A discourse on the 8th and 9th…houses, that is

I think about danger a lot lately. I suppose its only when you are stewarding a loved one into death, and you are getting lessons in destruction. Inevitably, I can’t help also thinking about how dumb and short-sighted most humans’ response to danger is. It has been said that we evolved to recognize and respond to immediate threats–the leopard slinking through the savanna grass–but not more abstract or distant threats. This, it is said, is why it’s so difficult to get people to take meaningful action to mitigate long-term, transpersonal threats like climate change or threats based far away like war or economic collapse in some country you don’t live in.

If that’s true, it bodes ill for us, insulated as we are in our air-conditioned civilization. Statistics show that the richer someone gets, the less empathetic they are, and that makes sense if you can only focus on your immediate environment. The neighborhoods you drive through with your doors locked would become increasingly irrelevant and ultimately unreal, and you would feel more worried about, say, a poorly performing stock than about the collapsing highways and bridges in your county, let alone whether someone else has enough to eat. Your behavior would be more motivated by the convenience of buying a bottle of water than by the fact that said bottle is being sold at a many-thousands-percent markup and was produced at the expense of the economy, environment, and health of literally your entire state. Wealth and centralization buffer one from natural selective pressures that less affluent people confront on a daily basis (e.g., famine, lack of access to health care) and consequently, the “threats” perceived by the wealthy person in their immediate environment are, not to put too fine a point on it, inane. Yet, unbeknownst to the comfortable, their (our) position is dangerously fragile.

Obviously some of us occupy, shall we say, a deeper, more diverse, and frankly frightening ecology. And what could be a better way of introducing the 8th and 9th houses of the zodiac?

Do you use astrology, lovely readers? I find I use it more as a map than for prediction or planetary magic. Experience tells me that it absolutely does work as a way of modeling the landscape (or really, the cosmiscape, to coin a word) of a person’s life and character. It’s not that I think the position of a particular planet or constellation determines a person’s fate–anyway, tropical astrology doesn’t use the actual positions of constellations anymore, it’s largely symbolic–but it can certainly tell you where to look out for high and low points, strengths and weaknesses. Beyond that, I have no explanation for why it works, except that the universe is magical and weird shit is weird.

A brief aside for those who may not have much familiarity with astrology, the houses are a 12-part division of the 360-degree circle of the zodiac. Each house represents a domain of activity or experience, and their condition by sign varies from person to person depending on your Ascendant. A lot of planets or an important transit in a given house puts emphasis on the matters it rules. I think a lot about the 7th, 8th, and 9th houses because they are the most populated in my birth chart, especially the latter two. And at the moment my progressed Moon is illuminating the 8th house, so I am seeing it very clearly…

The 8th

Orpheus (1897) by Pierre Amedee Marcel-Beronneau
Orpheus (1897) by Pierre Amedee Marcel-Beronneau

You will usually see the 8th house oversimplified as the house of sex and death, but that’s only half right. It is the house of Death. Specifically, it represents a descent into the underworld, the encounter with its denizens, and the total personal transformation that results. It is the journey of Orpheus and of Persephone. An initiation into the mysteries. It can be interesting to dip your toe into the 8th house life, but it’s not a fun place to spend a lot of time. There is infinite wisdom to be gained there, but it carries high risk and a heavy price.

8th house experiences can’t really be put into words, for they can only be understood through gnosis and direct encounter. You either survive, stronger but much altered, or die. Sometimes, this happens through sex, though not all sex. Some sex is very much a matter of the 5th house (fun), or the 6th (service), or even the 10th (career). It only becomes an 8th house affair when it unravels you. Pluto rules the 8th house, and Pluto will break you to remake you.

Sometimes the 8th house is also associated with shared resources, but it really involves inherited resources. The distinction there, I would argue, is that inheritance always entails the death of an ancestor, which in turn forces us to confront mortality.

Needless to say, the 8th house is a “place” that magicians and occultists find ourselves visiting a lot. But as with all the houses, and as you can see from the example of sex above, any activity or life event can manifest through any house; and equally, any house can manifest itself in any area of life.

For me, for example, some of my most powerful 8th house experiences came through studying anthropology. Anthropology is subject to all the limitations inherent in 21st-century academia, but more than any other discipline except philosophy, it has radical implications. Ninety-nine percent of people who take anthropology classes or even go on to careers in anthropology will never realize these implications, but in its best form, the encounter with alternate ontologies yanks the rug out from under yours. At first, you as a student are just collecting trivia about how other cultures do things (a 3rd house activity), but it becomes an 8th house experience when it totally blows your worldview and self-conception to smithereens and there’s nothing to replace it with. You then have to assemble a new version of reality from the ground up, trying to, in the words of Terence McKenna, “triangulate a sufficiently large number of data points in your sets of experience so that you can make a model of the world that is not imprisoning.” Until, in time, that model too is exploded.

Typical of the 8th house, this isn’t something you can plan for or arrange or will to happen. You don’t get it until you get it.

The 9th

The Hierophant, artist unknown
The Hierophant, artist unknown

Every zodiacal house bleeds into and informs its neighbors. So for example, the 7th house–the encounter with the Other–leads to the 8th house of initiation, which in turn is followed by the 9th–the hierophant. In the 9th house, the initiate, now transformed by direct experience of mortality and the chthonic forces of the underworld, returns to society and becomes a guide into the mysteries, one who brings others into the presence of the sacred.

If you look up a cookbook definition of the 9th house, you will see a rather disjointed collection of topics: foreign-language study, higher (post-secondary) learning, philosophy, law, religion, travel,  experiencing other cultures, and broadening one’s horizons. I used to struggle to tease out the common theme. The fact that Jupiter rules the 9th did nothing to clarify things for me. And then finally it clicked–the 9th house doesn’t make sense except in the context of what was learned in the 8th. The common theme of the 9th–the sacred–has been lost in most modern astrological interpretation. The “higher learning” of the 9th house is not post-secondary education, but gnosis; philosophy and law are not academic disciplines, but the theory and practice of ethics, respectively; travel, foreign languages, meeting other cultures, and the broadening of one’s horizons are, metaphorically, the skills acquired by the sage. And religion, well, that’s self-explanatory.

The negative qualities of the Hierophant of the tarot (Card V of the Major Arcana) also apply to the 9th house: dogmatic, orthodox, pompous, holier-than-thou. Now the associations with Jupiter, king of the gods, should be clear! These are the pitfalls that surround every organized form of religion and magic, and the inevitable signal loss that comes with trying to put into words and share the ineffable mysteries of the 8th house. Yet a well-balanced 9th house embodies a truly generous and idealistic calling to bring justice, peace, dignity, and awe into the lives of all. In this consideration of the role of mystics in social revolution, the characterization of “social mysticism” applies equally well to the 9th house:

“Because it imbues human relationships with the power of the divine, social mysticism generates great potential for change and creativity. It supports the formation of new perspectives, builds communities that embody them, and nurtures a particular style of interaction that’s capable of doing something quite profound: redistributing emotional energy from those who have more resources to those who have less. In these ways, mysticism can play a crucial role in creating critiques and sustaining active resistance to the prevailing social order.”

It is through the 9th house that the wisdom of the 8th is put into action and integrated into the community and into an individual’s own daily life. It is impossible to live in the 8th house–it would grind us to dust or  reduce us to gibbering madness, for one thing, but more importantly, one cannot stay forever in any one zodiacal house. The 8th house experiences have to be integrated into the individual psyche and find a way to survive re-entry into the social atmosphere. That is the work of the 9th.

8 + 9, the ambidextrous path

Understanding the natures of the 8th and 9th houses, I think, puts the lie to the false dichotomy of left- and right-hand paths. Superficially, the 8th house is decidedly left-hand, while the 9th is right-hand, but neither house exists in isolation. A given individual may feel more comfortable with the experiences of one or the other house, may find the experiences come more naturally or easily, but magic never lets us stay where we’re comfortable. Besides, if comfort is the goal, why bother with magic at all? You are barking up the wrong world-tree if you came here for an easy time. That way lies fragility.

Not only are the houses not isolated from one another, they are in fact inextricably intertwined, each flowing from the previous and into the next, each drawing meaning, purpose, and clarity from its neighbors. Similarly, if you abandon the dogma about path-handedness, you see right in the left and left in the right almost everywhere you look. Indeed it was arbitrary of me to section off the 8th and the 9th, but I can’t do the whole zodiac in one post. Hopefully in future there will be time to consider the other houses.

Advertisements

In search of authenticity

What is “authentic” in magic? In religion? Should we seek it, and if so, where can it be found?

This post was inspired by a conversation in the comments on my karma post. The topic turned to authenticity, and I was rightly challenged to define what I mean by that. So I thought about it for a while and this is what I came up with–other perspectives are welcome. I tried to keep it succinct, but failed.

Totes magical.
They are, like, totes magical.

