Thursday, 21 May 2020

My Mumufication

My passport to the afterlife in the People's Pyramid arrived a couple of weeks ago.


When I die, (which I’m not planning to do in the near future) a sample of my ashes will be placed in the hole in the middle of the brick, the brick re-fired and then used in the building of a People’s Pyramid in Toxteth, Liverpool.

I considered getting a berth for my ashes in a modern longbarrow such as this one. But as much as I love the long barrows, having done a few nights of exceptional magick in West Kennett, it feels as though that boat sailed about 4,000 years ago. At that time, my bones would have been buried under the floor of a chamber in which my kin would have danced and sung through the night of Midwinter, inhaling psychoactive herbs off of hot rocks. They would have emerged at dawn, renewed, ecstatic, their covenant with our ancestors renewed and completed for one more year.  

No such option exists today, so instead my remains will become part of an art project, in an urban environment, in the company of other weird, dead people. Cauty and Drummond’s pyramid is grounded in the reality of funeral experience by Green Funerals’ Ru and Claire Callender . My remains will be in good (dramatic) hands.

Here’s a picture from last year’s Toxteth Day of the Dead. For various reasons, I wasn’t able to get to 2018 or 2019’s pyramid building ritual there. Hopefully this year, lockdown permitting, I shall walk the streets of Toxteth with a fine selection of weird people, contemplating death and immortality.


This decision came about because I decided it was about time I made a proper will. This was nothing to do with the plague; my intuition tells me I’ll get through at least this phase of it OK, but the pandemic had freed up some spare time, so that I no longer felt I could go on making excuses to postpone getting this stuff together.

The will was signed during lockdown, immediately following on from one of those Thursday evening ‘clap for the NHS’ street events. I signed the will, witnessed by my two Discordian neighbours, on top of their wheelie bin, in the street, preserving social distancing. A proper Discordian will-signing ceremony, Hail Eris!

Once I’d written my will, I decided this was the perfect time to consider my other end-of-life provisions, top of which are of course the arrangements for my funferall, as Joyce called it. It was an interesting couple of weeks, arranging to donate my body to the local medical school where, as it happens, a friend of mine is currently studying, and then arranging for the remains to be cremated and sent to Messrs. Cauty and Drummond to perform their ceramic alchemy with. A couple of weeks in which I thought about my death daily, in fairly concrete terms. It did me no harm at all. I’d recommend it, especially if you can get excited by your posthumous involvement in a public work of magical art.

Sunday, 26 April 2020

Covid Special 2 from Chaotopia Newsletter

This is the Covid part of my last newsletter. You can sign up at https://bit.ly/2DXLAMA

COVID-19 THOUGHTS AND NEWS

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No two days are the same. I brought forward the date of this newsletter because it's all shifting so fast, so there's no shortage of necessary new thoughts to fill these pages. I don't think I ever truly expected to see times like these, when the irreversability of the flow of human life is so obvious, when there is no turning back to what went before.

None of what follows pretends to completeness.

SPRING HOME BREW
An old family recipe for the Spring: how to make Dire drink. 

SOCIAL DISTANCING
Be Like Odin, by Matthew Frederick (@putmyspellonyou)


SCIENCE
Last newsletter I featured a tune composed from the DNA sequence of the coronavirus. Now people are doing something similar with the virus's protein structure, and for a different purpose. Audio sequences are helping scientists get their heads round the complexities of the virus's spike protein, which is how it attaches to human cells. 'This, the researchers say, is faster and more intuitive than conventional methods used to study proteins, such as molecular modeling.'

TECHNOLOGY
A book called The Knowledge: How to rebuild our world from scratch came out a few years ago, but of course is having a popularity surge. I have it but haven't had time to read it yet, but it looks interesting. Even if you're not planning to build a toaster from raw materials, you may still be curious about what it takes for such a thing to exist at all.



SOCIETY

Now for the good news: Spain is introducing Universal Basic Income. Better still, 'the government’s broader ambition is that basic income becomes an instrument “that stays forever, that becomes a structural instrument, a permanent instrument”'.

In November 2019 David Graeber in Against Economics was wondering what it would take for the political world to come to its senses:
'Breaking through neoclassical economics’ lock on major institutions, and its near-theological hold over the media—not to mention all the subtle ways it has come to define our conceptions of human motivations and the horizons of human possibility—is a daunting prospect. Presumably, some kind of shock would be required. What might it take? Another 2008-style collapse? Some radical political shift in a major world government? A global youth rebellion? However it will come about, books like this—and quite possibly this book—will play a crucial part.'

