Sigils

Sigils are a hallmark of chaos magick, yet it was interesting to hear Phil Hine suggesting recently that the chaos magickal approach might actually have over-complicated their usage (Ross 2020: 11’53”).

Peter Carroll in Liber Null and Psychonaut (1987: 20-22) delineated the classic process for sigil magick: construct a glyph from a written statement of intention; focus upon the glyph and enter an altered state; and then, after the climax of the rite, forget all about it.

Carroll’s technique was based on the writings of Austin Osman Spare:

When conscious of the Sigil form (any time but the Magical) it should be repressed, a deliberate striving to forget it, by this it is active and dominates at the unconscious period, its form nourishes and allows it to become attached to the sub-consciousness and become organic, that accomplished, is its reality and realization. (Spare 2001: 177)

In Spare’s view, conscious desire or belief separates us from what and who we really are – which is unconscious. Spare, in turn, was influenced by Freud. Spare’s sigil magick produces a symbolic form for an intention, but then, by disguising and forgetting that symbol, it supposedly creates a means for the intention to fall into the unconscious where it becomes “organic” – part of our lived nature rather than merely a desire for or a belief about ourselves.

Sigmund Freud (1856-1939)

A process or a technique is a means of causing something to happen. Spare’s use of sigils supposedly turns a belief or an intention into a realised, unconscious aspect of the self. But because he draws upon Freudian thinking Spare is open to some of the criticisms levelled at Freud, including the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein’s argument that Freudian thought is bedevilled by a confusion between reasons and causes.

For instance: low atmospheric temperature causes snow. But the reason for snow is the air being cold. What distinguishes a reason from a cause is meaning: the interposition of a perceiving mind between one thing happening and another. Cold weather causes snow regardless, but a reason for snow arises only in a perceiving mind that has or shares with other minds a lived experience of snow.

Wittgenstein criticised Freud’s tendency to suggest that psychoanalysis revealed the causes of human behaviour and was therefore a science. Certainly, this is not the case. However, in Freud’s defence, in the realm of the mind reasons often carry more significance than causes. Consider: the cause of a depression is decreased serotonin, but the reason for it might be the death of a loved one. Reasons are how reality operates at the human level.

Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951)

Freud set out by attempting to account for human mental processes at a causal level, but soon abandoned his so-called Project for a Scientific Psychology (Freud 1895) and psychoanalysis was born. It is a mistake to regard psychoanalytic entities such as the id, ego and superego as anything more than theoretical constructs. Through these constructs psychoanalysis offers not causes but reasons for various types of human experiences. Freud may have wanted to intervene at the level of causality, but the degree to which therapy is effective lies in its exploration of reasons for suffering, offering possibilities to change the meanings we ascribe to experience rather than necessarily altering the conditions that cause it.

What chaos magick incorporated from Freud, via Spare, is perhaps a similar preference for causes rather than reasons. However, the skeptics who insist that magick does not work are correct in the sense that magick does indeed lack any basis in causality. Instead, it operates at the level of mind, of reason. Where the skeptics go wrong is in supposing that by “mind” is meant something not wholly sufficient in itself nor quite real.

Carroll’s procedure for sigil magick yields results, but it does not work (in the sense of causing something to happen). Alan Chapman and I made the experiment of messing around with Carroll’s technique, sometimes leaving out the altered state of consciousness, sometimes intentionally remembering the sigil and/or the desire it represented after the ritual. Guess what? The magick still bore results.

Servitors are another staple of chaos magickal practice: these are thoughtforms or entities created by the magician to perform a specific function. The advantage of a servitor over a sigil is not having to start a working completely from scratch. If you need to heal someone or find a new job or a place to a live, you fire up the servitor previously designed for the purpose. Yet this evidently contradicts the principles on which sigil magick is supposed to work. How could it be that sigils work only when we forget them, but servitors work (supposedly with increased efficacy over time) if we give our attention to them frequently and repeatedly?

Many magicians will have had the experience of deciding to cast a sigil, only to find that the desired result manifests even before they get around to doing it. This suggests that results from sigil magick arise regardless of whether we forget the sigil, alter our state of consciousness, or – indeed – whether we actually produce a sigil or perform any kind of ritual at all!

