Guttershaman 5: Authenticity, Part 2

Guttershaman 5: Authenticity, Part 2

“Where there is money, you have cheats. The two go together.” — Eric Cantona
“Send lawyers, guns and money — the shit has hit the fan.” — Warren Zevon

Previously on Guttershaman. . .

I was looking at how modern Western “Shamanism” is a mix of ideas borrowed from various native traditions (often without either respect or understanding). I also noted that sometimes the matter of “authenticity” to an existing tradition was not the most significant point — that there are people who seem to have a genuine call to serve their tribe/ culture/ whatever and attempt to honour this vocation as best they can with the tools and ideas they have at hand. Authenticity to this impulse, if done sincerely and thoughtfully, can matter more than devotion to tradition. The question of how all this becomes even more complex when adding commerce to the mix, I left to examine at a later date.

In between then and now we have had a tragic example of how badly that mix can go wrong.

The story of how three people died and dozens were hospitalised as a result of taking part in a “spiritual warrior” sweat lodge held by James Arthur Ray has been heavily discussed, both within the occult community and outside. (A good primer on this can be found at the Wild Hunt blog, and the Wikipedia biography of Ray is also of use.) There’s been an awful lot said about Ray’s particular variation on the New Age Guru — much of it perhaps better left for the legal apparatus.

What is extremely clear, both from reports of those who were involved in the fateful sweat lodge itself and Ray’s own words (on his website — to which I will not directly link — and in his many media appearances) is that his primary focus is money. What’s also clear to me is that his “theology” emphasises something I consider to be one of the nastier habits of many mystical systems — that the soul is far more important than the body.

I think those two points are deeply related.

The idea that spiritual purity and earthly success reflect each other — whether one calls it the Law of Attraction, Prosperity Theology or what have you — may seem to contradict the idea that the soul is more important than the material world. I think that it’s an inevitable result of how soul/ body dualism is usually expressed in the West.

The idea goes:

“Money is power. If I have money, I am powerful. If there is a God or spiritual force, then surely my power and position show that God favours my endeavours. If not, surely I would be poor and powerless.”

Add to this the concept that the soul is immortal and thus above/ better than the body. . . and you get the justification for an awful lot of cruelty and privileged behaviour.

“You’re poor? That means your soul is weak, that God does not love you.”

Then, up steps the Guru.

“I can make your soul better. I can bring you wealth in this world and the next. But in order to show you are ready, that your are committed enough to begin this process, you have to make an offering. A sacrifice to the coming purity of your soul and the inevitable favour of God.”

“That’ll be ten thousand dollars, please. Here’s your receipt.”

If you’re the Guru and your prime interest is making money, it’s quite an effective sales technique — and provides a lovely example of just how powerful the Guru’s mojo is. After all, look how much money he has! He must be good at this!

. . . and if you should fail at the various little tests at the weekend spirit warrior workshop. . .

. . . if you can’t break a board with your hand after an hour of preaching (rather than ten years of martial arts training and physical conditioning). . .

. . . if you can’t stay conscious in a sweltering hut covered in plastic tarps with no water or ventilation. . .

. . . if you die while under the Guru’s tender care. . .

. . . well, that’s a shame. At least your soul learned something. Better luck next incarnation.

This is not to say that it isn’t possible for mystical pursuits to have an effect on the material world — I wouldn’t be much of a magician if I believed that. I also know that spiritual development can demand a heavy toll on the body of the practitioner, that the shamanic path often relies on stress, shock and fear as methods of altering consciousness. But it infuriates me when Gurus and teachers blithely assume that a purified soul is worth any cost to the body.

(It’s exactly the same attitude that leads to exorcisms resulting in the injuring or death of the subject — as long as the “demon” is driven out and the immortal soul saved, it’s considered a price worth paying. As someone who strove to protect in every way those under his care as a professional exorcist and curse-breaker, it disgusts me when the supposed pursuit of spiritual purity is used as an excuse to torture, maim and kill.)

Ray is an especially clear example of how modern conceptions of the shaman are far too often expressed. His publicity makes a great deal about his experiences with several “authentic” native traditions, but also borrows heavily from the layman’s version of quantum theory. . . while showing a painfully superficial understanding of both. There’s a lot of lip service to concepts such as (one of my all-time favourites) becoming a “spiritual warrior” without actually having any martial training or combat experience whatsoever. There’s also the classic come-along of his Deep Inner Knowledge of Mighty Secrets of Power which he will share with you. . . for a hefty fee.

