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.
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,From Rumi, “The Great Wagon”.
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.
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:
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.
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, https://tinyurl.com/27uppkdk (podcasts.google.com). Accessed April, 2021.
“Is it right and permissible to ask you to end the lives of our enemies?” I asked the archangel Azrael. “Is contact with you likely to provide any benefit?”
Random thoughts flickered through my mind, mostly concerned with the events and coincidences that had raised these questions and brought me down to the shed before daybreak to invoke the angel.
Firstly, my dream from the previous night: wandering with two long-lost friends through streets we knew but which were now much-changed, each of us wondering if we were dreaming. Then I said: “I think only I am dreaming, and your thinking you are dreaming is only my dream.”
And then my dream from the night before that: I had become obsessed with compiling a playlist of songs from the eighties. It was so vivid that the next day I set about compiling the same list of tracks whilst awake – and, yes, I quickly became obsessed, because the tracks were diverse and I could not find an ordering that provided pleasant-sounding transitions.
Next, the so-called “27 Club”: musicians and artists who had died tragically at the age of twenty-seven, including Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, and Kurt Cobain.
Then the intriguing intersection of musical inspiration and the angelic in novels by David Keenan. (“For Azrael is the angel described in these works”, Azrael told me.)
And finally, the first appearance of Azrael months ago. A friend was troubled by shadow entities in her home and our group offered to exorcise them using a scrying process, calling on the archangel Raphael, which had worked well for us in two previous and similar cases.
When the shadow entities appeared the word “Azrael” occurred spontaneously to my friend, although she did not consciously recognise its meaning.
Three of us undertook the working, over a video connection, and we were shocked by the negative consequences. I escaped relatively lightly, experiencing only a nasty sulphurous smell. My colleague found himself in sudden physical pain, feeling a sense of dread that lingered over several days, and there were unexplained scratching noises and footsteps in his home, which his partner also heard.
Azrael showed me how all these were connected, because Azrael had connected and completed them by being invoked.
Azrael showed itself to me as a crystalline structure embracing all living beings across all dimensions, the function of which is to bring each being to completion as a living being. Completion is the key to understanding Azrael.
In the present time, many people are calling out to Azrael because they feel loss. In my social circle at the moment, many are angry at the corruption of politicians who no longer represent the people to power but now represent the interests of power towards the people. The politicians pretend that significant change is not possible, and they pretend at patriotism (to ensure support) even as they sell off our nation’s assets to benefit themselves and the power they represent.
The ballot box apparently cannot rid us of them – but can magick? It is a dark thought, but consider: there would be no material or causal connection between an assassin and a target if the means of assassination were magick. Yet this could never be undertaken lightly, because it would place a person in the very same position ethically as if physical measures had been taken. The karmic consequences would be dire, yet there is the option to recognise and own the consequences. Was Azrael showing up now because this was viable?
We made a divination for further guidance. “Is it permissible”, we asked, “to request an angel to eliminate someone whom that angel recognises as a malefactor?”
From the tarot came Five of Wands, Six of Pentacles inverted, and the Knight of Cups inverted. From the I Ching came Hexagram Thirty, The Clinging, Fire. With a moving sixth line, this was transitioning to Hexagram Fifty-Five, Abundance. We picked our jaws up off the floor after reading the meaning of that moving sixth line:
It is best to kill the leaders (Anthony 1988: 144).
But let us take a pause.
It would have been easy to read this as complicit assurance, rather than the wry pun it actually was. The correct way to read the I Ching is always as the advice of an immeasurably enlightened being.
If Azrael brings down upon all living beings not only grisly demise but completion, then things are not so simple. I was crying out from a place of loss. Maybe, dear reader, at this moment in time you are too. In this state is it wise for living beings to call down completion on either themselves or others? Consider the 27 Club – their works and reputations are preserved in beauty forever by the tragic and premature completion of lives. But how does this mitigate the losses they endured in life, and the loss of their lives to the rest of the world?
Azrael brings all beings to perfect completion, but the completion of being is not resolution of loss nor the restoration of losses.
In my dream I woke to the truth that I was dreaming, and so the dream ended and was complete. But only whilst sleeping were my lost friends restored. On completion of the dream they were lost again.