That was just five months ago. Obviously, no-one in their right mind would have chosen the covid-19 pandemic as an ideal means to a better society, but now it's here, it'd be criminal not to make use of the opportunities it presents for change. Now we are seeing even the Bank of England admitting that 'money is just an IOU', and therefore the economic theory that has supported decades of neoliberalism is a fraud.

The bad news: some governments are of course enjoying the new powers that they are taking to themselves to 'flatten the curve' of infection. Emergency powers acquired by those in charge are seldom relinquished willingly when the emergency is 'over'.

Following up thoughts on the theft of the commons, and why we need and deserve UBI, here's an excerpt from Prof. Guy Standing's The Idler article.



THE MAGICK

Bear in mind that authoritarian script when you are enchanting for the next stage of the world. We have to be careful about how we define an emergency and how we judge when it's over. What is an emergency? How bad does it have to get to qualify?

To answer that question, we need to keep in perspective the whole covid-19 pandemic, and the high probability of similar pandemics in the future. We need to understand pandemics as just a part, albeit a very big one at the moment, of the business of life and death.

I'm definitely not suggesting as some are that 'the economy' is more important than people's lives. If you need to sacrifice people who' ve become vulnerable because of a broken social contract, then you've got a broken society and some kind of mantra of economic growth is a symptom of that dysfunction.

Rather, we need to keep in mind how big a demon coronavirus is compared to other diseases, or, say, to road accidents. Or to bad government. After all, we've been sold a crock of crap with the 'War on Terror'; off the top of my head, the figures go something like this: you are seventeen times more likely to be killed by your own furniture than by acts of terrorism. In lipservice to that tiny extra risk we spend extra hours on pointless security theatre every time we catch a plane, and that's a pretty minor inconvenience when laid aside what some deranged authoritarians would like to do to us using covid as an excuse.

So when you cast your next spell for a better world, remember to consider carefully the freedoms we have now and which we stand to lose.

The Reverend Danny Nemu writes: 'And here we are again, with front row seats as the curtain draws back on the biggest #apocalypse since the Early Modern period!
'Keep your hands sanitised and your sanity handy as you dig into that panic-purchased apoca-poca-popcorn and enjoy the show.'
Danny is well worth reading. Follow him on Twitter.




Tuesday, 21 April 2020

Claude Lecouteux - Demons and Spirits of the Land

https://www.bookdepository.com/Demons-Spirits-Land-Claude-Lecouteux/9781620553992

Lecouteux is a deep scholar who is interested in the mysteries, principally the European stream. I've read another of his books, The Tradition of Household Spirits, which was very interesting but quite different to this one. I never had a sense with that other book of his having a thesis, a particular thing to prove. In this book, he has: the way that numinous experiences of the natural world are the bases of gods, and that the layer closest to this cultural process is where we find spirits of the land. He then traces how they got mutated, particularly by Christian theology, into demons.

Those of you who have wondered at such beings as elves and the various forms they are portrayed in will have some of their curiosity satisfied by Lecouteux's demonstrations of how such terms changed in meaning over the time of the Christian occupation. But it is in the cultural layers prior to this that he makes his boldest assertion, of where the gods and spirits come from in the first place.

If you read mythology, you are probably familiar ad nauseam with the 19th century academic notion that gods and spirits are the responses of 'primitive' peoples to the natural forces which toss them around; Lecouteux's thesis is not of that ignorant imperialistic stripe. Rather, he quotes Christian scribes who forbid worship of idols, citing trees, fountains and stones; people are understood as quite literally worshipping the numinous power of a place, not a named idol. He is suggesting we take literally the Christian notion that the Germans worshipped 'groves'.

This centres his argument on the raw experience of natural power in the environment. This notion of spirit is closer to Aldous Huxley's idea of mind-at-large - that intelligence is something we are embedded in rather than something we have inside our skulls. 

The naming of these spirits changed over the centuries. The author show us how giants, dwarves and dragons conceal land spirits. And our ancestors got mixed up with the land spirits too. A founder of a house might be buried there, and over a few generations becomes the guardian spirit of the household. In a similar way, bodies of kings and heroes were buried to protect the land from invaders.

He leads us through how our ancestors paid for their invasion of the wild places and kept on paying, by making sacrifice to the spirits of the land that he had displaced. The church decried those spirits as demons, and many are the tales told of Christian holy men who overcame these spirits and made the land habitable for Christians. In other words, people were then able to live in that place without respecting its numinous intelligence any more. So this Christian abolition of nature-sacrifice is the origin of our present despoliation of the land.

The depth of the sacredness of a person's relationship to the land they live on is emphasised by the author. In old Germanic law, 'the proscription of a man sought to expel him from his domain, thereby stripping him of his sacred nature (mannhelgi), which means to make him óheilagr, 'devoid of sacred nature'' (p110).