Alan’s conclusion:

Magicians (in their various guises) have always strived to understand “how” magick works so that they might be able to do it “correctly”. But whenever a magician wonders “what is the correct method of getting a result?” they are falling victim to the fog of simplicity — because what you do, and the result you get, is your decision. There are no laws (unless you create them) and there are no secrets (unless you pretend). (Chapman 2008: 36)

There are no causes in magick, only reasons. And because reasons proceed from mind (rather than from matter, as it is conceived by materialists), then we can determine them for ourselves to a significant degree. Magick can change and expand experience because it is not restricted by causation.

If we suppose instead that magick “works”, that it operates according to specific principles or techniques, then we enter the realm of technology. I disagree with Arthur C. Clarke’s assertion: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic” (Clarke 1973: 21). Technology is a kind of image or echo of magick. There is always a significant difference between them: magick expands or changes experience, whereas technology seeks merely to replicate inner experience outwardly. For example, internet technology connects us in an ersatz telepathy but has not changed human experience itself in ways likely to facilitate the union of humankind any time soon.

Nevertheless, technology is valuable. Meditation and prayer are technologies: methods for replicating certain states or insights. But whether they produce genuine growth and change depends on our reason for practising them. “Magick works in practice but not in theory”, Peter Carroll commented recently, and was seemingly taken aback by the implications of his own remark (Carroll 2020). There can be no theory of how magick works other than the theory that it does not work at all, because magick operates in the realm of reasons rather than causes.

Having a reason to use magick is all and everything we need.

References

Carroll, Peter (1987). Liber Null and Psychonaut. San Francisco: Red Wheel / Weiser.

Carroll, Peter (2020). Magic works in practise [sic] but not in theory. https://tinyurl.com/y8y2l9p2 (specularium.org). Accessed January 2021.

Chapman, Alan (2008). Advanced Magick for Beginners. London: Aeon.

Clarke, Arthur C. (1973). Profiles of the Future: an Inquiry into the Limits of the Possible. New York: Harper & Row.

Freud, Sigmund. (1895). Project for a Scientific Psychology, in: The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, translated by James Strachey, vol 1: 281-391. London: Hogarth.

Hoenisch, Steve (1996). The myth of psychoanalysis: Wittgenstein contra Freud. https://tinyurl.com/y7exutz2 (criticism.com). Accessed December 2020.

Ross, Keats (2020). Pragmagick: Phil Hine’s varieties – beyond chaos. https://tinyurl.com/y6vg2sop (wethehallowed.org). Accessed December 2020.

Spare, Austin Osman (2001). Ethos. I-H-O Books.

 

Relationship

I am not sure that he ever wrote it down, but Alan Chapman gave what I consider the best definition of the Holy Guardian Angel (HGA):

A dualistic representation of the non-dual.

In eastern spiritual traditions realisation of non-duality is labelled “awakening” or “enlightenment” whereas the western magickal tradition personifies this realisation as the Knowledge and Communication of the HGA (KCHGA).

“Angel” is often employed as a term of convenience in western magick for any type of entity, process, or experience that lacks a material basis. For instance, if a person survives a situation or illness against extreme odds, this can be experienced as the intervention of an angel. Similarly, processes that act on a transhuman level (such as historical, national or cultural transitions) may also find expression as angelic personifications. A famous example is the Angel of the Mons, an entity that supposedly shielded British forces from certain defeat at the Battle of Mons in Belgium, 1914. This incident most likely originated from fiction and propaganda, but that did not prevent eyewitness reports of angels from troops who were present (e.g. Russell 2017).

The Book of the Sacred Magic of Abramelin the Mage, our source text for the KCHGA, powerfully describes what meeting our HGA is like:

you shall see your Guardian Angel appear unto you in unequalled beauty; who also will converse with you, and speak in words so full of affection and goodness, and with such sweetness, that no human tongue could express the same […] In one word, you shall be received by him with such affection that this description which I here give unto you shall appear a mere nothing in comparison. (MacGregor-Mathers 1976: 84-5)

The experience of non-duality can be described in many ways, but the dualistic representation of the non-dual that is the HGA very clearly portrays it as like being in the presence of someone lovely beyond expression. For Abraham, the narrator of the text, the KCHGA is a coming into relationship with a being absolutely good and perfect. It is a wondrous and unique relationship: “your Guardian Angel is already about you, though Invisible, and conducteth and governeth your heart, so that you shall not err” (MacGregor-Mathers 1976: 78).

