Monday, 13 December 2010

Stopping tobacco

'Giving up smoking is the easiest thing in the world. I know because I've done it thousands of times.'
Mark Twain

About five weeks ago I stopped smoking tobacco. It was quite easy, involving no real suffering. I know, Mark Twain said 'giving up' was easy, but 'giving up' is doomed to fail, because you're depriving yourself of a source of pleasure. In my view, one of the purposes of being alive is to enjoy the pleasures of the flesh. Generally, if something is pleasurable, I see no reason to deny it to myself on a dubious promise that I may live a little longer. So, my giving-up efforts with tobacco were short-lived, and marked by the misery of the internal civil war brought on by self-denial.

Of course, like Austin Spare, you can make magical use of the stress of giving up. Spare would cast a spell, then place his cigarettes on an 'altar', denying himself that pleasure until he got his result. So, if you're going to put yourself through the pain of self-denial, at least do it in the service of some really worthwhile goal!

This time I stopped, rather than gave up. I used the method of Allen Carr (no, not the toothy TV comic), in his book 'How to Stop Smoking the Easy Way'. ( In 40 years of smoking and 13 of attempting to stop, it's the only method I've found that makes sense to me. I didn't manage to sustain the internal civil war of willpower, for the reasons outlined above. Methods based on fear are also non-starters - you only have to stand outside a hospital for a short while to notice that not only visitors but also staff are unmoved enough by the imminence of grisly death to be smoking their lungs out between witnessing terminal sickness. Warnings simply don't work.

Carr's method starts where all the others leave off. He doesn't require you to give up anything. In stead, you stop doing something to yourself that isn't even pleasurable. If you can convince yourself you don't enjoy smoking, you're home and dry.

The first time, I managed it for four and a half years. Then, one night in New York City, it occurred to me that a cigar would go splendidly with my glass of Knob Creek bourbon. My gracious host indicated a temperature-controlled humidor, and before I had time to regret it, I had a perfectly-kept Havana in my hand. Three months later, I was still feeling deprived, and the habit crept back.

It took me three years to get back on top of the situation and stop again. Had I known how easy it would be, I wouldn't have waited so long.

The craving has died down now. The key for me was realising how little I enjoyed it and how short the addiction cycle is: there is virtually no physical addiction - as Carr points out, smokers abstain for 8, 9 or 10 hours every night, between the last fag and the first of the day. The cycle is: smoke, nicotine leaves body, desire resumes, is satisfied briefly, and so on. The entire physiology of nicotine 'addiction' is a cycle of less than an hour in length.

This was really apparent this last time: there really was no physical distress, even on the first day. In the weeks since I stopped, I've had a few moments of craving, especially after a couple of glasses of wine, but it's been easy to believe it when I tell myself I would get nothing but a very short-lived buzz of nausea, numbness and swooping hypoglycaemia, followed by a vague desire for some more.

What keeps the whole habit afloat is what we tell ourselves about what we're feeling in the time between smokes. There is no physiology standing in the way of quitting, which is why substitution with patches or gum or e-cigs is a poor strategy, merely prolonging the agony. And yet substitution is the current medical fashion, and what the NHS bases all advice for would-be quitters on. Medics and policy-makers, arise and read Allen Carr!!!

Friday, 10 December 2010

A O Spare on YouTube

For those who missed the wonderful S London exhibition, or who would like to glimpse bits of it again, here's a short video with interviews with Alan Moor, Robert Ansell, Phil Baker, Stephen Pochin and Geraldine Beskin.

Sunday, 5 December 2010

Soul in the Flesh; or, Where's the rest of my nervous system?

You will likely know what I mean when I refer to 'gut feelings'. These are a species of what NLP-ers call congruence/incongruence signals. Kinaesthetic - or more precisely, enteroceptive - sensations that tell us, very quickly, if some situation is good or bad for us at that moment.

We all know them - the first impression that runs counter to conscious logic but turns out to be correct; the voice that, once heard, prophesies trouble, which only emerges years later.
I taught congruence techniques to various groups for years, and nearly everyone's congruence signals consist of feelings located between the heart and the lower abdomen; the phrase 'gut feeling' is indeed a fitting one.

What part of us is doing the feeling here? I always naively assumed that the brain was processing masses of fuzzy information about the situation below my conscious awareness, and then presenting me with a signal that, for some reason, was either a swelling or rising feeling around my diaphragm (good) or a sinking, shrinking or clenching feeling in my lower abdomen (bad). Maybe this unconscious processor, once it had completed its job, used my abdominal nerves as a signaling beacon.

But why the abdomen? Maybe these sensations are the way we perceive processing in the enteric nervous system. This is the vast neural system, sometimes considered as part of the autonomic NS, which controls the intestines and other abdominal organs, as well as chest cavity organs.

Do we experience this neural place in some way, like we experience the brain as the seat of conscious thought? Otherwise, the use of the guts to express the result of some pretty deep processing seems arbitrary, like grabbing the first thing to hand. Much less arbitrary would be the picture of the enteric NS actually doing the processing, and communicating its decision, yes, no or maybe, as a feeling in that part of the body.

A TV programme a while back on transplant memories invited us to take this idea a step further. When a heart is transplanted, it needs to get started in its new chest cavity. The transplanted heart contains a large number of nerves - the researcher on the show referred to a 'little brain' existing within the heart.
These nerves respond to emotions from elsewhere in the body - apparently, an electrocardiogram will register a strong emotion before brain electrodes detect it, indicating that it is to this 'unconscious' part of our NS that emotion arrives first. This is of a piece with the speed of processing of congruence/incongruence signals - these are mechanisms that exist to warn us quicker than conscious processing can manage.

The researchers in the TV programme had found evidence that the information needed to 'reboot' a heart when, for whatever reason, it has just stopped, is carried in this heart-nerve complex, so that when a heart is transplanted, its 'reboot' is controlled by itself, not by the host's organs. Taking things a step further, they speculated that some 'core memories' of the donor's life may be stored in the heart-nerves, to the extent that they can surface and overcome the personality of recipient. Examples from such cases involve food preferences, musical tastes and other qualities we tend to think of as personal.

In stead of just the wiring for a sack of offal, the enteric NS is revealed as another part of ourselves that we live with and through, another source of experience. And this kind of experience is of primary, unmediated knowing; the subjectivity of the enteric NS is what our ancestors would have called another soul.

Monday, 22 November 2010

Magical Thinking, Science and PostModernism

I remember vividly the first time I abandoned magical thinking. I was around 4, and my dad asked me what I wanted for my birthday. I replied: a magic wand, a real one, like Sooty's got, one that can do real magic. My dad told me then that magic wasn't real. I recall the moment precisely; we were facing a row of shops on a mundane street in the West London suburb I grew up in. At that point, something big happened inside me, and the next time I thought about that incident it was from the point of view of someone who had turned wholeheartedly towards science.

The topic of magic exists in a strange half-light, some of its practitioners coming out with pronouncements that make religion seem sensible by comparison and others straining to bring some kind of intellectual respectability to their weird endeavour.
Because weird it is; irruptions of improbable events are the language in which the universe talks back to the magician. The ideas that support magical belief are non-standard, rogue ontologies and epistemologies.
Yet some of us try to justify magical thinking, and in this we go against the grain of science, religion and even psychiatry - 'magical thinking' is listed everywhere you care to look as a symptom of psychosis. My dad had to do as he believed, and protect me from a 'psychotic' belief system, when he told me magic was not real.

