Depressive Hedonia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Dear Unknown Friend,” he says,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

References

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

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

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

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

Limitations

Transcript of Episode #108 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.