the launching machine, what remained was purely the pleasure of taking hold of the cord. I felt the tug of the kite from the other end, like something alive. This was the thrill of it: that direct connection with something vastly remote, invisible yet present.
Gazing up, a series of high-tension wires were dangerously close to the cord. I felt a surge of adrenaline, but realised the cord was already brushing against them. The danger I feared was not real. There was nothing to worry about. I could relax completely into my connection with the high and distant kite.
It felt like a good, healing dream. When I told it to my therapist he looked surprised and disclosed a synchronicity: he was running a men’s group and they were reading together a short story by Somerset Maugham, “The Kite” (1946).
It is the self-proclaimed “odd” tale of Herbert Sunbury, only son of a lower middle-class family, in his early twenties and still living at home with his overly attached mother and somewhat passive father. The story is told to the narrator by a friend, a prison visitor. Herbert is one of the friend’s cases and has been imprisoned for refusing to pay his wife alimony after abandoning her. When the friend asks Herbert why he wants to make his wife suffer he states that he can never forgive her – because she smashed his kite.
We are told how Herbert became obsessed with kites at the age of seven, and every weekend when the weather was favourable he and his parents would join other kite enthusiasts on the common, a tradition maintained ever since, until the day arrives when he invites a girl home to tea named Betty. Herbert’s jealous mother is so insulting towards his new girlfriend that he rebels by asking Betty to marry him. His parents boycott the ceremony, but Betty and Herbert set up home together as newlyweds. Betty cannot understand, however, why a grown man is still so fixated on flying a kite with his parents every weekend.
In a jealous rage, Herbert’s mother insists that the kite she gave him for Christmas all those years ago was never really his. Then, with promises of a huge box-kite that can fly at a height of two miles, his parents entice him back to the common at weekends. At this, Betty’s patience snaps. She throws him out. To his mother’s delight Herbert moves back home where, he realises, he was more comfortable anyway. Driven to desperation by Herbert’s refusal to return or to meet his financial responsibilities, Betty breaks into the coal-shed and smashes up the new box-kite with a hatchet. At least, that is what we are led to assume she did, yet none of the characters sees her do it, and her confession is delivered to Herbert through his father.
The story ends with Herbert in prison, having ignored court orders to support his wife, and relishing the suffering he has inflicted on her when the piano and all their furniture is repossessed.
Perhaps the biggest oddity of the story is its self-conscious framing at beginning and end with disclaimers by the narrator of any understanding of the meaning of Herbert’s behaviour. The narrator states that he knows little of human psychology; he evokes Freud but promptly dismisses him. Maybe this is Maugham’s way of signalling that the obvious Freudian overtones were not primarily what he was aiming at, and so perhaps the narrator’s own interpretation falls nearer the mark:
You see, I don’t know a thing about flying a kite. Perhaps it gives him [Herbert] a sense of power as he watches it soaring towards the clouds and of mastery over the elements as he seems to bend the winds of heaven to his will. It may be that in some queer way he identifies himself with the kite flying so free and so high above him, and it’s as it were an escape from the monotony of life. It may be that in some dim, confused way it represents an ideal of freedom and adventure. And you know, when a man once gets bitten with the virus of the ideal not all the King’s doctors and not all the King’s surgeons can rid him of it. But all this is very fanciful and I dare say it’s just stuff and nonsense. (Maugham 1946)
I am not convinced it is freedom that is the issue for Herbert, who enjoys the confines of his family home, nor precisely the pleasure of domination and control. At his most desperate, he expresses violent intentions towards Betty yet never follows through; his most aggressive act is to throw her onto the bed so he can leave their home, after she kicks him.
What the kite seems to represent in Maugham’s story is Herbert’s desire. A kite soars high whilst never escaping the cord that binds it. Likewise, we feel the pull of desire, but can never break free from it. Our needs and wants might be satisfied, but our desires never are. We desire a person or an object, but having that object or being with that person does not end the desire for them. Desire extends outwardly to things, at the same time presenting itself intensely and close within. Desire is an inmixing of self and other, which is the reason that working with it is so effective for accessing non-dual states of awareness, as in bhakti yoga, tantra, and sex magick. Psychologically desire reveals more about ourselves than whatever it happens to be manifestly directed towards.
In the story, whoever has the kite has Herbert’s desire; wherever the kite goes, Herbert comes attached. “If you marry that woman you’re not going to fly my kite”, threatens his mother. “I never gave it you, I bought it out of the housekeeping money, and it’s mine, see” (Maugham 1946). In her refusal to relinquish the kite it becomes apparent that Herbert’s desire is his mother’s desire. The fundamental gift a mother bestows the child that emerges from her body is independent existence, yet Herbert’s mother deprives him of this by refusing him a desire of his own.
