Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Transcendentalism vs Transcendental States of Consciousness

I have been reading about a kind of back-and-forth argument between magicians about the usefulness of Platonism and the Qabalah, the fact that Neoplatonic models espouse a transcendental reality that ultimately devalues the material world, and that a practical approach to magic should use the more archaic Shamanic, immanent world view. I find that I agree somewhat with both sides, since I can see where a transcendental perspective is useful as well as an immanent one. They look at spiritual reality from two different points of view, but their source is one and the same. I believe that religions in the west tend to emphasize the transcendental aspects of deity and reality over the immanent, even though the foundation of Christianity has the Deity defined with both attributes. It is a discussion that has no real resolution, and from a completely practical perspective, it belies the fact that the practice of magic generally produces transcendental states of consciousness.

I have never had much of head for either philosophy or higher mathematics, but practical logic and critical thinking skills were something that I learned early on, mostly by making mistakes and blundering my way through life. A friend of mine likened this argument to a confusion between ontology and epistemology, which is to say it is an argument between the nature of the universe as it really is, which none can fully know, and as it is perceived by all of us. We all have our opinions, but they are based on what we have experienced and what we know, individually and also collectively. From a purely practical perspective, this argument is hollow and fairly meaningless. Models, paradigms, constructs, and analogues all suffer from the limitations that they use analogy to describe something that is beyond description - what is seen and understood by the Eye of Spirit vs. the Eye of the Mind. The only thing that I think is essential is to understand that the analogy is not the thing that it describes. Models are useful tools, but they really don’t share in the numen of the thing represented unless we load them with mythic and mystic qualities. Doing that deviates from the usefulness of the model, and human nature being what it is, we are often mistaking the operational tool for the reality it represents.

My rule of thumb is to use whatever model works, but don’t over use them. Don’t try to extend a model to be universal, since it will then fail as a useful tool. When models or tools fail to explain something that you have experienced then it is time to either adapt another model or to create one based wholly on that experience. It is the nature of the human creature to name things, and to make meaning and connect things into a context when there is none. I see this as a way of enrichening the experience and significance of one’s reality, but it can also be a way of fictionalizing whole areas of our lives. Sometimes it is important to simply see something without any kind of narrative. I am beginning to discover that having that ability is the best approach.

The discussion of different models or perspectives at work in the world of the magician as a form of ontology seems to miss the whole nature of magic itself in that it produces paranormal experiences and generates transcendental states of consciousness. This seems to be true no matter what kind of magic is performed, whether low or high magick. In some ways this propensity for paranormal states of consciousness may be what attracts some folk into either learning to practice this art themselves or to hire someone who can do this for them. The field of consciousness of magic is full of paranormal phenomena and varying degrees of transcendental states of consciousness. Mystical and religious practices appear to produce the same kinds of phenomena and states of consciousness, and perhaps this is the basis of the religious and philosophical perspective on transcendentalism. Meditation and religious rites, or magic, produces these states in abundance, so therefore the spiritual world and the nature of deity itself must be transcendental, further postulating that these states are quite beyond all material reality.

As a ‘nuts and bolts’ kind of practical magician, I wonder if this is a case where a model or a constructive paradigm was used beyond its scope of usefulness, since in order to believe it is to reject the whole aspect of spirit and deity that is immanent, or that is within each and everyone of us. However, I have found that the transcendental states that I have experienced in magic has led me to see the nature of deity and spirit both within and all around me. It is to say that my dealings with spirit and magic have taught me that an exclusive adherence to either immanent or transcendent definitions of reality is too limiting. The true reality is somewhere in between or something altogether different, and it defies a neat model or convenient philosophy to explain it. Here again approaching this phenomena with an open and unbiased mind is the best approach.

Use what is useful, but don’t overuse it. Don’t rely too much on one theory in exclusion to others. Be open to contradictory evidence, and don’t be afraid to be wrong about practically everything at some point or another. Practice the magic and experience it fully, and be mindful of what is really going on inside you. Question everything you read, hear or experience. Base your opinions on the results of a thoughtful analysis of your actual experiences instead of what you have read or learned from others.

Frater Barrabbas

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Some Interesting Thoughts About Magic

These days of winter, while I engage in long hours of working in Richmond on an IT project, my thoughts find themselves puzzling over this arcane subject of magic, writing words that are somewhat poetic and yet cut through my many years of magical belief and practice, and I think, my overall hubris. As a magician I am seemingly forever plagued by the folly of men and women, and by my own folly, as well. We are all fools, but may we find some wisdom in our folly.

There is something that has always amazed me about the study and practice of magic, particularly in how it is marketed to others, to the uninitiated or unenlightened. Life has boundaries and limitations, and nothing can miraculously change that fact. We are born, we live and then, hopefully later on, we die. It is an unalterable fact of existence. Magic is a phenomenon that lives between these limitations, seemingly giving the promise of escape, but never really producing it. The seductive promise of unearned wealth, health, fame and fortune is always a part of the mystique of the art of magic, but for those who are seduced by it, it is a way of delusion and a harmful deviation from the true path of magic. Like all paths of wisdom, whether they be religious, mystical, or magical, the way itself is hard and the upkeep of such a discipline amounts to something of a burden to life, which is already burdened by limitations and ultimately, death. We need to keep this in mind, for magic is a path of wisdom, first and foremost. All else is but a fool’s errand. 