To arrive at the KCHGA demands of the magician attainment of the understanding by which this relationship becomes possible. The ritual given in the text for this purpose (henceforth referred to as the Abramelin ritual) is elaborate and long and it is not my aim to rehearse it here. What it boils down to essentially is prayer, but not routine or formulaic prayer: “it is absolutely necessary that your prayer should issue from the midst of your heart” (MacGregor-Mathers 1976: 65). In its very core, the Abramelin ritual is simply heart-felt prayer, for a couple of hours every day, over a period of six months.

It is widely repeated that Aleister Crowley failed at the Abramelin ritual. The full story is far more complicated and subtle than that. I shall discuss this in more detail in the book I am currently writing, but the gist of my argument is that Crowley completed the Abramelin ritual numerous times in different modalities. Yes, he did not complete the ceremony in the specific form that Abraham describes, but instead he fulfilled its objective through the use of an alternative ritual (both physically and astrally), through visionary trance work, and through purely psychological techniques.

As related in The Baptist’s Head Trilogy, Alan Chapman and I had the good fortune to discover that the methods and techniques of chaos magick can be applied to awakening. So why go to the trouble of sourcing a purpose-built temple with a terrace covered in river sand (which is what Abraham instructs us to do) when (as Crowley demonstrated) simpler methods lead just as surely to the HGA?

However, just because the methods are simplified this does not mean the work will be easy. The “fake it till you make it” methodology of chaos magick will only take us so far into the KCHGA. To imagine we can “belief shift” our way into (or out of) an encounter with the HGA would imply a controlling ego deciding what and when to believe. This may suffice for sorcery, but the KCHGA is theurgy. Eventually we will hit a point where our ego and the dualistic representation that is the angel must yield to the direct experience of the non-dual. Sometimes a preliminary to this occurs as a vision of how the HGA has always been with us, a guiding and nurturing presence. But the full realisation of the KCHGA is that there was never any separation from the HGA – we are one and the same.

I have noticed recently some recurrent difficulties described by magicians undertaking this work from a chaos magickal perspective. The first of these is a sense of incompleteness: “amazing things happen but don’t lead anywhere”. The second is relentless doubt over whether the entity invoked is truly the HGA. The solution to both is quietly ready and waiting in the very notion of the HGA itself.

Unlike other traditions that characterise awakening or enlightenment as a state, the KCHGA is presented as a relationship. The practices we undertake for the KCHGA are therefore intended to cultivate that relationship, rather to act simply as a means for attaining a result.

An analogy: we could go to a restaurant to eat, or with someone on a date. In both cases the aim is food, but in the latter case something more besides. We could still enjoy a good date even if the food were bad. Success at the KCHGA is developing the kind of relationship where the date is great even if the food never arrives.

As previously mentioned, the KCHGA is theurgy not sorcery. Magicians with a background in chaos magick are likely to arrive at the KCHGA with a very results-based mindset, and this is where that feeling of “that was amazing but now – so what?” originates. Just because you had some nice food with someone does not mean you have found the love of your life. Once we decide to use the KCHGA paradigm as the means to arrive at non-duality (and there are plenty of good reasons to do so) then the work has to focus on the relationship to the angel rather than upon any state or experience construed as an ultimate goal or result of this.

Flip it around: suppose you were a HGA whose sole task is to guide to awakening the human being you are guardian over. Your human frequently invites you around for dinner, occasionally seeming totally into you and having a great time, but on other occasions they complain of feeling confused because these meetings are not leading anywhere. In this situation, what would you want to say to your human? What would be the likely effect of their behaviour on your relationship?

Sorcery is great for getting a handle on your HGA. Chaos magick techniques will readily obtain the HGA’s name, sigil, visual image, and other attributes, but these are not the goal; they only serve the KCHGA to the extent that they enable the relationship to develop. Chaos magick obtains results but does not help in ascertaining if those results are true. If you are the type of magician who cringes at seeing the last word of the previous sentence without scare quotes, then the work of the KCHGA may become clouded by doubt.

Rather than thinking in terms of whether a correct result has been gained, once more we should approach the question in relational terms. Suppose you were seeing someone but were not certain they were truly what and who they claimed? If there are grounds for supposing the other is not what they seem then there is simply no basis for a relationship. The HGA by definition wants what is best for us, but our only reason for remaining in a relationship with someone we fundamentally do not trust is because we believe we cannot have or do not deserve anything better. Either we must work on understanding why we do that to ourselves, or we should find someone else who obviously has our best interests at heart. No experience proves more conclusively how much the HGA loves us than a mind-blowing synchronicity, leaving us in no doubt we are indeed at the very centre of the universe.