It is not a big leap to see how this happened on a vast scale with the enclosures of the commons in Britain; the souls of a large proportion of Britons were stolen, a sickness which still runs like a bloody wound down the middle of British politics.

If you are fascinated by the history of spirits in the lives of humans, check out this book. Lecouteux is a one-off, and very worth reading.

Thursday, 9 April 2020

From the March 2020 Chaotopia Newsletter Covid Special

I thought I'd republish this in my blog, so it's there for those who don't get my newsletter.

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Welcome to Chaotopia in the season of plague. And thank you, all you readers, for signing up and reading these newsletters. It's gratifying to know that people find them worthwhile.

In this issue you'll get more than the usual one-paragraph intro, and the lower sections cover things from more than two weeks ago, that are already part of another world. Here are some thoughts and a few resources I've gathered.

I'm no youngster but this is a new and unique experience for me. The other plagues I've lived through, such as the early stages of HIV/AIDS, affected friends tragically, but this is the first one that's threatened everyone. Things really have changed; there's no going back to the old world.

PLAGUE WARTIME

When I was a child my parents used to say how much they missed the solidarity and community spirit of the war years. I asked, do you prefer war to peace? They said no, of course peace is better. But I was impressed by their nostalgia.

Now, for the first time in my life, I feel like I might just be starting to understand what that felt like.

I think I first noticed this when I went to a music gig at a friend's place less than two weeks ago, pretty much the last social event I attended. The people there seemed to be appreciating each other more than usual. Eye contact was longer and with warmer smiles. We were valuing each other's company more.

Then there was the delivery man who brought a parcel I had to sign for to my door, the most cheerful delivery person I've ever met. I started to notice that people on the streets were smiling and saying hello more than they used to. And in fact that I was getting more sociable myself. I even overcame my dislike of Facebook and started using it for lighthearted socializing, rather than for just publicizing my writings and events.

Of course, not all behaviour has improved. The other day I asked the owner of our well-stocked corner shop if there was anything he was having difficulty getting enough of. 'Just toilet tissue,' he said. So that's the sector of the population whose thinking runs along the lines of 'I may die, but at least I'll die with a clean bottom.' John Higgs lampoons this with his usual elegance in his newsletter, which I strongly recommend you sign up for:

'In the twentieth century, the isolated individual was seen as a heroic, romantic figure. Now, the isolated individual is a fat guy with 72 rolls of Andrex and only one arsehole, which is his primary focus of concern.'

Which I think hits the nail right on the head and leads into:

A NEW DAY FOR POLITICAL THINKING?

For 40 years there's been just one political philosophy running everything. The world's idea-space has been throttled down to so-called Neoliberalism, the idea that the only form of organization which can possibly work is extractive capitalism, where everything is up for grabs by the greedy and powerful. The philosophy behind this is that we are all just selfish individuals struggling against each other to grab what we can before we die miserably in a pointless universe.

I'm old enough to remember a time when most people thought that the government's first duty should always be to its people rather than to big money.

As we see with the present crisis, the most valuable workers are those that are paid and respected the least, and that many of the best paid are worthless parasites. As David Graeber puts it:


Graeber wrote an excellent book called Bullshit Jobs. I'll be reviewing it soon, but basically it demonstrates that around half of all paid work, and maybe much more, is unnecessary. He also shows that, with few exceptions, the more important the work, the lower the pay and status it carries. Being a decent anarchist sort of chap he is also giving the book away here

This idea is followed through by Azrya Cohen Bequer who writes in his 'What Psychedelics Told Me about the Coronavirus':
'I see a tremendous extinction of the nonessential sweeping across our economy'

Other resources for thinking about the future include this, which suggests that the time has come for governments that will actually take some control again and rein in the lethal effects of unrestrained capitalism.

And then there's Universal Basic Income. A few centuries ago, the commons were stolen from the people with the Enclosure Acts, leaving a large proportion of the population with the choice of starvation or wage-slavery. This process continues with companies such as Nestle stealing water supplies. As automation reduces the need for human labour, we need to demand support for all. Do they owe us a living? Those old punks Crass would answer thus.

Once the temporary version of UBI is in place, maybe people will want it to stay there. Here's a petition to that end. 
Just learned that Scotland is considering UBI. It's no longer unthinkable.

One appealing suggestion is to just stop worrying about 'the economy' for, say, three months. Give everyone UBI, freeze rents and debts and just make sure essential services are maintained. After all, governments are quick enough to notice the Magic Money Tree when banks are in trouble, and they produce nothing. This will of course not happen, because it would basically give the whole game away, showed that the emperor of 'the economy' is not clothed in anything from the real world.