The true path of magic is a path of gnosis, self-transformation, and a discipline that requires decades to finally reveal its overall goal; the realization of the true state of the world and one’s place within it. The cycle of this continual revelation is a form of katabasis, the ascent and descent that is a major part of the cycle of life and death - from this is the gateway of true awakening. Yet the enlightenment that is achieved is more of a surrender and immersion into what is grounded in the simple truth of life and existence. We already know this truth when we start our path, but we truly realize it in the core of our being when we finally reach our end. All of the seductions, the myths, mysteries, fantasies of the domain of magic melt away to reveal the greater truth, which is the revelation of the true self that is interdependent, finite, empty of individuality, but united with all of conscious sentient life. In this place there is no death, no fear, and no sense of an immortal self - just the full and vibrant emptiness of the ocean of consciousness and the endless emergence and divergence of a myriad of continuation bodies. These leap momentarily into life and then fade back down into the oceanic ground of consciousness, where all being and all life resides.

Therefore, to continue to pursue unearned and fantastical things that might but never will be, the errant magician misses the greatest signal message of the import and meaning of life. He passes through the illusions and delusions that beguilingly assail him and is consumed by their promises, filled with hope and motivated by fear. He talks to ghosts and spirits, and sends them on mindless errands, and uses his all too subtle paranormal abilities to influence events that ultimately lead to nowhere. He listens not to the gods or to his spirits, seemingly and insularly absorbed and otherwise engaged with his ego-driven passions and fantasies, and in the end, does little more than what he might have done without all of the pretense. That is the folly of magic, and it is also the folly of religion and mysticism.

Even so, the truth is all around us, at all times, but it is both sweeter than heaven’s balm and more bitter than death. If we could, but for a moment, harness our magical beliefs and viewpoints to realize the world as it truly is then the magic we work might be the greatest thing that we have ever done. Yet the mystery of this magic is that it is empty of self, liberating and disengaging. Instead of grasping for the material gain as all magic seems to do, we let go, and deal with the world with an open hand and a mindful heart.

These are some of thoughts that I have been having lately, as I continue my Buddhist studies and feel them mingle with my thoughts and practices of magic. It seems that I am formulating a new kind of magic, but I suspect that it is just the culmination of many decades of puzzling over the art of magic, and seeking to know what it really means and where it ultimately leads, for all those who are following it.

Frater Barrabbas

Friday, January 26, 2018

Traditional Witchcraft and #MeToo

I have been involved in Traditional Witchcraft for around 45 years, and I have seen this tradition in many various social climates. In the sixties and seventies, Witchcraft was part of the so called sexual revolution; in the eighties and nineties, Witchcraft functioned as the foundation of liberalism, feminism and freedom of religion. As part of the New Age Pagan movement, it seemed that Traditional Witchcraft (those that trace their roots to Old Gerald) represented something of a modern liberal and egalitarian social revolution, whereby the old Christian modes of gender based thinking and societal norms were finally being surmounted. I have lived long enough in the Witchcraft tradition to see it evolve and move towards these stated ideals, and in some cases, this is so. However, as an insider, I also must recognize and acknowledge the dark truths about modern Witchcraft. It is those truths which run contrary to what is formally stated as the modus operandi of the Craft.

During this past tumultuous year of the Donald Trump presidency, strident and overt chauvinism and racism have become part of the mainstream of accepted Conservative social norms. However, despite that event, and perhaps in a fitting resistance to it, many women have become vocal about the harassment, coercion and sexual assaults perpetrated by men in various social settings, whether personal, religious or professional. The hashtag #MeToo revealed that nearly every woman has experienced harassment, coercion or sexual assault in some manner during her life, and in some cases, repeatedly so. Some very powerful individuals in the media, business and politics have been brought down in disgrace due to the social movement and revelation of the indignities and tragic circumstances that women have had to endure simply because the men in power crossed a line or demanded sexual favors. This is nothing new.  As the stories have unfolded, we have learned that many have been complicit or known about it in some form or another for decades.

Hollywood, in particular, has had quite a sinister dark underbelly when it comes to this kind of phenomenon. It was and is a very ugly and evil situation, but our masculine dominated culture of white male privilege has made it a thing, at least until now. The social backlash is regrettable, certainly, since anyone who is accused should be given an opportunity to defend themselves, but it is also true that women have been silently taking this abuse for a long time, and now they have come out to speak their truth. The least we can do is to listen and understand.