Betty is not able to break through to him. By belittling his passion for kites she alienates herself from his desire. But that is no fault on her part; as an adult woman she might prefer to be the object of his desire rather than the custodian of it. A film version of the story in 1948 could not resist appending a happy ending: the narrator’s friend arranges for Herbert to be let out early from prison, and for Betty to join him on the common where they fly the kite together (Crabtree 1948). In Maugham’s original text, however, Herbert does not recover from Betty’s destruction of the kite. By taking a hatchet to it, she destroys his capacity for desire altogether. At the story’s conclusion he is stranded in prison, consumed with hatred, and cut-off from the world. The kite as a symbol conveys how we need desire to find a grounding in reality at the same time as it lifts us out of ourselves.
In my dream, I was back at my parents’ old house, but they were not there. I was inhabiting a structure they had provided, whereas for Herbert his actual parents are all too present. And if it is the act of control and mastery that is important for Herbert, in the dream all of this is taken care of automatically by the machine. “Getting it up” is not the dream’s focus; it is about the sensation of connection.
On the day of the dream I had listened to Conner Habib’s podcast on the Archangel Michael (Habib 2020) and been very moved by this, and struck by Habib’s remarks on the traditional image of Michael, in which he is shown killing a devil with a spear or sword:
[…t]he sword and the dragon and Michael’s hand are always connected. In a very real way, the sword becomes a conduit or a bridge between Michael and that other being, the dragon. […] The difficulty with destroying the dragon is that you must connect yourself to it […] We don’t evolve past the dragon, we in-volve him and our hearts must be ready for him. (Habib 2020: 14’53”)
Habib is reading Michael from an anthroposophical perspective. For Habib, as for Steiner, the devil slain by Michael is the reductive materialism that characterises our era. This devil is therefore an aspect of a greater cosmic being, Ahriman. For Steiner, human beings walk a path between the deviating influences of Ahriman and Lucifer (Steiner 2009). The former manifests as a downward, earthwards pull towards materialism, literalism, nationalism; Lucifer takes the form of the opposite skyward drift into intellectualisation, abstraction, utopianism. Whereas Herbert struggles to get his kite off the ground, in the dream mine has completely vanished into the wide blue yonder.
Yet the sense of connection is paramount: the kite is grounded to my body through the exhilarating sensation of its pull. Too much identification with the kite itself would lead, as Maugham’s narrator supposes, to an impulse towards “escape” – a dynamic that finds expression in the archetype of the puer aeternus and the cautionary myth of Icarus. But the dream maybe points in a different direction. As Michael demonstrates how to defeat the enemy by exercising will in the correct way and avoiding the temptation to separate from what we need to engage with, perhaps the dream indicates how to put our desire in order.
Allowing others control of our desire provides a promise of satisfaction, just as Herbert fools himself that his best option is to live at home, but this is to confuse desire with his wants and needs. As will is a conduit between self and world, so desire mediates between the self and the ideal. When desire is extinguished then so is our connection to what we hold to be beautiful, good, and true. Herbert’s mother prevents his desire from ever getting off the ground because she wants him, rather than what is best for him. She entraps him in her own confusion. The kite-flying encapsulates both Herbert’s predicament with his mother and his wish to escape.
As Michael’s sword shows how to destroy the devil by connecting with the devil, maybe the kite demonstrates the converse: how to communicate with the highest. Simply being human guarantees a possibility of realising this: we do not have to “do” anything, desire is a given. We automatically tend towards the good, the beautiful, and the true. Obstacles – those supposedly deadly high tension wires – are false beliefs, like Herbert’s false belief that mum fulfils his desire rather than Betty, just because mum meets his needs; and the narrator’s false belief that human nature is beyond his understanding, whereas everything he says about Herbert is right on point. We go wrong only if, in the grip of false belief, we fail to rise at all or completely lose our connection with the earth.
Crabtree, Arthur, director (1948). Quartet. J. Arthur Rank Productions.
Form is emptiness; emptiness is evolving. (Oelke 2019).
This quotation from Zen teacher David Loy has featured in discussions of “Metadharma”, a new approach to Buddhist practice being developed by the influential Buddhist Geeks sangha. Vincent Horn, its founder, defines Metadharma as “any approach to dharma practice that responds in some intentional way to the meta crisis that we face as a species” (Buddhist Geeks 2019a: 0’46”).
Metadharma holds that Buddhism needs a revamp because it cannot respond to present crises with the level of social engagement demanded. Buddhism’s original emphasis was upon realising emptiness as a means to escape suffering. “Now, indeed, you often abide in the abiding of a great man”, the Buddha congratulated Sariputta. “For this is the abiding of a great man, namely, voidness [emptiness]” (Bodhi 1995: 1143). Loy’s comment represents a different approach, alluding to the Heart Sutra as a reminder that emptiness and form are not separate, so if form is evolving then emptiness is evolving too. Therefore, to abide in emptiness is unfeasible as a response to the challenges posed by the world of form.
