Depressive Hedonia

Transcript of Episode #204 of the OEITH podcast, Depressive Hedonia, exploring a form of depression first identified by Mark Fisher, its dynamics, the challenges it poses to magical practice, and a possible antidote discovered through the tarot.

In one of the Pali suttas, the one known as the Brahmajāla Sutta, the Buddha mentions the following: “Some ascetics and brahmins,” he says,

remain addicted to attending such shows as dancing, singing, music, displays, recitations, hand-music, cymbals and drums, fairy shows […] combats of elephants, buffaloes, bulls, rams […] maneuvers, military parades […] disputation and debate, rubbing the body with shampoos and cosmetics, bracelets, headbands, fancy sticks […] unedifying conversation about kings, robbers, ministers, armies, dangers, wars, food, drink, clothes […] heroes, speculation about land and sea, talk of being and non-being… (cited in Maté 2018: 213)

So, even back in the far-flung, ancient world of the Buddha there was no shortage of things and activities to distract us, to draw us in. And this passage from the suttas is one that Gabor Maté includes in his book, In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts (2018), which is an exploration of addiction.

Maté suggests that if the buddha was teaching today, maybe some of the things he might have included on that list would be: sugar, caffeine, talk shows, gourmet cooking, right or left-wing politics, aerobic exercise, crossword puzzles, meditation, religion, gardening, golf… The point that Maté extracts from all of this is the following. He says:

In the final analysis, it’s not the activity or object itself that defines an addiction but our relationship to whatever is the external focus of our attention or behaviour. (Maté 2018: 213-4)

In other words, what he’s saying there is probably what the Buddha was also saying, which is that it’s possible to get addicted to absolutely anything. Anything that gives us some modicum of pleasure has the potential to be engaged with in the form of a relationship where whatever this thing is, it begins to assume the status of something that we feel that we cannot do without. We find ourselves turning to it as a retreat from unhappiness or distress that we might be feeling in other parts of our lives. These things may not be worthy of the attention that we find ourselves feeding into them. That’s certainly what the Buddha was highlighting, and what I’m going to try and talk about in this episode is perhaps one of the greatest enemies to our magical practice, our spiritual practice – whatever that happens to be.

The words that the Buddha used to describe it get translated into English as things like “sloth” and “torpor”. Other words used for it are things like: “lack of motivation”; “languishing”; the French word ennui; “nihilism”; “apathy”. It’s something quite nebulous to describe, quite difficult to get hold of and – for something that takes the form of such a deadening, blank feeling – it’s remarkably nuanced. But the name for it that I’m going to adopt as my reference point is one that was coined by the late political writer, Mark Fisher, who called it “depressive hedonia”.

A kind of paradox. A kind of oxymoron. “Hedonia”, of course, is the source of the word “hedonism”. “Hedonia” means “pleasure”, “enjoyment”, and there’s also its opposite, “anhedonia”, which refers to states in which it’s impossible to gain pleasure or enjoyment. “Depression,” writes Fisher,

is usually characterized as a state of anhedonia, but the condition I’m referring to is constituted not by an inability to get pleasure so much as by an inability to do anything else except pursue pleasure. (Fisher 2009: 22)

What Fisher is describing there is a feeling, an emotional situation, which is a tormenting mix of needing something, of wanting something, of taking a fix from something, and having that thing close at hand, having it available, yet that feeling of needing a fix never, ever entirely goes away, and I think this is a feeling that many of us have become more and more familiar with.

I’m thinking of things like scrolling through social media: that sensation we can have that we’re gaining from it some kind of distraction, but a kind of distraction that remains as a distraction and never really tips over into providing enjoyment.

Fisher encountered this state of mind in the students that he was teaching: sixteen to eighteen year-olds. Teenagers. One example he gives is of a boy who was wearing headphones in class. So, Fisher challenged him and the student’s response was that it didn’t matter that he was wearing headphones because he wasn’t playing any music through them. And then, another time, the same student’s headphones were lying on the desk and, very faintly, music was coming through them. Fisher asked him to turn it off, and the boy’s response was: “Well, what’s the point in turning it off?” because even he (who was sitting closest to the headphones) couldn’t hear the music because it was on so low.

The conclusion Fisher drew from this is that there’s something here about finding ourselves drawn into relationship to things because they hold the promise of fulfilment and connection rather than delivering that. The boy, it seemed, felt compelled to wear the headphones, to have them on the desk, not because they enabled him to listen to music that he liked, but because they just seemed to comfort him with the possibility that he could do that, or could have that.

These are states of mind that can exert great power over us. They have the potential to destroy our motivation, to distract us away from our true will; take us away from what we might consciously want for ourselves and lead us into these blank, numb spaces where our concentration is dissipated away by something that doesn’t even fulfil us, but often only promises to do so, or does so only partially. This state of mind, it has mixed elements: on the one hand (as we’ve seen so far) it has an addictive element to it. But there’s a depressive element here as well. At the same time, I think, there’s something here that’s about loss.

When we’re scrolling through social media, maybe we’re looking for something maybe that we feel is missing and Mark Fisher’s student with the headphones: perhaps a sense there that he needed those headphones to be present to give him a sense of connection with something, maybe, that otherwise would feel as if it was missing.

Perhaps one of the most challenging things that can happen to us as magicians is when we realize that we’ve slipped into a state of mind like this with regard to our magick. We can quite possibly fall into a relationship with magic where, instead of it becoming the means to realize and fulfil our desires and motivations, instead it becomes an impediment to them. We end up doing magick as a comfort, a form of consolation. The rituals of our magick cease being a means of experiencing something but become subtly, instead, a means of not experiencing something.

If we find ourselves scrolling endlessly, aimlessly, disinterestedly through our social media, I think it’s true to say that although we may not feel we’re benefiting much from that, somebody is. The owners of these platforms are profiting from our distraction. Suppose we imagine ourselves back to the days of the Buddha, and we think of one of these brahmins or ascetics that the Buddha described, who’s overly preoccupied with their headbands or their fancy stick. What would the impacts of that have been? If someone had lost their motivation or was getting overly interested or distracted by something or other, then the impact of that is likely to rebound upon the person themselves and their immediate family, community, and maybe – back then – the community would have been a far more powerful corrective than it is today to help that person motivate themselves onto a more productive track.

Fisher makes the point that the nature of education has changed down the years and, these days, students are regarded as consumers of education. The way educational bodies are funded, they can’t afford to exclude students or fail students because then they won’t receive any funds for them. So, students are aware that they can’t fail the course that they’re on. In that case, where’s the incentive to focus in the classroom when you could be snacking, or scrolling through your social media, or listening to music on headphones?

The students are consumers in a marketplace of education. There’s not an educational community there, as such. The power of teachers like Fisher is eroded, negated, and there are parties – invisible, absent parties – who are profiting from the students, regardless of whether they pass or fail.

What Fisher was seeing in his students he felt was partly natural teenage languor, but also something more than that: an attempt at resistance.

“They know things are bad,” writes Fisher, “but more than that, they know that they can’t do anything about it” (Fisher 2009: 21).

In a control society, you’re supposed to motivate yourself. You’re supposed to apply your own punishments to yourself. But if you don’t want to go in the direction that the control society is pointing you – what do you do? It seems the only alternative is to resist motivation, and desist from punishing yourself, and it’s this that perhaps accounts for the strange paradoxes of depressive hedonia. On the one hand, we find ourselves restlessly seeking pleasure. On the other hand, that pleasure never arrives, because we’re not going where we want to go.

“What must be discovered,” suggests Fisher, “is a way out of the motivation / demotivation binary, so that disidentification from the control program registers as something other than dejected apathy” (Fisher 2009: 30).

It seems that depressive hedonia can be a form of resistance, but it’s an immobilizing one. It’s one in which we put our desire on ice. It’s my suspicion that depressive hedonia at the moment is endemic. Depressive hedonia, I’ve suggested, is what arises when we feel we’re confronted with a situation to which there’s no alternative. In a control society, as ours seems increasingly set on becoming, the source of the discipline and punishments that’s regulating our behaviour as consumers, supposedly comes from inside ourselves, so if we’re being forced in a direction that we don’t want to go in, even though it’s presented as the only alternative, then the only option we have is to resist disciplining and punishing ourselves.

Within a kind of outer case of depression there’s an inner sanctuary of a kind of addiction, where we resist motivating ourselves to do something we don’t want to do by resorting to pleasure instead. But that pleasure never really delivers satisfaction, because it wasn’t our choice to go seeking it in the first place.

More of us, I think, and for more of the time: we’re being confronted with a situation like this. Take the ecological crisis, for example. The overriding aim of capitalism is to make a profit, so it just keeps on consuming resources. Capitalism is the cause of the current ecological crisis, yet we’re told there’s no alternative to this. The solution, we’re reassured, is more capitalism, using green technologies. Somehow we, as consumers, will need to discipline ourselves and consume more wisely. Therefore, if the planet gets trashed, that’s because of the choices we’ve made as consumers within capitalism. So, again, this structure, this idea of a course we have to pursue, because there’s no alternative, and yet we are the ones supposedly responsible for making that course of action we haven’t chosen work. If it doesn’t work, it’ll be our fault for not doing the recycling, or choosing a green energy provider.

It’s there again, maybe, that same structure, in the effects of the covid pandemic. We’re assured we have to get back to normal. There’s no alternative to this, even though one of the things the pandemic has done is expose the inequalities in our society, and there are many of us, I think, who would dearly love not to get back to normal, not to go back to how things were. So, we get our jabs from the big pharma companies – and those, of course, are effective to a considerable degree – and then: that’s it. That’s done. It’s up to us now to get back to normal. It’s up to us to find a way to do precisely what we were doing before.

I think that during the pandemic I did a lot of mourning, a lot of grieving. I’m still doing it, I think. Over the past couple of years I’ve been battling constantly against depressive hedonia. It was interesting how, after the first lockdown, my magical practice seemed to dissolve almost completely away. I wasn’t even meditating. Sometimes weeks would go without me sitting. What I found myself doing instead was distracting myself with work, drink, food, watching crap on television, listening to occult podcasts, making occult podcasts…

I’m still struggling with the idea of going back to normal, because I never liked normal anyway. The thing about the pandemic was it exposed how shit normal really was. It’s been a huge struggle getting my magical practice, my spiritual practice, back online, and it’s an ongoing struggle. Over the past couple of years, I would start getting things back again, only for it to collapse, and having to do it again and again.

It’s felt like the last two years have been a kind of bouncing along the bottom. One of the things about depression is it can feel as if all the meaning has drained out of life, but the pernicious thing about depressive hedonia is we keep finding things that we can disappear into, that do seem to offer some sort of refuge, a kind of meaning, a kind of pleasure. Yet, as we’ve seen, these never provide full satisfaction. We can perhaps find ourselves constantly realizing that we’re putting our energy and our interest into the wrong thing. That perhaps accounts for this feeling that I described: “bouncing along the bottom”. We feel that we’re back on track only to discover that actually we’re just hiding away in a different refuge.

We’re not immune to this as magicians. In fact, I wonder if we’re perhaps even more vulnerable to it because, of course, we’ve got this wonderful treasury of practices, traditions, yet these – as I was suggesting earlier – can function themselves just as further forms of refuge. A subtle, maybe imperceptible shift can occur in our practice where we’re no longer practising magick in order to change our reality, but we find ourselves practising magick because we can’t change our reality.

One of the forms I noticed this taking in my own life – and it was really quite strange when I noticed it – had to do with exercise. That was another thing that dropped away during the pandemic. Suddenly I just lost all impulse to go out running. One day it dawned on me that the feeling behind this was: if I got fit again, then it would mean that it would be easier for me to return to the kind of routine I had before the pandemic started. It was odd. It felt almost as if my body wasn’t mine. It felt almost as if being fit didn’t benefit me. I was feeling as if going out for a run was doing Boris Johnson more good than it was doing me. It was really strange! Of course, Boris Johnson doesn’t care whether I go out for a run or not, but I think that feeling was pointing to a subtle shift that had taken place: that where my will was, where my desire was, was not so much in the place of wanting or creating something for myself, but wanting to deny or destroy something good in myself so that it couldn’t be taken away by something outside of me. It was indeed an impulse that was trying to mount some kind of resistance but, like all psychological defences, these tend to bolster the ego, fortify it, whereas in magical and spiritual practice, of course, what we’re generally looking to do is to open it up, loosen it, increase its participation in something beyond ourselves.

The thing is, I think, misery, pessimism, gloominess, this too can be an object of addiction. There is a grim delight in revelling, enshrouding oneself in the horribleness of things. Suffering is something that we don’t always want to get away from, but it too can also offer a form of retreat.

First off, I think it’s important to appreciate that element in depressive hedonia which is a form of resistance, an attempt to hold steady and fight back to some degree. It’s a response to feeling forced down a path that one doesn’t want to go down, and that needs to be recognized and given some respect and compassion.

Over the months, somehow I managed to start up again and struggled to maintain a daily magical practice, but it was tough, and it was also very tenuous. Sometimes I’d lapse again and have to start again from scratch. It was a struggle and it was difficult, and this is another thing that it’s important to acknowledge and respect: difficulty and struggle is part of the magical path. It’s what we sign up for. The cost of doing something that’s difficult and that not many people do is that probably inevitably you’re going to get lost and stuck at times. It reminds me of something Fisher himself says. He wrote:

Some students want Nietzsche in the same way that they want a hamburger; they fail to grasp – and the logic of the consumer system encourages this misapprehension – that the indigestibility, the difficulty is Nietzsche. (Fisher 2009: 24)

He was noticing his students wanting to be able to understand something that was complicated, abstruse, difficult, and then becoming distressed when they found that it wasn’t easy. But, of course, the fact that they are becoming distressed and aren’t finding it easy shows that they’re on the right track! They’re actually engaging with Nietzsche, or whatever it is that they want to understand. The same is true of the magical path, and probably it’s true also of any serious endeavour that we undertake. Struggle is a sign of progress, not of failure.

So, eventually, I had some kind of daily magical practice up and running, and one of the things I decided to add into that was a daily divination using the tarot. One of the things that quickly became interesting was how frequently certain cards seemed to be turning up, but not necessarily the ones I might have expected.

A bat-winged demon on a podium to which are tethered by collars two smaller demons.
Arcanum XV The Devil.

If we think of the major arcana and which of those cards might best represent the state of depressive hedonia, it’s got to be The Devil, hasn’t it? The devil is often taken to represent ideas such as addiction, restriction, duality, materialism, overwhelming instincts or drives; the state of being dominated by some sort of force that it’s impossible to overcome. But that wasn’t the one I noticed turning up when I did a three-card spread every morning over the weeks, and that’s interesting because if The Devil had been the card turning up, I probably would simply have assumed that I knew what it represented – that it represented simply the feelings of depression that I was battling against.

Instead, the card that kept turning up, again and again, was the card that precedes The Devil in the sequence of the major arcana: number XIV, Temperance. And each time I noticed it appearing, it was never the right way up. It was always Temperance upside down. Because it felt a little out of place and its meaning seemed a little difficult to grasp, that was what caused me to reflect more deeply on what this card could possibly be pointing to and what it might represent.

I started getting interested in the tarot for the first time when I was about thirteen years old, and I remember reading at the time a book – I can’t remember which one – in which there was something that always stayed with me. The person who wrote this book suggested that in the major arcana of the tarot what we have there is a pictorial representation of the nature of change itself. This person was arguing that in a universe where the only thing that doesn’t change is change, then a map of what change is and how it works would be something that offered dependable information. They seemed to be making the case that all oracles to some extent work on this basis. Every oracle – most obviously, most clearly, I think, the I Ching, but any oracle – the runes, the tarot, the different patterns of dots that you get in geomancy – what it is that all these pictorial oracles present is a model of the way change works in a form that we can consult.

So, thinking about that sequence in which Temperance and The Devil appear in the major arcana, we’ve got number XIII Death, the tarot card that represents sudden, dramatic change; and then following that comes Temperance, which is about finding equilibrium; and then number XV, The Devil, becoming locked in dominating, restrictive, influences; and then after The Devil, number XVI, The Tower, which is all about the status quo being blown away and a new perspective revealing itself, something hitherto inconceivable blowing everything away.

Those are just a few cards in the sequence, of course, and I’ll leave you to think about how or whether the other major arcana feed into a map of the nature of change, but just taking those few cards, numbers XIII, XIV, XV, and XVI, maybe it is possible to see how the processes of change itself are mirrored in that sequence.

Thinking about historical events, very often there will be a sudden revolutionary change that sweeps things away, in the manner of the Death card, and when that happens there is often a moment when equilibrium is restored, and there’s the possibility of some new kind of harmony to take shape. But often what generally happens after revolutions – just thinking of the French Revolution of 1789, or the English Civil War in the seventeenth century – yes, radical change comes and there is a moment of euphoria when a new harmony seems to have installed itself upon Earth, only for that to be followed by some new form of oppression, whether that’s Napoleon or Oliver Cromwell, both of those perhaps acting to some extent as the figure of The Devil in the tarot suggests. Then, in due course, The Lightning-Struck Tower makes its influence felt, where the actual outcome of all this revolutionary change finally comes home to roost, but in a form that couldn’t have been predicted at the beginning; that’s entirely from out of the blue.

It’s an interesting idea to play with, maybe, and perhaps to some extent the covid pandemic we can take as the Death card: sudden change. Maybe those archetypal images of Temperance and The Devil are both in play at the moment, some of us seeing opportunities for a new harmony; some of us seeing new forms of oppression taking root in the world. But I think it’s almost certainly the case that the upshot will indeed be The Lightning-Struck Tower, a change of a higher order altogether that no one will probably have seen coming.

So, The Devil is maybe a good depiction of the state of depressive hedonia, but the card that kept turning up was Temperance, and it was reversed. The sense I got from that was maybe what I was being shown was not so much what was present, but perhaps something that had not yet come into being. So, what I did is what I’d recommend anybody to do in this sort of situation, which is to take a look at the book Meditations on the Tarot.

This book is a series of esoteric Christian essays on the twenty-two major arcana. It was published anonymously in around 1967, and although we do know who the author is, it was clear that the author wanted to be anonymous, so the polite thing to do, I think, is always to refer to them as “Anonymous”. But suffice it to say that the author was an anthroposophist, a follower of Rudolf Steiner, although he eventually split from the anthroposophy movement and found a home apparently in something more along the lines of Catholic mysticism.

As I read through Anonymous’ chapter on the fourteenth arcanum, Temperance, which is rather lengthy and quite dense, and does contain a few digressions into points of Christian doctrine, some really amazing insights seemed to jump out at me.

Whereas arcanum XV, The Devil, shows us what depressive hedonia is, it does indeed seem as if in the idea of Temperance there’s perhaps something really incisive on how to deal with depression and depressive hedonia.

Anonymous starts off with the basics. So, what we have in this card is the figure of a winged angel and the angel’s gaze and our attention is being drawn to the two cups that he or she is holding, and between which liquid is flowing. But there’s something quite odd going on here, because the liquid is kind of floating in the air. Something otherworldly is happening here, something that defies earthly gravity.

A winged angel pouring liquid between two cups.
Arcanum XIV Temperance.

To delve deeper into the question of what an angel is, and what this particular angel might be doing, Anonymous takes up a couple of ideas from St Bernard: the idea of “the divine image” and “the divine likeness”. These both come out of Catholic theology. The divine image is that part of us that is made in the image of God, which is in some sense eternal and partakes of the nature of God. But the divine likeness is that other aspect of human nature, which in a Catholic context is regarded as fallen, as being prone to sin and degradation.

Anonymous suggests that the angel in the Temperance card is not just any old angel, but the guardian angel: an angel that every human being has watching over them. He suggests that what the function of the holy guardian angel is, is to act as the ally of the divine image.

So, the guardian angel is a spiritual being that serves and strengthens the impact of the divine image upon how the human being expresses itself on Earth. Now, the relationship between a guardian angel and its human might not be as straightforward as it seems at first. Anonymous points out that although our angel protects us, it doesn’t shield us from temptation or difficulty. As I was suggesting earlier, difficulty, struggle are signs of progress, not a failure. It’s out of difficulty and struggle that growth can come, so our angel won’t protect us from that. This means that we can’t look to our angel as a means of salvation from difficulty. If we’re depressed, then the angel is not going to take that away. The angel is not a means of avoiding depression but, instead, the depression is working as a signal that we need our angel, that we need its protection, but evidently not in a straightforward sense.

Another aspect of the function of the guardian angel that Anonymous mentions is the way that the angel screens us from the divine. When we mess up, when we do wrong, that can call down upon us all sorts of unpleasant consequences. The angel doesn’t punish us in the way that we might conceive of God as punishing us (or reality itself inflicting upon us the consequences of our behaviours). The angel always defends us against the divine, a bit like a mother defends their child. Even when the child has done something manifestly wrong, the mother will still protect her child, even whilst acknowledging that wrongdoing has been done. Anonymous suggests that this is why angels often take a feminine form although, of course, they’re beyond gender.

Again, a bit like a loving, caring mother, the angel leaves us alone to do our own thing. If we’re not in need of or calling upon our angel, then it doesn’t come. It leaves us alone. You have to be in need; you have to be calling out to it, in order to benefit from its presence. So, the angel is the representative, the ally of the divine image in the human, and it’s there to watch over that other aspect, the fallible part, the divine likeness in the human. If you remember, the divine likeness is the aspect of us that lives on Earth, the earthly aspect that’s prone to evil and messing things up, and does the best it can.

Anonymous seems to be suggesting that this is what we see in the Temperance card. The water flowing between the two cups represents circulation, the functioning, the activity of the human being: the divine likeness. The angel is standing there, watching over, carefully concentrating upon this circulatory process between the two cups. The angel is the protective representative to us of the divine spark, and they’re watching over, regulating, carefully monitoring the everyday, functioning, living aspect of us which needs to be kept in balance, needs to be carefully maintained. That’s why, Anonymous suggests, that the angel in this card takes the name Temperance: that balancing, regulating, homeostatic aspect is one of the chief characteristics of what it takes to keep going in everyday life.

So, the divine image and the divine likeness are both parts of being human, and they both meet in the human being. Anonymous suggests that there is an experience associated with this meeting, this contact between them, and he describes this as a kind of “inner weeping”, inner crying. This is how he describes it:

The fact that there are tears of sorrow, joy, admiration, compassion, tenderness, etc., signifies that tears are produced by the intensity of the inner life. They flow – whether inwardly or outwardly is not important – when the soul, moved by the spirit or by the outer world, experiences a higher degree of intensity in its inner life than is customary. The soul who cries is therefore more living and therefore fresher and younger than when it does not cry. (Anonymous 2002: 388)

Tears come from emotional intensity. Anonymous suggests that the liquid that we can see flowing in the Temperance card is tears. The two cups represent the divine image and the divine likeness, and the liquid flowing between them are tears of emotional intensity, tears of inspiration.

Consider this in relation to what we’ve talked about, with regard to depressive hedonia. When we’re depressed we lose any sense of emotional intensity, and we find our attention leaking away into things that don’t deserve it. I was struck by how, in contrast to that sense I’d noticed in myself of the idea of somebody watching over me who was making me do something deathly that I didn’t want to do, here, in the Temperance card, we’ve got the exact opposite: there’s an angel watching over us who cares deeply about us, and is regulating us in our best interests, and is actually raising up our emotional intensity by making the tears flow between the two cups.

What Anonymous is directing us to in the Temperance card is an image of inspiration, emotional aliveness, and intensity. Depression, depressive hedonia, as we’ve explored it here, seems in contrast to this like the shadow side of that, almost like a dark inverse of what’s going on in this card. What is lacking, what is needed in depression is inspiration. Anonymous is drawing on some of Rudolf Steiner’s ideas here. Steiner had this notion of the three spiritual faculties, which he listed as: imagination, inspiration, and intuition.

I’m not going into that too much here, except to say that a way to approach these is to see them as analogous to our everyday faculties of perception, emotion, and thinking. So, imagination is the spiritual counterpart of perception, because through imagination we get to perceive things that don’t exist. Likewise, inspiration is the spiritual counterpart of emotion, because through inspiration we have feelings for things that don’t exist, or don’t yet exist. And intuition is the spiritual counterpart of thinking, because it allows us to recognize things that otherwise we would have absolutely no basis for being able to think about them.

What’s being depicted in the Temperance card, Anonymous suggests, is the spiritual faculty of inspiration, and what the tarot seemed to be showing me personally was that this was missing. This was what was needed. The antidote to depression is inspiration.

Now, as Anonymous goes on to discuss, just knowing that, just recognizing that isn’t an end to the problem. Inspiration is a tricky thing to arrive at. You can just wait for it to arrive, but in all likelihood you’re going to be waiting for a long time. You have to do something to get inspired. Yet, if you’re doing something then there’s the possibility that we’re getting too involved in that, rather than letting something come to us, which is an essential part of what inspiration is: something comes to us.

Anonymous points out that to put ourselves in the way of receiving inspiration, you kind of have to be active and passive at the same time. We have to be humble, on the one hand; we have to put our egos out of the way so we can open up and receive something. But on the other hand we’ve got to be keen, we’ve got to be willing, we’ve got to be energized and up for doing the work, when whatever it is finally comes along.

Again, it’s striking and curious how depressive hedonia is the exact mirror image or shadow of this. We’re not willing to give up our energy because it feels as if what’s being demanded of us is something that we don’t want to do, and we’re not humble we’re not compliant. In this situation we’re defiant, we’re resistant, we’re taking a stand against the power that’s being wielded over us, it feels. It’s as if the whole thing needs to be flipped around somehow

With regards to how that’s done, Anonymous draws our attention to how children behave. On the one hand, children are aware that they don’t know as much about the world as adults do, but on the other hand they’re not afraid to ask about things; they’re often not afraid to want to know, and he suggests that we can use this as the basis of our model for how we go about gaining inspiration.

“Dear Unknown Friend,” he says,

say to yourself that you know nothing, and at the same time say to yourself that you are able to know everything, and – armed with this healthy humility and this healthy presumption of children – immerse yourself in the pure and strengthening element […] of inspiration. (Anonymous 2002: 395)

This, of course, is something that magick enables us to do. On the one hand, it confronts us with our limitations as human beings, and at the same time – on the other hand – it confronts us with what we’re capable of: connection with the divine through that spark of the divine that we carry in ourselves. That simultaneous humility and presumption are both there.

Anything can become a crutch, a hiding-place, when we’re depressed, and magick is no exception to that. Sometimes it becomes a bit of a comfort blanket. The aim of the magician has been described famously as being “to dare, to will, and to know”, and perhaps when these are more apparent, then we can be more confident that our magick is on track.

So: depression, nihilism, boredom, desperation. These are states that can be real magick-killers. Depressive hedonia, as we’ve seen, is something that is perhaps really pervasive at the moment, and has a structure to it that can really lock us into these states and make them difficult to escape from.

