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 (www.chaotopia.co.uk).

For my previous reviews, check out the 'Writings' page of chaotopia.co.uk.

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 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/God_gene), 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.

10 comments:

  1. Hello Dave,

    It is my opinion that the view given in the book - and therefore your critique - suffer from a common misunderstanding as to the natures of the LHP, RHP and Black Brother.

    To borrow your term, the RHP is a renunciatory path to ‘Big God’. That which is considered detrimental to the work is given up in order to concentrate on the techniques of the RHP (meditation, invocation, etc). In Buddhist terms (which incidentally contains both RHP and LHP schools), this involves giving up certain activities known as the ‘poisons’, and so we can say that the RHP is akin to avoiding the consumption of (or even the outright destruction of) a poisonous plant.

    The LHP has exactly the same goal as the RHP: the discovery of ‘Big God’. The only difference is in approach; instead of renouncing what is considered detrimental to the work, the LHP magician ‘transmutes’ it. Instead of avoiding or destroying the poisonous plant, the LHPer mixes it with other plants and produces a medicine that furthers the work.

    (cont.)

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  2. So whereas the RHPer might be found sober, celibate, solitary, vegetarian and meditating for hours at a time, we are more likely to find the LHPer high, shagging, partying, eating meat, indulging the passions, etc. However, what is actually going on inside the LHPer is something completely different to the hedonist, and is just as demanding as the renunciatory path in terms of mental training.

    Now the Black Brother (or Counter Initiate), is something produced by both the RHP and the LHP. The Black Brother is not a trajectory, and his ‘work’ does not lead to the development of a ‘greater self’; if anything, the BB suffers from a complete stagnation in his development, because he fundamentally misunderstands the nature of himself and the universe, and therefore resists any further growth. He is shit scared of the way things are; in other words, he thinks that what is greater than himself (what you have called ‘Big God’) is out to get him and intrinsically evil.

    This is important: if you haven’t made any progress with either the RHP or LHP, you cannot be said to be a BB, because it is this very progress that is resisted. The guy who is content to dabble with sorcery for material gain is neither a RHPer, LHPer or BB. He’s a beginner. The BB is always a technically adept magician.

    Finally, the ideas of Self and No Self are found in RHP traditions as much as they are found in LHP traditions, and they particularly relate to how we can view the goal shared by both paths. For instance, modern forms of Advaita, one of the oldest RHP traditions, sees the work as the revelation of the True or Big Self, as compared to Buddhism, which sees exactly the same phenomenon as the discovery of No Self (which should actually be called ‘No Essence’ to be more accurate), or Emptiness. The truth is that both Big Self and Emptiness are descriptions of the same thing. To get a more accurate expectation of what both traditions are describing, the question shouldn’t be which one is right, but what are their commonalities?

    Again, Gurdjieff of course described the work as the building and ‘crystallization’ of various souls that are not simply given at birth, yet he was talking about exactly the same process described by his Sufi teachers as ‘union with the divine’. Again, what is it that is being described here in terms of deep features common to both views?

    It is a radical misunderstanding of the views presented by both RHP and LHP traditions - especially those concerned with ideas of Self and No Self - that leads to the halt in the Black Brothers work through fear of some oblivion, and it is a characteristic of the BB to buy into the illusion that he is developing or re-enforcing his ‘self’ when he is in fact slowly but surely decaying from the inside out.

    So in summary, the difference between the RHP and LHP is one of method, not aim, and both approaches include models that speak of Self and No Self, which are both describing the same thing.

    Best wishes,

    Alan.

    (P.S. As such, I don’t believe the Temple of Set is an LHP order; they’re just terribly confused.)

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  3. Alan, you terrible c**t, I was going to say that!

    Seriously, I have for a long time believed that you two guys and a bunch of others I have in meind are actually more in agreement than some of us currently recognise.

    Oh, and I too think the world of Julian's book. I treat it as a powerfully frank record of a magician's mature reflections on his work. Who couldn't learn from that?

    Kite

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  4. Thanks Dave, Alan I think that whilst your right in seeing the ultimate goal of the Vama Marga as being the same as Orthodox Buddhism and hinduism, the Setian understanding of "LHP" is quite different from the tantric one.
    In the west everything post Blavatsky and especially post LaVey takes a much more adversarial slant- they are informed by a radically atheistic perspective where consciousness and its development becomes a radically existential endeavour in the face of a universe that is challenging at best.
    Their concept of "Black" magick may be considerably different from yours but i wouldn't typify Don Webb and Stephen Flowers as confused.

