Coagula

Meditation on the breath is not supposed to be relaxing. It is supposed to be intense.

The aim is to cultivate concentration, achieved by hurling every morsel of awareness at the sensory experience of the breath. Notice every wiggling blip in each fluxing microsecond. Ramp up awareness to a pitch that borders on the unbearable. Do not fry yourself, of course, but consider that the possibility of overdoing it is maybe what is needed to maximise the practice.

Abandon the risible notion that “mindfulness” is only beneficial to mental health. If avoiding hurt is the aim, it is inadvisable to embark on such practice. Care for yourself by balancing intensity of practice with wholesome activities and relationships, and with supplementary practices to generate compassion and a grounding in the mundane.

Mantra meditation is amenable to the same approach. Reject the mantra as a background murmur, as a somnolent drone, but with the white heat of attention forge your mantra into an ear-shattering tsunami of a rock opera, or a heart-melting symphony of orchestras and choirs. Make it into what you will not possibly ignore, what you cannot resist losing yourself inside.

After a few days, the drone of the fan heater than warmed the venue of our retreat had become a cathedral organ, intoning an intricate, melancholy sonata. When the retreat ended each of us could recall its tune and we hummed it together. This is the most meagre example of the magickal potential of concentration. Focus the mind beyond the level that daily life affords, and strange and wondrous realms fall open.

Fire kasina practice involves staring at a candle flame until a retinal after-image forms. Then, closing the eyes, instead of the flame itself the after-image is taken as the object of concentration. The after-image passes through a sequence of transformations: at first it is oval, then it condenses down into a bright red dot. After this it dims slowly, eventually becoming a black dot, and then the entire visual field resolves into bustling grey static, signalling that it is time to open the eyes and stare at the actual candle flame. Repeat this sequence, throwing your entire attention into all its details. Repeat over and over, for twelve to fifteen hours per day. Keep it up, take care of yourself, and after three or four days things become interesting. After seven to ten days your concentration may have reached full power, but will drain away within twenty-four hours unless you maintain the practice for a minimum of about five hours daily.

In fire kasina practice, the object of concentration floats right before your face in a way most people will find harder to be distracted from than a mantra or the breath. I know of no better method for incubating concentration, and for experiencing how, with concentration, magick arises.

By taking the after-image of the flame as the object of concentration (the so-called nimitta or “sign”) we enter a realm oddly positioned between perception and imagination because the retinal after-image is neither wholly mental nor wholly physical. In daily life we tend to maintain a sense of a boundary between “out there” and “in here”. Transgressing this, the result is magick.

Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860), author of The World as Will and Representation (1819). We’ll get to him in a moment…

On retreat I noticed a vivid mental image: the face of a bearded god. Each time I closed my eyes I saw him clearly. The odd thing was that if I turned my head the visual perspective on him changed. Something in my mind was acting as if it belonged in the external world! This occurred only a few days into the retreat. Later came transportations into other realities, sometimes inhabited by sentient beings that – in one instance – took the form of a spider-like creature with the head of a buddha. Its legs were covered all over with asynchronously blinking eyes.

As the distinction between imagination and perception progressively fell away, there were experiences that might be described as telepathy. Once, I was able to “see” the colour and shape of a figure another retreatant was visualising. Another time, a vision showed me that someone had run into difficulties, even though he was in a distant room. Daniel Ingram reports a beam of light that surged from his body and flew across the room, into the flame of a candle, causing it to burn sideways (as he had consciously willed) for a few seconds.  He raises the question whether a witness (had there been one) would have seen the same (Ingram 2018: 555-6). As every magician knows, magick is tricksy. Its results do not necessarily manifest in straightforward, literal ways.

I am only half joking when I describe a fire kasina retreat as a long, slow journey into psychosis and (hopefully) out again. The practice chips away until there is no boundary between mental imagery and perception. Reality then assumes a curiously molten quality: vivid, and filled as usual with inexhaustible detail, but strangely malleable and to some extent shapable by conscious intentions.

Professor Hans Gerding, alongside his research in the field of parapsychology, offers counselling sessions to people troubled by anomalous experiences. In a podcast interview, Gerding described how Arthur Schopenhauer’s The World as Will and Representation (1819) can be useful for conceptualising paranormal experiences.

Schopenhauer asserts that among all the objects in the universe, there is only one object, relative to each of us – namely, our physical body – that is given in two entirely different ways. It is given as representation (i.e., objectively; externally) and as Will (i.e., subjectively; internally). One of his notable conclusions is that when we move our hand, this is not to be comprehended as a motivational act that first happens, and then causes the movement of our hand as an effect. He maintains that the movement of our hand is but a single act – again, like the two sides of a coin – that has a subjective feeling of willing as one of its aspects, and the movement of the hand as the other. More generally, he adds that the action of the body is nothing but the act of Will objectified, that is, translated into perception. (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy 2017)

“Will” in Schopenhauer refers to the inner, subjective aspect of things. Individual consciousness is what we experience as the inner, subjective aspect of our body, and Schopenhauer suggests that all things possess this aspect in some way. Consequently, he situates Will in the place of Kant’s thing-in-itself: the universe is the expression of Will presented through the Kantian categories of space, time, and causality. This approach leads in interesting directions. The most relevant to us here is the idea that perception is not a window onto reality but a means by which Will manifests. Perception is an “outward” presentation of the “interior”. Of course, the two are not separate: the “outward” is the interior’s means of viewing itself. It then becomes comprehensible how concentration upon an object (that is, inward focusing upon an outward manifestation), reinstates the primacy of Will over presentation by bringing them together. This manoeuvre is the act of magick.

Professor Gerding remarks how Schopenhauer’s philosophy provides a space in which paranormal phenomena can occur:

Here lies the world of the paranormal, because it is possible to go – as it were – in the world of the Will, and go back into the world of phenomena at another place, another time, and when this happens people report precognitive dreams. […] These paranormal phenomena can only be explained if you take his philosophy seriously. (Ellis 2020: 20’37”)

For Kant the thing-in-itself is inaccessible, unknowable. But for Schopenhauer, if the universe is the objectification of Will as perception, and if we participate in Will through our own consciousness, then (as Gerding describes) would it not be possible to enter into Will in a way that might then influence how Will presents itself in perception?

Distraction, everyday consciousness, is a preoccupation with the representations by which Will manifests. But we can also use concentration to move in the opposite direction and enter more deeply into Will. The everyday use of concentration, of course, is simply for focusing on the presentations of Will. Magick, however, is when concentration is used instead to melt down perception into new shapes malleable by Will.

Those practices that select objects situated on the boundary between body and mind (e.g. sensations of the breath, or retinal after-images) seem particularly effective at quickly breaking down perception, as Schopenhauer’s philosophy might have led us to expect. But magick, of course, is not limited to these: any act with an intention of changing how reality manifests is likely to meet the criteria of magick. It will probably also employ concentration to an extraordinary degree in order to bring about its desired effect.

References

Ellis, James (2020). Hermitix: Schopenhauer and philosophical counselling with Hans Gerding. https://tinyurl.com/ya8vmy6a (podiant.co). Accessed December 2020.

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

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (2017). Arthur Schopenhauer. https://tinyurl.com/y8sc6eg4 (stanford.edu). Accessed December 2020.

 

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.