The psychoanalyst Adam Phillips famously described boredom as “the desire for a desire” (Phillips 2017). Boredom comes about when we find ourselves in a paradoxical state where we want to want something enough in order for us to find ourselves doing something. I think depression’s similar in some ways. I think depression also, in a sense, is the desire for a desire, but in depression – for whatever reason –whether it’s something inward or outward – there’s a heightened hopelessness, a despair that desire is ever going to come along. In depression, desire itself feels futile, even if it were to arise.

Inspiration, as depicted in arcanum XIV Temperance in the tarot, and as revealed to me by the tarot and by Anonymous as the antidote to depression: this could be described in similar terms. Inspiration is not the desire for a desire, but perhaps the desire of a desire.

Boredom and depression, the desire for a desire, is a negative feedback loop. The very act of wanting is destroying the prospect of attaining. But inspiration as the desire of a desire is the opposite: a positive feedback loop. We want to desire, and we are already desiring, and in that act we actually generate more of what we already have. Out of this kind of desire comes no sense of lack at all, but a plenitude.

This is, I think, what inspiration really feels like, when it comes.


Anonymous (2002). Meditations on the Tarot, translated by Robert Powell. New York: Tarcher.

Mark Fisher (2009). Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative? Alresford: Zero.

Gabor Maté (2018). In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts: Close Encounters with Addiction. London: Vermilion.

Adam Phillips (2017). On Kissing, Tickling and Being Bored. London: Faber & Faber.


Transcript of Episode #108 of the OEITH podcast, The Limits of Magick, exploring the shortcomings of “belief-shifting”, and the politico-spiritual problems in assuming the individual creates their reality.

Magick and spirituality: these are the things that interest me the most, the things that I’m most passionate about. And I think they also offer the best antidote to some of the ills that beset our culture and our time, and that beset life in general, really. But, on the other hand, I wouldn’t recommend them to anybody.

If people are already practising magick and spirituality then, fine, we can have a conversation. And the reasons for my not recommending magick and spirituality to anyone are probably clear because, over previous episodes of this podcast, I’ve talked about experiences and states of mind that have been terrifying, challenging, really unsettling. The pursuit of magick is attended by all kinds of risks and a real danger of significant harm. That’s why I can’t recommend in good conscience that anybody should take it up, and maybe that’s part of why in these podcasts I don’t really address myself to beginners, but I always feel like I’m speaking in the presence of somebody who’s already following a spiritual path, who has already started on this journey with me.

I don’t think there’s much in these podcasts that is likely to welcome or ease a beginner in. My hope is that anyone who’s a beginner to magick and is listening to this will be prompted to think carefully about what they might be getting into. There’s a contradiction here, isn’t there? On the one hand I’m saying that spirituality and magick are important ways of addressing the difficulties that life confronts us with. But on the other hand, I’m saying that maybe we shouldn’t go down that route because a potential means by which we might deal with life’s difficulties can also in itself bring us to harm.

There’s a kind of tangle here, a kind of knot, and it’s this I want to explore in this episode, which amounts basically, I think, to the limitations of magick and spirituality, because if they can present problems then that means they can’t solve all problems, and so where does that leave us as magicians or mystics?

It seems ironic. I’m recording this on a bank holiday in the UK. It’s a beautiful day outside, and I’m out in the countryside, but on this day when I’m recording an episode about the things that lie outside the control of magick and spiritual practice, everybody in the vicinity seems to have decided to mow their lawn today, and every light aircraft in the South of England seems to be wanting to fly overhead at the moment, and the cat wants to make a guest appearance too! And all of these things are completely outside my control.

One of the first glimpses I had into the limitations of magick came fairly early on. I was reading Robert Anton Wilson’s Prometheus Rising. The book includes some exercises for the reader to do, and in one of these exercises Wilson asks us to visualise a coin, visualise the coin really, really vividly – a quarter of a dollar or a fifty pence piece – and then go out looking around the streets for the coin and see how long it takes you to find one. And then he suggests that we come up with a hypothesis for how we found the coin, like “selective attention”, or that our mind caused the coin to appear in the universe. And, on formulating each hypothesis, we go out again, see how long it takes us to find the quarter, and compare the time taken for each hypothesis to produce a result. Wilson writes that the reader will absolutely not understand this book unless he or she does the exercises given at the end of each chapter. Well, I was fairly new to magick at the time and quite assiduous, so I took Wilson at his word, and I made the experiment. I visualised a coin and I went out looking for the coin, and guess what happened: I didn’t find one.

I repeated the experiment on numerous occasions, and I still didn’t find one. And the conclusion I drew from this was I don’t think Wilson had ever tried that exercise. It’s the kind of thing that, as magicians, we assume would work. What he’s describing there is belief-shifting, the fundamental premise of chaos magick: that by changing our beliefs we can shift our perception, and therefore bend reality; produce results from that actually in reality.

When we read it on the page, we might be persuaded that something like that would work, but when we practise it in actuality, I think we’re very likely to discover that it doesn’t. The reason I didn’t find any fifty pence pieces when I tried this was because there weren’t any there. There weren’t any there to be found. Belief-shifting is all well and good, but it has limits and the limit is reality. Truth: you’re not going to find a fifty pence piece in the street, no matter how much you believe you will if there isn’t one there to be found.

As a consequence of this experience, personally I really don’t like seeing practical exercises in books on magick, because it always gives me the suspicion that the author hasn’t really done those exercises. What they’re writing there is just a theory, just their thoughts, but dressing it up as an exercise conveys this sense that it’s something that’s bound to happen if you do it, but actually it isn’t bound to happen, because nothing’s bound to happen.

We can believe that belief-shifting will find us coins in the street, but unless we know there are actual coins out there in the street then the idea that belief-shifting works is just itself a belief. It’s not our belief that produces the coin, it’s reality, and there aren’t necessarily always coins there to be had. Ideally, we would want to gain access to that reality, that truth itself; to know whether the coins are out there and where they are. But, of course, the fact that we don’t know is why we resort to magick in the first place.

Belief-shifting can’t give us access to that reality. The best it can do is make us feel a bit happier with regard to that reality, I think, help us accommodate reality a little bit better. I think that’s the best we can hope for from it. Primarily for these sorts of reasons, I don’t tend to do much sorcery these days. But a few months ago, I did find myself casting a sigil for something that I wanted.

In one of the jobs that I do, there are performance targets, and I hadn’t been in the job long and I was still in a probationary period, and I wasn’t hitting some of these targets, and if I didn’t hit them then certain measures were going to be taken, etc., etc. But also, at the same time, hitting these targets would have entailed me working in a way that didn’t sit comfortably with me in terms of my personal values. So, there was an apparently irresolvable conflict there, and things were coming to a head, and I decided that perhaps some magick could sort this, so off down to the shed one night I went and I cast a sigil. Nothing spectacular about the ritual. But the next morning I logged on for work as usual, only to discover that the particular system that we depended on was down. It was down across the board. Down for everybody. This meant that all of us had to resort to pen and paper in order to work that day, and one of the corollaries of this – without going into too much detail – was all my performance indicators were met because of that and, spookily enough, the system came back online about five minutes before the end of my shift that day.

Often, I’ve noticed this kind of thing can happen with magical workings: you get a dramatic result, which is rather short-lived. So, I thought to myself, well, you know, maybe that day is all that I’m going to get; maybe that’s it – that’s the result. But at the end of the month, I had my usual team meeting with my manager, and he started off the meeting with: “Wow, Duncan. What have you done? You’ve hit all your targets this month! You know, whatever you’ve done it’s really worked. Well done!”

I was not aware of having done anything different at all from what I had been doing over the months, and I had to quickly make up some practical things I’d changed over the weeks to account for the improvement in my stats. I just said something really vague about “keeping a closer eye on timings”, and “being more concise in my notes”, or something like that. But, again, it wasn’t anything I’d made any conscious effort to do at all. And, of course, I didn’t say that I suspected the main reason for the improvement in my stats was that I’d gone down to the shed one night and done a magical spell.

Well, I’d got what I wanted from that working. The intention had been realised. I’d hit my targets without having to take any conscious effort on my part. In my view, magick never causes anything to happen. The system going down at work was a synchronicity. There was no causal connection there, but it was a very striking symbol perhaps that created a meaningful sense that things were about to change. Maybe something had happened at an unconscious level. Maybe I was making an effort, and the efforts were precisely those I found myself struggling to explain to my manager, but because I wasn’t aware of them it had felt like they were effortless. Quite possibly that’s the case. In any event the overall outcome is the same.

But really, when I took a step back and looked at it, I was in a situation where I either did what the job demanded of me, or I lost my job. I’d basically shifted my attitude, so that it felt I wasn’t doing anything different but, of course, in reality I must have been because the statistics had changed. The magick had really been about just adapting or accustoming myself to reality.

I was listening to a podcast recently and someone was describing some of the magical work that they had done and Saint Expedite had helped them out of a horrible situation, and then Santa Muerte had helped them out of something horrible as well, and then they’d worked with Goetic spirits that had also helped them out of difficult situations. And I found myself thinking, well, this is somebody who has a lot of difficult situations in their life and it’s good that they’ve got these spirits to help them with those, but maybe what would be better would be if they didn’t have those difficult situations at all! And I don’t think the magick that I’d done was any different in that respect. It had helped me adapt to a particular situation, but it would have been better, of course, if I wasn’t doing a job that sometimes demanded of me to work in ways that weren’t entirely consistent with my personal values. But, as we’ve seen, reality sometimes offers us only so much in terms of possibilities for change, and sometimes it might offer nothing at all, and when we reach that point maybe, when the possibilities for change offered by reality are completely zero, maybe that’s when we die.

At certain points in life, we come up against limits; things we just cannot get around. I think it’s fair to say that, working as a counsellor, one of the areas in which this is often encountered is in the domain of feelings. We might be confronting some sort of issue or situation which is bringing up difficult feelings that feel overwhelming, unbearable, and people sometimes ask me if I can give them a “technique” or some sort of “tool” to deal with what they’re experiencing. It tends to be younger people who ask for that kind of help, and my feeling is that this is probably due to the influence of CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy), which has had a massive impact on the way we think about therapy and how it works, but also a much wider cultural influence, I think, on how we think about our inner mental life.

Part of the fundamental approach of CBT is that our patterns of thinking influence how we feel, that thinking precedes feeling, in other words. So, if we can change our thought-patterns then we can change, or at least mitigate, the feelings that arise as a consequence of them. And, of course, there’s some truth to this, and it can be a helpful approach. We can exercise a certain degree of control over what we think and how we think about things. But one of the distinguishing characteristics of feelings, of course, is that we don’t get to choose them. We don’t get to determine what our emotional reaction to a situation is. We can learn ways to manage it, or ways to mitigate it to some degree. But if we’re pissed off about something then we’re pissed off, and if that’s how we feel about a situation then we can find ways to be less pissed off about it, but it’s highly unlikely, I think, that we’ll ever react to that same situation with happiness.

Do thoughts always precede feelings? Well, no, of course not. A little bit of self-reflection soon reveals that that’s not the case, and the fact that we don’t get to choose our feelings is part of the wonder of them. Our feelings about things are part of what makes life worthwhile and because we can’t fool ourselves with regard to our feelings (to the degree that we can with our thoughts and reflections) they’re important indications of what’s actually true for us, what’s actually true in our experience regarding a particular situation or in a particular moment.

When people ask for a tool or technique to help with feelings, I think that what they’re signalling there is they’re up against something that feels absolutely overwhelming, unbearable, and understandably they just wish that it would stop. Like I said, CBT can be helpful, it can help mitigate things, but it also contains a problem. I’ll illustrate this with a quotation from one of the creators of CBT, a guy called Aaron Beck. He argued that, in depression, “the individual’s cognition is distorted and out-of-step with his or her context”. So, if somebody’s depressed, from this perspective, then that’s necessarily because they’re not thinking straight, and they need to change the way that they’re thinking in order not to feel depressed rather, perhaps, than those feelings of lowness actually arising from some sort of circumstance that warrants them. And this is the heart of the problem, I think, that CBT, despite its reputation as an evidence-based, scientific kind of therapy, it actually ignores the possible impact of reality on people’s lives; the fact that, in reality, something might be happening or there might be some sort of cultural or social context that warrants the emotional response. CBT can sometimes do this thing where it turns around responsibility for a person’s feelings on to them. It says: “you’re feeling like this because you’re thinking about this thing wrongly” – as if we should always be thinking about things in a way that makes us feel the best possible. And in this respect, I think, CBT has a lot in common with certain approaches to magick, this idea that we can use magick to belief-shift our way out of a reality we don’t like into one that makes us feel better about ourselves.

Now, as magicians, we might justify to ourselves that we’re not doing this, because the entities, the spirits, that we’re working with, have nothing to do with psychological processes. They’re real. And my response to that would be to take the position that I’ve described in previous episodes which, I hope, avoids an over-psychological approach to magick and accepts the reality of spirit, but puts the emphasis on relationship. Material things are real, and spirits are real, and our interactions with all of them are necessarily determined by our relationship with them. We may not regard our magick as being about belief-shifting as such but, instead, as having interactions with real entities, yet nevertheless there will be a certain type of relationship there, so the question arises: are we entering into a sort of relationship that really just seeks to mitigate or improve or distract from the overwhelming, unbearable situation that we might be confronting? In other words, are we just asking the god or goddess or whatever entity it might be for a “tool” or “technique” to fix our feelings for us? And there’s another problem here which, I think, is something that also carries over into magical practice, which is the huge extent to which CBT has been embraced by the culture in general, by capitalism, and neoliberalism in particular. The idea that the individual can take total responsibility for the reality in which they find themselves might be something embraced by magicians, but it’s also lovingly seized upon by our current economic system. For example, I happen to know somebody who is doing a particular job and things were very stressful, and they hit burnout, so they had a few days off, signed off by their doctor with stress and anxiety. On their return to work they had a meeting with their manager and the discussion was all about what this person was doing to ensure that they wouldn’t reach that point again: you know, what they were doing at home; how things were at home; whether they were exercising; what they’re eating; were they doing things to reduce their stress level; had they considered seeing their doctor for medication. The question of working conditions and the current workload didn’t come up at all.

Neoliberalism loves this idea that we’re all completely responsible for our own emotional responses to conditions that we live in, because it chimes perfectly with the neoliberal project to make us all the agents of our own self-exploitation as workers, as producers, and as consumers. The messages being given to us in our culture these days are basically that if we’re not happy, if we’re not productive or performing, then there’s something wrong with us; we need to do a bit of “mindfulness” to reduce our stress levels, or eat properly, drink less, optimise ourselves, lead a better life regardless of the fact that there might be limits on what our reality enables us to achieve in those directions.

There’s a wonderful short book by a philosopher called Byung-Chul Han, a book called Psychopolitics, in which he lays bare the psychological dynamics in play in neoliberalism today. He says: “Everybody is an auto-exploiting labourer in his or her own enterprise. People are now master and slave in one. Every class struggle has transformed into an inner struggle against oneself.”

Our culture, it seems, has kind of manoeuvred us into a position now where it doesn’t even have to force us to do things in the way that was necessary perhaps in earlier epochs. We just simply tend to assume these days that if we’re not happy then that’s because we are the ones doing something wrong, as if it’s up to us to always be able to find happiness in the conditions of our culture and society.

The wonderful Mark Fisher has a response to this in his book Capitalist Realism. He says: “We must convert widespread mental health problems from medicalised conditions into effective antagonisms. Affective disorders are forms of captured discontent. This disaffection can and must be channelled outwards, directed towards its real cause: capital.”

Fisher’s book is all about how we don’t seem capable anymore of thinking of any kind of alternative to capitalism or neoliberalism. We’ve reached a point where there seems to be a consensus that capitalism is the only system that works. And maybe that’s true, but if it is true then it’s only true to the extent that it works in order to generate what we have, what we see around us. It “works” in the sense that it gives us what we’ve got. But I very, very much doubt that what we’ve got is the only thing that we can have. Fisher also makes the point in his book that capitalism has a dirty secret that it is always trying to hide, which is that, one, it destroys the planet and, two, on its way towards doing that it causes widespread, so-called mental illness.

The neoliberalist project of making the individual responsible for their own discontent is neoliberalism’s own form of magical thinking. As magicians, we have to be wary: the ability to bend reality to realise our intentions through magical workings may seem like an expression of freedom, but we always have to be questioning this, I think. Like the sigil that I cast, that I described earlier, the realization of that intention made my life easier. But by ensuring that the performance targets were met it also served the interests of the company I was working for. It can seem like we’re acting in the interests of our own freedom, but we live in a neoliberalist culture and such a culture is now specifically organised to make it seem as if what’s actually in others’ interests is somehow in our own, such as zero hours contracts, for instance: it seems like it offers us freedom, but it’s the employer who’s benefiting most.

There’s another wonderful book I came across a few months ago called Technic and Magic by a philosopher called Federico Campagna. In that book he outlines two distinct paradigms, the “technic” and “magic” of the title. Technic is the paradigm that we’re currently in, but Campagna looks forwards, optimistically, to magick as possibly offering us a forthcoming paradigm.

Technic is basically based upon viewing everything in the material world as a potential resource. So, you might look at a group of trees, maybe, and from the perspective of technic you see a lot of wood that you can appropriate and use for something. Magick, on the other hand, is about meaning and, through entering meaning, transcending the material world. So, you might look at that group of trees and see a place where you can connect with the energy of Mother Earth, perhaps, or you might see a grove that’s fitting to dedicate to the worship of the god Pan. It’s not what you can do with the trees that matters; it’s what they mean, what they signify, represent, and the realms of meaning into which that can take us.

I think psychogeography is a realm where we can really see this transition between technic and magick, and what that entails under advanced capitalism. The environment around us these days is almost all given over to particular functions. The features of our landscape are defined by their purpose, their instrumentality. I recently enjoyed a book called Car Park Life by the psychogeographical writer Gareth E. Rees, in which he explores car parks. These are the kinds of spaces we would tend to overlook because, well, they are car parks. They perform a specific function and presumably that’s all there is to them. But psychogeography is all about reclaiming the meaning of these spaces from this overriding sense of their function or instrumentality. Rees sets about exploring various car parks around the UK, focusing on the meanings that he encounters in these places. What do car parks tell us about how we live today? What sort of people do we find there and what sort of interactions are happening between them? What else is going on in these places other than the parking of cars? What sort of stories come out of these places?

So, Rees, and all psychogeographers, I think, are making this transition away from technic and into magick, focusing on the potential for meaning that these spaces provide, and resisting the function that has been imposed upon them and that might also be imposed upon us when we enter into them. Rees is particularly fascinated by supermarket car parks, and there’s this very interesting passage in the book where he visits one of the supermarkets attached to the car parks and something happens. There’s a twist. There’s a turn.

“I can never get over the omnipresence of ham,” he writes. “How can so much of it exist simultaneously? Where are all the pigs for this ham? There should be pig farms spread across every inch of the country just to keep this amount of ham flowing, or secret chambers beneath our cities where pigs boil and perpetually, whirring blades turning their corpses into wafer thin slices. How can there be enough for everyone, everywhere all the time? Not only ham, but the chickens, the peas, the prawns, the cucumbers, the milk, the bread, the pasta sauces, and biscuits in all their endless brand varieties. ‘This cannot continue,’ I think, pushing my brimming trolley to the sound of a Boy Zone ballad. ‘We are doomed, and we deserve it.’”

And that twist and turn that’s happening there, I think, is Rees coming up against what is the limit of technic. It has a limit. Capitalism presents itself these days as the only possible reality, the only system that could possibly work for us, that could provide everything that we have. But that’s exactly what Rees is presenting here. Supposing, for a moment, all our needs are being met by the system as it stands: there’s something horrifying about that. There is always going to be suffering and we can never get away from it, whether it’s the suffering of the pigs and all the animals that are bred and slaughtered to stock the supermarket shelves. Whether it’s the suffering of the shoppers in the supermarket, feeling guilt and horror like Rees does, contemplating the unsustainability of our current mode of living. Whether it’s just the deadness, the boredom that comes with having a sense of our needs being met, because even having everything we want is still a form of misery.

For technic everything is a means to an end. Whereas for magick things potentially are endlessly meaningful. As I’ve suggested, reality places limits on human freedom, on human happiness. Human experience has a specific form, so it’s finite. Now, in my view, and in my experience, we all carry a spark of the divine in us, and therefore it’s possible to enter states that provide a perspective that’s beyond the human, where desire and suffering completely drop away. But because we’re human we always come back to the human, which means that those states tend to come and go.

The last time I was really ill, I had pneumonia, I think – the doctor didn’t seem too sure – and I was really quite poorly for quite a long time, and during that time all the ability to access non-dual states that I developed over the years completely dropped away. It all just vanished, which was absolutely awful at the time, and I was left with just pure human suffering and a desperate wish to escape from it. But there was no escape. All I kept thinking of, at the time, strangely, was Christ on the cross, crying out: “Father, Father, why have you forsaken me?”. And it seemed, in a way, strangely as if it were somehow right and proper that everything I’d been relying on would desert me. Otherwise, if we’re taking refuge in something else, we’re not really embracing what it means to be human.

Remembering those words of Christ on the cross really helped me at that time, but it wasn’t help that in any sense reduced my feeling of suffering to any degree. And this takes us into what magick really has to offer us: meaning. Whereas technic always strives to fix reality, to somehow find an end to human suffering, magick recognises that you can’t do that. Reality is reality. But we can find meaning in suffering, and if we can find meaning in it then we can bear it.

Neoliberalism works hard to convince us that if we just work harder, do a bit of mindfulness, keep fit, develop our “resilience”, then we’ll be okay, and technic tries to persuade us that we can save ourselves by developing new, sustainable forms of technology. But what we’re also seeing, especially in the light of the pandemic, I think, is people also flocking in their droves at the moment to magick. There’s a real resurgence of interest in magick and the occult because to a lot of people, perhaps, it’s looking suspiciously as if things are screwed up beyond all reasonable repair. Magick can maybe offer tools and techniques to take the edge off things a bit, so we can belief-shift ourselves into a reality that feels a bit more comfortable, maybe. But many magicians, I think, sometimes hit patches when it feels as if the freedom that magick brings us isn’t enough, as if it’s not really freeing us at all. But through engagement with spiritual practices, through interactions with spiritual beings, even divination, sorcery, magick also has the potential to really engage with reality as it is, because reality is a certain way, regardless of what post-modernism would have us believe. It has a bedrock to it. It has limits. It has a nature, and part of that nature is that it’s bendable, changeable, to a certain degree, by which I mean that altering our beliefs can change our perception of it, although of course it doesn’t affect reality itself.

Magick also offers us techniques, then, for trying to meet reality head-on. What we’re pretty soon confronted with when we practice meditation, yoga, or other spiritual practices is that we have limits. The human form, the human mind, these have a specific nature, and part of that nature is the unavoidability of suffering. It’s that spark of the divine that gives us an awareness of something other that having a human form doesn’t equip us to contain and maintain.

Technic, as we saw, always tries to fix things. Magick, on the other hand, recognises, accepts the reality of human suffering, of human limitation, and tries instead to render that meaningful. And so, there’s another really interesting idea that Federico Campagna puts forward in his book on technic and magick, which is, because of those differences, they suggest different ethical frameworks.

Technic, with its emphasis on fixing suffering, is often very preoccupied with the notion of avoiding harm, partly in an attempt to distract or divert us from the fact that suffering is inevitable. Whereas magick, with its impulse to accept suffering and try to render it meaningful, it can tend to run headlong into it, in order to really embrace it and to try to make as much sense from it as it can. The way Campagna puts it is that whereas technic seeks to minimise harm, magick on the other hand seeks to maximise opportunities for salvation, opportunities to really get to grips with suffering and try – hopefully succeed – to make some sense of it.

That’s two very different ethical perspectives. From the side of technic, magick looks harmful, freakish, reckless, likely to destabilise and do people psychological harm. But from the side of magick, technic looks constricting, limiting, ignorant, namby-pamby. As magicians, we’re constantly going to find ourselves caught between those two different ethical frameworks. Technic, of course, is the dominant paradigm in the everyday world and most of the time the ethical framework of not causing harm makes total sense. Of course it does. It’s common sense. But within that framework the idea of maximizing opportunities for salvation – there’s no frame of reference for that. From the perspective of technic it simply looks like pointless, reckless behaviour.

Probably we see this most clearly being acted out in the debates around the use of psychedelics, and that brings us back to one of the points I made at the beginning that although I think magick is one of the greatest antidotes that we have for dealing with the human condition, at the same time I wouldn’t recommend it to anybody because of the risks it carries. Like I said, I think every magician is caught between these two contradictory ethical frameworks of technic on the one hand and magick on the other. Inevitably, I think, magick hurts us. It’s bound to, because it sets out to instil a sense of meaning into our experience and hurt, pain, suffering are parts of our experience that really challenge this notion that we live in a meaningful universe.

I doubt that there’s any serious magician who hasn’t gone through crisis after crisis of having to deal with the sense that what they’re doing is all rubbish, and magick doesn’t really work, and maybe materialism and scientism are correct and we do live after all in a world devoid of spirit where the only meaning is some kind of fantasy that we dream up inside our heads. Even the most proficient magicians are beset by periods of doubt and despair, because there are no limits to the suffering that life can throw at us, and with each fresh bout of suffering we’re faced with a new challenge of how to make sense of that, how to make that meaningful, because every experienced magician knows that belief-shifting your way out of that, changing your own perspective to adapt to it, isn’t really meeting head-on the fact that reality sucks and unfortunately the reality really is real!

It’s often commented how marginalised and oppressed groups of people have often developed magical systems as a means of resistance, but whereas those systems of magick may indeed have enabled the practitioners of them to face up to oppression in a meaningful way, none of them ever ended that oppression. If we take the recent example of the witches against Donald Trump, I think we can say they scored a marvellous success in the fact that Trump didn’t win a second term. Although it’s easy to forget now, there was a long period where that second term was looking inevitable. And, on the flip side, we could say that the alienated and disaffected supporters of the alt-right who helped Trump into power in the first place, with Pepe the Frog and other forms of meme magick was also, for them, a striking magical result. But despite helping him into power, the reality was that, well, Trump was Donald Trump, and despite helping him out of power, regardless of the witches’ best efforts, we still live in a reality, unfortunately, that isn’t immune to appearances in the future of leaders like Trump. (In fact, there are some countries that are still suffering under the leadership of people like him.)