Another lesson we're learning is that current governments are incompetent and that we are therefore on our own when it comes to important matters such as survival. So we have to practice:

MUTUAL AID

All sorts of organizations have sprung up or extended themselves to help those more vulnerable to covid-19. On my street, there's a WhatsApp group called Here to Help. We're leafleting the street, so people who are more vulnerable have someone to talk to and maybe get help with their shopping dropped on their doorstep and so forth. Then there's Sheffield's local alternative magazine Now Then, which link will lead through to a Facebook group Mutual Aid.

THE MAGIC 

So how do we live and how do we feel during all this? Only total morons and scumbags hypnotized by money are suggesting we ignore the pandemic and get on with life as usual. On the other hand, it makes little sense to panic about it. Use this time to do something special with your life. Maybe even connecting with people in ways you've not done before. 

Lockdown gives us the opportunity to work on what kind of world we'll emerge into. Magical writers are coming up with some great stuff. Julian Vayne has written three covid-related posts on his excellent Blog of Baphomet. I suspect he's not the only magician who's suggested framing the isolation experience as a magical retirement or retreat. That's certainly how I'm looking at it.

These posts include a superb suggestion for coordinated workings, with this sigil:

And a tune composed from the DNA sequence of the coronavirus.

My partner's and my spin on this is at the bottom.

Gordon White has a few suggestions in Prescriptions for the End of the World. One of my favourites is: 'Remember a brave thing you did'.

So get enchanting, people. Don't waste a good crisis.

A FEW OTHER THINGS TO DO

Connected Breathwork:
All my breathwork coaching is online for the duration of the pandemic. I've been coaching breathwork via Skype for years, so I know online coaching works great.

Free classical music concerts in your home
OK, Classic FM do run golf adverts, which gives an unflattering picture of their core audience, but forgive them, this is good.

Breathing, Biofeedback, Group coordination:
Just before the pandemic reached here, I met Kira Zhigalina, an artist who has had this made:

'SYM is a light biofeedback device for deep diaphragm breathing entrainment. It is for everyone from mindfulness and meditation practitioners to anxiety sufferers, and anyone who is looking for tools to tune in rather than tune out.' 
'It is an offspring of Symbiosis, - an interactive art installation. Using sensors, the participants' breathing is visualised in moving LED lights. Having the capacity of 8 active participators, the LED filled dome is an immersive magical environment that people can walk into. Once inside they sit on benches equipped with sensors. The installation is designed to guide participants to use slow diaphragm breathing, through the location of sensors and software response.'
Check it out here and here.

I've had a go with the single use version and Kira is now putting an online option together.
This will be perfect for getting people into synch for doing group magic. And very much fits the time of plague.


And of course there's always the Virtual Pub; why not (not) go to the Staying Inn?


And while you're in the Staying Inn you can listen to folk singer Nigel Pennick's new song about the coronavirus - Never Say Die.


Wednesday, 1 April 2020

An old Spring drink

When I was a kid one of the things I loved about April-May was the drink my mum made. A golden-brown liquid, fizzy and sweet and a little murky with yeast. She would pack me up a small glass bottle of it for me to take to school.

Just as much, I loved collecting the ingredients. It'd be a family outing on the weekend, to somewhere the London suburbs started turning into countryside. We'd look for the four herbs, two of which were very familiar, one less so and one I'd never heard of till mum showed it me.
Goosegrass

Then there was the fragrant cooking up of all this greenery in a massive pan with the sugar and then the yeast, baker's yeast from the bakery spread on a slice of toast and floated on top of the lukewarm liquid. A couple of days later, it was bottled and left in the cupboard to fizz up a few more days.

Mum called it Dire, and had different names for two of the herbs, names from her Northampton village. What I later learned was generally called Goosegrass she called Scratchweed, and Germander Speedwell she knew as Gill.

Germander Speedwell used to grow all over the place, apparently. You'll probably have more trouble finding this herb than any of the others, unless you live in the country. This may be connected with its history as a medicine - it was drunk as a tea in 18th century London for lung, skin and blood problems, to the extent that it was practically eliminated from the capital's green places. If you can't find it in your neighbourhood, you may be able to order the plants online. I pre-ordered some small plants for delivery late April.

Dire was in all probability a herbal health drink for the spring, a broadside of herbal goodies to banish the sicknesses of winter. Here's the recipe, in honour of my mum and the lineage she drew upon, and in honour of the spirits of springtime.

Dire Drink

Dandelion heads, picked when open: 4 pints (these are all Imperial measures)
White deadnettles, or stinging nettles, stems and leaves: 2 pints
Scratchweed stems and leaves: 2 pints.
Gill: 1 pint.
Sugar 1lb
Yeast (beer yeast is good)
Water

Boil herbs for 1/2 an hour or more. Strain liquor off, dissolve sugar. Make up to 1 gallon.
Allow to cool to blood-warmth. Add yeast.