First let me state that I am just as disgusted by hipsters buying Virgin of Guadalupe prayer candles and mustache wax at Urban Outfitters, or setting up booths to read tarot badly, or selling spells on Etsy to attract a succubus who will think you are soooo hot, as the rest of you are. But then, I’m disgusted by hipsters generally because, in my experience, to be a hipster is to be a hyper-materialist. It is a subculture based on simulacra, on authenticity-posturing. For example, during the decade I lived in a large American city famously crawling with hipsters, I observed that the same people who would only drink crap beer at biker bars because anything else was “bourgeois,” who would pride themselves on riding a fixie or taking the bus to show how eco-friendly they were, but would fly to the other end of the country (America is a big country btw) just to get a tattoo. The very fact that so much energy is expended on aping blue collar Americana (e.g., western or denim shirts, hand-knitted scarves, caps sporting tractor or trucking company names) demonstrates how acutely status-conscious hipsters are. What is more bourgeois than slumming? In my book, that is called hypocrisy. It is doubly annoying and depressing now that, for the past three or four years, they have turned their predatory attentions toward the occult and its paraphernalia.

But I’m betting I don’t need to give you more reasons to be annoyed by hipsters. (And don’t worry, they’ll get bored with it soon.) Sadly, as easy as it is to point the finger at them, they are a natural outgrowth of the current values and priorities of the (post-)modern Western monoculture to which so many of us are unwilling, but nevertheless habitual, contributors. Or as Gordon so astutely put it, “Blaming hipsters for ‘special snowflake’ syndrome is egregiously unfair as we are the snowclouds.” Hipsters are irritating because they are so utterly unconcerned with authenticity or meaning, except when they are working hard to create a pretense of it. They somehow manage to appropriate from within their own cultures.

But why does it make us so uncomfortable? Why do we care about authenticity, and in particular, why do we feel the need to police others’ authenticity, or lack thereof?

To begin with a basic definition, the dictionary gives one meaning as “having a claimed and verifiable origin or authorship” (in other words, something is what it purports to be) while another is “conforming to fact and therefore worthy of trust, reliance, and belief” (in other words, accurate and actual). So basically something that is honest about itself, and which has a known provenance.

Any particular magical technique or tradition can meet one of these criteria without meeting both. For example, a given claim could be faithful to its origin either in history or in UPG, yet never amount to more than religious dogma, abstract symbolism, or just plain BS. (Spirits say the darndest things.) Conversely, a claim could be erroneously represented as, say, “druidic” or “shamanic” yet still produce the desired and expected results. (The Virgin of Guadalupe might answer your prayer, even if you bought your prayer candle at Urban Outfitters.)

I propose:

  1. Hipsters make us feel yucky because they are distorting mirrors. They exaggerate practices that many of us are implicated in, and by doing so, bring them uncomfortably into our awareness. At the same time, they represent values of a monoculture we desperately want to escape and resist. So in a sense, the quest for authenticity is a quest to be liberated as victims/perpetrators of the monoculture.
  2. Authenticity-as-historicity is unattainable, and perhaps of dubious utility anyway.
  3. Authenticity-as-functionality is useful though subjective.
  4. Integrity is the promise of authenticity, and dogma is the pitfall. We have to shoot for the former while escaping the latter. I think we might need more specific vocabulary for this issue.

Allow me to elaborate…

Authenticity as liberation

Don’t you hate it when your nips get chafed by your appropriated Native American garb?

First and foremost we need to question why we even seek after authenticity. I am certain there are many factors intertwined in this subject and I doubt I could come up with a comprehensive list. I’d rather focus on one: I suspect that worries about legitimacy are a smokescreen obscuring a deeper need to both escape the world of simulacra and escape our own complicity in it. That is to say, the need to escape–or more proactively, to reject–the simulacra of the monoculture is very real and very worthwhile. It is arguably the first, though ongoing, task of the magician. But when the focus comes off the goal of liberation and shifts to controlling the terms of engagement, “authenticity” has turned into “policing.” For the apprentice wizard, it’s like just as you are breathing a sigh of relief at having finally broken with the monoculture, having passed the first gate, Fear of Attack, and the second gate, Fear of Being Silly, you hit the third gate, Judgy Fellow Magicians.

I know that many if not most people within the magical community oppose the monoculture. How could we not, when it opposes us? But so often we find ourselves caught in a bind, forced to choose the lesser of evils, operating half-blind without enough information (and that’s even when we use divination). Maybe I’m generalizing too much from my own experience but I think the very first obstacle we come to as baby wizards is our fear of going against the monoculture. Anyone who doesn’t experience at least a frisson of terror at the potential repercussions of disengaging from The System isn’t using their imagination. Disengaging from the monoculture entails very real costs, and it doesn’t have to be something as grotesque as burning at the stake, beaten to death with sticks, tortured to death, or being dismembered with machetes so your body parts can be sold on the black market. The subtler punishments can be a death of a thousand cuts.

Not surprisingly, the people talking a good game about sticking it to The Man greatly outnumber those who actually try to do so. I’ve always kind of gotten a kick out of hearing Western cultures described as individualistic, because I see plenty of demand for conformity in the US. Granted, our laws do provide for a certain degree of personal freedom relative to other places in the world–though you never know when those freedoms are going to be arbitrarily violated by law enforcement or intelligence agencies, especially if you aren’t white or rich–but this is not some El Dorado of unfettered personal expression. Here as in other parts of the world subject to the monoculture, there are people at every level and in every corner of society waiting to judge and condemn your every failure to live and endorse the capitalist dream.

No matter what the topic under discussion, those who set themselves up as gatekeepers of correctness are the ones who are feeling the most threatened by change and debate. Gatekeeping is self-aggrandizement, and a distraction from the hard work and loneliness of introspection. I see this little drama absurdly reenacted all the time here in the US. Certain jerks think that the freedom of religion inscribed in our Constitution means they should get to persecute anyone who goes against the jerk’s religious beliefs. In fact it merely means that, e.g., if an individual’s religion says they can’t marry a person of the same sex, then the individual can’t be forced to do so. It doesn’t give that individual the right to circumscribe the rights of others, on religious or any other grounds. Unfortunately, as currently interpreted in America, freedom means “I get to do whatever I want and everyone else can get fucked.”I guess that does look individualistic, but I think it’s more defensive. In fact a self-defensive attitude is so pervasive that anything that contradicts some interest group’s values is declared a “war” on those values. If certain conservative news networks are to be believed, the mere existence of people who aren’t Christian is a “war on Christianity.” I mention this as an example of the desire to gatekeep taken to extremes.

But I can’t help but think there’s an element of “you damn kids!” in our need for authenticity too. I remember reading a blog post once–sadly I can’t remember where, but it had nothing to do with magic, just life in general–where the author was talking about how hard it can be to make friends as an adult, especially in middle age. Sometimes one ends up with seemingly incongruous friends, with whom one has little in common, simply because hey, they showed up. Back in the late 20th century, Jason Miller assures me, it was similar with magic:

“We didn’t have social media then either. No Facebook. No Yahoogroups. No MySpace. Not even fucking Friendster. You couldn’t find the other people in the world with the exact same myopic opinions and interests that you have. No groups for just for Celtic Taoists, Thelemic Palo Mayomberas, or people following the Key Of Solomon to the letter. You just had to form a study group, cabal, or coven and put up with whoever showed up. You had Setians participating in Wiccan Circles, Tantrikas going to OTO meetings, Chaos Magicians showing up for Modern Magic practice sessions because that is all there was in your area, and at least it was something.

I wasn’t actively involved in the occult back then, but I was a young adult and I remember those heady days, getting dizzy from photocopier toner fumes, desperately hoping I had enough coins to finish the job, so psyched because I found some book in the library with one chapter on whatever I was interested in. Pre-internet and social media, college was the time when you got to surround and insulate yourself with others who shared your beliefs and opinions–once you graduated, you had to grow up and be nice to humanity’s irritating diversity. Nowadays, a whole slew of cultural factors, social media among them, have led to the ridiculous expectation that we should be surrounded by others just like us, and the perception that those who don’t think just like us are a threat. It’s as if the filtering algorithms Facebook and Google use to decide what should be important to you have bled out into the culture at large, and it may benefit someone, but it ain’t us. Gordon again, much more succinctly than my rambling diatribe:

“When did we all become such massive dicks? The instant we find something that isn’t a 100% confirmation of our existing worldview, we all take to facestalk and fizz with impotent consternation….If you have enough time to only consume stuff you agree with and then even more time to overreact to anything that slightly deviates from it then, humbly, you need to look at how you are spending your incarnation.”

You are in charge of you; why worry so much about what others are doing? It’s their business and moreover it’s out of your control. If you think a given practice is inauthentic, don’t use it and don’t teach it. Simple as that. Yes, poseurs–who by definition must call attention to themselves–will make the rest of us look bad in the eyes of the monoculture. Since when do we need the monoculture’s approval? Yes, they will do things we regard as dorky, lame, tacky, and just plain wrong. Ironically, they will even try to set themselves up as the arbiters of authenticity (they were into magic before it was cool, you see). All very annoying, most of all when our own behavior starts to converge on theirs, hmm? It’s not that I’m above tsk-tsking at others (you read the first part of this post, right?), but it’s precisely because it’s so hard for me to stay focused on my own path that I feel it’s necessary to do.

Magic is “occult” for a reason. Actually more than one reason: (1) to protect its users from negative social repercussions, (2) to allow sufficient solitude and freedom from distraction for practice and introspection, and (3) due to signal loss, the inevitable impossibility of putting any of this into words, and the fact that some don’t have ears to hear. I want to be clear that when I criticize the gatekeeping impulse, I am not talking about protective secrecy. To know, to will, to dare, to keep secret does not require the addition of “to demand the right to determine the terms of engagement and censure those who don’t comply.”