Some magical writers have attempted to justify magical thinking by invoking the radical relativism of postmodern philosophers. Whilst I salute the intention behind such attempts, I remain unimpressed by such short-cuts to magical belief as the following:
'... if everything we believe about the world is an arbitrary, socially-constructed symbol; if nothing inherently means anything; if reality itself - as many postmodernists claim - is just a collection of such arbitrary symbols, then magic becomes not only possible, but inevitable.'
('Postmodern Magic', by Patrick Dunn )

The trick here seems to be to degrade the objectivity-status of consensus reality in order to make it more vulnerable to magic. We might call this the Chemotherapy Ploy: with cytotoxic drugs, we hope they will poison the cancer cells rather faster than the healthy host cells. Similarly, with PoMo anti-science we attack consensus reality in the hope that the irrationalism of magic gets a foothold before our universe crumbles into total incoherence.

Postmodern philosophy brought in a breath of liberating ideas, especially in analysing how philosophical positions are affected by the social reality of the writer. However, some of these tendencies have become profoundly toxic and downright silly where they've tried to deal with scientific epistemology.

On the toxic side, PoMo critiques of physical science have delivered tools into the hands of the religious ultra-right, who are only too glad to be told that the theory of biological evolution (one of the scientific theories most consistently supported by the evidence), is just another possible viewpoint, to be placed alongside non-scientific views like creationism. The PoMo science agenda also benefits the rapacious corporations and their political puppets who would squirm out from under the mountain of evidence for global warming.

I flirted with the notion that PoMo thinking enables magic, but concluded that this is a trick, a lazy way of justifying what we magicians do. A far more rigorous and exciting path is to respect what science has discovered about the physical world, and fit our magic around that.

Anyone who is still mucking about with PoMo drivel about science would do well to read theoretical physicist Alan Sokal's critiques of that tendency's worst excesses. In 1996, Sokal's article 'Transgressing the boundaries: Towards a transformative hermeneutics of quantum gravity' was accepted, and published in all seriousness by the prestigious American cultural studies journal Social Text. After its publication, Sokal 'fessed up to the hoax, declaring that every statement in that article was either trivial, nonsensical or meaningless, provoking a storm of often-acrimonious debate. One of the more delightful exchanges to emerge from this brouhaha was when one of the editors of Social Text declared that Sokal was 'under-educated' in the branch of philosophy he was critiquing; one of Sokal's supporters asked that editor: 'How does it feel to be duped by the under-educated?'

Over a decade later, Sokal has collected these discussions and the development of his ideas into a new book, 'Beyond the Hoax; Science, philosophy and culture' ( ). This makes interesting reading for the magician, attacking as it does not only the nonsense about science spouted by Lacan, Deleuze and Kristeva, among others, but the ways in which fringe medicine is presented to the mainstream. He writes:
'Does it matter if some people believe in homeopathy or Therapeutic Touch? Perhaps not a great deal... My libertarian instincts urge a hands-off attitude towards pseudoscientific acts between consenting adults.' (p340)

Likewise, he's fair about his criticism of statements about physical reality; not only does he give fringe therapies a drubbing, but also mainstream religion, where it makes objective truth claims. Having armed himself with the observation that '...honest talk about the epistemic status of the dominant religions... is generally considered bad manners at best, blasphemous at worst', he wades in against the silliness of the Catholic church's doctrine of transubstantiation.
However, bless him, he can't bring himself to believe that many of the Pope's flock actually believe they are eating human flesh and drinking human blood when at Mass. (Neither can I, really. Is this a failure of imagination on my part?)

In this book Sokal demolishes the worst excesses of relativism where it relates to statements about the physical universe. In that, I am entirely with him. However, he does shows signs of sympathy for the curious subculture which is popular with some scientists, the best known of whom is Richard Dawkins. This is the point where I have to part company with the astute and entertaining Sokal.

When Dawkins writes, in 'The God Delusion', of Jahweh as 'jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully', he is nowhere wide of the mark. In fact, he could have added 'psychopathic' in there with no loss of believability as far as I'm concerned. However, reform of religious belief is not for Dawkins - he goes flat-out for a denigration of the religious impulse altogether, as if it is something that can be banished by the fiat of right-thinking rationalists like himself.
Clearly, he has some serious blind spots about how human beings operate, and declares himself disturbed by the persistence of irrational beliefs in the human world. He reminds me of the Victorians who denied the importance of sexual desire because they didn't like the idea of fornication, or the ludicrous unreality of public policy over the human drive to intoxication and ecstasy. He seems to want to reason the religious impulse away, as if some ancient and powerful part of our nature can be tidied away by sensible talking.

The route that Dawkins and his ilk are taking is profoundly worrying. They seem to be committed to belittling the realm of the subjective, to have already decided that our subjective experience is an unimportant froth on the surface of vast, impersonal cosmic truths. When scientists talk like this, it's easy to get the impression that they don't need science to tell them that what they say is true.
There is more than rational truth at stake here, and the Dawkinsites seem to have constructed an argument which is superficially like science, but lacks it rigour. They have descended to a religious position that owes everything to christianity's simplistic monochrome, in its energetic denial of some part or other of the human being, in its sterile inability to embrace the totality of what a human being is. They take science as their starting point, but then go way beyond its remit, much further than the evidence warrants, to present their hysterical-sounding denials. They are cops, patrolling the limits of reality with big sticks falsely labelled 'Scientific Reason'.

An impressive critique of this position is provided in Marilynne Robinson's book 'Absence of Mind'. ( Considering Dawkins's heavy-handed propagandism, she notes that:
'...the polemical impulse to assert the authority of science, understandable when the project was relatively new... is by now an atavism that persists as a consequence of this same polemical impulse.' (p126)
She coins the term 'parascience' for this kind of argument, and, comparing Newton's writings and Auguste Comte's (extreme) positivism, writes:
'A difference between ... science and parascience, is the desire in the latter case to treat scientific knowledge as complete, at least in its methods and assumptions, in order to further the primary object of closing questions about human nature and human circumstance.' (p129)
That pretty much pins the demon down: the closing off of questions which have in no way been adequately addressed by science.

She also points out the cultural toxicity of this viewpoint:
'A central tenet of the modern world view is that we do not know our own minds, our own motives, our own desires. And - as an important corollary - certain well-qualified others do know them. I have spoken of the suppression of the testimony of individual consciousness and experience among us, and this is one reason it has fallen silent. We have been persuaded that it is a perjured witness.' (p59).
This reminds us of the mental violence done to the public by the arch-manipulators of the last century, particularly Edward Bernays and Emma Freud. Between them, these two demonised any inner authority humans might have and attacked autonomy and community, in order to reduce people to docile consumers. Where subjectivity is devalued, we have no position to fight from, no other source of authority to oppose the rapacity of government, big business and vested professional interests.