And what he’s selling is such a superficial version of wisdom, a weak dilution of knowledge. Shamanism For Dummies.

He, like so many New Age gurus, sells the illusion that someone can become a powerful magician or shaman without actually putting in the work — the months and years of practice, study and trial it takes to develop yourself. This isn’t just cheating his clients, it’s insulting to those who actually have done the work. It also gives a dangerous impression that Ray and his ilk are far more competent in these matters than they actually are. Ray claimed he was an expert, an authority in this field and as a result people trusted him with their lives and souls — and he wasn’t even able to work out that people in hot rooms need to breathe.

I think the thing about Ray that stood out for me most is how utterly plastic and shallow, how inauthentic in every sense, he seems. He comes across as nothing so much as Tom Cruise in Magnolia. . . I can picture Ray running around a stage, his little wire microphone stuck to his head, declaiming, “Respect the cock! And tame the cunt!” No master of the occult arts — just a salesman.

(An effective salesman, though. Bear in mind he’s still open for business and people are still going on his retreats.)

It’s not that I don’t think there’s a place for teachers of mystical knowledge — or that they shouldn’t be compensated for their time and services. As I said about the appropriation of native techniques, it’s about not taking the piss — not getting greedy, not assuming that everyone has the same strengths and abilities, not caring how hard you push the bodies of those under your tutelage as long as your idea of the soul is satisfied. When you think like that, it’s easy to forget that a person is mind and body and soul together — and that their existence does not come with a price tag.

Further reading

Although their focus is mostly on the mysticism of the Indian subcontinent, the Guruphiliac blog has an excellent perspective on the money-grabbing (and ass-grabbing) side of so many alleged spiritual masters.

I also strongly recommend the two-part post at “Thoughts from a Threshold” which gives excellent advice on safety in ritual spaces, which is one of the few positive benefits to come out of the Ray affair. Part 1. Part 2.

Next time on Guttershaman — more on money and New Age, tricksters and con men. Possibly even Rainbow Unicorns.

©2009 by Ian Vincent.
Edited by 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.

Guttershaman Halloween Special – The Gutter Press and the Tribe of the Strange

Guttershaman Halloween Special – The Gutter Press and the Tribe of the Strange

“The majority is always sane.” — Larry Niven, Ringworld
“Happy Halloween, ladies . . . Nuns — no sense of humour.” — The Kurgan, in Highlander

All my life, the stories that have spoken to me have invariable been from what are usually considered the “lesser” kinds of storytelling — science fiction, comics, B-movies, horror, fantasy.

Why?

Mostly, because I can more readily identify with the characters. The mainstream and “literary” works I’ve read are about people utterly unlike me and those I know and care about. Their concerns (blood relations, conventional seductions, party politics, capitalist greed — in other words, the consensus reality called “normality”) are not my concerns. My heroes and inspiration in fiction are larger than life — because my life, though not on the same scale as such figures, is still far closer to those “unreal” tales than to the “real life” ones. Being a magician in a world which mostly doesn’t believe in magic will do that, I guess.

I also think that genres that allow room to step outside contemporary society and look at it from an angle have far more to offer than those which reside utterly within it — it’s something at which science fiction (SF) and horror, at their best, excel. Reading SF and other fantastical genres stretches your brain in beneficial ways that mainstream works simply cannot do (one benefit seems to be a kind of memetic inoculation against Future Shock — once you’re used to considering complex multiple universes and ideas in your reading matter, rapid change of information and wider ranges of ideas in the physical world become so much easier to assimilate).

It’s not easy being at such a remove from consensus reality. Even ignoring the scorn (and occasional bullying) it can attract, just finding people you can talk to who get it, who share some of your perspective and have read those same weird writers, seen the same odd films, is an uphill struggle. It’s easier now of course — the Internet has made fandom much more accessible than back in the day when the only way to contact other fans was through mimeographed zines and occasional conventions. And while those folk are not always people I can get along with, I still feel a stronger affinity for them than for those who stick to the mainstream of thought and art.

(It’s worth noting that there’s a huge overlap between fandom groups and other Outsiders1 — roleplay gamers, sexual and gender explorers . . . and, of course, magicians.)