Authenticity as historicity

If you suspect there is a kind of crust of fossilized ideas and practices that has adhered to the occult–and I’m sure there is, because humans–you might figure that a worthwhile project is to cut through it to get to the juicy meat. From what I have seen, that crust is composed of a mix of things that once worked but whose purposes have long been forgotten; formal gestures that never worked but maybe made sense within a long-gone social, philosophical, and/or religious context; zany pronouncements from the less…er, enlightened?…denizens of the spirit world; blurry transmissions from the beyond and the inevitable losses-in-translation; dogma; and insertions by self-aggrandizers (both embodied and not).

How do you remove that cortex of bunk? Some try to go back to a time when the tradition was not yet corrupted by these accretions. I don’t really think that’s possible, for reasons I explain below, and moreover I think some of that junk has always been in magic–again, because humans. Another method is to largely ignore what anyone else has ever said and do it the hard way, figuring that the proof of your success or failure will be in the pudding, which I get to in the next section.

As has probably become painfully obvious to you, lovely readers, I think history and archaeology are extremely interesting, academically. If I had it in me to do a second Ph.D., it would probably be on the archaeology of the WMT (or rather, some tiny picayune aspect thereof, because such is the nature of dissertations). But from an experiential and practical point of view, what does historicity really matter? I mean, there is no reason to throw away the hard-earned knowledge of our forebears; but on the other hand, there’s no reason not to put it to the test, either.

We can’t ever really walk in our ancestors’ shoes because our consciousness and our cognition are different. For the purpose of my argument, let me define a culture as a set of more-or-less formalized mental models of the universe, plus behavioral guidelines for negotiating that universe, which together make up a worldview. It forms part of the context for a developing mind and brain, along with things like the mother’s health during pregnancy, nutrition, genetics, traumatic injury, inner dimensions of reality, and so on. Our brains are plastic, forming and eliminating neural pathways according to the stimuli presented to them and the uses they are put to, but the range of potential stimuli and uses is limited by prevailing mental models of what is “real” and “possible” (i.e., the culture). Although the mind is not the same thing as the brain, the mind does use the brain to interface (somewhat inadequately) with our material realities.

As for our own prevailing system of mental models, we latched onto reductionist materialism as our guiding philosophical paradigm, only to realize about 200 years down the line that it feels hollow and yucky and we were tricked into conspiring in our own enslavement and destruction. In the meantime, we let all the elders die without bothering to record their wisdom, and now that old-timey skills suddenly look a lot like the sort of thing one needs to know for survival when the proverbial shit hits the fan, we are rightly sad and scared. We want to jettison the façade and find something that actually works and doesn’t make us want to slit our wrists. There are a few left who can teach us how to make stone tools, thatch a cottage, or make a dugout canoe, but not as many who can teach us how to eat sin, or what charms to sing over a foundered horse.

So one way to look at magic is as forgotten knowledge that can be partially recovered through surviving texts and oral tradition, and partially through experimentation and personal gnosis. But as the novelist L.P. Hartley wrote, “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.” They don’t do things different, they see and think differently too. I suspect John Michael Greer is on the right track when he proposes that it isn’t simply that we have forgotten certain skills; the bigger problem is that we have so narrowed our mental models that we have dulled our brain-tools and rendered them useless in non-human-created environments. And so, he argues, most of us are literally unable to think our way out of the box we made for ourselves, and keep doubling down on stupid decisions like, say, fracking:

“…civilizations by and large don’t have to be dragged down the slope of decline and fall; instead, they take that route with yells of triumph, convinced that the road to ruin will infallibly lead them to heaven on earth, and attempts to turn them aside from that trajectory typically get reactions ranging from blank incomprehension to furious anger. It’s not just the elites who fall into this sort of self-destructive groupthink, either: it’s not hard to find, in a falling civilization, people who claim to disagree with the ideology that’s driving the collapse, but people who take their disagreement to the point of making choices that differ from those of their more orthodox neighbors are much scarcer.”

Outside of our created buffer zone, when our ideas about how the world works are wrong, we tend to get dead, and cultural models get updated accordingly. Within the buffer zone, we are protected enough to generally stay alive and keep breeding. So we don’t learn when our mental models are a poor fit with reality because reality as we have come to know it is our mental models. Thanks to fossil fuels, modern Western society more completely shelters its adherents than any civilization before (think air conditioning), so the implication of Greer’s speculation is that we have not merely forgotten some stuff, but those of us alive today are now too stupid to learn it again. Now we must wait until natural selection has a chance to impose some negative feedback on our descendants’ worldviews.

Summerisle wicker man

My point with all this is that you can build a wicker man, but because the social, cultural, cognitive, and religious context for druidic human sacrifice is gone (outside of Summerisle anyway), you would arguably just be murdering people. This is the sense in which I mean that authenticity-as-historicity is unattainable. If the question is merely one of historical interest, then obviously accuracy is desirable–and yes, there are plenty of people out there making factually erroneous claims about the historicity of their magic–but that only bothers me (admittedly, it bothers me a lot) in an academic sense.

I think if we cannot fully replicate or reconstruct the past, we are released from the obligation to try. The primacy of ancient wisdom is just one among many metaphysical assertions that demand to be questioned if we are not just to accept them as dogma. Why should we think that the Western Magical Tradition is univalent, or that it stopped evolving?

Authenticity as functionality

This picture captions itself, really.
This picture captions itself, really.

When I was a kid my aunt used to laugh at me and say that I always had to do everything the hard way. I would never take advice. So if you are one of those people who must reinvent the wheel, I feel you. Mind you, I messed up a lot because of my unwillingness to listen to my elders.

Does a given method work without too many unintended undesirable effects? That’s always the most fundamental question in magical practice. I could tell…well, anyone…that a “haunted unicorn pegasus telepathy intuition spirit talisman” is probably not going to achieve anything but the emptying of their wallet, but I guess it depends on what effect the benighted purchaser is going for. Here again, those mental/cultural models are in play: If the ends were all the same, we could compare which means work best; but the ends are not all the same.

Look, I admit that if I were part of a lodge or coven, and the other members were hipsters doing Fauxhemian tarot readings, or if they were New Agers seeking crystal children to help them bring about the Ascension, I would be super annoyed and leave because I would not be getting what I’m looking for. I really hope I’m not coming off here as though I am above being judgy, because heck, judging is one of my hobbies. (I’m sure that will become apparent in due time if it hasn’t already.) And I don’t mean this as some can’t-we-all-just-get-along tolerance talk. There is also the question of appropriation, which I address separately. Relativism has its benefits, but the magical path is lonely enough without having to do everything by yourself from scratch. It’s kind of crazy not to take advantage of the human ability to learn vicariously. At some point, you have to take someone else’s method or metaphysical proposition and try it on for size. And it should not be dismissed simply because it makes you uncomfortable. I would have gotten exactly nowhere–and granted, I’m barely even onto the path at this point, but I wouldn’t be on it at all–if I hadn’t ultimately swallowed my pride and decided to work through my uneasiness.

On the other hand, UPG can result in some frankly bizarre stuff. I used to contribute to an internet forum that was mostly made up of New Agers. There were a couple other people more of my own metaphysical stripe, enough to keep me coming back and thinking I had something of value to contribute. But I finally gave up after I encountered (1) a woman who claimed to channel angels. One type of angels were the “Chantilly angels,” who told her that God’s ideal society was 1950s America, and these angels were here to return us to that golden age. (2) Someone who claimed to channel an extremely racist Archangel Michael. (3) A dude who thought the Bronze Age Indus Valley civilization had flying cars and nuclear weapons (I have been hearing this lately from some Hindu Vedic fundamentalists; not sure if he was one). And (4) another person who claimed to have channeled an Atlantean who said that if you suck on seeds before planting them, the plants will absorb your DNA and then produce exactly the nutrients you personally need. (I am not making this up.) I also saw (virtually speaking) some people who were obviously being munched on by noncorporeal parasites, and were being told whatever they needed to hear to keep them compliant. In short there is a lot of crazy out there, and there are apparently plenty of individuals (embodied and not) who really, really want to share it with you. (I am a year late but I just found out about this book on the subject of channeled weirdness via Disrupt & Repair and cannot wait to read it.)

I don’t mean to downplay the importance of gnosis. I avidly seek it myself because there seem to be certain categories of universal esoteric knowledge that can only be obtained through gnosis. I just don’t think I can use my subjective experiences as a metric of authenticity that can be applied to everyone else. In this sense, we are like the blind men and the elephant. We grasp the truth, but never the whole truth.

Parting thoughts

I’m starting to wonder if, rather than authenticity, what we should seek in a spiritual and/or magical method is vitality. By that I mean does the practice or tradition not only function (accomplish one’s goals) but does it put one in touch with the numinous? Does it deepen and broaden our experience of life? Does it facilitate communion with other living beings, embodied and otherwise? Does it help liberate us? In my view, magical natural selection will ensure that, over time, what survives is what is vital and powerful. If you take a snapshot of any given slice of time, of course, there will still be a few fossils that have outlived their usefulness. By all means, abandon–or better yet, compost or combust–that shit. But help the strong survive. Our choices are part of the forces that will select the fittest, most adaptable magics. But, just as natural selection doesn’t work on individual organisms but on variants of genes (as one of my professors used to say, “fitness is a property of alleles!”), so we must expect that it’s not magical systems that will survive but smaller elements such as techniques and myths. I think that is reflected in the magic and mythology of street kids. The life-and-death selective pressures those kids face are far more intense than what most of us encounter, so you can be sure that whatever magics survive in their world have been honed to a knife-edge. They have to work. We may be perturbed by the remixed versions of magic that are espoused by the next two or three generations, but at least we can take comfort in the fact that Hollywood and hipsters will eventually get bored and leave us alone.