Robinson is coming from the humanities side of the argument, and the whole territory of the arts is threatened with trivialization by the parascience position. However, ammunition is also arriving from another quarter; for a materialist thinker who hasn't thrown the baby of subjectivity out with the bathwater of dubious material truth claims, check out Galen Strawson's book 'Selves: an essay in revisionist metaphysics.' ( )

Strawson draws a picture of how we assemble selfhood from neural processes less than a second in length. He goes to great lengths to define terms - when he talks about selves, he's not talking about personalities, but the sense of selfhood in the moment. Much of the underpinning of these ideas takes the form of challenges to our 'confusion' about what materialism really is:
'To be ... a genuine, realistic materialist, is to hold that experiential phenomena ... are part of this total physical existence... There is ... a vast amount left to say about the living experienceful brain once you've said everything that can be said about it using only the terms of physics and neurophysiology... There are vast numbers of truths about what its existence consists in which you haven't recorded at all, although they are, according to real materialism, truths about its physical being.'

So REAL materialism does not equal reductionism.
'When I say that the mental, and in particular, the experiential, is physical, and endorse the view that 'experience is just neurons firing', I mean something completely different from what some materialists have apparently meant by saying such things. I don't mean that all aspects of what's going on in the case of conscious experience can be described by current physics, or even by any non-revolutionary extension of current physics. Such a view amounts to some kind of radical 'eliminativism' with respect to consciousness and is certainly false. My claim is quite different. It is that the experiential considered specifically as such ... just is physical. No one who disagrees with this claim is a serious or remotely realistic materialist. One might put the point by saying that real materialism is not reductive but adductive. It doesn't claim that experience is anything less than we ordinarily conceive it to be, but that matter is more than we ordinarily conceive it to be.'

This materialistic monism is very close to panpsychism, which Strawson admits as his personal belief, and continues:
'The first thing one needs to do when addressing the question about the relation between the mental and the non-mental is to recover a proper sense of our ignorance of the non-mental. ... we have no good reason to think we know anything about matter that gives us any reason to find any problem in the idea that mental or experiential phenomena are physical phenomena.' (p285)
And, p288: '...realistic - real - materialism involves full acknowledgment of the reality of experiential phenomena. Experiential phenomena are as real as rocks... '

He goes further, and shows that he's prepared to take subjectivity seriously, by prescribing a kind of meditative introspection. He suggests:
'...focus ones thoughts on one's brain and try to hold fully in mind the idea that one's experience as one does so is part of the physical being of the brain... It's worth trying to sustain this forcing one's thoughts back to the confrontation when it slips.' And:
'It's useful to listen to music and focus on the thought that 'one's auditory experience is a form of matter or energy'.'

So, let's cut to the chase; this started out as a review blog, and turned into something much bigger. If we've eliminated postmodern nonsense from science, and distinguished real materialism from parascience, where does that leave magical thinking?

The real-materialist position allows exploration of subjectivity, even unto mysticism. Indeed, since in panpsychism every part of the universe is, in a very special sense which Strawson outlines, a 'subject of experience', we have a very mysticism-friendly philosophy.

Taking things a stage further, how are we doing with 'real' magic, material results stuff?
For a start, let's take the 'inside-the-skin' 'magic' I've referred to (in Chapter 7 of my book 'Bright From the Well') as Body Alchemy. This involves the fairly mainstream assumptions that the expression of specific genes and gene clusters can be turned on or off by acts of will, this action being mediated by unspecified subconscious mechanisms. The causal chain, from the mundane point of view, is impulse - subconscious process - gene change - body change. This is completely unchallenging to conventional science, and doesn't even require any of the above arguments to help it be believable.

To take things to the next stage, how about magics based on 'energy', 'life force' etc? These may well be allowed merely by adding detail to the organic swirls and lines of microwave transception I blogged about a few weeks ago. Again, they don't need any more weirdness to be added to our world-model.

Beyond this point, we are in more difficult territory. Magical results that manifest as synchronicity ('Weirdness levels 3 or 4') are a test case: a sceptic would say that the 'magical result' is illusory, i.e. it proceeds from the magician's construction of events. In the absence of any possibility of accurate estimation of the probabilities of a desired event occurring with and without magical interference, we cannot say whether the magician affected the outcome.
A non-sceptic, armed with a panpsychist view of the universe, might argue that, since consciousness is a basic property of matter, it is not surprising that our own configuration of consciousness can affect other regions of matter.

The difference is, at base, only a case of how surprised we might be at a magical result occurring. Nothing we know about matter completely and forever forbids direct influence by conscious will.
It makes it improbable, sure; sorcery is a numbers game, and sorcerers are comfortable with that assessment of low probability of success, and a panpsychist is likely to take magical belief in his stride more easily than a parascience sceptic.

Beyond that, when we seek to embrace into our worldview events like apparent telekinesis (an example of 'Category 5 weirdness'), we have to come up with different theories. We may have experienced these things, but we are in the theoretician's dilemma when we try to think about them: 'That's all very well in practice, but how would it work in theory?' Our conventional thinking isn't weird enough; we have to make a link between conscious will, which is a very special case of thinking-matter in action, and lumps of non-thinking matter. If we choose to believe we have influenced the world with our magic, then we are on our own, philosophically. We've left behind the Kansas of materialist consensus and are in the Land of Oz.

Some writers - in particular, Pete Carroll - have come up with magic-friendly models of science, such as Carroll's Chaos Magic Theory. CMT connects will to non-thinking matter via some rather exotic (though basically mainstream) interpretations of quantum mechanics.
These connections are far from secure, so for the time being, we magical thinkers are still irreducibly monstrous souls. We have to keep secret our dirty beliefs about how the world works.

Maybe that is how it has always to be - magicians as heretics, holding out for a more hopeful view of the universe, providing shaky, beautiful bridges for other heretics to step onto as they take their first steps into forbidden thinking.

Monday, 18 October 2010

Mysticism and the Northern Way

My new essay 'Mysticism and the Northern Way' is now available at
Comments and discussion welcome!

Sunday, 17 October 2010

Fallen Visionary, Rising Dark Star: Austin Spare seen in South London

Just in case you only read this far, I shall cut to the chase: If South London is at all reachable for you, do yourself a massive favour and, before November 14th, go to 'Austin Spare: Fallen Visionary', at the Cuming Museum, near the Elephant and Castle tube. Details at

This exhibition is the first in a public gallery since Spare's death in 1956, and situated on the Walworth Road it brings the rich contrasts of his life into focus better than any I've seen. On the one hand, we have a description of Spare by one journalist as 'a scruffy tramp living in a cellar,' and on the other, we see a fantastically rich inner life, the world of a truly free man.

This contrast between material poverty and artistic and magical riches is a central source of Spare's impact. He rebelled against the fame-machine of the art world, choosing instead to live among 'ordinary' people, people whose history is not recorded.

He immortalizes faces and bodies from this invisible world, celebrating life's immediacy in portraits of those who, in the words of an advert for models, have 'no claim to beauty'. In so doing, he celebrates the world and the flesh just as it is, in all its scruffiness and vulnerability to age and death, as well as all its openness to fleshly ecstasy, and rescues it from being colonized by abstract perfection, by bourgeois Edwardian values. Spare's people are real beings, whose flesh has not been virtualized into an ideal. Instead, his art reaches towards renewal of the secret springs of our vitality, his formula of the New Sexuality.

This was also the first time I'd seen his war artist paintings. The figures of men and women seem photographic, yet faded, leached out into a grey world, wrapped in camo or bandages, muted by military secrecy, yet here too he finds life, in the form of a nursing orderly, a young woman caught in the moment of turning to look at the artist.

