Friday, 6 July 2012

Sorcery and Wisdom: Chaos Magic as a vehicle for Magical Philosophy

This is a talk I presented at Midsummer to a roomful of esoterically-inclined Freemasons. It was a fun afternoon, and went down well, with most of my audience. More importantly, it networked together some remarkable people...

The full, extended version of the model of magic presented here is in my book Bright From the Well (


The thing I’ve pursued more than anything since an early age is magical connectedness to the universe, the everyday world.

I am not alone in this; I know I share this world with a minority, whose effects on it are disproportionately great, who reject its crass assumptions, its narrowing down of the epic sweep of life. Those who seek something to assuage the abiding sense that materialist dogma produces of having been robbed or defrauded.

There was a slogan going round in my youth which summed up this perspective nicely: Reality is a rip-off. Part of the price we pay for the wonders of industrial culture is a scientistic dogma which aggressively contends that only things are really real. Only exterior surfaces are worth investigating. All depth, all interiority, all subjective experience is denied or denigrated as a mere epiphenomenon, a sideshow, of matter. So I sought a way to take me beyond the prison planet of materialism, to prove my subjective connection to the universe, so as to re-enchant the universe in my own eyes.

That is what I mean by 'magical philosophy' in the title of this talk - daily, lived magical consciousness.

Now, there are many agendas that seek or claim to assuage the emptiness of mainstream culture. To a naturally skeptical person with a science background, such as myself, there are few believable options.

We may at first seek to reintroduce magic by the retro-romantic ploy. The history of various forms of romantic escapism resonate through the modern era. We take on such a sweet deceiver and we may get a few days, or weeks, or even months of naïve belief, of magical puppy-love, before it wears thin, and the critical faculties come back into play. And tell us that all we were doing was re-enactment.
That ploy has only succeeded in showing us what we want reality to be like, rather than convincing us that it is actually like that.

Beyond retro-romanticism we have PostModernism; we can let a chink of light into the prison: we are allowed to doubt that there is only one valid description of reality. We are no longer stuck with the narrowest interpretation of the materialist Aeon. The world is now full of guerrilla ontologies. Under this tolerant regime, guerilla spirituality may flourish, and, just as every coin has two sides, the desperate search for some spiritual dimension outside of mainstream religion has two main forms: the mass movement known as the New Age and the tiny band of dedicated people who call themselves by the old-fashioned and deservedly romantic name of magicians.

PostModernism allows such a romantic position, without treating it as ludicrous, unlike a 4th Aeon/ Materialist critique would.

But on closer inspection, PoMo isn't really magic-friendly at all; it simply tolerates all universe-maps. It's a philosophy that can't say no. It opens the door to all comers, but has nowhere in particular for the guests to stand, let alone sit, since it refuses to privilege any one viewpoint over any other. Its tolerance merely includes, without truly utilizing. And, because of its refusal to privilege any one view, it cannot distinguish the genuine from the bogus or corrupt. In the roadside diner of Postmodernism, magic may be on the menu, but the diners are as likely to be served the uncritical slop known as new age (or, as I prefer to call it, for the rhyme, newage) as they are the nourishment of real wisdom.
The newager wants knowledge without thought, enlightenment without effort, faith without the pain, guilt and wretchedness that monotheistic religions offer to the discerning masochist. The newage is PoMo's embarrassingly bad attempt at a religion.

So how do we lift ourselves up out of this flatland? How do we become initiates, in the magical sense?

For a sceptic, one approach is to evaluate our development through the practical results we create. In particular, in order to convince yourself that you are embedded in a living cosmos, if you are sophisticated in 4th Aeon thought – that is, if you've been exposed to science and thought about what it actually means – the evidence required is that some real, material, consensually-visible change occur in conformity with our individual Will.

This pragmatic approach has its most developed form in chaos magic.
Some people have struggled to define Chaos Magic but it's actually very simple to define: it's a meta-view of magic, it's about magic, rather than being a system of magic. And it is based round the observation that Belief is central to magical effectiveness.

The seminal book of CM was Peter J. Carroll's 'Liber Null', first published in 1978. In that book he declares that, in order to do magic, you  need two things: One, what he refers to as GNOSIS, which is what most people call and altered state of consciousness, and I would prefer to call an extraordinary state of consciousness or ESC; and Two, a shift in belief.

The ESC can be created using concentration, meditative stillness, quiescence so deep that the normal identity slips away, or it can be pursued actively, using the excitement of dance or sex, or small doses of alcohol or other psychoactive drugs.

As for the belief, let's look at that in more detail, using examples.
Let's say I wish to do a spell to gain ---. In order for it to succeed, I need to believe:
a) that magic is possible
b) that it is possible for me
c) that my desired result will come about after I have done certain procedures. These procedures can include banishing, the creation of magical signs or sigils, singing of chants or mantras, use of coloured objects and lights, dressing up in certain clothes and all the gorgeous, crazy paraphernalia of ritual magic.

Some magical writers, notably Alan Chapman, contend that the belief is really all you need, that you don't have to have an extraordinary state of consciousness at all. This I think is true, but only if the magician is capable of shifting into the belief that his spell will work without the need to alter the way he thinks.