Sometimes, I think of it as being a member of the Tribe of the Strange. Those (to adapt a quote from SF writer Bruce Sterling) “whose desires do not accord with the status quo,” base their existence, their idea of what that entails — and the values they espouse — are often qualitatively different from those of the mainstream.

It’s not simply a matter of the knee-jerk opposition to or rejection of the mainstream (though there’s always an element of that going on, I suspect). It’s more that there’s a greater breadth of possibility outside it. And it’s certainly not saying that those who live within the mainstream are inferior or wrong — just that other possibilities exist and can be just as valid (or more so to those who the mainstream consider outsiders). And some of us prefer to live in that tribe far more than any of the ones offered by the Normal world.

Interestingly, ever since the outpouring of the counterculture in the 1960s if not before, those stories and underground ideas have become more and more part of the mainstream. We’re now at a point where the most popular books ever written are fantasies about magicians and vampires; the best selling movies are about robots, superheroes, spaceships and aliens. Yet somehow there’s still that disdain for the “Fantastika2,” both from ordinary people (who find it “weird”) and the academic intelligentsia (who find it “common”).

Co-opting of the counterculture is something that’s gone on for a long time, but the pace of it has increased rapidly as the mainstream has begun to run out of ideas. But what gets pulled into contemporary mainstream culture is of necessity diluted and superficial, not to mention lacking in imagination — the fuel that drives both genre writing and magic . . . and which seems to be peculiarly limited in mainstream and literary writing. (After all, how much imagination does it really take for a middle-aged college professor to write a novel about the sexual desires of a middle-aged college professor?)

While out for a walk during the writing of this, I overheard a conversation which ties into this nicely.

A young-ish upper middle class couple, chatting after visiting a friend, who they were talking about: “He’s just so . . . so unconventional,” they said. “I sometimes wonder if he’s got a screw loose.”

Unconventional equals insane? For a lot of folk, that’s about right. Showing even a tiny deviation from the Normal is an invitation to scorn, rejection — even violence.

But what the hell is “normal,” anyway?

To anyone who’s paid attention to history (and is not part of a religious or political tribe which rejects examining the past through any filter but their own) the definition of normality is a mercurial thing — changing constantly, no more solid and immutable than fashion. But all those definitions of normal have to be about stability, conservative (small “c”) attitudes, preservation of the status quo — and I do see the necessity of that. But at the same time, there needs to be room for outliers from that majority view, or the culture/ tribe/ country stagnates. There are even indications that the lack of innovation caused by the rejection of the un-normal can destroy civilisations3.

Perhaps this is why so many societies have times where the rules of the normal are temporarily suspended, where the usually despised and shunned aspects — sexual expression, weirdness, dressing strangely — are allowed to roam the streets. Carnival. Mardi Gras.

Halloween.

That lovely time of the year, when dressing like a monster (and increasingly, a sexy monster) in public is acceptable. When, for a short while, Goths, gender queers, and other outsiders can blend in, won’t be ostracised. When the rules of Normal don’t quite apply. Where the superheroes and wizards and beasts are, briefly, as welcome as anyone else.

And of course a time when the normal folk get to be tourists in the Tribe of the Strange . . . only to wake up the next day (possibly with hangovers or sugar crashes) and go back to the “real” world where dressing up like David bloody Beckham is the only acceptable form of cosplay — and the demons and witches get put back in the box marked “Unreal.”

I love Halloween. I love that everyone gets to join in. I don’t think the Tribe of the Strange needs a solid border between it and the “mundanes” — but I know the difference between being a tourist and being a citizen, that me and mine can’t really do the same. That dressing up as a magician one night a year, and being one all the time, are quite different things. Part of me wishes my tribe and theirs could get along better . . . but that the distance and difference between us might actually be the whole point.

Another part of me looks at all this and sees something that looks a whole lot like cultural theft.

Think about it — the majority culture cherry-picks what it finds attractive from an existing tribal tradition, shows little or no respect to that tribe, commodifies what it’s nicked and still insists it’s somehow superior to the tribe that’s been pillaged . . . (Much like those “literary” writers who co-opt SF and horror tropes without having actually read enough of the genre to avoid the worst clichés, then loudly claim what they have created isn’t that horrible sci-fi but somehow better . . . the Plastic Shamans of the Fantastic.)

I don’t actually take that idea seriously. If anything, I see that the weird is actually colonising the mundane in many ways. As our world grows more complex (both technologically and in terms of how many competing ideas surround us), ordinary life more and more resembles the science fiction of only a few years back. Those discrete fandoms that used to be obscure are becoming more acceptable and fannish conceits (from the value of behind-the-scenes documentaries to slash fiction) are becoming part of the general culture.