Spare explores a very different dimension of female beauty in his portraits of film stars. Radiant goddess-faces from the film fame industry gaze out from his 'siderealized' portraits-from-photos. He referred to some of these studies as 'Experiments in relativity', and the irony of his approach is strikingly postmodern. An actress with eyes so wide and deep she is seen to be gazing inwards, becomes the face of an apotheosized human being, a woman made into an image of female perfection; and yet Spare is not just having a shallow dig at the fame factory here, he is also acknowledging its power, the rulership of image over life. The paradox is underlined by Spare's pun-word 'sidereality', applied to the portraits drawn from photos viewed aslant. He was onto the paradox of image long before Pop Art.

Maybe like me, you'll spend a few minutes marvelling at the curious world of mainstream art, in which the Tate Modern buys Damien Hirst's dull one-line joke 'Pharmacy', but doesn't exhibit anything by Spare.

Tuesday, 14 September 2010

Energy Healing, Breathwork and the science of life-energy

Two weeks ago I delivered a public seminar on energy magic, at a retreat centre in rural Germany. The thirty or so participants had, by the look of it, at least as good a time as I did, which is saying something.
That's not all, though. After a warm-up and some open-ended playing-around with the glorious sensations of the energy (which for now, we'll call 'life-force'), we got down to the serious work. I called for volunteers who had pain, right now. Three brave people stepped forward, and we broke into three groups to transfer healing energy into their sick parts.
The results were not a little impressive: two healees got instant relief from chronic sinusitis and a nine-month-old strained wrist, respectively. The third sufferer noticed little at the time, but had found considerable relief by the next morning. I followed up all three people for a week, and the healing persisted.

The technique for raising the energy is extremely simple, and came out of my nineteen years experience of connected breathwork (Rebirthing, Vivation and some Holotropic) and consists mainly of an uninterrupted, continuous ('connected') cycle of breath - as soon as you finish an inhale, you start breathing out; as soon as your lungs are empty, you start breathing in. Unlike with most forms of pranayama, you don't hold the breath at any stage. This practice leads rapidly to a shift in your attention, featuring a much stronger awareness of physical sensations and energy flows in the body. Your hands and feet may tingle, and you have a sense that you are in an ESC (Extraordinary State of Consciousness).

In connected breathwork, this attention is used to follow the dominant sensations in your body until 'blocked' sensations are felt to have opened up, resulting in emotional healing and bliss. I noticed years ago that these sensations of energy can also be used to 'direct healing' at other people. I also worked with other experimenters, in the area of not-yet-respectable research known as 'magic', to find out how this sense of energy could be used in group situations. In the late 90s one such group gained some very interesting effects by structuring energy flows through themselves and each other, and came up with the term 'chaotron', for the energy-magic of spatially-positioned people in a group.

Around this time, I learned about George Pennington's Breath of Light circle. A lengthy and fascinating article about this can be found at , but basically it consists of a group of ten or more people lying on their backs with their feet to the centre, holding hands and doing intense breathwork for long periods, up to a few hours. As the energy flows build up, participants experience some consciousness of the entire circle of people - for instance, it is vividly obvious not only when someone in the circle breaks hand-contact but also where the break is.

What happens is a souped-up version of the breathwork experience, of which one of the interesting features is that 'energy surpluses' from one person are felt to flow into areas of low energy in another person. The sensation of 'energy surplus' usually manifests as muscular cramping, the (harmless) condition known as tetany, and this usually comes about because the client has started spontaneously hyperventilating. Tetany is somewhat uncomfortable, and the client will need reassuring that it's OK, and tends to be followed by bliss states. The issue of hyperventilation is dealt with differently by different coaches: Holotropic breathwork coaches don't discourage hyperventilation and treat the subsequent process as an 'energy release'. Coaches from the Rebirthing lineage will tend to encourage the client to breathe more shallowly, to shorten the bout of hyperventilation, but also respect the client's process and encourage them to make best use of it to release energy blockages. In the Breath of Light circle, hyperventilation does not tend to lead to tetany, or if it does, to much shorter bouts of it; it is not a problem, but one of the ways in which the participants become aware that energy of some kind is being passed around the circle of bodies, and is going where it is most needed.

Pennington tells the story of the discovery of the Breath of Light as happening when one of the participants at a weekend healing retreat had waited too long for her dialysis procedure, and had gone into a very scary kidney crisis. People in the group were inspired to form this new arrangement, did so and the sufferer was restored to health for at least long enough to get to her next dialysis without mishap.* ,** .

Obviously, I'm not the first breathwork coach to notice physical healing effects apparently associated with the breathing, occurring in clients and in myself, effects which seem to be amplified in group work. So why aren't more people following this work up?
One reason is, no doubt that, like specialists in many other fields, we don't communicate much over the walls between our various disciplines. (We can add to this effect the fact that the number of breathwork coaches in the world is probably a tiny fraction of the numbers of, say, hypnotherapists or Reiki practitioners. I shall be coming back to this issue in these pages.)

So I went on a wall-hopping spree. First, I looked around at the healing modalities that claim to work with 'energy' in their healing, the energy that usually goes under the names of 'life-force', 'chi' or 'prana'. What I was looking for was someone who appeared to be getting repeatable results and had a theory about it that I could work with.

No surprise - I found a fair few schemes involving exotic and often ill-understood notions like charkas and auras, not to mention the - to my mind - more fantastical schemes involving angels and devas. Among these I did, however, find a practical and theoretical scheme which wasn't overburdened with exotic or goofy explanations - Richard Gordon's Quantum Touch Healing. ( This is a clean machine - for the price of a book Gordon will tell you how to do this kind of healing work.

In a nutshell, QTH involves doing connected breathing (no pauses or holds), and additionally, making the length of the outbreath much longer than that of the inbreath. Typically, the breath rhythm is 2-6 or 1-4. This breath very rapidly fine-tunes the sense of energy experienced in connected breathwork, to the extent that it is easy for most people to locate a steady awareness of energy flows, especially through the palms of the hands and the fingertips. This is the breathing pattern I taught at my recent seminar in Germany and that experience, taken together with experimental work I've done before and since, convinces me that this breath pattern is a major contribution to the techniques of hands-on healing.

My next Google frenzy arose from a back-in-the-day TV memory, a programme about Chinese traditional yuan qi healers who work alongside modern scientific medics. They showed tests in which a yuan qi practitioner could alter at will a flux of microwave radiation emitted from the palms of his hands. Some very interesting connections turned up, making me realise there's a whole new kind of medical research going on out there.
However, this was the point where I had to turn back. We only have so many hours in the day to do what is important to us, and I could see in front of me a rabbit-hole which I could only navigate with a lot of time and some familiarity with a few different fields. Then I would be able to discriminate in favour of the good stuff that is no doubt out there. On this note, I request anyone out there with good links on a 'hard science' treatment of chi or prana to please leave a note. In the meantime, I've put a paper entitled 'The imprinting and transmission of mentally-directed bioinformation' somewhere I can read and attempt to make sense of it when I've got the time.

