Limitations

Transcript of Episode #008 of the OEITH podcast, The Limits of Magick, exploring the shortcomings of “belief-shifting”, and the politico-spiritual problems in assuming the individual creates their reality.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Word

Transcript of Episode #005 of the OEITH podcast, The Word of the Magus, exploring the role of the magus, their relationship to their word, the meaning and importance of this, and its practical and ethical implications.

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

Grant Morrison

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

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

Rob Burbea

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Really? Doing nothing?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Darian Leader

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Homer, The Odyssey

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

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

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

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

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

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

Harm

“[M]ight it not be the case”, wonders Federico Campagna, concerning these turbulent times, “that imagination, action or even just life or happiness seem impossible, because they are impossible, at least within the present reality-settings?” (Campagna 2018: 2)

Technic and Magic by Federico Campagna
Technic and Magic by Federico Campagna

In Technic and Magic: The Reconstruction of Reality (2018) he takes the bold and unusually optimistic approach of fiddling with those settings in order to configure a new reality that he names “Magic”. He contrasts this with “Technic”, which is the defining paradigm of modernity, under which “nothing legitimately exists otherwise than as an instrument, ready to be employed in the limitless production of other instruments, ad infinitum” (Campagna 2018: 30).

Campagna adopts a Neoplatonist metaphysic, defining both Technic and Magic in terms of a series of contrasting hierarchical hypostases. It is an interesting approach, but for me it does not hold. In Neoplatonism, the hypostases (The One, Intellect, Soul, etc.) are realities in themselves; it is not simply the arrangement of ideas in a hierarchy that produces reality. Consequently, it is not possible to “swap out” hypostases or invent new ones, which is precisely what Campagna does.

His assumption is that reality is conceptual in nature (rather than experiential), definable by the relationship presumed to obtain between existence and essence during a specific historical period (Campagna 2018: 110). To posit the divine as a reality in itself would be untenable within this framework: “such absolute monism wouldn’t allow for any reality as such to take place” (Campagna 2018: 125). It is odd how some of Campagna’s underlying assumptions seem to partake of Technic, our nemesis, for whom all things “are nothing more than the simultaneous activation of positions in different series” (Campagna 2018: 70).

For all the difficulties I had with this text I found much of value in it, including Campagna’s formulation of what surfaces at the point where Technic hits its limit: the unsurmountable fact that for human beings it is unbearable to be dehumanised.

Technic’s response to this protest is to re-frame it:

The current epidemic of mental illness is not presented as a symptom of Technic’s own limit […] but rather as a problem of life itself that Technic has to tackle and fix through socio-medical means […] Technic denies the existence of anything that would authentically escape it, defining it instead as a possibility that hasn’t been fulfilled. For example, life’s mortality is included within Technic’s cosmology as an as-yet-unreached (but by no means unreachable) state of immortality […] (Campagna 2018: 93)

Technic regards it as a sorry failure of personal resilience if we buckle beneath the misery of the dominant materialist paradigm, in which consciousness is merely an epiphenomenon of physical processes, creating an illusion of meaning in a fundamentally meaningless universe – even though no one truly inhabits this paradigm, precisely because it is inhuman.

For Technic to fix life, firstly it must show life to be broken, so life without Technic must be represented as vulnerable, as “not safe”. However, as Campagna points out, “safety is a negative concept: one is safe from a threat, not in itself” (Campagna 2018: 229). To make us feel safe, Technic must first persuade us that life is a threat. In this context the notion of “harm” is used to distract us from life itself.

I encountered an small example of how this plays out in practice as a member of a paranormal investigation organisation, whose major contribution is its Code of Ethics for paranormal investigators (ASSAP 2011). It seemed to me that during the period of my membership those running the organisation were chiefly interested in advancing a sceptical agenda. The Code of Ethics seemed to be surreptitiously serving this. Two examples: “If a client has suffered a relevant bereavement within six months of making contact the case should not be accepted”, and: “We recommend you do not come into contact with minors (under the age of 18)”.

I am not arguing that these guidelines do not reflect valid and important ethical concerns but highlighting how following them will tend to preclude certain types of situations likely to present us with phenomena that could be labelled “paranormal”. The guidelines might even seem intended to prevent the very types of experience that they supposedly regulate the investigation of. If Maurice Grosse and Guy Lyon Playfair had followed this code, for instance, we would never have heard of the Enfield Poltergeist (Playfair 2011) or have the wealth of important data that was compiled from that case.