Allow it to ferment in a covered crock or brewbin till it's fizzing. Siphon off from the yeast deposit and bottle in strong screw-cap bottles. Leave a few more days until it's clear-ish and fizzy.

Added after this year's brew:
I had a vague memory of my mum maybe using a lemon in it. So, added a teaspoon of citric acid to the brew - flavour is definitely more as I remember it from childhood!

Wednesday, 18 March 2020

Practical Neurology in the Home: Hacking The Default Mode Network


These thoughts come from a conversation with Mike Parker, a qualified Solutions Focused Therapist and originator of Liminal Coaching. In the course of discussing depression and his work we got into what the DMN is about. We are not neuroscientists, but two people whose background is in articulating personal experience and the technologies that we've found useful for navigating the immensity and weirdness of being human. Most of the opinions expressed below are from Mike.

If you suffer from depression, you'll be unpleasantly familiar with the experience of depressive rumination, a state where you tell yourself bad things about yourself and the world and can't stop doing so. If you consume neuroscience interpretations, it's not hard to get the impression that there's a level organization in the brain that is responsible for depressive rumination, that you have a villain in your head. 

This level of neural organization has been called the Default Mode Network. It's supposed to be a pattern of interconnection between different brain regions that is seen on fMRI scans, the brain imaging that highlights neural activity through the variations in blood flow that show up on the scans. The fMRI patterns are the primary data; the rest of what we read about such things are interpretations.

It's easy to read about the DMN and come away with the impression that it's some kind of permanent structure. This is not the case; however, it is a type of complex, multiple interconnection pattern between separate brain regions that shows up consistently enough to get a name. Its appearance is associated with the resting brain, hence the word 'default' in the name. It's a type of configuration that comes up when we're not engaging with the outside world.

It does seem to show up when we are very inwardly focused, and that includes being focused on pain and distress. Research by Alvaro Pascual showed that focusing on a particular scenario caused more and more neurons to be repurposed to that task. This was the first real proof of neuroplasticity in the 90's when it was still considered dubious fringe science.
Another implication of this is that negative rumination can create as much stress, anxiety etc as actual events. This shows up in relatives of holocaust survivors who, unable to stop themselves imagining what their relatives went through, ended up needing treatment for real PTSD.

That's an example of how bad compulsive, negative internal monologue can get, and the DMN has come to be associated with that miserable state.

But it really isn't as simple as that.

The DMN is active in depressive rumination, but not only then. The DMN switches on in a certain mode when we do deep visualisation and scenario creation with our imagination.  That doesn't mean DMN causes negative rumination any more than my TV set being switched on means it is responsible for the show  content. It would be good to see DMN results for people doing focused positive magical visualisation or in positive guided trance. More than one practitioner using trance in treating depression describes it as a negative trance, a powerful imaginative state.

All of this stuff around DMN assumes that somewhere someone has more than the faintest inkling what it's doing. Here are a few examples.

This is an interesting and fun video on how awe actually results in the DMN switching on and people being more right hemisphere focused.

Then there's Social Neuroscientist Matt Liebermann claiming the DMN is only for social thinking, at 10 minutes here. He doesn't explicitly say DMN in this short video but does in his book Social: Why our brains are wired to connect.

So right now the DMN is being positioned as responsible for a number of different things. I think it is a general purpose complexity processing capability in part and probably has a lot of other functions as well. Certainly it turns on in REM and is implicated in memory processing.

My own take (based on theorising to the most inclusive simple explanation) is that it is analogous to general purpose computers. In other words it depends what you run on it as to what it does and it depends which of many possible functions you utilise. So in my own work I use trance and metaphor to do what I see as stimulating a particular kind of symphonic activity. Of course I don't have the huge sums necessary to conduct fMRI or even reasonable EEG studies to begin to support this model in the reductionist paradigm, so rely on the time honoured approach of combining that amount of best science I have the bandwidth for, abductive reasoning, what I can see working, and the ever present knowing that it is all metaphor anyway. If you delve deep enough into any evidence-based scientific statement you will always arrive at imponderables and the limits of the current metaphor.

My main thought about most of this type of research is that it shows really interesting and suggestive correlation that then gets conflated with implied causation in most of the thinking and presentation around the results.

Conversely, in my experience with clients, repeatedly having them build the scenario of their preferred future and what better looks like, prior to using trance (where the DMN is activated) for re-patterning has the corresponding effect. A kind of deliberately engineered positive rumination if you like.

So the DMN is much more than a structure which supports depressive monologue. It is also a much less defined, permanent kind of thing.