Some readers might find the 'hard science' approach disrespectful to their favoured models of energy work. Myself, I side with the pragmatism of the Chinese researchers who are just interested in getting better medical methods out there into the world. If there is going to be a paradigm shift in medicine, in which hitherto-unthought of energy transactions take part, involving perfectly measurable (respectable!) kinds of energy such as microwaves, we need to interface our models. If 'chi' is, in some contexts, measurable as microwaves, then how does that work in the body? Why does an acupuncture point on my foot affect my liver function? Imagination takes flight: transceiver nodes in the skin, specific microwave frequencies generated by some organ or other and transmitted along waveguides through our flesh... The world of the body promises an even greater cornucopia of unsolved puzzles. There will never be a shortage of mysteries to seek.

*The principle of the energy-group and the breath circle must have been known to shamans for years. At least one of the paintings of Pablo Ameringo, Peruvian visionary artist and ex-shaman shows circles of healing surrounded by structured light; clearly the participants have consciously or spontaneously arranged their positions to generate healing flows of energy. (Check out especially the painting 'Los Archontes Volares'.)

**Unfortunately, opportunities to experience such an event are few and far between. Those who are interested might wish to join a weekend event I'm organizing in November this year in Glastonbury, Somerset, called 'The Conscious Breath'. Details at

Monday, 6 September 2010

Paddington Farm and the Counterculture

Back in July I visited Paddington Farm in Glastonbury ( to check it out as a venue for my forthcoming weekend of breathwork - The Conscious Breath (
My friend who helps run the charity events there told me about the farm's countercultural history, gleaned from records held at the farm and stories from those who'd stayed there. In 1985 the farm, then called Greenlands at Maidencroft Farm, was owned by an extraordinary old lady who opened some of her fields to festival travelers, ignoring the protests of her neighbours. (Apparently, the incident is still talked about in that area). My girlfriend Judy immediately suspected it was the farm she'd stayed at, in the orchard at the bottom of the lane, when she was on her way to Stonehenge Free Festival in 1985. She went to look at the orchard, and indeed it was.

Those of you who are countercultural history buffs will recognize 1985 as the year of the Battle of the Beanfield, the brutal attack by unnumbered, unidentified police on a field full of travelers' homes at the Stonehenge site. I left the Henge festival early that year, before Thatcher's uniformed thugs, possibly some of the same scum who occupied mining villages like invading troops during the coal strike, arrived, so I didn't witness the gratuitous attacks on children, pregnant women and anyone else they could find to terrorize.

Anyway, it turns out that those not arrested had moved on to Glastonbury and were given sanctuary by Greenlands' generous owner. Some more of the history emerged when I posted The Conscious Breath up as an Event on FaceBook (!/event.php?eid=150275014996498 - but would somebody please tell me what happened to all those posts, they seem to have been wiped?), when Alistair Livingstone (check out his blog at added some of his memories of those weeks of refuge.
If anyone else out there has any of that history, I'd be interested to hear it. If those who lived these events don't record them, they will be lost.

Thursday, 29 July 2010

Podcast of talk 'Ginnung and the tools of concsiousness'

A podcast is now available of a talk I gave in 2008, entitled 'Ginnung and the tools of consciousness'. The event was a day of talks given by Eormensyl Hall of the Rune-Gild, at London's Conway Hall in September 2008.
For anyone interested in the Northern Mysteries, there's lots of other excellent podcasts there too.

Saturday, 10 July 2010

Lies and Statistics

I never said I'd only be reviewing newly-released books; here's one from 2005*.

Freakonomics, by Steven D Levitt and Stephen Dubner.
I am by no means an economics buff. In fact I'm mildly hostile to most economics, parading its theories as science, often justifying the worst excesses of government economic policy with ideas that soon go out of fashion.
This book is definitely not mainstream economics, though, and earns its subtitle - 'A rogue economist looks at the hidden side of everything'. This is a book which challenges accepted wisdom.

Some of the results of Levitt's analyses are predictable. For instance, who doubted that estate agents lie, not only to buyers but also to sellers? Similarly, it comes as no surprise that the career structure in crack gangs is exactly analogous to that in McDonalds - a few people make serious money, the vast majority make almost nothing. The personalities of those at the top of the heap in either organization is no doubt also comparable; fans of The Wire will probably recognize the similarities, in Levitt and Dubner's profile of a business-studies-educated crack boss, to the Wire character Stringer Bell, probably as nice a sociopath as any investment banker you'd ever care to meet.

Other analyses do not, on reflection, surprise, but it's interesting to see them demonstrated in action. The '9/11 effect' is named for the spike in ordinary human decency that followed the attack on the Twin Towers; people feel mutually aligned in a condition of common threat.

Others are decidedly counter-intuitive. For instance, it seems that the death penalty has no deterrent effect on would-be murderers. Levitt and Dubner write: 'Even in a death penalty advocate's best-case scenario, capital punishment could explain only one twenty-fifth of the drop in homicides in the 1990s.' (p125). So if we want judicial killing, we'll have to come up with other reasons or base punishment policy on a lie.

Which brings me to the argument that makes up the core of the book. Many of Levitt's studies use regression analysis, the careful parsing of groups of statistics to freeze all but one of the many variables that apply to the raw data of socio-economic research. This is the chief tool Levitt used to approach the vast, multi-variable question of the spectacular drop in crime in 90s USA. To cut a long story very short, it seems it was not due in the main to new policing strategies (such as New York mayor Giuliani's programme of 'zero tolerance') but to the increased availability of abortions from the late 1970s onwards.

The chain of causality and its underlying social tragedy are easy to see: More women who did not want, and could not bring up, a child, had abortions. For obvious reasons, the main distinguishing socio-economic factor was poverty. Combined with, or as the main cause of, a mother's inability to raise a child, is it any surprise that these conditions predict behaviour in later life that attracts the attention of the law. Another study, applied to the years of the Ceausescu regime in Romania, supports this connection.

There is a grim satisfaction to the discovery of a truth that is going to be hated by such a wide spectrum of people; and hated it was - the campaigns against Levitt became angry and personal. The public reaction to certain kinds of uncomfortable facts or well-researched theories tells us why politicians lie so much. Most of them seem to take the view that it's their responsibility to keep the public away from uncomfortable truths, and this is one of the weaknesses of democracy - if you're a politician, and you don't lie about some issue, your opponents will, and it will be they who get elected. This leads to a consensus of misinformation, a political culture of mendacity. A recent UK example was the disgraceful sacking of David Nutt, the Government's chief scientific advisor on drugs. He published and defended a well-evidenced scale of the levels of damage caused by drugs both legal and illegal. The best knowledge that could be gathered about this subject did not agree with the official picture, the consensus lie, and Prof Nutt was given the boot.

So this book is good, because it helps us to think. It is, ipso facto, rather bad for the stupid and those who would lead them.

*On loan from my local library. Apparently, library book borrowing increased by 1% this year, the first increase in a decade. Get some in now, before the government gets down to its real function and kills off this too.

Sunday, 4 July 2010

Online course review - The Essence of Germanic Soul-Lore

Here's an excerpt from my review, The Essence of Germanic Soul-Lore by Ingrid Fischer (taught online by Ian Read), Arcanorium online College of Magic (

The full version is published in the Rune-Gild's new online magazine, at . If you have any interest in the magical traditions of Northern Europe, then I urge you to go and take a look at this excellent publication straightaway.