And in my other dream, the songs on the eighties playlist are available in the present, but there is no hope of imposing any tidy completion upon their diversity, their chaotic jumble of sounds. It would be obsession to attempt this, whereas in refraining from obsession there might be joy.
To call down Azrael upon vicious liars and thieves is to complete them as such. They become a maleficent version of the 27 Club. The meaning of Hexagram Fifty-Five, Abundance, is the recognition that when we lack influence upon others we must let go of seeking it: “to hold to the power of truth is to overcome all darkening trends” (Anthony 1988: 251).
“It is best to kill the leaders”, urged that moving sixth line in Hexagram Thirty, The Clinging, Fire. But who are those leaders?
The most evil ringleaders of disorder in the personality are vanity and pride – the ego, whether it is self-depreciating, self-congratulating, or self-defending (Anthony 1988: 144).
Hexagram Thirty is a chastening reminder of the obvious.
When events seem foreboding and people seem evil, we should remember the good that was and still has potential in them. The more evil they seem to be, the more resolutely we must cling to that potential. If we cling to the invisible sparks of light that are eclipsed by their inferior natures, the power of clinging will enable the dark force to be overcome. (Anthony 1988: 141)
When is it inadvisable to pursue goodness and truth? Never. Obviously. But in the grip of loss this may become obscured.
[D]esire and impatience […] have their origins in fear and doubt. Vanity is also present when we see ourselves as rejected, alone, abandoned. Vanity causes us to want “inside knowledge”, to have a “handle” on things, and to seek assurances that will work to our satisfaction. Vanity […] makes us think that everything in life is dependent on human decisions; it causes us to forget that the Cosmos is at work putting things to right, and that we are not required to accomplish everything by ourselves. (Anthony 1988: 145)
I had been looking to magick to provide the “handle”, the “inside knowledge”.
The lessons of the hexagrams were underscored by the tarot: Five of Wands indicates discord and struggle; Six of Pentacles, inverted, suggests greed and corruption. The Knight of Cups is associated with Sir Perceval, he who seeks the Holy Grail, but the card is inverted, signifying a failure at or deviation from the quest. So the first card of these three hints at incompletion and irresolution, and the others point at abandonment and loss.
Azrael can take nothing away. By dying no being attains or achieves anything except completion of its life. On this side of existence, completion is what Azrael has to offer. Whatever remains unresolved must find its solution after death.
David Keenan’s novel This is Memorial Device (2018) is the fictional history of a band formed in the early eighties from the post-punk scene in Airdrie, as told by various characters who encounter the band members and their music. The bassist is Remy Farr, and one of the chapters concerns his father. Remy’s father wrote a tract that argued “there was some kind of disjunction between actions and thoughts. It wasn’t that they were parallel occurrences, in his view actions were eternal and forever but thought was something that happened in time and that came to pass only once” (Keenan 2018: 62).
Remy’s father describes being on holiday with his wife, kneeling down to clean some plates after a meal at a picnic spot, when he notices two small indentations in the grass into which his knees fit perfectly. He is convinced that he created these holes himself, because he is re-living his life repeatedly rather than it unfolding uniquely through time, “as though his secret self (his guardian angel he called it) had constructed this total artwork that had lain in wait for him (or more properly that had always existed and that was now somehow revealing itself to thought)” (Keenan 2018: 63-4).
If actions are fixed forever, but thoughts come only once, then – Remy’s father reasons – life is “this precise set of occurrences” (Keenan 2018: 64) and our thoughts are judgments upon it. He takes this a couple of steps further. First, if we ourselves (or an angel) has set up everything that happens in our life, “then what thought demands of us is nothing less than that we weigh the will of God itself” (Keenan 2018: 64). Second, he suggests a possible transcendence: if we refuse our gift of judgment and the will of God then could it be that “the whole thing comes full circle and finally you are able to live your life as written (in history and in time over again), but this time outside of mind, without judgment and beyond understanding?” (Keenan 2018: 65).
There is no longer a sense of a passage through life, of life unfolding through time or mind, demanding to be understood and judged, but the cessation of a need for mind, judgment, or understanding as conditions of the unfolding of life. This is no longer, then, the setting up of the circumstances of life by the guardian angel, but maybe something like the completion of life that Azrael brings. The completion of life is when God’s will offers us nothing further.