As you may have gathered from the above, the actual ritual structures we choose to use in CM are actually arbitrary. 
Chaos magic is capable of demonstrating to each practitioner that, with sufficient precision and passion, you can use pretty much any belief to dance with the universe, to open yourself to the mysteries of practical sorcery.

Sometimes the sceptical, results-based discipline of that magical path leads to a criticism of CM that I must address: Some people see it as petty, as materialistic, that chaos magic is only about ‘doing spells or sigils’ for personal gain. Opening up the question of why we attempt magic leads us to a deeper understanding. Although magic is, practically by definition, a path of power, surely we do not do it solely for the effects we can make on the world. We cannot rely on magic as a substitute for more worldly skills. Our ancestors knew this. In The Lay of Fafnir, a poem of the Elder Edda, Sigurd says:
The Helm of Awe protects no-one
where angry men have to fight;
I think a shrewd guess may tell us that individuals who went into battle armed only with a powerful bindrune took a rapid, Darwinian route to extinction.
No: The effects we have on the world are, or should be, useful to us. But they point to more than themselves. They can be taken as signs that we are on the right track.

So what counts as magic? What counts as personal proof that I am connected to the universe? My short answer is: weirdness.
I have a few anecdotes to present to you, of increasing levels of peculiarness. They’re spread over thirty years of magical practice. The full range of anecdotes is in my book Bright From the Well. [Show book round]

Anecdote 1. A magical group meeting in London. I present a ritual for remote healing. We have heard that our friend and magical associate has just been diagnosed with massive kidney damage. He has lost two thirds of his kidney function. We use a completely absent procedure, the magical link being some hair in a wax doll. We use a dark voudon-style invocation, of the Zaraguin loa, the spider lords of the future and nanotechnology. Why, for a healing? Because they’re damned impressive, and also stop any other entities getting the energy.
Result: at next measurement, a few days later, the specialist declares that he now has recovered one of the lost thirds of his kidney function. Our friend quotes him as saying: ‘I don’t know what you’re doing, but keep doing it!’

So, looking at that success, we have a first layer of weirdness. I call it Body Alchemy. These effects are apparently caused by action of will entirely within the skin, or involving recordable, non-occult communication between skin-bounded humans.
This is what psychologists might call a holistic-psychological effect. There is actually nothing here to challenge materialistic scientism. The will acts via some subconscious instructions to change gene expression. This type of causality includes firewalking, wart-charming, most forms of healing and the so-called placebo effect, which is, of course, healing magic.
Despite the impressiveness of some of the effects in this area, it could be said that this isn't really magic at all, because science can, with an increasingly small stretch, explain it. The finding that immune system cells communicate with central nervous system sites was one of the discoveries that narrowed the gap and enabled more materialistic scientists to take the plunge of believing in psychosomatic healing.
This explanation will work for this anecdote. Since the target person knew the ritual was being performed for him, it could have catalyzed a shift of belief massive enough to do that impressive bit of healing on his kidneys.
To be more generous with our belief, we could regard that third healing as weak evidence for a transpersonal, telepathic effect of some kind, as well as body alchemy. The following example is, I think, stronger evidence for some effect of that kind. 

Anecdote 2. This next incident was not one of my own successes, but I include it because it is so stunning. My friend had lost touch with a friend of hers. All she knew was that he lived in York. So, to get a phone number for him, she took her tarot deck and drew six cards. Being new to magic, she was overwhelmed by the idea of the sheer weirdness of what success might mean. So, she left it a day before phoning the number she’d got. The number turned out to be that of the next door neighbour of my friend’s friend.

Definition C:
These effects are not confined to the skin. I’ll label this effect Transpersonal, meaning that instructions and other information appear to be transferred between two or more people’s nervous systems.
As an aside, I think this level fits the reality of Astrology as I observe it: it seems to have a weak effect, not enough for accurate predictions, but enough to generate a fairly consistent set of zodiacal types. I think it works at this weak level not because of radiations from the stars, but because of expectations generated by unconscious acceptance of its myth. Sun-sign typing provides a myth to explain the fact that we are all different, but fall into certain archetypal roles in our interactions with each other. People pick this up unconsciously, maybe because of other people’s expectations of their behaviour – Oh, he’s born in November, treat him like a Scorpio – but I think it more likely that we soak up the whole mythos telepathically, and sculpt our behaviour accordingly from an early age. We fall into a limited number of archetypal roles on the stage of life, ready-made off the peg identities generated by the mythos of astrology.
However, this anecdote suggest levels of weirdness beyond the transpersonal. Here, we seem to be looking at something which not only suggests communication between nervous systems, but some kind of coordination of effects between more than two nervous systems. One of the definitions of magic I like is by Pete Carroll: the engineering of synchronicities. So I’d label these anecdotes as Strong Transpersonal and also as Synchronistic. With such results, it seems as if the world is a matrix, or an operating system, or a field of interconnected consciousnesses.
The example I just gave show this connection as still recognizably tied to human brains, albeit in a way which science cannot explain, only reject. Some experiences take us even beyond this, where the non-human world itself seems to be affected by our magic. This next example has just that quality.