The fact that you, dear reader, are reading this is evidence of some degree of familiarity with the virtual worlds offered by the Internet. You are unlikely to let out a gasp of astonishment at the knowledge that such a thing as an online college of magic exists. However, considering the quality of much online content, you could be excused the cynical expectation that it's either a Harry Potter marketing stunt or just another Emperor's New Clothes, another fat tranche of cyberbollocks aimed at the occultizoid market.

Not so, by a long mile. Arcanorium is run by seminal chaos magic author Peter Carroll, staffed entirely by experienced magicians and offers courses (and less formal discussions) of a consistently high standard. The courses take place in virtual classrooms, the course content delivered as weekly threads initiated by the teacher. In a practically-based course like the one under review, threads are created by students to record and discuss their results and ideas.

The experience of taking part in such a course can be an unusual and highly fruitful one; you are sharing thoughts with a class full of lively thinkers who are actually doing their own magical work.

This course is no exception. Taught by Ian Read, Rune-Gild Master (and Drighten; see interview in Issue 1 of this magazine) it delivered in its six intense weeks an astonishing level of original work by Rune-Gild Master Ingrid Fischer on the Germanic soul-complex whose Master-Work of Runelore, Germanic Psychology, is on its way to being published. For those unfamiliar with this fascinating facet of Northern lore, I've appended the reading list from the course.

Masters Read and Fischer are not only(!) magicians steeped in the Northern tradition and with decades of magical experience but they are also both trained in modern psychological and psychotherapeutic practice. So this course sheds new light on the complex subtleties of traditional soul-lore, and in a superbly practical way. The student is given conceptual tools and exercises to help him map his own subjective experience onto the old names for the soul-components. More about this important work later.

Like most Arcanorium courses, this one ran over six weeks. The lesson-topics covered were: Development of the Personality, The Core Triad, Dreams, The Fylgia or Fetch, and Fate.

The Core Triad is one of the original concepts in the course, and one of the core ideas. The triad consists of hugr (approximately intellect, dominant hemisphere activity, the seat of the mundane self and conscious will), minni (memory, reflection, the subordinate cerebral hemisphere) and odhr (inspiration and ecstatic consciousness, among other functions).

I have been aware for some years of the approximate parallels between these modern terms and traditional ones, but I had not mapped these soul-components onto my own subjective states with anything like the depth and detail that I gained when I applied the Core Triad concept in the course exercise.

It is hard to exaggerate just how important this kind of work is, the fine tuning of subjective discrimination, and how thoroughly it can integrate into daily experience. Drifting on the edge of sleep, I came to feel the events of the day flickering from consciousness into the beginnings of REM-sleep, hugr's thoughts being processed into minni's reflections, like the pages of a book being riffled for the bits worth casting into long-term memory. Experiencing this, I am aware of the observing faculty hovering over that dyad, one of the functions of odhr, and one of the gateways into higher consciousness.

What could be more valuable in this kind of study than that, to gain a correlation between subjective feelings and a map of soul-elements? We cannot get anywhere with a soul-map until we start to correlate it with the territory of how that soul feels in action.

Saturday, 26 June 2010

Big Black Holes Found All Over Model

Last Friday night, on my way from the Old Kent Road to a meeting of advanced, pragmatic sceptics of the dominant worldview (chaos magicians), I took my seat on the bus and picked up the copy of the Metro that came with it. Among the news and celeb gossip was an article saying that science is entering a crisis in its way of viewing the entire universe.

Unless you practise or at least keep up with science, you probably haven't been following the woes of the Standard Model of cosmology. Let me take you on a brief flight over the territory.

In 1929 Edwin Hubble interpreted the redshift in the light from disant galaxies as a sign that the universe is expanding. In 1931 Georges Lemaitre proposed that the universe originated in a 'primeval atom', which idea led to the Big Bang theory. The idea was a contentious one until 1965, when the discovery of the cosmic background microwave radiation convinced nearly all cosmologists that the universe originated from a hot, dense starting moment.
By 1980, the theory had already accumulated an oddity: inflation. It seems that the universe was, or is, expanding much faster than was predicted from the mechanics of the Big Bang, and an extra factor had to be brought in to make sense of these new observations.
Elsewhere in cosmology, other weirdness was gathering. In 1934 Zwicky proposed 'dark matter' to explain the rotational peculiarities observed in galaxies. Dark matter has never been observed, and is thought not to consist of atoms and not to interact electromagnetically with 'regular' matter like the observable universe. What's more, there seems to be far more dark matter than observable matter in the universe - around five times as much.
In 1998 new observations suggested that the expansion of the universe is speeding up. To account for this, there had to be much more mass or energy than we'd ever observed; even taking into account the extra mass dark matter supplied, there was still a massive shortage, so 'dark energy' was postulated. As if it wasn't bad enough that 80% of the solid stuff of the universe is invisible, there has to be about three times as much dark energy as all the matter put together, dark or otherwise. In other words, only about 4% of the total mass-energy of the universe is directly observable.
An attempt has been made to pull together the ideas of dark matter and dark energy into a single concept of 'dark fluid', which is something like a fluid mechanics of space. And it gets weirder still: recently, bits of matter have been observed to move very fast and in a way that suggests they are being pulled about by matter outside the known universe. This has been given the name 'dark flow'.

Is there a pattern discernable here? These are what an old physics lecturer of mine* used to call fiddle factors, arbitrary quantities or constants you put in to make the equations work. Applied physics and engineering are full of them, but when they appear in the deep, fudamental theories they are something of an embarrassment.

This is not the first time this has happened. The neat theory of planetary motion that insisted the earth was at the centre of the universe, and that planets had to move in circular orbits (because mathematics is the language of the mind of God, and the universe is meant to be comprehended by humans - the same faith that still drives science) had to add in little curly bits to account for apparently retrograde motions of Venus and Mercury. These were called epicycles. The epicycles grew more epicycles, and the theory lurched along for another few centuries before Kepler risked his life at the hands of the church and declared a heliocentric model which fit the facts much better and tidied away all those messy epicycles.

At the moment cosmology seems to be stumbling along fine under its weight of fiddle-factors, but how much longer has a major theory got when the tocsin of its imminent demise is being rung in a paper you pick up free on buses ? (Metro, Fri June 18th)
The writer, one Ben Gilliland, (a man who clealrly knows his physics and presents it well) is pretty fresh about it all, with subheads like 'Bang goes the theory' and 'Part of our universe is missing'.

So the cosmological world awaits a new paradigm. Will we have to give up the Big Bang? If it seems intuitively reasonable that it all started with a big bang, maybe that's because we're weaned on creation myths with a definite beginning. After all, Georges Lemaitre. the original proponent of the theory was a Belgian Catholic priest. Mythic continuity or just coincidence?
Some writers have sought a new theory which would allow a special connection between special states of human consciousness and action at a distance in the material world. In other words, that would allow magic. One such theorist, with more knowledge of physics than most authors who try to connect the two areas, is Peter J. Carroll. His 6-dimensional spacetime theory ( ) is not easy to understand and will not be to everyone's taste, but it may be an example of what the human mind can come up with when fashioning a theory to account for our experience of this weird universe. Maybe this time we don't have to leave out the magic.