Yet this is not what we encounter in personal experience. After years spent investigating the ubiquity in everyday experience of the three characteristics (impermanence, suffering, and no-self), emptiness was realised when something else became apparent that never wanes, does not suck, is nothing at all, and yet is available to awareness. Part of the experience of emptiness is the direct intuition that it is indeed the same for all, and throughout all time.
Ken Wilber argues, however, that what we cannot see is precisely what points to the future direction of Buddhism (Buddhist Geeks 2019b, 2019c). Wilber draws a distinction between “waking up” and “growing up”. There is the realisation of emptiness, but there is also what we make of that realisation and how we integrate it into our lives and practice. Describing it as “the abiding of a great man” when actually it is the realisation of something that was always the case, and is available to every single person on earth, is a case in point. What we make of emptiness is determined by our stage of development with regard to many factors, such as education, culture, ethics, and our level of cognitive and emotional intelligence. All of these shape our experience, but none of them are visible from within it. Wilber makes the case for a new phase (a “fourth turning”) of Buddhism that incorporates practices for “growing up” and “cleaning up” alongside the traditional “waking up”.
Spiritual traditions grow and develop but they also fade and decay, so how do we tell if a new phase is truly a fresh development and not the corruption of something already on its way out? Evolution is a harrowing process. Living things evolve not because they are seeking to better themselves, but to survive. Every so-called “new phase” is also just a means to fend off death for a little while longer.
Emptiness is eternal, but living species die, and evolution is the process that kills as well as engenders them. To say “emptiness is evolving” suggests that emptiness is subject to evolution, but it is emptiness that allows evolution, because without emptiness there is no dependent origination, which means things could never manifest as things nor give rise to others if they were not in themselves inherently empty.
Perhaps Loy goes wrong with his unstated assumption that form is evolving. Certainly, living things evolve, but living things are not the totality of form. Neither subatomic particles, planets nor black holes seem to reproduce by natural selection. It is presently uncertain whether the universe will ultimately die a slow heat death or somehow recycle itself – the “Big Freeze” or the “Big Crunch” (NASA 2015). Living things must adapt to their material conditions to survive, but life and its environment are both aspects of form. Rather than evolving, form might instead be simply on a long hiding into nothingness, or locked in an eternally repeating cycle.
Presently, like many institutions, western Buddhism is under pressure and maybe clutching for a means to survive. Buddhist Geeks has espoused the postmodern view that all expressions of truth are partial, and the distrust of grand narratives that this entails. But when a tradition is under strain, it is difficult to imagine a response is not also an attempt to make one’s own narrative less partial. Metadharma, by including practices for personal development and social engagement, seems to be taking on functions more traditionally associated with the education system or a political movement. Although this may attract more outwardly diverse practitioners, it will likely generate greater homogenisation in terms of liberal values and politics. Might this not end up contributing to the current trend towards polarisation?
My route into spirituality and the occult was largely through the tradition of chaos magick. In case it seems I am smugly criticising western Buddhism, chaos magick (and perhaps the occult in general) is in an even worse mess. Because of its emphasis on technique and lack of a coherent worldview, chaos magick is not even a spiritual tradition as such. It just so happened I had the good fortune to be guided towards the discovery that its techniques can lead to genuine spiritual experiences, when coupled with an intention to produce these.
In more recent years the founder of chaos magick has adopted increasingly nationalist views (Carroll 2020); in Russia, Alexander Dugin has used the techniques and iconography of chaos magick in the service of far-right Eurasian nationalism; and similarly, in the USA, Steve Bannon and Richard Spencer have employed meme magick among the alt-right to help Donald Trump into power (Lachman 2018). Given all this turmoil and confusion, I was not surprised to hear the following in a recent episode of the Weird Studies podcast:
All those chaos magicians who think that […] magick should be available to anyone […] Magick spells are guns […] You’ve read “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice”: chaos will ensue […] So I guess that’s what chaos magicians want. (Ford & Martel 2020: 1hr22’25”)
The dilemmas of western Buddhism are mild in comparison with the challenges facing chaos magick: appropriation by the far right, and a not unwarranted association with unethical behaviour. Yet there seems to have been no public debate within chaos magick regarding an appropriate response. So far, the problem has been ignored, which maybe chimes with the core values of the movement: magick as simply a set of techniques, available to anyone for any purpose they choose.
Chaos magick and western Buddhism have provided me with major points of reference regarding my spiritual practice and ethical values. But as the war of all against all hots up, both traditions are under pressure, perhaps about to fall apart at the seams. Chaos magick has been invaded by the right; western Buddhism seems set on transforming into a bastion of liberalism. But the changes to both seem to be detracting from the practices and values that attracted me in the first place.
Emptiness is not evolving; form is that which, because it is emptiness, can pass away and die. Chaos magick continues to provide wonderful techniques for creating form from intention, and Buddhism has always provided useful instruction on how (in many senses) to die well. What formerly was provided from the outside by these traditions, in the future we may need to embody for ourselves from within.