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.
Gilchrist, Alexander (1863). The Life of William Blake. Mineola, NY: Dover, 2012.
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.
Bodhi, Bhikkhu, translator (1995). Pindapataparisuddhi sutta: the purification of almsfood [MN 151]. In: The Middle Length Discourses of the Buddha. Boston, MA: Wisdom Publications.