The anti-magical forces that I’ve talked about in this episode – technic, capitalism, neoliberalism, and even poor old CBT – what it seems they’ve all been working so hard to achieve is the elimination of the sense of the Other. The dominant story of our current conditions of existence is that if we experience mental suffering then that’s due to our own faulty thought processes, rather than anything outside of ourselves, anything that might be construed as real. Postmodernism has encouraged us to believe that there’s no such thing as reality or truth, that all there are these different perspectives that are equally valid; there’s no meta-narrative, we’re told, there’s nothing outside the story. There are only the stories that we create, that we tell ourselves; there’s nothing Other. Whereas, in magick, of course, there are indeed all sorts of countless dimensions beyond what we perceive and what we can talk about: spirits, the divine, paranormal entities. There’s very much a sense of things that cannot be expressed and that lie beyond human experience in a realm that is very much Other.

Without a sense of the Other we can tend to collapse back into ourselves and become depressed, and that’s when we might get one of those crises I spoke about earlier, where we’re full of doubt and a sense of meaninglessness, because it feels like we’re not in touch with anything beyond ourselves, and that feeling is precisely a defining characteristic of the contemporary culture of neoliberalism.

The philosopher I mentioned earlier, Byung-Chul Han, has written a whole book on this called The Expulsion of the Other. He writes: “Only eros is capable of freeing the I from depression, from narcissistic entanglement. In itself Eros, of course, is the Greek word for “love”. From this perspective the Other is a redemptive formula. Only Eros, which pulls me out of myself and towards the Other can overcome depression. The depressive performance subject is entirely detached from the Other. The desire for the Other, indeed the calling or conversion to the Other would be a metaphysical antidepressant that breaks open the narcissistic shell of the I.”

When he talks about “the depressive performance subject” there, what he’s talking about is what we’ve all become under neoliberalism. We’ve all become obsessed with self-optimization, with making ourselves as good and as perfect as we can possibly be in order to fulfil the criteria of being good human beings that contemporary media forces upon us. But in the process of policing and controlling and exploiting ourselves, we collapse in on ourselves, we lose any sense of an external force that might be doing those things to us that we do on its behalf against ourselves, and in that way we lose a sense of the Other, and in that way we can become depressed and locked-in, just seeing life as some sort of treadmill where we have to keep making ourselves better and better, but not having any real sense of meaning for why we might be doing that.

That sense of meaning comes, Byung-Chul Han seems to be suggesting, from reaching out for another, cracking open the I, the self, in an attempt to connect with something beyond ourselves, something that’s there, that’s real.

In the mystical experience of merging with the divine, which we explored in the last episode, there’s that sense of looking into the eyes of the goddess or some other divinity and in that gaze that looks back at us recognizing ourselves. But this is an opening, I think, an infinite opening, because in the mystical experience we recognise ourselves as Other. We wake up to the fact that what we really are is something that we had never conceived of. That isn’t conceivable. The mystical experience is, perhaps, taking the realization of the Other as far as it can go. So far that it joins up around the back and self and other become completely indistinguishable.

Magick, I think, is that impulse to try and embrace the Other. It’s impossible to do that, in one way.  It’s impossible to do that whilst we maintain a conception of ourselves as a separate, individual ego. We embrace the Other ultimately when we transcend that, go beyond it, into something that’s beyond a human experience.

Magick is a spectrum, I think. What I’m talking about here is very much the mystical end of that spectrum, but there are also forms of magick that borrow from the paradigm that I’ve contrasted it against, following Federico Campagna. Some magick is more like technic: it’s instrumental, it sets out to fix things, so that we don’t have to step outside the life that we’re currently living, and that’s not without value, of course. Why wouldn’t we want to find a simple fix for things if we can? But, sadly, to come back to that Robert Anton Wilson exercise that I talked about near the beginning, if there aren’t any coins that have been dropped in the street then, no matter the amount of belief-shifting that we do, we’re not going to find them because they’re not there.

As magicians, inevitably we will, from time to time, perhaps, find ourselves looking for things, hoping for things, that aren’t there, that reality cannot provide, and maybe having to face up to the fact that in this situation, if we merely adapt ourselves to it, then perhaps this is not really freedom. What might be more freeing in these instances, although it certainly will not keep us safe from potential harm, is to reach out to the Other, to reach out towards reality and, by taking our own best shot at trying to make meaning from it, to confront the pain, the suffering, that’s always going to be there regardless of all our magick.

Anyway, that’s what’s been on my mind this week, and if there’s one thing to take away from it maybe it’s this: that the next time you fall into the Abyss, you won’t be on your own.


Transcript of Episode #107 of the OEITH podcast, Surrender to the Goddess, exploring personal experiences of connecting with divinity, considering how to recognise the divine, and possible pitfalls.

One night a man was crying,
Allah! Allah!

His lips grew sweet with the praising,
until a cynic said,
“So! I have heard you
calling out, but have you ever
gotten any response?”

The man had no answer to that.

He quit praying and fell into a confused sleep.

He dreamed he saw Khidr, the guide of souls,
in a thick, green foliage.

“Why did you stop praising?”

“Because I’ve never heard anything back.”

“This longing
you express is the return message.
The grief you cry out from
draws you toward union.
Your pure sadness
that wants help
is the secret cup.

Listen to the moan of a dog for its master.
That whining is the connection.

There are love dogs
no one knows the names of.

Give your life
to be one of them.”


That’s the translation of a poem by the Sufi poet, Rumi, called “Love Dogs”. As magicians, perhaps we find ourselves quite often calling out to entities of various types: gods, goddesses, angels, elemental spirits – sometimes, maybe, as we explored in the last episode, demonic spirits.

Anyone can call on spirits, but how is it that we obtain a response? Sometimes we might call out to an entity and receive a communication or feel a sense of connection with it. Other times, it’s a struggle to get there or, on some occasions, we might get nothing back at all. Rumi, in his poem “Love Dogs” offers a take on what it requires to establish a deep connection with spirit. “This longing that you express is the return message”, Khadir advises the man in the poem.

The suggestion here seems to be that somehow it is the magician’s desire or will itself that embodies and enables the response, the communication, from the spirit, whatever it might be, or from the divine itself. And, of course, an objection might justifiably be raised here that what I’m talking about has more to do with religion or mysticism than with practical magic but, as ever, I have to confess an inability to see the difference.

In magick, as magicians, I think our aim is always to arrive at a specific experience of reality. What we decide to make true for ourselves might be union with God, or it might be the fact that we’ve won the lottery. In every case, magick is about making a specific experience true, and from that perspective it’s difficult to say what the difference is between magick and mysticism.

What I’ll be doing in this episode is sharing some experiences of evoking and connecting with the divine in a specific form, the form of the goddess, and also thinking about why it might be that sometimes we connect with entities and sometimes we don’t and looking in more detail at this idea offered by Rumi that somehow it is the magician’s own desire that embodies that connection with spirit.

Desire is a very strange thing. To explore it a bit, maybe it’s helpful to distinguish desire from needs or wants. Needs, we might say, are impulses that have to be met or else we’re not around for very long – we don’t survive – whereas if desires aren’t met, life does continue, and probably our lives are led mostly without whatever desires we have throughout life being fully met. Wants, on the other hand, are like desires in the sense that if they’re not met it’s possible to go on living, but there’s a difference. And this is where things start to get interesting, because once wants are satisfied they go away – at least until the next time they arise. Desires, on the other hand, don’t. They don’t behave in the same way. Desire persists.

Let’s take an example from the sphere of sexual desire. Suppose there is somebody who likes to have sex with men. It might then be said that they desire men. Well, suppose they’re feeling horny, and they have sex with a man. That’s that particular want satisfied, and it goes away until the next time. But the desire of this person for men doesn’t go away. Having sex with one particular man doesn’t diminish the desire for men.

When we look at it in this way, desire starts to seem like something that’s fixed, a kind of structure, almost as if it’s like a part of our personality or our identity. It’s strange, if a person reveals to us their needs and wants, it kind of doesn’t really amount to much. They tend to be the same needs and wants that most human beings share, and it doesn’t really reveal much about them. But if we discover a person’s desires or they reveal their desires to us, even though these too may not differ in any great regard from what most people desire, still it feels as if what’s been uncovered or revealed says something about that person. Somehow, it’s a glimpse into them. We feel as if we’ve uncovered something intimate. Desire is somehow personal, and desire is somehow authentic, genuine. It reveals something that feels somehow true about us.

If we find ourselves saying to somebody, “What do you really want?” then we’re probably not really asking them about their wants at all, but about their desires. We’re asking them to reveal themselves, to be honest, to be authentic. It’s also a question we can often end up asking ourselves. What do we really want? I mean, we know what we want. We feel wants. But desires can be part of us, closer than close, and that’s the reason why they’re not always within our awareness. It can often take a lot of work to arrive at what it is that we truly desire.

As magicians, I think, we’re probably more aware than most people of this arena of needs, wants, and desires, and working out the differences between them, and trying to come to terms with which are genuine, and which are superficial. In our magic, we’re constantly trying to find ways to manifest our needs, wants, and desires in reality. The essence of what we do is probably our work on trying to define and realize these, to really, really work out what it is that we actually want.

In magick, the terms “intention” and “will” also come into play alongside needs, wants, and desires, and I think those terms “will” and “intention” are things that we bring in when we feel that we’ve done a bit of work in recognizing what we want. The difference between “it is my will that…” and “it is my desire that…” is, I think, that in the former there’s just a greater degree of recognition.

Crowley, of course, famously talked about the “true will”, but I think he might easily have used the term “true desire” instead. Between the idea of true will and true desire, I think, there would be very little difference in meaning at all. Will is, perhaps, just desire that has been recognized and is being channelled in a particular direction, because it can be, as a consequence of having been recognized.

So, desire, it is a strange thing. On the one hand it impels us, and it drives us through life. It gives us passion, intensity, vitality, but at the same time it’s not some sort of animal, biological force because we also feel it very personally. It seems to mark us out as individuals, as who we truly are, and if we undertake the work of confronting our desire and getting to know it better, then we arrive at a greater recognition and understanding of ourselves, and we begin to talk instead about the “will”.

There’s a fundamental paradox here, however, that desire feels very much as if it’s about impelling us towards something else something beyond ourselves, something that isn’t us – satisfaction in something other and yet, at the same time, when we encounter and confront our desire, what it reveals is not very much at all about the other, but very much more about ourselves.

This is our daily work as magicians, I think. This is our daily grind. Thinking always about what we want. Thinking always about how it might be right and good to shape reality into an image of our desire. To begin with, on the magical path, perhaps it’s about confronting our wants and trying to find ways to turn them into reality. But over time, perhaps, we start to engage more deeply with these questions, asking ourselves where these wants and desires are coming from. What kind of person are we, that we would express such things? And whether there could be other configurations of our desire that might serve us better. Could there be something that, if we had it, would mean that our lives were totally transformed in such a way that we wouldn’t actually need to have all the other wants and desires that we may have noticed in ourselves?

We might start to wonder, then, that if our desire were focused and directed in a specific way, paradoxically, would that mean that we would have fewer needs? And maybe now we start to get a glimmer of what Rumi might be getting at in his poem with this idea that what we desire is, in itself, the message, the response, that the universe is feeding back to us, even as it feels as though we’re the one crying out to it.

One night, I had a dream which really affected me. In the dream, I met a woman. I didn’t recognize her. She looked sort of middle-aged. She had black hair. If anything, she looked a little depressed. She was standing on a grassy bank and there was a river running beneath it, and the river was disappearing into the ground as if it was flowing underground when it reached a certain point. And the water was cold, and it was that time of day when the daylight is starting to fade. Yet the strange, powerful thing was I immediately felt a strong connection with this woman. A strange connection. First of all, I knew that she was my mother. But at the same time, I knew that I was in a sexual relationship with her also, and the feeling that came from realizing this wasn’t – like you might expect – some sort of guilt or shame, or even a kind of prurient feeling. It wasn’t that, but a kind of amazement, a sense of paradox – that feeling that you get when you’re trying to resolve something that’s contradictory and, even though it’s true, it is contradictory, it makes no sense.

Suddenly, without any warning or sign whatsoever, she suddenly jumped completely, fully clothed, directly into the water, into the freezing cold water, and vanished beneath it, although I could sort of see her under the surface, and I could see she was holding her breath under there. And she was down there for a very, very long time, just holding her breath in the freezing cold water, and I was thinking to myself: “How can she do that? How can she survive down there?” And then I had the idea that maybe I should join her, but immediately I was afraid because I sensed in my body that I couldn’t. It wasn’t possible. But there was this sense that I had to. And that overrode everything, and I jumped in, and for a while there was a horrible sensation of struggling and not being able to breathe, and then the realization that I was drowning and was going to drown. And I did. I died. It’s commonly said that you can’t die in your dreams, but I’ve had two or three where that didn’t seem to be the case, and this was one of them.

In the dream there was a sense that I was dead. Like I said, it was an odd dream, and it affected me really powerfully. It had a strange feeling about it; a kind of numinosity: the cold water, and the fading light, and underneath the water there was a sort of blackness, and it was full of waving fronds, and it all seemed very vivid and lurid and powerful. The woman fascinated me. The way that it felt that she was my mother and my lover at the same time. That conveyed an idea of something very deep, very profound. I mean, our mother is the person from whom we originate physically, and our lover is, I suppose, the person towards him we gravitate, towards whom we’re attracted. So, there was this idea here that she was what I came from as well as what I was moving to. That relationship that seemed to be being expressed in the dream seems something almost beyond understanding. She was where I’d come from, and my lover, but also the end of me. There was this impulsion in the dream that I had to join her, even though I knew that it would be the end of me. I had to jump into the water to be with her.

So, what could I do to understand this better? What could I do to understand what the woman in the dream might have been trying to convey to me? Well, of course, the answer was obvious: I did some magick. I decided that I would do a ritual and have some communication with her. Why not?

Now, there’s a shop here in the UK called Flying Tiger. It’s a Danish company and they sell all sorts of novelty items, and I regularly wander around in there just picking up stuff. They sell all sorts of random things some of which prove often quite useful in rituals, and one of the things I’d picked up was a luminous plastic glove. It struck me as such a bizarre and essentially useless thing that I somehow knew it would come in handy in a ritual sometime. So, it was a transparent polythene glove that you put over one hand (there was only one hand in the pack), and it had some sort of mechanism where you mixed in a couple of chemicals together, which caused a reaction that would make the liquid around the glove glow red for a couple of hours.

Me and my magical colleague, Frater Lepus, we got together for one of our regular meetings and I brought along a picture of the woman that I’d drawn and a sigil that I’d made to symbolize her. We made the room dark. Frater Lepus is a skilled hypnotist, and he put me into a hypnotic trance and so, using the sigil for the woman, we evoked her into the luminous glove, and there were some big sheets of paper to hand, and some marker pens. So, I was in a hypnotic trance, which meant that I was just a bit detuned from things, so that whatever might want to come through and express itself could do that more easily, and the woman was in the glove, moving my hand around, and over the next hour or so she created some pictures, some words on the sheets of paper:

“I am your child in you,” she wrote. “Fall forever down into the world with me, for I am not of it and will not fill the waters of your heart. You live in me here. I am the girl that swam in waters, me, the most terrible liar of life in you. The capture will withstand the night into urns and waters, for night is the only aspect of what may follow soon on the heels of time, for night and over-spreading night: this is only what may be. Thank you for saying that you feel me in you. I am going. You will feel into me the lovely silence.”

So those were the words we were left with on the pieces of paper at the end of the ritual, as well as some rather strange drawings. And at the end of it all, to be honest, I felt no nearer to understanding who she was or what she was trying to tell me. And I remember that ritual vividly also because we laughed so much at the end of it, at the complete absurdity of it all. What we’d ended up with was this strange, bizarre spectacle of this luminous red glove moving around in a darkened room producing these pictures and drawings because in it, supposedly, was the spirit of a woman who’d appeared in a dream and, as I’d remarked to Frater Lepus at the time, well, how the hell else are you supposed to talk to dodgy women that you meet in your dreams other than evoking them into a luminous polythene glove that you’ve bought from Flying Tiger?

But that night I had another dream which, in retrospect, seemed as if it might have been part of some sort of process. In this dream I was working in a factory that made food, and I was putting offal from human corpses into this food. And in the dream, I knew this was wrong, but it was easy, and it was easy because it was the only way of making the food that I knew how to do. This job that I was in, I didn’t really have the skill or the knowledge to do it properly. I was just doing something that was a bodge and everybody in the company and all my colleagues, everyone was turning a blind eye to what I was doing, and I woke up from this dream with a lingering sense of just having done something really wrong, and putting something filthy and disgusting out into the world and giving something filthy and disgusting to other people in the guise of something that was supposed to be good.

So, this was the morning of the day immediately after the ritual, and I woke up from that dream and, like I tended to do back then, I just got up and sat to meditate at the foot of the bed, and then something happened in that meditation. I had a vision and a fruition. Suddenly, before me there was a woman. She appeared in a radiant light, and she was about thirty years of age, and she had a bald head. But the most striking thing about her were her eyes, her gaze. Suddenly she was looking at me, and I was looking at her, and there was a feeling of something inescapable about that, because what had happened in that moment was an experience that somehow her gaze was my gaze. The being seen by her and the looking at her were one thing, one action. This being in front of me that was appearing as if she were real, as real as waking perception, this being was evidently a goddess, the divine.

It wasn’t a communication as such. There was no message. There was no content to it, but just an experience of pure sentience, consciousness, because the looking and the being seen were just aspects of one thing. There was no end to it. No one was ever going to look away, because neither of us was separate from the other. There was this feeling that we were joined. Our natures were both part of the same thing, and somehow, she’d revealed this to me, and everything stopped in that moment. I completely disappeared. In that moment I was joined in eternity with this goddess. And this, of course, is a very common variety of mystical experience that thousands and thousands of people have talked about down the millennia: the vision of some divine being, whether it’s Jesus or Buddha or a bodhisattva or Green Tara. The mystic looks into the eyes of the divinity and just feels themselves melt away into eternity and the absolute. In technical language, we might describe this as “a fruition through the door of no-self”, using the terminology that Daniel Ingram supplies in his book, Mastering the Core Teachings of the Buddha.

There was a realization in this vision, also, that this was the same woman that I’d seen in the dream, only now I was seeing her more clearly than how she had appeared to me in the dream. The dream was like a shadowy, sinister version of what had happened in the vision when I was meditating. Instead of a being that was obviously a goddess there had been a human woman who was somehow both my mother and my lover, an idea hinting a goddess, maybe, in the fact that, like we were saying, she’s the beginning and the end, but expressed very much from the human side of things, in terms of human desire rather than recognizing her divine nature for what it is in itself. And also in the dream, the idea of death and destruction and suffering ensuing from my attempt to be close to her, rather than the spiritual destruction of ego and individuality by nondual awareness that actually took place in the vision. It’s like the dream was a shadow version of the vision played out in terms of desire and fear, rather than as an understanding, as a direct confrontation with the divine as the divine. It’s like the dream was part of the shadow play on the walls of the cave in Plato’s famous analogy, rather than a glimpse at the fire itself, which I think is a way of understanding what happened in the vision.

“You will feel into me the lovely silence,” she says at the end of the message, which seems a straightforward prophecy of what actually happened with the vision that followed the next day: that lovely silence; that lovely merging into the divine. It seemed almost as if that second dream about working in the food factory and putting human remains in food and waking up and feeling that I’d put something disgusting into the world, it was as if that dream was a kind of clearing out, like a recognition of putting something wrong and dead and disgusting into the world had to be confronted before I could see that in a sense that was what was going on in that first dream. It was a shadow of the truth. It was a lie. “I am the girl that swam in waters, me,” she said in the message, “me, the most terrible liar of life in you.”

In our last episode I put out the suggestion that one way of looking at spirits is as certain types of relationship to the absolute (to emptiness, if you prefer), so if we’re looking at experiences of spirits that seem to present some kind of aspect of the divine then maybe there’s a particular kind of relationship there, which we can specify in a bit more detail.

So, in the personal experience I’ve just described, there was an encounter with something mysterious but very arresting, very attractive, in a mysterious kind of way, and continued interaction with that led to a realization that whatever this entity seemed to be it actually had a very different nature, and the realization of that came about in an ecstatic experience of union, the realization that this being and ourselves are fundamentally one thing at a particular level. Now, this is very much in contrast to the types of experiences I talked about in the last episode, to do with so-called demonic entities. To come back to this notion of desire that we were thinking about earlier, in the case of a demonic entity there was very much a sense that the entity seemed as if it wanted to install itself as the object of our desire. Demons want us to give them attention. Demons want us to need them. Some of the analogies for that relationship between ourselves and the demonic that we used last time were things like a mafia protection racket, and a co-dependent relationship. We considered earlier how one of the strange features of desire is that it’s something very personal, something very close, almost like a facet of what we think of as our identity, so, in that sense, if a spirit becomes the object of our desire then it becomes (in a way) part of us, and that maybe starts to account, I think, for that sense that I’ve often come across in people who are bothered by demons, or work very closely with them, which is that they don’t seem to want to give them up. They’re very attached to them. And maybe that’s understandable if they’re so closely identified with that spirit; if that spirit is for them the object of desire, part of their desire.

With those spirits that seem to be aspects of the divine, the dynamic, the relationship, is totally different. Another of the characteristics of desire that we commented upon was that sense in which desire doesn’t go away; it endures, whereas interactions with demonic spirits seem to heighten that sense of desire, like I was talking about in the examples last time, after evoking one of the goetic spirits it seemed as though things were happening in my life that required me to keep doing that. In the case of spirits that are aspects of the divine, the trajectory seems to be towards an experience in which desire ceases, it goes away, and what’s amazing about that, of course, is that the cessation of desire is an experience beyond the human. That’s not on our everyday experience as human beings, which is very much characterized by sensations of desire.

And, also, these spirits, they lead us to a place where it’s very much not about them, and very much not about us either, because it’s revealed that we’re one and the same. So, these spirits don’t want to be the object of our desire. They actually lead us to a place beyond desire. These spirits don’t actually want the experience we have of them to be about them at all. They lead us to a place where we realize that we and them are one and the same so, as we saw in the previous episode, the ethos of the text of The Lesser Key of Solomon the King is all about controlling the demons, dominating them, getting them to do your will, and suggesting that if you don’t take that approach with them then you’re in trouble. Whereas, with divine spirits, it’s kind of a reverse, a mirror image. What the ethos there seems to be is about surrender. The relationship by which these spirits seem to manifest is not one of domination or control but opening, giving yourself up to them, and that’s the means by which the ecstatic experience of union and the cessation of desire comes about.

Where you could go wrong in interacting with these spirits, maybe, would be to approach them more like demons, to make them the object of desire, to identify with them on the level of the form in which they present to us, rather than surrendering to them and trying to get beyond that form as it presents through opening yourself entirely and trusting them entirely. The spirits of the Goetia are thought to be representations of old, defunct gods that Christianity felt it had supplanted. So, there is that notion there that these are spirits that are not being interacted with in the same way that they would be if they were still being regarded as full, authentic divinities. By choosing a set of old, defunct gods, the author, or authors, of The Lesser Key of Solomon the King were indicating that implicit difference in the relationship, I think, between, on the one hand, working to approach the divine as the divine, and on the other hand just wanting a spirit to fulfil our desires for us whatever those desires might happen to be. So, two radically different kinds of spirits manifesting as two radically different types of relationship.

A few years ago, I had another, similar experience, and this one’s a bit more difficult to describe. So, I went to a gathering of a particular group of people, and at this gathering there was some particularly fine “coffee”, let’s say. And I could see the people there having this coffee, and they all seemed to be having a really good time. And I’d never tried this particular blend before, so I thought to myself: “Well, they all seem to be having a good time, and it’s a nice group of people to be, with so why not?”

Well, unfortunately, although it was nice at first, it turned out that this coffee really didn’t suit me. Turns out, I’m quite sensitive to caffeine and I’m not really that great at tolerating the effects of it, and the effects it had on me were quite bizarre. I became really aware of my chakras. I could perceive them really vividly and they were full of energy that was swirling around like a huge whirlpool, and it was totally overwhelming and really quite scary. And also, I kept finding myself moving about in very strange ways; kind of wriggling around and making strange sounds. Sort of speaking in tongues. Of course, caffeine has very different effects on different people, but the way it seemed to be affecting me I recognized as a kundalini awakening: all the chakra stuff and the energy stuff. Luckily, I had lots of lovely people around me and one lovely person in particular who helped me through the effects of drinking all that coffee. And after about seven or eight hours or so, it wore off and I was pretty much back to normal, although a bit shaken by the whole experience.

So, the gathering I was at came to a close, and I went back home to my job and my girlfriend, but over the course of that next week, probably due to tantric practices I was exploring at the time, it was as if the effects I’d experienced of the caffeine were gradually coming back, and by the next weekend, even though it had been a full week and there were obviously no traces of caffeine left in my system, it was like I was back on it again and experiencing all those strange effects that I’d experienced before: sensing my chakras; feeling them flowing with a kind of overwhelming sense of energy; feeling like my mind was coming apart; like I was going crazy; and the sense that I’d done something to myself, ruined myself, and I was never going to be normal again.

I was looking around for help and fortunately came across a therapist and writer called Tara Springett. Her speciality is helping people experiencing kundalini syndrome. Perhaps the main characteristic of a kundalini awakening is that it feels very physical. It feels like a bodily process. But Tara Springett takes the view that this is not necessarily the case. Although it feels physical, it’s actually a spiritual process working its way through and as such, she argues, kundalini awakening is amenable to psychotherapeutic interventions.

Now, I really doubted this at the time, but I downloaded one of her e-books, which is called Enlightenment Through the Path of Kundalini, which I really recommend, although it’s not an orthodox, mainstream kind of text. If you’re looking for something more down-to-earth and practical in this area, she has recently published another book called Healing Kundalini Symptoms. But the e-book that I mentioned that I downloaded, was an absolute life saver for me. In the book, the text of which is channelled from a goddess, White Tara, we’re informed that the external universe is basically suffused with nondual love. Within the body, however, is an energy that sets itself apart from this, and this is the kundalini. Now, everything in the universe, remember, is nondual love, so this energy is also an expression of that love. But at the same time, it’s an expression of the individual self. In the terms that we’ve been using so far, you might link this with what we’ve called “desire”.

So, in this model of things, as offered by Tara Springett, the kundalini, the desire, which is the expression of the individual self within the human body, but which is fundamentally an aspect of the one non-dual love that suffuses the universe – this kundalini, this desire, it therefore finds an antidote in expressing love and compassion either to oneself or to others, and this is how Springett suggests that kundalini awakening, kundalini symptoms, are amenable to psychotherapeutic interventions.

If we view the kundalini as some kind of material energy or entity, then we’re likely to exacerbate it, because we’ll be giving it solidity if we approach it in those terms. But if we look at it instead merely as a build-up of desire in the body occasioning a sense of separation of the individual from the one non-dual love that suffuses the universe, then we can talk about it, think about it, and develop some techniques for directing that energy back towards and into a non-dual expression of love. Compassion practice, in other words.

