Depressive Hedonia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Dear Unknown Friend,” he says,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

References

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

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

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

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

Goddess

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

One night a man was crying,
Allah! Allah!

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

The man had no answer to that.

He quit praying and fell into a confused sleep.

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

“Why did you stop praising?”

“Because I’ve never heard anything back.”

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

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

There are love dogs
no one knows the names of.

Give your life
to be one of them.”

Rumi

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kite

I came downstairs and saw that the kite machine had finished. It had taken care of all the troublesome work of launching the kite high above the garden of my parents’ old house. Outside, it was a clear, summer day. The kite was already so high that it could not be seen. Its cord stretched up into the air, vanishing from sight, but I knew both kite and cord shared the same shade of pale blue.

Thanks to the launching machine, what remained was purely the pleasure of taking hold of the cord. I felt the tug of the kite from the other end, like something alive. This was the thrill of it: that direct connection with something vastly remote, invisible yet present.

Gazing up, a series of high-tension wires were dangerously close to the cord. I felt a surge of adrenaline, but realised the cord was already brushing against them. The danger I feared was not real. There was nothing to worry about. I could relax completely into my connection with the high and distant kite.

It felt like a good, healing dream. When I told it to my therapist he looked surprised and disclosed a synchronicity: he was running a men’s group and they were reading together a short story by Somerset Maugham, “The Kite” (1946).

It is the self-proclaimed “odd” tale of Herbert Sunbury, only son of a lower middle-class family, in his early twenties and still living at home with his overly attached mother and somewhat passive father. The story is told to the narrator by a friend, a prison visitor. Herbert is one of the friend’s cases and has been imprisoned for refusing to pay his wife alimony after abandoning her. When the friend asks Herbert why he wants to make his wife suffer he states that he can never forgive her – because she smashed his kite.

We are told how Herbert became obsessed with kites at the age of seven, and every weekend when the weather was favourable he and his parents would join other kite enthusiasts on the common, a tradition maintained ever since, until the day arrives when he invites a girl home to tea named Betty. Herbert’s jealous mother is so insulting towards his new girlfriend that he rebels by asking Betty to marry him. His parents boycott the ceremony, but Betty and Herbert set up home together as newlyweds. Betty cannot understand, however, why a grown man is still so fixated on flying a kite with his parents every weekend.

In a jealous rage, Herbert’s mother insists that the kite she gave him for Christmas all those years ago was never really his. Then, with promises of a huge box-kite that can fly at a height of two miles, his parents entice him back to the common at weekends. At this, Betty’s patience snaps. She throws him out. To his mother’s delight Herbert moves back home where, he realises, he was more comfortable anyway. Driven to desperation by Herbert’s refusal to return or to meet his financial responsibilities, Betty breaks into the coal-shed and smashes up the new box-kite with a hatchet. At least, that is what we are led to assume she did, yet none of the characters sees her do it, and her confession is delivered to Herbert through his father.

The story ends with Herbert in prison, having ignored court orders to support his wife, and relishing the suffering he has inflicted on her when the piano and all their furniture is repossessed.

Perhaps the biggest oddity of the story is its self-conscious framing at beginning and end with disclaimers by the narrator of any understanding of the meaning of Herbert’s behaviour. The narrator states that he knows little of human psychology; he evokes Freud but promptly dismisses him. Maybe this is Maugham’s way of signalling that the obvious Freudian overtones were not primarily what he was aiming at, and so perhaps the narrator’s own interpretation falls nearer the mark:

You see, I don’t know a thing about flying a kite. Perhaps it gives him [Herbert] a sense of power as he watches it soaring towards the clouds and of mastery over the elements as he seems to bend the winds of heaven to his will. It may be that in some queer way he identifies himself with the kite flying so free and so high above him, and it’s as it were an escape from the monotony of life. It may be that in some dim, confused way it represents an ideal of freedom and adventure. And you know, when a man once gets bitten with the virus of the ideal not all the King’s doctors and not all the King’s surgeons can rid him of it. But all this is very fanciful and I dare say it’s just stuff and nonsense. (Maugham 1946)

I am not convinced it is freedom that is the issue for Herbert, who enjoys the confines of his family home, nor precisely the pleasure of domination and control. At his most desperate, he expresses violent intentions towards Betty yet never follows through; his most aggressive act is to throw her onto the bed so he can leave their home, after she kicks him.

What the kite seems to represent in Maugham’s story is Herbert’s desire. A kite soars high whilst never escaping the cord that binds it. Likewise, we feel the pull of desire, but can never break free from it. Our needs and wants might be satisfied, but our desires never are. We desire a person or an object, but having that object or being with that person does not end the desire for them. Desire extends outwardly to things, at the same time presenting itself intensely and close within. Desire is an inmixing of self and other, which is the reason that working with it is so effective for accessing non-dual states of awareness, as in bhakti yoga, tantra, and sex magick. Psychologically desire reveals more about ourselves than whatever it happens to be manifestly directed towards.