Keenan’s Xstabeth (2020) is about another father – the father of the narrator, Aneliya – an aging but commercially naïve musician who, after a disillusioned break, decides to return to performance. His music is improvised and, although he does not record the performance, mysteriously a recording appears under the name “Xstabeth”: “he both recognised it as himself whilst thinking that the voice was coming from someone else entirely” (Keenan 2020: 56). Aneliya’s father is distraught when a second album appears without him having given any further performances. Xstabeth is some kind of an emerging entity, maybe an angel, perhaps a saint. After a subsequent performance, Aneliya’s father vanishes.
Is Keenan returning to the insights of Remy’s father in this later novel? Xstabeth seems a narrative elaboration of a process by which our actions, through assuming a life of their own, transcend the conditions of our lived being.
He had come through art. I realised. Was what he said. Or he might have said. I am realised. […] The point of art is to be done with it. He said. […] The point of art is to get you to the place where you have no need of it. […] The end of art is at the end of the world. (Keenan 2020: 62-3)
“For I am the angel described in these works”, Azrael assured me.
Music is a recurring motif in this nexus of concepts. I was reminded of a brilliantly incisive conversation on the intrinsic weirdness of music between J.F. Martel and Phil Ford.
Music is regarded as the most abstract artform, yet also the most direct in how it represents nothing to us figuratively yet exerts a direct effect: “You don’t just entertain a notion of sadness”, Phil Ford commented. “You feel it. It takes you over. You become a different person when you listen to sad music” (14’29”). On listening to music, the listener becomes the music. It makes us into what it evokes. J.F. Martel draws out the philosophical implications of this: “The things that we think exist only in our heads are already out there. That’s what music teaches me” (17’52”).
Perhaps all art forms achieve this, but in different ways. And maybe it is not just art, but every action, every karmic impression. In music it is clearest how actions (those minute vibrations of molecules through air) have a life and meaning that eclipses those we usually perceive as being our own. Azrael is the spiritual being that that fulfils this function to its fullest and at its final extent.
The shadow entities witnessed by my friend followed a bereavement of someone who had endured much pain and loss. In retrospect the emergence of the name “Azrael” may have been an indication that completion would have been a better approach than an attempt at healing.
The dead are beyond suffering. It would be a misconstrual to suppose the consequences of our working impacted on anyone other than ourselves. Healing involves an encounter with the other’s pain, and that was maybe what had impacted on us.
The problem here is more subtle than knowing the right angel to evoke. Through contact with and contemplation of these spiritual beings the work actually lies in developing an understanding of how karma operates in the context of being, dying, pain, ignorance, and loss.
I hope that the I Ching and the tarot and finally the invocation of Azrael itself have now furnished a fuller understanding and have cleared the way.
Anthony, Carol K. (1988). A Guide to the I Ching, third edition. Stow, MA: Anthony Publishing.
Ford, Phil & J.F. Martel (2020) Weird studies episode 90 – “The Owl in Daylight”: on Philip K. Dick’s unwritten masterpiece. https://tinyurl.com/wsdus8yp (weirdstudies.com). Accessed March 2021.
Keenan, David (2018). This Is Memorial Device. London: Faber & Faber.
Keenan, David (2020). Xstabeth. London: White Rabbit.
Magick is the experience of truth.
Sounds more like mysticism than magick? Well, it applies equally to sorcery. Suppose we evoke a demon to obtain the perfect chalice for our altar. The result arrives by experiencing the truth of the demon having sourced the chalice for us. (We could have just searched for a nice chalice online, but instead we gave ourselves an actual experience of a demon finding it for us.)
Having recognised that magick is the experience of truth, we may then want to refine this into more direct and simpler forms of truth.
So: what is truth?
Its hallmarks are inclusivity, wholeness, unity.
A popular notion of truth is of a correspondence between an idea and a state of affairs. That is, the unity of the idea and the state of affairs. Unity is what is engineered in an act of sorcery: the synchronicity between intention and an outcome. What is omitted from the “correspondence” model of truth, however, is truth that cannot be formulated in an idea or does not depend upon a human being thinking something: in other words, truth that might be described as absolute or eternal.