    Steve

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  5. Thanks for the review Dave -

    I can't wait 'till my copy arrives. I've enjoyed the little contact I've had with Julian; we have a couple of similar interests. On to the LHP though -

    I really think it's funny how much energy people put into distinctions and definitions: I'm a kind of "results talk" sort of person. I can't imagine where I'd have to discuss the "political" aspects of majik. To me, that conversation is full of very heavy memes that interfere with the ability to shift paradigms, much less work outside of them.

    Lately my awareness has become more focused and immediate: I've become more about communion with life rather than communion with thoughts (or imaginations) about it. This perceptual shift has brought about wierd (but good) side-effects in both the waking state and the dream state. The main effect of importance here is that I can no longer find any importance in the LHP-RHP distinction.

    I mean, what's the origin of these terms? Probably the Bogomils, who put Satanel as lord of matter on the left hand and Christ as lord of spirit on the right; possibly some other xtian sect, where the angel at the left hand of god was the one that did the dirty work - smiting, plagues, stuff like that. I don't think that until the xtians made up the god who's nice to you when you're dead if you serve the powers that be with obedience, anyone thought of any of this stuff - my guess is that it was all about power. The more power an individual could hold on to, the less effort it took to have other people do the food/clothing/shelter work for them. IMHO, that's really all there is to it; another disempowering meme that makes us feel like we're less than, and incapable of doing anything other than serving the great lord, in or out of the flesh. Hmm.

    So I guess that the church's practices of genocide and persecution (not to mention indulgences) are the arguments that could place them as #1 on the LHP hit parade; so where does that leave the guys who don't have million dollar shepard's crops, private planes, and divinely sanctioned excuses for child abuse, but are spending their days trying to squeeze some 'dread' out of their presence to be more, uh, impressive?

    Whatever.

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  6. Glad you enjoyed Magick Works chaps - copies have been selling well so it does seem that people from many different traditions find this collection interesting. Well done on spotting my deliberately uber po-mo sentance in that essay Dave :-)

    Brothers may be interested to note that at no point in my essay are the terms LHP/RHP used in connection with what is in fact a discussion about the nature of the self as lived experienced. There is clearly no 'common misunderstanding' if one bothers to read the essay with care. Indeed at no point in the whole book do I use the terms RHP/LHP. However clearly there are connections between different views of the self and the styles of RHP vs LHP occultism (see for example the opening pages of Apophis by Michael Kelly) but this to some degree beside the point. My aim in the essay is to explore the possibility of a view of the self that is both connected to the whole universe but retains its 'narrative centre of gravity' (to borrow a term from hermeneutics). Clearly attempts at an unchanging self (of the kind I've heard Frater UD bang on about but in fairness seems absent from much of the more intelligent work of the Temple of Set et al) are in Crowleys terms Black Brotherhood. However the feeling that everything is just emptiness (note that's 'feeling' not some axiomatic Noble Truth tosh) and there simply is no self does not seem IMHO to get us very far with exploring this phenomena. To claim the 'I' is either fixed or does not really exist are positions that fail to address the dynamic, complex nature of our humanity as process.

    Different states of awareness produce different selves, the dance between them and their relationship with the external world is what I find fascinating. As is the process of engaging with this Mystery rather than subscribing to some holy writ or indeed set of unbending divisions. Crowley’s notion of the BB is, in my essay, a tool for exploration. Magic, as I’m sure we all agree, is about engaging with mystery so I’m very pleased if my humble essay can go some way to stimulating us all to explore the metaphysics of our practice.

    Beast wishes

    Julian

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  7. Hi Alan, thanks for your comments. I would like to question a few points.

    First, you write:
    'The LHP has exactly the same goal as the RHP: the discovery of ‘Big God’. '
    I don't really have any basis for agreeing or disagreeing with you about this issue, because Big God remains a theory to me. You are writing from the point of view of someone who has (I presume) experienced this kind of cosmic consciousness, and knows whereof he writes. I am coming at this whole business from the point of view of lived experience, from the bottom up, if you like.