Anecdote 3. I and 3 friends are trying out a new pathworking, Pete Carroll’s Cthonos. We decide to go for a very precise, publicly-visible result, the BBC 9 o'clock news having a problem on sound sufficiently serious to warrant an apology from the newsreader, between 9.10 and 9.15. We sit down for this quiet, inward working, when a burglar alarm goes off in the bakery next door. We delay the start for a while, then decide that if we are going to do the working before the news starts, we have to just get on with it. So we sit there for about 20 minutes doing our visualization with this shrill screaming in our ears. When we finish, we rush down and get the news on just as it is starting. We get our result at 9.12. It's one of the most precise magical results I've ever had.

Definition D:
This seems to be a strong Synchronistic effect, only partially dependent on a human brain receiving the information my group put out there. This is what is commonly thought-of as being magic: events with no apparent physical connection bend the rules of probability; effects occur as if will acts directly on the physical universe, without the intermediary of a human receiver. Remote viewing is another effect of this kind. 
Stronger examples of such effects is in the next anecdote.

Anecdote 4. On this occasion, a group of us are asked to do an exorcism for a couple in Sheffield. Now, the deal is that the people who set up the investigation are film students from Manchester Film College and insist on a film team being present. So our group decide to make it a group research event, and four of us tramp over to a middle-class housing estate on the ring road to meet with the agreed minimum of two filmmakers. To cut a long and educational story short, we end up looking at a piece of video film which confirms the description of the main hauntee, whom we incidentally decide was the source of the hauntings. He had told us he experienced the entities that were vampirizing his girlfriend as wrapping themselves around his neck like sleepy cats. Our video shows a clear band of smoky light around his neck like a scarf on two sequences, when he was sitting just where he had told us about the apparitions.
I count this as an evocation to visible appearance.

Definition E:
Here, we seem to have direct effects on matter itself. OK, the exorcism video could be interpreted as a local electromagnetic field around the guy’s neck, which would drop the weirdness level back to something like body alchemy, but I believe it’s worth including here because of the close fit with the hauntee’s description of it.
We are looking at some crossover of Synchronistic effects, as outlined above, with what is usually called an Etheric effect.

Now for the weirdest of all.
Anecdote 12.  Back near the beginning of my magical career, my lover was a woman of extreme psychic ability, whom I shall refer to as Anna for the purpose of this tale. This person it was who, one afternoon when I went round to visit her during a light summer storm, was standing in her kitchen shaking, lightning having just come through her window and struck her washing machine. On another occasion, she and I were at the home of another magician.  She started telling a story about how her ex-boyfriend had been a little peeved when she got into his sports car and it blew up. The TV which had been on in the background emitted strangled noises and gouts of sparks and ceased working for ever.
Anyway, one evening, after a meeting where we’ve been doing pathworkings, four of us are sitting around back at Anna’s place. We’re drinking nothing stronger than tea, and the conversation had faded into an easy, pleasant late-night silence. Then, looking up I noticed that Anna, who’d been lying on the floor, was now raised off it. It seemed that only the back of her head was touching the carpet, and the rest of her was upwards, straight, at an angle of about 30 degrees to the horizontal. Her left hand was raised to touch her brow, as if she was concentrating. This image stayed perfectly in focus, unlike fleeting eidetic input from the deep mind. I looked round at the other two witnesses, who looked as silently awed as I was. After a few seconds, Anna was flat on the floor again, and I asked her what she’d experienced. She replied that she had felt herself drift upwards, just as all three observers had witnessed.
It is worth adding that everyone was sober, and at that stage, that was our norm.

This can only be explained as a Strong Etheric effect, something acting directly on the material world. This is also the realm of poltergeist activity. We have here what appears to be an outright violation of normal physical constraints. We are definitely no longer in Kansas, or even any official version of Leeds. This kind of thing, a dogmatic materialist can only consign to the abyss of unrespectable, anecdotal evidence – the realm of the Damned, as Charles Fort called it.

So through those experiences, amongst many others, I sought and succeeded in proving to myself that, at the very least, the universe is a lot weirder place than science gives it credit for. One reason for doing magic is satisfied. I had re-enchanted the world - at least, under certain, very special circumstances.

What remains to do, is of course the hardest work of all: to transform, to become, to transcend - to extend this occasional consciousness of embeddedness in a living cosmos right into one's everyday world, to transform and transcend until that becomes possible, and indeed inevitable.

In that quest, practical sorcery is the laboratory of your personal, esoteric philosophy, the bench on which you test the metaphysical ideas you encounter and embrace.

Beyond effects on your individual consciousness, we may consider the worlds we each create. The Word I have been putting out into the world for the last 15 years is 'Chaotopia', one of the  meanings of which is that the universe we perceive is built of the overlapping projections of sovereign consciousnesses. Most of these projections are done unconsciously, and therefore provide a kind of soup, a background hum to reality.
For a few, noise becomes signal; we live in a world of deepening significance. And by taking on increasing responsibility for the worlds we create, we thereby have more power to change and fine-tune those worlds.
This is magic, as lived experimental philosophy.

Thank you