When the map draws the territory

Are there infinite parallel universes, and if so, do we move between them? Does the universe shape itself to meet our expectations? Does the territory determine the map, or the map the territory?

Thanks to The Daily Grail’s news briefs, I recently learned about something called the “Mandela Effect.” The term describes a phenomenon where large numbers of people remember past events that never happened, and takes its name from one of these alternate memories, that Nelson Mandela died in prison in the 1980s, prompting riots in Africa. What separates these alternate memories from just misremembering or being ignorant of history is (1) they are shared, down to the details, by thousands of people; and (2) for the people who have them, the memories are often embedded in the social matrix of their lives–they remember the discussions they had with others about the events, for example–and consequently, questioning these memories means questioning all the memories they are embedded in. It’s not easy for them to dismiss the memories as just an error.

Berenstain Bears

There are many of these alternative histories–here is a list–and it so happens that I share one of them. I remember having some children’s books featuring the The Berenstein Bears. I can remember my mom reading them to me, and I remember she pronounced the name Bear-en-steen. (She says she remembers it the same way. I specifically asked her to tell me how the name was spelled, and she said B-E-R-E-N-S-T-E-I-N.) Then I can remember, when I was a little older, wondering if it shouldn’t be pronounced Bear-en-STINE, since after all it appears to be a Germanic name. I started reading at age 3, I could read cursive from at least the 1st grade (the Berenst#in Bears name is always written in cursive script), was always a really good speller, and I read and re-read many times a Berenst#in Bears book in which the daughter has her first day at school. For some reason I really connected empathetically with that story. So I know I saw the word myself and am reasonably confident I would have remembered the spelling correctly. But as an adult I started hearing it pronounced Bear-en-STAIN, and assumed it was just an idiosyncratic pronunciation of Berenstein. When I first saw it written BerenstAin, I assumed it was a misspelling based on that idiosyncratic pronunciation. Later, I thought that, as implausible as it seemed, maybe I had just been mistaken in thinking it was spelled BerenstEin. Now I find out there are many, many other people out there who, like me, remember reading The BerenstEin Bears books as kids.

I am not the least bit surprised, with our incompetent educational system in the process of melting down and the shocking level of ignorance about history among the general public, that lots of people in the would be in error about many facts. Many of the alternative memories listed at Mandela Effect sound to me like things that might have been easily mis-heard, misspelled, etc.–for example, was the Sara Lee jingle “Nobody doesn’t like Sara Lee” or “Nobody does it like Sara Lee”? I remember trying to figure out what that jingle was saying years ago when it was current. I couldn’t make out the words either way, I’m still not sure what it was supposed to be saying, so it’s easy to imagine people might have heard it one way only to find out later it was in fact the other wording all along. Reece, author of the Wood between Worlds blog, points out that many of these Mandela Effects center on things that happened far away. Americans are not exactly known for our in-depth knowledge of contemporary African cultures, so it’s not entirely surprising that a lot of us assumed Mandela died as soon as he stopped being talked about all the time on CNN. Besides, memory is notoriously unreliable (cf. the classic example of eyewitnesses in criminal cases). And sometimes there really are alternate versions of things. Maybe ten or twelve years ago, my mom and my aunt (separately) watched the movie How Green Was My Valley (1941) on TV. Neither had seen it in decades. They both were perplexed that it had a different ending than they remembered from when they saw it in the theater as kids. It turns out that two different endings were made, one bleak ending that follows the book, and one happy ending for 1940s American tastes which was shown in theaters when my mom and aunt were young. On TV a decade ago, they showed the depressing cut. But in that case, the existence of two endings is historically attested, so my mom’s and aunt’s confusion could be easily resolved.

Indeed, nothing would surprise me less than to find out that Hollywood would change their stories (e.g., the titles or endings of movies–the subject of many Mandela Effect claims) and then blatantly deny it. Same goes for Madison Avenue, politicians, 24-hour news networks, and sadly, a lot of scientists. What really blows my mind is that so many others (ostensibly half a million people in the case of the Berenst#in Bears) have the same seemingly mistaken memories, even in cases that don’t seem like simple misunderstandings, and that many of the memories revolve around the kind of trivial details that never make it into the history books. Needless to say (but I’m saying it), the implications for how we understand history, memory, magic, divination, and the entire nature of the universe are huge. Because if these alternative memories aren’t just mistakes, it means that the change happens retroactively, to rewrite history so that the bears were always BerenstAins all along.

I think all of us who are not reductionist-scientistic-materialists are pretty accustomed by the time we reach adulthood to constantly being told we’re wrong, and to never seeing our metaphysical perspectives represented in official statements on reality (e.g., in school, government, etc.). It’s annoying, but not exactly a surprise. I wonder if this makes us a little less easily convinced that we just remembered wrong? Maybe we’re just a little bit more likely to say, I know what I know. But the Mandela Effect doesn’t only happen to us weirdos.

The usual proposed explanations for the Mandela Effect include: (1) everyone with counterfactual memories is just wrong; (2) parallel universes, in which it is apparently possible to move from one universe to another and never realize it until somewhere down the road, some little detail doesn’t match up; and (3) paradox caused by time travel within the same universe (think Quantum Leap). I don’t find any of these remotely persuasive and I have my own hypothesis.

I suspect that the Mandela Effect is like synchronicity, in that the significance is all in how it affects the experiencer. In other words, it might look like coincidence (or ignorance, or credulity, or faulty memory…) to the outside observer, but the person having the experience knows what they saw and their world is a little unraveled when they find out they were “wrong.” They are forced to question not just the experience itself but the entire context they remember around the experience. I’m sure some people are just mistaken, probably 99 out of 100, but if even one of us is right, how do we explain it?

I am not impressed by the parallel universe model. That idea has a lot of currency in our culture because it’s such a standard sci-fi trope, and that’s why I think it’s easy (and lazy) to fall back on that explanation. But the multiverse model doesn’t actually explain anything (beyond apparent wave-function collapse) and it’s impossible to support or falsify because it makes no predictions that can be tested. Theoretically, these many ‘verses should be reducible to, subsumed within, some larger thing (megaverse?), and that then puts me right back to wondering what the unified theory might be that would explain both parallel universes and the apparent slipping between them. Not to mention, if people can slip between universes, why couldn’t some of the books that said BerenstEin? Over to Reece:

“As it is popularly understood, Everett’s model [the Many-Worlds hypothesis] seems more like what the Mandela Effect is describing.  They both revolve around these worlds of counterfactuals.  However, at a deeper level, Everett’s model isn’t like the Mandela Effect at all.  Everett’s model deals with quantum mechanical events.  The death of Nelson Mandela is not a quantum event, and seeing his death on TV is not a quantum observation.  The numbers are also hugely different.  The Mandela Effect’s universes focus on some specific key memories; they don’t even realize the entire space of anthropocentric counterfactuals (where is the universe where Plato never met Socrates?), but just a few specific Mandela events.  On the other hand, Everett’s universe splitting occurs essentially every time two or more particles are made to interact to a certain extent; this is way, way, way massively more universes than we can even begin to really fathom.”

Also:

“The many-worlds interpretation is a scientific theory, and the claims it makes about ‘alternate universes’ are very specific and take a very specific form, and they take a form that is at odds with the idea of jumping universes.  If Universe A were in fact a separate ‘universe’ in the many-worlds sense, then we can’t cross to it from Universe E.”