The truer something is, the more it can incorporate and the less that falls outside of it. Of course, this is a very poor way to think of it because – evidently – it would be even truer to include also whatever is not a thing and also whatever fails to include anything.
Ultimate truth is that which includes everything. Platonists called it “The One”. The One is so utterly damn inclusive it even includes what is not itself – that is, the Many. In a non-dual experience this is what becomes apparent: our individual experience is the Divine yet – at the same time – only a part of the Divine.
“Avoid monism. It is lazy,” suggests Douglas Batchelor (2020: 37’32”), advocating animism as a better approach: “everything is conscious” (Batchelor 2020: 37’52”). An alternative, then, would be that there is not one consciousness in which everything participates, but everything has a separate consciousness.
The problem with animism is what constitutes an entity. If a tree has consciousness, then how about its branches, twigs and leafs? What about the molecules in the tree? How about its atoms? Do these all have separate consciousnesses? If not, then it is false that everything has a separate consciousness; if so, then how is the tree an entity when its parts are different from it?
With the One and a hierarchical relationship between the One and the Many, Platonism offers a theory of participation that makes sense of this. The Platonic Academy endured for hundreds of years, attracting great minds, so it seems unlikely that its doctrine is truly “lazy”.
What does seem lazy is the notion there is no such thing as truth. After nearly thirty years I went back to university for my therapeutic training, enduring the same postmodernist nonsense that had been there in the 1980s. But the lecturers were now the same age as myself. “Haven’t you found a way out of that crap?” I wondered.
However, the idea that nothing is true, or that no idea has a greater claim to truth than any other, is indeed more true (because it includes more) than the idea that only a certain thing is true. Postmodernism was more inclusive than the metanarratives that preceded it, which insisted on only a certain way of seeing the world as true. If truth is gold, then postmodernism discovered gold everywhere, but simultaneously put it at risk of being valued as worthless.
Postmodernism had evidently hit the buffers when the likes of Trump and Putin could clearly be seen appropriating its relativism to achieve their ends. Suddenly truth was back in fashion among liberals who had previously championed postmodernism: “Truth is more important now than ever” was the slogan of an anti-Trump New York Times campaign (New York Times 2017).
The current culture wars are due partly to the attenuated death throes of postmodernism. It is perhaps easier to imagine we are now “post-truth” (which is really just more moribund postmodernism) than to ditch the correspondence conception of truth and move towards an inclusivity model. Magick, which offers methods for the direct experience of truth, could have an important role in a progressive response to the crisis. But the magickal community is, of course, riven by the same tensions afflicting wider culture. Many are responding by clinging to either postmodernism or traditionalism.
The inclusivity model implies that all participate in truth, but not equally. Participation is increased by including more of what has been omitted. An example of these dynamics is presented by Alex Tsakiris, host of the Skeptiko podcast.
In almost every episode, Tsakiris challenges the secular materialist paradigm of human beings as “biological robots in a meaningless universe [for whom] there cannot be a moral good or bad” (Tsakiris 2021: 11’48”). For Tsakiris, materialist science wilfully ignores contrary evidence (such as near-death experience), and is so nonsensical that its dominance must indicate some kind of hidden agenda: “Science, as we know it, is best understood from a conspiratorial framework” (Tsakiris 2021: 52’16”), he suggests.
But consider the secular materialist view in comparison to the non-dual experience: Do we have a sense of individual free will within the non-dual experience? Is there still a sense of being a human individual? Is the non-dual experience helpfully describable as good, bad, or meaningful? Approached from this direction, perhaps secular materialism and the non-dual experience are less far apart. As a description of reality, secular materialism maybe does not do so badly. It is perhaps an honest attempt to transcend the ego by highlighting how small and insignificant it is on a cosmic scale. But it performs this badly, because what it omits is any relationship between reality and individual consciousness. The relationship is one of participation. In contrast, the non-dual experience is that direct participation.
To assert that there is such a thing as truth, and that it is the very same truth for all, is neither reductive nor fundamentalist, because the One includes the Many through participation. This is not to say that truth is never wilfully refused, resisted, or perverted, but it does mean it is never escaped from entirely. We participate inescapably to some degree, like the postmodernist who claims “there is no truth” which, of course, is a truth claim. We leak truth even in our refusal of it.