Most spiritual traditions have exercises for building and directing compassion and, following Tara Springett’s advice, I started to practice these and immediately noticed a shift and things starting to feel better. Among the exercises she suggested was surrender to a divinity, and I’d done some practices involving the goddess Kali in the past, so she seemed like a natural choice to me, and things were still feeling challenging, still feeling difficult, so that night I visualized lying in the loving arms of Kali whilst sending compassion and love to her, to the goddess, and out to the whole world.

I was still in an anxious state, still experiencing overwhelming sensations in the body and the chakras, and still feeling in the background that I’d done something that had damaged myself permanently. And whilst I was doing the practice, and thinking all of this, a thought came up in my mind, a fearful thought that I wasn’t normal, that things weren’t normal, that my mind had changed in some way that I wouldn’t be able to rectify and suddenly in that moment, I realized: “Well, I’m feeling different because I really am different!” Because of the exercise I was doing, where I was surrendering myself, falling into the loving arms of Kali, I realized that things were indeed changed forever completely, because now I was with Kali, I was a devotee of hers.

And then with that realization was that moment again, that ecstatic moment, and strangely it was as if suddenly Kali was there in the room. It was like she was actually visible. Not like you see her in the traditional images, you know, with the severed heads, and the blood and the tongue, and all of that. Visually she appeared as this giant, oblong column. But that column was somehow packed with her attributes. It was like the essence of Kali was radiating out from this form. But in that moment, it was also apparent how my mind, all of it, all of me, belonged to her. But also, her being was also mine: the fact that she was here, in my room, really intimate, really close. She was mine too and, in that moment, forever afterwards we would be merged together. There was that sense of eternity again, in that moment.

So, I realized that what I’d been experiencing as the depths of suffering were actually the heights of bliss. That feeling that everything was changed, and nothing would be the same anymore and I was different from what I had been: yes, it was all true, but it was true in the sense that everything was different now because I belong to the goddess, and she belonged to me. That kundalini, that build-up of desire in the body was suddenly short-circuited, suddenly diffused outward. Everything was love: my love for Kali, her love for me, and the two of us being one in the same. Like Tara Springett had suggested the whole drama just melted back into the one, non-dual love that suffuses the universe.

That wasn’t quite the end of the story, though, because the next thing I then had to contend with was all that bliss, which was almost too much to withstand. And I remember going to work on the Monday morning and sitting there writing code all day, just absolutely blissed out in my head to the extent that when I had to go to a meeting, I was sitting there and starting to feel a bit paranoid whether people would notice that I was so high, which I was, even though it didn’t involve any substances at all: no coffee, or anything else for that matter.

Desire is the bridge that takes us to the end of desire. I think traffic with demonic spirits keeps us very much stuck on that bridge but working with gods and goddesses will take us across it into a direct experience of the divine. The trick seems to lie in recognizing how our individual desire is an expression of that one, non-dual love, and I think that involves engaging with our individual desire very closely, really entering into it, which, as I was saying earlier, is something that as magicians we’re confronting and exploring in many different ways and at many different levels all of the time.

It seems that to get beyond desire you have to inflame it at the same time. I think that’s why images of the divine often have a strong erotic component, and that’s maybe why for me as a heterosexual male, work with goddess figures has led to the most powerful experiences.

I remember Jeffrey Kripal writing somewhere about how, despite attempts to engage with Christianity, at the end of the day he realized that the figure of Christ – you know, this semi-naked wounded man on a cross – simply wasn’t sexy enough. No doubt, it really does it for some people, but not for him and, like me, he found a completely different experience in an encounter with the goddess Kali.

We inflame our desire for the divine in order to enter deeply into it and cross that bridge and transcend it into that beyond-human realm where desire ceases, and we experience ourselves as completely merged with the divine. As Rumi suggests in the poem, you’ve got to become a love dog. You’ve got to become a whining hound. And from the outside that would look like probably the last thing you’d want to be. It would look like an existence based completely on frustration and on dependency but, as Rumi says: “Your pure sadness / that wants help / is the secret cup”, and that’s where I’ll end for this episode, and hope that your secret cup completely runneth over.


Transcript of Episode #106 of the OEITH podcast, Tales of the Goetia, presenting stories of encounters with spirits from this magical system, and reflections on the nature of the demonic.

For this episode, I invite you to get yourself comfortable and draw up around our imaginary campfire for some stories of experiences of the Goetia, which is a magical system that I think quite commonly causes magicians to huddle together and share tales of wonders and disasters, and sometimes just really, really strange, weird stuff.

If you’re new to the Goetia, I’m not really going to go into detail about what it is and how to do it. There are plenty of other places where you’ll be able to find that. But, instead, I’m just going to talk about some experiences that I’ve had, tell some stories, and share some ideas on what seems to me to be the nature of the spirits of the Goetia.

Before I started practising magick I was interested in writing fiction, and it was in that context that I first came across the Goetia, or that text known as The Lesser Key of Solomon the King. I was on a writer’s forum, and somebody was writing a story about demons, and they wanted a source that they could use to draw on for a story about someone summoning a demon, and someone got back to them and pointed them to The Lesser Key of Solomon the King, and I checked it out online and was immediately fascinated by it.

What struck me about it most was the catalogue of demons and the quaint language that these were described in, and the really bizarre range of things, qualities, powers that these demons seem to offer to the person who called upon them to perform certain tasks. Such as the description of the ninth spirit, Paimon: “He appeareth in the form of a man sitting upon a dromedary with a crown, most glorious, upon his head. This spirit can teach all arts and sciences and other secret things. He can discover unto thee what the earth is and what holdeth it up in the waters, and what the mind is and where it is, and any other thing thou mayest desire to know.”

I mean, it’s irresistible, isn’t it? Why wouldn’t you want to have a conversation with an entity like that? But reading the text there was, of course, the background knowledge that these spirits are demons – they’re evil. And what was clear from the instructions given for summoning them was that they’re troublesome; they will do you over, if you give them the opportunity to do this.

According to the instructions given, this is a kind of magick constantly fraught with danger. The materials that we’re in contact with in this system, the spirits, are hazardous materials, and the paraphernalia of the ritual: the circle, the triangle with the names of power, the Solomonic talisman you’re supposed to wear, the rhetoric of enforcement and constraint that’s being employed in the evocations you’re recommended to use – as it’s presented to us in the text, this seems to be a system of magick where, to realize your aim, you’ve got to come into contact with dangerous substances. And the structure of the ritual itself seems focused on enabling you to do that in a safe way.

These entities are presented as like ferocious animals that will turn on you if you give them the chance; that’s their nature. At this time in my life, I was working my first proper job, and getting on with life in general, but something was nagging at me, at the back of my mind, which was certain experiences I’d had as a teenager when a few of us had started messing around with the Ouija board. Some strange things happened around that time, which I’d never found a material explanation for, and it had left me with a nagging sense that there was something going on apart from the everyday reality that I could see around me, and so I started to wonder whether magick could be a means of intentionally taking myself into that other world that the Ouija board had opened up when I was a teenager, but which I drifted away from in pursuing an everyday, normal life.

Among my collection of notebooks, there’s a small, skinny notebook from October 2004. The notebook opens with an entry for Halloween, and it describes my first ever intentional magical working, which was a scrying session with a black mirror that I’d made. My first experience of the Goetia came in the February of the following year, 2005.

Memory plays strange tricks on us. I realized that my memory of the circumstances around my first goetic ritual weren’t quite what I thought they were when I went back to my actual notebooks, which reminded me how important it is as a magician, when you’re practising magick, to always write stuff down. Always, always keep as detailed a record as you can of your experiences. You won’t regret it. Your notes will be like gold dust when you later come back to look at them and see where you’ve travelled from.

I’ll start with the story that I thought was true, the story I’d told myself, which was that my intention with that first Goetic working was to attract like-minded people to myself. I was just beginning magick. I was all on my own. None of my friends were into this stuff, and the internet wasn’t quite in the same state as it is today. There was no social media back then. So, what was I going to do? Well, of course, the answer was clear: I was going to summon a demon. I was going to summon a demon and ask it to bring like-minded people to me, so that I would have people I could respect and look up to and learn from and practise with. What could possibly go wrong?

So, I did the working, and the experiences I had during that working I’ll talk about in a bit, but the name of the Goetic spirit that I summoned I’m not going to mention, and my reasons for not mentioning it I’ll also explain later. But first of all, the results of the working, as I remembered them.

So, having done the working and summoned the spirit and sent it off to find for me like-minded people I could look up to and learn from, a few days later I was at work. I was working as a programmer, and I was on a panel, an interview panel, because we were recruiting a new programmer to our team, and there were various candidates, and one of them seemed okay, seemed a nice guy, quite young, unusual in that he was Canadian and had a British wife, and they decided to settle in the UK. And he seemed to have all the right skills, so myself and the others on the panel, we decided we were going to hire him. And I think he’d been on the team a week or two, and we were all sat fairly close to each other in the office, working, and I needed – I can’t remember what it was – some version of some software at that time, something fairly commonly available – like Adobe Reader, or something like that, and our new team member mentioned that he got a copy on a CD that he had in his bag, and he lent me the CD and I stuck it in my drive, and I installed the software.

But I noticed that on his CD there were some folders, apart from the one in which the software had been. Folders that seem to have books in them: eBooks, pdfs of books – and what do I discover? Lo and behold! Loads of stuff by Crowley. Loads of weird-looking texts that I’d never heard of. So, I asked him about this, and we got into conversation, and he’d been practicing magick for a good few years. And he was the person who first lent me a copy of Peter Carroll’s Liber Null and Psychonaut, and who told me about the existence of the IOT, and who introduced me to chaos magick.

For the purposes of our story today I shall refer to him as “Jean-Paul”. As I would later find out, Jean-Paul was a very experienced and seasoned practitioner of the Goetia, but I’m going to backtrack for a moment, go back to the ritual that I’d performed, what I did and what happened.

The big dilemma facing me at that time, especially as a beginner to magick, was I had this text, this grimoire, and there were all these instructions – so how was I going to put this into practice? Which bits of this ritual were essential, and which bits could I skip out or adapt because, you know, I lived in a one-bedroom flat, and it wasn’t going to be possible to go chalking words of power and circles all over the floor. But luckily, I found an article on-line by somebody who took a very practical approach to things, and that gave me the confidence to decide that it was possible to strip it down to its bare essential elements.

So, I knew that I was going to need a circle in which I could stand and protect myself from the spirit, and I knew that I would need a triangle in which to summon the spirit, and some sort of medium for it to manifest. So, I put some incense in there and I put a black mirror in there, so that I could scry into the mirror from a distance, and maybe receive a communication from the spirit by that means, if that turned out to be how it was going to manifest. And inside the circle I decided I would have a pentagram around my neck with the sigil of the demon on it, because it seemed to me that you needed to specify what spirit it was that you were calling in some way or another. And also, in a local magick shop, I’d come across a talisman of the Hexagram of Solomon, which is also specified in the text as a protective measure, so I had that looped over my belt throughout the working. And I’ve got the sense from the text that you’re not supposed to be on your own when you do a Goetic evocation; you need some greater authority on your side, and it’s by that authority that you do all the bossing about of the spirits. But I wasn’t entirely comfortable doing this in the name of the Judeo-Christian God, simply because that wasn’t a tradition I felt at home with at the time.

So instead, I called upon the goddess Athena. That first magical working, that scrying that I mentioned: the result of that had been a vision of a rather serious-looking woman who walked towards me and seemed to take an interest in what I was doing, and through subsequent workings I later ascertained that this was a manifestation of the goddess Athena, who has remained my go-to goddess ever since. So, it was under the patronage of Athena that I had resolved to do my demon bossing. And I had the traditional names of power around the triangle as well, because it seemed like that was a good idea. But I really went to town on the whole thing. I cleaned the flat from top to bottom. Moved all the furniture around so I had space, and pretty much throughout the whole day I was burning incense in the flat, and what I decided might work well was a combination of wormwood and mugwort. And I was burning this stuff pretty much all day in the flat, constantly, to get it really imbued into the atmosphere. I really recommend it, if you get the chance to use it. It produced a really dark, heavy, suggestive kind of atmosphere in the flat and the two of them, maybe, but the mugwort in particular may have been a little bit psychoactive.

Mugwort tea is sometimes good for inducing really exceptionally vivid dreams although, in my experience you have to drink a hell of a lot of it. So, I’ve got the incense and I’ve got the candles burning everywhere, and the flat was cleaned, and I’d laid out the triangle in black masking tape on the carpet, and I carefully spent a lot of time doing the circle in black masking tape as well. And, as I’d planned, by this time darkness was falling. The sun was going down and I’d very much managed to create for myself a sense that something dramatic was about to happen.

Looking back over the notes I made, I see that the evocation took a long time and I had to do a lot of exhorting and bossing the spirit about before I got a manifestation. And it came in a form that took me completely by surprise. I’d been expecting something, you know, just like a shift in the atmosphere or a change in temperature, or a sense of presence. You know, something like that, which is often the form a manifestation takes when you do an evocation. But what I got instead was a moaning, howling sound, physically heard coming through the wall at a particular spot. A sort of groaning, shouting, bellowing, which maybe shouldn’t have surprised me as much as it did on one level, because, you know, as you may be aware the word “goetia” literally means “howling”.

I remember thinking to myself: “Did I really hear that? Did that really happen?” So, I asked the spirit to confirm its presence and, sure enough, the sound came again. And I asked it some questions, and the sounds came again in all the right places and seemed to sort of modulate and change a bit in a way that seemed to be giving responses to what I was asking.

This is from the notes that I made in my diary shortly afterwards: “I made a point of not threatening or cajoling the spirit, but I did come close. I did lose patience, and I think that helped. I don’t think he wanted me sitting there without getting wound up. It didn’t feel the way things feel with Athena. There wasn’t the intimacy or the sense of presence. Until he moaned there wasn’t a sense of presence with the spirit. It felt like it had to be a material manifestation or nothing. The form it took summed up how the experience felt: a muffled voice in another room, not words, but moans, grunts, and growls, very faintly heard.”

So, the whole experience was very much a sense of a material manifestation, and my whole experience with Goetia has been that this is what tends to happen when you compare it with other types of magick. The experience and the results tend to take a very physical, material form, but, to come back to that wailing, moaning voice that I heard, every spirit has to have a means of manifestation, and the building directly next door to my flat was a residential home for children with learning disabilities – children and young adults – and on occasion some of these kids were audible, so what I heard very probably didn’t emerge out of thin air but, as I mentioned, I had incense smoke there as well, and the black mirror, yet it was through those sounds that the experience of the spirit manifested rather than the mirror or the smoke, and that’s maybe not completely down to chance. But could it possibly have something to do with the form the ritual takes itself: the configuration of it, the kind of relationship suggested between the magician and the spirit, and the expectations that the whole combination sets up in us as we conduct the operation?

So, there you go. That was my first Goetic working. I went into it with the intention of attracting like-minded people to myself, and the ritual was really dramatic in terms of the experience that it created, and the results were monumentally successful when Jean-Paul came into my life within a few days.

Well, that’s what I remembered having happened until, like I said, I came back to my actual notebooks earlier this week. Because what I discovered, to my surprise, was that I’d already met Jean-Paul before I did the working. I’d already known him for a while and I imagine that he was one of the reasons why I turned to Goetia in the first place, because he used to talk about it a lot, his own experiences. In fact, the intention behind the working had been to attract more people.

Now, I’m not sure why I thought it was necessary to resort to a Goetic invocation to bring that about. Certainly, I wouldn’t do that now for something so mundane, and looking back on my notes I see that the results of the working were really very far from successful. I started to get the sense that I was being played around with. Being manipulated or goaded in some way. So, I’d performed the ritual to make contacts but what started to manifest shortly after that was actually the opposite going on. I’d noticed existing relationships becoming strained. People I was trying to connect with online were ignoring me. People I had connected with turned out to be not very nice.

And I noticed something else odd that was happening too, which was magical intentions that I’d ruled out or had only thought about, without doing a ritual, were actually being realized. So, there was a guy at work who was seriously getting on my nerves at the time, and it crossed my mind to include something in the Goetic ritual that would strike back at him in some way. But I decided against that because it was unethical and vindictive. Yet, after the working, things happened to this guy. He had a serious run of bad luck that caused him quite a bit of suffering. And a couple of people who’d come round to my flat shortly after the working, including my girlfriend, had both fallen ill afterwards. And for a couple of days there had been a weird atmosphere that felt like it was lingering in the flat, probably mostly due to the effects of the incense smoke. The smell of it lingered for quite a while.

What it was starting to feel like after that first working was as if I was being drawn into something. Things that I hadn’t asked for I’d got. Things that I had asked for I hadn’t got, and, in fact, the opposite had been manifesting, creating problems. It was feeling as if some sort of trap was being set for me, and I reached the point where it started to feel that it needed to be sorted out, so, somewhat nervously, I decided to summon the spirit again and have it out with it, and, if necessary, like the texts suggested, threaten it with punishment if it didn’t fulfil the instructions that I’d given it. And, I’ve got to say, what happened in that second evocation was probably one of the most terrifying magical experiences I’ve ever had.

So, I set up everything in my flat same as I’d done before. Gave it a good clean. Incense and again the circle and the triangle in black masking tape. And I had to pop out for something. When I got back the masking tape had kind of crinkled up and all sort of twisted, somehow, and it looked as if it had been ripped up. It looked really freaky. But anyway, I laid it down again with fresh tape and got ready to start the ritual, and then a sea mist blew in, as sometimes happens in Brighton, but it made the light all sort of strange and fuzzy, and made the day really quiet and ominous, which did nothing to calm my nerves about what might happen.

The whole thing felt like it was going wrong from the start. There was no response to the evocations at all. It felt like the spirit wasn’t responding. Whether that was because I was doing something wrong, or because it simply didn’t want to, I couldn’t tell. I had some objects with me inside the circle: I’d got the text of the ritual that I was using to read the evocations, and I had a notebook and a pen, and a few other bits and bobs. And while I was in mid-flow, with this sense that I was getting nowhere and just talking to empty air, suddenly the pen on the carpet in front of me – just lying on the carpet – suddenly moved – kind of jumped all by itself.

So, this is an object inside the circle suddenly moving all by itself, inside the circle, where the demon is absolutely not supposed to be. And I was wearing a pentacle around my neck, which is part of the ritual: you wear a pentacle with the seal of the demon on the reverse side. So, at the same time as the pen moved inside the circle, I felt a kind of energy or sensation rush from the base of my spine up my back and go really, really quickly and suddenly into the pentacle around my neck. The only way I can describe it was it felt like the pentacle was alive, like it had suddenly come to life around my neck. And it was intensely enervated. It was like it was suddenly very, very hot or very, very cold – whatever it was, I couldn’t tell, you know. It just had this huge sense of energy about it, and instinctively I gasped and ripped this this thing off my neck. I just needed to get it away from me, which I did, and my heart was pounding, and I was really shocked and frightened by what I just experienced.

And that was it. After that, nothing. Absolutely nothing. No matter how many times I asked the spirit to give me a sign, nothing. No communication. But the most terrifying thing, of course, was what had just happened had happened inside the circle. So, it had felt as if the spirit had come into the pendant around my neck, but I was inside the circle. That’s absolutely not what’s supposed to happen. And, you know, what conclusion could I draw from that? Well, I was left feeling as if the spirit had basically sent me a message saying: “You’re nothing to me. I can get you whenever I want. I’m not doing what you’ve asked me to. You’re not worth listening to.”

So, anyway, as you might imagine, slightly shaken (to say the least) by all of this I felt I had no alternative but to go for the nuclear option, which, in the text of The Lesser Key of Solomon, if the spirit absolutely refuses to do the magician’s bidding, then what you do as a final resort is to burn the spirit’s seal, and in that way the deal is off and that spirit is obliterated from your universe as a magician. And that’s the reason why, to this day, I do not mention the name of that spirit.

But I will mention the names of the spirits involved in the other two stories that I’ve got to tell. The first of these involves the twenty-sixth spirit, whose name is Bune. “He is a strong, great, and mighty duke,” it says in the text. “He appeareth in the form of a dragon with three heads. One like a dog, one like a griffin, and one like a man.”

Now, you might have thought I would have learnt my lesson with what happened with the previous spirit, but I think there were probably two things going on. The first of them was that I was spending more and more time with Jean-Paul who worked with the Goetic spirits a lot and had plenty of hair-raising and incredible tales to tell. And also, I’d realized there’s something very distinctive about Goetic magic. It has its own unique vibe, and it did seem to produce results and experiences on a very material, physical level, which other forms of magick didn’t seem to do. And at the time there was something fascinating about that. It had a certain allure which had quite a bit in common, maybe, with my teenage Ouija board experiences.

So, by this time there was a little group of us and, just to say, that this little grouping had nothing to do with the results of the working with the previous spirit because it was quite some time afterwards – about a year later. And we decided to set up a little, regular Goetia group. As it happened, this never got off the ground. We only had one meeting, and in that single meeting we did a few preliminaries. We evoked Bune just basically to say “hi” as a prelude to further workings. And, once again, looking back on things, I’m not sure how great an idea that was; whether it’s really a good approach to evoke a spirit just to say “hi” to it, especially when the text makes it very clear that these are the sorts of entities that will do us harm if they get the chance. You probably don’t want to be summoning something like that just to say “hi”, but that’s what we did and, as it turned out, it was a fairly nondescript kind of working.

Later on, in the evening we went back to the house of a couple of the participants, a couple to whom I shall give the names “Mike” and “Julie”. So, I’m there, and Jean-Paul is there, and also there is someone who you might be able to guess, but I’m not going to name explicitly. And we’re at Mike and Julie’s, and we don’t know each other very well. We’re getting to know each other. We’re drinking some wine and talking about magick and stuff, and it starts to become apparent that Julie is quite a forthright character, let’s say. She’s quite upfront in her demeanour. When you talk with her, she likes to let you know who’s boss, but we’re in her home and she’s offering us her hospitality, so fair enough. However, Julie’s character and some of the things she’s coming out with in the course of our conversation are not going down well with Jean-Paul, and the more Julie sees that she’s provoking a reaction in Jean-Paul, the more she lays it on.

It gets to about midnight, and quite a bit of wine has been taken by this point, and Julie finally pushes Jean-Paul’s buttons one button too much, and he’s clearly pissed off and decides to leave. Myself and my magical colleague however, we’re having quite a good time, so we hang around until about two in the morning, but at about one o’clock something quite upsetting happened.

There’s a knock at the door, which in itself is quite odd at 1am in the morning. And Julie gets up to answer the door, see who it is, and we hear some talking, and we hear some sort of commotion, and finally Julie comes back in, in a really distressed state, carrying a dead cat.

It was a big, lovely, cuddly ginger tom, and oddly we’d all noticed this cat in the street outside when we had arrived at their house. Now, Julie had cats but luckily this cat wasn’t one of hers. But what had happened was some neighbours, I think, or perhaps a passing couple had spotted this dead cat in the road outside, and it had only just been killed. And it looked a bit like one of Julie’s cats, so they brought it round because they thought it might be hers. And, as I said, luckily it wasn’t, but of course she was really, really upset to be presented by this at one o’clock in the morning by some strangers. And she’d agreed to bury it, which was why she brought it inside.

So, anyway, Monday morning comes around and I’m back at work, and I see Jean-Paul again, and he’s still absolutely livid about the way Julie treated him on the Saturday night, and when I mentioned to him about the dead cat arriving at one o’clock in the morning, and how upset Julie had been, this strange expression appeared on Jean-Paul’s face: a kind of shocked delight.

What it transpired had happened was Jean-Paul decided to summon Bune again, all by himself at home – no circle, no triangle, no ritual accoutrements or protections at all – and had asked the spirit to “give Julie what she deserved”. That’s how he’d put it and when we’d established the timings of all of this. It turned out that the dead cat had arrived at Mike and Julie’s soon after Jean-Paul had done this evocation at home and – I don’t know, I’m not sure – but after he’d heard what happened I’m not sure if Jean-Paul didn’t actually feel quite guilty. But whatever he felt he was also still angry, and he was vacillating between saying that he would never work with Mike and Julie again, that he was going to quit our group that we had going – it was a full-on drama. And when we tried to suggest to Jean-Paul that maybe it wasn’t a good idea to go evoking Goetic demons in your own home without any protective measures, he completely disagreed and at the time he actually said: “You’re going after the wrong demon. The demon you should be going after”, he said, “was the one inside the circle” – meaning Julie.

So, not only had he summoned a demon into his house without any protection, he’d also left it up to that spirit to choose a punishment for Julie. He hadn’t even put any stipulation on what was going to happen! So, let’s just suppose for a moment that, subsequently, something horrible had happened to Julie: an accident, or she’d come to some sort of harm. Because Jean-Paul had left it up to the demon to decide the so-called “punishment”, if something horrible had happened then that would have been the realization of Jean-Paul’s intent, which, of course, ethically puts him in a horrible position.

The question of causality and magick, of course, is a whole other topic but, as a rule of thumb, I think most magicians would accept that if we intend or wish something in our magical working then we are responsible for that to exactly the same degree that we would be responsible for actions. Also, what came to light in my conversations with Jean-Paul, was that he’d been calling on Bune frequently for all sorts of things, not using any of the ritual protocols at all, and it seemed that what was happening with him was similar to what I’d experienced in my first working with a Goetic spirit: all sorts of little problems manifesting in my life, crying out to be fixed. In Jean-Paul’s case he’d given notice on the place where he was living because he’d found somewhere new, but then only to discover that the new place he’d supposedly secured had fallen through. So, he’d got no place to live.

“If you’re going to be doing magick to find a place to live,” I said to him, “please, lay off Bune.” And I could see by his expression when I said this to him that that was exactly what he was planning to do.

I’ve seen this quite often with people who work with the Goetia a lot, or similar magical systems. It’s like the spirits really get inside their heads to a degree where they seem to become dependent on them, and then it’s almost as if their lives then become full of lots of little problems like I discovered myself, which then need those same spirits to fix them. It’s almost like a kind of mafia protection racket. What I did, in an attempt to ease things a bit was to try to get away from the demons and get some other sort of energy involved. So, I did a working to call on the archangel Uriel to intervene and sort things out. And in fact, I learned another hard lesson from doing that. I did the evocation and this vast energy showed up that was way, way more powerful than anything that was needed to fix this situation. And I remember sitting there and my first response to this was: “Oh, I’m so sorry. Sorry.”

Again, I think, as magicians we’re confronted with this eternal question of whether it’s really necessary to call on entities to resolve mundane problems. This was just a drama, just personality dynamics playing themselves out, and you don’t really need an archangel to sort that out for you. And eventually, over a bit of time, things settled down and Jean-Paul also seemed as if he was leaving Bune out of his life.