The HGA is a dualistic representation of the non-dual. What this definition brings to light is at once a potential problem but also that problem’s solution. The problem stems from the fact that the HGA is not the non-dual, but the solution lies in how the personification of the non-dual places the focus of the work not on an attainment of a goal but on the development of a relationship.

There is no bond that can unite the divided but love: all else is a curse. (Crowley 1909: I, 41)

References

Crowley, Aleister (1909). Liber AL vel Legis. https://tinyurl.com/uusb5b3 (sacred-texts.com). Accessed November 2020.

MacGregor-Mathers, Samuel Liddell (1976). The Book of the Sacred Magic of Abra-Melin the Mage. Wellingborough: Thorsons.

Russell, Steve (2017). My grandfather said he saw the Angel of Mons. Beccles and Bungay Journal (27 June), https://tinyurl.com/y2bzrme7 (becclesandbungayjournal.co.uk). Accessed November 2020.

 

Evolving

Form is emptiness; emptiness is evolving. (Oelke 2019).

This quotation from Zen teacher David Loy has featured in discussions of “Metadharma”, a new approach to Buddhist practice being developed by the influential Buddhist Geeks sangha. Vincent Horn, its founder, defines Metadharma as “any approach to dharma practice that responds in some intentional way to the meta crisis that we face as a species” (Buddhist Geeks 2019a: 0’46”).

Metadharma holds that Buddhism needs a revamp because it cannot respond to present crises with the level of social engagement demanded. Buddhism’s original emphasis was upon realising emptiness as a means to escape suffering. “Now, indeed, you often abide in the abiding of a great man”, the Buddha congratulated Sariputta. “For this is the abiding of a great man, namely, voidness [emptiness]” (Bodhi 1995: 1143). Loy’s comment represents a different approach, alluding to the Heart Sutra as a reminder that emptiness and form are not separate, so if form is evolving then emptiness is evolving too. Therefore, to abide in emptiness is unfeasible as a response to the challenges posed by the world of form.

Yet this is not what we encounter in personal experience. After years spent investigating the ubiquity in everyday experience of the three characteristics (impermanence, suffering, and no-self), emptiness was realised when something else became apparent that never wanes, does not suck, is nothing at all, and yet is available to awareness. Part of the experience of emptiness is the direct intuition that it is indeed the same for all, and throughout all time.

Ken Wilber argues, however, that what we cannot see is precisely what points to the future direction of Buddhism (Buddhist Geeks 2019b, 2019c). Wilber draws a distinction between “waking up” and “growing up”. There is the realisation of emptiness, but there is also what we make of that realisation and how we integrate it into our lives and practice. Describing it as “the abiding of a great man” when actually it is the realisation of something that was always the case, and is available to every single person on earth, is a case in point. What we make of emptiness is determined by our stage of development with regard to many factors, such as education, culture, ethics, and our level of cognitive and emotional intelligence. All of these shape our experience, but none of them are visible from within it. Wilber makes the case for a new phase (a “fourth turning”) of Buddhism that incorporates practices for “growing up” and “cleaning up” alongside the traditional “waking up”.

Metadharma. A fourth turning?

Spiritual traditions grow and develop but they also fade and decay, so how do we tell if a new phase is truly a fresh development and not the corruption of something already on its way out? Evolution is a harrowing process. Living things evolve not because they are seeking to better themselves, but to survive. Every so-called “new phase” is also just a means to fend off death for a little while longer.

Emptiness is eternal, but living species die, and evolution is the process that kills as well as engenders them. To say “emptiness is evolving” suggests that emptiness is subject to evolution, but it is emptiness that allows evolution, because without emptiness there is no dependent origination, which means things could never manifest as things nor give rise to others if they were not in themselves inherently empty.

Perhaps Loy goes wrong with his unstated assumption that form is evolving. Certainly, living things evolve, but living things are not the totality of form. Neither subatomic particles, planets nor black holes seem to reproduce by natural selection. It is presently uncertain whether the universe will ultimately die a slow heat death or somehow recycle itself – the “Big Freeze” or the “Big Crunch” (NASA 2015). Living things must adapt to their material conditions to survive, but life and its environment are both aspects of form. Rather than evolving, form might instead be simply on a long hiding into nothingness, or locked in an eternally repeating cycle.