But no matter how much is absorbed into the common culture, there will always be those ideas and people who are too weird, won’t fit, stay beyond the pale — no matter how much money and publicity gets thrown at Harry Potter and Edward Cullen (and as the latter so perfectly shows, even those parts of the weird which do creep into the mainstream are softened, bowdlerised, rendered safe). And as mainstream culture shifts from permissive to restrictive and back again, this will oscillate. Or the weird will simply, once again, fall out of fashion. For a while.

And outside the normal world, the Tribe of the Strange will persist. We don’t shift with the tides of fashion. We’re not tourists in the weird parts of life — we live here.

We’re not as scary or inhospitable as the mundane world thinks. We don’t want to take them over or make them go away — we just hope to find a place where we can all talk, hang out, celebrate life in all its oddity and loveliness. Maybe we’ll find that Temporary Autonomous Zone, where the fantastic and the ordinary are all one tribe.

On Halloween, perhaps?

Buffy: “You’re missing the whole point of Halloween.”
Willow: “Free candy?!”

— From Joss Whedon’s Buffy The Vampire Slayer.

Footnotes

  1. Read more about Outsiders here.
  2. Fantastika, a word favored by John Clute and one worthy of emulating.
  3. BioEd Online: Conformists May Kill Civilizations.
  4. Cosplay, defined at Wikipedia, retrieved October 2009.

©2009 by Ian Vincent.
Edited by 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.

Guttershaman 4: Authenticity, part one

Guttershaman 4: Authenticity, part one

“Of course the Chinese mix everything up — look at what they have to work with! Buddhism, Confucianism and Taoist alchemy and sorcery. We take what we want and leave the rest, just like your salad bar.” — Egg Shen in John Carpenter’s Big Trouble In Little China

(Disclaimer: I am, to quote Jim Jarmush’s great film Dead Man, a “Stupid Fucking White Man.” I have no formal training in the deep mysteries of any native shamanic or tribal tradition — or of any single tradition at all, for that matter. I am just a product of my time and place, trying to find my way. That perspective is the basis for all that follows.)

The title this time around is a misnomer. There are no authentic shamans. Not any more.

The term shaman is a specific one. It refers to Tungus-speaking tribal practitioners of folk magic and spirituality. They were wiped out so completely by Soviet and Chinese Communism that Western “neo-shamans” from Michael Harner’s school came over and instituted their own versions of “shamanic” practice to replace the native tradition. So that makes anyone claiming to be a shaman — neo, Gutter, or otherwise — inauthentic.

The idea of shamanism we have today, which draws ideas from many different tribal and native traditions (via anthropology, which co-opted the term), is likely a very different thing than the original Siberian form. The word “shaman” has become a placeholder, a symbol for something else — usually describing various interpretations of traditional and tribal spiritual praxes involving a rather borderline position to the rest of the tribe, consciousness alteration and “travelling” to spirit realms for healing and wisdom. Of course, in considering the use of tribal spiritual motifs from other cultures, we soon hit a problem… which is usually called cultural theft or appropriation.

There’s no doubt that an awful lot of problems have arisen due to the heavy-handed appropriation of older cultural concepts. The Native American Nations have often complained about (mostly) white New Age practitioners taking elements of their practices and touting them, out of context, as a spiritual path. Interestingly, common terms used by Native Americans to describe these New Agers include “plastic shamans” and “shake-and-bake shamans.”

I think the key factors here surround concepts of respect and authenticity. (A third factor is, of course, commerce. That’s a big enough can of worms that I’ll have to open it in a later chapter.) The respect part I get, absolutely. Barging into a native tradition and announcing you’re not only a fully-fledged practitioner of that tradition’s mysticism but that you’re improving it, and that the natives are Doing It Wrong, is insulting and crass. “Taking the piss,” as we Brits call it.

If you’re going to work fully in a magical or spiritual tradition, I would say showing due respect to the culture it came from is just good bloody manners, as well as good sense. But at the same time, worrying about how the symbols and memes of such cultures are used (or even misused) outside of their native context often seems more a matter of colonial guilt and shame than disrespect. It’s a complex set of issues.