In other words, why aren’t there Mandela Effects for literally every human experience? I don’t buy the Quantum Leap argument either. (For those who didn’t grow up in America in the 1980s, Quantum Leap was a show about physicist Dr. Sam Beckett, who is bounced around to temporarily occupy other people’s bodies at different times and places, seemingly at the will of an unnamed omniscient force, “setting right what once went wrong.”) But there are a couple of glaring questions: Sam Beckett went back to save people from getting dead or discouraged so they could make Important Discoveries or find True Love and stuff. Why would anyone bother changing the spelling of some children’s books or the lyrics of commercial jingles? I mean I know about the Butterfly Effect but I have a hard time believing the spelling of the Berenst#in Bears had a huge bearing on the future. Our putative time traveler would have to have gone to Ellis Island in the 1890s to change how some immigration clerk transcribed the name of the Family Formerly Known as Berenstein to affect the spelling on the children’s books. It would require deliberate intent, not just an accidental typo (as has been suggested by supporters of this hypothesis). And why do some–but only some–people remember the pre-change version of reality? I literally cannot think of any reason why that would even be possible. It also presupposes either a lot of time travelers or one time traveler who jumps around a lot to make inane alterations, like inserting turkey legs into portraits of Henry VIII. This time traveler would be one jerk of a trickster. (Q, perhaps?) Not to mention, the possibility of time travel has yet to be demonstrated, let alone the creation of technology that would facilitate it.

blue sky

A much more interesting possibility, to my mind anyway, is that our universe–or rather, the parts of it we access with our embodied human minds–is a holographic or virtual reality, in which each person’s reality partly overlaps with that of every other person. (And of course I mean this in a metaphysical, gnostic sense, not in an aliens-created-a-fake-universe-all-for-us sense.) We know this latter part is effectively true because of the influence of subjective experience, and we also know that people from different cultures not only have different worldviews in the conceptual sense, but actually phenomenologically perceive the world differently.  Thus, some perceptions are influenced by consensus while others are not shareable and thus theoretically impervious to consensus. For example, by consensus we all agree that the color of the sky is called “blue,” however, we have know way of knowing whether what I perceive as “blue” is the same as what you perceive as “blue.” Consensus can affect the naming, and even to some extent the actual perception, but it will never be possible to know for sure if the perception is shared and thus it might be totally independent. When we think of consensus though, there is what we communicate through language (e.g., with other members of our culture), but perhaps there is also content communicated in other ways? Something like a Zeitgeist perhaps, or even a Volkgeist, if that’s a word. Is it possible that people “remember” things that did in fact happen, but which the perceiver could not have actually experienced at the time, accounting for experiences like remembering an alternate ending of a film seen in the theater, which alternate ending was never released in theaters but did appear later on the DVD release? Could counterfactual memories be contagious? Or, since time is not actually linear, could people be remembering things they actually haven’t experienced yet, but will in the future? Questions abound.

For my part, the consensus reality of the BerenstAin Bears has nearly got me believing that I really just remembered it wrong. This means that I have the rare opportunity of consciously witnessing the process of my memories being rewritten. Unless I resist it, in a few years I may not only be convinced that it was always BerenstAin, but have forgotten that I ever saw BerenstEin. It’s not only our present perceptions of sensory stimuli that are constrained by our mental models, but also our memories. The map is not the territory, but what’s on the map partly (though not, of course, completely) determines what parts of the territory can be perceived. Which is why it pays to have as big, as weird, and as diverse a map as possible. It also reaffirms that we need to be very careful about how much we let our reality be shaped by consensus, and choose our company wisely.

The Mandela Effect reveals itself to really be an internal Rashomon Effect. The Berenst#in Bears are not a glitch in The Matrix, a government conspiracy, a “John Titor” typo, or a universal switcheroo. They are a secret tunnel leading out of the Black Iron Prison. They are a rabbit hole inviting us to jump in. They rock our world out of all proportion to the significance of the memory because we need to see how easily rocked (because largely fictional and contingent) our worlds are.

Empathy and ethics

Is empathy a virtue? Can it be put to conscious use?

Frater Acher has a couple very interesting pieces “On Magic and Empathy” and “A string played from both ends: on Empathy and Magic,” which present some opinions that I think merit consideration. He regards empathy as a tool and not a virtue, which is a bold position considering it runs counter to the mainstream here in the West. Since this is a topic of major interest to me and I think it could benefit others, I want to address it.

The difference between sympathy and empathy has always been a bit vague to me. My understanding is that sympathy can be a matter of natural affinity (though not necessarily), while empathy is a conscious choice to try an experience a situation from another person’s perspective. It’s easy to see a conscious choice to empathize as a virtue, but we should consider that critically, rather than taking it as a given. Furthermore, what about when empathy isn’t a conscious choice?

Let me back up a bit. In Western cultures, between five and six senses are recognized: taste, touch, hearing, sight, smell, and sometimes, a “sixth sense” or “second sight.” But this sixth sense has in turn been broken down into various kinds of “psychic” ability. In parapsychology and paranormal research, it has been customary for the past century or so to refer to these abilities as clair-whatever. Clairvoyance, claircognizance, clairsentience, clairaudience, etc. Collectively, I call these the clairs. The idea is that these result in the same or similar kind of sense impressions as the other five senses, but are not mediated by the body’s sense organs. The information comes directly into consciousness, as it were.

Another category has been recognized in the past 25 years or so, that of the empath. An empath is someone who feels the emotions of other people, not in the ordinary way that humans, as social primates, read each other; not in the sense of inferring or imagining what another person feels, but actually feeling it exactly as if it were your own emotion, to the point that it is often difficult to determine with whom the emotion originated in the first place.This includes “feelings” in the sense of emotions, in the sense of physical sensations, and in the sense of “vibes.”

Counselor Troi feels your pain.
Counselor Troi feels your pain.

I am one of these people, but I don’t particularly like the term empath, for several reasons: (1) Note that “empath” refers to the person having the ability. What would the ability itself be called? Empathy? But empathy is a normal ability that pretty much everyone has and uses on a day-to-day basis. Those who don’t have it are typically regarded as mentally ill (e.g., sociopaths) because their behavior is so far outside the expected. How do we distinguish between the two? Are they qualitatively different, or merely a matter of degree? (2) I’m not sure where the term “empath” originated. I first encountered it in the person of Counselor Deanna Troi on Star Trek: The Next Generation. Fairly or unfairly, the pop-culture and sci-fi associations don’t enhance the credibility of the category when you come out of the fortune-teller’s closet to your friends and family. (3) There was already a term for this ability: clairsentience. (Some empaths dispute that it’s the same thing as clairsentience but I think it is, at best, splitting hairs.) (4) Though this would be a problem regardless of terminology, it deserves mention: There is confusing overlap with a category recognized by some (non-mainstream) psychologists, the “Highly Sensitive Person” or HSP, which in turn overlaps with what used to be called “neurosis” and with cultural factors such as how much empathy is rewarded or punished by one’s peers.

Does being clairsentient/empathic make me virtuous? It does make me painfully sensitive to others’ feelings, and I sincerely try not to cause suffering. But I’m not saying that I’ve never done anything to hurt someone else. In fact, I regret to say that in moments of rage I have a special talent for finding the exact most vicious and mean thing to say and blurting it out. It’s just that afterwards I feel beyond-horrible when I start to sense the other person’s feelings and realize that I caused that. Guilt and shame do not even begin to cover what that feels like.

super sniffer
I wish I could turn my super sniffer off. 😦

And lest you think that I am bragging, let me tell you clairsentient empathy is no bed of roses. My sensitivity is not only emotional, it seems to be part and parcel of my whole nervous system. I’m intensely bothered by certain sounds and all bright lights. I’m a supertaster and supersmeller. I get drunk practically just from looking at alcohol (possibly the best thing about this clairsentience gig is that I don’t actually have to buy booze, I can just hang around drunk people to get a buzz), get all the side effects of pharmaceuticals including the rare ones, and my skin is uncomfortably sensitive to certain materials (polyester does not touch this body). Highly-charged emotional situations are a problem, especially sex because it combines both emotional and physical stimulation. It is virtually impossible to sleep in the same bed with another person. I need a ton of alone time. I am a people-pleaser and over-nurturer and often despise that about myself. Perfectly ordinary situations make me want to scream and run away.

In fact, I regard uncontrolled clairsentience as bordering on a disability. Maybe not even bordering. It’s a pathological lack of boundaries and there are undesirable tendencies that frequently accompany strong clairsentience. I base this not only on my own experiences but on conversations with many other self-described empaths. They are generalizations, and of course there are exceptions to every rule, but this is what I’ve observed in broad strokes:

  • Most people are agreed that having boundaries is a good thing; empaths have next to none. This can lead to extreme emotional lability–imagine constant PMS-like moodiness.
  • With such raw senses, empaths frequently expect everyone to tiptoe around their triggers.
  • For those in relationships or sharing a residence with an empath, you can pretty much kiss your emotional privacy goodbye, but woe betide you if you lie, attempt to obfuscate, or trespass on the empath’s privacy.
  • Many empaths love the feeling of total merging with another person for a while, only to become super-irritated when that other person is “too close.”
  • Empaths often think they are attracted to another person when in fact they are picking up the other person’s attraction to the empath. Inevitably the empath realizes they aren’t really interested in their partner after all. Woops! Do they then abruptly break off the relationship? Or continue so as not to hurt the other person’s feelings?
  • Empaths can be manipulative without even realizing it, and though most will avoid a fight to the point of being passive-aggressive, when they want to, they know how to wound.
  • After a fight or break up, there is nothing an empath hates more than lack of closure or a solution, and they may hound the other person until they get it. Similarly, many empaths seem to feel it’s their mission to fix everything and everyone. But knowing what others are feeling does not mean understanding how and why they have come to feel that way, or what to do to fix it. Therefore the empath’s attempts to solve the problem can just make it worse.
  • Even when it comes to identifying emotions, empaths do sometimes get it wrong–they are just as subject as anyone else to errors of interpretation. As Ingo Swann has said, getting information psychically is one thing, but it is then subject to the mind’s “analytical overlay.” The more you think you know about something, the more likely you are to filter it through your preconceptions. Or as Mark Twain put it, “It ain’t what you don’t know that get’s you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.” After being right about others’ emotions for years, some empaths become convinced they are never wrong.
  • Some empaths develop an unconscious ability to shield themselves by becoming numb or closed off; they can be incredibly difficult to connect with.
  • Two words: martyr complex.
  • Finally, there are empaths who think they are the epitome of virtue and goodness.