I also believe that the DMN is not a constant symphony of just selected brain regions but regions activated and included in the network can differ and the degree to which they are engaged can differ so I think the suggestion that DMN is these areas of the brain linked in this way always is really misleading. I suspect the same is true of what they are calling TPN (Task Processing Network).

I think both these terms are desperate reductionist attempts to freeze and explain the systemic holistic operation of the brain as a result of a few sets of interesting experimental results which suggest to me a vast field of systemic resonant possibilities. I have no doubt that different forms of systemic resonant interlinking across different areas of the brain is correlated with and possibly partly causative of an infinite number of different states of mind.

God forbid, though, that people might be empowered with the idea that they could alter those resonances at will. The internalised edifices of their own oppression might then dissolve and how would anyone have power over them then?

We are looking at something here which is the neural correlate of at least part of our construction of a whole world out of narratives. Access to this level of organization doesn't require exotic technology; we do it all the time in trance, and it is directly available in therapeutic interventions such as Liminal Coaching. As Mike writes in his promo:
'Liminal Coaching works to calm panic, help you accept sudden change, and see new possibilities.
And when you're free of stress, you'll feel free not just to survive... But to thrive'.

You can read more about this at www.liminalcoaching.co.uk.

Wednesday, 4 March 2020

A Crown of Runes and other books by P. D. Brown


P D Brown is an accomplished poet, storyteller and runestone-carver, whose recorded stories are available here. His published poetry includes The Hidden Door. This is a collection of retellings of Old Norse tales; many will be familiar to those who love the Eddas, but you've probably never read them in carefully-constructed modern English that echoes the atmosphere of the original poems.

As he writes in the blurb:
'These retellings are in part prose, in a style of the spoken voice, for they were first composed to be told from memory to live audiences. The rest is narrative poetry, echoing the original use of verse-craft and "painting with the gift of speech".'

Last year he sent me his collection A Crown of Runes. The introduction contains a very brief guide to the three main historical rune rows, and an explanation of the title. The poems in this book follow the Anglo-Saxon futhorc, so they are 33 in number. They are all in sonnet form, which consists of fourteen lines with alternate or more complex rhyme schemes. A set of fourteen sonnets in which each poem ends with the line that will serve as the first line of the next poem is called a crown of sonnets. So the first 28 poems form a double crown of runic sonnets, the final line of the final poem being identical to the first line of the first. Ear, the final rune in the Crown, ends on:
                  A formless force, a power to expand.
- and this is the first line of Feoh.

The sonnet is a longer form than was employed in the traditional rune-poems. This gives the poet space for reflection and PD uses that space to reflect on aspects of the rune that impact on modern life; you may, as I did, recognize your own thoughts in many of these verses. This makes these poems quite unique.

Why is this book important? Because by expanding our idea of how we can write about runes, PD makes them more vivid for us. The Crown shows us a new way of relating to these ancient signposts to mystery, a way which is closer in time and culture to us than are the original, early-mediaeval verses. Such an approach revitalises both the runes and the sonnet form.

I'm glad PD has employed a new typesetter, because, at the expense of picking nits from such fine work, the first e-edition of his Hidden Door collection was marred by a typo right in the title. A Crown of Runes shows no such infelicities, not does his latest collection, Dark Fruit of an Ash, which he sent me during our communications about Crown of Runes. This book is subtitled 'The Pennings of a Ranger-Poet' and this is no idle metaphor; PD really does work as a forest and wildlife ranger in Aberdeenshire.

The outdoor life and love of the seasons and places and living beings, shines through everywhere in this collection. For just one instance, the poem 'On Broadleaved Woodland' follows the seasons of a year, but also the sad tale of a people who are now alienated from the woods:
'We lived there once and never can again'
There's a 'Requiem for a Road-Killed Fox', and a lament for the probably-impending extinction of the mistle thrush, in humanity's inhumane rush to spread our species over every other. Corvids speak to us in these lines - a jay, a crow, jackdaws, ravens and, synchronistically for me in my magical world, a magpie.

These are moving poems. The speech of the ravens may carry your heart away in their carrion claws. These books are all highly recommended for anyone who loves poetry, the land and its beasts, the ancient mysteries and well-told tales.

Monday, 24 February 2020

Philosophical Foundations of Neuroscience by M. R. Bennett and P. M. S. Hacker



This book was written by a neuroscientist and a philosopher. I am qualified in neither of those disciplines, so I can't give it a full specialist review. But it was written for the non-philosophical public, especially neuroscientists. I'm sure I'm not on my own in consuming interpretations of neuroscience, so here's my two penn'orth.