In the story, whoever has the kite has Herbert’s desire; wherever the kite goes, Herbert comes attached. “If you marry that woman you’re not going to fly my kite”, threatens his mother. “I never gave it you, I bought it out of the housekeeping money, and it’s mine, see” (Maugham 1946). In her refusal to relinquish the kite it becomes apparent that Herbert’s desire is his mother’s desire. The fundamental gift a mother bestows the child that emerges from her body is independent existence, yet Herbert’s mother deprives him of this by refusing him a desire of his own.

Betty is not able to break through to him. By belittling his passion for kites she alienates herself from his desire. But that is no fault on her part; as an adult woman she might prefer to be the object of his desire rather than the custodian of it. A film version of the story in 1948 could not resist appending a happy ending: the narrator’s friend arranges for Herbert to be let out early from prison, and for Betty to join him on the common where they fly the kite together (Crabtree 1948). In Maugham’s original text, however, Herbert does not recover from Betty’s destruction of the kite. By taking a hatchet to it, she destroys his capacity for desire altogether. At the story’s conclusion he is stranded in prison, consumed with hatred, and cut-off from the world. The kite as a symbol conveys how we need desire to find a grounding in reality at the same time as it lifts us out of ourselves.

man and woman hugging whilst flying a kite
A happy ending for Herbert (George Cole) and Betty (Susan Shaw) in a movie adaptation of Somerset Maugham’s short story “The Kite” (1946), part of an anthology film entitled “Quartet” (1948).

In my dream, I was back at my parents’ old house, but they were not there. I was inhabiting a structure they had provided, whereas for Herbert his actual parents are all too present. And if it is the act of control and mastery that is important for Herbert, in the dream all of this is taken care of automatically by the machine. “Getting it up” is not the dream’s focus; it is about the sensation of connection.

On the day of the dream I had listened to Conner Habib’s podcast on the Archangel Michael (Habib 2020) and been very moved by this, and struck by Habib’s remarks on the traditional image of Michael, in which he is shown killing a devil with a spear or sword:

[…t]he sword and the dragon and Michael’s hand are always connected. In a very real way, the sword becomes a conduit or a bridge between Michael and that other being, the dragon. […] The difficulty with destroying the dragon is that you must connect yourself to it […] We don’t evolve past the dragon, we in-volve him and our hearts must be ready for him. (Habib 2020: 14’53”)

Habib is reading Michael from an anthroposophical perspective. For Habib, as for Steiner, the devil slain by Michael is the reductive materialism that characterises our era. This devil is therefore an aspect of a greater cosmic being, Ahriman. For Steiner, human beings walk a path between the deviating influences of Ahriman and Lucifer (Steiner 2009). The former manifests as a downward, earthwards pull towards materialism, literalism, nationalism; Lucifer takes the form of the opposite skyward drift into intellectualisation, abstraction, utopianism. Whereas Herbert struggles to get his kite off the ground, in the dream mine has completely vanished into the wide blue yonder.

Yet the sense of connection is paramount: the kite is grounded to my body through the exhilarating sensation of its pull. Too much identification with the kite itself would lead, as Maugham’s narrator supposes, to an impulse towards “escape” – a dynamic that finds expression in the archetype of the puer aeternus and the cautionary myth of Icarus. But the dream maybe points in a different direction. As Michael demonstrates how to defeat the enemy by exercising will in the correct way and avoiding the temptation to separate from what we need to engage with, perhaps the dream indicates how to put our desire in order.

an archangel killing the devil with a sword
Josse Lieferinxe, St Michael Killing the Dragon (c. 1500).

Allowing others control of our desire provides a promise of satisfaction, just as Herbert fools himself that his best option is to live at home, but this is to confuse desire with his wants and needs. As will is a conduit between self and world, so desire mediates between the self and the ideal. When desire is extinguished then so is our connection to what we hold to be beautiful, good, and true. Herbert’s mother prevents his desire from ever getting off the ground because she wants him, rather than what is best for him. She entraps him in her own confusion. The kite-flying encapsulates both Herbert’s predicament with his mother and his wish to escape.

As Michael’s sword shows how to destroy the devil by connecting with the devil, maybe the kite demonstrates the converse: how to communicate with the highest. Simply being human guarantees a possibility of realising this: we do not have to “do” anything, desire is a given. We automatically tend towards the good, the beautiful, and the true. Obstacles – those supposedly deadly high tension wires – are false beliefs, like Herbert’s false belief that mum fulfils his desire rather than Betty, just because mum meets his needs; and the narrator’s false belief that human nature is beyond his understanding, whereas everything he says about Herbert is right on point. We go wrong only if, in the grip of false belief, we fail to rise at all or completely lose our connection with the earth.

References

Crabtree, Arthur, director (1948). Quartet. J. Arthur Rank Productions.

Habib, Conner (2020). AEWCH 126: The Archangel Michael. https://tinyurl.com/y2x4nz3m (soundcloud.com). Accessed October 2020.

Maugham, Somerset (1946). The kite. https://tinyurl.com/y64ztas9 (blogspot.com). Accessed October 2020.

Steiner, Rudolf (2009). The influences of Lucifer and Ahriman. https://tinyurl.com/y3g87x9t (rsarchive.org). Accessed October 2020.