Don’t strain yourself trying to pat yourself on the back while tooting your own horn, empaths. You need to get your shit together (says the voice of experience). Every empath needs two things: (1) to learn to modulate their sensitivity according to the context, and (2) a system of personal ethics and self-care. And although I won’t presume to tell you what your ethics should be, I will say that taking care of (1) takes care of most of (2). That’s why meditation is so essential to the Great Work. Meanwhile, you’ll notice that I said self-care–no one else is responsible for your sensitivity. But you also don’t have to be a sucker and give people a hundred chances because you can see the tiny seed of goodness somewhere within them. If you don’t have natural, instinctive barriers, perhaps try putting up some arbitrary ones just to see what it feels like.

And this brings me back to Fr. Acher and the question, is empathy a virtue? He argues that empathy has been fetishized as a “universal solvent” that can heal all ills, but such an extreme attitude risks making empathy “isolated, imbalanced and ultimately deformed–over time equally deforming its devotees.” He also worries, understandably, about the negative fallout that may happen to anyone who is perceived to not empathize correctly or enough. The command to empathize could all too easily become a demand for conformity, which is anathema to magic folk.

On this latter point I am 100% in agreement. Lately I can barely hear myself think for the din of well-meaning but lazy “progressive” speech-police jumping on each other and everyone else for innumerable perceived transgressions. As in so many other aspects of life nowadays, the pretense is what matters, not the actuality. Real compassion for others prompts you to make real change; pretend compassion prompts you to bloviate about everyone else’s failure to make cosmetic changes. This is an example of the deformed empathy Fr. Acher mentions.

But there are two claims I need to dispute. The first is that highly empathetic people are obnoxious and impose themselves on others. The second is that empathy is projection. Neither is one of Acher’s main points, but I still feel they need addressing.

First, he cites an example of a supposedly highly empathetic person who is lauded, but who obviously sets off Acher’s alarm bells*. The characteristics that are extolled as virtues strike Acher as invasive, manipulative, infantilizing, needy, and un-self-reflective.

His critiques are not entirely unfounded. I have to admit the way the person is described, she sounds irritating. And as you read above, there are pitfalls that go with extreme sensitivity. On the other hand, Acher’s reaction seems overly defensive. When empathy is working, one realizes when one is making others uncomfortable and, hopefully, changes one’s behavior. So it seems to me that what Acher is complaining about is a failure of empathy.

Secondly, Acher implies (in both articles linked above) that empathy is merely projection. For example:

“…what magicians need to function well in society can be described as a different kind of empathy: They need the ability to NOT conclude from their own inner states on other people. As magicians we need the skill to NOT project our own feelings and emotions onto other people.”

“So learning to be empathetic…requires us to being [sic] with a pretty counter-intuitive first step: that is to tame, to hold back and comtain [sic] our own emotions – so they do not cloud our ability to observe objectively and unbiased….only once we are ready to let go of our own needs and stop projecting them on beings around us that are essentially different to us, have we built a first maiden-fundament for future magical practice…”

I am not sure where this notion of empathy-as-projection comes from, but it makes little sense to me. I’m not denying projection happens, and that it’s undesirable. But what makes Acher think that it is specific to empathy? I have considered the following possibilities:

  • Perhaps what Acher means is that, when consensus pressures people, their attempts to achieve a higher level of empathy leads to projection.
  • Or perhaps there’s a difference in how “empathy” (or for that matter “virtue”) is conceived in Germany, which I believe is Acher’s native country, versus in the Anglophone world. For example, perhaps he is thinking of empathy in terms of the effort to feel from another’s perspective, rather than the process of actually doing so.
  • Or perhaps he is actually thinking of the “analytical overlay” that gets applied to empathy, that distorts the raw sensations.

I don’t know. I do know that in a social species living in large, complex groups–such as Homo sapiens–there is a major selective advantage in being able to accurately assess the emotional state of other members of your group. As any primatologist can tell you, even monkeys empathize. If all empathy were just a matter of projection, there would be a large number of false attributions of emotion that led to disastrous consequences, and the ability would never have come to be common in primates. In other words, empathy is a real process, and while projection is an ever-present human issue, I don’t think empathy predisposes anyone to it–in fact, it’s the cure for projection.

Acher’s ultimate argument seems to be that you have to turn your empathy off in order to become truly empathetic. I read this as meaning the process has to be brought under control and made subject to conscious application. As he puts it, in magic, empathy “is a tool and not a virtue.” Though I don’t think of it as a tool per se, I certainly wouldn’t call my empathy/clairsentience a virtue, any more than farting or burping is. It happens whether I want it to or not; I don’t have to work at it, in fact, I have to work at restraining it. Strongly empathetic/clairsentient people may have an extra hurdle to overcome in developing inner stillness and learning how and when to turn their sensitivity up or down (that’s certainly how it has been for me…sigh), but provided you are willing to put in the work, I don’t see why you can’t become a kick-ass magician. (Or whatever.) On the other hand, strongly empathetic people may find it easier to accept and experience the emptiness, in the Buddhist sense (sunyata), of the individual ego-self. I understand this comes in very handy as protection.

Suffice it to say, for those who are clairsentient empaths or strongly empathetic, it is imperative to get your sensitivity under control, because not only will it make you miserable otherwise, you will in turn make others miserable. Not to mention you won’t learn anything from it. I find the Thelemic motto, “Love is the Law. Love under Will.” to be a very useful mantra/mnemonic. If, on the other hand, we become absorbed in stroking our own egos for our supposed innate virtue, we will stray from the path faster than you can say “lightworker.” Fortunately, the very things that make you a better magician–meditation, solitude, exploring your shadows with compassion but also with discipline–will make you a better, and happier, person too.

*The example comes from The Science of Evil – on Empathy and the Origins of Cruelty by Simon Baron-Cohen.

To arms, to arms

True story: For a while my parents considered naming me Boadicea.
Fun fact: For a while my parents considered naming me Boadicea.

Recently there have been a handful of calls to arms in the magical blogosphere, which have stuck in my memory because they resonate with an urgency I’ve been feeling. It’s time to get to work.

The first place I encountered the call (other than in my own mind and heart) was Josephine McCarthy’s blog. You may know that she has been developing an entire course in magic called Quareia. Back in February she wrote:

“…I was not planning originally to have [Quareia] apprentices working on anything but themselves and their immediate surroundings. But over this last year, powers that are out in the world have gathered to polarise heavily and this is playing out through the barbarity we see in the near east, the corruption of our own officials, and the general blights of poverty and cruelty that are marching across our planet with such power and speed.

“So maybe it is time while writing the last module, to put the apprentices to work magically. Through the module on destruction, the apprentice will learn first how to spot real destructive power (it is not as simple as it sounds) and then they will learn to take action. No one magician can stop what is happening, but collectively, small but powerful magical actions done in a focused and knowledgeable way can start to halt and then turn the tide.”

Hmm, interesting. Then in June, Rachel Izabella counter-cursed a transphobic preacher who declared his intention to basically psalm-magic Caitlyn Jenner to death (which, by extension, is a threat to other trans* people who, if they crossed this preacher’s radar, would likely get the same treatment). The counter-curse is an ongoing project. This preacher may just be one guy, but if he is calling his fellows to the fight, then maybe it’s time we started mustering our fellows against their ilk.

Clearly, that post has gotten others thinking about their own line in the sand, the crossing of which would prompt them to action. Just a couple days ago, Kalagni wondered why it is that more magical folk don’t seem to put their magic to work on the big issues?

“…I challenge all of you, to find some injustice in the world, something big, something beyond your life, your neighbourhood, your city, something so big you’d never think of trying to fix it. Then make a plan, find a specific element in this injustice, and make a magickal plan, figure out how to attack it, how to shift it, how to heal it. Piece by piece we nudge the world toward a better place, we make change more possible, we make it easier for those of us working on the mundane to succeed to improve these things.

“…this is raw, desperate, but targeted magick, trying to throw a wrench in the gears of a systemically corrupt status quo, and bring some good into the world.”

Now, I am all for rolling up my sleeves and getting to work, though at this point I don’t have much skill or knowledge to bring to bear. Still, it has often been commented that when one is planning a magical working, it often seems that the “effects” start manifesting before the “cause” has been enacted. So maybe even just bringing our minds to bear on magical action for a better world starts the wheels spinning. Or even more likely, the wheels are already spinning, and that works on our minds.

But there’s one thing that has often stopped me from applying magic in what is customarily called “practical” ways, and that is the fact of limited vision. We as embodied humans cannot see all the pieces in play in any situation. It’s not that I just trust “higher” powers to take care of me without me doing any work, but even just from my human perspective, I can look back on my life so far and see many episodes where my limited view caused me to make a really dumb decision or would have, had it been in my power to decide.

Mistakes are part of magic, like anything else. And you don’t get on this path because it’s easy, safe, or secure. But if one habitually acts from a relatively short-term and narrow point of view, one gets caught in an unending cycle of screwing up and then scrambling to clean up the mess, in the process only screwing it up even more. (This is pretty much the story of civilization, by the way, which is why I don’t believe in “progress.” But that’s a tale for another day.) If one is lucky, it only effects you and not the rest of the planet.  The potential of getting trapped in that cycle is always there. To break free of it and change things at a level where it really counts, it seems to me we need a bigger perspective. That, I presume, is why there has always been a mystical current in magic, and also why we practice divination. Otherwise magic would be like giving guns to a bunch of toddlers. So, you know, about like 21st century America.