My final tale of the Goetia today concerns the forty-fourth spirit, known as Shax: “He is a great Marquis,” says the text, “and appeareth in the form of a stock dove, speaking with a hoarse voice, but yet subtle. His office is to take away the sight, hearing or understanding of any man or woman at the command of the exorcist, and to steal money out of the houses of kings and to carry it again in 1200 years.”

I had by this point got very heavily into chaos magic, and I was doing workings with a large group of people, and one night I was walking across town and suddenly this idea for a ritual suddenly popped into my head: a whole, fully formulated idea. And it had a very strong Goetic element to it, and almost immediately that this idea came to me as I was walking along, I saw this horrible thing: it was a pigeon that had been injured, or was badly ill, and it was on its back and fluttering around and around in a circle, obviously dying. It was just a horrible image of suffering. I didn’t think of putting it out of its misery at the time. You know, I wouldn’t have been able to do that. And there was a kind of ominous feeling about the whole thing. It felt like some sort of sign. And because that ritual had just popped into my mind shortly before, and it had a Goetic element to it, I found myself thinking: well, if this is an omen then which Goetic spirit would it be pointing to? And I looked through the list and I decided to go with Shax, because of his appearance in the form of a dove.

The ritual that had come to my mind was something that I called “Reverse Quaker Goetia”, and it was based on the idea that if the Quakers can hear the word of God by collecting together and sitting in silence, then could the opposite be true? Could it be that in the random noise of chaos we might hear a demon speaking to us?

There was this piece of software available at the time. You would feed it a sound file and it would chop it up into little segments and play it back to you with those segments all mixed around. So, it was a kind of software ghost box that could create kind of audio cutups from speech. So, instead of incense or a black mirror, inside the Goetic triangle I had a CD playing with some of these audio cutups on it, and it was a group working, so everyone was inside the circle. And I got everyone repeating over and over “Shax, I evoke thee” until they entered glossolalia and there was just noise – random, bizarre, chaotic speech everywhere. And when this had died down everybody listened to the random sounds coming from the triangle and listened for the voice of the demon.

According to my notes, I very clearly heard the phrase “lucky, delightful babies”, although that didn’t seem to lead anywhere significant. Again, there are warning signs here. Foremost among them perhaps, it being obvious that although I had an idea for a ritual, that had seemed to come before any kind of intent! This is often a danger when you’re working in groups. I think you want to think of a really good ritual so that people will have a really interesting time, and sometimes the ritual ends up being more important than the intention behind it, which, of course, is problematic.

At the time the group had some sort of overall wealth working going on, so what I did was I hung this ritual on the intention behind that. Shax seemed a suitable spirit to call on for this, given that he “steals money out of the houses of kings”.

A couple of weeks later I was in the health food shop and there’s a couple of customers in there, apart from myself, and someone behind the till, and one of the customers is looking at stuff on the shelves, and the other one, is in front of me in the queue for the till, and then suddenly I notice out of the pocket of the guy in front of me in the queue, some money drops out onto the floor.

There’s a fiver drops onto the floor, but also a wad of twenties. And this guy, obviously he’s felt the money drop out, because he bends down to pick it up, but for some reason he only picks up the fiver. So, there’s this wad of twenties still sitting there on the floor right in front of me that he’s not noticed that he’s lost. It’s like everybody in the shop is in a kind of trance. The guy hasn’t noticed the money he has dropped; the person behind the till is working away, occupied; and the other customer, they’re sort of browsing – they haven’t seen any of this. So, I bend down, and I pick up this money. And no one has seen me. No one has seen me pick it up. And I recognized it at the time – I was thinking to myself: this is the money from that working that I did.

But I couldn’t do it. I gave the guy his money back. And he seemed really appreciative of that, and the person behind the till was quite appreciative of it as well. But there was no way I was going to take it, because it just felt wrong. And again, in hindsight, it felt as if I probably should have realized that something like this was bound to happen because, as it says in the text, Shax steals money from the houses of kings, so, obviously, any money that was going to show up was going to be stolen money, and when it came to the crunch, I didn’t want stolen money.

Over time, and given the experiences I’d had, I started to come to the conclusion that Goetia was a system of magic that didn’t really hold much appeal for me. In that working with Shax, I’d asked the spirit for money. The money had been provided typically with Goetia in a very basic, material, physical way: money dropping on the floor in front of me. But I hadn’t been prepared to accept it under the conditions in which it had been provided, and that really seemed to reveal something to me.

So, suppose you ask a person for something. You say to them: Can you get me this? And then they bring it, and then you don’t want it. You probably really shouldn’t be bothering them in the first place. And that’s what I realized was going on in the way I was using the Goetia. It has a glamour about it. It has a materiality, a dramatic physicality about it. But that was all, at the end of the day, that it held for me. Evidently, I wasn’t prepared to accept what it offered on the terms on which it offered it. So, I’ve tended to steer clear of it ever since.

One very striking thing I’ve noticed down the years, in cases of people who do a lot of work with demonic spirits or who have experiences in which they’ve been distressed or bothered by what they’ve interpreted as a demon, is something very odd indeed, which is that no matter how much they seem to be suffering from the attentions of this spirit, they’re unwilling to give it up.

I’ve had people approach me and say, “I’ve got this entity in my life and it’s making my life a misery. It’s doing this, it’s doing that. I’m experiencing this awful thing, and that awful thing.” But what’s most often the case is if you turn around and say, “Right. Okay. Let’s get rid of this thing. Come on, let’s do a ritual. Let’s get it out of your life,” amazingly they’ll start to make excuses for it, or start to come up with reasons why that’s not possible. And I think maybe this gives us some interesting clues as to the nature of the spirits in the Goetia, of demonic or “evil” spirits in general, maybe.

Now, Crowley famously, at one point, says that for him the Goetic spirits are “portions of the brain”. He seemed to approach them, at one time, as very much as if they were kind of some sort of psychological phenomenon. The psychological paradigm makes a kind of sense when you’re looking at things from the perspective that we’re all separate individuals. But, I think, from a more mystical, spiritual perspective from which it’s clear that there’s no such thing as a separate self, then stuff that arises in experience is self-luminous and from that perspective it makes no more sense to say that a demon is part of the mind than it does to say a mind is just a collection of demons. The way I would look at it now is like this: the spirits of the Goetia are spirits. And what is spirit? Well, for me, spirit is that which does not exist. It has no form. It isn’t anywhere. It isn’t made of anything, and you’ll never detect it with any instrument ever, because there’s nothing there to detect. But just because something doesn’t exist doesn’t mean that it’s not real and doesn’t mean that it can’t have effects. A prime example is money: money doesn’t exist. You can’t find any money anywhere apart from representations of money, whether that’s cash or bank statements. Money itself doesn’t exist. Only representations of it exist, but that doesn’t mean money isn’t real. And if you go about the world with the assumption that it isn’t real, it’s not going to be long before you run into serious trouble. So, likewise, spirit doesn’t exist, but representations of it exist, and we make these representations in order to interact with it. And it’s not just the representations of spirit that are real because, obviously, there’s some sort of necessity to make those representations, so spirit itself obviously has reality even though it doesn’t have existence.

Now, obviously, things that exist can be different from each other. Things exist in different ways. So, if we’re saying that spirit is that which does not exist, then we’ve got a problem here. Because if there are different kinds of spirits, then the problem we’ve got is how do things that do not exist not exist in different ways? You might have assumed that what doesn’t exist is all pretty much the same. But there are things in our everyday experience that are there all the time, and are incredibly familiar to us, that don’t exist, and don’t exist in all manner of different ways. And these are relationships.

A relationship between two things doesn’t have any material existence. You’ll never find it. You’ll never detect it. You can’t measure it. Yet, of course, they’re obviously real and have massive real-world effects. So, the way I tend to look at it is that different sorts of spirits are different kinds of relationships to what doesn’t exist. For instance, you often hear people talking about a particular connection they might have with a deity. Somebody might say, “I have a relationship with Ganesha”. So, my take on this would be not that Ganesha is out there somewhere, in some sense, and we have a particular connection with Ganesha, but that Ganesha itself is a certain type of relationship to the absolute, to spirit, to what has no material form, to what doesn’t exist.

And I think that the Goetic spirits, demons, are characterized by a certain type of relationship to spirit. People who work with demons or who are troubled by demons, as I’ve suggested, don’t seem to want to let go of them, and that speaks to the type of relationship to spirit that a demon is. It’s a relationship that’s characterized by a kind of holding on, a kind of clinging, a kind of self-perpetuation, a kind of co-dependency maybe. You get the sense that a demonic spirit couldn’t be happier than being in a situation where the person it was attached to needed it to get absolutely everything in that person’s life done. It seems to want us to need it for absolutely everything. It kind of steals our desire away from us.

Ultimately, of course, some people take a very different view of the Goetic spirits and working with them. And one of the things I’ve seen pointed to is the evidence that the spirits listed in The Lesser Key of Solomon the King are basically old, pre-Christian deities dressed up in a demonic disguise. For example, various characteristics of spirit number fifty-six, Gremory, seem to link this entity historically to the goddess Astarte, and there are other persuasive examples of this also, and it might be argued that, well, these are not really demons at all; they’re actually ancient gods that have just been demonized retrospectively by Christianity.

But my response to that would be that what I still think is important here is the type of relationship that’s being expressed in that manoeuvre. Okay, these might be ancient gods that a Christian culture has attempted to cast out and dress up as “evil”, but there’s still a fundamental sense in that case of an entity that wants, an entity that clings, that endures, that perpetuates – a senile has-been god – but, despite all that Christianity has thrown at it, is still making itself felt. It’s not going quietly and is still clinging on, demanding our attention and observance.

We can connect with these ancient deities in their original, divine forms, if we want to. But that’s not what’s being presented to us in the text of The Lesser Key of Solomon the King. The relationship to spirit that we’re being encouraged to adopt in this system is a relationship to something that clings, that’s hungry for our desire. And in that case is it any wonder that the experience and the results of Goetic magick tend to take the form that (in my experience) they do, which is often a very direct, physical, in your face, kind of an experience.

It’s not a system of magick I would recommend to anybody, but unfortunately, in magick, like in everything else, we learn from our mistakes and our errors. So, I don’t really expect that any warnings I put out there are likely to deter anyone, if they want to make the experiment.

Anyhow, I’ve reached the end of my tales around the campfire, and my ad hoc philosophizing, for now. Don’t have nightmares. Look after yourselves and, if you’re bothered by entities then the most important thing, I think, is to make a resolution to free yourself from them. You can do that, if you want to. Look after yourself and let’s speak again soon.


Transcript of Episode #105 of the OEITH podcast, The Word of the Magus, exploring the role of the magus, their relationship to their word, the meaning and importance of this, and its practical and ethical implications.

The problem is, we’re standing here at the 21st century, stuck with individuality because we believed in it so much. It seems so important that we should all be distinct. What happens if we stop being distinct, and what happens if we think about individuality as something that was actually just scaffolding for where we are now?

Grant Morrison

The speaker there was Grant Morrison, part of his famous appearance at the Disinformation Conference in the year 2000. Over the past few days, I’ve noticed a few people mentioning Morrison’s talk as the thing that switched them onto magick, and I certainly remember myself being inspired by it around the time that I first started practising, but, hopefully, whilst the sense of what Morrison said is still ringing in your mind, the words now of another speaker.

And then we come back to this question of self, and re-enchanting the self. And say included in that is seeing, sensing, knowing, feeling the divinity of the self. Your self. How does it feel right now if you consider the possibility of seeing your divinity? How does that strike you to know that you are divine?

Rob Burbea

The speaker there was Rob Burbea, a Buddhist teacher who sadly passed away about just over a year ago, and who also had a big impact on me when I was starting out in my practice. Burbea developed a body of work that’s known today as Soul-Making Dharma.

Just to give you a sense of the approach of Soul-Making Dharma, here’s a description from a website of an organisation where it’s being taught: “Our Buddhist practice”, it says, “reveals to us that perception is empty and shapable. We see that we inevitably participate in making the world through the ways we sense and see.”

Now, I regard both Grant Morrison and Rob Burbea as magicians, and hopefully that description of Rob Burbea’ s body of work makes clear why that’s the case. So, Grant Morrison, Rob Burbea, both may be pointing towards similar ideas about transcending individuality and the possible benefits and the possible truths in that. But my focus today is not going to be the commonalities between them but actually the differences and the importance and relevance of those differences.

All magicians in their practice challenge the consensus reality, and their work is focused upon arriving at certain experiences of truth, although of course that can embrace all sorts of different notions and varieties of truth. Both of these magicians had an impact on me through their teachings, through their words, and what I’m going to explore a bit in this episode is the concept of the word of the magus. And, I have to say, that this wasn’t something that I’d planned long in advance to talk about, and I’m not sure where the idea came from but, perhaps appropriate to the topic itself, the idea of talking about it just kept coming back even though I found it difficult to persuade myself that anyone would really be that interested in it as a topic. But anyway, here it is, and let’s see where it leads.

As far as I can gather this whole idea of a magician having a word comes from Crowley and I’m not suggesting that there’s anything true about it in any absolute sense, but simply exploring what the implications of it are and what the use of it might be. One of the so-called holy books of Thelema, Liber 1, in fact, has the title Liber B vel Magi, and it’s in this text, which is very short, that Crowley sets out this idea of what a magus is.

Now, on the one hand the magus is a magician. Any magician. A person who practises magic. But on the other hand, that term also has the meaning of a specific grade, a grade being a specific level of

magical development. Now, of course, I don’t know what you yourself might make of grade systems. Possibly not very much, understandably. But the angle I’m coming at this from is if we practise magick then we will presumably over time get better at doing magick, and in that sense we all develop and progress. So, this concept of magus as a particular point of development on that continuum is presumably something that we all have the potential to confront at some point as we continue in our development as magicians.

So, what the hell is a magus? Crowley writes:

One is the Magus; twain His forces; four His weapons. These are the Seven Spirits of Unrighteousness; seven vultures of evil. Thus is the art and craft of the Magus but glamour. How shall He destroy Himself?

So, “One is the Magus”: in other words, a magus is an individual, an actual human being. “Twain his forces”: presumably, like every human being, the magus has the capacity to create and destroy: the two forces of love and hate; solve et coagula. “Four His weapons”: as Crowley puts it a little later on in the text:

With the Wand createth He. With the Cup preserveth He. With the Dagger destroyeth He. With the Coin redeemeth He.

The magus, the forces, the four weapons – one plus two plus four – these Crowley describes as the “Seven Spirits of Unrighteousness”. “The art and craft of the Magus” – of the magician, is – “but glamour”, he suggests.

“In the beginning”, writes Crowley, “doth the Magus speak Truth, and send forth Illusion and Falsehood to enslave the soul. Yet therein is the Mystery of Redemption. By His Wisdom made He the Worlds; the Word that is God is none other than He.”

And it’s pretty apparent here that Crowley is echoing the opening words of the Gospel of Saint John:

In the beginning was the word, and the word was with God, and the word was God.

A lot of people seem to confuse those words with the opening of the Bible, with the first lines of Genesis. But that’s not right, of course, and we’re in the New Testament here, which is less focused on God, perhaps, in his Old Testament manifestation and more focused upon Christ. And indeed, a few verses on into the Gospel of Saint John there’s those passages that read: “and the word was made flesh and dwelt among us”, and that word made flesh, of course, is Christ: God in human form.

In the beginning the word is with God, but the word is made flesh, given the human form of Christ and sent into the world. But what Crowley is doing here he’s suggesting that there’s a parallel and a difference between the word being made flesh into the form of Christ, and the way the magus practices his art and craft: “by his wisdom made he the world”, says Crowley. “The word that is God is none other than He”.

So, like Christ, Crowley is suggesting that the magus is the word, the word that is God. So, what kind of sense does it make to say that a person is the word of God? That we as individual beings are the word of God? Bear with me, because I think there is something important here, something useful. First of all, it’s important to consider that the word that gets translated as “word” in the New Testament Greek is logos, and this is difficult to translate into English because as well as the sense of “word”, it also has the sense of reason or plan or order or meaning, so when in the Gospel of Saint John it says “in the beginning was the word”, there’s also a connotation to that of something like “in the beginning was meaning”, “in the beginning was order”, “in the beginning was the implicit idea that things make sense”. Now, let’s contrast that with contemporary scientific materialism, which you’ll often hear expressing the sentiment that things don’t make sense; that we live in an essentially meaningless universe; that experience, that existence doesn’t have some sort of pre-ordained plan to it but it’s just the outcome of interactions between matter, different particles. Well, if you want to look at it that way then fair enough, but that kind of a conception of the universe is not a human one; that’s not a description of an experience that a human being can have. We, as human beings, simply do not do “meaninglessness”. And to illustrate that you often come across people who may be depressed and may be talking about their lives feeling meaningless, or pointless, or not having any sense to them. But, of course, what you’re hearing there is someone precisely making meaning of their experience by describing it as meaningless. As human beings we simply don’t have access to a dimension of experience that we could accurately describe in those terms. That’s not a human being.

This is what I think Crowley is getting at in this text when he says: “the word that is God is none other than He”, he being the magus, the magician, any of us. “The Word that is God is none other than He. How then shall He end His speech with Silence? For He is Speech”.

And I think what Crowley is getting at there is precisely this idea that the human experience is an experience of meaning, of the word, and we didn’t make that word: we are born into a reality in which meaning, sense, reason is an inherent property. And even if you’re going to go down the full scientific, materialist, paradigm, at the very least you have to admit that even if it were the case that you conceived of meaning as merely some sort of emergent property of the complexity of the human brain, you are still obliged to admit that we live in a universe which through the blind interaction of matter and the blind forces of evolution has produced a human brain in which the experience of meaning resides. In other words, we live in a universe that produces brains that have an experience of meaning. Meaning is an inherent property of the universe, and you just can’t get away from it. There is no alternative to it. “How then shall He end His speech with Silence? For He is Speech”. It’s impossible for a human being to be silent in the sense of not to make meaning, because in everything we do we’re making meaning. We can’t not do that.

So, these issues are part of the universal experience of being human. But I think what Crowley is getting at here is these are issues that magicians in particular must wrestle with, and wrestle with in a particular way, because the practice of magick is all about making meaning, producing certain experiences at will, experiencing certain kinds of truth. The very aim of magick is to turn a chosen meaning into a material manifestation. Magick is the making of the word into flesh, as it were.

How then shall He end His speech with Silence? For He is Speech.

Well, if the magician is speech, then to become silence the magician will have to become what they are not. They will have to attain to something beyond the human and, as Crowley hints in this text, that’s the attainment that belongs to the grade above the magus, the ipsissimus. But we’re not going to go there today.

The magus goes beyond magus by finding the way to silence, but while he or she remains a magus then it’s a different set of issues that confront him or her. The magus has themselves and their two forces and their four weapons, but they find that everything they send out into the world is illusion and falsehood and enslaves the soul and the art and craft – everything they do – is glamour, fake, a façade. That’s what the magus has to deal with. But even though the magician may realize this, Crowley says:

Let Him beware of abstinence from action. For the curse of His grade is that He must speak Truth, that the Falsehood thereof may enslave the souls of men. Let him then utter that without Fear, that the Law may be fulfilled.

What he’s saying there, I think, is that as magicians we are makers of reality. We bend reality according to our will, according to our vision, and we are but limited human beings so the reality, the truth, that we make through our magick is just a reflection of our personalities. It is “but glamour”. Perish the thought that anyone should take us seriously. Imagine that. Imagine if someone listened to these podcasts and took these as some sort of canonical pronouncement on how magick is supposed to be practised and upon what reality and truth are. That would be awful. That would be illusion and enslavement, because it’s merely my take on these things. The truth I’m presenting here, my word, is necessarily distorted by my personality. But the magus is someone who’s fully aware that there’s no way out of this dilemma: “Let Him beware of abstinence from action,” Crowley says, and that’s related to that idea we considered earlier about how there is no such thing within human experience of an exit from meaning. So, if you abstain from action then you’re putting that forwards as your word, as what you consider to be a valid approach to making meaning from life.

Really? Doing nothing?

But actually, that wouldn’t be doing nothing. It’s impossible for a human being, like we were saying, to do nothing, to not make any meaning whatsoever. What that would actually be is not nothing but a refusal of something. This is the curse of the grade. This is the curse of being a magician. Knowing that you can make meanings, you can bend reality, and knowing also that inevitably what you convey, what you manifest, is limited, distorted, by the prism of your own personality. At the same time, you know that this is perhaps preferable to being subject to somebody else’s notion of reality, but yours is inevitably going to be as false and as partial as theirs, and that there’s no way out from this dilemma. This is the curse. If you’re not enslaved by your own magick then you’re enslaved by someone else’s. There’s no getting off the ride – or there is, but that’s not one that’s possible within human experience. It comes from realizing how to transcend that.

This whole idea of the magus having a relationship to the word seems to come from just Crowley, as far as I can tell, and as such we might say, well, that was an issue for Crowley. Why does this have relevance to anybody else? But I think it does have relevance and I think it is important because all of us, I think, have a relationship to the word, to meaning, whether we’re aware of it or not. As magicians we make meanings. We forge realities. But do we ask ourselves the question: what is our relationship to meaning?

The psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan had this idea of there being three registers that structure human experience: the real, the imaginary, and the symbolic. The only one of those I’m going to highlight here is the symbolic, which I think really approximates to the idea of the logos, perhaps, whereas the real is about what reality actually is in some sense, which is generally not accessible to human perception, and the imaginary tends to be about what we would like or wish or fantasize reality as being.

The symbolic is that register that embraces most of our daily experience in the everyday world. It’s the domain of human culture and all the signs and symbols and conventions through which that constitutes itself. It’s that shared domain where we find all the ideas and concepts by which we make sense of the world together, and the western magical tradition of course is part of this too. It has its conventions, traditions, its signs and its symbols, and a lot of the magical work that we do as magicians might be about manipulating these. Sigil magick, for instance, is basically us making a sign or symbol that represents something that we choose it to represent. The signs and symbols of a particular culture determine the way that the persons within that culture experience the world. What we’re doing in sigil magick, in a way, is making our own culture. We’re saying: “I’m deciding that this sign is going to influence my experience in this particular way”, whereas usually in the everyday world we’re having signs imposed upon us. From this perspective we have a relationship with the word, with meaning, all of the time. It’s part of being human. But that relationship can change, as the example of sigil magick shows.

Now, as often seems to happen when producing these podcasts, I stumbled across a book that I picked up at random from the bookshelf, by a Lacanian psychoanalyst called Darian Leader, a book called Strictly Bipolar, which is an exploration of manic depression and bipolar disorder. And I stumbled across some passages that seemed really relevant to this idea of us having a relationship to the word, to meaning, and how that can change, and how different sorts of relationships seem to be possible that could shape our magical identity.

In bipolar disorder, as it’s typically represented, people experience deep lows of depression that alternate with periods of highs, periods of so-called “mania”. One of the things that commonly happens during manic highs is that people can find themselves entering into inappropriate relationships or becoming sexually promiscuous, and Leader quotes the example of a woman who in a manic episode seduced her best friend’s boyfriend. And at the time she had this sense that something was wrong, but she couldn’t quite work out what it was. She couldn’t quite remember what it was that she wasn’t supposed to do in this situation. As she put it, he was gorgeous, I was available, why not? What Leader suggests in this book is that in bipolar disorder, manic depression, what we’re seeing is an oscillation in a person’s relationship to the symbolic. So usually for the woman in the example, the person who she slept with appears to her as her best friend’s boyfriend. That’s who he is ordinarily. That’s the sign that she recognizes him under. That’s his meaning to her: he’s her best friend’s boyfriend, and under the rules of our culture you don’t sleep with your best friend’s boyfriend. But in the manic episode there was a sense that he no longer meant that to her, that there was some kind of shift in her understanding of the position he occupied in her life, a symbolic position, such that that sign under which she recognized him no longer seemed to apply.

Now, Darian Leader remarks that one of the difficulties working in therapy with people with manic depression is that it often seems as if having insights into themselves doesn’t seem to register. The sort of insights that with other clients give them access to important meanings about their lives just don’t seem to carry the same weight for people who might have a diagnosis of manic depression. And Leader makes some interesting suggestions on why this might be the case. He writes:

Manic depressive subjects may arrive at key connections in therapy which have little or zero effect, as if the insight had no real value. Perhaps what has made some clinicians despair of working with manic depression here is, in fact, a clue as to its very logic. When manic the signifiers that determine one’s life are just words among other words, as if their full weight has not been registered. They can be cast as mere jokes or flippant comments. The depression is then the return of their weight, the massive impact of which is absent in times of mania.

Darian Leader

So, what he’s pointing to there, perhaps, is how our relationship to meaning, to the key signifiers in our lives, the signs, the symbols that give our lives meaning – how our relationship to that can change and, perhaps, in manic depression or bipolar disorder we might see that in a particularly vivid way. But these are possibilities, of course, available to any human being and maybe all of us to some extent are expressing different relationships to meaning at different times and changing our relationship to meaning, perhaps, over the course of our lives. Sometimes this can be a relationship that has a kind of depressive edge to it where meanings are so heavy, so important, that we kind of feel crushed beneath them. And then at other times the opposite, perhaps, where we kind of fly, rise up above meanings, and we’re looking down at them and laughing at them and feeling as if we’re on the outside and that we’re free and can do, can do anything in that space and meaning doesn’t really matter, it doesn’t hold us at all.

In terms of magical practice, maybe we see different kinds of magical practice arising from different kinds of relationship between the magician and the word. Someone who has a tendency towards that more depressive side of the continuum, as we described it, where meanings are heavy and taken seriously, this might produce the kind of magical practice where tradition is very important, where it feels right that texts are followed to the letter and attempts are made to arrive at some kind of authenticity in our magical practice, using authentic ingredients, performing rituals at a ceremonially appropriate time, cultivating relationships with certain spirits and taking these very seriously. This is the sort of practice where a lot of respect is given to the signs and symbols that are part of it. And at the other end of the continuum, maybe, the opposite: here, nothing is true, everything is permitted. Everything’s much more ad hoc and meaning is held very lightly. And this might sound very chaos magicky, but I don’t think it’s limited to that. At this end of the spectrum ecstasy is important. Any approach to magic that’s oriented towards transgressing or “going beyond”: sex magick, psychedelics, inducing trance states, meditating for hours on end – all of those kinds of things are on this side of the continuum. So, it’s not just about the contrast between traditionalists and non-traditionalists.