(Plus, some of those tribal traditions have attitudes and practices — homophobia, misogyny, isolationism, child abuse, human sacrifice — which are frankly best left to the past. Of course, the actions of colonial invaders in the past were often just as vile. . . and I can’t offhand think of a culture that has not been invaded and colonised at some time in its past, or been the invader, or both. Like I said, complex.)

Is it cultural appropriation for a white man to enjoy (or perform) Afro-Caribbean music? Or for an Indian movie maker to be inspired by Hollywood (or vice versa)? Or an Amazonian native to wear a Manchester United t-shirt? For a magician to use layman’s versions of quantum or meme theory as magical tools?

To me, that’s kind like asking whether “Crossroads Blues” was performed better by Robert Johnson or Cream. Or more directly, which is best — traditional Yoruba magic, Haitian Voudon, New Orleans Voodoo, or Cuban Santeria?

Cultures are always a mix of the native and the foreign, the traditional and the new, and have been ever since humans started to trade. The quote at the start of this article states the mix of currents in Chinese spirituality quite nicely, for example. The degree of mixing changes over time and place — sometimes just a touch, sometimes a dollop. Sometimes the mixings can provide something genuinely good — like the massive upgrade to British cuisine provided by Asian immigrants in the 1970’s. Sometimes it doesn’t work so well — such as Japanese whiskey. But cultures and traditions evolve through mixing and exchange of ideas.

This is especially true of Britain, a Mongrel Nation if ever there was one (as explained in scrupulous and often hilarious detail by Eddie Izzard in his TV show of that name). The original native British (and Western European) “shamanic” traditions are all but gone too, banished by the Christians. . . but enough hints and pieces remain in myth and legend — in our culture — to inspire a new “tradition” of mystical praxis to arise. It’s not terribly authentic, in all likelihood — there’s no way to really know (though many talented pagans and historians are doing their best to find out all they can about it). Large chunks of it have been drawn from other native traditions. But it is powerful and quite beautiful at times. At other times, it can be a farrago of confused, misquoted and misapplied traditional currents, mixed in ignorance, stirred in arrogance. The result isn’t authentic at all — no matter how hard some New Age types try to claim it as such.

No question that the Plastic Shamans and their techniques are all too often a hodgepodge of different traditions and practices thrown together more or less at random. And, I have to admit, the same could be said of what I do, too.

That’s part of the reason I coined the term “Guttershaman” to describe my path/ spirituality/ whatever. Most people know what shaman — and gutter — implies.

Yes, I picked up my information from libraries, other practitioners, movies and TV shows — and I made a whole bunch of stuff up, based on my experiences and discoveries. At the same time, there was always something about the shamanic concept as I understood it that called to me: The element of being an outsider to the tribe as a whole, but still in some sense having a responsibility to it. The use of ecstatic and terrifying occurrences as a tool for spiritual development. The process of bringing something back from “the other side.” And, ultimately, the sense of being called to the path by something beyond the normal world. If there’s any authenticity in what I do, it’s that.

My wife is also a shaman. Her path, to put it mildly, differs from mine. She found that her way in Curanderismo — the Hispanic American folk practice. She has spent a long time in Peru, learning it firsthand from a master whose family has worked in this path for generations. She’s also a neuroscientist by training, and has picked up more than a little of the multi-model approach to magic, both from myself and from her own studies. Thus, when she thinks about that path, there are degrees of both distance and immersion, depending on circumstance and context.

Also. . . her master has taken the sacred songs (icaros) from many different tribes in Peru and elsewhere to bring into his praxis. That tradition is itself mixed with Catholic elements brought over by the Conquistadors. In fact, the majority of the lyrics to the icaros are in Spanish and use Christian imagery. The pure native tradition just isn’t there anymore.

Is the system she follows authentic? Is it more, or less, appropriate for her (an American woman of East European Jewish ancestry and a trained scientist) to practice it than for her Columbian-born, mixed-race, Catholic-indoctrinated Maestro? And is she more, or less, of a shaman than I?

Put it this way — she and I both get results. And we work together great.

It’s the concept of authenticity that gets in the way, I think. It’s like purity in some ways — an impossible, and sometimes dangerous, ideal. Except, perhaps, when talking about being authentic to an ideal. . .

To feel that your true identity is not based in your immediate family, your tribe, your country and its religious and social habits — but is something you sense and strive towards — is not easy. Sometimes an idea from another culture is exactly the thing you need to, forgive the term, become yourself. Sometimes, who you’re born as and raised as isn’t who you are. It isn’t theft to find a different culture to your own enriching — as long as you are authentic in your respect, that you strive not just to take but also to give.