However, Hollywood is far away from the covens and practitioners of Traditional Witchcraft, but here, too, there have been abuses. I have often heard of them in the quiet complaints of fellow women practitioners and have even witnessed them occurring, when I was not in a position to do anything about it. This behavior is built into our culture, and there are some traditions that are practiced in the Craft that make them more than likely to occur. Perhaps the most blatant of these potential areas of abuse is the requirement for nudity or Skyclad participation in the covenstead praxis. Now, don’t get me wrong, I find sacral nudity to be a special sacred occurrence, but it can all too easily become an invitation for an unwanted sexual advance or interest, particularly on the part of the male practitioner. If a covenstead has a strong and fair minded High Priestess, and a High Priest who is truly her support and uncorrupted by the power or politics of his role then the coven will be a safe place for women and men to gather together to worship and work magic. The intimacy will cut both ways, making everyone equally vulnerable and empowered. A good High Priestess will have a very low tolerance for harassment or coercion, and her High Priest will be a role model of social fairness and compassion.

After all these years as a functioning Witch, I have found that the best High Priest is one who is gay. Some might find this quite ironic, considering the onerous prejudice given to gay men and lesbian women in the Traditional Witchcraft movement.  That is no longer an issue today, but it was for many years. A good High Priest is one who doesn’t need to prove his manhood or assert his privileged gender by dominating others. That dominance, the associated social corruption and the magical will-to-power is one of the dark secrets of the brotherhood of High Priests. It is a seductive force that can beguile and delude what would ordinarily be a good High Priest. It is a temptation that all coven High Priests must successfully resist and even mindfully de-energize, since to fall to that temptation can produce a very tragic and even criminal social situation. Rape culture dominates our social world, so we must be conscious and aware of how we are relating to women in a coven where sacral nudity is the accepted norm.

There is an adage that middle aged men who are High Priests or practicing Pagan leaders seem to find a way to position themselves as the sexual gate-keepers for higher initiation, magical powers and knowledge. They become instead highly negative obstacles to further growth and spiritual evolution. And once this powerful potion has been drunk, there sometimes seems to be no bottom to the level of corruption that one can achieve. Our Pagan and Wiccan community is rocked from time to time when a leader is discovered to be a sexual predator, taking advantage of the young, inexperienced and most vulnerable members of our community. We are shocked and revolted by the discovery of this behavior, but few can admit that it is baked into the movement. There are indeed stellar members of our community. These men represent the best of a received and understood feminism; they practice social equality and mentorship, having achieved this by overcoming the alluring potential to harass, coerce and even to sexually assault others.

What must happen now is for all of us to admit that such a situation is a possible trap due to the practices of Traditional Witchcraft. This is particularly true with the assumption of positions of authority without any kind of accountability, the social setting of sacral nudity and the necessity of a male to female relationship, and the female to male relationship that is required for initiation and advancement. The sexual nature of the practices and the initiations would seem to be very tempting to those who are weak willed when it comes to sexual temptation or who see themselves as singularly empowered and unchecked. I think that to make Traditional Witchcraft safe for the most vulnerable adherents it is necessary for there to be absolutely zero tolerance for any kind of unwanted or unprovoked sexual advance. The High Priestess and High Priest must set the tone for the conduct of the coven, and that any kind of contact should be consensual and transparently co-equal. I think that making Skyclad rituals less the norm and making the sexual nature of the initiations to be more voluntarily symbolic and token rather than an expected outcome would also help to restore equality to the covenstead. Accountability should be enforced for everyone and perhaps even more importantly, the role of High Priestess and High Priest should be temporary and rotated rather than a permanent avocation.

In my opinion, the single greatest temptation inherent in Traditional Witchcraft is the power assumed by its coven leaders. Social power in a group that is not accountable or transparently applied to everyone equally allows the High Priestess or the High Priest to assume a level of dominance that can only lead to tragedy, unless they are also socially and spiritually evolved. I believe that diminishing the power of the High Priestess and the High Priest and making them merely roles in the group that could be assumed by others, would go a long way to eliminating the temptation to sexually exploit people. You could say that what I am proposing would be to basically demolish the hierarchical foundation of Traditional Witchcraft, and you would be correct. I think that this reformation is long overdue.

In talking about this social issue, I will won’t be judgmental or sanctimonious to anyone who has either enabled this kind of behavior or who felt themselves tempted to take advantage of a situation. I am guilty of both of these actions. Still, I have avoided engaging in gratuitous exploitation of those who have given me their trust as a teacher and a leader. I have always had limits to what I was willing to do. Perhaps I too easily feel the pain and hurt of others.

Since I have been involved in the tradition of Witchcraft for over four decades I have seen this situation play out again and again. I have seen scandals erupt and then sadly read the reports of those who were hurt and damaged by the egotistic behavior of men who should have known better, but who succumbed to the oldest kind of corruption – the will-to-power over others. This phenomenon will continue to happen again and again, over and over, until the very root that is causing this problem is finally eradicated from the tradition altogether. I am hoping that this evolution in Traditional Witchcraft will finally occur so that we can at least say that our covensteads are safe places for everyone to gather, and that the ubiquitous hashtag of #MeToo can be said to be something that happens outside of our tradition and not within it.
Frater Barrabbas