For example, there’s a lot of talk around at the moment about “closed practices”: the idea that certain types of magical practice should only be undertaken by those from a certain cultural background. A lot of people advocating this approach seem to be based on TikTok and are often younger practitioners, but I think what’s being expressed there is an approach to practice that’s more at that depressive end of the continuum. Closed practices seem to be about anchoring practice in authenticity, which is presumed to be rooted in the practitioner’s cultural background. It seems in essence to be an attempt to ensure that the signs and symbols of magical practice are anchored, deeply rooted, taken seriously, not detached from the proper context in which they’re supposed to be. And, linking this back for a moment to those two excerpts that we heard at the beginning from Grant Morrison and Rob Burbea, and how maybe we could really hear there this distinction that we’re talking about. Morrison and Burbea may be pointing to similar things, pointing to an experience of the transpersonal. But Morrison is all about soaring up beyond individuality whereas Burbea is about relaxing down into the divine.

Morrison, when he’s giving that talk, famously, he’s quite literally coming up on acid. His word as a magus shatters convention and breaks through the everyday and points a way beyond that. And Burbea, what he’s doing there it’s like he’s easing us gently, calmly, into a sense of the divine that’s already here, already inside, close at hand, and he’s inviting us to nestle down into it, to make ourselves at home in it. And as I said, at the beginning, I regard them both as magicians. They both had a huge impact on me, on my practice, but both have a radically different approach to magic and a radically different approach to meaning, to the word.

This also brings in questions of ethics. Where our relationship to the word is concerned, it might look at first as if attaching to the word is ethical and detaching from it is not. But I think either can constitute an attempt to act for the best, depending on the circumstances. Sometimes it’s important and for the best to take things very seriously and pay respect to certain symbols, but then of course it’s easy to think of circumstances in which the opposite approach is for the best: disrespecting, detaching, taking things lightly as a way of diminishing their power and importance.

Attaching to and detaching from the word aren’t ethical or unethical in themselves, they’re just strategies that we can adopt in specific contexts. Like Crowley said: “One is the Magus; two are his forces”, and those forces are, I think, this detaching or attaching, making new meanings or destroying existing meanings. So, Crowley and his idea of the magus represents magick as a process of coming into relationship with the word, with meaning. We gradually become adept at making meanings and turning them into realities. But becoming a magus, seen as a particular stage of magical development, according to Crowley, that’s about recognizing how to an extent all the meanings and realities that we create in our magic are false to some degree, and the magus is somebody who has kind of come to terms with that by uncovering, recognizing what their word, their meaning actually is, albeit false.

And then, Crowley suggests, there’s a way out. There’s an exit, a way to get off the ride, which is the grade above, the ipsissimus, which is the practitioner who has realized how to be silent. But this is not something that is possible to manifest in the realm of human experience. This is the level of truth that lies beyond the word, beyond meaning. Looking at magick from the perspective of its being about the magician’s relationship to meaning, to the word, can help us bring into focus questions about ethics, which are really difficult to grapple with, I think.

If magick is about our relationship to the word, to truth, then what about our relationship to the good, which is where ethics resides, perhaps? I think this is one of the realities about spiritual practice, magical practice, that people really struggle with, which is our ethics is something that we have to bring to the practice ourselves. Our practice doesn’t create that for us. It doesn’t come with an ethical framework at all.

Magic, spirituality, is the practice of bringing ourselves in relationship to truth, whereas ethics is the practice of bringing ourselves into relationship with the good. They are two different sets of practices, and there’s no reason why we shouldn’t bring them into relationship with each other. But I think it’s a fact that developing a relationship to truth won’t reveal to us necessarily how we develop a relationship to the good.

I think I was really lucky in that the first encounter I had with a guru was Andrew Cohen. This was around the mid-2000s and at that time he had a reputation for being highly awakened and being able to transmit experiences of his awakening to other people. And Alan Chapman and myself at the time, we went to one of his talks, just to see what he was about, and we didn’t take the claims that he could transmit his enlightenment to people too seriously, but both of us were both really taken by surprise when after going to the talk we both started to have really vivid, intense awakening experiences, apparently as a consequence of just being in his proximity. And if that sounds a bit incredible and too much to believe, then that was exactly how it seemed to us as well at the time!

But what was also apparent to us was that although Andrew Cohen seemed highly awakened and was able to transmit that to other people, there was definitely something “off” about him. He wasn’t giving off a vibe of being essentially a nice person to be around. And that was clear to myself and Alan, at least. And indeed, a few years later all these revelations came out from students of Andrew Cohen talking about how they’ve been abused in various ways, and all of this can be found written about on the internet. And Andrew Cohen himself admitted to this and withdrew from his role as a guru.

As I was saying, I just think I was incredibly lucky to have early on an experience of somebody who was evidently deeply in relationship with the truth, someone for whom the proximity of the non-dual was so intense that it kind of spilled out of him onto other people, but at the same time it was evident that, as a human being, he wasn’t someone who I would want to have as a friend, or even as a colleague.

It’s pretty clear to me that a magician’s relationship to the word, to truth, doesn’t necessarily reflect at all on their relationship to the good, to goodness. We tend to assume that spiritual practices by necessity are in themselves good – ethically good – and that they lead to the development in us of goodness. But they don’t. That’s the reason why the Buddha taught that the first practice and the last practice is morality. You practice morality at the beginning, whilst you’re doing the spiritual stuff, becoming awakened, and you practice morality at the end of that also, after that process has reached some sort of development.

As magicians we have to bring with us the ethical framework in which we perform the practices. The practices don’t do that for us. That’s our responsibility. Our ethics is a reflection of who we are, not a reflection of the practices that we happen to be doing, and I think confusion around this issue gets played out in what today is called “cancel culture”. The assumption here is that if someone’s relationship to goodness is not all that it could be, then their relationship to the word won’t be either. And I’m thinking of debates at the moment around Crowley. His ethical conduct, at times, was certainly not all it could have been, and the ethical framework of his era that he was operating in feels these days somewhat distant from where we would like to be now, I think. And there has been debate about whether a form of Thelema – Crowley’s magical system – would be preferable that somehow didn’t have Crowley, the man, front and centre.

And then there’s a figure such as Julius Evola, who quite openly espoused fascism, although he tried to wriggle out of that to some extent, and who was quite openly racist and sexist and whose ideas have more recently been taken up by magical practitioners of the alt-right. I think it’s understandable if people don’t want to touch with a barge pole an intellectual pedigree like that. But at the same time his books on Buddhism, on Tantra, and his earlier writings on magick, produced with a group of cohorts, known as the UR Group – these demonstrate that he knew what magick is, how it works, and had a highly developed relationship to truth. But, taking his book on Buddhism as an example, look at what he did with that. That book sets out really clearly, vividly, what awakening is and how it’s attained, but for Evola, awakening is about giving yourself an edge over everybody, about using it to your advantage and being able to dominate other people through it and proving your superiority over them.

So, I think Evola had a really good grip on truth, on how things are, but he approached that from and put it into a perspective that was totally horrendous, totally twisted, and cruel and irresponsible. There are plenty of decent writers on magick, so you don’t have to read Evola, but at the same time, if you do, there are ideas of real value there. He can be read profitably for his relationship to the truth, but I wouldn’t bother reading him for his relationship to the good. Because he doesn’t have much of a relationship to the good.

A person’s ethics reflect on them, but what reflects on their relationship to the truth is their word. It’s the word of the magus that’s the valuable bit when we approach their teachings. Their relationship to goodness, on the other hand, may or may not be useful to us. Crowley, Evola, Jesus, the Buddha: they all had quite different relationships to goodness and to truth. Their word can help us awaken to truth, but none of them can make us a good person or a bad person. That’s up to us. That’s our responsibility. They might have laid down some rules that we might decide to follow, but following rules isn’t what makes someone an ethical person. Anyone can follow rules. Nazis were very good at following rules. Our relationship to goodness is a separate practice from our magical practice.

The word of the Buddha was anatta, “no self”; and the word of Jesus Christ was agape, “love”; and the word of Crowley was thelema, “will”; and the word of Evola, I think, was arya, which means “nobility”. All of these words point us towards the truth in different ways, but none of them necessarily makes us a better person. We saw what Evola did with the word of the Buddha, anatta, “no self”. We saw where he decided to take that.

In 2008 a word presented itself to me in a dream, which I’ve taken as my word as a magus, and over the years I’ve tried to use that word as a way of thinking about what kind of lies and falsehoods I’m telling myself and other people through the way that I approach magick. I wrote about the experience of finding the word in A Desert of Roses, but what I’ll say about it here is that the word is elephairo, a Greek word which means, basically, “to deceive”. But this word, elephairo, has a particular set of connotations. It appears in Homer’s Odyssey in a passage towards the end.

So, Odysseus has been wandering around for – I can’t remember how many years – trying to find his way home to his wife, Penelope. And she’s waiting for him patiently at home and the house is full of suitors, who are just trying to get off with Penelope in the absence of Odysseus. And one day she takes in a stranger into the house, gives him shelter. She doesn’t know it, but it’s Odysseus, her husband. He’s come back. She doesn’t recognize him, and they get into conversation together and Penelope says to him:

Stranger, dreams verily are baffling and unclear of meaning and in no wise do they find fulfilment in all things for men. For two are the gates of shadowy dreams and one is fashioned of horn, and one of ivory. Those dreams that pass through the gate of sawn ivory deceive men, bringing words that find no fulfilment. But those that come forth through the gate of polished horn bring true issues to pass when any mortal sees them. But in my case, it was not from thence methinks that my strange dream came.

Homer, The Odyssey

Now, that strange dream to which she refers was what she’d dreamt the night before: that her husband Odysseus had returned home. So, she’s saying that she thinks this dream was false: it’s not going to come true, and it came to her through this so-called gate of ivory rather than through the gate of horn through which true dreams that actually come to pass are sent. And what’s at work here is some totally untranslatable pun in Greek. So, the word in Greek for “ivory” is elephas, which is where we get our word “elephant” from, and this sounds like the Greek word for “to deceive”, elephairo. Hence this idea of a gate of ivory through which deceptive dreams come, dreams that aren’t true. And the gate of horn comes from the fact that the Greek word for “horn” sounds like the Greek word for “to fulfil”, so dreams that fulfil themselves come through the gate of horn. Totally untranslatable, but the upshot of it being this image that dreams come through one of two gates: either the gate of ivory, eliphas, elephairo, which deceive, or the gate of horn, which means they fulfil themselves, they’re true.

And Virgil uses this same image in the Aeneid, when Aeneas returns from his visit to the underworld back to the waking world. Virgil states that Aeneas came back to the waking world through the gate of ivory – in other words the visions that he’d had down there in the underworld come into the waking world via the gate of ivory, the gate through which deceptive dreams pass. And for centuries scholars have puzzled about this. Why it was that Aeneas’s visions of the underworld are said by Virgil to come into waking consciousness through the gate of ivory that brings deception?

So, bound up in this word that I received in a dream – and I had no conception of what it meant when it arrived – but bound up with it are all these notions of truth and falsity, and dreams and reality, and all sorts of paradoxes because where that word appeared in The Odyssey, we have Penelope talking to a stranger, telling the stranger that her dream of her husband coming back to her from the night before was a false dream – is in fact true, because the stranger standing before her is her husband in disguise. And then the paradox here of what is actually false is not the dream, but the reality, the disguise that’s the false bit, not the dream. The dream is true. And also in The Aeneid, Aeneas’s encounters in the underworld, which are life-changing, powerfully affecting visions that shape his destiny – these come into the waking world supposedly through the gate of ivory, deception.

The Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges offered an interpretation of why Virgil had Aeneas return through the gate of ivory. He suggested that, similar to the situation that we talked about in The Odyssey, that Aeneas passes through the gates of ivory because he’s actually entering the world of dreams at that point – i.e., returning back to reality. Virgil was suggesting, Borges hints, that what we call the waking world, everyday reality, is actually the false bit, the deceiving bit. So, again, it’s not the visions that are false, it’s the world that they’re brought back into which is the illusion.

So, this word also appeared to me in a dream, and I’ve taken it as my word as a magus, and I use it to meditate on the type of misconceptions and falsehoods that I bring into the world through my word and my practice. And this happened before I’d even read Crowley’s paper on the magus and the word of the magus, but my word, I think, is elephairo, “to deceive”, and it’s related to this idea of the gate of ivory through which false dreams pass and often, I think, dreams do feel to me more important than reality, more real than reality. And I love to get lost in dreams and images and I try to use these as a means of navigating my way to truth, but I love the qualities of dreams and images in and for themselves also.

So, my word as a magus is elephairo, and the aperture through which I speak is the gate of ivory, and maybe this podcast is my ivory tower. But I hope it’s been of some interest and value to you, and I hope that we speak again soon. Take care.


Transcript of Episode #104 of the OEITH podcast, Healing Dreams from the Temple of Asklepios, exploring the nature of dreams, their potential for healing, the diversity of mental life, and the ancient Greek god Asklepios and the practice of ritual sleep.

I was at the old house, in the lounge, and a young white cat suddenly walked into the room and was heading towards the fireplace where there was a lit fire. It was not our cat, and I found myself throwing cushions at it, but then I realised it looked so weak and frail that I was worried that if I hit it with a cushion, you know, it might hurt it. And it was still heading towards the fire, and then I was worried that the flames might kill it, if it walked into the flames. So I got up, and I tried to catch it before it could come to any harm, but then I saw that somehow it had wriggled past the flames and had got into a room behind the fireplace, a forgotten room, an old, musty kind of space which somehow I half remembered, and then it felt as if somehow I’d known all along that that room was there, so I wriggled past the fire as well and got inside. But then I realized, completely unexpectedly, that there was even more here. Even more space beyond this little room. Vast areas. And by kind of going around a corner and twisting around a bit, suddenly I found myself in the open air in this great big place: massive places, looking as if, somehow, they were in a process of being renovated, or being prepared for something. They were public spaces, and they looked as if they’d been designed for many people to assemble there for some purpose or other.  In particular, I saw a large, open, rectangular arena, which had a boundary but not walls. It was some kind of strange, floating barrier made of very fine, dark wood. And then I remembered the white cat, which was the reason I’d found myself in this place in the first place, and I didn’t know where it had gone, but I was sure it would be okay. I was sure it could look after itself. So, I returned back the way I’d come in – went back into the forgotten room, and then through the fireplace, and then back into the lounge, and then I went into the kitchen. And my mother was there, and she was getting ready for a long journey that she was about to take, a long journey away from home, and I mentioned the secret room to her and the spaces that lay beyond, and I asked her was she aware that they were there. And she carried on getting ready. She didn’t really look at me when she replied, but she just told me that it had to stay a secret – the rooms needed to stay secret, the space beyond needed to stay secret, until the work on the façade at the front was finished and everything was then properly joined up and ready. Everything had to stay secret, until all that work around the front had been done and only then could the public spaces and the secret room be used once again.

As you might have guessed, that was a dream.

In common with a lot of people at the moment, I suspect, things have felt quite difficult. I’ve been feeling pretty low, and the thing about that dream was when I woke up from it, suddenly it felt like everything had changed. I felt really lightened, energized, full of motivation, and feeling hopeful, in complete contrast to how I’d been feeling in the days before. So, what I thought I’d set out to explore in this episode is the healing power of dreams.

Sometimes a dream feels important. Sometimes a dream feels huge. It can have an impact on us and no matter how we choose to look at that, perhaps it shouldn’t be underestimated, because if there’s a change in mood then that can have real knock-on effects and suddenly all sorts of things can become possible and all sorts of things might change. Dreams sometimes enable us to arrive at a particular experience of truth, and because it’s a dream that truth is not necessarily vested in consensus reality. In that sense, then, there is a magical dimension to dreaming. Being aware and focusing on our dreams becomes in itself a magical practice.

How is it that a dream could heal, though? How is it that a dream could change our state of mind for the better? I could think of plenty of arguments that would run counter to that point of view. The consensus view on dreams is that they’re fantastical, insubstantial. Dreams are often placed in contradistinction to reality. So, consequently, assigning any weight or value to something experienced in or arising from a dream is regarded with suspicion. You could even argue that dreams aren’t experiences at all, because we’re unconscious when we have them and, generally, unless we’re having a lucid dream, we only become aware that a dream is a dream in retrospect. In a sense, you could say that we only really dream when we’re awake because that’s when we recognize that whatever we were aware of was a dream. What you could argue is that whatever you might take from a dream is not based in actual experience; it’s not deriving from an actual experience, so therefore it’s absurd to assume that a dream provides us with anything beneficial or anything non-beneficial. But as you probably suspect, none of those views which I hold.

Before that dream that I reported at the beginning came along, I think a number of things had contributed to feelings of depression. First of all, there was stuff around work, and the other issues playing on my mind (and again I don’t think I’m alone in this) to do with the general state of the world these days, and not having any realistic hopes of change. It was all feeling a bit pointless and, likewise, the difficulties these days that surround trying to have any kind of debate or conversation. It’s become very difficult for people to disagree with one another, without one or both sides perceiving that as hatred, as a kind of existential threat, so I’d ended up feeling as if there was nowhere to go nowhere to turn and I was just going to have to endure it, with no hope of change.

But thank God, that dream came along.

So, in the dream I’m back in my parents’ house, as if I’d never left, and that strange, little white cat walks in and I can’t get rid of it by throwing cushions at it, because I might kill it, it’s so frail and it’s walking right towards the fire. So, I think I’ve got to get up and save it. But maybe it’s not as puny and helpless as it looks, because it knows a way; it gets around the fire and goes into that secret room, which I kind of half-knew was always there. It’s nothing new. It’s familiar from childhood. It’s basically the personal unconscious, full of repressed, old mouldy stuff from childhood and the puny little white cat is my depression, I think, and it has led me into this space beyond the fire.

But beyond that secret room is where things get really interesting: a vast, open public space. This is maybe an image of the collective unconscious. But it’s in an odd kind of state in the dream: there’s nobody about; there’s this sense that it’s being renovated or prepared. It’s an odd kind of collective unconscious that doesn’t have anybody in it, or anybody around inside it, but it was nevertheless built on a huge scale, and it had a kind of classical air about it. And the thing I loved about it most was it was a civic space, but not commercial space. It was built on the scale of a shopping centre, but it wasn’t a shopping centre. There was nothing capitalist going on here. It was all about shared social spaces where people could come together for cultural events, for art, for lectures, for discussions, and it was on a massive scale. That rectangular arena that appeared in the dream: it was like a kind of football stadium, but not for sport. Imagine a football stadium for lectures! It had that kind of an atmosphere about it. Well, the cat’s entirely vanished by this point. Given the scale of this space the cat vanishes into insignificance, and it will be fine. It can wander around. Its needs will be met.

So, I make my way back into the house and then go into the kitchen and meet my mum. She’s 80 now, so she knows a thing or two, and in the dream, she tells me the way it is. Maybe that collective space will be ready one day, but now’s not the time. That space, it was non-commercial, non-capitalist, it was for people to come together and do cultural things and have debates. When that happens that’s going to be really amazing, but there’s no chance of that happening anytime soon. That is a space that our civilization in its current state is in no sense capable of making use of, like my mum says in the dream. It’s going to have to stay a secret until the work on the front has been done. When the work on the front is finished then, yes, people will be able to go in.

That doesn’t really make sense. That huge space is there and waiting and it doesn’t really require work on the facade of the building to be completed for that space to be used. But that’s just the way it is. Everything will have to be joined up at the front before everybody can enter into that space freely, but I know the way in there. And now, you know the way in there too, because I’ve just told you. We’ll just have to keep it a secret for now.

What the dream was basically showing me was that that wonderful space behind the fire cannot be inhabited by our civilization in its present form. It’s not going to happen. Work at the front needs to be done first, and there was no mention of a deadline for that. But that’s absolutely no barrier to someone who knows that space is there. Everyone who knows that space is there is free to go in it, and you don’t necessarily need a white cat to show you the way in.

I hope that this podcast and other things like it might perform the same function and save you the trouble of having to get depressed and having to have a dream point you in the right direction. Now, I’m aware that what I presented just there was an interpretation of the dream, and although an interpretation can be useful to give our intellect some kind of a handle on what a dream is doing, working with dreams, encountering dreams, I think, doesn’t hinge upon always needing to provide an interpretation. Whatever the dream is doing happens perfectly naturally and fully without an interpretation being given, and that’s the thing that struck me most of all about that dream I had, that it did something to me without me understanding. That feeling of lightness and optimism and renewed motivation was there as soon as I woke. I didn’t need to reflect on the dream or understand its symbolism in order to get to that place. It gave me that. It did that for me, and that’s why I think it’s possible to have healing dreams, and that’s why I disagree with those positions that I described earlier towards dreams: the idea that they’re just mental noise or that they’re not really experiences, they’re just narratives that we form after the fact.

I think a better way of looking at dreams is some kind of psychical process. I think I view them as a kind of movement of the soul, like the soul shifting itself into a more comfortable position, maybe, and perhaps that is something that we can’t experience in any way, but maybe that doesn’t matter.

I think that some aspects of what we might call “soul” are things that aren’t experiences, but that doesn’t mean that they’re not processes that have an important bearing upon our lives, and what shape our experiences might take within that. The mind, the soul, is an incredibly diverse arena. I think it embraces all sorts of different things. Sometimes there can be a tendency to regard the contents of our minds as made of all the same stuff; “it’s all mental stuff”: you know, that classic Cartesian dichotomy between mind and body, as if there’s only those two sorts of things.

When we look into our mind we find a kind of zoo, I think; of all sorts of highly diverse phenomena: perceptions, images, sensations, experiences, thoughts, memories – these things are all very distinct from each other, or can be, sometimes, and all seem to be performing different functions and presenting in massively diverse ways, and appreciating and understanding that diversity can be really important work, magical work, because it can shift our understanding of the reality of what’s really going on in our minds and the relationship we have with it.

Just a few examples to illustrate, maybe. Intrusive thoughts. People experiencing intrusive thoughts. And sometimes, when you really look at this with somebody, what’s actually being experienced is not really thoughts, but feelings. There’s a lot more variety in thinking than there is in feeling. It’s possible to think of absolutely anything and to be creative in thinking, but that’s not so much the case with feeling. You can’t invent an emotion, for instance, and it’s not very easy to feel things at will in contrast to the way that it’s possible to think whatever you want to think at will, to a good degree, so if we find ourselves having thoughts that feel that they’re coming not because we’ve willed them, and if there’s not much variety to those thoughts, but it seems to be the same or similar thoughts coming back again and again, then we might label those intrusive thoughts and we might start to feel that there’s something not quite right going on here. But you don’t really hear people talking about “intrusive feelings”, do you? It’s accepted that feelings to some degree force themselves upon us, and we don’t regard that as pathological. Thoughts and feelings are very different things. They both appear in the mind and yet they’re very distinct, diverse, and appreciating the nature of that difference enables us to start to get a handle on what might really be going on.

When someone’s experiencing so-called intrusive thoughts, these might not be thoughts at all. They might be feelings, or they might be thoughts that form a kind of surface to feelings. The same feelings are coming back again and again and they’re triggering certain thoughts, but we’re only really aware of the thoughts, or maybe what we have here is some kind of complex combination of thoughts and feelings that are arising together, or maybe it’s even some sort of hybrid of the two. But in any case, if it can be recognized that these thoughts are actually feelings, or mixed with feelings, then what can be helpful is to start to deal with them as if they were feelings rather than thoughts.

If we arrive at a thought that we don’t like then one way of counteracting it is to think it through and arrive at another thought, but if what we’re dealing with is actually a feeling then we won’t be able to think it through, because it’s a feeling. You can’t talk yourself out of feeling something. Thinking something through requires bringing attention to whatever it is that you’re thinking about, which gives the thoughts energy. But if you’re dealing with a feeling instead, and you’re having a feeling that you don’t much care for, probably the worst thing you can do is to give that attention. When we’re dealing with feelings that we would prefer not to have the best thing to do is to withdraw attention from them, to the extent that we can, and usually they pass, and it seems counter-intuitive at first, when dealing with intrusive thoughts, but often the best thing to do in the face of intrusive thoughts is nothing. Just do nothing. They can’t be reasoned with or thought through, because their nature is to a large extent the nature of feelings.

Thoughts are interesting things. Thoughts have all sorts of strange qualities of their very own, and there’s maybe a bias within our culture to regard everything that arises in the mind as some form of thought, and maybe there’s something in the nature of thinking itself that tends us towards this. As a contrast to thinking, let’s think about imagining for a moment. So, suppose I asked you to imagine Sigourney Weaver, for instance. Now it’s possible that instead of imagining Sigourney Weaver, you might bring up an image of Susan Sarandon instead, let’s say. If we’re imagining something then it’s possible to confuse one thing with another: that we might intend to imagine “a” but we end up imagining “b”, and we realize this later. The weird thing about thinking is that this doesn’t apply in the case of thoughts; a thought always hits its mark without fail, and this is something we take for granted we probably don’t notice it much of the time. But it’s a really strange thing. So, although you might imagine Susan Sarandon when you were trying to imagine Sigourney Weaver, you can’t think about Sigourney Weaver without actually thinking about Sigourney Weaver. In the same way you can’t think about the number five, for instance, without actually thinking about the number five and not accidentally thinking about the number six.

When you think about something, that thought always hits its mark. Now, that’s not to say the lines of thought or the conclusions that we draw from thoughts might not be wrong sometimes. Of course not. But the thought of a thing is always actually about that thing, whereas other types of phenomena we encounter in the mind don’t have that infallibility about them.

Images, as we’ve seen, can fail to hit their mark. Memories, of course, are fallible. Perceptions can mislead us. But if we’re thinking about something then we know it is actually that thing that we’re thinking about and not something else, and because of that this gives thoughts a certain objective quality about them. This characteristic of thoughts almost makes them seem as if they’re part of the objective fabric of the world. In a way, there’s an actuality about them, which makes it seem as if human beings thinking are, through their thinking, making the fabric of reality. Sort of like termites building their mounds.

There’s a sense that thoughts construct, create, build, and endure, in contrast to feelings, perhaps, which, like we said, pass away more readily and lack variety or creativity. They do, however, make life worth living – or not – so don’t go thinking that I’m privileging thoughts over feelings! Not at all. The point I wanted to make from this digression is that we often tend to look at human existence as a dichotomy between material and mental, body and mind, and it’s easy to be seduced by that into the idea that mind stuff is all one kind of stuff, but actually it’s lots of different kinds of things, and I think it’s useful to take this approach into our exploration of dreams.

Now, the example of a dream that I’ve been discussing: I gave an interpretation of it, and that interpretation was a Jungian interpretation that included Jungian terms: the personal unconscious, the collective unconscious. And I’ve presented it as a healing dream, and that’s quite a Jungian approach to dreaming as well. I suggested that I was feeling depressed, and the dream had presented something that compensated for that depression, and that’s a very Jungian notion of what dreams do: this idea that, originating in the unconscious, they present something that’s in opposition to or counteracting whatever our conscious attitude might be at a given moment.