As long as you don’t take the piss.

Further Thoughts From a Wise Man

“Authenticity is bullshit. Never more so than today. We can be anyone we can imagine being. We can be someone new every day. See if any of these comments are familiar:

“You should be happy with who you are.”

“Be yourself.”

“That stuff’s just fake.”

“Don’t get ideas above your station.”

“Take that shit off.”

“Why can’t you be like everyone else?”

Yeah?

We’re not real enough. We’re not authentic to our society. …But you know what? Back in the days before the internet, a kid called Robert Zimmerman said, “Fuck that, I’m going to be the man I dream of being. I’m going to become someone completely new and write about the end of the world because it’s the only thing worth talking about.” And that was one guy in Minnesota, in the decade the telecommunications satellite was invented.

Imagine what all of us, living here in the future, can achieve.

Be authentic to your dreams. Be authentic to your own ideas about yourself. Grind away at your own minds and bodies until you become your own invention.

Be mad scientists.

Here at the end of the world, it’s the only thing worth doing.”

— Warren Ellis, in Doktor Sleepless Issue 5, “Your Imaginary Friend.”

PostScript

In researching this piece, I came across a lot of very interesting writing on the subjects discussed. Two I found — one long, the other very short — are especially worth a look.

(Next on Guttershaman — Culture, money and morality. Tricksters and thieves. Probably.)

©2009 Ian Vincent
Edited by 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.

Guttershaman 3: Working Magic

Guttershaman 3: Working Magic

. . . hoodoo’s no different than regular praying. The prayers are always answered, just that sometimes the answer’s no.” — Bill Fitzhugh, Highway 61 Resurfaced

(Disclaimer: This is not a how-to guide for spell-casting. It’s a quick look at some of the background and theory. I take no responsibility for the results of anyone mistaking the below text for an instruction manual!)

Previously, I made the point that any theory or description of how magic works will be necessarily subjective, partial and on some level utterly insufficient in fully describing what happens.

But I’m going to have a go anyway.

So, a magician takes patterns in their mind, forges meaningful connections between symbols, events, people and places and things. This set of patterns, their map of the universe if you like, orients them and shows possibilities of action.

What happens next?
That depends on the map.

There are a few ways of describing the overall patterns — the meta-models — used in most magical styles. A good summation of four rough types is here. Using that scheme, I’d describe what I do as a mix of the Energy and Information models, with a side-order of the Psychological. I don’t work the Spiritual model much, except when needed (i.e. if I encounter something that acts like a spirit!).

The Energy model — especially the Far-Eastern-styled variants — is pretty good for describing what I actually do and feel when I “do magic.” A “spell” to me is basically a series of instructions imprinted onto personal energy and send out on a push of focused emotion and intent. Like a martial arts punch — it’s not just the movement of hand and arm that matters, it’s the will behind it.

And, again like martial arts. . . it’s all about the breath.

If you look at most traditions, the words for magical energy all translate as “breath.” Mana, Prana, Baraka, Ch’i/Ki, Pneuma. . . they all seem to describe the same thing. Even a word like ‘conspiracy’ (which pops up now and again when talking about the occult…) means at root “those who breathe together.” The primacy of breath is one of the reasons so many systems instruct the beginner in some form of meditation — to teach breath control both as a quick and easy method for altering consciousness and as the basic tool of controlling and focusing one’s ch’i to be deployed magically. Meditation also teaches the student to cut down the signal-to-noise ratio in his mind, the better to sense the change in energies around him. To “detect magic.”

Again I should point out, it’s only a model. The use of the word “energy” in mysticism, especially these days, has been haphazard to say the least. Probably the only word misused more these days is “vibrations.” Or possibly “quantum.”

The Chinese term Ch’i has a lot of utility for me, mainly because Ch’i is considered a universal energy, pretty much like The Force. It scales up nicely — the same system used in acupuncture theory or martial arts is applied on a larger scale in feng shui. It also ties in to my own Taoist tendencies belief-wise. So, I’ll be using it a lot here.