I woke up early this morning, not by choice. It is a rare luxury for me to have time by myself to think, so there I was, thinking hard about this issue of well-directed magical action. Or at least, I thought I was awake and thinking. As it turns out, I wasn’t really fully awake. When I did wake up I realized I had been in a hypnogogic state all along…and as is so often the case in that state, some weird shit went down.

I found myself, uh, thinking? dreaming? about how nice it would be if the magical community could cut some evildoers–say, the Koch Brothers–off at the knees. As I was imagining? (dreaming?) what that might be like and what bad dudes those guys are, I heard in my mind’s ear a sort of combined roar-growl, something like the sound an angry big cat makes. At the same time in my mind’s eye, something flew at me. It only lasted a split second, but the message was clear: Do not go there. I have no idea who sent the message. Was it my guardian angel or an ancestor saying, do not even think about it, grasshopper? Maybe it was my own better judgment. Maybe I had slipped into pure dreaming for a moment. Hell, I wouldn’t put it past the Koch Brothers to have magical wards up to keep out even the wandering minds of half-asleep apprentice sorceresses. (They wouldn’t be the first corporate bad guys to do that, from what I hear.)

So make of that what you will, but it sent my mind off in a different direction. I then thought, what if the Koch Brothers and their ilk are part of a necessary balancing destructive force? (I strongly doubt this by the way, but I still think it’s a useful thought exercise.)

(Sidebar. This line of thinking would probably make more sense if I told you the background context, but it’s a long story so I think I’ll save it for the next post. So if you’re especially interested in my new acquaintance with universal destructive powers, or if this post sounds crazy, you might want to read the next one.)

In light of these questions about magical action for the general betterment, I thought the latest post at Circle Thrice was interesting. Ivy writes (my emphasis):

“I’ve heard it suggested that the reason there are copycat crimes is that the original criminal gives other’s [sic] ideas. But I don’t think it’s that simple. I think it’s that evil is contagious, just the same way that violence or panic is contagious in a mob. There are currents of violence and destruction just as there are currents of cooperation and love. When someone taps into a particular current, others find it easier to tap in as well.

Destruction always seems cruel when you’re on the pointy end of the stick. I don’t like seeing baby antelopes die, but I know lions gotta eat. How does one know when the destruction is part of establishing natural balance at a scale too big for a mortal to perceive or understand, or even just an inevitable cyclical eschaton, versus when it is out of place and time and, to put it in Kemetic terms, contrary to ma’at? (Or as I like to call it, wrong or bad.) And even when one is confident of the need to take action against evil, where does one best apply force?

These are questions I am not qualified to answer. I am still learning to walk in magical terms, and any effect I could have on the abundant nastiness in the world today would be pretty small. In a way I get a chuckle out of me asking these questions at all, because I swear I came into this world banging a gavel with one hand and pointing the finger of shame with the other.* When I was a little kid I had few friends because I was a narc. I was not only a tattle-tale, but a self-righteous one at that. If I couldn’t stop someone from wrongdoing, I took it straight up the chain of authority to someone who (I thought) could and would. I mean, I thought that’s what adults were for. Bullying particularly pissed (pisses) me off. When my mom suggested that maybe I might want to dial it back a little, I said in high dudgeon, “But how are they supposed to face the consequences of their actions?!” I was six. My name, in the more popular translation, means “Defender of Men” (as in humans; the Greek is gendered like the English). The less popular, but I’m told more accurate, translation means “She Who Wards Off Men.” Most of the stuff in my horoscope is in the 8th and 9th houses and my whole chart is ruled by Jupiter, the planet of Justice.

Point is, I’ve never been able to identify with the white-lighter crowd because my own experience tells me some people are born to walk right up to badness and slap it across the face with a glove. It doesn’t go away because you turn your back on it–we’ve tried that. But we have to work smart, not just hard–and it’s never too early to start the reconnaissance mission.

*Technically I came into this world asleep.

It came from the deep

Have beings from inner/astral realms influenced, perhaps even deliberately directed, human cultures and civilizations? Should UPG be added to the list of evolutionary forces?

Sumac Icaro, from The Ayahuasca Visions of Pablo Ameringo.
“Sumac Icaro,” from The Ayahuasca Visions of Pablo Ameringo.

I am not the first person to pose this question, and some have argued emphatically that yes, our experiences on other planes have shaped our actions on this one (here’s one, here’s another, and another). Let me say first of all that I am not talking about “ancient astronauts”–corporeal visitors from other planets flying nuts-and-bolts spacecraft. If, as certain big-haired proponents of AA theory claim, extraterrestrials had visited Earth in sufficient numbers and over a long-enough span of time to be the Annunaki, build the Egyptian pyramids, the Maya pyramids, Stonehenge, ley lines, etc., I have two questions: (1) where is the material evidence for these material beings and spacecraft? Are you telling me no aliens ever died here, no spaceships ever crashed, nobody dropped an interstellar wrench or cigarette butt? And (2) where are they now? Did they just get bored after the Maya collapse? Did they decide that feeding us scraps has led us to lose our fear of them and start noisily scrounging around their trash bins at night, like city raccoons, or bears in a national park? So now they just drive by occasionally, making sure to keep the doors locked and windows up?

It’s not that I think visiting extraterrestrials are impossible, but they are completely conjectural. Experiences of immaterial visitors, however, are attested all over the place. They seem to happen all the time, but even those who have had such experiences often deny their reality because they don’t fit into the dominant philosophical paradigm of materialism. On the other hand, many people either believe in ETs or are at least willing to consider the possibility because that story fits within the materialist paradigm.

I am inclined to believe that Jacques Vallee is right when he argues that UFOs and ETs are essentially the same immaterial, or semi-material, phenomenon as faeries and miraculous visions of the Virgin Mary. As Gordon puts it, “The Neighbours already have a propensity to troll and those that present themselves in the guise of UFO phenomena are the trolliest of all.” At any rate, until someone shows me actual material evidence of ET, I shall remain skeptical of ET’s materiality. In the meantime, I feel there is more than sufficient evidence to demonstrate the existence of non-material beings and experiences, even if I cannot explain their nature.


Howard Carter examining the coffin of Tutankhamun.
Howard Carter examining the coffin of Tutankhamun.

For years now I’ve been fascinated by questions of the psycho-magico-spiritual aspects of human civilization. But there are only three ways to investigate it: (1) Ancient texts provide a huge amount of information. The downside is it’s often cryptic or symbolic, and texts are always based in cultural contexts that are now missing. There is a reasonably good chance of unraveling the surface meaning of a text if the writing system has been deciphered, but its twilight language is likely to remain obscure. (2) Oral traditions still exist on the peripheries of the Westernized world, but we usually don’t recognize their importance until they are already disappearing. And sadly, it now seems that these traditions have to be protected from rapacious interests that would first steal, then commodify, and finally destroy. (3) Then there’s Unverified Personal Gnosis (UPG). This is the most direct route but also the most fraught, since not only do we have to learn to discern gnosis from imagination, it seems our interlocutors often have weird agendas of their own (not limited to trolling in UFO garb) which sometimes includes really crazy shit.

As an archaeologist by training, I often think about what archaeology might have discovered–what it might have restored–if it could have shaken off the chains of materialist orthodoxy. Realistically, I don’t think that could ever have happened, because the academic-intellectual project as we know it (including the discipline of archaeology) derives from the same cultural sources as materialist ontology. The entire moral justification for the practice of archaeology–digging up and confiscating old stuff and the graves of ancestors–is predicated upon the modern Western “religious sensibility” (to use John Michael Greer’s term). To wit, the belief that matter is devoid of spirit, and that includes human matter–so even if souls really do exist, they have long since vacated their mortal coil and therefore it harms no one to dig up the bones and take them to a museum half a world away.

This sensibility constrains the kind of questions that a professional intellectual can publicly ask. It’s perfectly ok to argue that other people are influenced by their culture’s spiritual/religious beliefs and even by hallucinations brought on by psychedelics; but to suggest that encounters with actual, non-material beings with goals of their own not only happen, but that they inspired changes in human behavior, would be to lose one’s job and reputation. Even tenure can’t protect one from those consequences.

During the halcyon “post-processual” era of the 1980s-1990s, archaeology flirted with more philosophical explorations of human being and doing; but that was followed by a hard swing back to quantitative analysis, the more mechanized and lab-centered the better. I butted up against this during my Ph.D. research: Fundamentally, I knew I was researching changes in consciousness that seem to have spread across Eurasia during the 1st millennium BC, and I hypothesized that these changes either dovetailed with, or precipitated, changes in concepts of the self. But there is no way to subject that to a quantitative analysis, and so all I could do was catalogue a list of “beliefs” attested in the literature. Even then, I was forced to add a completely irrelevant and overly simplistic quantitative analysis of categories of Eurasian funerary offerings, to make it all look scientific. I was expected to publish my dissertation, but to be honest, I’m embarrassed by the way it turned out. I’m sure there are some who would say that about the intellectual endeavor of archaeology as a whole. Part of what I’m trying to do here is to break out of those shackles without completely abandoning intellectual rigor.