But other types of interpretation of that dream are possible, of course, because there are lots of different ways of interpreting dreams and different writers, thinkers, have adopted different approaches to dreaming.

Freud, of course, has been very influential in his approach to dreams. He regarded dreams as the disguised fulfilment of a repressed sexual wish. And then there was Fritz Perls, the gestalt psychologist, who took an approach to dreams seeing each element in a dream as a representation of a part of the self. I think it’s evident that these theories of dreams are in conflict with each other. They contradict each other. But at the same time, over the years, I’ve come to the conclusion that all of them are true, in one way or another, and the reason that they can all be true to some extent, even though they’re often at odds with one another, is this diversity of the inner world. It’s my impression that you get different types of dreams, that not all dreams are alike, that they’re structurally quite different, that they perform different sorts of processes, and for that reason sometimes a Jungian interpretation is more illuminating than a Freudian one, and sometimes vice versa.

The dream I’ve presented, I’ve suggested, was transformative. It did something. It changed me. It healed me. The Freudian approach towards dreams, on the other hand, is very, very different. As was mentioned, a Freudian dream is an unconscious repressed sexual wish that’s been dressed up in a way that enables it to come to awareness. In the dream, at night, we’re asleep, we’re unconscious, the defences that we use to protect our ego during the daytime are less active, and a dream is a way in which parts of our self that we’d rather not acknowledge find a means of expression.

Earlier, we were thinking about the difference between thoughts and feelings, and there’s a kind of analogy between thoughts and feelings and between Jungian dreams and Freudian dreams. Jungian dreams perhaps are a bit more like thinking: they are creative; they perform some sort of work; they have an objective. Freudian dreams, on the other hand, are a bit more like feelings: they’re a bit more affective; they are an outpouring of desire; and, from a certain perspective, they can seem quite monotonous. In fact, Freud suggests in The Interpretation of Dreams that, despite appearances to the contrary, dreams can’t create anything. They don’t reason. They don’t originate. They’re merely the expression of a wish.

One of my favourite dreams in Freud’s collection of dreams in his writings is one of a woman, a patient of Freud. She comes to Freud during a session one day, and describes this dream and tells him that she dreamt the previous night, of – I can’t remember what it was – but something like going to dinner with her mother-in-law. She doesn’t like her mother-in-law. Going to dinner there is the last thing she wants to do. So, she triumphantly says to Freud: “You tell me that dreams are expressions of wishes. Well, obviously not. Because I don’t want to go to dinner with my mother-in-law.” Freud reflects on this for a moment, and says to her: “Well, what can I do? You’re right. That’s what you dreamt last night, and we both know that you wouldn’t want to go there. However, what’s finding expression in the dream is not anything to do with you wishing to go to your mother-in-law’s. It’s about you wishing that I was wrong. You dreamt that dream because it’s a dream that proves I’m wrong.” And Freud mentions that there was material coming up in the analysis with this patient at the time that she would very much have preferred that Freud was wrong about.

I know that kind of Freudian reasoning drives a lot of people insane, but if you work with dreams for a period of time sometimes that approach does seem to be valid. Years ago, I remember, one night I had a dream. It was quite a strange one and it puzzled me for a while after waking. In the dream I saw an icy landscape: snow, ice, and a cold, cold wind blowing, and superimposed over this landscape was a grid of a crossword puzzle, and there was one of the clues that remained to be filled in, and the one clue remaining said: “Greek hero, eight letters”. And I looked at the grid, and immediately in the dream to my mind came the solution: Hercules. It was obviously Hercules, and when I woke up, I was struck by this because at the time I was reading Freud and thinking about dreams a lot, and his assertion that nothing creative happens in a dream. And I was thinking to myself, well, how was it that I could have a dream and, in that dream, work out the answer to a crossword clue and for that to be obviously correct? Surely, I’d worked that out in the dream. I’d done something creative. I’d engaged in a process of thinking rather than just the blind expression of a wish, and this puzzled me for several days until one afternoon I had to put some clothes in the airing cupboard, and it was a shared house I was living in at the time, and I went upstairs, and I put the clothes in the airing cupboard, and then I caught sight of the boiler. There was a brand name on the boiler, in big letters that I’d never really noticed before. And the brand name was: Hercules.

Now, like I said I was living in a shared house at the time and one of the guys who lived there was a bit of a tyrant and we always used to have arguments about putting the heating on. I mean, he was always quite stingy about spending money, and he was always very resistant when one of the rest of us wanted to turn the heating on. The night I’d had that dream, I realized, had been a really cold night, and again we hadn’t been allowed to turn the heating on and I hadn’t been warm enough in bed, tossing and turning a bit, because I was so cold. So, there was indeed a wish finding expression in that dream on a number of different levels. On the most surface level, the wish to be warm. The solution to the puzzle in the dream was Hercules and indeed Hercules, in the shape of the boiler, was the solution to the problem of being cold. And maybe, on a deeper, more unconscious level, there’s also something there about needing, wanting a Greek hero to overrule the tyrant in our shared house who prevented us from turning on the boiler. There’s other stuff in there as well. In Freudian dreams everything is rooted in the personal life of the dreamer. What appears in a dream is not so much mystical, universal symbols, but links between ideas that are often very mundane, very personal. As I mentioned, I was studying dreams and a psychoanalytic approach to them at the time, and there’s a famous quotation from the psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, who once commented that people training to be analysts should do crossword puzzles as a way of getting to grips with how the unconscious works. At that time, I think, I was wishing and hoping that I could discover something that would indicate that dreams were something more creative than Freud suggests, and maybe that’s how the image of the crossword came into the dream, and the whole idea that in that dream I was accomplishing something. Something creative. Something original. In short, then, it seems to me that there are all sorts of different dreams, and all the theories that we have about them are true to some extent, because maybe different sorts of dreams are indicative of different sorts of processes, or different sorts of levels of consciousness maybe. An anxiety dream, for instance – those sorts of dreams where we’re worried about something and basically we lie in bed, not quite awake, not quite asleep, just reliving whatever it is that we’re anxious about – maybe something like that is a very low level of dreaming, hardly removed from daily experience at all, and maybe Freudian dreams come from a level beyond that, perhaps where we’re more asleep and there’s an opportunity for things that are beyond our daily awareness to come into the dream, but this tends to be fairly personal, mundane stuff, although that’s not to say that there isn’t material here that isn’t valuable to us. And maybe Jungian dreams come from a level beyond that, where we can connect with processes and ideas beyond personal experience, from a transpersonal realm. And, of course, there’s maybe many other types and levels of dreaming beyond this. There’s lucid dreams, of course, and out-of-body experiences, and things that we might describe as visions, intense immersive experiences that can seem like we’re transported to a different realm. You know, sometimes this can happen when we’re awake and meditating, or if we’re in trance states. It’s very important, I think, simply to be open to this idea that dreams can perform all sorts of processes and open up onto all sorts of different levels of consciousness, and that somewhere among all of these are dreams which heal, because maybe they affect some sort of shift in the structure or position of the soul that makes an adjustment to something that previously was causing us pain.

Thanks to Freud’s interest in dreams, dreams, of course, came to occupy quite a position in therapy and psychoanalysis. Dreams can bring into therapy issues that the client might not quite be aware of or look at in the same way when they’re awake, and in that sense, they can be useful and can lead to insights that might be healing, might be helpful. In my own therapy I’ve talked about my dreams quite a lot and when I first started working as a counsellor I was surprised and a bit disappointed to discover that clients didn’t seem to talk about their dreams at all as a matter of course. I found this quite frustrating sometimes. What I tend to do now, depending on the person and the situation, is just to ask outright if clients have had any notable dreams recently, and I’d say that probably seven times out of ten, if you choose the right moment to ask, that would actually elicit some interesting dream material that moves things along in some way.

The idea that dreams can provide us with something helpful, something healing, goes back way, way earlier than Freud, as you might guess. I came across an interesting book a couple of years ago by Guy Dargert called The Snake in the Clinic, and in this book, he attempts to trace the earliest possible origins of psychotherapy, and it seems to trace all the way back to the ancient Greeks and the somewhat beguiling and mysterious figure of the god Asklepios, who is also the god of medicine in general.

Asklepios was said to be the son of Apollo, who was the god of light, and the sun, and harmony, and reason. His mother was a human princess, and the myth is a little bit vague on what happened with Asklepios’s mother, but she died in childbirth or soon after his birth, and Apollo entrusted him to the care of Chiron, the centaur, who is another amazingly rich figure in Greek mythology. Chiron is the the healer par excellence, but he’s an ancient, chthonic figure. He’s not human. He’s a centaur. There’s something very nature-based about his approach to healing, something magical, and part of his healing power comes from the fact that Chiron himself is wounded. He nurses a constant wound. It’s almost as if Asklepios brings an extra dimension to medicine and healing, a human dimension that includes that Apollonian light and striving for harmony and reason, and Guy Dargert in his discussion of Asklepios mentions how statues of Asklepios would usually depict a figure that wasn’t distant and vengeful like the majority of the Olympian gods and goddesses, but usually had an expression that looked compassionate or full of emotion. He usually had long hair and a beard, and he was venerated for a long, long time. The Romans took up the figure of Asklepios and traces of him have been found all over the outposts of the Roman Empire, and it seems as if Asklepios may have been a strong influence upon the imagery and iconography of Christ.

Asklepios, god of medicine. (The Glypotek, Copenhagen.)

According to Dargert, it wasn’t until the church had finally put an end to polytheism that representations of Christ showed him with long hair and a beard. Apparently before that he was often shown as a shaven youth with short hair, so it might be that the elements of Asklepios got transferred over into what we recognize today as the figure of Christ. Furthermore, apparently the supplicants of Asklepios would refer to him as “savior”, and in the Greek myths Asklepios finally meets his end when he’s killed by Hades, the god of the underworld, in revenge for Asklepios raising the dead.

Another aspect of Asklepios that has survived to the present day is his emblem: his staff. The physicians of Ancient Greece were itinerants. They used to wander around, ministering to the sick wherever they felt they were needed. So, the staff symbolized their wandering nature, and around the staff of Asklepios is entwined a snake. The symbolism of the snake, of course, is very ancient and subtle. Snakes have an apparent power to renew themselves by shedding their skins. They make their homes underground, which associates them with the element of earth, and perhaps their tunnels were thought to provide them with access to the underworld, to the subterranean gods.

Jung, in The Red Book writes about snakes and the way they move, the way they slither left and right, and the sense in which snakes represent transitions between opposites, moving left and right in order to move forwards. What the snake might be taken to represent in the emblem of Asklepios’s staff, then, could be ideas about regeneration, transformation, connections with the underworld, and deep animal and vegetative energies. And, of course, Asklepios’s staff is still the emblem of the medical profession to this very day although, curiously, the profession itself seems to have got a bit confused about its own emblem and often it’s the caduceus of Hermes that you’ll see on the side of ambulances or on doctors’ letterheads. This is perhaps ironic. As Dargert points out, Hermes was not the god of doctors and healers, but rather a trickster god sometimes associated with thieves and deceivers.

Some of the most intriguing passages in Dargert’s book are about what happened in the temples of Asklepios, of which there were many in the Roman world, in all sorts of different places. Supplicants would come to the temple of Asklepios when they were seeking to heal themselves. The temples would usually be in out-of-the-way places, so it would be necessary to make a kind of pilgrimage to get there. They would often be large, beautiful, impressive buildings. They would be away from the centres of population, where there was plenty of fresh air and pure, running water. Dargert suggests that we would probably now conceive of these places as a kind of combination of a hospital, a health spa, and a spiritual retreat centre all rolled up into one.

You wouldn’t be allowed in if the physicians thought that you were likely to die or be close to death, nor would you be allowed in if you were pregnant. So, the emphasis in these places was very much focused upon the self and upon self-renewal. There would be a theatre, and the plays that were put on were designed to elicit deep emotional responses, and they’d be presented in a specific order. So, first of all there would be tragedies, followed by farcical, rude, rough-humoured kinds of plays, and then finally in the sequence would come the comedies, the idea being to elicit from the supplicants a means of expressing and accessing a wide range of emotions. There was magnificent architecture and art and statuary in these places. Lots of statues of the gods. Devotion to the gods would be encouraged, perhaps as a means of connecting people with those sorts of archetypal energies. But after a period of physical and psychological purging, the physicians would decide at a certain point whether the supplicant was ready for the main feature of what happened in these places, which was an encounter with the god Asklepios himself.

You would be led into a place called the abaton, which translates as “the place not to be entered unbidden”, and here there will be a chamber in which there will be a larger than life-size statue of Asklepios. And also, in this place there would be snakes roaming freely, and dogs. The snakes that were used would be non-venomous varieties of a kind that grow to a big size, but aren’t poisonous, and you could make offerings of honey cakes to the snakes, and the dogs roaming around would lick wounds or be there for people to pet them or cuddle up with them – sort of therapy dogs, basically.

So, you’re in this space with the dogs and the snakes and the big statue of Asklepios, and it’s all dim and it’s all filled with incense and there are attendants walking around, dressed as Asklepios or as his daughters, and their attending to the supplicants. And then eventually it’s time for the ritual sleep. Everybody lies down in this temple space on a couch, and you sleep in this special, atmospheric, strange place, and you hope that the god will send you a dream. A special dream. A dream of healing. And this dream might take the form of an encounter with Asklepios himself, or one of his sacred animals – a snake or a dog. And in the dream one of these figures might tell you what you needed to do to heal yourself. The figure in the dream might prescribe a cure or a remedy or some other kind of message or advice, or you might have some other kind of dream, in which case one of the physicians on hand would try to interpret it as best they could and tell you what the meaning of it was and how you should proceed.

And after this dream you might feel cured straight away, or it might then be time to follow the advice in the dream, or you might feel somewhat better. But if you didn’t have a dream or if you didn’t feel better at all then the physicians might recommend that you stay a while longer and come back to the abaton and try again. And if you were feeling better then some kind of payment would be due at this point. This would generally be cash, depending on the means of the pilgrim. Apparently, a sliding scale of fees was operated, and additionally it was traditional to make a votive offering to Asklepios, to compose a song or poem in his praise, to write a little account of the benefit that you’d received and offer praise to the god.

These places lasted for centuries, which suggests they must have been of some use. They had all gone by the end of the fourth century, due to their suppression by Christianity. But, as we’ve seen, the figure of Christ perhaps owes an iconographical debt to Asklepios.

The ancient Greeks didn’t have the knowledge of anatomy, of course, that would develop later, but that doesn’t mean they didn’t know anything about healing. What happened in the temple of Asklepios evidently seems designed to address the psychological dimensions of illness, disease. They seem designed simply to transplant people into an unusual environment that would take them out of what they were used to at home, give them an opportunity to express strong emotions, connect them with images of the divine, and give them an opportunity to dream, to really connect, perhaps, with what was going on within themselves. The ancient Greeks may not have had the knowledge to fix illnesses to the extent that medicine can achieve these days, but it seems they did have some kind of handle on what could make people feel better. They couldn’t tackle illness to the extent that is possible today by tackling it through the body, but it seems that they were able to tackle it through the mind. No matter what kind of suffering or disease we might be facing, if it’s possible to affect some change, some helpful change, in our state of mind regarding that then some kind of recovery to some degree may become possible. That’s what the temples of Asklepios seemed designed to set out to achieve.

But after the temples had vanished it was hundreds of years before dreams would feature again as a possible means of relieving distress, when Freud turned his attention to them and started to use dream interpretation as part of the technique of psychoanalysis.

These days, if you’re in search of a healing dream you might find it in therapy, but there’s nothing to stop you from creating your own temple of Asklepios. It could be depression or illness itself that shows you the way in, although hopefully that won’t be necessary. The way in is past the fireplace, the centre of our everyday life that always consumes our attention. It seems that there’s no way around that without harming yourself, but there is. You can wriggle past or through it and then you’re into that half-remembered place, that mouldy, mildewy room full of all those issues from the past. But then, if you twist and wriggle about, again you’ll find yourself outdoors in that vast, collective space that puts everything else into perspective.

As the poet Rumi puts it:

Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing,
there is a field. I’ll meet you there.
When the soul lies down in that grass,
the world is too full to talk about.
Ideas, language, even the phrase “each other”
doesn’t make any sense.

From Rumi, “The Great Wagon”.


Transcript of Episode #103 of the OEITH podcast, The Terrors of Awakening, exploring the potentially destabilising effects of awakening and the possible relationship of these to alienation abductions, MK Ultra, conspiracy theories, and more.

I remember very vividly that first awakening experience that I had in 2009. I had a regular meditation practice. I was sitting for about two hours a day. And I came down one morning to meditate and realized on sitting that something was different. Something was really different.

There was a new awareness. There was something in my mind that didn’t make any sense at all. It felt like almost as if a part of the external world was somehow inside the mind. There was something and it was indescribable: it wasn’t a thought; it wasn’t a sensation; it wasn’t an emotion; it wasn’t a concept; it was something beyond the mind entirely that somehow seemed to be in there, and I remember sitting, looking at this thing and thinking: How can I be aware of this? How can this even be possible?

In that moment I realized that, obviously, experiences of this kind were what people down the ages had described as “God”. There seemed no better word for it. It felt like I was in touch with something that was outside of material reality. It wasn’t me but somehow it was part of my awareness.

Other feelings came up as well, which was: What do I do with this? What the hell do I do now?

When I sat down that morning to meditate that experience just instantly made redundant everything that I had been trying to do. What was the point in sitting to meditate now that this was here, because before then, an experience like this was presumably what I’ve been trying to reach but now, now it was just there all of the time, blaring in my face, and it was disturbing and it was terrifying as well as amazing and incredible and filling me full of wonder, because where was I supposed to go now? What was I supposed to do? What was supposed to happen?

Somebody had once said to me, knowing that I was into awakening and enlightenment and all of that; they said to me once: “Well, what if you get enlightened and you don’t like it?” At the time I thought that was one of the most stupid things I’d ever heard anybody say. But then after that experience, that first awakening experience, suddenly it didn’t feel so stupid. There is something about experiences of awakening that – besides all the bliss, amazement, wonder, fusion with the divine, which those sorts of experiences can bring – is troubling, disturbing.

I find myself inclined to describe it as a kind of positive trauma. I like the way that those two words contradict the normal sense of things. Awakening experiences are deeply destabilizing, de-centring, but at the same time full of light and bliss and amazement. Does it make any sense at all to think that there might be such a thing as positive trauma?

Normally we take the view that trauma is a negative experience. But if it’s possible to frame trauma in a positive light, such as awakening experiences might suggest, then perhaps that takes us into some interesting realms.

There’s a famous moment in a television interview that Jung gave in 1959 when the interviewer asks him does he believe in God.

Interviewer: Do you now believe in God?

Jung: Now? Difficult to answer. I know. I needn’t – I don’t need to believe. I know.

The first time I ever heard that I was just struck by how arrogant Jung seemed, the fact that he was saying that he knew God existed. Could anyone have that certainty? Now, when I listen to that clip, it’s the silence as Jung struggles to find the answer to that question that I can hear. I can hear him trying to somehow put that experience that he’s had into words. He had already put it into words, however, in The Red Book, although it wasn’t published at the time, of course. I’m going to read the passages from The Red Book where he talks about his experience. And maybe keep in mind again that idea I’ve put forward of awakening as a kind of positive trauma… This is what Jung writes:

“Through uniting with the self, we reach the god. I must say this not with reference to the opinions of the ancients or this or that authority, but because I have experienced it. It has happened thus in me, and it certainly happened in a way that I neither expected nor wished for. The experience of the god in this form was unexpected and unwanted. I wish I could say it was a deception, and only too willingly would I disown this experience. But I cannot deny that it has seized me beyond all measure and steadily goes on working in me. So, if it is deception then deception is my god. Moreover, the god is in the deception, and if this were already the greatest bitterness that could happen to me, I would have to confess to this experience and recognize the god in it. No insight or objection is so strong that it could surpass the strength of this experience, and even if the god had revealed himself in a meaningless abomination, I could only avow that I have experienced the god in it. I even know that it is not too difficult to cite a theory that would sufficiently explain my experience and join it to the already known. I could furnish this theory myself and be satisfied in intellectual terms, and yet this theory would be unable to remove even the smallest part of the knowledge that I have experienced the god. I recognize the god by the unshakableness of the experience. I cannot help but recognize him by the experience. I do not want to believe it. I do not need to believe it. Nor could I believe it. How can one believe such? My mind would need to be totally confused to believe such things given their nature. They are most improbable. Not only improbable but also impossible. For our understanding only a sick brain could produce such deceptions. I am like those sick persons who have been overcome by delusion and sensory deception. But I must say that the god makes us sick. I experience the god in sickness. A living god afflicts our reason like a sickness. He fills the soul with intoxication. He fills us with reeling chaos. How many will the god break? The god appears to us in a certain state of soul. Therefore, we reach the god through the self. Not the self is god, although we reach the god through the self. The god is behind the self, above the self, the self itself when he appears, but he appears as our sickness from which we must heal ourselves. We must heal ourselves from the god since he is also our heaviest wound.”

When I read that passage in The Red Book, I immediately recognized my own experience in that. But of course, Jung puts it in a way that I couldn’t equal. There’s that sense there that the awakening experience is a kind of sickness, a kind of wound is the word that he uses, a wound that is inflicted upon us and, after the experience, we need to heal from that in some sense – and just the sense in that passage of Jung’s reluctance, inability to accept what it is that that he has experienced really struck a chord with me.

Now, just to say that awakening experiences take different forms to different people. I was talking with a friend yesterday and we were laughing because although the experience I had put an end to me describing myself as an atheist, for him it very much confirmed his atheism. I’m pretty certain that he’s had the same experience that I’ve had, but whereas for me it was an experience in which I encountered something that it seemed to me obvious was what people had described as “God”, for him it was an experience of encountering something that was so unlike what he had conceived of God as being that for him it confirmed that there is no God. But I’m pretty sure, as I said, the experiences that we’ve had are the same, and this points to something important that also seems to be in play here, which is: we approach these experiences through the filter of our own personal ego.

For some people, I think, awakening doesn’t have a traumatic aspect to it at all because it’s something that perhaps people respond to in different ways, that people can be more open to than others. But certainly, for me, there were aspects of it that were definitely disturbing, and I recognized that as well in in Jung’s description of his experience.

There’s a really interesting book by a guy called Russell Razzaque with the title Breaking Down Is Waking Up. Now, Razzaque is a psychiatrist, and he happened to get very interested in meditation and went off, did a retreat, got hooked, kept meditating and eventually had an awakening experience, some of the elements of which were quite destabilizing. Immediately afterwards, and being a psychiatrist, he was struck by seeming parallels in what he was experiencing and the sorts of symptoms and experiences that his patients described to him. What he does in this book is present a model that casts interesting light on the possible relationship between psychosis and awakening. How he ended up visualizing that model was seeing the two on basically a continuum. He visualizes psychosis and awakening as two points along the continuum and he suggests that when we exercise self-awareness, when we’re meditating, that takes us in one direction along the continuum, whereas stress and trauma take us in the other direction. The main thing that seems to determine what direction we’re moving in seems to be intention. If we’re meditating then we’re usually meditating because we’ve decided to do so, we’ve made a conscious choice to engage with it, whereas if we’re stressed or traumatized then that’s against our will; that’s something that has been forced upon us. But in either case we’re being driven along the continuum in one direction or the other. And what that continuum itself appears to be is basically just the way in which the ego is reacting to its experiences. If we’re meditating, then the ego is quietly dissolving in an intentional way. But if we’re stressed or traumatized then the ego’s struggling to defend itself as best it can in the face of hurt, injury, destructive forces coming from outside.

Razzaque provides a metaphor. He talks about the ego “rising like a souffle” when it’s under stress. So, when we’re subjected to trauma or stress, the ego tries to make itself bigger to withstand the attack, but it rises up like a souffle – it disintegrates even as it gets bigger. That’s the image that he uses, whereas, presumably, when we meditate, when we intentionally still and calm the mind, the ego just gently dissolves away. In both cases – awakening, and psychosis or trauma – something beyond the mind is invading the mind. In the case of awakening, generally that’s something that we’re inviting; that’s something that’s being invited. In the case of trauma or psychosis that’s the mind coming apart as things from outside force their way in. So, when I’m talking about positive trauma, what I’m suggesting is there can be an invasion of the mind that’s invited. It may be destabilizing, frightening, terrifying to some extent, but what I mean by positive trauma is that this is something that’s been invited and it’s something that we can also step back from if we need to, at any point, if things get too overwhelming.

Somewhere in the middle perhaps are psychedelic experiences. We may well intend to take a psychedelic substance and have an experience from that, but of course once we’ve taken it, we’re on a ride that we can’t get off, and if we decide that we don’t like it then there’s seven or eight hours that we’ll need to get through before we get back to normal, and sometimes it can become more of a traumatic experience than something that we’ve willingly undertaken.

If we’re meditating, generally we can only get as far as our ego can tolerate and usually, if the experience is too much we can easily take a step back. But psychedelics and trauma can easily push us past our limits, and we can end up in places or having insights that we may not in a spiritual sense be ready for or prepared for, and that can sometimes throw up odd paradoxes.

I came across somebody a while back who had taken LSD and found themselves having an experience of the oneness of all things: that sense that there’s just one consciousness that we’re all part of. This had come unexpectedly out of the blue and the person concerned had been very disturbed by this and it seemed that they were seeking reassurance that what they’d seen during that trip wasn’t true because, as they expressed it, if it were true then that would mean consciousness went on forever and there was no death and they would never die.

I wonder if instead of taking psychedelics they’d been meditating and they’d got to that insight at their own pace, in their own time, whether in that case it would have felt a lot more tolerable and whether then they wouldn’t have ended up feeling, as they did, that the idea of death was actually more consoling than what they’d actually stumbled upon.

This idea of trauma, psychosis, and awakening all being on a kind of continuum leads us into some dark and strange places, but perhaps also into a useful perspective for making sense of some of the phenomena that we see on the occult scene, and helps us make a bit more sense maybe of the darker, more conspiratorial dimensions of occultism.

What sent my thoughts heading in this direction recently was, as often happens, just the coincidental coming together of ideas I’d come across in a few places, and one of these was a podcast, an interview that Alex Tsakiris did with Whitley Strieber a while back.

Strieber, of course, is the author of Communion. He’s a prolific and accomplished writer who basically created the whole alien abduction phenomenon. Strieber was talking with Tsakiris about how his uncle and father were both in the US military and both seem to have been involved in the intelligence services to quite a high degree. Strieber was talking about how he remembers being enrolled in some kind of intense educational programme in around 1952, when he was about seven. From this time the memories that he has are sort of vague and uncertain and he himself wonders whether some of them might be half-imagined, but what brought things to a head was when he mentioned these memories to a close friend who was from a similar background, and this friend, who was a little bit older, remembered being on the same program, which was pitched as a educational program for bright children, and it was presented to them as an honour for them to take part in this. Strieber remembers it was on Thursday nights and he went along quite happily for the first time, but then when he was about to leave for the second time he panicked and would not attend.