If there were no truth no one would bother getting out of bed. Indeed, all it takes to hinder us from getting up is the feeling or suspicion that there is no truth – it instantly puts paid to any sense of pleasure or a point to life. But by offering the means for experiencing truth, for changing our relationship to it and our participation in it, magick can be an antidote.
Batchelor, Douglas (2020). What magic is this? Neoplatonism. https://tinyurl.com/t4o1dkrv (whatmagicisthis.com). Accessed February, 2021.
New York Times (2017). The New York Times has a new marketing campaign. https://tinyurl.com/spqsoe6q (facebook.com). Accessed February, 2021.
Tsakiris, Alex (2021). Skeptiko #486. Curt Jaimungal, Better Left Unsaid analysis. https://tinyurl.com/16y420vt (skeptiko.com). Accessed February, 2021.
Many thanks to Spud for the excellent craic and judicious editing. Much more from Spud and Tommie is available from their website, Adventures in Woo Woo.
Recently I was meditating. After a lengthy spell of practising concentration upon the breath, I have decided to return to vipassana.
There was a sense of something – a roughly cylindrical object made of flesh or plant matter. My sense was that although this might slowly decay, it would never quite dissipate. A story started up in my mind about how I would never be free from it. But instead of buying into this, I included the arising of the story into my investigation of my current experience. This felt like an effort, and resentment against the effort arose, and another story started up about it not being right that this should feel so effortful. But again, I included the arising of the story into my awareness of what I was experiencing.
Then – wham. It all released. Suddenly, shockingly, the cylindrical thing was gone. It was all gone and never had been. There was a sudden and total silence of the mind in which nothing needed to happen and never had or could.
The impermanence door aspect relates to realizing what is “between the frames” of the sensate universe […] and it tends to have a dat.dat.dat-gone! quality to it, as if all of space has stuttered three or four times in very rapid succession (about a quarter of a second or less for the whole thing) and disappeared. It is the fastest of the three and tends to be the most surprising. (Ingram 2018: 260-1)
Some of the most perplexing passages of Daniel Ingram’s Mastering the Core Teachings of the Buddha (2018) are in the sections in which he describes fruition. Only gradually have I felt able to apply these to my own experience. What I have described above was a fruition through the door of impermanence. It is the first time I have managed to recognise one of these as such.
For readers unfamiliar with Ingram’s work, here is a brutal introduction: Daniel claims the status of an arahat (a term from the Therevadan Buddhist tradition applied to a fully awakened person) and provides specific descriptions of maps and practices through which the reader can replicate his attainment for themselves. Because of its strong emphasis on method, his work has found an interested audience in the occult community and among those involved in contemplative science research.
Central to Daniel’s description of how awakening occurs are the stages of insight: a cyclical sequence of changes in awareness that produces a deepening understanding of what reality truly is. Mastering the Core Teachings of the Buddha describes how this sequence is traversed in meditation, how to facilitate the process, and thereby how to move towards awakening.
Fruition is the climactic stage in the insight cycle that I would attempt to describe as when the meditator’s awareness and reality synchronise for an indescribable instant. As Daniel describes it: “‘Reality’ stops cold and then reappears” (Ingram 2018: 256). In fruition, self-awareness vanishes because the illusion of self drops away, yet the prelude to it can take various distinct forms, which Daniel describes (metaphorically) as determined by entry through one of three possible “doors”: impermanence, suffering, or no-self. These, in Buddhism, are also known as “the three characteristics”. They are qualities found in each and every sensory and non-sensory experience and so, as such, are the bedrock attributes of what presents itself as “reality”.
All of this may sound very obscure, but the aim of vipassana is to refine our observation of experience to a degree where we can start to see some of this for ourselves, in our own way, and to the best of our ability.
Daniel has a gift for phenomenology, a disconcerting talent for unflinchingly and directly grasping the complex minutiae of experience exactly as they are with a minimum of storytelling or interpretation. For instance, regarding another, specific type of fruition he writes:
The rarest no-self/suffering variant is hard to describe, and involves reality becoming like a doughnut whose whole outer edge rotates inwards such as to trade places with its inner edge (the edge that made the hole in the middle) that rotates to the outer edge position, and when they trade places reality vanishes. The spinning includes the whole background of space in all directions. Fruition occurs when the two have switched places and the whole thing vanishes. (Ingram 2018: 262)
However, as a friend and fellow vipassana practitioner sceptically remarked: Whilst meditating I have never ever seen a fucking doughnut!