Presently, like many institutions, western Buddhism is under pressure and maybe clutching for a means to survive. Buddhist Geeks has espoused the postmodern view that all expressions of truth are partial, and the distrust of grand narratives that this entails. But when a tradition is under strain, it is difficult to imagine a response is not also an attempt to make one’s own narrative less partial. Metadharma, by including practices for personal development and social engagement, seems to be taking on functions more traditionally associated with the education system or a political movement. Although this may attract more outwardly diverse practitioners, it will likely generate greater homogenisation in terms of liberal values and politics. Might this not end up contributing to the current trend towards polarisation?

My route into spirituality and the occult was largely through the tradition of chaos magick. In case it seems I am smugly criticising western Buddhism, chaos magick (and perhaps the occult in general) is in an even worse mess. Because of its emphasis on technique and lack of a coherent worldview, chaos magick is not even a spiritual tradition as such. It just so happened I had the good fortune to be guided towards the discovery that its techniques can lead to genuine spiritual experiences, when coupled with an intention to produce these.

black flags with gold, eight-pointed star
Eurasian Youth Union flags.

In more recent years the founder of chaos magick has adopted increasingly nationalist views (Carroll 2020); in Russia, Alexander Dugin has used the techniques and iconography of chaos magick in the service of far-right Eurasian nationalism; and similarly, in the USA, Steve Bannon and Richard Spencer have employed meme magick among the alt-right to help Donald Trump into power (Lachman 2018). Given all this turmoil and confusion, I was not surprised to hear the following in a recent episode of the Weird Studies podcast:

All those chaos magicians who think that […] magick should be available to anyone […] Magick spells are guns […] You’ve read “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice”: chaos will ensue […] So I guess that’s what chaos magicians want. (Ford & Martel 2020: 1hr22’25”)

The dilemmas of western Buddhism are mild in comparison with the challenges facing chaos magick: appropriation by the far right, and a not unwarranted association with unethical behaviour. Yet there seems to have been no public debate within chaos magick regarding an appropriate response. So far, the problem has been ignored, which maybe chimes with the core values of the movement: magick as simply a set of techniques, available to anyone for any purpose they choose.

Chaos magick and western Buddhism have provided me with major points of reference regarding my spiritual practice and ethical values. But as the war of all against all hots up, both traditions are under pressure, perhaps about to fall apart at the seams. Chaos magick has been invaded by the right; western Buddhism seems set on transforming into a bastion of liberalism. But the changes to both seem to be detracting from the practices and values that attracted me in the first place.

Emptiness is not evolving; form is that which, because it is emptiness, can pass away and die. Chaos magick continues to provide wonderful techniques for creating form from intention, and Buddhism has always provided useful instruction on how (in many senses) to die well. What formerly was provided from the outside by these traditions, in the future we may need to embody for ourselves from within.

References

Bodhi, Bhikkhu, translator (1995). Pindapataparisuddhi sutta: the purification of almsfood [MN 151]. In: The Middle Length Discourses of the Buddha. Boston, MA: Wisdom Publications.

Buddhist Geeks (2019a). Metadharma: introduction and framing. https://youtu.be/fYjKa-6nQ6o (youtube.com). Accessed October 2020.

Buddhist Geeks (2019b) Toward a fourth turning, part one, with Ken Wilber. https://tinyurl.com/y3vg4xc6 (art19.com). Accessed October 2020.

Buddhist Geeks (2019c) Toward a fourth turning, part two, with Ken Wilber. https://tinyurl.com/y6zzztey (art19.com). Accessed October 2020.

Carroll, Peter (2020). End June 2020. https://tinyurl.com/y46vb5no (specularium.org). Accessed October 2020.

Ford, Phil & J.F. Martel (2020) Weird studies episode 82 – on the I Ching. https://tinyurl.com/y5xe5655 (weirdstudies.com). Accessed October 2020.

Lachman, Gary (2018). Dark Star Rising: Magick and Power in the Age of Trump. New York: TarcherPerigree.

NASA (2015). What is the ultimate fate of the universe? https://tinyurl.com/yxm2yyb3 (nasa.gov). Accessed October 2020.

Oelke, Ryan (2019). Empty and evolving. https://tinyurl.com/y24oyw27 (awakeninginlife.guide). Accessed October 2020.