    It also strikes me that the idea of the Black Brother is a bit theoretical too. Where are these wretched individuals? I can only make sense of the notion of the BB through imagining what such a person might be like. Hence my punt on poor ol' Deepak Chopra. It seems as though you have come to the conclusion that they exist somewhere based on theoretical considerations: please tell me if you have other evidence.

    And thirdly, what do you mean when you write
    'I don’t believe the Temple of Set is an LHP order; they’re just terribly confused.'?
    Have you read Webb's 'Uncle SetNakht' book?

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  8. @Julian: Apologies mate, it was a long time ago when I read your book and I assumed from Dave's comments that you had indeed talked about the LHP and RHP in the essay in question (which I enjoyed, by the way).

    @Steve Davies: I totally agree, but I believe it is with Blavatsky that a lot of genuine spiritual teachings were confused and perverted apparently for her own self interest. And the confusion has remained ever since. I think it is fine if people want to use LHP to mean something else, but not when they also claim the heritage to the historic LHP trads and thereby misrepresent them.

    @Dave: The first point you raise can be reached through study of the LHP and RHP traditions, although as you say this is not as good personal exploration.

    Second, I agree with you here too about the BB. I'm never quite sure if I know a lot or none. But I don't think this is what is important about the BB; rather, the idea highlights the very real fear and confusion that arises with dedicated spiritual practice, and the worst possible reaction or course of action to that. I think the BB is more important in a personal, practical sense than as fodder for magical paranoia. :)

    Third, I simply meant the ToS think they are strictly LHPers but they're not. I've found their material a mish mash of elements from various approaches (BB - 'preserve the self at all costs! resist the evil mystics!' to RHP - reformulating their grades to match Crowley's AA). I do believe I have read Webb's book, but it was awhile ago (I was considering joining the ToS back in 2005, but after a thorough investigation thought better of it. I do enjoy their aesthetic though).

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  9. Hi Alan, There's a gulf between my reading of Perennial Philosophy ideas / mysticism and my experience. A 11-day vipassana retreat 5 years ago showed me how much I detest prolonged meditation. This wasn't the first time I'd felt this, but previously I'd put my reluctance down to ordinary laziness. So I decided to immerse myself in meditation practice, and discovered that a very deep and important part of me - which I can identify with an aspect of my HGA - was saying 'this is NOT for you!' So I have no way to force myself into an experience of that mystical perspective, and since that realisation I have found I have no need to. Instead, I follow the twisty path which my higher consciousness leads me on.

    On this path, there are no ready-made maps. I have to construct my own.
    Thorsson's concepts of the path, together with Webb's version of Setianism has been a good starting point for that, and I feel like I am just beginning to articulate some aspects of my path.

    This leads me on to the LHP/RHP distinction. I don't think the traditional distinction you make in your first reply above is what Webb is aiming at. The distinction he makes is between those who would surrender their individual consciousness and those who would nurture and grow it. This is based on Thorsson / Flowers' distinction in 'Lords of the Left Hand Path' (Runa-Raven, 1997). This is a useful way of looking at the issue, but I see where you are coming from in challenging it as based on a misreading of mystical texts, wherein mystics talk about this kind of surrender in terms which make it look like annihilation.

    Even if that is the case, and the mystical path you are talking about does not involve the surrender of individual selfhood, I still think there is a worthwhile distinction to be made between those who are capable of working from a top-down / theoretical perspective (presumably because the reports they read resonate with some deep part of their own experience) and those who need to proceed from bottom up, proving the reality of the stages of higher consciousness to themselves at each stage, without assuming a pre-determined endpoint of enlightenment.

    Whether or not this (possibly inborn) perspective has any natural link with hating doing sitting meditation, I don't know!

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  10. I can very much sympathise with what you say about sitting meditation. I still practise it, and enjoy it, though am not doing so regularly at the moment. What I enjoy about it is to taking some time to relish the moment, to soak in your senses, and I find regular practice makes accessing "the observing self" in day to day life a lot easier. Having said that, there's something about meditation which I don't like - it feels sometimes as if I'm damming up my natural energy, the impulses to move and act on and in the world. I've been thinking about moving meditations as I bridge between the two, in the form of slow martial arts forms, but in practice, I get caught up in the dynamics of the movements, and don't widen my awareness in quite the same way.

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