Much of what scientists say about neuroscience is highly dubious; that's what this book is about - unpicking the meaningless statements that experts have made. The philosophy author, Dr Hacker, is a specialist in Wittgenstein-style analysis of statements and claims, and he is trying to return the interpretation of neuroscientific data to the terms of lived human experience, so that it actually makes sense in plain English.

I've thought for a long time that there's a lot of nonsense in what are presented as the 'findings' of neuroscience. We get headlines such as 'yes it's true we really do (eg - 'fall in love'; insert here any normal human experience) brain scans show it.' There's an obvious confusion of levels here, and the ideology of such statements is that we know nothing, and science knows all. Embodied wisdom is nothing, scientific discourse everything. Science will eventually know all (with sufficient funding, presumably). The underlying philosophical confusion goes back a long way, to Descartes, usually, and our culture's reluctance to go beyond his substance dualism.

So for instance, in stead of attributing behaviour or thought to a person, the writer attributes it to a brain. They write 'the brain thinks' or 'the brain decides' and so forth. This Hacker rejects as the 'mereological fallacy', the misattribution of the action of a whole to one of its parts.

This kind of thinking is not unrelated to the abyss that reductionism opens into. Not only are superfluous entities rejected, as per William of Ockham, but much of how we frame our experience is chopped away too. This is the kind of thinking that sets up a straw man of 'folk psychology' to slay, this being a false representation of ordinary language grounded in immediate, lived experience.

The most extreme tendency in this discourse is the eliminativism of such writers as Daniel Dennet. Faced with the so-called 'hard problem' of consciousness and its relationship to matter, instead of seeing that this 'hard problem' is an artefact of Cartesian dualism they proceed to deny the reality of anything called consciousness.

Fortunately, most people's minds reject eliminativism as a deeply flawed idea. The mental immune system knows it's nonsense. But because some people are convinced by it, Bennett and Hacker show us how to slay this chimera, by patient analysis of the language used. There's a whole appendix on exactly how Dennett is wrong.

It seems to me that much of the horror of the current culture is based on such anti-human notions, so eliminating eliminativism is an important philosophical task. Bennett and Hacker show that in fact the arguments for eliminativism are so transparently poor that only an ideologue would be taken in.

But that ideology is a terrifying thing, nothing less than the elimination of any respect for human subjectivity. Were it to succeed, it would be the triumph of the Expert, the High Priest of the deepest lies ever told - that your subjective experience is meaningless and irrelevant. Anyone who is not chilled to the marrow by this kind of thinking has simply not looked closely at it.

Such thinkers, the religious zealots of Scientism, want to squash the human world down to a tiny part of its true span, not in the spirit of bringing something up close to examine it - that's good science - but in the spirit of eliminating the rest, the parts that can't be fitted into the Procrustean bed of some dualist theory. This is part of a colonization of inner realities that was well under way with Christianity and continues forward into its offspring, Scientism. This colonization results in the destruction of the personal authority that comes from having a meaningful inner world. Which of course suits those in power.

The authors credit neuroscience interpretations where credit is due, acknowledging that neuroscience is great at neurological interpretations of sickness. This has led for instance to some useful improvements in ideas around depression.

I don't agree with everything these authors write. Their very approach is the sort that can slide into nit-picking, and it seems to me that that is what happened in their discussion on memes. This term was coined by Dennett's co-religionist Richard Dawkins and, although Dennett uses the concept as a tool to eliminate subjectivity, and they rightly criticise this, the term is quite a useful neologism. Also their arguments against a private inner world seem odd; it seems perfectly obvious to me that we do have private mental domains. Maybe I didn't understand what they are getting at.

I've written this review more to get the subject out of my system than to recommend the book. I read it because Alan Chapman recommended it to me after a discussion about the bearing neuroscience has on spiritual awakening, and I'm glad I read it. So I'd only recommend it if the stuff that neuroscience interpreters write annoys you as much as it does me in the way it so misses the point, and you'd like some tools to help them with their confusion, or blow them out of the water.

Sunday, 16 February 2020

Jeffrey Kripal's The Flip: Epiphanies of Mind and the Future of Knowledge


In about 1980 one of Robert Anton Wilson's books, I forget which, had a cartoon in it, of a hippie juxtaposed against a scientific looking type. The caption was: Hey man, are you only using half your brain? As an acidhead with a science degree, I liked this; it was part of the drama of early chaos magic, or at least that's how I saw what we were doing, combining the rigour of science with openness to magical experience. For too long, people had either been space cadets who'd believe any old flim-flam, as long as it had shiny bits and rainbows on it, or 'hard-headed' science types, who rejected anything they couldn't measure.