The solar barque of Ra passing through the 2nd hour of the Duat.
The solar barque of Ra passing through the 2nd hour of the Duat.

When I was a teaching assistant in human evolution classes, we taught the four forces of evolution: gene flow, genetic drift, mutation, and natural selection. What if the Otherworld and its denizens should be added to that list?

I came across this article titled “Dream as a Constitutive Cultural Determinant–the Example of Ancient Egypt” (free full-text pdf download available). From the article abstract:

“Among Ancient Egyptian texts there are a number of dream reports, which document an interest in observing dreams. Even larger is the corpus of the night literature that deals with themes of an otherworldly, nighttime reality, the so-called Duat. There are etymologic and textual hints that these assertions on a complex, nightly meta-reality in the Egyptian culture are especially related to the hours of the late night, the peak of REM-sleep and the phase of highest dream recall. This paper develops the hypothesis that the Ancient Egyptian culture appreciated dream experience as a reality deserving high attention; and that the Egyptians deduced cultural knowledge from dream experience, intended for individual and collective, cultural application.

(Emphasis mine.) The author, Gotthard Tribl, bases his arguments mainly on etymological analysis of Egyptian language and hieroglyphs. To follow the argument, you need to know that a glyph can be read as an ideograph (a picture), a phoneme (a sound), or a determinative (a marker that indicates the general category of phenomenon to which the word belongs), and many words consist of all three. Tribl proposes that Egyptians’ consciousness and cognition was shaped by their dreamworking, though, interestingly, a hieroglyphic for “dream” has never been found. Instead the noun we would translate “dream” derives from a verb meaning “to awake in the morning,” with the addition of a determinative meaning “eye.” So it seems the Egyptians regarded the dream experience as a form of awakening, and that it was primarily construed as a visual phenomenon. Moreover, the words/glyph for “morning” (duau) and that for “Otherworld” (duat) are both written with the star hieroglyph (designated N14) plus determinative endings suggesting, respectively, time and space. Another related word, dua, shows a star followed by a man with upraised arms and a papyrus scroll, and means “‘to praise’ or ‘to adore’ in the morning.”

Egyptian literature about night and the Otherworld (duat) indicates that when the sun went down in our reality, it rose in the Duat. My own speculation, based on Tribl’s research, is that there were therefore two mornings–morning in our world, and morning in the Duat (which would have been evening in our world). Waking in the morning seems to have been followed by prayer/ritual/worship–but was this ritual performed during morning in this world, or morning in the Duat, or both? From a modern perspective, this means, was the person awake or asleep at the time?

Tribl’s work suggests that distinction may have been irrelevant to the Egyptians. For example, during the Opening of the Mouth ceremony, texts and images indicate that

“…the Sem-priest was performing part of that ritual in sleep state (Hornung and Burton, 1991). Apparently, this part of the ritual dealt somehow with an active use of the sleep state….the sleep state of the Sem-priest is clearly prominent in that ritual and belongs to the most original parts of it (Baly, 1930). Beyond doubt, scenes nine and ten depict sleep conditions accompanied by a ‘vision‘…”

(Emphasis added.) I don’t know if dreaming was understood as a visit to the Duat, though it seems possible, at least based on the etymological argument and the surviving religious texts. Regardless, it seems that what we would call dreamworking and lucid dreaming were a huge deal in Egyptian life, and that priests and/or magicians would have been expected to be skillful navigators of that realm. It’s very interesting to look at other heiroglyphs that include the N14 star glyph. It appears in the word “star,” and in the names of various stars and constellations, but also in the words for “priesthood” and “teaching.”

Egyptian words containing the star glyph.
Egyptian words containing the star glyph.

If you look at the glyphs N13-N15 above, you can see that in the first one, the half-arc above the star indicates the passage of a half-month. Not pictured here is the glyph for a full month, which contains a full arc above the star. I find it very interesting, then, that in the glyph for the Duat, the arc has been extended into a full circle–which rather suggests the cyclical nature of day/night and life/death in Egyptian mythology. (I am not an Egyptologist, just speculating, so I imagine someone else has had this thought before. If you know of a source, let me know.)

Since Egyptian magic, along with that of Greece, is one of the most influential roots of the Western Magical Tradition, one can’t help but wonder what influence this Egyptian dreamwork had upon the WMT, and indeed on Western civilization as a whole. How much of our culture comes from the Duat? And what does that mean for us humans? Can we assume that the beings with whom we are communicating have our best interests at heart, or are we merely bugs that get sucked into their grill as they drive past? From a gnostic point of view, one might hypothesize that the beings guiding us are archons who decidedly do not have our best interests at heart.

I hope to explore this more as we go.

DeepDream: solve et coagula

What is up with those DeepDream images all over the internet lately? Are they anything more than visual nonsense?

DeepDream's knight in shining armor?
DeepDream’s knight in shining armor?

I guess great minds think alike, because I started a draft of this post (when I’m on a hot streak I write a lot all at once and schedule the posts you see) and and BAM! Gordon over at Rune Soup beat me to the punch. I knew someone with an interest in magic and/or metaphysics would have to address it sooner or later.It’s too weird not to be…Weird.

Call it a visual solve et coagula: The goal was to see if Artificial Neural Network (ANN) programs could be “taught” to recognize images. The program is shown repeated images of something, say, a leaf, in hopes that it will learn how to recognize the core attributes of leaf-ness and ignore irrelevant or nonessential details. Then, the ANNs were asked to draw their own versions, to see if the lesson had taken. But after all their learning, the ANNs had a lot of material with which to generate images–and what Google’s DeepDream produced are psychedelic fractal layers upon layers of dogs and eyes.

(Clearly the major conclusion here is that we are really, really, really into dogs.)

The really trippy stuff comes from what the researchers call “inceptionism” after that terribly pretentious movie, where they tell an individual layer of an ANN to produce more of whatever it “sees” in the picture. Once the program has seen dogs, it sees dogs everywhere. Cyber-pareidolia. And, just as with human pareidolia, DeepDream creates arguably the most interesting images from scenes with a lot of visual noise for them to play with.

I can’t help but feel that somehow this DeepDream has inadvertently stumbled upon something of metaphysical importance. Gordon calls it a haunted technology, and that just feels right. I wouldn’t put it past spirits to communicate in this way, because there seems to be enough randomness for them to work with, and enough recognizable imagery for the human mind to add its own pareidolia and make meaning. Since Google has made the code available for you to mutate your own photos, I can foresee someone using this for some kind of divination.

DeepDream randomly generated neural net dream

Is it mere coincidence that more than voice of experience says DeepDream’s images bear more than a passing resemblance to psychedelic/entheogenic trips? When I first saw a DeepDream landscape, I immediately thought of Pablo Amaringo‘s Ayahuasca-inspired (induced?) art. The scientific explanation says the resemblance comes from the fact that drugs disrupt our brains’ higher-level processing (such as interpreting or identifying an image–“this is a knight with a dog for a hand”), and lets the more, for lack of a better word, primitive levels go crazy with lines, shapes, and colors.

Over years of practice with tarot cards, I have developed an intuitive way of reading that doesn’t necessarily rely on the “textbook” explanations. There’s a ton of information in a tarot card that you can read: the image as a whole, separate components of the image, the number, the suit, the colors used, the body language of any people or animals depicted, and you can read these elements literally or according to various types of traditional symbolism (Kabbalah, astrology, numerology, the Golden Dawn, etc.). Learning which bit of information is relevant and what it means this time comes with experience. But whoever or whatever is on the other end always seems to know which cards to use to get certain ideas across.

I think apophenia works like that too. I suspect that the “random” stimuli which the mind filters, breaks down, and reassembles into something meaningful (solve et coagula) are also being filtered from the other end–at least sometimes. Our entire world is made of interpretation. We call some images–Jesus’ face in a tortilla–illusions, tricks of the eye, yet others–your own face, for example–are granted fully real status. But just as the images you can use in a tarot reading depend on the deck you’re using, the way you assemble a world out of sensations–what you decide is illusion and what you decide is real–depends on memories of prior experiences, practice (repetition), and relationships with others, from your family to your gods to your cultural milieu. Whatever objective reality may be, I would argue none of us has ever seen it. (At least not with human eyes.)

It has been argued (for example, here) that magic works by pushing probabilities–areas with the greatest amount of built-in “give” are subject to greater magical change. There would seem to be two factors: (1) how much flexibility is in the system (and note that this includes your own expectations); and (2) how much of it can be changed through small tweaks (as opposed to major transformation). So for example, it’s easier to shift another person’s perception of your appearance than it is to alter the genetic code that determines what proteins and in what quantity and arrangement actually build your body.

So it stands to reason that the same is likely true for manifestations and communications from the Other side: the more fuzzy logic, the more unpredictability, the more openness to experience, the more chaos (if you’re into that), the more both you and the Others have to play with. And therefore the question is not, does X have meaning? It is what meaning shall we make in X? Because you make the meaning, or more accurately, you co-create it. Some of your fellow co-creators are evidently capable of manipulating the space/time sensory stuff from which we assemble our little worlds. Is it that DeepDream works like a somewhat-impaired human brain to create random dogs and eyes? Or is it that both DeepDream and the brain can–sometimes, given the right circumstances–peel back the mask of “reality” and give us an analogical (analogy is key) glimpse of what lies beneath?