Guttershaman 2: Meanings and Patterns, Part Two
“What is truth, man? You heard the weirdo. . .” — Zaphod Beeblebrox
Earlier, I made the point that there’s a difference between what is (for want of a better word) real and what we can actually describe. This is an idea which many find a little troubling.
It’s not a new idea. Plato’s Cave model is a couple of thousand years old at this point; the acceptance that reality cannot be fully described is a basic in Taoism, which is at least twice as old. The modern riff on this, usually called Post-Modernism, has been around long enough in modern society to become cliché.
I think the reason folk find this notion unsettling has a lot to do with the need for stability. Once you start considering just how much of “consensus reality” is neither that real nor that much of a consensus, things get very unstable, very fast. People work harder to reinforce the boundaries of their version of reality when it is questioned — often falling back into simpler beliefs which they don’t have to think too hard about.
“Just keeping it real. . .”
Another reaction is, of course, to ridicule the idea. Often when the idea of a subjective element in perceived reality comes up — both in discussing post-modern ideas in general and modern magic in particular — the line of attack most used is, “You don’t believe anything is real, right? So why can’t you walk through walls then?” or similar.
It’s not that we think nothing is real. It’s just that we’re aware that local definitions of reality vary, that the context matters. If you change language, you change the way you think. Change the way you think, you change which parts of the outside world get filtered. The outside world doesn’t suddenly go away, you just notice different bits of it.
Of course, even that notion of “the outside world” is a blurry one at best. All we can ever know about reality is what we sense — and it’s known both to science and common experience just how easy our senses are to fool. Eyes have blind spots, ears have sound frequencies they can’t hear — and even a small chemical change in the brain (say a few microgrammes of an entheogen like LSD, or a lowering of sugar or oxygen levels) will completely mess up both the filters and the mind receiving the data. Yet knowing this doesn’t change most people’s opinion that what they see and sense is Really Real Reality. But there seems to be something beneath that sense data and filtering. Usually.
For example. . .
Just because you’re so off your face that the cars whizzing past you on the street look like Technicolor Unicorns doesn’t alter the cold hard fact that all cars continue to be real — as you will soon find out if you step in front of one. Like Philip K Dick said — reality is that which, if you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away. But that still leaves a lot to play with — especially if belief itself can actually alter what you sense as being real, what you filter out. . . and maybe on some level, in a very small way, the underlying reality itself.
That’s the trouble with magic. It’s so much smaller, subtler, than the hype makes it out to be. The myths and fantasy tales about mages walking through walls, levitating mountains and disintegrating enemies bear as much resemblance to what actually happens as cars exploding in movies does to driving down the road. Of course from inside the mage’s head, what happens can have the same impact mentally as lifting a mountain with their mind. . . or indeed, being hit by that car.
It helps to have some way to balance solid reality with subjective imagination. Magicians lacking this discernment are often found in mental health facilities. The ones who do come to an understanding of the difference often develop a kind of “model agnosticism,” an ability to switch from one description of reality to another, depending on the needs of the moment — but never ignoring all those cars.
One of the handiest mental tools in modern magic is often stated like this: “Treat the things you encounter as if they are real, not as real.” It’s a key concept in the work of Austin Spare and informs many of the less dogmatic Fortean theorists, like Jacques Vallee and Patrick Harpur. There’s a need in magical practice for mages to immerse themselves in belief — if they don’t believe in what they’re doing, the magic doesn’t work too well — but that all too often leads to slipping into the oh so easy mindset that the belief system they’re immersed in is Real. The “as if” rule of thumb helps guard against this. (Crowley’s technique of working intently within a belief system until you get a magical result and then dropping that belief system completely, swapping another one in and repeating the process is also quite instructive. Eventually.)
It’s a lot easier to deal with some of the heavier results of magical working — such as facing something that looks, sounds and acts very much like a god/ demon/ angel/ alien — if you can take that one step back and act as if it is what it looks like, not that it really is that. Though, at the same time, it’s a good idea to treat the alleged apparent entity with the same degree of respect as you would if they were Really Real. That’s just polite. And much, much safer than not doing so.
- I’m very aware that this piece is kind of loose and non-specific. That’s the nature of the beast. I’ll likely waffle on more about this in later posts.
- For a longer and better consideration of the subjective nature of perceived reality, you could do a lot worse than reading Robert Anton Wilson’s Cosmic Trigger Volume 1.
©2008 Ian Vincent
Edited by Christina Ralston and Sheta Kaey
Ian Vincent was born in 1964 and is a lifelong student of the occult. He founded Athanor Consulting, a specialist paranormal protection consultancy, in 2002. He closed Athanor in 2009 to better focus on studying wider aspects of the Art. He blogs on magical theory.