So when I picked this book up (as the result of listening to Kripal interviewed by Gordon White), I was already someone who'd been there, done that and worn out the t-shirt decades before. And I wasn't much impressed with the first couple of chapters, in which he writes about various scientists who'd gone through some epiphany or other, left behind their naïve Scientism and adopted a spiritual perspective. The kind of epiphany that frees the scientist from Scientism he calls the flip, hence the book's title. Sure, these were interesting experiences, but was this to be just another of those books that lists some people's weird moments?

No, it's more than that. A lot more. Kripal shows scientists who continue practising science without the dumb religion of Scientism, in which anything that you can't do in the lab doesn't actually exist, thereby deleting the majority of human experience. And he also shows how their philosophies are breaking new ground, even to the extent of giving us a glimpse of what a future intellectual culture might look like, with neither science nor magic and religion being rejected.

He outlines the ideas of a few key thinkers in flip-world, classifying the extent of their departure from Scientism. The first stop he notes on this journey is panpsychism, which is getting to be quite popular with scientific thinkers - not as the answer to everything but as something considerably more realistic than Cartesian dualism. 

His second stop is dual-aspect monism, in which both matter and consciousness are aspects of a third, deeper principle. This is a philosophical standpoint with a lot of pedigree. It can also be seen as a favoured metaphysics for chaos magic, in that mind and matter both arise from chaos.

His third stop is quantum mind. Now I must confess to being a bit over most of the 'quantum physics = cosmic consciousness' stuff; that was being peddled back in the 1980s too, along the lines of 'Look, quantum physics shows you can believe in magic now!', and the metaphor is getting a bit threadbare. But Kripal follows Alexander Wendt in insisting it's not a metaphor, but that quantum metaphysics can rescue us from the prison of dualism.

His fourth metaphysics is cosmopsychism. He expounds the 'priority monism' of Philip Goff, 'the top-down view that the one and only fundamental entity in the universe is the universe itself, and that all conscious subjects are partial aspects of this more fundamental unified subject.'

The fifth and final, the furthest departure from Scientism, is idealism, the 'position that mind is fundamental and that matter is an expression or manifestation of some cosmic or universal mind.' This is another metaphysics with an ancient pedigree in both Western and Eastern philosophies. This is where it gets exciting. AI researcher Bernardo Kastrup writes of the role of imagination in forming the world:

'... in consensus reality synchronization emerges across the imaginations of multiple conscious entities, so to form a coherent shared picture. The constraints entailed by such emergent synchronization may be what we call the laws of physics. Perhaps the apparently fixed mechanisms of nature are merely an epiphenomenon; an emergent property of the sympathetic harmonization of different imaginations, imagination itself being the true primary substance of reality.'

Now that's my kind of talk. We can continue to do science without being Mr Stupid. Scientism is profoundly dehumanizing; Kripal defends the arts against Scientism's zealots who would relegate the arts to a secondary, unimportant human activity where in fact he shows the humanities to be prophetic in nature:
'In the humanities, the truths discerned almost always offend or violate the status quo and the comfortable... This is precisely why these truths are so important'

These shifts in culture will not be easy:
'I am certain that many will consider my emphasis in this book on extreme religious experiences and anomalous states of consciousness an eccentric means to argue for the future centrality of the humanities, much less the irreducible nature of consciousness. I make no apologies. We must be bolder. We must proceed through an intentional and systematic ontological shock if we are ever going to arrive at the future of knowledge.' [My emphasis]

This is where it gets exciting for the future of culture. Our present culture is Scientism-based, and its basic philosophy is that we live on a bleak prison planet where all that matters is individual survival and greed for more stuff. That culture does seem to be in its death throes. For the last few years, I've been asking myself what a culture could look like that had spiritual awakening at the invisible centre point of its cultural mandala.

The values I would see reflected in the culture include an attitude to the world that doesn't just see it as resources for humans to exploit, but as a thing in itself, a thing which has its own sacredness. A society in which human life is valued for its own sake rather than what people can produce.
A massive shift away from materialism.

This book has part of the answer: once we learn to value mystical experience and its implications for how the world really is, we will have to undo much of the intellectual world of Scientism. This will give us the opportunity to learn to live as what we really are. Kripal calls this cosmic humanism.

The Flip is a shard of a possible brighter future. What this future requires from us is a little optimism about the possibility of integration of science and spiritual reality. In these stupid and scary times, that might seem like a big ask. But it's what we need, and it's happening out there. Kripal shows how broad the movement is, how many professional scientists are making brave attempts to integrate their science with their cosmic experiences. Sure, these are a specialist subset of the population, but hopefully books like this can spread these ideas to lay readers.

Should you buy this book? Yes, if you're interested in science, in (readable and relevant) philosophy and want to think about what the next stage of civilization might look like. Yes, if you want to find real things to take heart about in the fertile chaos of the world.