It has taken me a long time to understand how Daniel’s descriptions of fruition can be helpful, even if they do not match my experience. In the moment before a fruition I often experience a vision. These are like waking dreams in which I seem transported into a completely different place. You do not need a vision to have a fruition; I just seem to have the type of mind that does this. My very first fruition I described in The Blood of the Saints:
I was outside a dark doorway in a hot, desert country. I was there to interview [Primal Awareness]. He was waiting inside. But then I simply realised that Primal Awareness and I were the same thing. There was no need for an interview; I would only be interviewing myself. I had nothing to do, nowhere to go; there was bliss and hilarity. It was obvious that awareness had nothing to do with “me”, because “all this” was already “it”. (Chapman & Barford 2009: 137)
I did not recognise it at the time, but this was a fruition through the door of no-self. Compare my vision with Daniel’s barer, more functional description:
It relates to observing directly the collapse of the illusion of duality, the collapse of awareness into the intelligence or cognition of the perceived. It is a bit like staring back at yourself (or something intelligent regardless of whether it looks like you) with no one on this side to be stared at and then collapsing into that image. […] The no-self door is the opposite of the suffering door, in that everything comes this way (rather than everything going that way). The no-self door aspect tends to be the most pleasant, easy, and visually interesting of the three. It is slightly slower than the others, maybe a half of a second for all three to four moments of it. (Ingram 2018: 261)
Most of my fruitions have been fruitions through the door of no-self. More than once the vision has taken the form of looking into the eyes of a deity and all sense of separation collapsing. In an interesting variant, a beautifully cut crystal appeared. It was gradually, slowly revolving. The light was such that I knew the crystal would soon reflect a dazzling ray from one of its facets directly into my eyes. There was an exquisite, agonising moment of expectation. The crystal continued slowly to turn, and then – wham. The light hit and I was totally gone.
So regularly were my fruitions entering by the door of no-self, I set myself the task of intentionally entering through the door of suffering. I changed my practice to investigating whatever happened to be the most unpleasant sensation I was aware of. Although not much fun, it was interesting. First, I had to realise how having a crappy experience is not the same as the supposed crappiness inherent in reality itself. In fact, neither satisfaction nor non-satisfaction reside in reality, but only in the story we tell ourselves about an “I” that decides it is having an experience of one or the other. Wherever this was leading, I shuddered to imagine what sort of ghastly vision Daniel’s description of this door might entail:
The suffering door relates directly to “the mind” releasing its fixation on the whole of relative reality and allowing the whole of it to fall away completely, meaning away from where we thought we were. It can also feel like all existence is suddenly ripped away from us. In this, as with the other doors, the mind followed a phenomenon to its final and complete disappearance and didn’t do the strange, blinking-out, glossing-over thing that it typically does regarding this gap between moments. The suffering door aspect tends to be the most unsettling or wrenching of the three doors, the most death-like. It is always a touch creepy. (Ingram 2018: 261)
The vision, when it came, was recorded in my journal as follows:
Looking up at a tall building on which was an inexplicable kind of mushroom sculpture. Suddenly the whole thing was snatched away by something invisible. It was jerked suddenly away and out of sight in a manner that felt violent, cruel, and sinister – because I could not see who or what had done this. In that moment of shocking, unexpected movement, there was nothing.
Fruitions come in all shapes and sizes, depending on the mind that hosts them. In minds like mine they are accompanied by visions; other minds seem capable of registering them in a more direct or abstract mode. It also seems possible to overlook fruitions altogether, noticing them only in retrospect by the effects left behind.
If we approach Daniel’s descriptions as templates rather than specific descriptions, then, of course, it increases the risk of identifying as a fruition experiences that might be nothing of the kind. On the other hand, it offers the possibility to refine and sharpen our observation of the minute details of experience.
One day, maybe, we will all see the doughnut.
Chapman, Alan & Duncan Barford (2009). The Blood of the Saints. Brighton: Heptarchia.
Ingram, Daniel M. (2018). Mastering the Core Teachings of the Buddha. Revised and expanded edition. London: Aeon.