* If you ever read this, Dr Crane-Robinson, I never thanked you for your gedankenexperiment about trying to boil an egg on top of a mountain, which resulted for me in a state of gnosis. So thank you, I finally 'got' the Boltzmann statistics.

Monday, 17 May 2010

Review - Phil Harper's Ritual Chaos Magic Workbook

The Ritual Chaos Magic Workbook by Philip Harper

Phil Harper will be a new name to most of you, so the quality of information offered in this slim book may come as a surprise. Opening with the big questions - What is Magic and Why Do It? - he proceeds to an overview of Classical Western Magic and Chaos Magic. From the start, Harper writes with the authority of practical experience, in a competent no-nonsense fashion. The topics covered include reviews of basic Qabalah, basic magical training in the skills that will be familiar to anyone who has followed a well-rounded training scheme, the temple and tools, banishing rituals, sigils, divination and servitors.

This selection of material is, of course, not entirely original; if you are writing about using Qabalah as your main magical model, you have to give at least a review of a tradition of at least a couple of centuries' worth of magical literature. So the book goes over ground you could find in other books, but brings it all together in this one highly readable volume - adding the dimension of a rigorous Chaos Magick approach. The mix reminds me a bit of USA writer Steven Mace's blend of Thelemic qabalah with a critical, evidence-based CM approach (for samples of Mace's work see early editions of Chaos International).

Neither is this a mere flavour, the shallow eclecticism of the chaos magick dilletante - Harper is clearly serious about going the whole way, attaining all that can be attained on the magical path, and he shows abundant common sense in evaluating the magical orders on the market in the final chapter, Orders, Initiations and Grades.

So who is Mr Harper writing for here? Basically, a beginner, because it brings it all together in one book, but an intelligent beginner who does not want spoon feeding, and is not afraid of doing some disciplined magical work. In other words, a proper aspirant to the magical knowledge that can only be gained by working on yourself.

In other words, this book is sufficiently serious to put off most armchair magicians.

If this, his first book, is anything to go by, Philip Harper is likely to be heard of again. Check out his informative and courageous blog at
I say courageous because how many magicians do you know who would post up a video of themselves skrying the Enochian 29th Aethyr? And he writes that:
'On the 10th of May 2010, at about 1:10am I successfully gained the Knowledge and Conversation of my Holy Guardian Angel....'

Phil's main website, is a treasure trove of resources for the curious magician and well worth a visit.

The Ritual Chaos Magic Workbook is available on as ebook or printed copy.

Monday, 10 May 2010

The Book of English Magic by Phillip Carr-Gomm & Richard Heygate.

Some readers may have read an earlier and very brief review I did of this book. That was based on the pages I was initially sent - the Introduction and a breezy and lucid introduction to the life of David Conway, which sits at the end of the final chapter, 'The Wizards' Return', more about which later. The first impression I got off those few pages suggested that it wasn't the kind of book that tells you much about how to do magic, more of an amusing overview of the scene for an absolute beginner.

However, when I received the full volume, I changed my mind. The intro promises 'suggestions for sites to visit and experiments to perform', and these invitations to actually get involved in personal magical research is one of the central strengths of the book. Each chapter also includes one or two personal accounts from a practitioner of that aspect of the magic arts. These mini-biographies give useful starting-points for further reading.

The magical names mentioned include the usual suspects, plus plenty of people I'd never heard of, including innovative female magicians such as the 16th century Mary Sidney and hedge witch Tamsin Blight. The connections made span high society to low, and ancient to modern times.
There are also some interesting details about the ancient world that take the reader on a quick flight over vast eras, for instance how the 850 BCE cold spell influenced the ancient cultures that suffered it, and what with some nice little asides and references to the various fictional treatments of the historical eras mentioned, this is a rich and tasty mix of ideas.

So how does it shape up in how it treats the various currents and styles of English magic?
Starting with ley lines and dowsing, the authors pursue a non-judgmental approach to
fantastical notions like continent-wide energy-lines. Their attitude to the varieties of witchcraft is also balanced and they give a sensible treatment of the dangers of the magical path.

Neither are the authors afraid to tackle contentious topics. They engage with the drugs taboo, kicking off the Aleister Crowley chapter with an account of AC's mescalin-soaked Artemis ritual.
Sexual magic is framed as 'modern English tantra', with references to Dion Fortune as well as AC. The text follows the thread of the erosion of restrictive sexual mores which facilitated an opening-up of useful information about the magics of sex.

Now for the few bones I have to pick. No surprise, these are in the areas I know something about - chaos magic and the Northern way.
The authors rightly condemn the ludicrous rune-fantasies of Ralph Blum. (There ought to be some kind of recognition for the dissemination of the most misleading esoteric lies - maybe we could call it the Ralph Blum Award?) But they fail to mention the most academically-rigorous rune writer in the world, Edred Thorsson, aka Stephen Flowers, whose work has established a sound basis for the current, much better-informed resurgence of interest in Northern mysteries.

The chapter on Anglo-Saxon magic starts promisingly, but then we are plunged into the highly dubious territory of so-called shamanism with the thoughts of Peter Aziz. This monologue not only exemplifies the pot-pourri of personally significant bits of technique that the word 'shamanism' has become associated with but is utterly irrelevant to Anglo-Saxon sorcery.
Michael Harner's 'core shamanism' - is also mentioned, and it's about time this movement was put into perspective. This kind of generalizing discourse serves largely to muddy up the waters of research into the genuine magical practices of ancient traditions by blurring it all together into something that can be learned in a few (costly) weekend retreats.

Since the book also misplaces Diane Paxson amongst 'rune masters', I'll take a brief detour to criticize her work. She presents a system of 'soul lore' to which she has added a 'higher self'. Now this isn't as ludicrous as Blum's addition of a blank rune, but there is absolutely no basis for it in the tradition, and it confuses research into the true basis of mystical attainment using germanic soul lore. It is as if Paxson is recommending we try a complex and subtly-flavoured dish, but only after slopping so much Heinz Tomato Ketchup on it we can't taste its special flavours. This is presumably because the sauce is the only flavour on the table that will be familiar to the poor, unadventurous diner.

Now to the chapter on Chaos Magic, 'The Return of the Magicians'. On the upside, the authors have clearly done their research on the origins of the CM current. We are told in the words of Sarah Whittaker about a loosely-defined group of magicians who worked together in Whitby over one summer in the mid-70s, including seminal authors Pete Carroll, Ray Sherwin and Lionel Snell.

This is a convincing account, but I'm in no position to comment on its accuracy, since no-one in the CM scene I've been on for over 30 years had heard of Sarah Whittaker before she published it, and the protagonists of the drama she relates are mostly retired from active service, silent or otherwise out of contact. But it rings true, and is a worthy origin myth.

The David Conway biographical piece really puzzles me though. It's interesting enough, but would someone please tell me what Mr Conway has to do with Chaos Magic? The authors could have interviewed Ian Read, who nurtured the world IOT from England after Pete Carroll resigned in 1991, which makes him one of the most important figures in English chaos magic. Mr Read is well known for his courtesy in granting interviews to many worthy publications, so it would probably have been worth trying to get him on board.

