Coagula

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.

Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860), author of The World as Will and Representation (1819). We’ll get to him in a moment…

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.

References

Ellis, James (2020). Hermitix: Schopenhauer and philosophical counselling with Hans Gerding. https://tinyurl.com/ya8vmy6a (podiant.co). Accessed December 2020.

Ingram, Daniel M. (2018). Mastering the Core Teachings of the Buddha. Revised and expanded edition. London: Aeon.

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (2017). Arthur Schopenhauer. https://tinyurl.com/y8sc6eg4 (stanford.edu). Accessed December 2020.

 

Art

“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.

References

Crowley, Aleister (1909). Liber O vel Manus et Sagittae sub figurâ VI. https://tinyurl.com/y6lrgdpc (hermetic.com). Accessed November 2020.

Dukes, Ramsey (2000). SSOTBME Revised. England: El-Cheapo.

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.

Moore, Alan (2015). Art and magic. https://tinyurl.com/y24376hh (youtube.com). Accessed November 2020.

Pfeiffer, Karl, director (2019). Hellier. Planet Weird.

Thompson, Rob C., et al (2020). The dark pool. https://tinyurl.com/yyuje6f3 (darkpoolproject.com) Accessed November 2020.

Wilde, Oscar (1998). The Picture of Dorian Grey. Oxford: Oxford University Press.