There is no doubt that recently bereaved people and emotionally disturbed teenagers are vulnerable to harm if already distressing experiences are stoked and amplified by the involvement of paranormal investigators. The most ethical course (in the sense of taking the minimal risk of doing harm) is often not to involve oneself at all. Yet death and distress are an ever-present aspect of life, and for all the obvious benefits of minimising these, at the same time something is being overlooked in the decision not to engage with them. Certainly, what is being avoided is probably unpleasant, yet it remains a part of life, regardless of our wishes it were not so.

Technic, then, can have ulterior motives for its concern with “harm”, but Campagna’s analysis suggests that Magic also has some difficult questions to answer, because if Magic does not shy from the darker side of life, but gravitates toward it with an attitude that does not award total priority to the minimisation of harm, then on what ethical grounds can Magic rest?

An illustration of the tendency in Magic to disregard harm is presented in Hellier, a nonfiction web series that follows a group of paranormal researchers whose investigations draw them progressively into the occult. It is vital viewing for insights into the dynamics of how the paranormal and the occult are currently formulated.

Hellier, the documentary
Hellier, the documentary

To investigate whether alien abduction experiences possess a non-physical dimension, the group conduct an experiment to implant a memory of abduction into a subject by hypnosis. Despite the subject remarking more than once that he does not feel safe, the hypnotist continues with the session. The result of the experiment is that the subject – who formerly did not believe in alien abductions – “has developed an intense fear of extra-terrestrials and absolutely believes that they exist” (Pfeiffer 2019: 34’38”).

The hypnotist, Lonnie Scott, has stated that he included safety protocols into the session which were not shown onscreen (Scott 2020: 8’49”), but these have evidently not protected the subject from the phobia that was the result of the experiment. None of the group comments on the obvious ethical problems in this sequence, but their interviewee, author and occultist Allen Greenfield, when asked what he thinks the experiment proves, suggests: “that these experiences can be induced by a […] sinister, insensitive, cruel human being into another” (Pfeiffer 2019: 35’25”).

It is not concern with harm but with salvation that Campagna suggests is the ethical basis for Magic. Whereas Technic aims at safety, keeping at bay the darker aspects of the world, in contrast Magic aims at “helping the inhabitants of its world to exist at once inside and outside of the world” (Campagna 2018: 230). Magic offers a way through and out, because: “salvation refers to the rescue of an entity from its exclusive identification with its linguistic dimension, and to its acceptance also of the living, ineffable dimension of its existence” (Campagna 2018: 230). Campagna notes that from the perspective of Magic “everything […] is always-already saved” (Campagna 2018: 231), but what perhaps he does not emphasise is the struggle and trauma usually entailed in realising this. Magic does not shy from the darker side of life, which Technic construes as a threat to safety, yet on its way toward its goal Magic will likely pass through what Technic construes as harm.

Clearly, harm was done to the subject of the hypnotic experiment in Hellier, and the route to salvation from there might seem difficult and less than obvious. If it could be realised from that experience of harm how memories are not the record of our experience, and how even the deepest fears can arise from something that never actually happened, then maybe this could lead to the domain promised by Magic, where we “exist at once inside and outside of the world” (Campagna 2018: 231). But how do we find our way to this place if we were not looking for it and had no inkling that it existed?

Because Magic cannot promise freedom from harm it should never be recommended by one person to another, and neither should a person be initiated into Magic without it being their choice. Yet this does not mean that Magic is necessarily harmful or by definition unethical. Ethical action from the perspective of Magic may not be about the minimisation of harm, but it is about the maximisation of opportunities for salvation.

References

ASSAP (2011). Professional code of ethics. https://tinyurl.com/y2xyg83z (assap.ac.uk). Accessed September 2020.

Campagna, Frederico (2018). Technic and Magic: The Reconstruction of Reality. London: Bloomsbury.

Pfeiffer, Karl (2019). The trickster. Hellier, season 2, episode 7. Planet Weird. YouTube, https://youtu.be/tIct9UmIiRk.

Playfair, Guy Lyon (2011). This House is Haunted, third edition. Guildford: White Crow Books.

Scott, Lonnie (2020). Weird web radio: episode 45 – solo show talking Hellier hypnosis experiments. https://youtu.be/Ha08XhPTq1w (youtube.com). Accessed September 2020.