(I’ve always had what could be called a sensitivity to magical energy, to both my own Ch’i and that in my environment. I usually feel it as a kind of temperature shift, sometimes as a tingle in my peripheral nervous system, sometimes even as a kind of ghost-of-a-smell. I’m pretty sure that this sensory input is only a symbol for whatever it is I’m actually getting information about/from, in the same way that the senses we call “smell” and “taste” don’t actually feel like molecules rubbing against our mucous membranes. It’s a shorthand, a symbol, like everything about magic — and it’s a good idea to remind yourself of that fact on a regular basis.)

Back to that spell. The next point to consider is, what is the spell for?

It can be for anything the magician can imagine. Though the intent alters the kind of emotional set and setting for the spell, it doesn’t usually change the mechanics of casting — though of course some techniques work better than others, depending on the intent. (You probably wouldn’t want to focus on feelings of anger and violence when attempting healing, for instance.) The key thing here is the magician must seriously want the instructions to be carried out, he must suit his mood to the intent, and he must formulate his instructions reasonably clearly.

I could go on at great length here about the morality of magic use — and I may do so at a later date. (Short version: I’ve seen no sign of any kind of automatic “Law of Three-fold Return” or similar retribution governing spell use. The morality of magical action falls to the caster. Though karmic payback isn’t guaranteed, often like energies will attract like. But it’s not inevitable that “bad magic” will lead to a bad end. Unfortunately. My own morality leans heavily toward the issue of consent. I never initiate magical combat — only defend or counter-attack when hostilities are begun. I don’t push healing unless I’m asked. And I never, ever, work love spells. To my mind, they’re the psychic version of date-rape drugs.)

The traditional, old school, Spirit-model-based magical styles of spellcasting are usually lengthy processes. The mage would have to thoroughly research the timing (both logistically and astrologically) of the casting, determine which spirits and entities have to be invoked or kept away, lay out surroundings which are conducive to those spirits, select tools in keeping with the occasion, make a magically clear and safe space, probably observe some kind of ritual cleansing beforehand, cast a circle, make ritual obeisance to the pantheon involved… and then finally cast the spell.

All very well and good. . . and those High Magic rites can have great beauty and efficacy. But from my perspective, most of that prep falls under the heading of “getting into the mindset,” reinforcing the associations in the pattern. For most people, generating the emotional charge needed for working magic requires a dramatic shift from “ordinary” reality — and the borders of the magical reality they are creating have to be fiercely guarded, lest they fall. They’re making a kind of Temporary Autonomous Zone, a brief suspension of the ordinary rules. Though this separation of the magical and the mundane has its uses, I find it mostly a false distinction. With practice — and a good understanding of one’s internal patterns of symbol and Ch’i — one can generate the right mood with a few muttered words, humming a snatch of a tune, or simply taking a slow deep breath.

The emotional push, the Ch’i generation and harnessing needed for magic, can be found in anything that matters to the mage and fits their internal map. Some find it in rituals as described above. Some get to it through sexual activity. Some from dancing, from the emotional climax of a piece of a music or a movie or beating the Boss Level in a computer game. Anything can work. The closer it fits both the intent of the spell and the internal pattern-map of the mage, is usually the better.

The mood is found, the intent created in the magician’s mind. . . then with a push (or a shout, or a waving of wands, or an orgasm, or…) the spell is cast. Instructions/requests given to the Universe to change according to the magician’s will.

Some kind of banishing should then follow. Even if there’s no clear delineation between the magical and non-magical space, the energies recently harnessed should be allowed to settle and disperse, any entities which may have manifested given leave to depart, and generally the whole place cleaned and tidied up thoroughly. The residue of a space where this is not done can deform, grow toxic. . . and sometimes attract unpleasantness. (Think of the neglected remains of a picnic, attracting ants. Replace “ants” with “demons” or “bad vibes.” You get the idea.)

Then comes the hard part. . . seeing if the spell worked.

Like everything else in magic, deciding whether or not a casting has actually had any effect is just about as subjective as you can get. (And that’s before you even start to worry about how it worked!) Quite often, the exact results aren’t quite as the caster imagined them; usually the changes in the world are small.

Maybe that’s all magic is — a way of nudging chance in a tiny way, allowing the repercussions to spiral outward like the butterfly wing altering the quantum flow of —

Bugger it. I said, “quantum.”

(Next on Guttershaman — much, much more on tradition, “authenticity” and such. And I use “the S word” again.)

©2009 Ian Vincent
Edited by 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.

Guttershaman 2: Meanings and Patterns, Part Two

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.

Footnotes

  • 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.

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