The authors' research is also amusingly outdated in one other small detail. We all know how subcultural stereotyping is useful, working like branding as an extreme shorthand for a complex slew of associations. It made me smile to read, among a list of musical styles associated with different magical currents, to see chaos magic associated with heavy metal. My eyes defocus as I recall fond 1980s memories of demonic black t-shirts sweated in to a soundtrack of dark industrial rock. But please, that was a long time ago, and never heavy metal! A quick straw poll of chaos magician friends' current playlists nets Miles Davis, Wagner, Jimi Hendrix, Jajouka, neo-folk, dance music and the microtonal song styles of old Europe.

Having said that, there's still a big, vital narrative in this book. The Introduction states that '...of all the countries in the world, England has the richest and most varied history of magical lore', and it makes this point well, giving a glimpse into the enchanted undergrowth of England's culture, countryside and ancient cities.
This is a good thing; everyone but the English are proud of their cultural roots - as if English was the language of the observer, the special case of a non-magical tradition, viewing with a detached eye the weirdness of other cultures, when in fact we have the richest magical culture in the world.

Despite its flaws, I think this book is destined to become a beloved work of reference for a fair few magicians. I can imagine dusty copies reached down years hence from the shelf, a treasury of magical resources, a little bit like the role Julian Cope's magnificent 'Modern Antiquarian' plays in the exploration of sacred sites.

Saturday, 8 May 2010

Dave's new blog

Hello World,
I decided to start this blog to create a new space for the reviews I'm writing, rather than cramming them onto the back pages of my website (

For my previous reviews, check out the 'Writings' page of

I might think of other things to post up here at some stage, but for now here's my first review:

Magick Works by Julian Vayne, Mandrake of Oxford

Readers of books on paganism, chaos magic and psychoactive sacraments may well be familiar with Julian Vayne's characteristic mix of essay, ritual report and personal anecdote. This book reprises that blend – the subtitle is 'Stories of occultism in theory and practice' – and those who enjoy his vivid personal tales of magic will not be disappointed – he reveals a good deal of his personal magical history, telling how he came to magic and relating the magical dimensions of the birth of his son.

The essays are also very interesting, Vayne engaging with theoretical problems from his own special angle. Sex and drugs are woven into stirring and timely interpretations of paganism as a cult of ecstasy, a dimension generally neglected by more conventional (read 'bourgeois'?) pagans. As promised by the cover blurb, Vayne also writes about 'gardening', in a very informative essay on 'Permaculture, Politics and Paganism'. Another aspect of interacting magically with our environment is explored in pieces on psychogeography.

One of my favourite essays is ‘The Use of the Imagination’, in which he cleverly undoes the usual (and usually derogatory) notion that imagination is not real. For instance:
'The screen upon which we project our perceptions is imagination; it is the necessary condition of experience.'
The theme of imagination also impels a very rare feature of this book – a short 'Manifesto of the Magickians', a clarion call to engagement with the real world through the use of magick. A specific kind of engagement is suggested near the end of the chapter 'The Fourth Path – Drugs, Entheogens and modern Paganism', where readers are encouraged to support American Casey Hardison, imprisoned in the UK on a 20 year sentence for LSD manufacture.

Overall, this is a fine book, probably the best I've read of Vayne's work. The prose is highly readable and mostly clear, with one startlingly indigestible exception, when he writes: ' the baulked project of our inherent epistemophillia', perhaps after an overdose of Baudrillard.

However, I have to take issue with his curiously uncritical stereotype of the Left Hand Path magician, in which he sets up a straw-man-picture of Black Brothers, 'dwellers in the Abyss that wish to 'stop growing, to become rigid and unbending'', illustrating this with a quote from a Temple of Set website.
In order to make my point I shall explore some ideas about what the purpose and goal of the magical path might be.
The Perennial Philosophy has so far always been interpreted as having an endpoint in Union With God. Of the tiny minority who attempt the Great Work, many fail and few records exist. What has survived and gained the status of the canon of the Perennial Philosophy gives a self-selection that appears to offer a consistent picture of what attainment is like.
Some of this is gorgeously seductive – who would not be lured onto the path by Thomas Traherne’s:
'You never enjoy the world aright till the sea itself floweth in your veins, till you are clothed with the heavens and crowned with the stars.'
I certainly was, and for years I worked a mixture of LHP and RHP. Now I know myself better, and having investigated RHP techniques far more closely, I confirmed in the process that I belong to a particular subset of seekers – those who are constitutionally unable to believe in Big God to the extent of ever having any faith in that abstraction. Such seekers as myself can only hope to develop faith in some transpersonal influence much nearer to hand.

Not only that – the closer I approach to what mystical attainment is supposed to be, the less I like the look of much of the territory sketched out in the reports, not to mention the methods of getting there.
For instance, I find sitting meditation itself a dubious practice, and am inclined to view with some reservations any interpretations of the sublime ecstasies that are proffered by someone who’s spent 2 hours a day doing nothing. Something in me not only detests sitting doing nothing for 2 hours a day but finds suspect any philosophy that emerges from such a practice.

I came to the firm conclusion that I do not seek union with God. The whole notion is dubious: Would you want to attain union with your lover? Because then you wouldn’t be able to love her/him any more and the world would have been diminished by one individual consciousness.
To put it another way, my Holy Guardian Angel is not a RHP mystic.

I strongly suspect there’s an inborn capacity to appreciate the concept of Big God. There is some vindication of this from studies on separated twins, particularly behavioural geneticist Thomas J. Bouchard Jr's famous "Minnesota twins" study, from which he concludes that about 50% of the differences among people in their religious attitudes, interests, and values is accounted for by their genes.
This is a contentious idea (see, but if it's anywhere near the truth it means that when we god-minus genotypes explore higher consciousness we either have to shoehorn ourselves into a Procrustean bed of mainstream theology or write our own god-minus esoteric manuals.

And this opens up the question: What happens to the Self in the LHP?
The Setians have a pretty good model. I find their Satanic glamours offputting, the kind of thing that initially made it hard for me to take them seriously, but their model fits rather well with the Northern mysteries model expounded by Edred Thorsson, in which we forever 'Seek the Mystery', approaching an infinite succession of veils, each of which parts to reveal another behind it.
I suggest to Mr V that he might try reading 'Uncle Setnakht's Essential Guide to the Left Hand Path'. Don Webb’s calm and lucid manual of LHP attainment gives the lie to the Black Brothers stereotype in many ways, including supplying reasons to help other people!  I can detect nothing more problematic in my reading of that book than a difference in personal style, and this is as it should be – each of us has to make our own way in these realms. 

In contrast to this, it strikes me that the most empty, frozen, in-the-fucking-way-type people are very Right Hand Path. Alternative-medical guru Deepak Chopra is a good example, with his sententious advice to just be nice, meditate (to crush your individuality), and hopefully make loads of money along the way, just like he did.

One description of what I'm doing now is working on ‘building a soul’. This Work is common to Setians, Rune-Gild and many followers of Jung, who call this process Individuation. And that is far from an exhaustive list – Vayne himself writes (p74 ): 'the occultist cultivates an enchanted soul.'
The higher levels of consciousness have been almost all articulated by RHP for a long time (and will continue to be so, because it’s the easier path to understand in our strangely-warped world, where abstract notions so often trump living reality), but magicians like Webb and Thorsson are drawing together the threads of a Left Hand Path gnosis that shine (darkly) through the weave of the Perennial Philosophy.