From what I gather, though, he does remember going back on a number of occasions and on one of these he remembers getting upset while he was actually in the class, and they took him outside – it was on the airbase, apparently – and they took him outside to sit in a jet but even that didn’t distract him or calm him down. He remembers that this program started about two weeks before the autumn school term, but after school had started his immune system collapsed and he remembers getting ill and he was taken to the military hospital and isolated for three or four days, and when he went home he was not allowed to be in school for a few weeks or see any of the other children, and when he finally returned back to school in January he was no longer on the educational program.

Strieber doesn’t go into a lot of detail about things that he actually remembers from this time, but the impression is very much that some of them were strange and disturbing. One of the things he does mention is being on the educational program and being placed in a Skinner Box: a piece of equipment from behavioural psychological experiments. It’s a contraption. You would typically put a rat inside a Skinner Box and it would have a bar that the rat would press to get rewards. That kind of an apparatus. So Strieber can remember being put into one of these as part of this program that he was on. The suggestion is that he and the other children were part of psychological experiments and were being conditioned in some way.

Now, at this time it’s now known that the US Government was running a secret project called MK Ultra. This was headed up by a guy called Sidney Gottlieb and it was run by the CIA. The project had quite a wide scope. All of what it did was very secret. Some of what it did was illegal. What it was mostly focused upon was psychological warfare and finding ways to, in effect, influence or destroy the human mind. Supposedly, at the end of the project Gottlieb came to the conclusion that it wasn’t actually possible to control or destroy the human mind, but it seems that they spent a lot of effort on trying to do that and, as well as psychological techniques, they also experimented with various drugs, including LSD, as is quite well known.

Strieber, understandably, doesn’t specifically remember what it was that was done to him during these so-called educational sessions, but he does express the view that whatever it was it seemed to incline himself and the other children on the program to later contact with the alien beings that he described in his book Communion, and commentators have come up with various theories about what the true aims of MK Ultra might have been, which, of course, you can find all over the internet, some of them being the idea that the CIA was intentionally inducing dissociative identity disorder in people through traumatizing them, because by breaking down the personality this opens people to telepathic contact with extra-terrestrials.

By all means draw your own conclusion about that theory, but I came across another take on MK Ultra on Laura London’s podcast, Speaking of Jung, where she interviewed a guy named Walter Bosley who has recently written a book called Shimmering Light, which contains his reflections on MK Ultra and what its true aims may have been, which he based on personal experience. His father was in the air force and told a rather strange story that he experienced as a memory, which we’ll come back to in due course. Bosley’s theory is that what MK Ultra may have been trying to achieve, and perhaps did achieve, is a technique for implanting false memories. Bosley himself worked in the intelligence service and his idea is that the CIA would have found such a technique really valuable. It would be a way of ensuring that servicemen didn’t divulge state secrets. Suppose you had some personnel who’d been involved in something that you wanted to cover up. What you could do would be to subject them to this technique, implant a false memory in place of what had actually happened, and make the false memory something outlandish so what the servicemen would end up telling instead would be some strange-sounding story that no one would take seriously rather than what had actually happened to that person.

But let’s return to Whitley Strieber for a moment. Now, one of the things that Strieber definitely recalls is being placed in a Skinner Box and he feels that whatever was done to him as part of whatever conditioning or psychological experiment opened him up to communication with aliens later in life. The experience of being put inside a machine, the experience of being under the control or influence of a machine, is a common feature of psychotic delusions, of psychotic experiences, and here we start to venture into very murky, very dark and uncertain territory.

Strieber also suggests that some of the memories that he has from this time in his life are of very disturbing, possibly atrocious things. The idea of satanic, sadistic cults carrying out atrocities can be a feature of psychotic delusions also, but at the same time that doesn’t mean that satanic ritual abuse isn’t something that could possibly happen to somebody. Likewise, being put in a Skinner Box and being subjected to psychological experiments isn’t something that couldn’t happen, and supposing it did happen, supposing an individual were subjected to being put in strange machines and having strange things done to them, or being the victim of ritual abuse, witnessing atrocities, those would be extremely distressing experiences very likely to produce in someone psychological trauma or possibly psychosis. And if that is the case then we find ourselves in an area where, by definition, it’s almost impossible to say what’s going on, what’s real and what isn’t. If you’ve intentionally subjected somebody to a situation like this then you’ve made the cause of their condition indistinguishable from the symptoms of it. You’ve in effect hidden what you’ve done to them at the same time as you’ve discredited any account that they might give of it.

The story that Walter Bosley’s father told him as a child, and this was many years after the events were supposed to have taken place, was that as a member of air force personnel his father had been sent as part of a rescue operation to Arizona. They were briefed that the military were aware of another civilization living in parallel with us on earth, a hidden civilization, and that from time to time there would be contact between us and them and that Roswell was actually one of the craft belonging to this other civilization crashing. So, Walter Bosley’s father maintained that they were sent to Arizona because another craft had crashed and there was reason to believe that the pilots of this craft were alive and needed to be rescued, and what subsequently happened was a descent into a subterranean cavern and, unfortunately, coming into conflict with members of this other civilization, and one of the men with Bosley’s father was killed during this altercation, and Bosley recalls that this is usually where the story would end with his father getting very emotional about what had happened.

Having worked in intelligence himself, Bosley’s theory is that his father had had some sort of false memory implanted. His father had been involved in some sort of secret mission, perhaps, and the powers that be had wanted to cover this up so they’d implanted this memory that no one would believe, no one could verify, and presumably this had been achieved by conditioning or traumatizing Bosley’s father in some way.

Bosley in the podcast suggests that Sidney Gottlieb, the head of the MK Ultra program was very interested in New Age thinking and also in myth and folklore, and also around this time we have The Schaefer Mystery: these were a series of stories published in science fiction magazines that developed a mythos of an underground civilization living in parallel with those of us dwelling above ground level. Bosley suggests that this may have been the reason why those particular memories had been implanted into his father, because that was the sort of stuff that Gottlieb was into.

I’ve only done a little bit of searching, but I’ve not been able to confirm that Gottlieb was interested in those sorts of myths, but there is an interesting question here of why it does seem to be certain sorts of narratives, certain sorts of symbols and stories, that seem to prevail in this area, in this realm: the idea of a sinister, hidden group that has evil intention, that perpetuates atrocities against us, that hides in the shadows or literally lives underground in caves, that has technology superior to ours, that can influence us in strange ways that we don’t quite understand.

If the intelligence forces wanted to obscure what Walter Bosley’s father had been up to then they could have chosen any sort of narrative. Why not unicorns and tigers? Supposedly they concluded that it was not possible to destroy the human mind, but maybe they did find ways to seriously obscure memories, the truth of the past. Or could it be that actually you don’t need to implant a narrative at all. Could it be that these narratives lie close to hand in some sense, that they’re part of the architecture of the mind?

Razzaque suggested that when the mind is subjected to stress or trauma the ego inflates like a souffle – sort of blows up. Maybe it cracks along specific fault lines. Unlike spiritual practice, in trauma the ego doesn’t willingly surrender, in which case it’s having the experience of being invaded by something from outside itself. So, is it not understandable if that souffle has a specific flavour, which is the flavour of being in telepathic contact with aliens, of being subject to the influence and cruelty and atrocity of shadowy groups of people who are vastly more powerful than ourselves? What these narratives possibly might be is an image of trauma itself, seen from the perspective of the ego. That’s why these narratives keep coming back, because they embody the story of the ego’s forced dissolution.

Strieber says something really interesting in his interview with Tsakiris and I’m going to quote it. He says: “Let me tell you something about black magick. First, it’s quite real, and second, it’s like flypaper. You touch it, you can never escape. An organization touches it, that organization is part of it. The more you try to escape from it the deeper you get.” And then he says there’s only one way to escape: “and that is to live a life of love, compassion, and humility. If you do not actively work on that you will not escape.”

It’s interesting there, maybe, that what Strieber is advocating is a kind of spiritual practice. You need to live a life of love, compassion, and humility, he says, which is moving in the opposite direction that we talked about in Razzaque’s model: finding a way to intentionally make the ego small, in contrast to having it smashed apart by unintentional forces outside of itself. The antidote to the horror of being invaded, Strieber seems to be suggesting, is to practise compassion, humility, love; to find ways to open yourself up intentionally to what’s beyond the ego. He seems to be suggesting that that’s the only way to cope with it and to transform it into another type of experience altogether. Still traumatic, of course, but bringing in an element of intentionality, of opening.

So, we began by considering how awakening can sometimes lead into trauma, and where we’ve arrived at now is perhaps how trauma can lead into awakening, with Strieber talking about how he came to cope with his experiences by developing what is essentially a spiritual practice, exercising compassion, humility, and trying to find ways to accept the “visitors”, as he calls them, into his life. But it’s not that “acceptance” (to whatever degree that’s achievable) means that there isn’t pain and suffering involved in those visitations.

What I wanted to turn to now is that other side of trauma turning into awakening, thinking back to the story that Walter Bosley’s father talked about: the rescue mission in the caves and the hidden civilization that lived in the caves. It links up with the Schaefer Mystery that was in circulation around that time, but it also links up with the documentary series Hellier, which was released a few years ago.

Hellier is a documentary record of a group of paranormal investigators who receive a series of emails from a guy based near or in the town of Hellier who sends through some evidence of visitations to his property by creatures that look like goblins or alien greys and which he suspects are coming from nearby cave systems. So, this group of paranormal investigators they go to investigate and over the course of two seasons of episodes they get drawn into an increasingly bizarre web of coincidences, connections, synchronicities, that lead them progressively into occultism – away from paranormal investigation into very much the occult world in which Aleister Crowley and ideas taken from his system of Thelema begin to feature more and more. And towards the end of the series, they find themselves drawn towards performing some kind of ritual in the system of caves that is designed to invite the god Pan back into the world. It’s as if these sorts of narratives, these sorts of symbols, spontaneously create themselves, continue to re-echo, re-emerge.

I must confess I’ve never actually taken the time to read his books, but Kenneth Grant also comes to mind: that same circle of ideas about threatening, dark forces and underground places and spaces, and alien intelligence about to burst into the world. They keep coming back, they keep returning. They’re the very stuff of trauma and psychosis, and sometimes these ideas return as that, but we have to be careful with pathologizing them because, as we’ve seen, these sorts of images can be symptoms, but they can also be the causes of those symptoms. Trauma and psychosis are sometimes expressed through these images but these images, if they relate to actual happenings, could just as easily be the cause of those conditions. Somebody might end up with a memory of alien abduction due to traumatic experiences, or psychosis, but they could also end up with a memory of alien abduction because they’ve been abducted by aliens.

When you’re thinking and working in this area you simply have to keep both of those options in play. But we considered also Razzaque’s idea that when confronted with trauma and stress the ego disintegrates even as it expands to try to counteract the impact of what’s attacking it, and therefore the possibility that these images and symbols might be a kind of debris that tends to appear when the ego responds to overwhelming experiences that it can’t in any way integrate. In that case, if awakening experiences can also be experienced as traumatic, could it be possible that these images might also arise as a response to the prospect of awakening?

In terms of stress and negative trauma, these images would arise as a consequence of that, but could it be that in cases where someone is approaching an awakening experience, these images might arise as a kind of prelude? As somebody moves towards an awakening experience and that encroaches upon them, could it be that the ego starts to break down, starts to try to defend against that, and these images are thrown up as part of that breaking down process? Thinking about this in terms of the documentary series Hellier, the team begin as paranormal investigators doing the sorts of things paranormal investigators usually do, going around haunted sites calling out to spirits, trying to get measurements of EMF fields and doing EVP research – all that kind of stuff, which I’ve always tended to think of as not the science that often these paranormal teams think that they’re doing, but as really a form of magick, a form of ritual.

Paranormal investigation teams, unless they’re guided by a strictly scientific methodology, in my view are usually performing unwitting magick; they’re creating experiences. But as the team in Hellier get drawn more and more into weirdness and synchronicities, and it does seem possible in Hellier that there may be some sort of guiding intelligence behind this, because they continue to receive emails from an anonymous source that seems to be steering them in a particular direction – as this continues, as this proceeds, they become drawn more and more into what is explicitly magick and occultism to the extent that they end up performing what is explicitly a ritual to invoke an ancient god. Hellier is in essence the story of an initiation into ceremonial magick. A team of paranormal investigators become, by the end of it, occultists.

Towards the very end of the series references start to appear to a ritual called the Star Sapphire ritual, which, when you look at the details, is a sex-magical practice for inducing states of non-dual consciousness; and references to the number 418, for instance, appear, which is the number of the Great Work of magick, the union with the Holy Guardian Angel. At the very end that’s where it seems to have been leading them all along, but to have reached that point they’ve done an awful lot of stumbling around in caves looking for goblins and possible traces of sinister satanic groups performing atrocious rituals in dark places. Are these types of stories, these types of images possibly the necessary outcome of the ego rebelling against the encroachment of awakening, initiation? Is Whitley Strieber describing something similar in his trajectory, involving brutal, terrifying invasion by entities from another place, which, as he describes, over time he had to respond to by trying to find a way to accommodate this phenomenon that’s entirely from beyond? And what that entailed for him was compassion, love, humility. These images, as we said, are the very stuff of trauma and psychosis, but they’re also the stuff of conspiracy theory.

Now, I really enjoy listening to Alex Tsakiris on his Skeptico podcast, and on almost every episode he challenges the secular materialist paradigm that views human beings as “biological robots”, as Tsakiris puts it. “Biological robots in a meaningless universe.” And, as he sees it, science so completely and wilfully ignores evidence to the contrary, such as near-death experiences or the placebo effect, and this seems so nonsensical to him, that, for Tsakiris, he argues that science as it is today has to be run from a conspiratorial framework. In other words, his view is that science is intentionally suppressing evidence that runs counter to the dominant materialist paradigm and pretty much every guest he has on he tends to run this idea past them, to see what sort of a response he’ll get. And sadly, for the most part, most of the guests, from what I’ve seen, tend to sidestep that question.

The view I tend towards at the moment is that materialism, scientific materialism, is not a conspiracy; it’s just a very, very crappy version of the truth. Let’s break that down a bit. So, if we take Tsakiris’s characterization of materialist science, which presents human beings as “biological robots in a meaningless universe”, well, let’s compare that notion of reality with a non-dual experience that you might encounter during meditation, say, or during a psychedelic experience. When we’re in the midst of a non-dual experience, is it true to say that we are a human being? My view is that I don’t think it is true in those sorts of experiences: we are merged with the divine. There’s a kind of awareness that is very much beyond ordinary human awareness. And consider as well, in a non-dual experience do we have free will? And again, my view is that no, I don’t think we do. When we find ourselves in such an experience, we cease to be individuals. We don’t have a sense of our self as a separate, individual person anymore. So, the idea of free will doesn’t apply.

Okay, taking stock of that in a non-dual experience we are not a human being, and we do not have free will, and it is perfectly evident to us in that experience that this is the nature of reality, so now comparing that with materialist science, that asserts that we are “biological robots in a meaningless universe” – those two perhaps aren’t so far apart. Common to both of them is what looks like a sort of objectification of our humanity, although it’s a bit more complicated than that in the non-dual experience.

I don’t think science is a conspiracy. I think it’s sincere, and it’s a sincere adherence to what is, in comparison to the non-dual experience, a kind of crappy version of it. It’s got all of the objectivity but none of the transcendence. Likewise, maybe the idea of being taken up into a UFO and whisked away by alien beings and subjected to invasive procedures by them, maybe that too is really just a sincerely held but kind of degraded picture of the non-dual experience, which in a sense is also like being swept away and totally taken apart by something immeasurably vaster than ourselves.

Spiritual awakening can be hugely traumatic, and perhaps we can sometimes find ourselves fending it off just as vigorously as we would fend off any other kind of trauma. I’m thinking again of the person I mentioned earlier, who felt more consoled by the notion that he would be dead forever than the notion that he might be part of one consciousness that was ceaseless and eternal. But maybe here as well are symbols, images, that incline in a slightly different direction. And I’m thinking of Strieber, how, in his book Communion the dominant female alien that he encounters, and whose face is shown famously on the cover of the book, he comes to identify her with the goddess Ishtar.

This entity tells him that she is very ancient, and he wonders whether Ishtar was a form in which she was perceived by our ancestors. Alongside all the caves and goblins and extra-terrestrials and satanic cults, what we also sometimes glimpse is an encounter in a place of darkness with the goddess. In Hellier the team end up venturing into the caves to intentionally evoke the god Pan, and I’m reminded of the Greek philosopher, Parmenides, although this takes us far beyond where I wanted to go, who creates the very foundations of Greek philosophy in a vision that he reports whereby he arrived at the truth by first having to venture into the underworld and meet a goddess there, the goddess of the dead. But this is material for another time, perhaps.


Three days into a meditation retreat in 2015 I was screaming and retching over the toilet bowl, overwhelmed with panic and convinced I was about to die.

With the help of friends, somehow I recovered and completed the retreat with some positive gains. But things were never the same.

Occasionally, the panic would return. The trigger was usually an emotionally demanding situation I could not avoid. With basic mindfulness it would usually pass without too much difficulty.

But my next retreat in 2018 was even worse. Again, three or four days in, things turned dark. I was floored by despair and pointlessness and felt I could not go on. Once more, wise and compassionate companions buoyed me up. But I was so badly side-swiped that there was not enough retreat time left to make up the lost ground.

2015 seemed to have been about unresolved grief. In 2018 it was violent self-disgust. On my next retreat in 2019, again, it surfaced after three or four days. This time I was lying in wait. Beneath the grief and self-disgust I grasped a hellish sensation of abandonment and helplessness. It felt like a kink or flaw; not a mental state as such, certainly not a stage of insight, but something in my sense of self that was leaving me wide open and vulnerable to certain states and stages.

Unwanted, unexpected, nevertheless there it was, and it did not seem to be going anywhere. “If we would just go into finely discerned sensate reality”, writes Daniel Ingram, “and try to see the three characteristics of each sensation that makes up experience, we might begin to understand reality at a level that makes the difference” (Ingram 2018: 112). This had always been my guiding principle in meditation: focus on the nature of experience without getting side-tracked into its contents, all those clamouring personal issues and mind noise. What I had come up against was precisely that. But the sense was growing that this needed to be understood and addressed before it seemed likely my experience would change.

Other factors were steering me in this direction. A friend attained the Knowledge and Communication of the Holy Guardian Angel with relatively little meditative work, but with maximum emphasis on personal psychological transformation. This produced some of the most jaw-dropping synchronicities I have ever witnessed before his realisation of the angel during a trauma-processing session.

Before this, I would have doubted that psychotherapy could bring about awakening, even though (reading between the lines) this is specifically what Jung promised. As Marie-Louise von Franz succinctly described it:

Before one is integrated and individuated, one’s own complexes tend to come through. But if one has really worked to solve one’s own problems and the complexes are integrated, then one can connect with the collective unconscious and its wisdom can flow through one. At the end point of development (the end stage of the individuation process), the Zen masters are in such a state of harmony with the collective unconscious […] they are together in the unus mundus, so to speak. (von Franz 1979: 115)

In other words: resolve your stuff, experience synchronicities, and awaken. Exactly what had occurred with my friend.

Simultaneously, a close relationship had started to provoke some intense reactions in me, feelings very like those I had encountered on retreat. To work out how these were being triggered, I did some reading on attachment styles.

Attachment theory is a typology of human relationships, developed by John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth. It postulates that our experience of caregivers in infancy establishes basic patterns of relating that persist into later life. The four basic attachment styles are:

  • secure
  • dismissive-avoidant
  • anxious-ambivalent
  • disorganised

Because my childhood was loving and stable, and I am happy in my own company, I always supposed my attachment style was “secure”. But then I stumbled across an uncannily exact description of the relationship dynamics I was experiencing and discovered the role I occupied in these was not one of “secure” attachment at all, but “anxious-ambivalent”.

This form of relating can arise where caregivers are perceived as unreliable or unresponsive. People with this attachment style are needy yet will probably have learned to express this subtly, so that others will stay close and enable them to feel safe. To maintain this, it is also important not to be seen to be comforted, for in that case the other person might assume we are okay and then go away. This is where the “ambivalent” aspect originates: indifference is used as a means to keep the other person engaged, and to prevent them from feeling over-depended-upon, but also to protect oneself against abandonment in case they do decide to disconnect. I realised how this pretence at independence and self-containment was what I had mistaken in myself for secure attachment. In truth, I was ceaselessly denying an unappeasable longing for connection. This discovery completely unseated my view of myself, but at least now the hellish sensations of abandonment and helplessness were starting to make sense.

John Bowlby (1907-1990) and Mary Ainsworth (1913-1999), originators of attachment theory.

It is not all negative, of course. People with anxious-ambivalent attachment are often loving and caring because that is how they need to be treated by others. “They are also very good at detecting when others are not interested or unhappy”, writes Helen Dent, “and they are willing to face this head on, even if it involves disagreement or conflict” (2019: 62). However, in relationships people with this attachment style tend to project onto others or things the independence and self-reliance they cannot own (Power 2019: 48). This reminded me of a recurring pattern in my spiritual practice: striving to embrace exotic states of consciousness, but once I feel my connection to reality shift then feeling threatened, shrinking back in terror, and repeating this pattern over again with too much terror ever to quite let go.

I had been in psychoanalytic psychotherapy for several years but, apart from highlighting the dynamics, this never seemed to take me directly into what I was experiencing. In the meantime, I had discovered Comprehensive Resource Model (CRM), a recently developed therapy for the treatment of psychological trauma. CRM is not currently well-known, yet a training course was conveniently offered at a venue within five miles of my home. After the first day of training I was woken in the night by a surge of those hellish feelings of neglect and abandonment, and a tiny skull that screamed: “These parents are not safe!

In the context of CRM, the skull was a wounded ego-state. These are somatic and emotional sensations arising from past distress that was so overwhelming it has triggered our basic neurophysiological survival responses: fight, flight, or freeze. CRM therapists help the client connect with wounded ego-states and then provide resources for the wounded parts to re-experience the original distress – but this time in a resourced, bearable way – the same distress that triggered the reflexes that originally created the ego-state.

CRM places neurological science front and centre to inform its approach, but it also has a spiritual dimension. Among the resources that help the client to confront distress are power animals, sacred geometry, but also “Core Self”, which (although materialistic perspectives are not excluded) is described in non-dualistic terms: “largely non-intentional, having as its object only the very ground of its awareness” (Schwarz et al 2018: 156).

In CRM, an ego-state is to Core Self as a complex is to the Self in Jungian analysis: ego-states and complexes are both what we can become aware of within experience, whereas the Jungian Self and Core Self in CRM are both empty, the underlying awareness in which contents of experience arise. The aim of Jungian analysis is individuation: integration of complexes into an expanded awareness of the Self. It seems that CRM also harbours an overarching aim:

it is important to remember that trauma release is not the ultimate goal of CRM work. The goal is to access and embody Core Self, for those who choose to do this, but often this is only possible after the trauma work is well under way. (Schwarz et al 2018: 135)

So I began working with a CRM therapist. After a while, he wondered if I were dealing with something that had origins in past-life or intergenerational trauma. Yet another strand of investigations was ongoing at this time, which I have discussed elsewhere: a strong sense of the presence of the dead, and my reception of a magickal text, Liber Pisces, concerning relationships between the dead and the living. CRM, too, has protocols and techniques for working with this kind of material.

Consciously, I had no memories of childhood trauma. What was troubling me had either originated from a very early period of my life, or could it be the effect of something that had not happened to me at all? I could not understand how trauma in ancestors’ experiences could somehow show up in mine. But it is funny, how – having now done some work in that area – presently I can barely see it in any other terms. When I turn attention to human suffering in all its current forms – violent struggles, government corruption, the bellowing hurt and rage of social media, and just that nagging background sensation of despair – I feel ancestral wounds smarting. Our pain, aggression, dissociation, numbness: these are reactions to inherited trauma, everywhere in plain view.

Thomas Hübl writes:

our shadows cannot simply be buried and forgotten; they will haunt us until we return them to life. And if we never do, they will haunt our children and our children’s children, passing each to the next in an endless repetition of karma and time. (Hübl 2020: 225)

Trauma is karma. Trauma freezes and stores the horrors of the past. The notion of the parents’ sins being visited upon the children is very Old Testament (eg. Numbers 14: 18), and it seems cruel, but in how it preserves the past the symptomatology of trauma offers a possibility of growth. We do not merely feel our ancestors’ pain, but through our reactions to it we re-live it, and so there is the possibility of living it differently.

Hübl’s book describes a theory and a practice for achieving this. In a recent podcast interview he commented:

Becoming aware of collective trauma structures is a level of awakening, basically because its nature is that it is split-off and unconscious. So even if I have deeper states of meditation I am not necessarily becoming aware of those fragmented trauma structures, because they are pushed into the unconscious. So I can have very high meditation states and still be in the same way unconscious, because I am not aware that I am unconscious. (Taft 2021: 23’51”)

The implication here is that although we might voyage deeply into refined and highly realised states of awareness, this may accrue a kind of karmic debt. We may become guilty of “spiritual bypassing” without ever being aware of it.

Rather than envisaging the alternative to engagement with our practice as indulgence of mental contents, personal psychological issues, or random mind-noise, it might be helpful to examine in what sense these are really “ours”.

Ultimately, there is no personal, separate self. From this ultimate perspective there is only karma, and when some of this remains unrecognised as ancestral or cultural trauma then we only have the option of re-living it, without ever growing beyond.


Dent, Helen (2019). Why Don’t I Feel Good Enough? Using Attachment Theory to Find a Solution. Abingdon: Routledge.

von Franz, Marie-Louise (1979). Alchemical Active Imagination. Irving, TX: Spring Publications.

Hübl, Thomas (2020). Healing Collective Trauma: A Process for Integrating Our Intergenerational and Cultural Wounds, Boulder, CO: Sounds True.

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

Power, Anne (2019). Avoidant people in relationships: why would they bother? How do partners fare? In: Linda Cundy, ed., Attachment and the Defence Against Intimacy: Understanding and Working with Avoidant Attachment, Self-Hatred, and Shame. Abingdon: Routledge.

Schwarz, Lisa, Frank Corrigan, Alastair Hull, and Rajiv Raju (2018). The Comprehensive Resource Model: Effective Therapeutic Techniques for the Healing of Complex Trauma. Abingdon: Routledge.

Taft, Michael (2021). Deconstructing Yourself: meditation and healing trauma with Thomas Hübl, ( Accessed April, 2021.